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Producing Sports Radio 101

Matt Fishman

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I am fairly certain no one grows up with a burning desire to be a sports radio producer. It’s the producer’s job to make sure the show reaches or exceeds its potential. That takes a lot of work, even when working with the most talented hosts. In this week’s column, I give advice to producers working at local sports stations to help them build their careers. These are skills that I have seen in some of the best local radio producers in the country:

1. Guest Booking

At many (not all) stations, producers are judged first and foremost by their ability to book guests. The bigger the name and the more timely the guest the better. Booking those guests nowadays is a huge challenge. There are more than 500 sports radio stations in the country, five national sports networks, a million sports channels on SiriusXM plus every sports podcast in America looking for the same guests. So how do you as a producer differentiate yourself, your show, and your station?

This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hours and hours and hours of hard work building relationships. You need to build strong relationships with the local teams. Get to know everyone at every level of the organization—media relations, the players, equipment managers, secretaries, front office. Literally anyone you come across. You want everyone with your local sports teams to know you and speak highly of you. 

2. Managing Talent

If you can master managing talent, you will survive a long time in this business. The Score’s first PD Ron Gleason, now at WBBM Newsradio in Chicago, crystallized managing talent in one sentence early in my career, “What makes them (hosts) great on the air is what makes them hard to deal with off the air.” In other words, good talent can react strongly in an instant to anything going on or happening—which is great for a talk show, not so great for trying to have a logical, off-air conversation. 

Image result for ron gleason wbbm

Managing talent as a producer comes down to being able to learn how to think like your hosts do. You have to know how they will react to anything–guest, topic, bit, anything you bring their way before you talk to them about it. You also have to know how they like to be communicated with. Phone call, text, email, Facebook chat and how frequently. I think the frequency of communication gets overlooked. A producer can drive a host crazy by either under or over communicating. Finding the right balance and knowing that it’s not a set number but a feel. If a major news story or trade happens, you are going to communicate more than you would on a regular day/night. 

3.  Audio

You have to remember that this is sports radio. The audio you use gives you the radio part. Otherwise it’s just a host or two hosts talking. I would break the audio down into three categories: 

  • News audio–sound bytes and highlights from a recent game or press conference that adds flavor and fits in with one of the major topics of the day.
  • Show staples–the regular pieces that are part of the show. I’m talking about opens and drops that you use on a daily basis and during regular segments or bits. 
  • Creative audio–this is stuff that is typically produced and is fresh. It can pair something a host said with other audio, music, movie/tv drops etc. It’s great when you can bring something back that a host, caller or guest said and have it produced with something clever. Include parody songs and clever rejoins in this category as well. 

The key to being good at this, frankly, is listening. Not just having your ears open but listening with intent. You need to hear something that triggers something else. No one is better than this than Dan McNeil. The Score’s afternoon host has remarkable recall and can think of something somebody says and what audio would go great with it. Luckily that rubbed off on me at least a little bit.

Here’s an example. A couple weeks back I was listening to The Fan in Columbus the Monday after the Buckeyes loss to Purdue. Their very talented afternoon host “Common Man” was going on this rant and was emphasizing that Ohio State doesn’t lose to Purdue and was really emphasizing “Purdue.” All I could think about was the famous Bobby Knight rant where part of it was him saying, “I did not come here to lose to fucking Purdue!”

Common Man’s rant interspersed with the Knight clip would have been a priceless use of fresh audio–the rant, with the infamous audio from Bob Knight. For more about audio on sports radio stations, check out my previous column here: https://barrettsportsmedia.com/what-happened-to-the-sound-in-sports-radio/

4. Show Prep

Nothing varies more widely than the amount of show prep hosts do, how much they want from the producer, and how they want it. It’s insane the differences. I’ve seen hosts who literally just want the show run-down of guest and segments for that day. Other hosts need or want pages and pages of show prep on everything scheduled and everything that could possibly be talked about.

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For the host, it’s about a comfort level. Some hosts don’t want too much prep to get in the way of doing their show, some want to do all the prep themselves, and some don’t want to do any prep. Give the hosts what they need to sound like the smartest, funniest, most prepared talent in America. 

I understand that today more and more is asked of the show producers. Many producers also do updates, run their own board while screening calls and updating social media and show podcasts. I’m not saying the advice is easy, but these are four areas where you can really differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. 

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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