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Can Sports Radio Prepare You To Cover A Pandemic?

“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.”

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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.

Kevin Graham

“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.”

Career Dayand TV Station Tour

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.

BSM Writers

Sam Mayes Got A Raw Deal But Tyler Media Made The Right Call

“You are being naive if you think a company should stand behind an employee that has put themselves in this situation.”

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I do not envy whoever at Tyler Media had to make a decision about Sam Mayes’s future with the company after audio of a private conversation in 2016 was leaked to the media. Mayes and now-former co-worker Cara Rice made a few racist jokes at the expense of Native Americans.

The recording, according to Mayes, was made without his knowledge and leaked illegally. He says in a recorded statement that he should have been given the opportunity to address the recording on air and make amends.

OKC Radio Host Sam Mayes Fired After Racist Audio is Leaked

Maybe that is true, maybe it isn’t. I hate for Sam to lose his job as the result of an illegal recording of a private conversation, but the fact is, that conversation isn’t private anymore. Tyler Media didn’t really have an option here. Sam Mayes had to go.

Someone had an illegal recording of the conversation and created an anonymous email account to send it to people in the Oklahoma City media. I was shown a copy of the email. The author states clearly that their goal is to see Mayes and Rice out of a job. There is nothing fair or just about that person getting exactly what they want. It feels slimy. I can’t say that it feels like it wasn’t the right call though.

We have debated whether or not someone should lose their job over comments made in a private conversation many times before. It happens in every field. It wasn’t long ago at all that we were having this same debate about Jon Gruden. His emails to Bruce Allen and others were sent in private. Is it fair he had to go when they were made public? No matter what horrible things were in there, they were said with the understanding that it would stay between friends.

I am going to say the same thing about Sam Mayes that I did about Gruden when that story first broke. You are being naive if you think a company should stand behind an employee that has put themselves in this situation.

You read that right. The circumstances of how the conversations in these examples came to light are absolutely unfair, but the conversations came to light. How it happened is irrelevant. Any sponsor or boss that stands behind Sam Mayes or Jon Gruden would be endorsing the language they used, either inadvertently or very much on purpose. Try explaining that to a sponsor.

People at Tyler Media may know Sam Mayes’s heart. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy. The fact of the matter is, once the audio became public, their hands were tied. There is no mistaking what was said or who said it.

How can any seller or manager take Mayes to advertisers now? How can they put him in front of the Lucky Star Casino, one of the station’s biggest advertisers? They can ask for an audience to let Sam explain himself and try to make amends. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes, who own the casino, are under no obligation to forgive or even listen.

All About the Lucky Star Casino in El Reno, Concho
Courtesy: TripAdvisor/Adam Knapp

Maybe the day will come where Sam Mayes bounces back. I hope it does. I hope he gets the chance to address his comments with members of Oklahoma’s Native American community and listen to what they have to say in response. I do think it sucks that this is how his time at The Franchise comes to an end, but I get it.

If I have to explain to you why not to say dumb, racist shit, then I don’t think we have much to talk about. But, it is worth noting that the recording of Mayes and Rice’s conversation is proof that privacy is always an assumption, not always a fact.

In his audio statement, Mayes admits it is his voice on the recording. He also says that he was uncomfortable with Rice’s comments and he tried to end their conversation. I’ll take him at his word, but I will also point out that before he tried to end the conversation, he joined in on the jokes. Maybe when someone says that Native Americans are “too drunk to organize” it isn’t a great idea to respond. All it leads to is proof of you saying something dumb and racist.

Again, I’ll reiterate that how these comments came to light is unfair, but they did come to light. That is Sam Mayes’s voice on the recording. He is joining in on the jokes about Native Americans being drunks and addicts. At the end of the day, the only thing that was done to him was the audio being released. He fully and willingly committed the firable offense.

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What is the response to a client or potential client when they bring that up? All Tyler Media can do is try to recover and move forward. The company cannot do that with Mayes on the payroll.

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BSM Writers

Stop Prospecting, Start Strategizing!

“You cannot put a price tag on authenticity. It’s very rare and hard to find these days.”

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Struggling to get new business appointments? Dreading making prospecting calls? Having trouble writing creative emails that seemingly never get a response?

Generating responses to new business outreach is easier than you think. Just make sure you do your homework first and keep it “Simple Stupid”.

To do that, start with asking yourself these (3) simple questions:

#1: Did I do my home work on the business itself, their competition and those I plan on reaching out to?

#2: If I were on the other end of the phone and/or email with myself would I want to engage in conversation and/or reply to that email?

#3: Am I prepared to make a one call close given the opportunity to?

If the answer to any of these is “No”… do NOT pick up the phone and by all means do NOT hit the send button on that initial outreach email! Doing so will all but ensure you fall flat on your face. On the off chance you do happen to get the decision maker on the phone you won’t make that great first impression that sometimes can be so crucial. First impressions are always important… ALWAYS!

Skipping over these critical steps is a sure-fire way to ensure your email is completely ignored and will not generate the engagement from the prospect you’d hope for. Successful prospecting is all about the front end digging and research. Do your homework first then strategize a plan of attack for your call and/or email. Taking these extra measures on the front end is absolutely “Mission Critical” and will set you up for much more success with your prospecting endeavors.

