Why KFAN and other local radio stations are engaging listeners through games

KFAN has never been a normal sports talk station, so perhaps it should come as no surprise to anyone that more and more at various times of the day, I find that the talk isn’t about sports, it’s about games. Clever games, stupid games, inventive games, ripped off games.

It should come as no shock to anyone that the station, which often has the highest audience share of any sports station in the country, continues to change its genre. Less a format than a boutique of premium radio talent united by a thematic emphasis, The Fan continues to win by doing things its way.

Gamification is an intriguing programmatic strategy that didn’t start as a strategy, but has paid off in audience development and advertiser engagement. “It’s meeting listening, which is different than a lot of our programming day,” says program director Chad Abbott.

The two most famous gamers are Power Trip morning show and Dan “The Common Man” Cole in the early afternoons. Power Trip has been playing the initials game every Friday morning for 420 weeks (really) at press time. Developed by Corey Cove, one of the trio of personalities who run the show, it’s a complex and challenging 20 minutes built around a set of initials. Regulars on the show are given clues to answers, all sharing initials.

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This summer saw the launch of the Initials Invitational Bracket Tournament, modeled after the success of “Progrum Password” on Cole’s show. This is the old TV Password game broadcast on the radio. The June championship round was played in front of a live audience at the St. Louis Park of station owner iHeart Media.

The games, rather than involving callers or listeners, are played by station staff and on-air beat players, with occasional help from native radio personalities in the same office. “We like that it showcases our talent,” Abbott says, “and if it’s popular with listeners, it’s popular with sponsors.” Abbott has watched the streaming audience grow in real time. “I see thousands of people getting involved.”

The industry has taken notice. KFAN’s erudite PM drive host Dan Barreiro mused about adding a game recently, and during the week he took over afternoon drive on WCCO Radio, Jason DeRusha added a version of the TV chestnut cardSharks. They play games on MyTalk 107, KS95 and I’m sure others. But it surprises most on stations devoted to topical news or sports talk; maybe people are looking for a diversion from real life.

“We were trying to kill some time and I saw the popularity of Initials,” Cole recalls. “I was surprised by the appeal of it.” Its producer, Brandon Mileski, gave birth to what is the most original of radio games, KFAN’s annual Absurd Statement Tournament, which pits hyperboles from local public figures in a bracket tournament during the show’s Cole. Cole points out that it’s not technically a game. Sure, though it’s still one of the smartest things on local radio.

Initials was born seven to eight years ago, even though “we’ve been playing games for 20 years,” notes Cove, who joined KFAN as an intern in 2002 and is the Power Trip’s de facto “quarterback.” Cove has a database of 13,000 items of initialed conditions on his laptop and spends three hours a week preparing each Friday game. He created a home version, raised $356,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and sold 20,000 copies. Cove was shrewd enough to negotiate the intellectual property rights with iHeart before the game became a station franchise.

He says Power Trip it really took off when the hosts realized their job was to entertain, not sport. (“Being a high school kid pays off, right?”) The show is usually No. 1 or No. 2 in the market among men 25-54, but after Initials, Cove says the female listenership is significant, perhaps because it’s one of the few weekly windows for listening that do not pose a risk of middle school.

Is oversaturation in the cards? Of course, because it’s media. But for now, a genre that has largely disappeared from daytime television has found new life in local radio.

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