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Shaping The Sound of a Great Sports Radio Station

Jason Barrett

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I’ve written a few times over the past year about the importance of quality imaging and production for sports radio stations, and it’s a subject that I am passionate about and believe deserves attention.

During the past few weeks I’ve had my ear on sports radio stations all across the country. The one thing I hear taking place in multiple places (that I’m not sure is necessarily a good thing) is a lack of creativity and simplification of messaging. Promos, ID’s and liners which include actualities, funny clips, and big sounds are being reduced in favor of simple short pieces with little activity behind them.

I understand that there are certain expectations for particular brands, and there’s value in keeping things simple. I’m not here to tell you that following the rules and reinforcing a brand’s identity doesn’t have its place. It certainly does. But does that mean that we can’t attempt to find newer ways to add some flavor and create additional excitement for our brands?

In a time where audio consumption is more splintered than ever, and numerous media brands are taking risks to attract larger audiences, is the answer to building bonds with an audience to stifle the creativity of some radio’s best thinkers?

One of the most overlooked and undervalued positions in sports radio is the Imaging Director. A good one can bring an energy to your brand that connects with your talent and audience. A bad one can absolutely crush you and make your brand feel old, stale, and unimportant. Find yourself a great one, and your audience will be speaking the language of the brand without even recognizing it.

If I’ve learned one thing from running brands, conducting research, and interacting with listeners, it’s that great imaging does connect. Sports is fun, and anytime you’re not in content, and have a chance to re-establish that power of fun, it’s important to do so.

As a programmer, I always believed that it was my responsibility to foster an environment which allowed people to be creative. Developing a relationship and understanding with the Imaging Director is critical, because the way they bring the brand to life through your speakers is going to be a reflection of the way you communicate your vision to them.

Let’s be honest, people who work in this industry don’t do it because of the fame and fortune it provides. Sure there are some personalities who are the exception to the rule, but most of the supporting cast behind the scenes choose this line of work because they love it, connect to it, and appreciate the opportunity to have a platform which allows them to showcase their creativity. They walk through the door each day hoping to create something that inspires people, and when it registers with the audience, that’s the cherry on top of the sundae.

The beauty of imaging is that there are no set guidelines for how to do it. We all have opinions about what we perceive to be cool and effective, but what I think we can all agree on is that there’s a stronger chance of an audience remembering your brand, and forming an emotional bond with it, if you make the station sound fun, alive and creative, instead of plain and simple.

It’s a grind sometimes to manage a brand, run a show, and give time and attention to each department, but as challenging as it may be, spending time on your writing, presentation, and which items to highlight, is too important to dismiss. When done right, it can grow your ratings. Done poorly, it can damage your growth.

We lose sight at times of the amount of influence we have on the audience. If you can make a listener think and feel a certain way about your brand and personalities, they’ll remember it and store it deep inside their subconscious. If there’s no call to action beyond reinforcing the radio station’s dial position, brand name, and slogan, then you’re less likely to receive the extra benefits that are available.

As far as promos are concerned, there are many different categories you can use to resonate with your listeners. Some of those options include:

  • Appointment promos (pieces that highlight when a guest or feature can be heard)
  • Topical promos (pieces that promote content/storylines being discussed on the station)
  • Play-By-Play promos (pieces that promote/sell the next local/national game on your air)
  • Talent/Show promos (pieces from the talent/show that promote when the program airs)
  • Branding promos (pieces that reinforce the brand & why it’s unique in a fun/serious way)

There are other categories too but the ones listed above usually get the most attention.

What you choose to feature most, depends on what your station’s best assets are, and what connects to the vision for the brand. If you don’t carry play by play for example, then game promos are going to be less important. Instead you’ll be more inclined to push your on-air talent, brand identity, station events, and the other offerings your station provides.

If your station though has the rights to three or four sports teams, you’re going to likely drive that messaging home because live play by play delivers strong ratings and a positive brand association, and it’d be silly not to take advantage of it.

I could spend all day explaining the value of imaging, and how it can benefit a radio station, but rather than listen to me pontificate, I thought it’d be helpful to get the perspectives of a few great Imaging Directors. Each of these guys has had a direct influence on brands that operate in Top 5 markets, and some of their work can be heard nationally too.

  • Dan Levy – Imaging Director of 89 WLS in Chicago
  • Mike Brownsher – Imaging Director of ESPN New York 98.7FM
  • Jeff Schmidt – Imaging Director of 95.7 The Game and 98.5 K-FOX in San Francisco
  • Chris Morales – VP/Head of Creative & Imaging for Yahoo Sports Radio. Imaging and Creative consulting for KSPN/Los Angeles, KFNC/Houston & KGOW, KKFN/Denver, KHTK/Sacramento.

Q: How important do you believe it is to be a great writer in order to be a great imaging/production director?

jeffschmidt2 Schmidt: The best imaging directors are a​ triple threat; great writers, producers and VO actor/artists. Writing is vital but it also comes down to what we’re writing about. If we’re promoting crap, great writing is little more than a disguise, and listeners will sniff it out and repay us with indifference.

Brownsher: It’s certainly important, but it’s not the end all be all, and it doesn’t mean your stuff will sound great if you are a great writer. We’re in the audio business. You still need to make sure your stuff SOUNDS great. If you’re not the best writer (I certainly don’t think I am), find other people on the floor, and get them to help with the process. The product will be better for it.

danlevy1Levy: Writing is 90% of the job. You can’t do production without a clear and concise way of communicating your message. With production, it’s commercials and marketing. With imaging, it’s about the station brand and marketing.  So, being a great writer and knowing your audience, it all plays hand and hand.

Morales: In today’s busy world, often being a “great writer” means being an impactful writer who can make the message cut through with a “less is more” approach. Also, us radio people have a tendency of trying to be too cute at times, without really defining what the singular message is for a piece of imaging/production. We need to ask ourselves “would a listener really get what we are saying“?

Q: How do you keep your personal interests and personality/style in line with the brand’s approach when creating liners and promo material?

mikebrownsher1Brownsher: For me, it’s been fairly easy to align with the ESPN brand. I’ve been listening to ESPN Radio roughly since its inception, so that has helped. When I started in New York, I assumed I’d be able to be edgier with my writing in our promos but that wasn’t the case. I had to remember that there was a much larger audience listening to ESPN New York as compared to where I had worked before. That meant I had to check myself a bit and figure out how to best reflect the brand.

