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Why Strong Branding and Imaging Is Needed In Sports Talk Radio

In today’s radio word there are brands with a heavy focus on branding and imaging and others which put a lesser importance on it. Many have different strategies on why they execute the way they do and I respect that tremendously. Since though I tell my hosts to always have an opinion and not ride the fence on the subjects they’re discussing, I can’t be a hypocrite and not offer my own personal point of view on this topic.

Take a listen around the country and you’re going to hear some stations overly produced and some with little to no imaging creativity. Those which don’t put a lot of focus into their promos, rejoins, on-air branding campaigns, etc. instead use production to air generic station liners and sales supported promotional messages. Is that wrong? Not necessarily but I always wonder why that’s acceptable. We’re in the entertainment business and expected to be creative thinkers with unique ideas yet for some stations they choose to steer clear of that approach.

whyA friend of mine in the industry told me a few months ago that one of the leaders in his company asked “Why do we need imaging and production? We put too much emphasis on it“! He responded by letting this person know that he was nuts to discount its importance. As I thought about their discussion I wondered why one would think its value in what we do wasn’t critical. One of the true strengths of sports radio is the ability to make our format entertaining so when one suggests making it less of a focus it surprises me. Not that it’s wrong because it’s just an opinion but I believe in making a product more entertaining not more homogenized.

As a programmer, one of the real joys for me is when I get to spend time with my Imaging Director and Assistant Program Director and talk through the various ways we want to message things or strengthen the focus of our brand. We’ll sometimes spend hours brainstorming things especially if it’s a specific event or campaign and once that position is identified and we roll it out, it becomes really cool when you can see it and hear it communicated back through the audience.

appleFor example, when we launched 95.7 The Game, we made a decision to be aggressive and utilize the Apple vs. Mac strategy with our promos opposite our local competitor. Similar to a political campaign, we knew there would be people who would rally behind the message and some who would dislike it but regardless, we knew it would get people talking. We utilized our current imaging voice Steve Stone as the voice of the FM radio station and we hired Sean King, the former voice of our competitor to play the old and out of touch AM station. The contrast between Steve and Sean was excellent and to this day I still have people ask me about the campaign.

The full credit for the campaign’s brilliance goes to Jeff Schmidt our Imaging Director who not only knew certain intricacies about the market and our competition but also had a vision for how to bring it to life. To this day it’s one of the most fun campaigns I’ve ever been associated with. Here’s one example for you to enjoy.

 

While on the air it sounded cool, it more importantly got people inside our own building to recognize that we would be fearless in establishing our position in the marketplace. It also fired up local fans who were hungry for a new choice. One of the funniest and best examples of seeing the branding come to life took place a few months later when we held a contest to reward a local fan with an opportunity to host their own show on the station. At our very first audition, one guy showed up 6 hours before the contest wearing a custom made “F KNBR” t-shirt. That my friends is when you know your message has connected.

notinterestedThis subject always gets my juices flowing and lately I’ve wondered, can you imagine how much less interested we might be in television if they took the same approach as some sports radio stations do? How much less would we watch if we weren’t drawn to shows through promos? How much less familiar would we be with brands and their slogan’s if they weren’t pounded into our heads?

Would you know ESPN stood for the “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network” if it wasn’t explained to you? Would you know TBS to be “Very Funny” if they didn’t say they were? How about MTV and their position as “Music Television“? Ok that one we can forget since they hardly offer music anymore but hey they can’t all be grand slams.

itworksLet’s take it beyond television stations for a second. Think about the most popular brands who advertise on many of our radio stations. Bud Light = Here We Go, McDonald’s = I’m Loving It, Geico = 15 minutes could save you 15% on car insurance and Papa Johns = Better Ingredients, Better Pizza, Papa Johns. Why do these companies invest so many dollars in advertising and their marketing message? It’s simple…because it works!

Watch the MLB Playoffs, an NFL pre-game show on Sunday or your favorite local channel and how they promote an upcoming program and I guarantee you’re going to receive a strong degree of hype with one main purpose – to peak your curiosity and get you to tune in. These networks understand how to build anticipation and get you interested and they do an excellent job using creative messaging with music that makes you remember what you’re witnessing.

