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Time for station break?

Page full of 3 -- Draft picks aren't the only things on the Celtics' plate these days. The team's radio deal with WWZN (1510 AM) is coming to a critical juncture. That deal has two seasons left, but there's an impending option for the station to walk away from the final season.

On the face of it, unless the team and station were to work out a longer-term arrangement, it would make sense for WWZN to follow that route and save the $2 million-per-year rights fee. But if that's the decision, is going through a lame-duck season a smart move?

There's no secret that the station, which started out three years ago with high hopes of carving a sports talk niche in the market, instead has been in a fight to survive after losing its financial backing from parent Sporting News Radio.

Last Tuesday, highly regarded Celtics producer Howie Sylvester was laid off in a cost-cutting move. Whether he'll be called back is uncertain.

So are the futures of play-by-play announcer Sean Grande and analyst Cedric Maxwell. Both men's original deals run for two more seasons. Though they were hired by the team, their contracts are with SNR. That presents a potential stumbling block if the team and station part ways.

Station general manager Mike Winn said, "We're talking to the Celtics about being good marketing partners moving ahead," and said a decision on the 2005-06 season option would come by mid- to late July at the latest.

The official line from the team and station is that the station is prepared to cover the games again next year. A second option is to redo and possibly extend that deal. A third is for the station to "sublet" the rights on another outlet. The flip side is that the station could walk immediately if the parties agree to part ways instead of moving ahead.

If that happens, would SNR try to use Grande and Maxwell in other capacities or would the Celtics assume their contracts?

Put yourself in the Celtics' offices. You're looking at a cash-starved radio partner, one struggling to stay on the air with no budget to market its own shows, much less your games. Two popular announcers with long ties to the team are dangling. But you've got a deal that calls for $2 million with two years to run. Looking at the Boston landscape, you're not going to get that kind of rights fee elsewhere.

Do you stay or go?

"If the Celtics called, we'd be more than happy to talk to them," said WEEI (850 AM) program director Jason Wolfe.

"My phone hasn't rung," said WBZ radio GM Ted Jordan, who added that his station is very happy with its "profitable for both teams" deal with the Bruins that includes both a rights fee and revenue sharing component.

"We're committed to The Zone for `04-'05," said Rich Gotham, the Celtics executive vice president of sales and corporate development, "and we hope '05-'06 will work out.

"With your media partners, you're always looking for the best combination of rights fees and a promotional platform for the team."

The ongoing problems: For many fans, the WWZN signal is hard to receive because the station's after-dark footprint is limited. The other is the station's low profile, having to operate in the shadow of WEEI's constant "We're No. 1" marketing.

The broadcasts are hardly the problem. Listen to a Celtics game and you'll know Maxwell has worked on his diction, learned a lot about the business from Grande, yet maintained his country-guy identity. Together, they bring quality and personality to the broadcasts, including the pregame show, specials, and expanded signoff they added when station finances precluded keeping the postgame "Rewind" with Jimmy Meyers.

"We want Grande and Max to be part of our broadcasts," said Gotham. Indeed, letting go of Maxwell would seem unthinkable for the Celtics, just one year after the team retired his number.

Grande and his wife, Lori, left solid TV and radio slots in Minneapolis to come back to Boston where they've reestablished themselves. She's the morning co-host on country station WKLB (99.5-FM). (Side note: Even if you don't like the music, their 7:10 a.m. brain strains are a fun way to turn on your mind for the day.)

But, these days, a lot of brains are being strained setting this situation to rights.

Start your engines

Sunday is The Day for auto racing fans. If you want to settle in for the day, you have the Formula One Grand Prix of Europe (SPEED, 7:30 a.m.). ABC follows with the Indianapolis 500 (Channel 5, 11 a.m.). Fox finishes the holiday feast with Nextel Cup Coca-Cola 600 (Channel 25, 5 p.m.). Once Indy ruled this day, but the NASCAR race, which went to Fox in 2001, has won the ratings battle with Indy the past two years (4.7-4.6 last year). The evening time slot helps the Fox race as does the momentum NASCAR has achieved in the past decade. Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Larry McReynolds call the NASCAR race.

