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Essential Business

Video may have killed the radio star, but sports programming is currently making the AM folks a mint right now. Sports programming is hot, from local high school and college sports to large nationally-syndicated programs produced by big fish like ESPN.

WSLI AM 930, a sports programming-formatted radio station in Jackson, calls itself “The Ticket.” And for Russ Robinson, owner and general manager of WSLI, and his staff, the belief is that sports radio, mixing local with national sports news, will be their ticket to even bigger successes than they have already seen in just a handful of months.

“Sports programming is huge,” Robinson said. “I think people are starting to see just how powerful a medium it can be.

“I remember once, years ago, I was going to do a Clinton-Pearl high school football game for a Clinton radio station. The Pearl coach didn’t want to let us in because he said it would ruin his gate. I was young and brash, so I told him that if he would let us do the game, I would buy all the unsold tickets. At game time the stadium was filled with Clinton fans. The Pearl people were finding it hard to find a seat in their own stadium. I asked the coach before kick-off if I should cut him a check. He just smiled and walked off. That was a long time ago now, but I think that people are learning that same lesson now — sports radio works.”

It certainly has worked for Robinson. An Oxford native, he grew up in Ohio and maintained an abiding love for sports. At the age of 15, he also became enthralled with radio. Though he dreamed of one day being a professional athlete, as he got older and the opponents got bigger and faster (former Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin once broke Robinson’s jaw in a game), talking rather than playing sports seemed a wiser career move.

Returning to Mississippi to attend college in 1972, he immediately started working for a radio station on the Mississippi College campus in Clinton, doing many local and national sporting events. Finally in the summer of 1998 Robinson secured a deal to buy the station and WSLI moved off the campus. Finding office space in Clinton, Robinson said a large majority of the equipment was obsolete and the station pretty much started from scratch. Thus, his immediate goals were modest.

“I really thought we would lose money for about 18 months,” Robinson said. “That’s what I told the banks. I have to say if it hadn’t been for Tim Alford at Merchants & Farmers in Clinton and Lonnie Carlton and Sam Ward with Merchants & Planters in Clinton, none of our success would have happened. They helped us when nobody else would. They believed in us.”

Their faith has been justified. WSLI, in less than a year, is already turning a profit, and just last month moved into a new facility at the intersection of U.S. 18 and Interstate 20 in Jackson that is three times bigger than its former haunt in Clinton.

One thing Robinson pointed to for the station’s success has been mixing local with national sporting events and shows. A quick glance at programming shows that WSLI has carried events such as the NBA Finals, The Kentucky Derby, hockey’s Stanley Cup and Atlanta Braves baseball. But it has also broadcast Mississippi high school championships, Mississippi Pride football and soccer from the Jackson Chargers.

“We started a show called SportsCentral, originally a two-hour program on local sporting news,” Robinson said. “Recently we signed a contract with ESPN to do a national show during that slot with some local breaks. People immediately started calling wanting to know when we are going back on live. So, we’ll start next week doing the show half-and-half, national and local.

“People don’t want that automated junk. They want to hear a familiar, local voice. At the same time if you can also give some good national events and news, then everybody gets what they want.”

Robinson said what people want is not only local stuff but creative programming. He said that he and his staff were always looking for different angles or offerings to differentiate itself from a crowded market. One example is “‘Rasslin’ Radio,” a Saturday morning show on professional wrestling created at WSLI. The show is now WSLI’s most popular and there is some movement toward national syndication of the home-spun show.

Robinson held future plans close to his vest. He said he is scanning the horizons, looking for opportunities. He said that whatever growth was realized, he plans to take the WSLI concept of creative local/national sports programming and clone it.

“I’m a dreamer. The natural progression in this industry is behind the microphone, then sales, then ownership, then multi-ownership. I’m one to reach for that next level. I have to reach toward that challenge,” he said.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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