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KFAN to become FM station; KTLK goes AM

Many listeners nationally, especially younger ones, don’t touch the AM band, so going FM should help KFAN battle Hubbard Broadcasting’s year-old AM sports competitor, 1500 ESPN.

Sports station KFAN-1130AM will soon ditch its AM frequency and swap spots with right-wing talker KTLK-100.3FM, according to informed sources.

In some markets, up to 50 percent of adults — especially younger ones — don’t touch the AM band, analyst Sean Ross estimates. Therefore, going FM should help KFAN battle Hubbard Broadcasting’s year-old AM sports competitor, 1500 ESPN.

KFAN

Clear Channel Communications, which owns KFAN and KTLK, isn’t commenting, but it’s fair to say they wouldn’t mind repeating history.

Five years ago, Clear Channel switched Smooth Jazz KJZI-FM to conservative talk, ultimately vanquishing 1500’s long-dominant predecessor, KSTP-AM.

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The KFAN-KTLK swap will happen before the opening of the Minnesota Vikings regular season Sept. 11, and conceivably, early in the exhibition schedule.

Clear Channel already simulcasts the Vikings on KTLK and KFAN, and was slated to do the same with newly acquired Minnesota Gophers football games. One team that will be better off is the Minnesota Wild. They, like the Gophers, switched to KFAN this off-season but were only on AM.

Is this a sign that conservative radio is fading? Nope. The move comes as KTLK’s ratings are near the top of its two-year range, buoyed by the strong performance of the recently debuted “Davis & Emmer” morning show.

In the June Arbitron ratings, KTLK had a marginally higher share of the total Twin Cities listening audience — 3.6 percent to KFAN’s 3.3 — but the sports station had roughly 50 percent more 25-to-54-year-old listeners.

The swap, then, is partly because sports has the bigger upside. It’s generally accepted that KFAN reaps far more ad revenue than KTLK, so even if conserva-talk loses in the switch, the added (or at least, preserved) sports dollars should more than make up for it.

KTLK will still have an FM presence, though it might require some button pushing. Clear Channel is assembling a portfolio of four low-power FMs, and KTLK will appear on some or all of them. KFAN is currently simulcast on one, 103.5 in downtown Minneapolis.

A fun parlor game: What will the call letters be post-switch?

There already is a KFAN-FM — in Johnson City, Texas. KTLK-AM is a Los Angeles political talk station (and a left-wing one at that!).

KFAN should be able to keep its letters; Texas owner J. & J. Fritz sold them the AM version 20 years ago.

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Clear Channel conveniently owns KTLK-AM. However, chances are dim that the corporation would rebrand L.A. to serve the Twin Cities. Given the Minnesota station’s tilt, maybe it could be KGOP or WGOP? Neither are taken.

So would 1500 respond by swapping places with Hubbard FM MyTalk107? Unlikely. MyTalk is 5th among women in key listening times and the station’s ad revenues are believed to rank much higher than its 19th place in the overall ratings. The Hubbards have also spent a lot in the past 18 months re-branding KSTP-AM as 1500, and won’t rush a response.

What about WCCO-AM? Its owner, CBS, is about to flip a Cleveland music station to create an FM sports station; it has done similarly in Boston, Pittsburgh and Dallas, among other major markets. But WCCO targets 35- to 64-year-olds, and probably wouldn’t cannibalize its FM tune-spinners, including JACK-FM.

Might KFAN-FM be better poised to snatch Minnesota Twins rights from 1500? A year ago, the Hubbards secured a two-year deal through 2012. While the Twins are believed to covet FM, KFAN’s place as “The Vikings station” makes adding another headlining team tough, no matter which band it’s on.

Bigger picture, one of the more interesting developments is talk’s FM ascendance nationwide. Many swaps — 50 to 55, Ross estimates — involve yakkers supplanting music. Just this week, Chicago’s newest news-talk station, WWWN-FM, replaced an adult alternative music format.

WWWN boss Randy Michaels paints this as an evolution. Music fled AM for the higher-fidelity FM, so talk filled the AM gap. Now, Michaels contends, tunes are moving to increasingly convenient digital devices, and once again, talk is picking up the slack. “As music moves to the iPod, it’s time for spoken word to move to FM,” he said in a news release announcing the Chicago switcheroo.