Indy, however, remains a special case, a signature event on the country's sports calendar. This is the 40th consecutive year ABC has telecast the event. Old-timers can remember farther back to when it was shown in movie theaters. Then ABC had it on a delayed basis on the next week's "Wide World of Sports" from 1965-70. From 1971-85, it aired in prime time on same-day delay before the race went on live in 1986, a big deal at the time. Connecticut's Jack Arute joins play-by-play man Paul Page and ex-driver Scott Goodyear in the booth. For the first time, the announcers will be in the timing and scoring "pagoda" on the main straightaway. Jim McKay will share his "mental scrapbook" of Indy memories and ABC has prepared a feature segment, "Unspoken Risk," on the dangers of the motorsports. Debbie Savini, the fiancee of IRL driver Tony Renna, killed testing at Indianapolis last October, speaks of her loss. Others interviewed: Crystal Liechty, who will marry Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr., next week; Betty Rutherford, wife of three-time Indy winner Johnny; and Becky Brayton Buhl, who lost husband Scott Brayton in a 1996 crash and now is married to recently retired driver Robbie Buhl . . . Best auto racing story of the week: The uninsured $250,000 diamond [imbedded in the nose of Christian Klien's Jaguar] that was lost in a crash at Monaco last Sunday . . . SPEED has lost nearly 400,000 New England homes in recent months as it was shifted to a digital tier on Comcast and Cox systems . . . ABC and ESPN feel the IRL will grow, committing to the series through 2009 . . . Even HBO is getting into the auto act, advertising its June 5 pay-per-view card principals, Oscar De La Hoya (vs. Felix Sturm) and Bernard Hopkins (vs. Robert Allen), on the decklid of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Budweiser car in Sunday's NASCAR race.

Sox are on Fox

There will be a strong Red Sox presence on Fox tomorrow. "This Week in Baseball" (Channel 25, 12:30 p.m.) features a "State of Red Sox Nation" report from co-host Jeanne Zelasko. Then Sox analyst Jerry Remy joins Kenny Albert to call the Mariners-Sox game (1 p.m.) . . . News item: Boston DirtDogs website acquired by Boston.com. How do you clean up a DirtDog? Answer: Hopefully, you don't. Teresa Hanafin, editor-in-chief of Boston.com, promises the site won't be homogenized, but news items will be held to Boston.com standards and rumor will be labeled as such. "We learned during the Patriots' Super Bowl runs and the Red Sox playoff drive last year that fans love to have an interactive site," said Hanafin. "The fans seem to like a bit of the Wild West Atmosphere that they find on the DirtDogs site." . . . Doc Rivers, fulfilling his ABC broadcast commitment through the NBA Finals, told Celtics season ticket-holders yesterday that the reason he took the Celtics job is "because it was the Celtics. If your profession is basketball and you're from my generation, you understand that." . . . WB56's Mike Ratte and Revolution play-by-play man Brad Feldman have a soccer special tonight (Channel 56, 10:30). It will preview tomorrow's game against D.C. United and forever-frozen-at-14 Freddy Adu (Channel 56, WEEI, 7:30 p.m.), a telecast that also will be available in Spanish on the SAP audio channel. Andres Rodriquez, ESPN's on-line expert who lives in Somerville, and Daniel Gutierrez, who has a local show on 1600 AM, will have the call in Spanish . . . Bud Collins joins Ted Robinson, John McEnroe, and Mary Carillo on NBC's French Open coverage tomorrow (Channel 7, noon) and Sunday (Channel 7, 10 a.m.) . . . USA network continues its Olympic Trials coverage today (10 a.m.) with equestrian competition. Among the competitors is Peter Wylde of Medfield . . . Wondering what happened to ESPN "Dream Job" winner Mike Hall? He's graduated from Missouri and starts a month of ESPN training camp Tuesday. Meanwhile, details for the next "Dream Job" competition will be posted on ESPN.com June 15.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com 

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