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The 24-hour sports-talk format didn't hit Houston until 1995 with the inception of KILT. By 1998, the station boasted a respected lineup of sports shows including John Granato and Lance Zierlein in the mornings, the extremely popular syndicated Jim Rome Show at midday and what many consider the gold standard in Houston sports radio, Lord and Pallilo, handling the afternoon drive.
In 2004, KBME, a sister station to KTRH, opened its doors, backed by the powerful Clear Channel corporation. Pallilo moved to KBME to host a solo afternoon show, leaving Lord to struggle through a string of co-hosts.
In 2007, both KGOW and KFNC, the first FM addition to the sports radio lineup built on the ESPN network, came online and local media circles were buzzing with predictions on which would be the first station to fail. From the beginning, KGOW was the lowest ranked of the four, fueling speculation that it would meet with a speedy demise.
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The fact is, none of the stations have ever ranked particularly highly in the Houston-Galveston radio market. Arbitron, the company that collects listener data, ranks KILT well above the other three in cumulative audience or "CUME," which is a measure of the total number of unique listeners over a specific period of time. But, the combined ratings of all four stations rank below even University of Houston's National Public Radio affiliate and classical music station, KUHF.
Mark Ramsey, president of Mark Ramsey Media and a strategic radio consultant, explains that, despite the low numbers, it is not surprising for four sports stations to survive in a large city like Houston. "When you have multiple sports stations and none of them are necessarily highly ranked," he explains, "what that tells you is that there's a pool of advertisers available to support them even if there's not a pool of audience large enough to give them a top-ranked position."
Some believe a more effective method for measuring a station's listeners is the Time Spent Listening (TSL) statistic, now referred to by Arbitron as Average Weekly Time Exposed (AWTE), which measures how long a person listens to a particular station. In the case of KGOW, those numbers tell a very different story. In the last three years, 1560 listeners have spent an average of just over five hours per week listening to the station as compared to less than two hours for KILT and just over one hour per week for KBME and KFNC.
"We have had a TSL that is ranked near the top of the market almost every month since we started," says Gow, who says he believes that listener loyalty is more important than sheer numbers. When it comes to sports stations and their ability to attract advertisers, he may be right.
"If you look across the country at sports stations, their revenue tends to perform better than their ratings," Ramsey explains, citing the almost cultlike following of sports fans as one of the reasons for sports stations' survival despite low overall ratings. "There's a difference between listening and attention," he says. "Advertisers are increasingly favoring attention. They're favoring things that people care about."
Rene Charles, 36, has been listening to Granato and Zierlein since their days at KILT. After following them to KGOW, he has become a loyal listener to the entire station. "I listen to the whole lineup all the way until I drive home at the end of the day," he said.
This kind of fandom is clearly the backbone of 1560's approach to programming, but it doesn't mean they are satisfied with their numbers. "I do want more people. I want to have a huge CUME. I want to have the Ticket's CUME," program director Chance McClain says, referring to popular Dallas sports-talk station KTCK 1310AM, but he knows it won't happen overnight. "It's a slow build. It takes time because this is an acquired taste."
It is also difficult to make headway when other stations have built-in advantages, most specifically broadcasting play-by-play for Houston pro sports and popular college teams such as the Texas Longhorns. "Chances are when you turn off your radio on Sunday night, you were listening to something about the Texans [on 610]," says Matt Jackson, co-host of KBME's morning show and a former co-host on KILT, "And when you wake up in the morning, your radio is set to the same place."
KILT routinely produces double the ratings numbers of KGOW thanks in part to its contracts with the Texans, Rockets and Longhorns. Those contracts and 610's massive corporate backing, which allowed it to make what Jackson calls a "brain-dead stupid deal" to host Texans games, make it nearly impossible for stations like 1560 to compete with them when it comes to ratings.
"They're basically Coca-Cola," Jackson says, "And you can't fuck up Coca-Cola."
Gavin Spittle, program director for KILT, says his station continues to grow and much of it is thanks to their relationships with the Texans and Rockets, who allow the station's hosts to travel with the teams. "Rich Lord goes on the road with the team. Robert Henslee goes on the road with the team. John Lopez is one of the pre- and post-game hosts," he explains. "These guys are on the sidelines on Sunday and I think that gives us an advantage on Monday."