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Sports talk on 98.7 tries to build fans

At the start of February, nationally syndicated sports talk star Jim Rome began airing on Sportsradio 98.7 the Fan (WHFS-FM), ending its live and local sports talk programming around the clock.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2009)

At the start of February, nationally syndicated sports talk star Jim Rome began airing on Sportsradio 98.7 the Fan (WHFS-FM), ending its live and local sports talk programming around the clock.

It started, as many major broadcast projects do, with a flurry of optimism, a display of resources and a high-profile news conference.

But about seven months after debuting the Tampa Bay market's first FM sports talk radio station, officials at CBS Radio are downplaying a restructuring that has seen the 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), ending the station's live and local programming around the clock.

Mike Pepper, the program director who developed the inaugural lineup, left the company last week after moving to sales a few months ago.

And Todd Wright, a former host with ESPN Radio and Yahoo Sports Radio, was also let go, making room to move Nanci Donnellan, the Fabulous Sports Babe, up from an overnight time slot to 7 p.m.

Arbitron Inc. says WHFS's average share of listeners across its entire broadcast day has dropped 41 percent, from 1.7 when it was known as Play 98.7 in January 2012 to 0.7 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?

"I just don't see that we can expect ratings in the first two years," said Ben Hill, Tampa market manager for CBS Radio, relaxing in a conference room at the 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 even know we've flipped the format."

The format debuted Aug. 2, transforming what had been a contemporary hits music station into 98.7 The Fan. The station was positioned as a home for sports talk at a radio frequency fans might find more accessible than AM outlets; some surveys find a healthy percentage of young listeners never use the AM dial at all.

But when the station unveiled its inaugural lineup, it seemed short on big local names. In particular, former local TV sportscasters J.P. Peterson and Al Keck, both on the radio elsewhere, weren't on deck.

Some pairings, specifically Wright and former Buc Booger McFarland, didn't jell ("It was obvious Todd didn't want to share the microphone," Hill said). McFarland was re-teamed with Rich Herrera while Wright got his own show until the latest programming.

And though CBS Radio's national network has provided pro game broadcasts, the only local teams the station secured were USF's, a tough sell in a town where the Bucs, Rays and Lightning command the lion's share of attention.

John O'Connor, the station's new program director, said WHFS tries to compete with WDAE-AM 620, Clear Channel Radio's popular sports talk station and WHPT-FM 102.5 (The Bone), Cox Radio's popular male-oriented "hot talk" station.

But Hill downplayed comparisons to 98.7's music format, saying it was underperforming.

"(It) was a dead-end street," he said, noting the station is trying to trade the old format's female-centered audience for a male-centered sports crowd. "Sports talk is a huge, growing business."

Now morning hosts Kirk McEwen and Chris Dingman air from 6 to 9 a.m., followed by Tampa Bay Times columnist Gary Shelton and Justin "The Commish" Pawlowski, who changed from a four-hour show starting at 10 a.m. to a three-hour show airing at 9 a.m.

There are still some hitches. Talk sometimes seems to veer too abruptly from lifestyle topics such as bullying and reality TV to sports, and the whole station doesn't seem to have a unified identity.

Hill counseled patience, saying he didn't expect many more major changes.

"Tampa happens to be a very competitive market for male listeners, but we're not getting antsy," he said. "The station is going to be a lot more in-your-face, and we're ready to compete."

Sports talk on 98.7 tries to build fans 02/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:57pm]
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