TeleSouth Communications, Part II

The following is Part II of an interview with TeleSouth Communications CEO Steve Davenport on his companies' relationship with Ole Miss and the Ole Miss Athletic Department. Davenport's firm owns the broadcast and marketing rights to Rebel sports.

Davenport's interview, continued.

Q: You beat us to the punch. We were about to state the argument that it is not the alums' responsibility to buy ads.

Davenport: "It definitely is not, as I said, but without the support of alums in most of our markets, we wouldn't be able to accomplish what we do get done. We have great alums in a lot of areas who take the bull by the horns with financial support and in most of those areas, we have excellent coverage. The Coast and Memphis are the exceptions - great alums, not so good coverage at times. Coast alums, Memphis alums, and on and on, are fantastic in their efforts to help. I can't tell you how good the Memphis alums are. They have stood up and written the checks. Money and support is not the issue in Memphis – it's simply getting a station to carry us. Tennessee came in there this year and threw big money around and finally found a station, but it's not a big station. I don't think Arkansas is even in there. Memphis is not only important to us, it's important to UT, Arkansas, the University of Memphis and other schools as well as professional teams such as the Memphis Redbirds and Grizzlies. The Coast is another prime example. I'm from the Coast. The Chancellor is from the Coast. We have great alums on the Coast. You think there's not pressure to get Coast saturation? One year we paid $46,000 dollars out of desperation to get a station on the Coast that couldn't be heard 10 miles from their tower. You think that didn't hurt? But it was the best we could do at the time so we sucked it up and did it. It was something, not much, but something. That's a lot of money to be paying for something barely beyond nothing in terms of coverage. The good news is that our alums have helped us so much to make our new Coast deal work."

Q: Since you opened the Pandora's Box of Memphis/DeSoto County coverage, let's talk about that.

Davenport: "The Coast has been our biggest problem, but the most important markets we have are Jackson and the Memphis area. We have Jackson covered, but our Memphis problems are well-documented. We have been on WHBQ for a long time with football and basketball and we are glad to be on there. From the feedback we have gotten, our fans are glad we are on there. But it is not the best signal in the market and we have not been able to get them to carry baseball on a consistent basis. Last year, we thought we had baseball on there too, but it didn't work out. Football and basketball is sold as one agreement in our radio package. Baseball is separate. Radio stations demand it that way. About 15 years ago, we had to force feed basketball by telling stations they couldn't get football without basketball. We have not been able to force-feed baseball, despite our trying to. Prior to the 1990s, Ole Miss did not really have a baseball network. It was not a part of the radio contract. TeleSouth initially supported Ole Miss in starting the baseball network by distributing the broadcasts free of charge and broadcasting the games on our own stations. Through the efforts of the University, loyal alumni and ourselves, we have been able to expand the network. With a successful program, more of our fans want to hear baseball in the Memphis area. We want to broadcast baseball in that market, for sure."

Q: Why do they not want baseball? Or why haven't you been able to get that done?

Davenport: "We were told WHBQ was going to take the baseball games. We called them every day leading into the season. We got no response. When they didn't take the first game, we immediately went up there and had a meeting with them. In the meeting was Pete Boone, Pete Cordelli, Bill Gates, the Ole Miss alumnus who has worked tirelessly on this effort, and high-level reps of WHBQ. We were basically told they weren't going to take baseball, and that in the future they may not take football and basketball. They weren't sure if football or basketball was profitable enough for them. I told the GM that if he would give us a number, a number where they would make money on all three sports, that TeleSouth would pay the number and we'd go find the advertisers to support the effort. We were told a few weeks later that they didn't want to do that deal, they wanted to stay with the football/basketball deal they had and they would sell the advertising. We said fine. Right now, we have a contract with WHBQ for one year to take football and basketball, but not baseball. Are we satisfied with that? No, but like I said, we can't force-feed a station we don't own."

Q: But it's not acceptable not to have baseball in what you said is our only ‘national market,' is it?

