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Meet The Market Managers

Meet The Market Managers – Tim McCarthy, 98.7 ESPN NY & ESPN LA 710

“When you work for a great company like ESPN, there are benefits and things you have to adapt to. I’d say the benefits far outweigh the other things that some may have an issue with.”

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When you think about New York City, it’s easy to form a mental picture of the city’s landmarks, bridges, skyscrapers, and traffic. Maybe you’ll even think of the large melting pot of people, the amazing food, the yellow taxi cabs, the area’s sports teams or the numerous politicians who chase cameras and microphones on a daily basis.

But at the center of everything lies one key word – competition.

Think about the way the big apple has been presented to you over the years. The concrete jungle. Market #1. The city that never sleeps. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Only in New York. Add them all up and what does it mean? You better stay focused, hungry, and continue evolving every single day because the moment you don’t, might be your last.

For Tim McCarthy, that’s never been a concern. Thirty plus years of passion, drive and success in the nation’s largest market managing some of the biggest brands and personalities buys you not only a little bit of breathing room, but also a front row seat to New York radio history. As much as he’s enjoyed the view though, Tim’s also made sure to leave his prints on the talk radio scene. From Sean Hannity to Stephen A. Smith to Michael Kay and others, McCarthy has played a role in helping launch some of the city’s biggest personalities on both the local and national stages.

Today, you can find Tim in New York doing what he’s always done – using his experience, love for radio and ability to connect with people to deliver results for 98.7 ESPN NY. Sure, his job may include the task of leading ESPN LA 710’s staff from three thousand miles away, and the added challenge of trying to satisfy local fans and clients while doing what’s best for the world’s largest national sports media company, but if this is what life’s biggest problems have become in 2021, McCarthy is more than happy to sign up and deal with it well into the future.

In a city where sports radio ratings stories get shared by multiple newspapers on a monthly basis, McCarthy appreciates that people care enough about his industry to cover it thoroughly. We spoke for forty five minutes last week about the New York sports radio scene, the challenge of serving two masters, the status of the ESPN Radio network, the future of sports betting, challenges with Nielsen, and much more. Tim’s candor and confidence stood out during our conversation, which reminded me that it’s OK to enjoy the ride even in a competitive city like New York. Given all that Tim’s experienced, it’s been one fun, fulfilling professional journey.

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Jason Barrett: Before we dive into your experiences in sports radio, let’s go backwards for a minute and educate folks on where your radio journey began. Where did you get your start?

Tim McCarthy: It started at WPLJ in New York. I was lucky enough to start in retail sales. At the time, WPLJ wasn’t what most knew it to become. It was doing horribly and changing its formula it seemed every other day. The economy wasn’t great either. We had a bunch of revolving morning shows, Archer, David Haney, Rocky Allen and then eventually Scott and Todd. I sold there for three years and then the local sales manager job came open at WABC. Although we were on the same floor it was two different countries. The brands were different, ratings were different, the Yankees were on ABC and not very good, and I pitched myself for the job. I remember 78 people applied for the job. I was lucky enough that Don Bouloukus, who was running ABC Radio at the time, took a liking to me. I guess he liked that I did things a little different, and so I went over to WABC.

JB: So was the move to WABC what opened the door to a run with ESPN? I’m guessing that’s where you crossed paths with Traug Keller right?

TM: I crossed paths with Traug at WABC because I eventually became GM there. I was in that position for 8-9 years. I was Traug’s client because we ran the ABC Radio network. Traug would negotiate those deals with me or call me up and say ‘you’ve got to carry this show, you’re killing me’. What changed was when we got Hannity. We took him from Atlanta and put him on at night. Then Bob Grant left and we thought ‘this guy’s pretty good’ and we moved him into afternoon drive. He was young, in his 30’s, and it clicked, so Traug, Mitch Dolan and I got together and said ‘we can syndicate this on all of our stations and force feed the audience.’ Which is how it should work. We made that move on September 10, 2001, the day before 9/11 hit. Talk about timing.

So how that leads to ESPN, I was running WABC and Radio Disney. We got the news in August 2001 that we had picked up an ESPN station. It was going to be all network and we had to put that on the air in 30 days. We went on the air with the station the week before 9/11. That’s how I got involved with the brand.

JB: So the ESPN station you’re referring to is 1050. That station would soon employ Rob Astorino, Wally & The Keeg, and Brandon Tierney among others.

TM: We did in fact have Senator Astorino there. Wally and the Keeg were the only show we aired that wasn’t from the network. Then we added Brandon to host shows at night.

JB: I remember BT would turn the sports updates into :60 to :90 second talk shows. He definitely belonged hosting a show, updates were not his cup of tea.

TM: BT definitely had a lot of personality and he’s gone on to have a very successful career. I’d love having him back in our company someday. So sadly, everything with 1050 happened around 9/11. We took over this station, and nobody paid much attention to it for the first few months. It had been a Jewish radio station before we took control of it. We started simulcasting WABC on both signals first. That was what most people cared about. That put us kind of behind the fray for the first two years in terms of building the 1050 brand.

JB: You mentioned earlier that you started your career in sales. I know many though who’ve worked with you who say you’ve got a lot of strong opinions on programming. You’ve worked with a number of smart programmers including Justin Craig, Dave Roberts, Kevin Graham, Ryan Hurley, Mike Thompson, and Aaron Spielberg just to name a few. Given you have such a strong interest in content and talent and an important voice in shaping ESPN’s major market brands, how did you develop your programming instincts?

TM: Honestly, it was at WABC. I just love the talk format. The more I got into it and listened and heard things whether it be from a caller or someplace else. We had a caller named John Batchelor. I heard John one Friday night while I was driving home from the city, and I called the producer on Monday and asked ‘who was that guy you had on the air on Friday night?’ He said, ‘that was John Batchelor and Paulie who worked with Bloomberg Digital or Bloomberg Magazine.’ I said ‘those guys are really interesting’ and I went to Phil Boyce and said ‘we should put him on more’.

I think I just got better with understanding things over time. At first, people are like ‘yeah OK buddy, you don’t know what you’re talking about’, but over time when things become more successful, you kind of earn your keep. John’s show became a huge hit and we wound up syndicating it. Hannity was another who I felt strongly about as the replacement for Bob Grant. Then we brought John Gambling over, and added Curtis & Kuby and Warner Wolf, so for me it’s all about seeing something grow from here to there. Look at Stephen A. Smith. He was on 1050 and is now a rockstar and I couldn’t be happier for him. In the old days, as a PD you would try someone out at night, listen to how they do, see if some numbers pop, and if they showed something you might move them to middays. Then if that kicks, you consider AM or PM drive. It’s harder to do that these days and I think that’s one of the bigger problems we have in the industry right now.

JB: I’ve always thought it’s silly to assume that someone who’s worked in sales can’t add value to a programming conversation and the same with programming folks not being able to make a difference in revenue discussions. That’s something I pride myself on and I know other programmers in the format who do as well. Ultimately creating must-listen programming comes down to having people on the air who are unique, talented, and interesting. It’s easier when you see someone like Michael Kay or Stephen A. and can look at their body of work and feel comfortable trusting them with a prime spot on your radio station, but you’ve helped elevate folks like Rick DiPietro, Chris Canty and Peter Rosenberg too who also had talent but didn’t walk in the door with lengthy sports media resumes. When it comes to identifying a talent to contribute to one of your radio stations, what is it you’re looking for?

