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The 7 Myths of Sports Talk Radio

According to the dictionary, the word myth means an invented story, idea, or concept. No industry makes better use of that word than the radio industry.

We forget sometimes that our actions determine the way we’re judged. Presenting a great speech in a room full of industry colleagues may make you look smarter than you are, and smiling, shaking hands, and nodding in agreement with your corporate bosses may help you keep the peace, but when the smoke clears, and the truth rises to the surface, your results, and relationships can’t be disguised.

I’ve had the benefit of working inside nine different radio stations in seven different cities, and alongside many great people. I’ve also witnessed my fair share of gasbags who preach one thing, but then do another. Whether I’ve agreed with someone’s approach or not, I try to remind myself that there’s a lesson to be learned from every experience, even if we can’t always see it at first.

Since moving into business for myself, I’ve gained the trust of format people all across the country. I’ve gained knowledge of the way different companies, stations, and people operate, and I’ve developed a fondness for some, and a loss of respect for others. My desire to see people succeed is stronger than watching them fail, but when brands and people are mishandled, it’s difficult to standby and watch.

My inspiration to write this piece stems from having a personality that’s very direct, honest, and unapologetic. That approach has helped me gain respect from my peers during my career. It’s also caused a rift with critics, and employees who didn’t row the boat in the same direction.

Not every relationship is a good fit. Would Joe Montana have been the same player if he were on the NY Giants? Would Lawrence Taylor have had the same freedom on defense if he played for the San Francisco 49ers? We’ll never know, but because they landed in situations that took advantage of their talents, and played to their strengths, they turned out alright.

In the radio business, programmers, personalities, and behind the scenes people develop trust or disdain for one another based on the way they view and approach their jobs. Some prefer a hands-on approach. Others want to march to the beat of their own drum and be left alone. It’s for that very reason that the head coach of a radio station must be capable of managing multiple personalities, and having a different message and plan of attack for every situation.

Today, I’m going to focus on seven areas of our business which aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. I could probably extend this list to ten or twenty but I’m not looking to take up eight hours of your time.

I’ve formed my opinions based on personal experience, and conversations with countless members of the industry. This doesn’t mean that certain people, and companies don’t set a good example, but more of us need to take charge to improve ourselves, and our situations. When that occurs, it’s amazing how much better we feel about the work we’re involved in.

Do As I Say Not As I Do

It’s one thing to talk about the importance of being active, creative, and well positioned for digital and social media success. It’s another thing to live it, breathe it, feel it, and be great at it.

How many times do you read one of the industry trades, and stumble upon a quote from a top market program director, or a well respected corporate executive touching on the growth in the digital space and how radio has to be a strong player in it? I see it every week.

When you read what’s offered in print, it looks really good. It makes you think that there’s a vision for the individual’s radio station or company in the digital, and social space. But then reality sets in. You go to find that person on social media to let them know you enjoyed their commentary, only to discover that they don’t have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat account.

You tell yourself “maybe they dislike interacting with the public”. But since they’re responsible for managing a business, you’re sure to find them on LinkedIn. After all, that’s where business people connect.

Once again you learn, that the only proof of their existence is through an email address.

Quickly you flashback to that speech they gave where they raved about having a digital, and social media strategy, and why talent must be accessible everywhere. You’ve heard all of the clever lines about the future of revenue generation, and how the industry will be in big trouble if it doesn’t perform strongly across multiple platforms, so then why are these leaders invisible in the locations they say are most important?

Believe it or not, there are a LOT of executives who can provide a good soundbyte or captivating quote to discuss digital, and social media growth and success, but just because they talk about it, doesn’t mean they are about it. I’m not going to provide names but take a look sometime and ask yourself how it’s possible that business leaders who oversee the digital efforts for some of the industry’s leading brands can be absent in the space.

In my opinion, there’s no excuse as a leader for not having a presence in at least one of these areas. If I’m working for you, and you’re going to sing me a song about the power of digital, and social media activity, and challenge me to provide more content, and interaction for the audience, then I’m going to look in your direction trusting that you’re going to lead by example. If I can’t find you on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, or Snapchat, consider our conversation over until you understand the importance yourself.

We Value The Audience’s Time

People’s content choices are growing. Distractions are increasing rapidly. Developing great content, and being a unique personality matters, but it isn’t quite enough if the listening experience is consistently interrupted. Yet radio continues to turn a blind eye to the problem.

