Fine-tuning Twin Cities sports radio

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2011 - 6:25 AM

The local sports radio landscape has shifted as teams seek partners who will boost their "brand."

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Dan Seeman, vice president and general manager at 1500ESPN, said switching to an all-sports-talk format was a no-brainer for the former news-talk station.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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In early March, hours before making an announcement that would trigger a local sports radio shuffle, University of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi sent an e-mail to season-ticket holders.

Gophers sports were leaving WCCO, their radio home for more than 50 years. Football would slide up the dial to KFAN, men's and women's basketball, along with men's hockey, would move to 1500ESPN.

Why?

In an e-mail brimming with phrases like "market support" and "Gophers-driven programming," Maturi's answer was simple: It's business. In a marketplace now driven by two full-time sports talk stations, the game has changed. The Gophers were going where there would be hours of on-air talk about the U, multiple stations promoting Gophers sports, a growing online presence and a plethora of programming options.

"As the business of college athletics continues to evolve, we view this decision [as] a strategic step to combine great radio coverage for Gopher fans with the very best promotional opportunities for our football, men's and women's basketball and men's hockey teams," Maturi wrote.

He's not alone. The Twin Cities sports radio dial has been spinning with changes among local professional and Division I college sports teams.

The Gophers have moved. The Wild, which spent its first decade on WCCO, is moving to KFAN. The Wolves jumped from KFAN to WCCO. And the Vikings and Twins, the two biggest prizes in the market, might soon join the fray. This radio game of musical chairs didn't start with KSTP's switch to an all-sports format, but the changes have been coming fast and furious since it became 1500ESPN and joined KFAN as a sports radio station.

There's a laundry list of reasons these entities changed location on the radio dial. They're looking for more than game broadcasts. They're looking for daylong talk about their teams, a younger demographic and multiple platforms for promoting their "product."

"It's all about the chatter," said Carol Grothem, vice president broadcast manager at Compass Point Media, a local media consulting firm. "It's about talking about [the teams], living and breathing it, having the blogs they do, the fan-club base, all the social networking. It's perfect."

A bigger pie?

KSTP, in the final season of its inaugural contract with the Twins, took a look at its news talk-format ratings and decided about a year ago to make a change. According to Dan Seeman, vice president of operations for 1500ESPN, the decision was obvious.

"We had the Twins, Patrick Reusse and Joe Soucheray," Seeman said. "The thread that runs through all of that is sports. ... We could either start over, or take what we have and get a little jump start. We discovered ESPN was available. It made complete sense to go after a market that I thought was bigger than it showed in KFAN's ratings."

The three stations that produce the majority of local sports talk have a common thread. Seeman, WCCO's Mick Anselmo and KFAN's Gregg Swedberg, operations manager for Clear Channel Minneapolis, have KFAN roots.

The similarities seemingly end there. Seeman, running the upstart challenger, is the most eager to talk about the evolving local market. Anselmo, pleased with WCCO's new relationship with the Timberwolves, trumpets his station's "blowtorch" signal and cautions that the current market is just a snapshot in time. Swedberg, running the more established local all-sports station, doesn't talk about 1500ESPN, at least by name.

To Swedberg, KFAN is doing what it has always done. "As far as we're concerned, nothing has changed," he said. "When someone comes in and says, 'We're competing with you,' that's not really up to us. We've been competing with that station since we signed on."

Seeman talked much more freely about the two stations. "KFAN is a great station, but this is also a big town," he said.

Which presumably means both stations can thrive. The ratings, one year into the switch at 1500ESPN, would seem to support that.

According to Arbitron, in the coveted demographics of men aged 25 to 54, the market appears to have grown. From April 2009 through March 2010 -- before 1500 made its switch to all sports -- KSTP earned a 3.9 share compared to 6.6 for KFAN and 3.7 for WCCO. These are overall numbers within that demographic for listeners from Monday through Sunday, 6 a.m. through midnight.

From April 2010 through March 2011, 1500ESPN's share grew to 5.1, an increase of 30.8 percent. But the rise had a minimal effect on KFAN (6.4) and WCCO (3.4). The pie has grown, and each has its slice.

"Both stations can be independently successful here," Seeman said. "There will always be friendly competition, for play-by-play rights, getting guests on the air. We're competitive people. But the big winner ... is the listener."

