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Q&A with Craig Larson

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Craig Larson is a lifer in the radio business. He started as an intern back in 1990 at what is now ESPN 1000 in Chicago. That lead to one hell of a journey with one company.

In 1996 Craig went to worked for One on One Sports Radio. In 2001 he started working for Sporting News Radio. In 2011 he started with Yahoo Sports Radio. Since 2016 he has been programming SB Nation Radio. Craig never left a job or changed companies, mind you. He has been the constant for a network that has seen a lot of change over its 21 year lifespan.

Craig is now based out of Houston and is a busy dude. In addition to programming SB Nation Radio for Gow Media, he also programs the company’s two local sports stations – ESPN 97.5 and Sports Map 94.1.

If you’ve ever been guilty of dismissing SB Nation Radio as the little guy in an already crowded field of sports networks, Craig says you won’t be doing that much longer. In mid-November he and I spoke about the plan and the strategy that he says differentiates SB Nation Radio from competitors and allows it to grow in places you don’t think it can.

Full disclosure: Craig hired me to do a show on SB Nation Radio for the better part of the first half of 2017. That relationship didn’t shade the questions I asked him or how he is portrayed here. I just wanted to be honest and put that out there.

DEMETRI: SB Nation Radio has some really unique challenges in front of it in terms of adding affiliates. Many of the national conglomerates have deals in place with the larger networks. So, how do you work around that in finding affiliates and what is success for you in that realm?

CRAIG: Well, candidly I think being an independent company helps us in that realm, and the brand partnership with SB Nation has made us competitive in a way I don’t think past partners could have with their creativity and reach. Something like the Bein Sports simulcast of Sean Salisbury probably doesn’t happen without a partner like that.

The other thing is, let’s say you and I start a radio station tomorrow and all we have the need for is overnight programming and maybe Saturday afternoons. Well, we aren’t going to put any restrictions on you or make you take programming that you don’t need just to fill the times you do. Also, we aren’t going to charge rights fees. That helps a lot in growing the network. And finally, I give our talent a lot of credit for finding ways to customize and localize programming for all of our affiliates regardless of market size.

And lastly, it’s the support we can offer an affiliate. If a station owner needs help synergizing with the network on a sales promotion, they probably can’t pick up the phone and get the CEO of any of our competitors on the phone. David Gow is on the road visiting…I think it was 30 different affiliates this year to make sure the local affiliates are getting what they need from us.

D: What is that relationship with SB Nation like? What goes on on those editorial calls? I know they aren’t approving every segment of every show, but do you ever have calls where they tell you what they expect from the radio product to fit with their brand?

C: Well, it’s give and take, and it’s not so much real time “this is broke, how do we fix it” kind of stuff. Like, I’ll give you an example. One of the talents on our roster is the Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the game of the century (UCLA vs Houston in the Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968).

They have folks writing some pieces about it. We’ll have interviews on Elvin’s show with Kareem Abdul Jabar. We’ll do some video with Elvin. That all enhances their story and then you throw the listen live link on there and it takes you right back to our network page.

With them there is never a shortage of content. Maybe a shortage of hours or segments, but always plenty of content. We just interviewed Dak Prescott on his off day. Demetri, you know that is not the end of it. We got the interview, now where does it go? It’s on air and then we send it to the Blogging the Boys site. Maybe it goes on the SB Nation NFL main frame. That is all the fun stuff that comes out of those editorial calls.

D: With Gow Media starting the Sports Map site, do you know what that means for the future of the relationship with SB Nation?

C: Oh, they’re in individual silos. Sports Map was started in large part by Fred Faour and is a Houston-centric site with the weight of the resources we have at Gow Media behind it. It’s a local play and we timed it right with riding the Astros’ wave. But it isn’t SB Nation, which is a national brand that fits a national network.

D: You mentioned Salisbury’s show earlier. As I recall from our time working together, you are pretty hands on with that show. How does Craig Larson the human being manage time between running SB Nation Radio, being the PD of the two local stations, being hands-on with Salisbury, and oh by the way, you have a family too?

