By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
John Granato and Lance Zierlein need to leave. Their show ended five minutes ago, but they're still talking.
The conversation has turned to Hakeem Olajuwon's lame commercials, and Zierlein has asked Raheel Ramzanali, whose show with John Harris was supposed to start at 10 a.m., to look up Olajuwon's embarrassing McDonald's commercial online. Granato, baiting Ramzanali, says, "Why does Raheel have to look it up?"
Ramzanali, who apparently has extensive knowledge of where to find bootlegged movies and video streams on the Web, mockingly imitates Zierlein, "Hey, Pakistani, go look up the illegal stream. Hey, Pakistani, where's the MMA stream. Hey, Pakistani, how can I watch the WWE. Dance, Pakistani, dance!"
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Granato is laughing hysterically while Zierlein is carrying on a codependent relationship with his microphone, pushing it away and then quickly jerking it back, unable to resist the urge to comment. The clock is ticking and they both have meetings, but they can't seem to help themselves. "I've got to get out of here," Granato shouts. "I'm not going to let you leave," responds Ramzanali, coaxing him to talk by bringing up Tiger Woods, knowing Granato has a looming tee time at the Redstone golf course. Finally, Zierlein wildly motions to the producer to cut his mike off from the control room to save him from himself, and he and Granato are out the door.
It's now 10:20. On most sports radio stations, this type of behavior would be considered juvenile at best and certainly unprofessional, but this is a typical morning on three-and-a-half-year-old KGOW, 1560AM, commonly referred to as "The Game." Its loyal fans refer to themselves as members of "the secret society." The station has a double rods logo (more on that later) that's either cutting-edge or sophomoric, depending on how entertaining its viewers find the symbol of flipping someone off turned on its side.
"There is a culture that we're going to make fun of ourselves. We're going to make fun of everybody else," says David Gow, station president. "We're going to have fun." And they have fun. Tons of it. But they face some challenges as well.
Their transmission signal suffers from interference, particularly at night when they switch to a weaker transmitter; they rank last in total listeners among Houston sports radio stations and are figuring out how to integrate the recently acquired Sporting News Radio network. Right now, with all three major sports teams in Houston suffering through a collective malaise, KGOW, like all other sports stations, isn't seeing the fan interest that winning brings.
Despite all this, they have a loyal group of followers who spend more time tuning in to them each day than listeners at other stations, and they are light-years ahead of other sports stations in their use of social media, particularly Twitter, and its 140-character limit, which cuts down on long-winded callers and provides a steady stream of breaking news tips to the station.
KGOW has carved out its niche as the feisty, irreverent sports alternative in a market that already has three other sports radio stations. Not content to simply read scores, do interviews and analyze trades, the hosts of The Game weave pop culture, locker-room humor and behind-the-scenes inside jokes in a decidedly colloquial approach to the topics of the day.
The station's talent and creative staff include a curious variety of characters, some of whom left behind promising careers at larger sports stations and others who had never worked in radio before. There is a former wine dealer, an oilfield tool salesman who dabbled in music, the vice president of sales for a telecommunications provider and a former football coach who worked as an accountant before joining the station. There is also one of the most acclaimed sports-talk duos in Houston. Virtually all of them took a pay cut to work at 1560.
They are now under the charge of Gow, a sedate Williams College grad who went on to a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard and had never worked in radio before taking over the station that now bears his name.
This approach has pitted them against the monolithic sports conglomerates of Clear Channel (KBME 790AM), CBS (KILT 610AM) and ESPN (KFNC 97.5FM), all of whom attempt to blend, with varying degrees of success, straight sports conversation with the "guy talk" format popularized in places like Philadelphia and New York, but never fully embraced in Houston.
As the only independent and locally owned station in the bunch, taking on Fortune 500 corporations is risky business. "We're David against the Goliaths," says Gow. But for Gow and the rest, it is the very lack of corporate culture, encouraged mischievousness and careful cultivation of on-air talent that they believe will ultimately win out.
in 1993, there were no sports radio stations in Houston despite the city's rich sports radio history, which dates back almost 40 years. KPRC and KTRH, well before their switch to ultraconservative talk, had long-running evening drive-time sports call-in shows. KTRH's SportsBeat counts CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz as well as veteran Houston sports stalwarts Rich Lord and Charlie Pallilo among its former hosts. Ralph Cooper continues to host the sports show at KCOH, where he has been since 1984.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"I love improv because the show is improv." he explains, "Talk radio is improv."
