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Programming In Fear Is a Recipe For Failure

“The best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong.”

Jason Barrett

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If you haven’t read Demetri Ravanos’ column this week, which included feedback from five programmers on whether or not they’d hire sports radio’s equivalent of Deshaun Watson, you should. It’s interesting, enlightening and sparked my interest to write a follow up column.

When it comes to decision making in the media industry subjectivity is at the center of everything. It’s not as simple as the NFL where wins and losses are often decided by talent and coaching. Instead, our business is judged by a small amount of meters and their activity using our products as determined by Nielsen, and personal relationships formed with advertisers and media industry professionals. All three of these areas may be less than perfect in determining if something is going to work or not, but it’s the way it is.

Let’s start with something I think most of us can agree on – listeners spend time with brands and individuals that cut through the noise. Most will also agree that advertisers value that too. If a talent can attract an audience and convert them into customers on a consistent basis, a company will employ them. Advertisers will ask to be included in their program too. If issues with a host’s track record or character exist it may turn off a few sponsors, but when there’s money to be made, the bottom line usually wins.

It’s similar in some ways to the NFL, which is why players like Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown, Michael Vick, Aldon Smith, Kareem Hunt, Joe Mixon and others are given second, and in some instances third and fourth chances to play. In a league where wins and talent impact the bottom line, executives care more about success than their morale standing. I know some folks would prefer that to be different but competition and business success drives many to look past certain situations.

In every business, there are people who are dirt bags. You may not want to associate with them or see them receive second or third chances, but if they can help a team win, make the franchise money, and excite a fanbase by helping to deliver a championship, owners are going to turn a blind eye to outside issues. They’ll even pay these players insane amounts of money despite their problems. Just look at the recent deals inked by Watson and Hill.

I know radio and television isn’t exactly the NFL, but as I read Demetri’s column I couldn’t help but think about the dilemma radio programmers face; to hire the best talent and run the risk of dealing with increased attention by inviting baggage into the building or play it safe and hire people with less problems even if their talent level is lower.

We work in the media industry. The job is to deliver audience, and ad revenue. If someone possesses the ability to help you do that, you owe it to your bosses to look into it. If you are going to pass up hiring someone with special talent because you value character more, I applaud you. It’s commendable and speaks volumes about who you are. But producing high ratings and revenue isn’t determined by who’s a better person. If your competitor loses to you in the morale department but wins consistently in those two areas, you may one day be calling me for advice on saving your job or finding the next one.

Audiences care far less about an individual’s behavior or the negative PR you have to absorb. They simply listen and/or watch people they find interesting and entertaining. Did the Chiefs and Bucs sell less tickets after adding Hill, Mixon or Brown? The answer is no. Fans wanted to see their teams win, and as long as those players helped them do that, far less cared about whether or not those guys were good or bad people. I’m sure Browns fans will do the same with Watson if he delivers a title for the city of Cleveland.

This issue is red meat for many in the media because it makes for great discussion, and generates a lot of reaction. However, as nice as it’d be to have good people in every enviable position, this is a business, and what matters most is the final result in generating audience and advertising. Sometimes that means adding people who bring baggage through the door.

Advertisers aren’t much different than fans either. They may voice concerns or reject being connected to someone initially who comes with negative attention, but if people start to listen or watch, they’re going to want to be involved eventually because it presents an opportunity to improve their bottom line. It’s why you don’t see a surge of advertising partners abandon NFL teams after they sign or draft a player with a troubled past. If it’s good for business, exceptions will be made.

Some may not like hearing this, but a brand manager is paid to improve their brand’s business not to manage the media’s morality department. I’d much rather work with good people who provide little drama. It makes work more enjoyable. But this is the entertainment business. Some high profile stars have ego’s, issues, ridiculous demands, and they create a lot of bullshit. Some are worth it, some aren’t. If they can help attract big dollars and a large audience, it’s an executive’s job to find a way to employ them and manage them.

I’m not suggesting that we should hire everyone with a prior track record of problems. I’m also not advocating not to do background checks, ask questions, double check with references, and feel as comfortable as possible with who you’re adding. It’s important to analyze the risks vs. the rewards when hiring someone who may cause some initial blowback. Not everyone is worth a second or third chance. More times than not, the HR department is going to prefer you add people with minimal risk who make the hiring process easier. But if a special talent is available and they come with baggage, you can’t be afraid to make a move that can grow your brand’s performance and bottom line.

