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When Teams Gain Influence Over Content

One word that few people respond favorably to is censorship. By definition, the word implies a practice in limiting or removing key information and opinion from an important conversation or story.

If you’ve paid attention to the news cycle since Donald Trump entered the White House, the topic has been a heavy focus for the American people. Many feel the media have positioned Trump unfairly and support his desire to derail the nation’s news outlets. Others believe he’s entered dangerous territory by attempting to block free speech and silence honest reporters who have brought to light questionable actions and decisions that have occurred under his administration.

One of the very freedoms of our country that makes it great is having the ability to speak our minds even if others disagree. The talk radio business itself would be pretty bland if not for the thousands of men and women who grace the airwaves each day expressing their points of view, stirring up conversations, and engaging our minds and giving us different things to consider and take exception with.

But while it may be exciting to be granted access to a microphone and deliver your opinion to thousands of local listeners, there are responsibilities that come with the talk show host position.

My first rule of thumb for any personality who’s performed on one of my previous brands is to never get personal. Once you do, it’s an impossible conversation to recover from. You can criticize on the field performance, off the field behavior, and anything that comes up and is relevant to a franchise’s failures or which paints an individual or organization negatively in the public eye. But there is a fine line between attacking one’s actions and their personal character.

If you work in the sports media or enjoy reading about it, you’ve likely seen the story this week that took place in Sacramento. Sports Radio 1140 KHTK host Damien Barling, who’s part of the station’s midday program “The Lo-Down”, was off the air on Wednesday following a critical commentary against the Sacramento Kings organization after the team traded away its franchise player DeMarcus Cousins. The station opened up Wednesday’s program with a brief response from Barling’s partners Jason Ross and Ken Rudolph before turning the airwaves over to a nationally syndicated show.

The incident occurred on Tuesday during the final hour of Barling’s show and has caused a firestorm in sports media circles. Here were his remarks, which included midday host Jason Ross in the conversation. You can hear them by clicking here.

Barling: That was embarrassing. That was absolutely embarrassing.

Ross: In what way?

Barling: In every single way imaginable. That dude is not fit to be the general manager of a basketball team. This is real life. You just heard a general manager say publicly at a press conference ‘We had a better deal two days ago’. You moron! You can’t say that! ‘Oh why didn’t you wait till Thursday?’ ‘Oh cause we had a better deal two days ago?’

Ross: It was getting worse.

Barling: Are you serious? Bro… I don’t even know what to say. If you’re a Kings fan, you should absolutely be embarrassed by that. That was awful. That was absolutely awful. You cannot do that. You can’t do that. Awful. That’s awful dude. Absolutely incredible.

Barling was upset with the way the Kings front office handled the Cousins trade. The majority of media outlets across the nation have painted the Kings organization as being in over their collective heads, and the KHTK host was echoing what many others thought and felt of the franchise’s top executives.

Except there was one small problem – KHTK is the radio home and play by play partner of the Sacramento Kings.

The Sacramento Bee reached out to KHTK for a comment on the situation and were told “We respect the right of all of our on-air hosts and employees to voice their professional opinions on a range of topics. However, we do not condone malicious personal attacks on or from anyone. Comments of that nature do not reflect the views or sportsmanlike conduct of this station”.

Truth be told, I know program director Kevin Sherrets who the quote was attributed to (even though it was an official statement from the station, not one from Sherrets), and like him a lot. He’s a good guy with good intentions, who wants to help his brand make an impact in the community, and I have no doubt he’s trying to do the best he can to manage a difficult situation. Only he and his market manager Steve Cottingim know how the Kings front office feel about the situation and whether there was or wasn’t a request for more action to be taken against Barling.

But what’s troubling in this situation is the prior track record of KHTK when it’s involved members of its on-air staff speaking out negatively against the Kings. It should be noted that these past issues have taken place under the watch of multiple program directors, so this isn’t a reflection on Sherrets.

Former reporter John Dickinson, who now works for 95.7 The Game in San Francisco said he was pulled off the air multiple times by management after being critical of the team under previous owners the Maloof family.

Former KHTK program director and morning personality Don Geronimo said on Twitter that management operate this way consistently when it involves criticism of the Kings.

