The interest in sports radio programming continues to soar across the globe. But is that appetite for sports audio content strong enough to expect local audiences to pay for it?
Executives at ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR believe it is.
On May 1st, the radio station announced they would start charging $8.50 per month or $85.00 annually to listen to full length podcasts of the station’s top shows, minus local commercials and with the talent having the freedom to express themselves in uncensored fashion on their website and app “The Land On Demand“. WKNR offers their over the air radio programming and short-form clips from their shows on their digital platforms for free, but full-length shows had previously not been made available.
Keith Williams, ESPN Cleveland’s vice president and general manager, told Crain’s Cleveland Business that full-length podcasts are the number one thing listeners have asked WKNR to offer. But unlike the majority of brands across the country that provide that form of programming to their audiences on their websites and digital channels for free, WKNR is hoping the demand for consuming the content will be strong enough to justify additional spending.
“We know the way fans are consuming media in an on-demand world,” Williams told Crain. “They don’t have the time or resources they once had. We’re providing them what they asked for.”
In the same article with Crain, Talkers Magazine publisher Michael Harrison was a proponent of the move. He said “The biggest problem facing commercial radio is the commercials. If WKNR was charging people to listen to it on the air, then people should grumble, but what the hell do they have to grumble about? They don’t want radio stations to make a living?”
There’s some truth in Michael’s words. Commercials have become viewed as obstacles standing in the way of the listener enjoying the content. Fred Jacobs wrote about this issue recently after his TechSurvey 13 revealed that ads were the number one reason why people say they listen to less AM/FM radio. That’s a reflection on our growing impatience as a society. We want what we want and we want it now or we’re moving on to something else.
However, to suggest that people shouldn’t grumble over the radio station charging a fee to consume audio that they can hear for free over the air is looking at it strictly from the company’s point of view.
It’s not the audience’s problem if the station generates a profit. They have their own financial difficulties to deal with. Their only role in the situation is to listen to the programming. If they do that consistently, the station can then leverage that passion and commitment with their advertisers. Judging from the early feedback on iTunes and Google Play, people aren’t happy with the direction WKNR has chosen to go.
But let’s take a step back for a second and analyze this from a number of different perspectives.
First, if the listener is able to listen to one of WKNR’s shows over the radio airwaves or on the station’s stream during the time that it airs, they pay nothing for it. If they want to enjoy a small portion of a show in podcast form, that too is free. There are options for them to consume content without having to pay for it. However, if they miss a show, and want to enjoy it later on during their free time, that same content (minus the commercials) which was available over the air for free, now requires a monthly or annual fee.
Now let’s add the advertiser’s perspective.
Imagine for a second if you’re a local or national client. You’re being asked to spend your money promoting your products on WKNR’s airwaves. Those are the same airwaves that are encouraging fans to pay the radio station to hear their programs online, without your commercials in them. If that model gains traction and reduces over the air listening, how would it sit with you if you were investing in the brand’s over the air product? Wouldn’t you want a future place at the table in the digital space if it was becoming a hit with the local audience?
The reason advertisers invest in radio stations is because of their ability to help the client reach specific audiences. If that desired demographic though views the client’s over the air commercials as a detriment to their listening time, and the station wants to prevent the advertiser from being included in digital spaces, then why exactly would a client continue spending the same amount or even more of their ad budget on the radio station?
That’s a slippery slope for stations. The executive team is absolutely right to shift their programming online and eliminate roadblocks that hinder the audience’s listening experience. However, they’re also reliant on advertising dollars to continue running a business. If they piss off their key clients during a period when they’re trying to develop a potential new revenue stream, it could harm their business, especially during the short-term.
Another area that I want to examine is the value.
The Land on Demand’s key selling point is that it’s weekday shows (which you can hear for free on the radio station) are now available in full-length form without interruption. That’s not anything groundbreaking. In fact, most local sports stations already provide that. To expect that offering full-length shows without commercials, with the benefit of using adult language is going to be enough to generate significant spending seems rather peculiar.
However, WKNR did add a section titled WKNR Classics which allows the audience to hear archived shows, guests, and memorable moments. That part is cool and gives the paying consumer something they can’t get over the air. There are also plans to introduce more original content which will only be available to paying customers. That’s a wise move.
But here’s where the problem lies.
Place yourself in the shoes of the consumer for a minute, and consider what you’re up against.
For $11-$20 per month, a listener can purchase a subscription to SiriusXM and gain access to hundreds of programming options. That includes hearing music, comedy, live sporting events, and high profile talent such as Howard Stern, Chris “Mad Dog Russo, and many more.
If you want to save even more money, you can spend $8 per month to become a premium subscriber to TuneIn which gives you access to every MLB and NFL game, commercial-free music, audio books, thousands of radio stations, and millions of podcasts.
I haven’t even touched on the services available to paying consumers on television, video and online platforms. Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, MLB, the NFL, the WWE Network and others, there are tons of options to consider when paying for entertainment. In each case, these companies are offering a ton of value in exchange for a minimal monthly or annual fee.
You may suggest that it’s an apples to oranges comparison because one product is focused on local sports radio and the others aren’t, but they’re all delivering entertainment while reducing an individual’s bank account. I assure you, when push comes to shove, most people will spend money on the things they need first, and then consider the available choices when deciding on whether or not to add luxuries.