For example, you may dislike some of the prior incidents that Howard Stern, Joe Rogan, Craig Carton, Dave Portnoy, and Ryen Russillo were involved in, but they’ve all shown a consistent ability to deliver an audience, revenue, and relevance. I used those 5 personalities as examples because Demetri specifically used Deshaun Watson, a QB who is widely recognized as a Top 5 QB in the NFL as the example. He’s seen as a game changer on the field just as these personalities are recognized as stars behind the microphone. If a programmer had a chance to hire one of those talents and bypassed them because they were worried about the ‘noise’ they’d have to deal with, I hope and pray their competition takes a pass too. If not, they’d be paying for it for a long time.

That said, I would not put my career on the line for a talent who has twenty two counts of sexual misconduct hanging over their head. I’d tell them to handle their legal situation first and then wait and see how the situation plays out. You can tell me how special a talent is, and I’ll tell you I’m all for second chances and I’m not afraid to put my job on the line to hire someone exceptionally gifted, but I’m also not stupid. Most corporate companies are going to want no part of that association and neither are advertisers. It’d be a bad bet.

But in Watson’s case, he was cleared of the criminal charges. That was decided in a court of law. Are we supposed to never hire him even though he was found innocent? This world is littered with examples of people who are talented, have been accused of wrongdoing, have prevailed legally, and have gone on to make the most of second opportunities. Yet social media is often seen as an approval ground where ‘noise’ matters more than facts.

Human beings are flawed and do stupid things sometimes. It doesn’t make them bad people or not worthy of being hired again. We also have a legal system for a reason. If one is accused of a crime, they have their day in the court, and a judge and jury decides if they are guilty or innocent. For some reason, whenever a high profile individual is linked to a situation, we have a tendency to react quickly, often declaring them guilty and permanently damaged. But that’s not right, and it often blows up in our face.

How did that work out with the Duke lacrosse case? Or when Rafael Palmeiro waved his finger at congress and said he never took steroids? Instant reactions were the Duke lacrosse team needed to be put away for life, and the media needed to leave Palmeiro alone. We later learned, both reactions were wrong. The same thing just happened again with Watson. In the court of public opinion, he’s guilty. In a court of law, he’s not. There’s something very wrong with that picture.

The minute you hire a person connected to controversy you have to know people are going to bring it up, and media outlets are going to draw attention to it. So what? If people listen/watch, and clients spend, deal with it. From the movie industry to politics to the world or sports and the media business, there are many examples of highly skilled people with imperfect records that were worth betting on. You have to have thick skin and be able to absorb negativity if you’re going to hire and manage people. You’re responsible for serving the audience, advertising community, and growing a business, not being the most liked inside your office or on social media.

Secondly, speaking of social media, I think we place way too much value on what listeners say on Twitter and/or Facebook. The majority of your audience isn’t living on Twitter. If they’re not happy with your product, they’ll change the dial or avoid pressing the button to stream your content. There is a lot of good that comes from social media, but when you make decisions for a brand that could raise a few eyebrows, your best move is to tune it out. Let people say what they want. If you’ve done your homework and added an individual who’s capable of making an impact, trust your gut that it’ll be proven right over time.

Third, when you’re talking to someone who has gone through a situation that can potentially create headaches for the brand you represent, remember that they’re going to act remorseful and tell you what you want to hear. They’re hoping to land a high profile job and recover from a setback. Talking to others who’ve been around them and have history with them is part of the process, and hearing them out is too. After you’ve gathered your facts and weighed the pros and cons, it ultimately comes down to whether or not you trust them, believe in them, and have the courage to handle the heat that will soon hit you when you enter the kitchen.

You can avoid all of that and hire someone safer. Sometimes that works. But in a business where talent ultimately wins, others eventually find ways to improve. If the brands you compete with have the guts to take the risk that you didn’t, you may pay for it later. Which is why you can’t dismiss star talent with blemishes on their resumes. It’d be great if we could all go through life, do the right thing, and never have to answer questions for controversial decisions, but that’s not realistic.

