Written by Larry Holder

Posted on The Athletic, 6/8/2020

David Grubb recently experienced the familiar life cycle of a sports talk radio show host in New Orleans in about an 11-month span.

He corralled money to buy airtime on Sports 1280, WODT-AM, and gathered enough sponsors to essentially break even. His original time slot was slated from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., then four months later shifted to 10 a.m. to noon once iHeartMedia New Orleans pulled the plug on “The Chris Gordy Show,” a program emanating from Houston that focused on the New Orleans market and was part of the original Sports 1280 relaunch in July 2017.

Then, without notice, iHeartMedia New Orleans switched the format altogether on June 29 after nearly three years as Sports 1280. It’s now an affiliate of the Black Information Network, a new news channel launched across iHeartMedia chains in cities such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Nashville, San Francisco and Seattle.

“BIN: Black Information Network is focused on service to the Black community and providing an information window for those outside the community to help foster communication, accountability and deeper understanding, and we believe that BIN will be a valuable and important information source for the New Orleans community,” iHeartMedia market president of New Orleans Tori Kahl wrote in an email to The Athletic when asked to explain the decision to change the format.

Grubb, Eric Asher and Kaare Johnson had their shows abruptly ended without public explanation. All three hosts paid for their airtime and secured their own advertising, as opposed to being paid by iHeartMedia and having a sales staff helping to support the shows and the station.

This leaves New Orleans with only a handful of daily local sports talk shows sprinkled across four stations, led by the widely known drive-time “Sports Talk” with former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert and Kristian Garic on WWL and “The Sports Hangover” with Gus Kattengell on ESPN New Orleans.

Later that week, ESPN Baton Rouge announced an extension to its already locally heavy lineup. “Off the Bench” with Jordy Culotta and T-Bob Hebert added an hour to its drive-time morning show. Former LSU standout fullback Jacob Hester added an hour to his midday show and added Baton Rouge radio fixture Charles Hanagriff as a co-host.

Matt Moscona’s successful afternoon drive-time show “After Further Review” maintained its three-hour slot. The station added a new show with a familiar face from 6 p.m.-8 p.m., as “Gametime” with longtime commentator Jimmy Ott debuted July 6 with a gambling-related show.

And, by the way, ESPN Baton Rouge’s “Off the Bench” and “After Further Review” are syndicated daily on ESPN New Orleans, meaning there are nearly as many Baton Rouge-based sports talk programs airing in New Orleans than shows originating here.

Now drive west on Interstate 10 to Lafayette, which features two stations airing almost completely local sports talk programming, with nearly 10 daily shows between 103.7 FM and 1420 AM, the ESPN Radio affiliate.

Sports 1280’s attempt at “all-local” sports talk wasn’t the first or the second or the third try at the format in New Orleans. In fact, 1280 suffered the same fate in December 2006 after a three-year run at an all-sports approach with Gerry Vaillancourt as the afternoon drive anchor. The station flipped formats unexpectedly under Clear Channel’s ownership (now named iHeartMedia).

Pelicans radio voice Todd Graffagnini worked for 1280, and lost his job, in December 2006.

“It’s so eerily similar,” Graffagnini said about the latest death to a sports format on 1280.

Baton Rouge has a successful all-local format. Lafayette produces not one, but two all-local sports stations with daily programming. And New Orleans’ leading attempts at all-local sports talk only carries one metro area show, while the leading sports talk show airs within a news-talk format.

So why does the New Orleans market have so much trouble sustaining a sports talk radio station by hosts based in New Orleans?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Graffagnini said. “I’ve been asking that question since 1992.”

Everyone in the southeast Louisiana radio business, and most Saints fans, know the single letter representing the flagship station of the New Orleans Saints and the local LSU affiliate.

“L.” As in WWL AM and FM.

“I don’t think there’s any other market in the country where you can mention one letter and it’s a universal knowledge of what that means,” Moscona said. “You go to New Orleans and say ‘L,’ people know exactly what you’re talking about. That heritage is such a powerful brand that everything else is fighting that.”

Within the market, it’s more like a “W” as a consistent winner in sports talk. WWL wins in the ratings, the ad dollars and the reach of its signal. It has been unmatched for decades in sports talk, from Hap Glaudi to Buddy Diliberto to Bobby Hebert.

Here’s the kicker: WWL only airs four hours of local sports talk radio per day. Is that enough airtime throughout the day to discuss sports on the radio in a sports-crazed town like New Orleans? Of course not. And that’s not the way any of the major sports markets in this country operate.