Whether you read it on an industry related website, or hear it in person at a radio conference, reducing inventory is necessary. Media groups recognize that digital listening is growing because it provides a strong listener benefit. Meanwhile, over the air broadcasts focus on pleasing the advertiser at the expense of the audience.

To combat these challenges, some TV (Saturday Night Live) and Radio (107.7 The End) brands have begun making adjustments. It’s clear that on-demand listening and viewing is rising, and the likelihood of it slowing down is minimal. The days of expecting people to sit through seven and eight minute commercial breaks are long gone.

But once again, radio does what it does best, and talks a big game without taking proper action.

I’d love for someone to explain how our business can talk about valuing the audience’s time, delivering a better content experience, and wanting to include people in the conversation, yet then jam twenty five minutes of commercials on to the airwaves during the course of a single hour. It’s like telling someone you care about their health, and then providing them with something that’s sure to make them ill.

On the day of the NFL Draft, one which you’d expect interest to increase on sports radio, five different stations in Top 30 markets rolled out twenty to twenty five minutes of commercials during a single hour. One actually took up thirty minutes when you include commercials, sales features (stock, traffic, weather), and sports updates. And it happened during drive time!

The eight stations I observed were owned by four different broadcast companies. CBS and Cumulus’ brands were the worst offenders. ESPN stations provided the best balance. iHeart was in the middle.

If we’re going to suck up oxygen by telling the industry that we value the time our audience spends with our brands, then we’ve got to eliminate the pitfalls that hurt our radio stations. Do you really think your ratings are going to continue to surge when you overload listeners with inventory? Ask yourself, “would I sit through an eight minute commercial break, just to hear a talk show host discuss a subject I like”? I don’t care how talented the host is, you’d be gone in an instant.

Don’t get me wrong, I know our radio stations need to make money. I want to see every brand in this format produce positive results. But I also know that cramming twenty to thirty minutes of commercials into a single hour is a recipe for disaster.

You may skate by for now if you have weak local competition. But, when your main competitor becomes every single company around the world that produces audio, not just another local radio station, then what are you going to do?

Don’t make the mistake that so many radio stations do – reacting after the storm hits, instead of before it. The longer you brush aside your audience, the more susceptible you are to being replaced. I bet you’ll adjust then. Unfortunately, your audience may not be around to notice.

We Must Bury The Competition

Let’s be honest for a minute, the sports radio format features some of the most egotistical and insecure people in the world. Don’t even shake your head, and bitch at me for pointing it out because you know it’s true.

How many times inside the hallways of your radio station do you hear two on-air talents shouting at one another because they have a difference of opinion over who should’ve taken the game winning shot in last night’s game? It’s not possible that each person could have a valid point because after all, each person has to be right. When you start bringing ratings performances, marketing campaigns, regular guest appearances, and employee contracts into the equation it becomes even worse.

While many in this line of work are ultra-competitive, and eager to be the best at what they do, there’s a misconception when it comes to measuring success.

If a host finishes 3rd in the ratings, and their competition comes in 1st, they see it as a failed month. It doesn’t matter that the company’s revenue increased by 10% because of their performance, or that they generated a quarterly ratings bonus, they simply see their show ranked behind another brand, and it lowers their morale.

This is one of the dumbest parts of our entire business.

Do you think Morton’s Steakhouse loses sleep over whether or not they outsell Ruth’s Chris? If they satisfy customers, make a profit, and enjoy cooking and serving great food, that’s success.

For some reason, sports radio stations can’t feel good unless they see their own name in lights. Is it really better for the industry if only one sports station existed in each town? If you put the competitor out of business, would that make you feel good? If you answered yes, how would you feel when your contract comes up, and there’s nobody else available to bid on your services? Now are you feeling good about your competitor closing its doors?

We should all be driven to want to be the best. If you don’t have that internal desire to kick ass, take names, and force everyone to take notice, then you might want to re-evaluate if this is the right business for you. But, we should also be wise enough to understand that success depends on more than just doing a good show.

If you design a good game plan, execute it well, connect with listeners, earn respect and admiration from your peers and partners, and help your employer turn a profit, that is the true reflection of success. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want more, but having your competitor’s blood on your hands shouldn’t be the only way you identify whether or not you’ve been effective.

