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Meet The Market Managers: Allison Warren, Cumulus Media Nashville

“We really felt like we wanted to build a radio station and find a PD for what was around the bend. We think we accomplished that.”

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Nashville is a loud place. Most people either love it or hate it. Allison Warren loves it.

To her, loud doesn’t just mean there are bachelorette parties and pedal pubs clogging Broadway. It means that the place is dynamic. It means Nashville is always changing and never sitting still.

Allison Warren had her eyes on a market manager role for a long time. It’s why she made the move from programming and promotions to marketing and then to sales. When the opportunity in Nashville presented itself, the only question she needed to answer is “is this the right place?” It was, and since 2014, she has been the leader of Cumulus’s cluster in Music City.

In our conversation, presented by Point-to-Point Marketing, Allison discusses the challenges of making major personnel changes during the pandemic, Nashville’s unique competitive landscape and how it forced her brands to evolve, and why 104.5 The Zone is as welcoming to transplants as it is to lifelong Tennesseans.

Enjoy!

Demetri Ravanos: When I was growing up in Alabama, I used to joke that you graduate from an SEC school and the first thing you do is decide if you are going to Nashville, Atlanta or Birmingham. Nashville’s transplant base has grown way beyond that though. I wonder how that has changed things in terms of the city’s sports culture and the standing of 104.5 The Zone with citizens that come here from all over and may not care about the Titans or the Vols.

Allison Warren: I can tell you, I have learned sports fans are sports fans. They like listening to and talking about sports no matter what. What the Zone has been able to do is create a sports ecosystem. That’s kind of been our goal from day one.          

We’re proud to be the rights holder for the Tennessee Titans and the UT Vols, but we talk about all sports, from top to bottom and side to side. We have a heavy influence for the SEC and certainly the Tennessee Titans. Really though, we look at ourselves as being able to provide a real pulse for what’s happening in sports in general. So regardless of where you come from, you’ll find something that’ll appeal to you on The Zone.         

DR: In addition to The Zone, you have Super Talk 99.7. That gives you the market leaders for both sports and news talk. I wonder in your position, do you see a different ceiling for each format here in Nashville or different paths for each to get to a similar ceiling in terms of what is possible for ratings and revenue? 

AW: We’re a five-station cluster, and so in general, I think we mirror the market beautifully. We’ve got a great news talk station, which you mentioned. We’ve got 104.5 The Zone. We’ve got two country stations and an urban station. So we think we represent the population of Tennessee exceedingly well.             

We’re looking at an entire ecosystem, when we talk about what makes any of our stations strong. We don’t just look at a Nielsen performance to decide if the station has reached its highest level of performance. We look at total audience engagement. That means we’re looking at all of our socials, our Zone TV channel, and all the aggregate views that it garners. YouTube, obviously, and Twitch being our largest volume producers of engagement.

We look at all of those metrics and decide, “is the station healthy and reaching the audience that we want it to reach?” I don’t think either of the stations you mentioned has reached its full potential. We’ve got some pretty strong, healthy great ratings and levels of engagement, but I think both Dan Mandis and Paul Mason would say that there’s still work to be done and still ground to make up. That’s what makes it exciting. 

DR: Let’s talk about total audience engagement. Nashville has become a hub for new media brands in both the news and sports spaces. That forces everyone in town to pay attention to what they are doing as you compete for both the audience and talent. I don’t want to assume it is a if-a-than-b situation with the launch of The Zone TV, but clearly this market forces you to think in a different way about being available wherever the audience is.

AW: You said it right there at the end. The Zone went through some significant changes as we watched where and how the audience consumed sports. We brought Paul Mason onto the team during the pandemic, which you know, is always interesting to onboard an employee during a time when nobody’s in the office. It’s like “Best of luck meeting your team! Everybody’s at home.”

He did a phenomenal job of creating a solid culture of what’s next, engagement, and where are we going. He really challenged the thinking. I’m kind of an entrepreneurial spirit, so when Paul knocks on the door and says, “Hey, I think we could try this,” of course my answer is “alright, let’s look at it.” To his credit and the credit of our engineering and IT teams, they figured it out and it’s been really successful. I think that mindset from 18 months ago or so, when he started, has been for us to dominate the sports universe and to put blinders on. That way we can just do what we felt was right to serve the sports audience and not think about it as what the traditional line for what radio might do or who it may serve is. We really tried to break the model and Paul’s leadership in that space has been second to none.

We looked everywhere when it was time to hire new talent. We looked at the entire sports universe and we landed on a great podcaster with Buck Reising. He’s been fantastic and adds a kind of great, new energy to the station. We’ve had a lot of other great new hires as well. Paul’s really pushed the station forward in that way. I don’t think we’re done either.

