I’m willing to bet there aren’t a ton of radio talkers that got their start informing students about Salisbury steak and Tater Tots.
“I used to deliver the morning public announcements in school,” said Larry Gifford. “I’d say, ‘Good morning Westerville North, this is Larry Gifford with your lunch menu.” He’d also travel around with his high school band and serve as their announcer.
Gifford’s radio career includes stints as a news and sports producer, reporter, anchor, program director, and radio consultant. These jobs took him across the United States and into Canada. He worked in Dayton, Philadelphia, Los Angeles (twice), Columbus, Bristol, CT, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC.
As a kid, Gifford’s mom or dad would be there for every baseball, basketball, or football game, swim meet, and soccer match. “They got to see me as I rode the bench, threw a wild pitch, or stood alone on the soccer pitch picking daisies,” Gifford jokes.
“I think I wrestled for three days in school, was on the swim team. I played baseball for seven years. I think I was hurt more times than I played. In soccer, we were like the Bad News Bears. My big move was to always find a corner and stand there. The best part about playing soccer was the orange slices at halftime.”
Currently living with his family in Canada, Gifford says the work climate is vastly different from the United States. If you’re concerned about your longevity in the crazy radio business, move to Canada. Your career will be golden. “You’re pretty much a lifetime presence in Canada. People don’t move around too much,” said Gifford.
Newstalk in Canada doesn’t live solely on the right and left politics. Not everything is radical or extreme, and some of it would be considered fluff on U.S. Talk Stations. Gifford calls it lifestyle content. “Canadians are nice people, apologizing for everything,” Gifford said.
“That said, they’re passionate about their radio and want their stations to be good. There’s no room for yelling, just conversation. They know there are three sides to every story, and they don’t mind if the host has a differing opinion than theirs, as long as they listen to or acknowledge the other positions.”
He hasn’t moved at all since moving to Vancouver, B.C., six years ago. “Folks in radio don’t give much thought to moving market-to-market to climb the ladder as many radio veterans have done in the U.S.” Gifford also notes it is easier to be a ‘star’ in Canada, “Canada is 25 times the size of California, but the country has three million fewer citizens than the state.
Additionally, Canada has fewer than 1,000 radio stations while there are more than 15,000 in the United States.” That makes it easier to become recognized as a Canadian or National personality than in the U.S.
Gifford says there is a limited appeal in Canada when it comes to sports and sports talk radio. “We have some CFL fans and old-timers like their baseball. The NHL is king, and the NFL does well.” Gifford has worked in markets where there were simultaneously four sports talk show stations.
“That’s the maximum number, and Los Angeles found that. We try to do multiple stations in Toronto and Vancouver, but there’s just not enough listening to go around.”
He said sports listeners are far more fanatical in the United States than north of the border. “They’re listening all the time,” Gifford explained. “We’ve got a lot of fair-weather fans in Canada. Then again, you always have some people that live and die with the Blue Jays and Raptors.
Before Canada, Gifford was raised in Westerville, Ohio, and is the youngest of four siblings. Gifford admits he was the less coordinated one of the bunch. He intended to major in theater at college, but that didn’t last more than a week.
“They wanted me to buy a dance belt,” Gifford said. A dance belt is basically a jock strap for guys who aren’t playing sports. Goodbye theater, hello radio. “I walked around the corner and discovered the radio station. It was a perfect fit; it was for me.”
He believes that radio is a ‘theater of the mind.’ “I spent a lot of time in the audio rooms, mostly listening to sound effects, chopping audio on multi-track reel to reel machines with grease pencils and razor blades. I just wanted to see what worlds I could create with audio.”
As a kid, he started listening to a ton of talk radio, which was not always something he enjoyed. “I’d be in the backseat asking my father to turn on some music, but he was deaf in one ear and listening to 610 WTVN or 700 WLW with the other.”
Why are some talk shows more successful than others?
Gifford said respect and chemistry between hosts and the off-air support team are vital. Success depends on it. “When I worked with Mike and Mike in the Morning at ESPN, they probably had the most popular sports radio show in the country,” Gifford said.
“The key was clearly defining their roles. We helped them to identify distinguishing character traits they could leverage through the show. All hosts should be aware of what makes them unique and find ways to authentically insert themselves into the conversation. We are always getting new listeners, so these traits become quick reference points to explain to the audience what their role is in the show.”
“I like it when both of the hosts believe the same thing and end up “crusading” or pushing against the audience,” Gifford said.
“I also like hosts that debate each other, add some friction or alternative perspectives. It prompts listeners to share their own opinions too. The best way to get an opinion is to give an opinion. It’s your show; let them react to what you believe to be true. As Colin Cowherd would say, ‘I don’t have to be right. I just need to be interesting.’”
