“They hired him to improve the morning-show ratings and he ended up bringing them down like a big anchor.” That’s how one employee at a competing modern-rock station described Mike Esparza’s two years at FM 94/9. The Mikey Show was yanked off the air in a whirlpool of bad ratings, on-air rants about competitors, and negative reactions from fans who liked 94/9 for its music, not its talk. Esparza was told he would no longer be part of the Mikey Show on March 7.
There were many unanswered questions about the separation. What is known is that Esparza had about ten months left on a three-year contract that paid him an estimated $300,000 yearly, according to one inside source. If the station, owned by Lincoln Financial Media, maintains Esparza was fired for cause, they would not have to pay him the balance of his salary. General manager Rick Jackson would not comment on why Esparza was released, but he did say that the contract was no longer in effect.
Last month, morning sports-talk host Scott Kaplan was fired by AM station XX 1090 for calling a female sports reporter “Sasquatch.” Some speculated that Esparza’s acidic tirades got him fired. Last year, 91X program director Garrett Capone was the target of on-air character-assassination slurs, accusing Capone of beating up special-needs kids in the classroom.
But Jackson seemed to dash that theory. “It had nothing to do with [Esparza’s] on-air performance.”
A Facebook fan wrote that she hoped Esparza’s departure wasn’t health-related. Esparza admitted frequently on air that he had been a substance abuser. On his Mikey Show blog, Esparza wrote these two entries last month: “I think I may be in a mid-life crisis of epic proportions,” and, “I’m going through what professionals call a rough patch.” Jackson said that issue “had nothing to do” with Esparza’s termination.
The fate of the three remaining sidekicks was unclear. Jackson said last Friday that, starting Monday, former Mikey Show cast members Steve Woods, Lauren O’Brien, and Jay Isbell would be joined by program director Garett Michaels and that those four would work as an ensemble for an indefinite period. He says a permanent decision about mornings may take awhile.
The big change is that the station that brands itself with “It’s about the music” will start playing music in the mornings again, spinning four to eight songs an hour. Jackson says the listener response on the phones and via email was evenly split between those who liked Esparza’s removal and those who did not.
Whatever triggered the firing, Jackson says, “We were not prepared for this.”
Even Esparza’s arrival at FM 94/9 in January of 2010 was tumultuous. It was no secret that 94/9 was looking to improve its morning numbers, which were not on par with the rest of the day. The Mikey Show at Rock 105.3 was regularly number one with listeners aged 18–34. Working without an agent, insiders say Esparza got Lincoln Financial to commit to pay more than $1 million a year to have Esparza and his four sidekicks at Rock 105 pick up and move across town. But what Esparza failed to tell Lincoln Financial was that he could not deliver his sidekicks. When Esparza told the four that he had set up this deal to jump ship, they all told Esparza they weren’t interested and stayed at Rock 105, where they called their program The Show. This left Esparza scrambling to put together a new Mikey Show lineup. Insiders say a new, less-lucrative contract was drawn up. None of the new Mikey Show cast members had prior on-air experience. Esparza picked all his Mikey Show sidekicks at both stations.
The monthly Arbitron ratings were not good. In fact, some months in 2011 the Mikey Show did not even make the top 20 with listeners aged 18–34. It is thought that many who loved 94/9’s eclectic playlist were driven away from the station by Esparza's act. Rolling Stone said in 2006 that FM 94/9 was one of four stations that “don’t suck.”
Jackson did say that there are no plans to switch 94/9’s music format.
The Mikey Show took over the Rock 105 morning slot in 2004, replacing Howard Stern who segued to satellite radio.