Playing for home teams is big in sports radio
If you're playing the sports talk-radio game in Utah, it certainly helps to have the biggest team in town on your side. And on your station.
KFNZ AM-1320 (K-FAN) the flagship station of the Jazz is the top-rated sports talk station in the Salt Lake radio market. It's operated by the Jazz, so it's not surprising that the Jazz are seen as a major factor in that ratings advantage.
"We're tied to the biggest franchise, so that helps us out a whole lot," said Jeremy Castro, Jazz vice president of broadcasting.
In January, K-FAN averaged a 1.4 rating in listeners ages 12 and over; KZNS AM-1280 (The Zone) averaged a 1.3; KALL AM-700 (ESPN 700) averaged a 1.2. It's also a virtual three-way tie among men 18-plus, with K-FAN and The Zone both averaging a 2.2 rating and ESPN 700 a 2.1.
But the bigger story is in the demographics, which is how stations sell advertising.
Among men 25-54 a prime target for advertisers K-FAN averaged a 3.1 rating weekdays from 6 a.m.-7 p.m. ESPN 700 averaged a 2.7; The Zone averaged a 1.5.
"Being able to associate with the Utah Jazz is big for a radio station," Castro said. "It makes a huge difference in ratings, in positioning, in branding. That's why broadcasting rights are so expensive."
K-FAN and its sister station, KJQS AM-1230 (K-FAN 2) are the radio homes of the Salt Lake Bees, the Utah Grizzlies and Utah State football and basketball in the Salt Lake area. ESPN 700 is tied to University of Utah football and basketball and Real Salt Lake.
"If you look at most of the successful sports-talk stations around the country, with a couple of exceptions, I think everybody's got some sort of a play-by-play anchor to them," said Bill Riley, ESPN 700's program director and co-host of its afternoon show.
Over at The Zone, they go their own way. They're franchise-free, and they relish their role as the underdogs.
"Absolutely," said KZNS program director Jake Scott. "But we've had a lot of success in that role."
But not as much success as its competitors. In the afternoons from 3-7 p.m., K-FAN doubles The Zone in that men 25-54 demo. And ESPN 700 moved into second place, with Riley and Spence Checketts moving past "The Gordon Monson Show with Jake Scott." K-FAN averaged a 3.4; KALL a 2.2; The Zone a 1.7.
"Having those anchor properties helps you," Riley said. "I think it gives you something to fall back on."
Scott, however, "couldn't disagree more. I think it's a great strength of this station not to have the Jazz or the Utes or the Cougars, because it allows us to be what we want to be."
K-FAN's daily lineup features familiar faces with a background in print or broadcast sports journalism. David James, Pat Kinahan, Alema Harrington, Craig Bolerjack and David Locke have all been covering sports in Utah for years. Decades, even.
"We've got the best content, we've got the best talent and we've got the best franchise to be associated with," Castro said.
The Zone goes in the opposite direction. The afternoon show is anchored by Monson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, but the rest of the on-air team is made up of rookies. Hans Olsen, Sean O'Connell, Kyle Gunther and Jan Jorgensen each had little to no experience before they began hosting radio shows.
"On-the-job training is a great way to put it," Scott said.
ESPN 700 airs only one local show a day "Bill and Spence" from 2-6 p.m. But its midday programming from ESPN (Colin Cowherd and Dan Patrick) dominates the competition with a 4.5 rating (men 25-54) to K-FAN's 3.4 and The Zone's 1.4.
"We have ESPN, and that's such a quality brand," Riley said.
That lead-in and branding has been big for Riley and his on-air partner, Checketts, who have quietly become a force in the afternoons. In January, they were No. 1 in their time slot in men 18-plus and men 18-34 and tied K-FAN for first among men 25-54. They were second among men 18-49,men 25-49,and men 35-49.
But it isn't always a plus to be tied to a local team. BYU fans aren't necessarily going to listen to Utah's home station. And being the home station of the local MLS team brings its own challenges.
"When we first would talk soccer, I think it would turn some people off," Riley said. "But we service a good niche of fans that I think is growing."
The elephant in the room is the question of how much being tied to teams affects a station's on-air content. At The Zone, they're not afraid to tell you that they're not "beholden" to anybody.
"We can cover sports in the way that we want to," Scott said. "We can be honest."
The implication is that other on-air hosts aren't as free. Which the staff at ESPN 700 and K-FAN deny.
"We have not asked [K-FAN hosts] to not be honest," Castro said. "We've asked them for their opinions. We've asked them to be honest. And they do a very good job of telling it like it is."
"I have never once been told what I should say or how to say it," said David Locke, who does both radio play-by-play for the Jazz and hosts a weekday show. He said because of his access to the team, he has "information other people don't have. And so I'm not flying off the handle the way other people are. Because, frankly, you can't go as far as a lot of people do in our business without some ignorance."
Clearly, the local sports rivalries go beyond the teams on the field.
Scott D. Pierce covers radio and television for The Salt Lake Tribune. His column on sports on TV appears Wednesday. Contact him at email@example.com.