Levy: It always helps to try and get a job that matches your style and your personality. I know in real life, it’s not always the case to be able to pick a station that can do that (we often take the gigs we can get) but knowing your boss, sharing similar philosophies and an understanding of where they are coming from, makes it easier to find a way to connect with the listener, both emotionally and creatively.

chrismorales4Morales: Sports Radio is the big tent of all that encompasses a guy’s life. Creating a brand is all about creating the fun and sizzle around the “Sports Radio” base. If you have talent that doesn’t embrace movies/music/tv/pop culture on the air, then it is hard pressed to create imaging and branding that involves your personality/style because most great imagers live and breathe anything creative. I think so many imagers out there sometimes want to force their passions into imaging because it is their opportunity to “be on air”.

Much like in a music format, imaging is made to make the station sound hotter than what it is and create a brand that encompases the full presentation of the station. We have to think the same in sports radio. This is a format, not sports. We are here to make our talent shine and seem bigger than life, which means it is vital to know their personal interests, their style, music, etc. That creates imaging that they will play off of when doing show opens, rejoins, etc. The station imaging/branding then needs to be a collection of the talent’s image. Imaging to sports or PBP can be useful but does that really create an image that carries your M-F 6a-7p brand?

Schmidt: In 20 years of radio imaging, the best circumstances have always been a collaboration with programming where we set the course and tone of the stationality. Often times it falls in line with my personal tastes which are fairly broad, but it’s always about making sure the imaging serves the needs of That Station, in That Market, at That Time.

Q: When you’re writing a promo, what is it that you’re hoping it does for the audience?

danlevy4Levy: Anytime I produce something, I look to execute 3 basic elements.

A) Connect with the listener. Each market, area and region you’re in, connect with them. If it’s crappy weather, use it to relate. If you’re in a big city, use things  that people feel such as frustrations with bikers, cabbies, sports teams and things of that nature. That’s the best way to get your listener to perk up and pay attention.

B) Make sure your message has a call to action. If it’s a spot, you want people to get up and buy that car or drink that beer. For imaging, you want them to stay tuned to a certain show, sporting event, download an app or whatever you are promoting for the station.

C) Let them know where they heard it. Make sure the brand is highlighted so people know exactly what it is and how to get more of it.

Morales: Make the listener feel something. Maybe it’s emotion for a piece about “living and breathing the NFL” with highlights, game sound, and NFL Films music. Maybe it’s laughter from a montage promo of the talent being off the wall. Maybe it’s anger from people talking about a loss from last night. The key is for that promo to pull them in, and make them engage for a moment, and feel something.

jeffschmidt1Schmidt: Some promos are really just announcements in which you want to make sure a piece of information is clearly communicated.​ ​If you want listeners to take a specific action it’s best to keep it as clear, clean and concise as possible.

Other pieces are about image building, and this is where I hope to draw on the emotional connection fans already have with their team/players/hosts etc. Those emotions are available and transferable to your brand if you’re careful and respectful with it.

Brownsher: I go into writing/producing promos assuming that the listener isn’t going to listen or hear it. People are busy and doing things when listening to radio, so my hope is that I’ll actually grab them and create some type of emotional connection to the promo.

Q: How do you decide what type of music, actualities and SFX to use in your imaging, promos, liners, etc.? Is it more in line with the audience’s tastes or your own?

chrismorales3Morales: I’m a big user of music. Sometimes spanning multiple genres, but using it to tell the story that I’m trying to accomplish. Andrew Ashwood, my mentor at FOX Sports Radio, used to call imaging the blank canvas, and the music, drops, effects, VO, highlights, were the paint strokes of colors making the final work of art.

Every piece is different. Some can be quick with multiple SFX from a library like Alien Imaging FX, that is fast moving and sounds like something from a CHR/Rock station. Then another promo can have just a song and VO, depending on the message. I love NFL Game sound. When I started 12 years ago, you could only find it on Inside the NFL every week. Now, NFL Network has Sound FX and makes it easy. That behind the scenes audio is full of passion and energy which helps bring a football promo to life. I try to work in my own tastes, but I think about the audience at every step. A piece of music may be great for a promo just for LA, but may not be cool for the network or in a different market.

Schmidt: I employ what I’ve come to call the Sonic Pallet. It’s setting a ​range of sound styles that are IN and sound styles that are OUT in terms of defining a sonic signature for the radio station. It morphs and evolves over time, but it’s a guide. It’s easiest to do when launching stations because you can start from scratch, but I also do it with re-brands and re-builds too.

Regarding taste, I do believe we have an obligation to​ reflect the general taste of our audience, but this does not relieve us of our responsibly to smartly lead the audience forward to show them what else is possible. Our tastes should be wider than the general audience, not to be above them, but to use as​ a source of​inspiration ​for ​generating new ideas, and to get a sense of what the audience will consider cool and mainstream 12 months from now.

mikebrownsher2Brownsher: I think the mood and feel is one of the more important things to decide upon when creating promos. I’ll ask myself a couple of different questions such as “What kind of feeling am I trying to elicit with this bed” or “Does this sound byte actually further the story.” I try and assess the reasons why I’m taking a particular approach.

Generally speaking, I can do what I like with respect to the audience’s tastes, and I’m right in the middle of the ESPN Radio demo, so the work I’m producing doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. However, New York City is a rather diverse market, so I’m always conscious of the many different demos we have that are listening.

Levy: This always goes back to what the station is. If it’s a Rock, Top 40 or a Sports station, you can have a lot more fun in terms of getting crazy with SFX and highlights. Newstalk and hard hitting stations use less SFX and more substance. Whatever your station is, you have to know the audience you’re playing to. Especially if it’s a heritage station. Those brands usually require more thought because you have to know how to get your message across creatively, while staying inside the boundary of your station’s standards. That said, there are ways to throw yourself into it no matter what format you’re working on.

