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Inside The CBS Sports Radio Network

The CBS Sports Radio Network is approaching its fourth year in business. The operation launched in September 2012 with 80 stations clearing the CBS Sports Minute, and once the full programming lineup was introduced in January of 2013, the affiliate base expanded to 150.

Currently, CBS clears network programming on 330 affiliates nationwide. To avoid confusion, that doesn’t mean their shows are available 24/7 on all affiliates. It means that some form of the network’s content is cleared by each of these stations. One component not included in that equation is the network’s distribution through online streaming.

What makes the CBS Sports Radio Network’s situation unique, is that the programming decisions are made by CBS officials, but the content is distributed and sold by Westwood One, who are owned by Cumulus. Having two of the nation’s biggest radio operators team up to develop and grow a national sports network doesn’t happen everyday, but without their marriage, this would be a very different column.

The Beginning:

Before the CBS Sports Radio Network was born, former CEO Dan Mason and Executive Vice President of Programming Chris Oliviero were searching for a way to exponentially grow their business. They felt they were successful at local sports radio but wanted to find an opportunity that would allow them to become difference makers on the national circuit.

masonMason said “We had a lot of great local content and wanted to string it together somehow, but didn’t have the right mechanism. But then Lew Dickey came to visit, and suddenly all of the pieces began to fall into place. With Cumulus providing their support and a great play by play component from Westwood One, and our team offering great talent and high quality content, the fit felt right.”

The involvement of Cumulus was critical to turning CBS’ vision into a reality. The company understood the network sales business from previously partnering with ESPN Radio, and owned and operated hundreds of radio stations across the nation. Upon making the decision to form an alliance with CBS, they announced they would drop 47 ESPN Radio stations in favor of CBS’ new national product. That news alone drew instant attention from the radio industry, and its top advertisers.

With two powerful operators now on the same team, and looking to use their collective muscles to move aside ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio, the questions became – who would run it, where would it originate from, and which personalities would be part of it?

Finding The Right Leader:

The man who received the call to lead the operation was Eric Spitz, the prized protege of WFAN boss Mark Chernoff. During the course of his career, Eric gained tremendous value from learning from the top Program Director in the format. But while he may have been satisfied with the body of work that he had produced, he was also eager to spread his wings and find out if he could fly.

When word trickled out that CBS was considering entering the network space, Eric let everyone know that he was ready for the challenge.

“I had the good fortune of learning from the best programmer in the business, Mark Chernoff” said Spitz. “I enjoyed every moment of my time with WFAN, and I learned a lot, and developed a lot of relationships. But, eventually I wanted to test myself and oversee my own brand, and that wasn’t going to happen with WFAN. Mark built that brand and turned it into the most successful sports radio station in the country and he’s not leaving until he decides it’s time. And he’s earned that.”

He continued “For myself, the network presented an opportunity to find out what I was capable of as the point man. But, it also provided the best of both worlds because I had the opportunity to remain inside the same building with Mark and Chris Oliviero. That allowed me to be a resource to them, and them to me, and it’s worked out really well.”

Before Spitz was trusted with the assignment, CBS had a lot to consider. Moving Spitz to run the network, meant having to make adjustments with WFAN (where Chernoff was still deeply rooted). The company also had Bruce Gilbert programming a few of their Dallas stations, and his reputation in national circles was popular from his tenure with ESPN Radio and iHeart’s sports properties.

Although conversations took place with Gilbert, it was clear to Mason, Oliviero, and Chernoff that the network needed to operate out of New York. By doing so, they’d present a strong brand image, keep open the line of communication between CBS’ key executives, plus it was ideal for the sales team and advertisers to forge better relationships with the network’s talent and key people. The facilities in New York were also big enough to house the operation.

“We wanted stability with our key people because when you’re starting a new operation it’s important to have everyone under the same roof,” said Mason. “We felt having the brain trust of Mark, Eric, and Chris was a big advantage for what we were creating and being in NY made the most sense to keep things streamlined.”