Coaching talent is a bit different from being a Programmer. Gifford believes everybody needs coaching. There are a lot of ways you can get that coaching. “One thing I believe in is improv training for hosts and producers. It’s so important, I factor talent development into my budgets. I’ll bring in a professional improv comedian to do a three-hour workshop.”
“They will create situations that require the talent to think differently and provide tools on how to set up your partner to succeed and how to ‘Yes, and…’ as you build your show collectively. As a host, success isn’t ‘winning the segment,’ it’s when you set up your co-host to be successful.”
Gifford believes radio is show business. Talkers need structure, tools, or “plays’ they can use to approach topics with intention. It’s ‘planned spontaneity.’ You are still unscripted, but you start the discussion with a vision of how it will end. The conversation will always be more interesting when the whole show unit knows the goal of the segment.
Gifford believes forethought and intention are key for great producers and hosts. “Most believe their first thought on something is totally original,” he said. “It’s not. I teach producers and hosts to write down their first two ideas and throw them away. The third thought will be much more interesting and original.”
As it relates to interviews, most hosts interject too much. Listeners don’t get as much from the guest as they do with the interviewer. “If the host talks too much, they will take the oxygen out of the room. You must leave room for the guest to share stories and insights by asking lean, neutral, and open-ended questions.”
Sometimes you’re fired; other times, you have to seek change for your own growth. “If you are fired, it doesn’t mean you suck,” assures Gifford. The P.D. is building a lineup. You may be great at what you do, but it doesn’t fit the needs of the station. Each stop on your journey is a learning experience. That’s how I approach it,” Gifford said.
Gifford was sports director in Philadelphia at an F.M. News Talker, where nobody else knew anything about sports. “I approached everything I did from a fan’s perspective. I was never degrading casual fans. I figured I had sixty seconds to get one nugget, one bit of analysis that people will take with them to lunch to tell their friends.”
He’d go to professional sports training camps all the time. Most of his interviews were before the game. “I’d ask questions that were away from the game, like, “What did you do this summer? How do relax after a loss?” It’s about being entertaining, making it feel like I’m hanging out with them.
There are times when you feel the need for change.
“I went on vacation with my wife and told her something didn’t feel right about my current job. She interviewed and got a job in public relations while we were in Los Angeles. It just happened. I called the station and gave them two weeks’ notice.” Six months later, Gifford was Sports Director at Fox Sports Radio in L.A., and the station he left behind imploded, and everyone was fired.
Coaching talent was and continues to be a huge part of his job. In keeping with that, Gifford found ways to lure them into the office to chat.
“I’d keep a candy jar on my desk to get them to interact,” Gifford said.
“I’d find out their favorite candies and fill it up. Guys would come in to grab candy before, during, and after shows. That was a good thing. Over time, I moved the candy further and further from the door. They take a piece of candy, say hello. And we begin talking about their show.
Gifford said he always tries to offer coaching and criticism in private, away from the office. If we were on the road, I’d talk with Dan Patrick about some issues we were having. With Colin Cowherd, I’d meet up with him for dinner and go over the show.”
Gifford thinks former athletes are easy to coach as they’re used to following directions, “They’ve been told what to do their whole life. They’ve watched game tapes, practiced plays, and studied film.”
“Usually, if you explain why you want them to do something, they apply it almost immediately. They just want to know what’s working and how they can get better,” Gifford also says higher-profile talent are typically easier to coach because it’s a conversation about maximizing their talent and strengths and less about development.
Of course, some talents are resistant and don’t like it, and some programmers over-analyze everything. “My first P.D. gig, I butted heads with my afternoon host,” Gifford said. “I regret it. Looking back, I was kind of a jerk. I thought my job was to “manage” and “direct,” and I should have been a coach building a championship team.”
In smaller markets, some of the talents are new and feel embarrassed or intimidated when faced with feedback, especially when it is critical of their on-air performance.
“There’s something hosts need to know when they think about radio P.D.s. Our opinions are just that, our opinions. Right or wrong, our job is to make decisions on what’s going to help the station win and what’s impeding its success. While you’re working for a particular P.D., you either have to adhere to their way of doing business or find another situation.”
When Gifford was a consultant, many talents would hire him directly because they weren’t getting any constructive feedback from their manager. “There weren’t a whole lot of programmers that had time or even had the training to coach talent. At one point, I was coaching five top radio morning shows in the U.S.”
Gifford’s superpower is his networking ability. “If I see someone that might thrive in another market, I’ll bring it up to a friend in the business. I like to observe and fit puzzles together.”
Part of that superpower includes being a good judge of talent and potential. “Tony Romo is very good at what he does. When I watch him, I learn things. I love when he predicts things. I like that he’s taking chances on the air; he sees the whole field. He makes me a better fan.”
