Owning a radio station requires you to wear a lot of different hats. There’s making sure the sales staff is functioning properly and being profitable. evaluating the on-air programming, managing egos, hiring new talent, paying bills, advertising, and installing social media strategies just to name a few. Oh, and all the while you’ve likely invested a huge amount of money and are hoping to recoup it.
Randy Laffoon started his venture as a sports radio station owner in 2009 after a successful run in the cell phone business. As a business owner, he used sports radio to advertise Norman Cellular, and found the listening audience to be very loyal. So when the opportunity presented itself, he purchased KREF SportsTalk 1400 in Norman, OK and began his journey into the sports radio business.
Laffoon just so happens to own the station I do my daily show at. It’s in a college town, but also 20 minutes away from Oklahoma City, so our station could be labeled as a small market brand, but with a nearby metropolitan area, it makes for an interesting discussion.
“I’d say it’s more of a medium market,” said Laffoon. “It’s a little difficult, traffic wise, to get to Oklahoma City. We have a pretty loyal following and people that want to shop Norman. But it’s difficult because they say we’re too small to compete in Oklahoma City, yet anytime they want us to carry something out of Oklahoma City, the say, oh, you’re an Oklahoma City market station. So they use it against us and it makes it difficult.”
Though Laffoon didn’t have prior experience in radio before buying the station, he saw an upcoming trend that he believed would change the format. Along with that came an understanding that there was a difference between selling in retail, and selling sports radio.
“I felt like radio was going to move towards the smart phone, which it has” said Laffoon. “But one of the shortcomings is that there’s only one source of income, which is advertising. So that was a little bit of difference from being in retail.”
As an owner of a station, time consumption is important. You can’t be in every office at once so you have to identify and figure out where your time is best spent. Laffoon is at the station every day and conducts most, if not all, of the meetings in the building. But with an owner that’s so hands-on, there still needs to be a decision on where to focus the majority of your energy.
“From a programming standpoint, as you know, we leave you all alone,” said Laffoon. “For the most part, you guys do your thing. That comes from having good people who care about the product. I would say the one thing that surprised me was that I spent so little time on programming and it was because my time needed to be spent on selling advertising. I felt like I bought a lot of advertising before, so I could sell it (radio). We’re better at it now than when we first started but it’s difficult. It’s not easy.”
But how did Laffoon arrive at that decision?
“Based on your payroll you just see what it takes to survive,” Laffoon said. “When that number is as big as it is, because this is an expensive format, every time you hear a voice, if somebody’s talking, we’re paying to hear that voice. Whether it’s $10 an hour or $10,000 an hour, we’re paying to hear it. It was apparent to me, right out of the gate, I was going to spend the majority of my time selling. And that’s what I do.”
SportsTalk 1400 doesn’t subscribe to ratings. But that doesn’t stop Laffoon and his sales team from creating a healthy amount of revenue. They’re not selling a number, instead, they’ve found a replacement to make up for it.
“It’s all relationships,” Laffoon said. “It wasn’t rated when I used it for 18 years at my cell phone stores, but I knew people came in because of it because they’d tell me. People want to buy locally. If they understood Arbitron, the base word of Arbitron is arbitrary, so you have 800 diaries spread out across the metroplex. A Norman based business is not going to show up in certain instances, because you’re competing with all of Oklahoma City. You have to pay for that rating. For us it would be a losing proposition monetarily.”
For a host, it can be extremely beneficial when a station leans on selling with relationships. Whether it’s interacting with clients on social media, befriending them in public, or something as simple as taking an interest in their business. The salesperson may do all the work in landing the client, but the host can still put in the effort to help them retain the business.
“At times we’ve had trouble getting people to promote businesses, because they don’t see it,” Laffoon said. “If you went on sales calls with me for a month you’d get it. They’d see that people do listen and they do care. They are paying for that and we’ve got to do a better job. If the host said every month, what could I do better to help everyone sell, it would make a difference. If I’m a small business owner and you’re mentioning me on the air, there’s no words to how good that makes me feel.”
