More on Radio

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:

When the A’s were on The Game I put 95.7 on the first FM preset

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:

  1. Cellular and WiFi radios plus SIM tray
  2. Some sort of minimal display, probably touchscreen or small keyboard or other input method
  3. Speaker, headphone jack, or Bluetooth output
  4. Decent-sized lithium-ion battery (irreplaceable)
  5. Android operating system to run TuneIn app
  6. USB port for software maintenance
  7. Pushbutton access to A’s Cast (and the software complexity therein)
  8. 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. 

Radio Training Wheels Are Off!

Last year, when the A’s announced their plan to go with a streaming broadcast model, they kept rights with Bay Area AM station KTRB-860. At the time, many including myself considered the terrestrial station to act as a transitional step.

I’m not sure if the A’s deal with KTRB will go longer than 2019. I suspect that the A’s are using this year as a platform to launch the streaming offering.

The team announced today that they’re going with TuneIn exclusively in the Bay Area. That means no traditional terrestrial radio anywhere in the Bay. At least the broadcasts are free in the Bay Area.

As I don’t live in the Bay Area anymore, I found out quickly that I was outside the broadcast territory, so I couldn’t get the games or the pre/post-game content on the TuneIn app without some finagling. I decided to play around with all of my available options. I got a VPN app to spoof my location to the Bay Area, and bought a TuneIn Premium subscription for the year. The subscription ends at the close of Cactus League play, which works out quite conveniently for me.

As the 2020 Cactus League starts, they’re still getting the kinks out.

When I saw I was blocked from getting broadcasts despite my paying for workarounds, I decided to declare it all a sunk cost and went with the MLB app instead. The tradeoff there is that I got the game regardless of location, but little-to-no pre/post-game coverage. This year, I might go with MLB.tv for the A’s only (it comes with audio as well) and call it a day. It’s the price of innovation, I suppose.

Until then, I’ll keep trying with what they’re making available.

Strangely, there is still an A’s Radio Network that will operate outside the Bay Area. And there will be continue to be Spanish-language broadcasts on existing Bay Area Spanish-language stations. Those broadcasts will also be carried on TuneIn. It’s hard to beat good old radio, especially the AM variety, when you could “lock it in and rip the knob off.” In the digital age there are no knobs. There are a lot of unresponsive virtual buttons, cryptic error messages, and a creeping sense of dread as your data gets used up, inning by inning, game after game.

The A’s are partnering with TuneIn, a good choice from a business standpoint for both as TuneIn gets a high-profile client and the A’s probably get some of the production costs handled by TuneIn. I wonder about the wisdom of this decision in the long run, though. This is a move fraught with friction. Last year I chose to go away from it because of that friction. I did some A/B testing against the MLB App, and TuneIn consistently had more latency than MLB. It didn’t matter if the A’s were at home or on the road, or if I was at the Coliseum or not. Given the state of affairs, I have no interest in renewing. A while back MLB allowed smartphone users to rebrand the normal MLB app with their preferred team’s logo, making it a sort of one-stop shop for baseball fans. That same app is what A’s fans will use to watch video highlights or entire games from their smartphones on the go. Yet there is a second, unrelated app that is preferred for radio. Way to make it easy, A’s. If the team wants to remove some of that friction, they should follow the branding lead and put all their audio streams in the MLB app for easy access. No offense to TuneIn, I also occasionally listen to audio of MSNBC, CNN, and the local NPR station on the go. For A’s games, it makes less sense. I already use Overcast for pre-recorded podcast listening. That’s not going to change despite the incursion of streaming giants into the podcast world.

First world problems? First world problems.

A’s announce new traditional and streaming radio partnerships

Fans expressed worry as the A’s didn’t announce who would be broadcast their games over the radio at FanFest. The team was working on something, we were told, and today they unwrapped some new partners.

For traditional, over-the-air radio, the team will partner with KTRB-860 AM for the 2019 season. A decade ago the A’s attempted to buy KTRB to transform the station into a homegrown A’s flagship, but the A’s couldn’t come to terms on a price, estimated to be around $5 million plus necessary transmitter upgrades, so naturally the station became yet another hot talk gabfest.