KNBR 1050 morning host Drew Hoffar, who previously held numerous stints on the Sacramento sports station said you pay the price if you’re not on board with the way the Kings do business.

Now maybe it’s entirely possible that all three former station employees have bitter feelings towards their former employer, but given the events of the past week, it’s hard to ignore that there might be some truth behind their words.

In analyzing Barling’s commentary, I felt 95% of what he said was fair game. He felt passionately about the subject, there were mixed reviews on the trade, and he had a right to communicate to the audience that he thought the organization failed and embarrassed themselves by acknowledging they had a better offer on the table two days earlier for Cousins.

Where Barling screwed up was when he proceeded to call Vlade Divac a moron. To those on the outside looking in, that may seem small, but when you’re in business with someone, especially in a one-team town, you have to be careful with the way you criticize a key figure of an organization on your airwaves. You can attack Divac’s performance and job qualifications but there’s no need to get personal.

Had Barling said something like “Vlade Divac proved he is not equipped to be the Kings General Manager. You can not publicly admit that you had a better trade offer two days ago. You just can’t. It tells the entire league and your fan base that you didn’t execute your best and right now I have no confidence and am utterly disgusted with the way he handled this situation. This is an embarrassment of epic proportions and makes me question whether or not this team will win in the future with him making important decisions on behalf of this organization“, it’d be very difficult to remove him from the air. The commentary remains strong, but avoids any personal references.

That said, there is another part to this story to take into consideration.

People are human. They make mistakes. They mean well, but sometimes say things the wrong way. I’m a big believer in personal track records and accountability. If an employee is under fire for saying something that ruffled a few feathers, and has been consistently dependable, respectful and responsible, then you often give them the benefit of the doubt.

In this case, Barling had not been removed from the airwaves at any point since joining KHTK last April. He also worked for CBS Sacramento from 2001-2008 which tells me he wouldn’t have been employed for 7 years the first time, and re-hired in a bigger position in 2016 if he didn’t have a decent reputation inside the company.

Ironically, the word Barling used on the air (moron) to describe Divac, is a word that afternoon host Grant Napear has used many times in a colorful way to describe callers who make points he doesn’t agree with. It seems bizarre that the word would be allowed to describe a member of the audience during the course of an entertaining afternoon show, yet be considered inflammatory and worthy of suspension when utilized against the Kings GM after a controversial trade which has the majority of the market confused or angry.

If the only thing in question from this incident was one specific sentence during a passionate commentary, that could have been easily fixed by having a face to face conversation or by demanding an immediate on-air apology to Divac. The station could have even written up Barling rather than having the story call into question their integrity when it pertains to Kings coverage. Most people I’ve heard from feel the station overreacted, and it’s hard to argue with that given the facts we’ve been aware of, but remember that when situations like this take place, there are often other factors we’re not privy to that could have also played a role in the final outcome. Only the people inside of KHTK’s offices know the true story.

As uncomfortable as these incidents are, they’re not foreign to sports radio executives. As a matter of fact, I addressed a similar situation last year when the Detroit Lions foolishly looked to use the power of their play by play rights to force 97.1 The Ticket to drop Mike Valenti. CBS Detroit wisely retained Valenti and let the Lions walk.

Teams are always seeking more control over the way their franchise is discussed and presented to sports radio audiences. It’s up to the programmer and radio station’s market manager to run interference to allow their people to do what they do best. A host’s job is to deliver honest hard hitting opinions in a responsible way, and without influence from any outside forces. If they’re worried about their job security every time they express a strong critical point of view, you’ll never get the full maximum value out of them, and you’ll compromise your brand’s integrity in the eyes of the audience.

It’s fair to question why upper management even allows it to become a conversation in the first place. Sometimes it’s because the revenue and ratings are so large and the brand association is so valuable that a station executive can’t afford a damaged relationship with one of the station’s most important clients. Other times it’s because they fear confrontation and buckle under pressure.

