It isn’t every day that you bump into a 27-year-old program director in a top-30 market. Ryan Porth is a name to know in the sports talk radio business. He’s the PD of ESPN Radio 102.5 The Game and 94.9 Game 2 in Nashville, TN.
Ryan’s career path is uncommon. He earned a big promotion in the span of 10 days, one which typically takes years to achieve. I had a chance to connect with him and discuss his unique career path, future goals and his thoughts on the best and worst parts of sports talk radio.
Q: What was it about the sports talk radio business that initially interested you in pursuing it?
RP: When I was born and raised in Cincinnati, the voice of the Cincinnati Reds, Marty Brennaman, was an idol of mine. I used to play imaginary baseball in the backyard and act like I was Marty Brennaman. So as a little kid, I always wanted to be the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds and that desire to work in sports broadcasting stayed with me through middle school and high school. I always knew it was what I wanted to do.
A few years after high school, I got a part-time job here at ESPN 102.5 The Game. That was July of 2012. Five years later I’m the damn Program Director of this thing. It’s crazy to think about. To have a job like this at my age, I pinch myself every day. To be working in the industry that I’ve dreamed of working in my entire life is a real blessing.
Q: Having started at The Game and worked your way up, does that impact the way you look at talent? For example, do you prefer seeing homegrown talent get a promotion rather than taking a look at options outside of your market?
RP: Being here for so long, I’ve seen many people move up the ranks — and it’s mostly been with producers — but I do believe in the theory of promoting from within if you can. You know their strengths. You know their weaknesses. You know everything about them. You can put them in the best position possible to maximize their strengths. That’s one risk with someone out of the market – you don’t know them as well on a personal level.
I’m very fortunate that since I was hired as Program Director, in the last 10+ months I haven’t had to make a change on the air with our lineup. All the guys that I inherited for the live shows from the morning show to the midday show to the afternoon show offer something a little different, and it’s been a pleasure working with them.
I think promoting from within is a trendy way to go. That isn’t to suggest that I won’t consider someone out of the market, but with your on-air talent, you want them to have the backstory knowledge of the Titans, and the Preds, and the Vols and everything that’s a hot-button issue in this town. In Nashville, it’s important to know the history of sports in this town. That goes with any town and radio station. I’m lucky to have a really good staff on board.
Q: It was crazy with the Preds last year. I went to a couple of those watch parties. Broadway street was completely shut down. It was a really, really cool thing. Could you see an MLB or NBA team in Nashville? How big of an impact do you think it’d make in the city and on the sports talk radio scene?
RP: If Major League Baseball or the NBA were to come here, it would only benefit our business in terms of having even more things to talk about. For where the city of Nashville is right now, I think having two pro sports teams with the Titans and the Preds, plus Nashville SC and the Nashville Sounds, is kind of a perfect mix. But with 80 to 100 people moving to Nashville every day, I can see in a decade or two it expanding to meeting a Philadelphia or Detroit in terms of having all the pro sports teams in town and being a hotbed for sports even more than it is now.
Q: Knowing the dynamics of this city, which do you think would make a bigger impact here, the NBA or MLB?
RP: I think Major League Baseball would make a bigger impact because of the timing in which the sport is played. The NBA would be going up against the Preds and I don’t know how successful a team would be here especially with Memphis right down the road. The Grizzlies are kind of viewed as Tennessee’s NBA team.
However, with Major League Baseball — while you do have the Braves, and the Reds, and the Cardinals within a stone’s throw of Nashville — I can envision an American League team working here in the future when the city grows more. I think Nashville in 10 to 20 years will be in a much better position for MLB than it is now.
Q: I hear a lot of negativity about sports talk radio. With all of the bellyaching of ‘this sucks’ and ‘they talk too much this’ and ‘they do too much that,’ what do you think is really, really good about sports talk radio right now?
RP: Whether it’s a negative topic or a positive one, connecting with fans is the most important thing in sports talk radio in my mind. Whether Butch Jones is on the hot seat or the Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final, you want to have that connection with the fans.