Hawaii? Aloha. Tahoe, Susanville? Ahonui.

The big news is that the A’s will have streaming for free through a new deal with TuneIn Radio. TuneIn will handle all of streaming within the A’s market, though I’m not sure what defines the A’s market for the purposes of streaming (IP check, perhaps?). The MLB At Bat app continues to offer its Premium version with audio included for $19.99 per season or $2.99 per month, spring training included. Audio is automatically included in the A’s Access season ticket plan and subscriptions to MLB.TV. MLB.TV is sold for $118.99 for all teams’ video telecasts or $91.99 for a single team, blackouts pending, natch.

I’ve had the TuneIn app on my phone for years, even though my use for it has decreased over time. It’s good to see that I’ll be able to use it again. TuneIn has a Premium 30-day free trial for new users (again, A’s games are free). Whether I’ll be able to use it for the Cactus League while the A’s call Mesa home for a month – TBD. Whatever the case, more options are good. TuneIn will also offer an A’s channel that will operate 24/7, which will be nice if you want to check out a late-night/early morning reply of an earlier game, something the Giants enjoyed on KNBR for years. Admittedly, the advent of on-demand replay makes a scheduled rebroadcast largely unnecessary, but it’s still nice to have.

Streaming games tends to lag compared to live action, so it isn’t going to supplant the old pocket transistor radio you would frequently take to the Coliseum. As wireless speeds and the processors in your phones get more powerful that lag will continue to decrease. On the other hand, perennial pre/postgame host Chris Townsend will remain part of the proceedings, as his bookend shows will be expanded. The pregame show is called “A’s Total Access,” which is a branding exercise if I ever heard one.

I’m not sure if the A’s deal with KTRB will go longer than 2019. I suspect that the A’s are using this year as a platform to launch the streaming offering. The A’s launched their team website some 22 years ago.

Ever the innovators, the A’s could oversee the twilight of the radio era. Then again, other clubs will have something to say about that.

Tenth Anniversary Edition: A Decade of Running in Place

If you’ve been around from the beginning (you probably haven’t), you may have read the very first post I made to this blog on March 14, 2005. That was ten years ago. Here’s a quick, incomplete list of things that have happened since then:

  • Bud Selig stays commissioner until 2015, is replaced by Rob Manfred
  • Expos move (are bought-contracted-expanded) to Washington, DC
  • Six new ballparks open throughout MLB (in St. Louis, DC, New York twice, Minneapolis, and Miami)
  • Levi’s Stadium developed and opened
  • Warriors get new ownership, declare intent to move to SF, buy land for arena
  • AEG moves SJ Earthquakes to Houston. Team is reborn in 2008, has stadium built for 2015 season
  • A’s propose ballparks at sites in Oakland, Fremont, and San Jose – none are successful
  • Oakland is on its fourth mayor since the blog started

That same day I posted about the A’s potentially building a ballpark south of the existing Coliseum. Pending what happens with Coliseum City, we may be talking about that very same possibility in the future. Weird how things might come full circle, eh?

As we wait for good news on the stadium front, I have some good news of my own. A couple years ago I asked for donations for the site to keep it running. Many of you responded very generously. which helped keep the site and my continuing work going. This site is a labor of love, so I haven’t asked for donations much (twice to my recollection). Back in 2013, I promised those of you who donated that I’d provide a sort of digest of previous posts. I tried many times to compile and curate that digest, but over time I’ve learned that I am a much worse editor than I am a writer (which is already rather questionable). Everything read like filler, not moving the narrative forward. I put that aside for a while and swore to get back to it. It wasn’t until earlier this year, when I put together the timeline feature, that it all came together. I was able to put together all the necessary posts, with additional context inserted where necessary. So I’m proud to announce that I have that “book” ready. The download link is below. Those of you who previously donated have already gotten the link via email. Please take a look at it and provide feedback if you like. If you donated and haven’t gotten the book, send me a note/tweet and I’ll make sure to take care of you. And if you have already donated, you don’t need to do anything else, but if you want to donate again I won’t stop you.

