Sports-talk radio wars begin in Seattle on opening day
Starting Monday, Seattle sports fans will finally have a radio choice: KJR or KIRO. The two AM radio stations will face off in a battle for the Seattle sports-talk market when KIRO (710) launches its new format to counter the established KJR (950).
Seattle Times staff reporter
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
Owner: Bonneville Communications, based in Salt Lake City.
Key properties: Home of the Seahawks and Mariners.
Key personalities: Former Sonics play-by-play man Kevin Calabro and former UW and Seahawks QB Brock Huard.
Key strength: Will have an immediate built-in audience thanks to the Mariners and Seahawks coverage.
Key question: Will it matter that Calabro and Huard, while well-known, don't have much talk-show experience? That's particularly true of Huard, who has been in the profession just a couple of years.
Owner: Clear Channel Communications, based in San Antonio, Texas.
Key properties: Home of UW football and basketball.
Key personalities: Mitch Levy, Dave "Softy" Mahler, Dave "The Groz" Grosby, Mike "Gas Man" Gastineau, Elise Woodward, Ian Furness.
Key strength: KJR has had a stable lineup for a long time that has built up a lot of loyalty and comfort among listeners.
Key question: Will that established lineup be enough to pull fans back to KJR after they listen to the M's, Hawks on KIRO?
Starting Monday, Seattle sports fans will finally have a radio choice: KJR or KIRO.
Husky honk Dave "Softy" Mahler during lunch, or former Washington quarterback Brock Huard, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.? Groz and Gas at drive time, or former Sonics play-by-play man Kevin Calabro, now the voice of Sounders FC?
Monday will begin to answer not only whether the Mariners will be better this season, but whether Seattle is ready to support two all-sports radio stations.
KIRO (710 AM) is using the occasion of opening day — its first since regaining the rights to the Mariners — to debut its all-sports format, which will post the first direct challenge that KJR (950 AM) has faced since it went all sports in 1992.
Some wonder if the sports buffet might prove too much for a city that doesn't have the reputation for being as passionate as New York, Chicago or Philadelphia — through good times and bad — nor as large.
"I think the jury is still out as to whether this town can support two sports formats," said Gordon Bryson, president of International Media Partners, a Bellevue-based media-research firm. "I think they can. I think there is enough diversity out there to do that. But we shall see."
The men in charge of each of the stations, however, are more confident.
"I don't get that question," says KJR-AM program director Rich Moore. "How many country stations do we have in this market? How many news stations? If you look at the top 15 markets in the country, all of them have at least two and some of them have at least three sports stations. You can build sports stations all different kinds of ways."
Rod Arquette, program director for KIRO, also thinks there will be room enough for both.
"KJR puts out a really solid, good product," he said. "But we think we can create an alternative, a different choice for the sports fan."
KIRO, which will be called 710 ESPN Seattle, will actually begin to make the change at 11:55 a.m. Thursday, when it will begin the live broadcast of a Mariners spring-training game and then shift all of its other regular programming — news-talk shows such as Dave Ross and Dori Monson — to its FM station, 97.3.
From then until Monday, the AM station will run ads promoting the debut of the all-sports network. At 3 a.m. Monday, KIRO-AM will officially go all-sports, debuting with the ESPN "Mike and Mike Show," dumping the news-talk format that has been its identity for more than 30 years.
Some would argue the Seattle area is already supporting two all-sports stations, pointing to KRKO-AM, an all-sports station in Everett with a lineup that includes former KJR personality Jeff "The Fish" Aaron.
But to most sports fans, the all-sports battle figures to be KJR vs. KIRO.
After Bonneville Communications, which owns KIRO, made the announcement last November that it intended to go all-sports with 710 AM, KJR began positioning itself as "live and local" to contrast the fact that KIRO will have a lot of hours of ESPN programming. And in recent ads, KJR has promoted its lengthy all-sports history in Seattle.
Moore, however, says KJR doesn't plan to change much.
"The reality is being the only all-sports station in this market for so long, we were really able to establish our brand," he said. "When you have competition, it's going to make you focus and do better. But we don't have any plans to change anything. We are the established one. They are the ones that are going to have to establish themselves."
Arquette said Bonneville made the move with KIRO only after signing a new three-year deal with the Mariners. Combined with an existing deal with the Seahawks, it gave the station the play-by-play rights to the two most popular pro teams in town. Bonneville also has the rights to the Sounders FC, putting those on 97.3 FM.
"A number of items had to come together or we would not have done this," Arquette said.
Having the Mariners and Seahawks' one-two punch will give KIRO lots of built-in programming to grow an audience, Bryson, with the media-research fire, says. But there are some intangibles.
"What will help them immediately is if the Mariners can get hot," Bryson said.
Arquette believes fans who want inside information on those teams will flock to KIRO. But some figure that could also lead to boosterism toward hometown teams.
Moore says KIRO will give fans more of the "straightforward access" to the team while KJR will be "more like a sports page. We'll be opinion based and have an edge to us."
KJR also remains the home of UW football and basketball, giving it an anchor to its programming.
KJR will also have essentially around-the-clock local programming with its own shows from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. For now, the only regular local shows on KIRO are Huard and Mike Salk, most recently a co-host on an ESPN radio show in Boston and a regular on ESPN TV football shows, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Calabro from 3-6, plus Mariners pre- and postgame shows. The rest of the time the station will air ESPN radio shows such as Mike and Mike from 3-7 a.m. and Colin Cowherd from 7-11 a.m.
Moore is banking on fans turning the dial to KJR morning hosts talking about the Seattle teams. "When you wake up the next morning do you want to hear Colin Cowherd talk about the Yankees?" he asks.
Still, Huard and Calabro are well-known names sure to elicit a lot of curiosity from fans. KIRO is also expected to help fill out those shows with some regular appearances from other well-known Seattle sports personalities, such as longtime Post-Intelligencer columnists Jim Moore and Art Thiel.
KJR counters with several Seattle Times sports reporters and columnists on air during the week.
Rich Moore, though, insists there doesn't have to be a loser in this game.
"If I was just a sports fan and not in the business, I'd think it's almost like getting a new team, something else to follow your passions through," Moore says.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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