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Steak Shapiro joining 680/The Fan, replacing Ray Mariner

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There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.

That's what Stephen "Steak" Shapiro sees taped on his bathroom mirror every morning while shaving.

That aphorism is his inspiration now, six months removed from an embarrassing ouster from 790/The Zone over a bit gone bad. He has landed a new job on radio -- on his former rival station 680/The Fan. He starts January 2.

Shapiro will replace Ray Mariner on the Front Row with Brian Finneran and Sandra Golden,a show created earlier this year. Mariner was informed of his loss of employment right after today's show ended at noon. Shapiro worked with Golden when she was part of the morning show at 790/The Zone several years ago.

(UPDATE: Shapiro is doing fill-in work the rest of this month, including spelling the Rude Awakening this week with Finneran and Golden, in a preview of their Front Row show.)

In a sense, this is a homecoming. Shapiro, at age 27, moved to Atlanta from Boston in 1994 to join A.J. Cannon and Beau Bock on a morning show with the new sports talk station 680/The Fan.

Shapiro's former "Mayhem in the AM" colleague Chris Dimino joined the Fan in September (details here) but his non-compete clause keeps him off the air until March. Shapiro had a more generous three-month non-compete and has been able to do radio since September. Nick Cellini, who came up with the tasteless bit about former NFL player Steve Gleason and his ALS, is still seeking new climes. (You can read more about how they got fired here.)

In a press release that came out at 12:58 p.m. today, 680/The Fan's president and GM David Dickey wrote, “I am excited to have Steak back on the Fan.  He is one of the best-known and most-talented sports personalities in the country.  Steak will become an important part of what is already the region’s biggest and most-experienced sports-talk line-up."

However divisive Steak can be at times, he knows how to sell. He should be able to bring in sponsorship dollars for the Fan, which is now competing heavily with year old 92.9/The Game, the upstart with the bigger signal.

Shapiro, sources told me, had job offers from both 92.9/The Game and the Fan. In an exclusive interview, Shapiro declined to address the Game's offer but said the Fan's deal was appealing to him for several reasons.

"I'm very grateful I've had opportunities," Shapiro said today. "The Fan has great stability. They're a tremendous radio company. A lot of people I've worked with and am friends with [who had been at the Zone] are there. Many of them went out of their way to reach out to me after what happened in June."

He likes the time slot of 9 a.m. to noon for lifestyle reasons. He has three young children and a wife. "I can take my kids to car pool and work on my other businesses," he said.

Indeed, he was thrilled that Dickey was supportive of him growing his Atlanta Eats operation, which includes a TV show, a radio show and a digital presence. Plus, he has a production company and is working on a prime-time series for the Food Network. (Details on that TV show, he said, are forthcoming.)

"They want me to be the biggest star I can be as possible," Shapiro said. Plus, he can cross-promote Atlanta Eats on other stations in the same building including All News 106.7, the Bert Show over at Q100 and the Regular Guys at Rock 100.5.  Cumulus also owns magazines that could use Atlanta Eats content such as Jezebel. (The Fan is owned by Dickey Broadcasting, which has some common ownership with Cumulus Media, which runs hundreds of radio stations including All News, Q100 and Rock 100.5)

Shapiro's radio career in Atlanta started at 680/The Fan 19 years ago. But he was dismissed eight months later when new management  at Cox Radio came in. As a result, he and Andrew Saltzman started their own sports talk station at 790 in 1997, which they owned for 13 years before selling out to Lincoln Financial.

Over that time, the pair said they built a station from scratch with no big corporate overlord. But they made an impression, turning big profits and bringing in loyal listeners (and advertisers) despite relatively modest ratings. While some folks found Shapiro on air and off air overbearing and arrogant, he said he was trying to overcompensate given their underdog position. "It didn't always serve me well," he admits now. He calls his old self the less negative adjective "brash." (I recall him time and time again over the years bragging to me about how much better the Zone was than the Fan.)

Big League Broadcasting, Shapiro and Saltzman's parent company, purchased stations in St. Louis in 2004, hoping to replicate their Atlanta success. But that was a failure. They lost millions and was a contributing factor to them selling out in 2010 for $6 million.

Shapiro said he has no regrets relinquishing ownership. He was burned out at the time from being an owner. He stayed on at the Zone as an employee in 2010 and was able to focus on his children and his ill father up in Boston during that time.

But he realized, too, that he needed to do something that could potentially be more stable than radio long term or at least allow him to guide his own destiny. So he founded Atlanta Eats, raising $1 million from investors last year. He continued to cohost the "Mayhem in the AM" radio show with Cellini and Dimino but without the stress of being the owner. At the same time, in retrospect, he realized, "I was probably mailing it in."

After he was fired from the Zone, he felt depressed for a time but was able to spend more energy building his Atlanta Eats business and quality time with his family. He tried to convince himself he didn't want to go back on radio. In fact, when the Fan's David Dickey invited him over to his home in August, he said he wasn't sure if he wanted to do radio again.

But deep down, he knew the answer was, yes. He liked radio too much. He spent 17 years in front of a mic, day in and day out, and he really began to miss it when the football season started. So he threw his hat in with both the Game and the Fan.

Shapiro said today, he's a changed man. He's had issues with alcohol for many years and said he's now four months sober. "I'm in a better place mentally," he said. "I've curtailed things that have held me back."

Mariner, in the meantime, was a risky hire for the Fan earlier this year. He came in not as a sports guy but with a music background. He worked record promotion for years and spent nearly a decade as a co-host with Cindy Simmons on the pop station Star 94, first in the afternoons, then mornings. He left Star under mysterious circumstances  in May, 2012. The Fan hired him in January of this year.

Bringing in a non-sports person to a sports talk station is not unprecedented. It worked well with Christopher Rude, a former rock jock at 96rock and has been a morning host with the Fan for a decade. Jason Bailey recently came from a more general talk format in Florida before venturing to 92.9/The Game a few months ago.

I'll provide more info from my interview with Steak in a bit.

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