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A Toast To Thirty Years of Sports Talk Radio

Thirty years is a long time. During the span of three decades much can change. That’s never been more evident than when we analyze the current state of the sports talk radio format.

But before we peak under the hood of where sports radio has been and is heading, let’s have fun first by turning back the clock to 1987.

If you’re middle aged or a seasoned veteran then you should remember that thirty years ago Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers knocked off Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics to win the NBA title. Gas at that time cost just .96 cents per gallon, the nation’s top film was Dragnet, and the #1 song on the Billboard music charts was Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

It was a year when President Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, Vanna White showed us more than just a few vowels in Playboy Magazine, and Eddie Murphy dominated the world of comedy. We played witness to Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant, teenage boys obsessed over knocking out Mike Tyson on Nintendo, the Bangles walked like Egyptians, Gangsta Rap opened our eyes to the harsh realities of life in the inner cities, and wearing denim jackets and acid jeans were universally accepted.

But wait there’s more.

1987 also marked the year that The Simpsons, Married with Children and Full House debuted on television, MTV actually played music, the internet, cell phones and social media didn’t exist, and people relied on newspapers, television and radio for information and opinion.

What a difference three decades makes.

When you think about history, it’s common to place a greater value on what you experienced in your younger years and reject the present. The emotions we feel from our youth remind us of a simpler time, and as we struggle to keep up with the fast paced world we now live and operate in, it can become difficult to survive, let alone thrive.

But as much as things change, there’s one thing which has remained the same – WFAN has been and continues to be the top rated sports radio brand in the nation’s #1 media market, New York City.

It was on Saturday July 1, 1987 that America was introduced to full-time sports talk radio. There had been stations previously that aired programs dedicated to sports, but none that had given a 24/7 commitment to featuring sports talk.

WFAN was the brainchild of Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan. It was his willingness to take a giant risk that enabled the format to become part of our American culture. When WFAN launched on 1050AM in 1987, it didn’t get off to a hot start. In fact, the brand underperformed for quite some time. Ratings were stagnant, revenues were down, and patience was wearing thin.

“It was a huge failure the first year,” former WFAN General Manager Joel Hollander told Grantland in 2012. “Nine months in, everybody was ready to throw in the towel.”

It wasn’t until Emmis purchased a group of stations from NBC in 1988 that things started to change. It began with WFAN being moved to 660AM at 5:30pm on October 9th. The New York Mets were playing a playoff game that night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. That forced local fans to switch the dial to hear the game.

The next morning, Don Imus would debut in morning drive on the station. Imus had been hosting mornings on NBC and as a result of the sale, Emmis inherited all of the NBC talent contracts.

That move alone allowed Emmis to add a huge personality to the radio station in a key daypart. Imus brought immediate credibility and familiarity, and gave the brand an entry point for conversations with advertisers and listeners. By solidifying mornings with a big name who had established himself as a top performer in the city, it gave the station an opportunity to focus on solidifying the rest of the lineup and create a powerful brand.

Next came the creation of the most dominant sports talk show in the format’s history, Mike and the Mad Dog.

Pete Franklin was hosting afternoons on WFAN, but a heart attack delayed his start, and his aggressive style and lack of connection to the big apple, made him a tough pill to swallow for local fans. Executives weren’t thrilled with him either. But if a big name like Franklin wasn’t the solution, who was?

Depending on who you ask, many claim to be responsible for two lesser known commodities, Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, being given serious consideration for afternoons. New York Post media critic Phil Mushnick kept their names alive in print, program director Mark Mason raised the possibility behind closed doors, and Imus himself gave a glowing endorsement to Smulyan.

“We liked Mike Francesa, I thought he was great, and I liked Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, I thought he was fabulous,” Imus told Grantland.”

“Imus said, you’ve got to listen to this guy Russo, he sounds like Donald Duck on steroids,” added Smulyan.

Soon thereafter management was ready to shake things up and the wheels were set in motion for Mike and the Mad Dog to take the reigns in afternoon drive.

As excited as many were internally to rid themselves of Franklin and feature two New York voices in afternoons, the friction Francesa and Russo provided off the air was a problem. The two men were very different from one another, and had different visions for their careers. While it made for a great on-air mixture, it also created tension behind the scenes. Trust was lacking, respect wasn’t shared, and an inability to co-exist at times made many wonder if the combination would last.

“It was like being a kid and just knowing that your mom and dad hated each other,” WFAN producer Ed Scozzare told Grantland.

Despite the internal chaos, the duo were onto something special. When the spring ratings came out in 1989, less than a year of being on the air together, Mike and the Mad Dog had soared to #1 with Men 25-54.

For those of us who currently work in sports media or have done so previously or hope to in the future, Mike and Chris’ place in history is well documented. I could go deeper into their story but I’m sure ESPN’s 30 for 30 on July 13th will supply a much deeper look than I can supply in this piece.

However, what I do want to draw attention to is the impact WFAN has had on our entire industry and what it means for the next few decades. One piece I highly recommend reading if you want to know more about the early days of The FAN is the article Grantland produced in 2012. I used a few quotes from it earlier in this column and it’s a very thorough piece which includes feedback from many of the key players who were involved in the early days of the radio station.

Ratings success aside, when you turn on a local CBS sports radio station today it’s common to hear many similarities in the way they operate to how The FAN presents their programming in New York. Whether it’s WIP, WQAM, 92.3 The Fan or Sports Radio 610 or the CBS Sports Radio Network, you’ll find many use jingle packages instead of individually voiced liners over music. Those liners often feature the same powerhouse voice, Paul Turner, and the music which leads shows back into segments often has a rock vibe. Additionally, the stations rely on live or produced liners to promote station games, events and benefits instead of featuring produced :30-:60 promos.

