Let’s talk sports
Radio stations that were previously Top 40, Jazz or Oldies formats may now produce the sounds of male sports banter. It’s what a Lincoln, Neb. station recently decided to do after changing to an Oldies format in January. “We listened to the public. We decided to make that decision,” KLMS-AM general manager Joy Patten told AllAccess about their decision to switch back to ESPN Radio.
Since January, the format that seems to reign is Sports Talk as various stations across the country have opted for the switch. Minneapolis’ KSTP-AM flipped last month, providing listeners with a mix of local Sports Talk and ESPN programming. Honolulu’s KUPA-AM will return to the air sometime next month airing Fox Sports. In San Francisco, KNBR-AM expanded its sports coverage. And just last week, Oregon’s KKEE-AM flipped from Liberal Talk to Sports as a Fox Sports affiliate. KKEE operations manager Tom Freel said in an e-mail that had ESPN Sports been the only choice, the station wouldn’t have changed formats. “KKEE was a full-time ESPN affiliate for a number of years and it never found significant traction with local advertisers. Fox Sports Radio is a very different animal,” he said. “To describe the difference I would draw a parallel with music formats. ESPN is like main stream adult contemporary. Safe, but a little dull. Fox Sports is like Contemporary Hit Radio. It’s faster paced, more entertaining to a general audience and you don’t have to be a sports geek to appreciate it.” To further make the station relevant to local listeners, KKEE features play-by-plays with college and local high school teams, he noted.
RSA Sports International president and CEO Rick Scott predicted that the Sports format would continue to grow back in January on his Sports Radio Blog. “The new year will also bring an even stronger demand from the Sports Radio listener for entertainment, insight and information. As the sources for those areas continue to increase, consumers will demand immediate satisfaction or go to another source,” he wrote. Yet despite its popularity, most of the time the Sports format doesn’t even do very well in the ratings, said Robert Unmacht, a partner with iN3 Partners Inc., veteran industry observer and former owner of M Street Corporation. But it’s sellable, he noted. It also can be cheaper to produce if stations are using syndicated content from a major network like ESPN or Fox. “So not all sports stations are created equal,” he said.
The growth of Sports in the AM band isn’t new, but has been happening for several years, noted Unmacht. “What we’re seeing now is larger market FM stations flipping to Sports,” he said. Such is the case of Redding, California-based KKSX-FM, which flipped from Jazz earlier this month, to feature the ESPN lineup and San Francisco Giants baseball coverage. According to an article in Media Life, approximately 50 FM stations in the last 14 months have switched to News or News/Talk formats. “At the same time, there’s been a growing number of FM stations airing Sports Talk,” wrote Media Life writer Mike Stern. “The reason is pretty clear. Besides the better sound, FM offers a significantly larger and younger audience that can be found on the AM band.”
Regardless of band, Unmacht wonders how much longer the market can sustain growth in the Sports format. “Whether we can support three, four sports formats in a market has yet to be determined because that’s where we’re getting to now,” he said. “Yes, there’s a demand. But is it huge like Top 40 and Country? No.” In the U.S. there are approximately 2,000 Country stations, he noted. “I don’t see that happening with sports stations. But there is still room to grow.”
Like all specialty formats, Sports is a niche format that targets a small and loyal audience, noted Freel. The same also goes for Progressive Talk formats, experiments in Triple A formats or Country/Rock hybrids, he added. “How well a station does in its market really depends on how relevant it is to local listeners regardless of the format it uses as an umbrella,” he said. “Successful stations happen when they make a local connection to listeners and therefore become an important companion everyday. That kind of power isn’t lost on advertisers and it is radio’s most powerful weapon.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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