C: That’s a great question. I definitely have a passion, but also in interviews I am looking for folks with a passion for the industry and the business who are self-starters. I love talking to broadcasters and giving feedback and finding those people that are going to give as much as I do when they are on air.

With Sean, he has great charisma. He has a great rolodex as well. I can’t tell you how many times he has been the one to pick up a phone and call Charles Barkley or Joe Buck. He’s involved in his content creating process.

In 2004, there was a time, when we were based in LA that I would go from producing James Brown to Petro Papadakis to Fred Roggin. It was like an eight hour shift and I had to learn these guys’ needs and voices. This isn’t a 9-5 deal. As a PD, I can tell you not a weekend goes by where Sean and I aren’t texting each other to set up future shows. I’ve always been wired that way. It’s just how you have to operate in this business.

D: So what are the challenges of growing the Sean Salisbury Show? Certainly the Bein deal is huge, but your marquee show is at a time when I think most PDs would tell you they prefer local programming.

C: Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. I mean in an ideal world of local radio you’re not turning on the network from 6 AM to 7 PM. Maybe even starting morning drive a little earlier. It’s been a challenge for sure, but we have had some nice affiliate wins along the way and then the increased visibilitylity with Bein Sports.

At the end of the day, I am a firm believer that content is going to win. Shows that are unique are going to differentiate themselves in the corporate landscape. So, we hired someone like Robin Carlin a year ago out of Denver. There’s no one like her on network radio. No one is doing what we’re doing each and everyday.

Since we put Sean in afternoon drive, I would say we have added somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 affiliates. Now, that’s not 500 affiliates, but we cherish each of those 35-40 relationships. And it’s Sean, again, customizing his sound and calling into local shows in markets that clear his show. And we’re working with stations. If you can make up the spots, but can’t take the full three hours, we’ll give you the last two if that’s all you need. Hell, Phoenix is tape delaying the show and running it at night. Any way we get exposure for Sean makes me happy.

D: There are also a number of brokered shows on SB Nation Radio. What is expected of those businesses? As a PD do you sit with those shows and say “this is what you have to bring to the table if you want to do this”?

C: Well, they have to fit content-wise, but they also just have to be good content. That actually represents a small percentage of our overall business, but we have our golf hour. Charlie Epps, who is Angel Cabrera’s swing coach, gets great people on. It is at a time of day on Saturday morning where it is programmed correctly. And it is one every week. He never says “Oh I don’t have it in me today.” It’s a compelling and well-packaged listen.

And look, I understand the cynicism to it. Would we have a golf hour on Saturday morning if we didn’t have Charlie? Would Charlie do a golf hour if Insperity weren’t a part of it? Probably not, but I am looking at it from the content side.

In all the years I have been with this network, I have never had a complaint about something we put on on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Plus they’re all seasonal, so they are timely. The fantasy football hour or anything else. These all have appropriate expiration dates.

D: So outside of SB Nation Radio, brokered programming is a growing part of the business. As someone that has had to program brokered shows, what would you tell the guy that is looking to own his own show he needs to know or do to be a success?

C: First and foremost you have to have a voice. You have to know what differentiates you from everything else and what qualifies you to be on the radio period. And do it in a way that makes sense for you. Sometimes it is easier to do a weekly or biweekly podcast if you aren’t used to the preparation and consistency that goes into a daily radio show.

Next, I would say make sure you are comfortable on a mic. You can have a whole show scripted out and then suddenly Muhammed Ali dies and you have to pivot. So, maybe you were going to do a draft preview, but now you have to be ready to talk to Larry Holmes and put this in the proper perspective for what you do.

Learn to prepare. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say “Just get name any NFL guest. I need to kill ten minutes.” WOW! Okay, already the wrong approach. You can’t come into this just wanting to get to the finish line. Know why I, as a listener, as a programmer, would want to hear from you. If that’s not an easy answer you probably shouldn’t be playing in this space.

BSM Writers

The Best Defense Against An Ornery Subject Is A Good Question

With the right question, a reporter never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role.

