Even now, if you ask average folks about talk radio stars, they are likely to mention big-name political pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
But as CBS Radio prepares for the August debut of the bay area's first FM sports talk station — the latest in a string of sports-oriented FMs created by the company while building a national network — the question arises: Has the future of commercial talk radio shifted to sports and away from politics?
"I think people are burned out on the strident tone we've taken in political talk," said Ben Hill, senior vice president and Tampa market manager for CBS Radio. "Sports is a huge growth area on TV and online, so there's a huge opportunity there."
Hill plans to debut Sportsradio 98.7 The Fan on Aug. 2, unveiling its lineup in a news conference broadcast on the same day.
The format replaces the Adele and Maroon 5 songs now featured on WSJT-FM (Play 98.7). The debut will cap months of speculation about which local media guys (and they're mostly guys) will land jobs in the largest expansion of local sports talk the bay area has seen in a long while.
Establishing The Fan is just part of the changes in store for local sports talk radio.
CBS Radio's AM station, WQYK 1010, will simulcast the new FM programming until the year's end. Then on Jan. 2, WQYK begins broadcasting the new nationally syndicated 24/7 CBS Sports Radio Network.
The new network will feature the same shows across eight CBS Radio stations and 26 stations owned by partner Cumulus Media nationwide, creating a challenge to ESPN Radio's national footprint.
"In a market like Tampa, we'll have a sports radio duopoly — locally centric on FM and national on AM," said Chris Oliviero, a former intern for Howard Stern now the senior vice president of programming for CBS Radio who has led its efforts to establish FM sports talk stations in Boston, Washington, Detroit, Dallas, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and now Tampa.
"Years ago, people said there's only enough room for one sports talk station or, at the most, two. But when people realized the format was so popular it could support multiple stations, everything changed."
Other local changes will include those at Genesis Communications. The smaller, family owned company based in Pinellas County announced plans to end its syndicated ESPN shows in October for stations in the bay area (WHBO-AM 1040) and Orlando, which means they need new sports talk programming.
And Clear Channel-owned WDAE-AM 620 revamped its morning show in May, bringing in Tampa Bay Times sports writers Tom Jones and Rick Stroud.
All of these moves occur outside the political area that has dominated AM and talk radio since Limbaugh's rise in the late 1980s. Steve Versnick, program director at WFLA-AM 970, which airs Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity, declined to comment.
"Sports radio is mass appeal," said Oliviero, who was careful not to disparage the political talkers CBS features on some stations. "It's great to be in a genre which doesn't really exclude people."
Sports: The format of the future
Longtime area radio fans might remember how Beck and Lionel grew from local shows on WFLA-AM to national prominence.
Some analysts say sports, which appeals to younger listeners, attracts big advertisers and can be less divisive than politics, might be the format of the future for an industry that has cut itself to bits in recent years.
"Advertisers don't care much about people over (age) 55," said Charlie Sislen, an industry analyst and partner at Maryland-based Research Director. "Sports radio delivers men aged 25 to 54; an upscale audience with an emotional connection to the subject."
Nearly 80 percent of radio listeners in the Tampa Bay market never access the AM dial, according to ratings service Arbitron. (This explains why Clear Channel recently began simulcasting WFLA on a special "translator" 105.9 FM frequency limited to Hillsborough County.)
In total listeners (6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Sunday), WFLA is the highest-ranked AM station in the market, placing 12th. The next AM is WDAE, ranked 16th, according to Arbitron. WDUV-FM (105.5) is the top-ranked station in the market, according to Arbitron.
So FM sports talk seems a logical way to reach a mainstream talk audience mostly missed by Limbaugh and Beck.
"Sports talk is the new news talk," said Gabe Hobbs, a St. Petersburg-based radio consultant who once supervised talk programming for radio giant Clear Channel until he was laid off in 2009. "It's a lot like what we did 20 years ago on news talk stations … talking about the male lifestyle the way guys talk in a sports bar after a softball game."
Hobbs was let go as the radio industry struggled with the recession, among a wave of downsizing that saw thousands of jobs cut across the country.
CBS Radio's moves, along with rumors NBC is developing a national sports radio network, provide hope that big radio companies finally are spending money hiring people and trying new ideas.
"Traditional talk radio is too obsessed with politics," said Hobbs, who gave Beck his first political talk show in Tampa when the then-Top 40 DJ wanted to try something new. "CBS figured out if you put this (material) on FM, young men live there and you're able to attract a different talk audience."
'You have to be … innovative'
Locally, few of WQYK-AM's current staffers are expected to make the transition to FM. That includes former WFLA-Ch. 8 sports anchor J.P. Peterson, who declined to comment.
Peterson's 1010 show is unique because he sells half the advertising, pocketing the profits. The FM station will feature only CBS Radio employees with no special advertising sales arrangements, according to Hill.
Official talent announcements have yet to be made. But that hasn't stopped speculation online and elsewhere about who might pop up on The Fan, including former Lightning player Chris Dingman, former Buccaneer Anthony "Booger" McFarland and Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Gary Shelton.
At Genesis Communications, owner Bruce Maduri said the company had tired of paying for nationally syndicated ESPN content that could be accessed on smart phones and other radio stations.
He declined to comment on rumors Peterson might move his show to Genesis' 1040-AM station, though Maduri noted more of his talent might wind up sharing sponsorship sales duties in the future.
"There needs to be a lot younger guys doing talk radio in a more entertaining way," he said. "These days, you have to be more innovative."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected]m.