DR: You mentioned hiring Paul during the pandemic. Talk to me a little bit about finalizing a PD search in that time. It had been a long time since there was a leadership change at The Zone, and then all of a sudden, in the middle of this search, here comes this once-in-a-lifetime event where we don’t know what we can do when. What sort of conversations were you having with those involved in this process? Was there ever a moment where you were wondering or considering just shutting things down?

AW: Our interview process had happened before we really knew what was what was coming. It’s always hard when there’s a leadership change, but we had some pretty amazing candidates to choose from. There are some really phenomenal sports programmers in the country. I was blown away in the conversations that we had with some of the individuals that applied for this position. It really encouraged me for what’s to come in sports media. There’s some really, really great talent out there, some phenomenal thought leaders.

Paul just had just the right marriage of temperament and ideas for us. It was a good fit. So we had firmed our deal up. We had a little bit of a wait for him, but he was worth it. He was wrapping up a job in another market. We always believe all tides rise and we wanted to honor that time that he needed to give his previous employer. So we had some runway between when we inked a deal and when he was able to start with us.

So for him, when we went into the shutdown, it was like, “am I still moving there?”. I said “yes, please get the moving truck. Get Sarah. Get in the car and drive”. It was pretty stressful, I think for him. We had dinner together, and then I didn’t meet him again in person for three months while we were all dealing with the lockdown.

I think the first opportunity for us to get our broadcasters back into the building, he and his team were first in. A lot of our broadcasters were remote. For a while it was really 104.5 The Zone and a handful of other people on each station that were in the building. I joked that when I went in, it was like a locker room. I swear it smelled like a locker room up there. There’s like pizza boxes, socks doors were just propped open, people were milling. I was like, “This is the place to be. I want to move my office upstairs! Y’all are having fun.!”

Bear in mind, everybody’s masked. Everybody’s got seven inches of like hand sanitizer on them, so things weren’t exactly “normal,” but yeah, they were having fun and connecting. We felt that, so we worked really hard with Cumulus and our safety protocols to bring more and more of our shows back earlier than most because we just noticed the connection was there and that it was working. We were hiring a lot of new people and we just felt like that was really important.

So I don’t know if that answers your question, but I do know that it was hard for Paul to connect with people, because you’re trying to do it from far away and follow safety protocols. Paul’s a true professional. As soon as we started bringing people back, he was in the building. He was there with his people. I think his commitment to that made a huge difference with his team as he really led from the front.

DR: Brad Willis was obviously really popular with his crew and had great relationships across the building. I wonder when he tells you that he is going to take this job at the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, as a market manager, what exactly are you bracing yourself for? Do you start to think about every problem you might need to address or are you already formulating your answers to those problems?

AW: You know, I think it’s a little bit of both. I think whenever a key member of your leadership team decides to go in a different direction, you have mixed feelings. First, for Brad, as a person, I always support somebody’s desire to grow and explore something new. He was very transparent with us. We had a lot of very honest dialogue, so I can’t say that I was surprised.

Brad’s a class act. Even in his desire to go in a different direction, he handled things with absolute total grace and gave us a very long window of time to be on call and available. He knows where the proverbial bodies are buried, and so he was a terrific resource for us. Heck, he started with Titans radio. I mean, he’s a staple and extremely well respected. That’s a hard thing and guy to lose.

Now for us, we had Bruce Gilbert. He is just a phenomenal resource and leader. We couldn’t have been luckier to have somebody like him in that critical moment. It was really getting on a call with him and agreeing that these opportunities are rare. While we don’t like to lose someone as great as Brad, let’s wave a magic wand and try and figure out first what exactly is the station that we’re building for the future and then two, who do we think can take us there? Let’s go see if we can find that person. To Cumulus and Bruce’s credit, we were able to take our time with the process. We felt like we wanted to build a radio station and find a PD for what was around the bend. We think we accomplished that. 

DR: I want to talk about some of those lineup changes. Some of the folks that exited obviously had been well-entrenched at the station for a long time. So what role were you taking in terms of talking to clients? How were you acknowledging their concerns while also assuring them that the next chapter of the station is going to be exciting and have even more value for them as your partner?

AW: Those conversations are always challenging and opportunistic at the same time. What I think makes radio so special is the connection that our talent have with our fans and our clients are often our fans. Those are very deep, emotional connections. Our broadcasters are with them, some of them endorse products. Those are always really delicate conversations.

I think you do the best you can to lean into what change feels like. Those things can be hard Those relationships are important. You’re asking clients to lean into trusting that we understand the sports universe, and that we’re going to bring things to the station that are going to help move it forward.

I’m kind of an earnest person. I asked people to give me a week. Listen for a week and tell me what you think. Send me an email. Tell me what you like. Tell me what you don’t like. And people actually take you up on that. We got a lot of emails from a lot of people giving us their thoughts, which was great. I read every one of them and we heard every client and took it all in.

