A lot of program directors at sports radio stations are walking an unfamiliar tightrope right now. It is so much easier for hosts to be creative and not stick to sports during this global pandemic, that if it weren’t for the upcoming NFL Draft, sports news would be almost entirely on the back burner in favor of lifestyle topics and talking about Covid-19’s effects on daily life.
It’s very different in the news talk format. Not only is Covid-19 the A-topic. It’s topics B, C, and D as well. That kind of deep mining of a single subject for content is not uncommon in a format built around hosts that can use the color of a tie to carry a three-hour show about a politician’s patriotism, or lack thereof. Even on those stations though, sometimes it takes a news story of this magnitude to completely remove sports from the conversation.
“It honestly takes a worldwide pandemic to take the Cowboys out of the news cycle!” Kevin Graham, program director of WBAP in Dallas tells me when I ask if his station even has room for a sliver of Cowboys draft talk right now. “But yes, the NFL Draft does have a presence just for the fact many of our listeners are fans and looking for a distraction at times to all this virus coverage. While we won’t break players down etc. like a sports radio show would, our morning news shows will dedicate some time whether it’s a guest or just sharing general observations on the draft and who the Cowboys pick.”
Talk radio is talk radio. The same strategies and concepts that make sports talk stations and hosts successful can work in the news talk format as well. It’s why so many PDs have a foot in both worlds.
I spoke with four PDs. Two of them are currently programming both sports and talk stations. The other two transitioned away from sports and into the news talk world. Kevin Graham, for instance, programmed sports talk stations in New York, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Boston before taking the plunge into news.
“Obviously there is nothing I can think of that rivals this once in a lifetime pandemic but the approach to our coverage is no different than when you’re involved with a local sports story or event,” Graham says. “Whether it’s a Super Bowl run or covering ‘Deflate Gate’ in Boston, where that news cycle ebbed and flowed daily, it’s how you present the information, image your brand around it, and most importantly guide and allow your personalities to be their authentic selves.
“Much like a championship run your talent is right in the middle of the story, right there with the listeners. You encourage them to be in the moment, to relate what they are going through, provide the information that is important as well as opinions and entertainment as warranted.”
“What we do see is that as much as this is a national story, it is truly about the local audience that the station serves,” says Scott Masteller. The program director of WBAL ran ESPN Radio from 2001 until 2014. Prior to that, he spent eight years running local sports stations in Portland, Salt Lake City, and Lexington, KY. He told me that one thing he learned in sports that has helped shape his philosophy for WBAL’s coverage of Covid-19 is that the local angle is always the most important.
“In sports radio, it is all about the LOCAL team that you cover on a daily basis. With COVID-19, it truly is about the state of Maryland, Baltimore, and surrounding communities. Whenever we carry local news events we see the consumption of content increase.”
Part of that local approach for an audience in San Diego is talking about the military’s relationship to the pandemic. Brian Long is the program director of XTRA Sports 1360 and news/talker KOGO. He says that his audience on both stations is full of people with a personal connection to the Navy.
“The military is huge in this town. It often feels like everyone you interact with is connected to someone in the service. We do take those military stories seriously and want to make sure we are covering them with the appropriate approach.”
Graham says that there is plenty that sports stations can do right now to make the most of being in the same building as a news/talk station. Adding news updates at the top and bottom go the hour he says is the most obvious move, but it is important to stay true to what your audience wants and expects when they turn on your station.
“I don’t think there is one formula to follow. It depends on your brand, market and the relationship you have with listeners. As a long time sports program director I feel for all my friends in that format right now having to make the decisions on how to cover this in addition to providing great content with no sports.”
Spike Eskin programs 94 WIP and talk station 1210 WPHT for Entercom in Philadelphia. I asked him if he was making an effort to find the balance between talking about Covid-19 and covering any news about the Eagles leading up to draft night.
“My only instruction to them regarding the Covid-19 situation has centered around two basic things: first, we’re not experts, and we’re not a news source for Covid-19 information, that’s what (sister station) KYW Newsradio is for. Second, we should always be thinking about what sort of lives our listeners are living right now, and find our best way to relate to them and provide what they need and want from 94WIP,” he said. “Maybe it’s an escape from the constant bombardment of bad news in other places, or an escape from long days of working at home (or not working at all). In a lot of ways, us talking about the Eagles and the NFL Draft could be something that our listeners depend on for a sense of normalcy, and a look ahead to when things are normal (whatever that means) again.”
I asked Eskin what the Covid-19 conversation sounds like on each of his stations. He said nothing is off-limits for one station that isn’t for the other, but there is a clear place where the two diverge in their coverage.
“The similarities is in what the listeners of each station are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s grocery shopping, being around your family 24/7, a loss of normalcy and a fear of the present and the future,” Eskin says. “The difference exists in that WPHT is far, far, far more involved in the ins and outs of what’s actually happening with government decisions regarding how to handle the return to work, and how government decisions have affected where we are.”
Brian Long agrees with Eskin. He told me that there is some room for hosts on KOGO to talk about Covid-19 and social distancing from a lifestyle perspective like the hosts on XTRA Sports do, but the audience’s expectations dictate that KOGO serves a very specific purpose right now.
“I think it’s possible and encouraged at some level. I do however, think it’s important to remember that in times like these, new listeners are coming to a station like KOGO for real information not speculation. You wouldn’t want your news hosts to be speculating on the details of a serious story rather want them to stick to the facts from experts in the field etc. Having said that, you may give an opinion based talk host some latitude to engage in a more lifestyle approach on these heavy issues.”
Masteller is in a very unique boat. There are few PDs in the country that are as equipped to deal with social distancing on air as he is.
I asked him if his experience running ESPN Radio prepared him for running a station with a staff spread all over the place. He told me that it did, because he knows how important it is to over-communicate with your staff when you aren’t regularly face-to-face.
“From video conferences, to phone calls to e-mails it is all about the details. Making sure everyone is on the same page. It’s also so important to give recognition to the content team for the great job that they are doing every day to serve the listeners and the community,” he said. “It is also important to make sure that there is ongoing feedback being given to talent and production staff on a daily basis so that they receive support and encouragement.”
Sports hosts have had to be hyper-focused on local stories and ready to pivot on a dime from the moment they first got a shot to be on air. Talking to these programmers, it is clear that a sports radio mentality can prepare you for a lot, maybe even a global pandemic.
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.