The worst kept secret in New York sports radio has finally been revealed.
And it was revealed by the one and only Mike Francesa this afternoon.
The longtime WFAN host, who has toiled at the country’s first 24/7 sports radio station for most of its existence, mostly with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, announced at the start of his program that at some point next month, the programming on AM 660 will be simulcast on 101.9 FM via a local marketing agreement. That station, WRXP, was purchased by WFAN’s parent owner CBS Radio from Merlin Media. Incidentally, this won’t be the first spoken word format on the frequency, as Merlin had operated an all-news format on 101.9, with little success. This summer, they abruptly flushed the “FM News” programming and reverted back to the previous rock format and call letters which the frequency bore under its previous owner, Emmis Communications.
And to tie this story in a bow made of fabric from one of Steve Somers’ sweaters, WFAN’s pioneering sports format was launched back in 1987 under Emmis’ watch – back then, they were at AM 1050, and moved to AM 660 the following year.
It was also Emmis that made it possible for sports radio to be heard on FM in New York City, by virtue of them selling 98.7 FM to Disney’s ESPN New York, which had been at AM 1050 for over a decade. ESPN 98.7 FM and 1050 AM simulcast for the summer until last month, when 1050 began carrying ESPN Deportes programming.
Expect the same to happen with AM 660 at some point. Yes, CBS Radio President Dan Mason has gone public in saying that they “don’t see this as a 30- or 60-day deal.” Ironically, in 30-60 days from whenever 101.9 assumes WFAN programming, the new CBS Sports Radio network launches. You may recall awhile back, a former CBS employee foresaw CBS moving WFAN to the FM band (he actually predicted it would replace the format on CBS-owned 102.7 FM) with CBS eventually using AM 660 “as a clearinghouse” for CBSSR.
Yet in the same breath, Mason didn’t promise “the stations will remain identical forever.”
In the meantime, CBS’ purchase of 101.9 FM is a shock in that it currently puts the company over the maximum ownership limits for Market No. 1: 101.9 would give CBS four FM stations, three AM stations, two TV stations, and a sports radio network in a pear tree. (But I digress.) Anyway, I mentioned that WFAN programming – with a callsign change from WRXP to WFAN-FM – would commence in over a month from now. “The delayed start of the LMA,” speculates radio journalist Lance Venta, “indicates that another move may be pending to resolve that issue.”
All three of CBS’ AM properties are very strong: in addition to WFAN, there’s WCBS-AM and WINS, both all-news stations (which brings forth another piece of irony in that CBS’ new acquisition had previously carried a format aimed at WCBS-AM and WINS, mostly the latter). WINS’ news has a city flavor, while WCBS-AM’s newscasts have a suburban appeal. Granted, CBS could consolidate the two all-news stations into one (much like Emmis did with the urban music formats of 107.5 WBLS and 98.7 WRKS/Kiss-FM, once they sold 98.7 to Disney). Or, they could simply unload AM 660 on another buyer, and leave both all-news stations as is – and they can still have CBS Sports Radio cleared 24/7 on AM 660.
Here’s how: Remember that Cumulus Media, which is also involved with CBS Sports Radio, owns hundreds of radio stations across the country – and nary a single property in New York City. Okay, they have a few stations serving Westchester, but that’s it. But clearly, they’re at a point where they can easily take AM 660 off of CBS’ hands – CBS has to sell one of its nine broadcasting properties, one way or the other – and program CBSSR on it. Even though it would have CBS branding, legally, it would be owned by Cumulus – and legally, CBS would not be over its ownership limit.
Never mind a CBS Radio New York executive making the point that AM 660 “carries further than any FM signal, so the AM will always add more listeners.” It didn’t stop Disney from dumping AM 1050 in New York last month. Or Boston’s WEEI breaking off its AM/FM simulcast late last week, turning the AM station into a 24/7 ESPN Radio outlet. Plus, the AM/FM simulcast of CBS’ WIP in Philadelphia and WHFS-FM/WQYK-AM in Tampa will be coming to an end in January to clear the new CBSSR. That’s business.
Then again, CBS could move the all-news programming of either WINS or WCBS-AM down to AM 660 and sell that frequency to Cumulus. That would be the most likely scenario. It would be nice to have synergy between WFAN’s current and future frequencies, but even in an era where spoken word formats are moving from AM to FM in droves, you’d have to be nuts to sell a blowtorch like AM 660.
And once CBS takes care of the business at hand that is selling one of their AM stations, CBS can concentrate on blunting some of the rising ratings that ESPN New York has seen since migrating to the FM dial.
Then you might just hear Mike Francesa snoring in stereo.