ESPN 1500 had a problem. Well, it had a few problems. One was that it was a distant also-ran in the sports radio wars. KFAN had the Vikings, and that would seemingly never change. KFAN moved to an FM signal a decade ago, which was the proverbial game-changer. 1500’s core talent, Joe Soucheray and Patrick Reusse, were eligible to collect Social Security in a business whose prime demographic caps out 20 years younger.
In the final ratings periods before its format refresh last fall, the station ranked 17th in the media market, with a roughly 1.3 to 1.4 percent share of the radio audience among adults ages 35 to 64. During that same period, KFAN ranked sixth and held down roughly a 5 share.
What 1500 had going for it was a local owner, Hubbard Broadcasting, which was unafraid to put intentional dollars and innovation behind its properties. Last summer, it announced a major overhaul, tossing overboard all but one local program and most of its on-air talent.
It is perhaps telling that after the on-air purge, when the station aired little local content, its audience only dipped slightly.
“We really had to do this,” says Dan Seeman, vice president and region manager for Hubbard Radio in Minnesota. “The industry has been talking about AM revitalization for years. We decided to do something about it.”
“It” is the changing media consumption habits of millennials and now Gen Z, the prime audience demographic for sports radio. “I like to say, ‘Every day a 44-year-old turns 45, and takes those media habits out of the buying demo,’ ” Seeman says. “And every day a 17-year-old turns 18, and brings their media habits into that money demo.”
What that means is the media expectations of Gen Xers and especially baby boomers should no longer be driving the programming decisions of radio stations. The weak spot, ironically, wasn’t programming—it was format. Sports is sports, in a sense; but under-45s consume media differently.
And Hubbard’s sports station was at the far end of an AM dial, facing extinction. Every funeral represents another loss to AM radio’s audience. It was an existential problem lacking a solution—until recently.
“The problem AM has is a huge number of people never listen at all,” says Andy Bloom, former operations boss at WCCO Radio. “All of the electronics we have create interference with AM radio.” Bloom cites statistics showing that a decade ago in the Twin Cities, 61 percent of the radio audience was exclusive to FM. By 2016, it was 75 percent, roughly the national average. That means ESPN 1500 really only had access to a quarter of the listeners KFAN had.
“If [our format] was an FM signal, we’d have needed to do this,” Seeman says. “But if I am being honest, not as urgently as we are doing it now.”
What “this” is, is taking the radio out of the radio station. “I applaud what Hubbard is doing,” Bloom says. “For heritage AMs, standing still is not an option.”
The Internet has commodified content in a number of ways. It has rendered sports news non-exclusive. A fan need not tune into the radio at a given time of day to know the goings-on in their team or league. A crawl runs on ESPN all day, and notifications are pushed to your smartphone.
The web has also created a slew of sports programming, some of it microcasting about local teams, available off-air in podcast form—programming that can be listened to whenever. The same forces buffeting network television have hit radio harder. Commercial music radio has been affected most profoundly—what does it offer that Spotify and Apple Music don’t?
“We really had to do this. The industry has been talking about AM revitalization for years. We decided to do something about it.”
—Dan Seeman, vice president and region manager, Hubbard Radio in Minnesota
Sports radio does have one advantage over music. “Because sports is local content, it has a strong connection with audiences compared to music,” says Jason Barrett, who runs Barrett Sports Media, an industry consultancy. But even sports radio has lost control of its longtime ace in the hole: the distribution pipelines. “Used to be we owned [broadcast] towers,” Seeman says. “When you owned distribution, it was a limited-entry business; now it’s unlimited entry.”
“Now all we own is content,” Seeman continues, so “content has to get way better. And we have to make it available on every device possible.”
As Seeman and team began to strip down AM 1500, they focused on how modern sports fans absorb content, from wakeup to bedtime.
“Our model is the day of the sports fan,” he says. “Their entire day is consuming sports on different devices on different platforms at different times of day. When we presented that idea to stakeholders, their common response was, ‘That’s me.’ We have to follow them with content, but the ultimate goal is to help advertisers follow them with their messages.”
