WHEN CITADEL Broadcasting moved its 107.5 signal origin from Charleston to the Midlands and launched the all-sports WNKT-FM “The Game” in November, the company no doubt hoped its chances of again securing the rights to carry USC sports would be enhanced.
In the end, “The Game” made the difference. It was announced this week that ISP Sports and Learfield Communications had renewed the USC sports radio contract with Citadel for five years. To say it was unwelcome news for the folks at Clear Channel Communications would be an understatement.
Clear Channel, which lost USC sports six years ago because of its unwillingness to put Gamecocks football on one of its FM stations, was determined to regain the rights. Tom Bustard, market manager for Clear Channel, wasn’t involved in the negotiations in 2002 and thought he might be able to make a difference this time.
“Sure, I was disappointed because we have the largest group of radio stations in the market,” Bustard said, speaking by phone Wednesday while vacationing in Florida. “I can’t help but wonder if we were ever really given serious consideration.”
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Liz McMillan, general manager of Gamecock Sports Properties, said Clear Channel was in the running.
One thing ISP and USC wanted in a partner was the ability to air all Gamecocks men’s sports on one station.
Bustard’s proposal was to air football on WCOS-FM 97.5 and basketball and baseball on WVOC-AM 560. Citadel committed to airing all three sports on WNKT-FM 107.5 and simulcasting them on WISW-AM 1320.
“That was the difference,” McMillan said. “Both Clear Channel and Citadel were given the same opportunity.”
ISP asked the stations to present one of two proposals: one in which the company paid a rights fee up front and kept the local inventory (advertising) for its stations to sell; or one in which the company paid no rights fee but allowed ISP to keep all local inventory to sell. Citadel opted for the first proposal; Clear Channel went with the second.
“Had I known we could do that (the first proposal), I would have put all the sports on FM,” Bustard said.
McMillan stressed that the two proposal options were made clear to both bidders.
“I know on into May, Katherine (Galanty of ISP) was trying to get Bustard to change his mind,” McMillan said. Those negotiations eventually collapsed, and Citadel won the rights.
Bustard said he wasn’t even sent a news release announcing Citadel had won the rights. However, McMillan said ISP talked with and e-mailed Bustard more than a week before the public announcement to inform him of the decision.
Under the new agreement, WNKT will air a new weekly, hourlong “USC Athletics Show” from August-May. The USC pregame show will expand to three hours and the postgame show will be 90 minutes. Men’s basketball will have 30-minute pregame and postgame shows. There will be weekly football and basketball coaches’ call-in shows.
Women’s basketball will continue to air on WISW-AM 1320.
Bustard said he’s not angry, “just frustrated.”
“The signals of WCOS-FM and WVOC cover the Metro area better than WNKT,” Bustard said. “You can’t even pick up WNKT in Lexington or Irmo. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Citadel vice-president Bill McElveen challenged Bustard’s statement.
“The Columbia Metro market consists of Richland and Lexington counties,” McElveen said. “We cover those counties quite well and then some. I would invite anyone to drive to Lexington or Irmo and hear for themselves. I certainly have done that. We did not have one single complaint this year during basketball and baseball, both of which were carried on WNKT.”
Bustard also pointed out that WCOS and WVOC are the No. 2- and No. 3-ranked stations in the market; WNKT is No. 21.
“WNKT went on the air in late November, and WCOS has been around forever,” McElveen said. “Let’s just see what the ratings look like at this time next year.”
Few people know the Columbia market better than McElveen, who grew up in the business and has been associated with the current Citadel stations for the past 19 years. His father, the late Moody McElveen, was a broadcast pioneer in Columbia and is a member of the South Carolina Broadcasters Hall of Fame, as is his son.
Did McElveen think his local ties played a part in Citadel landing the rights?
“Not at all,” McElveen said. “Clearly, the University and ISP put some value in how hard we have worked and how professionally we have conducted ourselves at all time.”
McElveen paused a moment and then added, “Of course, having ‘The Game’ up and running didn’t hurt.”