Listening to Twins games on 50,000-watt WCCO-AM radio around the campfire in northern Minnesota is among Tim Pelton’s favorite childhood memories. Pelton’s memories of listening to Twins games in recent years are a little less favorable: He commutes regularly between his Owatonna home and Mankato, a relatively short trek that the last couple of years required him to switch stations to hear games during his drive.
So Pelton was among the many Minnesotans who were happy — and for many, a little nostalgic — when the Twins this season returned to WCCO and its strong signal after an 11-year sojourn that took the club’s broadcasts first to KSTP-AM and then the past five years to KQGO-FM (GO 96.3), owned by the Pohlad family, which also owns the Twins.
“With WCCO carrying the games again, I can listen to one station the whole time,” said Pelton, 58, adding he has finally ditched “the pocket schedules” he carried in his car to seek out local stations broadcasting the games. There are now family camping trips with his wife and children, campfires and Twins games on WCCO.
The return to WCCO feels like coming home to fans of Pelton’s generation. WCCO was the first radio home of the Twins when the franchise moved from Washington, D.C., before the 1961 season. Clark Griffith — son of the late Calvin Griffith, the owner who made the decision to move to Minnesota from the nation’s capital — said the reputation and commitment of WCCO and major advertiser Hamm’s Beer were “very important in the decision” to relocate in the Upper Midwest.
The relationship with WCCO, he said, “was enormous, because they were so dominant in the market, and they also had a great signal” that brought Twins games to at least 13 states and parts of Canada. WCCO, he said, helped the Twins establish a claim to being the major league team of the Upper Midwest.
‘The Good Neighbor’
The signal helped build a strong bond between the team and its fans, Twins officials say. Jim Kaat, a star pitcher for the Twins during the 1960s, remembers winter caravans around the Upper Midwest that highlighted the power of the radio station.
“Even if you were out in Pella, Iowa, you would be able to pick up WCCO radio and find out what was going on in the world,” Kaat said.
For whatever the reason, WCCO really seemed like “The Good Neighbor,” as it billed itself. Maybe it was the quality of the baseball announcers, men such as Bob Wolff, Ray Scott, Herb Carneal and of course Halsey Hall, a character of legendary proportions who once flicked cigar ashes into a press box wastebasket during a broadcast and had flames jumping skyward.
Kaat said The Good Neighbor slogan had more than a ring of truth to it. On Opening Day 1965, Kaat — scheduled to be the starting pitcher — was stranded across the flooded Minnesota River from Metropolitan Stadium with three other teammates who lived in Burnsville. Kaat made a couple of calls to try to reach former teammate Paul Giel, then the WCCO sports director. Giel quickly dispatched the WCCO helicopter to pick up the four players in time for the day’s game, in which Kaat went nine innings in a 5-4, 11-inning victory over the Yankees.
“The thing we turned to for everything … was WCCO,” Kaat said.
The radio station was responsible for developing more than a few baseball fans. Carol Meyer, who retired this year as an Eden Prairie elementary school principal, was raised on a farm in Pierz, Minn., with her four siblings. To this day, she says, everyone in her family remains loyal Twins fans, which she traces to their childhood days listening to WCCO.
“Really, the only media we had was WCCO and the Twins — that’s how we developed our love for the Twins,” she said. “Everywhere we went, the radio was part of our day. If we were working on the farm, we took our radio with us. If we were in the buildings, we had the radio on.
“If someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up — I would say I wanted to run the Twins organization.”
Twins President Dave St. Peter said it’s become clear in hindsight that many fans view the Twins and WCCO “as a sacred partnership, one that in some ways defines summertime in Minnesota.”
Moving around the dial
But that warm, fuzzy relationship was jolted when the Twins opted to leave The Good Neighbor for KSTP before the 2007 season, a move that predictably stunned many longtime fans raised on the guttural musings of Hall. But Twins officials wanted a new approach — a chance to take the complete broadcasts, from production to advertising sales to personnel decisions in-house. Lindsey Peterson, WCCO's program director, said that business model in 2007 “did not fit” network parent CBS’ vision.
Twins officials say CBS seemed intent on downplaying sports broadcasting. And so the Twins shopped for a new radio home, landing first on KSTP for six seasons and then KQGO. KSTP lacked WCCO’s signal strength, a shortcoming that became even more glaring with the move to KQGO. The latter had been a novel experiment, moving to an alternative rock FM music station that catered to young adults. The hope of the station and the Twins was that the move would help attract young fans to baseball broadcasts, and baseball fans to the music. Suffice to say it didn’t work.
“To be honest, GO didn’t want the Twins on the station anymore,” Twins owner Jim Pohlad said. “[Baseball] confused their message, being a music station. … They were trying to establish a format, and it becomes disruptive.”
That led the Twins back to WCCO, which in 2017 was bought by Entercom Communication, whose top officials had a long-range view of the importance of sports broadcasts that appealed to the Twins. The Twins moved back with full control of game coverage, without paying for any airtime, St. Peter said.
What does the station net?
“The most important thing is bringing back people who maybe stopped listening to us when the Twins left,” Peterson said.
Clark Griffith said he could have told anyone willing to listen what was going to happen when the Twins left ’CCO in 2007. Griffith said that during his tenure with the Twins he was “very eager to get competition going in the radio marketplace,” and considered KSTP or buying an FM station.
“I did a lot of work trying to find an alternative, and found out something very strange — 830, being on the lower end of the analog band, had a very broad signal that carried very far.”
Not so for KSTP, he said, or for most FM stations.
“Inevitably in my mind, it’s physics of the radio game” that kept the Twins on WCCO during the Griffith reign, Clark said. “It’s kind of funny to me the Twins went through the very same sequence.”
‘Where baseball should be’
Kent Hrbek, who was raised in Bloomington as a die-hard Twins fan long before the first baseman helped the franchise win World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, said the station’s strength is such that his uncle in Denver could sit in his car and listen to Twins games on WCCO during Hrbek’s career.
“When [the Twins] left WCCO, a lot of people had their transistor radios sitting on the fridge and kitchen counters and didn’t know how to change the channels because they just left it on WCCO,” Hrbek said. “That’s how you found the Twins.”
The Twins departure ultimately forced baseball fans to learn how to navigate the radio dial.
Meyer said when she drove to Pierz to visit her relatives in recent years, she had to switch her dial three times to listen to the Twins.
Scott Johnson of Aitkin, Minn., is another who travels for work. He said he grew weary of searching the dial to find the Twins, so the return to WCCO “does matter to me.” It matters, too, even on games he attends at Target Field, because part of the entertainment was once listening to the postgame on WCCO. That was barely possible the past few years, he said, because “you’d lose [the signal] just a ways out of town.”
Many fans — probably more than WCCO or Twins officials could have imagined — have always linked the team and station. Peterson said that for the 11 years the Twins were on other stations, he received at least “daily phone calls” asking why the Twins were no longer on WCCO.
“It was the only station my mom and dad listened to in the car,” Hrbek said. “To me, it’s where baseball should be.”
For Meyer, the move back comes with some emotion, as well as the benefits of a strong signal.
“Part of it is nostalgia,” she said. “Part of my roots are that the Twins and WCCO are together. They’re back where they belong again.”