By Jim Williams
Special to S.F.Examiner
Cumulus Media — the nation’s third-largest owner of radio stations — stunned the Bay Area last week by flipping the iconic rock station KFOG 104.5 FM.
The station will change call letters and format to KNBR-FM. It will be a straight simulcast of the highly-rated 680 AM all-sports format, starting on Sept. 6.
The change allows KNBR listeners to access their favorite sports talk programs, plus Giants and 49ers play-by-play on the more accessible FM band. Meanwhile, it steps up the competition in the market, as KNBR is now on the same playing field as 95.7 FM The Game.
Despite the long and storied history of KFOG, the cold hard facts are that the station was not doing well in the ratings, and the change gives KNBR a stronger signal and another leg to stand on to compete with 95.7 The Game. Plus, if the Giants and 49ers are playing at the same time, it gives them two strong options to air the games without losing the KNBR brand.
Cumulus made a business decision based on how the market and the radio industry is moving. While the company executives are not talking at this time, they did issue a release addressing the change.
“We are excited to bring KNBR, the Sports Leader and official home of the Giants and 49ers, to a wider audience of sports listeners in the Bay Area,” Doug Harvill, vice president-market manager for Cumulus San Francisco, said in the statement. “It’s never easy to say goodbye to a station, and we want to thank the staff, listeners and advertisers who together made KFOG the legendary and beloved station that so many of us in San Francisco had the opportunity to enjoy.”
Play-by-play sports and sports talk remains one of the few areas where listeners remain engaged in terrestrial radio because games are live and start at a set time. People consume music via on-demand platforms like Spotify, Pandora, Amazon and YouTube subscription services because it is not live event programming.
According to Cision Media Research, when it comes to the most-listened-to sports talk radio stations in the entire country, KNBR is ranked second, trailing only WFAN AM/FM in New York. The Cision study used Nielsen Audio ratings, and only No. 8 KSPN Los Angeles and No. 10 WMVP Chicago were heard only on the AM band.
When it comes to play-by-play of Major League Baseball, the Giants now become the 18th team to be heard on FM. Meanwhile, the number of NFL, NBA and NHL teams on the FM dial stands at 78% nation-wide.
More and more fans, though, listen to sports on their phones. It should be noted that in June of 2018, the Giants — through KNBR — were the first team in Major League Baseball to offer a free stream of their games to listeners in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose market via the TuneIn radio app.
In the meantime the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors each have their own smartphone apps that offer live game broadcasts, as well as video highlights and other content to listeners within about a 75-mile range of the market, and in some cases, beyond.
At the end of the day, KNBR adding an FM signal is a good thing for those who still listen to terrestrial radio and should extend the station’s reach, not to mention the improved quality of the broadcasts. But in the nation’s tech hub here in the San Francisco Bay Area putting a sports talk format on an FM signal is hardly groundbreaking but it is good business.
It is all-hands-on-deck this week as Bay Area stations gear up for the start of the NFL season. NBC 11 has the honors as they will get things going Thursday at 5:30 p.m. as the Packers go to Chicago to face the Bears in the season opener.
Meanwhile, NBC Sports Bay Area, KTVU Fox 2, KPIX CBS 5 and the sports departments at ABC 7 and NBC 11 will be gearing up for the start of the 49ers and Raiders season’s a week from today.