Case in point, check out this promo for the MLB 2014 Playoffs. You’ve likely seen it air during most of the games you’ve watched and by now now you likely have the Fitz and the Tantrums hook permanently implanted inside your brain.

One of my favorite shows on television currently is “Sons of Anarchy” on FX. Each week the shows delivers strong storylines, drama and action that leaves its fans on the edge of their seat. When you look at the way that the show is promoted at the end of each program and throughout the week through promos, it’s no surprise that the show dominates in the ratings. A great show combined with outstanding promotional support and creativity will lead to strong viewership. Here’s a look at one of the show’s promos. See if you can quickly catch on to the events on the show and feel the connection to the drama that’s about to unfold.

Taking a look at a lighter approach, here’s the promo which ran on Tru TV to launch the comedy show “Impractical Jokers“. Watch the clip and see if you can quickly pick up on what the show is about and whether or not you find yourself laughing and curious about what happens. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, I think you’ll agree it’s easy to digest and if you’re into lighter comedy, it should peak your interest.

When you listen to sports radio stations around the country today, ask yourself when you listen if you feel hooked by the creativity and suspense on your favorite brands outside of the main talk show content. I’m not talking about whether or not you remember the name of the station and where it broadcasts from thanks to the top of the hour legal ID. I’m also not talking about liners which lead you back into a segment and remind you of who the host is and the station they’re on. I’m talking about creative production which revolves around big events/games, tune-in opportunities, originality and brand messaging that strikes a chord.

cbsrI notice that a number of CBS sports stations in local markets as well as on the national network, utilize a similar sound. CBS sports talkers will traditionally use jingle packages, older music beds and the same imaging voice (Paul Turner) and be very simple with their approach (not all of them, but most I’ve observed). Given their success in numerous markets, you can say their approach works well for them. They focus on less bells and whistles and more on the nuts and bolts.

On the other hand, ESPN local stations and the network itself do some very strong creative production and present more flair for the dramatic while also winning in numerous markets with a very different philosophy. They also tend to utilize the same imaging voice (Jim and Dawn Cutler) and ESPN branded jingles.

When I listen to those two brands, I can tell instantly how they’re different. As a listener I like it because it provides me with a choice which illustrates that there’s more than one way to run a sports radio station. You’re rarely going to hear a thirty second promo hyping up one of CBS’ local talk shows yet on an ESPN station you’ll hear promos highlighting personalities and regular big name guests. On CBS stations they use liners heading into breaks or off of their updates to reinforce their shows, play by play events or sponsorable items whereas ESPN uses liners to introduce shows, segments or more programming centric items.

hookBoth approaches have their pluses and minuses but I tend to lean more towards the ESPN approach because I look at promos as a tool to draw more occasions to a radio station. The goal of a promo is not to fill thirty seconds of air time and showcase how cool you can sound with fancy editing tools, it’s to make people curious and hook them with interesting examples of your programming, personalities and the radio station. When you highlight personalities, guest appointments, play by play and strong campaigns effectively, they can have an impact on people.

Sometimes when we’re working on promos we forget that a promo in the minds of the audience is another commercial. While we separate it internally, those on the outside see it as an interruption and something that is keeping them away from their favorite talk show host for an extra thirty seconds. If it’s fun, suspenseful, entertaining or powerful, it can draw people in. If not, it’s a time filler and one more roadblock for the listener to navigate past.

As an example, if you’re going to promote a game and all you do is have the voice guy mention the two teams, game time and the position of the station, it’s predictable, not very creative and doesn’t generate an emotional response with your fans. But, if you do it like this, I think you fire up your fan base and get them more excited to tune in.

 

Ultimately, audiences will have different tastes. Some will like brands with a stronger creative delivery and others will prefer the opposite. However I believe that as more stations migrate to FM and new personalities are introduced, the ability to entertain and stand out is going to be more important. Those who wish to stay the current course can certainly do so but as new products continue to emerge, the risk of sounding mundane and trapped in yesteryear could become more problematic.

differentwayToday people are using Spotify, iTunes, iHeart, Pandora and YouTube (just to name a few), when it comes to hearing new music. In the old days, you’d have to wait for a certain time of the day for your favorite music station to introduce new songs. If that same mentality was kept in music radio today, stations would die quickly. Audiences have adapted to a new way of consuming music and they have much less patience or tolerance for clutter so it’s important to connect with them instantly or you risk losing them to other outlets.