The key is the smartphone, which is omnipresent—bedside, in the bathroom, at work, while driving. “You’re even on the phone while you watch a game,” Barrett says. “You’re part of a conversation. People now do two or three things at once, always a part of this running conversation.”
It was a conversation traditional radio was largely excluded from.“NASCAR has dedicated millions to reach younger fans,” Barrett says. And when they wanted to deploy those dollars, they didn’t take them to ESPN or FOX, “they went to [millennial ‘bro’ sports content brand] Barstool Sports.”
So Hubbard set out to own the local sports fan’s smartphone by building a content platform that didn’t have to be exclusively consumed live, in the car.
This despite the fact that most local radio listening takes place in the car. “Radio owns the dashboard,” Seeman quips. “Traditional radio is going to own the dash for [the] foreseeable future. Half the cars coming off the line today are smart cars. But most people own cars seven to 11 years, so it’s going to take a decade to evolve. We want to be on the front end of it. That’s why we think this model of mixing traditional and digital distribution together is best for today.”
Seeman quotes a Scarborough stat that radio still reaches 91 percent of the local population each week, a statistic unchanged in five years. What has changed: “Time spent listening. That’s down in some cases 10 to 15 percent because there are so many other options.” He says Hubbard’s challenge was to take that base of reach and, rather than undercut it, add “layers of engagement. The grand experiment is [whether we can] do that under one umbrella.”
“When you owned distribution, it was a limited-entry business; now it’s unlimited entry. Now all we own is content, [so] content has to get way better. And we have to make it available on every device possible.”
One key for Hubbard is an element of counterprogramming. Its primary radio competitor, KFAN, is personality driven. Some of its most popular shows are rather light on sports content, not geared to a hard-core fan. It’s an outlier format that performs very well in this market.
The redesigned ESPN 1500 is called Skor North (note the lack of radio frequency) and focuses on teams. “We decided to build around content verticals,” says Phil Mackey, director of content and distribution at Skor North. “Rather than hire personalities for personality’s sake, we asked ‘What were the most important content areas?’ and hired talent around them. We focused on the Vikings and Twins. We think there are content opportunities. Twins fans are especially underserved. Minnesota United [soccer team] is an up-and-coming brand.”
“We’re trying to be opportunistic. Where are the holes?” Seeman says. “The biggest issue here is this linear versus on-demand listening. A Twins fan that is not getting fulfilled in traditional media can find their Twins programming here,” any time of day.
The programming day has changed as a result. “Instead of three- to four-hour talk-radio shows, our goal was to build something that would exist with or without radio and plug it into radio,” Mackey says. “The maximum time slot for us now is two hours.” Programming is available on a redesigned website and app that’s easy to find content on.
s Integration with social media is front of mind. “There are local [radio] brands that exist on these platforms like we do, but we’re not just moonlighting [on] YouTube and Instagram,” Mackey says. “For us, it’s not secondary to radio. We’re looking to treat seven to eight different platforms as lifelines.”
For example, Mackey and Judd Zulgad do a predictions segment (“Write This Down”) during their afternoon drive show. It airs on the radio, Twitter, and Twitch. The station also streams some content over Periscope and Facebook.
“In the past, what we might have done, problematically, is take a live segment and link to the stream. But is that kind of call to action going to maximize engagement?” asks Mackey. “If our two options are to send out a link on Twitter or give them an all-encompassing experience wherever they are, we have to choose that [all-encompassing] option, which is not as easy.”
The advertising piece remains a conundrum. “We’re still trying to figure out how to integrate ad content into on-demand, because it is very different from radio,” Seeman says. “It’s currently easier to sell spots on the radio than podcast spots. This is a bridge to the next era.”
Industry insiders say Skor North is ahead of its time. Most terrestrial radio stations have not taken such a deep dive into multi-platform because radio, like print, has yet to master a digital revenue model. It explains why KFAN and WCCO Radio, stations with more to risk in a rebranding, will likely sit back and watch Skor’s growing pains. “Most radio groups are wanting the revenue model to be established first,” Bloom says.
