If you work in a sports radio programming department, chances are you haven’t heard of Borrell Associates. They’re a local media research outfit fronted by Gordon Borrell. Gordon’s resume includes VP of new media for Landmark Communications, helping to establish the first TV, newspaper, cable and network TV websites which he later split up and sold to Earthlink and the Gannett Company, and being a sought-after speaker and media industry analyst, often quoted in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Ad Age, Forbes, etc.
I’ve never met Gordon but have read a number of his thoughts on our industry and find them fascinating. Many are similar to my own. If you haven’t had a chance to read his interview with Forbes, I strongly urge you to do so. It hit many of the notes that I just touched on in Chicago when speaking to a room full of sports radio programmers.
Among the highlights that grabbed my attention were his comments on the industry needing to find a clear vision for the “new” industry that it’s looking to create. Borrell says that vision should involve being part of a bigger business than terrestrial radio and creating a marketing powerhouse.
Included in that analysis was radio’s inability to sell the right products. He said the industry is heavily reliant on website banner ads and spots in their streaming, neither of which is in high demand by advertisers. To produce solid digital revenue the radio industry must offer other digital services that more directly complement radio campaigns.
What I love about those comments is that I just stood before some of the brightest minds in the format and when I asked which brands were selling merchandise, none were doing so. I informed the group that Clay Travis, Craig Carton, and Crossing Broad were all selling products on their websites. The WWE makes merchandising a critical part of their business strategy. Bleacher Report partners with StubHub to sell tickets. Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini says merchandise represents a third of their business, and if sports gambling gets legalized, it’s likely that sports betting brands will accept bets thru their apps, websites and phone lines.
Speaking of Barstool, they provided my favorite example. If a New York sports radio fan wants to show off their admiration for Mike Francesa, guess where they purchase a ‘Numbah One’ or ‘Can’t Spell Francesa without FAN’ t-shirt? Barstool’s website. WFAN? Sorry, they’re not available.
RedBubble also sells a Francesa ‘Mount Rushmore’ shirt. In fact, I went on The Fan’s website last night and guess which ad showed up at the top of their page? RedBubble’s did. The company is promoting the Francesa shirt and reaching its most likely customer (The WFAN listener) by buying banner ads which appear on The Fan’s website. That’s a smart move by RedBubble, but it also highlights a missed opportunity for The Fan.
One brand I observed recently which did a nice job and was on the right track but still missed out on larger opportunities was KFAN in Minneapolis. The Minnesota sports station sold custom t-shirts at the Minneapolis State Fair and from all indications they were popular. KFAN has sold shirts at the state fair for a number of years now. Except when the fair was over, they didn’t continue making those products available for purchase on their website.
What’s the downside to allowing people who didn’t attend the fair to continue purchasing your product? If the demand is strong, why not sell them all the time? In addition to generating additional revenue, the brand also receives free marketing. Isn’t that the point?
Ask yourself this, why are your radio station’s airwaves valuable enough for advertisers to purchase time on to sell products but not good enough to sell your own? You sell content every time your hosts speak. You sell podcasts, social media pages, events, games, etc. All of these items are given promotional time because they’re seen as a benefit to the audience. Why we wouldn’t capitalize on merchandise too is beyond my level of comprehension.
And before you get defensive and tell me “it costs money to create shirts, cups, hats, etc.” let me remind you that there are local and national services available where you only pay for products once they’re ordered. You also have digital and marketing people inside your buildings creating website and social media images and powerpoint presentations to help your sellers look good on client pitches. There’s no reason logos, slogans, catchphrases and on-air incidents can’t be turned into slick looking products sold on your platforms.
It’s pretty simple, if there’s no demand, you don’t place an order. But having them readily available and promoting them across your brand’s platforms should be a no-brainer. The last time I checked, radio was looking behind every door to find new money. Whether you make 25K or 250K thru merchandising, I don’t think we can afford to not take advantage of it.
Borrell also mentioned digital advertising and that’s a hot button issue for me. I see stations bombard their websites with banner ads, creating bad user experiences and nothing productive for the client. It’s happening on social media too. Scroll thru a station’s Facebook or Twitter page and look at how they promote a sponsor. It’s often an image of the client, a few sentences of text talking about something that has zero value to the person following the brand, and do you know what it produces? Minimal likes, shares and engagement.
