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Is Sports Radio Ready For Its Future?

A few weeks ago I announced on this site my intentions to leave San Francisco as Program Director of 95.7 The Game in the upcoming months. After making that announcement, I had little desire to write. Some of that was due to being gone for a few business trips and some of it was due to needing to focus on some conversations about my future.

But then last week happened.

RISCTwo discussions in particular stuck with me and have had my mind racing for the past few days. First, I was in Dallas for the Radio Ink Sports Conference and during my time there I had the chance to moderate a panel which focused on the mind of millennial listeners. I was on stage with three college students. Two were 21-years old and the other was 26.

Over the course of 45 minutes, I hit all three students with a barrage of questions on their perceptions and interest in sports radio and I along with the rest of the room learned that they live in a different world where content is only king if it can be consumed quickly. If it requires sifting through your podcast to find it, waiting through a commercial break or needing to wait for a host to finish rambling off-topic, they’re gone. Even the big name guest means little if it doesn’t include a hook worth sticking around for.

In their words, Twitter and TV provide the result they desire and sports radio puts up too many road blocks to get what they want. In the case of television, they like the sidebar which tells them when certain stories will be covered and that allows them to use their time more efficiently while still getting what they desire from the program.

TwitterIn the case of Twitter, the information is out there immediately and can be consumed in a matter of seconds and they don’t have to wait for other stories or commercials to finish or for hosts to get back on track. They follow who they want, when they want and they get the information they desire quickly so they can alert their friends and look smart, informed and continue the conversation.

In each of their cases they were drawn to stories that revolved around drama and conflict and when I probed on why they start their day with Twitter and not with radio, they held up their phone and said it was where they check first. When they were reminded that sports radio stations were also on the same device and could also be listened to on the same device, they pointed out the flaws with radio’s apps and said that until the experience was comparable to other forms of media they wouldn’t be going that route.

boredIt wasn’t what many in the room wanted to hear but it was helpful because the only way we improve our products is to understand why the consumer does or doesn’t use our brand. It sounds cliche but we only get one chance to make a first impression and the 25-34 year old audience that awaits us in the next 5-10 years is very different and less likely to use our form of media. They get bored fast, they prefer audio on demand and they’re not loyal. We either serve them on their terms or we risk them not associating with our brand.

In the room I pointed out 4 key words to 4 key industries to make a point of what we could be facing if we don’t stay alert and ahead of the curve. Those 4 words were Music, Movies, Print and Phones. If you asked an executives of each of these industries 20 years ago about their future I’m sure many of them said they were well prepared to succeed. They learned fast though that if you don’t improvise and stay alert, you get knocked off.

Think about it, home phones and pay phones have been replaced by cell phones, social networking sites and app blockbustermessaging software. Video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have been replaced by your cable company, Hulu, YouTube and Netflix who serve your needs right inside your home. Music went from cassettes and CD’s to digital downloads, Youtube, Pandora, Spotify and iHeart and the newspaper has been replaced by the web and social media. You’re more likely today to find your next apartment or home on Craigslist or through a website than you used to do through a newspaper’s classified section.

While the panel I conducted with those three millennial college students was interesting and informative and made me think about where we’re headed as an industry in the future, there was a second conversation about the past that also stuck with me.

smulyanIf you haven’t had the chance, I highly recommend reading Fred Jacobs’ interview with Jeff Smulyan of Emmis. Jeff was the founding father of WFAN in New York City. While we all know how powerful The Fan is now and we see the boom that has happened to the sports radio format, there was a time when many thought Jeff was crazy to entertain a format around sports. Many of his closest friends and peers lost faith and trust in him and there were numerous times when the plug was nearly pulled on his experiment.

Two things Jeff said really struck me and I believe he’s 100% accurate on both accounts. The first was that it takes staying power to be successful. Too often people attempt things and if it doesn’t hit right away, they change it. This doesn’t mean everything deserves to last forever but if you truly believe in something or someone and have evidence to show that you’re making strides, you’ve got to stay the course and battle for what you believe in.

jobsThe second thing Jeff said that hit home was the quote “The world is never changed by doing the same things everybody else does. It just never is. It’s changed by doing what is different.” For someone like myself who loves Steve Jobs quotes and everything he stood for professionally, I felt the connection to that quote because once again there’s a lot of truth in it. If Jeff didn’t take the chance launching an all-sports station and absorbing the wrath from his bosses and everyone around him, this column may not exist and neither may our entire industry.

