Thu. Jul 19th, 2018

Lessons Learned at the BSM Chicago Programming Summit

When I’m in the moment it can be difficult to enjoy and appreciate the wins. My mind is always thinking about the next challenge or the previous one and what I could have done differently to be more effective. But this week, I’ve allowed myself a little bit of time to reflect back on the BSM Chicago programming summit because this was a brand new experience.

The idea first entered my mind two and a half years ago when I traveled to Chicago for the Podcast Movement Conference. Anytime I’m on the road, I try to find a few local sports radio people to connect with in person. I believe that’s an important part of keeping relationships strong.

During that trip, I dropped by to see Mitch Rosen and Adam Delevitt at each of their offices. When Mitch showed off the Blue Cross Blue Shield Performance Stage area and said “if you do a future conference, keep Chicago in mind” my mind started racing.

I liked Chicago because it’s not only an incredible city, but it’s centrally located. I felt that would make it easier for all who were traveling. I also knew Mitch and Adam were friends despite competing for local ratings bragging rights, and that’s a positive because when you’re considering putting on an event, you want both local brands to be part of it. The event may occur in one company’s building, but having local balance is important.

What stood out most from last week’s summit was how many smart, talented and passionate radio programmers made the trip to share thoughts and ideas on how to evolve our format. We had 20-30 brand leaders in the room, along with a number of exceptional speakers with experiences in a variety of areas related to our business. I wasn’t sure going into the summit if the room would welcome straight-talk on real issues facing our business, but much of the pre-conference feedback suggested that another rah-rah speech on the radio business wasn’t necessary and having honest discussions about ways to improve was important.

I could feel the passion and candor for the topics we explored. That energy grew from session to session. Given that the room consisted of executives from Entercom, Bonneville, Hubbard, iHeart, Cumulus, Beasley, Emmis, Tribune, NRG Media, ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio, SiriusXM, VSiN, and the Chernin Group, it allowed us to spread our wings and have more meaningful conversations rather than just echoing one point of view.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you can see some of the videos that were recorded during the two-day summit, but I also want to pass along a few things that stood out while listening and conducting on-stage conversations.

