With the Royals in the tank, the Chiefs in limbo, there aren’t a lot of sexy sports topics to kick around…
So why not drum up a sports radio war? Despite the Royals poor play 610 Sports has had a few upticks. And there’s always the listeners who love to hate WHB superstar Kevin Kietzman.
So you know, let there be war!
But apart from making Cowtowners’ water cooler lives a bit more interesting, is there really a sports radio war being waged in Kansas City?
Yes and no – emphasis on the latter.
"War is war and people die," says radio bigwig Bob Zuroweste, who lorded over the great sports talk wars of the late ’90s/early 2000s. "People don’t die in this business – it’s just a competitive environment.".
Zuroweste was at the helm of Entercom when KMBZ 980 AM’s once-mighty afternoon drive sports show with Don Fortune was King Kong to everybody else’s was Chicken Little.
Until a mild-mannered weekend anchor from Fox 4 named Kevin Kietzman left TV for an uncertain future talking about sports on a tiny station with the signal strength of a weak kitten.
"The sports radio wars really started when KCTE 1510 AM and Kevin Kietzman took on Don Fortune with a peashooter signal and they actually beat Fortune in men," Zuroweste says. "And they put a billboard up around town that said, ‘Lose a Fortune.’ That was what started it. The The Game, 1250 AM, was our answer to it with that crazy guy Johnny Renshaw. But that never took off like we wanted it to.
"But when things really heated up was when we launched 610 Sports and hired Bill Maas, Jason Whitlock and Tim Grunhard away from WHB in basically one night – it was all or none. That and we took Jim Rome from them as well."
What ensued was a mad talent scramble with WHB snagging then Channel 9 weekend sports anchor Dave Stewart, who’d been doing radio for Entercom on The Rock 98.9 FM with Johnny Dare. In desperation, WHB also lured then minor leaguers Nick Bukaty and Bob Fescoe. They needed bodies, voices.
But the move that truly kicked Entercom’s sports radio ass was when WHB landed Soren Petro.
"We were very disappoined that Petro left," Zuroweste says. "We wanted him to be part of our new team. And WHB was able to keep (Fox 4’s) Frank Boal. And they had George Brett on with him for awhile. But that was more for the name – he didn’t do a lot."
Bottom line: Despite Entercom’s stunning talent raid and 610’s launch, WHB not only prevailed it won out.
There was no shortage of subterfuge leading up to all-out war breaking out.
"I had tried to hire Whitlock away from WHB for KMBZ a couple of times," Zuroweste says. "And we tried to hire Kietzman too."
How close Zuroweste came to hiring one of the heavy hitters?
"Oh, I don’t think I got close with Kietzman. I think Kietzman was playing me. We met for lunch one time and I’d been trying to hire him, so I took out a napkin and a pen and gave it to him and said, ‘Write down a number on it.’ And when he wouldn’t put a number down, I knew he wasn’t coming to Entercom.
"Whitlock I got close to. We were going to pair him with Fortune, but Whitlock wouldn’t do it. He wanted his own deal. So at that point we hired Jim Rose (from Nebraska) and that didn’t work out. Then we tried to get Whitlock again. And then we hired Petro and paired him with Fortune. And you know, Soren’s a bright guy but there was just a generation gap with him and Fortune. So that wasn’t a good marriage.
"Then Fortune retired and Soren had his own show on KMBZ," Zuroweste continues. "And Fescoe and Bukaty were there at the time and we had the Royals."
Now enter into the pre-610 Sports launch mix, legendary AM country signal 61 Country with David Lawrence and Paul Harvey.
"What happened was 61 Country was getting long in the tooth with its age demo and the revenue was slipping," Zuroweste says. "And (Entercom head) David Field thought that music should be on FM and talk on AM. And that’s when we tried putting 61 Country on 106.5 FM and kept David Lawrence and Paul Harvey. That was the original plan, because the music on 61 Country wasn’t old country, it was just like KFKF FM is today."
That’s how the path was cleared for – remember? – 61 Sports…
"But it was fraught with trouble from the beginning because of Whitlock’s ego and Maas’s ego," Zuroweste says. "Otherwise, it would have worked, I think. The biggest loss was we had Petro going across town."
As for the concept of a radio war being waged today – absent talent raids, station launches and big names lined up in both trenches… Eh!
Competition, yes. War, no way.
"Anytime you have two stations in a format, there is what I would call a high competition level," Zuroweste says. "Because the same people are listening to both stations. So what you want to do is engage them for a longer period of time. You can use the term ‘war’ but it’s really a competitive battle.
"In radio terms, when you launch an attack – like in World War II when the U.S. wasn’t at war with Japan but there was tension – but when you go out and hire their talent and put a radio station on the air, that’s war. Rght now it’s more like Afghanistan."