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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

How Does Your Show Change When Your Market Grows?

“Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.”

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The population of the United States is always shifting. In our history, there have been migrations from the East Coast to the West, from the rural towns of the South to the major cities of the Northeast. Right now, it is from cities where it stays cold and expensive into places where it is warmer and cheaper.

Raleigh is the 2nd fastest growing large metro in the US | Carolina  Demography
Courtesy: Carolina Demography

We see it all the time with Nielsen market sizes. What was yesterday’s top 50 market is today’s top 30 market. People come from out of town and their new hometown gets a little bit bigger.

So what exactly does that mean for sports radio hosts? Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.

Matt Chernoff is the co-host of Chuck & Chernoff on 680 The Fan in Atlanta. Not only has he been on the air in the city for 24 years, he also grew up there. He has seen the city go from being the biggest metropolitan area in the college football crazy South to the home of the most consistent team in baseball to hosting an Olympics.

Chernoff says the city is still a hot bed for college football fandom. Not only is it the home of more Georgia fans than anywhere else in the world, it is also a common post-college destination for graduates of college football powers Alabama and Clemson as well as about a dozen other power conference school.

As a city though, none of those teams peak Atlanta’s interest the way the local NFL team does these days.

“When the Falcons are good and entertaining they get biggest tv ratings in town and garner more attention than anything else,” he says.

One of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country is North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. My wife and I moved to the area in 2005 and it was already exploding in population. In the 15 years we have been here, the population feels like it has almost completely turned over. That will happen when large corporations like SAS, IBM, GlaksoSmoithKline, and Pfizer all have headquarters in an area.

Most of our transplants come from either the New York metropolitan area or from Chicago. Adam Gold came here from Baltimore in the late 90s. He says that local sports talk still wins, but the transplants have made it possible for syndicated shows to succeed in the Triangle.

The Adam Gold Show | The Sports Hub
Courtesy: Capital Broadcasting

“The national shows we air do fine, and their resources are unmatched,” Adam told me in an email. “But, they’ll never give our listeners everything they want because they still want to hear at least a little about their own teams.  When State loses to Mississippi State the national shows are never going to talk about it.  We will.  But, the strong brand names still resonate, like Mike Greenberg, or the ESPN morning show.”

Gold, who hosts a show that is syndicated across the state and originates from 99.9 The Fan, says that even though the market is the center of the college basketball universe, he has always been aware that the idea of ACC basketball being topic 1-A year round is a myth.

“When it’s basketball season we can talk hoops.  Until then, it’s 90% football.  In fact, even during the basketball season, ACC hoops might come second (or third) to the NFL or college football.”

Football still rules the day, and the transient nature of the Triangle means that you need to know a lot of football. Sure the home teams in college are North Carolina and NC State (and to a lesser extent Duke and East Carolina), but plenty of people want to talk about national brands like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State.

That carries over to the NFL too. Raleigh is weird. There are plenty of people here that adopted the Carolina Panthers as their team in the mid-90s. Before Charlotte got a team of its own though, the closest NFL market was Washington, DC. That means we still have plenty of WFT loyalists. There are also the teams that are popular everywhere: The Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers. They all have large followings in the Triangle too.

“I’ve always treated the Triangle as a transient audience.  Similar, albeit in a smaller way, to Washington, DC,” Gold says.

Salt Lake City is growing fast. The nation seems to have woken up to the fact that lower taxes and life in the Rocky Mountains is preferable to…well, the opposite of both of those things. Hans Olsen came to the area in 1996 to play football at BYU. After a seven year NFL career, he returned to the area and has been a part of 1280 The Zone for the last 16 years.

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I asked him about the growth of the city. As more people came to town, what was that doing to fandom for his BYU Cougars? Outside of Utah, when we think of Utah, we tend to think of every citizen being Mormon. That probably is less likely to be accurate as more businesses start in the state and bring people in from the outside.

Olsen says that it has actually held pretty steady. Most of the businesses that have sprung up in the state are being started by members of the LDS Church. On top of that, the real testament to how powerful BYU’s brand remains even as the Salt Lake City market changes is in the station’s streaming numbers.

“When BYU is good, our listenership is up, our revenue is up, our streaming is up, our podcast downloads are up,” Olsen told me. “And you know, you could attach a pretty nice percentage of increase any time BYU is good. So when they were 11-1 last year, even in the Covid year, we were still doing good in the streaming numbers, downloads, listens, revenue. We were holding strong.

People outside of the Mountain time zone may not realize that the passion for college football in Utah runs as deep as just about anywhere in the SEC. There’s division though. The rivalry between BYU and the University of Utah isn’t called “The Holy War” for nothing. Add to that a Utah State fanbase that constantly feels disrespected and the love of college football doesn’t bring the market together as much as it divides it.

Hans Olsen says that the unifier, unsurprisingly, is the Utah Jazz. People may come to town with their own fandoms in other sports, but Salt Lake City is has a way of turning new residents into Jazz fans.

