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Station that switched to sports-talk strikes out in first inning

May 3, 2013

A format switch from news-talk to sports-talk at WXNT-AM 1430 has been like getting sacked on one’s own 5-yard line.

But the Entercom Communications Corp.-owned WXNT said the format change implemented Jan. 2 will take time to pay off.

Trying to gain ground on the field against the two existing sports-talk stations in the Indianapolis market drove WXNT’s audience down to a molecular-level 0.1 rating in each of the first three months of this year.

That compares with a 0.5 rating last October while still a news-talker, according to Arbitron ratings data for the first quarter.

In contrast, Emmis Communication Corp.’s WFNI-AM 1070 most recently had a 2.6 rating, while Clear Channel’s WNDE-AM 1260 sports talker had a 0.7 rating.

One rating point means 1 percent of the local audience tuned in at least once a week.

“Anytime you make a format switch like this without any real external marketing you flush out all the listeners who came for news-talk,” said program director J.R. Ammons.

Among those who left WXNT was local listener Mike Kole, a fan of conservative talk show host Neal Boortz.

Other syndicated hosts lost in this market due to the format change were Glenn Beck, Michael Smerconish, Dennis Miller and Alan Colmes. In 2011, WXNT dumped local talker Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, of whom Kole was also a fan.

“It was great of them to fulfill a need that didn’t exist,” Kole said tongue-in-cheek of Entercom’s addition of a third sports-talk station in the city.
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Three stations with all-sports-all-the-time may seem excessive in a city this size, but you’d be surprised.

“I just read that Anchorage, Alaska [population 298,610], just got its third sports station,” said David Wood, director of talk programming at Emmis’ local stations, including WFNI.

“There are a lot of markets where it’s up to three now. It’s largely because of the networks that are available,” Wood added, pointing to ESPN, Fox and CBS radio networks.

WFNI carries ESPN programming, although most of its drive-time shows are locally hosted, including "The Grady & Big Joe Show," consisting of Joe Staysniak and Michael Grady.

WNDE also has local personalities, including Jake Query and Derek Schultz.

Newcomer WXNT carries CBS syndicated shows, with hosts including the cocksure sports oracle Jim Rome.

But Ammons said he’s looking at adding locally produced content, at least during drive-time hours, as WXNT further develops its new sports-talk format.

The station already carries Notre Dame games and Cincinnati Reds baseball.

“We’re looking at this as a long-term venture,” he said.

“They’re in a tough position just from a position of AMs that are underperforming around the country are just harder to bring back,” said Wood of WFNI, which earlier this year lassoed a so-called FM translator–essentially a simulcast of WFNI-AM being broadcast on 107.5 FM.

Interestingly, WFNI-AM fell to a 2.6 rating in March from 2.9 in February and 3.1 in January, according to Arbitron.

Whether the new FM version has stolen ears from the AM station, “it’s a little early to tell that yet. I think we’ll have a better read on that toward the end of the summer,” Wood said.

Actually, there had been three sports-talk stations before WXNT’s recent format switch.

Pilgrim Communications’ WXLW-AM 950 ran with the sports format for a decade until last September, when it switched to news-talk. That put more pressure on WXNT when it was a news-talk station. 

WXLW is now the AM mirror-image of Franklin-based news-talker WFDM-FM 95.9–“Freedom 95.” WXLW effectively extends the range of the Franklin-based FM station, whose signal can be spotty in the northern suburbs.

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