TM: There are a few things. First, what role are they going to play? John Batchelor is probably a little different, but Peter, Chris and Rick, what role are they going to play within a show to add something different and help us win? I think that’s important. Not everyone can do it. Sometimes guys overpower each other and it doesn’t work. You mentioned Michael Kay, Michael has evolved incredibly over the years. I told Michael a long time ago ‘being the Yankees guy is not going to be good enough’. You have to be more than that and remember that it’s about the entertainment and sports not sports and entertainment.

So I think it circles back to roles, and then secondarily, if it’s a singular role and not part of a team, how can I develop this person to be different than anything else that’s out there. That’s kind of what made Peter a great fit for us. A lot of people thought I was nuts at the time for bringing him in, including myself, and I remember going to see Michael at the stadium and tell him ‘you’re not going to like this but here’s what I want to do’. He said ‘isn’t that the disco guy on Hot 97?’ I said ‘if everyone knows the role they have to play on a show it’ll work because the entertainment value will be better.’

JB: What I find fascinating about this is that doing that with one group in one building is hard enough. But then you factor in that you have to also oversee ESPN Los Angeles, a brand in the 2nd largest market in America, and then oh by the way, make sure that anything you do also keeps the bosses in Bristol happy because they too have certain things they want to see happen with your local stations given that they own them. How do you balance trying to appease both the local and national overlords?

TM: It’s not easy. Norby Williamson who we report to gets it. He understands the value of ratings and personalities. What I think is important is that the PD’s understand the symmetry from show to show. Network and local can work really well together if everyone understands the symmetry and connections. That includes updating creative promos, getting the network talent on the local shows and the local hosts on the national shows.

The other thing too we’ve done, if we feel a local show is stronger we’ll take all of the network elements and run them in the local show. We may have to cut back on our local inventory but now we’ve served the network in the hopes that we can get a higher rating that benefits everyone. In LA it’s a little more difficult due to the time change. We actually just added two local hours to the lineup.

The challenge is the same, it’s getting everyone to believe in the same thing, and understand the common good. Listen, sometimes local may have to take it on the chin because it’s better for the company.

JB: But I know you, and you’re a very competitive guy. So too are some of the people you manage. You go back to last year, and 98.7 ESPN NY was rolling. The Kay Show was especially strong in afternoons, and then a number of national changes were made, the station expanded to six shows during a 13-hour period which I’m sure like most operators you had to have questions about, and soon thereafter the momentum slowed down. I understand that sometimes you have to give up some ground to do what’s best for the overall business, but you also have to deal with those folks on the inside who are going to look at you and say ‘Timmy, we’re right there, and now you want us to take our foot off the gas?’ How do you handle that?

TM: I get those questions all the time. You’re right, our guys are very competitive, as am I. The honest answer is that when you work for a great company like ESPN, there’s the benefits and the things you have to adapt to. I would say that our benefits far outweigh the other things that some may have an issue with. As a manager, I try to make that clear to people.

Here’s an example, if we have the World Series and the Yankees are in it, we may not have the local rights but now all of a sudden we love running the network. Listen, it’s not easy, but again, there’s a bigger play here. The company provides us with great promotion and opportunity and it works. I think in some ways, and I hope folks understand what I mean when I say this, but the local ESPN stations in some ways are a minor league system for talent. We’ve got Alan Hahn, Chris Carlin, Bob Wischusen, and Bart Scott all doing stuff for us. That’s a good thing for the station, the talent, and the company. So again, sometimes you take it on the chin, but the overall benefit is positive.

My goal is to get people to a better place. Chris Canty did First Take last week. I gave him the week off to focus on that show because he hasn’t done it. Ryan and my sales team were ticked, and rightfully so. They should’ve been mad at me. But I said to them ‘For the good of Chris and the company, I’m going to give him the time off. Our guy is there. He’s in the Olympics. We have to give him the shot to perform. If we lose ratings or revenue for this one week because of it then shame on us. Then we didn’t do something right to make up for him being away.’

JB: Having spent time focusing on the juggling act between local and national, I want to pick your brain on the network. As you know, hundreds of stations take the company’s programming. The identity of ESPN has always been strong, but anytime change takes place, folks are going to have questions. As you look at ESPN Radio today, what do you see as its biggest advantages, and what are some things you believe need to be improved?

TM: The biggest strength of course is the ESPN brand. Affiliates want that brand association. I also believe our play by play is a big strength of ours. Take for instance a game like Clemson-Georgia to kick off college football. That’s a huge game and we have it. Those are I think huge strengths.

In the past, we’ve done a great job developing talent, and right now it’s a work in progress. The network folks are trying different things and seeing what works, and look, it’s hard. We’re a multiplatform company that likes to do multiplatform things, so the question becomes ‘how can we serve our entire audience the right way, satisfy our affiliates, and still generate ratings?’ That’s really hard. I’m a big believer that you always have to be filling the pipeline. But you also have a year and a half of Covid and pipelines cost money. So that’s a challenge too, where do we invest our money? It’s not perfect but I know the network is looking really hard at different things and hopefully it pays off in the long run.

JB: I’ve talked to Dave and Justin before, and both want to deliver for the affiliates. Yes the brand is massive, and that association with the network is worth some of the trade offs for stations when the network is going thru changes. Stations may bitch because they want certain things but they partner with ESPN because they know those four letters have value. That said, I’ve been critical of one thing which I know frustrates affiliates and that’s the inconsistency with the network’s weekday lineup. Change is OK. Everyone goes thru it. But when it happens multiple times in less than a year, it’s going to lead to folks becoming impatient. If you were running a local brand not owned by ESPN and asking local advertisers to support you and local people to listen to you, it’d be hard to expect them to stay loyal when every few months you have to report back with news of another change. Eventually they’re going to be less enthusiastic because stability is important. As a GM, and someone who deals with affiliates and speaks their language, how do you alleviate their concerns that better days are ahead for the network?

TM: Change is never good or easy. There’s always pain with change and we have to all be willing to accept that. By the same token, we have to take chances and one of the challenges we have is that we run our programming on both TV and radio. We may be killing it on TV but not on radio and for the overall good, that’s a win. You look at bringing Mike Greenberg back to radio, that’s a homerun. I don’t care what his ratings are, he does a great radio show. I tell our salespeople all the time, if you can’t sell Greeny and the type of show he does then shame on you.

I would tell affiliates to keep wrapping their heads around the brand. We’re going to keep looking for ways to improve. They’re taking ESPN Radio for a reason. If they felt they had something much better they’d probably not be taking us. We’re glad they do, and it’s not perfect, and change is not easy for everyone, but we’re making moves to try and provide better programming to help everyone.

JB: Let’s move away from the programming discussion for a second and talk about the personal challenges you and many others in leadership positions were forced to navigate over the past fifteen months. Traug left the company, you took on Los Angeles along with New York, and then weeks later the pandemic hits, the industry gets rocked financially, ESPN goes thru some changes on-air and in key leadership roles, and all the while you’re trying to lead staffs while dealing with limitations caused by governments installing measures to try and keep people safe. What has that been like for you?

TM: I’ll tell you what’s been really frustrating, is the fact that I can’t be in LA. I was going out there every other week and I really like our team there. I was excited that the three months before we were building momentum and felt we were going to do some really great things and then the pandemic hit. I’ll tell ya Jason, it’s really hard to manage people over Zoom. We’ve gotten used to it and made the most of the situation but the challenge is ‘how do we motivate people and keep their heads in the game this way?’ Let’s face it, anyone who says ‘I’m working 10x harder than I ever did’ probably isn’t.

