The last six weeks haven’t been easy for sports media brands throughout the country, whether they’re a small business or publicly traded company.
For 93.1 The Fan in Lima, Ohio they weren’t far removed from challenges of their own when the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented shutdown of sports and the economy. Last October, The Fan’s longtime weekday host and play-by-play voice Vince Koza was diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to step away from his role with the station. In January, Koza succumbed to the disease.
As a member of the Associated Press Ohio Broadcasters Hall of Fame and a prominent voice on The Fan for over a decade, the station was tasked with replacing a local icon. Launching a new show presented its own challenge for the station and new afternoon host Marty Bannister, but they soon had to deal with the sports shutdown and vast economic impacts of a global pandemic.
Salary reductions, layoffs and furloughs for national sports media brands made mainstream news, but smaller market companies are equally impacted. Privately owned radio stations might not be dealt the hand of reducing a seven-figure salary, but those mom and pop media companies still represent a chunk of the broadcast industry.
I spoke with Garrett Searight, 93.1 The Fan program director and producer of The Drive With Marty Bannister to see how The Fan is dealing with the negative impacts of COVID-19.
Brandon Contes: How has the business side of 93.1 The Fan been during the last couple of months? Have you seen a significant impact in your number of advertisers, sponsors and clients?
Garrett Searight: We saw a big drop off right at the start. Those weren’t a fun couple of days for our sales team. I understood the apprehension and concern from our clients, but it was difficult. The vast majority of anyone who wasn’t a restaurant, either cancelled or cut back by 50%. This week, though, we’ve started to see a shift and sales pick up a bit. There’s some hope because the governor of Ohio has been talking about reopening part of the state a little at a time beginning May 1st.
BC: Are most of your clients locally owned businesses?
GS: Yeah, which is something we’ve talked about, because some other stations in town are iHeart owned. They get national spots that companies are buying on thousands of iHeart stations, while we’re hitting up mom and pop shops that are working from home or offer a non-contact service. It’s an extra challenge for our sales team and you need really strong relationships with these folks. But I would say about 80% of our advertising comes from small, locally owned businesses.
BC: With the clients you have lost, are there ways you look to maintain a relationship with them so if Ohio does start opening back up May 1st, those clients are looking to you with their advertising budget?
GS: A lot of our sellers are really good about that because we can’t just say ‘hey! this station is the top-rated rock station in the market!’ We build relationships where our clients trust our salespeople and know there’s no BS. Our sales team stays in contact with those clients, so they know we’re still here for them.
BC: What about having less commercials, how are you filling those spots? Has it increased the amount of content you need to create in an hour for your local show?
GS: It’s changed, we were doing a SportsCenter update every 20 minutes during our local show and we stopped it recently because the volume of topics to talk about and update listeners on just isn’t there. That creates six more minutes of content you have to fill each hour and then your spot blocks go from four minutes to 90 seconds, so we’ve had to rearrange the format of the show a little bit. Instead of 44 minutes of talking in an hour, it’s now more than 50 minutes and that’s during a time when everyone’s looking for things to talk about. It presents a challenge, but it’s also not a bad thing to have more time for longer form interviews, or delve deeper into different topics.
BC: You have one local weekday show?
GS: Yeah, 4 – 6p with Marty Bannister and then we had a Saturday morning show from 8 – 10a that we put on hiatus for now because those hosts, one is a financial planner and the other works with the Chamber of Commerce. They’re sports hosts, but when it’s not your full-time job, it’s difficult to find two hours of content without sports.
BC: And what about evening programming, did you carry local play-by-play, and was that impacted?
GS: We carry girls high school basketball, there’s also a local college that we did 10 of their 25 games. But the majority of it was finished by the time everything shutdown. In Ohio, they cancelled seasons about 20 minutes before the first girl’s state semifinal.
BC: For those local broadcasts, are the announcers hired by the station?
GS: Yeah, we’ve got a rotating group of announcers. And if you go back a bit, station programming was largely built around Vince Coza who hosted our daily show and did a lot of play-by-play. In October, he found out he had stage IV cancer and passed away in early January. So from late September through now, there’s been a lot of upheaval, change and challenges.
BC: I do think there’s something to be said for small market radio stations being used to dealing with abnormalities. Not to say that anyone could have prepared for this pandemic, but running a small business, you’ve had unexpected issues pop up before.
