Crafting a unique, on-air sound is something Ryan Hurley has aspired to do since starting his career at 98.7 ESPN New York. A Hofstra University graduate, Hurley was interested in radio from the time he was young, and now is an integral part of the industry that helped shape his interests.
“I grew up a control-room rat,” said Hurley. “I loved the content and creative side of radio; it’s still the most intimate form of broadcasting there is. The relationship you create with the audience keeps me motivated.”
Hurley was initially offered an entry-level marketing and promotion position at 1050 ESPN-AM out of college in 2004, something that, while it was radio-related, he had no interest in. The niche areas of sports radio programming and production were where Hurley’s interests truly lied, and after declining the initial job offer, he was afforded a second opportunity.
“After I hung up the phone, I was immediately kind of kicking myself because everyone tells you to say yes to everything no matter what the position is,” said Hurley. “I got another call a couple of days later, and they took my résumé at programming. I spoke with someone there, and got an entry level production/board operations position.”
Upon starting at 1050 ESPN New York, Hurley produced various talk shows and worked directly with on-air personalities and commentators. Eventually his responsibilities grew as he became the lead producer of The Michael Kay Show. Since his first days at the station in 2004, sports talk radio has drastically changed, something that Hurley had to embrace in order to be successful.
“The platforms have changed especially the way it’s consumed from terrestrially to streaming and digital platforms,” said Hurley. “[Smart devices] are used by many people, especially over this last year-and-a-half, and over the pandemic, we saw that usage increase a ton.”
These changes in consumption habits and platform distribution have had a consequential impact on the ratings system, a primary measurement to determine the profitability and popularity of radio stations. As a program director, Hurley has had to alter the way he qualitatively analyzes the numbers, since they are not currently reflective on all of the methods by which people immerse themselves in sports radio.
“[The] measurement [of ratings] has certainly been questioned over the last years about accuracy in how many people have meters and how much of the audience is represented,” said Hurley. “[Additionally], there is not a way to measure… [consumption] through their phones and devices… so there’s an adjustment made to how that is measured. Ratings still play a big part in our business and how we plan in terms of strategizing with the shows and our sales teams. It’s the same for everyone for now, whether or not people believe it is necessarily measuring [them] properly.”
Hurley acknowledges that sports talk radio has become based more on entertainment than it has on reporting and analyzing the latest scores, stats and news. Targeting the content to the listening audience keeps people engaged and ostensibly-indebted to the shows, institutionalizing it as an essential part of listeners’ days.
“We are here to entertain people and provide content that will keep them coming back,” affirmed Hurley. “When trying to get an audience and develop programming, you want those shows to be like hanging out with your friends every day; you don’t want to miss out on what everyone is saying.”
As a program director, one of Hurley’s jobs is to scout and cultivate air talent, a task that is done both externally and internally. In an age where the demand for quality content is higher than ever before and where people have a plethora of choices as to what to listen to, finding on-air talent that is impressionable and entertaining remains a challenge.
“I have a great deal of people who reach out to me and… send me examples of their work,” said Hurley. “We have also had people on our staff internally come up through the production side, or [do] some part-time hosting that have ended up being on our staff and doing full-time work. Entertaining people is the number one thing I look for, as well as different, unique takes and angles, and the potential to have some inside knowledge and information on things that other people can’t bring to the table.”
Some of these changes occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic, but many were catalyzed by the sudden shift in lifestyle and need for adaptation which occurred after it was declared a national emergency, causing sports, entertainment and much of the industrial world to completely shut down.
“People needed an escape or some sort of outlet from all of the reality of what was going on in the world,” reminisced Hurley. “We had to get creative in the way we programmed in what content we created and what we discussed. On the other end of that, the way we operate also changed drastically; we had to figure out a way to get everyone on-the-air basically from their homes.”
98.7 ESPN New York placed its focus on working together as a team during the pandemic in order to withstand a seminal moment in modern history altogether. It’s something that Hurley is especially appreciative of his staff for being able to do.
“It was all hands on deck during the last year and a half between engineering, production, figuring out ways to make everything work,” said Hurley. “With all that has occurred and changed, it’s been pretty impressive to see what we were able to pull off and keep together for our audience, staff and programs.”
As a result of the widespread financial hardship endured by radio stations through the COVID-19 pandemic, the presence of content driven by sports betting platforms, such as FanDuel, Bet365 and DraftKings became distinctly more prevalent through advertising.
“It’s a huge opportunity to work with different sports-betting companies and clients, as well as for on-air content,” said Hurley. “All around, it’s a big part of what’s going on in the landscape of our industry in not just radio, but television as well.”
During the extended period without sports in the early stages of the pandemic, Hurley and ESPN New York had to work to maintain relationships with professional sports teams they broadcast. Once they resumed play, they had to adapt to new guidelines mandating broadcasts.
“Relationships are key… and working with not only the P.R. staff, but as a team at the station,” said Hurley. “You have to coordinate with programming, team interviews with coaches and players, setting up potential shows, getting liners from players in the pre-season, etc.”
