O'Donnell: Determined Thomas trying to keep hope alive at AM-1000
THERE ONCE WAS A TIME when sports talk radio in Chicago was fresh.
That would have been when Bill Clinton was in the White House, "The Lion King" was about to happen and Bryant Gumbel was asking a "Today Show" audience, "What is the internet, anyway?"
Since then, it has been a steady drift downward, sort of like the career arc of The Beastie Boys.
With some constrictions due to the pandemic, both WSCR-AM (670) and ESPN-AM (1000) deservedly carry the tag "listless."
That's really rough news at "The Score," where management croaks like a gelded turkey over being "Chicago's No. 1 sports talk station" in a market where 95 percent of the t-radio audience ignores the entire niche.
At AM-1000, there's at least credible claim to being in "a rebuild."
The project began last fall when Craig Karmazin and his Good Karma Brands (GKB) reached agreement with ESPN to take control of the moribund signal.
It picked up momentum when Mike Thomas, riding a crest of success atop Boston's rabid sports talk waves, signed on to become GKB's Chicago market manager.
Now, hope remains alive, according to Thomas.
"Even during this unprecedented year, we've been able to accomplish several improvements that have brought new energy to ESPN 1000," the downstate native said.
"If you listen to ESPN 1000 today, compared to how it sounded in late December and early January, there is a noticeable difference.
"Jonathan Hood is about to elevate his presence when we launch the new 'Baseball Show' on Monday night. We elevated Pat Boyle's profile when we added the weekly "Hockey Show" on Saturday mornings when the Hawks are playing.
"We hired Brian Hanley to co-host that show and help with other shows as needed. We went outside the sports radio box and hired a 'rock guy' in Mark Zander, who has worked at several stations around Chicago.
"We continue to grow our young talent ... Adam Abdalla, Chris Bleck and Jeff Meller.
"We are definitely feeling the new energy and are ready to thrive," Thomas concluded.
All well and good -- and no question that Karmazin and Thomas are success-oriented.
But some points for consideration:
• WSCR-AM has a larger "bomb shelter" audience, could be getting the Cubs back and retains a far superior dial position;
• AM-1000 is laden with too many talent-free Babbitts ("The Score" is in the same leaky boat) and has been a market irrelevancy since planes could still land at Meigs Field; and,
• Every broadcast weekday, the ESPN affiliate begins fourth-and-long with the feeble national a.m. grave digger hosted by Trey Wingo and Mike Golic Sr.
Thomas declined to confirm GKB has an opt-out after Sept. 1 regarding that daily disaster and could go local.
A visioned, properly staffed, Chicago-based wink-a-waker at AM-1000 would be a game changer.
Golic Sr. is expected to be ashcanned by ESPN in favor of Keyshawn Johnson no later than Labor Day. But in Chicago, that's like hearing the 11th Ward has a new Democratic alderman.
In the meantime, for Mike Thomas and AM-1000, it's all about keeping hope alive.
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• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.