One thing we lose sight of when doing business with teams is that the only thing we truly own and control is the brand itself. A station can still exist and thrive without a play by play partner, even if the brand’s financial ceiling isn’t as high. Once permission is granted to a team to influence a part of your business, they will look to take advantage of it again. Teams don’t ask a programmer or market manager for their input on free agent decisions, the upcoming draft or the starting lineup, and station executives should be willing to protect their product and people, even if it requires a little bit of friction along the way.

Even more bizarre is why these organizations are so sensitive when it comes to the media sharing a negative opinion about them. Do they think the audience isn’t aware when they’re playing poorly or making bad decisions? If they want it to go away there’s a simple solution, win and make smart business decisions. The majority of media members and fans are hoping for the team to do well, but when they don’t, it’d be irresponsible to not be objective and honest about what’s taking place.

It makes me wonder if the next area to be targeted by teams is the social media space. How long until owners and front office executives are pressuring their new partners, Facebook and Twitter, to prevent negative posts about their teams appearing on other people’s timelines? Don’t think for a second that it can’t or won’t be requested.

I’ve flooded your brain by now with enough of my own points of view on the situation, but I wanted to include a few programmers from different parts of the country who also understand the complexities of this situation. Each of these guys work with stations which have strong play by play partnerships, and I hope you find some of their feedback to be helpful. Who knows, you may be using it to guide you through a future challenge inside your place of employment in the future.

  • Joe Zarbano – WEEI
  • John Mamola – WDAE
  • John Hanson – 610 Sports
  • Ryan Hatch – Arizona Sports 98.7FM

If an employee has no prior history of being in trouble with your radio station and they make an error in their on-air commentary, what is the best way to handle it? (Fire them, suspend them, written warning, on-air apology, ignore it, etc.)

Hatch: We’re in a unique position in Phoenix where we are the flagship home of the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Coyotes and Arizona State University football and men’s basketball, so these types of situations really hit home as we work closely with more teams than any other station in the country.

How you handle each situation will be unique and dynamic with so many factors. There’s no rule book, except for one thing – never, ever ignore it. That’s the absolute worst thing you can do.

The biggest thing you must have is clear rules of engagement for the hosts and the teams, communicate them effectively to all parties, and demonstrate it regularly. Every one of our personalities wants our team partners to have great success on the field or court. When teams or players are underperforming and deserve criticism, our motto is “be tough but fair, and never personal”.

Our industry is driven by hosts with strong opinions and it’s imperative that we continue to support them, but I believe there is a right way and a wrong way to deliver those opinions. Name calling, cheap shots and personal attacks just won’t fly. Our hosts know it and our team partners know it. And if we cross that line, which does happen, we own it and correct it. But that approach doesn’t just apply to our team partners, it’s in play in everything we do – listeners, advertisers, etc.

Zarbano: I would say it’s very situational. It depends what was said or done. There are circumstances where a host can have no prior record of misconduct but go on the air one day and say something that is unquestionably worthy of suspension or termination. I think logic serves best and PD’s have to consider all the factors.

Mamola: It depends on the severity of the error. Taking the example in Sacramento, assuming the host had no prior history of being in trouble, an on-air apology for calling the GM a “moron” would have been the first thing on my list, in the very next segment. Having an opinion about what goes on the court is 100% legit, but name calling is weak and uncalled for. However, having the host follow up his apology by explaining the passion he has for the team to do well and be a shining beacon for the city of Sacramento, that rings home with the audience and can be a rallying cry for the listeners as well.

Hanson: Every play by play partner is different. Some comments cut deeper than others, and some may have no issue with unfiltered commentaries. If the intention is to smooth things over with your partner, or an individual within that partnership, then you need to apply what will appease them and be reasonable for you. If the comment is strong enough, and the partner is upset enough, suspension wouldn’t be off the table. But I think most reasonable people in a partnership should be able to move on with a personal apology and an adherence to a higher standard in the going forward.

How much influence does a play by play partner deserve when it applies to the radio station’s on-air commentary and presentation?

Hatch: Obviously we’re business partners and we share in each other’s successes – with audience, fans/listeners and revenue. They deserve to be treated professionally and with respect, just like our listeners and advertising partners. Our content management team has regular conversations with our team partners, so we clearly know where they stand on key issues. It’s about access to their perspective more than any formal influence.