I’ve shared this story before, back when I was in San Francisco in 2013, I hired Damon Bruce. He had previously generated heat for comments about not wanting women in his sandbox. It was a bad take, one he endured a lot of negative attention for, and despite apologizing and serving a suspension, nothing seemed to satisfy the masses. When we started talking, I entered those conversations knowing if I brought him on board I’d have to deal with the noise. I got to know him, talked to others, and reviewed the facts. One thing that stuck with me, he had never been in serious trouble and he had spent a decade working for the same employer. More times than not, you don’t work somewhere for that long if people don’t value you and enjoy working with you.

Damon would be the first to admit that back then he could be a pain in the ass, and he came to the table with public attention that made him harder to hire. I chose to believe in his talent, trust my eyes and ears, and focus on how he could help us improve our business. There were emails, tweets, and voicemail complaints I had to deal with but typing this now nine years later, after Damon just signed a three year extension to remain in afternoons at 95.7 The Game, I know the right call was made. He had to own his mistake, learn from it, and I had to have the courage to give him a shot and support him. In the end, everyone benefitted.

One story I haven’t shared, took place in 2006. I had just been hired to program Sports Talk 950 in Philadelphia, which has since become 97.5 The Fanatic. Our roster was bare, our lineup had national shows occupying the majority of the weekday schedule, and we needed more top level local talent to get to the next level. As I reviewed local and external options, I put Mike Missanelli and John Kincade high on my list. Ironically, they now both host drive time shows on The Fanatic.

Well, as we were preparing to reach out and talk to people, Missanelli got fired by WIP for ‘violating company policy’. It was alleged that he got into a physical altercation with a part time producer. I wasn’t there so I didn’t know all the facts, but the noise from that situation affected our process. When I raised the idea of meeting with him it was quickly dismissed. I knew he was ready for the next step, would have a chip on his shoulder to beat his former employer, and had a ton of local relationships which could be good for business. I was willing to meet and learn more, and if during that process we felt it made sense to bring him on board, I’d have handled the heat that came from it.

It never even started though. Others worried about the ‘noise’ and decided to pass up the opportunity to add a difference maker to the lineup. The brand struggled to gain traction for the next few years, and when Matt Nahigian arrived in town, he wisely went and hired Missanelli. Almost instantly, the success and perception of the brand changed. Now, The Fanatic consistently competes against WIP, and Missanelli has helped deliver a lot of wins in afternoons over the past 13-14 years.

Each person who makes a decision to hire someone has a lot to consider. If a radio talent is seen in a negative light because of prior history with other professionals or because they delivered an insensitive rant that’s much different than being found guilty of twenty two counts of sexual misconduct. Having said that, I worry that some managers ignore the facts (Watson was found not guilty) and will add a solid talent with less negative attention than a more talented person with extra baggage. As a programmer, would you have had the guts to hire Craig Carton after he served time? Would you have the stomach to handle the heat if Dave Portnoy worked for you and the Business Insider story cast a dark cloud over your brand? Would you stand by Joe Rogan when others attack him for comments made in the past or as artists pull their music because of not agreeing with his views?

I’m not sure if I’m right, wrong, smart or stupid, but I know this, if I believed in them enough to hire them knowing that the noise would increase the second they entered the office, then I’d do my best to have their back. I’d also not think twice about my future or whether or not my corporate boss had a bullseye on my back. I think the best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong. If you program in fear and play it safe to avoid the noise, you run the risk of hearing silence. And sometimes that peace and quiet comes when you’re sitting at home rather than dealing with headaches inside of the office.

Barrett Blogs

Julie Talbott to Receive The Jeff Smulyan Award at the 2023 BSM Summit

“The best leaders are the ones who empower their people, work with their talent, and study situations to determine where room for growth exists.”

Jason Barrett

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Each year at the BSM Summit, we take time to recognize some of the true difference makers in the sports media industry. It’s become a special part of the event, and it reminds everyone in the room of what’s possible if you do your job well and create impact.

Four awards in total are presented over the two-day event thanks to our friends at Premiere Networks. Each award has a different focus.

The Jeff Smulyan Award is presented to a radio industry executive who has led by example, taken risks, produced results, and made a significant difference for the sports radio business. The Mark Chernoff Award is given to sports radio’s top programmer. The Mike and the Mad Dog Award is presented to the top local sports radio show in America. And The Champions Award along with a financial contribution from BSM is given to an industry member who has used their platform to make a difference for others.

