Thu. Jul 19th, 2018

A Look At Pittsburgh Sports Radio

To say the Pittsburgh sports radio market has changed over the past 7-8 years would be a massive understatement. Much of that for the local sports community is a good thing though as the format has blossomed. There’s been a strong migration of sports listening to the FM dial, which has fueled the success of the market’s leading sports talkers, but it’s also left open questions about the current competitive landscape.

Before we look at the current climate, it’s important to get a sense of where things were and what’s changed. Let’s start in 2008 where one of the first major changes occurred.

maddenMark Madden was hosting afternoons on ESPN Radio 1250, and he had built a massive following on the radio station. He was the ratings leader in the format, and the radio station’s top asset. ESPN recognized that and inked him to a long-term contract in 2007.

Then in May of 2008, everything changed. Madden made comments about U.S Senator Ted Kennedy that created a firestorm. He said on-air “I’m very disappointed to hear that Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is near death because of a brain tumor. I always hoped Senator Kennedy would live long enough to be assassinated. I wonder if he got a card from the Kopechnes.”

ESPN executives were furious with the commentary, and despite Madden apologizing for his remarks, they elected to fire him. This led to Madden being on the sidelines for a few months, before 105.9 The X, operated by iHeartMedia, entered the fold and sought to bring the controversial talk show host on to their airwaves. After some back and forth discussions between ESPN and iHeart, a deal was reached, and Madden was moving to the FM dial in October 2008 to host afternoons on The X.

The next major situation to impact the market took place in 2010. Two sports talkers, 1250 ESPN and 970 Fox Sports Radio, battled for bragging rights as the format’s best local brand. 1250 often led the ratings race, but they struggled financially. For 970, while they were behind in the numbers, they spent less on local programming which likely helped their bottom line.

937thefanBut then a third party decided to enter the picture. CBS announced they were dropping B94 on the FM dial, and flipping it to Sports Radio 93.7 The Fan. With an FM talker on the scene, and a firm commitment from CBS to go Live and Local throughout the entire day, this put the AM operators in an even tougher position, one which ESPN quickly looked to explore an exit from.

As 2010 came to a close, ESPN did indeed exit out of the format, dropping their sports programming on 1250AM in favor of Radio Disney. This left the market with 93.7 The Fan and 970 Fox Sports Radio. Sensing an opportunity to improve their own product, 970 reached an agreement with ESPN to allow the station to re-brand as 970 ESPN, and give ESPN market clearance for some of their shows which had been previously well received in the market, but were now unavailable due to the 1250 format change.

Eventually ESPN would sell its ownership of 1250AM to Salem Media, leaving the local sports radio scene to feature two full service sports stations, 93.7 The Fan and 970 ESPN. 105.9 The X wasn’t focused entirely on sports, but did have Mark Madden in afternoons delivering a sports program, as well as Tim Benz in the morning offering a mixture of sports and entertainment.

Fast forward to today, and The Fan and 970 ESPN remain the market’s full service sports stations, and 105.9 The X still has Mark Madden delivering a sports focused show in afternoons. The remainder of The X is built around music, but the station also carries Pittsburgh Penguins hockey.

tribliveAdditionally, the Pittsburgh Tribune newspaper entered the sports audio space in 2011, and have stuck with it, and done a nice job of adding quality local programming. However, it’s hard to measure their performance due to not being included in the Nielsen ratings.

I was curious to see how the Pittsburgh market was performing and how things have changed during the span of the past 12 months when The Fan made some programming changes. The focus of the ratings discussion is on Men 25-54 which is the demographic that matters most to sports talk radio stations.

Here’s a look at the last 3-months as well as the performance year-to-year.

