WALLA WALLA - Sports news flash: There's a new lead vocalist in town.
When it comes to the radio waves, that is.
Walla Walla's KTEL (1490-AM) - home to the Wa-Hi Blue Devils - has taken the lead by expanding to 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week ESPN affiliation. The radio station, a member of the Capps Broadcast Group family for the past seven years, officially made the switch from a primarily conservative talk-radio format about two weeks ago.
"The important thing to know is that there are a lot of talk stations out there, and it seems like most of them say the same things over and over again," explained Randy McKone of Pendleton, Capps vice president and general manager. "One of the things not being served at all in the Walla Walla area was from a sports information position."
Making the switch to ESPN was a natural, McKone said, for a station that was already committed to carrying Wa-Hi football broadcasts, Wa-Hi boys and girls basketball games and a recent agreement to carry all baseball games, home and away, for the Walla Walla Sweets, the newest member of the wood-bat West Coast League that begins play at Borleske Stadium in June.
Furthermore, McKone said, KTEL has a pending agreement to broadcast Gonzaga men's basketball games beginning next season.
ESPN's format also includes select National Basketball Association games, Sunday night Major League Baseball games and an extensive number of NCAA college football bowl games. And, McKone said, his station will also have the opportunity to carry a package of National Football League games.
"Nobody," McKone said, "will have the depth of programming that we will have. ESPN is such a great trademark, and our feedback so far has been tremendous."
What this means, of course, for listeners like you and me - those of us who prefer sports chatter to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage - is a clear ESPN signal, night and day. Instead of the political spin, we can tune in sports insights and commentary from the likes of Mike and Mike in the Morning, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, The Scott Van Pelt Show, The Doug Gottlieb Show, the Bruce Kenny Show and, for all of you insomniacs, AllNight with Jason Smith.
And, of course, all of ESPN's live broadcasts from stadiums and arenas across the country.
I first began listening to ESPN radio in the early 1990s as I negotiated my way home on dark, often rain-slick highways after covering Cougar football games in Pullman. I was able to pull in AM stations KMAX-840 out of Colfax and KXLX-700 out of Spokane, depending on the hills and the direction I was headed.
Here in Walla Walla, however, I could only seldom find the Colfax station and never Spokane.
In more recent years, KALE-960 from Pasco and Pendleton's KTIX-1240 became the discernible strains on the AM band of my headphone as I endured my (sometimes) daily four-and-a-half-mile plod from the YMCA out and around Wa-Hi to Prospect Point and back again. But as the sun fades in the western sky, so do those signals.
No more, thanks to McKone and KTEL.
And here's a special shout out to Joe Oertel, KTEL's sports director for the last two years and a lifetime sports junky who is probably more excited than anyone in town about his station's new format.
Oertel, who graduated from DeSales High School in 1988, spent two years at Walla Walla Community College before receiving a scholarship to Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Mo., where he graduated in 1992 with a communications degree. He is KTEL's play-by-play voice for Wa-Hi boys and girls basketball and does color commentary alongside Scott Reardon in the booth at Wa-Hi football games.
Oertel got his "broadcast" start at DeSales as the public address announcer at Irish athletic events. And he did interview segments and worked as the third person in the booth with Bud Bowman and Roy Elia during KTEL broadcasts of Irish football and basketball games in the late 1980s.
Now 39 years old, Oertel has been in and out of radio ever since in such far-flung places as Missouri, Michigan and Ohio. He returned to Walla Walla in the late 1990s, relocated on the west side of the state, then came back to his roots again in 2005.
In his role as KTEL sports director, one of Oertel's chief responsibilities will be the development of a local Sports Center. It will mirror ESPN's national show by providing listeners with scores and highlights of sports events throughout Blue Mountain Country.
"One of my jobs as sports director is to do a good job of getting timely scores so when people flip on the radio in the morning, they will know what happened the night before," Oertel said. "We're still developing the show, and we are probably a week away from running full tilt.
"But it will run throughout the day once it gets going."
Pendleton's ESPN affiliate, KTIX, is also a member of the Capps Broadcast Group, and its crowded schedule includes the Seattle Mariners, the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers as well as University of Oregon Ducks, Oregon State Beavers and Pendleton High School athletic broadcasts.
While McKone won't deny an interest in a similar schedule at KTEL, he might find it difficult to pry the Mariners and Washington State Cougars away from Rod Fazzari's KGDC (AM-1320) Walla Walla station or the Seahawks and Washington Huskies away from Jim Bock's KUJ (AM-1420).
Fazzari is the owner-manager of KGDC and its FM sister station, KHSS (100.7), which is the home to DeSales football, boys and girls basketball and baseball postseason games. The station has also been known to broadcast other small-school postseason athletic events when logistics allow.
While Fazzari doesn't plan any changes in his stations' formats, he welcomes ESPN to the valley.
"I know a lot of people who enjoy that kind of programming," Fazzari said. "It's much better to have that kind of variety than three AM stations doing talk radio. I myself will go over from time to time and listen to ESPN. I think this is better for everybody."
And like Fazzari, Bock, who is KUJ's station manager, believes there are plenty of advertising dollars to go around.
"Sports is a nice format," Bock said. "But it does have its limitations. There are lots of non-sports fans out there. I don't believe it's going to change our sales dynamics."
For many of us, however, it will change the spot where our AM radio dial stops because we would rather listen to Doug Gottlieb discuss the NCAA basketball tournament than hear Sean Hannity rant about health care.