Mon. Sep 24th, 2018

Dealing with Tragedy in Sports Talk Radio

Sports radio serves as a distraction from everyday life for its audience. Whether you listen to it while in transit to or from work or while sitting in an office attempting to perform your responsibilities, the programming is in place to inform, entertain, and at times stir emotions. It’s a format that is listened to largely by males 25-54 and they seek it out because sports provides a genuine joy to their life that few other things can.

But what happens when a real life tragedy occurs in your neighborhood? The thought of listening to two sports radio hosts debate a batter’s ability to hit a baseball or provide context on why a basketball player is able to shoot a little orange ball into an eighteen inch hoop, while serious issues linger in a community seems off-color. The joy and distraction that sports radio is asked to provide suddenly is no longer acceptable. On-air talent who are built to have fun, inform, debate, and connect, are transformed from the cool guys you want to hang out and drink a beer with, into messengers who are there to update information and share the more serious side of themselves by letting you know how an incident makes them feel.

Although many on-air hosts in sports radio have interests beyond the sports world, and some have even dabbled in delivering news/talk shows themselves, the reality is that not many are trained or focused on providing this level of content. It’s easy to tell a talent to adjust and talk about a serious story when it happens, but every good on-air host wants to be great when they turn on their microphone and speak to an audience. When the subject matter requires going outside their comfort zone, it can be very stressful.

Most sports radio people choose to work in the sports format because it’s supposed to be fun, light, and a break from the seriousness of life that adults deal with on a daily basis. We all have bills to pay, families to support, personal battles to wage, and sports allows us for a few hours to put those things on hold. It may not solve our problems but without it we’d be less happy.

Unfortunately, in the past decade alone, there have been far too many instances where sports talk radio hosts have been pressed into action to have to change their programming plans. Major tragedies and serious events have rocked our country numerous times, and although it may not be comfortable, when it happens, the way your radio station and talk show responds can have a lasting impact on the way your audience looks to you in the future.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a servant to the community. When people in your city are grieving and seeking answers to their questions, they turn to you, hoping you’ll provide some measure of clarity for them to make better sense of what has happened. They count on you to help ease their anger, keep them informed and when the mood is right, offer a comment or two that may allow them to laugh.

Listeners cherish their relationship with the on-air talent. They see them as a friend who keeps them company on a daily basis. While the bond may be built from a shared joy and passion for sports, they also expect a local personality to use good judgment and understand that there are times when the script must get tossed.

If you went into work in Baton Rouge, Louisiana today, chances are you’re trying to make sense of why a number of police officers were targeted and killed, just one week after the same horror took place in Dallas, Texas. If you were operating a sports talk show in Nice, France on Saturday, there’s no way you’d be discussing anything other than the awful attack by a madman who chose to run down hundreds of innocent people.

I’ve gone through this situation myself while working in upstate NY on the day that September 11th occurred. It’s a day that no sports host can ever be prepared for. The thought of having a conversation about the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Rangers, Giants or Jets felt unjustified, and luckily the radio station I worked for embraced ditching the sports programming and turning its attention to the serious tragedy that impacted our community, and the entire country.

In those moments you may not be as informed as FOX News, MSNBC, CNN or any other news outlet, but you possess something they don’t, a connection to your local audience. Your listeners understand that you’re out of your element and that you may not have the same level of insight on the story that some of the other news outlets do, but they also recognize that you’re their friend, their companion, the one who shares their life on the air with them each day. You offer the necessary distraction to keep them laughing and looking forward to the games they’ll watch later that evening. They don’t need you to be the most skilled news reporter during those horrific times, just a broadcaster who’s smart enough to read the room and understand that there’s a time in place for fun, and a time where certain things get placed on hold because other things are simply more important.

But not every uprising or tragedy warrants ditching your sports radio programming. Knowing where that line sits is impossible because each station, talent, programmer, and city responds differently. Innocent people have died at the hands of the police, cops have been murdered unjustly, and protests happen in many large cities on a regular basis. Each time they occur, is a sports talker supposed to break its format?

It’s a really tough call because each station has to decide “has this event rocked the community to the point where everyone is feeling it”? “Is our audience going to turn to our brand and people for further opinion and information on the story”? “Is it a development where most local stations feel compelled to break format or is it better suited for the local News/Talk station to provide further context on”?

For example, when the Ferguson, Missouri riots broke out, some programmers would have chosen to drop sports to cover the story locally. Others wouldn’t have. It wasn’t a matter of one way being right, and the other being wrong. I asked 101 ESPN’s Program Director Chris “Hoss” Neupert how he handled the situation and here’s what he shared.

