Game Theory in Local Radio
KFAN host Dan Cole performs standup at the River Oaks Golf Course in 2015. City of Cottage Grove on YouTube

Game Theory in Local Radio

Why playing games is becoming an engaging strategy for radio, KFAN in particular.

KFAN has never been a normal sports talk station, so perhaps it should not have surprised anyone that more and more at various times of day, I find it not talking about sports but playing games. Smart games, dumb games, inventive games, ripped-off games.

It should shock no one that the station, which not infrequently has the highest audience share of any sports station in the country, continues to bend its genre. Less a format than a boutique of premium radio talent held together by a thematic emphasis, The Fan continues to win by doing things its own way.

Gamification is an intriguing programming strategy that didn’t start as a strategy but has borne fruit in audience development and advertiser engagement. “It’s appointment listening, which is different than a lot of our programming day,” says program director Chad Abbott.

The two most prominent gamers are the Power Trip Morning Show and Dan “The Common Man” Cole in early afternoons. Power Trip has been playing the Initials Game every Friday morning for 420 weeks (really) at press time. Developed by Cory Cove, one of the troika of personalities who helm the show, it’s a complex and challenging 20 minutes built around a set of initials. Show regulars are given clues to answers, which all have the initials in common.

“We were trying to kill some time. … I’ve been surprised at the appeal of it.”

—Dan “common man” Cole, KFAN 12–3 PM host

A bracketed Initials Invitational Tournament started this summer, modeled on the success of “Progrum Password” on Cole’s show. It’s the old TV Password game ported to radio. The championship round in June was played before a live audience at station owner iHeart Media’s St. Louis Park studios.

The games, rather than featuring callers or listeners, are played by station staffers and on-air bit players, with occasional help from personalities at sister radio stations in the same office. “We like that it showcases our talent,” says Abbott, “and if it’s popular with listeners it’s popular with sponsors.” Abbott watches the streaming audience rise in real time. “I see thousands of people tune in.”

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The industry has noticed. KFAN’s erudite PM drive host Dan Barreiro mused about adding a game recently, and the week he took over afternoon drive on WCCO Radio, Jason DeRusha added a version of the TV chestnut CardSharks. They play games on MyTalk 107, KS95, and I’m sure others. But it surprises most on stations devoted to topical talk about news or sports; maybe people are looking for a diversion from real life.

“We were trying to kill some time, and I saw the popularity of Initials,” recalls Cole. “I’ve been surprised at the appeal of it.” His producer, Brandon Mileski, birthed what is the most original of the radio games, KFAN’s annual Preposterous Statement Tournament, which pits hyperbole from local public figures in a bracketed tourney, during Cole’s show. Cole points out it’s technically not a game. Granted, though it’s still one of the smartest things on local radio.

Initials was born seven to eight years ago, though “we’ve played games for 20 years,” notes Cove, who joined KFAN as an intern in 2002 and is Power Trip’s de facto “quarterback.” Cove has a 13,000-item database of initialed terms on his laptop and devotes three hours a week to prepping each Friday’s game. He created a home version, raised $356,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, and has sold 20,000 copies. Cove was savvy enough to negotiate the intellectual property rights with iHeart before the game became a station franchise.

He says Power Trip really took off when the hosts realized their job was to be entertaining, not sports savants. (“Being middle schoolers has paid off, right?”) The show is typically No. 1 or 2 in the market among men 25–54, but since Initials, Cove says female listenership is meaningful, perhaps because it’s one of the few weekly listening windows that holds no risk of being middle school.

Is oversaturation in the cards? Of course, because it’s media. But for now a genre that has largely died out on daytime television has found new life on local radio.

Watch for Adam Platt’s forthcoming column about the local media business, Media Matters.