You’re not going to make everyone happy in this industry, and a listener doesn’t have to agree with everything that a host has to say. But if a host can connect with the listener and make them understand where they’re coming from with their opinions, it makes for great radio. We’re also fortunate at ESPN 102.5 The Game to have two popular former Titans figures – wideout Derrick Mason and GM Floyd Reese – who can take fans behind the curtain on their experiences in the NFL and provide unique insight the listener can’t get elsewhere.
In the social media world that we live in now, it’s a different world than it was 10-15 years ago. You can get a lot of people’s opinions right there on Twitter and Facebook, but the medium of radio is still powerful. The mic that our hosts turn on every day is still powerful and the way that sports talk radio hosts can connect with listeners as they drive to work or lunch, with hosts wearing their emotions on their sleeves as if they’re a fan themselves, is one of many positive things about sports radio right now.
Q: What do you think could be better about sports talk radio?
RP: The one thing that I think people can fall victim to is hot-take radio. I think it only works for so long. Not only in sports talk radio but with TV, it can be a little overbearing at times. That’s something that a lot of listeners or viewers would appreciate seeing or hearing less of. We’ve got an afternoon host, Jared Stillman, that has a lot of opinions about everything in Nashville, but I wouldn’t consider him among the hot-take sports talk radio hosts. He’s just a Nashvillian that wears his emotions on his sleeve. I think those are the type of things that make sports talk radio great. Having a hot take just to have a hot take on something in the sports world, and doing that too much over time, can wear on the consumer.
Q: When you target new talent or hear a host for the first time, what characteristics appeal to you most?
RP: I’m a diehard Cincinnati Reds fan. I remember turning on ESPN 1530 after Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. Mo Egger, who’s one of my favorites in this country in terms of talking sports, said something along the lines of, “I’m paid to know what to say, but I don’t know what to say right now.” It was real emotion, expressing exactly what the entire Reds fanbase was feeling at that time. If a sports talk radio host can connect with listeners and fans in that way, that is one of the best qualities in a host.
You have to be compelling and discuss topics that will make the listeners think, whether they agree or disagree. I think likability is another really good quality for radio hosts. Especially in the south where Southern hospitality is a real thing. Nashville is a different market from anywhere up north where it’s a heritage sports town. Everything is a little bit more laid back in Nashville and having some likability is an important trait in radio hosts. You don’t necessarily need them to like you, but you need them to like listening to you, and enjoy listening to you, because you obviously want to keep them listening. You don’t want to scare listeners away, because they may not come back.
Q: Likability and relatability are important everywhere, but might be even more important in Nashville. Do you think that what separates a good host from an excellent host can range based on the region they’re working in?
RP: I think so. A good host can handle the x’s and o’s of sports talk radio well. They can tease well. They can set up topics well. They can interact with callers well, but an excellent host has to have those intangibles of connecting and forming a relationship with the listeners without actually knowing them on a personal level. Making a listener feel like they’re in the studio with them, or sitting at the bar with them listening to your hosts share what they’re passionate about – those things help put you over the top as an on-air personality in my opinion.
Q: Some topics these days can be divisive. That can damage a host’s likability and relatability. Whether it’s the anthem protests or the sign at the Red Sox game, “racism is as American as baseball,” do you have a certain tactic or approach with your on-air staff about do’s and don’ts when addressing those subjects?
RP: I’m pretty lucky to have a lineup of hosts that know the right and wrong of what to say in those situations. When it comes to political stuff like that, no radio station wants their hosts to say something that will hurt the credibility or likability of a host or the radio station as a whole. But at the same time, giving hosts that freedom of speech when it’s necessary, when it’s valid, I think is important as a Program Director.
A lot of people use sports to escape from some of the crazy happenings going on in our country. There’s a good chance they have no desire to hear about politics when flipping on a sports radio station. So that’s what we try to offer our listener in times like those – talking about the Preds or Titans, or sports in general, to provide that escape.
Q: How do you balance big national stories with your local content? Is there a specific message you relay to your staff?
RP: In the last year, we’ve had the the Chicago Cubs win a World Series. That was a huge national story that our hosts talked about. Maybe not at length, but they talked about them winning it all. While there are Cubs fans in Nashville, they’re not considered a local team at all. But that was a huge story in sports and when those things happen, I think it’s important to talk about them.