“With such a sensitive issue (the Ferguson riots) we chose to let people who were better informed than us tackle those issues. Our job was to do what we do best which was to be a positive distraction for local people from the real world issues. Our team was compassionate about the situation and wanted to do their part to give people an escape by giving them something that sports does so well which is present a mixture of stats, wins, losses, storylines, and competition, not color or race.”

The Ferguson story was one which the entire community was aware of but it didn’t unify people the same way that the shootings in Dallas, Orlando, Charleston, and Sandy Hook did. Asking a sports station and its talent to tackle racial divides, Mike Brown’s track record, the issues with the Ferguson police department, and the Black Lives Matter movement is asking them to step way beyond their comfort zone. For each listener who may have appreciated 101 ESPN diving into that conversation, many others would’ve rejected the brand for not staying in its lane. Regardless of their choice, they were in a no-win situation.

Given what our friends in Dallas experienced last week, and what others have experienced in other cities, I thought it’d be interesting to get a few perspectives on how to handle these situations. They are impossible to be fully prepared for, and although they may leave you wondering if the work you do really matters, you do the best you can, and understand that just by talking about it you’re able to provide a small measure of comfort for your audience.

No sports radio programmer or host wants to go to work and have to address these types of situations but there are times when they are unavoidable. As much as we love sports, nothing matters more than life itself and our friends, families, and neighbors. When they’re in harm’s way or have been emotionally wounded, we have to adjust and look out for them. The hard part is determining which tragedies require breaking format, and which ones don’t. Those decisions are extremely difficult and they can haunt you forever if you choose incorrectly.

jeffcatlinJeff Catlin – Program Director of The Ticket and ESPN 103.3 – Dallas, TX

The Ticket and ESPN 103.3 are both in the business of LOCAL radio, and this DPD shooting was in our town. That right there made it rise to a different level for us at Cumulus Dallas, regardless of station and format. We have to serve our local audience.

ESPN is slightly different in that there are ESPN Network commitments, but still when we can and could, we had to address what our community at large cares about on a given day.

To ignore this story on Ticket or ESPN or somehow say “people want a distraction from this” would in my opinion just be completely out of step and focus. At a time like this, certainly within the first 24 hours of a major breaking news story literally one mile from our studios, EVERYONE in Dallas Ft. Worth is talking, sharing, feeling emotional about this tragedy and we first and foremost have to reflect that. We also have to be a voice and gathering place for the community.

In the case of the Ticket where our lineup of talent has been in place and together for 20 years, we have a special bond and relationship with our audience. Not only do they expect us to talk about something such as this, but in a complimentary way towards our shows, they welcome hearing what their friends on the Ticket are thinking and feeling. It provides some sort of comfort to them. And if that’s the case, great, because it means that we have served our audience in a time of need.

In terms of our decision making, at Cumulus Dallas, after the San Bernardino shooting, all department heads across the cluster discussed this and came up with a plan of action in case something like this happened in DFW. So when news broke and this actually DID happen, we already knew how we would react. With a heritage News Talk station staffed 24/7 with reporters in the building, they took the lead. The other stations, including the Ticket, are able to take their on-air audio. Which the Ticket did. On Thursday night, the Ticket took the initial police briefing live on-air, and then we simulcast our sister station WBAP all night from approximately midnight to 5am.

I spoke Thursday night with our morning team about ways to handle the story on the show the next day. We were active on social media all Thursday night into Friday with updates.

On Friday on both the Ticket and ESPN I had individual meetings with all the shows to just discuss our plan, how we would handle the story, how much time would be devoted to it, etc. On both stations (On ESPN during our local shows) I estimate that 90% of content on Friday was devoted to the shooting and updating the story.

I knew first thing on Friday that I needed to update the station imaging in a reflective and respectful way. We were able to get that done and on-air during morning drive. Then as a cluster, we focused efforts on providing uniformed information to all of our audiences on-air and on our websites that directed listeners to places where they could help, while letting them know which community activities were planned for the days ahead.

Finally, on Tuesday, making a decision to carry the Memorial Service live on-air on the Ticket and ESPN was a no brainer. The President of the United States, the Vice President, two Senators and former President and Dallas resident George W. Bush, plus the Mayor and Police Chief were all on hand, and their speaking was a statement of how big this was. We HAD to carry this live.

Again, our job is to serve our local audience. This was the only thing on the minds of DFW citizens on Tuesday, and after hearing how poignant every speaker was, individual politics aside, it proved that our decision was the correct one.

It’s part of the healing process, and closure for the community, and this is part of the role that local radio plays during a time like this.

gavinspittleGavin Spittle – Program Director of 105.3 The Fan – Dallas, TX

The decision to change formats when the tragic events of last week hit us was a given. Serving our community is first and foremost. If that hurts me in the ratings, so be it.

