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One Year Complete At WEEI and Greg Hill’s Focused On Getting Better

“How do you try to keep some listeners from your old show and make listeners happy on the new station?”

Demetri Ravanos

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Greg Hill was a Boston radio legend long before he stepped foot inside the WEEI studio. After spending 28 years leading the Hill Man Morning Show on WAAF though, Hill was presented with the chance to try something new. Just over a year later, he is firmly entrenched as part of the city’s sports radio landscape.

“I worked at a station for 28 years that I loved, but I also think that the older you get, the rarer it is to get an opportunity for a new challenge. Initially, when I was thinking about it, my thought was we all want to find things that challenge us and need to find things that challenge us,” Hill told me by phone. “To me, that was the most interesting part about it. How do you try to keep some listeners from your old show and make listeners happy on the new station?”

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WEEI’s morning show has always created a lot of noise in the market. John Dennis and Gerry Callahan established the timeslot as one that delivered strong ratings, but trafficked in controversy. Kirk Minihane added confrontation to the formula. Both Dennis and Minihane were long gone by the time Hill showed up. Hill replaced Gerry Callahan and Mike Mutnansky. Callahan is no longer with the station, Mutnansky now hosts during the evening hours.

The reputation of past morning shows, and the status WEEI has enjoyed as the heritage sports radio brand in the market, as well as the bitter ratings battle with crosstown rival, 98.5 the Sports Hub, meant nothing would come easy for Hill. Entering the sports landscape in Boston means everything you do is picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

“There’s actually media members who only interview other media members,” Hill says of the attention paid to sports radio in Boston. “I would bet that doesn’t go on much in other markets.”

Hill first cracked the mic in morning drive on WEEI on July 29, 2019. There was no fear, and why should there have been? Sure, there were a few new cast members around him, but Hill had his long-time co-host Danielle Murr by his side. He also had plenty of history behind him to assure himself or anyone else that he knew what he was doing regardless of what station or format he was a part of.

Over time he would develop chemistry and trust with the newest people in his orbit. Names like Jermaine Wiggins, Ken Laird, and Chris Curtis were all familiar to WEEI listeners. Hill knew them too, but knowing someone and working with them every morning are two very different things.

“I didn’t know anything about those guys prior to this other than seeing them around the hallways and talking to them about the stuff that didn’t relate to doing a morning show,” he says of producers Laird and Curtis.

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Program director Joe Zarbano says he actually watched the new team build a relationship very quickly. That is why listeners have responded.

“They trust one another and enjoy working together,” said Zarbano. “There’s a genuine camaraderie within this group and it’s been rewarding to see it grow over the past year.”

Chemistry comes with reps of course. Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady didn’t have the same bond the first day Gronkowski showed up to Foxboro that they have now in Tampa. Hill knew how to entertain an audience though. He knew that meant the show could be successful.

“I did a talk show on a rock station for 28 years. To me, it is all about content. It is always about the person in the morning hoping when they tune into your show that you’re going to make them laugh or get them fired up about something that’s happening in sports, politics or down the street from them.”

That rock station Hill mentioned was WAAF. It was a legendary brand in Boston. Despite ownership changes and lineup changes, WAAF remained a constant for rock music fans in Boston for 50 years. That all changed in February of this year though when the Educational Media Foundation closed on a sale of the 107.3 FM frequency and WAAF went away in favor of the nationally syndicated Christian music network K-Love.

Hill was focused on the sports news of the day and finding his groove with his new crew on WEEI. But come on! Greg Hill was part of WAAF for 28 years! Of course he had strong feelings about the station’s demise.

“It was sad to me because I grew up being a listener to that station and to BCN, one of the most legendary rock stations ever,” Hill said. “It made me sad for rock n’ roll in general. Cyclically the different genre of music have up periods and down periods. To have a station that was on the air for 50 years in the same format in one city? It’s depressing to lose that.”

