CBS Radio will bring Tampa Bay area its first FM sports talk station in August, flipping WSJT-FM (Play 98.7) from its contemporary hits format into a new station, dubbed Sportsradio 98.7 The Fan.
Rumors of the change had intensified in recent weeks, as executives at CBS Radio talked to prospective hosts throughout the local radio scene and at other media outlets about hosting opportunities.
It was tough to know when the company might pull the trigger, because the flip to FM sports talk had been percolating for years.
Ben Hill, Tampa market manager for CBS Radio, said the contemporary hits radio format on Play 98.7 was "underperforming," giving executives an opening to make the switch. (Longtime radio fans will remember WSJT switched from a smooth jazz format in August 2010.)
CBS Radio announced the change before revealing any on air talent, in part, to remove any doubt that they were serious about the conversion, Hill added.
"More and more clients were asking, job candidates were asking," he said. "It's a new day now."
Most of the FM station's programming will also be simulcast on the AM sports talk station CBS Radio owns in Tampa, WQYK-AM (1010). WQYK's assistant program director, Mike Pepper, has been promoted to program director of The Fan.
The new station will face significant challenges. Success in sports talk hinges on rebroadcast rights for important sports franchises. In Boston, CBS Radio's FM sports talker is a flagship station for the New England Patriots; in Dallas, they have a deal with the Dallas Cowboys.
So this move to FM in Tampa also likely signals the company's intention to open up its pocketbook and bid on rights for Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Tampa Bay Lightning broadcast rights.
They also need a compelling lineup of on air talent to compete with the new all-talk format launched by rival Cox Radio's WHPT-FM (The Bone 102.5) anchored by shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
Hill said all the on air talent will be locally-based; many of them will have longstanding ties to the Tampa Bay area.
"Even in a market like Tampa Bay, where AM listening is strong, 75 to 80 percent of radio listening is on the FM dial," said Hill. "This is like putting a sports talk station on beachfront property, where the majority of listening happens."