A few weeks ago I announced on this site my intentions to leave San Francisco as Program Director of 95.7 The Game in the upcoming months. After making that announcement, I had little desire to write. Some of that was due to being gone for a few business trips and some of it was due to needing to focus on some conversations about my future.
But then last week happened.
Two discussions in particular stuck with me and have had my mind racing for the past few days. First, I was in Dallas for the Radio Ink Sports Conference and during my time there I had the chance to moderate a panel which focused on the mind of millennial listeners. I was on stage with three college students. Two were 21-years old and the other was 26.
Over the course of 45 minutes, I hit all three students with a barrage of questions on their perceptions and interest in sports radio and I along with the rest of the room learned that they live in a different world where content is only king if it can be consumed quickly. If it requires sifting through your podcast to find it, waiting through a commercial break or needing to wait for a host to finish rambling off-topic, they’re gone. Even the big name guest means little if it doesn’t include a hook worth sticking around for.
In their words, Twitter and TV provide the result they desire and sports radio puts up too many road blocks to get what they want. In the case of television, they like the sidebar which tells them when certain stories will be covered and that allows them to use their time more efficiently while still getting what they desire from the program.
In the case of Twitter, the information is out there immediately and can be consumed in a matter of seconds and they don’t have to wait for other stories or commercials to finish or for hosts to get back on track. They follow who they want, when they want and they get the information they desire quickly so they can alert their friends and look smart, informed and continue the conversation.
In each of their cases they were drawn to stories that revolved around drama and conflict and when I probed on why they start their day with Twitter and not with radio, they held up their phone and said it was where they check first. When they were reminded that sports radio stations were also on the same device and could also be listened to on the same device, they pointed out the flaws with radio’s apps and said that until the experience was comparable to other forms of media they wouldn’t be going that route.
It wasn’t what many in the room wanted to hear but it was helpful because the only way we improve our products is to understand why the consumer does or doesn’t use our brand. It sounds cliche but we only get one chance to make a first impression and the 25-34 year old audience that awaits us in the next 5-10 years is very different and less likely to use our form of media. They get bored fast, they prefer audio on demand and they’re not loyal. We either serve them on their terms or we risk them not associating with our brand.
In the room I pointed out 4 key words to 4 key industries to make a point of what we could be facing if we don’t stay alert and ahead of the curve. Those 4 words were Music, Movies, Print and Phones. If you asked an executives of each of these industries 20 years ago about their future I’m sure many of them said they were well prepared to succeed. They learned fast though that if you don’t improvise and stay alert, you get knocked off.
Think about it, home phones and pay phones have been replaced by cell phones, social networking sites and app messaging software. Video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have been replaced by your cable company, Hulu, YouTube and Netflix who serve your needs right inside your home. Music went from cassettes and CD’s to digital downloads, Youtube, Pandora, Spotify and iHeart and the newspaper has been replaced by the web and social media. You’re more likely today to find your next apartment or home on Craigslist or through a website than you used to do through a newspaper’s classified section.
While the panel I conducted with those three millennial college students was interesting and informative and made me think about where we’re headed as an industry in the future, there was a second conversation about the past that also stuck with me.
If you haven’t had the chance, I highly recommend reading Fred Jacobs’ interview with Jeff Smulyan of Emmis. Jeff was the founding father of WFAN in New York City. While we all know how powerful The Fan is now and we see the boom that has happened to the sports radio format, there was a time when many thought Jeff was crazy to entertain a format around sports. Many of his closest friends and peers lost faith and trust in him and there were numerous times when the plug was nearly pulled on his experiment.
Two things Jeff said really struck me and I believe he’s 100% accurate on both accounts. The first was that it takes staying power to be successful. Too often people attempt things and if it doesn’t hit right away, they change it. This doesn’t mean everything deserves to last forever but if you truly believe in something or someone and have evidence to show that you’re making strides, you’ve got to stay the course and battle for what you believe in.
The second thing Jeff said that hit home was the quote “The world is never changed by doing the same things everybody else does. It just never is. It’s changed by doing what is different.” For someone like myself who loves Steve Jobs quotes and everything he stood for professionally, I felt the connection to that quote because once again there’s a lot of truth in it. If Jeff didn’t take the chance launching an all-sports station and absorbing the wrath from his bosses and everyone around him, this column may not exist and neither may our entire industry.
The ironic thing is that every year I head to various radio conferences, read numerous articles on our format and talk to numerous executives in our industry and there’s this plea to continue taking risks, trying new things and not following the same patterns. Yet we’re also the first to put up a stop sign and slow down our own momentum when we enter these murky waters.
