HD Channels Go Long on Team Coverage
     

Not every city boasts fans as rabid as those who passionately follow the Phillies in Philadelphia, the Penguins and Steelers in Pittsburgh or the Cowboys in Dallas. So it makes sense that for fans in those markets who own HD Radio receivers, there’s a new way to keep tabs on their teams: Full-time subchannels devoted exclusively to team coverage.

Tim McAleer, market president at Clear Channel Radio in Pittsburgh, says the idea was born in Steel City. It “started back in 2009, when the Penguins approached us,” McAleer says.

The NHL team’s play-by-play runs on the main channel of Clear Channel’s WXDX(FM) 105.9, which otherwise runs modern rock. But “Penguins Radio 24/7” launched during the 2009–2010 hockey season on 105.9-HD2.

The channel’s programming runs in a six-hour loop, with three hours produced by the team and three hours produced by Clear Channel.

WHAT’S ON?

“The programming can be anything,” McAleer says. In addition to his regular afternoon shift on “105.9 the X,” veteran Pittsburgh sports host Mark Madden hosts a daily, hour-long Penguins show on Penguins Radio 24/7.

“Then, the other two hours we either take from our ancillary shows on our ESPN station, WBGG(AM) 970, or we’ll be as creative as taking Sidney Crosby’s iPod and we’ll play what’s on it.”

The Pens’ three hours can be even more creative. “They’ll broadcast live from practice during the season,” McAleer says. “They used to pull some material from the NHL Network, and they have some of the radio people that they pay doing call-in shows.” Even the fans get a chance to participate, with selected fan audio blogs appearing on Penguins Radio.

Down the hall at Clear Channel Pittsburgh, the Steelers are a staple at top-rated rocker WDVE(FM) 102.5. Since the fall of 2011, “Steelers Nation Radio” has been heard on 102.5-HD2, carrying a similar split of team- and station-produced coverage, including a heavy diet of classic Steelers games.

It’s the second NFL-specific subchannel, following the all-Cowboys channel that CBS Radio launched in Dallas in 2009 over KRLD(FM) 105.3’s HD3.

MAJOR LEAGUE, TOO

The 2011 season also brought the first baseball-specific HD subchannel to the airwaves. “Phillies 24/7” is part of the rights agreement that puts the Phillies on CBS Radio’s WPHT(AM) 1210 and WIP(FM) 94.1, and it makes its home on another CBS signal, the HD4 channel of WOGL(FM) 98.1.

“Is it a niche program? Absolutely, but there’s no better niche content than the Phillies,” says WIP program director Jeff Sottolano.

“A couple of years ago, there was a lot of conversation about these things,” recalls Robert Brooks, manager of broadcasting for the Phillies. “CBS came to us when we were renegotiating and said, ‘This is something we could do for you, since we have the bandwidth.’”

With 162 games a season to draw from, Sottolano says there was no problem filling a 24-hour schedule in-house at CBS, though it took some negotiating with Major League Baseball.

“MLB is somewhat unique in that MLB Advanced Media has a lot of oversight over what the local market teams can and can’t do digitally,” Sottolano says. CBS worked out a deal that allows Phillies 24/7 to rebroadcast the team’s games several times, including full-game replays at 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on the day after the game, as well as “Phillies in 60,” a condensed, one-hour highlight reel that runs at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Other features include a daily half-hour “Phillies Today” program and several weekly shows, including “What’s the Word,” which looks at how the Phillies are being covered in print and in social media, and “The K File,” a weekly replay of every Phillies strikeout from the previous week.

While CBS produces all of the content on the channel, its arrangement gives the team veto power over content.

“We’ve asked that this be more informational than confrontational,” Brooks says, noting that there’s plenty of the latter style of programming on the city’s traditional sports-talk outlets.

This year, Phillies 24/7 added another new feature: instead of simulcasting live Phillies games with CBS Radio’s other outlets, the subchannel now carries the Spanish-language broadcast produced by Spanish Beisbol Productions, extending the reach of that coverage beyond the limited signal of Spanish-language flagship WTTM(AM) 1680.

“We reached out to Bill Kulik at SBP and Bill had an interest in expanding his reach in the marketplace,” Sottolano says. “And we had an interest in providing unique content that fit within Phillies 24/7.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Unlike the Pittsburgh channels, which depend heavily on Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio platform to reach as broad an audience as possible, the Phillies channel is available only over the air via HD Radio.

Sottolano says that’s partially a result of MLB’s tight restrictions on streaming game content, and partially a deliberate move to promote CBS Radio’s variety of HD multicast offerings in the market, which also include a ’70s-oldies format and a classic rock channel, plus simulcasts of all-news KYW(AM) and talk WPHT(AM).

“We’ve talked about podcasting the talk shows, which we don’t currently do,” he says. “And we don’t currently do it because we wanted to create unique content for HD Radio.”

At the team’s end, Brooks says he’d still like to see better market penetration for HD Radio, but he says the Phillies hear from fans who are listening on HD.

“We’ve gotten a couple of calls during the off-season,” he says. “When there was a mistake and a game played two days in a row, we got calls. There were people listening.”

Sottolano says CBS has devoted considerable promotion to educating fans about where to find Phillies 24/7.

“We have on-air promos, a landing page (on the CBSPhilly.com portal), a website we can direct people to with information on what these shows are and where you can listen to them,” he says. “I get a decent amount of listener feedback and email from folks that want to know what the programming schedule is and where to find an HD radio.”

In Pittsburgh, McAleer says the Penguins aggressively track their audience through their “PensPoints” program, which offers rewards for everything from beer purchases to watching games on TV.

“Some of the numbers where redemption is highest is through terrestrial radio,” he says. Then there is also iHeartRadio, where the Penguins channel is featured prominently.

Whether heard primarily over HD Radio or streaming, these sports-specific subchannels provide additional promotional and marketing opportunities.

“We’ve been able to build some revenue that didn’t exist before,” Sottolano says.

“There’s a revenue split,” Brooks says of the Phillies’ deal with CBS. “There’s some money to split at the end of the year.”

In Pittsburgh, Clear Channel has the Penguins locked up through 2018 and the Steelers through the 2016 deal. Across the state, CBS Radio and the Phillies are in the second year of a three-year deal, and Brooks says the all-Phillies channel will be on the table when renewal time comes around.

“I’m sure when we sit down to have those negotiations, we’ll sit down to keep that going,” he says,

Scott Fybush, a longtime RW contributor and the editor of NorthEast Radio Watch (www.fybush.com), is still waiting patiently for an all-Red Sox channel.


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