By Dave Lomonico
There's a civil war going on in the Baltimore metro sports market, but it has nothing to with beltway battles or the animosity held for that team down in Landover. No, this war isn't settled on gridirons or ball fields, but on car radios. Call it the battle of the call letters: WNST, WVIE, WJZ-FM and WJZ-AM, the four sports-talk radio stations in the Baltimore market.
There are around 350 sports-radio stations in the country, and Baltimore, the 21st largest market, is tied for the most in one area with four, according to www.radioandrecords.com. But the format only attracts around 3-5 percent of the total listening audience, which begs the question: Can this metro area, with just over 2,255,000 people, support four all-sports sports stations?
"There's room for two all-sports stations," said Bob Pettit, the general manager at Fox Sports 1370 (WVIE).
"Only time will tell," said Dave Labrozzi, the program director for ESPN 1300 (WJZ-AM) and 105.7 The Fan (WJZ-FM).
Thus, the civil war. Who will survive? It's up to listeners to decide.
A decade ago, diehard local sports fans had to make due with the rather limited sports programming on WBAL. It was their only option until Nestor Aparicio launched WNST in 1999 to become Baltimore's first 24-hour sports-talk station. It might have only been 5,000 watts, but it gave sports fans their niche. That niche is small -- less than 1 percent of the listening audience, according to www.radioandrecords.com -- but it is loyal, and it is strong. For the last 10 years, WNST has endeared itself to listeners with savvy, intelligent hosts and a commitment to the local sports scene.
"The people who listen to us are very smart and knowledgeable about their sports," WNST general manager Paul Kopelke said. "The No. 1 mistake [other stations] make is not understanding how smart the listener is. People will know in 10 minutes whether or not the host knows what he's talking about. We don't have jingles and we don't do anything fancy, but I challenge you to find hosts who know more than ours."
With Drew Forrester covering the morning segment, Bob Haynie handling the lunch hour and Rob Long capping off the afternoon and evening drive time, WNST has stood by its slogan: "We never stop talking Baltimore sports." The station is known for its challenging interviews and edgy style -- Aparicio led a "Free the Birds" walkout last year where 2,000 fans left Camden Yards in the middle of a game -- which caters to fans looking for a different voice. It's also active in the community, whether it's hosting shows from local establishments to campaigns to get Art Modell elected into the Hall of Fame.
"We're wired to the teams and the community in a way nobody else is," Kopelke said.
ESPN first approached Pettit and WVIE four years ago with the idea of creating an all-sports station. Pettit, however, took one look at the miniscule sports market and the other two competitors -- 1300 and 1570 -- and decided there was no room for a third sports station in Baltimore. That changed a few months ago when WVIE fell behind sister station WCBM, as well as WBAL and WHFS in the talk format ratings.
"We were having difficulty breaking into the talk format," Pettit said. "We were like the fourth banana."
After reevaluating the station's position, Pettit decided to give sports a try. He saw an underperforming ESPN 1300 station and a small WNST station that couldn't compete with 1370's 50,000-watt juggernaut, which can reach Washington and northern Virginia. Thanks to the signal, 1370 should have no problem pulling in sponsors, but it's the listener base that will take time to attract, Pettit said.
Just like WNST, 1370 is locally owned and understands the importance of hiring Baltimore hosts. Right now, it only has one, former WBAL reporter Jerry Coleman. Fortunately for WVIE, Coleman is one of the most driven hosts in the area. He routinely pulls in six to eight guests during his three-hour segment, including such personalities as Michael Phelps and an array of Ravens players.
"I've never seen a guy work harder in my life than Coleman," Pettit said. "He has an incredible passion for sports. I don't see that type of passion with some of the competitors."
The 1370 reporters are expected to dig up new, interesting material, as well as offer the listening audience a perspective it won't get from team Web sites or radio stations affiliated with the Ravens and Orioles.
