Sports talk radio stations fight for listeners in Houston

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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.


sports-talk radio

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."

For years, sports talk was simply afternoon or evening programming on news/talk stations. KILT changed all that when it went all-sports in September 1994, seven years after the concept was first introduced by WFAN in New York. KILT had the field to itself for ten years, when KBME switched to all-sports in late 2004, stealing Pallilo from KILT and installing him as the anchor of the station. In January of this year KFNC entered the fray, and KILE is aiming to be up by football season. There are going to be some very, very thinly sliced pies out there.

Hey guys, how're ya doin'? I got you guys on my radio all the time, you're great. I had a comment and then a question. My comment is, there have been a lot of dumb coaches and owners in Houston. My question is, why are you guys so soft on them?

"This is a much kinder, gentler media market than most top-ten markets in this country," says Rich Lord, afternoon host at KILT and 20-year veteran of the Houston sports-talk market. "It's served me kind of well because I'm not necessarily the kind of guy who's going to go off half-cocked on teams, or GMs or players and call them out on the air and talk about what an idiot the coach is and what kind of moron the GM is and what a useless piece of human garbage that player is. I don't think it plays well in Houston."

Jon Madani is program director at KFNC; he's been in three different markets for ESPN and has been a keen observer of stations across the country. "There's a Southern charm here, there's a 'please' and a 'thank you' that's not attached to callers in Boston, I can tell you that," he says. "Up in the Northeast it's much more confrontational."

Pallilo, a Long Island native, brought in a bit of that attitude when he first came to town for KTRH in 1989, but he quickly learned to tone it down. "I don't know whether it's that we're an indoor/outdoor climate 12 months a year so you're not hunkered down miserably with the slush and the all-gray weather," he says. "Clearly there's still not generation-to-generation-to-generation roots. No one comes out of the womb cheering for the Astros. In Boston you come out of the womb cheering for the Red Sox."

It's somewhat amazing how hosts in Houston, who after all inhabit the macho world of sports, are so eager to proclaim that they're hesitant to go after people.

"There was a guy [in another market] called Peter Brown and he used to be known as "The Coach Killer." Well, I don't want to have a reputation where all I'm known for, all I become famous for is because I go after coaches and players in interviews," says Lance Zierlein, long-time cohost with Granato at KILT until a recent contract dispute. "That's not my personality. It would be a front if I did that." (Zierlein's dad, perhaps not coincidentally, is an assistant coach in the NFL.)

"I think it's probably one of the easiest major markets in the country," says Granato. "For the players, they don't have the guy coming after them with the really tough questions; the callers, they aren't like in New York where they can be brutal."

Don't look for that to change. "I don't think there's the need for the confrontational aspect you get on the East Coast," says Tim Collins, program director for KBME.

Yeah, hey, I had a comment on that previous caller. That might be okay with coaches and players, but I happen to be an absolute idiot caller. In just a second I'm going to propose trading Tracy McGrady for Tim Duncan and Steve Nash in a three-way deal, then I'm going to say that Barry Bonds doesn't have Hall of Fame numbers. Why don't you hang up on me, for crissake?

"You reflect your community, and Houston isn't a hang-up-on-you city," says Van Rysdam.

"Your discussion around the watercooler or at the pub in Houston is reflected on the air, just as it is in New York," says Berry. "Guys are going [in New York], 'Shut up' or 'You can't answer that, you're an idiot, I'm not going to listen to you, fahgedaboudit.' Whereas here you're going to get a more polite, courteous response. So shouldn't your radio show be a reflection of that?...We don't hang up on people, nor do people call in expecting to be hung up on; in New York or Philadelphia, they do."

So in Houston, idiot caller, you will be heard. And frequently are, unfortunately (see "Jock Radio: No-Call List").

If you're a reasonably intelligent host, what can you possibly be thinking when you see on your computer screen that some guy has been sitting on hold for an hour and ten minutes in order to get in a comment about the Texans' tight-end situation? Is that a sign of dementia?

