ESPN has spent more than a decade banging its head against the WFAN wall in New York’s sports talk radio wars, 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, giving it a far clearer signal and following an industry-wide rush to the FM band.
(The station will be simulcast on 1050 AM until September to give listeners time to get used to the idea, at which point the old signal will be given over to a Spanish-language sports station under the ESPN Deportes banner.)
No one at ESPN expects overnight success, but everyone there hopes this is the start of something bigger.
ESPN has been in the market for an FM station in New York for several years, and finally struck a deal not to buy one but to lease the signal for 12 years from 98.7’s owner, Emmis Communications.
In markets around the nation the trend for sports talk has been to FM, often with great success. Of ESPN Radio’s 364 full-time affiliates, 137 are on FM stations, up 120 percent in less than three years.
WFAN now must decide whether to stay put at its long-time home at 660 AM or move to an FM home of its own such as CBS-owned 92.3.
ESPN made some changes to its lineup, notably Stephen A. Smith replacing Robin Lundberg beside Ryan Ruocco from 1 to 3 p.m., with Mike Lupica moving from 2 p.m. to noon and Michael Kay’s show being trimmed by an hour to 3 to 6 p.m. (Smith is scheduled to be the first voice heard on the new channel location at 12:01 a.m. Monday.)
But the new-look station’s first chance to make a huge splash will come when the Yankees’ one-year extension of their deal with CBS Radio expires after this season.
ESPN is prepared to offer more than the $13 to $14 million per year CBS currently pays the Yankees, which could set up an intense bidding war.
Such a deal would have no direct impact on the futures of announcers John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, whose fates will be determined more by the Yankees than by the Yankees’ radio partner.
The Mets’ contract with CBS-owned WFAN expires after 2013, but CBS could look to keep the Yankees, move them to WFAN and let the Mets go, perhaps to ESPN.
As powerful and rich in tradition as are many of New York’s clear-channel AM stations, an estimated three in four terrestrial radio listeners are tuned into FM, even more so among younger people.
In markets such as Boston, sports talk has migrated to that band. Now it is New York’s turn, at least for ESPN.
Don Bouloukos, a senior VP for CBS Radio New York, said 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.’’
ESPN’s move to 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 of late under Arbitron's people meters, which replaced the old diary system.