JMU Radio Goes Digital

Schools Drops All But One Flagship Station

Posted: July 9, 2014

HARRISONBURG —On Saturdays this fall, fans in Richmond, Roanoke and Virginia Beach will not be able to find James Madison football games on the airwaves, at least the old-fashioned way.

JMU last week announced that it will focus on mobile access to its sports broadcasts, eliminating all but one radio affiliate. The Dukes will keep their flagship station, WSVA-AM550 and WHBG-AM 1360 in Harrisonburg, as the lone over-the-air presence.

The decision was largely monetary. Because Madison paid affiliates to carry the Dukes, it will be able to reallocate a “significant” amount of money to other projects, JMU deputy athletics director Geoff Polglase said Tuesday.

“While we liked having the affiliates, we are meeting the needs of all listeners in so many different ways that we were no longer going to be able to have the affiliates as a luxury,” he said. “We chose to eliminate them so we could redirect those dollars.”

That money – JMU paid six figures last year to radio affiliates to broadcast football and basketball games, Polglase said – will be redistributed to other projects. Exactly how much money Madison paid radio stations was not available Tuesday. Polglase said he could not provide the figure, and athletic director Jeff Bourne did not immediately return an email.

Polglase said JMU has already shifted some of the money it previously paid to affiliates to a service that allows fans to send text messages to the video board at football games.

“Are we saving money on what we were spending on radio? Absolutely,” Polglase said. “We’ve redirected those dollars a number of ways to enhance some things we’ve been doing over the years. In the end, we’re not saving money. …  We’re just not spending it all on radio anymore.”

Jon Shomby – the operations manager for MaxMedia of Hampton Roads, which includes former Madison radio affiliate ESPN 94.1 – said he was not surprised by JMU’s decision to not renew the contract. He was contacted early last week and learned that the Dukes would no longer offer their games.

“We had a long relationship with them,” said Shomby, who noted that 94.1 and previously 1310-AM had been JMU affiliates for at least the past 12 years. “In this day and age in the college football sphere, things change because of money. I would’ve loved to have them back, but I totally understand what they’re doing.”

94.1 also broadcasts Old Dominion University football games as well as the Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. Shomby said the ratings for JMU football games were “fair,” although he admitted that ratings for play-by-play broadcasts are often tough to determine.

“It was good revenue for us,” Shomby said. “But we’ve got to figure out some other way to make that up, and that’s our problem, not theirs. I always felt there was a consistent demand for the product. The demand for JMU football was there; we felt it.”

Station managers for the other two former affiliates – WREJ-AM 1540 in Richmond and FOX 910 in Roanoke – could not be reached for comment.

JMU hopes its new media strategy, one that focuses more on mobile technologies, can keep existing listeners and gain new ones.

Polglase said it will help that all JMU audio and video broadcasts will now be offered for free via the school’s website (through computer, tablet and smartphones). Previously, users had to purchase a season audio pass for $4.99 on iPhone or Android or a video pass for $9.99 through JMU’s iPad app. Additional audio broadcasts will be available for free through third party apps like TuneIn Radio and WSVA’s website.

“We think radio here locally is very important,” Polglase said. “We have a tremendous relationship with WSVA. We think they have tremendous value to us and not only in the play-by-play they provide. Anytime we’ve been thinking about this, there has never been a question that WSVA was a key player and something that we wanted to maintain.”

WSVA general manager Susanne Myers said the station is excited entering its 39th year as the flagship station for the Dukes. She said interest is as high as ever for JMU sports on the station.

“We get a lot of calls about it and we hear about it in the marketplace and we don’t have a struggle selling advertising,” Myers said. “It’s as strong as it’s ever been. There’s just more interest in JMU in the last few years.”

WSVA’s radio feed – with the long-time Voice of the Dukes, Mike Schikman – will be available on-line.

Cutting out radio affiliates, Polglase said, was an option JMU had been considering for several years.

“If the affiliates weren’t charging us, then I don’t think we’d be at this point,” said Poglase, who heads an external operations group of 10 people from different departments that make decisions on media. “But they have a business to run. At the end of the day we made a decision based on business but also because we think we can improve what we’re doing in a variety of ways that makes the experiences for our athletes and fans that much better.”

With a recently redesigned website powered by SIDEARM Sports and a new partnership with streaming service Stretch Internet, Polglase said that Madison will be able to stream more content cheaper, especially because it is no longer doing the streaming in-house. He said Stretch Internet makes it “extremely affordable” to stream events, meaning more MadiZone HD Sportsnet broadcasts are planned for JMU’s website.

“The fact that eliminating the cost of actually streaming it is a major benefit for us,” Polglase said.

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