For my AM station, they let me have fun, and be creative, because they know that I’m aware of the station’s heritage, and what the audience expects. If I’m doing a sports promo, that comes easy because I’m a sports nut, and my radio background is rich in sports. I’ll set things up with music, SFX, and highlights, and I know how to build it before I even write the copy. For talk shows, if I’m producing a promo, I like to choose the music according to the subject matter.  That’s a good way to put your stamp on something without having to go all out.

Q: How can you tell if your imaging/production is or isn’t connecting with the audience?

jeffschmidt3Schmidt: I’ve been fortunate over the years to be in a lot of research and perceptual meetings where you’ll hear your station’s slogan repeated back. While a lot of people pat themselves on the back for that, I’ve always believed that’s table stakes considering you repeat the slogan on-air thousands of times. I’m much more interested in hearing if certain campaigns and ideas generated a response or an emotional connection/reaction. But that is a very expensive and time-consuming way to get feedback.

You can also get feedback on social media. I have always believed in making sure at least some of the imaging I create is such that it could be shared by the audience on social platforms. That means it has to get out of a “Just The Facts” approach and try to connect with the audience emotionally, and this almost always means the imaging can’t just be about your radio station.

Levy: The beauty of being an imaging guy is that my work is catered to my boss. He sets the tone for the station and the audience. If I create something and he doesn’t get it, I know that I have to go back and fix what needs fixing. Like anything else, after a month of doing stuff for the boss, you’ll know what they like, and that allows you to create production that is in line with what they want on the radio station.

chrismorales2Morales: In network radio, often the imaging is mainly show opens and rejoins, so you’ll hear a caller or see a tweet that references the imaging. They may not know what to call it, but over the years I’ve heard a lot of “we love that thing that brings on the host and recaps the previous show” or they talk about a certain drop, music, or VO phrase. Sean Pendergast of KILT/Houston (used to be with us at Gow/YSR) used to call it the WWE entrance music effect. My imaging helped set the stage and pump him up to come out and perform.

In my years with the Tony Bruno Morning Show at FOX, my goal was to make Tony laugh every morning with the open. If he was pumped up and laughing out of the gate, and referenced the open and imaging, then I knew it connected with the audience.

On a local level, it sometimes is a little more challenging because a lot of the work is station related branding/promos. But hearing callers reference “you guys have that thing saying you’re #1 in LA, that thing they are talking about is the imaging. When you hear that, you know your work is cutting through.

Brownsher: That’s a really tough one. I’m honestly not sure if you can or can’t. Obviously feedback is great, but this has always been an areas that’s been tough for me to gauge.

Q: Do you find listeners more likely to consume shorter or longer promos, and why?

mikebrownsher3Brownsher: I think the shorter the better. If you think a listener is going to sit and consume your promos, that’s not accurate. I especially hate laundry list promos and when I hear them I wonder what the station is trying to accomplish. “We got all this stuff that we wanna tell you about and we know you’re gonna sit here and listen to it and then remember it.” Nonsense! Make it short and impactful.

Schmidt: Obviously with PPM you want to keep everything moving so in general you have to respect that by making your point at concisely as possible. But you have to be able to spot the exceptions, such as when the local team​s are in the news, the playoffs, etc. You want to express, reflect and draw on your listeners increased passion in those times even if it goes over :30 seconds! In the past I’ve created the on-air cut down version and the theatrical release version for online.

danlevy3Levy: This is one that changes like the weather. I don’t think any promo should be longer than 45-60 seconds. I believe any promo can be funny, creative, connect with the audience, and get your point across within 25 seconds or less. In my opinion, that’s all I think listeners can take when hearing any form of creative production. The more time you add to a promo, the more likely people get bored or tune out. Short and concise is the ideal marker.

Morales: When PPM was still relatively new, Craig Larson (YSR PD and Gow Houston) said something very wise when I was referencing another station’s concerns that I had been working with. They were worried about promos being too long. Craig looked at me and said, “If it’s 15 seconds and garbage, then it’s garbage. If it’s 60 seconds and amazing, then isn’t that the goal, to have amazing imaging”?

I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with PD’s like Mike Thompson and Nate Lundy who have my back when I get a little long in painting the picture of what we’re striving for. The ratings and results back up that having a long promo doesn’t hurt the station. I think we need to concentrate on listeners consuming “GREAT” promo messaging that builds an image, sells the station and its personalities, and creates theater of the mind. THAT is what makes imaging part of the magic of radio.

Q: What type of promos do you feel connect best with the audience, and why? (Ex: Appointment promos, Funny bits, straight forward brand builders/slogans, play by play/game promos, etc)

jeffschmidt4Schmidt: If a listener hears a dry liner over a music bed saying a big guest is coming up in 10 minutes and they remember to check back in, did that connect? PPM says yes. But let’s not forget that “Connect” also means an emotional connection that could deepen a listeners bond with your radio station.

I think station imaging not only has the opportunity but the responsibility to deliver on both fronts. How you do that should be specific to the needs and wants of your listeners, ​and station.

Morales: I think you have to offer a few different categories in today’s PPM infested world. We know we want cume recylclers, appointment builders, guests, PBP game promos, and those are vital depending on the station and it’s presentation. But, I love “imagers” centered around the talent and the message of the station. I think of them like beat mix/hook promos for a music station. A promo that is a collection of talent drops, with a great music mix, etc. sounds fun and cool, and they differentiate our format from the political spoken word world.

They can also really sparkle amongst the other straight forward imaging we do on the station. To the listener, it makes their choice of our station resonate as a good one in their heads and minds. Who doesn’t want to feel like they’ve made the right choice in something? We want to image that their “fraternity” is our station’s performers.

brown2Brownsher: I believe it’s probably a combination of all of the above. I do value appointment guest promos if the guest is a really good one, or highly topical. I’m not much of a funny bit producer for promos in stopsets, but I do think they can add some value during the actual shows. We carry a lot of play-by-play on the station so we do our fair show of game promos and try to make them feel like a big deal.

Levy: The station itself dictates what promo’s connect best with the audience. The AM station that I image for, we have a lot happening at once. We have HUGE on-air talents hosting shows during the day. We also have Notre Dame football, and now we will be carrying the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls starting next year. The promos I create are catered to the audiences of each of those elements.

