If you want to watch a group of people freak out, utter the one word that makes them uncomfortable – change! The minute they hear it, overreactions take center stage. If you can navigate your way through the threats, and insults, and avoid reversing course due to public pressure, you can stumble into success and enjoy a wonderful journey.
Take for example last week’s radio news in San Francisco. KNBR came to terms on an agreement with John Lund which will move him from middays with Greg Papa on 95.7 The Game, to afternoons with Tom Tolbert on KNBR once his contract expires in July. Lund is an incredibly talented host who will fit well with Tolbert, but KNBR was atop the ratings without him. One could make the case, “why mess with a good thing if it was already working”?
By adding John to their lineup, they not only put Tom in a stronger position, but they created long-term stability in afternoons with a host who knows how to get best out of his partners. They also added a fresh new voice to their lineup, and pulled someone away from their competitor, who was part of a show which was having ratings success against KNBR. That should give the brand confidence that Lund can be a solid ratings performer alongside Tolbert.
Although the majority of feedback was positive, not everyone was a fan of the move.
The same story took place on the east coast too, where 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland announced they were promoting Anthony Lima to the morning show to join Ken Carman. Having listened to the show a few times during its transition period, it was obvious that Ken and Anthony had good chemistry, a lot in common, and sounded invested in the local sports scene. Once again, most of the feedback was positive, but some still took exception to it.
These type of responses happen in sports radio all the time, and it doesn’t make them right or wrong. If anything, it should serve as motivation to the talent to prove that the new program will be great. When a show can convert critics to fans, that makes the job a lot more fun.
As common as it is in radio to hear listeners complain about changes, it’s even more magnified when it involves television personalities.
Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock have yet to debut their new program “Speak For Yourself” on FS1, but that hasn’t stopped many from reading the show its last rites. Skip Bayless hasn’t even left ESPN yet to join FS1, but his show too has already been written off. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know when it will air or who will be involved, critics who dislike Skip can’t fathom the idea that the program could possibly work. If you think each of those moves have generated a response, just wait until ESPN names Bayless’ replacement. ”
Jamie Horowitz, Fox Sports’ National Networks President who put Colin-Whitlock together, and stole Bayless away from ESPN, has already been labeled incompetent, and the dumbest sports media executive on the planet for attempting to create a sports television formula similar to Fox News, one which he’s already proven to be successful for his former employer.
Does Horowitz’s past success mean that he can stick any two people together, and have them debate topics and enjoy a rapid rise in television ratings? Not at all. But if it’s what he knows and does best, and it’s produced results, and he’s adding people who understand how to execute the vision, why wouldn’t he attempt it again?
Ask yourself this question, if you were Jamie Horowitz, and Fox hired you based on your track record of creating opinion led programming, would you really try to build a network without using your best pitch? That’d be like telling Randy Johnson not to use his fastball just to prove he can win without it. That makes zero sense.
Every single move in the media is going to draw mixed reviews. That comes with the territory when you work in a public business. But what’s important to understand is why brands must freshen up their presentations, introduce new personalities and programming, and avoid overreacting to immediate feedback.
People dislike the unknown. Whether it’s changing schools, jobs, the homes they live in, or even throwing away that one pair of sneakers that they’ve worn for the past few years, saying goodbye to something we’re comfortable with is difficult.
But people also get bored. When they lose interest, it’s hard to reel them back in. You might be the show they’ve grown up with, but if they view you as a part of their past, and irrelevant to their present or future, is that really helping you?
As much as we prefer routine, we also get sick of it. The thought of something new terrifies us, and leaves a pit in our stomachs. It also peaks our curiosity. It’s that suspense that leads us to check out new things, even if our first instincts were to reject them.
Don’t believe me? Turn on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, and take a look at how many politicians have done a full reversal on Donald Trump.
To keep listeners/viewers interested, it’s important to disrupt patterns, and introduce new layers. For decades, people stuck with the same things because it was frowned upon if they attempted to satisfy their own individual tastes. They drove the same cars, kept the same jobs, ate at the same restaurants, and even stayed in the same marriages.
In professional sports, players used to report to the minors, and spend four to five years developing before being called up to perform at the major league level. Today, players like Bryce Harper, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant are rushed into action, and expected to dominate immediately. Although they may have experienced some growing pains along the way, most of them have proven that it’s a different era, and that they can handle the expectations.
On the other hand, one thing that’s drastically different is that there are no longer five to ten year plans in professional sports, let alone the sports media business. We perform in a win-now business, that exists in a “what have you done for me lately” world! You can put your vision on paper, and sell it to corporate bosses behind closed doors, but at some point in time, that strategy will require an adjustment. Everyone preaches patience, and the importance of understanding the big picture, but if progress isn’t experienced within two years, that’s when the finger pointing begins.
