Wed. Jul 18th, 2018

How a Brand With Promise Missed The Mark In Detroit

The competitor in all of us wants to believe that by working harder and smarter than our competition we’ll gain an edge and ultimately succeed. We tell ourselves that with time, creativity and perseverance, we can gain the audience’s respect, outperform expectations, and give our employers the evidence they need to invest further in the development of our brand and people.

While those beliefs may be pure and the intentions of many may be noble, there are times in the radio business where brands are defeated before they hit the airwaves. Without full support, trust, vision, and patience from your company, you can’t win. The radio station can have talent, desire, a bright programmer, and people with a strong community connection, but none of that matters if your corporate bosses aren’t in it for the long haul.

For the staff of Detroit Sports 105.1 they learned that lesson last week. Greater Media Detroit may have been optimistic when they chose to explore the sports format in August 2013, but their strategy and commitment to unseat market leader 97.1 The Ticket was fractured. As a result, they’ve dropped the format in a great sports city in less than three years.

What makes this particular decision sting even more is that it should never have happened. Greater Media went through these exact same challenges and struggles in Philadelphia and should have learned from those experiences. Unfortunately they didn’t.

I have a personal connection to this story because I was hired to program what is now known as ‘97.5 The Fanatic’ in Philadelphia. Originally the brand was positioned as ‘SportsTalk 950’ and it launched in October 2005 without a Programmer. I was added four and a half months later and when I arrived, it was clear that the brand lacked an identity, talent, and vision.

I remember driving on Broad Street during my first Friday night in town, listening as one of our hosts opened his show with the line “Hey There, Hi There, Ho There”. That seemed so out of sync with the way I heard local people talking. That was followed up by the host announcing a ticket giveaway to see ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ at the Wells Fargo Center. This wasn’t his fault at all. He was just reading the information he had been told to deliver.

When the show hit its first commercial break, promos aired highlighting the brand as the ‘good guys of Philadelphia sports’ and the home for ‘great debate without the hate’. Given that the city had just held a parade where 10,000 people showed up to celebrate the city not winning a championship for more than two decades this once again seemed like the wrong way to reach people.

The brand at that time also relied on national programs to make an impression. We carried Fox Sports Radio in the morning, Tony Bruno’s Sporting News radio show in the midday, and Jim Rome’s Premiere Radio Networks show from Noon to 3. It wasn’t until 3pm when the radio station offered local content. National shows were heavily promoted in the liners, promos, and sports updates, and our attention to detail was so thin that one of our contributors who voiced sports minute’s on the radio station called Jim Rome – ‘Jim Ro-May’. That mistake wound up on the air.

It was a mess and I knew that it was going to take a lot of time and work to undo the damage that had already been done. Making matters worse was the fact that our brand name was the equivalent of white bread. Not Wonder Bread, Home Pride or Country Classic, just plain old white bread.

The station name ‘SportsTalk 950’ lacked buzz. It didn’t set us apart from our competitor. It didn’t sound like a brand name local fans would talk about in a bar or at a game with their friends. It simply screamed “If you don’t like WIP, please check us out”.

Given how emotionally charged Philadelphia sports fans are for their local teams and local sports radio personalities, it probably doesn’t shock you that they didn’t respond favorably to what we offered. The messaging wasn’t in tune with their passions, neither was the majority of our programming, and the strategy was flawed from the start. It wasn’t that the marketplace couldn’t sustain two great sports brands, or that local fans weren’t hungry for more sports talk. They just weren’t going to invest their time in a brand that didn’t meet their needs.

We had some talented people in that building (Joe DeCamara, Jody McDonald, Harry Mayes, Rob Ellis, Brian Seltzer, John Fullam, Paul Blake, Mike McMonagle). Some of them are still a part of the brand today. Where ‘The Fanatic’ now sits versus where it was then is a night and day difference and Matt Nahigian deserves a lot of credit for the job he’s done building the radio station. Equally deserving of praise is John Fullam and the corporate team at Greater Media because they were patient, made adjustments, invested more, and learned from their mistakes.

Which leads me back to Detroit. If the company had these examples to learn from, how did they misread the signs? There were too many similarities between the two stations except in Philadelphia they stuck it out. In Detroit they cut bait. Take a look.

