Wed. Sep 19th, 2018

The Risks and Rewards of Playing to Win

It’s been said many times that you don’t win in sports radio without great talent. It helps that our subject matter is important to people and offers a mental escape from the harsh realities of life. For a few hours each day fans can watch a game, process the information and final result, and listen to what sports talk media personalities think about the same event they just consumed. It’s a necessary distraction that brings us joy and makes the daily pressures worth battling.

In many ways it creates a bond between a talk show host and listener. Sports is the unifying content, and when presented in a way that keeps the audience learning, laughing and debating with the radio, it can become unbreakable.

But at the core of it all is having a masterful talent occupy the airwaves. The content might be the hook to get them there, but the host is what keeps them there.

As I watched the NBA Draft last week it dawned on me how General Managers are in the same exact situation as a Sports Radio Program Director. Identifying game changing talent is difficult because so many players are skilled. What separates the best are the smallest of details but those minor things can be the difference in adding players who lead you to titles or keep you in the swamp of mediocrity.

For instance, a GM could choose a player who plays 8 years in the league, makes an all-star team or two and averages 15 points per game. Most would see that as a solid choice. However, if the next player taken plays the same exact position and goes on to spend 12 years in the league averaging 25 points per game, being a 9 time all-star and winning multiple titles, the perception of that GM immediately changes.

We’ve seen this numerous times. Darko Milicic going before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Sam Bowie being chosen ahead of Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant being passed over for Greg Oden. Kobe Bryant and Donovan Mitchell being selected 13th in their respective drafts, and Giannis Antetokounmpo falling to 15.

Picking talent is a crapshoot and not every program director is good at it. Yet the brands that win most are those which feature talent that can’t be matched by competitors.

One glaring weakness in our business is that there isn’t a lot of training involved when it comes to becoming a programmer. Many market managers and executives place a brand’s fate in the hands of someone who’s proven themselves as a strong producer or talent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the individual is ready to run the whole show. To relate it to sports, Norv Turner and Josh McDaniels have proven in the NFL that they can be great offensive coordinators but both have yet to show they can be difference makers as head coaches.

Some PD’s might be excellent at writing imaging, creating work schedules, participating in sales and promotions meetings, and helping producers land guests on a show. But can they identify and coach great talent and position them strategically against a competitor? I don’t care how good a programmer is at those other jobs, their brands won’t win if their talent evaluation skills aren’t superior.

Equally problematic is that some market managers want to shop for the groceries but task the PD with cooking the meal. The problem is, some deliver chocolate pudding and spaghetti and wonder why the mean doesn’t taste good. They also don’t want to do the legwork necessary to locate great talent. Instead they gravitate towards people they know who may have some talent but have yet to prove they can deliver results despite being given multiple opportunities to do so.

Having made hiring decisions in multiple markets, some of which I reaped the rewards from, and others which I felt the sting from, I learned that it’s vital to do your homework, think big and keep rolling the dice. If you operate safe, your brand plays safe. That ultimately leads to average results. I’d much rather put my own ass on the line trying to be great than sit comfortably on it knowing that my brand was nothing special.

I used to have one market manager ask me “would you put your job on the line over this decision?” I loved that. It was his way of saying “if you believe in this, let’s go all in. But if you’re not sure or have one ounce of doubt, you better keep searching.”

Being familiar with talent evaluating, I know that the process must be ongoing. Even if your station is strong today, one unexpected change tomorrow could instantly stall your progress. This is why you never stop looking. There are times when your best hosts have vacation time or get sick. Someone has to work those shifts. Are you plugging holes on those days or using those hours to get a read on someone who might help the brand somewhere down the line?

When it comes to locating talent, the first step is easy. Every PD begins by examining the local market options. This includes getting a read on the the local sports/talk radio hosts, TV personalities and writers. You might strike gold this way but I often find you only get half of your process completed by pursuing this path. Filling out a dynamic lineup usually involves more.