Since we began taking the Summit live in 2019, Mitch Rosen and Rick Radzik have been recognized as winners of the Mark Chernoff Award. Adam Schefter and the team of Keith Murphy and Andy Fales have been recipients of the Champions Award. And the top rated combination of Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti received the first ever Mike and the Mad Dog Award at the 2022 BSM Summit in NYC.

Which brings us to the Jeff Smulyan Award.

A number of top notch executives have joined us to accept this honor over the years. It started in Los Angeles with Kraig Kitchin, continued in New York City with Dan Mason, and then Traug Keller took home the honor during our last show, which also took place in the big apple.

As we looked to 2023, the goal was to identify someone who’s been active in growing their company’s footprint across the sports radio industry. Equally important was someone who has the full confidence and trust of their people, a track record of delivering results, and has uncovered new business opportunities to lead their company forward.

After a brief conversation, Jeff and I knew exactly who the right person was.

It is my honor to announce and congratulate Julie Talbott, President of Premiere Networks on being named our recipient of the 2023 Jeff Smulyan Award. Julie will be present in Los Angeles at the Founders Club at the Galen Center at USC to accept the honor at the 2023 BSM Summit on March 21-22, 2023.

“I’m humbled and honored to receive this award – especially with Jeff Smulyan’s name associated with it. I’ve been a fan of his throughout the years” shared Julie Talbott. “Premiere Networks and FOX Sports Radio are dedicated to delivering the best multiplatform sports audio content the industry has to offer, and this award truly recognizes the amazing efforts of our entire team, who I couldn’t be more proud of.  Thanks to Jason Barrett and BSM for this incredible honor.” 

“I have known Julie for many, many years and our industry doesn’t have a better ambassador than her” added Jeff Smulyan. “She has worked tirelessly to build Premiere into a remarkable enterprise and she has made legions of friends and admirers along the way. She is so deserving of this award and I couldn’t be happier that my friend, Julie Talbott is the winner of the 2023 Jeff Smulyan Award. Nothing makes me happier than to present it to her this March at USC!” 

“FOX Sports Radio’s growth under Julie’s watchful eye has been impressive, but when combined with Premiere’s performance and reach, and seizing opportunities in the digital space by launching strong brands such as The Volume, in partnership with Colin Cowherd, you start to see how she’s put her magical touch on the industry,” explained BSM President Jason Barrett. “The best leaders are the ones who empower their people, work with their talent, and study situations to determine where room for growth exists, and few have the respect, trust, and confidence of their people better than Julie Talbott.”

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Omaha Productions, The Volume, Dirty Mo Media and Silver Tribe Media to Appear at the 2023 BSM Summit

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit is five months away but the process to build sports media’s annual industry event continues. We’ve already announced 11 participants for our next show including Colin Cowherd, Jim Rome and Joy Taylor, but by the time this show takes place, attendees can expect to hear from 50-60 people as the agenda becomes action packed.

I do want to share one thing for those inquiring about speaking. Though I appreciate the interest, I’m selective in who we feature on stage because it’s important to keep the show fresh and full of actionable content. There are tons of smart people in this industry but I can’t accommodate everyone. I try to create sessions that benefit radio, digital and television executives, programmers, general managers, talent, agents, salespeople, production staff, etc. and to do that, we’ve got to cover a lot of different subjects over a two-day span. My goal is to send folks home with ideas and information to improve their brands, while providing a space for groups and individuals to meet since it opens the door to additional business. We’ve been fortunate to have good support and participation over our past four events, and I’m expecting this one to be even bigger and better.

Before I announce the latest additions to our speaker lineup, I want to thank Premiere Networks for their continued support of the Summit. They’ve been wonderful partners for years, and I appreciate them joining us to create the annual Awards ceremony. It is always a hit with attendees. More to come soon on this year’s honorees.

I’d also like to thank Harker Research for returning as a partner of the event, and MRN Radio for signing on as a new partner. Harker has sponsored all of our live events, and MRN has been in attendance for those shows. Having their support makes a difference. They join Premiere Networks, Stone Voiceovers and Core Image Studio as Summit partners. If you haven’t secured a sponsorship but would like to be, email Stephanie Eads at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com. She can update you on what we still have available.

As far as the content is concerned, I’m excited to announce a very cool session we’re adding which will include involvement from Omaha Productions, The Volume, Dirty Mo Media, and Silver Tribe Media.

