Craig Larson is a lifer in the radio business. He started as an intern back in 1990 at what is now ESPN 1000 in Chicago. That lead to one hell of a journey with one company.
In 1996 Craig went to worked for One on One Sports Radio. In 2001 he started working for Sporting News Radio. In 2011 he started with Yahoo Sports Radio. Since 2016 he has been programming SB Nation Radio. Craig never left a job or changed companies, mind you. He has been the constant for a network that has seen a lot of change over its 21 year lifespan.
Craig is now based out of Houston and is a busy dude. In addition to programming SB Nation Radio for Gow Media, he also programs the company’s two local sports stations – ESPN 97.5 and Sports Map 94.1.
If you’ve ever been guilty of dismissing SB Nation Radio as the little guy in an already crowded field of sports networks, Craig says you won’t be doing that much longer. In mid-November he and I spoke about the plan and the strategy that he says differentiates SB Nation Radio from competitors and allows it to grow in places you don’t think it can.
Full disclosure: Craig hired me to do a show on SB Nation Radio for the better part of the first half of 2017. That relationship didn’t shade the questions I asked him or how he is portrayed here. I just wanted to be honest and put that out there.
DEMETRI: SB Nation Radio has some really unique challenges in front of it in terms of adding affiliates. Many of the national conglomerates have deals in place with the larger networks. So, how do you work around that in finding affiliates and what is success for you in that realm?
CRAIG: Well, candidly I think being an independent company helps us in that realm, and the brand partnership with SB Nation has made us competitive in a way I don’t think past partners could have with their creativity and reach. Something like the Bein Sports simulcast of Sean Salisbury probably doesn’t happen without a partner like that.
The other thing is, let’s say you and I start a radio station tomorrow and all we have the need for is overnight programming and maybe Saturday afternoons. Well, we aren’t going to put any restrictions on you or make you take programming that you don’t need just to fill the times you do. Also, we aren’t going to charge rights fees. That helps a lot in growing the network. And finally, I give our talent a lot of credit for finding ways to customize and localize programming for all of our affiliates regardless of market size.
And lastly, it’s the support we can offer an affiliate. If a station owner needs help synergizing with the network on a sales promotion, they probably can’t pick up the phone and get the CEO of any of our competitors on the phone. David Gow is on the road visiting…I think it was 30 different affiliates this year to make sure the local affiliates are getting what they need from us.
D: What is that relationship with SB Nation like? What goes on on those editorial calls? I know they aren’t approving every segment of every show, but do you ever have calls where they tell you what they expect from the radio product to fit with their brand?
C: Well, it’s give and take, and it’s not so much real time “this is broke, how do we fix it” kind of stuff. Like, I’ll give you an example. One of the talents on our roster is the Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the game of the century (UCLA vs Houston in the Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968).
They have folks writing some pieces about it. We’ll have interviews on Elvin’s show with Kareem Abdul Jabar. We’ll do some video with Elvin. That all enhances their story and then you throw the listen live link on there and it takes you right back to our network page.
With them there is never a shortage of content. Maybe a shortage of hours or segments, but always plenty of content. We just interviewed Dak Prescott on his off day. Demetri, you know that is not the end of it. We got the interview, now where does it go? It’s on air and then we send it to the Blogging the Boys site. Maybe it goes on the SB Nation NFL main frame. That is all the fun stuff that comes out of those editorial calls.
D: With Gow Media starting the Sports Map site, do you know what that means for the future of the relationship with SB Nation?
C: Oh, they’re in individual silos. Sports Map was started in large part by Fred Faour and is a Houston-centric site with the weight of the resources we have at Gow Media behind it. It’s a local play and we timed it right with riding the Astros’ wave. But it isn’t SB Nation, which is a national brand that fits a national network.
D: You mentioned Salisbury’s show earlier. As I recall from our time working together, you are pretty hands on with that show. How does Craig Larson the human being manage time between running SB Nation Radio, being the PD of the two local stations, being hands-on with Salisbury, and oh by the way, you have a family too?
