Media Watch

By John Schuster

Management's curious relationship with local sports radio

UA fans and alumni made their annual exodus to Las Vegas last weekend to all but monopolize the MGM Arena and Strip as they watched their beloved Wildcats win their first conference tournament championship since 2002.

Wildcat men's basketball fans visited from Tucson, and from pretty much every major alumni hub in the Pacific and Mountain Time zones. For one weekend, every year since the Pac-12 has played its league tournament in Sin City, the Arizona contingent has ruled representation.

When the Cats are in Vegas, Cat fans are in Vegas.

Also on hand, the Arizona Daily Star and its multitude of sports reporters, updating the UA's three-day championship run. Local TV stations were represented as well.

But what was missing? Any appearance from local sports radio.

On a national scale, the impact of sports radio has been one of the few bright spots in the terrestrial model. The reason isn't that hard to grasp. Lovers of music can more easily access their favorite songs through platforms like Pandora, Spotify or mp3 options and bypass lengthy commercial interruptions. On the political talk side, listeners as a whole still tend to be more pissed off with Congress and the President than potholes on Tucson's embarrassing roadways. National hosts can tackle that stuff.

But when it comes to sports, local is the preferred option. Folks want to know about their team, and larger outlets aren't going to devote syndicated resources to talk about the UA when they broadcast to numerous audiences across the country. So if you're a Wildcat fan, and you want to know what folks are saying about your team, you listen to Tucson sports talk radio.

At least that's the theory, but in Tucson management has to balance the success of a national trend against uninspiring local results. While a station in Phoenix jettisons a music format that billed millions of dollars annually in advertising to add a second sports signal for the purposes of adding local programming and providing an outlet for its numerous live sports contracts, Tucson's sports stations rank in the bottom five in every ratings book. That is, if they show up at all.

So instead of investing in the product or attempting to come up with different ways to sell it, they push their sports signals in a corner and hope they aren't much of a burden.

For example, at KCUB 1290 AM, the flagship station for UA athletics, local sports programming had to improvise its phone call situation because one of the phones broke in the production room. Why is this important? Well, in a call-in format you'd like to know who might be on the line, instead of taking the call cold. This is why they have phone screeners, to tell the host who's on the line and theoretically weed out the good callers from the bad.

It's an important piece of equipment. Normally, any sports station would get this problem handled almost immediately. Fixing it was about $1,000. It took three months to get corrected, presumably because management believed spending a grand on technology for the sports station wasn't a necessary priority.

Across town, at KFFN AM 1490/FM 104.9, management doesn't see the relatively inexpensive cost benefit of streaming local programming. So you can access the ESPN Tucson website and listen to the national lineup on your laptop, tablet or phone app, but if you want to listen to Tucson host Zach Clark weekdays from 3-6, that's not worth the expense.

This is where a disconnect exists between thinking local and missing the potential for a larger audience. Every radio station streams its content online, but sports radio arguably provides the greatest benefit for the service. That's because if a Wildcat fan who lives in the Bay Area wants to get a feel for the sports vibe surrounding his or her favorite team in Tucson, he or she could connect the app and listen to a Tucson station theoretically anywhere there's Internet access.

Why should this matter if you're trying to turn a profit with local advertising? Well, theoretically that listener, and other like listeners, might just visit Tucson at some point. It's not as if they're unfamiliar with the city. And as such, maybe there's something tourist related they heard that triggers an interest.

Lotus recently acquired an FM translator for 990 AM, and promptly flipped formats from ESPN Deportes to a classic hits Spanish language music format.

Which brings us back to Vegas. If a local sports station wanted to improve its visibility, being on hand at or near the site of the Pac-12 Tournament is the No. 1 out-of-market priority, every year. Not only does it potentially enhance visibility for Tucsonans in town who might not be aware of a sports station, but it's great potential publicity for Wildcat sports fans who live elsewhere.

Sports radio in Tucson is a loyalty buy with the potential for advertisers to reach a smaller audience, but get a greater percentage of that audience to access its product. Kevin Woodman, the host of 1290's afternoon sports program, possesses superior connectivity among his listeners. As such, off-site promotions and live advertising reads have generated what some traditional advertisers might consider surprisingly strong results.

Clark appears to be getting some live reads as well, and even some on-air assistance from production manager Stacey Wampler, which has helped Clark through the rigors of the three-hour solo talking grind. Furthermore, it seems a decent possibility eventual new owners at Scripps might look to rectify the streaming issue.

But no presence in Vegas, for any Tucson sports station, is opportunity lost. And when priorities are already clearly placed elsewhere, standing pat isn't going to do anything to improve visibility, and therefore the potential for a better bottom line.

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