“Stick to Sports”, “This is supposed to be a sports station”, “I don’t care what you think about anything other than sports”. If you’ve worked in this industry long enough and struck a chord with an audience, you’ve likely heard these complaints. The second your content explores new territory, critics are waiting to stone you to death for committing the cardinal sin of discussing something other than the almighty world of sports.
And that’s where things get sticky.
On one hand, you have your program director and upper management telling you “be yourself, share your life on the radio, have an opinion on everything you talk about, take risks and be fearless”. When you mention your disdain for local traffic, nobody complains. If you bring up your favorite movies or meals, many engage with you via text, tweets or Facebook. Spend time discussing music, issues with your co-workers, or problems with your significant other, and many laugh and take no offense. But the second you dive into a conversation about race, religion or politics, you’re being given the stink eye by your audience and select members of your company.
So what are you supposed to do?
Well, you could stick to sports and brand yourself that way. It is after all why your audience tuned into your station in the first place. If you’re insightful, opinionated and entertaining, and interested in your local teams and players, people will listen.
But then there’s the counterpoint to that argument – most sports stations don’t pop huge numbers by focusing solely on sports. The ones that do usually win because they expand their conversations into other areas or they have a play by play partnership pouring in huge cume.
We’re living in a very different time. Sports talk has changed dramatically over the past decade. Today we are much more fascinated by what happens outside the lines rather than what unfolds inside of them. It’s why I preach the importance of finding the drama in the content and having strong opinions to go with it.
Is that good or bad? That depends on a listener’s taste and each host’s preference. We love the NFL because our teams play once a week. We get invested in the MLB, NBA and NHL playoffs because the result determines whether a team advances or goes home. But when games are played daily for a period of 80-162 games, we become less interested. Unless of course it involves a protest by an athlete, a key injury that could derail a team’s season, a blown call by an official, a locker room altercation, a dustup between a reporter and manager or something else ‘juicy’ that we can sink our teeth into. Then we become vultures feasting on a carcass.
One could make the case that the format doesn’t have enough people on the air who truly love and care about sports. I hear it often “the game was boring”, “there’s only so many things you can say about this team”, “we have a four hour show, no way you can fill that amount of time just talking about sports”. But if you’re hosting a show on a sports station, shouldn’t you have an interest in the number one word associated with your business – sports? You don’t turn on a music station expecting to hear a DJ who doesn’t care about music or a News/Talk station expecting to hear a personality who isn’t interested in politics and news.
Case in point, the New York Giants defeated the Baltimore Ravens 27-23 this past Sunday. In that game, Odell Beckham caught 8 passes for 222 yards and 2 TD’s, including the game winner. Ten years ago, a Monday in New York would have examined Beckham’s big day and focus on whether or not he had become the face of the Giants above Eli Manning, if Big Blue could win a championship with a wide receiver being their best player, how Odell measured up to the league’s best wide receivers, etc.
Instead, the majority of the on-air content I heard centered around his decision to pull his helmet off after the touchdown costing the Giants a key penalty, and whether or not his antics and bizarre behavior could be controlled. Beckham’s stats were spectacular and the win was a needed one for the Giants but the conflict in that topic was much less compelling than Beckham’s on the field behavior. Simply put, the latter angle produced more drama, which is what gets an audience more emotionally invested. That’s why it was the dominant storyline.
In most cases, sports stations target Men 25-54. The average listening age for many of these sports radio stations is between 38-48. Males in that age group need to be hooked by the content or they’re moving on to other things. They have jobs, families, responsibilities, and personal interests, and unless the content stirs their emotions, they’re likely to tune out.
The one subject that they can’t get enough of right now is the upcoming election. Why? It can potentially affect them and their families and we’re drawn to polarizing personalities.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the interest in this race for the white house is at an all-time high. Each debate has delivered a massive audience. So too did the primaries. Social media sharing of content related to the election is consistently at the top of the rankings, and whether you love or hate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, they’re magnets for controversy who we all have opinions on.
