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How Do We Solve Sports Radio’s Diversity Problem?

Having an in-depth conversation about diversity in sports talk radio is difficult. It’s a subject that makes many people uncomfortable and defensive, but it’s one that warrants further inspection.

To recognize the industry needs to do better is the first step. Working to improve it is the next. But progress only happens if the industry’s top decision makers believe it’s a critical issue.

Too often in our business, difficult subjects get addressed publicly, but once the questions stop being asked, it’s back to business as usual. The great Bill Parcells used to say “you are what your record says you are“. Well, if results are how we’re going to judge success and failure on the subject of racial diversity in sports talk radio, then thin-skinned members of the radio industry may want to stop reading, because they’re not going to like the evidence.

Before I continue, let me be candid for a second. I began writing this piece in January and almost decided not to publish it. It isn’t the subject matter I’m afraid to explore. I’ve already gone down this road before.

The reason why I considered keeping this column inside the vault is because our ability as a society to discuss race in a productive manner, especially as it pertains to sports media, has gone backwards in recent years. These days there’s an immediate outcry of racial prejudice whenever someone shares a different opinion or point of view about a particular story involving a high profile white or black personality. Social media for all of its positives, serves as a cesspool of negativity anytime a conversation arises that involves any inference of race.

First, nobody in the sports radio industry has gone on the record to explore this issue the way that I have. I do believe progress needs to be made, and what the business has presented collectively isn’t good enough. Let me make that crystal clear.

But despite pointing out the radio industry’s lack of diverse voices in weekday positions, and regardless of my track record of running brands and working with and hiring numerous minority voices, I’ve also been called out by people who read my website and have no knowledge of my background for ignoring black personalities in other columns I’ve written.

When I wrote the piece “Another 10 Talents You May Not Know But Should” I had a high profile TV personality respond by email adding “No blacks huh? Interesting”. It didn’t matter that the intent of the piece was to highlight people doing quality work in sports radio who didn’t earn a lot of fanfare, or that the people I selected to be featured deserved to be recognized. The simple fact of the matter was that none were black, therefore it was implied that I was ignoring minority voices.

Then in early February, I posted the annual Top 20 of the sports radio format. Over the span of 6 days I showcased who industry executives voted as the format’s top morning, midday, afternoon and national shows. Some of these categories included minority personalities. However, they were once again under represented.

That led to Howard Bryant suggesting that the morning drive airwaves were being controlled by white voices and influenced by white decision makers.

At first I was bothered by the tweet because it led to receiving a few hate emails for sports radio being dominated by white males, as if I created the problem. But after having an opportunity to process things I understood exactly where Howard and some of his supporters were coming from.

As a soon to be forty three year old white male, I don’t enjoy when I hear people criticize those who hold jobs in the industry and assume they have them because they’re white. That in my opinion is irresponsible. It ignores the fact that the employed white individual likely had some degree of talent that appealed to a hiring executive. If they’ve been hired to do a job, and have continued to do it well for an extended period of time, that should be enough validation for the hiring manager.

But it’d also be foolish of me to assume that there’s nothing wrong with a picture that shows every major and mid market local morning show being led by white personalities. This is what African American’s see when they look at a list which includes only two minority hosts, Rob Long in Baltimore and Damon Benning in Omaha.

The story was similar in middays where only 6 minority hosts were part of the nation’s top 40 shows, and in afternoons where 10 minority voices contributed to the top 40 shows in the country. It was more of the same on the national scene, where Stephen A. Smith, Bomani Jones and Tiki Barber were the only African American personalities to be included on the list of the nation’s top 21 programs.

I understand that if you’re a Caucasian male you may not want to hear this. You might even be offended that I’ve raised the issue, but I guarantee that you’d have a very different opinion if you looked at the nation’s top 140 shows and saw only 21 of 271 positions occupied by white personalities.

