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Meet The Market Managers: Debbie Kenyon, Audacy Detroit

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

Demetri Ravanos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DK: We do. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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