STATION TIMESLOT/SHOWS 2015 May 2015 June 2015 July 2014 July
Mornings 6A-10A
93.7 THE FAN The Fan Morning Show 5.1 4.2 4.5 6.6
970 ESPN Mike and Mike In The Morning 0.9 0.7 0.5 2.2
Mid-Days 10A-3P
93.7 THE FAN Cook & Poni 10a-2p, Starkey & Mueller 2p-3p 8.8 5.9 6.4 9.6
970 ESPN ESPN Radio 10a-12p & 2p-3p, Stan Savran 12p-2p 0.8 0.6 0.6 2.1
Afternoons 3P-7P
93.7 THE FAN Starkey & Mueller 3p-6p, Paul Zeise 6p-7p 7.5 7.1 6.8 7.5
970 ESPN ESPN Radio 3p-4p, David Todd 4p-7p 0.5 0.5 0.3 1.1
105.9 THE X Mark Madden 14.2 11.3 13.1 10.1
Evenings 7P-12A
93.7 THE FAN Paul Zeise 7p-10p, Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball 12.2 13.1 14.4 14.8
970 ESPN ESPN Radio 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.4
Monday-Sunday 6A-Midnight
93.7 THE FAN All Shows, Ancillary Programming and Play by Play 8.1 6.9 7.2 8.9
970 ESPN All Shows, Ancillary Programming and Play by Play 0.4 0.4 0.2 1.4

There are many takeaways from this data, but the three things that stand out are that Mark Madden is the undisputed king of Pittsburgh sports radio, The Fan own the marketplace as the city’s premier sports radio station, and winning teams in a local market lead to additional excitement and listening.

piratesWhen you analyze the year to year performances, it’s interesting to see that The Fan is down nearly two full ratings points and 970 ESPN has also lost a point. It’d be understandable if the Pirates were bad this year, but they’ve remained strong so that begs the question, is there less interest in the programming, or did a few meters get away?

While meter changes can take a station from the outhouse to the penthouse in a matter of 30 days, Madden’s show is up three full points year to year, so interest in sports radio didn’t decline on his dial. Plus, Pirates baseball and The Fan’s afternoon show held pretty steady during the past 12 months.

When you look deeper, you can find some stories that make sense, and get a better idea of what’s happening with each brand, and where their challenges and opportunities lie. The good news for The Fan, they’re doing incredibly well and are at this point prisoners of their own success. When you can measure yourself against your past performances because you’ve taken control of the scene, that’s a good thing.

937-morningshowLooking at morning drive (6a-10a) which is hosted by Colin Dunlap, Josh Miller and Jim Colony, The Fan delivered a 5.1, 4.2 and 4.5 over the past 3 months. That performance placed them 7th each of those months, and while it’s a healthy number, I’m sure folks internally would like to see it register higher. Why do I say that? Last year in July, the morning show was producing a 6.6, which was two full points higher. That’s a 31% drop over the past 12 months.

While that’s a big dip, bear in mind that the show was different last year. Gregg Giannotti hosted the program, alongside Paul Alexander and Jim Colony. Alexander is no longer with the station, and Colony is still on the show, but Giannotti has since moved to New York where he now hosts CBS Sports Radio Network’s morning show with Brian Jones.

Losing Giannotti hurt, but the new morning show has a lot of talent and has performed very well, despite being together less than a year. If the Pirates continue winning, and the morning show keeps developing, the station will see improvement in morning drive. The only question is whether or not they can gain back two full ratings points, which is what they need to enter the Top 5, and compete against the market’s dominant rock stations.

937-cookandponiThe next area to look at are middays (10a-3p), and much like mornings, they perform very well. During the past 3 months, they’ve finished between 4th and 6th, and that result is one they should be very satisfied with. Making up the station’s middays are Ron Cook and Andrew Fillipponi from 10a-2p, and afternoon hosts Chris Mueller and Joe Starkey who impact 1-hour of the performance (2p-3p).

Where there is concern is when you look at the results from year to year. The station during that time has gone from a 9.6 to 6.4 which has taken them from a tie for 2nd to 5th, which represents a 33% dip. Additionally, the current programming delivered a fantastic 8.8 rating in the May 2015 book but is down to 6.4 in July 2015, so they’ve lost more than two full points in the past 90 days. Given that Pittsburgh has a strong appetite for football, I’m sure the May book was heavily impacted by the NFL Draft.

937-starkeymuellerNext up is afternoons and this is where things are very interesting. Let’s start with The Fan. Overall they are doing an outstanding job. The time slot which features Chris Mueller and Joe Starkey from 3p-6p and Pirates Baseball Pre-Game/Paul Zeise from 6p-7p has delivered a 7.5, 7.1 and 6.8 over the past 3 months, good enough to place them between 4th and 5th. This is The Fan’s highest rated timeslot, Pirates baseball aside.

