While WEPN/ESPN 1050 is hardly declaring victory, the upstart All-Sports station wants it known that there is growth in them thar hills!
ESPN held a press junket yesterday at the new MLB Fan Cave in Greenwich Village. FishbowlNY met 1050 general manager David Roberts and ESPN Radio SVP and general manager, Mo Davenport.
The WEPN call letters were born in 2003, but ESPN Radio was heard full-time on 1050 dating back to 2001. Despite the powerhouse name attached to the station, WEPN struggled to find its voice, and an audience to hear that voice.
WEPN was born to challenge rival WFAN and to provide a platform to all things ESPN.
Now nearly a decade after officially purchasing the station, ESPN 1050 is pleased to finally make some headway.
“The station is seeing real positive growth,” Roberts tells FishbowlNY.
That growth is specific to two demos–Men 25 to 54 and Men 18 to 34. He says the ratings indicate national morning show Mike and Mike has been in the Top 10 show since the fall. New York-centric afternoon host Michael Kay also cracked the Top 10.
It’s a different story when factoring in the overall 6+ rating. WEPN saw slight gains to a 1.4 in the February Arbitron book but was unable to make the Top 20. By contrast, the ‘FAN had a 3.0.
“Ultimately, we’re in this to win,” Roberts says. “We have a great deal of respect for our competition over at WFAN. But … I have no interest in trying to be like WFAN. They are who they are. I will put my money on being a part of the brand called ESPN.”
However, Davenport admits having the “worldwide leader in sports” hasn’t always translated well in New York.
“Am I satisfied? No,” Davenport (right) says. “I believe that ESPN does a wonderful job of serving sports fans. I think we have room to grow in serving sports fans locally.”
It may be a never ending work in progress at WEPN, but Davenport says they are showing promise toward the future.
“[Roberts] and program director Justin Craig have done a marvelous job of integrating 1050, and I feel like we’re on a right track,” Davenport says.
Unlike at CBS’ WFAN, where the focus is primarily New York sports teams, WEPN offers a balancing act from Mike and Mike to longtime New York Daily News columnist-turned talk show host, Mike Lupica.
“You have names that New Yorkers know, and that they can relate to, whether national or locally based,” Roberts says. “We have diversity representing the people that make up our air from Jared Max starting at 4 a.m. right through Bill Daughtry at night.”
Roberts likes how 1050 is positioned for 2012 and beyond.
“We’re doing it the right way,” Roberts says. “We’re not going to react to what happens in the marketplace.”
Good fortune follows online as well, Roberts points out, as the ESPN New York Web page now receives more traffic than any sports site in town. Part of the reason, in February to usher in Jeremy Lin, a.k.a. Linsanity with the Knicks, the site had 41 million page views. It was a record until last month when Tim Tebow signed with the Jets.
“Those people also probably sampled the product on ESPN New York 1050,” Roberts says.
Michael Kay has been with ESPN 1050 since the beginning of WEPN. But it’s been an uphill climb for Kay, who is also the Yankees lead TV broadcaster on the YES Network. Kay failed to capitalize on the 2008 Mike and the Mad Dog break up, as Mike Francesa maintains his strong afternoon presence, 23 years later.
Roberts, who assumed his GM duties in 2010, says Kay’s work ethic is key to his ratings, not what happens at the competition.
“In the last year, [Kay] has started to see some steady growth, real positive growth that’s sustanable,” Roberts says. “You don’t necessary want to see a spike driven by one topic or one event. Ultimately, the Michael Kay Show will be successful based on the work that [he] does every single day.”
Roberts cited Kay’s recent first interviews with Tebow and Yankee lefty Andy Pettitte, fresh off his retirement.
“[Kay] is not only a good personality on the air, he’s a good news person,” Roberts says. “He understands the principles of journalism and he understands that will differentiate him from his competitor.”
Also looking to differentiate itself from Francesa, the Kay show has hired former Mets (and current Red Sox) manager Bobby Valentine for a weekly segment with the outspoken skipper.
Another vital player in the Sports/Talk formula is having team play-by-play. ESPN 1050 has been the exclusive carrier of their Madison Square Garden co-habitants–the Knicks and Rangers.
“We are in the final year of the agreement, and we’ll see when we get to the end of the season where we stand,” Roberts says. “We know that they are marquee franchises, and they fit our game plan for the future going forward.”