Seeking An Opportunity

Waiting for developments to unfold before applying for a job is a mistake. The second I post a story on this website highlighting a change in a particular market, I’m hit with numerous emails asking “do you know anything about the opening?”

Here’s the secret, most of the time, that job has either been filled, or is in the process of being filled before the news trickles out. If you wait until a posting goes up to find your next opportunity, you’re going to be sitting on the beach for a while.

When a professional sports team signs a free agent on the day he becomes available, how do you think it happens? Conversations take place between the front office, agents, and former teammates, and the organization gathers its information to decide if they want to prepare an offer once they’re legally able to do so. Once the player “officially” becomes available, a deal is presented which usually meets the requirements that everyone has previously discussed. The only thing left to do is sign the contract and hold the press conference.

Can you imagine if the team waited until free agency started to begin doing their homework? They’d miss out on every single elite talent.

In radio it’s no different. As a former programmer, I was constantly evaluating talent, and having conversations. Do you think I’m going to put the future of my radio station in jeopardy by waiting until a problem occurs to address it? Not a chance.

Instead, I frequently listened to people all across the country, and asked around to get an idea of what I could expect if I brought someone on to my team. I also followed and interacted with the candidate on social media. I wasn’t going to standby and wait for a resume, demo, and programming philosophy to be sent over to my employer. I did my own research so when it was time to make a decision, I was fully prepared.

Are there times when a position opens up and a radio station makes a call based on the applicants it receives? Yes. In most cases those are behind the scenes positions, or lesser on-air roles. If an unexpected situation arises, that’s when a station may be forced to post a job and go through a lengthy process to fill an important vacancy. Usually though, the programmer has people on their radar before a problem pops up, and they’re deep into the process before the opening becomes public news.

This is why networking on a regular basis matters. Don’t wait until a situation arises to introduce yourself to someone. Do it every single day. The more ‘friends’ you have, and the more information you gain, the less likely you are to be on the outside looking in.

Don’t I Need An Agent?

I’m asked on a weekly basis to represent people or direct them to a group who can make a difference. If I enjoyed legal verbiage and arguing with attorneys I could probably make a great living doing it. But it’s one of my least favorite parts of the media business.

What’s important to understand is that an agent isn’t going to necessarily dive into your job search with the same relentless passion that you do. Most of the time they rely on the leads you send them or input they receive from business associates. Rarely are they burning up their phones or pounding the pavement to make sure you gain employment.

Many in the radio business assume that by having an agent it makes you sexier to a company. They believe that it’s going to put them in a position to find opportunities that others may not. As if there’s this secret paradise that exists and only media agents know about it. Simply put, that’s not accurate.

If you’re programming a radio station, you prefer to deal with as few people as possible. Especially when making a hiring decision. When an agent enters the equation it can complicate the process. If you’re able to deal directly with the employee or the person you’re looking to hire, that’s ideal. Once you tip your hand to others on the outside, it can spread like wildfire.

However, if you look at it from the other point of view, agents are valuable for the employee. The good ones have great relationships with various high ranking executives, and they’re there to serve their clients. They understand the challenges that face the radio station and work with the employer to strike a deal that’s fair for all parties.

The reason why companies prefer to negotiate directly with talent is because it gives them an advantage in cutting a deal which better serves their own interest. There’s nothing wrong with that. They are after all in the radio ‘business’. They’ll tug on your heartstrings, suggest they’re not doing well enough financially to afford more, and possibly even threaten to eliminate your position and hire someone else if you don’t accept their deal.

All that means is that they either don’t value you, or there’s more money available and they’d prefer not to spend it.

A lot of talent go into negotiations thinking they know the business. Assumptions are made about what a company will spend, and when the final deal is done they head home smiling and believing they’ve emerged victorious. What they don’t know is what level the company was willing to go to if pushed hard enough to present a better offer.

When representation is utilized, competition usually enters the equation. That’s because the agent’s job is to create demand for your services. Without demand, you can’t command a bigger increase. If you’re going to pay an agent to represent you, their performance has to be measured by what they deliver that you couldn’t have generated yourself.

More times than not, agents do deliver a better contract for the individual. They also shield the employee from negativity which helps keep the relationship between employee and employer on solid ground. If the individual were to sit in the room and endure what an agent does on their behalf, it would stain the relationship permanently.

Programming people assume that their past performances will be remembered when their contracts expire. They trust the company to ‘do the right thing’ to make sure the relationship continues. But business has a way of turning situations ugly.

