By Steve Kabelowsky Contributing Columnist Published Nov 25, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Media enters into family traditions when the programming creates moments that can bring generations together. For radio history in Milwaukee, WTMJ-AM 620 holds onto many of those traditions.

One reason WTMJ is associated with listening habits has to do with history, being around for a very long time when the Milwaukee Journal invested in the technology. The other is the reach, as the signal is the strongest in Wisconsin, gathering listeners across Wisconsin.

Late last week, WTMJ’s executive vice president of the Journal Broadcast group, Steve Wexler, informed staffers that the station will not renew its agreements with Learfield Sports. Learfield is the firm that holds the broadcast rights to University of Wisconsin sports.

"Learfield wanted full clearance of all the Badgers programming (football games, basketball games, coach's shows, etc.)," Wexler said.

"In the past, we've offered to clear everything we can, and then place broadcasts on other stations when there were conflicts.  This time, they asked for full clearance."


OK, so here’s where history comes into play.

Badger sports broadcasts have been on WTMJ for 86 years. In that time, the station held the broadcast rights for all UW broadcasts and made sure football and men’s basketball games were able to be heard on different stations throughout Wisconsin.

As the clear-through station for the state of Wisconsin, that means it has the power and responsibility to have the strongest signal. Clear-through stations were established by the FCC in the early days of radio. As the communications habits and technology has advanced through the years, the need for radio clear-through has lessened. But, because of the early practice, WTMJ and other radio stations in the U.S. have been able to capitalize on the reach.

But for the Badgers and WTMJ, the relationship shifted because of a missed opportunity.

On a summer Friday afternoon in 1993, and WTMJ leadership failed to make the UW deadline to file for the broadcast rights. They missed the 2 p.m. deadline by minutes. I remember the shake up and fall out of this loss. Headlines ran in both the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel, about the missed opportunity and different staffers were demoted to different positions in the station group.

I was working at the La Crosse Tribune at the time in the sports department. It became a common practice to speak of the missteps by different media outlets in Wisconsin while working in the newsroom. This was one of the big, "oops."

At the time, as they do now, WTMJ holds the broadcast rights for the Brewers, Bucks and Packers. As there were conflicts, one of the broadcasts would get bumped over to the then WKTI-FM 94.5. As the Brewers made the playoffs just a few years ago, some of the Packers preseason games were broadcast on WLWK-FM.  Journal Communications created a sports marketing team to sell ads for all of the sports programming at the station.

With the loss of the Badgers rights, WTMJ continued as a flagship station for the broadcasts, but lost the chance to sell advertisements during the game.

So, in this scenario, a priority has to be made when conflicts arise. That means one event can be cleared for broadcast while the other may have to get bumped. Without the revenue associated with ads inside the game, the Badgers coverage became the lesser priority.


Now in 2013, universities know the value of their athletic departments. Success on the field of play can influence the number of out-of-state enrollees. Beyond filling the teams with talented athletes that can wow boosters who offer their thousands in support of their favorite school, universities in high-profile Division 1 sports know how important the marketing of their sports is to the bottom line.

It’s no coincidence that the highest paid public employees in most states are the athletic coaches at the top universities.

So, when UW works with Learfield, undoubtedly Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, pushed them to seek full clearance from all of its stations.

Knowing the push the last few years for greater broadcast revenues, I’m pretty safe in guessing that UW is also pressuring Learfield to get full clearance and broadcast coverage of volleyball and hockey along with men’s and women’s basketball and football. Learfield is in turn seeking this level of coverage from its stable of member stations.

For WTMJ, with the Packers, Brewers and Bucks already on the air, a decision had to be made when Learfield presented its latest offer.

"We can't accommodate all their programming due to our Brewers, Packers and Bucks commitments, so this gives them the opportunity to place all their programming in one place. We are not the rights holder for Wisconsin sports, just their Milwaukee affiliate," Wexler said.

"The huge signal of AM620 is a big loss for them, but it was important to them that we clear everything, which just isn't possible. We valued the partnership and the history together, for sure."

Moving forward, Learfield will have to get another broadcast partner in the Milwaukee market. I have a guess on two outlets that would make sense, so, it will be interesting to see which one will bring these broadcasts into their fold.

The move here does not affect the scheduled broadcasts for the current school year.

Steve Kabelowsky Contributing Columnist

Media is bombarding us everywhere.

Instead of sheltering his brain from the onslaught, Steve embraces the news stories, entertainment, billboards, blogs, talk shows and everything in between.

The former writer, editor and producer in TV, radio, Web and newspapers, will be talking about what media does in our community and how it shapes who we are and what we do.