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But 1560 is experiencing some growth of its own. Last summer, station investors purchased the Sporting News Radio network, which provides 1560 access to national sports personalities and gives local hosts the opportunity to have a national forum. But it also means they have had to try and integrate a culture that is much more like what Granato and Zierlein left behind at KILT.
SNR, which broadcasts to 170 affiliates and a Sirius/XM satellite radio channel, is a traditional sports-talk environment including news and scores updated every 20 minutes. KGOW Production Director Frank Bullington believes SNR would be "foolish" not to emulate KGOW by placing a greater emphasis on entertaining and move away from simply reporting scores that are easily acquired on cell phones and the Internet. "The only way they are going to get new stations and new affiliates is if they differentiate themselves from ESPN and Fox," he said.
As it is right now, SNR's national feed takes up three of the four hours in the afternoon drive-time slot, hosted by Travis Rodgers, the former producer of The Jim Rome Show. This means that until Rodgers's final 60 minutes, most of the local topics are squeezed out. This isn't so bad when local teams aren't doing much of anything, but when one of those teams either starts winning or collapses into utter failure, it is tough to see how KGOW will be able to meet the increased demand for local programming.
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Gow claims that, because the station owns the network, switching away to a locally hosted show could be done as easily as pushing a button and is something they would consider in the event of an important local sports story. He believes that, while it may take some time to integrate the network and the local station, doing so will ultimately benefit both. "We have John and Lance, which has brought great continuity and is the foundation of our local identity, and now, with the network, we take Peter Gammons and we sprinkle him into our local show," he explains. "We're taking a national personality and enhancing our local show."
Perhaps the most significant issue facing The Game is the reach of its broadcast transmission. AM radio frequencies are directional, and the Federal Communications Commission assigns airspace to a transmitter based on its proximity to another station with the same or similar frequency. KGOW, like many other AM stations, has two transmitters: one for daytime hours and another for nighttime. Its daytime transmitter is one of the most powerful in the area, yet there are issues with noise and interference in certain parts of town. The station's nighttime signal, though significantly better since it upgraded its tower, suffers from even greater interference.
It's a complicated problem involving equipment issues, the shape of the transmission signal, its direction and reach leaving certain areas of town with little coverage and other areas, including places far outside of Houston, with strong, clear signals.
"When the weather is just right, we sound fucking badass in Missouri," McClain says.
But locally? As one local radio expert who did not want to be named puts it: "I often drive home through Bellaire, the city where they have their license, and you can't hear them in Bellaire, for God's sakes."
Keeping a radio station afloat is a difficult business even if the ratings are high and there is corporate funding. Because KGOW is so focused on talent, the station has to grow financially to be able to support that talent base. Much like great athletes, on-air talent will ultimately want greater exposure and, like everyone else, more money. SNR might be able to provide a little of both and Gow points out that, despite the issues they face, the station's talent is intact. "Nearly every personality we started with is still here," he said.
Ask anyone at the station why, and they'll all say it's because what you hear on the radio is who they really are and it makes it a nearly ideal workplace even if they don't always agree with one another. "We don't set up arguments and fights," Zierlein explains. "We argue about sports."
Zierlein, 41, grew up in Houston surrounded by sports. His father, Larry, is a semiretired pro football coach who began his career at the University of Houston in 1978. He and his son listened to sports radio in the car.
"I used to listen to Anita Martini and Mike Edmunds," the younger Zierlein said, referring to one of the most beloved duos in Houston sports radio history. After graduating from UH, Zierlein interned on local sports stations, but ended up logging 60-hour weeks for a car repair company before starting his own sports handicapping service, a skill he learned from a mentor he met in New Orleans. "I used to go to a pool hall," he explains.
He sent letters to sports stations around the country and managed to get on the air as a football handicapper and draft expert. He filled in with Granato on a local television sports show and eventually landed the co-host chair on KILT next to Granato, a partnership spanning 14 years. Zierlein prefers the role of color commentator to Granato's play-by-play, a combination that seems to put them both at ease. Zierlein admits he is uncomfortable in the other role.