By Karl Yu-contributing writer
Jason Dissegna and Chris Chen are two normal guys in their late 20s. They like sports and music. In the past, when they turned on their radios, they wanted to hear music. Robert Plant's lady would be buying a stairway, Beyonce and Jay-Z would both be crazy in love. What else was available for guys like them to listen to on the radio besides music? Talk radio was OK, but chicks don't dig guys who drive by with Rafe Mair blasting on the car speakers.
"I would basically listen to a few of the music stations," says Dissegna, a jewelry importer. "101.1 FM for classic rock, 99.3FM for alternative and Z95.3FM for top-40."
"It would be Z95.3, 94.5 The Beat, and JR Country 93.7 for me," Chen says.
Neither Chen, a technical writer, nor Dissegna liked talk radio. It bored them. But they would soon be converted to the church of on-air talk, and their devotion to sports was the lure.
In May 2001, the Vancouver radio market got its first all-sports talk radio station, CKST 1040 AM, which was branded as TEAM 1040. Unlike other stations, with only late night sports call-in shows, TEAM 1040 broadcast only sports but all the time. It put Chen and Dissegna in radio heaven.
The new station, part of a nationwide chain, featured a blend of syndicated and local programming. It recruited local sports figures like former Sports Page anchor Paul Carson and former SFU and national team basketball coach Jay Triano.
The station wasn't trying to compete with heavyweights CKNW 980 AM or CKLG 96.9 Jack FM and instead catered to a niche market.
But like the teams and athletes TEAM 1040 covered, the station was about to face heavy competition. In February 2004, CHMJ MOJO 730 AM, the station formerly offering male-oriented "guy talk" radio, switched formats. The move shocked media observers and fans because the Vancouver market was considered too small to support two all-sports stations. MOJO's arrival was even more shocking because it hired away some of 1040's on-air personalities like John McKeachie.
A year later, the battle for sports radio supremacy continues, with TEAM 1040 maintaining an early ratings lead. No one knows how the battle will end or if the fight between the two stations will last much longer. Their small but lucrative audiences, highly sought after by advertisers, don't seem to mind. They have more high quality sports coverage on Vancouver radio than they've ever had before.
Sports talk radio is a true niche market, targeting the male demographic between the ages of 25 and 54. Rob Gray, 1040's program director, says this demographic is far more active as listeners than other target audiences. "We are a 'passion' format," says Gray. "The guys who listen to us actively listen to our programming, it is not background programming like many music formats. If you listen to the Lions game or the World Series, you are involved in what is happening on the air."
Gray adds that it's also a lucrative demographic for the right advertisers. Men between 25 and 54 usually have steady income, and like Dissegna and Chen, have money to spend. "Our message to advertisers is that sports radio rings cash registers," Gray says. "That is why there are now over 400 sports radio stations in North America. They don't have great 'ratings' in the traditional sense, but they can get great results for smart advertisers."
The appeal of the male sports market was too tempting for MOJO to pass up. The 730 AM station had gone through many format changes through the years, having been in the past a top 40 music station and an all-news station. Its latest attempt at guy talk radio wasn't working out, according to MOJO assistant programming director Crosby McWilliam. "Talk radio for guys had its challenges and ultimately we decided that the upside wasn't worth the challenges we were facing so we decided to re-evaluate," he says.
The new format played to a major strength of Corus Entertainment, which owns MOJO and sister station CKNW. Corus owns the broadcast rights to many of Canada's professional sports teams across the country. "We have the Vancouver Canucks, the Edmonton Eskimos and Oilers, the Calgary Stampeders, and other teams all the way across the country," says McWilliam. "If we concentrate all the work that we're doing on these sports properties we have an opportunity to create a sports station that would be more successful because it has much more in the resource box."
Across the Cambie Street Bridge from MOJO, TEAM 1040 continued with business as usual. But its employees weren't happy with the new competition, and felt TEAM was taking advantage of the path they had blazed in Vancouver.
