The only thing more dire than the state of the Minnesota Twins' pitching is the future of sports on AM radio. The team confimed Wednesday morning that in 2013, Twins broadcasts will jump from ESPN (1500 AM) to KTWN (96.3 FM), a much smaller station that, like the Twins, is owned by the Pohlad family.
The new agreement calls for KTWN to broadcast all regular and post-season games and at least 25 spring training games.
The news, first made public in Tuesday's Star Tribune, was officially announced on KTWN at the end of a two-hour program Wednesday morning that originated from the Legends Club at Target Field.
As they have on ESPN 1500, the Twins will continue to produce the game broadcasts, including pre-game and post-game shows. During the season, KTWN says it will feature Twins coverage including game day shows often originating on-location from various places in and around Target Field and Northern Lights Broadcasting’s new studios at the Ford Center, which is across the street from Target Field on 5th St. N.
KFAN (100.3 FM), which broadcasts the Vikings, the Wild and University of Minnesota football, switched its signal from AM to FM last year. Lynx games are heard on BOB (106.1 FM).
The only pro team on AM next year will be the Timberwolves on WCCO (830 AM).
It's a transition playing out nationwide. The Pittsburgh Pirates went to FM in 2007; the Texas Rangers did likewise two years later. New York City's ESPN radio station recently moved to FM to woo the Yankees, who will be free agents next season.
"AM radio is in trouble, period," said Fred Jacobs, president of Detroit-based consultant Jacobs Media. "That doesn't mean it's dead, but it's certainly on the back nine."
Sports is moving to FM because adult males are turning away from AM radio, Jacobs said. That's based on data collected since the Arbitron ratings service changed to a more accurate "People Meter" system three years ago.
"There was this tradition in radio that FM is where you had the music and AM served up talk, news and sports," he said. "But when you think about it, that doesn't make any great sense."
The downside of FM: A weaker signal may make it harder for fans in outlying parts of the Twin Cities to hear the broadcasts.
FM is a tough competitor
The Twins' relationship with the AM band goes back more than 50 years. After the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961, it broadcast on the powerhouse signal of WCCO (830 AM), but jumped five years ago to 1500 AM and rival KSTP, owned by Hubbard Broadcasting of St. Paul.
The station adopted the ESPN name two years ago to reflect a new all-sports emphasis, largely to keep the Twins. It remains "100 percent" committed to that format, said Hubbard vice president Dan Seeman, despite the loss of the Twins and nearly double-digit drops in listenership for some key shows. It will continue to broadcast Gophers basketball games under a three-year contract signed in 2011.
Seeman admitted it's increasingly difficult to compete with FM.
"It sounds better on FM, it just does," Seeman said. "All we can do is give listeners such great content that the sound quality won't matter as much."
ESPN 1500 will continue to broadcast Twins' ancillary programs such as "The Ron Gardenhire Show." That's because KTWN, when it's not airing games, plans to continue an all-music format. Currently it plays an eclectic mix of 1980s and '90s rock with a sprinkling of contemporary hits.
Can sports join music ?
It's becoming more common for music stations to get into the sports business, said Gregg Swedberg, operations manager for KFAN's owner, Clear Channel Minneapolis.
"It doesn't make sense to start another all-sports station," said Swedberg. "It does make sense to add baseball if you're looking to bring new ears to your format."
In addition to recruiting more rock lovers, KTWN could attract advertisers with the lure of free Twins tickets and Target Center suites in exchange for doing business.
KTWN could use the exposure. In July it drew a dismal 1.4 percent share of Twin Cities radio listeners, and didn't even crack the top 20 stations. Ratings at 1500 ESPN have mirrored the Twins' sagging fortunes, with a 2.8 share in July, compared with 3.9 a year ago.
One problem for the Pohlads' station is its limited reach: "KTWN doesn't have the greatest signal and it doesn't cover certain areas of the Twin Cities very well," Swedberg said.
Fans outside the Twin Cities shouldn't be affected by the move. The Twins Radio Network has nearly 90 Upper Midwest affiliates.
Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin