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How Much Value Do Hosts Place on Radio Row Broadcasts?

It was one year ago when I wrote a lengthy piece on the challenges associated with broadcasting live on radio row during the week of the Super Bowl. I tapped into a few program directors and top salespeople to gain their perspectives on why the week on the road for their brands does/doesn’t matter.

As insightful as last year’s column was, I realized that one key part was missing from the conversation. The viewpoint of the people who it matters most to – the on-air talent.

It’s easy to sit in a conference room and debate the merits of sending your shows on the road or crunch numbers in an office during budgeting sessions and eliminate travel and remote broadcast expenses because it’ll make your bottom line look better but there are certain things in business that you do because it’s important to your people, your brand image and your audience.

For example, how would your perception of a NewsTalk brand change if their key programs weren’t live at the Republican and Democrat national conventions? To make those events work, extra dollars must be spent and sometimes sponsors don’t want to get involved because they don’t want to be branded as supporting one side over the other. If the NewsTalk outlet you receive your information and opinion from though wasn’t there, your perception of the brand and its shows would be altered.

Imagine if a massive rock concert like Lollapalooza was recreated and your favorite rock station wasn’t involved in it. Or if a rap festival was produced and your hometown hip hop station didn’t have a connection to it. You’d wonder why those brands were detached from something significant to the audience and their image would take a hit as a result of it.

Well, the same applies in sports talk radio.

There is no greater event from an audience attention standpoint than the Super Bowl. The NFL is king and responsible for stealing the majority of our free time during the fall. The final game represents the last chapter of the season, and the week leading up to it is when fans become consumed by the storylines surrounding the NFL’s season finale.

From a talk show host’s perspective, this is the nail in the coffin on a year’s worth of conversations. Hours upon hours are dedicated to analyzing, debating and reporting on the NFL each season, and the most hosts view the week of the Super Bowl as one of the most important to their annual schedule. It’s an opportunity to get access to high profile people, uncover interesting stories, receive exclusive access to events they’d otherwise not experience, and it affords them the chance to spend time on the road with their peers and colleagues. That alone leads to strengthening bonds, increasing contacts, gathering information, and enjoying time away from the normal grind. The audience is invited to live vicariously thru the eyes and ears of the talent during the NFL’s biggest week, and in doing so, a deeper bond is developed between the brand and each listener.

What makes topics like this fun to discuss is that there really is no right answer. If your business is hemorrhaging money and lacks interest from sponsors, it’s understandable why you’d pass on sending your hosts and shows on the road. But if every decision you make is tied to whether or not you generate an immediate return on investment, be prepared to be disappointed.

It’s ironic that the radio industry depends on selling advertising to clients, stressing to them the importance of branding. We encourage sponsors to implement a long term strategy and remind them of the need to spend money to make money. We preach how vital it is to stand out from a crowded field and why presenting a powerful image and influencing perception are key in reaching people when it’s time to make a purchase.

What we don’t do is walk in the door with pixie dust promising to sprinkle it on their ads and double their business. That’d be ridiculous. Effective marketing requires consistency and building a strong brand image. If done properly, brands will absolutely benefit from it.

Yet when the shoe is on the other foot, do we follow our own advice? To borrow Hertz’s slogan, not exactly!

There are a myriad of factors that need to be considered when deciding whether or not to send your radio station and staff on the road to the Super Bowl. From the ratings impact, to the perception of the brand, to the economic affect on your company’s balance sheet, everything must be examined. However, just don’t lose sight during that process of how those decisions register with two of the most important components of your business – your staff – and your audience.

To provide a little more perspective I called upon six talented hosts from different parts of the country who have experienced the good and bad of radio row. Making the conversation even more interesting is the fact that they collectively represent five different companies.

For those of you who are scheduled to broadcast next week on radio row in Minneapolis, I recommend checking out this list of restaurant/bar suggestions from 1500 ESPN Twin Cities midday host Phil Mackey. You can thank him in person next week for steering you to the right locations.

Why is broadcasting live from radio row during the week of the Super Bowl important to you?

