Mike North's Internet station: Genius or crazy?

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Posted by chicagomedia.org on March 16, 2009 at 13:15:50:

North's Internet station: Genius or crazy?

Posted by Ed S.
at 3/16/2009 6:00 AM CDT on Chicago Business

When you talk a big game like Mike North does, you tend throw around big images. So in discussing his new Internet sports talk station at chicagosportswebio.com, he compares the endeavor to the Wright Brothers and Ted Turner and the founders of cable TV.

"Do you think the Wright Brothers were worried about how many passengers they could get?" bellowed Mr. North in the downtown conference room belonging to David Hernandez, the president of Spectrum Entertainment Group, the money behind this operation.

Later Mr. North interjects, "How many times did CBS, NBC, and ABC laugh at Ted Turner and cable TV in the 1970s? Well, who's laughing now?"

This is Mr. North's way of addressing the doubters who claim his latest venture is doomed to failure. Like the Wright Brothers and cable founders, he intends to have the last laugh.

Mr. North and Mr. Hernandez believe they have hit upon the next big thing by programming a sports talk station exclusively for the Internet. Chicagosportswebio.com will go on the air Monday, April 6 with programming from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

After kicking off with a simulcast of North and Dan Jiggett's "Monsters in the Morning" show, which airs on Comcast SportsNet from 6-9 a.m., there will be other programs hosted by Jonathan Hood and Chet Coppock, who will team with boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini from 3-6 p.m.

Webio has hired away George Ofman from SCR and inked Ron Kittle as a baseball analyst. Other hires are on the way.

The station is showing its commitment by handing out six-figure, multi-year contracts. Mr. Hernandez won't disclose his finances, but industry observers believe he is shelling out in the neighborhood of $2 million in start-up costs.

Mr. Hernandez, an avid Chicago sports fan and CEO of NextStep Medical Staffing, doesn't have the bravado of Mr. North. But he threw out a bold statement, saying, "We will have a positive cash flow in the first year."

Toward that end, The Bob Rohrman Auto Group has signed on as the first sponsor, and the station has an agreement in principle with Chicagoland Hooters.

The station's media kit has a section, "Why the Web?" It cites claims that the weekly online radio audience is at an-time high with an estimated 33 million listeners. At-work streaming has increased an average of 43 percent each year over the last five years.

Last summer, Mr. North said he went to a meeting featuring prominent radio executive Dan Mason.

"During the one-hour presentation, he didn't mention radio once. He only talked about the Internet," Mr. North said. "If you're a fan of (traditional radio), you must like propeller planes. The Internet is a jet."

Mr. North is an unlikely person to dive into this technology because his wife Be-Be says he doesn't know how to work a computer.

"But he has the foresight here," said Ms. North, who will be the chief operating officier. "He said, 'I think I can make this work.'"

Webio hopes to attract people to the site with a ton of stats for fantasy players and game-trackers much like you would see on cbssportsline.com or NFL.com. "Only with better graphics," said company vice-president Nick Matranga.

The station also points to car-stereo Internet access coming sooner than later. I view this technology as being vital to the operation's success. The bulk of radio listening is done in the car.

If you look at how long it took HD television to finally become a staple, it is hard to image Internet-car access is around the corner. That would seem to put Webio in a bad spot.

However, after pressing the executives on the subject repeatedly, Mr. Hernandez said, "It's not an enormous part of our success."

The outlet's executives seem to be living by two words: Produce and promote. In yet another example of Mr. Hernandez laying the big money on the line, Webio will promote heavily via billboards, newspapers and other means to get the word out.

"We're going to market this product," said Jeff Schwartz, the company's senior vice-president. "You see so many people cutting back these days on advertising. That's like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Not us. We're going to be all over the place."

It won't mean a thing if Webio doesn't deliver a good product. If it doesn't produce compelling listening, nothing else matters.

One industry observer scoffed at Webio's lineup, saying it was made up of "B-list people." None of the hosts had prominent weekday shows at the other sports stations in town.

Not surprisingly, Mr. North is bullish about the lineup. He compares what he has now to what WSCR had in place when it first launched in 1992. He was a no-name when he debuted on the station, as was afternoon host Dan McNeil. Both went on to become big stars.

"This lineup is far ahead of what we had back then," Mr. North said. "Our lineup is more experienced."

However, Mr. North is forgetting one thing. Back then, WSCR had the playing field to itself as the only sports talk radio station in town. While there were plenty of skeptics questioning whether the format would survive, the station obviously found a niche among sports fans, opening the door for a second sports talk outlet, WMVP-AM 1000.

The new Webio station now faces competition from those stations. And guess what? Their programming is streamed live on the web too. So if you want to listen to Chicago sports talk on the Internet, you have more options than just chicagosportswebio.com.

There seem to be plenty of hurdles for this endeavor, and we haven't even mentioned the terrible economy. Already people in the industry are wondering if Webio will make it through the year.

However, Mr. North and Mr. Hernandez insist they are in for the long haul. They are even looking beyond Chicago, as they have the Webio domain name in 32 markets.

Let them doubt us, Mr. North said. He is ready for the fight.

"It wasn't a good thing for those other stations when we announced this," Mr. North said. "We're going to get the advertisers that once went to them."

As it did for the Wright Brothers and Ted Turner before, history will provide the final answer.

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