ESPN has spent more than a decade as a muted also-ran in its sports talk radio battle with WFAN, unable to overtake the station that invented the genre but unwilling to give up.
Now, at last, the network has made a move that could be a game-changer.
Starting Monday, ESPN Radio's New York outlet will move to 98.7 FM, replacing the venerable rhythm and blues station KISS-FM. It gives ESPN Radio a clearer signal (especially after sunset) and follows an industrywide rush to the FM band.
The station will simulcast on 1050 AM until September, at which point the signal will become a Spanish-language sports station under the ESPN Deportes banner.
No one at ESPN expects overnight success; everyone there hopes this is the start of something bigger. "Our focus isn't on saying, 'Hey, we have an FM, and that means we have a great chance of winning,' " said David Roberts, the station's general manager. "We know we have to deliver to win, and that's the bottom line."
ESPN, in the market for an FM station in New York for several years, finally struck a deal to lease the signal from 98.7's financially troubled owner, Emmis Communications. Of ESPN's 364 full-time affiliates, 137 are on FM stations, up 120 percent in less than three years. Overall, three out of four terrestrial radio listeners tune to FM.
"Finding a New York FM is like finding beachfront property," said Traug Keller, an ESPN senior vice president.
WFAN now faces a difficult decision: Whether to stay put at its longtime home at 660 AM or move to FM, presumably to CBS-owned 92.3.
CBS said only this in a statement: "WFAN is part of the fabric of the New York sports scene and remains singularly focused on producing the best local sports news and commentary in this very popular and fast-growing category."
Keller said the move to FM was not done specifically with the Yankees in mind. But he did say, "It's certainly a benefit to our current play-by-play partners and it's a benefit to any prospective play-by-play partners."
The Mets' contract with CBS-owned WFAN expires after 2013, but CBS could look to re-sign the Yankees, keep them on WCBS one more season and then move them to WFAN for 2014 and let the Mets go. The Mets have been on WFAN since it launched in 1987.
A potential key: How important is it to the Yankees to be on FM? If they want that, it could nudge WFAN in that direction.
ESPN announced changes to its lineup effective Monday, notably Stephen A. Smith replacing Robin Lundberg beside Ryan Ruocco from 1 to 3 p.m. and Michael Kay's show being trimmed by an hour to 3 to 6. Mike Lupica's one-hour show will move from 2 p.m. to noon. (Smith will be the first voice heard on 98.7 at 12:01 a.m. Monday.)
The change in format at 98.7 came as a shock to many R&B fans in New York; KISS-FM (WRKS) has been around for 30 years. Emmis sold intellectual property rights to the station to YMF Media, which will merge it into WBLS (107.5 FM).
WRKS has suffered in the ratings under Arbitron's people meters, which replaced the old diary system. It also lagged in overall advertising billings.