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What's behind Irv and Joe's move from 104.3/The Fan to ESPN Radio?

Irv Brown and Joe Williams.
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Yesterday afternoon, Lincoln Financial Media Company of Colorado, which owns FM-104.3/The Fan and KEPN/1600 AM, the area's ESPN affiliate, announced a big change in the key afternoon-drive slot: On October 20, Irv Brown and Joe Williams, who've manned this time period at The Fan for eons, will be jumping to KEPN. In addition, Tim Spence, program director for both stations, confirms that Denver Post sportswriter Jim Armstrong, who's been co-hosting with Brown and Williams of late, will remain at the Fan, working afternoons with a new co-host who's expected to be named toward the end of next week.

Predictably, Spence puts the most positive spin possible on the shift. "We have a strong commitment to the ESPN product and 1600 in specific, and we wanted a better combination," he says. "We want to put our team with the ESPN brand." But the ratings tell the real story.

Radio and Records regularly posts Arbitron ratings information related to listeners who are age twelve and older; it's known as 12-plus. Most outlets don't rely heavily on these numbers, since they tend to aim for certain demographics as opposed to a broad audience. However, the digits do provide a general sense of how a station is doing in comparison with its competitors -- and neither The Fan nor KEPN are lighting up the current charts. In the winter ratings book that predated The Fan's switch from 950 AM to 104.3 FM this past March, KJCD-FM, the smooth-jazz station formerly at 104.3, earned a 2.8 rating; as a point of comparison, ratings leader KYGO chalked up a 6.5. In the most recent listing, however, The Fan is only earning a 1.5 -- barely more than half the total of a station that was shuttered for underwhelming performance. And KEPN fared way, way worse. It didn't make the roster at all, meaning its 12-plus numbers are lower than at least 28 stations in Denver, including bottom-dwelling The One/KONN-FM, which came in at a .6.

Clearly, something had to be done -- and Spence implies that ESPN wanted action. "We haven't maximized the opportunity" at KEPN, he acknowledges. "The opportunity's still there with the brand and the national talent -- and we need to maximize it, as we promised ESPN and ourselves and our shareholders that we would do. This is a job we have to live up to -- to make the station as profitable and as popular as we can." Besides, AM tends to attract an older audience than FM does -- and while Spence won't go there when he's asked if this was a factor in the station swap, there's no denying that Irv and Joe's audience skews older.

Spence exhibits less concern about 104.3. He says surveys have shown that all of the folks who listened to the outlet at 950 AM have found their favorite on the FM dial. Now it's simply a matter of building on this base. "In FM, there's a better opportunity to grow the product based on the amount of men who listen to FM versus AM," he maintains. "That's why sports-radio stations around the country have been moving to FM. There's a bigger pie, so that means the possibility of growing the revenue, growing the ratings. We have expectations of what the move will mean, and now we just have to meet them."

In Spence's view, Armstrong and his new partner won't be competing against Irv and Joe. Still, there's a good chance they'll cut into each other's audiences in ways that didn't really come into play when KEPN was running satellite programming from the network. Then again, KEPN's performance to date has been so grisly that Spence had to take the gamble. -- Michael Roberts

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