Before it was Champa Bay, it was the punchline to a joke.
Before Tom Brady, before Jon Gruden and before both the Lightning and the Rays, it was a one-sport town that was only identifiable by the orange creamsicle uniforms the Bucs used to wear during seemingly endless losing seasons. Coincidently, that’s also the time Ronnie “Night Train” Lane arrived in the city.
Tampa looks a lot different today than it did when Lane arrived in the mid-80’s. There’s a passion for the local teams that didn’t exist until recently. That’s to be expected when the city just enjoyed three championships in a 10-month span, after the Lightning went back-to-back with the Stanley Cup and the Bucs took down the Chiefs in last year’s Super Bowl. But when locals think about sports talk in the city, Lane is one of the first hosts that come to mind. He’s seen the bad times, the good times and everything in between.
“The city was nothing like it looks like today,” said Lane. “It was primarily all about the Buccaneers, because the Rays and Lightning weren’t here yet.”
Lane isn’t a lifetime Floridian. He’s from a small town in Tennessee near his alma mater of Murray State University. In fact, even though he’s the co-host of Ronnie and TKras at 95.3 WDAE in morning drive, some locals would be surprised to hear his career in radio actually started on the music side.
That’s where the infamous nickname of “Night Train” came from. Mason Dixon, a Tampa staple for decades at Q105, decided that Lane needed a nickname. When Lane was on the air at stations in Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky, he had a nickname that sounded similar to Ronnie “The Dean of Rock N Roll” Lane. He can’t remember exactly what the nickname was, but “Night Train” stuck as soon as Dixon gave it to him. The thought behind the name was as simple as the fact Lane was doing the night shift at Q105 in Tampa. The nickname has stuck ever since.
“Q105 was a monster station that did 12-plus shares,” Lane said. “That’s where things really started to take off for me.”
Lane stayed at the station through both an ownership and a format change. CBS bought the station and switched the format from Top 40 to country. A lot of transformation was about to take place in Lane’s career.
“When CBS bought Q105, they already had a country station, so they asked if I wanted to stay in music or try something else,” Lane said. “I said, well, I’ve always been a crazy sports fan, so I’d love to try sports.”
Fortunately, the company had a very similar idea. The broadcast rights to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were owned by the same company, so they made him a nighttime DJ and gave him a job on the weekends with the Buccaneers Radio Network. Since then, he’s become synonymous with sports radio in Tampa, alongside his long-time co-host Tom Krasniqi.
Today, he’s living his best life. WDAE is seeing its best years as a station, the local interest is as high as it’s ever been and the three local teams are all having success. Lane says it’s, without a doubt, the best time he’s ever had on sports radio.
“Oh it’s at the top of the list and it’s not close,” Lane said. “When I was doing music radio, I rarely listened to sports talk radio. I think we had some stations and they had a hard time because none of the clubs were consistently good. It was mainly just people griping and bitching about how awful the teams were.”
If you’re looking for a city that’s evolved as a sports town over the past decade, Tampa would be a strong contender. The doom and gloom that used to surround the sports fans in the city has been replaced with optimism and pride for the city, as well as the catchy nickname of Champa Bay.
“It’s a completely different sports town and it’s galvanized the community,” Lane said. “There’s a lot of support for the Lightning, tons of support for the Buccaneers and that’s important.
When a city evolves as a sports town, that often means there’s more attention placed on the sports talk radio stations. Lane says there’s a mixture of feelings on if the listeners in Tampa have evolved over the years.
“Some would say they’ve evolved quite well and others would say, like my partner Tom Krasniqi, he’s from the New York area, and he still thinks the fans here have a long way to go,” Lane said. “He’s probably correct in that assessment, as far as educating themselves about the particular sports. There are others that feel the fans are becoming more educated and more savvy when it comes to sports radio, because we’re trying to educate them on our show and I think we do a good job on our show of giving people information but also being entertaining.”
There’s so much interest in the Bucs, both locally and nationally, that the team always seems to be in the headlines. That’s great for Lane and his show on WDAE, seeing as the Bucs have been a constant stream of content that everyone is interested in. That was very evident when Antonio Brown walked off the field in the Bucs’ Week 16 game at the New York Jets. It consumed all of the major networks and Lane’s show was no different.
“Every moment of the show was Antonio Brown and how the Bucs were going to get through this, so much so to the point where some listeners were like, are you guys forgetting we also have a hockey and baseball team? But it was just because the football team has gotten so popular that everyone was fixated on how they were going to get past the Antonio Brown saga.