C: That’s a great question. I definitely have a passion, but also in interviews I am looking for folks with a passion for the industry and the business who are self-starters. I love talking to broadcasters and giving feedback and finding those people that are going to give as much as I do when they are on air.
With Sean, he has great charisma. He has a great rolodex as well. I can’t tell you how many times he has been the one to pick up a phone and call Charles Barkley or Joe Buck. He’s involved in his content creating process.
In 2004, there was a time, when we were based in LA that I would go from producing James Brown to Petro Papadakis to Fred Roggin. It was like an eight hour shift and I had to learn these guys’ needs and voices. This isn’t a 9-5 deal. As a PD, I can tell you not a weekend goes by where Sean and I aren’t texting each other to set up future shows. I’ve always been wired that way. It’s just how you have to operate in this business.
D: So what are the challenges of growing the Sean Salisbury Show? Certainly the Bein deal is huge, but your marquee show is at a time when I think most PDs would tell you they prefer local programming.
C: Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. I mean in an ideal world of local radio you’re not turning on the network from 6 AM to 7 PM. Maybe even starting morning drive a little earlier. It’s been a challenge for sure, but we have had some nice affiliate wins along the way and then the increased visibilitylity with Bein Sports.
At the end of the day, I am a firm believer that content is going to win. Shows that are unique are going to differentiate themselves in the corporate landscape. So, we hired someone like Robin Carlin a year ago out of Denver. There’s no one like her on network radio. No one is doing what we’re doing each and everyday.
Since we put Sean in afternoon drive, I would say we have added somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 affiliates. Now, that’s not 500 affiliates, but we cherish each of those 35-40 relationships. And it’s Sean, again, customizing his sound and calling into local shows in markets that clear his show. And we’re working with stations. If you can make up the spots, but can’t take the full three hours, we’ll give you the last two if that’s all you need. Hell, Phoenix is tape delaying the show and running it at night. Any way we get exposure for Sean makes me happy.
D: There are also a number of brokered shows on SB Nation Radio. What is expected of those businesses? As a PD do you sit with those shows and say “this is what you have to bring to the table if you want to do this”?
C: Well, they have to fit content-wise, but they also just have to be good content. That actually represents a small percentage of our overall business, but we have our golf hour. Charlie Epps, who is Angel Cabrera’s swing coach, gets great people on. It is at a time of day on Saturday morning where it is programmed correctly. And it is one every week. He never says “Oh I don’t have it in me today.” It’s a compelling and well-packaged listen.
And look, I understand the cynicism to it. Would we have a golf hour on Saturday morning if we didn’t have Charlie? Would Charlie do a golf hour if Insperity weren’t a part of it? Probably not, but I am looking at it from the content side.
In all the years I have been with this network, I have never had a complaint about something we put on on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Plus they’re all seasonal, so they are timely. The fantasy football hour or anything else. These all have appropriate expiration dates.
D: So outside of SB Nation Radio, brokered programming is a growing part of the business. As someone that has had to program brokered shows, what would you tell the guy that is looking to own his own show he needs to know or do to be a success?
C: First and foremost you have to have a voice. You have to know what differentiates you from everything else and what qualifies you to be on the radio period. And do it in a way that makes sense for you. Sometimes it is easier to do a weekly or biweekly podcast if you aren’t used to the preparation and consistency that goes into a daily radio show.
Next, I would say make sure you are comfortable on a mic. You can have a whole show scripted out and then suddenly Muhammed Ali dies and you have to pivot. So, maybe you were going to do a draft preview, but now you have to be ready to talk to Larry Holmes and put this in the proper perspective for what you do.
Learn to prepare. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say “Just get name any NFL guest. I need to kill ten minutes.” WOW! Okay, already the wrong approach. You can’t come into this just wanting to get to the finish line. Know why I, as a listener, as a programmer, would want to hear from you. If that’s not an easy answer you probably shouldn’t be playing in this space.