The reality is that we all like to speak that language and sound bullish and smart but most people don’t like to do the unpopular thing especially when it puts their own body of work and future in question. Ask yourself this if you’re a programmer or talent, what is the one thing you want to do that you believe will make an impact on our industry but you’ve been hesitant to do it because of the fear of failure? Do you believe in it enough to bet your career on it?
When I launched 101 ESPN in St. Louis and 95.7 The Game in San Francisco I did so with the mentality that we’d start off by not taking phone calls and focus instead on providing a stronger content experience filled with more passion, opinion, insight, strong guests and entertaining banter between co-hosts. It wasn’t exactly the most earth shattering idea in the world but given that both markets had done sports talk forever and relied heavily on phone calls, the jury was out on whether or not I was taking the right approach.
While I love caller interaction myself and the passion of one’s voice over a text or tweet any day, I knew we had to create our own point of differentiation when establishing our brand. I also knew their was a difference in the caller entertainment value in places like NY, Philadelphia and Boston as compared to St. Louis and San Francisco.
After the first year at one of my station’s, we conducted a focus group with a number of listeners. Many in the room were waiting to hear that we were missing the boat by not being caller driven and when the question came up and 35 out of 40 said they preferred the content and lack of calls they were surprised. After the session finished I was asked if the company should take the same approach in other markets. I said no because what worked in my current location wouldn’t necessarily work in another one. The main thing I wanted understood was that just because it wasn’t what we were all used to didn’t mean it couldn’t work.
As the years have passed, each of those stations take more calls but they do so with a stronger emphasis on content and directing the conversations with our audience. I’ve also pushed for the use of tweets and texts inside of content because while it may not be as entertaining as hearing the voice of a listener, it’s the way people interact today. They don’t care how they get through, just as long as they’re part of the show.
It’s no different than the way television has adapted their standards of video. 10 years ago you’d put on ESPN television and every guest was on camera. Today they’re equally as active with guests who appear by phone. Look at your local news and you’ll find video from viewers used to compliment a story whereas 10-20 years ago they’d never have touched it. The point has been made by the consumer, give me the content now and I’ll deal with less production value.
Let’s turn our attention though back to sports radio. How many stations do you turn on and hear a traffic report, weather report, stock report or time check? Are they really needed? We say we want to target younger demographics and have supported that position by shifting brands and content to the FM dial yet then we deliver benchmarks that are targeted to the upper end of the demo. Does that make sense?
In some locations maybe it does but I bet the radio station would go on just fine without them. I can’t recall ever hearing a 25-34 year old male get upset over not hearing a stock or weather report. The sales department may not like that because it’s change and those are extra opportunities to attach sponsors to but if you don’t provide a strong content experience to generate ratings (which also helps the sales team), you’re going to lose your audience’s interest.
As we look towards the future, what are some things that you think will change? What trends will be different? Who will innovate and lead the charge to make our format stronger? Social media is becoming the place to talk about sports just as sports talk radio became that destination the past 10 years after surpassing the print industry.
While I’m not Nostradamus, here are 10 things I think could take place in the future.
1. Minority Voices Will Increase – The format is dominated now by white males 25-55 and I think there will be stronger balance over the next 10 years. We’ve already seen a number of female hosts begin to invade lineups and I expect you’ll see more Black and Hispanic talents on the air too. With many major market stations broadcasting to audiences which are more than 50% non-white, I think there’ll be a bigger push to reflect each market more fairly.
2. Sports Updates Will Be In Danger – While they’ve been a fixture in the format since its inception, I see them being eliminated or reduced in the future. In many markets there has already been a shift to having on-air hosts do them. I can see some stations adding branded team reports or created content pieces in breaks and I believe the anchor’s future role is going to revolve more around reporting, contributing to talk shows and through the involvement of social and digital media. The need for information and talented people won’t change but how the consumer gathers the information and where it’s presented will.
3. Say Hello To Social Media Reporters/Video Content Generators – There will be a bigger shift to add people to help radio stations compete stronger in the social and digital space. Pushing out content messages is necessary but the demand to interact back will increase and stations will need to dedicate time and people to make sure it’s a part of their overall strategy. As television has required reporters now to capture their own video and shoot their own standups, radio will look to have multi-purpose people who can write, create video and interact socially. It’ll also be more valuable to station advertisers.