Q: When you listen to the imaging/production of other sports stations around the country, what do you hear them doing well, and where do they miss opportunities?

chrismorales1Morales: I hear many pushing the envelope these days with creative writing that makes the station sizzle and seem more edgy than what it may really be. For a format growing rapidly into M18-34, and FM sticks, we want to image being the best MALE station, not just the best sports station. We want to compete with top 5 M25-54 music stations, not just be the #1 sports talker. It’s awesome to hear stations that can capture this.

Where many miss the opportunity, is because they still view our format as something that needs to be imaged simple. A dry liner from Jim Cutler, that is thrown over a bed coming back from break. It’s sad. Cutler is one of the best VO people on this planet, so why would you waste his read? Why would you waste the listener’s time?

This is the old mindset that sports radio is the format that will never get past a 0.5 in the market, and it’s just turn key and all about sports. Sometimes this happens because a station doesn’t have an imaging person or if there is one, they’re stretched inside the cluster. It also starts with the PD. If they don’t care about imaging, then why would their production person? When Dave Shore was the OM of KSPN, he could literally recite every on-air promo back to me. If he didn’t like something, I would get a text at all hours. He understood the importance of imaging, and was as passionate about how the station sounded as I was. That is vital.

Schmidt: In general, great stations take advantage of the fact that imaging has the unique opportunity of being totally pre-planned, where the exact script, actors, music, and sound effects can all be ​used ​in full force to create something powerful.

On the missed opportunity side I perceive a calcification in Sports Radio Imaging where “the way it’s done” has already been decided (by whom?) and is senselessly copied. From both revenue and unique programming perspectives, Sports Radio has major advantages that Music Radio doesn’t have, but it isn’t immune from ​becoming​ what U.S. AM Talk Radio has devolved ​in​to if it stops innovating and just keeps repeating itself.

brown3Brownsher: I’m always impressed when stations are doing very directed specific promos that point to something. Whether they are topicals or teasing to something that’s coming up. In my opinion, it means they’re thinking about what they’re putting on the air and trying to make it easy for the listener.

The opposite would be stations that run promos saying “look at us and how great we are” or “here’s a laundry list of what we’re doing”. The other ones that I reject are giant fluff pieces that don’t push me towards anything and are just taking up inventory.

Levy: Sports radio all across the country is at an awesome level. There are so many great shows and talents that are being featured. I’m a sucker for show promos. I always hone in on how a station market’s and brand’s their lineup, and how long they go with their promos.

Are they only giving me the funny stuff? Are they giving me guys who try to ram stats down my throat? Are the promos providing a great blend of all of those attributes? Most importantly, if they’re making a long show promo, the build up to the ending better pay off. If it doesn’t, my ears will tune out their future promos.

Q: Why is good production, messaging, and branding important for a sports radio station?

danlevy2Levy: Because sports radio is huge and outlets are everywhere (the internet, social media, sports alerts on my phone). A radio station needs to find a way to separate themselves from this massive pack.

The message that you brand yourself with is the one that listeners will identify you as. Are you the station that is the home for a certain team? Are you the station to turn to and vent your frustrations to after the big game or big sports story of the day? Great imaging and production is essential to building the brand, and that includes on-air, marketing, and the sales side too.

Brownsher: People ultimately come to the radio station because of the personalities. If I can be an effective extension of that and remind them though our promos and messaging of their importance, then maybe it helps them enjoy the experience more. If they enjoy the station and the way it makes them feel, it should help with getting them to listen more.

JeffSchmidt: I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some iconic brands and was able to see first hand how powerful that can be. The best stations are more than the sum of their parts. They have a distinct stationality that ties it all together. If done correctly, it can deepen a fan’s connection to the brand.

Morales: Imaging and good messaging is vital in helping build your P1’s and TSL. It reaffirms that the listener has made the right choice, and that we want them to spend more time with us, showing them the menu of the station and hosts, making them laugh, smile, mad, essentially feeling something.

Think of the legendary “This is Sports Center” promos. It created an amazing brand and image, and made us feel part of something that was on our TV’s every day, even though we weren’t in Bristol. That’s why it matters.

Q: What advice do you want to pass along to other Imaging Directors, Programmers, and Industry professionals who are looking to upgrade the sound and quality of their brands thru good imaging and production?

chrismMorales: Try new something new each week. John Frost said that to me many years ago. Whether a new VO effect, type of music in a promo, grabbing drops from a source you normally wouldn’t go to, etc. Stay fresh. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a colossal failure, but you’ve got to keep sharpening your skills. Listen to as much imaging from others out there as you can. I’ve done sports radio imaging for 13 years, and it may sound cliché but I learn something new every week from listening to the imaging of others.

Also, ask for help and advice. When I was FSR’s imaging director, Bob Schmidt was imaging the Clear Channel affiliate in Syracuse, WHEN. He’d email me every week for drops of Tony Bruno and our talent, and send me his stuff. He was passionate and lived and breathed the talent on his station. He’s now in LA at KLAC, and doing some great work across the country.

His right hand man, is my former right hand man, Vito Violante. Vito was young and new when he started with me, but was hungry and worked his ass off to learn. We came up with ideas, and different approaches, and I bounced stuff off of him and our team daily because I wanted ideas and feedback. He’d be the first to come in with a new DVD to pull drops, or find different songs we could use.

To be a great imaging director you need to listen to feedback, and make the talent, producers, and interns all feel part of the imaging process.

Schmidt: Reach out. I’m happy to help! Seriously, we would all be better served by sharing thoughts and ideas and helping each other develop new ideas. It’s far too easy to sit in our offices and studios doing the same things today that we did yesterday. That’s how stations, brands and formats stagnate.

Additionally, when I got to San Francisco in 1997 I was immediately ushered into regular research and perceptual meetings and it changed how I viewed Radio and the role of imaging forever. It made me really appreciate all that goes into creating and maintaining powerful radio brands. It helped me become a more valuable Imaging Director. I encourage every cluster to include their Imaging talent in those essential meetings.

mikebrownsher4Brownsher: Be smart about what you’re putting on the air. Write short, keep your ears open, and remember that no one listens to your work more than the people in your own building (keep that in perspective).

Also, don’t waste the listener’s time by patting yourself on the back. Music selection is incredibly important, and can’t be overstated in my opinion. Most of all, try to make the listener feel something.

