A few months ago, back when ESPN Radio (WEPN) in New York formally announced that they would be migrating to the FM band at 98.7, after just over a decade at AM 1050, I wrote an extensive piece speculating that, in conjunction with the station’s 25th anniversary, WFAN should make a similar move, with a silver anniversary gift in the form of an FM signal – perhaps at 92.3 FM, a sister station of WFAN with a CHR format that’s still not as highly rated as its established rival, the legendary Z-100, which you can argue is to late-20th-century “hit radio” as WFAN has been to the sports talk radio genre.
Alas, that piece was unfortunately wiped away with a SportsRantz.com server upgrade, which was scheduled right around the time I posted it.
In retrospect, the loss of that article in the shuffle has made me look like a genius, because: A) July 1 has come and gone and WFAN still does not have an existence on the FM dial; and B) there are new inklings – inklings that serve as the basis of this post that you are reading right now – suggesting that WFAN will indeed add an FM signal by the time the station turns 26 – and the intended target is not 92.3, as myself and many others have long suspected it would be, but 102.7.
For the uninitiated, CBS Radio/New York owns three radio stations on the FM band, as well as the the AM band. Media companies are allowed to own up to five FM stations in a market; however, as previously explained here, CBS Radio also owns two TV stations in the New York DMA. Mind you, one of the TV properties was just recently purchased, so they’re maxed out in Market No. 1. Which means that if CBS were to migrate WFAN, or either or both of the all-news AM stations they operate, to the FM dial, it would have to be at the expense of one of the three FM music stations they own in the market.
The three FM stations are: 92.3 FM, WXRK, the aforementioned CHR station known as “92.3 Now,” whose callsign is a holdover from its glory days as a classic rock station with Howard Stern in morning drive. According to the May PPM’s (6+), they’re garnering half as much ratings as its opponent, Z-100. Note that WFAN currently broadcasts on the HD-3 channel of 92.3 FM. Then, there is 101.1 FM, WCBS-FM, which this weekend is celebrating its own anniversary: it was on July 7, 1972 that they started airing the format originally known as “oldies”, which has been referred to these days as “classic hits”. (I don’t think they’re counting those two years in the mid-2000’s when they ran the “Jack FM” format, which was a radically different form of classic hits.) Currently, WCBS-FM is a solid number two in the PPM’s. Last but not least is 102.7 FM, the former WNEW-FM, currently in its fifth year under the identity of “Fresh 102.7” with the call letters WWFS. In the latest PPM’s, their rival, the perennial ratings leader “106.7 Lite FM,” has nearly three times as much ratings as “Fresh 102.7” has. (The June PPM numbers are expected to be released on Monday afternoon.)
In late April, when ESPN Radio (1050 WEPN-AM at the time) announced that they would be leasing the signal of WRKS-FM (then known as “98.7 Kiss-FM”) so that they would become New York’s first sports radio station on the FM band, speculation began – in places such as this one – indicating that the ball was in WFAN’s court as far as making a move to FM is concerned. At the time, WFAN executives confirmed that they would be staying the course with their 50,000-watt blowtorch signal, and so far, they have.
What appears to be reigniting this WFAN-to-FM rumor is a conversation that Media Bistro New York media columnist Jerry Barmash had with a person identified only as “a former CBS Radio employee who asked to remain anonymous.” The unidentified person suggests that at some point, WFAN will take over 102.7 FM, with the station’s current AM 660 signal that they’ve been occupying for the last two dozen years, being transformed as an outlet carrying the new CBS Sports Radio, whose 24/7 component debuts the day after New Year’s Day 2013.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if CBS uses 660 as a clearinghouse for the CBS Sports [Radio] Network, while 102.7 maintains a local angle,” the ex-CBS staffer prognosticated.
Supporting this prediction is the recent appointment of Jim Ryan, program director of “Fresh 102.7,” to similar duties at WCBS-FM, upon the departure of that station’s PD, Brian Thomas, to Tampa Bay to run the CBS Radio cluster there. Ryan, who had programmed “106.7 Lite FM” for a dozen years, was hired by its rival “Fresh” just last year. “Therefore,” Barmash writes, “in an effort to ‘keep the seat warm,’ once a move is decided, WFAN can easily take over the 102.7 spot.”
Another factor in WFAN gunning for an FM signal is one of the main reasons that prompted its rival, now known as “ESPN 98.7”, to grab an FM signal of their own: Both the Yankees and Mets’ radio broadcast contracts expire at the conclusion of this season. Both teams’ games are currently heard on CBS-owned AM stations: the Yankees on WCBS-AM since the 2002 season, and the Mets on WFAN for much, much longer. Interestingly, last year, WFAN extended their relationship with the Mets for just one more year, coinciding with the expiration of the Yankees’ WCBS-AM contract.
