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ESPN Ithaca Is Trying To Keep Things Normal

“I’ve always been a student of business. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in every one of our businesses and how we all make it work.”

Brandon Contes

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We regularly hear about large media companies combating the COVID-19 pandemic with adjustments to their programming and operations. ESPN’s salary reductions, national layoffs by Entercom, furloughed employees for DAZN and others have all made mainstream news, but smaller media companies and businesses are equally impacted. 

Privately owned radio stations might not be dealt the hand of reducing a seven-figure salary, but those mom and pop media companies still represent a chunk of the broadcast industry.

WPIE in upstate New York has been a privately owned sports radio station for well over a decade. Purchased by Todd Mallinson’s Taughannock Media, now Vizella Media in 2010, ESPN Ithaca fills an important role in the community.

Todd Mallinson

The station relies on the ability to provide play-by-play for local high school sports and they rely on other small businesses for support. Like many of those small businesses, ESPN Ithaca is feeling the negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they continue working to serve their local community.  

Brandon Contes: We see in the mainstream media what’s happening with large media companies, but don’t hear as much about the challenges for locally owned stations. Have you seen a significant impact in the number of advertisers, sponsors and clients you have with ESPN Ithaca? 

Todd Mallinson: Yes, we’ve lost some clients. Most of them are in a suspended mode while others just haven’t renewed a schedule. But we’ve worked diligently to get most of our advertisers to change their message, to be more on point and resonate better with our audience. 

BC: How are small businesses in the area doing? If you drive around Ithaca, are a lot of restaurants and food establishments open for takeout?

TM: The roads just seem different, which I’m sure is no different here than anywhere else. Traffic is way down. There are restaurants that are making it work and the ones that are more successful are the ones that already had takeout and pick up as a regular part of their business model. It’s the ones that weren’t setup for it that are more challenged. But we’re supporting every one of our existing businesses and getting the word out to remind people to patronize their local favorite restaurants to help them get through this period of time. 

BC: Are most of your clients locally owned businesses? 

TM: Yes, most are locally owned. And we typically deal with the principal decision maker, there are some car dealers that have certainly ratcheted down spending. Some are maintaining a schedule with us, but until the sales end of things become essential and people can regularly engage, I don’t think we’ll see them come back. 

Cornell supports local small business COVID-19 fund | Cornell ...

BC: With the clients you have lost, are there ways you look to try and maintain a good relationship with them so once we do come out of the pandemic, they’re looking to invest part of their advertising budget with you?

TM: Absolutely. It’s a fine balance in sales that we’re running right now. We want to be supportive and be a sounding board for customers. We truly are in this together and I’ve always been a student of business. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in every one of our businesses and how we all make it work. Listening to clients and addressing needs, some have been proactive with updating messages, others have been dealing with things that are, in their mindset, a greater priority. We try to be there and encourage them to update messages and I think we’ve done a really good job with that. 

BC: What about the sports awards dinner that ESPN Ithaca hosts every June for high school athletes – Night of Champions. Has that been canceled or postponed? 

TM: We’re in the planning stages of doing something virtually. The fall season was completed, the winter season was all but completed for those teams that were at least halfway into the state tournaments and we’ll be recognizing those two seasons. Obviously, the spring season is in the balance and at this point I don’t foresee it happening. I’m not predicting that, it’s just my gut feeling. The New York State High School Athletic Association is having a meeting the last Monday or Tuesday of this month to make that decision, but I ultimately think it’s going to come down from the governor’s office.

BC: Is the awards dinner more about being a source of income, or used as a way to promote the station and local sports? 

TM: For us, we’re in the community quite a bit with the amount of high school and collegiate sports that we cover locally, whether it’s play by play or reporting. It’s our signature event in terms of recognizing and gathering about 200 top athletes and coaches and families across the 15 school districts. It’s been very well received by our community and this is going into our seventh year. 

BC: How has programming been impacted by the lack of live sports, especially considering ESPN Ithaca carries the amount of local play-by-play that you do. 

TM: It’s challenging, but ESPN has done a really good, proactive job with #SeniorNight and we jumped right on that locally. It was a perfect dovetail for us with the colleges and high schools here. Secondarily, Hometown Heroes is something else that the network spearheaded and we’ve embraced. We’re getting the word out about stories of first responders and people on the front lines of health and essential businesses that are truly essential. 

We have a newspaper we’ve been publishing for four years called Tompkins Weekly and that’s been a nice balance for us, bringing on some content in the afternoon that we traditionally wouldn’t. We’ve had the mayor on, the Chamber of Commerce president on, the head of Infectious Disease Control at the local hospital, and others to give some insight. So we’re sprinkling in information that we want to get across. We’re running a tremendous amount of public service messaging from a variety of different sources, but the main focus is social distancing. I think it was Dr. Fauci, who two weeks ago said you should act like you have the disease, and that stuck with me. We’ve had to adapt, we’re a pretty small staff of eight or nine and we’re keeping just one or two people in the office at a time, everyone else is working from home. 