Still, it’s the station the majority of Saints fans turn to as their sports talk option from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday. That’s the consensus of the nearly 20 interviews conducted with those within and familiar with the radio business in southeast Louisiana.

How can a station succeed with only four hours of daily sports talk per day? The Saints. That’s it. That’s all it takes. Being connected to the Saints has propelled WWL as the top ratings receiver and money maker for the Entercom New Orleans cluster.

So why doesn’t Entercom make a bigger investment if sports talk works so well for WWL?

Though WWL operations and program director Diane Newman did not respond to requests for comments for this article, paying for the rights to the Saints and LSU broadcasts is a monster investment. And placing “Sports Talk” in its long-standing slot is a subtle, yet telling investment.

“The fact that WWL puts a sports show in the center of prime drive time in the afternoon shows there’s a huge thirst for sports talk,” New Orleans native and ESPN “Sportscenter” anchor Stan Verrett said. “Plus, the Saints are part of the culture. There are very few things that you can talk about on New Orleans talk radio and have the entire cross section of the population listen and basically agree on the subject matter. Everybody is pulling for the Saints. There’s almost nothing else you could put on for a daily basis that would do that. …

“The Saints are not only a popular attraction, they’re also a safe attraction.”

If so many people clamor to WWL’s limited sports talk lineup, why can’t an all-local sports talk station succeed in New Orleans?

The mood seemed celebratory on the first floor of the iHeartMedia building in New Orleans’ Warehouse District during the summer of 2017. Employees from throughout the building descended into the conference room, seemingly eager for the presentation.

The idea of an all-day locally-driven sports talk radio station has always made sense for a sports-crazed major city like New Orleans. Yet, for numerous reasons, the format has struggled to gain staying power.

Steve McNair, the new iHeartMedia market president for New Orleans, oozed confidence that this format would alter the landscape of radio in New Orleans. He boldly declared during a lunch meeting at Palace Café with then-Times-Picayune sports editor Marcus Carmouche, then-T-P columnist Jeff Duncan and myself (also a T-P columnist at the time) that the station would beat WWL.

On the surface, the plan seemed impressive.

The radio group compiled an “all-local” sports talk lineup from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. There was no syndication from Fox Sports Radio, even though 1280 was an affiliate. Signals on AM stations such as 1280 and 690, along with the Cumulus-owned 106.1 FM, had made similar attempts to bring more local sports talk options. All faded away. But this seemed like the most legitimate effort, especially by a corporate-owned station, that had been seen in the New Orleans market.

The lineup opened with Gordy from 8 a.m.-10 a.m., “Dunc & Holder” from 10 a.m.-noon, Josh Innes from noon-2 p.m., longtime LSU and Hornets broadcaster Jordy Hultberg from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. and veteran New Orleans radio voice Kaare Johnson in drive time from 4 p.m.-6 p.m.

“Our listeners are thirsty for an all-day live and local sports station, and we are happy to fill that void,” McNair said in a statement announcing the launch.

There’s a reason to place “all-local” in quotations in this case, because not all shows originated from New Orleans. Two of them originated outside Louisiana.

Though both carried southeast Louisiana roots, Gordy and Innes worked and lived in Houston under that city’s iHeartMedia umbrella. Hultberg broadcasted his show from Baton Rouge, and Johnson’s program centered more around non-sports issues.

Turbulence and eventually men overboard followed before Year 1 ended.

Hultberg’s show was the first to leave. Then Innes’ midday show exited, opting for his Houston-based morning show simulcasted from 6 a.m.-10 a.m. Asher jumped in the lineup replacing Innes, while Gordy’s show jumped in Hultberg’s slot. Near the end of Year 1, the T-P/NOLA.com management pulled “Dunc & Holder” from the lineup, desiring to make the show solely a podcast. That departure forced Gordy to move for a third time in less than a year on the air.

Sports 1280 lacked a stable plan for on-air talent from the start. The station used no money from its pocket to compensate its hosts in the first year or thereafter. The station faltered to sell advertising, opting to make easier sells on the clusters of larger stations. McNair was let go.

It was the perfect recipe for a failing sports talk station.

“We all grew up here and know that it was WWL every day,” Grubb said. “They were the juggernaut. But that day isn’t here anymore, I don’t think. I don’t think it’s as powerful as it used to be. I just think there’s a lack of options. Why would you change if you look around and you don’t see much else? There is no real push.

“You never saw advertisements of the stations or heard advertisements of the stations. We weren’t visually a part of the community. If people don’t know or aren’t aware of you, if you only have social media or are just pushing yourself, I just think it becomes a routine and a habit to stay with what you know. … I think you can break through if you just put some time into it and invest in it.”