When fall sports season began, some Upper Valley community members noticed a change in the sports they heard on the radio.
“[People] left us messages,” said Chris Garrett, a 30-year broadcasting veteran who hosts the morning show and calls hockey games for Dartmouth Broadcasting’s 99Rock . “They asked, ‘Where’s the football game,’ ‘how come I can’t get the hockey game.’”
Dartmouth Broadcasting made its first official transmission on 1340 AM in 1958 and has been broadcasting continuously ever since, serving as the home for Big Green sports on Upper Valley airwaves. On July 7, the athletic department announced its decision to end its partnership with Dartmouth Broadcasting in favor of a three-year partnership with Great Eastern Radio. The new partnership began this fall with live broadcasts of Big Green football and hockey games on ESPN 94.5 FM and 1230 AM.
Unsurprisingly, the decision to end this partnership received criticism from alumni of the student organization.
Listeners, however adjusted and tuned in to Dartmouth’s new flagship station. Dartmouth Broadcasting also adjusted, filling sports slots with more music coverage.
But for alumni and listeners outside the College, the question remained: why had Dartmouth sports left Dartmouth radio?
The answer boiled down to money.
In late 2015, Dartmouth announced it had outsourced its athletic multimedia rights to Learfield Sports, one of the nation’s largest collegiate sports marketing companies. In addition to Dartmouth, Learfield represents more than 120 college programs across the country, including Stanford University, the University of Alabama and Ivy League foes Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. In October, the marketing giant was acquired for north of $1 billion.
In the same month, said deputy athletic director Bob Ceplikas, negotiations began to preserve the relationship between the athletics department and Dartmouth Broadcasting with the impending arrival of Learfield Sports.
Dartmouth Broadcasting came to the table asking a higher rate to broadcast games, as they made less revenue selling advertisements during games than selling ads during rock music slots at the same time, Ceplikas noted. A price was set, all parties seemed satisfied, and the negotiations concluded successfully: Dartmouth football and hockey would continue to be broadcast on 99Rock.
But in May 2016, Dartmouth Broadcasting approached the athletic department — now represented by Big Green Sports Properties, Learfield’s new Dartmouth affiliate — with a new proposal, according to Ceplikas and student general manager Kevin Patterson ’17. Facing pressure to meet their operating budget, Patterson, station director Heath Cole, and sports director Abhilasha Gokulan ’18 decided that the previously negotiated compensation was not enough to justify continuing sports coverage. They presented BGSP a contract with compensation figures that were “significantly higher” than the previously agreed-upon numbers, Ceplikas said.
At this point, Ceplikas noted, BGSP and the athletic department felt that their options were limited.
“We informed [Dartmouth Broadcasting] that we could not justify dedicating so much additional funding for this purpose,” Ceplikas said. “We would have to see if any outside stations were able to broadcast our games at affordable rates, or we would have to rely upon internet streaming for football and hockey as we’d been doing with basketball and other sports.”
After several weeks of silence from Learfield, Dartmouth Broadcasting finally received word in a June email: Big Green sports coverage was headed elsewhere.
“With Learfield Sports negotiating on our behalf, local stations agreed to not only broadcast football and hockey, but also men’s and women’s basketball, at rates that were comfortably within out budget,” Ceplikas said. “We were thankful that these new arrangements have enabled out teams to be covered over the air, even if [Dartmouth Broadcasting] could not afford to do so.”
Initially, Chris Garrett remained optimistic that he could continue as the voice of men’s hockey. However, he soon received a call from the former Big Green women’s hockey broadcaster.
He said, “‘just wanted to let you know...[BGSP] just offered me your job,’” Garrett recalled.
After 10 years of doing play-by-play for the Big Green, Garrett said it is difficult to step away.
“I loved the travel, I loved the trips, I loved the team, I loved the guys, I loved the coaching staff,” he said. “It was a part of my life. It was something I looked forward to every September.”
Patterson echoed similar sentiments to Garrett.
“On a personal level, the station has been a little disappointed,” Patterson said. “We had a much bigger sports environment before, and now that’s dwindled a bit.”
In response to the announcement, Robert Piampiano ’67, a former sports broadcaster on WDCR, wrote letters to Harry Sheehy, the director of athletics and recreation, about his dismay.
As a student sports broadcaster, Piampiano covered hockey, baseball and basketball and noted his work provided him with time management and business skills.
In a letter he wrote on Sept. 30, Piampiano wrote that it is “hard to accept that this decision was not driven solely by financial considerations, without regard to its detrimental effect on the entire Dartmouth community.”
Although from a listener’s perspective, a game broadcast’s most salient features are play-by-play, color commentary and sideline reporting, much more happens behind the scenes. Patterson said students mainly worked to produce game broadcasts, sitting in the studio booth and flipping switches to move from the game broadcast to commercials and back again.
“That’s not that thrilling,” he said.
Ultimately, it was a joint decision for Dartmouth Broadcasting to ask BGSP for another fee increase, according to Patterson.
“I saw the contract, and our sports director [Gokulan] saw the contract,” Patterson said. “It’s kind of to her detriment that she can’t any longer do some of the stuff that she signed up wanting to do, but she agreed that that contract wasn’t really the best deal for us.”
When BGSP informed Dartmouth Broadcasting of the new arrangement, Cole replied, “Best of luck moving forward with your broadcasting. I am confident that this decision will be beneficial to both of us.”
Neither party appears to be looking back.
In addition to football and hockey broadcasts, 94.5 ESPN also broadcasts coaches’ shows and promotional material, which 99Rock could not air. Additionally, men’s and women’s basketball have begun airing on Kool 93.9 and 96.3. The new arrangement marks the first time that basketball has been consistently broadcasted on the radio since 2008. Basketball and baseball coverage was discontinued when the broadcast tower at Chase Field was taken down, and WDCR 1340 AM was taken off air.
The athletic department was able to retain most existing broadcasters. Although Garrett no longer broadcasts hockey, Wayne Young ’72 is back in the booth for his 17th year calling Big Green football. Student broadcaster Michael Kaiser ’18 continues to do color commentary on hockey games alongside professional play-by-play man Adam Giardino.
“We continue to offer opportunities for dedicated student broadcasters on some radio broadcasts and audio streams,” Ceplikas said.
As for Dartmouth Broadcasting, the group is happy with the higher revenues, even if it means Dartmouth sports cannot be broadcast on Dartmouth radio.
“It’s worth a lot more to us to play ads than it is to play games,” Patterson said. “We didn’t make money [broadcasting games] in the past. It was kind of a service to the College.”