The ironic thing is that every year I head to various radio conferences, read numerous articles on our format and talk to numerous executives in our industry and there’s this plea to continue taking risks, trying new things and not following the same patterns. Yet we’re also the first to put up a stop sign and slow down our own momentum when we enter these murky waters.

The reality is that we all like to speak that language and sound bullish and smart but most people don’t like to do the unpopular thing especially when it puts their own body of work and future in question. Ask yourself this if you’re a programmer or talent, what is the one thing you want to do that you believe will make an impact on our industry but you’ve been hesitant to do it because of the fear of failure? Do you believe in it enough to bet your career on it?

nophoneWhen I launched 101 ESPN in St. Louis and 95.7 The Game in San Francisco I did so with the mentality that we’d start off by not taking phone calls and focus instead on providing a stronger content experience filled with more passion, opinion, insight, strong guests and entertaining banter between co-hosts. It wasn’t exactly the most earth shattering idea in the world but given that both markets had done sports talk forever and relied heavily on phone calls, the jury was out on whether or not I was taking the right approach.

While I love caller interaction myself and the passion of one’s voice over a text or tweet any day, I knew we had to create our own point of differentiation when establishing our brand. I also knew their was a difference in the caller entertainment value in places like NY, Philadelphia and Boston as compared to St. Louis and San Francisco.

focusgroupAfter the first year at one of my station’s, we conducted a focus group with a number of listeners. Many in the room were waiting to hear that we were missing the boat by not being caller driven and when the question came up and 35 out of 40 said they preferred the content and lack of calls they were surprised. After the session finished I was asked if the company should take the same approach in other markets. I said no because what worked in my current location wouldn’t necessarily work in another one. The main thing I wanted understood was that just because it wasn’t what we were all used to didn’t mean it couldn’t work.

As the years have passed, each of those stations take more calls but they do so with a stronger emphasis on content and directing the conversations with our audience. I’ve also pushed for the use of tweets and texts inside of content because while it may not be as entertaining as hearing the voice of a listener, it’s the way people interact today. They don’t care how they get through, just as long as they’re part of the show.

schefterIt’s no different than the way television has adapted their standards of video. 10 years ago you’d put on ESPN television and every guest was on camera. Today they’re equally as active with guests who appear by phone. Look at your local news and you’ll find video from viewers used to compliment a story whereas 10-20 years ago they’d never have touched it. The point has been made by the consumer, give me the content now and I’ll deal with less production value.

Let’s turn our attention though back to sports radio. How many stations do you turn on and hear a traffic report, weather report, stock report or time check? Are they really needed? We say we want to target younger demographics and have supported that position by shifting brands and content to the FM dial yet then we deliver benchmarks that are targeted to the upper end of the demo. Does that make sense?

reportsIn some locations maybe it does but I bet the radio station would go on just fine without them. I can’t recall ever hearing a 25-34 year old male get upset over not hearing a stock or weather report. The sales department may not like that because it’s change and those are extra opportunities to attach sponsors to but if you don’t provide a strong content experience to generate ratings (which also helps the sales team), you’re going to lose your audience’s interest.

As we look towards the future, what are some things that you think will change? What trends will be different? Who will innovate and lead the charge to make our format stronger? Social media is becoming the place to talk about sports just as sports talk radio became that destination the past 10 years after surpassing the print industry.

While I’m not Nostradamus, here are 10 things I think could take place in the future.

2LS1. Minority Voices Will Increase – The format is dominated now by white males 25-55 and I think there will be stronger balance over the next 10 years. We’ve already seen a number of female hosts begin to invade lineups and I expect you’ll see more Black and Hispanic talents on the air too. With many major market stations broadcasting to audiences which are more than 50% non-white, I think there’ll be a bigger push to reflect each market more fairly.

sc2. Sports Updates Will Be In Danger – While they’ve been a fixture in the format since its inception, I see them being eliminated or reduced in the future. In many markets there has already been a shift to having on-air hosts do them. I can see some stations adding branded team reports or created content pieces in breaks and I believe the anchor’s future role is going to revolve more around reporting, contributing to talk shows and through the involvement of social and digital media. The need for information and talented people won’t change but how the consumer gathers the information and where it’s presented will.