Levy: Don’t ever be afraid to go outside the box. Great imaging/production talents are everywhere. Maybe an alternative imaging guy is exactly what the sports station needs. Separate yourself from those sports stations that beat their chests and say they’re number 1 at everything. Add some splashes that simply make your station sound good!

Remember, sports is fun, not hard hitting. You’re not breaking down the presidential debate or reporting on ISIS. That said, not everything needs to be funny. If it calls for it, great. Know the audience and keep in mind that we are all competing against video and the internet. So great audio, content and especially production, are essential to gaining back that audience.

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Barrett Blogs

ESPN Has Made It Clear, Radio Is Not a Priority

“What’s unfolding now at the worldwide leader is disheartening because it could have been avoided.”

Jason Barrett

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This is not a column I wanted to write. For years, I’ve expressed how much better the industry is when ESPN Radio is healthy. I’ve maintained friendships at the network, the company has supported our BSM Summit, and I reflect fondly on the few years I spent working there earlier in my career. It was a special place to work and I learned a lot about becoming a pro in Bristol.

But this ESPN Radio is not the one that I and many others were fortunate to be a part of under Bruce Gilbert. It is not the one that Traug Keller, Scott Masteller, and other radio-first believers oversaw. This current version lacks radio instincts, focus, passion, and care. That may be an opinion that folks in Bristol, New York, and Los Angeles offices don’t want to hear but the decisions made in recent years make it difficult to see it any other way.

ESPN Radio used to obsess over serving the sports fan, its radio affiliates, and network advertising partners. But serving the company’s television and digital interests is what matters most now. Relationships with radio operators have changed, interest in operating local markets has decreased, and though I’m sure some will defend the network’s interest in satisfying advertising partners, it’s hard to do that a day after the entire national audio sales team was gutted. Thankfully Good Karma Brands is passionate about the audio business and helping their sales efforts. If they weren’t involved, who would be leading the charge in Bristol?

I didn’t start this week planning to drop a truth bomb but as I sat here on Tuesday and fielded text after text and call after call, I couldn’t help but be disappointed and upset. This network has been a staple of the industry for over thirty years. Yet in less than ten it feels they’re closer to turning off the lights than celebrating success. That should not happen when you have the partnerships, history, and talent that ESPN has.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to reach this point. ESPN Radio had chances to sell in the past to outside parties. They declined. Folks inside of Disney felt the network was worth more. Well, how’s that looking now? If the company wasn’t going to commit to doing it the right way, and was just going to cut its way to the bottom, why stand in the way of others who’d pay to save it? It’s eerily similar to what just happened with Buzzfeed News. The company thought it was better than it was, and within a few years, the whole thing crumbled.

If this were the first time the network looked bad, I’d go easier on them. I understand the business, and sometimes brands or companies make mistakes or have to make difficult choices. It’s why I didn’t bury the network when Mike and Mike ended. Though I knew replacing their stability in mornings would be tough, I felt the network had earned enough clout over the prior years to be given the benefit of the doubt with a new show/lineup. I also applauded the company for replacing Zubin with Max, defended paying Stephen A. Smith top dollar, and supported GetUp! when it was popular to predict the show’s funeral.

But how can leadership in Bristol expect radio operators to trust their decision making at this point? I’ve talked to network executives privately and publicly about these issues for years, and have been told repeatedly that the radio business matters to them and becoming more consistent was a priority. At some point though the actions need to match the words. Unfortunately the only consistency taking place is change, and it often isn’t for the better.

I’ve lost count of the phone calls, texts, emails and direct messages I’ve fielded from PDs, executives, market managers, and ad agency professionals who’ve asked ‘should I be doing business with this network? Can you help me rebrand and redesign my radio station without ESPN Radio?‘ Yesterday alone I took five calls including from two who have expiring deals coming up. Think they’re in a rush to extend a partnership given what’s going on?

If you turn back the clock, some will say that things began to go in the wrong direction when Bruce Gilbert and Dan Patrick left. Though those were big losses, there was still a lot of confidence across the industry in ESPN Radio after they left. The early signs of issues at the network really started in 2014. That’s when Scott Masteller and Scott Shapiro departed. Masteller went on to program WBAL in Baltimore, and Shapiro teamed up with Don Martin to strengthen FOX Sports Radio.

Fast forward to 2020, and the heart and soul of the network, Traug Keller retired. Traug had more in the tank when he signed off, and when I talked to him prior to his exit, he denied being forced out or having concerns about the future direction of the network. Those who know Traug, know that’s he’s a class act and not one to air dirty laundry. But I also know he’s smart. As I look back now, I can’t help but wonder if he knew the ship was headed for an iceberg. I have no doubt that the network would be in better shape today if he were still there.

After Traug’s exit, a year later, Tim McCarthy was let go in New York. The network even cut ties with longtime voice talents Jim and Dawn Cutler, though they stayed on the company’s top stations in NY and LA.

Though I hated to see all of them go because they were good at their jobs and valuable to the network, the one that made a little more sense was Tim’s exit because that had more to do with Good Karma taking over in New York. Tim has since landed with the Broadcasters Foundation of America, and Vinny DiMarco is now leading 98.7 ESPN NY, and I’m a fan of both men.

But now here we are in 2023, and once again, the folks being shown the door are the people who dedicated their lives to radio. Among the casualties, Scott McCarthy, the network’s SVP of Audio, Pete Gianesini, Senior Director of Digital Audio, Louise Cornetta, Digital Audio Program Director, and two good local sports radio programmers, Ryan Hurley at 98.7 ESPN NY, and Amanda Brown at ESPN LA 710. All of them good, talented people with track records of success in the format. I struggle to explain how ESPN Radio is better today without them.

By the way, I haven’t even touched the talent department yet. But let’s go there next.

In less than eight years, ESPN Radio’s morning show has featured Mike & Mike, Golic & Wingo (Mike Golic Jr. and Jason Fitz were added as contributing voices), Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin, and Keyshawn, JWill and Max. Middays have included Colin Cowherd, Dan Le Batard and Stugotz, Scott Van Pelt, Ryen Russillo, Danny Kanell, Will Cain, Mike Greenberg, Jason Fitz, Stephen A. Smith, Bart & Hahn, and Fitz and Harry Douglas. Afternoons have been a combination of Le Batard and Stugotz, Bomani Jones, Jalen & Jacoby, Golic Jr. & Chiney, Canty & Golic Jr. & Canty and Carlin. I could run down the changes at night too, but you get the picture.

