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Limited Thinking Exposes Vulnerabilities

Forgive my absence in this space the past few weeks. Between listening and talking with clients, managing and editing the website’s written content, and finalizing plans for a Chicago sports radio conference next month, it’s been difficult to focus on one particular issue to write about. There’s been no shortage of material to work with. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. All you have to do is spend one day on social media reading about sports radio, business, digital and social media, podcasts, etc. and it feels like you’re hit by an avalanche of content with no possible way to properly tackle it all.

As I’ve continued to monitor the format this month, I’ve seen a number of situations where shows have been stretching for material. Each time I see it, I ask myself “why would a listener who’s emotionally disconnected from sports due to the NFL season expiring and February offering less important stories care enough to put your station on if this is the content you’re trying to sell them?”

Too often, sports radio folks plan their execution around the day’s news. That works during certain parts of the year, but in February, March, May, June and July, you better have a few tricks up your sleeve to entice people to tune in otherwise one bad week can do permanent damage. There’s a big difference between providing content that fills time and delivering meaningful content that an audience will make time to listen to. If you operate the same way year after year, you’re determined to repeat the sins of the past. Judging by the sports format’s performance during the slower months, that often means being flat or down.

I understand that not every segment is going to be a home run, but we can become our own worst enemies sometimes due to not planning ahead and taking risks. If your strategy after the Super Bowl leading up to Opening Day was to rely on creating conversations around the NBA All-Star game break, Spring Training, the NFL Draft Scouting Combine and March Madness, you already shot yourself in the foot.

Somewhere in that conversation should’ve been creating original content opportunities to generate buzz and audience interest. Developing a strategy to extend the momentum of the NFL season by a week or two or three also would’ve been smart.

One of our toughest challenges is that we have a tendency to think thru our own prism. We don’t place ourselves in the audience’s shoes enough and ask “what do they care about and how can we make it interesting, fresh and exciting?”

Case in point, spring training talk. Unless you’re in Florida or Arizona with access to people, why does it matter? Do you think the majority of your audience gives a rat’s ass about a player’s workout, physical shape or games that don’t matter? They can read or see that on a website or Twitter and be done with it in less than 5 minutes yet some shows will spend an hour or two on it.

How does that help you? If it doesn’t involve a major decision which impacts your local team or a player saying or doing something that generates headlines it has little impact.

Given the passion many of us share for this format, we can sometimes rush to judgment when feedback and information is passed along that doesn’t jive with our personal tastes. If the ratings are good we think we’ve discovered the formula to cure cancer and if they’re poor, we blame the measurement system and tell ourselves the numbers are irrelevant. Rarely do we look at our planning, content structure or the topics we developed to try and capture the audience’s interest.

It’s easy to create excuses for a lack of engagement and interest during slow times but if you know the results are likely to dip then that should serve as motivation to try new things. We don’t invest enough time in ourselves to grow, tap into our creativity, and work in advance on material which will keep the audience on their toes.

Can you imagine if TV networks operated that way? What do you think would happen if the first episode of your favorite show’s next season was written and filmed either the day of or day before? Spoiler alert, audiences would be rapidly changing the channel.

How many shows can you think of where the script is the same every single day? The program assembles a daily rundown which consists of a few topics built around the day’s news, an audio cut sheet, fielding phone calls, maybe executing a daily or weekly benchmark, sprinkling in a few interviews, and then signing off. The only changes you hear on the next show are the names of the guests, callers and subject material. They also offer little to no curiosity to make you want to tune in via their social media promotion.

That begs the question, how much time is put into the production process? The creativity or new ideas process? Brainstorming on how to take a segment with a guest and develop it into something different and memorable?

If a pitcher in Major League Baseball uses the same pitching sequence during every game, they may succeed for a while due to their natural talent. Eventually though even the best get taken to the bleachers regardless of how good their fastball or curveball may be. The same applies in sports talk radio.

Having witnessed it inside of buildings as a programmer and now from afar as a consultant and strategist, many of these issues circle back to stubbornness. These are the same things that drive us nuts as sports fans. It’s why we crucify Pete Carroll for not running the ball with Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl 49, blame Bill Belichick for benching Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 52, and shake our head at Jerry Sloan sending out Byron Russell to guard Michael Jordan one on one during the closing moments of the 1998 NBA Finals.

I believe that a great sports radio host needs to have some ego to be strong on the air but they’ve also got to be smart enough to check that ego on occasion and step back and evaluate what adjustments are necessary to have success during tougher periods. The same holds true for programmers. We sometimes think we know it all when in fact many of us really don’t. Until you know each person carrying a meter in your market, what their daily habits are, what their content preferences are, and what times they’re available to listen, then can you make a case for being a step ahead. Until then, you’re trying to find subjects that personally move you while searching for small clues inside of the numbers to give yourself a shot at success just like everyone else.

I’ve never understood what a person believes they’re gaining by closing their mind to a different point of view or idea and information which could ultimately benefit them. Best case scenario, you gain something insightful which helps you do your job better. It may also lead to forming a new connection with the person sharing it with you. Worst case scenario, you listen to the feedback, process it, maybe even disagree, and then think about whether or not any of it is valuable. If it’s not, the only thing it cost you was time.

I don’t have all the answers myself. That’s why I continue educating myself to try and improve. I believe that’s what every great host, programmer, producer or executive needs to do.

If you’re going to trap yourself in a bubble inside of your radio station and make no time to learn from others outside of the world you’re operating in, you end up limited in knowledge and without a full use of tools to become your very best. That especially stands out during the sports calendar’s slow periods when the content on your airwaves has no significant hook or reason for airing.

To grow as an individual you must make time, think ahead and keep an open mind. That requires reading, watching, listening, traveling, planning, and bending the ear of others who do things differently. It means leaving your comfort zone and falling on your face a time or two because the next big hit you create will likely come after you’ve experienced failure.

If you’re unwilling to make adjustments to help yourself then you better be ready to deal with disappointment and have a good book of excuses ready for when the higher ups start asking questions. The only question I have is, why spend the time building an excuse factory when you could just invest it in yourself?

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