GS: When everything started getting cancelled, our boss asked what are we going to do with the show? My initial reaction was to shut it down and turn on The Will Cain Show. But then I thought, well that’s kind of a crappy, take the easy way out approach – so we stayed with our local show.
Our market manager Allen Willis would send me articles from Barrett Sports Media about what other stations are doing. But a station like 101 ESPN in St. Louis, might have more people working on one show than we have in our entire building! It’s different, we’re not apples to apples here, but we’re experienced in problem solving and going through challenges.
BC: And now looking back, how do you feel about the decision to keep the show going?
GS: I’m really happy we didn’t just take the easy way out. People are going to remember who was there for them, who put in the effort and who tried when everything turned. We’re in the same boat as our listeners. All of our lives have been disrupted and it’s been a good way to connect with our audience and say, ‘we’re in this, just the same way you are.’ It brings an authenticity to the show that I don’t know if a syndicated simulcast from New York City could’ve had.
BC: Because you’re going through this together with the audience, has it helped listeners connect with Marty as the new afternoon host?
GS: For Marty, it’s definitely not easy to step in and replace someone who was a prominent voice in this market for years. But when two months into your full-time stint replacing that person, everybody has to go home and stay there for who knows how long, it’s pretty endearing to be a steady voice for everyone, every day. Now you also have more time to talk and build those connections because it’s not as fast paced of a show that we’re used to. It’s a slower speed and you do get to know somebody that much more because of the situation we’re in.
BC: Are there things you’ve implemented into the show as a way of trying something new since you don’t have games to react to everyday?
GS: Actually, on Monday we’re starting a segment called ‘Football 4:15’ because no matter what, it’s always football season on sports radio here. Even without sports, no matter what day it is, we can still talk Ohio State football, high school football, Bengals, Browns, it doesn’t matter. So every day at 4:15 we’re talking football. We’ve had segments where we talk to local golf course owners or the city Parks and Rec Department about how they’ve been impacted, while also getting information out there regarding new schedules for local baseball, tee ball and other youth sports. It’s been nice to offer more community-based content that we may not have time for in a two hour show when the world is normal.
BC: How about when sports do return, will some of these changes carry into the future? Maybe you keep commercial time down or continue with some local spotlights?
GS: The longer we’ve gone without doing SportsCenters, I’ve thought about if it’s better to have more time to talk instead of me just regurgitating that Francisco Lindor hit a homerun last night. There are things to reevaluate. And I’ve told my bosses this, I don’t think we’re just doing good shows considering the circumstances, I think we’ve been creating really good shows even if everything in the sports world was normal. And since we’re all working from home, now we know we can take the show on the road more if we need to for our clients. We can do remotes more easily than I ever thought we could. So we’ll look back at what we liked from this time frame and see what changes to implement going forward.
BC: Have you seen more website or social media traffic in recent weeks?
GS: Social media is up, our Facebook numbers have been up and Facebook isn’t typically the ideal social media platform for a sports station. But now we’ve started producing more content for Facebook and Twitter and our audience has reacted pretty positively to those videos and engagements. That’s something we’ll certainly look at continuing in the future.
BC: Do you know if the company applied for or received small business loans?
GS: Yeah, we did, and we did get approved which is certainly reassuring. We see other markets and how it’s not going great for people even in larger markets and big media companies. So it’s good to have that reassurance and know we have some financial help.
BC: How long could the station operate without that assistance?
GS: That’s a good question. Part of the good of being a small company and part of the bad of being a small company, is that you are frugal. You’re used to finding corners to cut and save where you can. It’s something we’ve been cognizant of for years and maybe helped prepare us for this.
BC: Did the station have to make any personnel cuts?
GS: No, we’ve been lucky that everybody is still on. There was discussion of having five furlough days before the end of May, but even that was deemed not necessary for now.
BC: Is the unknown exciting in a way? The priority is to survive into next week and next month, but you’re also balancing finding ways to grow and build a better radio station.
GS: I’ve looked at it as, if we shoot for thriving and miss – at least we’re surviving. If I shoot for surviving and miss, then we’re in trouble. Let’s not think about whether or not we’re going to make it through the month, let’s try to win a Marconi this month and if we miss? We’ll still be doing alright.
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.