Three years ago, University of Memphis made a deal with the devil.

That when its athletics department signed an agreement for NewsTalk 98.9FM to become its partner in broadcasting football and men’s and women’s basketball games.

It even signed off on the radio station adding a Tiger to its logo along with the tagline, “Roar of the Tiger.”

At the time of the announcement, the radio station even issued a news release that boldly  said “we believe strongly that what’s good for Memphis is good for us and that commitment drives all that we do.”

It then set out to prove that its commitment was a lie.

Day in and day out, 98.9FM spews a diet of ugly, vitriolic right wing extremists engaging in commentaries that regularly veer into racism and bigotry, all while bragging about its relationship to University of Memphis athletics in a community that is majority Black and with sports  teams relying heavily on African American athletes.

Due Diligence Failure

Tiger Sports Properties, part of Learfield Sports, is the official multi-media rights holder for University of Memphis Athletics.  University of Memphis leadership may think this makes them blameless, keeping them an arm’s length from the decision about 98.9 FM.

The university president and the athletics department are dead wrong. 

After all, Tiger Sports Properties speaks as a representative of the university itself, as it did when the agreement to partner with 98.9FM was announced.

 On that occasion, Todd Kucinski, general manager of Tiger Sports Properties, stated his excitement about how THE ROAR OF MEMPHIS would amp up enthusiasm of the Tiger fan base. 

It’s pretty clear that in that role, he acts as a spokesman for University of Memphis, a fact underscored by the fact that you can find him on the staff directory of the athletics department.

Contradicting School Policy

At the time of the announcement, everyone involved in the agreement even went so far to say that they were excited that 98.9FM was switching from a pop station to news talk.  Apparently, none of the athletic department decision makers, who were largely White, never bothered to investigate the programs to be featured there.

For example, at the time of the agreement’s signing, the right wing station was spewing vitriol about African Americans, Black Lives Matter, and George Floyd’s murder by police  while bragging about its partnership with University of Memphis athletics.  One talking head complained that Black people are always looking for a handout and demeaned the landmark Harlem Cultural Festival

On another day shortly after the agreement was signed, a host ranted about African Americans as tools of the Democratic Party, he contended that Democrats are aborting babies to harvest their organs, and more of the greatest hits of far right extremism.  Both days, there were harangues attacking vaccines and mask wearing and encouraging people not to get vaccinated (at the exact same time the University was requiring students, faculty, and staff to wear masks).      

 This level of hateful rhetoric on 98.9FM was taking place at the time that University of Memphis major sports teams were supporting Black Lives Matter movement.   The football team put “BLM” stickers on their helmets, and eventually, all Tiger athletes wore the patch on their uniforms. The patch had a circle with four hands of different colors and outside the circle were the words, Dignity, Respect, and Equality.  There were eight stars which represent the African American students who integrated the university in 1959.

A New AD, A New Look                               

A few days ago, University of Memphis announced a new athletic director, Ed Scott, the first African American in that role in the history of the university.  His to do list, as reported by The Daily Memphian, is long: NIL fundraising, new stadium fundraising, staff appointments, ticket sales, and corporate sponsorships.

If there’s an umbrella term that embraces all of these priorities, his job is to protect and improve the brand of the athletics department.

Hopefully, somewhere on his to do list will be the review of this embarrassing agreement with 98.9FM. Maybe the White men approving the agreement with the radio station did not understand how the content of this radio station is offensive to a majority of Memphians and students at his university (which is a majority minority campus).

Mr. Scott emphasized that despite being Black, he is the athletic director for everyone.  That said, I defy him to listen to a day of talk radio on 98.9 FM and then conclude that it accrues to the benefit of his department and the athletes it serves.

A Branding Failure

There’s a principle in branding that you should only associate your brand with another brand if it makes yours stronger by measurements like market strength, public awareness, and support consumers paying a premium for the products.

That’s not the case today.  In this relationship, University of Memphis is giving much more than it is getting. 

When these issues were raised three years ago, athletic department officials said they were in “candid conversations” with the radio station.  At this point, that feels like it was a dodge in hopes this issue would fade away.

Hopefully, Mr. Scott will check to see if there were actually conversations with the radio station.  Listening to the venom and hate spewing from it, the answer is plain.   

This is Mr. Scott’s opportunity to correct this decision and support more sensitive decisions about the department’s brand.  He is the perfect person to do it and there’s no time like the present.


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