Schu Strings: Sports radio in the Old Pueblo

Perhaps in preparation for the next installment of Star Wars, the Tucson Citizen is preparing an in-depth look into a likely upcoming radio war. This one is the battle for the Arizona Wildcat contract, and it might be the most heated confrontation in more than a decade.

KNST and the Arizona Wildcats are synonymous, and have been since the Reagan Administration, but there's a possibility that could change soon. Another station, the local FoxSports affiliate, is gearing for a serious run at the potentially lucrative package.

While AM 1290 has not stated that publicly, it's doesn't take much to read between the lines. Shortly after the arrival of afternoon talk show host Rich Herrera, FoxSports has labeled itself the "Official station of the Wildcat fan." In classic radio parlance, that phrase obviously means nothing, but it's an indication that FoxSports is making a serious push to impress the UA. Additionally, programs such as the Mike Candrea and Andy Lopez Shows, which Cat Tracks Editor Brad Allis co-hosts, are further examples of FoxSports' ultimate goal.

Sports radio is an odd bag in Tucson. For some reason, management thinks it's a viable format. If you're a sports fan, it would be easy to agree with that assessment. However, the numbers just don't back it up, and never had. FoxSports received something in the neighborhood of a .9 rating in the latest Arbitron book. Arbitron is the Nielson ratings for radio, and as such an indicator of who listens to what. It's a dramatically flawed system, but it's what the industry continues to utilize. By way of comparison, KNST's ratings are in the 6.0 range. Roughly stated, that means KNST's listenership is about six times that of FoxSports, or the local ESPN affiliate, which also sports ratings lower than a 1.

Here's the rub. As sports fans, we tend to talk sports with other sports fans, not realizing that in Tucson, hardcore sports fans are very uncommon. Sure, those hardcore sports fans will talk with one another, and they'll listen to FoxSports and ESPN Radio, but there simply aren't enough of them in this market to ever make a serious dent in the ratings game, a ratings game that is also tilted toward the FM band. KNST, a newstalk station, is the only AM frequency that consistently ranks in the top 10. Everything else is FM. The next AM signal doesn't pop up until the 20s, in a market of roughly 30 stations. FoxSports and ESPN are near the bottom.

As a result, Ryan Radtke, the host of Sports Tonight on KNST, which runs in a less-than-prime time slot from 7-8 pm, gets more listeners by accident than Herrera, whose show on FoxSports runs at a better time slot, from 3-6. It also explains why sports talk radio in Tucson is a graveyard in the summer. Herrera is undoubtedly learning that now, just as Radtke did before him, just as Eric Thomae did before him, just as Paul Johnson did before him, just as Gabe Gabrielson did before him, and so on and so on and so on.

In turn, sales folk hope to market a fan's (short for fanatic's) loyalty and parlay that into advertising. If so-and-so is that excited about his or her team, wouldn't you want that person to show the same kind of loyalty toward your business? This concept, I think, flies on a much more regular basis in the major markets. In Tucson, it's probably an iffy proposition.

Except, that is, when it comes to the UA sports package. It's an expensive deal, but there's money to be made, because there are businesses in town that want to be associated with University of Arizona athletics. Suffice to say, the UA sports package makes up a significant amount of KNST's operating budget, so any suggestion that FoxSports has this thing wrapped up a year-and-a-half ahead of time is premature at best. While the package has the potential to bring in money from advertising, it also costs a lot. In the past, few stations in this market have had the capital to make a serious bid, thus KNST continued to renew the deal almost unscathed. In the last renewal KNST outbid Learfield, which at the time owned KNST, so ultimately the programming played on the same station. There was no difference for the listener.

If FoxSports is prepared to ante up, a change might be in the winds. Its advantages include a focus specifically on sports. KNST is a newstalk station first and foremost while FoxSports is just that, sports, 24 hours a day. As a result, more programming time is available for UA related space. But KNST has a long-standing relationship with the University, and underestimating the value of that could be a mistake. Additionally, talking about the ability to run sports programming well is one thing. Delivering on that promise is another. As one who has witnessed the behind-the-scenes workings of a radio network broadcast, it's not always the cakewalk you'd think.

In short, give the Tucson Citizen article a read. It's scheduled to run later this week. Former Cat Tracks Editor John Moredich is involved, so it will be good.

There's a long road to go, but it's possible this bidding rights battle is just heating up.

On another note, I would like to extend a heart-felt thank you to Cat Tracks editor Brad Allis for doing such a fabulous job in my absence. Perhaps with his help, my obsession with Godzilla can appear on the Collectibles For Hopeless Geeks Channel. Check your local cable listings.

[Editor's Note: Schu knows a lot about radio. He has done work for KNST, KTUC and KTKT, plus his voice can be heard on Cat Tracks commercials on the Jolt. Schu is not a hopeless geek. Although he did just shell out a small fortune for THE orange Godzilla collectable. Although he spent a lot, it is kinda cool.]

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