I think the quality of certain things have gotten better. The conversations have definitely been better. The advertising side has been really frustrating. Our business, regardless of how much it changes, is still going to be ‘meet, greet, trust’, all those things that matter. Particularly on the retail side. Let’s say you’re meeting with a car dealer, they’ve been with you, you’re going to put a plan together, he or she trusts you, and you both feel good that it’s going to work. But now, we have situations where automobile can’t get cars. The beer business can’t get cans. So what happens? We’re not going to advertise right now, we’re going to push it off. Sports betting fortunately has been tremendous. But you throw all those other factors in, while not being able to see people to sell them, and it’s been nothing but a challenge.

As we come out of it, and I’ve had this discussion with my team, how do we keep motivating our staff and our advertisers? I believe radio is going to come back stronger. I don’t think people are going to be jumping on a bus or train anytime soon. You see it with the traffic in New York. The in-car experience is going to be really important. We’ve done a lot of Zoom events with clients in both NY and LA. We did one with the NY Jets, another with AROD, and we did an NFL Draft show. Engagement, engagement, engagement is very important. Our sales manager Pete Doherty had a great idea, we had these 98.7 ESPN NY speakers ‘listen at home’, and we sent them out to our clients. We’ve got to get our call letters in front of everyone because the number of meters that are out there haven’t increased.

JB: You just struck a nerve because that is a conversation that we could spend hours on. The sports radio format in my opinion remains largely underrepresented. It’s maddening because the programming not only reaches way more people than it gets credit for, but the framing of the format as a niche space rather than as one of the most important places an advertiser can put their business in is foolish. For instance, I produce quarterly ratings stories on this website. We show how stations in the format perform from city to city and most do pretty well. However, these numbers don’t show the true power of their streaming sessions, podcast downloads, TV simulcasts, content created or promoted on social media, etc.. We’re positioned as this niche format that performs for one specific demographic and the results are based on what 8-10 people carrying this antiquated device do yet sports is one of the most important parts of society and one of the last true content destinations where people have to listen live. I know our full reach and influence is greater than the story we present but at the same time, as an industry, that’s partly our fault because we’re the ones who’ve signed up for this service and accepted it, knowing that it doesn’t reflect what we’re delivering on a daily basis.

TM: Exactly. The audio business is very large. I’ve said this all along, Nielsen can not play Switzerland. They have to actually make statements. They can’t allow folks who sell their stream in a different advertising space to combine their streaming numbers and throw it out in the marketplace. It’s no different than me taking Michael Kay’s TV numbers on YES and throwing them into a sales plan when I’m not running the same commercials. I think Nielsen has to embrace all of these platforms and come up with a real measurable way to say here’s a true number. If they’re not going to increase meters, they need to deliver all this stuff. We have radio shows that are offered in multiple locations yet we don’t get radio credit if people consume it on social media or television. How much are we losing because someone says ‘I love the show but I’m going to watch it on TV?’

Once again, it drives down this editorial from the press that radio is going this way while podcasting is going the other way. Podcasting is a radio station in short form. We need to start getting credit for the things we do and whether it’s Nielsen, ourselves or the industry as a whole, we need to come up with a solution because we’re doing a lot of the right things but don’t have enough to show for it.

JB: Before I got on a tangent over ratings, you mentioned earlier how important sports betting business has been to radio. I want to dive deeper into that space for a minute because everyone recognizes that the category is hot right now and being able to seize the opportunity is important. But where does this road eventually lead to? Do we eventually have an ESPN The Bet? Does Betcasting around live games become more mainstream? Do we one day have a surplus of national sports radio betting networks the way we have a flood of sports television programming on television? How do you see this shaping up?

TM: It’s not going to go away. It’s always been here. It’s always been part of our lexicon in the sports world. The only difference is it wasn’t allowed to be broadcast or pushed and now it is. You have these great companies like DraftKings, FanDuel and others doing it and our format is where the fish are. We consume it, bet on it, and live it. Do I think it’s going to be a bigger content play? I do but I don’t think it’ll ever replace great personalities. If a great talent can provide strong entertainment value you won’t have to worry about it because you’ll drive ratings and revenue.

Will sports betting content become a bigger part of other areas whether it’s weekend shows, nighttime shows or vignettes? Yes. I think that’s going to grow. But I don’t think it’s going to grow to the level where you’re replacing shows like Michael Kay’s afternoon program or SportsCenter simply because it’s more focused on betting.

JB: Let’s wrap up on a few New York sports radio items. Each day you wake up and you go to work representing the bigger brand in sports in the nation’s top market, facing the brand that started the format, WFAN. You’ve taken your hits from them, and you’ve also caused them some real headaches along the way. What is the best and worst part about the daily grind of going head to head against The Fan?

TM: First, our biggest challenge is whether or not the radio is off. Next, our competitor isn’t WFAN. It’s any male brand that can take our audience away. The challenge I love is the everyday battle of how are we going to do things better, faster, younger, etc..

Listen, The Fan is a great radio station. They always have been. Their brand is huge. They got good people there. I know their market manager Chris Oliviero. He’s a great guy. I love the fact that they never give up and it’s always a head to head battle. It’s Curry vs. LeBron. I remember when I was on the AM band starting out, it wasn’t the same. Now, everyone is always adapting. That’s good. It keeps everyone on their game. We have the ESPN brand, and all the things we do around that brand are important. Simple things such as ‘what promos are we creating to build up interest in the Knicks playoff game and the shows on Monday?’ That’s the stuff I drive Ryan crazy over.

The downside is that it never ends. As good as you are, you’re always pushing that rock up hill. If we beat The Fan, great, that’s now, what’s next? They’re not going to give up. They’re going to make changes. They brought in Craig Carton, we knew that was going to happen, and they keep coming so what are we doing to stay on top of our game?

JB: You mentioned Craig. I don’t know if you saw this, but Michael was on JJ’s podcast and he mentioned being more concerned competing against Craig than he was with Mike Francesa. Those prior battles against Francesa drew a lot of attention, and the road ahead vs. Carton should provide more of the same. When you hear that, what do you tell Michael?

TM: I tell Michael, Don and Peter all the time, keep doing the show you’re doing. They’ve been successful for a reason. They’re a morning show in afternoon drive. I listen to that show for the camaraderie, storytelling, the bits and connection they have with their audience. Don’t worry about Craig or anyone else. The listeners will seek out what they want. You can’t adapt to them. I tell them ‘Guys, you’re doing a great job, don’t worry about it. When Ryan or I hear something that’s off, we’ll tell you. We don’t hear that though so keep rolling.’

JB: The last thing I have for you is ‘what keeps you motivated to do what you’re doing and are there any goals you haven’t accomplished yet that you still hope to achieve?

TM: I love working with the talent and helping them get to the next level. Whether it be someone like Chris Canty earning a bigger role on TV or something else. This is going to sound kind of lame but my job is to help people get to that next place. That keeps me engaged. I’m also proud of the fact that a lot of people have stayed with this radio station in New York for a long time, all the way back to when people were making fun of us when we were on 1050AM. Now they’re not making fun anymore. They care about this brand and the people involved in it. That keeps me energized.

