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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.