“We all gave our opinions because none of us on the show thought they should’ve signed Antonio Brown in the first place. We took a lot of heat from fans saying, ‘well, do you not like the Bucs?’. How could someone even say that? Our company carries the Bucs games and the station supports the Bucs as much as we possibly can. We can’t agree with everything they do.”
Champa Bay is riding a sports heater that the city has never seen, and quite possibly, may never see again. Lane is enjoying the ride as much as he possibly can.
“I still run into people who are big sports fans that still remember me as a Top 40 DJ at Q105,” laughed Lane. “I guess I credit my education at Murray State University and also the guy that really got me into radio, because I was thinking about going into law enforcement. I was going to apply for the Kentucky State Police Academy and a buddy of mine came to me and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to make more money and not get shot at?’. I said, ‘OK, I’m listening.’”
There’s a lot to be proud of when Lane looks back at his career. He was successful in Top 40, he was successful in country music and now he’s a huge success at sports radio. It takes a certain talent to thrive over multiple formats. Few have done it to the level of Lane.
“I’m proud of what I did on the music side, particularly with country,” Lane said. “I’m just proud to be a communicator and someone that’s a voice for the fans.”
What Should Radio Be Thinking About On Martin Luther King Day?
“Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?”
Monday, January 17 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A lot of you will get the day off of work. Some of you will attend prayer services or civic events to honor the civil rights leader and his legacy.
Dr. King, like all humans, had his flaws but is undeniably a man worth celebrating. In a world where the divide between the powerful and the rest of us seems to be growing out of control, it is good to take a day to celebrate and think about a man that made a career out of speaking up for the little guy – whether that means black and brown people during the Civil Rights Era or it means workers in times of labor unrest.
Across the media landscape, we will see stations and networks running promos touting their “commitment to Dr. King’s dream!”. The sentiment is great, but I do wonder what it means to the people making those promos and the stations and networks airing them.
Look at the archives of this site. Think about the BSM Summits you have attended. How often have we been willing to shine a spotlight on the amount sports radio talks about embracing diversity versus actually putting plans into action? Jason has written and talked about it a lot. Every time, the message seems to circle back to him saying “I am giving you the data. You are telling me you recognize that this is a problem. Now do something about it.”
It’s something I found myself starting to think about a lot last year when Juneteenth became recognized as a federal holiday. Suddenly every brand was airing ads telling me how they have known how special this day is all along. And look, I hope that is true. It seems like if it was though, I would have been seeing those ads in plenty of Junes before 2021.
I am going to put my focus on the media because that is what we do here, but this can be said about a lot of companies. So many brands have done a great job of rolling out the yellow, black, red, and green promo package to acknowledge that it is Martin Luther King Jr Day or Black History Month or Juneteenth. I worry though that for so many, especially on the local level, that is where the acknowledgment ends.
That isn’t to say that those stations or brands actively do not want more minority representation inside their company. It just isn’t a subject for which they can say they have taken a lot of action.
Look, I am not here to debate the merits of affirmative action. I am saying in an industry like sports radio, where we thrive on fans being able to relate to the voices coming through their speakers, shouldn’t we be doing a better job of making sure minority personalities know that there is a place for them in this industry? Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?
WFAN went out and found Keith McPherson in the podcasting world to fill its opening at night after Steve Somers’s retirement. FOX Sports added RJ Young, who first made a name for himself on YouTube and writing books, to its college football coverage. 95.7 The Game found Daryle “Guru” Johnson in a contest. JR Jackson got on CBS Sports Radio’s radar thanks to his YouTube videos and when it came time for the network to find a late-night host, it plucked him from Atlanta’s V103, one of the best-known urban stations in America.
That’s two guys in major markets, another on national radio, and a third on national television. In all four cases, the companies that hired them didn’t just sit back and wait for a resume to come in.
Some of you will read this and dismiss me. After all, I am a fat, white Southern man. If I were a hacky comedian, I would say “the only four groups you are allowed to make fun of” and then yell “Gitterdone!”.
In reality, I point those things out because I know there is a large chunk of you that will call this whole column “white guilt” or “woke” or whatever your talking point is now.
Whether or not we are about the be a majority minority nation is up for debate, but here is a fact. America is getting darker. I look at the radio industry, one that is constantly worried about how it will be affected by new innovations in digital audio, and wonder how anyone can think doing things like we always have is going to work forever.
I’m not damning anyone or saying anybody should be losing their jobs. I don’t know most of you reading this well enough to make that judgment. What I am saying is that our industry has lived on the idea that this business is always changing and we have to be adaptable. I think it is time we do that, not just with the content we present on air, but in how we go about finding the right people to present it.
What’s The Bright Side Of a Losing Team?
“What are you supposed to do if the teams you rely on to buoy your product aren’t holding up their end of the bargain?”
