If you’ve had the good fortune of spending time with Michael Spacciapolli, you’ve learned quickly that he loves what he does professionally. He’s driven to succeed, passionate about his brands and staff, and uninterested in being complacent. If there’s a way to improve even one small area of his product, Spacc as he’s affectionately known by his crew wants to hear about it. If difficult discussions have to be had to ensure progress, he’s ready and willing to have them.
Since earning the promotion to GM in July 2018, Audacy Pittsburgh’s leader has continued looking for ways to innovate. His two talk brands, 93.7 The Fan and Newsradio KDKA, have been consistent revenue and ratings performers, allowing all involved with both brands to place a greater emphasis on digital evolution. It’s all part of taking great radio brands and making them even more accessible and important anywhere consumers enjoy content.
In this discussion presented by our friends at Point to Point Marketing, Spacc and I review his personal progression as a GM, the growth of KDKA and 93.7 The Fan, what he sought when adding two new programmers to guide his sports and news/talk brands, the challenge and opportunities associated with recruiting, and which sales categories he sees future growth opportunities in. I’m sure you’ll enjoy learning more about Spacc, and I invite you to reach out to him by email to learn more about Audacy Pittsburgh.
Jason Barrett: Your 4 year anniversary is just around the corner, July 2018. We’ll dive into the specific items involving both spoken word brands in a minute but before I get into that, I’d like to ask you about your management style and core beliefs. If I asked an employee inside your building to describe how you lead, what would they tell me?
Michael Spacciapolli: I’m sure most would tell you that I am incredibly hands on. I have great leaders who work for me and I empower them to do their jobs, but I stay involved in everything we do. I think the key to running a successful operation is to have good people and good communication. Then it’s about giving your team the tools they need to do their jobs. I know that taking care of and collecting great talent is an ongoing part of maintaining a brand’s success, and we never stop working on those things.
JB: Let’s reflect on the past 4-years for a minute. The pandemic aside, you’ve enjoyed a lot of success. When you look back at the past few years, what are you most proud of, and what have been the toughest challenges and hardest lessons you had to learn?
MS: The brand extensions have been our biggest strengths. From the studio design, to the increase in video, to the growth of our app and streams, I’m pleased with the way we’re becoming more multiplatform focused. A lot of these things come down to attention to detail. It can’t just be what you hear out of the speakers anymore. We have to make our brands bigger and more accessible in multiple locations.
If there’s been one challenge, the FM signal addition for KDKA was great but we’re still trying to make sure the brand remains a viable resource to people. That’s harder to do with so many options available these days. We’re still in a strong position, but like anything, we’re always aiming to be better. On the other hand, 93.7 The Fan’s main challenge is taking a very good station to a dominant level on a consistent basis. We’ve built a product that people know and trust. The challenge is just making it one of the very best consistently.
JB: The two stations under your watch which our readers will have the most interest in are 93.7 The Fan, and News Radio KDKA. Both of these brands are extremely successful in your city, and are recognized as leaders in their respective formats. Starting with KDKA, aside from longevity, what makes the brand so important to the community that it’s remained a part of people’s lives for over a century?
MS: 100 years plus is incredible. Everyone understands the importance of this station in radio but in Pittsburgh, this brand is right there with the identity of our local sports teams. People over 18 know the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. They’re just as aware of KDKA, and what it means, and the impact it’s had on many people’s lives. It’s where people go when something happens in Pittsburgh. They turn to us for information and know they can count on us to inform them.
Our position in the market remains strong because we have a great team and lengthy track record of serving the Pittsburgh community. We’re committed to doing that. The challenge for us is just making sure that future generations care about us the way others have before them.
JB: 93.7 The Fan on the other hand has been around for just over 12 years. During that time it’s cemented its position as the go to source for sports talk in Pittsburgh. What do you attribute the brand’s success to?
MS: Jay it’s all about the consistent daily delivery of local sports. That’s what’s made The Fan important to people. Whether it’s on-air, on mobile, on digital, they’re always going to be served Pittsburgh sports talk. The Fan controls the dialogue here. We’re fortunate to be in a city where people care deeply about these teams, and we have great talent on the air talking about issues that matter to local sports fans. Because of that local sports passion and the talent we’ve put in place, people know they can come here and be part of a conversation.