As a former programmer and current consultant, I know that radio is a relationship listen and investment. You can’t build an audience and attract sponsor support for talent and shows if the product constantly changes. Most PDs or executives who make this many changes during a short period of time, usually aren’t around very long. Yet ESPN has allowed this to continue, which leaves me to question how much they value their radio network.

Look, I’m sure this is a tough week for those in management at ESPN. Having to tell folks they’re not being retained and watch friends say goodbye is a crummy part of the job. I’m sure some have even fought to try and avoid this bloodbath. But when the news comes down from up above that 7,000 jobs are being eliminated, it’s not a question of whether or not people are talented and valuable, it’s simply about the bottom line. I feel for the folks at ESPN who have to deliver the bad news this week but also for those who are staying and now have limited support around them to make a difference.

By decimating the radio department there are now bigger questions to be answered by Jimmy, Burke, Dave, Norby and the rest of the management team. How much does ESPN value the radio business and the stations they’re in business with? If most of the people who’ve built relationships with local stations are gone, talented programmers are being ousted, talent changes happen far too frequently, and the company becomes less involved in local markets, why is anyone to believe this space matters to ESPN? What exactly are stations gaining from partnerships besides the use of four letters and the opportunity to air play by play events?

The network expects these stations to provide them with inventory, rights fees, branding, promotion, and clearance of certain programs so isn’t it fair of stations to have expectations of the network too? Don’t radio network partners deserve consistent quality programming, relationships with managers who prioritize audio, and less negative PR?

Most who I talk to about this situation believe the network’s glory days are gone. That’s fine. Just because this isn’t the ESPN Radio of 2005 doesn’t mean it can’t be great. The product exists now to primarily serve mid to small market operators who can’t afford local content, major market stations who don’t want to spend on evening and overnight shows, and company owned stations that can be utilized to promote the company’s digital and television content. ESPN does gain value for their radio shows on TV and podcast platforms, but those benefit the company much more than their radio partners.

The general feeling in industry circles is that FOX Sports Radio now delivers the best national radio product, CBS Sports Radio has better consistency but similar east coast content issues, and others don’t have strong enough brand recognition or content to justify a change. If sports betting continues to gain mainstream acceptance and bring cash into the marketplace, that could help outlets like VSiN, BetQL, and SportsGrid gain greater traction. If Outkick gets more aggressive with offering content to local markets, especially in the south and Midwest, that could be another interesting option.

The bigger question is whether there’s enough audience, revenue, and excitement for national content in today’s sports radio space. If most major markets are focused on local, is there enough out there in rural America to keep networks excited?

I do know that just ten years ago CBS Radio entered the space because they saw value in it. NBC Sports Radio leaped in too. FOX Sports Radio went all-in for Colin Cowherd, and ESPN Radio was healthy. Even SiriusXM continues to expand its national offerings, and three sports betting networks saw value in pursuing national distribution. It’s hard to convince me that there isn’t financial upside for national sports radio brands in today’s media environment. It may not be a big ratings play but from a business standpoint there is value.

What’s unfolding now at the worldwide leader is disheartening because it could have been avoided. Instead, brands have been damaged, relationships changed, jobs lost, and questions raised about future viability.

If the world’s leading sports operator values radio, they’ll prioritize restoring confidence across the industry. A good start would be putting people in place who champion radio’s future, and make decisions that best serve the radio brands carrying their product. If they can’t do that, then maybe it’s time to step aside, and let someone else try. I know a few groups who’d be happy to take a shot at restoring the network’s pride.

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Barrett Blogs

Radio Must Bring Back The Fun

“The promotions you’re creating are not producing massive recall across the format, national media attention or revenues that change the fate of your next quarter.”

Jason Barrett

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Five and a half days in Las Vegas can feel like an eternity. Especially when you’re in town for business not pleasure. But though I’d rather sleep in my own bed, eat at home, and avoid walking from convention hall to convention hall, I’m glad I made the trip because the NAB Show delivered. 

Many media members have attended this event over the years, and it’s easy to come up with reasons not to attend. Budgets are tight, you can’t afford to be out of the office, or you think it isn’t beneficial. That’s where I’ll take exception. If you can’t find something of value at a five-day event that exists to serve broadcasters and brands, that’s on you, not the conference.  

Over the past few days, I did what many do and took necessary business meetings at Encore, but I also listened to speakers offer valuable insights on artificial intelligence, marketing, programming, technology, dashboard connectivity, the future of AM radio, and more. All of these are subjects that should matter to media professionals. Having Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso star Roy Kent) on hand to talk about content creation was an added bonus. 

As I spent my final hour inside the North Hall on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about how large this event is, what goes into creating it, and how many different industries and brands are represented at it. What the NAB does to make this event possible for sixty-five thousand plus is amazing, and I commend all involved because it truly is informative, and it helps bring together business leaders and brands to help move our industry forward. 

There were many takeaways from the conference sessions, but one in particular stood out. I thought Mike McVay’s session with J.D. Crowley and Paul Suchman of Audacy was excellent. Crowley’s insights on listener choice, distribution, and personalization were spot on, and I was very impressed with Suchman’s feedback on some of the behavior testing Audacy has done to learn how consumers respond to different types of content and messaging.

Crowley’s final message about people in the audio industry needing to be proud of the business they’re in was easy for me to relate to because I feel similarly. This is a great business to be in. I get tired of hearing folks in and out of the industry tear it down. So much attention gets placed on who exceeded revenue goals, what a brand’s ratings were, and what a company’s stock price is, losing sight of the more important part, our brands, personalities, and content, and the way they’re received by those who consume it.

Additionally, I was honored to speak about the growth of BSM and BNM. Joe D’Angelo of Xperi and Pierre Bouvard of Cumulus Media treated folks to information on advertising and in-car data, and Erica Farber, Tim Bronsil, and Mary DelGrande did a nice job guiding multiple business conversations. I also enjoyed stopping by the Veritone booth and learning about their products and staff. My only regret, I missed Buzz Knight’s session with Nielsen’s new audio team due to a business meeting running long. Thankfully Inside Radio put together a detailed recap of what was discussed. 