4. Digital Media & NTR Sales Will Increase – Buyers are spending more money on social, digital and event driven media and the measurements of digital are a lot easier to analyze and receive faster. The need to be stronger in this area will be important for sales teams to thrive and with advertisers demanding stronger ROI on their investments, radio companies will need more than a great brand and Nielsen ratings story to stay on buys. Text and Email databases, Social and Digital Media inclusion, Content associations, Phone App sponsorships and Events which generate immediate results will all be necessary.
5. Play by Play Radio Rights Deals Will Decrease – While the dollars continue to reach astronomical heights for television and certain radio markets continue to perform well with LIVE play-by-play, the fact of the matter is that most of the programming takes place at night and audiences are going to become even harder to reach through audio during off peak hours. They’ve also become costly and put many operators in the red and with a growing need inside the industry to show profitability, brands will look harder at the bottom line than the importance of being connected to local franchises. If deals do stay the same or increase, it won’t be without the radio station getting more control of inventory, exclusive categories and programming features and title sponsorship opportunities inside of the broadcast.
6. An Extension of Our Format Will Be Created – Sirius XM dove into the NFL space early on with its own branded channel and I believe you’ll see an all dedicated NFL channel or MLB channel on terrestrial radio over the next 5-10 years. Whether it’s on the local or network level is still foggy but the next wave of sports talk radio is going to come in the form of specific league content.
7. On-Demand Content Will Become a Bigger Focus – Podcast One has done a really nice job acquiring popular celebrity personalities to host their own podcasts and I see sports radio doing more of this in the future. Whether it’s hiring players, coaches, agents, scouts or GM’s to create unique content, I think you’ll find more audio options available with higher profile people.
8. Digital Bonus Incentives – How many operators ask talent to write, chat, tweet, create podcasts or provide additional video? What does the talent get for adding those responsibilities to their regular line of work? Usually nothing. When dollars start shifting digitally and certain talent start attracting stronger numbers online, on social and on video, you’ll find incentive programs created to make sure talent remain involved in helping these brands succeed beyond the over the air signal.
9. Major Markets Will Go More Local – While national programming has its value in the marketplace, the reality is that local sports talk dominates in the ratings. Networks will be in good shape with digital dashboards, apps and partnerships that help their strategy of delivering audio to fans on multiple platforms but local operators will feel the need to put more focus on local shows with local personalities in order to help increase ratings and revenue.
10. Weekly Guest Deals Will Become More Complex – Popular sports personalities, reporters, columnists, athletes, coaches, executives and owners have grown accustomed to appearing on local stations regularly in exchange for cash compensation. While these appearances have great branding value, they’re only 10-15 minutes in length and don’t deliver enough bang for the buck. I see radio operators getting more in the future or walking away from these deals. You may see certain guests and companies start doing deals in multiple markets to create better value for both sides and you’ll see these become more of a fixture in rights deals too. In some deals you may even see the weekly guest provide special hosting assignments to the station in addition to appearances, voiced commercials, signed merchandise and other unique experiences.
Which ones am I right about? Which ones am I wrong about? The future will tell the story. For now, we can debate it and each make our case for where we stand on each issue.
Aside from the 10 I listed, I’m sure there will be others too and that’s a positive (Does Apple, Google or Pandora launch a sports talk network?). This format is nearly 30 years old which is still relatively young and with experience comes knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. If we want to grow and connect strongly with the next generation, we’ve got to keep challenging ourselves to make the format better and adapt to how they use our products.
The big question I have is, will the next Jeff Smulyan have the time, courage and support to launch the next big idea and see it reach its full potential? There’s a fine line between ratings and innovation and the best creations don’t happen overnight.
Takeaways From The NAB Show and Six Days in Las Vegas
“I’m certainly not afraid to be critical but my enthusiasm for the NAB Show was elevated this year.”
Six days on the road can sometimes be exhausting. Six days in Las Vegas, and it’s guaranteed. That was my world last week, as I along with more than fifty thousand people headed to sin city to take in the 2022 NAB Show.
The event didn’t draw as many as it had in the past, but after two years of inactivity due to the pandemic, it was good to be back. Judging from some of the vendors I talked to, the sessions I attended, and the feedback I received from folks I met with, though far from perfect, it was a solid return for an important event. Seeing people interact, celebrate others, and talk about ways to improve the business was a positive reminder of the world being closer to the normal of 2019 than the normal of 2020-2021. The only negative from the week, the consistent failure of Uber to appear in the right place at the right time. But that had zero to do with the NAB.
It feels like whenever I attend industry conferences, there are two different type of reviews that follow. Some writers attend the show and see the glass half full. Others see the glass half empty. I’m certainly not afraid to be critical but my enthusiasm was elevated this year. Maybe it was because BSM was a media partner or maybe it was due to the show not happening for years and just being happy to be among friends, peers, and clients and operate like normal. Either way, my glass was definitely half full.
