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Sports Radio Lessons From a Five Star Hotel

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If I were trying to impress you I’d say I am currently between radio gigs. If I were being more honest, I would tell you I parted ways with SB Nation Radio in July and had to find something else to fill my time and pay some bills, so I am currently working at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, NC.

There’s a very real chance you’ve never heard of us, but it is your loss really. The Umstead is a Forbes Five Star hotel. Conde Nast just named us the best hotel in the South and one of the top 50 hotels in the whole world. So, you should probably check us out.

Now look, as a town, Cary blows. It’s an upper-class suburb of Raleigh and the thing that it’s best known for locally is that the town requires the sign for every business to be green and white. After reading that sentence, how charming do you think Cary is? Okay, now dial that down by about 20% and that’s how charming Cary actually is.

So then how does The Umstead Hotel and Spa have such a sterling reputation? How do we make our hotel the kind of destination people will go out of their way to experience? Simple, we put a focus on service and highlight the natural attractions around us.

There are a number of lessons I have learned working in a Five Star hotel environment that can be applied to sports radio. Here are five of them.

THE GUEST COMES FIRST

If you read my piece about the radio station not being your jukebox, this will sound familiar. If you haven’t, go read it now.

I work in the reservations department of the hotel, so I deal with calls all day long. There is certain information I have to give and receive from callers. In an ideal setting, I can find out if they are celebrating anything, if they have any allergies we can help them avoid in their room, and make sure they are aware of our cancellation policies, but the one thing that I’ve learned is that sometimes callers just want to get off the phone. Real Five Star service isn’t about following all the rules to the letter. It’s about respecting the caller’s time.

In radio, we want to tell every detail of the story. We want to get in every joke. But you have to respect the listener’s time. Tell your story. Get in the relevant stats and the best jokes. Remember to make your point clear up front. We respect the listener’s time by not burying the lead, by saying “this is where I’m going with this, come with me.”

If you’re going to tell me why Papa John should get a say in the way the NFL polices player protests, you better lead with that thesis. I am not waiting through jokes and sales figures to get to a point I don’t agree with, but if you make your point up front I am more likely to stay with you. If I like you, I want to give you the chance to convince me. If I don’t like you, I want to hear your justification for such a dumb stance.

WE DO THINGS FOR A REASON

If you call a hotel to make a reservation and they ask if you have a floor preference it’s not just the agent being nice. It is something that has to be asked in order to get all of the points on the Forbes Five Star test. If the agent repeats the date that you said you want to check in and says “is that right?” It’s not because they didn’t hear you. It’s because the agent wants a record of you acknowledging your agreement multiple times to legally protect the hotel.

Yes, what we do gives a certain appearance. That appearance will either enhance or enforce the reputation of the hotel. The fact is though, that every word I say when talking to a potential guest serves a specific purpose. The same should be true of your radio show – maybe not with every single word you say, but with every segment you plan.

Why do we deliver the same bit at the same time every week? Because it creates appointment listening opportunities and those provide more chances to expand the listener’s TSL. Why do we have benchmark guests? Because we know that those guests will deliver good content and reliably good content presents sales opportunities.

LEARN WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Afternoon tea service is one of the most popular offerings at the Umstead Hotel and Spa. We usually ask guests to call for reservations at least three weeks in advance, but if you called me tomorrow and asked me to find you the first availability for afternoon tea, I would be looking well into December.

I tell you that to share a story with you. Last month I got a call from a woman in New York. She was paying for her daughter to stay at the hotel to celebrate the girl’s graduation. She bragged about our tea to her daughter and wanted her to experience it. The problem is that she was calling on the day that her daughter was checking in. She would only be at the hotel for two nights, and on one of them we weren’t serving tea. When I told the woman how popular the tea service was and that there was no availability for her daughter, she told me I single-handedly ruined the trip.

Was it really my fault? Of course it wasn’t. It was the mother’s fault for not doing her homework. She didn’t make the effort to learn what she needed to know.

In preparing for interviews, never be afraid to ask colleagues and friends what they would ask if they were conducting the interview. Maybe you’ll discover an interesting angle you were unaware of. When you move into a new market, seek out market veterans to learn the history of the rivalries and teams you’ll be covering. You won’t ever be able to fake being a local, but learning what you need to know before you ever crack a mic will earn you a lot of points with a new audience.

DON’T EXPECT OTHERS TO MAKE YOU LOOK GOOD

Did I mention our afternoon tea is very popular? Great, because here’s another story about it!

Last weekend a woman that was staying at the hotel called the reservations center. She wanted me to set up a banquet room for her to host tea for a group of 20 that were in town for a convention that day. The request would be impossible to grant. Not only was the banquet staff not working (because there was no banquet scheduled), but we do not have 20 set ups for tea.

When I told her this, the lady got pissed. She told me that her husband was the president of the company hosting this convention and our hotel embarrassed her. Not only could we not make tea work for her, but she also was told she couldn’t make 20 same day reservations in our spa, which like our tea, is quite popular.

There is only so much others can do for you. If your ratings are down, there is only so much installing a new clock can do. If listener panels come back with a negative opinion of your show, there is only so much new imaging you can do. No one has more influence on the product you are trying to deliver than you. Stay informed. If there is a vision that you are trying to execute, make sure you have done all you can to make it a reality before you start focusing on how others are not helping you.

ALWAYS BE READY TO PIVOT

Like I said earlier, I work in the reservations department. On an average day, I don’t interact face-to-face with guests. I am trained though to also work as a concierge and a front desk agent if necessary. Days where the hotel is running at 95+% occupancy can really put a strain on those two departments and if everyone decides to show up right at 3pm, which is check in time, those departments will need a lot of support. So, even though I go to work each day anticipating sitting in front of a computer, I have to be prepared to be face-to-face with guests.

Sports radio shows have to be ready for anything. Do extensive prep for every show, but know that if news breaks, you have to be ready to throw all that prep out. So while you are prepping a segment on the College Football Playoff rankings, keep an eye on what is happening in the hot stove, because if your local team makes a major move, you need to be ready to talk about it intelligently.

That is the case with any show built around current events. The key word is “current,” right? If my guests at the hotel are stuck in long lines waiting to get what they need, you can bet they will let the hotel know about their dissatisfaction. In this day of social media, all it takes is one person to make air their grievance publicly and the hotel’s reputation will suffer. All it takes is one show where you sound out of touch and you’ve created detractors.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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