Sports talk radio stations fight for listeners in Houston

Jock Talk

There's an intense battle going on here in Houston, one that's baffling national observers, one that's resulted in unprecedented upheaval in an industry that rakes in millions, a life-or-death struggle that will likely see at least one huge company stagger out of town with its tail between its legs.

And if you're female, chances are pretty good you know nothing about it, because no one in this fight gives a damn about you.

It's the world of sports-talk radio, a place where people wait on line for an hour to talk about who should be hitting sixth in the Astros lineup.

Daniel Kramer
KBME's Charlie Pallilo is the best host in town.
Daniel Kramer
KBME's Charlie Pallilo is the best host in town.

Every city has one of these stations doing sports 24/7; some have two.

Houston is about to have four. Four separately owned stations, which is very different than an outlet that simulcasts on various frequencies.

"That's really kind of odd," says Mark Fratrik, a radio-industry analyst for the financial group BIA.

"I don't want to write the tombstone of anyone else, but it's going to be really hard for the market to support four sports-talk stations," says Michael Berry, the city councilman who directs AM stations for Clear Channel Communications.

Why is it so weird to have four? Partly because Houston's a pretty crummy sports-talk town. All the listeners gathered together here, all the revenue generated, is about half of what just one sports-talk station in Dallas does.

So what we have is three giant media companies — CBS, Clear Channel and Cumulus Media — joined by a local investor, all of them scrambling to get a slice of a not-very-big pie.

They're doing it by engaging in more "guy talk" and "pop-culture references." They're fumbling to find combinations of hosts that spark a response by listeners.

One thing they're not doing — changing Houston's reputation as a place where the local sports media is tame and tepid. You're not all of a sudden going to get a lot of hosts hanging up on callers or ranting about idiotic coaches here in H-Town. (No matter how much it's deserved, in both cases.)

The contestants in this battle are KILT at 610 on your radio dial, the dominant sports-talk station in town, owned by CBS; upstart KBME at 790 (who would much prefer to be referred to as "The Sports Animal"), owned by Clear Channel; FM station KFNC at 97.5, owned by Cumulus and broadcasting the ESPN radio network; and locally owned KILE at 1560, which is expected to come on the air this fall and is being programmed by former KILT superstar John Granato.

Let's go to the phones!

Hey, I'm a long-time listener, first-time caller. Love the show. I just wanted to ask, why the heck are there so many sports stations in town now?

You're not alone. To some degree, it's because the radio industry as a whole is in a slump. Most people listen to radio in their cars, and now they have the option of yakking on their cellphones or getting their tastes catered to in a very specific way by the hundreds of satellite-radio programs.

People who own radio stations are throwing anything at the wall, hoping something will stick. Why not sports?

"Sports radio stations do better in revenue share than they do in audience share," Fratrik says. "You think that a station that gets 10 percent of the audience would get 10 percent of a market's revenue. But sports talk does better than that, and it's because of the target demographic of 18–34 [year-old] males. When you're that young, you don't really consume that much media. You're mostly hanging around in bars, so the media you do consume is very attractive."

KILT, according to Fratrik's company, brought in $7.8 million in revenues last year; KFNC had $2 million (including a lot of national advertising from the ESPN network) and KBME $1.8 million. That $11.6 million aggregate compares to $33 million brought in by the Dallas powerhouse known universally as "The Ticket."

"The Ticket is a great radio station; there's no denying they do a wonderful job," says Bill Van Rysdam, KILT's program director.

Dallas's attachment to the Cowboys is, of course, legendary; you could probably program Cowboys talk 24 hours a day and draw big numbers. But The Ticket has also become known for more wide-ranging discussions — an hour may go by in the morning where sports doesn't even come up and the talk instead is on the latest celebrity flap or hot movie.

Programming execs here are moving in that direction. You're going to hear a lot less talk about fantasy-baseball numbers and a lot more about The Sopranos or Paris Hilton.

"I don't think people think in pigeon-holed terms of "now I want two hours of sports, then I want two hours of politics, then I want two hours of movies," Berry says. "People's lives are more fluid than that, and I think radio's only beginning to catch up to that."

Houston's comparatively anemic sports-talk ratings mean no one station dominates so exclusively that everyone else gives up hope. Instead, everyone scents an opportunity.

"The great thing we have going for us here is sheer mass. We're the number-six radio market," says KBME afternoon host Charlie Pallilo. "So just from a raw head count, that's a strength, even if sports commands a smaller piece of the pie. You can have a quarter of the portion of the pie that a station in St. Louis or Austin might have, but it's a much bigger pie to begin with."

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