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New ESPN general manager optimistic on state of talk radio

| Saturday, March 22, 2003

"Sports radio is an incredibly fun format and an opportunity for guys to be part of a club," says former Pittsburgher Bruce Gilbert, the new general manager of the ESPN radio network based in Bristol Connecticut. "It's a Tupperware party for men."

Gilbert is uncertain what changes, if any, he might make. Since he started March 3, he says there has not been enough time to determine what the targeted listener -- a male age 25 to 34 -- wants to hear.

"Anything is possible. Change can be counted on," says Gilbert in his first interview since joining ESPN.

The ESPN sports radio network says it averages about 17 million listeners per week. It started in 1992 and now has about 650 affiliated stations that air at least some of its 24/7 sports programs. In Pittsburgh, it's on WEAE (1250 AM), a station Gilbert programmed in the mid '90s when it was "Talk Radio 1250 WTAE."

He came here from Wisconsin in 1991 to program its sister station, then called WHTX (96.1 FM), an oldies-based adult contemporary station. Today, it goes by 96.1 KISS-FM. Gilbert assumed the programming duties of the AM station when his predecessor got a better gig in Seattle.

The spoken word in radio is fascinating, intriguing and entertaining, Gilbert says. He was a fan of hit music stations in the 1970s when each disc jockey had his own sound. "Truthfully, Top 40 radio used to be 'personality radio.' It had very colorful and distinctive air personalities," he says.

However, Gilbert noticed that over the years, most music stations had lost many of their individual characteristics. That might have been because programming consultants with a cookie-cutter mentality essentially told their client stations to do the same -- and safe -- thing by reading written statements promoting the station instead of ad-libbing.

In sports, that is called playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Today, the magic of the spoken word and unique personalities are on stations that do not play music, Gilbert says.

Talk can be captivating. Once, for example, when WTAE host Doug Hoerth started telling an interesting story, "I stayed in my car in my own driveway," Gilbert says. "I would not get out until I heard the end of the segment."

That's the kind of response any radio director would hope to get from his audience.

"ESPN Radio is incredibly successful," Gilbert says." It has surpassed every goal for its affiliates. My job is to continue having terrific programming. You are judged by what comes out of the speakers." He always must ask whether his programming is living up to the ESPN brand -- to be the nation's sports authority. He has to keep an ear on all of it.

Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic are the weekday hosts from 6 to 10 a.m.; Tony Kornheiser, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Dan Patrick, from 1 to 4 p.m. Game Day, from 4 to 7 p.m., and Game Night, from 7 to 11 p.m., get game updates from announcers across the country and are not personality driven, he says. Bobby V. is on from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. and Todd Wright, from 2 to 6 a.m. WEAE pre-empts the network with local programming weekdays from 3 to 9 p.m.

"It is an incredibly dynamic environment," says Gilbert, who lives by a simple management style. "You hire people who can do the job and then give them the freedom to do as best as they can do. If you do not micro-manage, it is incredible what kind of success you can have."

He hopes to have success finding a female sports talk host since there are none on ESPN. In fact, he wishes there would be many more in sports-talk radio. "There are not enough women in this business, period," he says. "Can I name one woman sports host who is doing well• I do not think I can. And that is very sad, too."

Neither can Jim Glass, an international consultant for news, talk and sports stations. He is affiliated with McVay Media, the largest worldwide radio programming consultancy. Glass had created a sports talk radio station in Cleveland in the mid '90s that, for several years, was the most popular sports station in America. "They're practically nonexistent," he says.

There is no training ground in small- and medium-size markets for female hosts, Glass says. "Some program directors are afraid to give them a chance."

"ESPN is a good brand. It has good, knowledgeable talent," Glass says. "If the talent could be better presented, it could be to stick to the texture of what they are talking about. Other than that, when they have a guest -- they shine."

But when they don't, it sometimes sounds as though it's some guys entertaining each other instead of the listener, he says.

Glass does not believe in making callers an important part of ESPN programming. "A St. Louis caller talking about the Cardinals -- how does that maximize callers in Pittsburgh?," Glass asks.

Callers are an important part of programming, Gilbert says. "They are not at ESPN. That is fair to say. Those are the kinds of things we have to look at and evaluate."

The changes that Gilbert says can be counted on might mean a slight trade-off: A little more of this for a little less of that. But if the ESPN radio network isn't broken, why try to fix it• Sometimes, the best trades in sports are the ones you never make.

Broadcast Spots


Stationed in Pittsburgh

None of the four Pittsburgh-area television station news departments -- KDKA (Channel 2), WPGH (Channel 53), WPXI (Channel 11) and WTAE (Channel 4) -- have local reporters in the Middle East covering the war. They will use lots of network coverage during these first few days with cut-ins for local news and reports from their respective Washington, D.C., bureaus.

Cable news channel CNN is the only American network with regular employees to file live reports from Baghdad, according to trade publication Television Week. Channel-surf across the dial just once to compare news coverage, and you will see that CNN offers the most compelling coverage -- by far.

Rush to other stations

Listeners to the Rush Limbaugh show, which airs from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays on 50,000-watt KDKA (1020 AM), might want to slide up or down the dial when Pittsburgh Pirates baseball broadcasts pre-empt "El Rush-bo."

There are two other 50,000-watt stations near Pittsburgh that carry Limbaugh: WKBN (570 AM) in Youngstown, Ohio, and WWVA (1170 AM) in Wheeling, W.Va.

Come on down

Jody Lias, a Point Park College public relations major, was a contestant on the game show "The Price is Right." You can see how the Wampum, Pa., native did at 11 a.m. Thursday on KDKA (Channel 2).

Halfway there

Robinson Township's Janet Luisi sold about half of her 2,074 "Latin Dance Shrink Your Pants" exercise video tapes Tuesday on the QVC cable shopping channel. She has not been told whether she will be invited back to sell what's left.

Point counterpoint

Republican state Sen. Jeff Piccola and Democrat state Rep. Michael Sturla will debate the merits of Gov. Ed Rendell's budget at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on WBGN (Channel 59).

An offer you can't refuse

Several nationally known Italian Americans will be featured at a dinner fund-raiser at the Crown Plaza hotel in Moon on March 30 for the "Memories of Italy" radio program. McMurray's Angie Alampi will host the show, which will air from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday on WZUM (1590 AM). Details: (724) 941-3119.

Award winners

Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Lanny Frattare and KDKA (Channel 2) news anchor Patrice King Brown are the Pittsburgh Radio and Television Club 2003 honorees for "Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting."

See a radio show

Marty Minto, who hosts a radio talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WORD (101.5 FM), kicks off his "College World Tour" with a live broadcast of his show Wednesday at Geneva College in Beaver Falls.

Getting a read

"The Saturday Light Brigade," hosted by Larry Berger and Bill Lucker from 6 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on WYEP (91.3 FM), will speak with Dallas Dileo, manager of the Carnegie Library, to kick off the Community Book Club to help make reading fundamental for children and adults.

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