Now put yourself in the advertiser’s shoes. The rep walks in touting their ratings, personalities and social media following, looking for you to renew. Except when you review the five social posts that went up promoting your company, you discover that the audience didn’t like you enough to respond, share or even press the thumbs up button. That not only makes you question the page’s value, but it can be embarrassing too. I’d be asking “is my brand that big of a turnoff to your listeners?”
What should you be doing? Creating branded content. Involving your talent in unique ways to make the client look good. Check out this example of Patrick “Seton” O’Connor of the Dan Patrick Show. Or this one from Barstool Sports. There’s also this one by Cricket Wireless which was a massive hit.
The bottom line, if you think recording a video endorsement or putting an ad on a social page is going to entice people, good luck. You’ve got to be creative. Try that approach with a tire dealer who’s looking to offer a discount on a new set of tires and nobody will care. Involve your talent in a video where they’re changing tires, competing against one another and having fun busting the chops of the mechanics inside of the garage and people remain interested. That interest becomes conversation which inspires the client to continue buying your brand.
The next piece of feedback that Borrell offered was radio needing to understand that its role isn’t to sell spots but to leverage all the marketing tools at its disposal–spots, events, digital advertising, and marketing services — to help its customers sell products and services. If the industry doesn’t adjust Borrell warns that it won’t be able to grow and thrive.
I don’t disagree one bit. One of my biggest concerns is radio’s failure to adapt in a rapidly changing environment. This is often due to the industry’s ‘proceeding with caution’ mentality and fear of not hitting the bottom line.
Think about it, how long did it take before your operation started hiring digital and social media content creators? Some of you may still have only one person trying to tackle the work for 3-4 brands. If you talk to sports teams, digital businesses or other media operators, there are groups dedicating 5-10 people just on the social/digital experience alone. That’s what it takes to excel and position yourself for future success.
When was the last time you created and monetized a huge ticketed event? Wing Bowl and Ticket Stock are two great examples of stations spending money to make money, but most brands don’t roll the dice that way. Do you think ESPN barters everything to execute the ESPYS? If you want to create impact and non-traditional revenue from buzzworthy events then you have to invest dollars in making those events worthy of buzz.
The final part of Borrell’s interview which I want to weigh in on were his points on radio’s biggest threat being myopic leadership. He said the business is in a period of remarkable growth and opportunity, yet so many leaders believe their job is to defend “radio.” Rather than investing time worrying about the industry’s defense, a better approach would be to spend more time and energy pursuing growth opportunities.
Those opportunities include dashboards, podcasts, and smart speakers, which some industry folks have considered to be threats. Borrell doesn’t believe they are. He continued by noting that industry leaders spend too much energy trying to hold onto their hairy-eared listeners and not enough time trying to figure out how to reach the pink-eared ones.
From where I sit, there’s never been a better time to be in the audio business. People are listening to millions of pieces of content each day. Whether it’s consumed live or on-demand thru a phone, computer, tablet, smart speaker or car stereo is besides the point. It’s the industry’s problem to figure out how to measure it but the enthusiasm for the content is there. I’d much rather walk into a client’s office with a huge splintered audience across multiple platforms than without one.
However, Borrell is exactly right about smart speakers, podcasts and digital dashboards being opportunities, not threats. The reason they’re not warmly embraced is because we tend to ease into things rather than leading the charge. I’m sure NBC, FOX, the NFL and YouTube would’ve preferred sticking to their prior ad models but when audience consumption patterns change, brands must respond.
That requires more training, recruiting, experimenting, and strategic adjusting. It can also mean a financial setback in the short-term to maximize long-term growth. You can get upset by the way the world’s changing, but if you want to avoid becoming Blockbuster Video, a Taxi company, the Newspaper or the next “going out of business” retail outlet, you better read the signs and take action or you’ll pay for it.
Here’s a good lesson. Take a few minutes today and use your smart speaker to listen to a few sports stations. Ask for the host/show names, specific content or even the brand name itself. You’d be surprised by how many stations don’t even come up by their actual name. I’ve been using a smart speaker for the past year and you’d be stunned by how how hard it is to even locate some brands, not to mention, the amount of times where I’m led to listen to stations via TuneIn or iHeartradio instead of the station’s app.