In order to avoid any confusion, I want to be clear that this article focuses on males and the ethnic composition that exists inside many of the nation’s leading sports radio brands. I will address the challenges facing women in the sports radio industry in a separate column. Although I could combine the two, I have found through previous experiences that messages get lost when you try to tackle too much in the same space, especially sensitive subjects such as this one.

Before I share my findings from this year, I do want to address a few things. The intent of this piece isn’t to suggest to folks on the outside looking in that all executives are against hiring minority voices. That would indicate that every single executive in a hiring position isn’t open minded to changing the look and sound of their brand. I don’t subscribe to that theory at all.

This column also isn’t intended to suggest that influence should be used to force minority individuals into high profile positions. I saw a column a few weeks ago on The Undefeated which took exception with Magic Johnson for not using his influence to make sure a minority candidate received consideration for the Lakers vacant GM position. It was insinuated that by not doing so, he failed to handle his responsibility as an African American executive. Not only do I disagree with that assessment, I feel it creates a further divide rather than progress.

Never mind that Jeanie Buss went to war with her family by firing her brother and GM Mitch Kupchak, but she also gave the keys to the Lakers kingdom to a minority (Magic Johnson) and gave him the freedom to hire the team’s next General Manager. Johnson chose Rob Pelinka (former NBA agent) who had an excellent reputation and relationship with many black players in the league, and great familiarity with the way the Lakers run their business.

Pelinka also had the blessing of another powerful minority (Kobe Bryant), who happened to be the best Lakers player of the past twenty years, and we’ve seen proof of agents (Bob Meyers) making the transition into NBA front offices and helping franchises have success. Magic did not nor should he have had to hire or pursue a minority candidate just to please members of his race. That’s the type of process I would like to see our industry avoid.

But that particular example is not what we’re here to discuss. I brought it to light because I want it to be clear that positions shouldn’t be filled based on a responsibility to pleasing one’s race, but rather in the best interests of the brand, company, and audience which each market serves.

In doing my research for this year’s piece, I focused once again on the weekday lineups of the nation’s Top 20 market sports radio stations and networks. Depending on how you look at it, we’re no better or worse than we were 12 months ago. Usually staying consistent is viewed as a positive, but in this instance, where progress is necessary, I don’t believe that does the trick.

Does this mean that companies and their executives aren’t aware of the problem? Not at all. As a matter of fact, if you flashback to ten years ago, many would say that the industry has made a better effort in adding diverse talent to its airwaves. But to expect sweeping changes or a 50/50 blend inside most brands is unrealistic, especially if a sports radio station is currently achieving success.

It’s also puzzling that minority’s rarely occupy management positions. There’s only one African American sports radio program director (Terry Foxx at 92.9 The Game in Atlanta) in a Top 20 market, and market managers, corporate executives and owners are also rarely non-white professionals. Are we really suggesting as an industry that there are no minorities capable of leading our operations? What type of message are we sending to minorities in our industry who have dreams about one day overseeing a company or sports radio station?

The real questions we must address are related to the processes being implemented inside of each station and company.

How are companies holding their executives accountable to make sure that minority candidates are given a fair look during the interview process? What checks and balances are being implemented to make sure stations place a greater importance on reflecting their communities on the air? How much involvement does a brand manager have in making sure the product is more attractive to non-white audiences?

Other questions that deserve to be asked include, is the radio station sending its leaders to speak at schools, job fairs or creating programs to invite individuals from different backgrounds to learn about their business? Are station executives analyzing their audience composition and working to make sure their brands have the right mix of personalities to reach and connect with their local demographics? Are executives looking for minority talent in different places besides colleges and other media companies? How are HR departments assisting executives to improve upon their shortcomings?

Many people love to point fingers, and express their frustrations with these type of sensitive issues, but when pressed for solutions and ideas they fire blanks. That does us no good in this conversation. Instead, we need accountability, action, and a long term strategy to make our business more attractive to people from different backgrounds.

