Onetime local stars Skip Mahaffey and Al Keck start over after big media jobs on brokered radio
He compares it to entering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker room after a stinging loss: not something he wanted to do, but something he had to do.
For Al Keck, once the top sports anchor at two local TV stations — WFTS-Ch. 28 (ABC Action News) and WTSP-Ch. 10 (10 News) — that's saying something. When he walked into the Fox Jazz Café in Tampa a few months ago, Keck wasn't reporting a story. He was selling something.
More precisely, he was selling The Al Keck Show, a radio broadcast focused on sports news that he was planning to host every Friday on WTAN-AM (1340).
Shows on WTAN work a little differently from those on commercial radio, where a big corporation owns the radio station, hires talent, sells the ads and makes most of the profit. WTAN offers what radio insiders call "brokered" radio programs, where anyone can buy airtime for a flat fee, go sell advertising and create the show.
Whatever profit they make goes in their pockets, but the workload — from gathering material to booking guests and, yes, selling commercial spots — usually falls on whoever is cutting the check.
Years ago, this kind of radio was the province of churches, Realtors and gadget peddlers; people with a little taste for showbiz who didn't mind promoting themselves directly to a small audience. But as large media outlets pare their staffs in challenging economic times, big names like Keck have been forced to reinvent themselves in places like WTAN.
"Quite honestly, I didn't really enjoy it; I'd much rather have somebody else out there selling Al Keck than me," said the sportscaster, who turned to brokered radio about two years after WFTS failed to renew his contract. Despite his trepidation, Keck left his meeting at the Fox Café with a title sponsorship that immediately put his fledgling show in the black.
"I'm finding people will buy in to a vision if they know you and trust you," he added. "I know I'm not on the biggest radio station on Earth, but I've got a known name and a voice that's pushing a great product. To an average consumer, you're no different" than a traditional radio anchor.
Keck's show airs weekly on WTAN at 3 p.m. Fridays. Two other names from the area's radio scene — onetime SportsChix member Brenda Lee (a.k.a. B.L.) and former Clear Channel Radio star Skip Mahaffey — bracket him at 2 and 4 p.m.
Like Keck, B.L. and Mahaffey lost traditional media jobs awhile ago and are using brokered radio to capitalize on a personal brand that still draws some fans.
"Will it work? Who knows? This is a one-man operation that I'm paying for out of my own pocket," said Mahaffey, who struggled to find new work after Clear Channel took him off country music station WFUS-FM in 2009. He returned to Tampa in February after eight months in Oklahoma.
Now he has a brokered show airing at 3 p.m. weekdays (except Fridays) on WTAN and two other radio stations, reinventing himself as a decidedly nonpartisan talker.
Some experts say this is a trend that will only accelerate, as the big commercial radio stations keep cutting midcareer and entry-level talent to save money.
"Clear Channel owes something like $16 billion . . . I don't remember anybody owing that much for anything," said Gabe Hobbs, a former senior vice president in charge of talk news and sports at the company, who was among 1,850 people laid off in 2009.
"These companies are panicking over debt and the economy; they're kind of a slave to that," said Hobbs, who now runs his own radio consulting firm. "They're forgetting what they used to drill into our heads when I started in this business: It's what happens between the records that counts."
Radio 'ate itself'
After 30 years in the Tampa Bay area radio scene, WRBQ-FM (Q105) morning personality Mason Dixon sees radio's current problems simply.
Dixon said big companies like Clear Channel bought up most of the mom-and-pop radio stations in small and midlevel markets, using computerized audio systems to feature one staffer on shows at three or more stations in a day. Centralized programming eliminated lots of jobs.
Syndicated shows, such as American Idol host Ryan Seacrest's On Air, emerged to eat up big chunks of morning and midday programming.
And new ratings calculated by data from the pager-sized devices worn by listeners have hurt DJs who talk too often during their songs, leading Cox Radio, CBS and others to create hit music-centered stations like Hot 101.5 and Play 98.7.