McKee: I have been to 14 Super Bowls. So, I’ve had plenty of radio row experience. In the mid 90’s it seemed like a pretty exciting deal. We would get a cool collection of guests that we wouldn’t get any other way. However, as the years move along, the quality of guests seems to have leveled off. Also, getting interesting guests is complicated because there is such a strict schedule. Then of course there is the question of whether listeners even care about hearing from any of these people. In addition, we haven’t seen a specific spike in ratings during that week. BUT – if you are a sports station in America and you aren’t there how serious are you? The trick is to use radio row as a home base and actually go out and do the work which means getting off your ass and going to the pressers and the other available sessions. The access to players, coaches and other folks in the sports world is off the charts. If you stay anchored on radio row, you better hope you have a world class producer who can do some pretty extraordinary things or you’re going to be talking to Bill Romanowski about his neuro lean 1 pills. So broadcasting from radio row means almost nothing to me, but being at the Super Bowl feels like it’s very important!

Kaplan: This is my 22nd radio row which is crazy! I look forward to the week of the Super Bowl because I like to be in the middle of the action. If I didn’t go, I would be watching on TV wishing I was there. It’s the sports radio convention, like the Senior Bowl of sports radio. It’s something I feel is important to be in the middle of.

Dawson: It’s important primarily because we are the home of the Cowboys. The NFL is the most significant sports entity in our market and not being there would feel off brand in a big way. Our competition will be there and to my knowledge, I’m not aware of a regular weekday 6a-7p show in my market that hasn’t gone.

Innes: It’s not. I thought it was important to broadcast from radio row when it was in Houston. I host a morning show, so I won’t be getting a ton of guests, and the building will be largely empty. I don’t believe it adds a ton to my actual show. Hosts love to say that they can get more out of guests and that it’s all about the questions. Trust me, when Adam Sandler is on station #20 and has been up for 25 hours, he’s not gonna be excited.

Dougherty: Broadcasting live from radio row is important to me because we want to provide Zone listeners with the best content possible, every day. Radio row at the Super Bowl allows us to do that by gaining access to compelling guests who we normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to connect with. Being there helps us deliver a stream of interesting content all week.

Tierney: Very early in my career, it was probably good for the ego, a self-validation of my place in the business. However, as my platforms have grown, it’s become much more of a bridge…a tool…a continuation of the coverage and insight we’ve provided throughout the season. Although I don’t believe in being guest-heavy day to day, we take great pride in being able to secure “A” list guests throughout the season. This is not only a continuation of that, but in essence, a culmination of a season/sport that we dedicate a lot of time, energy and resources to. I want to be there, I expect to be there.

If you didn’t do shows on radio row during SB week, how would it impact your show?

McKee: If I wasn’t there we would still have a table and a set up to put a guest on headphones but that’s pretty weak. I suppose I’d feel left out. It’s an interesting question though and I’m not sure I have the answer because this will be my 9th straight radio row. I have 6 others sprinkled in over the years. What makes this year particularly interesting is that I pushed hard for our station to go to the Senior Bowl. We have great ownership and management and they made an extremely quick pivot so we could be in Mobile, Alabama this week! The reasoning was simple. The Broncos need a QB, and Mayfield, Allen, Falk and Rudolph will all be there along with the Broncos coaching staff which includes a bunch of new guys who are coaching the north team. The STORY for us is clearly in Mobile not Minneapolis. That always should come first. So I’m proud of my station that we’re doing what’s best for our listeners. We were ready to give up going to the Super Bowl but because Minnesota is such an awful place to go to in February, the hotel costs have plummeted! At the end of the day, we can do both and stay under budget. So, I’m going to both! Guys often bitch about having to spend the time and effort away from home but that couldn’t possibly match how much they’d complain about NOT going! We are a messed up crew of individuals.

Kaplan: I’m not sure broadcasting from the Super Bowl is a ratings winner per se, but from a perception standpoint, listeners believe their favorite show is big time by being on radio row. They enjoy hearing the show talk to people that they wouldn’t normally have face to face access to. It leads to good content and it’s where new relationships are formed!

Dawson: I’m not sure what the impact would be since we do make the trip each year. Listeners would question though why we weren’t there.

Innes: We may miss out on the opportunity to do a few memorable bits, but all in all I don’t think the show would suffer greatly. The idea of going to radio row is so much greater than actually going to radio row. I mean, how many times can I interview a member of the 70’s Steelers?

Dougherty: If we didn’t do live shows from radio row, we would do our normal daily show. The difference would be that we’d have less coverage dedicated to the Super Bowl.

