Monday, July 2, 2012

The Fan At 25

The impact of WFAN 660 New York on its 25 year anniversary as an all-sports radio station over the weekend has been more significant to other media than it is to radio at this point in time. But The Fan has made a significant impact.

This is not to say that the impact on the radio industry is not significant. It was, even into the past five years. Even with some rough sailing in the early years, WFAN opened the doors for other markets to go on with all-sports radio stations, as well as for  getting radio the long overdue recognition as a hot resource for sports coverage. Back in 1987, sports fans did not have the internet. The TV sports networks were not always full-time, often existing to show the games and studio shows, and little else. Only ESPN was a full-time sports network, presenting SportsCenter a few times per day when the games and their "time filler" events didn't pre-empt. Newspapers were still a hotbed for sports information even though they were hours behind radio for getting information to the public.

Since New York has two teams in the metro area (including the New Jersey entries), the local sports scene has long had two (and in the case of hockey with the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils, three) teams to analyze and discuss going back to before WFAN was started.

What WFAN started was the in-depth coverage and discussion of all things sports, branching it out from the 2-hour sports talk shows on a couple of stations in each market, as well as from "sports final" extended recap shows which several 'major league' market stations would provide.

Upcoming player drafts could be analyzed, the next road trip or series could be previwed and predicted. Fans had a regular means to hear what other fans thought. More importantly, expert analysts had a longer outlet to inform interested fans. Having grown up years before this happened, having an all-sports radio station was just a dream. In the late 80's, it came true, and the format spread across the country.

While it was great to have WFAN acknowledge this 25-year anniversary, the way they did so indirectly showed how much as changed regarding sports talk and sports coverage during that time span. Along with "why" it has.

The FAN could have done a lot better than to promote Mike Francesa going on with Boomer & Carton (morning show) as being a "special guest". So help me, they did that. In my 40 years of working in and covering sports media, I had never heard of a co-worker at the same station being considered a "special guest". Much of the Sunday (7/1) "25th Anniversary Celebration" on WFAN consisted of current and former staffers handling one to two hour segments. It wasn't until the last hour, prior to the station's Mets broadcast (which happened to be on Sunday Night Baseball), that the station devoted an hour to "the major sports happenings of the past 25 years". I always thought it was the format, and not the hosts, that was the most significant.

Twenty-five years later, sports radio is an accepted part of almost every radio market, often to the point of more than one station providing the format. In some markets, including NYC, San Francisco, and Detroit, the leading sports station is among the most listened to stations. In others, it barely makes a dent.

These days, WFAN faces radio competition from ESPN Radio, which has just added an FM signal to the mix. The FAN has been able to fend off the challenge by a respectable margin. However, unlike 1987, local sports fans have many more choices today. They have SNY and YES, which are local and (almost) full-time sports TV networks. Local web sites, including an ESPN New York site, are devoted to providing updated and fresh information and an outlet for fan opinions. Fans are getting scores, game details, and in some cases trade information on their phone no matter where they are.

That is what sports radio stations in NYC, as well as other markets with different players, are really competing against. For the WFAN's to do so, they'll need to do better than promoting on-air colleagues as a "special guest" to show how far they have come along in 25 years.

Elsewhere, a great move by the NFL to push back national doubleheader games to 4:25 ET starts beginning with the coming season in order to allow fans to see the conclusion of the majority of the early games. After years of fan complaints when local stations would have to cut away from a dramatic end to an early game because of contractual obligations to show the late game, this move shows that the NFL is aware of these concerns. A significant part of this announcement is that the 4:25 start is not uniform for late games. Instead it will only apply to the primary doubleheader games, with other "regional" late games continuing to begin at 4:05 ET.

As a result, it should mean that fans watching late regional games will likely have their game end in time to see the conclusion of the national game, which sometimes is an even better matchup than a failed local team's. Now we need to hope that the early games do not become lax with their kickoff time and commercial breaks that would allow early games to run even longer and potentially negate this decision.

It will also be interesting to see if or how NBC reacts when it comes to starting its expanded pre-game show leading into Sunday Night Football. This change assures that the primary doubleheader game(s) will run even further into NBC's pre-game show on a regular basis, unless NBC decides to delay its start until 7:30 PM ET. Don't count out the possibility of NBC Network taking that time back to run some half hour shows as a make or break for other time slots.

