1984: Game Days

(Here’s one last post in our 1984 series.)

The University of Wisconsin has one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country, with the majority of its broadcasts syndicated by Learfield Sports, which originates games for dozens of other big-time schools. At smaller institutions like Western Illinois, the whole thing is less formal. Local stations may bid for the rights, but the broadcasts themselves are usually less elaborate. And in bygone years, the broadcasts were less elaborate still.

Thirty years ago, at my new little Top 40 station in Macomb, Illinois, we carried Western Illinois football and basketball. Our play-by-play man was the station’s sports director, the splendidly named Larry Derry, who had done the games since 1969. The pregame show started 30 minutes before kickoff, and the postgame show ran for maybe 30 minutes afterward. The broadcast was crowded with ads, many of which Larry sold himself. (The man drove a really nice car.)

Although today it’s commonplace for FM music stations to carry sports play-by-play, 30 years ago it was not. As far as I understood branding back then, I thought that sports play-by-play detracted from ours, even as I acknowledged that our largely student audience would have some degree of interest in WIU games. On the very day of the format change, I was forced to run a University of Illinois football game on my station—a night game that would normally have run on our daytime-only sister station—and when I found out I’d have to, a couple of weeks before, I was furious.

Our station also carried high-school football and basketball games. They were (and are) often an emotional buy for businesses that want to support their local school or the team their kids play on. By doing the hometown games and the games of a few nearby towns—football, basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball, hockey—a station can bring in quite a tidy bundle year after year. The downside is that high-school sports don’t generally attract huge listening audiences, apart from state tournament games, but carrying some games people don’t care about is the tradeoff you make for the money. I happily made that tradeoff—until I found about the games we were doing for free.

The Macomb-Western Holiday Basketball Tournament, a high-school event with 16 teams, had been held each year right after Christmas since 1946 (and is still played today). In 1984, to my horror, I discovered that my station had traditionally broadcast all of the tournament games, even the ones featuring two distant schools far beyond the range of our signal, and even if we had no sponsors for them. This struck me as remarkably stupid, and I fumed about it for the three days my air was held hostage to the tournament. (The next year, I successfully persuaded my boss that airing such games was silly—no advertising, no game.)

In 1984 and 1985, we carried WIU football and men’s basketball as the station always had. Come 1986, the university undertook a major marketing push for its football program, with the idea of turning WIU games into major events. And so we started broadcasting from the stadium parking lot a couple of hours before kickoff, talking to fans and various celebrities the university brought in. (I recall interviewing onetime WLS newscaster Catherine Johns, a WIU alum.) After the postgame show was over, we would broadcast for another hour or so from the private, catered postgame party the university threw for boosters. This gave the radio station a chance to schmooze important business and university leaders by making them feel like celebrities. Being the guy responsible for anchoring those broadcasts made me feel like a celebrity, too.

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat in my usual seat at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison watching Wisconsin pound lumps into WIU, which hasn’t been very good in recent years. There were 78,000 people there, and nobody knew I used to work on behalf of the other side.

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