"The whole dynamic is interesting," says Pallilo, "because I've never known any more impassioned sports fan than I was as a kid...[but] I called two shows in my lifetime." (One was as a 14-year-old, calling a national show famous for hanging up on kids. "I put on the greatest basso profundo I could come up with in the midst of puberty," he says. "It was a rite of passage — I made it through the Pete Franklin show without getting gassed.")

The rule of thumb in the industry is that anywhere from 90 to 98 percent of listeners will never call in to a show. But that group of callers can often, somehow, see themselves as key players.

"Guys will send you e-mails like, 'Hey man, I'm back in town, you remember me,' and I'm like, 'I have no idea who you are," Zierlein says. "To them, they've been a real big part of the show."

It's a tricky relationship between callers and hosts. The hosts, for the most part, are more or less experts who have to be patient with callers wondering why the Texans can't just beat the New England Patriots. And many of the listeners are convinced they could do as good a job as the hosts. After all, it's just sitting around talking about sports, right?

"They all think it's an easy job. I think there are times when we're doing it well where we can make it look easy," Zierlein says. "But try doing a show — if you think my job is easy, then walk into a studio on July 20 when the Astros are 15-and-a-half games out and do four hours with no football, no basketball, only Astros baseball to talk about, and see how many calls you get."

"A lot of people think they can do it, but with all due respect, they can't," says Pallilo. "Some people are more skilled than others with their knowledge, thinking ability — it's ostensibly four hours of ad-libbing, you have to be able to think on your feet...Plenty of people can do it, but not close to everybody can do it well."

Hi, love the show. I had a question and then I'll hang up and listen. Who's the best sports-talk host in Houston?

Not much of a debate there — it's Pallilo.

A legitimate brainiac who excelled in the cutthroat — but legendary — broadcast school at Syracuse University (other alumni: Marv Albert, Bob Costas and Ted Koppel), Pallilo has gigabytes of sports stats stored in his head, along with a passion for anything involving a bat, ball or stick.

The big question he's facing now is whether he can carry a show alone. Sports talk is pretty much a world involving cohosts playing off each other.

"Maybe that's because of the whole frat-boy, locker-room, sports-bar aspect of it," he says.

Other hosts say privately that a cohost would be a help, and that the sometimes prickly Pallilo is letting his ego get in the way. He doesn't see it that way, of course.

"As with anything, there's pluses and minuses," he says. "If it's a dead period, it can be good to have someone to play off to whatever the verbal equivalent of wincing is, like at a bad play on words. On the other hand if you're a good interviewer and have a guest on for ten minutes one-on-one, if you have someone else [cohosting] and even if they're skilled — you ask a question that provokes an obvious lead-in to another question, but there's the unwritten rule that if you ask three questions in a row you're mike-hogging."

Pallilo's life is pretty much sports, either going to events, watching them on TV, reading about them or playing them.

One of his best friends, Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman, plays tennis three times a week with him. "I don't know anything about his personal life," Hoffman says. "I think he still lives in the same apartment he moved into when he arrived in Houston 18 years ago. He's like Curly in City Slickers — 'one thing.'...If I had his work ethic I'd be publisher of the Chronicle now."

In the studio, Pallilo has only one ear cocked to callers, typing away furiously to answer the e-mails and text messages that all stations are pushing their hosts to take part in. When it comes time to answer a question, he looks somewhere off in the distance, putting on a private performance, always aware of how he's modulating his voice and pacing his response. It's only when he does more pop-culture stuff, like discussing the latest "hot babes" (sports-talk radio is not noted for refinement in matters of sexual politics), that he makes eye contact or interacts with anyone — specifically, the producer in the booth, who usually doesn't respond on-air.

Pallilo always saw Houston as a stepping-stone to other markets, but now he's content, both with the lack-of-blizzards weather and the gig. He might seek to do some more play-by-play in the future, perhaps when the Astros' Milo Hamilton retires from the booth of KBME's sister station KTRH.

Pallilo is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the increased sports-talk competition in Houston. Salaries here were below what should have been market value because there weren't many jobs available. When KBME hired Pallilo away from KILT, he cashed in.

