On Monday morning, New York City’s long-running R&B station Kiss FM will lose its music. Shortly after midnight, the station will flip from music to sports talk radio as ESPN is moving its operations from 1050 on the AM dial to 98.7 FM. It’s a big move for New York City radio as sports now invade FM, and it’s a move that could impact the future of the New York Yankees’ radio broadcasts as well.
Currently, the Yanks are wrapping up an extended radio stay on WCBS AM 880. Their long-term deal expired after the 2011 season, but with an ESPN move rumored since early last year, the club opted to re-up for one more season with CBS before setting off a radio bidding war. In doing so, the club allowed ESPN to find a radio home that would boost its signal and provide a more inviting home for the Yanks’ radio broadcasts.
With this weekend’s looming format change, then, the pieces are in place for a fight over the rights to the Yanks’ broadcasts, but it’s currently unclear what that deal will resemble. Currently, according to Phil Mushnick, CBS pays $14 million to broadcast the Yanks and $7 million for the rights to the Mets on WFAN. Supposedly, the media company loses money on the Yanks’ broadcasts, but that doesn’t mean WCBS isn’t interested. In fact, with the Mets’ deal expiring after 2013, CBS could retain the Yanks but move them to 660 AM a year later.
Of course, ESPN may have something to say about that as well. According to numerous reports, ESPN is spending big bucks on the move to FM in order to attract some baseball. With a better signal, they’re in a position to make an enticing offer for a New York team. While these behind-the-scene machinations are all well and good for clubs looking to line their pockets with broadcast dollars, what does it mean for those of us listening at home?
For starters, if the Yanks were to move to FM, their extended radio network becomes a lot more important locally. Take a look at the vast WCBS signal coverage map and compare that with 98.7 FM’s map. While the FM signal will be crisper — the better to hear John Sterling — its reach is not nearly as expansive as WCBS’. (For what its worth, night-time coverage for AM 1050, ESPN Radio’s current home, is limited.) So while New York City residents and those who live nearby will be able to better hear Yankee games, the folks a little farther away will have to find a local affiliate. As an AM landing home, WFAN, with its vast signal coverage area, would be ideal.
The bigger question though concerns two of the most controversial members of the Yankee family. Would the club retain John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, not-so-affectionately dubbed Ma and Pa Pinstripe by the New York City tabloids? If it were up to those same tabloid writers, the two broadcasters would be replaced tomorrow. Phil Mushnick of The Post has held a vendetta against the liberties Sterling takes with his play-by-play duties. Recently, Mushnick slammed Sterling for botching a call in the bottom of the 9th of a one-run game. Yesterday, he claimed a new radio deal could spell the end of Sterling and Waldman. “It’s highly unlikely,” he wrote, “that ESPN, if it lands the Yankees — especially attached to a big price tag — would be bound to retain the team’s current longtime broadcast duo of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman.”
In The Daily News, Bob Raissman has pushed a similar argument, but I don’t agree. For better or worse, Sterling is a part of the Yankees’ image right now. He’s been with the club since 1989 and serves as an M.C. on TV and at Yankee-related events. The club will likely require its next rights partner to retain Sterling. Waldman’s job is less secure, and last year, Moshe ran down a list of possible replacements. Still, I’d be more surprised if the duo weren’t together next year on a new station than if they are.
So the wheels are turning indeed. It doesn’t sound as though the Yanks are inclined to start their own radio network, but their rights will be in play. I’ve heard the games on FM up in New England, and the sound is certainly clearer than that traditional AM broadcast. To win the games though with a more limited signal, ESPN Radio will have to pay heavily. With the Yanks, though, money talks, and they won’t say no if the dollars are right.