Tierney: No interesting/successful show should lean solely on the backdrop of the SB to create a compelling show. That’s lazy, especially when each interview is going to contain a minute or so of the guest pushing product that quite frankly, our audience doesn’t care much about. It’s still about strong content, diverse and interesting topics and having fun and I have confidence that we would deliver that from our studio. However, there’s an energy that is tough to replicate that comes with being in the middle of the mayhem for a week. The ambiance creates a different urgency and makes it feel bigger, because it is. Also, personally, the week is a great avenue to collect off-the-record information from friends and colleagues around the league. I always look forward to that aspect.

How important do you think the week of shows on radio row are to your audience? 

McKee: We’ve been lucky because the Broncos have actually played in a couple of recent Super Bowls and won one of them. Our ratings during that time period went through the roof. However, when the Broncos lost in dramatic fashion to the Ravens a few years ago and we still went to New Orleans AND then the Ravens WON the Super Bowl, we had our lowest ratings dip in years! Our listeners just didn’t want to hear anything because the loss stung so much. We probably would’ve been better off not going that year! I think the audience wants to live vicariously through you but they don’t want you to rub it in their face. It’s a weird balance. At this point, our audience just expects us to be there so being there isn’t really a big deal but not being there would raise questions. It’s a bit of a no win situation. That being said, your team going to and winning the super bowl is ratings gold for a long long time! You better be there because those stories and that experience lasts forever.

Kaplan: When I listen, I love the background noise, the buzz, it sounds so alive! As a listener, I want to be there! If you track engagement on social platforms, we provide so much more content and create so much more activity by being live on radio row. That’s how I measure it.

Dawson: I don’t think it’s important to them in a conscious way. I think we benefit from a credibility standpoint of the audience knowing that we’re on top of things and committing resources to make sure they’re informed and entertained. I think what they value most are the words being said by particular people when they tune in. Our being there doesn’t provide much of an advantage in creating compelling content. Factor in the disruption to the clock, unpredictably mediocre guests, and general chaos, and there are pros and cons to the conversation.

Innes: My audience only cares about being entertained. I can do a good show whether I’m on radio row or Mars.

Dougherty: We get tremendous feedback from our listeners through social media channels when we broadcast from special event settings like radio row at the Super Bowl. We see the same engagement when USAA brings us on the road to broadcast prior to the Army-Navy game.

Tierney: I’m sure on some level we tend to overrate that aspect of it, but it is a core belief of mine that if you have a successful show, the expectation from listeners is that during the biggest week of the year, you will be right in the middle of it.

What do you do to make sure your program stays consistent and doesn’t get overtaken by guests/advertiser pitches?

McKee: There is almost no escape from that! You do your best but it’s almost unavoidable. One thing you can do is record segments ahead of time. Other than that, you are a bit screwed. It’s a good rule of thumb to do every show on the road the same way you would do it in the studio but that’s easier said than done. Try and treat the day on the road schedule wise same as at home.

Kaplan: We don’t obsess over the guests any longer. I used to consider the best guests the metric for success. Now I think more about all forms of media at my disposal. So it’s not just what A-list guests I can get on the air but rather how can I engage my audience on and off the air?

Dawson: We do our best to keep a similar show going but here’s the funny thing. In order to get an A-list guest you have to take others from their stable quite often. We have 3 segments an hour and scheduling into that without disruption is not possible.

Innes: It’s difficult because you are at the mercy of the celebrities. They may show up a minute before break time. What do you do? In that case, you blow up the clock. Then you end up with 5 minutes of Franco Harris peddling an insurance company with his handler starting a countdown 2 minutes in.

Dougherty: We make it a point to re-set our show at the top of the hour with the day’s top headlines and keep a watchful eye on what is happening in our local market. As much fun as the week on radio row is, local comes first.

Tierney: We don’t allow that to happen. It’s our show and Tiki and I both recognize that while good guests can enhance our show, we will not change the DNA of what we do. You still need time to let things breathe, to react to stories outside of the NFL, to react to interviews we just conducted, and to deliver built-in sponsored segments just as we would if we were back in studio. We also have great synergy with our producer, so we’re all on the same page. As far as advertiser pitches are concerned, you have to maintain control of the car. I’m driving the show, not the guest. If you’re not alert, it’s very easy for a 7-8 minute spot to be overtaken by product push, which equates to a painfully boring interview. Trust your internal clock, like a QB. If you’re getting bored, the audience has either left or is on the brink of leaving. If you allow that to happen, as a host, that’s on you. Be better at your job.

