Local DJ files suit against Radio One

Contract: Non-compete clause prevents morning show host Randy Dennis from working in the area for six months.

March 13, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Popular morning show host Randy Dennis will appear on WWIN-FM for the final time this morning, to be replaced by syndicated talk show host Tom Joyner.

While Dennis said he has no ill will toward the station that fired him, he is fighting a clause in his soon-to-be-defunct contract that bars him for six months from taking another radio job within a 50-mile radius. On Friday, a lawyer for Dennis filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court against Radio One, the Prince George's County-based company that owns the oldies station geared toward a black audience.

"I'm not bitter. My only beef is that I need to be able to continue making a living," says Dennis, 47. "For me to work the length of my contract and then say, after that, I can't make a living for six months, is crazy.

"If they force me to wait, I'm going to miss a great opportunity."

Radio One officials would not comment on Dennis' departure or his lawsuit. Instead, station officials focused on their excitement about the imminent arrival of the Joyner show, one of the top draws for black listeners in the country.

"Baltimore fans of the Tom Joyner Morning Show have been forced to listen to distant stations outside the market," WWIN station manager Howard Mazer said yesterday in a written statement. "Through this agreement, we will be able to keep Baltimore-area residents tuned to a Baltimore-area station."

While substituting Joyner for Dennis represents a high-profile shakeup at one of the city's most successful stations, the DJ's lawsuit also reflects the tension that arises when broadcasters seek to work for former competitors. Dennis says that WHUR, Howard University's FM station, has shown interest in hiring him, but that negotiations have been stymied by the contractual restriction. WHUR's general manager did not return calls seeking comment.

The so-called non-compete clauses commonly appear in the contracts of many people with on-air positions at television and radio stations.

"The reason that they are proposed in contracts is that obviously a station makes a big investment in somebody who appears on the air," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio- Television News Directors Association. "That's the face or the voice that they present to the community. They want to protect that investment."

Her group does not take a position on the practice, however.

In Baltimore, the most memorable example of how such contracts work occurred in December 1992, when one of the city's leading anchors, Sally Thorner, left WMAR to join WJZ. WMAR enforced a contract clause that barred her from working for another Baltimore station for a year, so WJZ paid her $250,000 to sit at home.

When, some months later, WMAR poached WJZ anchor Sandra Pinckney, she also had to wait a year before she could join her new employer.

More recently, fired WJZ reporter Kathy Fowler has not been hired elsewhere, despite interest from two other Baltimore stations. Her contract also contains a non-compete clause.

Dennis' show has been one of the most successful morning shows in Baltimore - at points last year, he had the top audience in the 25-54 age bracket. But he and his co-host, Sasha Cornish, will be giving their farewells this morning.

Reached yesterday for comment, Sasha, who goes by her first name, said she might stay on with Radio One or seek work in television.

Joyner's show, set to start on WWIN (95.9 FM) on March 26, soared in many of the markets where it is broadcast. In Washington, Joyner was initially broadcast on WHUR. When he left for WMMJ - a corporate cousin of WWIN - his former station plummeted in morning ratings and his new one became one of the strongest in the Washington area.

Once Joyner appeared on Radio One's Washington station, Dennis said, the die was cast. In Washington, Joyner is not only the top performer in key demographics for black listeners but he also competes for the highest ratings overall. His show is syndicated by ABC Radio in more than 110 markets, and his reach is being expanded by his arrangement with Radio One, which owns or operates 63 stations in 22 of the country's largest markets.

For now, Dennis said, he will work at his private studio, where he dubs voice-overs and tapes commercial jingles. But, he said, he longs to continue working as a radio show host - and doesn't want to have to go any farther than Washington.

"This opportunity exists," he said. "If they were a good sport about it, it could make the situation a whole lot easier."

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