Now once you’ve answered “Yes” to all of the above, you’re ready to attack with the knowledge and confidence that should set you a part from your competition. It’s all about the Game Plan, and if you don’t have one, you’re destined for failure time and time again. Incorporate these (5) things into your prospecting Game Plan for your next call/email and watch your results dramatically improve:

#1: MAKE IT PERSONAL & CASUAL – Be informal, find out something interesting about them.

#2: MAKE IT SHORT & CONCISE – Be straight forward and to the point, people are busy.

#3: MAKE IT TIMELY & RELEVANT TO THEM AND/OR THEIR BUSINESS – Give them a good Valid Business Reason.

#4: MAKE IT INTERESTING, COMPELLING & INFORMATIVE – Be the expert they’re missing.

#5: MAKE IT FUN – Fun people are easy to do business with and make it less like “work”.

Lastly, and most importantly, Be Yourself! You cannot put a price tag on authenticity. It’s very rare and hard to find these days. When clients do find it trust me, they value it and appreciate it way more than you’ll ever know!

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BSM Writers

Good Producers Can Teach The World A Lot About Christmas

“A lot has to be accomplished in the lead-up to Christmas. So much of it happens in the background without much recognition.”

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Who is Carl Christmas in your house? Who is the one that makes sure everyone that needs to get a card does? Who comes up with the plan for the lights? Who takes the reins on the shopping?

Chevy Chase, aka Clark Griswold, to light up stage in Berks | Berks  Regional News | wfmz.com
Courtesy: Warner Bros./National Lampoon

Every home needs one and in my house, that’s me. December (including the last week of November) is my time to shine, baby!

One thing I have tried to impress upon my mom and wife this year is that shipping and supply chain delays are real. So, if you are planning on procrastinating on your online shopping this year (you know, like usual) someone (me) is going to have no presents under the tree.

Veteran producers are used to operate this way. Young producers, listen up. Your job involves the most delicate balance of any in sports radio. You have to help bring your host’s and PD’s visions to life. That means you have to be able to take their direction. But you also have to keep the host on target. That means you cannot be afraid to be forceful and lead when the moment demands it.

There’s no value to being an unrepentant asshole to people, but you do have to hold them accountable. Look at that Christmas shopping example again. If you want to get what you want, you need to keep on task the people you know aren’t paying attention to the potential roadblocks. It isn’t selfish. It is making sure everyone gets the holiday W they are expecting. Sure, you would be disappointed if your gift doesn’t arrive on time, but so will the gift giver.

Being a stickler for the clock or moving a host off of a topic that has no value is the same thing. Of course there is something in it for you, but you are also helping the host do his or her job better. They may get annoyed with you now, but if you save them from an ass-chewing from the bosses or slipping ratings, then they have reaped the benefits.

I guess the unfortunate difference here is that there may be no acknowledgment of what you did or helped them to avoid. Oh well. Every producer has to expect a certain level of thanklessness.

Producers have to take on that Carl Christmas role in dealing with sales too. Remember, just because the producer’s name isn’t on the show doesn’t mean that isn’t every bit his or her show that it is the hosts’.

It’s like decorating your house for the holidays. You may have a certain design in mind. Maybe you have a traditional look you stick to every year. If your spouse or your kid comes home with a giant, inflatable Santa Claus in a military helicopter that they want on the lawn, you have a decision to make. Are you going to say no and suggest an alternative that aligns more with your goal or are you going to let your plan get run over?

25 Best Christmas Inflatables - Top Inflatable Christmas Decorations

Sales has a job to do. It is to make sure their clients’ messages are heard and to make money for the station. Both can be accomplished without sacrificing your show’s quality.

If a seller comes to you and says he wants his client to come in for five minutes and talk about now being the time to book an appointment to have your garage floors redone, you have to speak up. You have an obligation to make sure that the seller knows that even five minutes of that will hurt the show and have listeners diving for the preset buttons on their car stereo. That isn’t good for the station or his client.

Instead, offer to work with the seller and the client to come up with a piece of content that the client can put his name on and a 20-second ad read behind. Will the audience stick around to listen to some dude named Jerry talk about garage floors or will more people listen to you talk about the NFL playoff picture in a creative way and then still be there to hear Jerry’s message about garage floors? The answer seems obvious.

A lot has to be accomplished in the lead-up to Christmas. So much of it happens in the background without much recognition. If the background work wasn’t done though, the problems would be right out on the front lawn for everyone to see.

“Gatekeeper” is a term I really hate. It implies that someone is telling others what they are and are not allowed to enjoy. It is a necessary term though to properly describe what it is that a great producer and a great Carl Christmas do.

We don’t shut people out from being able to enjoy or be a part of what it is we are creating. We set or are handed down expectations and we block anything that can get in the way of achieving them. Sometimes, that is more thankless work than it should be. It is necessary though.

Kevin Anderson on Twitter: "Just noticed that I've been blocked by the  international civil aviation authority @icao Have others working on  aviation emissions also been blocked? Appears to be that their commitment

As my home’s self-appointed Carl Christmas and a former producer, let me give my countrymen the thanks others forget. We are the ones that make it possible for everyone else to be mindless. Wear it as a badge of honor. We may not get the kind of recognition we deserve everyday, but when plans go off without a hitch, we are usually the first to be recognized for making it happen.

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