Thu. Sep 20th, 2018

What Can Tom Petty Teach Sports Radio?

Tom Petty was one of the most genuine and sincere musicians to ever grace rock radio. It’s hard to sit with the idea that he is no longer with us. I wrote a piece earlier this week for the blog Raleigh & Company about what made Tom Petty popular across so many different generations of rock fans and there’s definitely a lesson for sports radio hosts in there.

I grew up in the heart of the grunge era. I was eleven when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” debuted on MTV and the video scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it. I had no frame of reference for what it was. Nirvana had as profound an impact on my life as any lesson learned from my parents or any moment in sports.

But even in the height of grunge, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers thrived. They made apathy look cool long before Kurt Cobain did.

The lesson you can learn from Petty is how to grow with your audience without sounding old. Dan Patrick has mastered this trick. He has managed to grow and change his show and style based on where he is in his life, but he never sounds old.

The same was true of Tom Petty. When he was 44, he released “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” That’s not an age when musicians are usually winning over new fans, but Petty managed to grow his fan base in a way that didn’t drive off his longtime fans. He never deviated from the old rock n’ roll and electric folk influences that shaped him. He was just super comfortable with the idea that music videos and style were a major part of the deal now.

Have you been in the same market for a long time? Are you one of the older guys on your airwaves? How do you manage to still be the guy that your longtime fans connected with long ago yet remain relevant to sports fans half your age?

Well, DP is a good guiding light. He still mixes sports and pop culture in a way guys in their 40’s and 50’s are comfortable with. He still uses his and Todd Fritz’s connections to deliver one of the most impressive guest lists and he isn’t afraid to ask those guests tough questions that demand real answers. What has changed for Patrick is that he and the show have embraced podcasting and the importance of social media. A good sound clip will only go so far, but turn an interview into a YouTube video, and it’s capable of new life days, weeks or even moths later.

It cannot be overstated how much the Dan Patrick Show changed the game for sports radio by figuring out how to turn a radio show into compelling television. Like Tom Petty, Dan Patrick hasn’t gotten away from what makes him influential and important in our business, he has just adapted to the elements that have to exist in 2017 in order to be relevant with a younger audience.

No one can make you into sports radio’s answer to Tom Petty. That can only come from being authentic and willing to adapt to change in a way that doesn’t feel like a desperate attempt to woo young listeners. You also can’t let yourself age in a way that makes it hard to remember whatever made you great. I’m not going to call anyone in the sports radio world out, but I will happily call out a musician.

The goal is to be Tom Petty, not Eric Clapton. There was a time in the 90’s when Eric Clapton seemed to accept that he was old and would never again create rock masterpieces like “Forever Man” or “Layla.” Instead, Clapton chased the top spot on the adult contemporary charts. Look, songs like “In My Father’s Eyes” and “Change the World” are perfectly fine, but they are a major deviation from what made Clapton popular. By comparison to the blues driven rock of his youth, those songs sound like Eric Clapton cashing in his 401K to move into a retirement community.

Petty never had those moments. Closer to the end of his all-too-short life, he went back to what made him happy. He reassembled his original band Mudcrutch, and started talking about his desire to sound more like the Allman Brothers and was pulling it off. In short, he found ways to challenge himself that didn’t confuse his audience.

Whatever brand you have built or are building, it is important to stay true to it. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to have epiphanies or changes of opinion on topics. It means that if you’re Petros Papadakis and you’ve built a career on a combination of knowledge and energy, you need to figure out how to bring that into the next phase of your career. It means if you are Josh Innes and have built a career on attitude and never being wrong, you have to figure out how that sounds as you get older, because nothing sounds older and frankly sadder than a 50-year-old host still trying to sound like he did at 30.

For the record, I mentioned Petros and Josh specifically because they are really good at what they do. Based on podcasts they’ve done here on BSM, I can tell they put a lot of thought and effort into how they grow with their listeners.

Tom Petty was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of entertainer. He was a great musician that understood how to grow with the times, and when he was better off just doing him instead of adapting again. It’s why my 66-year-old mother is just as devastated by his death as I am at 36-years-old.

If you want to illicit that kind of loyalty from an audience and enjoy that kind of longevity, you have to be comfortable with the choices you make and where they take you. Stay in the moment. Keep focusing on the biggest stories of the day and what you have to say about them, but also take time to think about what worked in the beginning of your career and how those qualities can evolve.

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