Photos & video from the 790/The Zone 20th reunion party at (of course) Stats

The 790/The Zone reunion at Stats April 13, 2017 included Nick Cellini, Andrew Saltzman, Brandon “HomeTeam” Leak, Steak Shapiro, Chris Cotter, Mike Bell, Chris Dimino and Matt Chernoff. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

This was originally posted on Friday, April 14, 2017 by Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Like alternative rock station 99X in the 1990s, sports talk station 790/The Zone was a special entity in Atlanta in the 2000s. It was a rarity in the post-deregulation era: a true mom-and-pop operation where the emphasis was on pop.

Testosterone ran hot and heavy and hustle was the name of the game. Stephen “Steak” Shapiro and Andrew Saltzman leased the 790AM signal in 1997, believing Atlanta needed a brash, in-your-fact sports talk station targeting men who watched “The Man Show,” cherished their Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues and subscribed to Maxim.

For its entire run, the station drew relatively modest ratings but when the going was good, Steak and Andrew’s sales staff and talk hosts generated outsized revenues, hitting $12 million, $13 million a year. They were the only station to brag about their revenue numbers to me. They were politically incorrect in ways that would be unacceptable in this day and age outside of the White House.

But after the owners invested way too much money in a couple of St. Louis sports talk stations, watched the economy implode and saw their gamble go up in smoke, they had to cede their Zone assets to owners Lincoln Financial in 2010. Lincoln, a buttoned-down insurance company, sucked the life out of the station and failed to find the Zone an FM home when AM listeners were disappearing. When CBS debuted FM sports talk at 92.9, the nails were in the coffin for the Zone, which stumbled its way into oblivion. By 2015, it was officially dead.

Saltzman moved on to become chief revenue officer at the Atlanta Hawks. Shapiro moved to his erstwhile rival 680/The Fan as just a host, not an owner, while building his own food-oriented video production company Bread & Butter and local media show Atlanta Eats.(Read my 2016 profile of Shapiro here.)

Both of them wanted to honor the station they began two decades ago. With a quick Facebook note, they were able to draw more than 100 of the former staffers at Stats (which the Zone used to co-own) downtown for free booze and a festive reunion that ran late into Thursday night.

Chris Cotter, who flew in from his ESPN job in Connecticut, joined Mike Bell (now at the Game), Chris Dimino (now at the Fan) and Matt Chernoff (also at the Fan). CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Here’s a messy unedited Facebook Live video of the “ceremony” that featured sound issues with a special video and random talks and speeches by folks like Brandon “HomeTeam” Leak, Mitch Evans and Chris Cotter.

There were no shows. Doug and Ryan Stewart of The 2 Live Stews, Beau Bock, producer Matt Edgar and Chuck Oliver (who doesn’t like reunions) were notably absent. Bock, in a text, said he didn’t know about it until 6 p.m. last night but left on less-than-happy terms. (It’s complicated.) They were all featured in the video created specially for the occasion, using old footage from years’ gone by.

Chris Dimino hits the mic. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Steak Shapiro and Andrew Saltzman, the reason 790/The Zone existed. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

“You worked at the Zone, you drank the Kool Aid,” said Evans, who had to change his working name from Shapiro because that was Steak’s last name, when he joined the station. “You lived it.” He knew Steak from college in Tulane. He knew Cotter from Wheeler High School in Marietta and introduced him to the Zone, first in sales, then on air. He called Steak and Andrew “the hardest working guys I’ve met in my life.”

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