Think about this. If the newspaper industry had been at the forefront of where new media was headed, would they have suffered as badly as they have? Today people read Twitter and Facebook first thing in the morning, not the local paper. I’m sure many in the print industry previously thought “we’re a dynasty, irreplaceable, we can’t be caught” but when people operate that way and stop evolving, they leave a door open for others to walk through. The way we now consume written content is much different than we did 10-20 years ago and it was created by an entire industry refusing to change.

scAs it pertains to sports radio or television, the same rules apply. Do you remember what was popular 20-30 years ago? ABC’s Wide World of Sports and ESPN’s SportsCenter were two very strong brands that during their time were seen as acceptable when it came to the studio sets, camera shots, use of video and jingles. Each show was well received by sports audiences. If those same presentations were being delivered today, they’d be rejected quickly because they don’t suit the wants and needs of today’s audience. Clearly ESPN adjusted and continues to do so which is why it’s always among the most powerful brands in America. For all of it’s imperfections, you can’t say they’re not committed to trying new things.

In my view, that’s what sports radio has to do too. Face it, people today can stream stations all over the country and they can download a show via a Podcast and skip interruptions. The goal is to make them want to experience it LIVE and if you employ great talent and enhance your opportunities for tune-ins by reinforcing the cool, dramatic and worthwhile content pieces on your brand through quality imaging, branding and production, you have a puncher’s chance of winning the battle for space inside one’s head.

audienceleaningYou also have to write in a way that the audience relates to and make your messaging sound fun, witty and interesting. The days of “get ready for a steady dose of hardcore sports talk with Joe and Jim” are over. If that’s your level of creativity, prepare to be bypassed by those behind you. Whether you’re a PD, APD, Imaging Director, Promotions Director, Host or Producer, if you’ve got any involvement in the messaging on your radio station, put the time into it because it will stand out favorably or negatively with the audience.

Much like we do with the subjects we talk about, we’re trying to grab the most amount of people possible to consume our content, so if your hosts are being paid to talk about the key things which will grab the majority’s attention, the production and branding of a radio station needs to be focused on the most important things too. I believe it’s much better to beat the drum of 3-4 strong messages then to overload an audience with too many things. Rarely does the majority of your material get consumed that way. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way.

shapingWhen I look around the country today I find myself impressed by the production work done by a number of stations. Arizona Sports 98.7FM in Phoenix, The Ticket in Dallas, 98.7 ESPN NY, WEEI in Boston, 710 ESPN in Seattle and 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia are some who I think do a really nice job. I also think my current station 95.7 The Game does a strong job but its always harder for me to highlight my own brand because I’m too close to it. That said, credit is easy to give when you’ve got good people doing good work.

To bring this to a close, as I look to the future I hope to see stations in this format put a stronger emphasis on production value and recognize its importance in connecting with people. Listeners = supporters of advertisers and the #1 promotional tool for our radio stations. Why that’s not seen in a bigger light by everyone inside every building is puzzling. Add to that the increased engagement and activity from people through social media and you’ve got thousands each day to help spread your message.

Some companies will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a TV marketing campaign to tell local people they exist and when the commercial production process happens, numerous people from the station will get together, analyze every key detail and make sure there is a clear message presented for the viewer to consume. While that’s smart planning if you’re going to do a TV spot to promote your station, I could easily question why the same focus, energy and commitment of time isn’t given to the messages that are being delivered on your own radio station. Chances are you’ll promote your brand more on your own radio station then you’re going to on a television buy.

Sometimes when we’re in our respective buildings, we become creatures of habit and fall victim to taking the easiest path to get something done. If we concentrated more on our own messaging and creative presentation, similar to how we act when a camera is in the room and a light goes on, imagine what we might be able to offer our listeners. Who knows, maybe we’d surprise ourselves and provide more drama and entertainment value than even television can. I’m allowed to think that’s possible right?

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