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ESPN Radio gets in game

June 10, 2007

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ESPN Radio gets in game

By: Matthew Flamm
Published: June 10, 2007 - 6:59 am


ESPN has long been the Yankees of sports media - the old Yankees, that is -
with its powerhouse cable networks and dominant Web site. Its radio
division, however, has tended to look like the old, last-place Mets.

That's starting to change. The flagship station, WEPN-AM in New York, better
known as 1050 ESPN, has a hit with Mike & Mike in the Morning - just as
archrival WFAN is figuring out how to fill its morning drive-time hole
following the firing of Don Imus.

Posting the best numbers in its six-year history, 1050 has seen double-digit
growth in its target audiences. What's more, parent company Disney, having
spun off its ABC Radio Network, is putting more focus on its remaining
properties, ESPN Radio and Radio Disney.

WFAN pretty much invented the sports-talk genre 20 years ago and is hardly
about to lose its first-place spot. But 1050 is scoring runs.

"A lot of things are hitting at once," says ESPN General Manager Tim
McCarthy. "And lucky for us, timing wise, there's change across the street."

The good news began for 1050 this winter, when its Arbitron ratings
increased significantly.

The affable morning duo of Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg scored a 3.4 share
among the key audience of men 25 to 54 years old - a 62% jump over the fall
survey's figure, according to Arbitron. WFAN's Imus in the Morning,
meanwhile, fell 22% to a 2.9 share.

For weekdays from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. among the same demographic, 1050's share
spiked 50% over the previous survey's, to a 2.4. WFAN fell 30% to a 3.5.

The improved ratings are already pumping up the bottom line. Total billings
for 1050 rose 16%, to $4.1 million, for the first four months of the year,
according to an industry source, and revenue from local spot advertising was
up 33%.

Revenues for the New York radio marketplace were flat for the same period.

"Finally, ESPN is [providing] formidable competition," says Tricia
Pickering, senior media buyer at Carat USA, who places clients on both 1050
and WFAN.

Long way to go

Espn still has a long way to go, of course. While it's up in the male demos,
its overall share of the audience is still just 0.9% of listeners ages 12
and over. WFAN's share is more than double that, at 2.1.

And 1050's revenue growth is from a small base. Last year, WFAN billed $51
million against ESPN's $10 million, according to BIA Financial Network.

Radio observers say that WFAN has an advantage in the local nature of its
programming, particularly with homegrown personalities Mike Francesa and
Chris Russo. The hosts of afternoon drive show Mike and the Mad Dog are also
doing fill-in duty in the morning. A spokeswoman for parent company CBS
Radio says the pair will stay in the slot at least through June.

"In sports, local is definitely king," says Robert Unmacht, a partner in
media consulting firm iN3 Partners Inc. "ESPN doesn't have the perception
that it's in New York the way the FAN does."

WFAN also has a strong signal at a key spot on the dial, and a contract with
the New York Mets. Local baseball is the premier sport for radio.

Furthermore, the loss of Mr. Imus, who was the exception to WFAN's
all-sports lineup, could be a good thing for the station in the end. "If the
FAN goes to sports in the morning, Mike & Mike will lose audience," predicts
Mark Lefkowitz, media director at Furman Roth Advertising.

Local flavor

But executives at 1050 say that the increased investment in marketing and
promotion that began after Disney spun off its other radio holdings is
already paying off. The station is also more closely integrated now with the
rest of ESPN, which has given it access to the brand's on-air talent and
marketing expertise.

"We were like cousins before," says Mr. McCarthy. "Now we're immediate
family."

He adds that the station has become more local, most notably with the
addition of popular longtime Yankees announcer Michael Kay in evening drive.
Only Mike & Mike and Dan Patrick's show do not originate in New York.

And while WFAN has the Mets, 1050 has spent the last few years building its
sports programming and now airs the Jets, the Knicks and the Rangers.

Media observers say the trends do look good. But 1050 still has to prove
it's in the game. "They had an excellent winter [survey], and they are
finally putting marketing dollars behind the station," says Stan Gerber,
chief strategy officer at JL Media Inc. "They've just got to keep it up."

Comments? MFlamm@crain.com

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