I’ve titled the book:

A Decade of Running in Place: A Digest of Selected Blog Posts from the First Ten Years of Newballpark.org

Book download link (Scribd, PDF)

Donate Button

I’ve poured over a million words, 10,000+ hours, and my entire heart and soul into this site. The A’s getting a new ballpark has been a dream of mine since high school, when I first saw drawings of New Comiskey Park and Camden Yards. I don’t expect anyone to have the same kind of obsession with this topic that I have. I figure that I’ll be the obsessive so that you don’t have to be. Thousands of people read this site every day. About 2% of them have donated. If you value the work here and the process, please consider donating. $10 would be great.

The book weighs in at 210,000 words and 664 pages in PDF format. It’s entirely in chronological order. There are what appear to be section or chapter markers. Those are points at which I think the scene shifts. They aren’t meant to encapsulate the story.

Editing and pagination are rough, mostly having to do with the transition from web to print-ready format. I’d like to take the time to give it a whirl in InDesign, with the ultimate goal of making printed copies. A donated of $25 or more would get the ball rolling.

Since this is the 10th anniversary, I’ve started thinking of other things to commemorate this milestone. What do you folks think? T-shirts? Caps? Stickers and decals? Should I do a crowdfunding campaign? I’m all ears at this point. Some of you readers are creatives of different stripes. Send me your suggestions.

Finally, many thinks to all the readers over the years. I’ve met and become friends with many of you. We’ve broken bread, gotten beers, talked plenty of things besides an A’s ballpark. It’s been a pleasure. It will continue until the day that this blog is no longer necessary. After all this time I still hope. I think many of you do too. It’s what binds us. I don’t know how much longer it will take for the A’s to get a new home. Another 10 years? 10 months? However long it takes, I’ll be here for the ride. I hope you enjoy appreciate it as much as I do.

P.S. – Special thanks to Susan Slusser, who suggested the timeline a couple months ago while working on her own A’s history book (due this summer and highly anticipated). Without that I never would’ve gotten properly organized.

P.P.S. – This is not “the book” that I’ve been talking about writing. That book is still very much in progress.

 

A’s and 95.7 The Game extend through 2018

It started with a four-year run, and will now go another four.

There hasn’t been any drama leading up to this renewal, with The Game on hand at both FanFest and this week at Hohokam Stadium. While the A’s are no ratings bonanza, the team is by far the biggest constant in The Game’s programming. Now that the station will be going through its own form of regime change, perhaps Entercom will see fit to grow the station’s brand and the A’s brand together, instead of being at odds as they were at times. No matter, at least it’s stability, the most fans have seen since the KSFO days.

My only suggestion at this point is to work on boosting the signal. East and North Bay fans have been clamoring for this since Day one.

Program Director Jason Barrett to leave 95.7 The Game in June

I travel a lot. I’ve been to 49 states, nearly all of them on business. I’ve rented cars in all of these markets, which has given me a chance to sample sports radio everywhere: California and the Northeast, the South and the Midwest. Thanks to the internet you can do the same now via streaming. Most people aren’t going to go out of their way to do that, except to follow distant team coverage. Having listened to so many different sports talk stations, I can give you one complete immutable fact about them.

THEY ALL SUCK.

The programming is disposable and predictable. The talent is largely marginal. It’s the low hanging fruit of media. There really isn’t much difference from one station to the next. Listeners may latch onto one or two hosts because of their style, or listen to a particular station mostly because it’s a team’s flagship. 95.7 The Game launched with the idea that it was the A’s flagship, but would give thorough coverage to all of the Bay Area’s teams.

Jason Barrett came in as the program director shortly after the station’s launch in 2011. Not surprisingly, the New Yorker brought in a New York host, Brandon Tierney. That didn’t go over so well – with A’s fans especially. Some worked well for a small but loyal audience, like The Rise Guys until they were unceremoniously canned, or Damon Bruce most recently. Chris Townsend has been the one constant on the station, taking numerous time slot changes like a pro that he is. If the maxim of radio is know your audience, Barrett didn’t. He brought an East Coast sensitivity to the Bay Area under orders from an East Coast corporate parent, and it showed.