And the same with LA. I was out there eight years ago and now I’m back involved and we have a really good group that gives a crap about radio and what we do every single day. Whether it’s a call on a Friday night or the weekend, I have no problem taking those calls because they care. As I tell everyone at the station, listen more. If you hear something that doesn’t sound right, let us know about it. I like taking on challenges and helping brands and people improve. We want our products to be the best they can be. Just being able to make things a little better keeps me motivated and engaged.

BSM Writers

Meet The Market Managers: Debbie Kenyon, Audacy Detroit

“We’ve never been judged on Men 25-54. We’ve always been judged on adults, and we’re top one, two, or three consistently for probably ten, 12 years, 14 years running.”

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A lot of people would kill to be Debbie Kenyon. There aren’t a lot of stations in America that have a reliable performance that is as strong as 97.1 The Ticket’s in Detroit.

Her team is formidable. From her brand manager to the talent to the support staff, everyone in Audacy’s building in the Motor City are pushing in the same direction, and it pays off ratings book after ratings book.

This kind of success comes from really knowing what you’re dealing with. It’s about understanding both your product and your audience. Debbie Kenyon is from a media family. Her dad led a TV station. Her brother led a radio station.

Add into that background the experience of being with CBS as it grew, changed names, changed owners and then changed names again, and she has more institutional knowledge to work with than most GMs in major markets.

In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Debbie and I talk about relationships with play-by-play partners, managing through tragedy, why America has the wrong idea about her city and so much more.

Demetri Ravanos: As you look at all of the brands that you oversee, is there any particular adaptation or change with the times that you are particularly proud that you were able to help pull off? 

Debbie Kenyon: I guess we can look back two years, not that that’s a happy moment in everyone’s life, but clearly, in a couple of days’ time, to get two spoken word stations running remotely. We were able to keep everyone safe, not one COVID case. And technically, we sounded great during that entire two years.        

We brought talent back much more quickly, but there were two months of literally a couple of people in the building and that was it. So from a technology standpoint, it’s not me. It’s my phenomenal engineers that gave us and our listeners some sense of peace during a very hard time.            

I think from an innovation standpoint, on a more positive note, just some of the things that we’ve done with the sports teams and how we used to broadcast with phone lines. It was just somewhat antiquated compared to now. My engineering team is pretty cutting edge. The amount of cost reduction that we’ve been able to have over the past five or six years is great, and I think the sound quality is so much better and the likelihood of dropping out has really disappeared. 

DR: I want to talk about the history of the frequency of 97.1, because it has evolved in an interesting way. Think back to those free FM days. Howard Stern leaves CBS and the company starts putting this hot talk format on a lot of the stations that he used to be on. You guys were already doing the FM talk that wasn’t politically centric even before the Free FM branding came about. I wonder how much of a model was CBS pointing to you guys to set the example for the rest of the country? 

DK: At that point, I was a DOS and might have been the GM too, but not of that station. It was such an expensive format. Unfortunately, it never really got a ton of rating traction. There were a lot of passionate listeners, but from a financial stability standpoint, it couldn’t hold.           

The company looked at us to move to FM for sports. We were fortunate because it was driven 100%. by one of my favorite mentors, Dan Mason, to bring in the very best program director at the time, Tom Bigby.                   

We had kind of a rough launch for The Ticket. It was really just a hardcore X’s and O’s sports format. Sales really wasn’t doing anything. I asked Dan for the opportunity to take the station over from a general manager standpoint. It gave me the opportunity to simultaneously hire Tom Bigby. That’s when the real phenomenon of The Ticket was created. 

DR: So it’s interesting to hear that. The Ticket does so well beyond just the target demo, right? This is a station that performs well with not just men, but all people in the market. I was wondering if that might have come from the hot talk base of the FM station, but it sounds like that wasn’t really the case. 

DK: Yeah, I think philosophically we’re a little bit different than most sports stations. Tom started this and then you’ve probably talked to Jimmy Powers over the years, our current brand manager has been here for quite a while. Our theory has always been a little different. Even though sitting in Detroit, Michigan, we are one of the best sports markets obviously with Michigan, Michigan State and then all four professional teams, we’ve kind of built this brand on, of course we’re talking sports all day long, but per show, we’ll have one mass appeal topic per day. The only thing which we stay away from is politics. We’ve gone through the years and some will dabble too much and it’s just a ratings killer.              

We’ve never been judged on Men 25-54. We’ve always been judged on adults, and we’re top one, two, or three consistently for probably ten, 12 years, 14 years running. A nice long run. But you know, you can never get satisfied because when you’re at the top, everyone’s gunning for you. So we always have to think about new talent, new platforms, and how we communicate with our listeners.         

This is a phone-based interactive format. Well, phones have changed. We certainly still take phone calls, but each show now will have thousands and thousands of texts. People communicate through text or Twitch or Twitter or on any of our social accounts and then by phone too. So that’s drastically changed over the past 14 years. 

DR: What is the formula that keeps you in the top three? I mean, it’s got to be more than just topic selection. There has to be something about finding the right talent that you and Jimmy have done to make The Ticket the sort of institution that it became relatively quickly in Detroit. 

DK: It’s not just one talent. We just have great, great talent. Between the talent and I believe we’re the only sports station in the country that has all four professional teams. I think the combination of that and I mean, Jimmy grew up as a programmer under Tom. So that same philosophy has carried through even to our newer and younger guys.         

You know, we’re never afraid to make a change. We’ve had top-five, winning shows in the past where we just felt like something might be getting a little bit stale, and we’ve made changes. I know on some of my other stations, I’d be thrilled if it’s top five. Don’t mess with it! But for this station, the bar is so high and we all hold each other, whether it’s the talent on the air, a producer, the screeners, it’s myself, it’s my brand manager, it’s my APD. We all have that same expectation of excellence. I know it sounds kind of silly, but it actually is true. 

DR: So let’s talk about that expectation of excellence. You mentioned that you can never be satisfied, but you guys have the ratings that you do. You mentioned all four franchises, plus, correct me if I’m wrong. You’ve got the Wolverines as well, right? 

DK: We do. 

DR: So certainly you don’t feel invincible, but you have to recognize it would be very tough for someone to come in and unseat you, at least in the sports format in the market. 

DK: Sure. I mean, listen, you’re always on guard, but, you know, sports is just an expensive format to run. There’s no team or talent that is bigger than what the brand of The Ticket is. We’ve had competitors over the years that have tried to come in and it hasn’t worked out.

I think we owe it to our listeners and the community to make sure that we are constantly pushing to make sure that we are the best, whether it’s reviewing our social and making sure that we’re cutting edge. We were five years ago. Are we still cutting edge today? I think there are some changes that we could do to help freshen things up. There are all these basics, but they’re basics that over the years I think people have forgotten about.                

Everyone kind of has to drink the Kool-Aid and they do. People love working at this radio station. It’s fun. Like, come on, you can appear at events and you get to work a Tigers game. But it’s just maintaining the same level of excitement. You know, no matter what the job or event is, we all want the same thing. 

DR: Mike Valenti has not been shy about the fact that the Lions wanted him off the station back in 2015. When that happened, the station dropped the Lions. You said at the time that this was not about Mike individually. This was about not letting a partner censor what was happening on the station. Was that an easy decision to make? I mean, standing by your talent is one thing, but it certainly takes the next level of bravery and trust in your talent to do that at the expense of an NFL flagship deal. 

DK: I never wanted to lose the Lions, but it just, at that time, made sense. What I’m very proud of is, that although it took me five years, I was so happy to get the team back because there’s a lot of time invested in relationships.                