Understanding rock radio listeners helped Hill understand sports radio listeners. It’s Boston. Passion is one of the city’s hallmark traits, and Hill says that whether his listeners have passion for Godsmack, a band WAAF broke 20 years ago, or the Red Sox, a team that has called WEEI its flagship broadcast partner since 1995, it’s his job to capitalize on that passion.

“From my perspective, whatever that person that is listening to the show in the morning, whatever is on their mind, that’s what I want to be talking about,” he said.

One thing that may feel familiar at WEEI from his days at WAAF is Toucher & Rich. Hill competed with the duo when they were the morning show at rock station WBCN. When it transitioned to the Sports Hub, they were kept on as the morning show.

A year ago, Hill came back into their lives as competition. It’s not something he focuses on, but Hill says the common rock-to-sports path won’t be ignored by some.

The real testament to Toucher & Rich, according to Hill, is their staying power in the market. They arrived from Atlanta in 2006. A fourteen year career in Boston isn’t something outsiders typically enjoy.

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“There’s no denying that those guys do a great show. They’ve been here for a long time now. Sometimes it takes Boston a while to accept people, whether it’s in media or your neighbor, but those guys have an amazing track record and do a great show,” he says.

Right now, WEEI finds itself trailing the Sports Hub in Boston’s radio ratings by a wide margin among Men 25-54. The good news is that Hill’s show delivered an impressive 7.3 share in the spring book. That was the best performance of WEEI’s weekday shows for the quarter. The bad news, the show still trails Toucher & Rich by 5 share points.

Listeners and industry publications have noticed the divide, but Hill isn’t hitting the panic button.

“My answer might not be what others would say, but I think if a ratings book ends on a Friday and it is a really good ratings book, then the next month ends and the ratings are totally different, I don’t think you did that much different on the following Wednesday than you did on that Friday,” Hill says. “So, I think in a ratings period where 40% of the audience isn’t undertaking their daily routine of the morning commute and turning their radio on, I don’t think you would want to tweak. I personally just want to try and do a better radio show everyday.”

In fact, he says Joe Zarbano took a similar approach when Hill’s new show launched on WEEI. That is how the two developed a relationship.

“He’s the kind of program director that kind of leaves you alone and lets you do your show and basically says ‘hey, how can I help?’. From my perspective he’s been a guy that has been like ‘let’s figure out how to do a great show and then you guys go do it.'”

What does the future hold for The Greg Hill Show? When I asked him what he hopes we’d be talking about if we had this chat again next year, he doesn’t talk about growing the number in a ratings book. He talks about listeners being more invested in the show and understanding the relationships and lives of the personalities involved.

He jokingly adds that he’d love to have Tom Brady back every Monday. The only man that means more to New England than John Adams has migrated South and will be making radio appearances on Tampa Bay-area stations in 2020.

Being a North Carolinian, I told Hill about the fun that he and his listeners could be in for should Cam Newton win the Patriots’ starting job. He agrees. He also acknowledges that Brady is a huge name and his celebrity may be hard to replicate, but Patriots fans are more interested in the team than one former player.

“There’s a considerable amount of us that have bid Tom Brady adeiu and we want the Patriots to win,” he says. “Whoever the starter is, I think there will be as much interest in hearing from whoever the starter is as there was in Tom Brady.”

WAAF's Greg Hill moves to WEEI to host 'The Greg Hill Morning Show ...

Zarbano is excited for where the show is after one year on WEEI. As for the future, he has high hopes but admits that future goals are a little hard to set right now.

“Just one year in, we’re thrilled to be up over 30% in mornings year-over-year,” he said. “It’s so hard to predict the future in the middle of a pandemic, but we’re focused on continuing to build on the momentum and positive progress to date.”

Hill says one year from now will be whatever it will be. His only focus will be on the people that rely on his voice every morning to accompany them on their commute or in their homes as they work.

BSM Writers

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.

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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.

Quick bites

  • 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.

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BSM Writers

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.

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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.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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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.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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