But what I want to draw attention to most is something Dan Mason said on stage during his acceptance speech when receiving the Lowry Mays Award at the Broadcasters Foundation of America breakfast. It’s something I raised at last month’s BSM Summit. 

After sharing how local is a key differentiator in helping radio stand apart from other forms of media, and reminding everyone about the importance of longevity, Mason said that radio has to get back to having fun. He shared a story of a promotion he was part of in the 1970’s that wouldn’t fly today. It was a short people’s convention that included six-ounce drinks, pigs in a blanket, and strawberry shortcake. The event put his radio station on NBC Nightly News, and created a ton of buzz.  

Just because that type of event wouldn’t work in 2023, doesn’t mean others can’t. We have got to create special events that produce national attention, local market interest, and fear of missing out spending. This is what radio is supposed to be exceptional at yet it doesn’t happen enough.  

At our Summit in LA, I asked three PD’s to share with me the one promotion in sports radio today that they viewed as a killer event. It wasn’t an easy one to answer. In fact, two referenced WIP’s Wing Bowl, which ended in 2018. Had I asked five or six other PD’s, they’d have likely been in the same boat, struggling to name three or four killer events. 

I mentioned how the Mandy Awards at 710 ESPN in Los Angeles stood out, but this format should be able to deliver more than one standout promotion. I realize there are stations doing promotional events, and if they’re helping you produce revenue, great. I’m not telling you to abandon that strategy. But I will challenge you if you try to tell me sports radio’s report card on promotions in 2023 is superb. It is not.

One gentleman I listened to during the week who was attending a session shared one reason why this is the case. He was asked about creating ideas and said ‘we use a committee to brainstorm and find that sometimes the best ideas come from different departments, in fact, our last successful event was the idea of our engineer.’ 

I’m all for collaboration, and if you’re creating events that satisfy your goals, continue doing it. I’m not here to rain on your parade. But let me share an opinion some may view as unpopular. If the best ideas in your organization are coming from departments other than programming, you have a problem.

The program director and talent are supposed to be the people you turn to for leadership, ideas, passion, creativity, and execution. They’re supposed to be able to think of things that others can’t. Do you think Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would turn over the direction of their next film to others inside their companies? Imagine the focus of Ted Lasso’s next episode being decided by someone other than Jason Sudeikis, Brett Goldstein, and the rest of their writing team. You’d be wasting the talent of your best storytellers.

Radio companies pay premium dollars for elite programmers and hosts because they’re supposed to be able to bring things to life that only exists inside their brains. If your HR or engineering department are creating the station’s best promotions, you don’t have enough creativity coming from your programming team. That could be due to having a PD who lacks ideas and vision or it could be the result of the way your creative process is structured.

One of the things I enjoyed most as a PD was coming up with ideas that created buzz, ratings, and revenue. My job was to think and execute BIG, and whether it was Lucky Break in San Francisco, Stand For Stan at 101 ESPN in St. Louis, the Golden Ticket at 590 The Fan in St. Louis, the 20 in 20 tour or Goodbye Roast at 95.7 The Game or the Gridiron Gala in both cities, we produced buzz, grew ratings, and made money. If we did something and it failed, that was ok. I’d rather swing and miss than be afraid to try. I took that responsibility seriously, and feel that when you’re making calls by committee, you’re not allowing your best people to do what they’re best suited to do. 

Case in point, I attended Boomer & Gio Live in Jersey City, NJ a few weeks ago. It was a fun event with a lot of different things going on. WFAN’s PD Spike Eskin worked the event on stage, and if you recall, the station made national news when Jets GM Joe Douglas said that Aaron Rodgers would end up in New York. There were multiple sales activations included throughout the show, and much of the fun content that took place on stage came from the creators. Because the FAN crew were allowed to do what they do best, the station produced a successful event. Had that been an ‘all departments contribute’ approach, it’d have not been the same show. 

What Dan Mason said in Las Vegas was accurate. Radio has to get back to having fun but it also has to be unafraid to take risks. I fear that we worry so much about the ‘what ifs’ and the potential noise on social media that we’re killing creativity, and the next big idea.

If I asked you to list five GREAT sports radio promotions today, could you? And I’m not talking about golf tournaments, charitable bowling events, host debates or bar remotes. If I ask this same question in five years and we’re in the same spot, that’s going to say a lot about where we are as an industry. We have to excite ourselves, our listeners, and our advertisers because when we showcase our creativity in a way that no other medium can, we make a statement, which results in increased attention, and financial investment.  

Some of that creative spirit is still alive. You see it in Boston with WEEI’s Jimmy Fund Telethon, and if you attended the Michael Kay Show 20-year anniversary special or Barstool’s Upfront, you saw what great planning, and execution looks like. But I also remember The Fanatic’s Celebrity Week, The Millen Man March in Detroit, Ticketfest in Dallas, Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, and 790 The Zone in Atlanta becoming a national sensation by creating multiple home run events.

I don’t believe enough brands today create events that deliver meaningful impact. Yet they’re needed. When done right, brands ascend to a different level. Sports radio has too many sharp, creative minds to not be creating the biggest and most successful promotions in all of media. If you work in programming and your station isn’t producing promotions that generate recall across the format, national media attention or revenues that change the fate of your next quarter, it’s time to step up your game. If you don’t, the interns, street team, and receptionist may soon be deciding the future direction of your brand’s promotional strategy.

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Barrett Blogs

Reflecting on the 2023 BSM Summit

“Barrett Media president Jason Barrett reflects on last week’s BSM Summit in Los Angeles.”

Jason Barrett

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One of the best parts about the world of sports is that every season ends with one team being crowned champion. It doesn’t exactly work that way managing a media company, even though we invest the same amount of time leading up to the BSM Summit, our equivalent of the Super Bowl or WrestleMania.

