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Are Callers Still Essential To Sports Talk Radio?

“Some sports talk radio shows have begun to abstain from having callers on the air altogether, instead transitioning to new avenues of engagement centered around the multimedia platforms that people use most.”

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Frank Mortensen

The phone is ringing off the hook. The buttons, glowing in an assortment of different hues, are indicative of listener engagement, with a genuine interest in what is being discussed. And the more the phone rings, the better. There’s no harm in having too many callers. Is there?

As sports talk radio’s dissemination has broadened across multiple platforms, the inclusion of audience interaction directly with the hosts of the show has remained constant, with some shows even including it in their daily rundowns. However, including callers on the air just for the sake of adding a new voice to the show is frequently being diminished in its practice, with show producers realizing the importance in putting the right callers on the air.

The role of a caller is beginning to be thought of as an additional enhancement to the listener experience, rather than a standard by which to judge the success of a show. Resultant upon this shift in psyche, the art of call screening; that is, preparing a listener to go live on a sports radio show, has become more than just saying: “Please hold.”

“Screening calls has always been a bit of a challenge, but it’s critical to verify the content that the caller is bringing to the table,” said Steve Bute, assistant program director and producer of The Drill on 1010 XL/92.5 Jax Sports Radio, Jacksonville. “The ability to dial seven digits doesn’t necessarily facilitate your passage to the airwaves.”

While it may seem superficial on the outside, call screening is indeed a thorough process that ensures the on-air hosts interact with people prepared to make a point about or take a new angle related to the topic at-hand, giving the hosts something new on which to expound. Occasionally, callers will partake in some debate, but often, their appearance on the airwaves is as swift as possible.

“Ideally, the caller comes on [with] a focused, brief point — they make it — then, if it’s obvious that they understand the flow and dynamic of what their role is, we move on,” said Michael Lefko, producer of Wyman & Bob on ESPN 710 AM Seattle. “Sometimes, they are rambling [because] they may not be used to being on the radio — then, you have them almost hijacking the segment.”

Sports fans, often passionate and zealous, may unintentionally struggle to formulate a cogent, succinct point, instead speaking impetuously about whatever is on their mind. As they speak to more callers, screeners have been able to find ways to quickly get the listener to focus and get their point out.

“A guy I used to work with [got callers] to take a deep breath and calm down, [then] took everything they said, and summarized it back to them,” reminisced Aaron Raybould, producer of The Blitz on ESPN 97.5 Houston. “He had that understanding that brevity is such a good thing in talk radio because the caller can be there to give an opinion and then let the hosts take off with it.” 

Being concise is vital for radio shows implementing callers, and when a caller does not let the host speak or continuously cuts them off, the producer or the host must take action to maintain the quality of the on-air product.

“You have to have an assertive host who will just drop the caller or interrupt them,” said Lefko. “Our hosts have the ability to drop the caller. I don’t think there’s any malice with that. The callers are in a supporting role with our hosts on the air.”

Evolving technology and distribution has brought enhancements to call screening, assisting both the producer and the hosts in ensuring that new voices are being heard. Those who call in to radio shows frequently, while they are appreciated, render themselves more of a nuisance to other listeners eager to hear new perspectives from the hosts and the occasional new caller.

“I will always take a first-time caller over someone who has been on the radio station multiple times,” said Al Dukes, executive producer of Boomer & Gio on WFAN New York. “We have the software now that tells us how many times each caller has called in, [so] I don’t pick up the frequent ones anymore; I have no interest in them.”

“I think there is still value in doing pre-recorded calls instead of [taking] live calls,” said Declan Goff, producer of Mackey & Judd and Purple Daily at SKOR North Minneapolis. “When you pre-record a call, it gives you a safer space. The hardest part about doing anything live is that you only have one take, whereas if you do it pre-recorded, you can take your time and do it a couple of times to get the right point out.”

While there are callers who enhance the on-air product by complementing the hosts with compelling, shrewd opinions on sports, finding and hearing from them is less common than ever before, largely due to advances in technology.

“Over the years that I’ve been doing this, I like the callers less and less,” said Dukes. “I like a caller that can add something to the discussion that we don’t already know or [something that] the host hasn’t already said. To me, there’s not a lot of them. The longer I go, the less calls we are using.”

Listening to other radio shows is something producers often do to determine how they will structure and/or innovate their own program. Something that is often remonstrated and being moved away from is the tendency for some radio shows to take a large number of callers at once, or to talk to the same caller every day for their opinion.

“I’ve heard other shows that take caller after caller where they ramble or it’s the same caller every single day and it becomes boring,” said Paul Reindl, executive producer of Ben & Woods on 97.3 The Fan San Diego. “We don’t want to do that; we try to keep it limited and on topic for us.”

As a result, some sports talk radio shows have begun to abstain from having callers on the air altogether, instead transitioning to new avenues of engagement centered around the multimedia platforms that people use most, most notably those centered around the advent of the smartphone.

“We do not take live phone calls,” said Brad Barnes, producer of FastLane on 101 ESPN St. Louis. “We have a text line that is available for us at all times, along with a mic drop feature on our app where people can leave a 30-second snippet of whatever they want. It’s worked out a lot better for us because we can control what content goes out [and are] able to get straight to the meat of the conversation.”

Other terrestrial radio stations, such as SKOR North Minneapolis, are shifting their avenues of audience to incorporate visuals with the audio being broadcast. They are utilizing the transmission of video through live social media streams and conferencing platforms to include listeners in the conversation in ways never before possible. 

“An AM or FM dial can reach thousands of people, but you are pigeonholing yourself in where you want to target,” said Goff. “The thing with radio and where it’s heading is that you need to look at other spaces where you can maximize fan engagement. We have now transitioned [from taking traditional calls] to having people on our video screen with us. It’s been a rewarding experience because they feel like they are more of a part of the show. Being able to be digitally-focused has added a completely new element for us which has been really fun to see.”

Changes in consumption trends that were already taking place prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were starting to catalyze evolution; however, it was not until the worsening of the pandemic in which radio stations had to react to a changing world — and fast.

“The traditional workplace has changed,” said Lefko. “If someone is working and has us on in the background, they can write out a text and send it to the text line. On Twitter, we will put out a question or a video clip that will generate engagement. I think it feels like they engage in the same way a phone call used to do.”

Some producers believe that audience interaction hinders radio broadcasts, putting the focus on subsets of the listening population rather than the on-air hosts, one of the principal factors as to why people are listening in the first place. Al Dukes of WFAN believes producers and hosts should act in the best interests of their listeners, many of whom listen to hear the hosts instead of guests or callers.

“For the longest time when you would talk about your show, it would be ‘How was the show today?’ ‘Good, who’d you have on?’ That does not matter for my show; it does not determine if I had a good show or not. I love talking about callers and guests, and to me, the less of both of them the better, but it puts a lot of reliance on show hosts and contributors. The shows really need to rely on those people — not callers and guests. I think [sports radio would] be better for it.”

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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