A new game

The recent changes are driven not only by a second all-sports station looking for product but also by teams looking for more than a pregame show, the game broadcast and a brief postgame show from their on-air partner.

This is where the market has changed the most.

"I don't know that necessarily we've changed what we've done," Swedberg said. "As much as the teams have changed how they've accessed us, I think the teams are smarter. They manage the media better. They give better access, more content, information."

Take the Gophers. Their rights are held by Learfield Sports, which negotiates deals for each university team with local stations, though Maturi and his staff have the final OK. When Minnesota looked at changing its long-term relationship with WCCO, Maturi said he drew up a list of priorities. Signal, for example. Demographics. Would a station take women's basketball games as well as men's? Promotional tie-ins. The opportunity to be on stations that will talk Gophers sports most days. Every category was assessed.

And look where they ended up. Football is on KFAN, basketball and hockey are on 1500ESPN. What was most important?

"It's about selling tickets," Maturi said. "About maintaining interest, developing interest.''

KFAN already has had Gophers football players on air for multiple segments. The station will devote extensive air time for pre- and postgame shows. There will be a show for the head coach. If they're available, there could be shows or segments featuring top assistants and players. There will be podcasts, streaming video, blogs.

Bill Robertson, vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Wild, said the decision to change stations was a difficult one.

"We felt it was important as the demographics of our fan base are changing, the consistent chatter of the airways and our ability to sell and promote our product are becoming more and more a huge piece of the puzzle," he said.

Chatter. Teams want to be talked about from morning till night. They want to gain access to fans both on multiple stations and on multiple platforms -- from radio and TV to websites, blogs and social networks.

KFAN is planning to broadcast from many of the Wild's morning skates and some practices. Dan Barreiro, the station's popular afternoon drive-time host, will often broadcast from Xcel Energy Center leading into games. After many games, the station plans to run a postgame call-in show for fans.

Andy Price, the Twins' senior director/broadcasting and game presentation, said he liked the fit with 1500ESPN.

"Nobody is paying rights fees at the level [they did in the past]," he said. "Now it is how do you get creative with your partner to get your product as much exposure as possible."

Not everybody agrees. Wolves President Chris Wright said that ultimately, signal is the key, and WCCO's signal is by far the biggest.

"In the end, the signal outweighs everything," said Wright, who reported getting e-mails from fans as far away as Colorado after announcing the deal with WCCO. Wright said he feels Wolves play-by-play is "destination listening,'' and fans will find the broadcast.

Moving forward

More change is on the horizon. The Vikings are entering the final year of their deal with KFAN. The rights battle for the NFL team is sure to draw strong competition. The Twins' deal with 1500ESPN is up after next season. Anselmo noted that, nationally, CBS appears to be moving back toward play-by-play, highlighted by KMOX in St. Louis regaining the broadcast rights to Cardinals baseball.

WCCO continues to deal with the challenge of retaining its traditional base while attracting new listeners. Its current lineup, which includes sports-savvy hosts Dave Lee, Chad Hartman and Michelle Tafoya, seems well-placed to discuss and analyze the Timberwolves moving forward. The station also has a regular evening sports talk show with Mike Max and regular sports programming on the weekends.

"I still believe, hands down, that our advantage is the blowtorch signal," Anselmo said.

And he believes WCCO will remain a player in the play-by-play market going forward.

"We'll still be in the sports business," he said. "I'd love to be in the Twins or Vikings business. If that opportunity comes our way, we'll be there. If not, I like our relationship with the Wolves."

As for the all-sports stations? Another area of significant change -- and a difference in approach -- can be seen online. 1500ESPN has invested significantly in that area, hiring Tom Pelissero as senior editor of 1500ESPN.com. The site is focused on locally produced reporting. Pelissero travels with the Vikings and also has traveled to such offseason events as the NFL owners' meetings and the pre-draft combine. The website had a constant presence at spring training with the Twins and has bloggers lined up for all the major sports.

KFAN takes a different approach, looking to avoid duplicating what's been done elsewhere. The station's website is among the top 10 in Clear Channel's 900-station empire. Swedberg said the emphasis is on opinion, roundtable discussions and entertainment pieces.

So what's next? Grothem is waiting for sports talk to make a move to a big-signal FM station.

One thing seems certain. The changes we have seen in the past year are only the beginning.

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