ESPN Radio New York is unique among its competitors, as it has both FM and AM frequencies to which it can broadcast its programming. Those assets allow them to air multiple games at a time. The station currently has relationships with the New York Jets, the New York Knicks, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers.
“Certain broadcasts will take priority over others,” explained Hurley, “and the good thing is that we have 1050 ESPN that we can use as a place for people to listen if there’s a conflict. It’s crucial to have relationships with teams and people behind the scenes; it’s not just the games that air, it’s a lot of the ancillary stuff as well.”
Another unique aspect of ESPN Radio New York is that it is a part of the ESPN parent brand, something Hurley says helps the radio station attract talent and guests. Moreover, the conglomeration of distribution platforms helps the station facilely produce other sports-related content and air national games, including enticing contests throughout the M.L.B. postseason and N.B.A. playoffs.
“We have good working relationships with the television producers at the networks, and are in communication a good amount,” said Hurley. “There’s been great collaboration between the television and audio side. The ability to have… [the] resources to use and work with… [is] one great thing about our company.”
Through times of extreme challenge and unforeseen hardship, ESPN Radio has endured, and Hurley remains motivated to elevate the station to the next level, even in an age of changing audio consumption.
“I want us to be the greatest station there is,” said Hurley. “To see where we have come from as 1050-AM, to where we are now at 98.7-FM, and the way we’ve grown product, talent, programming and relationships — it’s amazing. Seeing that progress is what keeps me driven.”
Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson
“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Athletes Are Making Their Money In Content
“Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.”
In many ways, the voice of athletes started its exponential growth with the introduction of social media, where every human being has access to a personal broadcast channel to express themselves, their passions, stories, and ideas. The athlete as an artist immediately expanded from highlight reel to Hollywood film and television reel as a content producer. However, it was The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter in 2014, that jumpstarted the athlete-driven voice of content, first in writing, and later in video, polls, and podcasts.
Michael Jordan was the first international athlete that made millions in sponsorship money—selling his name or attaching his name to products for the purpose of endorsing them for a profit. He also starred in the Warner Bros. live-action/animated film Space Jam. Jordan turned those partnerships into ownership of an NBA basketball team and a partner and focus of one of the most iconic athletic brands in the world, Jordan/Jumpman (Nike). More recently, Jordan was the focus of the Emmy award-winning The Last Dance docuseries about the NBA Chicago Bulls six championships and more specifically the sixth and final trophy for Air Jordan his Bulls team. He also co-owns a NASCAR team with Joe Gibbs.
Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished. However, that is the point—the mentee should always outperform the mentor with proper, training, guidance, and a little luck too. Where many athletes have pursued broadcasting work as color analysts during and after their professional careers in sports, Jordan did not pursue these avenues or seek to open a television or film production studio to develop entertainment, media, and sports content.
The direct-to-consumer approach of Hollywood and sports networks through streaming platforms, combined with the introduction of athlete voices through social media and podcasts has led to more opportunities. Los Angeles Laker LeBron James launched his SpringHill Company in 2020 not long after joining showtime in Tinseltown. SpringHill is a content studio that develops and looks to other studios for major production and distribution. LeBron has the sponsorship advertising prowess, but can also add documentaries and feature film content to his resume.
Kevin Durant launched a podcast titled “The Boardroom” through his company, Thirty-Five Ventures. With YouTube on par with Netflix in revenue (minus the paywall), it provides another direct-to-consumer platform for everyone and more opportunities. Steph Curry launched Unanimous Media in 2018 as a content and production studio, originally in partnership with Sony Entertainment, now the studio is partnered with Comcast owned NBCUniversal in the $10 million dollar range.
The media has deemed the Curry deal a first, which is noteworthy, but so is the faith and family focus of Curry’s programming that will span many brands in the NBCUniversal entertainment family. Curry will join the NBC broadcast for the Ryder Cup as an analyst and host and interview guests for an educational series, which does not include film projects and the second $200 million dollar basketball contract Curry signed in 2021. Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Dwayne Wade have been involved with film projects of their own. Tim Tebow is a nationwide celebrity and motivational speaker, not to mention a world-renown athlete and person with a big heart towards faith and philanthropy.
Peyton and Eli Manning also have their own broadcast for Monday Night Football. Peyton also starred in the very successful “Peyton’s Places” that will have season two launched soon on ESPN+. Both are produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions.
Speaking of Disney brands, the company’s 30 for 30 is still one of the main catalysts for highlighting the struggles and triumphs of athletes. Hard Knocks, Ballers, and Jerry Maguire also gave insight into the world of sports beyond the field, statistics, and championships.
The growth of entertainment, media, and sports has been and continues to be exponential. Some additional areas to watch include development of series and docuseries in baseball, hockey, soccer, and in other popular, but not the big five sports in America (e.g., lacrosse, cricket, etc.). With women’s sports receiving more attention on television, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in entertainment production particularly in women’s soccer.
To date, NBA players have dominated the entertainment, media, and sports landscape for Hollywood production. However, to each their own, because some stars love developing content, others love speaking about content, and still others love to own content (particularly in the form of brands and franchises) (see Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter). Indeed, the era of athlete as Hollywood producer is upon us.
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