Pull up a chair and let me tell you a media tragedy you never read about in the radio trades – because it is about a television sports broadcasting team in Detroit.
But believe me when I tell you it has resonance for every radio program that involves a duo or a larger team dynamic.
The story is a simple, but sad one. Mario Impemba and Rod Allen have been the TV voices of the Detroit Tigers on Fox Sports Detroit for 17 full seasons. By any standards, that's a nice run.
Impemba is the talented broadcaster who provides the play-by-play, while Allen is a former Tiger player who has become highly entertaining and popular for his observations and style.
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To the unknowing fans, these guys seemed to get along well, becoming first-name broadcasters to rabid Tiger fans. Mario and Rod seemed to be a great combination in the booth, during Tigers seasons where the team excelled and during the past couple years when a rebuilding process has been underway.
It was all going well until late this summer.
That's when a fight over a chair in the broadcast booth got physical – and blew up throughout Detroit media and especially in sports circles where fans take this stuff seriously.
The end result is that both guys were taken off the air in September with only a couple dozen games to go in the season. And last week, Fox Sports Detroit announced neither broadcaster will be providing the play-by-play for the Tigers anymore.
Done. Over. Finis.
There are only 30 Major League Baseball Teams on this planet, so TV play-by-play gigs are precious jewels. Ask any fledgling sports announcer, and they'll tell you these plum jobs are hard to come by.
And now Mario and Rod hang up their headphones in the Tigers booth for good.
Over a chair?
Of course, it wasn't really about a chair, anymore than marriages break up over raised toilet seats, toothpaste caps, or mixing lights with darks. The chair was just a metaphor – the last straw – a symbol of rancor and difficulties that had plagued this duo for years.
The Detroit Free Press' Anthony Fenech broke the story down yesterday, revealing a relationship that had been apparently festering for a long time. And everyone knew – other broadcasters from around the league, and of course Impemba and Allen's bosses at Fox Sports Detroit.
Fenech reports there was a serious argument a decade or so ago. And as one FSD employee was quoted, “Nothing was done about it the first time. Nothing was done about it this time.”
We've all been there – whether you're on the air, the program director, or the station manager. In the case of these woeful Tiger broadcasters, being confined in a small space for 160+ baseball games with someone you dislike must be intolerable. The fact both guys were able to play through their disdain for one another is a tribute to their professionalism.
Until it wasn't.
It's why rock bands break up. All those hours in tour busses, hanging out in dressing rooms, and in studios can take their toll, especially on personalities who are volatile to begin with.
Speaking of which, Lindsey Buckingham announced yesterday he's suing the band brand he helped build – Fleetwood Mac. He says he was ousted because band-mate Stevie Nicks never “wanted to share the stage” with him again. The offensive act that did Buckingham in? He reportedly smirked at Nicks during a speech she was making.
Over a smirk?
We're talking about a feud between two musicians who joined Fleetwood Mac as a couple – more than 40 years ago. You can only imagine the bad blood that's been brewing over all these decades.
Morning and ensemble shows are the same way – people working together day in and day out in a small space, forced to get along with each other, and play nicely with the other kids on the show.
Most shows get along well – or at least have figured out a way to focus on the greater good and not get too caught up in the minutia. But as we learned in this year's AQ project – radio's first talent on talent research study – many shows are at odds with one another – or with management.
Our sample contained nearly 500 members of morning shows, and when we asked them about the vibe in the studio, here's what they told us:
So, the good news is that two-thirds of our morning talent report the room atmosphere is somewhere between hunky dory and supportive. But a closer look at the chart reveals turbulence of one kind or another for nearly one-fifth. Many agreed that words like “toxic,” “antagonistic,” and “volatile” describe the vibe on their shows. Other note that it can be “competitive” in the studio or the show is going at it with station management.
That's a lot angst across the spectrum of radio shows, markets, and companies. But I bet if you've served time at a handful of radio stations in your career, you've seen these erosive conditions before. Perhaps you've played a role in the mayhem or been tasked with trying to address and mend it. When a successful show is going at with each other or the corner office, it can be scary – especially given how much rides on the success of the franchises.
Many years ago, we signed a great consulting deal with a very prominent rock station. I was excited about the prospects of working with this team on music, marketing, promotion, events, and branding. But when I showed up for my first market visit, I was informed the relationship between the two stars on the morning show had escalated to toxic proportions. Over time, these guys couldn't sit in the same room with one another. Simple facial expressions had become symbolic of the hatred that had been allowed to develop over years of turning the other way.
I spent more than two years as the station social worker, sitting down with these problem children for hours at a time. And never once did we have the ability to talk about new bits, events, and the other things that can turn a really great show into an iconic one. That's because we were too busy talking about things like chairs.
Eventually, station management had seen enough, opting to rid themselves of the problem, much like the executives at Fox Sports Detroit. While the station fortunately found a fabulous replacement (who reportedly get along with one another), the two troubled talents never excelled in the radio business again. It's sad because they were each immensely talented, and complemented each other well.
No doubt, Mario and Rod's bosses were consumed by the brouhaha going on between their two famous play-by-play guys. And yet, they never truly faced up to it, much less solved it.
Some relationships can't be saved. But turning the other way and hoping an organic solution magically happens isn't a sound strategy. It rarely works.
Dealing with these issues head-on – as painful as they may be – and getting talent help, whether it's a “marriage counselor,” a qualified coach, rehab, or something else is an obligation station management has to the company, not to mention the air personalities themselves.
We've all seen the signs when at-work issues are allowed to erupt, more and more turning to violence. No one got hurt in the Mario and Rod melee, but there has been collateral damage to both the network and the team – not to mention both personalities. Thousands of kids have been hurt by this episode, having to deal with their idols fighting each other after a baseball game. And the altercation has no doubt resulted in a loss of revenue from advertisers looking for any excuse to cancel their schedules in back to back seasons where the Tigers have lost 98 games each year.
It's never about a chair. But oftentimes, that's the catalyst that leads to the demise of an otherwise successful entertainment team. Balancing and soothing everyone's ego is a tough task. So is dealing with the problems in a straightforward way.
Talent is the lifeblood of the media industry.
Learning how to manage is may be the ultimate programming skill.
Just watch the chairs and the smirks.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.