What if your brand uses the moniker The Fan, The Game, ESPN Radio or FOX Sports Radio in its branding. Do you know how many stations exist with those names? What do you think is going to happen when the listener says “Alexa, play The Fan”? They’re going to be sent to whichever station Alexa recognizes first. It’s no different than a Google search. You don’t want to appear on Page 3. The more complicated it becomes (trying to find stations by call letters, cities, website addresses, etc.) to find you, the quicker the audience moves on to something else.
As far as myopic leadership is concerned, I think it’s unfair to place all managers and companies under one umbrella because they’re not all the same. I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding leaders and groups, and I’ve encountered a few bad apples too, especially since launching BSM two and a half years ago.
I do become puzzled when I interact with an executive or market manager and they ask for a favor or information, and I reach out afterwards and they can’t even take a few minutes to respond to an email or call. That’s even more likely to occur if the mere mention of doing business together comes up. In this small world of radio where relationships matter, people talk, and your reputation is everything, I think that’s a bad way of operating. Guess what happens when they reach out again asking me for another favor? I stop helping.
One of our industry’s biggest challenges is failing to adjust our viewpoints. Many are consumed by numbers, set in their ways, and see the world thru the inside of their hallways rather than from the outside looking in. They reject the social space because it’s a tougher sell, even though it’s where their audience lives. They turn a blind eye towards diversity and youth development because it requires doing things differently. Mention the idea of charging for digital content and you’re hit with the old school response “people expect radio to be free.”
Because of that logic, 13% of M-F hosting roles in top 20 markets are occupied by minority voices. We ignore the fact that 38% of those cities are populated by minority people, and when you look at the makeup of listening (92% ‘Other’/White and 8% Black/Hispanic) you can see where the growth opportunities lie.
Let me share one of my favorite examples. If you ask an executive what I do, they’ll say “he’s a consultant.” Ask them what that entails and they’ll list off the same description of what consultants did 10-20 years ago. Their impression is that I sit in my office, listen to the radio, analyze the ratings and give advice on content and how to increase numbers.
That’s certainly part of the job, but there’s much more to it than that. I’m a mentor, influencer, connector, teacher, analyst, creator and researcher. If you asked the room of people who spent time with me last week in Chicago, they’d tell you I explored a lot more than just clocks, content and ratings. I traveled to visit with a client this past September for 2-3 days and that entire trip had zero to do with their brand’s on-air execution and everything to do with digital/social analysis and strategy.
My point is that it’s a different world and it requires expanding your horizons.
Along those lines, the idea of charging for digital content may feel awkward because we’re so conditioned to giving it all away, but that shouldn’t deter you from considering it, especially if the audience demand is high for your programming. Good Karma in Cleveland wasn’t afraid to take the risk. Neither was The Athletic. Or ESPN. Or Barstool. Or Bleacher Report. Or the multiple TV and print outlets calling on their fans to help fund their efforts.
I don’t know about you, but I pay $10 per month for the WWE Network and never have buyer’s remorse. I feel the same way about subscribing to The Athletic and Radio Ink. My fiance pays for Netflix and Amazon Prime and is more than satisfied with what she receives each month.
When you add up the amount of hours and resources put into creating digital content and the return on investment associated with it, most brands struggle to turn a profit. It’s why we’re living with an antiquated system of airing 14-20 minutes of commercials per hour on our stations. We’d rather have 100,000 listeners paying zero instead of 10,000 listeners paying $5-$10 per month.
But is that audience truly valuable if it isn’t monetized? We can blame the sales team for not selling it but if demand for your content is high, why wouldn’t you charge for it? What’s better, 10,000 paying supporters or 100,000 free ones that provide no financial impact?
The world is constantly evolving. The user is in control and willing to pay for premium content and experiences. They’ll buy your podcast if it’s unique. They’ll purchase your merchandise and market your brand without needing to be asked. They’ll buy tickets to your events if you make them worthwhile. They’ll also reject your attempts to push things at them in an intrusive way.
Between Gordon Borrell and myself, you’ve been given plenty to think about. I should be taking my own advice and charging you just for reading this. But since I’m a nice guy, I’ll just wait for that follow up call or email that I’m sure you’ve been working on. Since the likelihood of that happening though isn’t very high, I’ll just settle for a free t-shirt or podcast subscription.