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The Ever-Changing Landscape of Sports Radio

Matt Fishman

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In mid-sized and major markets, once thought to be unbeatable sports radio stations have experienced stiff competition from new competitors. Juggernauts like WEEI/Boston, WIP/Philadelphia, WHB/Kansas City, WKNR/Cleveland, WDFN/Detroit, The Ticket/Dallas, and The Team/Washington, DC all shared similar characteristics: the first sports radio station in the market, established/big name local talent, AM Radio signals, and ratings success.

The advantages of each of those characteristics:

  1. First Sports radio station in the market – This is typically a huge advantage. As the only game in town, the station can mature, adapt, and change as it sees fit with little fear of losing listeners.
  2. Established, big name local talent– “The Big Show” with Glenn Ordway at WEEI, “The Kevin Kietzman Show” at WHB, “The Tony Kornheiser Show” at WTEM, “Dunham and Miller” at The Ticket.
  3. AM Radio Signals – Sports radio was booming on the AM dial. Its success may have saved AM radio for 20 years. It was the place to be for sports. Music owned the FM band.
  4. Ratings – Huge: For example, in 2008 WEEI was top 5 in Morning Drive, Middays and Afternoon drive Adults 25-54.

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s radio companies looked at the success of these sports radio stations and decided to make a run at them—with surprising success. Why? Because at some point, many of the above advantages became disadvantages for the established stations and opportunities for the new insurgents. A second look at the characteristics above, now as disadvantages for the established stations:

  1. First Sports radio Station in the market – Being the only game in town can lead to Shows getting stale, Ad Sales overselling the station which cuts down programming time, Listeners becoming fatigued, and Stations getting cheap and cutting back on important resources.
  2. Established, big name local talent – Great talent cost a lot. That can really hamstring a station financially. Many established hosts make six figure (some seven figure) salaries. These salaries and the associated contracts can limit the flexibility of the PD and GM.
  3. AM Radio Signals – Starting a sports radio station on FM became a great way to outflank an established AM station. According to Nielsen, only 21% of radio listeners listen to any programming on AM. This is dwarfed by the 86% of listeners who listen to FM. The Sports Hub in Boston, 106.7 The  Fan in Washington, DC, The Fan in Cleveland, The Fanatic in Philadelphia, 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and  ESPN 103.3 in Dallas all took advantage of the FM band to make an immediate impression. Other market stations followed suit as well. That wasn’t the case though in the #2 and #3 markets (LA and Chicago, respectively) as both only have AM sports radio stations.
  4. Ratings – By 2011, The Sports Hub beat WEEI in Arbitron’s spring book. Capturing the #1 spot with adults 25-54 with wins in all major dayparts in Boston. WEEI bounced back during the past few years but when they did, they were on FM. Others in major markets have experienced success against insurgents too. The established stations didn’t move anywhere but the ripple effect of being unseated led many to make adjustments and move to FM or add an FM simulcast.

What are some of the key takeaways from the sports radio battles of the past 10-15 years?

First, sports radio stations should be making every attempt to broadcast their programming on FM. It’s where the listeners are. I know Chicago and LA are currently surviving on AM, and KNBR/San Francisco, and KILT/Houston still enjoy success on AM. WFAN in New York and The Ticket in Dallas thrive on AM as well, but each of those brands have FM simulcasts. These are exceptions, not the rule.

The bigger question is how long can AM radio remain viable? In a world where people flock to new technology in search of the next big thing, radio remains attached to an outdated platform. The only way to grow and succeed is to put AM Radio where it belongs – in the past! Stations should be looking forward and be diligent about the performance of their app, how they’re programmed for the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, and the future of the in-car dashboard.

What about talent?

Every PD has to be identifying and developing talent to replace hosts who either retire or move on in their careers or become less interesting to the audience. Legendary PD Drew Hayes used to say “I like to do my thinking ahead of time.”

Programmers should be scouting talent in smaller markets, auditioning local people, and building relationships with players and coaches who are great talkers and near the end of their careers. Find out who the great storytellers are, who’s funny and possesses a unique personality and fits what you’re trying to do. Then when an opening occurs, you have a short-list of talented options to consider.

Regardless of the success of your station, now is the time to take a good, honest look at it. Where are you most vulnerable? Play by play? A particular daypart or sport? Signal? Imaging? Whatever you find, start working on fixing it today or it will come back to bite you later.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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