And let’s be sure this next point is understood. As much as African Americans are underrepresented on sports radio stations, the percentage of on-air jobs that they hold is comparable to their overall population numbers inside Top 20 markets. They hold 12% of the prime sports radio positions, while representing 15% of the population from Top 20 cities.

If there’s a group with an even bigger reason to feel slighted, it’s Hispanics. They hold only 9 of 399 prestigious on-air jobs inside the Top 20 markets and national networks, which is slightly above 2%. Yet they make up 22% of the population from our larger cities, and 17% of the entire population in the United States, and that number is expected to rise in the future.

Similar to an office, locker room, federal government agency or restaurant, I believe that the more people you include from different walks of life, the more interesting your operation becomes. Certain conversations that some individuals can’t tackle on the air suddenly become possible due to the different personalities involved. The sound of a station changes too and becomes more distinct, and the more variety you can offer your local audience, the more likely they are to consume your future content. That in turn helps you expand your fan base.

But as we’re discussing this issue, and how to include more people from minority backgrounds in the process, we also have to recognize and acknowledge a few other important facts.

You can slice and dice it however you wish, but the reality is that the majority of sports radio listening comes from white male audiences aged 25-54. That demographic shouldn’t be tossed aside just because the other side is underrepresented. They are people too, and they equally love the content, and spend money supporting the radio station’s advertisers.

Let’s also not be naive to the bigger picture. Sports radio is a business. If the station and company are turning a profit, and the hosts who they employ are charged with producing ratings and they’re getting the job done, then why on earth would they alter their approach?

Most brands are measured by their ability to generate income and audience. Whether success comes from an Asian host, Hispanic host, black host, female host or a middle aged white male, isn’t as important to a company as an ability to fulfill and surpass company expectations.

I understand this issue is sensitive and personal to many. It’s impossible for some of us to see the world through each other’s eyes and skin. Speaking strictly for myself, I don’t believe that one’s ethnicity or skin color should determine whether they warrant an opportunity or not. If the white individual possesses more talent than the minority candidate, and is more equipped to produce results, then that’s who deserves the job. A major league baseball team doesn’t shape its roster based on fulfilling quotas to satisfy different races. A player either has an ability to pitch or hit and help the team win, or they’re not on the roster.

However, I also don’t think the radio business and major league baseball are an apples to apples comparison.

In sports radio, the words, actions, images and voices of our personalities determine how a brand is received by local listeners. If a station doesn’t offer a minority voice on its airwaves in a key weekday time slot, then it creates the impression to minority audiences that it’s going to take an act of god for someone from their background to gain a bigger opportunity on that brand’s airwaves.

Where it becomes even more challenging is when you consider how many positions exist on each station’s airwaves, how successful the brand is, and what level of interest is displayed from qualified candidates from minority backgrounds. Unlike pro sports where 25 men occupy a major league baseball team’s roster, and 53 suit up for an NFL team, and the entire country plays them at a young age and dreams of one day doing so professionally, some sports stations may only feature 2-5 people in their starting lineups. That’s even less than what an NBA team puts on the floor each night.

The other part of the conversation that remains a real issue is the lower level of interest from qualified minority candidates. I mentioned my personal familiarity with this issue when I explored it fifteen months ago, and after speaking to numerous executives for this year’s column, it appears that not much has changed.

Maybe the guy who works at Staples in the stockroom will turn out to be the next Stephen A. Smith, but when a programmer receives an application, and it includes no experience in the radio industry, no audio to judge someone’s ability, no mention of any type of work that would be related to the field for which they’re applying, and no references to anyone inside your operation who might know something unique and interesting about the candidate, chances are that application is going into the filing cabinet.

We can blame corporations and take issue with those who are in high ranking positions at radio stations across the country, but we also need to recognize that there’s a big issue with minority candidates not pursuing this industry as aggressively as whites. If the applicants pursuing work aren’t from a minority background, and those who do apply lack the skill level necessary to land an opportunity, what’s the hiring manager supposed to do?

