Last season, the Cincinnati Reds celebrated long-time Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman, whose announcement of his retirement came at the beginning of the season. The celebration continued through the last homestand of the season. The last fan giveaway of the last series Brennaman worked was a transistor radio, to the first 20,000 fans.
The giveaway was sponsored by grocery giant Kroger, with the Reds logo alongside and Brennaman’s signature call, And this one belongs to the Reds!, printed underneath. The radio wasn’t set only to WLW-AM 700, the team’s longtime radio flagship. Instead there was a familiar dial, allowing fans to tune into Reds broadcasts throughout the Ohio and Northern Kentucky area, or other AM or FM stations if they so chose. It probably runs for hours if not days on two cheap AA/AAA batteries, and has a headphone jack. Street value is around $10-20.
I got my own portable transistor radio as a kid. I would tote it around to the park, on trips with my parents, and to A’s games. In my teens I got the first of many Walkman-style cassette radios, which were supplanted by separate CD players and pocket radios. Eventually I upgraded to an iPod paired with a digital Sony Walkman model, which looks like this:
I did a quick look to see where I left this radio. Couldn’t find it. I have three smartphones, three laptops, two desktop computers, and other devices that can pull internet audio streams. The only radio I can find is the one in my car. Sony doesn’t appear to make the version pictured above anymore.
The hunt for the lost Walkman got me thinking about what kind of device the A’s would have to sell or give away to promote their all-streaming worldview. Think about what the requirements would have to be to make such a device:
- Cellular and WiFi radios plus SIM tray
- Some sort of minimal display, probably touchscreen or small keyboard or other input method
- Speaker, headphone jack, or Bluetooth output
- Decent-sized lithium-ion battery (irreplaceable)
- Android operating system to run TuneIn app
- USB port for software maintenance
- Pushbutton access to A’s Cast (and the software complexity therein)
- A wireless data plan
Absent such a not-inexpensive beast, we’ll all have to lean on our smartphones even more. I work in tech. I support the move to streaming as I’m ready for it and have been living it for years. For me, it’s better to carry a single device that performs a multitude of functions than to bring multiple devices (phone and radio) with me. When you consider the requirements to put together a modern streaming-only replacement for a cheap transistor radio, it looks like climbing a technological mountain. And that’s without the support sherpa some will need to set it all up.
Then I saw this Dave Kaval reply to a Bruce Jenkins column:
What followed was the usual meme fest congratulating Kaval for dragging Jenkins, as well as the finger wagging by much of the rest of Bay Area sports media. Once the dust settles from the social media rage, two outside factors will determine how well this works for the A’s. The first comes down to this claim by Kaval:
I’m skeptical of this. Even if the A’s do a wholesale revamp of the Coliseum’s in-stadium WiFi network, there’s still a transition from outside, whether you’re driving in or taking BART. Until that becomes seamless, it’s an annoyance at the least, a deterrence at the worst. If a fan is mowing his lawn on a summer day and listening to a radio, latency isn’t a big issue as there’s no perception of latency (as long as phone alerts don’t come in first). A fan at the ballpark is not going to have as much patience for a streaming delay from what’s happening in real time, right in his/her eyes.
The other big factor has nothing directly to do with the A’s. Last August, KNBR owner Cumulus chose to turn one of its Bay Area assets, longtime FM rock stalwart KFOG, into a simulcast station for KNBR. Now the Bay Area has four sports talk stations:
- KNBR (AM 680)
- KTCT (AM 1050)
- KGMZ (FM 95.7)
- KFOG/KNBR (FM 104.5)
Since the revamped KFOG is a simulcast station, there won’t be any new programming. Instead, the move enhances the Giants’ already vast hegemony over the market. The 49ers, who were already pushing into the East Bay as the Raiders depart the Bay Area, will also benefit from the simulcast. The Game will remain the Warriors’ flagship and the other place to talk Giants/Niners. With three sports stations at its disposal, Cumulus can keep KNBR-680 as its Giants station (the Giants partly own it) while the 49ers can stay on the Ticket and KNBR-FM. The Warriors will be the only team on The Game, which is what the Dubs have been wanting for years if not decades. Most radio stations, especially the ones with the high-power transmitters that can blast 50,000 watts, are owned by one of a few radio conglomerates (Cumulus, Entercom, Bonneville), making format changes largely strategic in nature with stations as pawns.
The Giants and Cumulus effectively crowded the A’s out of the Bay Area radio market, with an assist from Entercom. The A’s tried to make it work with Entercom by sticking out a few years at The Game with dwindling support from the station. Now the A’s are persona non grata at The Game even as they are currently the hottest pro team in the Bay Area.
There’s something seductive in the sales pitch the A’s are making about going the streaming route. It’s Silicon Valley. It sounds disruptive. Is it, though? If radio truly is a dying medium, the A’s are blazing a trail. A trail to what? To me, it’s like the being the first team with a website (which they were), or the first to embrace the Moneyball concepts. It gets the team attention, but it probably won’t put the team over the top without significant further investment. Same goes for streaming. The problems with the streaming-only strategy are two-fold: the A’s can’t dominate streaming the way other teams dominate other forms of media, and it papers over the fact that the A’s are a lesser player in local media than they were two years ago. The A’s are making it harder to enjoy audio of A’s games, full stop. Furthermore, the move smacks of a certain pattern of impatience I’m seeing from the team. When the A’s see resistance to their efforts, they’re likely to fold and move on to the next vision, however fanciful or grand. It happened with all of the previous ballpark sites and now with this disappearance from local radio. If the A’s return to some other station in 2021, we’ll know that they didn’t have the patience to see this through. There may be a way for the A’s to innovate their way out of this jam. So far, they’re not offering that kind of innovation. Maybe that’s more in line with tech’s current direction than anything else.
P.S. – A decade ago, the A’s had a chance to buy KTRB, the same station they used as a stepping stone to streaming last year. They could’ve used more patience back then, too.