You’ve also got to study which former local athletes have an ability to speak in an entertaining way and possess interests beyond one sport. You scout the nation to see which media professionals have ties to your city. You look to your surrounding areas to learn who’s on the rise and hungry to make your market their final destination. You scour YouTube, iTunes, comedy clubs, listen to people calling your station, and hold contests to find future gems. And last but not least, you identify every single great personality who’s only issue is not having a local market connection.

Some PD’s will be scared off by that. I’m not one of them. Great talent adjust. If the worst thing that can be said about someone is that they’re not from the market, I’ll take it. Usually those complaints stop after a few months. Don’t get me wrong, there are some cities where this doesn’t work due to the sound and style of a particular host and the way the audience lives, thinks and talks, but I see many cases where programmers eliminate outside the market options despite broadcasting in markets comprised of transplants.

Why does that happen? Because it’s easier to play it safe than to risk it all.

But in this fragile business that we operate in, can you really blame someone for not wanting to put their feet in the fire without the fear of them being burned? Look around at the headlines over the past couple of years. Cumulus and iHeart dealt with bankruptcy issues. Townsquare and Alpha have gone thru adjustments. Entercom-CBS merged, leaving many to question how it’d affect their job status. These type of situations cause people to be timid. Why stand out during unsettling times when you can just hide in the background and make sure the check continues to clear?

Maybe it’s a case of stupidity on my part, but I could never work that way. I wish I could sometimes, but it’s not how I’m built. I’ve always believed that a programmer’s job is to hire and coach great talent, and create brands, events and content that mattered to people. If it means gambling on someone with a few question marks and higher talent, I’m going to play to win and take that chance.

To bring it full circle, I flash back to Round 1 of the NBA Draft last week and a decision which I thought spoke to this very issue. When the New York Knicks selected Kevin Knox instead of Michael Porter Jr. I felt it was the safe choice. As a lifelong Knicks fan, I hope Knox becomes the next LeBron James and makes everyone forget about Porter Jr.. I really do. But on draft night, his selection screamed of taking the easy route, instead of the bumpier road with greater promise. For an organization that was choosing 9th and hasn’t won a title since 1973, I don’t think you can operate that way and expect to win.

When comparisons were made between Porter and Knox by Chauncey Billups, he likened Porter to Kevin Durant, and Knox to Tobias Harris. That doesn’t mean either player will turn out that way but it tells you what the perception of each player’s talent level was. If you looked back a few months ago there was legitimate discussion of Porter being one of the top players in the entire draft. That wasn’t being said about Knox.

The reason Porter slipped is because of medical concerns over his back. Many in the media began to declare that he wasn’t worth gambling on, yet neither they nor I are doctors with any real insight on his future health concerns. We all speculate and take our cues from stories spun by teams and agents who are trying to create buzz to benefit themselves. The real answers come over time once we have results to analyze. It’s during times like these where we learn which organizations and executives are taking steps forward, and which ones will continue searching for solutions.

If Michael Porter Jr.’s back becomes an issue and limits his potential, then those who passed on him will look smart and the Denver Nuggets will look foolish. If he becomes a player who changes the outcome of games, then every team that passed on him will be wishing they hadn’t and the Nuggets will reap the rewards. At just 19 years old (turning 20 this week) and possessing world class talent, I felt the risk was worth it, even if he missed next season. Especially for franchises like the Knicks, Clippers and Hornets who haven’t won, are in desperate need of elite talent and were picking outside of the Top 5.

And this is exactly what executives and companies in radio face too.

Do you take the safe path and pick up the performer who’s seen as a good talent simply because they’re familiar to you, your audience and have existing relationships with members in your building or do you go outside your comfort zone to take a chance on someone with greater skill, a higher ceiling but less familiarity and more question marks?

If you play to win, you will fail a few times. But you’ll also knock down a bunch of game winning shots. You’ve just got to decide if you’d rather be on the floor and pass up the shot or take the risk to try and win the game, knowing that you might miss. The great ones welcome pressure. It’s why we remember each of their successes and failures. The question you’ve got to answer for yourself is “are you willing to fail in your attempt to chase greatness or are you content with just playing the game?”

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