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Plaster vs. the WTN volcano

Plaster vs. the WTN volcano

OK, it’s not quite the fabled Sports Illustrated “cover jinx,” but it does make you wonder: Just two months after the Scene devoted a cover story to the radio success story at Gaylord’s WTN 99.7 FM, the station’s longest-running show went into meltdown.

WTN’s SportsNight, the afternoon drive-time show that has established itself as the most popular sports talk show in the city, last week began a two-week period without its ringleader, station veteran George Plaster. Left to run the show in the interim were Tennessean sportswriter Joe Biddle and co-host Blake Fulton, who spent much of their on-air time fending off callers curious about the situation (despite being told time and again that the subject was off limits).

On-air personality issues in radio are nothing new, but SportsNight’s overriding theme was three friends sitting around chatting about sports and inviting the public to join in the fun. As it turns out, this was all a façade: There’s been a growing rift among the trio for two years.

The split has been described in the press as Plaster vs. Fulton and Biddle, but it’s actually bigger than that: It’s Plaster vs. the station at large. To hear Plaster tell it (through his attorney), the argument is simply one of philosophy. He wants the laid-back status quo; they want a more in-your-face style. He wants a mainstream show; they want to ruffle some feathers. He’s a little bit country; they’re a little bit...well, you get the idea.

But sources close to the station say that there’s a lot more going on than that.

Once a small-time station in a third-rate sports town, WTN is now at the top of the heap in a major league sports city, and station partisans say that Plaster has steadfastly refused to grow along with it, insisting that what was good in 1993 is just as good in 2003. “George has the business maturity of a third-grader,” says Norm Partin, who formerly hosted a WTN racing show.

Plaster, in the view of some, is a prima donna, jealously guarding his self-appointed post as WTN chairman emeritus against anyone he views as a threat to that position. More than one source characterizes him as “paranoid.”

But it’s ego that sources say Plaster has in destructive abundance, which is ironic, given his boyishly unassuming on-air style. While the big-head syndrome puts him on par with, well, pretty much everyone else in the broadcasting industry, Plaster apparently let his ego get in the way of his better judgment. When it got back to station management recently that he was bad-mouthing his colleagues to people outside the WTN family, the station ordered him off the air for two weeks.

Full reconciliation is highly unlikely. Those sympathetic to WTN are chafing under a Gaylord-imposed gag order, so they especially resent what they see as Plaster’s efforts to try the dispute in the media (to the apparent benefit of The City Paper, which has scooped Biddle’s employer on a daily basis on the story).

It also doesn’t help that both sides have decent arguments. Plaster has been with the station through thick and thin, and his unpretentious on-air style is a nice departure from the usual sports talk fare that elevates hosts to near God status. On the other hand, some of the changes the station has made and that Plaster has opposed have garnered a larger audience than ever before. Meanwhile, Plaster continues to act as godfather, even though the station no longer needs one—speaking up about matters that don’t concern him directly and occasionally imposing his outbursts on others. Can’t everyone just forget about who deserves what credit and just enjoy the ratings ride?

Obviously not. And by now, it’s pretty clear that SportsNight will never be the same. The odds of Plaster, Biddle and Fulton ever sharing a mic again are virtually nil. A couple of possibilities do remain: Plaster gets his own show some other time during the day, or perhaps he and his former co-hosts will split shifts on SportsNight—sort of a radio platoon system.

Or maybe he’ll just leave altogether. WLAC 1510 AM has been running promotional ads strongly suggesting that Plaster will be a part of a new lineup on Monday. (“By George,” the ad goes, followed by a long pause, “Changes are coming to WLAC.”) While his attorney adamantly denies any knowledge of a new gig on the AM dial, it makes too much sense to dismiss out of hand. As the other major talk station in Nashville, WLAC is a logical spot for a WTN refugee to land.

Of course, there’s that pesky matter of Plaster’s contract with WTN. But in radio, as in sports, contracts are often made to be broken, especially when egos are bruised, relationships are severed and somebody puts enough cash on the table to make somebody else happy. The first two of these have already happened. The last may not be far behind.

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