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Screen cap from @timandfriends on Twitter

A question should be constructed to get the best answer possible.

This was the guideline I learned as a newspaper reporter, which makes sense. You don’t hear the questions in a story. You don’t usually read them. The questions operate off-stage, the unseen lever that pries out the good stuff from the subject.

The dynamic changes when the interview is conducted in public, though. I learned this first-hand when I transitioned from reporter to radio host in 2013. Suddenly, my questions were part of the content being consumed. This is increasingly becoming the reality for anyone covering pro sports now. Not only have the press conferences themselves become a part of actual sports programming, but those press conferences are increasingly the only access to professional athletes, given post-pandemic locker-room restrictions.

But any time I start to think that it’s important to consider how a question sounds to the audience, instead of focusing on the answer it gets from the subject, I will inevitably be reminded of where that thinking leads. This week, it was Jim Matheson, a veteran Canadian hockey reporter in Canada, confronting the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl over being non-cooperative. 

On the one hand, this kind of tension has existed for decades in pro sports. It’s inevitable, really, that the people paid to play the games will at times be at odds with the people paid to critique their performance. The difference now, as Ian Casselberry pointed out here at BSM yesterday, is that the tension is increasingly visible. 

Personally, I love these moments. Seeing someone get sensitive in public is catnip to my shallow sensibilities. But professionally, there is something to be learned here by going back to the question that started each impasse. Let’s start with Matheson.

“Lots of reasons for why the Oilers are playing the way they are, in terms of winning and losing,” Matheson said. “What do you think is the number one reason for the losses now? Is there one thing, in your own mind, that you’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get better at that’?”

It’s a bad question for two reasons, the first being that it is actually two questions. “Double-barreled” is the term used by John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist, an absolute prince of a man, and an unrivaled expert in improving interview skills. In two days, John taught me more about good interview tactics than I’ve learned in 20 years of weekend workshops and workday brownbags. This won’t be the last time I mention him in my posts here at BSM.

The best piece of advice John offers is also the easiest to institute and provides the most immediate results: Ask one question. Just one. If you add a second question — either out of nervousness or because you try to phrase it better — it will confuse even a cooperative subject. If you have an uncooperative subject, it provides an out. An opportunity to answer the less difficult question and then stare right back at you to indicate it’s your turn.

That is exactly what happened to Matheson. Here was Draisaitl’s response: “Yeah, we have to get better at everything.”

Matheson asked if Draisaitl was willing to expand; Draisaitl was not, adding a sarcastic aside that Matheson could add to it because he knew everything. Jameson then asked Draisaitl why he was so “pissy.”

“Hmmmm,” Draisaitl said, raising his eyebrows as if he hadn’t heard.

“Why are you so pissy?”

“I’m not,” Draisaitl said. “I’m just answering your–” at which point he was cut off by Matheson.

“Yeah, you are,” Matheson said. “Every time I ask a question.”

Now, it’s likely that Draisaitl’s issue has nothing to do with the question Matheson asked. It’s possible that no question Matheson asked was going to get a good answer. But because that question was poorly constructed, it left Matheson cornered into the choice of accepting Draisaitl’s terrible answer to his poor question or creating a confrontation. He chose the latter, and while I don’t think it was wrong, per se, or crossed any lines, Matheson looked like the aggressor. And I suspect that will be the last piece of useful content he ever receives from Draisaitl.

This is the point where my column was initially going to end. Then I saw Ian’s post, which included an exchange between Gary Washburn, a reporter at the Boston Globe, and Celtics guard Dennis Schroder, who was every bit as uncooperative as Draisaitl. It provides the perfect example to see how a better question changed the nature of the impasse.

Let’s go to Washburn’s first question: “Dennis, in Philly, you had one point, but the game before in Indiana, you had 23. It seems like you’ve been up-and-down a little bit. Are you starting to feel comfortable? You had the COVID protocol, you had a lot of things happen this week, are you starting to feel a little bit of comfort in the offense?”