But spending aside, another potential concern for WKNR is bad publicity. A decline in ratings is often a natural fear for radio companies but Good Karma Broadcasting (WKNR’s parent company) doesn’t live and die by the ratings, so that shouldn’t be an issue. However, no station or business wants to lose listeners.
That said, one item which can easily be lost in this conversation is the fact that the long-form digital offerings were previously unavailable on WKNR. It’s not as if Good Karma is forcing this on its audience. Instead, they’re supplying an additional option to the audience, which they can hear in exchange for a fee. If they don’t want to pay for it, then they’re in no different shape than they were last month.
If it ruffles the feathers of a Cleveland sports radio fan, they do have other options to consider. They can listen solely to WKNR over the radio or if they’re bothered to the point of considering a switch, they can pledge their allegiance to 92.3 The Fan. If for some reason that doesn’t suit their style, they can also turn to brands like 97.1 The Fan or 105.7 The Zone in Columbus who are also talking about Ohio sports. In fact, Bruce Hooley who hosts mornings on The Zone, used to host shows on WKNR.
If neither of those options satisfy, there are always networks and hundreds of sports stations across the country offering quality content for free, both on-air and online. The one big difference though, they’re not largely focused on Cleveland sports the way that WKNR or those other Ohio sports radio brands are.
From the local fan’s point of view, they’re going to wonder why they’re being asked to pay for something that other stations and cities don’t. For example, a Boston sports radio fan can log on to WEEI.com and gain access to all of the station’s programming, plus a number of original podcasts, including Kirk Minihane’s “Enough About Me” which ranks among the best in the format. The station also offers uncensored programs, commercial-free content, and generates over 2 million web visitors per month. The cost for that experience? Zero.
That same strategy of offering free long-form programming in the podcast space is employed by numerous radio companies who own and operate sports stations. Among them include ESPN, iHeart, Bonneville, Hubbard, Emmis, and Beasley. Cumulus doesn’t employ that strategy, and as I mentioned previously, CBS doesn’t either. Their approach is more focused on offering short-form content clips.
But this begs the question, should digital content require a fee?
Stations are dedicating a lot of hours, creativity and bandwidth to provide valuable listening experiences for their audiences, with the idea being that advertisers will offset it. But most of those dollars are coming from the over the air product, not the digital side of the business. As advertisers continue to shift their ad spending into the digital space, and listeners expect ads to be eliminated from their listening experience, it’s worth examining whether or not a subscription based on-demand strategy makes long-term sense.
The subject of digital and podcasting came up in a recent interview with Mike Francesa of WFAN. Talking to Bryan Curtis of The Ringer, the New York sports talk show host said most brands bastardize their own content by giving it away for free. While radio preaches the importance of being on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it hasn’t figured out how to make a dime off of those platforms. As a result, Francesa says radio is destroying its own business.
I can see Mike’s point. From the product end of the business, brands are doing an incredible job of building audiences and generating interest. Turning that passion and dedication though into profitability in the digital and social media world remains a daunting task.
As it applies to WKNR’s situation, one positive working in their favor is that their local competitor (92.3 The Fan) doesn’t currently offer long-form versions of their shows online. That’s a CBS strategy that exists on most of their sports radio brands websites. You can download and listen to interviews, highlights, and occasional monologues, but not full-length programs. But with WKNR announcing their new digital initiative, might that lead The Fan to make a future adjustment? It probably wouldn’t be a consideration under CBS, but with Entercom on the verge of taking over the company that’s certainly possible. Especially since they offer free full length programs in podcast form on the majority of their sports radio brands.
Throughout the years, WKNR has built a familiar brand in Cleveland. Many of their personalities have appeared on the station for a lengthy period of time, and it’s clear they’re counting on local fans having a strong enough interest in their personalities and content to help them enhance their digital business. It’d be foolish to suggest the radio station won’t attract a market for what it’s offering, but whether or not it’ll be sustainable is way too early to tell.
What should be appreciated, regardless of how things play out, is that WKNR is taking a risk. We often talk about our industry being stuck in mud and unwilling to take chances, yet the second someone does, we’re quick to pounce on them and sign their death certificate. Maybe there are some holes in the existing strategy, and the public’s reaction to the news certainly leaves little to be desired, but immediate feedback to any change is often negative, and people have demonstrated numerous times that they’ll pay for things we never expected them to. What one person believes is worth $1, someone else values at $1000.
All of that taken into account, not every risk is a wise one. To simply present shows without commercials in exchange for a fee, and turn it into a thriving revenue stream is expecting a lot. I believe that WKNR will need to add more original content to its digital channels, plus offer additional unique benefits associated with a premium experience to satisfy and grow its subscriber base. I’m sure they’re already working on that. The beauty of a project like this is that it’s in its infancy, so there’s still plenty of time for making improvements.
In life, if you want to grab the brass ring you have to have brass balls. ESPN Cleveland certainly has those. But if you push the audience further than they’re willing to go, those same brass balls can be kicked in by steel toed boots. Hopefully WKNR has invested in a sturdy athletic supporter and cup. I just hope for their sake they don’t end up needing to wear it.
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.