For those who see events this way, it’s likely they’ll remember the numerous opportunities they had to create and reestablish relationships. They’ll also recall the access to different speakers, sessions, products, and the excellent research shared with those in attendance. The great work done by the BFOA to recognize industry difference makers during their Wednesday breakfast was another positive experience, as was the Sunday night industry gathering at The Mayfair Supper Club.
Included in the conference were sessions with a number of industry leaders. Radio CEO’s took the stage to point out the industry’s wins and growth, credit their employees, and call out audio competitors, big tech, and advertisers for not spending more with the industry. When David Field, Bob Pittman, Ginny Morris and Caroline Beasley speak, people listen. Though their companies operate differently, hearing them share their views on the state of the business is important. I always learn something new when they address the room.
But though a lot of ground gets covered during these interviews, there are a few issues that don’t get talked about enough. For instance, ineffective measurement remains a big problem for the radio business. Things like this shouldn’t happen, but they do. NBC and WarnerMedia took bold steps to address problems with TV measurement. Does radio have the courage to take a similar risk? That’s an area I’d like to see addressed more by higher ups.
I can’t help but wonder how much money we lose from this issue. Companies spend millions for a ratings service that delivers subpar results, and the accountability that follows is often maddening. Given the data we have access to digitally, it’s stunning that radio’s report card for over the air listening is determined by outdated technology. And if we’re going to tell folks that wearables are the missing ingredient for addressing this problem, don’t be shocked if the press that follows is largely negative. The industry and its advertising partners deserve better. So too do the reps at Nielsen who have to absorb the hits, and make the most of a tough situation.
Speaking of advertising, this is another one of those critical areas that deserves another point of view. Case in point, I talked to a few ad agency professionals at the show. Similar to what I’ve heard before, they’re tired of hearing radio leaders blame them for the industry’s present position. This has been a hot button topic with executives for years. I often wonder, do we help or hurt ourselves by publicly calling out advertisers and ad agencies? How would you feel if you ran an agency which spent millions on the industry and were told ‘you don’t do enough’? I’m a champion of radio/audio, and am bullish on spoken word’s ability to deliver results for clients, but having attended these shows for nearly seven years, it might be time for a new approach and message. Or maybe it’s time to put one of our CEO’s with one of theirs and have a bigger discussion. Just a thought.
Of the sessions that I attended, I thought Erica Farber’s ‘What Business Are You In?’ was excellent. I especially liked Taja Graham’s presentation on ‘Sharing Your Truth’. I also appreciated Eric Bischoff’s tips on ways to monetize podcasts, and am curious to see how Amazon’s AMP develops moving forward. My favorite session at the show though was “A GPS Session For Your Station’s Car Radio Strategy” led by Fred Jacobs. The insight shared by Joe D’Angelo of Xperi and Steve Newberry & Suzy Schultz of Quu was outstanding. Keeping the car companies on our side is vital to our survival, and how we position ourselves on the dashboard can’t be ignored. Other tech companies and audio operators take it seriously. We must too.
Sessions aside, it was great to check out the VSiN and Blue Wire studios, connect with a bunch of CEO’s, GM’s and Market Manager’s, and visit with Kevin Jones, Joe Fortenbaugh, Jeremiah Crowe, Jon Goulet, Bill Adee, Q Myers, Mike Golic Jr. and Stormy Buonantony. The NFL’s setup for the Draft, and the light show presented at the Bellagio was without a doubt spectacular, plus Stephanie had a chance to say hello to Raiders owner Mark Davis who was inside the back room of a Westgate restaurant where we were having a business lunch meeting. The personal tour we received at the Wynn showed off some of the best suites I’ve seen in Las Vegas, and I was finally able to witness Circa’s Stadium Swim in person, and meet owner Derek Stevens (heck of a suit game). What an outstanding hotel and casino.
Altogether, it was a productive trip. As someone who knows all about building and executing a conference, I appreciate the work that goes into pulling it off. This event is massive, and I have no idea how the NAB makes it happen so flawlessly. This was the first time my head of sales, Stephanie Eads, got to attend the show. She loved it. Our only negative, going back and forth between convention halls can get exhausting. Wisely, Stephanie and Guaranty Media CEO Flynn Foster took advantage of the underground Tesla ride to move from the North hall to the West hall. I wasn’t as bright. If that’s the worst part of the experience though, that’s pretty solid. I look forward to returning in 2023, and attending the NAB’s NYC show this fall.