Washburn’s question wasn’t perfect. There are technically two queries, though I’d argue he really just restated his question about being comfortable. It was also a yes-no question, which doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a question that seeks an answer about how or why something has occurred. I’m nitpicking, though. The strength of this question was revealed when Schroeder bristled.

Schroeder: You with us or you with Philly?

Washburn: No, I’m just asking.

Schroeder: You with Boston? You work for us?

Washburn: I cover the Celtics. I’m just asking if you’re feeling any more comfortable over the last couple games.

Schroeder: It’s just a stupid question.

Washburn: My fault. Are you feeling any more comfortable? How did you feel like you played today?

Schroeder: Not good enough for you, huh?

Washburn: No. I’m asking about the bounce back.

Schroeder: We won, so that’s all that matters. I’m a team player, so end of the day if I’ve got 40 points or one point and win the game, I’m going to be happy with it. So end of the day, I’m a team player, trying to win some games. And in Philly, we didn’t come out right, we played right, and that’s it.

Washburn: Thank you.

At no point in that back-and-forth does Washburn have to do anything other than restate his question: Are you feeling more comfortable? Schroeder has the choice whether to answer it, and ultimately talks around the quesrion without addressing it.

Washburn never has to say he was dissatisfied with the answer or call out Schroeder for being uncooperative. He never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role. He’s courteous and even accepts responsibility for a question Schroeder doesn’t like. In the end, Schroeder’s defensiveness speaks for itself. And that is important given how many people are now watching not just the answers that athletes provide, but the hearing and in some cases seeing the questions that provoke them

When Ian wrote about these situations on Thursday, he concluded with a very poignant observation: “Tensions are now out in the open, when they might have previously happened in a corner, away from everyone’s attention. And when these dialogues become public, people feel the need to take sides with the reporter or the athlete. Which side you’re on as a fan likely depends on your perception of the media.”

He’s absolutely right, but I would provide one addition to that. A well-constructed question is your best defense against not only an ornery subject, but also those audience members predisposed to blaming you for antagonizing the athlete. 

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BSM Writers

What is The Next Evolution For Nickelodeon And The NFL?

“The NFL and Nickelodeon are a perfect marriage. An expanded package of games is the ideal next step.”

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No matter how you look at the results, the NFL has hit a home run with a playoff game getting kid friendly packaging on Nickelodeon each of the last two seasons. Parents are watching with their kids, it’s driving an online conversation, and the league is letting a creative group of people have fun.

The NFL Playoffs on Nickelodeon work! So what do you do when something works?

You start to think about what the next step is. Those are conversations both the NFL and CBS/Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, should be having.

To me, the next step for the NFL is pretty obvious. Give us a package of kid-friendly games during the season.

It doesn’t have to be a full 18-weeks, but think of it like ET with Reese’s Pieces. If the idea is that you are using the caché of Nickelodeon characters and graphics to get kids to watch football, doesn’t it benefit you to do that, or something like it, five or six more times during the season? Isn’t that the trail of Reese’s Pieces that could get the little ETs watching football more regularly?

It could be a revenue generator too. Something like the kid-friendly NFL package really does seem tailor-made for a bidding war. After all, every streaming service needs content. You could absolutely see the NFL going to Disney to see if they wanted to counter with something Marvel or Star Wars themed, right?

I think it would be a mistake to put this package of games on the open market. CBS has assembled the right duo in Noah Eagle and Nate Burleson and Nickelodeon has created the right aesthetic for the game. It is goofy. I enjoy watching Patrick Star’s face go from concerned to elated when a kick goes through the uprights just as much as my kids do. I don’t know that I would be as invested in trying to defeat Thanos with football or whatever the counter would be.

Photos & Memes: Nickelodeon's NFL Broadcast Returns, Hilarity Ensues

Make it worth CBS/Viacom’s to up their spend. Take care of the company’s other TV properties somehow. Give them priority for the next Super Bowl bidding.

I don’t know the exact right answer. What I know is the NFL has a GREAT thing here and it should be focused on cultivating it.

So that brings us to the next obvious question: what is the next evolution of this model for CBS and Nickelodeon?

Oh man, some of y’all are gonna hate this shit!