Our two brands, NewsRadio 1080 KRLD and 105.3 The Fan, have a tight relationship. On Thursday night, we were still involved in delivering pertinent information because it was an “active” situation. The right thing to do was to simulcast with 1080 and I thought they did an amazing job delivering up to the minute information. The next day, we scrapped the entire sports format.

If one person felt a little bit of healing from listening to our open forum then we did our job. For the last 2 ½ years, a charity that we have heavily supported is the Guns and Hoses Foundation of North Texas. All of our shows have been involved with this charity including going to Swat Training, broadcasting from Fire and Police Departments so there certainly is a special bond. Part of that healing process was to immediately help the families of our heroes affected, and I’m proud to say that we’ve contributed to that cause.

The response from our listeners has been amazing but none of us want credit during this time. The credit goes to those who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way for our safety. The least we can do is to provide a platform through our radio stations.

jasonwolfeJason Wolfe – Former Program Director of WEEI – Boston, MA

Sports radio hosts are actually people too. That’s right, it’s not all fun and games to us. We care about life and about the world we live in, and frankly, we have very strong feelings about the issues that affect us all. Our sole concern isn’t simply whether the hometown team wins or loses on any given night. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with a tragedy.

When terrorism struck the Boston Marathon, my team at WEEI didn’t hesitate. We immediately dropped the sports format and went into crisis mode. All of our imaging changed, hosts were asked to come in early and to stay late, sales efforts and promotions were halted and we focused on being a resource to our audience so that they felt informed and comforted in their time of need. It’s so important not to panic when involved in such a story. Plans need to be well thought out and executed flawlessly if the station is to be effective in its coverage.

At WEEI, I used every resource I had at my disposal, from our partnerships with TV to our sister stations who had people on the ground at the finish line. That allowed us to cover every press conference live, to get first hand updates from the field, and to remain top of mind for our listeners who no doubt, were scouring every channel looking for the most up to date information.

As broadcasters, we have a responsibility to cover these terrible events and to provide the public with information, and an opportunity to react, be it emotionally, angrily or otherwise. Our guys understood that very clearly. Talk radio is talk radio. It doesn’t matter if your core format is sports, politics, music or business, when an event of this magnitude occurs in your city or town, as a staff, you have to act. And frankly, the reality is that there have been so many of these truly unfortunate stories to cover over the years, that smart programmers will have an action plan for events such as this, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Our most important goal throughout our coverage, as it was with any breaking news story, was not to jump the gun and report false information. This was a major problem during the first two days after the bombing. Numerous reports cited imminent arrests, the death toll, as well as erroneous information about the why and how this happened. Frankly, it was completely irresponsible. We had always lived by the slogan by right, not first, so while we knew it was important to provide our audience with the latest, we had to be very careful not to create more problems. As such, we took a measured approach to the news so as not to over-react, specifically, to what was being posted on social media.

Our second goal was simple. Be ourselves. The station has long been known for its ability to report on, discuss and analyze non sports stories, and by giving the staff the resources they needed, and the freedom with which to use them, I thought we did an exceptional job of doing our part to bring the community together by engaging in passionate debate with journalistic integrity. At the end of the day, it comes down to being prepared, being organized, and being thoughtful. That’s what our audience, and I think any audience expects, and if you can achieve that, you’ve done well and your coverage will be held with high regard.

davezDave Zaslowsky – Former Program Director of 97.9 ESPN – Hartford, CT

December 14, 2012 was like any other Friday. We were prepping for the big matchup between the Patriots and 49ers that was scheduled that weekend. One of the other stations in our cluster had the TV on in their studio when the news broke of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, which was about 45 min away from our studios.

Within minutes we were on the phone to our local NBC TV affiliate, whom we had a working partnership with to confirm what was happening. Once the reports were confirmed, which was very quick, our OM called the 3 PD’s of the cluster together to form a plan of action. Our 5 station cluster had 3 live music stations and our 2 sports stations (97-9 ESPN & Fox Sports Radio 1410) which I was the PD for were in network programming at the time.

So much information was out there that we felt the best thing to do for our listeners was to simulcast our local NBC TV affiliate. It was really the only way to cover it correctly, regardless of our format. My 2 stations stayed with the simulcast of NBC CT until 7pm and went back to network programming at that time. Our music stations went into talk mode taking calls and just letting people talk, which during a situation like Sandy Hook is what people want to do.

Our job is to serve the public and give them the information. At that point nobody cared about the Patriots-49ers, Giants-Falcons or Jets-Titans that weekend.  They wanted to know about those little children who were attacked. It was the right way to handle things for our listeners as they had come to depend on us during a crisis, be it a snow storm, a hurricane or awful day like December 12, 2012.

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