Selling relationships and producing local content is a strategy that has worked well for Laffoon. If there’s a community event, he wants the station involved in some capacity. Maybe it’s promoting it on the air, doing a live remote, even something as simple as signage at the event can be enough. But nothing will be more ‘Norman’ than his radio station.
That’s why investing so much in the two local high schools is so important to Laffoon. During football season, every game for both teams, home and away, is featured live on the main signal, 1400 AM, along with 98.5 FM, an alternate signal the station leases to a Spanish radio station. Every football game, select basketball, baseball and soccer games, as well as each matchup in every sport between the two high schools, is aired live on the radio and on an internet stream that features a scoreboard and play-by-play commentary.
Laffoon has not only invested in strong coverage of local high school sports, he’s invested in the quality of the content.
“First, it’s exclusive programming,” said Laffoon. “Second, I went through it with my kids and I know how much people enjoy it. I just think it’s one of those things that people find to be both local and community-wide. Plus, were the only people doing it. We have that exclusive content.”
Finding alternate sources of income is a goal of any station owner. For Laffoon, it came thru buying a local Norman publication Boyd Street Magazine. By doing so, he and his sales team can pitch an alternate option to a client, outside of radio ads. It gives the company the option to shift the client’s advertising money to print if they’re not interested in being featured on the radio station. It also gives the hosts of the station the freedom and creativity to have their sports stories featured in the magazine.
“I wish I would’ve diversified sooner,” Laffoon said. “When we bought Boyd Street magazine, it was to have an option, because you’re out there working and people are like, well, I don’t like sports. I don’t feel like my store fits in the sports market. They want to buy from you, they’d like to do business with you, but diversification factors into it. I wish I had done it sooner. I waited seven years.”
When hiring new talent, much like any station owner, Laffoon is very cognizant of people that will fit into the identity of his station. That’s critical. But above all, you better be able to talk about OU and the local sports in town. That may be a given, but Laffoon has built his station into one that’s very OU centric.
“We want to be OU central,” said Laffoon. “Having people that enjoy that and have some connection to it. For years we had trouble getting that and then all of a sudden your morning show host becomes the Voice of the Sooners. Sometimes it’s just luck, which it was for us. But I also think we’ve hired some other really good people. They’re just so expensive when you’re paying for live broadcasts all throughout the day. You look around the country and see stations our size only do live programming during the morning drive and afternoon drive. They’re national radio in between. In this market, everyone that’s on the sports side, for the most part, is live all day. For us to compete, that’s what we feel like we really need to be.”
Taking over any station can be stressful, especially considering all the high-and-lows that come with the first few years on the job. But managing those peaks and valleys are super important to anyone that manages and owns any station, no matter the market.
“One of the things about small business is if you sell something on the way in, you’re driving in going, man this is great, I need to hire some more people, I really need to get after it, I need to advertise, you do all these things,” said Laffoon. “When you drive home and somebody cancels, you’re like, God, I need to get out of this. It’s a roller coaster. I have a lot of good thoughts though about needing to do more and expanding. For the most part, we’ve been blessed. We’re not getting wealthy, but we’re not getting killed, either. We’ve been really lucky over our tenure.”
10 years ago Laffoon saw the future of radio moving more towards smartphones and computers. So, 10 years later, will terrestrial numbers go down and online numbers go up?
“If you’re a 100,000 watt FM station it doesn’t matter, because if you have the internet, you should be just as good as everybody else. I think before long you’ll dock your phone on your dash and that’s how listening will happen,” said Laffoon.
“But still, there’s a big future for radio. I look at David Griffin who owns Channel 9 and Channel 6 and just bought five radio stations in Tulsa. I think he’s a really smart man. I think he’s got one of the best companies in the state. If he’s investing in radio, he either knows something that I don’t, or maybe he knows what I know that there is a big future in this business. I certainly feel that there is. I’m sure he’s looking at TV with Hulu, Facebook, and others emerging and that’s a tough path for local television. Radio doesn’t have that interference right now and that’s a good thing.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.