Another benefit to shifting Spitz over to run the network was that he was already in house, knew the way CBS did business, and had strong relationships with everyone involved. The further the company gave consideration to launching the network, the more clear it became that he was the right person to lead it.

oliveroOliviero shared the reasons why: “Promoting from within is important to us, and in Eric’s case, he has an incredible operational strength and great temperament. He’s an excellent coach who has a great demeanor with talent, plus he gained some national experience while working previously for Westwood One. We knew we had to hit the ground running and a big reason we were prepared the way we were on day #1 was because we had Eric leading the way.”

Olivero was not alone in his assessment, Mason felt equally as strong about Spitz: “Eric knew the CBS language and playbook. He anticipates everything well and has learned a lot over the years from Mark. His demeanor and ear for good programming gave Chris and I a lot of confidence that he’d do well. His involvement is a big reason for the network’s success.”

Since being charged with running the network, Spitz is happy and feeling professionally challenged. He invests a lot of his time in supporting the Westwood One sales team, and tries to provide the same for many of the network’s programs. One host who has taken notice of the way Spitz manages, and appreciates it, is Damon Amendolara, who hosts “The D.A Show” Monday-Friday from 6p-10p ET.

“Eric is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, and working with him was one of the biggest reasons I jumped at the opportunity to come here” said D.A. “He trusts me, but reigns me in when I need it. I look at the show as four-hours of an artist’s pad. I figure out what to draw, then I get to decide how to color it. There are rules. I can’t paint on the walls. I can’t draw on the table. It’s got to be in good taste. We touch base regularly, and I bounce ideas off him. He’ll let me know when we need to reel it in, but he doesn’t micromanage me in any way.”

Creating Synergy Between Local Stations and The Network:

While Eric may guide the ship, that doesn’t mean his mentor Mark Chernoff isn’t involved or accessible. Chernoff’s office is within walking distance for Spitz, and often the two men will collaborate on opportunities to bring the local and national brands together.

“We see some of the benefits come into play with the way the CBS Sports Minute’s are incorporated into our local brands” said Chernoff. “We’ve also had some of our network talent like Doug Gottlieb and Gregg Giannotti fill in on shows on WFAN, and some of our markets pick up the national programming during evenings, overnights, and weekends which is nice.”

PD-ChernoffHe sites one specific example of how the two platforms have come together to create programming that is beneficial to all involved.

“Some people may have noticed that we’re creating more specialized content and carrying it on many of our local stations. For example, Taz is providing a WrestleMania post-show edition of his show on Sunday night April 3rd and WFAN, 670 The Score, The Sports Hub, The Fan in D.C and a number of our other local sports stations are picking it up. We give them the option to do that. They don’t have to take it if they don’t think it fits their radio station, but when they do, it’s because they believe the quality is good and provides a benefit to their listeners.”

Critics point out that the network may have hurt its own growth by not being forceful enough with airing the network’s key programs on the company’s own local stations. However, if you look at the success of brands like WFAN, 98.7 The Sports Hub, WIP, 670 The Score, etc. you can understand why CBS has no plans to change that strategy. It doesn’t make much sense to damage one part of the company’s business, for the benefit of another.

Oliviero says that it’s all a part of the company’s operational strategy: “The vision was to create two channels of programming – the best in local sports radio programming, and the best in national sports programming.  The consistency we’ve had is something I’m proud of. I believe we’ve served the CBS brand well, and delivered for many of our affiliates, and in building this network, we’ve remained committed to our local strategy too which is vital to our business success.”

Adding High Profile Talent: 

As great as the synergy might be, a national product won’t have success without A+ talent. Most in the industry would agree that Jim Rome fits that description. Adding his name to the CBS marquee gave instant credibility to the brand, and allowed the company to enter into some markets that it may have otherwise needed more time to clear.

Spitz talked about the importance of landing an established talent like Rome: “There’s no doubt that Jim’s addition brought instant credibility and awareness to our product. It helped us gain entry into some big markets to establish our legitimacy.”