  • Detroit Sports 105.1 bailed on two Programmers (Jason Dixon and Dave Shore) in less than three years. In Philadelphia, myself and Gregg Henson both exited the brand before it had been on the air for three years.
  • The brand name’s in both cities were bland. Detroit Sports 105.1 rang hollow because the radio station didn’t serve enough Detroit sports talk to its audience until two years after launching. SportsTalk 950 went thru the same challenges in Philadelphia.
  • Both stations relied heavily on national sports programming and didn’t make major adjustments until nearly two years after operating in the format.
  • Neither station hit the airwaves with rights to a local professional sports franchise.
  • Each station faced a strong competitor with deep market heritage in a city where local sports conversation is important.

The danger signs may be easy to see to those on the outside but usually there are reasons why things happen. Whether it’s needing to ramp up sales efforts, keeping expenses low so bigger investments can be made to secure local play by play deals or strengthening relationships with network partners. Those things are all part of running a business. Unfortunately, the local audience, advertising community, local teams, other local market personalities, and the radio station’s own staff, don’t take a wait and see approach. They judge the radio station by the way it initially presents itself.

Sean Baligian, who joined Detroit Sports 105.1 to host the midday program in October 2015, and was moved months later into mornings, confirmed to the Detroit Free Press that the issues were seen and felt internally. “Detroiters want Detroit.” said Baligian. “I don’t think the station did a real good job of giving them Detroit from 6a to 6p and certainly not on the weekend. When you think about it, for the 34 months that the station existed, 30 of those months had a national morning show, quite frankly, a New York-based show. I just don’t think that’s a good business model. I think by the time they learned that, it was probably too late.”

There were two advantages that Greater Media Detroit had that the Philadelphia operation didn’t. First, they launched on FM, and secondly, they hit the airwaves in afternoon drive with one of the market’s most popular personalities Drew Lane. Lane may have not been the typical sports talk radio host but he produced solid ratings and brought awareness to the brand. None the less, he wasn’t re-signed two years into the relationship.

Morning host Tom Mazawey told the Detroit Free Press “Drew Lane was our linchpin. We built the station around him, and then they told him, ‘We want you to change your show after 30 years in the business,’ or whatever he’s been at it. We were fourth in the ratings among 25- to 54-year-old males with Drew as our lead. People loved him. Advertisers were lining up to sign up with him. Once they pulled him, that was the last straw.”

Greater Media did make an attempt to land the Lions and Tigers. Those efforts didn’t produce the results that they had hoped for. Had one of those deals been secured, this is probably a different story. In the Detroit Free Press article, Mazawey shared how poorly the Tigers conducted themselves during negotiations with the radio station, and that certainly can make a company question if the effort and commitment to the format are worth it.

It may be frustrating but these things happen in negotiations frequently. I was with 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and we had interest in landing the rights to the Warriors and 49ers but neither situation worked out. Although we were initially disappointed, that didn’t deter us from making investments to further grow the brand. Play by Play certainly offers a lot of cume, marketing and revenue opportunities but it can also be a loss leader. That’s why most sports brands evaluate their business performance M-F 6a-7p.

In the end, Detroit sports radio listeners are left with one less listening option. A number of talented radio people are on the sidelines looking for their next opportunity. And Greater Media is left with a blemish on its record operating the sports format in Detroit.

I don’t believe for a second that two great sports brands can’t produce results or that the same type of spirited competition that exists in Philadelphia can’t be duplicated in Detroit. I just wish Greater Media had learned from their past experiences and been a little more patient.

Instead they chose to cut their losses and move on. I respect their decision to do what’s best for business. We can all point fingers and criticize but we’re not the ones losing millions of dollars annually. If it were your bank account that was shrinking on a regular basis, I’m sure you’d have a very different opinion.

That said, if you’re going to enter this format and have success in it, you have to be willing to commit from the start, take your bumps, and understand that it’s a long term play. Especially in a market where you’re up against a ratings juggernaut like 97.1 The Ticket. Greater Media decided that battle wasn’t worth staying in so now they’ve left the door open for another group to try their luck. That’s something I believe could’ve been prevented had they stayed the course and utilized a different strategy.

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