News Ticker

Will Audiences Pay For Local Sports Radio Digital Content?

The interest in sports radio programming continues to soar across the globe. But is that appetite for sports audio content strong enough to expect local audiences to pay for it?

Executives at ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR believe it is.

On May 1st, the radio station announced they would start charging $8.50 per month or $85.00 annually to listen to full length podcasts of the station’s top shows, minus local commercials and with the talent having the freedom to express themselves in uncensored fashion on their website and app “The Land On Demand“. WKNR offers their over the air radio programming and short-form clips from their shows on their digital platforms for free, but full-length shows had previously not been made available.

Keith Williams, ESPN Cleveland’s vice president and general manager, told Crain’s Cleveland Business that full-length podcasts are the number one thing listeners have asked WKNR to offer. But unlike the majority of brands across the country that provide that form of programming to their audiences on their websites and digital channels for free, WKNR is hoping the demand for consuming the content will be strong enough to justify additional spending.

“We know the way fans are consuming media in an on-demand world,” Williams told Crain. “They don’t have the time or resources they once had. We’re providing them what they asked for.”

In the same article with Crain, Talkers Magazine publisher Michael Harrison was a proponent of the move. He said “The biggest problem facing commercial radio is the commercials. If WKNR was charging people to listen to it on the air, then people should grumble, but what the hell do they have to grumble about? They don’t want radio stations to make a living?”

There’s some truth in Michael’s words. Commercials have become viewed as obstacles standing in the way of the listener enjoying the content. Fred Jacobs wrote about this issue recently after his TechSurvey 13 revealed that ads were the number one reason why people say they listen to less AM/FM radio. That’s a reflection on our growing impatience as a society. We want what we want and we want it now or we’re moving on to something else.

However, to suggest that people shouldn’t grumble over the radio station charging a fee to consume audio that they can hear for free over the air is looking at it strictly from the company’s point of view.

It’s not the audience’s problem if the station generates a profit. They have their own financial difficulties to deal with. Their only role in the situation is to listen to the programming. If they do that consistently, the station can then leverage that passion and commitment with their advertisers. Judging from the early feedback on iTunes and Google Play, people aren’t happy with the direction WKNR has chosen to go.

But let’s take a step back for a second and analyze this from a number of different perspectives.

First, if the listener is able to listen to one of WKNR’s shows over the radio airwaves or on the station’s stream during the time that it airs, they pay nothing for it. If they want to enjoy a small portion of a show in podcast form, that too is free. There are options for them to consume content without having to pay for it. However, if they miss a show, and want to enjoy it later on during their free time, that same content (minus the commercials) which was available over the air for free, now requires a monthly or annual fee.

Now let’s add the advertiser’s perspective.

Imagine for a second if you’re a local or national client. You’re being asked to spend your money promoting your products on WKNR’s airwaves. Those are the same airwaves that are encouraging fans to pay the radio station to hear their programs online, without your commercials in them. If that model gains traction and reduces over the air listening, how would it sit with you if you were investing in the brand’s over the air product? Wouldn’t you want a future place at the table in the digital space if it was becoming a hit with the local audience?

The reason advertisers invest in radio stations is because of their ability to help the client reach specific audiences. If that desired demographic though views the client’s over the air commercials as a detriment to their listening time, and the station wants to prevent the advertiser from being included in digital spaces, then why exactly would a client continue spending the same amount or even more of their ad budget on the radio station?

That’s a slippery slope for stations. The executive team is absolutely right to shift their programming online and eliminate roadblocks that hinder the audience’s listening experience. However, they’re also reliant on advertising dollars to continue running a business. If they piss off their key clients during a period when they’re trying to develop a potential new revenue stream, it could harm their business, especially during the short-term.

Another area that I want to examine is the value.

The Land on Demand’s key selling point is that it’s weekday shows (which you can hear for free on the radio station) are now available in full-length form without interruption. That’s not anything groundbreaking. In fact, most local sports stations already provide that. To expect that offering full-length shows without commercials, with the benefit of using adult language is going to be enough to generate significant spending seems rather peculiar.

However, WKNR did add a section titled WKNR Classics which allows the audience to hear archived shows, guests, and memorable moments. That part is cool and gives the paying consumer something they can’t get over the air. There are also plans to introduce more original content which will only be available to paying customers. That’s a wise move.

But here’s where the problem lies.

Place yourself in the shoes of the consumer for a minute, and consider what you’re up against.

For $11-$20 per month, a listener can purchase a subscription to SiriusXM and gain access to hundreds of programming options. That includes hearing music, comedy, live sporting events, and high profile talent such as Howard Stern, Chris “Mad Dog Russo, and many more.

If you want to save even more money, you can spend $8 per month to become a premium subscriber to TuneIn which gives you access to every MLB and NFL game, commercial-free music, audio books, thousands of radio stations, and millions of podcasts.

I haven’t even touched on the services available to paying consumers on television, video and online platforms. Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, MLB, the NFL, the WWE Network and others, there are tons of options to consider when paying for entertainment. In each case, these companies are offering a ton of value in exchange for a minimal monthly or annual fee.

You may suggest that it’s an apples to oranges comparison because one product is focused on local sports radio and the others aren’t, but they’re all delivering entertainment while reducing an individual’s bank account. I assure you, when push comes to shove, most people will spend money on the things they need first, and then consider the available choices when deciding on whether or not to add luxuries.