You’ve likely seen posts from BSM/BNM on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn promoting a number of open positions. I’m adding crew to help us pump out more content, and that means we need more editors, news writers, features reporter’s and columnists. If you’re currently involved or previously worked in the industry and love to write about it, send a resume and few writing samples by email to JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
With that said, I’m excited to announce the addition of Ryan Brown as a weekly columnist for BSM. Ryan is part of ‘The Next Round’ in Birmingham, Alabama, which previously broadcast on WJOX as JOX Roundtable. The show left the terrestrial world in June 2021 to operate as its own entity. Ryan’s knowledge and opinions should provide a boost to the site, and I’m looking forward to featuring his columns every Tuesday. Keep an eye out for it tomorrow, and if you want to check out the guest piece he previously wrote for us, click here.
Demetri Ravanos and I have talked to a lot of people over the past month. More additions will be revealed soon. As always, thanks for the continued support of BSM and BNM.
Six New Contributors Join Barrett Media
“These latest additions will make our product better. Now the challenge is finding others to help us continue growing.”
Building a brand starts with a vision. Once that vision is defined, you identify the people who fit what you’re creating, lay out the game plan, and turn them loose to execute. If the product you’re creating is original, fills a gap in the marketplace, and the work turned in by your team is consistently excellent and promoted in the right locations, more times than not you’ll build an audience.
As you grow, the focus turns to studying what your audience wants, needs, and expects from your brand. Certain things you expect to be big turn out small, and the things you saw limited upside in create opportunities you never saw coming. It’s critical to be open minded and ready to pivot while also examining where and when people consume your product, which pieces of content do and don’t matter, and then use that information to direct your team to give folks more of what they value and less of what they don’t. Team members should want that feedback too. It tells them what is and isn’t worth spending their time on.
As I lay all of that out it may sound like I’m talking about a radio station or television operation. These are the things programmers do frequently to make sure the talent, shows, and brand is satisfying the expectations of an audience. But what I’m actually referring to is the brand you’ve made a choice to click on to read this column, Barrett Media.
I’ve mentioned many times on this website how I started this operation by myself, and didn’t expect to have a team of writers involved in it. I was focused on consulting sports stations, sharing my programming views on this website, and as I cranked out content consistently, I discovered others loved the business like I did and had a desire to share their insights too. Rather than sticking to my original plan, I pivoted and increased our content offerings. In return, the audience grew, clients grew, and it’s led this brand to grow beyond my expectations. Now we cover sports AND news media, we run an annual conference, feature a membership program, create podcasts, deliver a daily 8@8 and three times per week BNM Rundown newsletter, and work with various brands and companies across the broadcasting industry. I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position and don’t take it for granted.
But with growth comes change. We’ve been blessed to have a lot of talented people contribute to this site over the years, and as they produce quality work, and others across the industry recognize it, they earn interest for their services. That then leads to some having to sign off for bigger opportunities. I see that as a great positive for the brand. Would it be nice to have more consistency and keep a crew together for years? Of course. I know it’d make Demetri’s life a lot easier. If we’re losing people for the right reasons though, and they’re landing opportunities that help them advance their careers, I’m going to be happy for their success, and trust that we’ll find others to keep us moving forward. The success of our team helps make what we do more attractive to others because it shows that if you do good consistent work here, you can put yourself in a position to attract attention.
Over the past two months, I have challenged Demetri Ravanos to invest more time talking to people about writing for us. Expanding our Barrett News Media roster is a priority. So too is adding quality people to help us improve Barrett Sports Media. BSM has had just under seven years to earn trust with readers. BNM has had less than two. We’ve put out ads on our website and newsletters, social posts, an ad on Indeed, and we’ve reached out directly to people who we’ve felt may be able to add something interesting to our brand. Most of my time is spent listening to stations and talking with clients, but my eyes are always roaming looking for content, and my mind is always thinking about what we can create next to make an impact.
I don’t judge our brand’s success based on clicks, shares, breaking news before other outlets or showing up in the top three listings on Google. I care more effort accuracy, timeliness, passion, consistency, storytelling, insight, and being fair and non-agenda driven. We’ve found our niche being able to tell stories about broadcasting professionals, relaying news, and offering expert knowledge to serve those involved in the broadcasting industry. If we continue to excel doing those things consistently, I’m confident our audience will reward us by reading and sharing more of our content. It’s why we never stop recruiting to keep things fresh.