Chernoff said that the relationship with CBS television helped create that possibility. When the opportunity was presented by TV executives, everyone involved on the radio end agreed that it was a no-brainer. To launch a national product with Rome serving as the face of it was exactly what CBS needed to plant its flag in the ground.

rome2Since venturing into the jungle, CBS executives couldn’t be more pleased. Spitz explained why: “The one great benefit of working with Jim is that he’s a professional who you can count on to deliver a great program. I don’t need to babysit the show. It’s one of those programs that’s almost like a plug and play because you know it’s going to be good. That allows me to be able to focus my attention in a few other areas that are more pressing to growing the business. If I have feedback or a suggestion he’s open to it and he’s great with our clients too.”

While Rome possessed the largest profile, the remainder of the network’s lineup at launch time was impressive.

In mornings, the original show featured local radio/television personality Brandon Tierney, former NY Giants running back Tiki Barber, and former ESPN Anchor Dana Jacobsen. Middays belonged to nationally recognized author and columnist John Feinstein who hosted a show which served as a lead in for Rome. Completing the M-F 6a-7p picture in afternoons was former ESPN Radio/TV personality/analyst and former Oklahoma State basketball player Doug Gottlieb.

During the evenings, the network featured former ESPN Radio host Chris Moore and CBS College Football Analyst Brian Jones, former local radio and SiriusXM personality Scott Ferrall, and local radio personality Damon Amendolara. A slew of other well established local and national radio personalities rounded out the network’s weekend coverage.

Developing a Different Sound and Strategy:

After getting the lineup in place, the next focus was to establish the network’s identity. From a listening standpoint, there are a few things that CBS does differently than their competitors. If you’ve heard a CBS local sports radio station before, then you should notice the similarities with the network’s jingles and voice talent. Each are distinct and present an alternative sound to what ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio deliver.

Another noticeable difference, is the network’s focus and commitment to taking calls. Spitz said the decision was a strategic one, and one he’s glad they made.

CBSSN“We felt that taking calls on a national level would have appeal, and differentiate us from the ESPN’s and FOX’s of the world,” said Spitz. “It’s still important for producers to screen them well, and the hosts to use them properly, but sports stories that are hits are going to draw a reaction everywhere and we encourage our talent to include the audience in their conversations.”

By employing that approach, it’s allowed the network’s hosts to further develop their relationship with listeners, especially in markets where they may not have been previously familiar. Sports radio fans may know Rome therefore it may not be as valuable to him, but for talent like Amendolara who are growing their profile, the ability to connect verbally with the audience and develop a bond has tremendous value.

“The audience is my top priority,” said D.A. “On my show, we have states like Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that are really interactive. Cities like Baltimore, Green Bay, Seattle and Atlanta have been amazing for calls, and social media interaction. So many people can listen to the show via our 170+ show affiliates, or our live stream, or the app. It’s an amazing new world in consumption.”

Making Lineup Adjustments:

Despite the buzz and two years of on-air stability, Spitz, Chernoff, and Oliviero reached a crossroads where they felt some adjustments had to be made to take bigger steps forward. It’s sort of like buying a new home. You can love everything about it, but at some point, the walls get painted a different color, a rug gets placed over the hardwood floors, and the furniture gets moved around from one side of the room to the other to give the home a different look.

Luckily for CBS, some of the answers were already inside the company.

giojonesGregg Giannotti was brought in from The Fan in Pittsburgh, and paired with Brian Jones from the evening program, to host mornings nationally. With “Gio and Jones” in place as the network’s new morning show, “Tiki and Tierney” shifted to middays. The moves left Dana Jacobsen and John Feinstein on the outside looking in (they were given other roles in the company).

The network also made the decision to take Amendolara off of overnights and put him on at 6pm, replacing his overnight slot with Amy Lawrence. That left Chris Moore without a five nights per week opportunity (he still fills in on WFAN).

“We tried some things early on with the lineup and some worked and a few didn’t,” said Spitz. “We’ve since adjusted and think they’re well positioned now”.

Such moves can rattle the psyche of a sports radio personality, but for Brandon Tierney, he tried to find the positive in the situation.

CBS-BTTiki“If I’m being honest, our style is probably better suited for this timeslot than it was in mornings. Tiki and I have very good on-air chemistry, and we understand what we’re looking to accomplish individually and collectively. I enjoy working with him, and think that the audience can tell that. The switch turned out to be a big positive for us.”

