In mid-sized and major markets, once thought to be unbeatable sports radio stations have experienced stiff competition from new competitors. Juggernauts like WEEI/Boston, WIP/Philadelphia, WHB/Kansas City, WKNR/Cleveland, WDFN/Detroit, The Ticket/Dallas, and The Team/Washington, DC all shared similar characteristics: the first sports radio station in the market, established/big name local talent, AM Radio signals, and ratings success.
The advantages of each of those characteristics:
- First Sports radio station in the market – This is typically a huge advantage. As the only game in town, the station can mature, adapt, and change as it sees fit with little fear of losing listeners.
- Established, big name local talent– “The Big Show” with Glenn Ordway at WEEI, “The Kevin Kietzman Show” at WHB, “The Tony Kornheiser Show” at WTEM, “Dunham and Miller” at The Ticket.
- AM Radio Signals – Sports radio was booming on the AM dial. Its success may have saved AM radio for 20 years. It was the place to be for sports. Music owned the FM band.
- Ratings – Huge: For example, in 2008 WEEI was top 5 in Morning Drive, Middays and Afternoon drive Adults 25-54.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s radio companies looked at the success of these sports radio stations and decided to make a run at them—with surprising success. Why? Because at some point, many of the above advantages became disadvantages for the established stations and opportunities for the new insurgents. A second look at the characteristics above, now as disadvantages for the established stations:
- First Sports radio Station in the market – Being the only game in town can lead to Shows getting stale, Ad Sales overselling the station which cuts down programming time, Listeners becoming fatigued, and Stations getting cheap and cutting back on important resources.
- Established, big name local talent – Great talent cost a lot. That can really hamstring a station financially. Many established hosts make six figure (some seven figure) salaries. These salaries and the associated contracts can limit the flexibility of the PD and GM.
- AM Radio Signals – Starting a sports radio station on FM became a great way to outflank an established AM station. According to Nielsen, only 21% of radio listeners listen to any programming on AM. This is dwarfed by the 86% of listeners who listen to FM. The Sports Hub in Boston, 106.7 The Fan in Washington, DC, The Fan in Cleveland, The Fanatic in Philadelphia, 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and ESPN 103.3 in Dallas all took advantage of the FM band to make an immediate impression. Other market stations followed suit as well. That wasn’t the case though in the #2 and #3 markets (LA and Chicago, respectively) as both only have AM sports radio stations.
- Ratings – By 2011, The Sports Hub beat WEEI in Arbitron’s spring book. Capturing the #1 spot with adults 25-54 with wins in all major dayparts in Boston. WEEI bounced back during the past few years but when they did, they were on FM. Others in major markets have experienced success against insurgents too. The established stations didn’t move anywhere but the ripple effect of being unseated led many to make adjustments and move to FM or add an FM simulcast.
What are some of the key takeaways from the sports radio battles of the past 10-15 years?
First, sports radio stations should be making every attempt to broadcast their programming on FM. It’s where the listeners are. I know Chicago and LA are currently surviving on AM, and KNBR/San Francisco, and KILT/Houston still enjoy success on AM. WFAN in New York and The Ticket in Dallas thrive on AM as well, but each of those brands have FM simulcasts. These are exceptions, not the rule.
The bigger question is how long can AM radio remain viable? In a world where people flock to new technology in search of the next big thing, radio remains attached to an outdated platform. The only way to grow and succeed is to put AM Radio where it belongs – in the past! Stations should be looking forward and be diligent about the performance of their app, how they’re programmed for the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, and the future of the in-car dashboard.
What about talent?
Every PD has to be identifying and developing talent to replace hosts who either retire or move on in their careers or become less interesting to the audience. Legendary PD Drew Hayes used to say “I like to do my thinking ahead of time.”
Programmers should be scouting talent in smaller markets, auditioning local people, and building relationships with players and coaches who are great talkers and near the end of their careers. Find out who the great storytellers are, who’s funny and possesses a unique personality and fits what you’re trying to do. Then when an opening occurs, you have a short-list of talented options to consider.
Regardless of the success of your station, now is the time to take a good, honest look at it. Where are you most vulnerable? Play by play? A particular daypart or sport? Signal? Imaging? Whatever you find, start working on fixing it today or it will come back to bite you later.