790/The Zone now part of Lincoln Financial

By Rodney Ho, originally filed Sept. 2, 2010

As I wrote a few weeks back, Big League Broadcasting, the operator of sports talk station 790/The Zone, has been having ratings issues and lost a bundle on some St. Louis radio station properties.

Now, Lincoln Financial, which has had a local marketing agreement with Big League Broadcasting for years, is buying Big League's assets and wrapping 790/The Zone into Lincoln, which also owns Star 94. (Big League never owned the 790 signal. Lincoln had given them a long-term lease for use of it.)

Stephen "Steak" Shapiro and Andrew Saltzman, who created the Zone in 1997, will become employees of Lincoln Financial. Rick Mack, general manager of Star 94, will become the Zone's senior vice president and general manager. Saltzman's title will be VP/GM. Neal Maziar will remain station manager, Matt Edgar will stay on as program director and morning host Shapiro gets the new title brand manager. (That's a lot of managers!)

This will have no immediate impact on what you hear on air. "These guys run an incredibly successful operation," Mack said in a phone interview today. "We're proud to be a part of it.  We don't want to mess up a good thing."

The station for years generated revenues far in excess of its ratings, a testament to management's plucky ability to sell its loyal listeners to advertisers and inserting sponsored segments anywhere they could. Saltzman said as recently as 2007, the Zone was bringing in $14 million in revenue despite a relatively weak AM signal (especially at night). Obviously since the recession hit, the Zone is nowhere near that number anymore.

It has also nurtured plenty of talent, including the 2 Live Stews and two mid-day hosts now on rival 680/The Fan: Matt Chernoff and Chuck Oliver.

But more recently, 680/The Fan began pulling in stronger ratings, fueled partly by the Braves. In July, the Zone ranked 22nd among men 25 to 54 while the Fan ranked 17th. The Zone recently lost the Atlanta Hawks to Cumulus, which will air the games on 99X and make 680 partners. (Dickey Broadcasting owns 680 but the Dickey family also have a stake in Cumulus Media.)

Rumors of this transaction leaked out last week but both Saltzman last Tuesday and Mack himself last Friday denied it had happened. Mack said the papers were finalized over the weekend.

This was Saltzman and Shapiro's baby from day one. But Shapiro denied the station is in financial duress.

"Owning your own company is extremely rewarding," Shapiro said. "We decided to trade in the day-to-day stress for the security of a great job at a great company."

Here's Saltzman in the press release:

"We have accomplished a great deal as entrepreneurial broadcasters, and this acquisition allows 790 The Zone to compete at an even higher level," said Saltzman. "I am pleased with the development of this strategic partnership."

UPDATE: Shapiro was always about promoting the Zone to me when he was the owner. But when I called him after he became a Lincoln Financial employee, he said he had to refer me to Saltzman, the designated spokesman for the Zone. (Now all on-the-record interviews with Zone employees have to be pre-cleared through Saltzman -- even poor Steak.)

Join my Facebook fan page and Twitter.