Although the afternoon show didn’t feature a hosting change, it did make a location adjustment. Doug Gottlieb originally signed on to host his program from California, but as the relationship grew with television and radio, it became clear that a move back to the east coast was necessary.

During a recent visit to San Francisco, Gottlieb explained to me how the situation came about, and what the initial challenges were. “When they asked me to move back, at first I was reluctant. But, once I had time to think about it, I realized it made the most sense.”

dougHe also pointed out that there was one other hurdle still left to clear.

“The only issue we had was that I was going to do the radio show from another studio, not inside the same building with everyone at the CBS Sports Radio Network. The challenge with that is that you feel removed from what’s happening with the company, and you don’t get an opportunity to connect with your bosses much. I asked them, if I moved back could I do the show from the same building that way there’d be better synergy and allow us to further develop our relationship, and they were receptive to it and I think it’s worked out well for all of us”.

If anyone knows what it’s like to make adjustments on a national stage, it’s Bruce Gilbert, Cumulus’ Senior Vice President of Sports. Having led ESPN during a time when Gottlieb, Erik Kuselias, John Seibel and Freddie Coleman were added to the weekday lineup, and Colin Cowherd replaced Tony Kornheiser, Gilbert now has an interesting position of managing Cumulus’ local sports properties, and Westwood One sports, while also working with CBS.

“Whenever you start something new, you begin with a plan and find out at some point that the plan needs tweaking,” said Gilbert. You try to listen to your affiliates and partners and make the necessary adjustments that you believe will bring your brand larger success. CBS came out of the gate with a lot of star talent, and the creation of the CBS Sports Minute was smart and a huge success because it allowed the brand to gain clearance on a lot of powerful local sports radio brands. They’ve since shown an ability to adapt and the internal feeling is very positive because the network has continued getting better.”

Major Market Clearance Issues:

But despite making moves to the lineup that many consider positive, the one challenge that remains is the ability to gain clearance for the network’s key weekday programs in major markets. On the affiliate sheet it may show that the network clears a number of bigger major market brands, but most are picking up the CBS Sports Minute, nights/weekend programming, or the content is being featured on secondary signals in the local market.

beast980Of the network’s four core weekday shows (M-F 6a-7p), Rome has received the best major market clearance. That was to be expected. However, his show was dealt a blow recently when The Beast 980 in Los Angeles was sold, and its format flipped. The sale caused the show to lose its largest market affiliate. Luckily for Rome, his show is offered on the Mighty 1090 in San Diego, which has a big enough signal to penetrate the L.A area.

The network also hasn’t found a home yet on the New York City airwaves, even though CBS runs the operation out of the concrete jungle, and provides two signals of support for local powerhouse WFAN. CBS executives point out that the network can be heard on HD2, and an affiliation was formed with WFAS in Westchester (which reaches certain parts of the big apple), but while those are indeed options for the audience, they’re not seen the same way by local radio listeners. The one major benefit the network receives in New York, is when WFAN airs the CBS Sports Minute, and picks up select programming.

chernoffMark Chernoff acknowledges that there’s more work to be done but there are other factors beyond their control: “Sure we’d like to have more major market clearance, and we knew the Los Angeles situation was possible because the radio station had been up for sale for quite some time. But, we can’t let ourselves worry about which cities take us, and which ones don’t. We try to put out a great product and make sure our stations know what’s available to take advantage of.”

He continued “We have to remind people that the programming can be heard on our app, website, and on our HD2 channels. In New York for example, the network comes in very clear on HD2. I listen to it everyday. It’s not just about local signals anymore.”

Spitz, Oliviero, and Chernoff plan to continue analyzing situations to help the network gain entry into larger areas, but they won’t do it at the expense of their local stations. This is why the focus on digital can’t be understated. With listeners flocking to tablets, mobile devices, and desktops to listen, it’s easy to forget how vital it is to be active and effective in the digital audio space. While it may not satisfy the appetite of radio industry insiders who want to see the network’s programming available in larger cities on bigger sticks, if it leads to larger digital numbers, and a stronger interest from listeners in major market cities where the programming isn’t available, I doubt CBS will worry much about industry opinions.