I don’t think it’s possible to make truly good sports talk. It is possible to make sports talk that sucks less. One way to reach that not-so-lofty goal is to hire hosts that really know the local teams. When a guy doesn’t know much about a team’s history or players it’s glaring. It gives one more reason for a listener to change the station. For whatever reason Barrett wasn’t terribly concerned about that, figuring that outside talent had a natural learning curve and would adapt quickly. That brought at best mixed results. Even bringing in guys with a clear specialty and without broad sports knowledge can be dangerous, as we saw with Ric Bucher (basketball) and now John Middlekauff, whose discomfort level rises when venturing outside football.

Whether it was Barrett or the higher-ups at Entercom, the push to get Giants fans has proven highly divisive to A’s fans, though it has probably led to The Game’s firm 2nd place among the three Bay Area sports radio stations. A’s fans are willing to stomach some amount of Giants talk, but not the beyond-equal-time treatment frequently on display. Though I’ve heard a lot of things about what Barrett did to meter topic time, I don’t have any interest in doing any measurements or protesting loudly. Mostly because of the aforementioned reasons, I simply don’t care that much. Fans can choose to be inundated by coverage in many forms, from traditional beat writers and columnists to bloggers and fan sites to podcasts and live streams. I watch all four major pro sports, multiple college and individual sports, pretty much anything competitive. I don’t worry too much about how well-executed sports radio is, I’m only concerned that the A’s have a proper station. So if the station’s execution improves by having better hosts or a better program director, great. It probably won’t affect might listening much, it might affect yours.

If anything, my criticism is reserved for Entercom’s disinterest in boosting the station’s signal. As a Class B station with less than 7,000 watts of power, the coverage footprint was limited. East Bay coverage could be sparse at times, North Bay coverage a big fade. Maybe Entercom wanted to wait until the station stabilized. Whatever the reason, the signal has left many unsatisfied, though game broadcast availability through MLB apps has helped. There’s no way The Game will ever come close to challenging KNBR-680 without a boost to cover more of the Bay Area.

Then again, maybe second place is good enough. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is. They could go totally cheap by turning automatic and simulcasting ESPN Radio’s shows from Bristol, then supplementing games with pre/post-game coverage. They could boost the signal, get into a real bidding war with 680, and get into a real war with The Leader. Or they could go in generally the same manner as they’ve been going, but with a better PD and more hyperlocal focus. I don’t know that such a move will seriously improve ratings. It would at least reduce the bad PR associated with Barrett.

Other articles:

Barrett’s blog, citing his desire to spend time with family as his reason for leaving

Bay Area’s Sports Guy’s anecdote about meeting with Barrett

Dish Network and Comcast SportsNets extend deadline to resolve carriage dispute

I was getting ready to write about Dish Network dropping the various Comcast SportsNets (Bay Area, California, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington). As I did a cursory check to see if there was anything new, I saw a new page when I went to the IWANTCSNBA.com website:

notice

IWANTCSNBA.com page accessed at 8:45 PM PT

A check of the sites for CSN California and CSN Chicago produced the same results. NBC Sports is negotiating the channels as a package, though with different monthly subscriber fees for each.

So I suppose cooler heads have prevailed for now. There has been no official statement from either Comcast or Dish regarding the previous impasse, nor an indicator of whether there has been any legitimate progress. Dish covers approximately 500,000 households throughout Northern California, and while it generally appeals to many who prefer not to pay excessively for sports – especially potential cordcutters – many fans of the Warriors have recently expressed their displeasure at the possible CSNBA drop by Dish. CSNCA, which carries the A’s and Sharks, would also be affected.

The satellite provider has told some customers that the extension would run another three weeks. Dish and CBS reached a similar extension before Thanksgiving over the carriage of CBS-owned local stations, including San Francisco’s KPIX-5 and Los Angeles’ KCBS-2.