It’s challenging. If they’re not having a good season, you know what the guys are doing on air. You know, to manage relationships through that is a big deal.                    

I have nothing but great things to say. For the most part, the group of people are much different than who I was dealing with back then. But they’re a great, great partner and I’m so excited, as are all of our talent, to have them back. It’s just the perfect scenario for us. 

DR: So if it’s different people that you’re dealing with there, I am going to guess there was not some sort of big clearing of the air that had to be done to start negotiations to bring them back. 

DK: We’re really good at doing sports here, and I think the teams know that and appreciate it and respect it. Certainly, there can be frustrations at times with some things that are said on the air, but I think I think they all realize that there’s so much value that 97.1 The Ticket brings by having their team on the air with us. I think it really outweighs a lot of things.  

DR: I don’t even know if you would call it a joke, an old talking point or whatever, but it’s very easy for people that have never spent time in Detroit to make the joke about it being a dying city. I guess I wonder, what is it that people don’t get about the market? Certainly, if it were dying, The Ticket couldn’t have the kind of success that it does book after book. 

DK: I think it was an NBC Dateline. There was some show that was on like eight years ago and it showed someone was up in a tree and they were eating like a raccoon or a possum. And it was like, “this is Detroit”. I remember Chris Oliviero had called and he’s like “I saw Detroit on the news!” And I’m like, really?                     

I just feel like we’re a city where a lot of times the negative is portrayed in the media and there are so many great things here. The birth of auto sits in our marketplace and everything that we’re doing with electric vehicles. You should see what our auto show, which has certainly suffered a loss in the last couple of years, but what they have planned for September of this year will make everyone in the city so proud.         

There are so many national events that we have here that we don’t always get recognition for. The Grand Prix in 2023 is coming back and will be in downtown Detroit versus Belle Isle, where it is right now. We have national golf tournaments.             

You know, if you go downtown, and I’ve been to quite a few Tigers games, the city is alive right now. You’ve got Ford Field, Comerica Park, and LCA all within walking distance. There are all these great entertainment venues and concert halls. We launched something called Music Town just three and a half, four years ago now. It’s a downtown performance space. We wanted to be part of the revitalization. 

DR: So I want to end by asking you a little bit about the loss of Jamie Samuelson. Certainly, that was a tough time for the station. The studio has since been renamed for him. There’s been a lot of great charity work done in his name, and I wonder if there is ever enough that the station could do to honor not just what he meant to the station, but to Detroit sports fans, period. 

DK: That was a tough time. I don’t know if you realize this, but we had talent from a few stations around the same time frame that passed away. How do you manage through that?              

You’re right. His name is on the studio now and we have no intention of changing that. We do a lot of charity work. The Tigers have actually been great and have helped us raise quite a bit of money for him.          

The next challenge from that was we had this top-rated show. Jamie worked almost the entire way through it, which he didn’t have to do. No one knew until the very end, our listeners didn’t know. Even the majority of our staff did not know at that point.                 

When he did pass away, then it was trying to figure out what are we doing and what’s that respectful time period that would be accepted by our staff, most importantly, and by the community and the listeners. We ended up going in a pretty different direction because we didn’t just want to do the same show. That was Jamie’s show. I think he’d be proud of what we’ve created with Jon Jansen and Stony.

I don’t know if you know him, but he’s just a great guy. Jon has been a professional football player and it’s just a different dynamic. So we weren’t just trying to find Jamie’s replacement. 

DR: I hate to end here, but I don’t know many GMs that can go into a situation like that with some similar experience. That is really hard to comprehend what it must be like to be you in those moments. 

DK: Yeah, it’s not fun. You have your own emotions, but it’s not about your emotions. It’s more about everyone else.           

We really have had three significant losses in our market over about a three-year period. It’s being supportive to your staff and then taking your time. With Jon, he was already someone that was in our talent bank essentially. Still, we needed to make sure that we gave it enough time. We needed our staff to grieve and, of course, his family. His family became part of this and I think we did it the right way.

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Meet the Market Managers: DJ Hodge, iHeartMedia Cincinnati

“When you see Mo and Lance have 70,000 Twitter followers, you know exactly how important they are in the market. You know exactly how big their level of impact is. Believe me, the businesses in Cincinnati know that.”

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DJ Hodge is a media pro’s media pro. The market manager at iHeartMedia Cincinnati wasn’t born and raised in radio. He spent time working in the newspaper industry. He has also seen a different side of sports radio, working for the broadcast network of the Xavier Muskateers.

Like so many others associated with talk formats in the town, Hodge is a Cincinnati lifer. You have to be in order to make an impact in the city.

In today’s Meet the Market Managers conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, DJ and I discuss why sports talk in the city is in good shape, even without a full clock of local content, how to keep the Reds happy while still being critical, and why more than just his sports properties get in on sports coverage at iHeart Cincinnati.


Demetri Ravanos: WLW is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I don’t know a whole lot of news talk stations around the country where sports is more associated with the history of their brand. So what role did sports play in that celebration? 

DJ Hodge: We celebrated it on March 23rd, and it was an awesome, awesome day! We played a lot of sound from as far back as we could get. We created a lot of fun spots that sounded like 1922. We actually had a really cool promotion. We gave our listeners a chance to co-host on that day, March 23rd. Each of our dayparts on WLW that day had a listener in as a co-host.          

Cincinnati is a very special place and WLW is unique in that it really wraps itself around the whole market. As you pointed out, sports is a huge part of the stations, the Reds, the Bengals, UC, Xavier, FC Cincinnati and NKU is part of the fabric of the city and sports is part of the backbone of the station. And we really try and walk that balance. 

DR: So you mentioned the Reds and the Bearcats on WLW and then WEBN also has the Bengals. Why is it important to you that sports have a presence across so many different iHeart formats in the market? 

DH: So we do a triplecast with the Bengals. That was the brainchild of Joe Frederick, and we have been doing a triplecast of the Bengals for over a decade. So we have it on WLW once the Reds’ season ends. Then we have it on ESPN 1530 in the market, which is a monster signal, and then we have it on WEBN, as you referenced, our heritage rock station. For us, it’s just a way to make the team available across as many of our stations as we possibly can. We really love the inclusion of WEBN and have found that to be a great FM home for the Bengals.           

We actually had some fun two years ago when everyone knew we were going to draft Joe Burrow. As you probably know, “Welcome to the Jungle” is kind of the unofficial Bengals theme song. We worked with Zac Taylor to cut some intros for us and the three nights leading up to the drafting of Joe Burrow, we played “Welcome to the Jungle” at the exact time that Burrow would be drafted on Thursday, which I think was 8:07 if I remember. So all of our stations in the market, including our CHR and our news talks, played “Welcome to the Jungle” at 8:07 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with an intro personalized for that station by Zac Taylor. 

DR: Ohio is a football state, but Cincinnati is a baseball town. So, how much can a Bengals Super Bowl run do to combat disappointment from the Reds?

DH: Well, the euphoria definitely has continued to carry on. You’re right, this is a high school football, college football, pro football state.          

Obviously, the Reds are not out of the gate the way you would hope, but the euphoria of the Bengals has carried over since the postseason run. Everyone thought the Chiefs would make the Super Bowl for the AFC. You kept hearing the national pundits say that the Bengals were a year ahead of schedule or two years ahead of schedule. So it was so unexpected. It really just caught the city a bit off guard, and I’ve not seen this city for any four week period have that much euphoria.               

