Tampa Bay's new FM sports talk station struggles to overcome a shaky start
It started, as many major broadcast projects do, with a flurry of optimism, a display of resources and a high-profile press conference.
But less than seven months after debuting the Tampa market’s first FM sports talk station, officials at CBS Radio are downplaying a restructuring that has seen the reassignment and departure of the station’s first program director, the firing of one on-air personality and the abandonment of its 24/7 live and local format.
At the start of February, nationally syndicated sports talk star Jim Rome began airing on Sportsradio 98.7 the Fan (WHFS-FM), signaling an end for its attempts to provide live and local sports talk programming around the clock.
Mike Pepper, the program director who designed the station's inaugural lineup, was let go last week, not long after he was moved out of the job into advertising sales.
And Todd Wright, a former host with ESPN Radio and Yahoo Sports Radio, was let go, making room to move the Fabulous Sports Babe (given name: Nanci Donnellan), up from an overnight time slot to 7 p.m.
Ratings have been tough. According to Arbitron, Inc., WHFS’ average share of listeners across its entire broadcast day has dropped 41 percent; from a 1.7 when it was known as Play 98.7 in January 2012 to a .7 in January 2013.
Some listeners and critics wondered: Was this a sign the launch got off on the wrong foot? And is this just the first of many changes to come?
Ben Hill, CBS Radio's market manager in Tampa, insisted he was hppy ith the current lineup of hosts and always expected the station would take a few years to find its ratings footing.
“I just don’t see that we can expect ratings in the first two years,” said Hill, relaxing in a conference room at the company’s St. Petersburg offices last week. “Music formats, you often know in the first six months or so whether things are working. But talk radio takes more time…some people still don’t know the format has changed.”
Hill debuted the Tampa Bay area’s first FM sports talk station with much fanfare on Aug. 2, transforming the Contemporary Hits Radio station Play 98.7 into Sportsradio 98.7 The Fan (WHFS-FM) – a home for sports talk at a frequency fans might find more accessible than the AM equivalents (some surveys find a healthy percentage of young listeners never use the AM dial at all).
But the station, which competes for young male listeners with both general interest radio stations and sports talk outlets, still doesn't have a strong identity and often soundsl ike an enterprise still under construction.
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