PUT SLIME ON EVERYTHING!

I am serious! Give me a kid-friendly version of The Final Four. Dump slime on the winner of The Masters. Every week the SEC is on CBS, have Young Sheldon pop up to explain to the audience what a bag man is.

Obviously, I am giving you the extreme version of the plan, but you get the gist, right? We just ran a guest piece from Joe Ovies that discussed how leagues are learning to meet the needs of younger fans. Well, here is a chance to do that with the help of a network partner.

Golf is looking for a way to bring back the fans that used to tune in on Sundays to see Tiger Woods close out a big win. It is a shame The Masters is the least likely to let CBS and Nickelodeon help, because it is the event that could use it the most.

CBS is way more likely to get the cooperation of the NCAA Tournament. You would probably have to limit Nick’s involvement to the Final Four, or even just the Championship game, but it would be worth it. Basketball is popular with kids. Those games are played in cavernous domes with plenty of space for an extra broadcast crew. Plus, the players are young enough to be excited about a project like that.

Broadcasting and sports are both built on innovation. When an idea comes along that can truly change the trajectory of how business is done, you have to embrace it. That is what we are looking at here.

The NFL and Nickelodeon are a perfect marriage. An expanded package of games is the ideal next step. If the NFL isn’t interested though, CBS/Viacom cannot let this thing go to waste. It has created something sports-loving parents can do and watch with their kids that aren’t entertained by competition alone. That describes most kids now.

One side, hopefully both, recognize that this is a chance to invest in their respective futures. Not every kid-targeted game or broadcast can look the same, but you have a proof of concept. You know your formula works.

Now get out there and do more of it!

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BSM Writers

Five Down and Dirty Ideas For Gaining Radio Sales Advantage

Tie into the local team and have two ads ready to go. One if they lose and one if they win.

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VaynerSports

Sometimes, salespeople need a new twist on an old idea to close the deal with a client. Here are five bold, down and dirty, ideas to beat out the competition and stand out in your market:

1. Sell an endorsement

Make sure you sell the sponsorship in 13, 26, or 52-week increments. There is no way you want to burn your talent on a category because the client didn’t run long enough.

Start selling spring advertisers right now. Patios, pools, and landscaping makeovers. Maybe sell an advertiser on a community makeover for a prominent retired community person and have the on-air person lead the effort. Sell a crypto or NFT sponsorship to a host and let them learn all about it on the air.

Make sure the talent also posts on social for the client.

2. Update your copy!

Sell copy changes as a benefit to the client. Tie into the local team and have two ads ready to go. One if they lose and one if they win. Your traffic person will hate you, but it can happen!

Produce bad weather spots now. Insert them at a moment’s notice. Buy your traffic person dinner because they will have to re-con the logs. So what. Think “in the moment.” Your listeners do that and it’s the best way to relate to them.

3. Do you have several car dealers, heating and cooling, roofing, or restaurants on the air?

Help them stand out on the station by branding them on weather, traffic, or top-of-hour IDs. This is a great way to pound the advertiser into the listener’s consciousness and separate them for the pack. Consider bonusing them the IDs if they committed to an annual.

4. Sell some NIL

If you have a famous college athlete in your market and a local NIL deal, suggest adding a radio campaign. Dr. Pepper did it. Or sell one to a local sports bar and have the player go there after the game and do an appearance on your post-game show on site.

This concept works well when sold with your CHR or New Rock stations. The rules have changed and you can do a lot more now. Schools, in some cities, are even more than willing to help you! They are doing anything to show other recruits how much love they will get in their town.

5. Super Bowl bet

Get two non-competing advertisers to take sides for the big game coming up. Set it up so if one team wins, listeners get a discount and vice versa. A Heating and cooling guy vs. a plumber could work well. You know how to say “Big Game,” “green and gold” for Green Bay, and the “red team” for Kansas City.

Just find the clients who care about the game. See if your shows would let them do a call-in. Let them cut up a bit and give them some promos, make them part of the Super Bowl hype.

If one of these doesn’t work, sell like Tom Brady.

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