"We were definitely surprised," says Neil Gallagher, vice-president and general manager. "I was quoted in one of the newspapers as saying it was amazing that the No. 17 station would be chasing the No. 16 station in the market. It's such a small niche market but they do what they have to do."
Don Taylor, a well-known Sportsnet news anchor who does the TEAM afternoon show, didn't see it coming. "I was really surprised," says the former Sports Page host. "It happened in Toronto and New York, where competitors came along to compete with the established sports stations and the revenue just wasn't there. And if it failed in Toronto, it's bound to fail here, too."
Taylor does not hide his contempt for the move. "I was surprised and kind of disgusted with [Corus], I think what they're doing is really, really shameful because a large group of people on either side are going to lose their jobs and they know that, they're still going ahead and they should be ashamed of themselves."
But not everyone was surprised. "It was a predatory move, but this is a station that is on its fourth different format in four years and they're looking for something," says David Pratt, Taylor's afternoon show co-host and a veteran sports reporter. "They went after the all-news format and that crashed and burned, they went after guy talk radio and it crashed and burned. I'm not surprised but I'm disappointed that they weren't more original."
Both stations bring to the fight an impressive, all-star roster of on-air personalities. Both, for example, feature veterans of the television sports scene such as former BCTV sports anchor John McKeachie on MOJO and former Sports Page host Barry McDonald on TEAM. But that doesn't mean the relationship between employees of the two stations is cordial.
Their experience is considerable. Bob Marjanovich, host of MOJO's Sports Zone, worked for a local sports paper, Sports Vue, before he came to radio. Marjanovich, or the Moj as he is known on-air, came to radio almost by chance. Sports Vue owner Dean Washington, struck up a deal with CKST 1040, before it became TEAM, to start up a show. "We wanted to do a radio project, because radio is something I've always wanted to do," says Marjanovich. "[Washington] decided to purchase airtime from 1040 and
sell the ads himself and I was incorporated as the host and I did that for 14 months."
The CHUM group eventually purchased CKST 1040 and TEAM was born. Marjanovich experienced the painful bumps and knocks as the station took its first baby steps. "It was kind of like an ESPN radio version for Canada," Marjanovich says.
Along with McKeachie, Marjanovich was one of the most high profile ex-TEAM employees to jump ship to MOJO.
"There were several issues," says the former UBC football player. "You could say it was financial, you could say it was professional, you could say it was emotional. Just about every indicator that I looked at in terms of leaving all leaned towards joining Corus Entertainment."
His rocky relationship as co-host of TEAM's afternoon show with David Pratt didn't help. "It's probably like one of those marriages you hear about in Hollywood," says Marjanovich with a laugh. "They get along great sometimes and other times they're ready to kill each other."
According to Marjanovich, the two had major creative differences. "One of the issues I had was lack of input on a show that bore my name," Marjanovich says. "The name of the show was 'Dave and the Moj,' yet when it came to decision time, I really didn't have any input at all."
Pratt's experience weighed in his favour. "Dave had the experience and Dave was in the industry for so long," Marjanovich says. "It was a situation where it was Dave's call and he would make the call in certain situations and I wouldn't necessarily agree with him and management basically backed Dave on it."
But the tension between the two often led to great radio. Their heated on-air debates provoked listeners to light up the phone boards and join in on their disagreements. "I'll tell you one thing," says Marjanovich. "A lot of the stuff on air was real and that was one of the things that made the show extremely popular. We wore our emotions on our sleeves."
Pratt is probably one of the most opinionated people that you will ever meet. He is also one of the most decorated veterans of the Vancouver sports scene. He's done tours with the big radio stations, was an anchor and Western Canadian correspondent for TSN and even had his own talk show Last Call. "I've been in the business for 30 years," says Pratt. "I started in 1974 and did radio for the first 10 years." Pratt even worked at 730 AM CKLG long before it became MOJO. "I did afternoon news and sports at CKLG up until 1978 and then I became the sports director at CFUN, then CFOX and was in television with TSN for 17 years."