Where the story gets interesting though is when you look at what happens when a competitor exists who also shares the FM dial and has market recognition. That comes in the form of Mark Madden who hosts afternoons on The X and is #1 with a dominant 13.1 share. Madden’s program outperforms his entire station by 4 to 5 ratings points, and it’s clear that when he’s on the scene, he’s still seen as the authority for Pittsburgh sports conversation, even if he’s not on a full-time sports station.

Madden3Over the past 3 months Madden has been #1 every month, and his ratings were as high as a 14.2 in May. He’s also grown from a 10.0 to 13.1 over the past year, which is a 31% gain in audience. While The Fan should feel great about its own performance, Madden’s presence affects their ability to grab a larger piece of the pie.

The final time slot I want to examine are the nights (7p-12a). This is largely occupied during the spring/summer months on The Fan by Pirates baseball, and with the team performing well, you can see how its benefitted the radio station. For the past 3 months the Pirates have led The Fan to 1st place finishes at night each month, producing shares of 12.2, 13.1 and 14.4.

To put it in perspective, The Fan was 3rd in the April book with an 8.8 in the April book, which was right before the Pirates returned, so you can see that the station has gained 4 to 6 ratings points thanks to the return of baseball.

pensWhen the Penguins were in season, they too helped drive large audience numbers for their rights holder 105.9 The X. Pens hockey produced a 14.3 for the April book which placed the station 1st in that demographic, but that number has since dropped to 5.5 in July. Clearly Play by Play programming is a major difference maker in the Pittsburgh market.

While the majority of this conversation has revolved were around The Fan and 105.9 The X, I do also want to shed light on 970 ESPN. Their numbers are very low which makes it a tougher discussion but there are a few items worth noting.

First, the station is under 1 point which is not good, and with other brands performing incredibly well on the FM dial, it raises questions about the ability to perform on the AM band.

Secondly, with so much of its programming time dedicated to national shows, you can see that it doesn’t connect. The local audience wants Pittsburgh personalities talking about Pittsburgh stories, and this hurts 970 for sure.

savranThat story is even more evident when you go deeper inside the numbers. Stan Savran who hosts a show from 12p-2p on 970 ESPN, produced a 1.7, 1.3 and 1.3 during his show the past 3 months. That number is 6x higher than the station’s overall rating and 2.5x higher than the morning show. This means that he is a destination for local fans, and they will seek out his content, even if he’s on AM, and surrounded by national shows.

This makes me wonder, would iHeart Pittsburgh entertain a move full time into the sports radio space on FM? Is there enough audience, and revenue in the market to make an impact?

Consider this, iHeart owns both 105.9 The X and 970 ESPN. Between those two brands, they have Mark Madden dominating afternoons, Pittsburgh Penguins hockey performing strong during the evenings, and Stan Savran on 970, a local fixture who many people love and respect, and who despite the challenges around him, outperforms his station.

They also have the association with ESPN, a proven programmer in Gregg Henson, plus the company has the rights to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those games air on flagship station WDVE (also iHeart owned and operated) and 970 ESPN. If ever there was a company with the assets to make a run and give The Fan a major battle, it would be iHeart Pittsburgh. That said, there are also larger costs associated with running sports programming, and the company may not want to tinker with 105.9 The X in its current configuration, given its success.

937thefan2For The Fan, while the station itself sounds great and they offer a lot of talent, the challenge they face is regaining their massive momentum from last year. If they can find those extra 2 to 3 ratings points, they’ll become an even bigger force to be reckoned with, and can then start measuring their performance opposite The X, WDVE and WRRK, music brands which traditionally do well. There’s no question they’ve built an identity as the market leader for sports radio, and the lineup they’ve established is impressive, so now it’s a matter of living up to their past performances, and hopefully exceeding them.

One very important thing to remember with regards to these performances, this is what they look like in May-July. Results are different during other points of the year. Luckily, the Pirates have been strong the past 2 seasons, but if they don’t play winning baseball, you can bet that has an impact on local programs. When the fall rolls around, and the Steelers become the focus of conversation, and the Pirates likely advance to the post-season, don’t be surprised to see many of these shows driving even higher numbers. The key then becomes converting those casual listeners into loyal fans.

In its current climate, the Pittsburgh sports radio scene belongs to The Fan. Mark Madden is the only local host who prevents their total dominance. If iHeart Pittsburgh elects to enter the sports format full time on FM in the future, this could be a very different conversation.