Having said that, I am excited today to reveal six new additions to the Barrett Media staff. Peter Schwartz is a name and voice many in New York sports radio circles are familiar with. Peter has spent three decades working with various outlets and I’m thrilled to have him writing weekly feature stories for us. Brady Farkas is a talented host and former programmer who now works for WDEV in Burlington, VT. Karl Schoening is a play by play broadcaster who has worked in San Antonio sports radio and has had the added benefit of learning the industry from his talented father Bill who calls Spurs games. Each of them will produce bi-weekly feature stories for the brand. Jason Ence is in Louisville and has written about sports betting for Twin Spires while also working for ESPN 680. He’ll be writing sports betting content for us on a weekly basis. Jasper Jones will help us by adding news stories on Friday’s. He’s presently in Philadelphia learning the business working for Audacy. Last but not least, veteran author, Brewers writer, and former radio professional Jim Cryns comes on board to help us with features on news media professionals.
These six additions make us stronger, and I’m excited to have them join the team to help us add more quality content to the website. That said, we’re not done yet. Demetri and I are still talking with others and I expect to make a few more additions in the weeks ahead. As I said earlier, we want to improve the news media side of our operation and continue adding people to help us make a bigger dent in the sports media space. Broadcast companies invest in us to help them, and I believe it’s important to invest back.
If you’ve programmed, hosted a top rated show, worked in measurement, led a cluster as a GM, sold advertising, represented talent or have worked in digital and feel you have knowledge to share, reach out. I can’t promise we’ll have room but we’re always willing to listen. I’m not worried about whether or not you’ve written for professional publications. Passion, experience and unique insights matter much more than a resume or journalism degree.
I appreciate everyone who takes time to read our content, like and share it on social, and all involved with this brand who help bring it to life each day. The latest additions of Schwartz, Farkas, Schoening, Ence, Jones and Cryns will make our product better. Now the challenge is finding others to help us continue growing.
Programming In Fear Is a Recipe For Failure
“The best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong.”
If you haven’t read Demetri Ravanos’ column this week, which included feedback from five programmers on whether or not they’d hire sports radio’s equivalent of Deshaun Watson, you should. It’s interesting, enlightening and sparked my interest to write a follow up column.
When it comes to decision making in the media industry subjectivity is at the center of everything. It’s not as simple as the NFL where wins and losses are often decided by talent and coaching. Instead, our business is judged by a small amount of meters and their activity using our products as determined by Nielsen, and personal relationships formed with advertisers and media industry professionals. All three of these areas may be less than perfect in determining if something is going to work or not, but it’s the way it is.
Let’s start with something I think most of us can agree on – listeners spend time with brands and individuals that cut through the noise. Most will also agree that advertisers value that too. If a talent can attract an audience and convert them into customers on a consistent basis, a company will employ them. Advertisers will ask to be included in their program too. If issues with a host’s track record or character exist it may turn off a few sponsors, but when there’s money to be made, the bottom line usually wins.
It’s similar in some ways to the NFL, which is why players like Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown, Michael Vick, Aldon Smith, Kareem Hunt, Joe Mixon and others are given second, and in some instances third and fourth chances to play. In a league where wins and talent impact the bottom line, executives care more about success than their morale standing. I know some folks would prefer that to be different but competition and business success drives many to look past certain situations.
In every business, there are people who are dirt bags. You may not want to associate with them or see them receive second or third chances, but if they can help a team win, make the franchise money, and excite a fanbase by helping to deliver a championship, owners are going to turn a blind eye to outside issues. They’ll even pay these players insane amounts of money despite their problems. Just look at the recent deals inked by Watson and Hill.
I know radio and television isn’t exactly the NFL, but as I read Demetri’s column I couldn’t help but think about the dilemma radio programmers face; to hire the best talent and run the risk of dealing with increased attention by inviting baggage into the building or play it safe and hire people with less problems even if their talent level is lower.
We work in the media industry. The job is to deliver audience, and ad revenue. If someone possesses the ability to help you do that, you owe it to your bosses to look into it. If you are going to pass up hiring someone with special talent because you value character more, I applaud you. It’s commendable and speaks volumes about who you are. But producing high ratings and revenue isn’t determined by who’s a better person. If your competitor loses to you in the morale department but wins consistently in those two areas, you may one day be calling me for advice on saving your job or finding the next one.
Audiences care far less about an individual’s behavior or the negative PR you have to absorb. They simply listen and/or watch people they find interesting and entertaining. Did the Chiefs and Bucs sell less tickets after adding Hill, Mixon or Brown? The answer is no. Fans wanted to see their teams win, and as long as those players helped them do that, far less cared about whether or not those guys were good or bad people. I’m sure Browns fans will do the same with Watson if he delivers a title for the city of Cleveland.
