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10 Ways Sports Radio Can Secure Its Future

“Every year someone is predicting the demise of broadcast radio. Every year we point out that said prediction is wrong, but there are plenty of stations, companies, and talents that are stuck. That makes them vulnerable.”

Demetri Ravanos

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A belated Happy National Radio Day to you all! I enjoyed your pictures and memories across all of social media. Some of you shared photos in rinky dink studios from their past, others shared photos with former co-hosts, and then there were some of you that shared memories from your time in an entirely different format all together. They were all great, and it was fun to learn a little more about you and this business’s past.

But now that photo sharing and back slapping is in the rearview mirror, we need to focus on the future. Every year someone is predicting the demise of broadcast radio. Every year we point out that said prediction is wrong, but there are plenty of stations, companies, and talents that are stuck. That makes them vulnerable.

In the media business, if you are not evolving, you are dying. A powerful stick, a spot on the FM dial, and strong talent can still take a station far, but consumption patterns were changing long before anyone knew the words “Covid-19” and since they have become something we say daily, most of what we thought we could count on has been turned on its ear.

So with that in mind, and with the desire to see future National Radio Days celebrated with smiles as opposed to blank, melancholy stares into the void, I started making a list. What can stations do and what can leaders in the industry prioritize in order to see radio continuing to succeed in the next decade?

Here are ten suggestions.

1. INVEST IN THE BOTTOM

Of course you want to maximize the success of your biggest properties and stars. That is how you maximize profits. But in order for this business to remain healthy, you have to lay the ground work for the future.

Invest some of your time in educating and helping the part-timers improve. Make sure your producers know how to book guests and can command the talents’ respect so that they can truly steer a ship. This is how a ratings win can turn into prolonged dominance.

2. OFFER CONTINUING SALES EDUCATION

Jeff Caves has opened my eyes to all the things I didn’t know about the sales side of the radio business. One thing that has become clear in reading his work is that too often, young sellers are hired and thrown into the fire, told to figure it out. While there is a certain amount of the sales game that just has to be learned on the job, no one should be left flying blind. A great manager knows that an employee that learns more can earn more, so give your earners every opportunity to learn!

3. MAKE YOUR STATION UNAVOIDABLE

Across this industry, marketing budgets are either shrinking or they are a thing of the past entirely. There are so many options for consuming our content now. Marketing is more important than ever. Does that mean old school billboards? Does it mean creating audiograms and paying for a social push? Does it mean guerrilla campaigns like slapping stickers on light poles around town? Yes. Anything you can think of and can afford is on the table.

4. BE CRITICAL OF YOUR PLAY BY PLAY POSITION

Play-by-play is expensive. We are talking about price tags in the tens of millions depending on the team and league. For some markets and stations, that price can be right. There is tremendous value for KFAN in being the home of the Vikings in Minneapolis and for WEEI being home to the Red Sox in Boston.

In a lot of markets though, the asking price is not based on reality. If you’re in Charlotte, does it make sense to spend big money to carry the Panthers, a team that still sells more tickets to fans of the away team than its own fans in some weeks? Does it make sense to shell out a single dime to carry the Florida Panthers if no one is going to the games? Sometimes, the smarter use of that money is investing in the day-to-day on air product.

5. SELL STUFF

I have written about this before. We swim in a pool of fanaticism. It isn’t just our P1s and their dedication to our stations. It is all listeners and their devotion to the local teams. Take advantage of that like WFAN does in its store. Sell some t-shirts, koozies, stickers, and other stuff with the kind of images and messages that fans will support but teams don’t sell.

6. DITCH WHAT DOESN’T MATTER

Every station in a college football-crazy market counts down its own preseason top 25. Every station in an NFL market previews every team in the 32 days before the first game kicks off. Why? Maybe gambling has changed the equation a little bit, but these segments always feel like an ego stroke to me. I lived in Birmingham long enough to know that the overwhelming majority of listeners there do not care if Wisconsin is #17 in your preseason poll. If you’re going to talk about it for ten minutes, that is ten minutes they are tuning out, because you aren’t talking about the SEC. Let the networks preview the nation. As a local host, it is the local audience that matters most. That is who you have to serve.

7. QUIT HOMOGENIZING EVERY STATION

Is your station owned by Audacy? Is it safe to assume your imaging is a lot of jingles? Is your station an ESPN affiliate? I’ll bet every penny I have that it is called “ESPN (insert frequency and/or name of market here)”. Is your station owned by Cumulus? I’ll go ahead and assume that your logo works in elements of either the CBS Sports logo or the one for The Ticket in Dallas.

When a major corporation owns a whole lot of sports stations, it makes sense that there is a standard ownership wants to see each of those stations live up to. When that standard beats all of the local identity out of a brand though, you don’t have a standard, you have a cookie cutter. The push back is that listeners aren’t familiar with brands in other markets, and that is true, but your talent is. Your programmer is. Sucking creativity out of a creative field guarantees a substandard product.

8. BROADEN YOUR TALENT SEARCHES

There will always be room for seasoned pros in sports radio. Talking for somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes is not easy. Neither is having a conversation for the entertainment of someone outside of the conversation. If you are only listening to demos and looking at a list of stations on resumes when you have an opening to fill, you are excluding a lot of qualified candidates.

YouTube, podcasts, and apps like Greenroom have made it possible for people to work on their craft and in same cases, build real followings. The next time you have an opening, ask for resumes and demos, but check these platforms too and see if you can find a future sports radio star that is just waiting to be discovered.

9. STOP OPERATING LIKE A SERIES OF SILOS

There are some very successful stations that have fostered an environment of competition inside its own studio. That is fine. If it works for them, then let it keep working. More often than not though, it is smarter to follow the advice of Minnesota’s PJ Fleck and get everyone rowing the boat in the same direction.

Cross talk, repurposing audio and using hosts from other day parts in guest segments can open up the station’s entire world to listeners that only tune in during the same time window every day. Remember, consumption patterns and habits have changed. Just because someone isn’t near a radio during the mid day doesn’t mean they wouldn’t download a podcast later.

10. REMEMBER THAT THERE ARE NO RULES

If all of the pictures from National Radio Day make anything clear, it is that we are in a cool business that used see plenty hosts and stations forge their own path. We can point fingers at what corporate ownership has done to the business all day long, but in a lot of cases, it is laziness and complacency that has set in and convinced otherwise talented content creators that there show has to sound a certain way or the station has to do certain things to sound legitimate.

Why? This isn’t a format that was built by analytics or by playing it safe. People thought Jeff Smulyan was nuts when he and his partners flipped the switch on WFAN in the 80s, but look at where the format is now. Every step forward we have made has started with someone saying “well, why can’t I do it this way?”.

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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