Program director Chris Johnson was sitting at ESPN 980’s table along Radio Row at the Mall of America on Tuesday night, ensuring everything was in order for the station’s rebranding scheduled to take effect the next morning, when the news hit. The Redskins had traded for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
Within seconds, Johnson was on the phone with hosts Doc Walker and Scott Jackson, who had recently landed in Minneapolis, and Brian Mitchell, who was at a media party nearby. “You gotta get here,” Johnson told them.
During the two hours of impromptu programming that followed, Walker, Mitchell and Jackson reacted to the trade, took calls and began referring to the Daniel Snyder-owned Redskins flagship and Red Zebra Broadcasting station by its new name: The Team 980. Forget waiting until the next morning; the cat was out of the bag.
“I wish I could take credit for a move like that, rebranding on the biggest listening day of the year, but it certainly worked out very well,” Johnson said Thursday. “We just decided to go with it. It was a pretty good audience to announce it to.”
While the station (WTEM) has dropped ESPN from its name, it remains an ESPN Radio affiliate and will continue to air ESPN Radio programming overnight and on weekends. The station’s weekday daytime lineup will remain the same.
“We’re 14 hours of live and local coverage; that’s what this is about and has always been about for us,” Johnson said. “First and foremost, it’s serving a D.C. audience. That’s what we do best, that’s what we want to be known for and that’s what this move represents. The partnership with ESPN continues and we’re thrilled to have that partnership with ESPN. There’s no changes from that standpoint at all. We’re still D.C.’s home for the World Series, the NBA Finals and the College Football Playoff.”
The rebranding is also a legacy move. ESPN 980 began as Sportsradio 570 WTEM “The Team” in May 1992. The first all-sports-radio station in D.C. moved to 980 in 1998 and was rebranded as SportsTalk 980. The name was changed once more to ESPN Radio 980 after Red Zebra acquired the station in 2008.
“Despite the fact that the name has changed a couple times, there are plenty of people in the nation’s capital that still refer to us as The Team,” said Johnson, who worked at the station from 1996-2008 and began his second stint as program director in February 2016. “It’s a perfect fit for us.”
Johnson said the original plan was to officially change the name at midnight on Tuesday and for Al Galdi, host of the “Morning Blitz,” to make an announcement at the start of his 5 a.m. show on Wednesday.
“Obviously a lot goes into a switch-over like this, including your social media pages and website,” Johnson said. “It’s not like you can just hit a button, so some of it had to be done a little before midnight.”
That’s why the original header image for The Team 980’s rebranded Twitter account and Facebook page featured Stephen Strasburg, Alex Ovechkin, John Wall and Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose days in Washington are numbered following the trade for Smith. An image of Josh Norman was subbed in for Cousins by Wednesday morning.
“We weren’t anticipating that there would be a ton of engagement on social media between 10 and midnight on a Tuesday night during Super Bowl week,” Johnson said. “Then obviously a bombshell broke and we went into action right away.”
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