BC: The station still has a daily local hour? 

TM: Yes, Between The Lines from 5 – 6pm, and that’s been our lifeline to the community. We’ve balanced entertainment and information during that one hour. The host, Nick Karski has done a really good job, who incidentally has been self-quarantined. His girlfriend is a doctor and she came down with symptoms of COVID-19, so they’ve both been self-quarantined for the last two weeks. We’re expecting they’ll be released from quarantine Wednesday (April 15). 

BC: Nick’s still been hosting the show while quarantined? 

Nick Karski appears on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Hardcore ...

TM: He’s been doing it remotely with the Comrex app that allows him to call in from his phone and it sounds pretty clear, it’s definitely come in handy. We have our producer back in the studio helping to record the interviews and get the show on-air. 

BC: You mentioned highlighting local workers and different things you’ve aired to help the community, do those things happen only during the one-hour local show or throughout the day?

TM: We’re sprinkling it throughout the day. The demand on inventory has certainly lightened due to some of the postponements of schedules and lack of play by play, so with that we’re running public service announcements and voice liners throughout the day, 24/7. 

BC: With losing clients and the lack of play-by-play opportunities, have you had to layoff any employees? 

TM: We have not. There’s Small Business Administration aid available, we’ve applied for the EIDL grant and we’ve also applied for the Paycheck Protection Plan. That seems to be a very fluid situations with things changing a little bit here and there. We applied about 10 days ago, but because things changed, we had to refile parts of the application, so we officially went on file last Wednesday (April 8). We haven’t heard anything, we’re expecting to be approved for PPP and the EIDL, but nothing as of this point.

We’ve maintained the same payroll throughout, but it’s getting very concerning because cash flow is becoming tight, businesses have pulled back and there’s concern that some of that business going forward won’t be there. With everybody looking at cash flow, the concern is that some advertising invoices won’t be paid as routinely as they have been. 

BC: How long can you operate as currently constituted with the economic shutdown, lost advertising dollars and no sports. 

TM: If we don’t receive the PPP approval by the end of this month, things will certainly need to change with staffing.

BC: You mentioned eight or nine employees, does that include the newspaper?

TM: Correct, that’s included with the newspaper. 

BC: Is the newspaper operating normally?

Tompkins Weekly - Home | Facebook

TM: It is operating as normal. We’ve seen a significant uptick to our online content, but less distribution to businesses that we would normally sell to, either because they’re not currently open or their traffic is significantly down.

BC: Have you seen more traffic to your radio station website and podcasts with less people in their car right now?  

TM: The website is down a little bit. Our social is up, and that’s largely due to a great job with #SeniorNight locally and from promoting a lot of the interviews that we’ve been doing. We see a significant amount of traffic to our websites during the school year because of pictures. We partner with local photographers that go to the games we’re calling and set up a photo gallery on the site. Typically, there are about 25-50 photos available for people to see and potentially purchase on our website. So without play-by-play and local sports it’s lowered traffic to the site.

BC: What about if some clients are unable to afford terrestrial ad space, have you moved any of them to the website or a podcast? 

TM: There’s been a couple that we’ve moved over, but mostly they’ve either maintained the course with an updated message or they’re in suspension mode if they’re not an essential business and closed. 

BC: What kind of podcasts does the station carry? 

TM: The podcasts that we’re producing at the moment are the interviews from Between The Lines, sometimes they’re extended versions that don’t completely air on BTL. For the one-hour show, our focus is getting virtually everything we do on-air. We’ve maintained our sports reporting seven days a week, like we always have. We continue to interact with athletes and coaches in the area either about the season they’ve missed or the record-breaking seasons they had because Cornell men’s and women’s hockey ranked #1 in the country and both of them saw their season unfortunately end early.  

Take Me Out to the (Backyard) Ball Game - The New York Times

BC: Have you picked up any classic rebroadcast offerings?

TM: Yea, we’re running a number of features through Westwood One and ESPN. We ran the Best of Masters last weekend, we’ve also had some of the Westwood NFL coverage. We’re an MRN affiliate, we usually do very little NASCAR, but with Yankee baseball completely parked, we’re able to carry some of the Best of MRN. 

BC: How are you communicating with your staff right now?

TM: We connect on a regular basis virtually through Zoom or FaceTime as a team and individually. I want to compliment my staff for rallying together in these uncharted times and staying as focused as best they can. They’ve done a great job engaging with our customers and doing a little hand holding.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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