You’ll also discover that most CBS sports stations implement updates from local anchors two to three times per hour. The stations also feature a plethora of play by play partnerships, which has been critical for generating large local cume, ratings and revenue.

Perhaps the biggest similarity though is the heavy influx of callers each station takes in its local market. WFAN was built on giving local fans a voice, and that’s instantly detectable when you hear how frequently CBS radio hosts engage with local listeners. They’re also a lot looser with their content flow than other operators.

When you add up all of those elements, they’re a part of WFAN’s secret sauce. They’ve gone on to shared that successful recipe with many of the company’s brands in various local  markets, and while the formula has certainly produced great results, we’ve also learned over the past three decades that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

It was initially considered sacrilegious to operate a sports radio brand differently. But now many have blazed their own trails. Some brands prefer to steer clear of callers and interact through texts and tweets. Others have either decreased or permanently eliminated sports updates, emphasized stronger production values, and built programs around as many as five on-air personalities.

What I find fascinating is that everything we’ve learned and been introduced to over the past three decades, which has influenced the expansion of the format, isn’t guaranteed to make us successful over the next three decades. We’ve been fortunate to have amazing talent occupy our airwaves and build strong relationships with local audiences and advertisers for lengthy periods of time. However, many of those hall of fame personalities are now riding off into the sunset. That requires a new wave of hosts to emerge and tackle the challenge of sustaining and advancing the sports talk format into the future.

In pro sports, we’ve become accustomed to watching players fulfill a career and then sign off while a new crop of stars comes along to carry on the tradition. But in sports radio, we haven’t had to worry about those situations too often. A large number of successful sports stations have enjoyed the benefit of featuring the same lineup or personalities for the better part of two decades. As those hosts continue to exit, it leaves listeners, advertisers and colleagues wondering if the brand will remain as important and successful in the future.

Fortunately there have been many instances of shows continuing on without missing a beat. Kirk and Callahan in Boston, Bernstein and Goff in Chicago, and Boomer and Carton in New York are a few that immediately come to mind. You can probably add Mike Francesa going solo after Chris Russo and Tom Tolbert continuing on after Ralph “The Razor” Barbieri to that list as well.

But as we sit here celebrating three decades of excellence for WFAN and the rise of the sports talk radio format, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the next thirty years offers no guarantees.

What happens when the people our audiences have become accustomed to hearing aren’t there anymore? Will they accept new voices? Will those voices be given a long enough leash by their companies to enjoy success? Will we still feature 3-4 hour shows or shorter programs aimed at a public which has more options, increased distractions and less availability?

Then there are the connection questions. If people are using the phone less in life to talk to one another, how does that affect the way they interact with our programs? Does social media continue to rise and become the preferred method of communication? Does texting? Or does something else come along that isn’t presently available?

Next we have measurement and business issues to address. Does sports radio continue to tout its success by using its performance under the Men 25-54 umbrella? Or do we modify the format’s demo? Do ratings continue to matter to advertisers or does the existing model get put out to pasture? How do we combat the challenge of shrinking our commercial inventory yet remain profitable? Will the public pay for great content or continue to listen to whatever is free and easy to locate?

I also wonder about the growth of our population, and how that will impact the way we present our lineups. Given the way the world is changing, I think it’s a safer bet that we’ll see more individuals from different races and genders appear on our brands in the future. I also think we’ll see similar progress behind the scenes in station management.

Maybe the biggest question to answer though is how does the inside of a vehicle and the emergence of voice activated and on-demand technology change the way we reach audiences and satisfy advertisers? In years past we competed primarily against local radio stations, but as the dashboard evolves and devices like Alexa, Google Home and Apple Air Play catch on, how will that affect our recall, relevance and ratings? Will podcasting become a platform that generates significant revenue or is it a great benefit for consumers that shrinks the demand for our on-air product?

And that leads me to my final point.

How do those changes register long-term with professional sports teams? Sports radio depends heavily on local play by play for cume, ratings, and advertising solutions. If the dashboard though didn’t feature the AM/FM band and drivers began to install their favorite apps or use voice technology to listen to anything they wanted, couldn’t teams eliminate the middle-man (the radio station) and offer the broadcast themselves?

The downside to that move is that teams would immediately lose substantial rights fees. The other challenge is that radio provides a free broadcast. But, if there was enough of an appetite from the public to purchase a play by play audio package from the team through its app or website, that could change the conversation.

Some of these challenges aren’t on our radar right now, and may never become problems for us to solve over the next thirty years. But I think it’s fair to expect that a few will become a part of our reality. Some maybe even sooner rather than later.

Before we start worrying though and game planning for the next set of difficulties, let’s take a minute to celebrate where we’ve been and appreciate the progress that’s been made.

The sports radio format now features hundreds of stations across the nation, and gives thousands of people an opportunity to make a living doing something they truly love. We owe a debt of gratitude to WFAN, its executives and employees, and every single listener who spent time listening because they helped pave the way and validate the belief that full-time sports talk radio could be successful.

The future will require us to evolve. Some will embrace change, others will reject it and long for the past. But regardless of what transpires, we should all welcome those conversations. If a group of executives in New York didn’t roll the dice and stay the course on an idea that produced no immediate return on investment, we wouldn’t be in a position to face these issues and debate the best path forward for the format. And now that’s something I can raise a glass and drink to.

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