We’ve always said that winning is the great deodorizer in sports. Winning can take a dysfunctional locker room and make them functional, it can take an average coach and make him look great, and in our world it can make a bad product seem decent and a good product seem spectacular.
But what if the local teams you cover aren’t winning at all? What are you supposed to do if the teams you rely on to buoy your product aren’t holding up their end of the bargain?
It’s such a weird position for a host or programmer to be in because sometimes the success of your radio station or your show is so dependent on things that you have no control over whatsoever. The difference between a good radio station and the bad ones are the ones that are able to make chicken salad out of chicken scratch and also those that are able to capitalize when teams are good.
Just look at the growth of 95.3 WDAE in Tampa or the strength of the Boston sports talk stations like WEEI or 98.5 The Sports Hub after Boston owned basically every major pro sport for a 5 to 10 year period.
I’m the “Orlando Magic guy” on 96.9 The Game, the flagship of the Magic. We broadcast the games and I work on many of those broadcasts. I’m also the afternoon show host, so if you find your way to the arena that night and you want Magic talk, I guess I’m your guy. But as you can imagine, it is exceedingly difficult to pull good juicy topics out of a team that barely wins. There are so many markets that deal with this year after year.
Whether you’re in a multi-sports market that’s suffering like Detroit or a single pro sports town like Orlando or Sacremento, it can be incredibly frustrating. It wears on you because you know how different the landscape can be, particularly if you’ve experienced some level of success.
When I got into the sports talk radio scene in Orlando, the Magic were off the heels of an NBA Finals run and casual fans were everywhere in the city. Everywhere you looked someone was wearing a Magic shirt, the lady at the counter at your local grocery store wants to talk to you about point guard play, but when your team has less than 10 wins in January, casual fans have a convenient way of disappearing.
Local radio thrives off the positive production of the teams in their market. But when your team isn’t any good and fans lose interest, people aren’t gobbling up tickets or hanging on your every word about the team, how are you supposed to survive that drought?
First things first: honesty. As hard as it can be, especially if you are partnered with these teams, you have to be straight up with your audience. You can’t sugarcoat what they’re seeing. That doesn’t mean you stoop down to the level of the most agitated fan, but you can’t act like all is good either. That approach has been covered many times on this site, but honesty and authenticity are important no matter the record of the teams you cover.
As I look for the silver lining, here’s one that jumps out at me, ticket giveaways. There’s no shortage of available tickets when your teams aren’t winning and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about a radio audience, they love free stuff. I try and use this time as an opportunity to give away as much as I can, create memorable experiences for a dad and his kids that can’t typically afford to go to a game. They won’t care the team is bad, but they’ll remember that you provided that for them for years to come.
It’s also a great time to extend the positive relationship you have with the team (or teams) that are struggling. Everyone wants to cover a winner, everyone wants to interview the star player who’s a shoo-in for an All-Star Game. If you show love when the team is down, you can create a bond that will help you maintain your good standing when that product heats up again.
Everything is cyclical and I don’t want to find myself in a position where I can be left out from all the cool opportunities and great guests because I stuck my nose up at the team while the chips were down. I’ll take an interview with the backup center, I’ll do the day-long media day dance, all of that is an effort to curry favor when things are trending up again.
Then there’s draft talk! Lucky for us in the great U.S.A, our sports structure rewards bad teams with great picks. Fans might be down in the dumps during the season, but you can perk them right back up in the off-season when your team can provide something in the draft. It’s that magic four-letter word that keeps people on the edge of their seat: Hope. It’s the one thing winning teams don’t get to experience.
More than anything, I just try and stay the course. I figure that when things do turn around, eventually, I will have built up the branding and credibility needed so my audience knows where to go when they suddenly find themselves interested again. Simply put, lay the groundwork while the team is bad, reap the rewards when things turnaround.
What Can Programmers Learn From A Social Media Following?
“A large number of followers may be the result of using social media well, but if you think the size of someone’s following is proof they’ll be a good part of your lineup, that’s a set-up for failure.”
I first began using Twitter in 2009 when I was a reporter at The Seattle Times. Jim Mora was the Seattle Seahawks coach and I had a smart phone made by Palm. The Twitter app was so wonky I posted live updates from Seahawks press conferences via TwitPic, sending a picture of the person speaking with the news item included as a caption. We’ve all come a long way since then.
I like Twitter. Over the past 12-plus years, I’ve found that my sarcasm and sense of humor (if you can call it that) translated better on Twitter than it ever did in print or later as a radio host at 710 ESPN Seattle. I’ve made friends on Twitter, picked fights with other reporters and generally found it a good place to test out ideas and arguments and an increasingly terrible place to discuss anything important. I have more than 40,000 followers, which is not insignificant nor is it at all exceptional given the market I worked in. None of this gives you any idea about how well I’ve done my job in sports media, though.