We take the responsibility of building a brand really seriously. Our clients invest a lot of money with us. It’s our responsibility to our fans and our clients to put the best products forward. That’s what we tell them, and we hope we deliver on that. We get a lot of positive feedback, but those early phases of change are always hard, but our clients are our friends. They’re are advertisers, and they gave us a tremendous amount of grace to do what was right for the station. We’ll always be thankful for that. 

DR: You mentioned Buck Reising earlier. Not only did you bring him in, but you also brought in Ramon Foster to be part of a new morning show. Then you added Ron Slay to 3HL. When hiring new people to a brand like The Zone, how long do you give them on the air to figure out what it is their show is going to be before you start talking to clients about, “hey, would you like to do business with these guys? Would you like for these guys to be the voices telling the listeners to come do business with you?”?

AW Well, it depends on who you’re talking to you. For Dave Elliott, our general sales manager, this conversation started on day one. He’s hustling, and he’s got his team out hustling.

To the credit of everyone that joined us, they made themselves extremely available to clients, whether it was on the phone, in person, or through virtual meetings. It was fantastic. They kind of understood what was ahead, and they wanted to meet our clients and customers because they knew that those are their fans as well.           

The ask is somewhat immediate. It doesn’t always happen immediately, but our desire for our clients and fans to know anyone new to the staff is fairly quickly. Letting those hosts and their shows grow is a different answer, but I think that’s also a different question. 

DR: That’s totally fair. So we talked about the fact that The Zone is not just a radio station anymore. What did that partnership with A to Z Sports do for the brand? How did that push The Zone TV forward in terms of getting that message out, not just to listeners, but to those advertisers as well, that this is more than just a radio station now? 

AW: I’m glad you mentioned that. That was a really progressive strategic partnership at the time that intrigued us. We’d been following A to Z fondly from their launch. People tell me all the time “Oh, you’ve got to look at this” or “you’ve got to watch that”. Buck was on A to Z. Before we had decided we wanted to add Buck, we’d had some soft conversations just in general with Austin and Zach, who run that brand. Through our discussions about wanting to bring Buck on, it deepened our discussions about how similar yet different our business models were. Paul and I thought we could lean into this and work together.               

Those early days of a partnership that is not normal are always interesting, because you’re just trying to figure it out. What’s right for them? What’s right for us? They brought some real value to what we were doing. They’re very pro radio in general. They both were on the other FM station, so they get what we do and there is some fondness for that. We just kind of carved out a lane and that really works well for us.          

We think that the partnership’s been really good for us. We like to believe that we are everywhere where sports is happening. If there’s a major sporting event happening, we’ve got at least one of our shows or a correspondent there to bring that firsthand experience back to our fans, and they actually help us in that space because they are also everywhere where sports happens. So it really deepens our bench for what we’re bringing to our fans.              

It’s been a good partnership. I think Zach and and Austin would say the same. It’s fun to watch them grow. They’re great. They’re a great duo. 

DR: You have been with the cluster now long enough to see the Titans rise to this point. They are a very good team, but not a championship team, yet they’re at that bump in the road. Looking at it from a radio station perspective, what would it mean for the Titans radio network, for Cumulus, for The Zone, for them to get over that hump? I mean, forget winning the Super Bowl just to make it. What sort of different stratosphere would that put your relationship with them and your clients’ relationships with them in? 

AW: For the town, for the station, for the team it’d be electric. I was in Denver when the Av’s won the Stanley Cup the first time. I was 20 years old, driving a promo van down a street while the van was rocking back and forth. I thought, I’m never going to get this honey back to the station. We just had to lean into it. We popped the Marti and just went live from the middle of the street. That was hockey! So, football in the South? Come on!                

Listen, the Titans radio broadcast crew is second to none. The voice of the Titans is Mike Keith. He’s a staple for Tennesseans. He’s absolutely fantastic. That entire broadcast team works really hard to deliver a quality broadcast to their fans.

The team itself works exceedingly hard to create a fan experience that is second to none. What they’ve done over the last couple of years has just really improved the overall experience. I think it’s deepened their fandom. I mean, obviously from a revenue perspective, that’s always a win. But from a content perspective, you know, listen, I had my tickets to LA bought. We know we’ve got a great team, and great leadership. We know they care. We’ve got great ownership. They’re invested in the team and they’re going to do the things they need to do to get us where, where we need to be.

It’s our job to cover the team, and we say what we see, but as residents of Tennessee, we are 100 percent behind the team hopefully making it to that that Super Bowl. Listen, you saw what we did with the draft and that was the draft, right? Can you imagine a Nashville party when we win the Super Bowl? Broadway is going to shut down from Murfreesboro to Cookesville.

We’re very proud to be the the the rights holder for the Tennessee Titans, and that makes it sweeter for us, but I don’t think that there’s a person in the city that didn’t catch the fever when we were making that run last year. 

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

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

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WRONG BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORTH EVERY PENNY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

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

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

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

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

But is that why you sell sports radio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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

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