You may consider Romo a modern-day John Madden. Gifford doesn’t see it that way. “I think Romo has more substance than Madden. Don’t get me wrong, in Madden’s prime, he was the best, but towards the end, there was a lot of blusters and filling time.”
“He became a bit of a caricature of himself. We liked listening to Madden because there are certain announcers from our youth that get us excited about the game and remind us of how thrilling it was when we first discovered the joy of sports. I was lucky to be in L.A. while we still had Chick Hearn doing the Lakers and Vin Scully doing the Dodgers. It was the best. It couldn’t have been any better.”
Those guys could make reading the hot lunch menu sound pretty good too.
16.9% of All Sports Radio Listeners Are Streaming
The news comes as Nielsen reported that 11.3% of all radio listenership comes thru a stream, up from 6.9% in May of 2020.
According to Nielsen, sports radio stations are the third-most streamed spoken word format, just behind Talk/Personality and News/Talk/Info. The trend is continuing to show that streaming is on the uptick.
The survey found that in May 2022, 16.9% of sports talk radio’s audience tunes in via the station’s online stream. That news comes as Nielson reported that 11.3% of all radio listenership comes thru a stream, up from 6.9% in May of 2020.
Nielsen notes that in the 45 PPM markets they are grabbing data from and the 4,800+ stations that stream in those markets, just 30% of them are encoded. That encoding allows for Nielsen to accurately measure the streams. They used the listener data from 1,500 stations across the U.S., in their latest report, AM/FM Radio Streaming Growth in PPM Markets.
The survey also showed that streaming levels differ widely by radio format. Spoken word formats display strong streaming listenership (Talk/Personality: 31.2%, News/Talk/Info: 19.1%, All Sports: 16.9%). In fact, Nielsen found that 1/3 of all AM/FM streaming in PPM markets is to spoken word formats.
New Study Finds Listeners to MLB on Radio Are Willing to Spend
More than one third (34%) of the respondents recently purchased clothing/apparel that features their favorite team… 27% have visited a ballpark in the past year. That compares to only 19% of the average MLB fan base has made an apparel purchase to support their team while just 11% have gone to a game in person in that same time span.
When it comes to advertiser’s attempting to reach an affluent and engaged audience, sports talk radio might have a whale on their hands. Major League Baseball play-by-play features an audience that has money and has no problems spending it.
In a recent MRI-Simmons study, data shows that consumers who listen to MLB broadcasts on the radio are the perfect audience for sports marketers. According to the analysis, done by Katz Radio Group, nearly two thirds (62%) of those surveyed consider themselves “super fans” of baseball. That number is 58% higher than the average.
Those “super fans” are willing to spend to support their team, as well. More than one third (34%) of the respondents recently purchased clothing/apparel that features their favorite team. Those fans are also far more willing to make the trip to see their team. The study found that 27% have visited a ballpark in the past year. That compares to only 19% of the average MLB fan base has made an apparel purchase to support their team while just 11% have gone to a game in person in that same time span.
The news continues getting better for advertisers. Continued analysis reveals that 66% of listeners are currently employed and have a median household income greater than $106,000.
Listeners to MLB games on the radio are also 34% more likely to place a sports bet and 106% more likely to be a participant in fantasy baseball.
Jeff Dean Signs Off At ESPN Tucson for The Final Time
Dean said on Facebook: “…the years of burning the candle at both ends has taken a dire toll on my health and for the first time in my life, I’m going to put myself and my livelihood first”
Fans will no longer be able to tune into ESPN Tucson and hear Jeff Dean hosting his show. Friday morning was his last show, according to his Facebook and Twitter pages.
The Jeff Dean Show had been airing from 7-9a MT weekday mornings. Dean took to social media to relay the news and the reason behind him stepping away from the microphone. Dean said on Facebook:
“This morning I signed off from my radio show on ESPN Tucson for the final time. I have been devoting too much of my life and my time to working multiple jobs…the years of burning the candle at both ends has taken a dire toll on my health and for the first time in my life, I’m going to put myself and my livelihood first”
Dean went on to emphasize that he isn’t stepping away from ESPN Tucson, he’s just taking himself off the air. He also added that “gladly, I will be continuing my position as PA announcer of University of Arizona Football and Men’s basketball.”
Dean would also go onto Twitter to add even further context for his self-removal from the ESPN Tucson airwaves. He added, “It’s not a decision I arrived at hastily, as it’s been a 6 month mental grind to make the ultimate decision that had to be made, and I’m not particularly happy about it, but I have to put my health first, we all do, and make sure we’re around long enough to enjoy life”.
Dean had been ESPN Tucson’s morning host since November 2019.