Understanding How National Success Is Measured:

It’s become the norm inside radio circles to knock a network for not receiving enough major market clearance, and to highlight how national programming doesn’t compare in the ratings to local shows. But, what’s misunderstood in the industry is how a national network’s success is measured.

Bruce Gilbert offers his perspective. “There are no two networks where the answer is alike. At ESPN, protecting the brand was the top priority. If an affiliate wasn’t going to present the product the way we felt it needed to be presented, we’d pass on working with them. The brand integrity was too important to the company.”

gilbertHe adds, “At CBS, there’s a larger focus placed on generating revenue. Here we have access to some of the best rated local sports radio stations in America through our partnership with CBS, and when you combine that with Westwood One’s distribution, sales team, and play by play, it creates an impressive package for advertisers. The reason it works, is because of the strength of the CBS brand, and the muscle of the WW1 sales team.”

Former CBS CEO Dan Mason says that each business must run on its own and have the right people in place. “In local, sales are a straight rifle shot. In network, sales come in a basket. Both have unique opportunities for clients but are two very different concepts. The key is to have people in place who understand how to utilize both and grow each business without taking away from the other.”

For Chris Oliviero, it’s a matter of gaining repeat business, and seeing growth in the on-air product. “The number of affiliates is important but so is gaining consistency with local stations,” he said. “When an affiliate stays with you for a long period of time, that says that they’ve had other options available, but they believe in your product and enjoy doing business with you.”

Oliviero adds “the second part that’s important is the satisfaction of our sponsors. Are they getting results? Since we launched nationally, our sponsors have grown every year. We’ve seen our platform distribution expanding, and our editorial judgment and collection of radio talent has been exceptional. All of those things factor into the way we analyze the growth of our network.”

Three Things That Deserve To Be Acknowledged:

From where I sit, the CBS Sports Radio Network deserves credit for a few specific things that it often doesn’t receive recognition for.

First, the network isn’t made up of a collection of New Yorkers lacking a national perspective. I have heard that comment numerous times since the network launched, and while there are certainly a fair amount of east coast people on the network, (many with New York roots), that shouldn’t discount the fact that they’ve traveled the world and been involved in many different local markets.

BT22For example, Brandon Tierney has hosted in Detroit, San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Damon Amendolara has hosted local shows in Miami, Kansas City, and Boston. Scott Ferrall has worked in New York, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Miami. Amy Lawrence has spent time in Oklahoma City, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. By the way, she happens to be the only female on a national network who hosts her own full time weekday sports talk show.

Need more examples?

Doug Gottlieb has hosted radio shows in Oklahoma City, and Connecticut. Gregg Giannotti has worked in Pittsburgh and New York, and if you look at the network’s weekend lineup, it originates from Cleveland, OH, Atlanta, GA, Houston, TX, Grand Rapids, MI, Hartford, CT, and New York.

To suggest that the network is a New York focused product with personalities lacking a national perspective is simply inaccurate.

What also stands out is CBS’ commitment to building their network with dedicated radio personalities. ESPN has adopted a strategy of utilizing a large number of talent who possess the skills to perform on radio and television. Fox and NBC have done so too, although to a lesser degree. Yahoo Sports Radio would be the closest in comparison to CBS in terms of providing radio-focused on-air hosts.

If you look at CBS’ hosts (weekday and weekends included), they treat radio as their first love. The company believes in using people from their local markets who have the ability to talk sports on a national level, and that approach has helped a number of on-air talent expand their profiles, elevate the image of their radio station’s, and provide a benefit to each of their sales teams.

nickwright4The one downside to that approach is that other national outlets pay attention and when they discover talent, they don’t hesitate to strike. Case in point, Fox Sports this week lured away Sports Radio 610 morning personality Nick Wright. He had been with CBS Houston for close to four years.

But despite those potential challenges, Oliviero says he’s not afraid to lose good people. “We want our people to grow and we’re not going to hide them out of fear that someone out there may recognize their talents and steal them away from us. If they have the talent to do a national show and they reach a point where they can’t go higher with us and someone else swoops in with an opportunity to help them take another step in their career, I applaud them.”

