In the middle of such a dark week in sports radio, a silver lining emerged in an unlikely place. By now you know that many radio hosts across the country were laid off last week due to cutbacks from iHeartMedia. It was sudden, unfortunate and eye-opening, but also a stiff reminder of how brutal the business can be.
KXNO in Des Moines was among the stations that were affected, as six on-air employees, Heather Burnside, Travis Justice and Sean Roberts of Morning Rush as well as Chris Williams and Ross Peterson of Sports Fanatics and program director Andrew Downs all lost their job. It looked as though a small city in a ‘flyover state’ was going to be one of the many to lose the local content it craves. But at that moment, the people of Des Moines made a decision. They weren’t going down without a fight.
Local sports radio, especially in Iowa, is one of the most genuine you’re going to find. Whereas most national radio shows would never talk Iowa, Iowa State, and certainly not the smaller colleges in the states such as Drake or Northern Iowa, KXNO is a pillar in the community that people rely on for information and entertainment on a daily basis. Iowans live and die by their local sports and crave the outlets that give it to them on a daily basis. In many ways, it’s a lifeblood for the natives.
So when news spread that KXNO was among the major layoffs that were taking place, Iowans took to social media, almost in unison, and voiced their displeasure.
“I wasn’t surprised at the outrage, because I know what KXNO means to Iowans,” said former KXNO host Matt Perrault, currently with SB Nation Radio. “It’s built its brand on talking directly to people on what’s happening in their lives. That station has been so ingrained in the community for so long, that I knew there would be massive outreach. I just didn’t know exactly how folks would go about voicing it. They took to social media, and if this happened 10 years ago, I don’t know if the same outcry would’ve happened, because it’s difficult to pick up the phone and do that. It’s a lot easier to send text messages, emails, tweets and Facebook posts about it. Social media played a major role in the overall outreach.”
Daily life for many Iowans was about to be seriously altered. That didn’t sit well with the locals. Angry reactions came quickly from every direction to those in charge. Des Moines wasn’t going to sit back and let a corporate company take away what meant so much to them.
The backlash became so widespread that KXNO general manager Joel McCrea knew he had to do something. With the approval of iHeartMedia, all six on-air talents were re-hired and the station was restructured to be heard on an additional 25,000 watt signal, 106.3 FM. Not only had Iowans fought and won, but the product that was so essential to their daily lives, was now even better.
“People spoke up and I think there were two reasons,” said Andy Fales, co-host of the Murph and Andy Show. “First, they were mad about the idea of losing this connection and that Iowa was just going to get passed over again. But also, and this makes us feel the best of all, we hear from people that we are appointment entertainment for them. Their day, in many ways, is scheduled around our show. That feels amazing. Social media is great and it’s terrible at the same time, but at a time like this it’s really a useful tool that you just can’t do without. There was such a reaction from our listeners that reached the higher ups at iHeartMedia and they noticed.”
What program director wouldn’t kill to have an audience like that? Des Moines may not be a Top 50 market but you’d be hard-pressed to find very many across the country that are as loyal as that. There’s a lot of awards that are given annually in sports radio, heck, we at Barrett Sports Media, give out a couple ourselves. But if there’s an award that’s given out to the best audience in any market across the country, I sure know where my vote is going.
Fales and co-host Keith Murphy were the two on-air hosts the station, initially, decided to keep. But with six co-workers being laid off, the duo just didn’t feel it was right to carry on a show like nothing had happened.
“I’m happy that it’s over with,” said Fales. “I think we all want to sound tough and cool and like we’re this tough negotiator that goes in and draws a line in the sand, but when we were doing what we did last week, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We really kind of figured that we would be fired.
“We’ve had a lot of people come up to us and congratulate us for taking this big stand. I don’t think I’ve ever heard back from more listeners, whether they organically came up to me or just reached out. They don’t understand that last week we were kind of taking a shot in the dark. It was on principle, we knew what we believed in and what we wanted to do. But we did not think we had some great upper hand that was going to ultimately work out.”