"We want to be edgy," Pettit said. "Listeners don't want idle chit-chat shows. They want to hear what's new, and that takes a lot of work."
With WNST firmly entrenched and with WJZ-FM entering the market, it won't be easy for 1370 to compete. Pettit, however, is confident that with local ownership, a strong signal and a brand people respect in Fox, 1370 will not only fit in the Baltimore sports market, but eventually overtake the other stations.
"We will [beat the competition]; we'll make it happen," he said.
While WNST is going the Internet route, and WVIE is trying its "blend of talent," 105.7 The Fan, formerly WHFS, may be the most progressive of all the sports stations. When WHFS decided to change formats from talk to sports, it continued a suddenly budding trend across the country: sports on the FM dial. Detroit's FM sports station, WXTY, has already generated solid ratings, and WHFS, which changed its call to WJZ-FM on Nov. 3, hopes to have the same impact on the Baltimore market.
Labrozzi said with a 50,000-watt FM signal, The Fan has a clear (pun intended) advantage over the competition. That means there's no static for Orioles or Terps games, the two major teams affiliated with the CBS-owned station.
"With FM, you've got a crystal clear station to listen to 24 hours a day. You can't say that about most AM stations," Labrozzi said. "It's a genre that has been missing from the FM dial. We're bringing in people who grew up listening to FM radio, and now they can get their sports on FM, too."
WJZ-FM has other advantages as well. Unlike Fox Sports 1370, The Fan will have local talent all day long, and unlike WNST, 105.7 won't lose its signal at night. Of course, 105.7 will follow its competitors by going after knowledgeable hosts who know the city. The Fan seems to have a distinct advantage in this area, boasting such marquee names as TV personality Mark Viviano; longtime voice of the Ravens Scott Garceau; former Oriole Dave Johnson and other popular hosts like Bruce Cunningham and Ken Weinman.
"We feel we have the top tier of talent; these are the people locals want to listen to," Labrozzi said.
While WJZ-FM seems to have a corner on the market, some listeners are leery of the national ownership and the affiliation with the Orioles, noting it could lead to biased reporting. Furthermore, the competition has said that the station will ultimately have to answer to CBS, which constantly changes formats and won't settle for low ratings. Labrozzi, however, dismisses these notions, saying that as long as The Fan has the local talent and the big names in Baltimore, CBS won't meddle.
As for the Orioles' affiliation, Labrozzi scoffs at the notion that his hosts are controlled by the team. He points out Dave Johnson, whom he calls a "rising star" for his critical but fair reporting.
"When the Orioles play poorly, we can be critical of the team, and they have never given us a hard time about that," Labrozzi said. "There's never been any censorship at all."
If WJZ doesn't flip formats again, the FM sports trend could establish a stranglehold on the Baltimore market. The station already landed 2 percent of the local listeners, according to www.radioandrecords.com, tops among the sports stations.
"We want to continue to be the dominant local sports-talk radio station in the market," Labrozzi said.
The station formerly known as WJFK certainly won't be in competition with its sister station over on the FM dial, but it is part of the struggle for that 25-54 male demographic. Unlike the other three stations, WJZ-AM consists of only national programming. That's because The Fan took all the local personalities when it flipped over to FM. Now, WJZ-AM must rely on its popular brand, ESPN, to draw in listeners.
"We look at this as the best of both worlds -- the national perspective with 1300 and the local perspective with The Fan," Labrozzi said.
The "Mike and Mike" show has always done well in the morning, and Colin Cowherd, Mike Tirico and Scott Van Pelt -- a Maryland graduate -- are some of the best known names in sports media.
"When you think of sports, the No. 1 brand that comes to mind is ESPN," Labrozzi said. "If you want a national perspective on sports there's no better place to deliver that product."
In the coming months, the two WJZ stations along with WNST and WVIE will vie for a place on the tuner. Who survives? That's for the fans to decide.
"That's what makes great competition," Labrozzi said.
Issue 132: December 2008