For most of the last decade, news/talk powerhouse KIRO-AM (710) has had an iron grip on the top spot of Seattle's radio ratings race. But now, the station, which is owned by national radio conglomerate Entercom, faces a fierce challenge to its dominance from free-spending rival KOMO-AM (1000), the flagship of Seattle-based Fisher Communications. It's total war, radio insiders say, and recent skirmishes appear to be going KOMO's way.

Of course, the ratings gap between the stations remains huge; in the latest July-September ratings, KIRO, enjoying its last season of Mariners broadcasts, finished first with a 9.9 share, compared to a mere 2.1 for KOMO (tying for lowly 19th place). Nonetheless, KIRO insiders worry that the devastating loss to KOMO of the broadcast rights to Mariners games in 2003, and the subsequent defections of key staffers, indicate a management complacency that puts at risk the years of hard work behind their station's vaunted reputation and huge audience. Despite current ratings, sources say that KIRO employee morale has plummeted in the face of the KOMO repositioning.

And that may only worsen next year, when the Mariners switch sides. "Losing the Mariners was our September 11," one KIRO source says. The numbers seem to bear out such a dire view: In the first three months of 2002, KIRO posted a 4.7 share in the 7:00-p.m.-to-midnight time slot, good for only fifth place among Seattle's AM and FM stations; once baseball broadcasts began, the station skyrocketed to a 15.7 share in that time slot, nearly double that of second-place KUBE-FM (93.3).

But the Mariners fiasco was a symptom rather than a cause of KIRO's troubles, insiders claim. Morale at the station has sunk--one recently departed Entercom employee describes station management as "floundering"--as KOMO boss Rob Dunlop poached many key KIRO employees in recent months. Most recently, the former employee says, "a real blow" came with the word that well-known and highly respected 30-year KIRO news veteran Bill Yeend was coming out of retirement to join KOMO, apparently after Entercom declined to meet his salary requirements. And a KIRO source says, "The only people left at KIRO are the ones KOMO hasn't made an offer to."

Though Dunlop could not be reached for comment, Fisher senior vice president Chris Wheeler describes the changes at KOMO as "really exciting" and says they've "breathed new life" into the station. Though the KIRO lead seems insurmountable, radio ratings can be extremely volatile, and the KOMO moves may well provoke a major realignment.

Some KIRO sources also are troubled by the apparent declining power and authority of KIRO program director Kris Olinger in favor of station manager Ken Berry. Olinger is described as a smart, talented programmer who deserves credit for the ratings growth of the past few years, but sources say that now most crucial decisions are made by Berry. And Berry's recent revamp of the evening lineup--in which Mike Webb and Brian Suits share host duties between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m., followed by Suits alone till 11:00 p.m., followed by Webb alone until 1:00 a.m.--is seen by some as weak programming. "He's trying to get three shows for the price of two," one source asserts.

Additionally, an October 2 memo from Entercom Seattle general manager Steve Oshin announced that other program directors were being given the title of station manager, but made no mention of Olinger, causing a stir among staff and prompting speculation that her days at the station may be numbered.

Reached for comment, Berry did not address specifics, but stressed that KIRO has a long tradition of news achievement and an established legacy of "credibility and trust" with listeners. "Competition will only make us stronger," he added.

Though it alarms KIRO staffers, the KOMO strategy is itself high-risk. Aside from the outlays on new staff, the station spent lavishly to steal the Mariners. Fisher isn't saying how much, but one source puts the figure at well over $10 million per year--more than even the New York Yankees get. At that price, KOMO may never make a profit, even with a huge ratings boost. Still, Fisher hopes the M's will give KOMO a defined identity and eventually win listeners to the station's new all-news format.

And in spite of all the gloom, KIRO employees say the station does have ongoing advantages. As John Sandifer of Seattle AFTRA, the KIRO employees' union, points out, "When you want news, everyone still thinks of KIRO first." Moreover, sources associated with both stations maintain that Fisher's September move to take KOMO from its news/talk format to all news is unlikely to succeed; all-news stations, they say, are only successful in the largest markets, and even there they're never top-rated. And given the high cost of the Mariners and the new talent, even a jump into the top five will not make KOMO profitable; insiders contend that KOMO must supplant KIRO at the top of the heap for Fisher's strategy to pay off.