Everywhere you look these days, athletes are taking more control of their own messaging. They’re also more interested in content creation and are investing in people to help build today and tomorrow’s sports media empires. Whether it’s been Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or broadcasters such as Colin Cowherd, Bill Simmons, Dave Portnoy and Pat McAfee, the era of personality-led audio networks has arrived. This session will examine where we are, where we’re going, what’s been learned, and how it will affect change across traditional media moving forward.

Jack Rose of Silver Tribe Media will moderate the session. Joining him on stage will be Logan Swaim, Head of Content at The Volume. Richelle Markazene, Head of Audio for Omaha Productions, and Mike Davis, President and Executive Producer of Dirty Mo Media. Each of these folks have great insight and experience with leading personality-built brands, and Jack’s understanding of the media landscape through his work with Michael Klein’s company make him an ideal fit to guide the conversation. This is a session that traditional media folks are going to want to be present for.

If you haven’t purchased a ticket or booked your hotel room, don’t wait until the last minute. Everything you need to be in attendance for the Summit is available at BSMSummit.com. We are excited to host the show at The Founders Club at the Galen Center on the campus of the University of Southern California. This is a great location and the biggest room we’ve run our conference in yet. I’m hoping to see you there.

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Jeff Smulyan, Mark Chernoff, Scott Shapiro, Scott Sutherland and Evan Cohen To Participate at 2023 BSM Summit

“The 2023 BSM Summit is a two-day media industry conference designed to help broadcasting professionals.”

Jason Barrett

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Building an annual sports media conference is no day at the beach. It takes months to assemble and involves a lot of different steps. We analyze what matters to those attending, brainstorm ideas, create a sketch of the show to make sure there’s enough variety to satisfy different segments of the industry, pursue tons of speakers who have experience and an ability to add something unique or valuable on stage, and create sales decks and talk to existing and potential clients about supporting the show. If all of it doesn’t flow seamlessly, we run the risk of not delivering the type of event I expect us to.

Fortunately, over the years we’ve put together a pretty good conference. I’m proud of how it’s grown and that’s only possible because we’ve had great support across the industry. If you work in sports media and value learning, relationship building, and connecting with teammates, peers and competitors, this is an event you need to be at. It’s one that companies looking to reach sports broadcasting professionals should be involved in from an advertising standpoint too. Though there’s a lot of work still to be done, when we arrive in Los Angeles for the 2023 BSM Summit at USC’s Founders Club at the Galen Center on March 21-22, 2023, I’m expecting our team will deliver another top-notch performance.

To help us make that happen, I’m thrilled to share that we’ll have participation from some of the industry’s most accomplished broadcasting professionals. Joining us on site for our awards ceremonies will be the man who started the sports talk format, Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan. Also making the trip to the west coast will be former WFAN program director and CBS Radio/Entercom/Audacy sports format captain Mark Chernoff. Both men are honored annually with awards in their names. We’ll reveal the winners of both of those awards in the weeks and months ahead.

Additionally, I’m pleased to welcome back Scott Sutherland. Scott serves as the Executive Vice President of Regional Media Operations for Bonneville International Corporation, and is responsible for the strategic development and business growth of the company’s market leading sports brands in Phoenix, Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Sacramento. Also returning to the Summit is FOX Sports Radio’s Vice President of Programming Scott Shapiro. Scott is charged with guiding FOX Sports Radio’s daily content strategy, and always enjoys lending his perspective on key issues facing talent, brands, and content leaders.

I realize many of you reading this who work in the industry are last minute planners. That’s ok, but I’d encourage you to reserve your hotel room in advance if you wish to stay close to the Galen Center. Our hotel partner is the USC Hotel, and you can learn more about the discounted rate we’ve established for attendees by clicking here.

The 2023 BSM Summit is a two-day media industry conference designed to help broadcasting professionals. The sports media industry is rapidly changing and the more we can learn from one another and take advantage of information and relationships, the better it’ll serve us moving forward. To attend this show, you must be involved in the media business whether it’s on-air, digital, behind the scenes, in management, sales, ad buying, talent representation or something else. We will also allow college students to attend the show in person if they are pursuing a future in sports broadcasting. Details on student tickets will be made available closer to the holidays.

In the meantime, if you want to make sure you have a seat in the room to enjoy the sessions and network with industry professionals, purchase your ticket(s) by visiting BSMSummit.com. I look forward to seeing you there.

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