On Tuesday, KXNO was back on the air after its short hiatus. What’s welcomed them, has been more outpouring on social media from listeners, such as compliments on how good the new FM signal sounds. In an odd way, McCrea’s decision to terminate six employees, bring them back within a week and add an FM signal might be the best thing that could have happened for the station, ratings wise, especially now that football season for the local teams is over. Regardless, the on-air staff is thankful for the change of direction by McCrea.
“I’ve known Joel McCrea for 25 years,” said Burnside via her personal Twitter page. “He’s a straight shooter who owns his mistakes, and he just turned a big one into a huge win for our company, our staff and listeners and the community we built our station on. I’m very thankful to have him as a boss, mentor and friend.”
Others echoed those comments.
“Joel McCrea really did come through,” said Fales. “He did what needed to be done and worked to get this turned around. He’s owed a lot of the credit here. He’s fallen on the grenade for iHeartMedia and he wanted to keep us all along.”
Unfortunately, Burnside, Justice, Roberts and Peterson were unreachable for direct comments through email and social media. Williams declined comment via email saying, “It’s been such a hectic week. I’d really just like to stay out of the news for at least a couple of weeks until things settle down.”
I can’t say I blame any of them for not wanting to comment. With the emotional roller coaster each has been through in the past week, I may have done the same thing.
Though McCrea and the listeners deserve a lot of credit for putting KXNO back to full strength, advertisers of the station played a major role, too. Local businesses streamed out in support of the station and even threatened to put their ad money elsewhere.
By Wednesday of last week, that’s who Fales was thinking of when his show declined to go on the air. He felt he owed it to them, especially the ones who had been there since the beginning, to give the local businesses what they paid for. But after talking with Murphy, who unknowingly scheduled a vacation at an unfortunate time and was in Mexico during the whole process, the two decided to remain off the air. Instead, Fales found another way to reach out to his clients.
“Instead of doing the show, I sat down and wrote to every single client that I could think of,” said Fales. “I got in the car and stopped by a number of businesses and told them everything that was going on. I apologized for not representing their business the way that we said we would when they signed on. I said that we would make it up to them and then I thanked them profusely for being with us. The reaction that I got from them was every bit as impressive as the reaction we got from the listeners. Nearly every one of them said if you go, we go. That felt great.
“They weren’t sold on some greater principle, they listen to our show and wanted to buy into it. It really felt great and even empowered us. I knew if things didn’t work out we could leave and take almost all of our advertisers with us immediately.”
So what’s the lessoned to be learned here? What should the takeaway be from a situation where an audience and advertisers willed its way to make a station change its entire course?
“To me, the lesson is mid-size markets with established brands, folks yearn for people who understand what’s happening in their lives,” said Perrault. “They want to know what’s happening with their teams. They don’t want to know what’s going on Chicago, but what’s going on in Des Moines. I think KXNO has always built itself on being the voice of the fan and being a place where you can go and talk. I mean, it’s Iowa and we’ve been told for years it’s just flyover country. Well, that radio station has changed everything over the course of 15 years by saying we’re going to pay attention to you and we’re going to give you the news that no one else is going to give you.”
“If you have a show that you love listening to and you’re told it’s going to be replaced by some national programming, you know that national programming isn’t going to cover what’s in your community,” said Fales. “That’s going to be lost. That connection to the community is going to be separate. We have plenty of national shows and you can get those anywhere. But there’s just this connection with local sports, and those are the ones who care about it the most.”
Stories such as this show why local sports radio in mid to lower size markets are special and will never die. Not enough praise can be given to the loyal listeners and adversities of KXNO, but the real winner is the station, itself. It’s likely the added attention and FM signal will give the station a boost in ratings it’s never seen before at this point in the calendar year.
Amidst what was a dark week of layoffs for sports radio, KXNO still found a way to emerge a winner.
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.