This issue is red meat for many in the media because it makes for great discussion, and generates a lot of reaction. However, as nice as it’d be to have good people in every enviable position, this is a business, and what matters most is the final result in generating audience and advertising. Sometimes that means adding people who bring baggage through the door.
Advertisers aren’t much different than fans either. They may voice concerns or reject being connected to someone initially who comes with negative attention, but if people start to listen or watch, they’re going to want to be involved eventually because it presents an opportunity to improve their bottom line. It’s why you don’t see a surge of advertising partners abandon NFL teams after they sign or draft a player with a troubled past. If it’s good for business, exceptions will be made.
Some may not like hearing this, but a brand manager is paid to improve their brand’s business not to manage the media’s morality department. I’d much rather work with good people who provide little drama. It makes work more enjoyable. But this is the entertainment business. Some high profile stars have ego’s, issues, ridiculous demands, and they create a lot of bullshit. Some are worth it, some aren’t. If they can help attract big dollars and a large audience, it’s an executive’s job to find a way to employ them and manage them.
I’m not suggesting that we should hire everyone with a prior track record of problems. I’m also not advocating not to do background checks, ask questions, double check with references, and feel as comfortable as possible with who you’re adding. It’s important to analyze the risks vs. the rewards when hiring someone who may cause some initial blowback. Not everyone is worth a second or third chance. More times than not, the HR department is going to prefer you add people with minimal risk who make the hiring process easier. But if a special talent is available and they come with baggage, you can’t be afraid to make a move that can grow your brand’s performance and bottom line.
For example, you may dislike some of the prior incidents that Howard Stern, Joe Rogan, Craig Carton, Dave Portnoy, and Ryen Russillo were involved in, but they’ve all shown a consistent ability to deliver an audience, revenue, and relevance. I used those 5 personalities as examples because Demetri specifically used Deshaun Watson, a QB who is widely recognized as a Top 5 QB in the NFL as the example. He’s seen as a game changer on the field just as these personalities are recognized as stars behind the microphone. If a programmer had a chance to hire one of those talents and bypassed them because they were worried about the ‘noise’ they’d have to deal with, I hope and pray their competition takes a pass too. If not, they’d be paying for it for a long time.
That said, I would not put my career on the line for a talent who has twenty two counts of sexual misconduct hanging over their head. I’d tell them to handle their legal situation first and then wait and see how the situation plays out. You can tell me how special a talent is, and I’ll tell you I’m all for second chances and I’m not afraid to put my job on the line to hire someone exceptionally gifted, but I’m also not stupid. Most corporate companies are going to want no part of that association and neither are advertisers. It’d be a bad bet.
But in Watson’s case, he was cleared of the criminal charges. That was decided in a court of law. Are we supposed to never hire him even though he was found innocent? This world is littered with examples of people who are talented, have been accused of wrongdoing, have prevailed legally, and have gone on to make the most of second opportunities. Yet social media is often seen as an approval ground where ‘noise’ matters more than facts.
Human beings are flawed and do stupid things sometimes. It doesn’t make them bad people or not worthy of being hired again. We also have a legal system for a reason. If one is accused of a crime, they have their day in the court, and a judge and jury decides if they are guilty or innocent. For some reason, whenever a high profile individual is linked to a situation, we have a tendency to react quickly, often declaring them guilty and permanently damaged. But that’s not right, and it often blows up in our face.
How did that work out with the Duke lacrosse case? Or when Rafael Palmeiro waved his finger at congress and said he never took steroids? Instant reactions were the Duke lacrosse team needed to be put away for life, and the media needed to leave Palmeiro alone. We later learned, both reactions were wrong. The same thing just happened again with Watson. In the court of public opinion, he’s guilty. In a court of law, he’s not. There’s something very wrong with that picture.
The minute you hire a person connected to controversy you have to know people are going to bring it up, and media outlets are going to draw attention to it. So what? If people listen/watch, and clients spend, deal with it. From the movie industry to politics to the world or sports and the media business, there are many examples of highly skilled people with imperfect records that were worth betting on. You have to have thick skin and be able to absorb negativity if you’re going to hire and manage people. You’re responsible for serving the audience, advertising community, and growing a business, not being the most liked inside your office or on social media.
Secondly, speaking of social media, I think we place way too much value on what listeners say on Twitter and/or Facebook. The majority of your audience isn’t living on Twitter. If they’re not happy with your product, they’ll change the dial or avoid pressing the button to stream your content. There is a lot of good that comes from social media, but when you make decisions for a brand that could raise a few eyebrows, your best move is to tune it out. Let people say what they want. If you’ve done your homework and added an individual who’s capable of making an impact, trust your gut that it’ll be proven right over time.
