Sports Radio Boston – FM vs. AM

FM start-up muscling into sports talk

A CBS-launched rival to WEEI emerges in post-WBCN shakeup

By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff  |  July 15, 2009

Boston Sports Radio

Boston Sports Radio

Longtime sports-radio powerhouse WEEI-AM (850) may finally have a real fight on its hands – and this time its opponent will come from the FM side of the dial.

CBS Radio revealed yesterday that it will launch a new sports-talk station, named 98.5 The Sports Hub, on Aug. 13 in Boston. The station, which will be heard at 98.5 FM and have the call letters WBZ-FM pending FCC approval, will try to lure listeners with call-in shows and broadcasts of New England Patriots and Boston Bruins games.

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a leading trade publication, said that while WEEI is a well-programmed station with loyal listeners, the new station will present it with “very strong competition, because the FM dial is a better piece of real estate.’’

Earlier rivals, such as WWZN-AM (1510), known as “The Zone,’’ have tried and failed to dislodge WEEI from its perch as the top-rated sports station in Boston. But the play-by-play broadcasts of Patriots and Bruins games, along with a powerful FM signal and the corporate muscle of CBS, could bolster the fledgling station’s identity as a destination for sports fans.

Mark Hannon, senior vice president and market manager of CBS Radio Boston, had words of praise for both WEEI and ESPN Radio (890), another sports-talk radio station in Boston, but made clear he believes the newcomer will be able to more than hold its own. “We don’t intend to replicate WEEI,’’ Hannon said in an interview. “We intend to build our own unique audience on the FM dial. We feel that in this town, where fans are so obsessed with sports, that there is room for an FM sports approach.’’

To be sure, WEEI itself has an FM presence outside the Boston area, airing on FM stations in Cape Cod, Providence, Springfield, and northern New England.

Jason Wolfe, vice president of AM programming for Entercom New England, which owns WEEI, voiced confidence the station would withstand the challenge. “It doesn’t change what we’re going to do,’’ Wolfe said. “We’ve dealt with competitive situations before, and we’re fully prepared to deal with it again. . . . We have the largest audience, and we know what it takes to maintain that audience.’’

At ESPN Radio (WAMG-AM), station manager Al Turner said he welcomes another combatant in the sports-radio wars.

However, since ESPN Radio focuses primarily on national sports, it will be WEEI and 98.5 The Sports Hub that square off most directly in the competition for local sports fans. Two well-known sportscasters, Michael Felger and Gary Tanguay, are expected to join the afternoon lineup on 98.5 while retaining their roles on Comcast SportsNet, where they cohost a show. (Felger also writes for the WEEI website and fills in occasionally as a host.) WBCN morning personalities Toucher and Rich will handle the morning drive on 98.5.

More broadly, yesterday’s announcement underscores the continuing extension of the talk radio format, long a mainstay of AM radio, into FM territory. Sports radio has proven to be a lucrative format because of its appeal to a demographic that can be hard to reach: young and middle-aged male listeners. FM stations are increasingly trying to grab a piece of that audience, with sports-talk shows on FM in Detroit, Dallas, Washington, and, soon, Boston.

“As we see the twilight of the music-radio era, talk radio is migrating to FM, and a lot of that is going to be sports,’’ Harrison said.

The switch will result from the movement of several radio properties, all owned by CBS. Mix 98.5, which broadcasts adult-contemporary music under the call letters WBMX, will move up the dial to 104.1 FM, where it will replace WBCN-FM, the legendary rock station.

The Bruins games that currently air on WBZ-AM (1030) will move to 98.5, as will the Patriots games that currently air on WBCN. No change is envisioned in the Patriots or Bruins broadcast teams, Hannon said.

It remains to be seen whether there will be a change in the competitive balance in the sports-radio landscape. “This is the third effort to come after us at ’EEI,’’ said Julie Kahn, vice president and market manager of Entercom New England. “The best content will win.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

Comments