Certainly, after the 90 World Series the town lost its mind and we were excited about UC in the Final Four. There have been events for sure, but a four week stretch where you literally hugged strangers was new. It was one of those hug-a-stranger moments where people were so excited. Everyone wore Bengals gear.                

The Reds have not gotten off to the start they’d like. We’re getting a chance to watch a lot of young players and certainly, you hope that the future is bright. This is a chance to watch these young players develop. The city is very much wrapped around the NFL draft, which is this evening, as you and I are talking. Demetri, we’re not used to picking 31, I have to be honest. So the city has draft fever today and everybody’s really excited to see what happens tonight to make the team even better. 

DR: So now since we introduced the Reds as a topic, I do have to ask about that uncomfortable moment when Phil Castellini drew criticism for asking, “where are you going to go” when fans questioned the team’s fire sale of talent. He makes this allusion to “it could always be worse,” you can move the team. How, as the market manager, do you approach that? Whether it is talking to talent about balancing serving a partner with acknowledging reality or anything else that maybe I’m not thinking of, what comes along with your role in a situation like that?

DH: Honestly, as you asked the question, you encapsulated it perfectly. You want to treat a partner fairly, for sure. I have the pleasure of knowing Phil, obviously a little bit. He loves this city and cares deeply for the city. Certainly, that message from him didn’t come across the way he intended. I know it didn’t, but you’re right, the response to that has to be authentic. That’s the conversation with our on air talent across all of our stations.         

First and foremost, I need the talent to be authentic. We’re not going to read from a script. I’m not going to tell them what to say. Their listeners would see through that. Their credibility matters a ton for us. So it’s about them being credible and them being honest, but again, being respectful of our partner and not wanting to look like we’re piling on or look like we’re doing anything but telling the story.        

As you know, topic A becomes topic A. Topic A tells us what you’re going to talk about, and certainly for a couple of days that dominated the airwaves. We had some talent that were very much pro-Phil and stood up and said, “Hey, that’s not what he meant”. We had some that took umbrage with it and took some shots.           

It’s about being a good partner. We are as pro-Reds as we can be. I’ve been a Reds fan my whole life. I’m from here. The majority of our on air talent, like your friend Mo Egger, are from here. So we’re lifelong Reds fans. This is personal to us and it’s a passion for us. You just want to be fair there, right? You want to tell the story that’s there. You want to inform fans. You want to let fans vent and listen. We had Phil on right after that to sort of tell his side of what he meant and apologize for the way it came across. We want to be good partners, first and foremost, and we are. We love the Reds deeply!                

My on air talent does have to take the stance that they believe in. I said to one just the other day, “listen, you can have the stance as long as it’s fair. Just be able to defend it. If somebody calls to question your opinion, you’ve got to be able to defend it yourself.” I want people to be authentic. 

DR: So you’ve been on both sides of that relationship right now with the radio cluster, but before that, you were working with Xavier University’s radio network. How did that help you learn to identify and meet teams’ needs as their flagship station? 

DH: That’s a great question. I had five great years with Learfield Sports at Xavier University as the general manager, and that provided me great perspective. You see it through the lens of how you want your brand portrayed. You see it through the lens of how you want your fans to be able to receive content and sort of the opinion around that. I think our talent do such a great job of that on all of our stations.                

But you see it through the eyes of the coach as well. I remember having conversations with Sean Miller, who I love and who’s back in the market now, about a loss and the way it was portrayed in the market. At that time, what I was looking at is how the program is viewed and how the fan base is getting content. Now on the other side, I’m very sensitive to that because I’ve been over there. You’re right. I know what it feels like. I know what you want to accomplish, but you also want and hope that your flagship partner will have your back and present your information as fairly as possible.            

But again, sometimes, you know, topic A. is topic A. When I was at Xavier, if we lost a game we should have won, like Duquesne one year,  you’re going to take some heat, right? And the sports talk guys are going to take some shots. That’s part of the deal. It’s part of being fair and balanced. 

DR: So you were also at the Cincinnati Enquirer. The period of time you were there is really interesting because it is sort of the beginning of digital overtaking newspapers in an undeniable way. And I wonder what lessons about adaptability you learned during that time that you brought with you to radio.

DH: Hey man, you’ve done a fantastic job with your research because you’re right. I was there at a time, 2003 to 2007 I believe, off the top of my head. I wasn’t prepared for that, but I think that’s right.                

You’re right. It was right at the very apex of print and right as it was starting to get into the digital content space at the Enquirer owned by Gannett. We had launched Cincinnati.com right before that, and it was about disseminating the content. Now you’ve seen that newspapers have great writers. The Enquirer here in this market is somebody that we work closely with. They provide really good content from their beat writers. So people are going to want that content, but you’re right, it was migrating from the print version. It started that migration probably in 07 and then much heavier in 08 and 09. People are still craving the content, just receiving it a little bit differently.            

Similar for us, right? We’ve had this explosion of streaming audio and podcasts now that there are smart speakers in the home. People are receiving their content from us, still of course predominantly through the radio in their cars, but now we have hundreds of thousands of session starts per week around our stations through a phone, through a smartphone, through a smart speaker. People are listening to us in different ways. You can get us on Xbox and Playstation and all the different devices where you can get streaming audio now.                 

It’s about the content. It’s about delivering it in a way that consumers want to receive it and where they are. That is the backbone of what we’re doing. It’s why the podcasting space has been so influential for us. Our leadership team has done a great job of keeping iHeart at the very tip of that spear.               

Podcasting is one of those pieces now that people come to us for and they want to learn more and they want to understand how can they reach consumers via that podcast medium. It’s been a really exciting few years and I know that like many things in this business, the next five years will see even more changes and will continue to lead from the front. 

DR: You mentioned podcasts. I think for most people, that’s where their mind goes first when you talk about digital audio. Radio has provided a great space where those things can coexist. There is something about the real-time nature of radio that podcasting will never be able to match. I wonder, as you look back on your time at newspapers and as you look at what radio is doing now compared to podcasting, do you see a way that printed newspapers could have better coexisted with the digital space, or is the X factor of live content something that just can’t be replicated? 

DH: I think you nailed it right there. It is the live companionship that we provide. The one thing I would disagree with you on is that if I went to the mall, people still do that I think, and said, “Hey, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of streaming audio or digital audio?” I think they would say playlists. I think they would say it’s Pandora or Spotify or iHeart. “I type in an artist that I like and I hear songs like that”. That was really the first thing most people were using streaming audio for. 

Now, podcasting is coming on really strong. We were really in that space early on with, as you again, touched on, perfectly on-demand listening. If you couldn’t listen to The Bill Cunningham Show live because you had a work meeting or a lunch meeting, you could listen that night! You could listen when you got home if you were cutting the grass, and people still do. The downloads for those on-demand shows are still really significant each month in terms of monthly listens and uniques. The space has exploded though.             

It’s not replacing what we do in terms of companionship, but it’s replacing that time exercising or walking your dog. It’s making people say “hey, I want to listen to a story”. I, personally, love the crime dramas and all those criminal investigation podcasts, comedy and sports and all the different genres that we thrive in. But it’s a great place to tell a story, but it’s very different than the live companionship that we provide people through the broadcast radio during the day. 

DR: Let’s talk about Cincinnati. I know it is often described as a very parochial market. You know, it seems like the kind of place that would embrace a station with 12 hours of local sports talk every day. Why hasn’t that happened? It seems like no competitor has had real staying power with that strategy. 