JB: The Fan has the play by play rights to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Steelers are heard elsewhere in the market. Many would say those two teams are important to the local sports conversation, yet you’ve been able to establish a strong identity without them on your airwaves. Taking that into account, does that influence the way you view the importance of play by play?
MS: I still think play by play is important despite our success. We’ve seen success with the Pirates on our own airwaves despite the team not being great the past few years. Being in the sports business, we can own things outside of the play by play hours, and that’s what we focus on. We can own coverage and engagement around the Steelers, Pens and Pirates. We can provide consistent programming without interruptions due to not having games cut into our schedule. But having great play by play still matters. If you don’t have it though you can still find other ways to connect to the local teams and remain vital to an audience.
JB: Over the past twelve years, 93.7 The Fan has been led by a number of accomplished programmers. Terry Foxx launched the station, Ryan Maguire followed him, Jim Graci came next, and now the station is being led by Kraig Riley. Unlike his predecessors, Kraig didn’t have a number of stops around the country before he earned the opportunity to guide the brand, but he has spent more time inside the building than anyone else who had managed it. When you were going through the process and trying to determine who was the right person to lead The Fan forward, what was it about Kraig that gave you confidence that he was ready for the next step?
MS: I never forget that someone took a chance on me once. I’m a big believer that it’s about talent not experience. Kraig was fortunate that I was the GM because I was willing to give him a shot, and he’s making the most of it. I needed energy, talent, and someone who lived and breathed the brand every day. That’s Kraig. Attention to detail and passion are important to the PD role, and Kraig loves this station, and he works his tail off.
The challenge for anyone moving from behind the scenes to becoming the PD is getting your teammates to trust and respect your decision making. That transition takes time. Kraig knew he’d have to earn the staff’s respect to be seen as the PD not a producer, and he’s doing that. If you do the right things, are fair, and treat people good, you’ll be fine. So far, he’s done a tremendous job and I’m confident even better days are ahead.
JB: When The Fan changed direction, so too did KDKA. That was necessary because Jim Graci previously managed both sports and news. You turned to Dave Labrozzi, who’s resume speaks for itself, to lead KDKA forward. What was it about Dave’s style that you felt would put KDKA in position to have even greater success?
MS: As you mentioned Jay, Dave’s accomplishments are well known. He’s managed a number of great brands and has had a lot of success. I was lucky that this was a homecoming for him. He’d worked in Pittsburgh before, loved the area, and the timing was good.
What I can add about Dave is that he’s a great tactician. He digs into the different things that we need to do a better job of including talent coaching and the Nielsen game. Focusing on social is another area he learned a lot about at WABC. That’s something we have to be better at with KDKA. He’s interested in video, digital content creation, and he does his homework. His knowledge and ability is helping us raise the bar for where KDKA can go.
JB: Considering how strong each of these brands are, I’m sure you have expectations for where they should be when it comes to ratings and revenue. With that in mind, what defines a great year for 93.7 The Fan and KDKA?
MS: A great year in my opinion is hitting plan and growing at a substantial rate. How are we diversifying our stations? How are we doing in spot business? If we’re growing in different areas that’s important to me. Are we seeing progress in video sponsorships? Is there growth in the way people are digitally consuming us? These are two strong brands that are going to be here for a long time so we know we should perform well because they matter to people. But that’s why it’s so important to grow beyond the usual metrics. We have to stay focused on those things because the way people consume and where they invest is going to continue changing and we have to be ready for it.
JB: One challenge that every GM has to conquer in order to grow ratings and revenue is retaining and recruiting strong talent. That applies to management, on-air, sales and every other department. Given how many options exist today, and the way good talent are sought after by groups outside of radio, how do you make sure the job, the brands, and the company remain important and attractive to those already working for you or considering joining you?
MS: There’s nothing I enjoy more than recruiting. It allows me to bring in great people. It’s an everyday part of our job. If someone doesn’t believe that I think they’re missing a key part of the job. Having a great culture backs you up when you’re trying to add great people to your organization.
Now when you get great talent in the building at all levels, how you utilize them becomes the second part of recruiting, which is retention. We see a lot coming at our people, and that speaks to their level of talent. If we do the right things and put them in good situations, it gives them a reason to stay. Those applying to work for you may know your reputation but it goes even further if the message they hear is coming from those who’ve been a part of it.
