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Originally published Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Seattle Mariners broadcasts returning to KIRO radio

Seattle Mariners radio coverage will return to KIRO after six years with rival station KOMO.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

M's radio through the years

KIRO 2009-2011
KOMO 2003-2008
KIRO 1985-2002
KVI 1977-1984

The mood at the Seattle offices of KIRO radio was said to be ebullient on Tuesday when official confirmation came down of the long-rumored return of the Mariners next year.

One longtime KIRO 710-AM employee said the day six years ago when the Mariners broke off their 18-year marriage for a six-year sweetheart deal with KOMO-AM was one of the darkest any of them had seen.

That made Tuesday's announcement of a new three-year contract between the M's and Bonneville International, KIRO's parent company, all the sweeter.

Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln came over to address the KIRO employees and were received with loud cheers — not their usual reception in this most difficult of seasons.

"I came here [to KIRO] in May of last year, and my first day in the door, two or three people came up to me and said, 'Can you get the Mariners back?' " said Rod Arquette, program director at KIRO.

"Everyone's very happy. There have been rumors floating around awhile that something was going to happen, but we had to get everything nailed down."

It's nailed down now, and the reaction might not be quite so ecstatic in other venues outside KIRO. Certainly, there are mixed emotions at KOMO, which used the Mariners' association to carve a definitive market niche in the news-traffic-weather format.

"I'm sure they'll feel the heat in the ratings," noted Mariners' announcer Dave Niehaus. "I don't think there's any doubt about it. This is a leader. Baseball brings its own ratings with it."

While their ratings skewed upward during the Mariners' years, the reported $10 million a year that KOMO 1000 paid the Mariners in a package that stunned both the radio and baseball industries almost certainly resulted in financial losses.

In the end, KOMO dropped out of the bidding early, and KJR got into it only perfunctorily. The Mariners pondered installing an in-house radio operation, as nearly half of the teams in MLB now employ — and as the Seahawks do and the Sonics did — before ultimately deciding that the benefits of working with a partner exceeded that of a self-produced operation.

But according to sources, the annual payout will not be nearly as lucrative as it was with KOMO. The deal is for approximately $5.5 million a year; that's a significant comedown, but not surprising considering industry trends.

"I remember thinking in 2002 that would be the last great radio rights deal," said KJR talk-show host Mike Gastineau, a veteran of the Seattle radio scene. "You could just feel the ebb and flow of it."

Randy Adamack, the Mariners' vice president of communications who took a lead role in negotiations, said the organization is happy with the deal. But he acknowledges that the landscape has changed since the KOMO deal.

Big conglomerates now rule the industry, with more stations controlled by fewer entities — and in this economic climate they are less likely to take risks on sports properties. Perhaps most significantly, the flagship radio station has lost its exclusivity with the advent of satellite and online outlets.

"It's not just one thing, it's a series of little things that happened," Adamack said. "As a result, except in a couple of instances in baseball the last few years, rights fees are either flat or decreasing."

Will a 45 percent decline in yearly radio fees have a significant impact on the Mariners' payroll? Adamack said it's not feasible to break down the budget in that way.

"I don't think anyone can look at this and say it's going to change the landscape for the Mariners," he said.

But it almost certainly will for KIRO. The station, which also carries the Seahawks, is expected by many to soon go to an all-sports format while moving its news-talk operation to FM. That alignment has been successful for Bonneville in Phoenix.

"We think it's very significant," Carl Gardner, Bonneville Seattle vice president and market manager, said of the M's deal. "In and of itself, baseball is not some kind of silver bullet that makes or breaks a station. But in the proper context of a station filled with good local programming, it can really give you a lift."

The announcers are hired by the Mariners, so the future of the play-by-play crew is largely unaffected by the switch. More problematical are the pre- and postgame hosts, who are employed by KOMO. That goes as well for lead Mariners' reporter Shannon Drayer, who has made a name for herself with six years of excellent work and would be a wise hire by KIRO.

Lead announcer Niehaus, 73, will definitively be making the move back to KIRO.

"We've told Dave, he's welcome to announce here as long as he wants to and is healthy enough to do it," Adamack said.

Niehaus has been through this drill before. He has had stints on KVI (1977-84), KIRO (1985-2002), KOMO (2003-08) and now back to KIRO.

"I've had great relationships everywhere I've been," he said. "I'm lucky I work for the ballclub and don't ever have to worry about that.

"I feel sorry for the people who have worked six years for KOMO. It's tough because you get emotionally involved. It was a sad day when we left those people over at KIRO for the first time, and a happy day when we go back."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
Larry Stone: Young pitcher Michael Pineda offers glimpse of exciting future for Mariners

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