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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.”

Demetri Ravanos

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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. 

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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