But spending aside, another potential concern for WKNR is bad publicity. A decline in ratings is often a natural fear for radio companies but Good Karma Broadcasting (WKNR’s parent company) doesn’t live and die by the ratings, so that shouldn’t be an issue. However, no station or business wants to lose listeners.

That said, one item which can easily be lost in this conversation is the fact that the long-form digital offerings were previously unavailable on WKNR. It’s not as if Good Karma is forcing this on its audience. Instead, they’re supplying an additional option to the audience, which they can hear in exchange for a fee. If they don’t want to pay for it, then they’re in no different shape than they were last month.

If it ruffles the feathers of a Cleveland sports radio fan, they do have other options to consider. They can listen solely to WKNR over the radio or if they’re bothered to the point of considering a switch, they can pledge their allegiance to 92.3 The Fan. If for some reason that doesn’t suit their style, they can also turn to brands like 97.1 The Fan or 105.7 The Zone in Columbus who are also talking about Ohio sports. In fact, Bruce Hooley who hosts mornings on The Zone, used to host shows on WKNR.

If neither of those options satisfy, there are always networks and hundreds of sports stations across the country offering quality content for free, both on-air and online. The one big difference though, they’re not largely focused on Cleveland sports the way that WKNR or those other Ohio sports radio brands are.

From the local fan’s point of view, they’re going to wonder why they’re being asked to pay for something that other stations and cities don’t. For example, a Boston sports radio fan can log on to WEEI.com and gain access to all of the station’s programming, plus a number of original podcasts, including Kirk Minihane’s “Enough About Me” which ranks among the best in the format. The station also offers uncensored programs, commercial-free content, and generates over 2 million web visitors per month. The cost for that experience? Zero.

That same strategy of offering free long-form programming in the podcast space is employed by numerous radio companies who own and operate sports stations. Among them include ESPN, iHeart, Bonneville, Hubbard, Emmis, and Beasley. Cumulus doesn’t employ that strategy, and as I mentioned previously, CBS doesn’t either. Their approach is more focused on offering short-form content clips.

But this begs the question, should digital content require a fee?

Stations are dedicating a lot of hours, creativity and bandwidth to provide valuable listening experiences for their audiences, with the idea being that advertisers will offset it. But most of those dollars are coming from the over the air product, not the digital side of the business. As advertisers continue to shift their ad spending into the digital space, and listeners expect ads to be eliminated from their listening experience, it’s worth examining whether or not a subscription based on-demand strategy makes long-term sense.

The subject of digital and podcasting came up in a recent interview with Mike Francesa of WFAN. Talking to Bryan Curtis of The Ringer, the New York sports talk show host said most brands bastardize their own content by giving it away for free. While radio preaches the importance of being on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it hasn’t figured out how to make a dime off of those platforms. As a result, Francesa says radio is destroying its own business.

I can see Mike’s point. From the product end of the business, brands are doing an incredible job of building audiences and generating interest. Turning that passion and dedication though into profitability in the digital and social media world remains a daunting task.

As it applies to WKNR’s situation, one positive working in their favor is that their local competitor (92.3 The Fan) doesn’t currently offer long-form versions of their shows online. That’s a CBS strategy that exists on most of their sports radio brands websites. You can download and listen to interviews, highlights, and occasional monologues, but not full-length programs. But with WKNR announcing their new digital initiative, might that lead The Fan to make a future adjustment? It probably wouldn’t be a consideration under CBS, but with Entercom on the verge of taking over the company that’s certainly possible. Especially since they offer free full length programs in podcast form on the majority of their sports radio brands.

Throughout the years, WKNR has built a familiar brand in Cleveland. Many of their personalities have appeared on the station for a lengthy period of time, and it’s clear they’re counting on local fans having a strong enough interest in their personalities and content to help them enhance their digital business. It’d be foolish to suggest the radio station won’t attract a market for what it’s offering, but whether or not it’ll be sustainable is way too early to tell.

What should be appreciated, regardless of how things play out, is that WKNR is taking a risk. We often talk about our industry being stuck in mud and unwilling to take chances, yet the second someone does, we’re quick to pounce on them and sign their death certificate. Maybe there are some holes in the existing strategy, and the public’s reaction to the news certainly leaves little to be desired, but immediate feedback to any change is often negative, and people have demonstrated numerous times that they’ll pay for things we never expected them to. What one person believes is worth $1, someone else values at $1000.

All of that taken into account, not every risk is a wise one. To simply present shows without commercials in exchange for a fee, and turn it into a thriving revenue stream is expecting a lot. I believe that WKNR will need to add more original content to its digital channels, plus offer additional unique benefits associated with a premium experience to satisfy and grow its subscriber base. I’m sure they’re already working on that. The beauty of a project like this is that it’s in its infancy, so there’s still plenty of time for making improvements.

In life, if you want to grab the brass ring you have to have brass balls. ESPN Cleveland certainly has those. But if you push the audience further than they’re willing to go, those same brass balls can be kicked in by steel toed boots. Hopefully WKNR has invested in a sturdy athletic supporter and cup. I just hope for their sake they don’t end up needing to wear it.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.