If you regularly read what I write here at SportsRadioPD.com, you know that sports radio represents something of a career shift for me. Before debating the merits of bat flips, I spent time in talk and rock formats. I have friends in literally every format on the radio and thought it might be time to dip into their creative wisdom.
I started this week’s column with a simple premise: the rules for making good, entertaining radio are universal. Just because someone has never taken calls about a coach’s job security doesn’t mean they can’t give you advice to make you a better host and your show a better product.
So, I asked around. What lessons can broadcasters from outside the sports format teach us? What advice have they received in their careers that may have been specific to their format, but has sown over time to be universal?
Marty Young is part of the Q Morning Crew, the morning show at 94.7 WQDR in Raleigh. The station has been honored as the large market country station of the year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Awards. Marty and his partner Mike Wheless and Janie Carothers have been honored as country radio personalities of the year by those same organizations. Marty also happened to work next door to me for 6 years. I asked him if he had learned a lesson that could help my readers.
I asked Marty for a specific example of who that happened to him with. “Taylor Swift,” he said. Remember when she was a country artist?
First of all, if you’re looking for a weekly guest from a team, I always advocate finding the best personality as opposed to the biggest star. Second, what I really love about Marty’s advice is that it takes into account the competitiveness of the personalities we deal with in sports. So many stars in this world got where they are by trying to prove someone wrong. If you have the luxury of recording an interview and deciding later whether or not to air it, you can be a little more flexible with your time.
What Marty is really getting at is the power of relationship building. It’s the dirty work, the favors, and to a certain extent the ass-kissing that goes into being able to build the kind of guest lists that can win you new listeners.
For as long as I have known Chris Malone he has been a guy that isn’t afraid to take risks. He came to North Carolina from Memphis to take over a start-up station that was going head to head with a long-unchallenged heritage brand. Now he’s in Boston doing the same thing at 97.7 WKAF-FM in Boston.
His piece of advise should come as no surprise. It is all about shooting your shot, chopping that wood, and all those other metaphors we use for perseverance.
These are all important things to remember. Stay in a constant state of readiness, because in this industry things are always evolving. Sometimes major changes in expectations or in what perception of what a “good show” is can change on a dime.
There is also a lesson about self-confidence in there. Remember that you are good enough to turn dry spells around both in ratings and employment. But if you’re going to actually turn things around, you have to be willing to take a look at what isn’t working for you.
Speaking of Boston, the next person I reached out to was Karson Tager from 104.1 WBMX. Karson and I met back in 2012 when I auditioned for a role on his show Karson & Kennedy. In the ultimate twist of awkward, the gig came down to me and my best friend, Salt MacMillan. The best friend got it, and he was absolutely the right choice, as they have thrived since adding Salt to the show.
Karson is a well-traveled guy in this industry. One of the things that struck me about him in two days of working alongside of him is that he is very comfortable in his own skin. He knows his strengths, the strengths of those around him, and how those can be combined to make a superior on-air product.
Here was his advice.
I have written about this idea a lot on this site. Sports is a format built on current events and trending topics. You stand out by creating content around those topics that other shows are not.
Go back and read my piece about fear. Your goal is always to separate yourself from your competition. That doesn’t just mean other sports shows, but every show across the dial in your market. You accomplish that through creativity and tireless effort.
You don’t have to be the funny guy. You don’t have to have a “live-to-offend” approach. You just have to figure out what you can offer the listener that no one else can, and you have to do it for every segment of every show. Otherwise, what is the point?
I have been in the radio industry for 21 years and in that time I have never known anyone smarter or kinder than Scott Fitzgerald, who has a show on 1110 WBT-AM in Charlotte. He is someone that is always ready to bounce ideas back and forth. He was there for me as I was making the transition to news/talk and had a PD that wasn’t interested in helping me.
His advice may run counter to some of what we learn in sports, but think about how different your show might sound if you tried this even just once.
Certainly there are shows that are really good at generating content from giving callers a wide berth. Paul Finebaum springs to mind immediately, right? But the well-curated madhouse that is the Paul Finebaum Show has grown over years of callers having the chance to “get” the show.
I always advocate for less callers. Listeners are tuning in to hear what your opinion. For the most part, they do not care what Joe in Bucktown has to say about Trubisky vs. Glennon.
Don’t get me wrong, callers do serve a purpose, but that purpose should be to enhance the conversation you want to have, not to do their own tight 5 minutes. Be clear with them. This is what we are talking about. What do you have to say about this specific topic? Then, take the opportunity to thank them for participating and making the show better.
Let’s wrap this up in the format that birthed me…professionally at least. The woman that actually birthed me is a retired kindergarten teacher in Birmingham, Alabama.
Robin Foxx and I met in Raleigh when she did traffic reports on my show. Then she decided to go out West and has thrived. She is now the executive producer of The Men’s Club, a nationally syndicated afternoon show that originates from 99.9 KISW-FM.
I am going to interpret what I think Robin means and then add to it a bit. Listeners are consciously choosing your station. In Robin’s case, they know that is where they will hear the music they like. In your case, it’s because they know you’re talking about the local teams. So, serve that audience. Robin has to be a rock encyclopedia. You need to be connected to all the teams you cover. You don’t have to be a shameless cheerleader. You just have to be the one that can give listeners the access they could never get on their own.
I’ll build on that with a lesson I learned when I started at 94.9 ESPN in Columbia, SC. As I’ve written before, I graduated from the University of Alabama and am a huge SEC football fan. Columbia on the other hand is home to the University of South Carolina, also a member of the SEC.
As I was learning the ins and outs of the Gamecocks’ roster, I built the show around general SEC talk. People responded, but only tepidly. It was on a day that I mentioned that I thought Steve Spurrier was clearly losing interest in this job that the phones really lit up.
Listeners wanted to know where I got off thinking that. To them it was clear Spurrier loved living in Columbia and he still had many years of winning to offer Gamecocks fans. I wasn’t swayed and I didn’t belittle listeners. I just dug into my point.
What I learned that day is that an audience doesn’t care if you like their team or not. They just want to know that you care about them. I framed the topic as “South Carolina isn’t a hopeless program, but they have to have a coach that is engaged in order to make it work.” Sure, the show was one long argument, but we were talking about South Carolina football.
A lot of listeners didn’t like what I had to say, but they could tell I cared. It’s why so many of those callers that told me I was dead wrong or called me an idiot became regular callers on my show. We had a shared passion. We just approached it in different ways.
Sometimes in the sports format we can love the smell of our own farts a little too much. If you dig down into radio you will find every format thinks it is so unique from all the others that there is no way anyone outside that format can give them advice. Then you’ll realize that the goal of every show is the same – to entertain the audience and build their loyalty to you. Accept that and you will see that everyone in this industry is a potential teacher.