The sports journalist who would never back down from anyone, not even former Canuck general manager and tough guy Brian Burke, has strong opinions about his former on-air colleague. "It was very difficult working with Bob," says Pratt. "He is very undisciplined and unprofessional and I was appalled at his unwillingness to learn and grow and get better. He wanted the show to ratchet itself down to the lowest common denominator to his comfort level."
Based on the latest available ratings from the summer and fall of 2004, TEAM 1040 has the upper hand on its upstart rival in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old male demographic.
According to TEAM program director Rob Gray, the overall share for TEAM for the summer was 2.8 per cent, while MOJO was at 0.6 per cent. The morning drive shows had TEAM with 2.1 per cent of the share while MOJO was at 1.3 per cent. The drive home shows saw TEAM with 4.1 and MOJO at 0.9 per cent.
TEAM's Crosby McWilliam doesn't seem worried. He notes Vancouver is a beautiful city and the summer months are filled with recreational opportunities and vacation time. Many people are outdoors and don't listen to the radio much. "We don't put too much stock in the summer numbers," he says. "People's listening habits are much different then."
The fall ratings period had 1040 again in the lead. The morning drive show numbers favored TEAM with 1040 having a 3.3 per cent share as opposed to MOJO with 1.7 per cent, the afternoon shows had 1040 ahead 5.5 per cent to 730's 1.9 per cent.
The 2004-2005 winter ratings are not yet available.
In the meantime, MOJO has bolstered its lineup with newer shows and changes to existing ones. "We've added veterans John Shorthouse and Blake Price to the morning show with John McKeachie, we have the Business of Sport with Arthur Griffiths, ESPN's The Herd with Colin Cowherd, we've paired Tom Larscheid with the Moj on afternoons. On Mondays we have The Nooner with Brother Jake Edwards and Neil Macrae, and we have veteran sports radio Dan Russell's Sports Talk at night." he says.
TEAM's lineup remains largely unchanged. Along with the afternoon show with Pratt and Taylor, 1040 features Barry Macdonald and Rick Ball in the morning, the wildly popular Jungle with Jim Rome, the Brook Ward Show, Bob McCown in the evenings, The Brick House with JT the Brick, and ESPN's Dan Patrick Show.
But MOJO also does play-by-play for Vancouver Giants hockey, Canada West football and basketball, and will broadcast Seattle Seahawk games during the NFL season. With the absence of the NHL, the Giants coverage alone can be considered a major score in a town hungry for any kind of hockey.
The absence of hockey brings up a huge problem for both radio stations. What do they replace it with? According to Marjanovich you make do.
"You talk about the issues regarding the labour negotiations," he says. "Sometimes you have to get creative, for instance, we talked about rule changes, the fans jumped on it and we talked for over an hour-and-a-half on it."
The cancelled season has also brought other sports into the spotlight. "One of the things we also found is that golf is an extremely popular topic," says Marjanovich. "There are a lot of golfers out there and a lot of people talking about golf stories."
Although TEAM seems to have a lead, many listeners switch back and forth.
Jason Dissegna listens to both stations. "I like the fact that they have Don Taylor," he says about TEAM. "I also like the fact that they have live NFL updates on Sundays [during the season]."
But he's not so keen on so-called sports experts doing post-game analysis of games. "It just seems that they overanalyze the game before and afterwards," he says. "There's only so much you can break a game down."
Dissegna also enjoys Marjanovich's show on MOJO. "He has unbelievable guests, such as ESPN's John Clayton and he talks about the lockout and cancellation of the NHL, but it's not 24/7."
Chris Chen's allegiance lies solely with TEAM. "I listen to the TEAM mainly when I am at work," says Chen. But even his commitment is not solid: "The amount of time I listen depends on the sporting event going on. If there was a hockey season, I'd be listening religiously, but there isn't and I'm starting to get sick of all the cancelled season talk. That's not hockey."
But it is sports talk radio. And as TEAM 1040 and MOJO 730 enter the second year of what could be a death grip for one or the other, their mortal fight doesn't matter much to Chen and Dissegna. They have sports talk radio anytime they want.
posted on 04/14/2005