Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For WBZ-FM, the work begins after the splash

Will Boston families be fighting over the radio dial now that WBZ-FM is taking on WEEI? Photo from this site.

Bruce Allen either has a thing for uncanny timing, or he’s psychic. On Monday, Allen asked readers at Boston Sports Media Watch to come up with a lineup for a new all-sports talk radio station in Boston. On Tuesday, Boston’s new all-sports talk radio station arrived.

CBS-owned WBCN, known as Boston’s most established rock station, will go off the air in mid-August and will be replaced by round-the-clock sports talk on WBZ-FM, which will be nicknamed “The Sports Hub” and reside at 98.5 on the FM dial.

Fascinating stuff, especially the seemingly well-founded rumors that Michael Felger will be part of the new network’s showcase afternoon drive-time show. If true, that would surely spell the end for Felger at WEEI, where he has become a pivotal on-air and online presence since joining the network from ESPN Radio almost exactly a year ago, and make for one hell of an immediate and presumably bitter rivalry between the stations.

The interest generated by Tuesday’s news is the latest sign that radio wars have officially replaced newspaper wars as the most fascinating thing to observe on the media landscape. That’s not to say radio is in good shape—terrestrial radio is running neck-and-neck with newspapers in the race to see which medium can kill itself first—but localized sports talk is still gold.

Just ask Chris Russo, who made a fortune (and probably saved his sanity) by leaving WFAN and his longtime frenemy Mike Francesa, but Francesa still rules New York and Russo has to belittle his entire staff on air in order to get some publicity.

ESPN has learned in both Boston (where it remains little more than a rumor on the dial) and New York how difficult it is to take down the established 800-pound gorilla. Like the new CBS station, ESPN’s New York affiliate carries an NFL team (the Jets) and an NHL team (the Rangers), as well as the NBA Knicks. ESPN 1050 also has a well-known, polarizing afternoon drive-time anchor who made his name in print before leaping to radio in Michael Kay.

And so far, ESPN hasn’t made much of an impact in New York: In the months following Russo’s departure, WEPN-1050 made some impressive gains while WFAN slipped, but WFAN is confident it will maintain a healthy lead in the key demos when the spring ratings are released this month.

Of course, the Patriots and Bruins are a more impressive anchor than the Jets, Rangers and Knicks, and an FM signal is a hugely valuable weapon. I’d also wager that Felger, a long-time multi-media figure in Boston, is a bigger threat to bring listeners to a new station than Kay, who is far better known in New York for being the Yankees’ head cheerleader on the YES Network than for his long-ago newspaper work.

Judging from message board comments, it also seems as if listeners in Boston are eager for an authentic rival to emerge and threaten WEEI’s superiority. But the same dynamic exists in New York, and people are still griping about WFAN—and listening. Making a splash Tuesday was the easy part for CBS and the soon-to-debut WBZ-FM. The coming weeks, months and maybe even years will be the real challenge.

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