Chris continues, “If we help our people expand their profiles, it not only helps them on a national level, but it helps us on a local level. It tells our listeners and advertisers that they’re connecting with someone who has A+ talent. Networks sometimes look for a name or high profile individual to host their shows, but it takes a certain skillset to host a great radio program. At CBS we focus on providing GREAT radio hosts who can deliver dynamic content and are focused first and foremost on being masters at the radio craft.”

The Progress, The Future, and The Sale:

That leads us to the final part of this column, which I’d like to use to focus on the future. The critics will tell you that the network’s lack of major market clearance needs to be addressed. CBS will respond by reminding their advertisers, listeners, and employees how the network has grown from 150 affiliates in 2012 to 330 in 2016. Call it what you want, but I label that as progress. Whether it’s enough or not, depends on who you ask.

cbsrWhat isn’t disputable though is that CBS is up for grabs. The uncertainty of the future could potentially spell problems for the network, but right now the road is much too foggy to navigate. All we know is that the company is considering its options. Some of the possibilities include selling all or some of their radio stations, trading assets with another media group, or creating an entirely new company and shifting all of CBS’ radio assets over to it.

Regardless of which path they choose, one thing appears set in stone, the current company structure will experience some form of change in 2016.

One network employee who wished to remain anonymous says the potential of the sale has caused concern: “I’m not going to lie, it sucks. CBS has been a great company, and they’ve been a leader in the sports radio business. Not knowing who you’re going to work for is unsettling, but you can’t let it distract you. Hopefully whoever buys the company agrees that the network is on the right track and with some additional support, can help us expand and make it even more successful.”

I’m certainly no Nostradamus, and I’m not privy to the offers CBS has received to sell its radio properties, but if there’s some solace I can provide to those on the inside looking out, it’s to remember that IF the company sells, and another group spends hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase them, it’ll be because they see value in the brand, its people, and each station’s ability to deliver results.

Former CEO Dan Mason said it best, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen for sure, but if a company is going to spend the money to buy the car, then I don’t think they’re going to want to tear out the seats.”

Assuming that the network continues operating under its current arrangement, the big picture questions become:

  • What must be done to reach 400 affiliates?
  • How much revenue can the network generate?
  • When will CBS gain clearance in larger markets?
  • How long will CBS and Cumulus continue their relationship?
  • Does CBS reach a point where they nationally simulcast Boomer & Carton?
  • Is there a path to overtaking ESPN and FOX as the leader in national sports programming?

For Mason, he feels the network’s growth will come down to two factors. “The biggest challenges are to continue growing talent. Who are the next Boomer and Carton’s and Mike Francesa’s on the national level? The distribution coupled with the brand name of CBS is strong, but talent is key. I also think the production is going to need a fresh coat of paint and need to ascend to a higher level.”

Bruce Gilbert sees the network needing to place a stronger emphasis on improving its digital business. “It’s not all about which sticks we’re on. We’ve got to play bigger in the digital arena, especially with podcast creation. I also think we need to explore developing more events and adding play by play which will help the product and the bottom line.”

olivieroWhen a company is providing a content experience aimed at serving the entire country seven days per week, twenty four hours per day, there’s always going to be work to do. That’s the type of challenge that keeps an executive like Chris Oliviero up at night.

“If you combine our local stations and the CBS Sports Radio network, we’re churning out almost 300 hours of local and national content each week. That’s massive. For us to maximize those hours, we need to create quality programming, and that can only be done by continuing to invest in A-level personalities.”

In a business where the first thought is to trim expenses, CBS has stuck to its strategy of creating a national sports radio network, independent of its local brands. That’s to be applauded. It’s rare that companies invest in quality content on two platforms without insisting on one being crammed down the throats of local operators.

Whether that strategy will continue or be adjusted remains to be seen, but after spending the past two months working on this project, I’ve come away with a deeper respect and appreciation for the way CBS runs its business. It’s clear that Eric Spitz, Mark Chernoff, Chris Oliviero, and former CEO Dan Mason share a common belief in the future of this network, and the approach, and adjustments made along the way have served them well in their quest to becoming leaders on the national scene.

Here’s to hoping that four years from now we’re able to analyze additional progress made by the CBS Sports Radio Network, and share the next part of their story.

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