Local sports radio got a lot more interesting Monday.
Part of that is because of the reunion on 710 ESPN of Mike Salk and Brock Huard, whose odd-couple chemistry made them a formidable pairing for four years. That was before Salk took off, in March 2013, for an ill-fated stint at Boston giant WEEI, where he lasted just a year.
But part of the intrigue, undeniably, is the new time slot for Brock and Salk: 7 to 10 a.m., putting them squarely against KJR’s morning institution, Mitch Levy. Levy has gone mostly unopposed in local sports programming since he switched from afternoons to become Mitch In The Morning in April 1996.
In their previous four-year incarnation, Brock and Salk went from 9 to noon, placing them in competition with Levy for only the final hour. For the previous three hours — Levy’s show begins at 6 a.m. — KJR went against 710’s national ESPN talk show, Mike and Mike.
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Salk, who grew up in the Boston area and began his career there, found that going home — and replacing fired legend Glenn Ordway — didn’t bring happiness.
“It was what I thought I needed to do for my career,’’ Salk said Monday, following the Brock and Salk relaunch. “It was a chance to be near my family. Probably more the latter than the former. But I just wanted to come back here. At the end of the day, I missed Seattle. I said it on the air: This place has a way of becoming home without you realizing it.”
It was the same realization Levy had come to in 2001, when he took a job with Fox Sports Radio that would have resulted in him hosting a syndicated morning show from Miami, his hometown. Before starting, however, Levy had a change of heart and remained with KJR.
Levy is currently on vacation, attending the MLB All-Star Game with his sons. KJR program director Rich Moore is also on vacation. Kent Haehl, the market president of Clear Channel Communications, which owns KJR, declined to comment on the 710 relaunch other than to say, via email, “Mitch is the best in the business. … They are going up against Mitch, not the other way around.”
Salk resigned from WEEI in March to take a job as 710 ESPN’s program director, which had become vacant. In that role, he engineered the lineup reshuffling that debuted Monday, featuring his return to the airwaves. During Salk’s absence, Huard had been paired with former Seattle Times staffer Danny O’Neil, whom Salk called “an absolute superstar in the making.” O’Neil is now on from 3 to 7 p.m. with Jim Moore and Dave Wyman.
Besides the discomfort of the early wake-up call, Salk said the first show was exhilarating. He and Huard didn’t spend much time Monday waxing nostalgic about their previous four years together, instead getting right into Mariners’ trade-deadline talk. In fact, it was almost as if they had last been together the previous Friday, not 16 months earlier. And that was by design.
“You can’t make fun of King James’ big production and have a big production yourself,’’ Salk said. “I didn’t think we needed it. Our show was pre-established; people knew what to expect. We’ll find a way to introduce ourselves to people who are new to the show.”
Huard, a former University of Washington quarterback who’s also a rising star on ESPN’s college football broadcasts, says he and Salk can be “vastly, vastly different” in their world view. But after a rocky start when initially paired in 2009, they’ve forged a close friendship.
“There’s something unique at the center of us that cuts through everything else,’’ Huard said. “It’s the competitive desire to be really, really good. It’s what got us through early on.”
Now the question is how Brock and Salk will fare against Levy, whose irreverent, sometimes brash style has earned him a loyal following. Since becoming an all-sports station in April 2009, ESPN 710 has made steady inroads in the crowded sports radio market (1090 The Fan joined the fray in January 2013), and currently ranks in the top five among Seattle stations in the all-important 25-to-54 male demographic from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. KJR has fallen outside the top 10.
Salk insists it’s not about Levy at all; the competition is with all the morning shows, AM and FM. Dave Pridemore, ESPN 710’s vice president and general manager, agrees.
“We’re obviously in the same format; 950 is part of it,’’ Pridemore said. “But I’m looking much broader than that. If you look at the top performers in our demographic, we’re focused on men 25-to-54, not 950. It’s the other stations that have that audience listening to them as well.”
The idea is to hook listeners earlier in the day so they segue into the next show. It will be fascinating to see how sports fans respond to this new three-hour overlap in the morning.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry