The Biz: ESPN radio looks to score

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It's tough for a radio host when no one calls. Besides having to fill the airtime alone, it's a confidence killer: Either people aren't listening or aren't inspired to dial in.

So there was considerable frustration at New York's WEVD-AM 1050 after Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN took over Sept. 1 and turned it into an all-sports format. Hosts and executives felt like the Maytag man. "The first two months or so when we'd open up the phones we would beg people to call in and look at the phone lines and pray that something would light up," says Rob Astorino, executive producer. "Now, they're lit up constantly."

For the station rebranded as 1050 ESPN Radio, that's the good news. The bad news is that the station has struggled to establish itself. It's still tinkering with the programming mix, deciding how much should be locally focused alongside the national content provided by the ESPN network that has some 600 affiliates nationwide. And so far it has not met the criteria to be rated by Arbitron, making it difficult to sell ads purchased by agencies. "We need to calculate a reach and frequency," says Ann Pomeranz, director-local broadcast, OMD USA. "It's very hard when you don't have a number to deal with."

fresh air

But 1050 ESPN has been around only 10 months. In July, it promises a revamp that will include new on-air personalities and a different sound and energy, likely reflecting more the tongue-in-cheek and irreverence of cable TV's ESPN. And this fall, it expects to register in the Arbitron ratings and will offer broadcasts of the National Football League's New York Jets games.

ESPN 1050 has encountered a similar fate to another all-sports entrant in New York-WSNR-AM 620. Launched in 1997, it was rebranded last year as Sporting News Radio, named after the magazine, now part of Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. WSNR is also not yet rated by Arbitron and suffers from a weak signal that doesn't reach large patches of the New York area. It also offers mostly nationally oriented programming through a network with more than 350 affiliates. The station has asked the FCC for a more powerful signal and plans to build a New York studio where it could anchor local programming.

The $700 million New York radio market is crucial to advertisers and sports content is considered a reliable vehicle to reach men in the 25-54 demographic there. "Sports programming brings in a very exclusive young male audience which is an extremely desirable demographic," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers, an industry publication.

Balancing the appropriate dose of local programming with a national feed is considered vital to the ultimate success of both ESPN and WSNR. National content can be a turnoff if there's a hot local issue percolating.

Even if the two stations find that mix, standing in their way is Viacom's 15-year-old leviathan WFAN-AM 660, the country's third-highest ad seller with $51.4 million in ad billings last year, according to Duncan's Radio Market Guide. It has popular programs such as "Mike and the Mad Dog" and a slew of live sports.

Last fall, in anticipation of ESPN's launch, WFAN used an ad campaign with the tagline "the flagship station for New York sports." A month later, ESPN played off its TV roots with a campaign using the theme "Because you don't have cable in your car."

WFAN executives say they're concerned about competition, but haven't been affected yet. "I wouldn't say we've been impacted at this point in any significant way," says Donovan Welsh, general sales manager, who heads ad sales. Arbitron figures show WFAN's ratings (percent of total market population) for males ages 25 to 54 fell 13% from 0.8 to 0.7 from winter 2001 to winter 2002, while share (percent of radio listeners) dropped 11% from 4.6 to 4.1.

From 1987 to 1997, as all-sports radio mushroomed in the U.S., WFAN was the only entrant in the country's largest market. Now, with a battle among major media companies, media buyers are rooting for the upstarts. "[WFAN] shouldn't be the only one in the game," says Lisa Sangalli, associate broadcast director, Optimedia. "It helps us when there's somebody else, but right now it's a moot point because [ESPN and WSNR are] not strong and not proven."

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