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College Sports in the Carolinas

View from the East
Friday, April 16, 2004

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Radio network fishes for allies in rough seas


At East Carolina, Jeff Charles is the voice of the Pirates during football and basketball seasons. He’s been the descriptive link between Pirate fans and their beloved teams for 16 years.

This time of year, the voice also becomes chief salesman and negotiator for the Pirate network.

That Pirate saber that Charles totes in his roles as the voice — and the salesman — has grown increasingly double-edged as interest in ECU athletics has proliferated over the years. While Charles has monitored the expansion of interest in ECU sports, he will also tell you that accessibility to radio time has gotten tougher.

More interest means greater urgency in getting radio stations to carry games, but that often requires more money to pay for air time at key stations in the region.

Charles has plenty to keep him busy. He also does some ECU games on WITN-TV-7 and is in the process of preparing to do four road football games on the tube in 2004.

While striking deals with radio stations, Charles must counterbalance those expenses with advertising revenue from network sponsors that will cover costs and generate revenue. All of which means little to fans who want to know the score but can’t find ECU on their radio dial.

“Nobody has to tell me or anybody in the athletics department that we need better coverage,” Charles said. “It’s a top priority.”

Too often, Charles gets the old Sergeant Carter-to-Gomer Pyle “I can’t hear you” routine at Pirate Club gatherings from ECU fans who have difficulty picking up broadcasts in certain areas.

“When it’s really a problem is in basketball season when we’ve got a big game at night on the road in Conference USA,” Charles said. “That’s when we really get it from people who might have been used to hearing us during football season.”

There aren’t as many stations on the network during basketball season as there are during football season. Many football games are played during the day when many of the AM stations on the Pirate network are able to broadcast at higher power than at night — when the greater majority of ECU’s basketball games are contested.

The bright side of the situation, Charles acknowledges, is that it shows the increase in interest in ECU basketball. Charles said he didn’t get that kind of feedback when he was describing ECU’s games at George Mason and William & Mary several years ago when the Pirates were hooping it up in the Colonial Athletic Association.

The airtime situation has grown more complex with changes in Federal Communications Commission regulations that reduced restrictions on ownership of multiple stations within a broadcast market.

No longer can Charles walk in to 93.3 FM in Washington, shake hands with an ECU supporter like former station executive Riley Roberson and be assured of a powerful outlet for the Pirates on the air. Gone also from the ownership picture is Bob Hooper of WKTC in Tarboro.

In the place of many of the resident radio station operators of a few years ago are corporations who have bought out local control. Broadcasting groups based outside the region may have difficulty distinguishing the regional significance of East Carolina from East Colorado.

The new wave of ownership is locked in to formats, they contend that college sports won’t produce ratings and their stance makes ECU sports a tough sell. And Charles isn’t the Lone Ranger when he rides into town to talk about getting ECU games on the air.

For every station executive who might be willing to listen to ECU’s voice, there are glad hands from a variety of schools in the state trying to get their games on the air. Charles encounters competition from representatives of four other Division I-A programs in-state — Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest — in trying to swing deals with stations for air time. Western Carolina and Appalachian State become players, too, toward the mountains.

Air time at bigger stations can simply be bought and that’s what ECU does in key markets such as Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte and Tidewater Virginia. That’s what Duke has done at 107.9, a powerful Beasley Broadcasting station in Greenville.

In smaller markets, a barter agreement is often the rule. In exchange for putting the games on, those stations get 50 percent of the advertising time to sell for themselves during ECU broadcasts.

Ionic Breeze Quadra Special: ongoing

The Triad market (Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point) is particularly tough for ECU right now because one group has come in and bought practically all potential AM affiliates. ECU hasn’t been able to interest that group, which has devoted programming to Spanish and religious formats.

Closer to home, an interesting situation is developing. New station WGHB-1250 in Greenville has carved a niche with ECU sports programming, but that is being challenged by Henry Hinton’s recent involvement in Greenville with 1070-AM. Hinton, of course, has been a cornerstone in Pirate programming as a station owner and broadcast personality for years.

Hinton’s current station is part of Beasley Broadcasting, which is based in Naples, Fla., and is directed by Bruce Beasley, who happens to be an ECU graduate.

Beasley Broadcasting owns some power FMs in the region which could solve ECU’s problems of network signal coverage.

Conversations between Charles and Beasley interests could ultimately alleviate a situation that often has Joe Fan twisting the dial futilely trying to pick up the Pirates. And that should be the bottom line consideration.

“We’re working on some things down the road,” was all “the voice” would say as he keeps searching for the blowtorch stations that would bring the Pirates into every home and vehicle in Eastern North Carolina — as ideally it should be.

The assembly and maintenance of a sports radio network is a complex and fascinating dynamic. Every rule of business seems to be at work as ECU’s veteran play-by-play guy keeps trying to make the Pirates heard.

Stay tuned.

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02/23/2007 12:45:29 AM

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