What’s one thing that you do during the week that’s unique from the other 50-100 stations on radio row?

McKee: I participate in the actual press opportunities! I always try and get a question in to the commissioner. I ask questions of the coaches. I go to stuff and ask questions. Mostly that’s the realm of the print media. I have been amazed over the years of the laziness of most talk show hosts. Get out there. Participate. It’s great to say on the air, “ I asked Goodell this question”. “ I asked Bill Belichick this” stuff like that. I promise you I’ve done more stuff like that than ANY talk show host in America over the years. It has been a huge separator and gives us unique content.

Kaplan: My approach is to deliver a show which matters to my market. I look for local ties. For example, we have enlisted a player from the Patriots and the Eagles, both from San Diego, to be our weekly reporters. The goal is to talk to our home market, from an international event. That helps us form a stronger local connection.

Dawson: One fun thing that we do is create a compliment contest throughout the week that our guests are not aware of. It’s awesome because it butters them up and gets the positive energy flowing. It may even deliver a few horizontal tune ins. We produce an audio compli-montage at the end of the week along with a King of Compliments for the year and this adds to the fun.

Innes: We have a wireless mic and roam around. We had my producer dressed as Mike Ditka and he would sit down with random radio shows, while they were on air. He would then talk back to me via wireless. One guy wanted to fight him. My producer wore an “Assweiler” garbage can around the Houston radio row. That made national news. I think the wireless mic adds a lot. It allows for constant content during slow times.

Dougherty: Our focus is on doing the best job we can to put our audience in the room. We do that on air and through the use of our social media platforms. It isn’t about being unique as much as it is delivering quality content that satisfies our listeners.

Tierney: The most obvious difference is that we deliver a TV presence with a national simulcast. We bring you a visual. You get to see what we see. There’s great value in that.

If you owned your radio station or a local business and a team from your city was not playing in the game, would you spend the $ to be part of this week of shows?

McKee: My advice would be to send as many people as makes sense for your budget. Don’t stretch but don’t be cheap. Keep in mind that the more people you send from the station the more crazy stories that can come from it. Hopefully you have a good crew that likes hanging out. Bonding wise it’s fantastic. Great memories for years and years. Monday night is now media night. Tuesday is the media party. We have established Wednesday as our staff dinner. It’s been my favorite tradition year after year. Whatever you do if you send a group don’t skimp on the staff dinner. It’s what connects you with one another. Thursday night, all of our ex NFL guys have Super Bowl rings. Mark Schlereth, Brandon Stokely and Alfred Williams, which means they wear their suits and rings and go to parties that the rest of us nerds can’t get into! Friday night we basically leave open. If you do Super Bowl week the right way it will translate to the audience. But know this, if you don’t make an effort at all, you aren’t a real sports talk station.

Kaplan: Well, we are no longer an NFL market in San Diego, but our signal reaches LA and many LA sports fans have found us over the course of the three year relocation drama. I think radio row can be a very sell-able product to sponsors if packaged creatively.

Dawson: Absolutely. I believe there’s great value in it.

Innes: Well, there are some factors at play. Is my competition going? What market am I in? Does my audience back home really care? I’ve seen plenty of data to show that my competition doesn’t see any tangible bump from being there. Basically, it’s a way to get a sponsor to pump a few bucks into the station. If a sponsor wants to add to the bottom line, that’s hard to say no to. I’d refrain from sending morning shows. Middays and afternoons have the best chance of excelling. I do think there is an opportunity to create web content that can be sold. Gavin Spittle did and has done a great job of monetizing the digital aspect of the week.

Dougherty: We’re fortunate to have a great sales staff which sells sponsorship’s to off-set the costs of taking two shows on the road to the Super Bowl city. That provides us with a great opportunity to deliver good content for our audience and attach our clients to the station’s Super Bowl coverage. There’s a lot of value in being associated with the week.

Tierney: In all likelihood, yes, but it would hinge somewhat on the financial climate of the industry and our own ability to monetize the week. If we were able to offset some of the costs, perceptually, I believe it is worth it. It also tends to galvanize talent and is a nice way to put the finishing touch on a 5 month grind. I find that it boosts morale, and it’s fun! Who the hell doesn’t like to have fun? If it’s done right, it can be GREAT.

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