Why play-by-play sports on the radio isn’t what it used to be – Orange County Register
Two stories caught my eye this week regarding play-by-play sports on the radio; both cases involved baseball.
The first had to do with WIP-FM/Philadelphia, which earned a huge share of the ratings during broadcasts of the Philadelphia Phillies-Miami Marlins Wildcard games in early October, at least with the targeted demographic of men aged between 25 and 54. The first two hours of game one earned an astonishing 50+ average in the demo, meaning that over 50% of men aged 25-54 listening to the radio were listening to that game.
What is even more interesting is that it was in-home listening that drove the ratings, not just people in cars, at work, or otherwise unable to tune into the television broadcasts.
The second involved WCCO/Minneapolis, which saw that fully one-third of listeners to the recent Twins Wildcard games were listening via online apps. More (40%) listeners still came through WCCO’s normal AM signal, while the stream accounted for 33%, beating the FM simulcast the Twins added last year on KMNB-FM, which accounted for 27% of listeners.
Further, 73% of stream listeners and 45% of all listening happened at home.
What’s driving the at-home listening? In some cases, it has to do with the local announcers being favorites of local fans, as the national announcers are often perceived to be “against” the locals. Often radio play-by-play is superior to television due to the requisite storytelling necessitated by the lack of video. Think Vin Scully, longtime Dodger announcer, and how vastly superior he was to pretty much everyone else. Same for Chick Hearn and his play calling for the Lakers.
But why doesn’t this translate to success anymore here in Los Angeles? At one time, it was a huge deal for local stations to carry games … especially the Dodgers, Lakers, and UCLA and USC football and basketball. KMPC (now KSPN, 710 AM), KFI (640 AM) and KABC (790 AM) in the past saw huge ratings success with play-by-play. Today, carrying sports on the radio in Los Angeles is more of a liability … a ratings killer.
I am sure there are analysts who will speak to numerous theories, but I think it comes down to Southern California not being as attached to the teams as fans in many other cities. More importantly, we just don’t have a Scully or Hearn anymore. We may prefer certain announcers — especially over the announcers used when the Dodgers games are carried by AppleTV+ — but there are none that even come close to the legends. There is just no compelling reason to tune into the radio play-by-play at home.
I wonder what would happen if some new blood figured out exactly what made someone like Scully so popular. A tremendous storyteller, Scully could make almost anything interesting, including then-sponsor Farmer John’s meats. But what seems lost today is Scully’s ability to stay quiet when appropriate, letting the crowd noise at the ballpark say all that needed to be said. It seems that today’s announcers are either paid by the word or are afraid to let the game play itself.
Radio historian David Grudt posted on Facebook recently an old article from the Los Angeles Times regarding what was to be an impending shakeup at then top-40 powerhouse Ten-Q (which is now Spanish language-formatted but still using the KTNQ call letters at 1020 AM).
The June 28, 1978 story said Ten-Q would be dropping top-40 and changing to country with call letters KXAM; sister station KGBS (now KNX-FM, 97.1) would be changing from country to automated rock, all coordinated by Neil Rockoff, head of station owner Storer’s radio division.
This is the same Rockoff who three years later took KHJ (930 AM) country. He obviously has a penchant for wanting to take successful top-40 changes country. I have no idea why anyone ever listened to him.
Regardless, I had never heard this story, and in the end, it turned out not to be. Less than a month later, the Times reported that the format switches were being abandoned and that Storer instead was looking for a buyer. Ten-Q lasted almost another year – going Spanish on July 30, 1979 – with KGBS becoming top-40 KHTZ that same day.
Not that the early report of the change went unnoticed; one sales representative at the station mentioned losing 80% of her ad sales due to that announcement. Similarly, when Rockoff took KHJ country in 1980, he announced it months before it happened, which allowed time for another station to beat them to the punch. Again … why did people ever think this was a good idea? And I say that as someone who likes country music among numerous other genres.
Interestingly, even though top-40 radio was slowly moving to the FM band, KHTZ switched out of the format fairly quickly and became more of an adult-contemporary station in spite of the “K-Hits” name. The reason behind that story – if I can get more information – coming soon.
Richard Wagoner is a San Pedro freelance columnist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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