When I was working in DC for WTOP, people would ask about non-competes and I’d say ‘if you want to leave here, we’re not going to stand in your way‘. I felt and many others did that there was no better place to work in that market, which is why most didn’t leave. I’ve always felt that if you build the right culture and give people a chance to make a great living, they’re going to want to stay for a long time. That’s how you continue growing.
JB: Another situation that you have to balance is making sure you’re doing what’s best for local while also helping corporate advance their key initiatives. That can be frustrating for sellers who want more inventory, digital folks who have to promote certain things on the brand’s socials or hosts who hear a podcast being promoted during their show and want to know why. How do you navigate those waters?
MS: We discuss that a lot. It can be frustrating when local folks don’t understand the bigger picture. That comes down to our department heads needing to communicate why we’re doing certain things. If we share information, hopefully we can get them to at least understand. They’re not always going to agree. If the company wins, it helps us, even if sometimes it may not look that way to those inside the building.
The reality is that we work for a great company, and our company is always looking to grow. They invest in a lot of areas and it requires us on the local level to help them promote things. I think we can remain successful doing what we do while still helping the company improve its business.
JB: Pennsylvania is a state where sports betting is legal. This is a space that Audacy is doing a lot of work in between local brands and the BetQL network. For sports radio, the sports betting category has been a key revenue driver the past few years, whereas others such as auto haven’t been as dependable as they’ve been in the past. So much can change in the years to come, but when you look into your crystal ball today to try and figure out which categories will provide the biggest upside for radio revenue in the near future, which ones are you most excited about and why?
MS: The event business is something we see being very important. We’ve been active in that space and have done well in it. I expect that to continue. I have great relationships in the auto industry from growing up in it, and fortunately we’ve done ok in that category even if some others have been down a bit. I think that once we have that inventory right, we’ll see a bounce back in the auto category.
Another category I think will be interesting is recruiting. Going forward, companies are going to have to tell their story more to attract people. As new industries arrive and people’s wants, needs and lifestyles change, that becomes an opportunity for us. I know there has also been some discussion of emerging businesses such as Crypto, and though some may feel differently, I don’t see that being a major play for us in the near future.
JB: Prior to becoming a leader in Pittsburgh, I know you spent time in Washington DC working for WTOP. That’s a brand that many view as the most successful station in the industry. What did you learn about leadership there that you carry with you today?
MS: First Jay, I would argue with anyone who says it isn’t the best brand in the industry. Its results year after year support that opinion. When I was there, I worked for great people. Joel Oxley is an incredible GM and forward thinker. Matt Mills, the DOS is one of the best systems guys I’ve ever been around. They’re smart people.
What I took away first was how important it is to have an incredible product. WTOP has that and it opens a lot of doors to discuss business. The culture and leadership there also matter. Everyone had a role on the team and they knew how to play it. From Joel to Matt to the former PD Jim Farley and everyone else, they all contributed to the culture and mission, which was to win. They also made it a point to look ahead often. That’s something we can do better.
Leaving there was hard. I married a Pittsburgh girl and lucked out joining a great company which has allowed me to grow but being part of WTOP was an important part of my career. A guy like Matt has had multiple opportunities to leave and become a GM and he’s never done it. It’s because he’s in a great situation. It goes back to what I said earlier, if you work somewhere great, and the culture is good, and you’re given the tools to do your job and make a good living, why leave?
JB: If you can offer a piece of advice about managing to anyone currently in management or considering a path in media management, what would it be?
MS: I say two things. There’s not a playbook you can use to guarantee success. You’re going to have to work really hard, build relationships, and understand that it’s an all the time job now. Those who can dedicate themselves to it are the ones who I think will see the best results. Balance is important, and I’m all for that but you have to be completely engaged and constantly thinking about this when you’re at this level.
As far as day to day stuff goes, I think a lot of this is about the people you work with and putting them in good situations. If you care about them, value them, and are fair and honest, you’ll have their trust and respect. You need those things if you expect to create a winning culture.
The last thing I’ll say, which I learned as a DOS, was to be honest and transparent with upper management. If you screwed up, tell them that you did and share what you’re doing to fix it. There’s very few people in the 100% club. Sometimes you’re going to be off. They see the numbers. They know. Don’t try and make it seem as if it’s always good. Give them the facts, be accountable, and have a plan for improving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.