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By Craig Braack

Pollock: The inside story on why St. Bonaventure basketball leaves WPIG after 74 years

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A column by CHUCK POLLOCK

OLEAN — The email was there at the top of my inbox upon arriving home Tuesday afternoon.

I read it twice to absorb its meaning.

After 74 years, WPIG would no longer be broadcasting St. Bonaventure men’s basketball games.

It struck me that the station, including its previous incarnations — WHDL-FM, WEBF-FM and WOLN-FM — had as many different sets of call letters as it had Bonnie play-by-play men: Don Merriman, seven seasons; Don McLean 33½; Francis Tommasino 6½; Gary Nease 28.

It seemed inconceivable that the station that brought Bonnie basketball into homes, businesses and vehicles over an enormous geographical area for nearly three-quarters of a century had abruptly stopped.

McLean once told me WHDL already had an AM station but its range (1,000 watts) was limited due to the Southern Tier’s mountainous terrain. Thus, management applied for an FM license, that mode being unaffected by topography. Since there were few stations in 1949 and there was little interest in FM — car radios didn’t even have that band — the FCC granted Olean a license for a 43,000-watt station. Good luck getting anywhere near that wattage these days.

WPIG’s range extended from Emporium, Pa. to Orchard Park.

BUT ECONOMICS intervened.

That press release explained St. Bonaventure and the radio station couldn’t reach an agreement on the contract’s option year and  the university would produce and broadcast the games on its own via internet stream over the Bonnies Online Network at GoBonnies.com.

Coach Mark Schmidt and Gary Nease on a video show.

The one constant would be the play-by-play man, Nease.

“I was kind of the tennis ball,” he said. “I was getting it from both my company and Bonaventure that they weren’t happy with some of the things that were going on. The personalities were good, we get along well, but it was a business decision.

“ I could see our numbers (at the station) and they were dwindling. The reason was Bonaventure was doing a good job recruiting corporate sponsors. I think our station and Bonaventure were competing directly against each other for the advertising dollars that we needed to cover our costs and turn a profit.”

He added, “Every year we’d see one or two clients who’d say ‘We’re not going to do radio because we’ve become a corporate sponsor. I believe it was our management group, starting with corporate, which wanted to get some of that money back or create some revenue streams to benefit both. But negotiations broke down early and people started to think ‘What are we going to do next?’”

SETH JOHNSON, Bona’s senior associate athletic director for external operations, admitted, “It’s a change, but we live in a changing world so it’s not abnormal for the times. There are some advantages and disadvantages to everything but we think this is kind of the way things are going. It didn’t make sense for both parties to continue as we were.

Seth Johnson

“The positive of all this is the format isn’t going to change. We’re going to have everything we typically had around the broadcast … pregame, halftime, postgame with the Mark Schmidt show.”

He added,  “The change is where it originates from and the biggest thing is to have Gary. That was one of the things we felt had to be in place … Gary going into his 29th season and all he has done for Bonaventure basketball and all he’s given to us, I didn’t want anything that couldn’t be worked out between the radio station and ourselves to get in the way of Gary continuing on and doing what he loves to do.”

CLEARLY, one of the moves’ negatives is that people without electronic devices or who don’t drive a wifi-ready vehicle won’t be able to listen to games.

“We’re always trying to deliver content as easily as possible to our fans,” Johnson said. “(In this case), the changes we had to make (for listeners in cars or homes without internet) weren’t doable. It’s not that we didn’t want to at our end,  it just wasn’t possible for a variety of reasons.”

However, he admitted Bona hasn’t totally given up on that issue.

Johnson indicated, though the campus is on summer break, when it reopens in August, the possibility will be discussed of using student-run WSBU-FM (The Buzz) to do its own broadcast for nearby area listeners, including those who bring radios to the Reilly Center (range is limited by its165 watts).

Meanwhile, Nease indicated that he’ll retain his job at WPIG working the Morning Pigpen Show plus handling his duties as Bona hoops broadcaster and, for now, he’s not considering retirement.

“I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he said with a laugh.

There will be some changes, however.

Don Scholla, Nease’s color man, and Doug Bushnell, his producer, will not be included in the transition.

Handling the technical aspects of the Bona broadcast will be Chris Russell, former station manager at defunct-WGWE, who broadcast the Bona women’s games and Olean Oilers baseball for that station. He still does free-lance broadcasting and commercial voice-overs.

Despite the changes, Johnson admitted Nease was the linchpin of what has evolved.

“I told Gary, he’s obviously a PIG employee,” he said. “But because he travels with us and he’s here all the time, we view him as part of our family as well.  That was priority No. 1 when we first looked at doing this on our own.  He was the first one we were talking to … he deserves to go out on his own terms and I was not going to be the one to prevent that.”

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

Other columns from Chuck Pollock:

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