ESPN is allowing Chris Berman to call play-by-play of the late game of its Monday Night Football opener in September when Oakland hosts San Diego at 9:15 PM ET, with Trent Dilfer as analyst. As a result, Suzy Kolber will host Monday Night Countdown for the opening week. Berman will, as usual, host Sunday NFL Countdown from Bristol the morning before, and fly out to Oakland later in the day.

Congrats to Len Dawson on being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame "again" this year. On August 3rd, the 77 year-young Dawson will enter as a broadcaster. Dawson was already a TV sportscaster in Kansas City going back to 1966 during his playing career. He is about to begin his 28th season as analyst on the Chiefs' Radio Network, and of course, was a fixture on "Inside the NFL" on HBO for 24 seasons staring in 1977, when not many sports fans knew what HBO was.

On the other extreme, still no word (as of press time) about the return of Daron Sutton to the AZ Diamondbacks broadcast booth, after he was reportedly suspended for unconfirmed reasons last week. Sutton had also been scheduled to call the D-backs vs. Brewers telecast for Fox Sports on Saturday, but called upon Eric Collins instead, as if to honor the team's decision. For however long this lasts, Greg Schulte moves over from the radio booth to the TV side along with Mark Grace, while Jeff Munn fills in along with Tom Candiotti on the radio broadcasts. Sutton has not been on since calling the June 20th game vs. Seattle.

Fox Sports has moved the St. Louis vs. Cincinnati game on July 14th from a night game to 4:05 ET in order to make the N.L. Central battle one of its regional telecasts as the network returns to afternoon telecasts from its Saturday prime-time run.

Moving over to college basketball, Fox Sports has the TV rights to the San Diego State vs. Syracuse game on November 9th which will be played on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum at 7 PM ET. The network has decided to put the telecast on Fox Sports Network and its affiliates which can clear the game. Fox Sports San Diego will definitely air the contest. Calling the game will be none other than Dick Enberg, who has called his share of memorable college hoop battles over his great career.

HOUSTON: After 10 seasons on KILT, the Rockets will launch on KBME 790 this fall in the first season of a new four-year contract. Craig Ackerman and Joel Blank will continue as the broadcast team. KILT continues to carry the Texans, and has added to its branding as "Texans Radio" as a lead-in to the upcoming NFL season.

BALTIMORE/D.C.: Recent TV ratings confirm that both Orioles and Nationals telecasts on MASN and MASN2 are up for the current season, just as both teams are in the standings. Nationals games are showing a much stronger 50% audience increase as of late June, putting both baseball teams ahead of the NHL Capitals and NBA Wizards telecast ratings from the most recent season.

BOSTON: Tim Wakefield has joined NESN as a studio analyst for Red Sox telecasts as of this past weekend. The former pitcher retired this past off-season after 19 seasons in the big leagues, mostly with the Red Sox.

St. LOUIS: KPLR-TV Channel 11 will be air the Rams' exhibition games in August, although the Aug. 18 and 30 home games would be shown on delay if not sold out, which seems likely at this point in time. More importantly, KPLR will also have the local simulcast from NFL Network of the Oct. 4th Thursday Night Football telecast vs. Arizona at 7:20 PM local time.

PITTSBURGH: WXDX 105.9 has a three-year renewal to continue airing the Penguins games into at least the 2017-18 season. The station has aired the games since 2006, and will now expand the pre-game show to one hour.

PHILADELPHIA: Comcast SportsNet has added Danny Pommells as an on-air reporter after having worked part-time for the Network since earlier this year.

BUFFALO: Good news for Sabres fans, as Rick Jeanneret announced that he plans to call every game for the upcoming season, which will be his 41st with the team.

NEW ORLEANS: Fox Sports Southwest will become Fox Sports New Orleans in October, and has acquired the Hornets games. FSNO plans to show 75 regular season games, although nothing has been confirmed yet (as of press time) regarding whether or not Bob Licht and Gil McGregor will continue to call the games. FSNO will also carry SEC football and hoops, as well as Big 12 and Conference USA sports. The network is also planning to air selected Texas Rangers baseball and Dallas Stars hockey games.

MEMPHIS: WHBQ 560 is now simulcast on 87.7 FM.

OMAHA: With local host Kevin Kugler taking on more responsibilities with Big Ten Network, along with some NFL and college hoops play-by-play for Dial Global, he has left his afternoon hosting spot on The Zone 1620. Kugler will do some guest spots and occasional fill-in work for The Zone. As of press time, a replacement host for afternoons has not been determined.

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