After 23 seasons of Sonny, Sam and Frank, Washington fans are slowly getting used to hearing the new play-by-play voice of the Redskins: Larry Michael, along with Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff on WJFK (106.7 FM).
The decision to sack Frank Herzog as lead announcer on the NFL's longest- serving radio team is part of a move throughout the league to enliven football broadcasts, primarily by moving them from AM radio to FM. While many Redskins fans were outraged by Herzog's ouster, launching petition drives to protest the move, the decision fit in with an effort throughout football to use radio broadcasts to reach younger listeners who grew up listening to FM and don't use AM at all.
Washington was one of the first teams to turn its back on the AM band, which remains home to every single Major League Baseball team's broadcasts and to all National Basketball Association broadcasts except those of the Dallas Mavericks and this year's expansion Charlotte Bobcats. The prime mover in football's turn toward FM is Infinity Broadcasting, the radio arm of Viacom, which owns WJFK and bids aggressively for the rights to NFL games in many cities.
If, as local station executives expect, WJFK makes a bid for the radio rights to Washington's new baseball team, this region could break new ground in sports broadcasting.
The Redskins moved to WJFK from WMAL-AM in 1995, signing a five-year deal at an estimated $3.5 million per year. The broadcast rights have grown much more expensive -- upward of $10 million a year, according to sources at other stations. But having Redskins games on the station has helped WJFK -- home of Howard Stern, Don and Mike, and other shows for the testosterone crowd -- solidify its position as advertisers' most dependable source of young male listeners. Baseball would strengthen the station's appeal to men.
But other sports have not yet followed football toward FM, in part because the other major professional sports teams play much more frequently and carrying their games would carve out a big hole in the programming of FM stations, most of which still have music formats. The almost daily broadcasts of baseball and basketball fit better with the talk and sports-talk formats common to AM stations. WJFK's talk and sports format, however, could easily accommodate baseball. The question -- in addition to how high the bids go -- will be whether baseball is ready to give up AM's nighttime advantage: the enormous distances AM signals travel after dark. (Football is more comfortable on FM in good part because most games take place during the day.)
Picking up those distant games on a summer night is a big part of the romance of baseball on the radio. Without that emotional anchor to keep it on the old AM stations, football has migrated to FM, where the younger listeners are -- a demographic match that suits the chieftains of the NFL just fine.