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Male-dominated sports radio finding target audience

Male-dominated sports radio finding target audience
Baltimore, MD -- 9/24/15 -- Jeremy Conn, left, and Scott Garceau, the on-air sports radio personalities at WJZ The Fan Sports Radio 105.7 in the studio during the broadcast of the Scott Garceau Show with Jeremy Conn. Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun Staff Photographer (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Bob from Parkville was on the air, his voice filled with remorse.

A day earlier, he had agitated on WJZ-FM (105.7 The Fan) for the Ravens to place former linebacker O.J. Brigance, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, in their Ring of Honor.

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"We get it. … You're passionate," said Scott Garceau, one of the sports radio station's hosts, after listening to several earnest apologies.

Well known to listeners, "Bob" is far from the only regular caller on 105.7, the most popular of Baltimore's three stations devoted solely to sports, a format growing nationally and holding its own in the city. With its abundance of familiar callers and guests, local sports talk radio can feel like a close-knit neighborhood, albeit a homogeneous one in which the residents are nearly all wisecracking men.

But it's working. Almost entirely devoid of female voices, sports call-in shows are scoring — locally and nationally — in the coveted Nielsen ratings demographic of men between the ages of 25 and 54.

"That's the sweet spot," said Rick Scott, an Arizona-based sports radio consultant. "The successful stations are usually in the top five in that demographic."

Aided by being the Orioles' flagship station, CBS-owned 105.7 often found itself in the top five among men 25 to 54 this past summer — and was sometimes No. 1 — although it placed lower in overall ratings.

While sports talk shows can be unabashedly lowbrow and occasionally repetitive, analysts say their audiences tend to linger, sometimes as an extension of their allegiance to local teams.

In a market that is increasingly fragmented — satellite radio, live streaming and podcasts have all become important outlets — sports radio "commands large, loyal audiences and those people listen frequently and regularly, which makes them great targets for advertisers," said B. Eric Rhoads, publisher and CEO of Radio Ink, a trade publication. "It's still a very viable format."

Baltimore's other two all-sports stations are both AM stations — WNST 1570 and WJZ 1300 — and barely registered in the overall ratings during the summer, if at all.

WNST downsized in 2014 and stopped taking listener calls in favor of "an ongoing conversation with [sports] experts," said owner Nestor Aparicio, whose station emphasizes text updates and online streaming. "I don't take phone calls on the radio because I don't think it's any good. We're having an intelligent, cogent conversation."

A partner of 105.7, WJZ 1300 is also owned by CBS Radio, a unit of CBS Corp. While sticking mostly to CBS national sports coverage and programs, it is the broadcast home of Towson University athletics.

In overall Nielsen ratings, CBS-owned WLIF-FM (adult contemporary), WERQ-FM (urban contemporary) and WPOC-FM (country) rank at the top for Baltimore listeners 6 and older, according to data released Sept. 30.

But in sports, 105.7 is "the Big Kahuna in Baltimore," said Dave Hughes, founder of DCRTV.com, a website devoted to Washington and Baltimore media. "It's a very Baltimore-sounding station and they get great ratings."

The station ranks near the top of the Baltimore market in advertising revenue, Robert Philips, senior vice president and director of sales for CBS Radio nationally and its market manager for Baltimore, said in an email. The ranking could not be independently confirmed because the figures are private.

Advertisers include DraftKings, Fan Duel and Brown's Honda City. In addition to the Orioles, WJZ-FM carries University of Maryland football and basketball.

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"I would say they are one of the top billers in the market, considering their ratings and their dominance in the male market," Hughes said.

While it doesn't have a lot of local competition, radio signals from Washington stations bleed into the Baltimore market.

"ESPN 980 in Washington sometimes gets some good ratings in Baltimore because it has a strong signal and has a lot of people in Howard and Anne Arundel Counties listening," Hughes said.