Third, when you’re talking to someone who has gone through a situation that can potentially create headaches for the brand you represent, remember that they’re going to act remorseful and tell you what you want to hear. They’re hoping to land a high profile job and recover from a setback. Talking to others who’ve been around them and have history with them is part of the process, and hearing them out is too. After you’ve gathered your facts and weighed the pros and cons, it ultimately comes down to whether or not you trust them, believe in them, and have the courage to handle the heat that will soon hit you when you enter the kitchen.
You can avoid all of that and hire someone safer. Sometimes that works. But in a business where talent ultimately wins, others eventually find ways to improve. If the brands you compete with have the guts to take the risk that you didn’t, you may pay for it later. Which is why you can’t dismiss star talent with blemishes on their resumes. It’d be great if we could all go through life, do the right thing, and never have to answer questions for controversial decisions, but that’s not realistic.
I’ve shared this story before, back when I was in San Francisco in 2013, I hired Damon Bruce. He had previously generated heat for comments about not wanting women in his sandbox. It was a bad take, one he endured a lot of negative attention for, and despite apologizing and serving a suspension, nothing seemed to satisfy the masses. When we started talking, I entered those conversations knowing if I brought him on board I’d have to deal with the noise. I got to know him, talked to others, and reviewed the facts. One thing that stuck with me, he had never been in serious trouble and he had spent a decade working for the same employer. More times than not, you don’t work somewhere for that long if people don’t value you and enjoy working with you.
Damon would be the first to admit that back then he could be a pain in the ass, and he came to the table with public attention that made him harder to hire. I chose to believe in his talent, trust my eyes and ears, and focus on how he could help us improve our business. There were emails, tweets, and voicemail complaints I had to deal with but typing this now nine years later, after Damon just signed a three year extension to remain in afternoons at 95.7 The Game, I know the right call was made. He had to own his mistake, learn from it, and I had to have the courage to give him a shot and support him. In the end, everyone benefitted.
One story I haven’t shared, took place in 2006. I had just been hired to program Sports Talk 950 in Philadelphia, which has since become 97.5 The Fanatic. Our roster was bare, our lineup had national shows occupying the majority of the weekday schedule, and we needed more top level local talent to get to the next level. As I reviewed local and external options, I put Mike Missanelli and John Kincade high on my list. Ironically, they now both host drive time shows on The Fanatic.
Well, as we were preparing to reach out and talk to people, Missanelli got fired by WIP for ‘violating company policy’. It was alleged that he got into a physical altercation with a part time producer. I wasn’t there so I didn’t know all the facts, but the noise from that situation affected our process. When I raised the idea of meeting with him it was quickly dismissed. I knew he was ready for the next step, would have a chip on his shoulder to beat his former employer, and had a ton of local relationships which could be good for business. I was willing to meet and learn more, and if during that process we felt it made sense to bring him on board, I’d have handled the heat that came from it.
It never even started though. Others worried about the ‘noise’ and decided to pass up the opportunity to add a difference maker to the lineup. The brand struggled to gain traction for the next few years, and when Matt Nahigian arrived in town, he wisely went and hired Missanelli. Almost instantly, the success and perception of the brand changed. Now, The Fanatic consistently competes against WIP, and Missanelli has helped deliver a lot of wins in afternoons over the past 13-14 years.
Each person who makes a decision to hire someone has a lot to consider. If a radio talent is seen in a negative light because of prior history with other professionals or because they delivered an insensitive rant that’s much different than being found guilty of twenty two counts of sexual misconduct. Having said that, I worry that some managers ignore the facts (Watson was found not guilty) and will add a solid talent with less negative attention than a more talented person with extra baggage. As a programmer, would you have had the guts to hire Craig Carton after he served time? Would you have the stomach to handle the heat if Dave Portnoy worked for you and the Business Insider story cast a dark cloud over your brand? Would you stand by Joe Rogan when others attack him for comments made in the past or as artists pull their music because of not agreeing with his views?
I’m not sure if I’m right, wrong, smart or stupid, but I know this, if I believed in them enough to hire them knowing that the noise would increase the second they entered the office, then I’d do my best to have their back. I’d also not think twice about my future or whether or not my corporate boss had a bullseye on my back. I think the best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong. If you program in fear and play it safe to avoid the noise, you run the risk of hearing silence. And sometimes that peace and quiet comes when you’re sitting at home rather than dealing with headaches inside of the office.