WBAL: O's wanted control of shows

The Orioles wanted creative control of all pre- and post-game programming on WBAL Radio (1090 AM), and the station's objection to that was a major reason its 19-year relationship with the club ended, said WBAL vice president and station manager Jeff Beauchamp.

The Orioles counter that between a clearer FM signal on WHFS (105.7), the ability to promote the club on five different stations, a strong investment in high-definition radio and creative ideas for pre- and post-game content, CBS Radio offered too good a package to turn down.


"We prefer to look to the future," club spokesman Greg Bader said. "And this is unquestionably a benefit for the ballclub and for our fans."

Beauchamp said he believed that WBAL's offer to keep the Orioles was richer than the deal the club accepted.


"It was clear to us that this was not a financial decision," Beauchamp said. "It was about control of programming, pre- and post-game, and no respectable station is going to give that up."

Despite the club's gripes with certain voices on WBAL, Beauchamp said he was surprised when the Orioles ended the long relationship.

Bader declined to answer those points directly. "We have nothing but kind words to say about WBAL," he said. Apparently, WHFS-FM and its sister station WJFK [1300 AM] were willing to give the Orioles more control. "They're the ones deciding the content," said Robert Phillips, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio Baltimore, which owns both stations.

The Orioles say pre- and post-game content will be enriched by more on-field interviews with players, coaches and manager Sam Perlozzo.

Phillips said the club didn't make any demands about the nature of the pre- and post-game shows. "But if the team's going to come out and say, 'We want to give you more access,' why wouldn't you take it?" he said.

The fees WBAL paid the Orioles decreased in recent years as the club's waning popularity, the proliferation of televised games and the rise of satellite radio sapped ratings. But the station wanted to keep the Orioles because the association is a major part of WBAL's identity as a leading sports and news station in Baltimore.

In recent years, Orioles officials have often complained about critical comments aimed at the club by WBAL commentators and call-in guests, Beauchamp said. The club has asked that certain personalities be steered away from baseball coverage and that call-in segments be limited because callers can't be stopped from bashing the Orioles.

"They are very sensitive about criticism, and they let it be known that they were not happy with certain voices on our air," Beauchamp said.


But he said he was particularly unwilling to excise fan call-in segments. "You can't sanitize everything," he said.

Steve Davis and Sun columnist Peter Schmuck were the primary voices featured on WBAL's pre- and post-game coverage along with the game announcers.

'We were surprised'

WBAL had opened negotiations with the club around the All-Star break last season.

"Negotiating with the Orioles is an adventure," Beauchamp said, "but we were always led to believe that our deal with them would continue. We were given every indication that it would be done months ago. So we were surprised."

The situation represented a turnabout after WBAL lured the Ravens from CBS Radio a year ago. The Ravens jumped in part because their games would be simulcast on WBAL and 98 Rock (97.9 FM). The Orioles hoped 98 Rock would carry some of their games, but Beauchamp believed ratings for baseball weren't high enough to merit that much time on the FM station.


Phillips said the Ravens' move didn't make the Orioles a more essential target for CBS Radio. He said CBS Radio had talked to the club about a possible deal for five or six years and that the technological benefits were simply great enough this time to sway the Orioles.

"I think the broad base we could offer was really appealing to them," he said.

The Orioles cited an FM signal as a major factor in the new deal, noting that the Washington Redskins, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers have made their games available on FM in recent years. Most flagship stations for major league teams remain AM.

The club also touts CBS Radio's ability to promote the Orioles on four music stations that reach demographics not covered by WBAL or 98 Rock. That platform could grow wider if high-definition radio becomes popular. So even though WBAL averages more listeners than WHFS, the Orioles say they will be promoted to a wider range of people under the new partnership.

The Orioles are not jumping to a criticism-free zone. WJFK host Damon "The Bulldog" Yaffe is as harsh a critic of owner Peter Angelos as any radio personality in the city. He will not be muzzled just because the Orioles are now business partners, Phillips said.

"No one from their organization said, 'Now that we're doing this deal, your people have to be careful what they say,' " he said. "That's not the way they do business."


Degree of control

Throughout sports, teams and leagues are seizing greater control of the ways in which their products are presented to the public. The NFL and NBA started their own national networks. Many baseball teams - including the Orioles - operate regional cable stations. Viewed in that light, the Orioles' decision to leave WBAL seems less surprising.

"More and more teams want control of their own broadcasts," said Bob Ahrens, who teaches sports broadcasting at Fordham University. "I'm not surprised because they're all going in that direction. But I could see why the station wants to maintain more control of its programming."

Baseball franchises have customarily maintained final right of approval for game announcers.

Angelos made it clear that he did not want total objectivity from the team's radio personalities when Jon Miller left town after the 1996 season.

"You have the detached observer, but that's the role of the journalist," Angelos said the day before Miller announced his departure. "I don't think that's the status of a team broadcaster. They should be an advocate for the team. They've got to bleed a little bit for the Orioles."


Announcers Jim Hunter, Joe Angel and Fred Manfra were not the source of more recent contention between WBAL and the club, however. They will still call games on WHFS.