(No one talks actual salaries, but veteran hosts in morning- and afternoon-drive slots can make well over six figures in base salary and the cut they get from ads they read live on-air.)

"You're not necessarily going to get rich," Pallilo says, "but you can do all right in a field you're giddy to work in. I knew pretty early on that I wasn't going to play these games for my living, so to have a career in the same field...I have a job that is not a total 'real job,' so life is good."

Thanks for the vine, as they say on the Jim Rome Show. Do you guys go to a lot of the games? Do you go into the locker rooms to face the players you've been slagging (in Houston terms) on the air all day?

In a word, no.

Most of the hosts prattling on and on all day about the athletes and teams? They're not doing much digging on their own.

One who does is Granato.

"One of the problems I have with a lot of the radio guys — they're never at the games, they're never in the locker rooms," he says. "You've got a license with your media credentials to go out there and get as much information as you can, and to me if you don't use it, that to me is ridiculous. Anyone can turn on a computer and watch a game and do a show talking about sports, but you're not differentiating yourself from anybody."

Going into locker rooms or watching practices would, you think, provide some insight into team dynamics that might be worthwhile for listeners to hear. But most hosts don't view the job that way.

"I rarely go out to games anymore," Zierlein says. "Number one, since I got remarried I just enjoy spending time with my wife and kids and it just gets tougher to go out and do all that...I really prefer to watch on television with my Tivo so I can slow-mo some things, I can pause it."

"I don't go to nearly as many games as I used to and I kind of regret that," Rich Lord says. "But my day is anywhere from three to four hours at home watching games I might have taped the night before, watching highlight shows, on the Internet reading out-of-town newspapers...If you've ever talked to someone who's worked with me, they'll tell you that I am a little ridiculous sometimes when it comes to preparation. I probably over-prepare for each show because it gives me a comfort zone."

Even Pallilo, who regularly attends games, doesn't go into the locker room. Among print reporters and columnists, it can be a badge of honor to show up in the locker room after criticizing a player, making yourself available for his complaints. Pallilo doesn't see it that way.

"If I'm critical of Craig Biggio being in the lead-off spot as often as he is, I don't think it's incumbent on me to wander around the locker room," he says. "If Bidge wants to object, I'm not that hard to find — I'm at games, the teams have media departments and if there's any objection, I'm fine with discussing anything with anybody."

Another longtime, first-time here. I wanted to ask: I'm hearing about all this "guy talk" as being the new coming thing on sports talk. What's up with that?

Some embrace the term "guy talk," some object to it; they all, however, are increasingly doing it to some extent.

When you hear cohosts talking about the latest Maxim cover girl, that's guy talk. So is talk about movies, old TV shows and rock music.

When it's done well, it's entertaining and engaging and you don't even realize you've not been hearing anything about sports for a while. When it's done badly — when management forces it on hosts who aren't really able to handle it — it can be painful to listen to.

Take "Davies & Dukes," KBME's morning show with Brad Davies and Carl Dukes. Recently a long stretch of the morning was taken up with talking about "guy movies."

Defining them as "movies where the typical woman will walk out of the room if it's on TV," the duo energetically listed the usual suspects of the genre. "Death Wish — I mean, he starts killing everyone — he's going into crack dens and they all look up at him and he just starts blowing them away. It's an awesome movie," one said in full frat-boy tones.

The next day there were plenty of chortles over whether one of them wore "tightie-whities." ("I can't use them — I need the room, if you know what I mean," one said.)

The Davies & Dukes show provides the most recognizable red flag that you're going to be hearing bad sports radio: There's a giggling female cohost. Chronicle columnist John McClain, who's usually excellent on the radio — and who is, by the way, part of a growing contingent of Chron writers providing cheap labor for local stations — isn't exactly suited to the strained semi-flirting he does with his female cohost on his one-hour show.

Some hosts, even if they are relatively loose off the air, just possess the kind of stentorian pipes that make the repartee sound strained.

"I hate it when guys come on the air and say, 'We're going to have some laughs along the way.' No we're not. No we're not," says Granato. "When it doesn't work, nothing sounds more contrived."