social3. Say Hello To Social Media Reporters/Video Content Generators – There will be a bigger shift to add people to help radio stations compete stronger in the social and digital space. Pushing out content messages is necessary but the demand to interact back will increase and stations will need to dedicate time and people to make sure it’s a part of their overall strategy. As television has required reporters now to capture their own video and shoot their own standups, radio will look to have multi-purpose people who can write, create video and interact socially. It’ll also be more valuable to station advertisers.

digital4. Digital Media & NTR Sales Will Increase – Buyers are spending more money on social, digital and event driven media and the measurements of digital are a lot easier to analyze and receive faster. The need to be stronger in this area will be important for sales teams to thrive and with advertisers demanding stronger ROI on their investments, radio companies will need more than a great brand and Nielsen ratings story to stay on buys. Text and Email databases, Social and Digital Media inclusion, Content associations, Phone App sponsorships and Events which generate immediate results will all be necessary.

atlradio5. Play by Play Radio Rights Deals Will Decrease – While the dollars continue to reach astronomical heights for television and certain radio markets continue to perform well with LIVE play-by-play, the fact of the matter is that most of the programming takes place at night and audiences are going to become even harder to reach through audio during off peak hours. They’ve also become costly and put many operators in the red and with a growing need inside the industry to show profitability, brands will look harder at the bottom line than the importance of being connected to local franchises. If deals do stay the same or increase, it won’t be without the radio station getting more control of inventory, exclusive categories and programming features and title sponsorship opportunities inside of the broadcast.

nflradio6. An Extension of Our Format Will Be Created – Sirius XM dove into the NFL space early on with its own branded channel and I believe you’ll see an all dedicated NFL channel or MLB channel on terrestrial radio over the next 5-10 years. Whether it’s on the local or network level is still foggy but the next wave of sports talk radio is going to come in the form of specific league content.

On-Demand7. On-Demand Content Will Become a Bigger Focus – Podcast One has done a really nice job acquiring popular celebrity personalities to host their own podcasts and I see sports radio doing more of this in the future. Whether it’s hiring players, coaches, agents, scouts or GM’s to create unique content, I think you’ll find more audio options available with higher profile people.

bonus8. Digital Bonus Incentives – How many operators ask talent to write, chat, tweet, create podcasts or provide additional video? What does the talent get for adding those responsibilities to their regular line of work? Usually nothing. When dollars start shifting digitally and certain talent start attracting stronger numbers online, on social and on video, you’ll find incentive programs created to make sure talent remain involved in helping these brands succeed beyond the over the air signal.

local9. Major Markets Will Go More Local – While national programming has its value in the marketplace, the reality is that local sports talk dominates in the ratings. Networks will be in good shape with digital dashboards, apps and partnerships that help their strategy of delivering audio to fans on multiple platforms but local operators will feel the need to put more focus on local shows with local personalities in order to help increase ratings and revenue.

jefffisher10. Weekly Guest Deals Will Become More Complex – Popular sports personalities, reporters, columnists, athletes, coaches, executives and owners have grown accustomed to appearing on local stations regularly in exchange for cash compensation. While these appearances have great branding value, they’re only 10-15 minutes in length and don’t deliver enough bang for the buck. I see radio operators getting more in the future or walking away from these deals. You may see certain guests and companies start doing deals in multiple markets to create better value for both sides and you’ll see these become more of a fixture in rights deals too. In some deals you may even see the weekly guest provide special hosting assignments to the station in addition to appearances, voiced commercials, signed merchandise and other unique experiences.

Which ones am I right about? Which ones am I wrong about? The future will tell the story. For now, we can debate it and each make our case for where we stand on each issue.

googleradioAside from the 10 I listed, I’m sure there will be others too and that’s a positive (Does Apple, Google or Pandora launch a sports talk network?). This format is nearly 30 years old which is still relatively young and with experience comes knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. If we want to grow and connect strongly with the next generation, we’ve got to keep challenging ourselves to make the format better and adapt to how they use our products.

The big question I have is, will the next Jeff Smulyan have the time, courage and support to launch the next big idea and see it reach its full potential? There’s a fine line between ratings and innovation and the best creations don’t happen overnight.

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