Part of that improvisation includes the many impressions and characters in his repertoire such as SEC Guy (short for South Easter Conference, a nod to the character's home state of Alabama), a cantankerous Southern gentleman who is as antagonistic as he is vaguely racist. In fact, it is a story Zierlein told on the air that led to KGOW's "double rods" logo, created by a frequent listener.
Zierlein and his wife were leaving a University of Texas football game on a muggy, rainy Saturday afternoon. His wife took off the uncomfortable pancho she was wearing, leaving her husband draped in a similar orange, plastic raincoat. A group of Longhorn fans, seeing what they perceived to be a thoughtless husband letting his wife walk in the rain, shouted a few choice words Zierlein's way.
As he walked away, he flipped them off with both hands behind his head, giving them what he referred to as the "double rods," which Zierlein called "just a friendly hello." Soon, the "friendly hello" became a greeting from callers and a part of how the station presents itself to the world.
Zierlein's slapstick plays well off Granato's straight man. The comfort level the two have achieved with one another took time to cultivate, beginning with a decision to ignore suggestions from management at KILT and to just be themselves. "John got to me and said, 'You've got to start letting out who you are, your personality, your comedy,'" he said, adding, "Our show is an extension of who we are."
Granato, for his part, is much more than simply a morning drive-time co-host. The 51-year-old Chicago native is the vice president of operations and has a financial stake in the station. He is largely responsible for recruiting the on-air talent that fills out the lineup at the station, and functions as a de facto leader and godfather. "John was first in, and he hired most of the rest of the lineup as he had far more experience than the others," said Gow. "They look at him as their mentor and somebody who can develop them."
The one-time host with Zierlein of the most popular morning sports talk show on Houston radio, perhaps the most popular sports talk show in any time slot, Granato left KILT after filing suit against it for breach of contract. The suit was settled out of court. Zierlein followed soon after, having to wait for his six-month non-compete clause to expire.
The chance they took, moving from the most successful sports station in the city to a start-up, is not lost on either of them, but they believe trading the stability of a large, corporate-run station for greater creative control and like-minded talent was well worth it. "Over there, it was every man for himself," says Granato during a commercial break. "Here, we're all in this together."
John Harris would agree. The co-host of the mid-morning show with Ramzanali, who is moving to the national overnight show on Sporting News Radio April 4, was working as an accountant in his wife's home state of North Carolina when Granato asked him to join 1560. Leaving North Carolina and the stability of his job was a huge risk he believed was worth taking. "You don't get rich doing this," he said, "but you never know what opportunities might come from it."
Harris, a lifelong friend of Zierlein and a former high school football coach in Florida, had appeared on Granato and Zierlein's show at 610 talking college and pro football, but had never hosted a show before KGOW. "The opportunity was amazing," he said. "It changed my life."
Gow, who purchased the station's license with a group of local investors, is quiet and friendly, with an unassuming, almost buttoned-down demeanor that belies the station's more colorful personality. While KGOW's call letters bear his name, it is something he resisted. "It really wasn't my first instinct," he said, laughing, "but Granato and others arm-wrestled me on it one day and I acquiesced."
Gow grew up appreciating radio and loving sports, but his reason for purchasing the station was more idealistic.
"I liked the idea of working in a business where the mission was greater than the day-to-day tasks," the 47-year-old native Houstonian said, emphasizing the importance of "supporting the development of lots of important causes."
He and Granato, whom Gow refers to as a "partner" with the investors, created the culture that drives the station and Granato's morning show with Zierlein is its heartbeat, setting the tone on an almost daily basis and affecting the shows that follow them.
Ramzanali took a traditional career path to radio, interning for McClain at 610 while he was a student at the Univerity of Texas. He interviewed with 1560 at its inception and started on nights and weekends, eventually moving to mid-mornings leading into the Sean Pendergast show.
Before coming to KGOW, Sean Pendergast's only brush with broadcasting occurred in the mid-'90s when he was a five-time winner of Jim Rome's "smack-off," a one-up-the-previous-caller-with-insults-and-sports-takes contest. A native of Connecticut, he worked in sales for 20 years before losing his job as the result of a merger.
Living in Chicago at the time and going through a divorce, Pendergast reached out to McClain, who had become a friend through their interactions at KILT. Initially, he asked McClain about positions for some of his sales staff, but joked about his own job status. "I'm out of a job too," he told McClain in an e-mail, "Carve me out a couple hours on the weekend."
McClain was on his way out the door at KILT and recommended Pendergast to Granato, who brought him in, initially, to co-host the afternoon show with Harris. "I had so many things going wrong in my life at that time," he said, "[I thought] this is a sign. I'm supposed to do this." Now the 42-year-old is the solo host of the midday show and a writer for the Houston Press.