When they think about revenue potential, Seeman and Mackey look at it this way: “There are 1.7 million Vikings fans in the market,” Seeman says. “The best cume [total weekly audience] for a local talk station is 500,000, so you’re not going to get them all on the radio.”
Part of the appeal for Hubbard is the podcast/digital marketplace appears to be distinct from the radio advertiser. “Go listen to the ads you hear on sports radio and then listen to Bill Simmons’ [The] Ringer podcast network,” Mackey says. “They’re not the same companies.”
PwC has estimated global podcasting ad revenues will reach $1.6 billion by 2022. (Total domestic radio revenues were just over $17 billion last year, according to Ad Age.)
But right now Skor North is merely a content model being refined. Its ratings are paltry and some of its programming day remains filled with placeholder shows from ESPN. It was drawing less than a 1 rating in the winter Nielsen releases, substantially underperforming Minneapolis Public Schools–owned jazz and traffic station KBEM.
“We’re creating something to take to the marketplace,” Seeman says.
The great hope for AM radio has long been digital streaming, which negates the electronic interference and band bias that is killing AM. And the industry is perhaps on the verge of the killer app, experts say.
“The great equalizer is that AM is not at a disadvantage on a smartphone,” Bloom says. “What’s happening in the car is promising and chilling. 5G is around the corner. It will take three seconds to download a two-hour movie. Amazon is about to release Echo for the car. The entire digital world will be available in your car, not 12 radio stations.”
“The great equalizer is that AM is not at a disadvantage on a smartphone. What’s happening in the car is promising and chilling. 5G is around the corner. Amazon is about to release Echo for the car. The entire digital world will be available in your car, not 12 radio stations.”
—Andy Bloom, longtime radio programmer
Home listening is negligible among listeners under 40, but technology is about to change that too, perhaps. “I talk about the smart speaker,” Seeman says, “[being] in three of four homes by 2020. The good news is radio is back in everyone’s homes. The bad news is, so is everybody else. So it’s about creating meaningful brands, great content, and discovery, discovery, discovery. This is where that AM radio station is so valuable. It will help with discovery.”
The one fly in the ointment is the real potential that car ownership in America is about to fall off a cliff. No one really knows, but futurists say driverless cars, pervasive use of ride-sharing, and other radical changes in the transportation landscape are a decade or so away. Radio may “own the dashboard,” but it’s incumbent on radio to find other ways into people’s lives if it is to ensure its longevity. “Driverless has the potential to change everything,” Seeman admits.
Radio ratings are cut-and-dried; monetizing digital is less so. Measuring Skor North’s success on a new frontier is hardly clear. “It’s not going to be ratings,” Seeman says. “The good news on digital is the metrics are very detailed. But at the end of the day, the metrics I’m most interested in is how many cars can [advertisers] sell, or insurance policies can [they] write.”
He notes that Hubbard’s female-focused myTalk 107.1 substantially outperforms its ratings because ads work so effectively for its clients. His goal is similar for Skor North. He says the digital side will contain fewer commercials, but the cost per spot will be higher because “you are paying for effectiveness” and there is less passive listening to podcasts and digital. “But we have a lot of work to do on the sales model. We’re trying to figure out what the metrics are, what to charge for it, and how to seamlessly deliver it.”
Radio, like newspapers, has been content to watch its audience and exclusivity slip away, with rather weak competitive responses. Skor North may be a work in progress, but it’s an honest shot at redefining radio’s future in an industry with few big ideas. “We do not want to pretend we have all the answers,” Mackey says. “But we’re probably among the most curious.”
ESPN 1500’s weakness has proved a strength, but one that was exploitable only because a local owner known for prioritizing innovation decided to make an investment.
“It’s deal with it now and get ahead of it, or deal with it five to 10 years from now and be behind it,” Seeman explains. “We decided to get ahead of it. This is still a $150 million radio market, and you can do a nice business with a share of it, but it’s not growing. We need to grow it in other ways. We’re willing to take a swing, and that’s so typical of the Hubbards.”
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.