“They all come together and they love the Jazz. It’s always the center point here in the state and probably always will be.”

Atlanta is different. Matt Chernoff grew up in a city unified by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and depending on what part of the 90s, either Steve Avery or Greg Maddux. Really, at that time, the entire South and people across the country were unified by the Braves. Chernoff isn’t sure it will be that way forever.

MATT CHERNOFF - NBC Sports PressboxNBC Sports Pressbox

“The Braves have always been the team that unites most fans around here but I think the Hawks are about to enter a really special time with a young, exciting team that has a superstar,” he says.

Population shifts can change so much. We saw that with the 2020 Presidential Election. We see it with where national chains decide to open new locations. It isn’t just about more people. It is about how those people change the personality of their new market.

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Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Teases

“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”

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I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands. 

2,622 BEST Fingers Crossed Kid IMAGES, STOCK PHOTOS & VECTORS | Adobe Stock
Courtesy: Adobe Stock

I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether.  To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.  

If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break? 

Example 1: “More football talk, next!” 

Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”  

We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.

The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for. 

Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host. 

I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle. 

Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?” 

Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?” 

Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about. 

Photo by: iStockPhoto

The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you. 

Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice. 

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BSM Writers

Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson

“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”

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Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Last week, our partners in the news media department posted a story about Tucker Carlson. It was about a recent interview the FOX News host did with some guy on YouTube. In the interview, Carlson admits that there are times he blatantly lies on his show – the most popular show that is broadcast by what is ostensibly a news channel.

“I guess I would ask myself, like, I mean I lie if I’m really cornered or something. I lie,” Carlson told Dave Rubin. “I really try not to. I try never to lie on TV. I just don’t – I don’t like lying. I certainly do it, you know, out of weakness or whatever.”

When I first read this story, I just dismissed it. Of course this jackass lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies. There is just no way he is actually as stupid as he pretends to be when he makes that “I am shocked by what I just heard” face. You know the one. It looks like he just discovered there’s a Batman movie where the suit has nipples.

born miserable on Twitter: "Tucker Carlson always looks like someone's just  shown him a picture of a vagina… "
Courtesy: FOX News

I tried to dismiss it, but then later in the week came his impassioned plea to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to come on TV to discuss his balls after the rapper tweeted a story about how the Covid vaccine made this guy’s testicles swell and thus ruined his potential wedding.

It is a clip that was passed around Twitter thousands of times. It showed up in my feed over and over with comments like “This is THE NEWS in 2021” and “I never want this man to stop talking about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls.”

Can you imagine if Carlson’s bullshit was acceptable in sports media? I could write the same thing about FOX News in general, but let’s keep this focused on Tucker, because this past week he crossed the rubicon into a special category of absurd.

There are plenty of people in sports media that will go on TV and explain to you why a loss is actually good for a team or why undeniable greatness is actually unimpressive. This is someone going on TV and telling you that it doesn’t matter what you saw with your own two eyes on Thursday night, the Giants actually beat Washington or that the Brooklyn Nets can be dismissed as title contenders because there is no proof that anyone on their roster has even been to the All-Star Game.

I have written in the past that news commenters, be they on radio or television, do not impress me. Those people are not original or interesting at all. They aren’t even talented. I’m only bringing up that opinion to be completely transparent.

Sports Tucker Carlson would be a totally different animal. In fact, such a thing would be unacceptable.

Now, I am sure some of you are out there shouting that sports media does have a Tucker Carlson. In fact, the sports Tucker Carlson works for the same company that the real Tucker Carlson does. His name is Skip Bayless.

Llia L Retweeted This Skip Bayless LeBron Is Tired AGAIN??? Has Looked a  Little Lethargic All Night Isn't He Supposed to Be the World's Finest  Conditioned Athlete? MJ Never Got Tired MJ

Look, I hear you. Skip brings no sincerity to anything, but I also don’t think Skip has any values he is trying to push. His takes are ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. ALL HAIL THEM CLICKS!

Besides, the great thing about sports broadcasting in general is that the stakes of what we are talking about are pretty low. Creativity and absurdity are welcome. None of this is important, nor is there any illusion that it may be. No one is showing up at the Capital with zip ties and bear mace demanding the Chiefs be re-instated as Super Bowl champions or screaming at doctors that the Covid vaccine is a scheme to return Miami to relevance in the college football world.

Putting on my programmer hat for a second, I just cannot imagine how to justify a Tucker Carlson. Then again, my programmer hat was not made and fitted by people trying to pass performance art off as news. So, maybe me not getting it is the strategy.

Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Either way, this, to me, feels like very good information to take to advertisers next time they question the desirability of a sports radio audience versus a news audience. Our listeners are passionate, intelligent people looking to be entertained and engaged by conversations about their favorite teams and they’re willing to support the people that do that for them. The most popular name in news talk admits that he lies when the facts don’t match up to the story he wants to tell. The reaction from the public is “well of course he does.” Which one would you rather have your brand associated with?

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