Scanning his memory, Tom Roberts traced the evolution of Alabama football’s game-day radio operation.
What was a small, low-tech operation in the late 1970s is now a full-scale production in an increasingly crowded box midway up Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As the director of broadcasting for the Crimson Tide Sports Network, Roberts knows all angles of the transforming business that is sports radio. On the air, he is a host. In the office, he hammers out contracts with local stations who carry the broadcasts.
Without the local affiliates, there is no network. In all, there are 60-plus stations in five states who hear Eli Gold call the action on fall Saturdays.
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But what about all the competition? The SEC didn’t have multibillion-dollar television deals when Roberts started as a statistician with the radio network in 1979, and the Internet was science fiction.
Still, the old-fashioned airwaves have their place in the modern world.
“You would think that it’s probably lost some popularity because all of our games are on TV, but we don’t get that impression, and the station interest and advertiser interest both say there’s still a significant number of people who listen to the games,” Roberts said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult. We have substantial number of people who tell us they turn down the sound on the television and turn up the radio.”
Revenues from the television and radio contracts negotiated by the school totaled $8.4 million in 2010 -- up from $7.3 million in 2009, according to the budget summaries UA filed with the NCAA.
Local affiliates aren’t complaining either.
“It’s as solid as it’s probably ever been,” said John Rodriguez, the market manager for the Montgomery affiliate, WXFX-FM of Cumulus Media, Inc. “Alabama and Auburn have been fortunate over the past few years to get coverage on television, but people who are fans normally want to hear it from a somewhat partisan announcer’s point of view, which means they want Eli Gold giving them the play-by-play as opposed to somebody on ABC or CBS or whoever.”
The Crimson Tide Radio Network is a partnership between Missouri-based Learfield Sports and North Carolina-based IMG College. The joint venture also produces the weekly syndicated television shows for football coach Nick Saban, basketball coach Anthony Grant and gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson, along with “Crimson Tide This Week.”
A two-way deal
The role of a Crimson Tide Radio Network affiliate involves more than airing football games and cashing checks. Contracts call for much more participation to keep the valuable rights.
Stations are required to carry all men’s basketball games, women’s basketball and baseball games against SEC opponents, a weekly “Hey Coach” show and daily updates. Exceptions are made in special circumstances.
“If we want to get an affiliate, say in East Alabama, I’d go with less than that just to get some of our programming on the air,” Robert said.
For Davis Broadcasting (WIOL-FM 95.7) in Columbus, being east of the state line isn’t a hindrance to its commitment to Alabama coverage.
“Half this city went to Alabama, the other half went to Georgia -- well, some of them went to Auburn,” said Carl Conner, the vice president for operations for the station. “We get a lot of people here who are Alabama fans -- Alabama fanatics, excuse me.”
Contracts last between three and four years, and turnover is rare. Most have 20-plus years of partnerships with the school.
Roberts wouldn’t reveal the value of contracts with local stations but said they vary based on the size of a market. The still unrealized goal is to have an affiliate in all 67 counties in the state, and each county is limited to one.
The one-per county limit comes with a catch displayed clearly on the list of affiliates on the Alabama athletics website. Several cities have multiple stations in a twist of the changing reality in modern radio.
Listeners in Huntsville, for example, can hear Tide broadcasts on 730-AM, 770-AM, and 92.5-FM because Cumulus owns all three.
Other corporate radio groups own a stranglehold on the college football broadcast rights.
Cumulus, owners of seven stations in Montgomery, has Alabama games on 95.1-FM and Auburn games on 92.3-FM and 740-AM.
“Alabama and Auburn are probably the two best things we have in the building, as far as consistently being sold out,” Rodriguez said. “We have little or no problem selling those.”
Overlapping markets also can be an issue. In Northern Alabama, Tide broadcasts from Huntsville affiliates are heard in Morgan County, along with the Decatur-based 1400-AM signal and the powerful 93.9-FM out of Florence.
“If a station is going to be profitable, they probably need some exclusivity in the area they cover,” Roberts said.
Turn down the TV
Alabama football games air live on television, but the radio broadcasts still have a place in living rooms.
It’s just getting harder to sync the radio play-by-play to the moving pictures on the screen.
Roberts said there is little anyone can do about that from his end. He traces the path of the radio signal that leaves Bryant-Denny Stadium, travels to an uplink, to a satellite in space and back to local stations. creating a delay of a second or two.
Most local affiliates add an extra seven seconds to the delay to avoid any obscenity trouble with the Federal Communications Commission. All told, the signal arriving in the listeners’ home is eight or nine seconds behind the live game action.
The television broadcasts also include a variation of the seven-second delay.
“(The listener) might have an over-the-air signal from the TV station in Birmingham that carries the games or he might have DirecTV or he might have DISH or Charter cable or Comcast cable,” Roberts said. “All those are varying degrees of delay from the live (feed).
“It becomes a technical nightmare, and there’s no way we could do it because of the different ways our stations are carrying it and the different ways the TV folks are routing it.”
The decision to delay the radio feed is made by the local stations. Doing so avoids the potential of an FCC complaint. Twice in the past two seasons, Saban used one of the seven dirty words in impassioned halftime interviews with sideline reporter and former Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss.
There is no delay for 1400-AM in Decatur, and there is nobody in the station’s office to bleep a vulgarity out of the live broadcast.
“We have no control over their broadcast,” station owner Joe Burns said. “It’s just a feed by satellite. So if they don’t catch it, it goes out over the air.”
Changes and advancements in the radio business have introduced game coverage to listeners way out of the range of radio stations in the Southeast.
Crimson Tide Radio Network broadcasts came to satellite radio several years ago, so the reported 20 million-plus SiriusXM subscribers can hear games coast to coast.
And the Internet takes Crimson Tide broadcasts worldwide.
A $120 annual subscription to the Alabama All-Access package on RollTide.com provides live broadcasts of all Tide sporting events.
It’s a far cry from Roberts’ first days with the network.
“When I first started doing this, we had a color man, a play-by-play guy, an engineer and a sideline reporter,” he said. “Now we have a spotter, a stat man, a pregame show host, a postgame show host.
“There are more people involved.”
That includes the Joe Burnses and the Cumulus Radios of the world.
Without the affiliates, after all, there is no network.