One brand which is always under fire is ESPN. When you’re the top dog in the sports media industry that’s to be expected. Critics quickly point out SportsCenter’s declining ratings, and the network’s loss of key talent. What they’re not as fast to point out is how the network still trumps every sports provider for audience size on-air and online, or how the company still employs the largest collection of on-air media talent in the entire sports business. That doesn’t mean they don’t face challenges, but few brands can sustain them the way the mothership has.
Speaking of moves, two big changes were made at the network yesterday. Mike Tirico’s departure to NBC was confirmed, but so were the exits of Ray Lewis, and Cris Carter. Stepping in to fill their voids are Sean McDonough, and Randy Moss. McDonough assumes Tirico’s spot in the MNF booth, and Moss is expected to take over for Carter, and/or Lewis.
If you’ve paid attention over the years, ESPN is known for giving its NFL programming a fresh coat of paint every few years. They do this to keep people interested in the programming.
We can debate which talents were great, and which ones weren’t, but shows like “NFL Countdown” have featured Steve Young, Michael Irvin, Jim Kelly, Bill Parcells, Rush Limbaugh, Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter, and Mike Ditka. Each of those men have had stellar careers and proven themselves worthy as analysts but that hasn’t stopped the network from changing the cast. They enter the 2016 season with a new cast of characters which is expected to include Charles Woodson, Matt Hasselbeck, and Randy Moss.
What that shows the viewer is that ESPN is committed to featuring compelling people, and providing a new reason to check out the show each season. The changes aren’t necessarily a reflection of the previous talent not doing something right, as much as they are about keeping things fresh, and offering players who are recently removed, but still connected to the game. I myself can appreciate what some of those former analysts brought to the table, but I’ll definitely tune in to see what Moss, Woodson, and Hasselbeck have to offer.
Think about your favorite television sitcoms or series. They usually run for three or four months, and include a variety of characters and different storylines, leading up to a season finale ends which ends with a twist, and leaves you in suspense wanting more. When the show returns a few months later, it has a new feel and approach. That’s done to help the program avoid becoming stale, and remain top of mind. If new elements aren’t introduced to draw people back in and keep them excited, ratings may decline, and the show could be cancelled.
In sports radio though, there is no off-season, so I’m going to use the WWE as a comparison since they deal with the same challenge.
This past April, the company’s signature event, WrestleMania 32, was held. It’s a major event which this year drew more than 100,000 fans to AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. Another million plus people in the United States and internationally watched the program on pay per view and the WWE Network.
WrestleMania is supposed to be the show which brings closure to many of the company’s biggest storylines of the year. But after it’s over, a new season begins the following night on Monday Night Raw. In twenty four hours, the company has to close the door on multiple angles, and introduce new characters, storylines, and twists and turns. If they fail on Monday night, the previous night’s momentum loses value.
Now think about that as if it were your radio show. If on Friday you delivered your normal talk show, and on Monday you were due to receive a big boost in listening due to more sampling, what would you do to get people talking, and make them want to tune in again the next day?
From a week to week standpoint it might be difficult to introduce wholesale changes, but it absolutely can be and should be done on a seasonal or annual basis. All that requires is creativity and effective game planning.
Depending on what moves the needle most in your town, maybe it makes sense to introduce new regular guest appointments throughout one of those seasons. Or maybe you create a day where you pair two popular station personalities from two different shows together for an hour in-studio. You can also create roundtable debates, topical features, branded hours, themed road shows, and a number of other programming ideas. It all comes down to what suits your style and your audience’s interests.
Regardless of which path you choose, the goal is to keep people listening, talking, and wanting to come back. Whether it’s an annual makeover, a seasonal adjustment, or a monthly tweak, the more you keep the audience on their toes in suspense, and looking forward to new developments with your show, the better your chances of turning them into long-term fans.
And don’t think that this only applies when you’re trailing in the ratings. The best shows make adjustments when they’re on top. You don’t see professional sports teams standing pat at the trade deadline when they’re in first place and have an opportunity to add someone who can help them win a championship. That same mentality is necessary in keeping your program and/or station fresh.
If your personality, and presentation is strong, and new twists and turns are introduced to keep listeners excited, the audience will buy what you’re selling – even if their immediate reaction is to reject it. But, remember that people will change a car, job, and even a marriage, so if you treat them to a predictable brand of programming, don’t be surprised when they treat you to a sticker that reads “you’ve been replaced”.