At the same time, if there are other storylines going on nationally that we can relate to locally — for instance, if Jon Gruden says that Jameis Winston should be an NFL MVP candidate. Having our hosts take that and frame it in a way where they’re saying, “Jameis Winston, if he’s an NFL MVP candidate, then why isn’t Marcus Mariota?” Just doing things like that — finding that local connection where it can still be a good listen for the people who are tuning in just for local news or local sports talk.
There are so many outlets now where you can get national talk. We’ve got 102.5 The Game, but we’ve also got 94.9 Game 2, and 94.9 Game 2 is mostly the ESPN Radio syndicated lineup. So, we’ve got Mike & Mike in the Morning, and Russillo, and Le Batard, and Paul Finebaum in the afternoon. All of them talk about national storylines. Finding a way to connect the two — local and national — to bridge that gap, is an important thing for our local hosts to do.
Q: In Nashville, you’re up against 104.5 The Zone. Some view it as a huge challenge or a mountain that you’ve got to climb. What are the opportunities that it presents from where you guys are and how you’re going head-to-head with an opponent in the same town?
RP: I think the opportunity for us is the fact that we have a little bit of a different strategy in terms of on air. 104.5 The Zone, while they do talk their fair share of sports, they also like to dip into pop culture, entertainment, and things of that nature. For the listener that wants deep sports talk, they know they can come to 102.5 and we’re going to be talking about the local teams. We’re going to be talking about the Preds. We’re going to be talking about the Titans. We’re going to be talking about the Vols and anything else that is hot in this town. That’s our identity.
We don’t pump ourselves as Nashville’s Best Sports Talk just because it’s a catchy line. It’s something that we all believe in. We truly believe we deliver the best sports talk in this town. When it’s Preds, we have the best Preds talk. When it’s the Titans, we have the best Titans talk. When it’s the Vols, we have the best Vols talk. That’s something that we pride ourselves on. Their model has been successful for them and I respect them for that. At the same time, there are many listeners out there that just want sports talk and that’s what we try to deliver to them on a daily basis.
Q: Having transitioned from APD to PD, when you look back, what’s the biggest area of your personal growth that you’re most proud of?
RP: Well, it was a very quick transition. August 15th last year was my first day as Assistant Program Director. Then on August 26th, I became the interim Program Director. So, I had a grand total of 10 days under my belt as an Assistant Program Director. We were going through a lineup change at that time and I was the EP of our afternoon show, Jared & The GM. During those 10 days I didn’t have any time to learn how to be an Assistant Program Director.
I was put in a position where I went from Executive Producer of the afternoon show, and within two weeks I was steering the ship. It was a scary few weeks stepping into a role where I was learning everything on the fly. Fortunately, I had a great support staff and still do to this day. As a 27-year-old Program Director, I still learn things every single day. Hopefully, a year from now, I’m in an even better position in terms of knowing little nuances of how to be a PD. I feel like I’m light years ahead of where I was at this time last year when I was just worried about keeping us on the air.
I’d say the biggest thing in transition that I’ve had to learn is how to interact with each of our talent. Every single cat is skinned a different way. Learning how to handle the on-air talent, push their buttons and try to get the best out of them is something that I’ve had to learn very quickly. Luckily, as someone who was in the building for 4+ years before the change, I think I benefited because I knew most of our on-air talent already. I wasn’t a brand new PD at a brand new station. I’d say talent coaching and interaction are the biggest things for a Program Director to tackle and I’ve tried to make that a big focus of mine over the past year.
Q: What are your future goals in sports talk radio?
RP: The dream of being the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds will always be there. If I’m 60 years old and haven’t been the radio voice of the Reds, I think I would still love to do that. Obviously the path that I’ve gone down in radio may not lead to that and I’m okay with it.
To be honest, I have no idea where this whole thing is gonna take me. I’ve been appreciative just to have 5+ years in this business in this building — to develop relationships and friendships that I’ll have forever. If something comes up nationally in the future, then I’m sure I’d consider it. If something suited my strengths well outside of radio, maybe I’d consider that too. But I love Nashville. I may be biased, but it’s the best city in the country to live in. It’s home and I don’t really want to change that.
I just take it day by day and see where each one takes me. Hopefully I can continue to add to what I’ve built during my last five years in this business.