Yet an individual’s Twitter following has become part of our industry scoreboard. It’s certainly not the final score and it definitely doesn’t decide the outcome, but it is the best way I know to gain a quick assessment of someone’s reach and/or significance. It’s a data point that is readily accessible. It’s the thing I check first when I encounter someone who’s part of the sports-media industry.
But what does it really tell us? More specifically, how much does it tell us about that person’s ability to do their actual job whether it is reporting news, writing stories or being part of a show? Because as important as Twitter has become in sports-media, no one is making money from Twitter and social media specialists are the only people who are really being paid to Tweet.
For most of us, Twitter is not a job, it is a tool. For a radio host, it’s a way to interact with listeners outside the footprint and time slot of the show. It also is a powerful opportunity to deepen audience engagement through two-way, real-time communication. These things may help a host’s job performance, but they should not be mistaken for the actual job itself. A radio host is not valuable because he or she was right on Twitter or because they were first on Twitter or because they had a viral Tweet. A radio host is valuable because of the ability to attract, entertain and retain an audience during a specific slot of time. Twitter may help you prepare to do that, but it does not actually accomplish the task.
Programmers need to understand this, too. A large number of followers may be the result of using social media well, but if you think the size of someone’s following is proof they’ll be a good part of your lineup, that’s a set-up for failure. Just look at what book publishers have found.
An article last month in the New York Times showed how publishers have used social media followings as a weathervane of sorts for books sales. The number of followers an author has is influencing everything from what authors are paid to which books get published. This is especially true when it comes to non-fiction books. The rationale is pretty straightforward when you look under hood of that particular industry.
A publisher is the business that buys a certain book from the author, essentially making a bet that the sales of this book the author is writing or has written will more than cover the money paid to the author as well as the cost of publication and promotion of the book. A publisher wants as much assurance as possible that this book will sell sufficient copies to not just make its money back, but insure a profit. This is where the author’s social media audience comes in. The follower count is being looked to as an indicator of just how many people can be expected to buy this book. After all, someone following the author is certainly a sign they’re interested in what that author has to say. Some percentage of those followers can reasonably be expected to buy a book by this person. Except social media followings turn out to be a fairly terrible tool of forecasting book sales.
Billie Eilish has 99 million Instagram followers. Her book — released last year — sold 64,000 copies. If I was being catty, I would point out that is one book sold for every 1,546 Instagram followers.
“Even having one of the biggest social media followings in the world is not a guarantee,” wrote Elizabeth A. Harris.
So we should all just stop paying attention to Twitter followings, right? Hardly. First of all, it is a data point, and anyone waiting for social media followings to become LESS important probably thinks the Internet is just a fad. More importantly, having a following is certainly better than not having one as it does indicate the ability to attract an audience.
The issue isn’t whether it’s good to have a large following. Of course it is. The issue is how reliable that is in predicting an individual’s interest or appeal outside of that specific social platform.
What programmers need to do is get smarter about how they evaluate social media followings by answering two questions:
- Why are people following this particular talent? Content is the catch-all answer here. Go beyond that. What sort of content is this person providing that none of his or her peers are? Will that type of content be valuable as part of my lineup whether it’s terrestrial radio, a podcast or other format? Someone who’s funny on Twitter may be funny in other formats. They may also just be funny on Twitter. Are there examples of how this kind of content has worked in the past or reasons to think it will work in the future?
- How likely is this talent’s social media following to migrate to my medium? This is one of the trickier ones. One of the reasons for acquiring a talent with a large social media following is the hope that some of their followers will become your customers. While this is always possible, the more important question is whether it’s likely.
Remember, that example of Eilish, who had 99 million Instagram followers and sold 64,000 books? Well, that number of books is actually not a bad result. In fact, it’s absolutely solid for book sales. The problem was the publishing house didn’t expect a solid sales performance. It expected incredibly strong sales because it paid a significant amount of money to Eilish in the form of an advance.
It’s clear the publishing house made a bad bet, but the principal mistake was not about Eilish’s ability — or lack thereof — to produce a book. She did produce one that was 336 pages long, loaded with family photos never seen before and while there wasn’t as much text as you might expect, the sales were solid. The mistake the publishing house made was overestimating how many of Eilish’s fans would become customers in an entirely different medium, and I think that’s a lesson worth noting in this industry.
Unless you’re hiring someone to do social media for your company, Twitter is not going to be their job. It’s just a tool. An important tool, a useful one, but just a tool.
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