When KISN AM announced in late August it would become Sports Radio 570 a sportstalk radio war appeared ready to begin in Salt Lake City. The Score, 106.5 FM, was already in the business of airing all sports related programming, one of the newest and increasingly successful formats in radio.
KISN had the advantage of being the Utah Jazz flagship station and had more money to work with, but The Score had a year-long head start in the all-sports department. KISN had veteran Salt Lake broadcasters Chris Tunis and Dave Blackwell to lead the battle, while The Score countered with Barry King and his locally produced, Chicago flavored "King and I" show and "Papa" Joe Chevalier, a popular national call-in program. KISN was the voice of the Jazz, while The Score had been in the business of Jazz bashing for much of its existence.It looked like an interesting battle would ensue.
But the war turned out to be a mismatch of United States vs. Grenada proportions. It lasted as long as the average Mike Tyson fight. KISN made the switch to all sports Sept. 1. That very day it was reported The Score was in trouble after losing two major advertisers. One week later The Score was six feet under. Talk of Alabama winning a second straight national football title was replaced by the group Alabama and others singing of lost love, as 106.5 FM switched to a country music format.
While The Score is gone, all-sports radio, both nationally and in Utah, appears healthy. With the FM dial dominating the music ratings with its superior sound quality, AM stations have had to search for a niche in the marketplace.
The idea of "narrowcasting" rather than broadcasting has been hit-and-miss. The all-Elvis and all-comedy stations, for instance, were too narrow in appeal, have struggled and died. The all-sports format, however, has proven viable.
WFAN-AM in New York started the trend in 1986 when it changed from a part sports, part country music station to its present all-sports format. The ratings dipped the first six months, but nearly doubled during the following year. It has been consistently drawing a 5 to 6 percent share ever since.
It took two years before the second all-sports station, WIP-AM in Philadelphia, sprang up. XTRA in San Diego followed in 1990, and the snowball was rolling. Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Cleveland, Sacramento, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. each joined the ranks of all-sports radio cities. It took six years for the nation to have a dozen sports stations, but just one year later there were three dozen more. Now there are more than 50 in the United States with projections that as many as 100 additional all-sports stations will pop up in the next 18 months.
The ratings for most sports stations are not fantastic. The listeners' demographics are unique and can be valuable, however. Research shows the average listeners to the format are men between 25 and 54, an appealing group to certain advertisers.
"We're in the male bonding business," Jerry Kutner, owner of the syndicated Sports Entertainment Network, said in a recent "Radio Only" magazine cover story. "There aren't too many formats that target guys. Most target kids or women. We target guys. That's really what it's all about."
Sports Radio 570 wants to appeal to women, but it knows men will be its bread and butter. "Our target audience is 25- to 49-year-old men, but my goal is to have 30-percent of the audience women," said Tunis, the sports director of the new KISN AM. "We don't just want sports fanatics listening. We hope we're entertaining enough to get casual sports fans listening in as well."
For years Salt Lake radio listeners have had sports related talk shows to choose from, including Tunis' Sportscentral show on KSL (AM-1160) and Blackwell's Sports Talk on KISN, but it wasn't until The Score came on the air that a station became solely devoted to sports.
King, a Chicago native, spent 15 years in the newspaper business, but decided it was a time for a midlife career change so he went back to school to learn broadcasting. After finishing his crash-course schooling, he relocated to Salt Lake City where he soon became sports director and on-air host on the station he hoped to pattern after Chicago's WSCR, the original Score.
Salt Lake's version of The Score had little money to work with and on-air personalities had to double as the sales staff.
"We were total niche programming," King said. "If an advertiser was longing for 18- to 49-year-old men, we were a good alternative. Plus we had the lowest ad prices in Salt Lake."
The Score carried local call-in shows during the morning and afternoon drive times and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with national call-in shows filling the gaps. It also broadcast Golden Eagles hockey, Utah State football and basketball and Colorado Rockies baseball games.
"We were about as primitive as radio gets," said King. "The beauty of radio is that perception is reality. We were in a back room with one office for all of us and a little studio - that was it. But our listeners thought we were coming from the Taj Mahal."
The Score was in financial trouble and may have gone under even if KISN's had never switched to an all-sports format. Still, there's little doubt KISN changing from part music, part sports to all sports hastened The Score's downfall.
"KISN had the most powerful weapon you can have in Salt Lake City - the Jazz. I couldn't compete with that," King said.