These days you don’t necessarily have to be a radio veteran with stops in multiple cities, but you do have to provide something that gives a program director a reason to want to contact you. I may want to be the next President of the United States of America, but if I lack political experience, allies, a shortage of campaign funding, and possess little knowledge on the complex issues facing our nation, that opportunity isn’t going to be part of my future plans.

On second thought, maybe that makes me qualified after all.

But I digress.

Another issue that deserves to be raised is how smaller markets (where many people get their opportunities to learn and develop their skills) also have a shortage of minority on-air personalities. Is that because minorities are being ignored in smaller towns? Or is it due to a lack of pursuing entry level jobs in smaller regions and rejecting the idea of relocating and working for minimal pay?

Most small stations rely on young people who are willing to work for minimum wage salaries, and the trade off for low compensation is experience. Smaller markets should be even more open to giving people of color and different backgrounds a chance to learn the business, but it’s also incumbent upon minorities to explore these situations, and be willing to pay their dues because starting at the top in major markets isn’t a viable option.

I also don’t see a ton of minorities creating original content via podcasts, YouTube, Periscope or Facebook Live. These are all areas where an individual can practice their craft, build relationships with radio station executives, and develop an audience. And it costs next to nothing.

This issue is complex and it won’t be fixed immediately, but what’s critical is that the radio industry is making a collective effort to improve upon its shortcomings. Few can argue that the format is thin of minority voices. Nor can they suggest that enough training, outreach and internal accountability has been implemented to assure that brands take steps in the right direction to improve their diversity challenges.

Which means that each company has to decide if this is an issue they care deeply about, or if they’re content with their current standing. It also tells me that the current crop of minority talent on our sports radio stations can be part of the solution by getting further involved and encouraging people from different backgrounds to explore this industry.

The media business, and for that matter, the entire world, is a changed place. Image, sound, variety, and perception all impact a station’s ability to maintain and expand its business. What may have worked for the past thirty years isn’t necessarily going to work for the next thirty, which is why this is a subject that must be addressed.

Most radio industry leaders are good open-minded people with the right intentions, but the collective results we’ve delivered on this issue leave little to be desired. We can sweep it under the carpet, issue quotes to the radio trades, speak at conferences, and send out internal emails telling our employees how much we value being a diverse operation, but at some point, that noise must turn to concrete action, especially in desirable positions.

Keep in mind, I’ve only drawn to light the lack of minority voices in key weekday hosting positions. What do you think we’d find if we also shined the spotlight on update anchors, reporters and producers? Heck, is there one sports radio station in the nation that uses a minority as its main voice to position its brand? If so, I’d love to know. I study this format intently and I haven’t heard of any station doing that.

The late Michael Jackson said it best in his song “Man In The Mirror“. If you’re unfamiliar with the lyrics, they read like this:

I’m Starting With The Man In The Mirror

I’m Asking Him To Change His Ways

And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer

If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place

Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change

Jackson may not have written that song with the thought of sports radio’s lack of diversity on the top of his mind, but the message rings all too clear.

Change starts in each city, building, company, and executive’s mind. If you care about growing your radio station and relating better to the community in which you operate, be willing to consider others who you may not have previously. Explore different avenues to identify talent. Get a firm understanding of where your brand’s strengths are, and what opportunities exist to make larger inroads in the marketplace. Don’t wait until your market’s demographics change. By then it’ll be way too late to make adjustments.

The collective improvement of diversity in sports radio won’t be resolved inside of a conference room by a group of executives joining forces to introduce wholesale changes across multiple regions and companies. But if better systems are installed, and one individual in one city takes action to make his or her operation more diverse, that becomes the first step towards making an entire industry look, sound, and feel better than it did yesterday. And that my friends is where progress begins.

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