If this were four years ago when Romney and Obama were battling, the story would be very different. That race didn’t move us the way this one has. This is a trainwreck of epic proportions which the entire country is stopping by to see, and they’re getting out of their cars too to inspect the damage, ask questions and take photographs.
But what does that have to do with sports talk? The answer, nothing. But it matters greatly to Men 25-54 – your target audience.
And that’s the dilemma facing many brands.
Do you spend time addressing the topic that many of your target audience members are paying attention to? Or do you stick to your core focus even if it costs you in the ratings? Think you won’t be affected? Ask the NFL. Even the most powerful league in professional sports has felt the wrath of this election.
The other part of this that brands have to be conscious of is that the audience is connected to your talent in a much bigger way now than they were 10-20 years ago when individuals were warned to steer clear of certain content. Social media has created that change. Now, your most passionate fans follow your talent on multiple platforms. The second a host shares their beliefs on anything personal or unrelated to sports, it’s going to be remembered, shared, debated, supported, etc.
We can pretend that the airwaves are different than social media, but words and opinions stick. Just ask Donald Trump. If your talent are going to share their views on social media to thousands of your listeners, the audience is going to expect the same over the air. They may even tune in more or less because of it.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about this topic and there is no right or wrong answer because each market, station, and host is different. There will be some personalities on the air who never mention the election and if that’s what makes them comfortable then they should stick to that strategy. Others might spend larger portions of time discussing it and if it’s part of their personality I can easily understand the rationale in doing so. I can make a case for and against discussing the candidates and the current political climate but there are a few things that I believe are important for managers and talent to remember if going down this path:
- Consider who your talent are, what they do best, and how they measure up against your competition. If the station you’re battling isn’t discussing the election or latest news, and your guys can be compelling discussing it, it can be a positive. If sports is what your hosts do best and the political discussion doesn’t interest them or is an area where they’re uncomfortable, stay away from it.
- If you have someone on one of your show’s who’s strongly in favor of Trump or Hillary, make sure you have a counter to them on the same show. Political talk can be very divisive. It’s ok to be true to your core beliefs and stand up for one side but make sure the other side is also represented.
- Understand what’s topical and make it relatable. For example, this Thursday after the final debate, the subject matter is much more topical than this past Monday when nothing major took place in the political world and you had a slew of football and MLB playoff games to discuss. The week prior was different because of the Donald Trump leaked video/audio. What the audience isn’t tuning you in for are your thoughts on each candidate’s position on global warming or how to reduce the budget.
- If you’re instructing your talent throughout the year to share their lives with the audience, you’ve got to trust them with these topics too. You don’t put a UFC fighter in a cage and tell them to fight nicely, and you don’t tell a personality to open up themselves to the audience and have strong opinions on everything they discuss yet limit them when they’re interested in things you may not care for, especially when it’s a topic that they can generate bigger ratings from.
- The main reason the audience comes to you is for an escape from real life issues. Sports provides that. It’s ok to play in the “real life space” but don’t turn your entire show or the majority of your air time over to it. Get your fix, show your audience that you’re aware of what’s happening in the world and well rounded enough to discuss it, but remember what they come to you for first.
- This election is the world’s biggest wave. You’re a surfer living in the water waiting for that one big ride. The next month, it’ll be red hot and potentially beneficial. Once the President is chosen, move on. This is about seizing audience opportunity. Ride the wave, enjoy the benefits, and then get back to doing what you do best.
For those of you who are hosting or programming at a sports station let me leave you with one final piece of advice. Everyone has a job. Some are harder than others. Finding joy in discussing sports and getting paid to do it shouldn’t be problematic. The audience knows there will be times when you venture outside the sports arena. This election is one of those times where it can make business sense to do so. But remember how you formed a connection in the first place. It was through sports. That should be reason enough for you to show up each day with a smile and look forward to doing what you do best.