ESPN radio broadens reach with New York City FM deal

For the second time in a week, a high profile local marketing agreement (LMA) has shaken up the radio landscape in a major market.

This time, its ESPN 1050 programming in New York – or more specifically, WEPN-AM (1050) – is replacing the Urban Adult Contemporary format at WRKS-FM (aka Kiss 98.7 FM) effective at 12:01 a.m. on April 30. Emmis Communications (which remains owner) is leasing the 98.7 frequency to ESPN in a LMA deal – similar to the one struck earlier this week between the owners of WLFM and Merlin Media here in Chicago over the 87.7 frequency. Merlin plans to operate WLFM and flip the station to Alternative Rock beginning Monday.

WEPN plans to simulcast ESPN programming on 1050 AM and on 98.7 FM until September, when ESPN is expected to program ESPN Deportes programming (basically Spanish language sports talk) on its AM station. With the move to a stronger FM signal, look for ESPN to bid aggressively on New York Yankees radio rights (now held by WCBS-AM) and those of other New York-area sports teams.

Last summer, Emmis sold WRXQ-FM in New York and WLUP-FM (The Loop) and WKQX-FM (Q101) in Chicago to Merlin, with Emmis retaining a minority stake. Both WKQX and WRXQ briefly flipped to a Hot AC format before launching an all-news format, as WIQI and WEMP, respectively. Similar to what they did last year when it sold the “intellectual property” rights of Q101 to Broadcast Barter Partners, Emmis announced it has sold the intellectual property rights of Kiss FM to YMP Communications, which is buying crosstown Urban outlet WBLS-FM; WBLS is simulcasting on 98.7 until Sunday, with a special weekend-long celebration of WRKS and Kiss FM. WBLS has no plans to use the “Kiss” monkier; Clear Channel uses the name to brand its Top 40 stations in many markets, including WKSC-FM (Kiss 103.5 FM) in Chicago – but not in New York, where its CHR outlet is known as Z100 (WHTZ-FM).

The move of ESPN’s programming to 98.7 FM in New York comes as sports talk is currently a hot commodity in radio. In Chicago, both ESPN 1000 (WMVP) and The Score (WSCR) are seeing increased numbers from a year ago, and of course, there’s never-ending speculation on which one would land of a FM frequency first. On the other hand, ratings for music-intensive formats continue to decline as listeners (mainly fed up with commercials) are abandoning terrestrial radio for other alternatives. In the most recent PPM survey for New York City however, WRKS ranked seventh among all Big Apple stations with a cume of nearly two million people and was the city’s top-rated Urban/Urban AC outlet.

WLFM, a Smooth Jazz station which drew an affluent African-American audience, tied for 24th in the recent Chicago PPM survey, with a cume of 500,000 listeners. But despite the success of both stations, neither could convert the respectable listenership into viable revenue in the long-term – in other words, both WLFM and WRKS were older-skewing stations with large minority audiences which unfortunately, tends to earn less revenue – regardless of ratings.

As for WRKS, the change marks the end of an era – the station played many various forms of R&B music over since christening itself as Kiss 98.7 in 1981. WRKS was the first station to play rap music on a regular basis and broke in artists such as Kurtis Blow, Run D.M.C., Whodini, and The Fat Boys. The station later added dance music to its playlist after rival WQHT Hot 97 (also owned by Emmis) launched a dance-music format. After Emmis purchased WRKS in 1994 (making it and Hot 97 sister stations), WRKS flipped to Urban AC, but maintained the Kiss monkier.

Station alumni includes Wendy Williams (who now host a successful daytime TV talk show), General manger and industry legend Barry Mayo (who ran the station from 1984-88 and again in 2003), and recording artists Roberta Flack, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, and Issac Hayes.