If you’re an established talent with a good track record, performing in a top market, and you’re seeking to further your income or expand your brand, hiring an agent can be beneficial for your career. They have to believe that you’ve got the ability to ascend to a higher level because without it, they can’t maximize your earning potential.

But, if you’re at the early stages of your career, or trying to gain your first full-time opportunity, I’d suggest holding off. Yes there are some circumstances that may be beneficial. Especially if you know an agent in your city that has an established relationship with the company you wish to work for. But nobody will pursue a job more aggressively than you, and developing relationships is free. Put your time and focus into becoming great at your craft, and when you reach the next level, then you can explore adding someone to help you elevate your career.

Talent Is The Most Important Attribute

Sports talk radio stations that offer live and local programming sink and swim based on the talent they put on the air. If a great performer occupies the airwaves for 3-4 hours per day, the brand stands a good chance at developing an audience and generating ratings. But, no matter how talented a host might be, certain programmers place higher value in other areas.

For example, one PD may focus on adding people who are coachable, likeable, and a positive influence inside their building, rather than a more talented person who’s a larger pain in the ass. Another programmer may prefer a talent who’s deeply invested in working with the sales team, and views the existence of their show as a 3-4 hour platform to sell products. The next PD may seek a personality who can host a radio show, write a column, and produce video content, and reject another who’s special in one area, but unable to excel at all three.

It’s important to remember that no two programmers are alike, and each market, radio company, and situation is different. I know talents across this nation who have delivered big ratings and revenue for their radio stations, only to be disrespected, devalued, and ignored when it was time to discuss a new contract. Others have had to beg, plead, and threaten to leave for competitors to finally get their due. What may seem like a no-brainer decision to the on-air performer, isn’t always seen the same way by the PD or Market Manager.

You may believe that achieving ratings success and doing a quality show is what matters most, but everything ultimately comes down to internal relationships. You can produce big numbers and be at war with your boss, and as soon as they get their chance, they’re tossing you to the side of the road. Or you can struggle to deliver ratings, but click perfectly with management, and it soon leads to a contract extension. The continuation of a business relationship includes a number of factors, many of which have zero to do with your ability.

The Programmer Is Invested In Your Show

I’m not sure if it’s a matter of aging, or being removed from the daily rigors of running a radio station, but I find myself scratching my head often when I talk to people in the format about the way they’re supported by their Program Directors. There are a lot of really good ones out there, and they deserve respect, and praise for the great jobs they do. Unfortunately though, there are others who drift away from their brands, and care more about ‘being in charge’ than making a difference.

Maybe I missed the memo, but I thought the PD position required working with talent, scouting, creating content, studying programming trends, maximizing ratings, collaborating with teams, connecting with an audience, and setting a tone for how the radio station will operate. The vision is supposed to be supplied and enforced by the brand leader.

Now, I hear story after story about bosses who believe the job revolves around playing golf with clients, eating lunch with play by play partners, creating powerpoint presentations for sales teams, and spending time in ‘top of the food chain’ meetings. Those may be things you do from time to time to further local relationships, but they shouldn’t be placed ahead of working with your talent and talk shows.

If the way a programmer is measured is by the ratings performance of the radio station, and the connection they have with the programming team, how is it possible to have either one be effective long-term if there’s an obvious disconnect?

There are people working in this industry today who seek outside advice to improve, because they don’t get it from their superiors. That they value their development enough to pay for others to help them should tell you how much they love what they do. The only problem is that the one person they care to impress most, and gain a future opportunity from, is the one individual who’s the least invested in their career success. That’s what often puts two people on the fast track to divorce.

If a programmer has multiple responsibilities, and can’t listen to your entire program each day that has to be understood. I’ve always told talent, “I’m going to listen like a listener does”. That means that one day I’ll give you 30-60 minutes of my time, and share feedback based on what I heard. On other days I might consume the entire show, and drop by the office afterwards for an impromptu meeting. Then there are different days when another project requires my time, and prevents me from sampling any of the show.

If a host/show feels that you care, and pay attention to the product, they’ll understand when you can’t be available. They’ll go through a wall to make sure your vision for the brand comes to life because they know you want to help them be great.

But, if you rarely take the time to provide direction, ideas, criticisms, and praise, don’t be surprised when they stop asking, and start seeking it from someone else. Just hope that the party they reach out to isn’t the one which signs your paycheck.

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