I doubt there will ever be a full-blown debate about the greatest alpine skier on sports radio. We won’t shove aside Tom Brady vs. Joe Montana to debate the greatest figure skater ever or which snowboarder you trust the most in crunch time. Discussing the Olympics on sports radio isn’t exactly a pot of gold. However, if you want to make your radio show better, apply the techniques NBC uses while covering the Winter Games.
Storytelling is an enormous ingredient. NBC broadcasters never say, “Okay, up next in ski jumping is Bob. We really don’t know anything about Bob, but let’s see how he does here.” They always provide a detailed backstory of the athletes. We gravitate toward their path, not just what they’re trying to accomplish. Where they’re from — when they started competing — the injuries and hardships they overcame — it always makes the competition more captivating.
Of course we all know how important storytelling is in sports radio. The best hosts paint vivid pictures, yet many of those gifted storytellers gloss over the most important subject — themselves. It shouldn’t be the life and times of a host each time the mic is on, but little things go a long way. The concert you saw over the weekend — the new pair of shoes you just bought — the funny conversation you had at a fast food drive thru — it all provides information about who the host is. It lets the audience in.
I’ll never forget one of the first shows I hosted on FOX Sports Radio. A listener called in from Miami and said, “Like, who are you?” He didn’t mean it in a demeaning way. He just actually wanted to know who I am. The audience wants to know. If we are glued to the TV when the backstory of an Olympic athlete is told, why would it be different with a sports talk host? It’s the same concept.
Something else to mimic is the pacing of Olympic coverage. Unless something huge is happening in one event, the coverage shifts. It’ll change from one sport to the next, back to the studio for a preview, or to an interview. It doesn’t get stuck. It keeps moving. This is the same goal when presenting radio topics. Unless there is a big topic that day, keep it moving. Transition to a new topic and then reset the initial topic later. Find the middle ground between sticking with a topic that’s working and preventing it from lingering too long.
The third concept is the trickiest but the most important. Have you ever watched a bobsledding event that didn’t occur in the Olympics? How about speed skating? Luge? I can’t recall even seeing a single commercial that promoted non-Olympic coverage of any of those events. What does that tell you? It tells me that we don’t actually care about the events themselves. If we really don’t care about the events, then why do millions of Americans care to watch the Olympics so intently?
The stakes are incredibly high. Sure, the storytelling and pacing enhance the coverage, but the stakes are what initially get the audience through the door. Athletes compete against the very best while representing their countries. Good luck recreating that with your morning show host who hails from Amarillo, TX. There just isn’t a way to duplicate the stakes of the Olympics on a radio show. What can be duplicated though, are finding ways to get the audience to care.
I call this broadening and narrowing. If I’m doing a national show, I want to broaden topics that lack a wide appeal on their own. Derrick Rose was recently released by the Cavs. Okay, not the biggest topic. If you broaden it to the athlete that would’ve been the most accomplished if not for injuries, now you’re talking. You’ve got football included with Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis. Baseball and basketball are in the mix. You now have a much better chance of your audience caring about this topic.
If I’m doing a local show, I want to narrow topics — I want to relate them back to the local teams. I wouldn’t talk about the 49ers signing Jimmy Garoppolo to a monster contract and leave it at that if I’m hosting in Denver. I’d touch on how much it impacts the Broncos pursuit of Kirk Cousins. I’d talk about whether the Broncos would be in better shape if they somehow signed Garoppolo to the same contract before San Francisco did, or if another quarterback will work out better.
The easiest way to approach topics is to always remember what your audience cares about. They care about their teams and their lives. Include both.
My fiancée recently asked me what the equivalent of flowers for women, is for men. I had no idea. I still have no idea. I’m not sure what gift would cause the same excited feeling for a guy. I brought it up during a fill-in show I hosted in Denver. People texted in with answers that ranged from concert tickets and cologne to a six pack of beer. It was a fun topic in between Broncos talk because it involved life.
Imagine if NBC didn’t air the Olympic events we enjoy most and instead just showed the biathlon. Envision the coverage being completely void of good storytelling and the backstories of athletes. Our interest wouldn’t be nearly as high. It works the same way with sports talk. Include the teams that matter most to the audience, and find ways to incorporate life. Share stories about yourself so the audience will care about you, not just the topics you talk about.
The irony about the Olympics is that although it’s generally very boring to discuss the Winter Games on sports radio, the way the Olympics are covered should be followed very closely. If a host has a great feel for what the audience will care about, and mixes in good storytelling and pacing, you have some of the vital ingredients of great ratings success — just like the Olympics.