Team 990 needs a few good men
But sport station's start may hinge on Expos' performance

Radio listeners sauntering by the 990 position on the AM dial recently will have noticed a big change. Gone are the oldies hits, replaced by a sleek, fast-moving sports talk radio format, featuring high priced local talent and feeds from Toronto and the U.S.

But the success of the newly baptized The Team 990 will depend largely on the new station's ability to attract male listeners, experts say.

"It was a soft launch," said Lee Hambleton, the station's vice-president and general manager, who has overseen a variety of formats at the 990 position over the years. The station did get some publicity for its new format from television and in the sports pages.

But an official launch, coupled with high powered advertising and promotion campaigns will have to wait until this fall. "The best restaurants open quietly and work out the bugs first, when fewer people are there," said Hambleton. "We are doing the same thing."

But Montreal is not the only market to be hit with the sports talk radio format. The Team 990's parent company CHUM Limited, is investing big dollars in the concept, which was introduced in nine markets last month, including Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

The lion's share of the programming is broadcast nationally, including a Toronto afternoon show with Jim Van Horne, and Stephen Brunt, as well as a feed of ESPN's Jim Rome's syndicated U.S. programming, which is pumped in from L.A.,

There is some production being done for the Montreal market, consisting of an Expos baseball package, a morning show hosted by veterans Mitch Melnick and Ted Blackman, and a late night Sunday talk show.

Hambleton is betting that in an increasingly fractionalized AM radio market, where few broadcasters are making money, that targeting a niche will pay off. And there are few better niches than sports fans.

According to a data collected by Scarborough Research, sports radio listeners in the U.S. are typically male, and fall between the ages of 25 and 54, the age group that makes advertisers drool. Most have post secondary education and above average incomes. They tend to own their homes, drive luxury cars or SUVs and put lots of money into travel and investments.

But isn't that the same target group that competitor 940 news is after? Hambleton doesn't answer directly. "There is a U.S. news talk station, WINS, whose slogan is, 'give us 17 minutes will give you the world,'" said Hambleton. "They are basically telling listeners to tune in for a short period of time. We want listeners to stick around."

And from a quick sample of the programming, the Team seems to have what Internet marketers call a "sticky" quality to it. Once you get into it, it's hard to turn the station off. Sports is like a soap opera for men. And the stories - will Michael Jordan come out of retirement?, will Eric Lindros sign? --just go on and on.

But will the format catch on? Absolutely, says Tim Thompson, director (sales and marketing) of Mount Royal Commemorative Services, one of the first advertisers to jump on board.

"They are filling a need that had not been met," said Thompson, who spent fifteen years spent selling radio advertising, before getting into the funeral business. "They are up against heavy competition, especially from CJAD. But there is room for everyone."

Others are not so sure. "Montreal's anglophone market is already very fragmented, said Gilbert Paquette, vice-president of Carat Expert, a firm that advises big advertisers how to spend their money. "If I want to reach sports fans, I can already go to RDS and TSN, not to mention your paper."

With the station's baseball package providing such a huge share of the local programming, you would think that the Expos' success on the field, would play a key role in how many listeners tune in to hear them on the radio. But Hambleton denies that their role is crucial

"Sure it would be help us (they Expos) came out strong, said Hambleton. "But we committed to the Montreal market, even before they came on board The Expos are not the whole story."

According to Hambleton, Team 990 is also keeping its options open for new programming options such as hockey and football, when the Canadiens and Alouettes' contracts come up for renewal. However he notes that hockey and baseball, with their overlapping seasons, do not make the ideal fit.

Ultimately, the Team 990's success in Montreal will depend on that of the national network. Because if the local market advertising turns out to be soft, they can always cut costs by ditching the local production, and beaming in all programming from Toronto.


Photo caption: The Team 990 will broadcast a mix of syndicated and local content including a morning show hosted by veteran sports personalities Mitch Melnick and Ted Blackman.

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