Once, Tampa Bay was a crucible for developing big trends in radio, from the irreverent "morning zoo" concept started at WRBQ in the '80s to signature talents like Glenn Beck, Lionel and Scott Shannon.
Today, name performers like Mahaffey and onetime WMTX-FM star Nancy Alexander have been laid off while younger talents struggle for new opportunities.
"The business ate itself," said Dixon, who recently hosted a reunion of personalities from WRBQ's heyday on his morning show. "At one point in time, we had between 70 and 80 employees at Q105. There are now five full-time employees, not counting the sales staff, and three of them work on the morning show."
Longtime Tampa Bay area radio personality Jack Harris makes a distinction between shows that mostly feature talk — like his AM Tampa Bay program with Tedd Webb on WFLA-AM (970) — and music shows starring personalities. The new ratings technology has forced more focus, he said, as fans of music radio migrate to stations with a minimum of talk. He fears that radio will founder without the bond that local DJs provide.
"People don't say, 'I listen to (WHPT-FM) the Bone'; they say, 'I listen to Bubba the Love Sponge or I listen to MJ,' " Harris said. "But if the companies are disloyal to the personalities, listeners will be disloyal to (the stations)."
Still, there's one radio star who doesn't see much problem with the current transition: top-rated WHPT morning personality Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
"Big personalities will always have a spot . . . and your ratings control your destiny," said Clem, who was fired by Clear Channel in 2004 after earning record indecency fines and returned to Cox Radio's WHPT with a show more focused on talk about politics, sports and crime. "It's raised the stakes, but if you're good and iconic and can hold an audience, you'll be okay."
One last shot
It's a tag Brenda Lee wears proudly. She's a radio hack.
Never made more than $26,000 a year in the business. Never had her own show. Always worked on the AM side of the dial. She began as a phone screener for the popular Ron and Ron show in the late '80s, eventually teaming with two other women to create the Hooters on the Radio Show and later the SportsChix. She left the SportsChix in 2008 just as the recession was decimating the radio industry.
Then, in February, she decided to put to use all the business cards she had collected over the years, calling sponsors for a brokered radio show. Now she offers two 30-second commercials each day, five days a week, over a month for $1,000 — far cheaper than any big commercial station.
Because WTAN doesn't pay for ratings from Arbitron, she can't tell sponsors exactly who is listening. But the show is archived online and airs on several stations owned by the company.
"Win or lose, I get to give it one last shot," said Lee, 48, who works another job restoring antique furniture. "As long as you can leave your ego at the door, it can work."
WTAN co-owner Doug Wagenvoord has assembled an array of stations for brokered broadcasts: WTAN in Clearwater, WDCF-AM (1350) in Dade City, WZHR-AM (1400) in Zephyrhills, and KLRG-AM (880), a 50,000-watt station in Little Rock, Ark.
Wagenvoord, who runs his company with his wife, Lola, airs every brokered show on at least two stations and online. The top price he charges personalities could reach $200 per hour, depending on how many stations air the show and at what times. He says a really successful talent can make $100,000 profit annually.
"We call ourselves the Walmart of radio," he said. "We sell an hour of time for less than one minute you'd pay on a network station. And the Internet has turned every station potentially into a worldwide station."
But there is little doubt this platform is considered a step down from the big leagues. Accordingly, many see their shows as steps to something greater.
B.L. dreams of landing on enough small stations to quit her other job. Keck incorporates his radio program into a quilt of other TV and radio jobs he hopes will reinforce each other.
And Mahaffey still holds on to the belief that his show might attract attention from a big commercial company once he has made a go of it in the brokered world.
"Talk to me in 90 days," he said. "If I'm wearing an orange smock with 'Hi, My Name's Skip. Welcome to Home Depot' written on it, you'll know it failed. And if it fails, it's because I let it fail."