DH: Yeah, news talk and sports talk are expensive to run for sure. I think we’ve done a great job with 1530. We’ve expanded our local hours. We still have a great partnership with ESPN in morning drive, but we’re now more live and local. We started a few years ago carving out one hour in the middle of the day for a show called Cincy 360, which is hosted by Tony Pike, the former Bearcat and Carolina Panthers quarterback. We then expanded that to 2 hours with Tony every day. We do an hour of ESPN programming and then it leads to Mo’s show in the afternoon, 3 to 6. I feel like we really found a great balance with the right amount of local content.                 

You’re right, Cincinnati is a parochial city. We largely don’t move away. It’s very neighborhood-based. Cincinnati, similar to St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Salt Lake, is a place that is very traditional and people don’t typically leave. Your parents lived here, your grandparents lived here, and you cared deeply about local sports. 

For us, the national perspective in the mornings on ESPN 1530 is great. Especially when the Bengals are good or the Reds are good, or like UC football, it has been amazing. So it’s fun to get the national perspective when we’re in the national spotlight. Then we have a couple of different opportunities every day to really dig into the local piece. Plus there’s Lance McAllister, our flagship sports talk program that launched the career of Cris Collinsworth. Lance has a show every night on WLW. It is really the foundation of our sports talk, and it’s a great way to culminate what’s going on and really drive home the local stories from a lot of different perspectives. 

DR: So without that 6A to 6P or 7P approach, does that make it easier for your sellers to market Mo and Lance to new advertisers as the authoritative voices on sports in the market? 

DH: For sure. You’re really familiar with the radio measurement tool. It’s tough sometimes, just given the amount of people. That can’t give you a great, clear picture. But today, you can get a great measure of the impact of people like Mo Egger and Lance McAlister have in the marketplace by their social media engagement. When you see Mo and Lance have 70,000 Twitter followers, you know exactly how important they are in the market. You know exactly how big their level of impact is. Believe me, the businesses in Cincinnati know that. That’s why they want people like Mo and Lance to speak for them. They know the connection that they have with the audience.        

Sports talk doesn’t typically crush it in ratings, as you know, but the level of engagement, the passion of the audience that’s there every day is really beyond what is measured. That’s been the really cool piece about watching that unfold with social media. Mo and Lance are really never off the air, right? I mean, they’re on the air, but then when they’re not, they’re still engaging with fans and getting into debates and having an understanding of what the fans are thinking and feeling. That really drives the content of the shows the next day.                   

It’s really a 360-degree approach in the sports space that has been driven by the impact that Lance and Mo and people like them around the country can have, which again drives listeners to their show and then creates that engagement that is so important. 

DR: So I’ll ask you one last question before I let you go. And I think this is an important one. Is Cincinnati chili a prank that you all are pulling on the rest of us? 

DH: Absolutely not, and we do not understand those of you that don’t get it, Demetri. Listen, Cincinnati Chili is not a traditional chili. We get that, but it is yummy and delicious and should be eaten as often as possible.               

Who doesn’t like noodles and sauce with meat and covered in cheese? It’s hard not to like. We are very passionate about our Cincinnati chili and we all authentically love it. I promise you. 

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Meet The Market Managers: Dan Seeman, Hubbard Broadcasting Minneapolis

“I always say every 24 year old turns 25. I don’t think they wake up on their 25th birthday and say ‘Geez, I’ve got to figure this FM and AM radio thing out.’ It’s baked in, right? So they’re taking their media habits right into the prime of that demo.”

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Dan Seeman doesn’t mind telling you he is a lucky guy. He has had a 40-year radio career and gotten to do it all in the same major market. He has turned on iconic stations and shepherded legendary brands through new and uncharted waters.

Running Hubbard Broadcasting’s Minneapolis cluster has come with a unique set of challenges and opportunities, namely innovating. The cluster has already seen success doing things differently on the talk radio front with My Talk 107.1, so when it came time to rethink the way sports radio was presented, Dan and his team were ready.

They have been successful too! Hubbard remade ESPN 1500 as SKOR North a few years ago, rethinking radio’s relationship with digital content. The brand now boasts 41,000 subscribers on YouTube, and over the last 12 months, SKOR North has garnered 18 million podcast downloads. Every time SKOR North posts an episode of its Vikings show Purple Daily, it gets played at least 25,000 times.

In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Dan and I cover how the pandemic changed and helped the evolution of SKOR North. We cover why merchandising is as important to the brand as the audio products and why a juggernaut like KFAN isn’t even on his sports brand’s radar.


Demetri Ravanos: First, congratulations to your daughter. I hear she is headed to Hofstra. That implies she has media aspirations of her own. Is that the case? 

Dan Seeman: That’s a good question. She’s a theater person, and she has I think declared a psychology major. But she’s really into creating content. I’m not sure she sees radio on her horizon, but she sees journalism and digital content on her horizon, and we were really impressed with what Hofstra has built there. 

DR: I want to take you back to 2011 for a second. At the time, I’m working in rock radio here in North Carolina. I have a consultant named Steve Reynolds, who I believe you know. He used to tell my partner and I all the time that My Talk 107.1, your female-driven talk station, was the perfect example of a great idea meeting the right level of patience to let it find its perfect form before the company decided if it worked or not. Obviously, the success story has written itself from there. 

So tell me a little bit about that approach and how it is similar to the strategy you guys have taken with SKOR North. That was another very different idea for approaching a well-entrenched radio format. 

DS: My Talk, I think, is certainly one of the great success stories in local radio. You’re right. It took a long time and it took tremendous patience and it took great vision from Ginny Morris. It’s going to be 20 years old this year, which is remarkable, right? I’ve been a part of it for 15.             

It is incredibly successful for one single reason. It works for advertisers.               

It is one of the top billing local radio stations in the market. We all love ratings, and ratings are the currency that we live with, but at the end of the day, I’d rather have clients who tell me that their cash register is ringing or that they’re selling couches or that they’re booking dentist appointments. That’s their currency, and if we can speak in those terms, we’ve had great success.            

It’s personality-driven. I call it lean-in radio. It’s incredibly engaging. It’s tied to the community. It is very local even though all the content is national when you think about it, right? There are not a lot of celebrities in Minnesota, so the content is the same as what we’re reading in People or watching on Entertainment Tonight.

What makes the radio station special is two things. First, it’s the content through the lens of our very interesting personalities and second, it is the way that we give back and we listen to and do important things for our community. 

DR: So how much of a model was that when you made the decision to rebrand ESPN 1500 as SKOR North? You guys are approaching sports radio as this sort of all-encompassing multi-platform thing. Certainly, you had to know, at the very least, it would require that same level of patience. 

DS: Yeah, absolutely. Let me take a step back on My Talk real quick because I think it’s really relevant to what’s going on at SKOR North.            

My Talk’s home base is still a radio station.  We’re live and local for 13 hours every day, and all that content we created is for radio first, but I can tell you with confidence that I really like who we are and where we are today. We are set up and have begun to seamlessly integrate all of that content onto digital platforms.               

Those YouTube channels are really important to us and the podcasting that we’re doing is getting incredible numbers under this My Talk brand. Having that megaphone of 107.1 FM has been and will continue to be very helpful as we move the way the audience’s eyeballs and ears are moving. That’s on-demand on digital platforms.                 

So then we bring in SKOR and SKOR is different because we launched a couple of years ago on an AM radio station. I don’t think it’s a secret that AM is not what it was twenty-plus years ago. We had in mind the same mode, let’s use AM to sort of provide some guardrails. We’ll use AM to create the content.             

