SBJ/April 24 - 30, 2006/SBJ In Depth

How the radio industry is changing with the times

New platforms such as MP3 players have challenged the radio industry and contributed to a 45-minute per-day decline in time the average consumer spent listening to radio over the last two years, according to Arbitron. But sports radio executives believe their business is stronger than ever because their stations provide content driven by local news for local listeners.

“I truly believe it is the most impervious (format) to some of the competing forces,” said Andrew Saltzman, president of WQXI-AM in Atlanta. “That excites me about the future of our industry.”

Increasingly, stations are turning to a variety of new technologies and strategies to improve their ability to reach listeners, and those efforts mean new trends will emerge in the future.

High definition
Digital radio promises to be the next frontier for sports stations nationwide. California’s KFWB 980 became a pioneer in early April when it began broadcasting Los Angeles Dodgers games in high definition on 97.1.

The format, with HD-ready equipment, elevates AM-radio quality to that of FM and FM-radio sound onto a level comparable to a quality stereo system’s sound.

“You really get to experience the sound,” said Andrew Ashwood, vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Radio Network. “I’m waiting for a guy to throw a bag of peanuts from across the room.”

The format also will allow stations to broadcast more than one content stream in their bandwidth. Thus, while a station such as 97.1 FM might play Adam Corrolla’s show on one stream, it can simultaneously offer the Dodgers game on another.

As more listeners get high-definition radios, stations will increasingly look for content to fill those channels, Ashwood said.

“If you don’t have a sports radio station in your cluster,” he added, “guess what: We’ll be knocking on your door, saying, ‘I’ve got Jim Rome for you.’”

Mobile phone
In January, Sporting News Radio joined MSpot, a California-based wireless entertainment company, to provide a variety of sports radio options for mobile phone users. It was another step in sports radio’s growing effort to provide content on a cellular platform.

Currently, MSpot has 40,000 subscribers, a number that’s projected to grow to 100,000 in the next six to nine months, said Shawn Pastor, senior vice president of business development at Sporting News Radio. He believes the cell phone will be the best way to get content into the ears of listeners.

“Eventually, we’ll carry one device,” he said, “and it will be the cell phone. On a national basis, it’s the one thing that everyone uses and it’s affordable.”

That’s what makes it the most compelling technology, he added, and the technology most likely to grow for sports radio in the future.

Brand extension
This summer, WQXI will open a 60,000-square-foot, high-tech restaurant filled with plasma TVs and high-speed Internet access. Within the last year, the station also created “Score Atlanta,” a weekly tabloid magazine. As radio stations continue to look for ways to expand revenue, efforts to extend their brand have become increasingly popular.

“It gives you the opportunity to touch people beyond what we think are the artificial stimuli of billboards, TV spots or direct mail,” Ashwood said.

More than that, though, it allows Saltzman to pitch WQXI to advertisers as a sports marketing vehicle, not just a radio station. That’s made it easier to net sales.

“Stations have to present themselves as more than what’s coming out of the box,” Saltzman said. “They have to use other things in their arsenal to activate 25- to 54-year-olds. [The restaurant] gives us a chance to capture that guy in a high-impact environment.”

Just like real estate’s mantra — location, location, location — sports radio has always lived by content, content, content.

Since adding Stephen A. Smith to the noon to 2 p.m. shift, WEPN in New York has increased its listener rating by 91 percent, garnering a 2.3 rating among men 25-54. Program director Mike Thompson said that growth is part of sports radio’s real trend — a listener-fueled desire for more personality on the air. “People want someone who’s funny and smart,” he said, “who’s credible and hysterical.”

Correspondent Andrew Grossman contributed to this article.

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