Davenport: "No, it's not. The bottom line is that we are going to do whatever it takes to improve the coverage in the Memphis/DeSoto County area market. It is the only major market we have to sell and it is important, most important, to Ole Miss. Jackson is not considered a major market by advertising standards. Memphis is. We have to be in that market with a strong presence, no excuses. I have got to solve the Memphis/DeSoto County problem at all costs for Ole Miss and for SuperTalk Mississippi. I have DeSoto County problems for SuperTalk in the fastest growing county in the state. I can't have that. We are going to do it, whatever it takes, from a financial standpoint to a sales calls standpoint. We know Ole Miss needs it and we are going to get it done. The same effort we have applied to rectifying the Coast problem will be taken in Memphis. We have to apply the same principles of getting it done in Memphis as we have on the Coast. It hasn't been easy, and has been very costly, to get the Coast done, but we did it and we will do it in Memphis. We have talked with every radio station in Memphis and have offered substantial compensation for them to take the games, with no results. I have some friends in the radio business in Arkansas whose stations reach Memphis. I am negotiating with them on baseball broadcasts now. I don't know where that will end up, but we've got to make it happen one way or the other."

Q: We're not doubting your statements, but why is Memphis so tough, for clarification purposes?

Davenport: "That's a very competitive market and while it's our largest alumni base, the numbers of Ole Miss fans in Memphis do not represent enough market share to excite radio stations. Nobody wants to hear that, but it's the truth, as painful as it is to say and hear. It is a tough market for us, but it's the most important market we've got, the only major market in advertising terms. However, the flip side of Memphis being a major radio market is that the radio advertising time is very valuable, making it hard for stations to change programming to carry sports. We work it daily. I can't tell you the number of calls we have gotten from Memphis area fans telling me how many fans are in that market. We are very aware of it and its importance. I'll give you an example of how tough the market is for us. At one time, there was a general manager of two or three big radio stations in Memphis who was the father of our star wide receiver. We could not get him to carry our games. Think about that one for a minute. The market changes daily, but the main thing is that we are going to do what it takes to get Memphis done."

Q: What is the bottom line for Ole Miss' radio coverage, in your mind?

Davenport: "Our coverage is not the best, but it is not the worst either. Football and basketball is in good shape with the exception of two or three markets we are constantly working on. Baseball coverage is expanding, but is not where we want it yet. Baseball was better last year than it was the year before and it will be better next year. Our main goal is to take care of the Coast and Memphis/DeSoto County in baseball. If we can accomplish that, we will be OK with our total coverage package of Ole Miss sports. But one thing our fans have to be prepared for, however, is that some stations will not take all 60 baseball games. Some stations will limit their coverage to conference games. Some stations simply will not give up Sunday afternoons in this state because there is a major market for church services that make stations a lot of money. I think the bottom line on this is that Ole Miss fans need to realize we work radio stations every day to try to get the best coverage for Rebel sports that we can. It's not perfect and may never be, but we are diligent in our pursuit due to the importance of Ole Miss sports to our entire company."

Q: What is the personality, for lack of a better word, of your relationship with the Ole Miss administration?

Davenport: "I'm glad you asked. I have heard fans say that Ole Miss' administrators are asleep at the wheel in this deal. That's crazy. Pete Boone and Chancellor Robert Khayat ask me from time to time about why such-and-such market can't be heard and until we get every market covered, it will always be that way. TeleSouth does not want those calls – we want total coverage of our market area, but until we get that accomplished, we will continue to get those questions from Pete and the Chancellor. They will continue to pressure us on a daily basis, which is what they should do. We work very closely with Pete, mostly, and I can tell you from personal experience that he is very demanding in what he expects from us and it's constant. It's business, for both of us, serious business."

Q: Some fans have gone as far as to acquire the contract you and the athletic department have. What are your thoughts on that type of involvement?

Davenport: "We have nothing to hide. It's part of the public information act and available for anyone who wants to see it. That does not bother me at all."

We will publish a lengthy interview with Athletic Director Pete Boone in the next issue of The Ole Miss Spirit magazine. In it, Boone will candidly discuss the relationship with of Ole Miss athletics with TeleSouth, the state of Ole Miss' athletic facilities and our current coaches.

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