The owner of the new ESPN radio stations in Maryville and Knoxville says he had radio in his genes.
And Jason Bailey, owner of ESPN Radio 1120 in Maryville and 1180 in Knoxville, has the childhood story to back up his claim.
“The day after I was born, my mom and dad took me to a radio station before I went to my home,” said Bailey, who is 37. “My dad worked at a radio station, and they stopped by on the way home from the hospital. Later, as a child, I went with my dad to work on the afternoon show in Cookeville on WGSQ. I fell in love with radio.”
Bailey said his grandfather in Cookeville also gave him good career advice. “When I was growing up, it was either get into radio or be a farmer. My grandpa told me to find job where I could sit on my butt in the air conditioning, so I went with radio,” he said.
Bailey said he worked part-time at different radio stations as a teenager and even pulled the midnight to 6 a.m. shift his senior year of high school.
“I just kept doing that, and eventually moved to Louisville, Ky., to do a morning show - Bandy and Bailey in the Morning in Louisville,” he said.
Bandy and Bailey was Jason and his Cookeville friend and morning show host from the Cookeville station Michael Bandy. The show ran for 16 years until Bandy, after a lengthy illness, died at age 37 in 2008.
It was at that point that Bailey said he decided he wanted a change.
“Bandy passed away two years ago. It was like we were married. You get up every morning and go to work and work with the same guy… I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s family was still in Cookeville, and soon he felt the heartstrings pulling back to East Tennessee, so he and his wife moved to the Knoxville area. “I wanted to be close to home,” he said.
When Bailey couldn’t find a job in radio, he decided he would just go into the business for himself, which led to the purchase of the two stations and the connection with ESPN. He says he convinced his friend Matt Veigl from Louisville to come with him to be the sales director for the stations.
“Matt was a personal trainer in a gym,” Bailey said.
“That’s a ‘medical fitness center,’ please,” Veigl quipped.
“It is hard to find a person who can talk to anyone and take ‘No,’ after ‘No,’ after ‘No,’ and that is just his love life,” Bailey said, as he and Veigl laughed.
“Seriously, I wanted someone by my side that could do the job, someone I knew and knew I could trust,” Bailey said. “Matt is that person.”
“And here we are,” Veigl said.
Bailey said he also hired his former intern at the station in Louisville. “We have Andrew Carroll on the team as well. He’s our web guy, but he’s so much more. He can do anything,” he said. “He figures things out.”
Coming to Knoxville and concentrating on sports radio was a good fit, Bailey said. He has always loved the University of Tennessee sports.
“I’m a huge sports nut,” he said, “and I love college football. Yeah, I love UT sports. I’m a geek with a UT room. I have lots of orange stuff,” he said.
“We’re trying to get him hooked on college basketball,” Veigl added.
Bailey purchased WKCE and ESPN Radio Knoxville, WVLZ-AM 1180, in January of 2010 from Oskie Radio Group. The Blount station went on the air in September.
Bailey said the ESPN brand itself is the worldwide leader in sports and the most powerful 4-letters in sports. “They started the national ESPN radio network 15 to 20 years ago and have done a really great job with it,” Bailey said. “They are one of the most successful radio programs in America. We use some of their national products and on weekends the national games. That’s what is great about having the ESPN brand. We can have the best of both -- local with high school and local colleges and national with the ESPN connection.
And they don’t just concentrate on football. Bailey said they will carry the Big 12 Championship college football game, have a major golf tournament and carried the World Cup soccer games this past summer.
Bailey said that while the ESPN Knoxville and ESPN Blount County frequencies - 1180 AM and 1120 AM respectively, will each carry national programming, they have every intention of making the stations heavily local with local programming. Partnerships are already being formed with area community groups and media.
“That is all because we carry the ESPN brand. We’re able to do our local thing and get the benefit of the national feeds. ESPN allows us to be as local as we can be,” he said.
Bailey said national radio shows featuring personalities like Paul Finebaum will interest listeners in Blount County. “Paul Finebaum is the Jerry Springer of sports radio, and he’s out of Birmingham, Ala. He’s more of a Southeastern Conference show,” he said. “We started carrying him, and it has been a great addition.”
Bailey said that while there are established sports radio shows in the area, none are focused on Blount County. He said he hopes having a local station with an ESPN component will be something listeners and advertisers will see as a unique opportunity.
While local ESPN stations are required to use ESPN programming, they have the leeway to cover local but be in the parameters of ESPN.
“We have to use some of their programming, but, for example, when I called them about carrying the Alcoa championship game, they said, ‘No problem,’” he said. “They understand sports is a grassroots movement, and it is a huge grass roots movement in Blount County. They understand local sports always wins, and they are really great about it.”
Bailey said he has the Federal Communications Commission license for 1180 and 1120 AM, so that makes him “the boss.” Being boss has come with plenty of lessons, he said, and he has suddenly learned to appreciate the perspective of his former bosses. “I should call every general manager I ever had and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Now I understand!” he said.
Bailey said he wants 1120 AM to do local Blount County news and sports and he and Veigl are to the point where they can devote more time to building the Blount County programming. “We’re doing a lot of stuff on 1180 right now. It has taken us a while, but we are now ready to move on to 1120,” he said. “We got it signed on and got the transmitter fixed. We’re rolling.”
So far some of their local programming on 1120 has been in partnership with other entities, including Blount Today Sports Radio for the Alcoa football championship game. ESPN 1120 -- which is WKCE -- currently has to reduce their signal’s power at night due to Federal Communications Commission regulations, so the station essentially goes off the air at dark. At night, St. Louis’ KMOX-AM 1120 clear-channel station “knocks us dead” with a 50,000-watt signal.
“That is something we are working on,” said Bailey.
Bailey said he’s working to acquire an FM translator that would allow the station to continue broadcasting beyond its current nightly sign-off time, which varies from month to month.
“There are a lot of things in play we can do,” said Bailey. “We just have to go do them.”
Bailey said he would like to have local programming with a strong local morning and afternoon shows. “The programming will be mostly sports, but we also care about what is going on in the community. We want to make it more of a community radio station,” he said. “That is what it is going to be, sports-driven and community-driven, and we know it won’t happen tomorrow. It will take while to get there. We’re not ‘men of means,’ so we have to sell it before we can do it.”
Veigl said they will work with their customers on individual or package advertising deals. “We’re focused on helping our customers, so when a business person sells their products or services, if they need to focus on Blount County, we can help them,” Veigl said. “We are in the position where we can adapt to their needs.”
Bailey said it will probably take three months to a year to get established in Blount County. “It depends on how fast the ball rolls,” he said. “We are starting from scratch and finding the right people to do it and to partner with,” he said. “We know we’ve got to get out and meet everyone. It is a tight knit community.”
Bailey said he and his team simply want to work hard and build a strong radio station. “We want to put out the best product we can with what we have, grow that, get better every day and look for the best opportunities,” he said.