Bill Virgin's Radio Beat February 28, 2008

Includes archive of Bill Virgin's columns fromJ une 2006 - March 2009

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat February 28, 2008

Postby radiofan » Thu Feb 28, 2008 4:48 pm

On Radio: Mariners radio contract is up for grabs after season
Broadcast market has changed since KOMO-AM snared games 6 years ago
By BILL VIRGIN
P-I REPORTER

A year from now, the Seattle Mariners will be entering spring training fresh off their dramatic run to the World Series, with newly inducted Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Dave Niehaus set to call the action.

But what local radio station will be carrying Niehaus' voice?

Six years ago, Fisher Communications stunned the local sports-radio scene by winning the radio broadcast rights to Mariners games for KOMO-AM/ 1000, which converted to a news format to accommodate baseball.

That six-year contract ends at the end of the 2008 season, touching off speculation about whether Fisher will be able to keep the contract or lose it to a competitor.

A Mariners spokeswoman said that it is still "early in the process" and that the team is talking with Fisher and others.

"We are having in-depth discussion with the Mariners," said Jim Clayton, vice president and general manager for Fisher's Seattle television and radio stations. "We'd certainly love to retain the rights. We remain cautiously optimistic."

But what is fueling questions about the next contract is that "it's a strange time for the radio business," said Rick Scott, who runs a Bellevue-based sports-radio consultancy.

The Mariners contract with Fisher was a stunner, not just because it ended an 18-year relationship with competitor KIRO-AM/710; it was also, industry sources reported at the time, more than what had been paid for radio contracts for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, both in much larger markets.

These days, "If you're in Boston or New York, you're in good shape," Scott said. In other markets, "We're seeing a settling or leveling off of rights fees and in some markets a decline."

One factor weakening those fees, Scott said, is that radio stations no longer have exclusivity over the audio broadcasts, which are now available through satellite radio as well as major league baseball; local radio outlets such as KOMO-AM can't stream the broadcasts they carry.

Another is that sports broadcasts, while helping to boost a station's visibility and ratings, don't necessarily equal financial success. On the most recent quarterly conference call with analysts, Fisher Chief Executive Colleen Brown noted that the company's cash-flow margins (net revenue minus operating expenses, divided by sales) are higher without the Mariners than with them.

Fisher hasn't been helped by the fact that its contract overlapped some lean years on the field for the Mariners, although Clayton said the team appears "headed in the right direction."

If Fisher doesn't get the rights, who would? One option might be Bonneville International, which had owned KIRO when it originally had the Mariners contract.

KIRO was owned by Entercom when it lost the Mariners, but since then has been bought back by Bonneville. KIRO still has the Seahawks, while another Bonneville station, KTTH-AM/ 770, carries the Sonics.

Scott Sutherland, the Seattle market manager for Bonneville, said a decision hasn't been made on whether to bid on the contract.

Another possibility might be Clear Channel's KJR-AM/950, which as a sports-talk station already does extensive programming on the Mariners, the Seahawks and the Sonics (it broadcasts University of Washington football and men's basketball). The station declined comment on whether it might be a player for the Mariners contract.

What could emerge from this round of bargaining, with Fisher or someone else, is a new type of contract, designed to cope with the current realities of radio, Scott said. One example, used in other markets, is a participation deal in which stations agree to pay a base amount. After expenses are paid, the team and the stations split any leftover revenue.

"It's much healthier for radio," Scott said. "The games don't wind up being a loss leader, putting the stations in the hole."

"We're working with the Mariners, not against them," Clayton added. "We're trying to put together as creative a model as possible."

In other radio notes:

Amanda Wilde interviews local soul singer Choklate at 2 p.m. Thursday on KUOW-FM/ 94.9.

Local writer Bruce Barcott, author of "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw," is the guest on "Weekday" at 9 a.m. Friday on KUOW-FM.

The Metropolitan Opera performs Verdi's "Ernani" at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on KING- FM/98.1.

"Audioasis" on KEXP-FM/ 90.3 features performances by The Feral Children and Holy Ghost Revival live from the High Dive in Fremont starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Liz Sommars' guests on "Conversations" at 6 a.m. Sunday on KISW-FM/99.9, KKWF- FM/100.7 and KMTT-FM/103.7 and at 7 a.m. Sunday on KNDD- FM/107.7 include Charles Barber, author of a book on the abuse of psychiatric medicines, "Comfortably Numb."

Singer Holly Cole and her trio perform live on KPLU-FM/ 88.5 at 12:20 p.m. Monday.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or billvirgin@seattlepi.com.

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat every Thursday in the Seattle P-I
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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