"I'm fine with irreverence and occasional silliness in a show, [but] our culture has been dumbed down so much that for me, doing a show that caters to the lowest common denominator is a bad show," says Pallilo, speaking of "guy talk" in general.

Finding a balance is difficult, but more and more shows will be seeking to do it. "That's where your growth opportunity is," says KBME's Berry. "There's a limited number of people to listen to sports talk...if you're measuring that by people who want to argue about whether .300 is the barrier of who's a great hitter and who is not. But there is a broader group of people who are trying to decide between political talk and sports and Ellen DeGeneres on the air, and you can keep them if you give them a little bit of all that and keep your core of being a sports station."


"From time to time we've been encouraged to explore [guy talk], but I think we're more about sports than anything else," Lord says. "I like to talk about that stuff as much as the next guy, but I don't think it should be to the extent that if someone tunes into the station randomly, he can't figure out what our format is."

Thanks for taking my call. I know you guys are up against the clock, so I'll just make this quick. Who's going to survive out of all these stations?

KILT has been the most roiled. They've lost their morning hosts, and Rich Lord is on his third cohost in the last two years.

KILT has replaced Granato and Zierlein in the mornings with Marc Vandermeer and Andre Ware. That's raised some eyebrows in town, because Vandermeer and Ware are the announcers for Texans games.

Vandermeer was already being criticized for going easy on the Texans when he was cohosting with Lord, so no one's expecting any huge onslaught of candor from the two when football season rolls around. (Vandermeer and Ware aren't paid for their NFL jobs by the Texans, but the team does have some say on who's in the booth.)

"They are going to have a hard, hard time establishing credibility," one host says. (It could be worse: There's a growing trend now of pro teams buying their own radio stations. The Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Angels have done it; the St. Louis Cardinals ended a 50-year partnership with legendary station KMOX to do it.)

Still, KILT has the numbers, such as they are (see "Jock Radio: Numbers Game"). They're not going anywhere, and KBME also looks like it's here to stay.

Which leaves KFNC and KILE. Here's the common wisdom on both: KFNC has a signal out of Beaumont that can be tough to get here; Houstonians are not accustomed to getting sports talk on FM and they want local talk as opposed to national. KILE (which will probably be renamed) is at the far, far end of the radio dial and doesn't have the resources for a start-up against the big boys of CBS, Clear Channel and Cumulus.

Speaking in KFNC's defense: Jon Madani, programming director. He says his station will have increasing local programming but still feature the popular national shows like Mike & Mike and Dan Patrick. As for the signal, "I hear all kinds of theories [about not being able to get it], from what kind of car you're driving to where you are in town," he says. "I just have to keep telling myself that for everyone who can't hear us, and I'm sorry they can't, there's a whole lot of people who can."

Speaking for KILE: Granato. "I know it's real hard to twist the radio dial to the right, I know that's going to be hard," he jokes. "But actually we are going where no man has gone before and that is something that is — not a concern, but something we're going to have to tackle, getting people up there."

As for taking on the giants, he says most of those giants have tiny marketing budgets. (Which is true: There aren't many billboards around town promoting sports talk.) "The big conglomerates, they're like the Mom & Pops now because they're strangling; they want as much revenue dollars as they can get and they want to spend as little in the market as they can...Frankly, we're going to have way more marketing out there than the majors do."

There aren't many in the market who think Houston can support four stations. "Some natural selection at some point will take effect," says Zierlein. "The market may be big enough for three sports stations, but one of them is going to be very weak and if it's four, one of them's not going to survive."

No one appears eager to blink just yet. So, Houston sports fans, enjoy it while you can. No one's going to have more choice in local sports-talk radio than you. Plus you get to watch a big-time battle.

Hey, no time for any more calls; stay tuned for traffic, weather and an update! And listen in for our new evening show, where we'll be discussing the ten best sports movies, why Eva Longoria isn't all that hot and whether the Sopranos finale sucked.

Oh, and we might talk a little about the Astros.

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