Control. It’s a word which is at the forefront of many conversations inside the sports radio industry. It’s part of every contract negotiation, content decision, advertising sale, internal policy, and day to day business decision.
If you scour the nation, you’ll find hosts and producers in each building making decisions today on a variety of challenging situations. Among them are whether to aggressively challenge their local teams or soften their opinions to gain favor. Booking guests and tackling sensitive subjects with them or accepting restrictions and avoiding tough questions to protect future relationships. Last but not least, deciding whether to be honest and authentic on the air and on social media, knowing that if they explore topics unrelated to sports it could result in a loss of audience and/or advertisers.
In most situations, people in position of power use it properly. But when it ends up in the wrong hands, a small brush fire can turn into a blazing inferno.
If you’ve read my columns for the past 3 years, you’re well aware that I’m a free speech advocate. I believe in being transparent, offering unfiltered opinions, and putting the interests of the audience first. Sometimes that’s not popular with members in the industry, but I don’t believe silencing people makes anyone better. In fact, I think you learn more about yourself and your brand when you’re exposed to critical commentary and differing styles and opinions.
I recall Mike Valenti of 97.1 The Ticket making this point a few years ago after the Detroit Lions left his radio station. The team was bothered by Valenti and The Ticket not offering enough of a pro-Lions slant, and when addressing their departure, Valenti summed it up perfectly: “Play the games, win games, I say nice things. Play the games, lose games, I say mean things.”
That’s how it works in a performance based media business which operates under the public eye. If your ratings are good and your brand steers clear of controversy, you’re bound to earn favorable press. If you produce poor results or bring unwanted negative attention to the station you’re employed by, the local headlines will likely be less flattering.
Let me make this clear. I love the sports radio business. It’s been my life’s work for the past two decades. I respect those who work hard to deliver meaningful content, and welcome outspoken personalities who give me a reason to tune in rather than filling the room with less important noise. I recognize the challenges every operation faces in trying to generate higher revenue, and despite an imperfect ratings system, I still value the numbers and believe there are strategic ways to help grow your performance.
I take great pride in championing this format’s cause and working with many great stations and people as an independent resource. There are many great leaders in this business today who have incredible ears and eyes for talent, and love the industry as much as I do. Due to working for one employer though, most don’t have the amount of time that I do to listen, watch and study brands across the country, and address topics that are of importance to the future of our business from a neutral position.
What bothers me though is when I see situations arise inside the industry which put it in position to endure future problems.
Case in point, dictating terms to media reporters on how to write and report about a station and/or its personalities is a disaster waiting to happen. PR people might think they’re retaining control when they offer access with conditions such as sitting in on an interview or approving a story before it hits the press, but that just sets off an unnecessary alarm. You are essentially taking a match, striking it against a rough surface, and expecting it not to light.
Over the past two months I’ve been informed of multiple incidents where radio companies have tried influencing how reporters should cover them. What they fail to take into account is that most media reporters approach stories with their bullshit detectors on. They know drama produces clicks and stations only want one side of a story to be shared, the one that serves their best interests. By attempting to influence a reporter’s ability to tell a story, you are giving them more reason to negatively position your brand and people. This is how most host’s react when a local team pushes for a positive spin after putting lipstick on an unwanted pig.
Ask yourself this, why would an independent writer/reporter, who collects a paycheck from another outlet, sell the positives of your brand, when you’re attempting to limit their ability to tell a complete story? They won’t. As a matter of fact, they’ll likely go further down the negative road because your PR department made it personal when they attempted to restrict them.
Take a look around and you’ll find roughly 700-800 sports stations employing thousands of people. Many have strong opinions and share them with an audience for 40-45 minutes an hour, 3-4 hours per day. If these people can be trusted to candidly speak to thousands of your listeners and on behalf of your brand’s business partners, then you should have enough faith in them to handle themselves professionally during a conversation with a media reporter. If you try to dictate who they can talk to and which topics are fair game, you better be ready for an avalanche of stories to follow which are less friendly and citing ‘sources close to the situation.’
Fortunately I haven’t had many try that approach with me. Those who have know that censoring my views is not an option regardless of any business affiliation. I’ve taken my share of calls from folks who weren’t thrilled with certain topics I’ve written about but that comes with the territory when you write opinionated content on a format comprised of passionate and sometimes sensitive and egotistical people. In most cases, those who complain seldom make contact when something positive about their brand, people or company is published.
I’d like to think that I conduct myself professionally and sell the benefits of this business a lot more than the negatives. Yes I have clients that I work with and sometimes they’re involved in situations which are less than flattering. When they arise, I report the news since this platform is one where sports radio people turn to for news and opinion. In those situations I may refrain from adding my personal opinion because I not only respect those I’m working with and understand the issue a lot deeper, but I also believe too many on the outside looking in tend to sensationalize specific moments rather than evaluate a brand or individual’s full body of work.
The reason I chose to explore this topic is because I think it’s important for radio professionals involved in the day to day decision making of their brands to understand the importance of providing trust, flexibility and transparency to their people. Hosts don’t want to be told what to say and how to say it on your airwaves, and the same is expected when working with outside media members who report on your business. You can arm them with information, and if you respect them and treat them well, they may even give you the benefit of doubt from time to time. However, you’ll never have full control over their editorial decisions.
I realize some stories are going to make your blood boil. When details are shared about situations you’re not proud of, it can be very frustrating inside the office. But if you’re going to ask the audience and advertising community to take into account your entire body of work when your brand is connected to something unpopular, then you’ve got to be willing to offer the same courtesy to those who provide a benefit to your brand, even if it means having to drive over a few speed bumps along the way.
For starters, I’d recommend spending a few minutes educating yourself on the way the Chicago Cubs did business a few years ago. The franchise introduced an honesty policy, letting their fans know they weren’t going to be good for a while. By being transparent in the short-term and working on a viable long-term solution, they made people and the media a part of the process. That ultimately made the reward of a World Series title in 2016 that much sweeter.
Can you image a radio station telling its audience and advertisers, “We’ll be honest with you, our ratings aren’t very good. We’re not giving you enough return on your investment.” Fat chance of that happening. But when you address negatives in a truthful manner and offer humility and future solutions, it becomes harder to root against you.
Each company has to decide how to manage its employees. Some will provide free reign. Others want to place a leash around an individuals neck and connect them to a chain. Restrictions may be necessary for some formats and people, but I think that as a whole, the better approach is offering flexibility and trust. If someone commits a violation then you make an adjustment. But doing so in advance, and without merit, often results in a larger mess.
Ironically, industry leaders often preach about their success stories not being told enough. They challenge outside forces to pay more attention to the good work they’re doing and give radio the respect it deserves. But if there’s one way to guarantee that story never being shared in the press, it’s by instructing the writer how to tell it.