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102.3 ESPN replaces The Ticket with national-local mix, Jack FM survives

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102.3 The Ticket, launched in July 2010, was an ambitious attempt to create a homegrown sports-talk station from the ground up during one of the toughest times for radio in the history of the medium. And despite bold moves, like recruiting CBS4's Vic Lombardi and Gary Miller to serve as morning hosts, it didn't work. The Ticket has now been supplanted by 102.3 ESPN, which features some elements of the old format, but not Lombardi and Miller. Tom Manoogian, aka Lou From Littleton, explains the new philosophy.

"Trust me, we tried the live and local strategy for eighteen months," says Manoogian, the manager of Front Range Sports Network, which also includes outlets at 87.7 FM and 105.5 FM. "But our research showed that listeners wanted the best of both worlds."

This latest development has been prefigured by plenty of twists and turns. In February 2010, a group led by automobile expert and local TV staple Dealin' Doug Moreland bought 102.3 and 105.5 from NRC Broadcasting, fronted by Tim Brown, an energetic figure who also happened to be gazillionaire Phil Anschutz's son-in-law. The following May, we learned that the ownership cabal also included onetime Denver newspaper journo turned ESPN talking head Adam Schefter and Manoogian, who was well known to listeners of KOA and other stations via his Lou From Littleton pseudonym.

That July, Lombardi and Miller were announced as the headliners of a Ticket lineup that also featured Chad Andrus and Patrick Watson from 9 a.m. to noon, Charles Johnson and Joel Klatt from noon to 3 p.m., Les Shaprio and Rich "G-Man" Goins from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Nate Kreckman from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. This crew was initially heard on a third station, 87.7 FM, with ESPN Desportes, the Spanish-language arm of the broadcast giant, airing at 102.3 and the music-oriented Jack FM surviving the transition from NRC.

Then, in March 2011, Manoogian announced that ESPN Desportes and The Ticket would swap frequencies. Moreover, he revealed that he and his compatriots had obtained the rights to ESPN Radio, previously heard at 1600 AM, beginning January 1, 2012.

This move seemed to spell doom for Jack FM. But no: Jack lives on at 105.5, as does ESPN Desportes at 87.7. But The Ticket is no more. The new 102.3 ESPN includes just three folks from the original Ticket revue -- Shaprio, now paired with JoJo Turnbaugh from noon to 3 p.m., followed by Johnson and Kreckman. Hence, the majority of the programming is offered up by ESPN Radio, including its flagship morning show: Mike and Mike, whose stars' lack of confidence in Tim Tebow was highlighted in this space earlier today.

Why go with Mike and Mike, who were previously heard at 104.3 FM, during drive time, the most prominent slot for any station? "In November and December, Mike and Mike was the number one radio program from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the morning in Denver for men 25-54 and men 18-49," Manoogian says. "And that's not just the number one sports show. It's the number one show, period. And when we were given the opportunity to get the number one show, we jumped at it."

Manoogian also talks up the unmatchable number of premier sports offered by ESPN Radio, including college and pro football, college and pro basketball, and on and on. "63 percent of people in this state are from somewhere else originally," he says. "And with the in-depth coverage ESPN can bring with live play-by-play, people from all over the country can follow their teams. And they also have a great stable of talent, including Mark Schlereth and Adam Schefter, who both have Denver connections."

In the meantime, Manoogian has learned to love Jack FM, even if it doesn't seem like a logical fit for Front Range Sports Network. "It's a top twenty station, and it provides the diversity for us to be able to engage different customers," he says. "We can go to potential advertisers and offer top programming and a great avenue to reach men and women."

With the exception of Mike and Mike, ESPN Radio hasn't done much in the Denver market over the years. Manoogian thinks that's due in part to the lion's share of its offerings being "buried on the AM dial" at the 1600 slot.

Although these riches have a more prominent place now, making the concept work will still be tough, particularly given the challenges inherent in the radio market, which continues to struggle in the face of newer technology. But as the old saying goes, you can't win if you don't play.

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More from our Media archive: "Dealin' Doug Moreland talks about KDSP, new sports-talk station debuting next week."

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