King spent much of the past basketball season criticizing Jazz management and coaches and calling for Jerry Sloan's job. He claims that, because of his outspokeness, the Jazz conspired to drive him out of town and KISN's switching to all sports was the fastest means to that end.
The Jazz say that's nonsense.
"We'd been looking at buying a station or developing an all-sports format with KISN for three or four years," said Jazz vice president of broadcasting Randy Rigby. "I'm sure The Score feels we came in to blow them off the air, but that's just not not the case at all. We wanted to put together the best sports programming possible and let the competition fall where it may."
As King attempted to leave Utah last month, the clutch blew out on his eight-year-old Honda Civic as he headed east on I-80 in Parley's Canyon. His car was towed back to a dealer in Salt Lake, but he found out it would take several days to fix it. Instead of waiting, he traded his old car in on a '93 Honda Accord. The dealer? Larry H. Miller, of course.
"So Larry got the last laugh again," King said from his eighth floor apartment in downtown Chicago where he can see Wrigley Field if he looks out his window to the left with Lake Michigan to the right. "I always said Larry Miller was a good car dealer, I just think his NBA team has problems and needs a new coach."
Sports Radio 570, just two months into its run, has a much more polished feel to it than The Score had to be certain. Like its all-sports predecessor, KISN has local programming during the drive times and midday with syndicated national call-in shows overnight and in between.
The difference, however, is the experience of the local on-air personalities. Tunis won six Utah Broadcaster-of-the-Year awards during his 11-year stay at KSL. He's now the morning host from 6 to 10 in addition to his sports director duties. Tunis is known as a skilled interviewer who treats guests and callers alike with respect. Leaving the 50,000 watt giant KSL in August to help Sports Radio 570 get started wasn't a difficult decision. "I felt I was stagnating at KSL," Tunis said. "This has been a breath of fresh air. Believe me, I'm having a blast."
Sports Talk with Dave Blackwell has been a Salt Lake institution on 570 AM since 1985. A former sportscaster on KTVX Channel 4 and Jazz beat writer for the Deseret News, Blackwell is fond of saying he spends "no time and a lifetime" preparing for his weekday show from 4 to 7 p.m. He may not pore over boxscores and stats for hours each day to get ready for his show, but he is witty, knowledgeable and likable even if he does lose patience on occasion when callers blast Mark Eaton or propose outrageous trades. (Dave, do you think the Jazz could send John Crotty and David Benoit to the Rockets for Hakeem Olajuwon? Houston would be getting two good players and the we would finally have a center who can score.) Blackwell has won three Broadcaster-of-the-Year awards.
Joining Blackwell each night are Ron Boone and Steve Klauke. Boone, the all-time pro basketball ironman having played in 1,041 consecutive professional hoop games, lends an athlete's perspective to Sports Talk in addition to his duties as the Jazz color commentator to Hot Rod Hundley's play-by-play on radio and television.
Klauke, meanwhile, has a soothing style much like Tunis. He is also an experienced play-by-play commentator, a skill he hasn't been able to take advantage of much during his more than two years in Utah. He did have a chance to broadcast two 5A high school football state games over the weekend and is the odds-on favorite to become the voice of the new Salt Lake Buzz baseball team.
Then there's David Locke - the lone survivor from The Score. Locke, at just 23-years-old, had a morning show at 106.5 and is now on Sports Radio 570 from noon to 2. He's a certified sports nut who, unlike Blackwell, spends hours poring over statistics at home. He's young, loud, opinionated and, some would say, obnoxious.
"David can be a loose cannon," Tunis admitted. "He has people who love him and people who hate him. I think what he does is point out things that people in Salt Lake are not used to hearing, but he's fair and he does his homework."
KISN already is the flagship station for the Jazz and, this season, the Golden Eagles. It will have a monopoly on Salt Lake's professional sport play-by-play soon, as the station and the Buzz are expected to announce an agreement in the near future.
The Jazz and KISN are in a revenue-sharing partnership which began eight-years ago and has become even stronger now that sports programming is 24-hours a day instead of three. "It's a win-win situation for both the station and the Jazz," Rigby said.
That relationship begs the question of conflict of interest, however, as half the pay for the on-air talent comes directly from the Jazz. Would any of the announcers criticize the Jazz knowing they are employed by the team? Rigby says says he hopes they would. "We don't tell them what to say or how to do their jobs. We only ask them to be objective. We don't want to take away their journalistic integrity."