  • Sarah Spain and Jason Goff (along with Dan Zampillo) were tremendous on the subject of diversity in sports radio. It’s not easy to be open and honest on a topic like this, especially in front of a number of people who could potentially impact a future paycheck, but they were. I’ve written about this subject before, and have called on our format leaders to step up their efforts to expand the audience and showcase more personalities from various backgrounds. The US population is nearly 50% female and 40% minority yet the representation on sports radio stations is far below that. 13% of M-F hosting jobs belong to minorities and only 12 women are installed as M-F show hosts. Making that even more perplexing is that the overall listening audience is 92% “Other” (white) and 8% minority. One may say “if it’s 92% then you have to superserve them” but I submit that the ceiling has been reached doing it that way, and the real growth is in bringing more minority and female listeners into the sports radio tent.
  • Jon Miller of Nielsen and Larry Rosin of Edison Research provided deep dives into the sports radio ratings picture, and growth opportunities in podcasting and smart speakers. PD’s know that digital/social content is a vital part of their present and future, but challenges remain for getting full ratings credit for it. Nielsen is trying to find permanent solutions to satisfy their clients and although that may frustrate programmers in the short-term, a long-term mindset is needed when connecting with an audience. Seeing the data of how podcasting and smart speaker consumption has grown, it makes business sense to continue creating content in those spaces. The questions every programmer should be asking are “How is my brand standing out in those spaces” and “How easy is it to find my station and on-air content on smart speakers and podcasting platforms?”
  • I loved the spirited discussion on social media benefits and pitfalls with Danny Parkins, Scott Shapiro and sports agent Barry Meister. I showed a few social media examples involving sports media members, some which may have raised an eyebrow or two in the room. Given that the panel included perspectives from a host, agent and executive, it allowed everyone to better understand how each person thinks and operates when grey areas are reached. Between debating which examples warranted punishment and whether or not social media provided enough of a financial reward for the amount of risks it involves, we couldn’t have had three better people weighing in on an important yet imperfect subject.
  • If there was a moment which made every PD stop in their tracks, it was when Laurel Cline of Wintrust Financial said “Until today I don’t think I’ve ever met a sports radio program director.” Unfortunately that’s pretty common in our format. It served as a great reminder that account executives and market managers must do a better job of involving their PD’s in bigger sales discussions. Not to be excused, programmers must also make it a higher priority to help their sales teams. I showed examples in one of my sessions of how certain brands miss the mark with branded content. It’s because social platforms are used as a dumping ground for ads and PD’s turn a blind eye because they’re focused on the radio airwaves. When you look at the lack of reach and engagement on those sales posts, put yourself in the client’s shoes and ask, “Why would I spend more money with a brand when the evidence shows that they can’t deliver one like or share for my business?” Look at how Barstool, Bleacher Report, Vice, Whistle Sports, etc. produce branded content. They weave clients seamlessly into programming, and that’s something we must do better too. It starts by getting reps, clients and PD’s into the room together and thinking beyond the speaker.
  • Hearing Tim Spence of KHOW and Orange & Blue 760 moderate a discussion with Todd Manley of WGN, Brian Long of XTRA 1360/Newsradio 600 KOGO and Chris Kinard of 106.7 The Fan on The Trump Effect and sports radio’s challenges with choosing whether to embrace or ignore topics involving the President and life/social issues was really interesting. I thought John Hanson of 610 Sports summed it up best at the conclusion of the summit when he said “No matter how experienced you are in this business, you’re not experienced in this. I’ve made mistakes. My talent have called me out on them, and they were right. It’s something we’re all trying to figure out together.”
  • Anytime David Kaplan and Laurence Holmes share a stage together you’re in for a real treat. Hearing them share their insights with Jeff Rickard on the business, how they prepare and use social media, what they need most/least from a program director, etc. was excellent. The passion these Chicago hosts have for our format was evident, and if you have 50-minutes to spare, watch their session. It was very entertaining.
  • Sports stations struggle to give their brands a social media voice. Personalities are popular on their own accounts, but future ad dollars in the social space will be reduced if you can’t create impact. I thought Dan Moriarty of the Chicago Bulls, Jen Tulicki of the Chicago Bears and Brad Boron of the Chicago White Sox gave great insight on the way teams operate. They face the same challenges, except they’ve done a better job of using personality and strategy with their approach. Jen pointed out that any post made by the Bears takes into account the words “tough and humble.” Dan’s mention of the Bulls six pillars (Human, Iconic, Timely, Thumb Stopping, Inclusive and Differentiating) and how no piece of content should be published unless it checks at least three of those boxes and never wanders beyond those areas was eye opening. He also noted that the Bulls employ 2-3 FT digital content creators and 2-3 seasonal employees, and their challenge is to take one piece of content and find 10-12 ways to promote that material across multiple platforms in different ways. Jen’s insights on being comfortable with infrequent activity on Snapchat and placing a larger emphasis on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram made a ton of sense given that the audience size is smaller. Perhaps the biggest takeaway for radio folks though was when the subject of sports stations posting 50x per day on Facebook came up. Jen said it best “Nobody likes that annoying friend who won’t shut up.” Dan followed with “That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen….posting that much only makes sense if you’re using video where the numbers are huge. Otherwise, it’ll cost you followers.”
  • Jim Cutler‘s speech on ways to image your radio station successfully was inspiring. He showed samples of ways to help or hurt your brand, and his airing of thirty seconds of “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah” reinforced the point of just how long that amount of time is and why it’s critical to make good use of it or risk losing your audience. I also thought his input on not boasting you’re great but letting your audience say it for you was smart. Perhaps his most memorable quote during the session was “a line draws a line” and that’s something every programmer should take into account when trying to reinforce the position of being a dominant performer in their local markets.
  • We were also fortunate to hear from Mitch Rosen, Ryan Maguire and Chris “Hoss” Neupert on winning with/without play by play. Justin Craig offered valuable insights on satisfying the fan experience and across multiple platforms. Mike Thomas shared his wisdom on how to make your sports radio station rock thru imaging. Chad Millman of the Action Network and Bill Adee of VSiN chatted with Joe Ostrowski about the future of sports betting and why it’s a huge category for sports radio folks. Dave Zaslowsky conducted an engaging conversation with three millennials, Bernie Goin, Julio Rausseo and Joey Alexander about the way they use and view sports media brands. And I scared the heck out of a few folks by offering some input on the future of the PD role, the missed opportunity with merchandising and other areas of the business we should be looking at in my Sports Radio Re-imagined and BSM Blitz sessions.

Altogether the event was a great success. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Entercom Chicago for providing a great room and a professional staff which helped us deliver a positive experience for all in attendance. Now that the summit is in the rear view mirror, I’ve got a few things in mind that I’d tweak if I chose to hold a second one. For those who weren’t there but have kept up via the website or social media, should this be done again in the future? I’ll take your feedback at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

I do believe that independent conferences like this are important. Many companies do a great job of bringing their employees together for annual learning, but that just reinforces your internal beliefs and opinions. It doesn’t expose you to different ideas, strategies and people, and there are certainly many other ways to grow ratings and revenue.

It took months of hard work to make this a reality. I didn’t charge a dime for it even though many said I should. In fact, I spent money doing it, but I believe it’s a worthwhile investment. I don’t go into things like this with my hands out or an expectation that it’ll lead to follow up business. I obviously hope it does, but I trust that if I produce good content, bring people together, and teach the business to those in positions to grow it, then companies will find ways to utilize me to help them. That doesn’t always happen, and sometimes it can be frustrating and make me question if industry people value outside support, but I quickly get past those moments of doubt, and return my focus and energy to doing what I love, trying to make our business better.

One thing I’d like to see improve down the road should we do this again is the attendance from market managers. I realize sales are vital and getting out of the building isn’t always easy, but the reason every brand holds a significant place in the hearts and minds of the audience is because of the programming. We have some incredible station managers in this format, and when big decisions have to be made to a programming lineup or an adjustment is needed for a brand’s digital, social or on-air strategy, it helps to be as informed as one can be. Given that there are people involved in the two-day affair beyond the terrestrial radio space, there’s no shortage of information or ideas to help people grow.

Think of it like this, if the PD of your radio station is Steven Spielberg, and your talent are Tom Hanks or Al Pacino, the more you know about the creation, execution and promotion of the film, the better it will perform at the box office. And in that case, you’ll still be helping the bottom line!

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