Having had a few days to recover and reflect after last week’s Summit in Los Angeles, I know that what we did last week was special. I’m a perfectionist and have a hard time patting myself on the back because I know there’s plenty we can do better, but last week, we hit a homerun. The venues at USC were perfect, the signage was spectacular, the tech ran well, the speakers were awesome, the crowd was great, and the sponsorship support was outstanding. It’s the first time I’ve walked away from an event and felt we accomplished what we set out to do. If time allows, check out Garrett Searight’s piece on some of the key takeaways from the show.

In 2018, Mitch Rosen invited me to utilize his space at Audacy Chicago to take a shot at trying to execute an event for PDs. Now here we are five years later with a few hundred people joining us from all across the industry. It’s pretty incredible. We’re only successful because a lot of people have come together to make sure we are. Without the speakers, sponsors, and staff around me stepping up to get things done, I’d just be a guy with an idea incapable of executing it.

In the next week or so we’ll be sharing video clips from the show on the BSM social media pages. I’m also planning to make full sessions available via on-demand for free for those who attended the show in California. If you didn’t come to the event and want to watch it online, it will be available for a small fee. Stay tuned for further details.

What matters most to me with the Summit is that folks in the room get something out of it. I thought many of our speakers delivered a ton of value this year, and there were a few WOW moments along the way as well. Colin and Rome were outstanding as expected, and Jay Glazer and Al Michaels’ speeches had everyone hanging on their next words. I thought the Shawn Michaels and Jack Rose led sessions were outside the box and well received, and I was beyond impressed by Joy Taylor, Mina Kimes, and Amanda Brown. We used 14 hours in that room to explore issues dealing with management, research, technology, programming, talent and social media, so it gave everyone a little bit of everything, which was the goal.

We did have a little bit of friction on stage during the Aircheck on Campus session, which wasn’t a bad thing. Personalities and programmers have passionate conversations inside the office every day. Rob, Mark and Scott just happened to have one on stage. All three are smart, talented, and willing to be candid. I thought that was healthy for the room.

I know networking is important at these type of events and there was plenty of opportunity for folks to do that. I look at it like this, if you can get face time with others, meet your heroes or folks you admire and pick up some ideas and insight in the process to elevate your business, that should justify it being worthy of a few days out of the office.

As crazy as it may sound, I step away from each of these events asking my team ‘is that the last one?’ I know I can create and execute a great conference, and I enjoy doing it, but I also don’t want to invest eight months of time building a show that becomes predictable and stale. It’s why I change speakers and topics frequently. This year’s lineup was phenomenal, and I’m so pleased with who we featured on stage and had in the room, but the competitor in me will also look back and say ‘Bill Simmons, Ice Cube and Lincoln Riley Should’ve Been On Stage Too!

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If we do host an event in 2024, it will take place in either Boston, Chicago, Dallas or New York. You can cast your vote on BSMSummit.com.

I want to thank everyone who stopped me last week to share how much they enjoy this event. That support means a lot. I think Good Karma Brands broke a record with 20+ employees in attendance, and iHeart was also well represented, which was great to see. I was also excited to have 15-20 college students in the room. The more we can educate the next generation, the better it is for all of us. I also was thrilled to learn a few of our partners and attendees made time to arrange further business conversations. If two groups can help each other, that’s what it’s all about.

But as much as I love my radio brothers and sisters, I’ve noticed more folks showing up the past two years from areas outside of sports radio. That’s both exhilarating and concerning. This year we had folks in the room from WWE, Amazon, The Volume, Omaha Productions, Dirty Mo Media, Barstool Sports, Spotify, Blue Wire, Locked On, BetRivers, Bleav, etc.. I hope that trend continues because sports media is a lot larger of a business than sports radio. As I told the room, we’re not in the radio business, television business, audio or video business, we are in the content business. That covers a lot more ground for brands than focusing on one specific platform.

I’ve been on cloud nine for a few days because overall, this went as well as I could ask for. If there’s one thing I’d like to make better it’s that I hear from a lot of folks throughout the year who say they want to learn, meet new people and give themselves a competitive edge yet when an event exists that can help them do that, they’re not in the room. Some of my radio friends didn’t come because they weren’t asked to speak. Others said they couldn’t make it because their company wouldn’t cover the costs. A few said they thought the Summit was only for programming people not managers or sellers.

First, growing and selling an audience should matter to everyone not just programmers and hosts. GM’s and Sales Managers can gain a lot at this show. So can advertisers and agencies. I’m hoping to change that in the future. Second, I can’t tell you whether or not to prioritize attending but groups outside of radio are passionate about sports audio and video, and they’re finding ways to be in the room. At some point, you have to decide if investing in knowledge, ideas and relationships matters to you and your business. Your employer isn’t going to cover everything you want to do so especially when the economy isn’t strong. Sometimes you have to invest time and resources in yourself.

Many of you reading this website know my track record in the radio industry. I built my career in radio. My passion for the business remains strong. I consult brands all across the country, and root for the industry’s success. It’s why I sink my heart and soul into this event and share all that I do over two days because I want to help people grow their businesses.

But it is strange that over the course of four live events I’ve still not had one current radio CEO sit down for an in-depth sports media business conversation. It’d be one thing if they were pitched and I turned them down but that’s not the case. I’ve had great conversations and support outside of radio from Jimmy Pitaro, Eric Shanks, Erika Ayers, and John Skipper. Jeff Smulyan has been a huge supporter taking part in our awards ceremony, and we’ve had high ranking TV executives in the room watching the show. Maybe things will change in 2024 but whether they do or don’t, I’m going to focus on helping brands and individuals who gain value from this two day event, and continue challenging this industry to think and act differently.

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Now that the 2023 BSM Summit is over, my focus shifts to supporting my clients and gearing up for a massive challenge, hosting our first BNM Summit for news media professionals. The conference will take place in Nashville, TV on September 13-14 at Vanderbilt University. I’ll be announcing the first group of speakers in April after the NAB. Tickets will go on sale at that time too.

I know it won’t be easy but I tend to do my best work when I’m out of my comfort zone. This is a space I have passion for and feel I can add something to so there’s only one thing left to do, get to work, and put together the news media equivalent of what we just created for sports media professionals last week in Los Angeles. That may be a tall order but if anyone is ready to meet the challenge head on, yours truly is certainly up to the task.

Thanks again for a spectacular time in Los Angeles. Onward and upward we go!

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