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Behind the scenes of Columbia sports-radio carousel that, for now, stopped spinning

Phil Kornblut: Many things to like about Gamecocks’ 2019 recruiting class

Phil Kornblut looks at some of the highlights of the South Carolina football team's 2019 signing class.
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Phil Kornblut looks at some of the highlights of the South Carolina football team's 2019 signing class.

The Wednesday before the Sports Talk Network’s Feb. 25 debut across the South Carolina airwaves, Rick Sanford was driving from one town to another, delivering “Barix box” devices that would connect the fledgling 22-station operation.

Not exactly what he had in mind when he joined veteran broadcaster Phil Kornblut’s new, Columbia-based statewide show ... but necessary to get the job done.

“I’m eastbound and down!” the former USC and NFL standout shouted with a laugh via his cell phone. “Laurens, Newberry, Spartanburg, Union, Rock Hill ... this is the hardest day. I just hope I get back (to Columbia) in time for the show tonight.”

Friday marked Sanford’s third week as part of the 6 to 8 p.m. weeknight show. Earlier, Kornblut had pieced together the show’s network after his previous employer, Learfield-IMG, pulled the plug on the South Carolina Network, Kornblut’s home for most of 35 years.

Sanford, 62, thus became the first “domino” in what has been a major reshuffling of radio sports programming in the Midlands.

If you listen to a lot of sports radio in the Midlands, you’re likely aware of this — or, if you’re a hardcore University of South Carolina fan, perhaps not so much. Anyway, here’s a look at the changes in local lineups since early February:

Sanford for the past eight years shared a microphone with Teddy Heffner, a former sports writer at The State and a Columbia talk show host for two decades-plus, currently with Glory Communications-owned WGCV (620 AM, 96.3 FM). But after Kornblut and partner/sales chief Matt “Smitty” Smith cobbled together their new statewide operation, Sanford said he saw a chance to increase his audience — and, importantly in local broadcasting, his market for advertising.

“I just reached out to Phil,” he said. “Teddy has been very good to me, but I felt this was a great move to work with Phil, who’s recognized as the hardest-working broadcaster in South Carolina — the ‘czar’ of South Carolina sports.

“We’ve still got to be successful, which means we’ve got to sell ads. But we’ve got a lot of interest in our new markets, and as word gets out, maybe more will come to us. It’s a work in progress right now.”

When Sanford decided to join Kornblut, Heffner reached out to Rich Taylor, a longtime local TV (WOLO-ABC) and radio personality (Columbia, Las Vegas). Taylor, who also once worked with Kornblut, until this past December was hosting his own WGCV show from 9 a.m. to noon. He and Heffner debuted as a duo in the 6 to 9 a.m. slot this past Monday.

Then, just as it seemed Columbia’s sports-radio market was jammed full, Will Palaszczuk — Kornblut’s former on-air partner with Learfield-IMG — joined a “new” South Carolina Radio Network’s “flagship long-form sports talk show,” a start-up by IHeart Radio (formerly Clear Channel) on its 560 WVOC-AM station.

Palaszczuk is teamed with Lawton Swann, and the two will attempt to create their own following. Their new show’s time slot: 6 to 8 p.m. Swann’s Clemson Sports Talk show will continue to air on Fox Sports Radio 1400 from 4 to 6 p.m.

Confused yet?

So, which of the new shows will Midlands fans choose? Whichever it is will still face the always-daunting task of battling for local listeners (and advertisers) with WNKT-FM 107.5 The Game, also known as THE Gamecocks radio station in Columbia, since parent Cumulus Broadcasting has the rights to USC sports broadcasts.

That means uphill battles for Kornblut-Sanford and Palaszczuk-Swann statewide, and the same for Heffner-Taylor locally. But all three tandems said they believe they can carve out their own niches.

Sanford said he, Kornblut and Smith are working on their chemistry, and his new boss sees progress.

“I think (Sanford) fits in perfectly,” Kornblut said. “First, I’m impressed with the depth of his knowledge; you take his NFL knowledge for granted” — Sanford played eight seasons with the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks — “but he keeps up with everything, and has opinions on all the teams we cover in the state.

“He comes to the show prepared, does his homework. He’s not a formally-trained broadcaster but he’s learned the craft over the years. I view Rick as a star, a guy I want out front for us, whether speaking to groups or on the air.”

Meanwhile, Heffner said he and Sanford were a good team, “but he obviously feels he can make more money with the statewide network. I wish him the best.” It was his experience with Sanford as a partner, on-air and business-wise, that led Heffner to seek out Taylor rather than return to working solo.

“Radio’s changed, and you need help not only on-air but with (paying) the studio rental (at WGCV),” he said. “The management here has been very good to me” — he landed at the station after IHeart Radio fired most of its sports-talk personalities several years ago — “and WGCV gave me a chance to stay on the air, which I appreciate.”

As for his new co-host, “RT (Taylor) is well-known in the area; it’ll take time to work out our chemistry, but the show’s better with two of us. You have someone to bounce ideas off and have more than one viewpoint.”

Taylor said his previous show with WGCV was “great, except I didn’t realize how difficult it is to make money in that 9 a.m. to noon slot. Drive time (6 to 9 a.m.) means everything in radio sports.” As for his on-air chemistry with Heffner, “I’m thrilled to be on with an established guy like Teddy who’s known in Columbia.”

Palaszczuk via Twitter on Friday said he understands “this a long game and a grassroots effort.”

“I’ve been hustling my butt off the last month and a half more than I have at any point in my career trying to give the best coverage of this state’s athletics I can,” Palaszczuk tweeted. “You might not think much of me or where I came from, but I’ve spent nearly every waking hour leveraging my relationships with anyone I have in the state to produce the best content possible, including, exclusive interviews with both Will Muschamp & Dabo Swinney this week.”

If 107.5 The Game has the largest audience — and it does — the other outlets believe their “independence” will attract listeners who are more sports fans than just Gamecock fans. Kornblut, Heffner and Taylor say they also have something most of their younger competition doesn’t: first-hand experience with local sports’ past.

“A lot (of hosts) can talk about how good was (former USC basketball coach) Frank McGuire, or (former Gamecocks football coach) Joe Morrison,” Heffner, 67, said, “but how many knew either of them?”

Added Taylor, 57: “You hear a debate on who was the best USC quarterback, and I’ll say, ‘You ever heard of (1973-75 quarterback) Jeff Grantz?’ How do they know — from seeing a highlight reel? We’ve been around South Carolina sports a long time; that’s a real advantage.”

Every edge will help in a town which seems to have more commentators than sports to comment upon. Kornblut acknowledges the glut, but thinks he and Sanford can stand out.

“There’s oversaturation to a degree, and a lot of shows have come and gone — but we’re still here despite the Gamecock station,” he said. “We have our share and no one can match us around the state. They have their captive audience, but we bring in more of a variety — we’re not beholden to USC or Clemson, and that’s how we’ve always liked it.”

Going forward, Kornblut says he’ll be more involved in the business side than he previously was. “I never had to do that in the past, but it’s a different world,” he said. “You have to watch every penny. I’m learning every day how that works.”

In the brave new — and different — world of sports talk radio in the Midlands, that promises to be the case for everyone.

Sanford, the former Gamecock All-American now making his living following USC and the rest of the state sports, says he’s not concerned, though.

“I’m not competing against anyone but myself,” he said. “I think Phil delivers the best show, and if I can help him do that, I’m not looking at it as being in competition with anyone else.

“I’ll do me, and if we do that, it’ll all take care of itself.”

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