“If anything,” the former CBS Radio staffer suggests, the Yankees “will go to The ‘Fan or WEPN-FM. Whoever doesn’t get the Yankees will get the Mets, but there is a chance WFAN could try for both and clear the Mets on 660 and the Yankees on FM.”
Which means the Mets’ long relationship with WFAN, going back to the WHN days, could indeed continue in 2013 – albeit on a signal which will now be consisting of virtually no local talent (WFAN’s “Boomer & Carton” morning show could be syndicated via CBS Sports Radio). Usually, sports radio stations that carry play-by-play of their local teams are accustomed to hosts breaking down the game, immediately after the game. For the Mets to pick a WFAN-AM that would be a hollow shell of the local sports radio station that it once was, as opposed to a WEPN-FM, would be quite a hard sell. Does anyone honestly think that the Mets would pick an AM sports station, knowing that there would be two FM sports stations to choose from? And considering the Yankees sign a new deal to have their games heard on WFAN, with or without the FM signal: does anybody think the Mets are going to want to do business with CBS Radio at that point? Why wouldn’t they hightail it to ESPN 98.7 after being shunned by their flagship station for about three decades? The Mets realize that they’re going to get sloppy seconds after the Yankees dot their I’s and cross their T’s, one way or the other, but for the Mets to choose an automated AM 660, whose CBSSR host could be flapping his or her gums about the Yankees game as soon as the Mets game is over, they would just be suckers for punishment.
Especially considering the “interesting numbers out of the gate” that ESPN Radio/New York had once moving to 98.7 FM – in fact, they nearly doubled their previous rating when they were only on AM 1050. This shows that listeners – mostly, new ones – are finding “ESPN 98.7” and listening to them for an extended period of time – mind you, without any Yankees or Mets play-by-play – at the moment, anyway.
“FAN still has a huge advantage in New York,” the unidentified ex-CBS employee continued, “but there will come a point where an FM signal may be needed during rights negotiations with sports teams. More and more teams are moving to FM across the country, and the Yankees may be attracted by WFAN if they had an AM and FM.”
One thing to take into consideration is that, while the 6+ PPM numbers may be very good for WCBS-FM and not so much for WWFS, billing numbers may prove otherwise. In fact, there is speculation that WCBS-FM, currently celebrating their 38th, er, 40th anniversary, could be replaced by WFAN. “From a demographics standpoint, they are the most as risk versus Now and Fresh,” writes member “mluper”. “I think WCBS-FM fans should be worried.” A subsequent reply suggests that a WFAN-to-101.1 FM move may not happen, since the frequency is “short spaced to 101.1 Philadelphia, creating reception issues in Central New Jersey.” And besides, CBS-FM listeners have been down this road before with the upheaval of 101.1 to “Jack FM” seven years ago. “Then again,” as another member replied, “stranger things have happened.”
It wouldn’t be strange to hear WFAN on 102.7 FM. Ten years ago, when WNEW-FM was in the waning years of its hot talk format – this was right after the station fired Opie & Anthony following a stunt encouraging sexual intercourse in public places, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral – Richard Neer, one of the “rock jocks” under WNEW-FM’s previous album-oriented rock format on the frequency until 1999, who had remained with CBS’ radio division (then known as Infinity Broadcasting) as a sports talk show host on WFAN (and to this day, still does), hosted “The ‘FAN In The Morning”, which was basically the same kind of show he would host on WFAN on weekends, but weekday mornings on 102.7. His update guy was Harris Allen, another WNEW-FM alum who, yes, can still be heard doing updates on WFAN today. The main objective was to program a morning show that would not step on Don Imus, WFAN’s morning host at the time, as well as the aforementioned Howard Stern on WXRK.
How ironic would it be that “The ‘FAN In The Morning” – a mere experiment on 102.7 FM – would be a mere precursor to WFAN broadcasting full-time on 102.7 FM a decade later.
And if this unknown former CBS Radio employee’s premonitions come to fruition, does that spell a need for CBS to find an FM home for WSCR/”670 The Score” in Chicago, with the purpose of turning AM 670 into a CBSSCBS Sports Radio outlet? And what about markets such as Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh and Cleveland – would CBS be shopping (that is, if they’re not maxed out) for AM signals with the intent to clear CBSSR in these markets in which they currently operate local FM sports stations?
I suppose we’ll find out once the first shoe drops – which would likely be before the end of baseball’s regular season.
Let the games begin.