Zarbano: In an ideal world, the play-by-play partner deserves no influence when it applies to the station’s on air commentary. It’s hard to put on entertaining and opinionated radio shows when the hosts are being censored. Your station’s credibility is immediately in jeopardy if an on-air host’s creativity, talent and candor are being restrained. In our new digital world, we know how easy it is for listeners to change the station and consume something else.

It’s also a bad look for the team to require or ask their play-by-play partner to limit the on-air host’s criticism, especially when it’s warranted. All franchises make mistakes (even the Patriots at times) and the best way to handle it in the minds of the fans is to own it and move on. Sensitivity and being defensive is a killer.

Mamola: The program director must establish the playing field with the partners as to the boundaries of what the philosophy behind the commentary is at the beginning. If it’s all about what goes on with the team on the field, fair game. If there is anything outside the actual playing field, that’s where the station (in some cases) should reach out to the partner first to see if they have a comment first before taking things to the air. The more work done in the background when it comes to off the field issues, the stronger the partnership and more comfort you’ll have when you hit the air. You just can’t make it personal.

Hanson: They get no influence. You have the power to decide how important your relationship with the play by play partner is to your brand. Is it worth it to risk the relationship over a two second comment? Or for the need to be completely unfiltered for your audience? Maybe an unfiltered approach is what you think gives you the best chance to win. Or maybe your station has such a strong position in the market that you can afford to do that, knowing the team needs you. But I also understand those that find a healthy relationship with their partner to be vital to the overall long term success of the station, and the need to make sure that relationship stays healthy.

What do you do if the team (one of your most important assets) wants things handled differently than the way you think they should be done? 

Hatch: Discuss it openly and honestly. It’s absolutely critical to have strong relationships with high level executives with your team partners. There are going to be times when things are said on the air that ruffle feathers, and when the interests of the station and the team don’t align. If you’re out in front of it and have good relationships, it makes it a lot easier to navigate the rough waters.

Zarbano: You have a conversation and reason with them so they can also see your side of things. Hopefully at the end of the day, the two parties can come to some sort of understanding. There’s always a deal to be made.

Mamola: You allow the partner the forum for a discussion so their voice be heard. That allows you to hear their feedback, explain your position, and have a productive conversation. However, the PD is the one who directs the programming of the radio station, and more often than not, the PD or the market manager may have to remind the partner of that. The more leg work you do in the beginning with the partner, the easier the relationship is to manage. Always invite the partner to converse with you, and only you, when it comes to programming issues they’d like to discuss.

Hanson: Those issues can be resolved before problems pop up. Have a discussion with your partner to establish where you each see what constitutes “out of bounds”, and come to a consensus. In many cases the differences will be clear between when things are said that are personal and when they’re not. And again, scratch all of that if you choose the unfiltered route. Then I’d just explain to my partner, that unfiltered opinion is what you need to do to win. They can then decide if they want to keep you as a partner at renewal time, and how they’ll treat you in the interim.

What advice can you pass along to other programmers and/or market managers who find themselves in this situation in the future?

Hatch: My advice for all content managers would be to spend time nurturing team relationships and when your hosts do cross whatever boundaries you set, be quick to engage in direct conversation to quickly resolve. And don’t pay more attention and love them up only when they are winning, but be just as present and engaged when the team is struggling.

Zarbano: Any type of censorship of hosts when it comes to professional sports franchises is a killer for the sports talk format. Your hosts can’t effectively do what they do best when they are being restricted because an organization can’t take the heat after making a bad trade. Do whatever you can to avoid this. Your audience is smart and will see right through it.

Mamola: Don’t be afraid to walk in during the break and address any comments immediately. That way you can question/converse about what was said in the moment and get a better more productive outcome following the break for the rest of the show. That also sets the tone for where the program can/cannot go for the remainder of the broadcast. Then whatever follows can be handled with the notion that the comments were addressed immediately.

Hanson: Establish a clear expectation for fair game with all staff before each season. It may change from year to year or it may stay the same. You may have no expectations other than to be completely unfiltered. It takes the guessing out of questioning whether a comment violated the understanding or not.

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