About twelve years ago, I was introduced to one of the most influential people in my radio career. If you don’t know who Steve Reynolds is, you should fire up Google. Steve is one of the most respected morning show coaches in our industry and for about two and a half years I got to work with him. My old partner, Salt MacMillan, is still working with Steve at WBMX in Boston.
In our first meeting, Steve told us about the four stages of a morning show. We obviously were at stage 1 – unfamiliar personalities in a familiar situation. The listeners were used to coming to our station in the mornings, but they had no idea who we were. The next three stages are as follows.
2. Unfamiliar personalities in an unfamiliar situation – The listeners still don’t know much about you and probably haven’t made a meaningful connection with you yet, but they are starting to accept that something different is happening in your time slot.
3. Familiar personalities in a familiar situation – This is when a show has hit it’s stride. The listeners are loyal. They know what to expect each morning. Everyone is comfortable with each other.
4. Familiar personalities in an unfamiliar situation – This, according to Steve, is the place he wants every show to get to. The listeners know you. They care about you. They will always choose your show given the opportunity. But the most important aspect of their relationship is they never know what to expect from your show day in and day out.
I couldn’t help but think of these steps Saturday morning as I watched College Gameday on ESPN on Saturday morning. It is undeniably the best pregame show for any sport on any network. Yes, the show can, at times, fall into the trap of poorly written comedy followed by over-eager fake laughter that plagues all pregame shows, but Gameday has consistently mixed expert analysis with good interviews and truly compelling human interest stories.
I’m a college football fanatic, so I never miss an episode. I may not stick with all 3 hours, because that’s too much for any show, but Gameday will always be on TV in our house every Saturday morning.
This past Saturday ESPN took the show to Times Square in New York City. As soon as the event was announced, the Twitter trolls were out in full force. Their criticism is based on the outdated idea that New Yorkers don’t care about college football. Look, that may be largely true of native New Yorkers, but you know what? This isn’t the 19th century. People move out of their hometowns with regularity now. There are 16 million people in the New York metro area and it is a good bet a lot of them went to college and a lot of those people went to schools that play division 1 college football.
For sports television, Gameday in NYC would be the ultimate test of familiar personalities in an unfamiliar situation. The show was structured in a way that everyone in radio – regardless of format should have been paying attention to.
There were plenty of segments focused on New York’s college football culture. Tom Rinaldi toured college football fan clubs in the Manhattan bars they called home. Gene Wojciechowski brought us the story of a man that left a career on Wall Street to play one season of football at Michigan.
The brilliance of the way the show was presented was in the balance. Yes, there was a lot about this particular episode of Gameday that was different and unexpected, but so much of it was familiar. We still got plenty of fans with great Gameday signs, including my favorite – “SUNY Maritime wants Bama.” We got a headgear segment that would only make sense in New York.
I want to give some props to my friends Adam Gold and Joe Ovies at 99.9 the Fan in Raleigh, because I think they do a great job of mixing the familiar with “I really don’t know what they’re going to do next. Also, because every week Joe texts me and asks why I didn’t mention him in my latest piece on BSM.
When I turn on Adam and Joe in the afternoons, I know I am going to get opinions and interviews. I know I am going to get their signature benchmarks like Top 4 at 4 and High 5. But where they shine is the way they execute big, interesting ideas, like taking an electronic football game to the Super Bowl and making everyone that joined them on radio row break down the action or breaking the entire FBS into two super-conferences using the rules of the board games risk. Those are the kinds of things that take planning and creativity and no one was anticipating them doing something like that until it was revealed on air.
The Dan LeBatard Show is another one that is hard to pin down. It almost feels like there is no playbook at times, and that works for them. Sure I know they are going to talk to Ron McGill from Zoo Miami every Tuesday and I know that they are going to draw from the Bucket of Death every Thursday, but as Dan has made clear on air many times, he is comfortable with the chaos.
What ESPN Radio has in Dan cannot accurately be described simply as “sports radio.” That is a show that can go from talking about Colin Kaepernick in a measured, intelligent way in one segment, to interviewing a man that drank his own urine while stranded in the desert in the next segment and then wrapping up the hour by giving a listener the chance to get advice from Tim Kurkjian on how to propose to his girlfriend. It may be the closest to actually living in stage 4 of a radio show as you will ever see.
It is not easy to get to stage 4 of a radio show. It requires a PD to have tremendous faith in his talent. It requires a host to have a lot of faith in the audience. There are plenty of well-respected hosts and shows that never get to stage 4 but challenging yourself is the only true way to grow.
I encourage you to, at least once a month, take stock of everything you do on the show. Figure out what isn’t working. Figure out what benchmarks you know so well that you can do them in your sleep. Maybe it’s time for a segment like that to go. Instead of prioritizing what is easiest, prioritize what excites you. Trust me, if you are bored with a regular segment or guest, then your audience is too.