O'Donnell: AM 1000 shocks the market with hiring of Boston's 'Hub happening' Thomas
FROM MUNDANE to pandering to unlistenable trash, few can argue sports talk radio in Chicago doesn't have it all.
As a point of civic pride, the numbing genre checks in somewhere around privatized parking meters and ceaseless seasonal road repair.
That's why news that Craig Karmazin and his Good Karma Brands are bringing Mike Thomas in from Boston as the new overseer of flatlining ESPN AM-1000 shocked and awed.
This is a station after all, that has been in free fall for over a decade as concept-free Jim Pastor gave fellow career media mediocrities everywhere a bad name.
Now Karmazin -- who officially took over through a local marketing agreement with ESPN only last week -- actually has the audaciousness to rattle the dead mule train by hiring Thomas, a successful sports programming exec in one of the most rabid sports talk towns in the nation.
Since 2009, he has been one of the driving forces behind WBZ-FM, once a CBS afterthought that became "The Sports Hub" that year.
With legacied market sports leader WEEI-AM to chase, Thomas and associates have proved to be a terrestrial radio version of the New England Patriots.
On Thomas's watch, WBZ-FM leapfrogged the smug WEEI, sometimes even snatching monthly audience numbers averaging above 10.
Chicago's tweedle-dee WSCR-AM (670) normally leads locally with a Cubs-dependent 3.4 or so.
Thomas and tablemates also completed a weighty rights superfecta that includes the Pats, the Celtics, the Bruins and soccer's Revolution.
Morning cornerstones at WBZ-FM throughout the golden years have been a pair of recycled rock jocks tagged "Toucher & Rich" (Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb).
Despite their admitted lack of sports authority and 50-50 shots at being consistent funnymen, the duo has been good enough.
Thomas doesn't assume his AM-1000 chair until January.
But his priorities are clear, including ditching the day-deflating ESPN national morning show, hiring a bevy of fresh and engaging talent and crafting an overall product as quickly as possible to promote, sell and compete.
A critical challenge will be acquiring major play-by-play properties while fostering a high degree of credible independent analysis from on-air staff.
At point of entry, it's a teardown situation.
And some industry astute say that if Thomas's efforts fulfill Karmazin's master blueprint, an outright settlement will end the leasing and follow with a move to an FM frequency.
But in the meantime, in a compartment of too much crud, there is at long last a hint of hope in the air for the underserved Chicago sports talk devotee.
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• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.