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Media Roundup: New England's Remaining Small Market Sports Radio Stations Serve Unique Audiences

Sports radio stations in New England's smaller media markets are becoming a rare commodity. How do the remaining stations stay afloat in a climate where sports talk is going syndicated? Kat Cornetta investigates in the media roundup.

There's a sports world beyond Greater Boston, and no one understands that more than sports radio hosts in New England's regional markets. But in an era where regional sports radio stations are changing formats or going to solely national programming, hosts and program directors in markets such as Manchester, NH and Burlington, VT fight to prove their worth and keep local programming on air.

Radio stations in smaller New England markets feel that their unique listenerships would be dis-serviced by blanket national programming and large station regional programming, like the simulcasts WEEI now airs in Providence, RI and Springfield, MA. To keep their stations on air, they have to fight redundancy and create programming that their audiences want to listen to.

"The audience is going to talk about the hot topic of the day, and eight times out of ten, that's going to be a Boston sports topic," admits Matt Perrault, co-host of The Home Team with Matt Perrault on Manchester, NH's WGAM. "You have fans of Boston sports in New Hampshire, but you don't want to overlap with what they can get from the Boston stations. You want to give them a unique show."

That local flavor is shown off in stations' afternoon drive-time programming. The 4-7 p.m. airtime is one of the last outposts of local sports talk left on smaller regional stations, with the remainder of the broadcast day filled with ESPN national programming such as The Herd with Colin Cowherd andThe Scott Van Pelt Show. Drive-time sports talk in New England still may devote a big percentage of their time to chatting about the "Big Four" Boston teams, but they have a lot more to cover.

"We're serving a lot of masters," said Chris Villani, co-host of Chris and Rich and program director at Burlington, Vermont's 101.3 ESPN. "In Boston it's easier because you focus on the Big Four teams, but here, we have to follow all of them and the area's sports."

Two of those masters in the Burlington market are teams very much disliked by Boston fanbases: the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. Due to training camps, former minor league affiliations, and proximity to the New York border, fandom of the teams has flourished in the area, forcing hosts to find an interesting balance between topics. Finding that sweet spot makes every day unique.

"You end up covering a number of topics and seeing what sticks," said Villani. "It's a great thing because there is never a slow news day."

When it's not the major four sports leagues dominating conversation, it's a mix of national topics and local college, high school and minor league sports that spark conversation. The increased focus on college sports in regional markets is vastly different than in Greater Boston. While colleges such as Boston College and Boston University must pay for game broadcasts on local TV and radio stations (known as timebuys) and they rarely get any chatter on sports radio, the opposite occurs in Manchester and Burlington.

"We have a great relationship with the University of New Hampshire," said Perrault. "We have on UNH's football coach, and we talk about UNH hockey. Our SportsCenter updates from 4-6pm are locally generated, and we always lead off with a local story. Many times, that lead off story is about UNH athletics. We do the best to cover that aspect, because our audience wants that coverage."

University of Vermont's relationship with 101.3 in Burlington is similarly tight. Given the consistent success of UVM's men's basketball team, ever game is aired on the station, and they often get airtime priority over professional games, the latter being bumped to another station.

"It's a unique supply and demand of the market," said Villani, who also calls play-by-play for the team. "In Boston, you don't see the demand for college sports as much, except for the occasional story like (Boston College and Atlanta Falcons' quarterback's) Matt Ryan's Heisman candidacy a few years back. Outside of Boston, our audience wants to talk college sports and are big fans of the teams, and we program accordingly."

In Manchester, WGAM has to find time for NASCAR, which may have a growing audience nationally, but is low man on the totem pole in most of New England.

"Because of Loudon, there are a lot of NASCAR fans in New Hampshire, and we serve tha," said Perrault. "We do The Home Team from Loudon on race weeks, we do a weekly NASCAR segment. We are one of the view places in New England where people can talk NASCAR, and that's important."

Perrault's radio experience, which has sent him from the North Shore of Massachusetts to Iowa and Alabama, also helps serve the New Hampshire NASCAR fanbase. "It really helps that I've been talking NASCAR for a long time throughout the country. I can talk about it intelligently."

There also exists a promotional aspect of working in smaller markets. Local shows become a place where sports are promoted - be it women's sports, minor league teams or community fundraisers. At that point, the show becomes less of the arguefest that can plague some Boston based shows, and more of a community bulletin board.

It's providing that vibrant outlet that speaks to the area's uniqueness that makes both Perrault and Villani's jobs interesting. If they didn't have enough on their plates, both travel back to Boston and work for WEEI when able, usually as weekend fill-ins. Perrault has received a lot of attention as of late for his co-hosting duties with recent Boston sports media free agent Jen Royle, and Villani spent several years as a weekday update reporter on the station. When they come back to Boston, the adjustment is significant, but the importance of creating a vibrant sports fan community on the air that listeners want to participate in stays the same.

"Wherever I am, I always remember the saying, 'You have to play the hits,'" remarked Perrault. "You don't argue with what the audience wants to talk about."