ESPN 1500 AM: Live, Local, And Laboring

A haven for hard-core fans, but perhaps too analytical and detached a take for many listeners.
ESPN 1500 AM: Live, Local, And Laboring

It can be argued that Clear Channel drove KSTP-AM, now known as 1500 ESPN, into sports. After all, Clear Channel bought and converted 100.3 FM into KTLK and successfully outbid Hubbard for the rights to syndicated talkers Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. That move stole AM 1500’s status as the top place on the dial for conservative talk, leaving it with Joe Soucheray’s powerhouse Garage Logic show and a collection of marginal extremists. 

“KSTP lost its identity when Rush left,” Hubbard exec Dan Seeman notes. 

The station brought Seeman over from KFAN and switched to sports (plus Joe Soucheray) in 2010, stealing the ESPN affiliation from KFAN. It bought the rights to Twins baseball earlier for a million dollars a year; The Twins had been at WCCO for 46 years. 

But Seeman was not intent on creating a clone of KFAN. 

ESPN 1500’s Dossier

  • Format debut: 2010
  • Owner: Hubbard Broadcasting (Twin Cities)
  • Format: Sports
  • Marquee talent: Patrick Reusse
  • Looking to upgrade to an FM signal. Won’t be easy or cheap.

“That’s a strong equity brand there,” he notes. “We were not going to beat them at their own game. We had Pat Reusse and decided to build off that sports journalism base to try to move closer to the news and the story.

“To do that we realized we had to get into the content biz rather than be an aggregator of other people’s reporting. Because now that content is everywhere, you have to have the best content to succeed.”

What that meant was programming sports in a different way. The station hired reporters to own the Vikings and Twins beats and file original stories to its website, something KFAN does not do. Those reporters also host shows on the station, giving 1500 ESPN a more detached, journalistic take. 

KSTP was competitive while it had the Twins and KFAN was on AM, but when the Twins declined to renew and KFAN decamped for FM, the ratings and revenue separation between the two stations grew—and forced the station to blur the lines between it and “the Fan.”

“Sometimes the audience can’t connect with our guys,” notes Seeman, describing an air staff that grew up in the press box, where cheering is disdained. “So we’ve added [ex-KFAN host and non-journalist] Jeff Dubay to add value.”

Put another way, “Listeners care and want to listen to people who care,” says host Judd Zulgad. “You can’t be dispassionate.”

The loss of the Twins was a blow to 1500, and it was motivated by the same issues that drove KFAN to FM (see “The Play-by-Play Gamble,” page 52). “We were very vocal with Hubbard about our desire to be on FM,” says Twins President Dave St. Peter. “They were resolute they could not make the switch.”

Hubbard was desperate to salvage its play-by-play relationship with the Twins, and St. Peter says Hubbard offered to buy the FM signal that the Pohlad family owned at 96.3 FM, then programming a so-called “urban” music format. The rumor in the industry is the Twins had accepted the offer, which was for several million dollars, but backed out at the last second. 

As to the future of 1500 ESPN, Seeman says the format is not on the bubble. “I’m the first to admit within our local group, 1500 is the weakest performer,” says Seeman. “But the group is very profitable and we are committed to the format—we see it as sports content; our website drew 2.5 million views in April. 

“The Hubbards have a long view,” he continues. “They want a station that is vibrant and local. This is the flagship of a great radio company.”

Or as WCCO’s Anselmo dryly notes, “Dan doesn’t have the same pressures as a lot of radio execs in town.”