We very quickly shifted and adapted. This is really a digital content play. We’re happy to put some of the content on 1500 because it’s local and it’s very, very good, but we don’t create any content for the radio. We create that content for podcasts and for YouTube, and then we adapt it to radio, which is the opposite of what everybody else is doing. 

DR: So that brings up a really good question. You are approaching this differently from everyone else. How then, when you are talking to new advertisers, how do you describe what SKOR North is? 

DS: We describe SKOR North as “a sports content company that creates sports content for digital platforms”. One of our platforms happens to be AM radio, but frankly, most of our listening and most of our eyeballs, particularly on the younger side, are all coming from our digital platforms. 

DR: Your digital presence is impressive. It’s not just the products. You mentioned the audience size. That is worth noting as well. But traditionally, that is something that terrestrial radio brands have had trouble monetizing. Given that, why has it been important to you that not just SKOR North, but all of Hubbard’s stations keep innovating and keep growing that content in the digital space? 

DS: Because that’s where the eyes and the ears are going. Period.             

I’m very robust on radio. I’m a radio guy. I think there’s a lot of good happening on radio. But if you look at share of ear and you look at younger listeners and younger consumers, you can see where the trend is. It Is clearly moving towards on-demand.                

I’m not going to be doing this 20 years from now probably, but we need to have a business 20 years from now. I always say every 24 year old turns 25. I don’t think they wake up on their 25th birthday and say ‘Geez, I’ve got to figure this FM and AM radio thing out.’ It’s baked in, right? So they’re taking their media habits right into the prime of that demo. Every day a 54 year old turns 55 and is out of the demo with these old radio habits.         

I have to go on my soapbox here. I do not understand why the top end of that demo isn’t 60 or 64 anymore. 25-54 is the same money demo it was 40 years ago when I got in this business! Think about how our lifestyles have changed! But look, that’s a whole other story.              

The bottom line is that whether it’s 12 to 24-year-olds or 12 to 29-year-olds, however you want to look at that demo, the way that they are consuming media is very, very different than a 45 to 54-year-old. We’ve got to be ready for them. 

DR: So you launch SKOR North with a long-term vision. As you mentioned, patience was going to be a big part of making this thing work. Then the pandemic derailed a chunk of what you had built already and what you were planning to do. So is the goal now to get that original vision back on track or has the vision changed and the ceiling for what the brand is changed in your eyes? 

DS: The pandemic certainly caused a scale back. In hindsight, that turned out to be a good thing. It really helped us focus our efforts now on two or three of our SKOR North brands and really hone some great content. The other thing the pandemic did is it put into hyperspeed adaptation to digital platforms. All of the sudden, people weren’t in the car like they were before, and they had to figure out how to use that smart speaker in their house. They had to figure out how to stream and how to find content. Where they got most of their content was on the dashboard, and for a good year-plus, people weren’t driving as much.               

At the same time that digital habits were getting super-sized, we were really focusing on primarily football and our Vikings coverage on SKOR North. It’s paid off incredibly as you look at some of the numbers that we are now reaching with our biggest SKOR North brands, Purple Daily and Mackey & Judd

DR: You obviously weren’t alone, right? Every brand, every cluster in America had to figure out how to make the digital space work for them. Are you surprised Nielsen wasn’t innovating at that time and trying to roll out a system that measured listening in a way that was more realistic for the way people were using radio and audio?

DS: Well, ratings are measuring streaming. We’ve doubled down on that even on KS95 and My Talk. I’ll give you an example. We total line report for our radio stations. So pre-pandemic, a radio station like My Talk might have gotten 15 percent or 20 percent of its listeners out of the stream. By the way, by the industry standards that was already very high. There were months in 2020 and 2021 when over 50 percent of My Talk’s listening was coming from digital platforms. That’s remarkable that the percentage has gotten that high!               

We just need to make sure that we embrace this because I think it’s a really, really good thing. Who has boomboxes or tabletop radios in their homes anymore? Nobody, right? Well, they really do have one. It’s called Alexa, and all radio stations are available on it. We just have to teach the people how to use them. It’s incredibly easy to do. We’ve had great success doing that, judging by the amount of listening that’s happening off the stream.                 

The other thing Hubbard does so well is our stations’ apps. Jeremy Sinon has been an incredible leader for us there. Our apps are easy to use and that is true across the entire company. That’s a big part of the success to me.           

With SKOR North though, we flipped the formula. With SKOR, instead of using the broadcast platform to help build and create content for digital, this is a brand where we’re building great digital content that we also run on an AM radio station.

That gave us a chance to create some play-by-play relationships. We have one with the MLS’s Minnesota United Football Club. We have a play-by-play relationship with the University of St. Thomas, which is in the Summit League. We couldn’t do that if we were just a digital platform. I hope those relationships introduce some people to what we’re doing, but most of our growth is now coming from discoverability on YouTube and podcast platforms. 

DR: So you mentioned earlier that you were part of the team that put KFAN on the air, and I wonder what it’s like now to compete with them. I mean, they are all local during prime time. They’re on FM. Ratings say they are incredibly popular. Do you just have to put that out of your head when you’re dealing with a brand like SKOR North? 

DS: It’s a great radio station and that KFAN lineup still features a lot of my very good friends. We don’t look at KFAN. They own that broadcast space and are a big, big brand in that space.        

We’re building a digital sports brand. We don’t look at the ratings. We look at podcast listeners. We’re looking at downloads. We’re looking at views on YouTube. That’s our currency, and that’s how we’re having some very good success with advertisers. It works.                

I had a rep in my office a couple of weeks ago who sells SKOR North and we were talking about some bigger picture things. Everybody is always trying to steal our reps, right? So I wanted to know if anyone had reached out to him. He looked me in the eye and goes ‘why would I ever leave here? Everything I sell on SKOR North works’.            

It does! There’s a great blog out there. It’s not even a book. It’s a blog called “A Thousand True Fans”. Have you read that? 

DR: I have not read it, but I am familiar with it. I’ve heard about it a million times. 

DS: It’s a quick read. The whole concept is that if you get a thousand true fans, now it might be 500, it might be 10,000, it might be 25,000. The point is it doesn’t need to be about massive reach anymore. You get a thousand true fans that love you and that you are integrated into their media landscape and their lives, you are going to be successful. Whether it’s following you on social media, watching you on YouTube, or listening to your podcast, they are so active and so responsive to advertising. That’s what advertisers are looking for. 

DR: I’ve told Phil Mackey this before. I just marvel at what a great job you guys have done merchandizing SKOR North. So many brands stop just short of doing what you guys do. You’re putting designs together based on things said on shows about the local teams and you have found places, namely the state fair, to sell them.             

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like merchandising is an essential part of SKOR North being a brand that is bigger than a single platform.

DS: Yeah, it is. Are you going to integrate yourself into our listeners’ lives? How do you do that? It’s just another extension.              

I actually think we could do so much better in that space. We’ve got some work to do there, but we’ve had some highlights that have been fun and have gotten us some nice attention. I think we could do a lot better. Look at the ideal model. I mean, who does that better than anybody? Barstool, right? I think I read there that the percentage of revenue that comes out of merchandizing was jaw-dropping. 

Hubbard has a rock station in St. Louis, KSHE. The work they do in merchandising is incredible. It’s part of the culture of that brand. It’s part of the mindset and you have to hire people who think and execute that way.

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