Sports radio rumble
Salt Lake City's talk jocks are armed and ready for battle in an increasingly high-stakes arena
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Like rivals on the gridiron, they face off at the far end of the Utah AM radio dial: neighboring sports-talk radio stations locked in an escalating battle for listeners, ad revenue and bragging rights.

On one side is KZNS (1280 The Zone), whose emphasis on Utah personalities and programming has mostly dominated the daytime ratings since it debuted in 2001. On the other is KFNZ (1320 KFAN), now operated by Larry H. Miller, which has built its audience around exclusive coverage of the Utah Jazz.

KFAN's hard-core, X's and O's approach to sports coverage has traditionally attracted older listeners than 1280's more casual "guy talk" banter. The two stations have competed casually for years, not unlike friends in a weekly dime-ante poker game. But now, as the Utah sports world enters its high-profile fall season, the stakes are being raised substantially.

KFAN fired the first salvo last spring by raiding 1280 for popular morning-show hosts David "DJ" James and Patrick "PK" Kinahan. KZNS responded by launching a new morning show of its own, teaming radio veteran John Lund with former NFL and current Utah Blaze lineman Hans Olsen. Each station is spending money to lure radio personalities to Salt Lake City from bigger markets. And both are aggressively targeting the lucrative sports-radio demographic with new multimedia strategies and ad campaigns.

"It's going to be a bloodbath," says KFAN program director Scott Garrard, echoing a phrase used by other staffers at the rival stations. "I think two stations can do well here. But it's going to be a war."

A growing presence: Salt Lake City actually has four sports radio stations, a remarkable number for the country's 31st-largest market. But neither KJQS (1230 AM) nor KALL (700 AM) offers much local sports-talk programming, and both trail badly in daytime ratings.

For listeners, sports radio fills a growing demand, created by the Internet and TV highlight shows like ESPN's "SportsCenter," for scores, news and analysis around the clock. In Utah, the biggest sports story is almost always the Jazz, followed by Brigham Young University or University of Utah football and basketball.

"We play the hits. It's the same as in the DJ world," explains Kevin Graham, program director for 1280 The Zone and an afternoon co-host with Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson. "We have to talk about the things that most listeners want to talk about."

Sports radio, which mixes scores and analysis with guy-oriented banter and jokes, lags far behind such formats as news-talk and country music in listener popularity. But it's catching up. As recently as the mid-1980s, there were no all-sports radio stations in the United States; today there are more than 500.

There's big money in sports radio because advertisers reach a coveted demographic: affluent, middle-aged men with disposable income. According to a recent survey by Arbitron, the leading radio-audience research company, more than 45 percent of sports-radio listeners are college graduates compared with 20 percent for classic-rock listeners and 15 percent for country-music fans. Nearly half of sports-radio listeners earn at least $75,000 a year - the highest income of any radio format.

Higher ratings mean steeper ad rates and greater profits. In recent years, The Zone and partner KALL 700 have combined to pummel KFAN among the core demographic of men ages 25 to 54. While KFAN scored well during its evening Jazz broadcasts, the station seemed content to cede daytime ratings dominance to The Zone.

That changed last spring, when KJZZ-TV took over day-to-day operations of KFAN from owner Citadel Communications and launched "The FAN," a local network of radio and TV stations: KFAN, KJQS (1230 AM), KJZZ-TV and FSN Utah, the local Fox Sports cable TV affiliate. Combined with Internet blogs, the new network will allow for blanket coverage of Utah professional, college and even high-school sports.

The big bucks: The new KFAN management wasted little time in prying James and Kinahan, Utah's top-rated sports-radio morning duo, away from 1280 with bigger salaries and the chance to appear more often on TV.

Since late June, Kinahan and James have been doing their jocular shtick each weekday morning, with Kinahan also providing occasional commentary during broadcasts of Bees and high-school football games. New ratings for July show the arrival of James and Kinahan has boosted KFAN past 1280 in the battle for morning listeners.

"It's not just radio vs. radio anymore," says Kinahan, who quit the Tribune to take the KFAN gig. His new job also is expected to include a nightly sports show on KJZZ.

While declining to give specifics, Kinahan says his new KFAN salary is a "substantial" increase over his old radio-and-newspaper income. Fearful that KFAN also would steal away Monson and Graham, 1280 signed both to lucrative contract extensions.

"When I started out in radio, it was more like a hobby," says Monson, who helped launch KFAN in 1996. "If people knew how much we're making now, they'd freak out."

'We all want to win': Many of 1280's on-air hosts have worked at KFAN and vice versa, creating what, in public at least, is a friendly rivalry. But don't let that fool you: Because of the dollars at stake and the competitive nature of most sports guys, the clash is already growing heated.

"You've got guys who've been on both sides. We all like and respect each other. But we also all want to win," says 1280's Lund, who returned to Utah this summer after nine years doing sports radio in other cities. "I didn't come into the market to lose. It's going to take some time, because [James and Kinahan] have the name recognition. But I think good radio will win in the long run."

Staffers at 1280 The Zone can't resist slamming 1320's allegiance to the Jazz. Says Lund, "I don't know how you can be 100 percent objective if you're covering the Jazz and your paycheck says 'Jazz' on it."

But KFAN's Kinahan insists his new contract allows him to say whatever he pleases without fear of retribution. And Garrard, KFAN's program director, says the station has encouraged him and his staffers to speak freely on the air.

"None of us would have taken this job if we had any worries at all about being censored," he says. "We're not going to sugarcoat what's going on [with the Jazz]. The old KFAN may have struggled with that from time to time. The new KFAN will not."

So as the Utah fall sports season heats up in coming weeks, which station will come out on top? While 1280 stresses its independence, KFAN is relying on new hires and an aggressive multimedia strategy. Despite the smack talk, staffers at each station feel there's room in a growing Utah market for both.

"These two stations are going to be battling head to head, so we've both got to be on our game," says Garrard, who believes that competition will raise the level of programming for all Utah listeners. "Ultimately, it's the consumer who wins."

griggs@sltrib.com