Sports radio has grown in recent years as sports have become increasingly immersed in society. It is a medium with a wellspring of ready-made topics.

"Talk radio allows for quick drama," Daniel T. Durbin, director of the University of Southern California's Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, said in an email.

He said the medium feeds on "conflicts that can be argued for years," such as whether former player and manager Pete Rose should be permitted into baseball's Hall of Fame despite having bet on games.

"Anyone can be a blowhard on sports subjects," Durbin said. And "relatively speaking, sports talk radio is inexpensive. You have little in the way of licensed broadcast material [such as MLB or NBA games]. You get a host who can state an opinion with authority, a phone bank, and you're in business."

Formerly WHFS-FM, 105.7 switched to sports talk in 2008.

It's not a station for listeners who relish hearing hosts criticize or cut off callers. It's pretty tame, courteous even.

"I don't have callers that annoy me," host Rob Long said. "If it's annoying, we find a way to spin it and make it funny."

After "Bob from Parkville" apologized for his rant, Garceau made it clear the caller remained on good terms. "Bob's Bob," Garceau said on the air. "Say your piece."

On a recent afternoon, host Jeremy Conn — joined by Garceau — sat behind a microphone wearing an Orioles T-shirt. Eight Orioles bobbleheads were lined up on a table, and three television monitors with sports programming loomed overhead as Garceau fielded calls.

Another host, Bob Haynie, wore an AC/DC T-shirt and shorts as he prepared for an Orioles pregame show. "I wear a suit and tie to funerals," he said of his attire.

Like cast members with small parts, the station's regular callers have become part of the show. There is "Q in Pikesville," an antagonist because he roots for out-of-town teams. There is "Ed in Arbutus," a longtime high school assistant football coach and factory worker whom the hosts consider sage. There is "John in Elkton" whom the station has nicknamed "Elkton John."

"I talk to them more than I talk to my own family," Conn said off the air.

Ed Foster — "Ed in Arbutus" — said in an interview that he enjoys the connection derived from sharing moments from sporting events.

"From the time 105.7 started, I was making a call," said Foster, 58.

He has developed such a close relationship with the station that he said Conn showed up at a wake service in March for Foster's 35-year-old daughter, Amanda Winneke, who had died after a long illness.

"I was overwhelmed that he would consider that," Foster said. "It was absolutely a surprise. I hugged him."

Baltimore sports radio has a heavy local flavor. Nationally, ESPN Radio has 375 full-time affiliates — but none in the city.

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"Baltimore is certainly on my radar," said Traug Keller, an ESPN senior vice president overseeing the radio network, among other divisions.

News-talk station WBAL, the Ravens' flagship station and the city's AM ratings leader, carries some ESPN national game broadcasts but not the network's signature shows such as "Mike & Mike." Hearst-owned WBAL broadcasts its own sports talk show at night, often competing over the summer with Orioles games.

The Orioles jumped from WBAL to 105.7 last year, signing a multiyear deal.

"Certainly last year if you look at the nighttime ratings, they were much higher because of the Orioles," said WBAL general manager Cary Pahigian. "There certainly is a passionate sports audience in Baltimore, and they likely move and use several stations."

Keller said sports radio needs to expand its audience.

"We're making a concerted effort," he said. "You want new people coming — younger people. To do that, you've got to reflect back. You've got to have a more diverse lineup in terms of what you're putting on air. If you're not offering a diverse array with either Hispanics or African-Americans or women, you're missing a huge part of the pie."

The best sports shows often "talk about a lot other than sports. They will talk popular culture," DCRTV's Hughes said.

Haynie will reference movies, TV shows or songs to engage the audience or illustrate points. On Washington's ESPN 980, host Tony Kornheiser invites media experts to talk politics for long stretches or review films.

"When you go beyond just sports and into culture — talk about movies, a great restaurant you were at, a concert — you are further cementing a connection you have with people," Keller said. "It's just fun talk."

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