Sports station the Zone operators sell assets

Lincoln Financial Media, which owns top 40 station Star 94 (WSTR-FM), announced Monday that it had purchased the assets of Big League Broadcasting, which runs sports station 790/The Zone (WQXI-AM).

Terms of the agreement were not released.

Since 1997, Big League Broadcasting has had a limited marketing agreement to operate the station with the owner of the 790 signal, which originally was Jefferson-Pilot Corp. Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., the parent of Lincoln Financial, acquired Jefferson-Pilot in 2006.

This will have no immediate impact on what listeners hear on the station, said Rick Mack, general manager of Star 94, who will also oversee the Zone as a senior vice president.

The two original co-presidents of the Zone, Andrew Saltzman and morning host Stephen "Steak" Shapiro, will become employees of Lincoln Financial.

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"These guys run an incredibly successful operation," Mack said in a phone interview Monday. "We're proud to be a part of it. We don't want to mess up a good thing."

The station, which features long-time hosts such as Ryan and Doug Stewart, Mike Bell, Nick Cellini and Chris Dimino, competes aggressively with rival sports station 680/The Fan (WCNN-AM).

Saltzman, in an interview Monday, said the station grossed $14 million in 2007, far more than most stations with comparable ratings. Despite a weaker signal, it would frequently beat the Fan in both ratings and revenue. He did not disclose how much the station is currently billing, but most stations in the Atlanta market have seen revenue declines in the past three years.

In 2004, Big League paid $11.5 million for three St. Louis radio stations. After the recession hit, their value  took a nosedive. Saltzman said in an earlier interview that Big League has had to unload those stations at a major loss.

Shapiro said the station is not under financial duress: "Owning your own company is extremely rewarding. We decided to trade in the day-to-day stress for the security of a great job at a great company."

In July, the Zone ranked 22nd among men 25 to 54, its target audience, according to Arbitron. The Fan ranked 17th.

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