When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, my father’s truck radio got only two stations: country and talk.
Country was Radio KEEN on 1370 AM in San Jose that shut down after 40 years in 1993. The land underneath the transmission tower became more valuable than the station itself. Radio KEEN folded its cards and walked away with the money.
Talk was KGO Radio on 810 AM in San Francisco that shut down after 80 years last week. The station owner, Cumulus Media, shut down talk without warning and hinted that a new format was coming. The station reopened as “The Spread: The Bay’s Best Bet on Sports.”
I find the timing for the switch to sports gambling somewhat curious. The November ballot has two propositions, 26 and 27, to expand gambling in California.
Did Cumulus Media gamble away KGO Radio on a sports gambling bet?
The San Francisco Bay Area radio station, 810 AM, began as an NBC affiliate in 1924. KGO Radio came into existence as an ABC affiliate in 1942. The talk radio era to become the liberal bastion of the West Coast began in the 1970s.
As a child growing up in the 1970s, my father’s alarm clock radio went off at 5:00 AM every morning. The radio blared the ABC radio news sounder and a ten-minute summary of the news. My father worked in construction and was on the road to San Francisco at 5:30 AM.
As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, I became a political news junkie and listened to the big three: Ron Owens in the mornings, Jim Easton in the afternoons, and Ray Taliaferro after midnight. I later listened to KGO Radio while in college and during daily commutes to work.
Cumulus Media bought the station and switched to a news-only format in 2011. All the talk personalities except Ron Owens got laid off that year. Ron Owens had such an iron-clad contract that he didn’t leave the station until last year.
Cumulus Media discovered that they couldn’t run a new desk on the cheap and switched back to talk in 2016.
The Spread’s new lineup has syndicated sports programs and eight hours of sports betting tips per day. This format change came after Cumulus Media lost $20 million since acquiring KGO Radio in 2011.
Sports gambling is the new money maker on radio for three reasons.
- The Supreme Court overturned a federal gambling ban in 2018.
- Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia legalized gambling in various forms.
- The pro sports leagues backed gambling as a way to grow their audience with young men.
The format switch came less than a month before California voters vote on Propositions 26 and 27 to expand gambling.
- Prop 26 will allow roulette, dice games, and sports betting on tribal lands.
- Prop 27 will allow mobile and online gambling outside of tribal lands.
Current polling indicates that both propositions will fail with 33% voter approval.
If Cumulus Media made a bet on expanded gambling in California, they lost again.
Will sports gambling succeed as a replacement for talk on 810 AM? Probably not.
The bay area has two dedicated sports stations, KNBR on 680 AM and The Game on 95.7 FM. Neither station focuses on sports gambling.
I don’t see the San Francisco Bay Area as being an “underserved” market for sports gamblers. Outside of the state lottery and some local card clubs, the bay area doesn’t have a gambling culture.
Casinos on tribal lands exist because they’re far away from major metropolitan areas. Voters are against any proposition that would expand gambling to casual players. A serious gambler would cross the Nevada state line to gamble in Reno or Las Vegas.
Cumulus Media might succeed at killing off the station before its 100th anniversary in 2024.