When Pendergast was winning his smack-off titles, he became friends with Travis Rodgers, the longtime producer for The Jim Rome Show. Rodgers spent nearly 15 years producing Rome's popular syndicated show before being ousted. "[Rome] decided that my point of view, which I had given him for a long time, was no longer a viable point of view," Rodgers said, "and they fired me." (A spokesperson for The Jim Rome Show had no official comment, citing policy.)
Rodgers, who had never hosted his own show prior to joining KGOW, brings a less acerbic wit than Rome's, but his style is certainly informed by his former boss. He landed in Houston after a handful of guest-hosting stints at the station. Despite moving halfway across the country, Rodgers says he feels completely at home in Houston and on 1560. "I like the group of lunatics that surround this world," he said. "The talk radio listeners and the talk radio hosts are a really bizarre, eclectic, fun group of people."
And there are few people more eclectic than McClain and his creative partner, production director Frank Bullington. If Granato and Zierlein are the heart of the station and Gow is its intellect, McClain and Bullington are most definitely its sense of humor.
McClain, 38, had no background in radio before being hired at KILT as an executive producer on the strong recommendation of Granato and Zierlein. He sold oil-field tools and dabbled in songwriting. His Houston Rocket-themed songs "Air Bull" and "Yao Ming Song" caught the ears of the Zierlein and landed McClain a job with KILT. He and Bullington met on the floor of the Compaq Center. McClain was singing the Yao song during halftime of a game between the Rockets and Lakers. Bullington was playing in a drum corps that performed during games and he backed McClain up.
The creative duo now infuses their unique brand of wit-inspired impertinence into the station avoiding what McClain refers to as "fucking cold war bureaucracy" he says he encountered at KILT. Bullington, a 42-year-old musician who has played in Houston for more than 20 years, is responsible for most of the promos, public service announcements and locally produced advertisements. He left a job working for a wine distributor and took a pay cut to "be challenged creatively and hang out with people that make me laugh all day," adding, "What fun. Who gets to do shit like this?"
sitting in the studio on a random Tuesday morning is like being in a college dorm. There are empty energy drink bottles and newspapers scattered around the room — the sports section is sitting strategically on the table next to a computer monitor while the business section is crumpled on the floor. The bobblehead doll of former Houston Rocket Carl Landry is sitting on a Harlem Globetrotters mouse pad, and a soccer ball on the floor occasionally gets kicked against the wall by an intern or show producer during a break.
Next to the door hang banners from competing sports radio stations marked with the names of the people who nabbed them, reminders of what they are up against and trophies from their battle for the ears of listeners.
"That's the kind of thing that's encouraged around here," Granato says of the stolen banners, describing how the atmosphere at KGOW is decidedly different from his last radio home at KILT.
McClain and Bullington create virtually all of the station's local commercials, public service announcements and interludes that range from hilarious to surreal. They also come up with event ideas and oddball stunts, sometimes catching even their fellow staffers unawares. They've started a lawn mower in the studio and walked out, visited the station at midnight for drunken on-air improvisation they call the Blue Light Cemetery show, and released hundreds of live crickets while Rodgers was on the air. "It drove Travis crazy," Bullington confessed.
"Having sound from last night's game is not important to me," says Program Director Chance McClain. "Having Raheel challenge [Houston Rockets forward] Chuck Hayes to a free-throw shooting contest and talk about it is entertaining to me."
Some of the jokes live on the puerile side of tasteful. Alyson Footer, a frequent in-studio guest and director of social networking for the Houston Astros, said, "I told John [Granato], 'You guys are leading the league in bathroom humor.'" But, McClain wants the hosts to flirt with the inflammatory. "We're not cavalier. We're not reckless," he said, sitting in one of the station's control rooms that doubles as his office, "but we're definitely going to get on that line and just live there."
And listeners willingly engage in that commentary, especially through social networking. KGOW has been aggressive in its approach to Twitter in particular, garnering more than 20,000 combined followers of its on-air personalities. According to Gow, that is more than all three other sports radio stations put together.
Pendergast is one of the more avid users of Twitter, not only as a means of interacting with callers — he hands out gift cards from sponsors each day for what he considers the best Tweets — but as his newswire during the show, weaving breaking stories into the daily conversation. "The news cycle used to be 24 hours and now it's 24 seconds," Footer says.
To a man, they seem to realize what they are up against and they enjoy being the underdog. Despite having their best quarter in the station's history at the end of 2010, they are still a small independent station with a lot of battles ahead.
Their success, their determination to take an alternate path, will be graded on a pass-fail basis. If they go down, they will go down swinging.