Official Buckeye Station Can’t Handle The Truth?

In the late ‘90 I worked at WBNS radio in Columbus, the flagship station for Ohio State football and basketball. My duties at the station included hosting an afternoon drive talkshow and the pre- and postgame shows for Buckeye football broadcasts. I had nothing but good times in Columbus and at WBNS. I left the station for a job in Kansas City in 1999, but will always cherish my time in central Ohio.

Kirk Herbstreit Bruce Hooley Chris Spielman

(Source: Official Buckeye station management sped departure of its top talent)

I don’t envy the talk hosts currently in the business of giving their opinions on WBNS, for obvious reasons. Ohio State’s bungled response to football coach Jim Tressel’s confirmed major NCAA violation - which includes a contradictory defense from the coach himself - leaves any talk host with a fiber of integrity no choice but to criticize the school’s mishandling of the affair.

During my years doing a weekday talkshow at WBNS, there were many times that I would’ve been remiss had I not been critical of something involving the Buckeyes. On more than one of those occasions, Ohio State Director of External Affairs Larry Romanoff called the station to complain that I was being too negative about Ohio State.

Before today, I couldn’t begin to conceptualize how difficult it must be for current WBNS hosts thanks to Ohio State’s multiple, admitted NCAA and ethical indiscretions. Though from I’ve been told happened at WBNS the past week, I now have a pretty good idea.

Today the highest-rated talk host at WBNS, Bruce Hooley, announced that he was leaving the station. A station source told me today that Hooley’s January monthly ratings were higher than the station’s Ohio State football-bolstered fall ratings. With the winter radio ratings period ending shortly, Hooley was likely in line for a ratings bonus from WBNS.

In a blog entry on his personal site, Hooley wrote:

My employment at 97.1 The Fan ended Thursday, March 17, after nearly six years years when I reached a mutual agreement with the station to part ways.

If you would like to know the station’s rationale, you will need to contact General Manager Dave VanStone and Program Director Jay Taylor

I did my final shows Wednesday and Thursday of last week in the aftermath of the press conference at Ohio State announcing head coach Jim Tressel’s NCAA violations in the Tattoo-Gate case. My show was pre-empted Friday by Ohio State’s opener in the Big Ten Tournament.

Late Friday afternoon, my attorney, Bret Adams, received a call telling me not to report to work on Monday. Mr. Van Stone said he wanted to meet with Bret to discuss re-assigning me to other duties. That’s when Bret and I suggested we explore a separation that would be satisfactory to both parties. Bret and Mr. Van Stone handled it from there. I’m very thankful their talks were both professional and productive.

When I was in Columbus in the ’90s, Hooley was the Ohio State beat reporter for the CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER. At that time, he was known as the most aggressive guy on the beat, often breaking OSU stories. As a Columbus talk host, his reporting was a must-read in my daily preparation for the show.

Long after I left the station, Hooley joined WBNS as a fulltime talk show host, quitting his job with the Plain Dealer in 2005. Until today, Hooley had co-hosted weekday talkshows on the station with Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Spielman, while also going solo at times.

I’ve never met Hooley but from what I’ve heard of his WBNS work over the years, he’s the same direct, informative and honest guy about Ohio State as he was in print. Sometimes brutally honest.

In other words, a rare breed in the ultimate college town.

As someone who has basically done the same job as Hooley, though during a different era at Ohio State, I have a lot of admiration for someone who is willing to take the hits that often accompany an objective opinion on what is perhaps Ohio State’s highest profile house organ. So it’s a shame for Buckeye fans that Hooley has decided to leave the station one week after - perhaps not coincidentally - Buckeye icon Kirk Herbstreit announced he was moving his family out of Columbus because of harassment at the hands of Ohio State fans.

So why did Hooley walk out on WBNS?

A station source told me today that Hooley was called into a meeting at WBNS last Wednesday. The meeting was expressly timed by station management to catch Hooley before he was able to first comment on Ohio State’s press conference the day before in which it announced its NCAA violation. I was told today that Hooley was instructed by WBNS management not to “scorch the earth” when giving his thoughts on what turned about to be an OSU public relations botch job of epic proportion.

In listening to a portion of Hooley’s subsequent Wednesday show, I heard him say that as an Ohio State alumnus, he was tired of Tressel’s program embarrassing the school. Hooley then listed other past NCAA violations on Tressel’s watch at OSU (Maurice Clarett, Troy Smith, Tattoogate) and Youngstown State. (YSU QB Ray Isaac testified in federal court under oath that a booster Tressel introduced him to, Mickey Monus, gave him $10,000 and “2-3″ cars why he was playing for the Penguins.)

Also during the Wednesday show, Hooley noted a comment his former radio partner Spielman made on an OSU fundraising cruise in February in which the Buckeye legend pointed out that the school is not just the football program .. “it’s the cancer hospital, the business school .. it’s a lot bigger than football.” (Spielman’s wife Stefanie died of breast cancer in 2009.)

Speaking of Spielman, at the end of 2010 the OSU icon himself left as a regular WBNS presence after most recently co-hosting a weekday talkshow with Hooley. Before effectively leaving the station, Spielman had appeared on the station regularly for the previous 10 years, even as his wife Stefanie endured her excruciating, protracted battle with cancer.

A station source told me today that WBNS station manager Dave Vanstone rewarded Spielman’s loyalty with an initial “hardball” contract negotiation approach with the Buckeye icon last September. Hooley was also provided the same treatment by Vanstone at the time.

It was that, Spielman’s family obligations and Vanstone and WBNS Program Director Jay Taylor’s micromanagement of the on-air approach by Spielman and Hooley that caused the Ohio State legend to re-evaluate his relationship with the station.

Despite what I’ve been told are recent claims to the contrary by station management, Spielman will now only make limited appearances on the station going forward. The new deal he has in place calls for him to make one appearance per week on the station’s two local shows and occasional appearances on a weekly show about OSU football.

Losing Spielman’s regular presence is, of course, an enormous loss for WBNS in more ways than one. No former Buckeye, save perhaps Herbstreit, is higher profile than Spielman thanks to his stellar football career and national television broadcasting work. And Stefanie Spielman’s inspirational battle with cancer is known by millions not only in Ohio, but nationally. The Stefanie Spielman Breast Cancer Research Fund has raised over $7 million for Ohio State James Cancer Center.

After losing Spielman, Hooley’s importance to WBNS was doubly important. When Hooley entered WBNS, Herbstreit and Spielman were an everyday radio staple for Columbus Buckeyes fans. Now with Herbstreit and Spielman essentially gone from the Buckeye flagship, Hooley was by far the highest-profile and most credible personality at the station.

But - from what I’ve been told by a station source - Vanstone’s tone deaf managerial style along with onerous on-air oversight by station PD Taylor, as with Spielman, is what caused Hooley to also leave the station. Station source:

“This is a huge loss for us. Bruce gave us credibility. He’s covered Final Fours, national championship games. No one else here has his background. The implied message to our listeners is, ‘If you say something bad about Ohio State, you’re gone.’ It makes us all look bad.”

Having worked essentially the same job at WNBS I can confirm that with Ohio State bracing for what could be the worst NCAA violations it has ever faced, now is exactly the wrong time for WBNS to lose the most experienced, credible voice on all things Ohio State.If Hooley indeed left the Buckeye flagship radio station because of, in part, comments he made about Jim Tressel, it’d be rather ironic.

Knowing what I know about the NCAA’s case against Ohio State, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that much like Hooley covered the Buckeyes long before Tressel arrived in Columbus, he’ll still be covering them long after Tressel is gone.

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