Sat. Mar 23rd, 2019

All Press is Not Good Press

The Christmas season is supposed to be a joyous one for many. But in 2018, Santa Claus and a 70 year old Christmas song are connected to controversies that have left some feeling less merry.

The most recent stir was created by a company named GraphicSprings, who conducted a survey to explore ways to modernize Santa Claus. The results of that survey found that 27% of participants felt Santa should be either female or gender neutral.

If you’re like me, you were probably wondering “Who took this survey?” and “When did the public call for a Santa makeover?”

Prior to the Santa chaos, radio was under a heat lamp after a Cleveland music station Star 102.1 removed “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, a 70+ year old Christmas song from its playlist. The controversy started with a complaint from one listener according to reports.

Sensing an opportunity to generate publicity, KOIT in San Francisco did the same thing. That decision was short-lived though after local listeners told the station to stop screwing with its Christmas music and put the song back into rotation.

Christmas controversies aside, you may have also seen bizarre segments on FOX News television appear in your social media timeline after Tucker Carlson used air time to discuss gender neutrality for babies and removing the word ‘man’ with Cathy Areu.

Just mentioning those items gives me a headache but it leads to an overall point. 

You’ve probably heard the phrase “any press is good press” or “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The idea behind each is that as long as the brand or its people are being talked about, that’s a good thing.

I strongly disagree with that assessment.

I don’t think the Kansas City Chiefs appreciated the publicity that Kareem Hunt helped the team generate a few weeks ago. Nor were the San Francisco 49ers excited about Reuben Foster staining their image over domestic violence allegations in late November.

Were both brands talked about? Of course. But did that sell more tickets or merchandise, generate more sponsor dollars, or raise the confidence and excitement of the team’s fans? I don’t think so.

In sports radio, a host is often on the air for 15-20 hours a week. There are going to be times when the topics they explore and the opinions they offer create media buzz. As long as it’s not something impossible to defend, you’ve got to let passionate opinionated people do what they do, even if certain members of the audience don’t agree with it.

That happened recently in Jacksonville when 1010XL and NFL reporter Jason La Canfora had an on-air spat. La Canfora wound up hanging up on the station’s midday show, and people were divided on Twitter over who was right and wrong in their handling of the situation.

A few months earlier, we saw a controversy brew between WFAN’s Mike Francesa and Gregg Giannotti. The two drive time personalities spent time on their programs offering a scathing assessment of each other’s talent.

In both instances, the noise was the result of passionate people having differing opinions. Both conversations began organically.  To coin a phrase from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, “nobody died.” 

When I reflect on the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ issue it reminds me of a decision made last year by CBS Radio Las Vegas management. After not landing the rights to the Vegas Golden Knights, management decided to institute a ban which would prohibit the team from being discussed on any of the cluster’s radio stations.

As soon as I heard about it, I thought ‘that’s a really bad idea’. Never mind the fact that it was the first time the city was treated to professional sports, a season in which the Knights shocked the world and went to the Stanley Cup, but that decision put every male and female personality in an impossible spot with the audience. They were forced to carry out a mandate, even if they disagreed, because an executive decided to send a message to the Knights about their position in the market.

When you program a radio station, you’re going to constantly be met with negative feedback. The audience gets mad. Teams get upset. Sponsors complain. Rarely do people rush to send you emails and tweets to let you know how much they appreciate your content and decision making. 

Leadership requires an ability to evaluate each situation, and think about the masses not just the vocal minority. It’s easy to say yes and give in to pressure. Saying no and standing by your people and content is harder. If you pull the plug on a song that’s aired for 70+ years, people are going to want to know why. They’re going to ask “Why was the song OK last year? What about those of us who still want to hear it? Will the station remove other songs it airs with questionable lyrics or meanings?”

Before you do something drastic that creates national headlines, you’ve got to examine the issue from all angles. If a few days after you make a bold decision you’re reversing it because the audience is pissed and your brand is under an avalanche of negative attention, it tells me you either A) didn’t research the issue well enough or B) used the moment for a cheap pop.

If it’s the latter, that’s weak. It doesn’t require much skill to create chatter. I can walk into a radio station today, grab the mic, tell the audience soccer will have 10X the amount of fan interest as the NFL in 3 years, and instantly the phone lines will ring, tweets and texts will pour in, and I may even end up being written about. 

Did I generate buzz? Sure. But is saying and doing things for affect the best idea if you want to build long term trust with the audience? I don’t think so.

An alternative rock programmer can walk into their office today and make national headlines by pulling Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’, Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’. A Hip-Hop station PD could do the same by removing Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’ and Eminem’s ‘Stan’. If the Classic Rock PD wants in, they can eliminate Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’, Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’.

But for a sports radio programmer, the material isn’t previously written and recorded. It’s created live thru the vocal chords of an individual. It’s more common to react afterwards, than in advance.

But imagine where this could go if we started acting like it was our responsibility to make decisions in advance and alter content based on the feelings of a few. 

How different would sports radio be if the on-air talent were banned from talking about any athlete who was involved in an arrest? Lawrence Taylor, OJ Simpson, Aaron Hernandez, Ezekiel Elliot, Aroldis Chapman, Mike Tyson, and Kobe Bryant wouldn’t exist let alone hundreds more.

What about if a local station landed the play by play rights to a team such as the Indians, Braves, or Redskins, and then decided to not refer to them by their name in all station imaging and online mentions because they disagreed with the franchise’s name and wanted to generate mainstream attention? It’d be an expensive decision, one which would likely cost them the team’s rights, but would it make a lot of noise? Very likely.

Let’s flip it now to professional sports. What if each league started taking players out of their Hall of Fames based on facts we learned later about them. Would that suffice? What about if they started reviewing infamous moments in sports history, and changing the results because of new found evidence. Would that sit well with you?

To limit artistic expression is extremely dangerous. Not only does the best content come from it, but it opens our minds to see things from a different point of view. That’s very much needed in this divided world.

I do understand that times change and certain messages don’t register as positively as they once did, but your interpretation of something doesn’t make it fact. It just means you have an opinion on it. When we begin installing bans, trying to rewrite history, and slanting content towards our personal beliefs with minimal amounts of evidence to support it, it’s almost always met with backlash.

There’s a frightening shift that’s been growing the past few yeas where people want to silence voices that offer positions they don’t agree with. It’s happening in radio, television and print. Changing the channel or having a spirited debate no longer seems to be enough. 

How this will affect future conversations on sports radio is going to be very interesting. I for one hope we’re not a format embracing restricted points of expression because that won’t expand our audience or get the best out of our talent. It’ll just limit our potential. 

It’s imperative that brands are led by people who understand the tight rope talent walk on and don’t get shaken by the first piece of negative feedback. You’ve got to do your homework and make choices that serve the best interests of the entire audience, even if it means a select few are unhappy. Once you recognize and embrace the fact that you’ll never satisfy the entire crowd, the better off you’ll be.

What you don’t want to do is rush to judgment and become the story, because it can alter the perception of your brand, especially if you have limited information to justify a controversial decision. You may think the press you’re gaining to please the noisemakers makes it worth it, but if the reputation of your brand gets damaged, and your staff loses confidence in you, I’m not so sure you’ll still see it that way.