Tue. Nov 13th, 2018

Divorce Was Inevitable For The A’s and 95.7 The Game

On Friday afternoon, the Oakland A’s took an unusual approach to signal the end of their relationship with flagship radio station 95.7 The Game. They took to Twitter, releasing a short video which showed their equipment being moved out of a room, as the Kool and the Gang song “Celebration” played in the background. The phrase used in their tweet was “It’s not us, it’s you”, sending a message that they were unhappy with their partnership and moving on to find a new radio home.

Given my familiarity with the situation from having programmed The Game and worked with the A’s, industry folks began asking what I thought of the situation. Rather than spending all day trying to address each email, text and DM, I decided I’d save most of my thoughts for this space. After all, I’m way overdue for a lengthy piece.

Since I left the Bay Area in 2015, I’ve tried to separate myself from what’s happened there. I don’t work with either local sports station, even though I have friends in both buildings. I root for both to do well, and believe there’s plenty of room for each to do so. But this one situation deserves additional context so I’ll do my best to supply it.

Let me warn you in advance, I’m not going to pull any punches in this column. This is also strictly about the A’s partnership, and zero to do with the Oakland Raiders. Some people won’t like reading what I have to say, and if your feelings are hurt, I get it. I’ve put this part of my career in the rear view mirror, and sleep with a clear conscience. I know what I’m writing is true, and I stand by every word. If that’s an issue for you, it’s yours to solve, not mine.

When I heard about the relationship between The Game and the A’s reaching its conclusion it didn’t surprise me at all. In fact, it probably should’ve ended sooner. Had I not been leaving in 2015, I would have strongly recommended ending the relationship then. The goals for both groups were very different, and I think a split is best for both sides. Sometimes in business it’s not about who’s right and wrong, but rather if each party is able to help the other achieve their desired results. In this case, that wasn’t possible.

I haven’t worked for a Major League Baseball team so I’m not an expert on presenting the A’s point of view, but I understand why they’re frustrated. They wanted a flagship station to value them, and show their appreciation by treating them the way KNBR did the San Francisco Giants. They hoped to be a focal part of the station’s content and business strategy, and felt they weren’t given that respect.

If your franchise is in a pennant race, and providing a radio partner with tickets, a suite, remote access, use of trademarks, merchandise, special guest interviews, and the ability to join forces with them on sales opportunities, you’d hope that’d be enough to warrant special treatment on the flagship station’s weekday talk shows. When that TLC isn’t given, and you hear a competing station offering that treatment to another baseball team in your backyard, it creates disappointment. It gets magnified even more when your radio partner enters into a business relationship with the Golden State Warriors, switches its logo to the teams colors, and starts giving them the type of attention you’ve been seeking for years.

Your blood pressure likely increases even more when you tune in to your flagship station, and hear the on-air talent passionately talking about your rival, and welcoming guests and hosts from that team on a regular basis. After seven years of dealing with those issues, you’re probably going to want to find a new radio partner.

In a nutshell, the A’s wanted what the Giants, Warriors, and 49ers had, and didn’t receive it. The franchise was given that respect on television by NBC Sports California, and assumed The Game would be the radio equivalent of that TV station since the Giants were the centerpiece for KNBR and NBC Sports Bay Area.

But therein lies the problem. The team assumed and expected certain treatment from the radio station without taking into account what they needed too.

The Game was launched on FM to generate ratings and revenue, and compete with KNBR for the top spot in the marketplace. If fans were into a specific piece of content, we were going to give it to them, regardless of whether or not we were in business with them. We weren’t going to ignore one side of the Bay as the sports leader had for years. Our idea was to provide a more balanced and unfiltered approach since KNBR was known for leaning in one direction and treating the local teams with kid gloves.

Many thought though that we’d be the East Bay equivalent of what KNBR was to San Francisco and the South Bay. But that was never the plan. By doing that, not only would we have alienated one side of the market just like KNBR, but it would’ve also been business suicide.

When I moved to the Bay Area in June 2011, the station had been rushed on to the air with the A’s as a focal point. A 4-year agreement had been reached with the team, so I understood this was a long term play. We were a new radio station trying to gain fans, so it made sense to have a professional franchise on the air providing us with daily content seven months out of the year, and providing marketing inside the stadium, tickets, interviews, all of the usual stuff you’d expect a sports station to have.

On the other hand, KNBR had the Giants. The franchise played in the best stadium in baseball, were loaded with young superstars and popular personalities, and had just won the World Series in 2010. Excitement for their product was thru the roof.

The 49ers were also on KNBR, and had just hired Jim Harbaugh, and were on the verge of becoming a force in the NFC. Throw in the addition of Mark Jackson as Head Coach of the Warriors, another team on KNBR’s airwaves, and optimism for the market’s lone NBA franchise was growing as well.

Meanwhile, if you sat inside the building I was in, and looked at what you were up against, it was hard to see any path to victory by focusing on the A’s. KNBR’s teams won, and produced big ratings, the A’s did not. More times than not their game numbers were equal to or lower than the station’s talk shows. TV ratings and quarter hour segments provided a similar story.

There was also a public perception that the team wouldn’t spend money to retain key players, the stadium they played in was a mess, and ownership made it worse by continuing to tell the public they wanted no part of being in Oakland. The vibe all the way around was negative. Meanwhile, the teams across the street seemed to have everything going their way.

Reality was that the audience and advertisers had an insatiable demand for Giants, 49ers, and Warriors content, and if we hoped to compete, we needed to be talking about what mattered most to the majority. That didn’t mean the A’s and Raiders weren’t part of our content plans too, they were, but if they expected to be covered the way KNBR had the Giants, well we weren’t going to do that.

Over the next few years, I pissed off a lot of A’s fans, members of the organization, and even some of my staff by taking the on-air approach that I did. It was never personal. I had to look at what was best for our business. I was brought to San Francisco to build a station, grow ratings, and put talent in position to become household names in the market which would hopefully allow them to enjoy lengthy careers there. That mattered more than being popular.

What became frustrating as the relationship grew is that nothing we did seemed to be enough for the team. If we gave away 10 pairs of A’s tickets, and 1 pair of Giants tickets, there was an email or call expressing disappointment with the Giants giveaway. Petty bickering took place if one of our shows spent more time talking about the Giants than the A’s. If an A’s fan complained to the team about something said on the air, another complaint session followed or we’d learn of the team’s displeasure on social media.

Tensions increased more when I hired Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Brandon Belt, Jeremy Affeldt, Ryan Vogelsong, Shawn Estes and Rich Aurilia as weekly contributors. It didn’t matter that I had hired Bob Melvin, Billy Beane, Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson, Sean Doolittle, Stephen Vogt, Dallas Braden, and Ken Korach too, only that Giants players were receiving air time on the radio station.

But the relationship soured most when we added Aubrey Huff to morning drive. It was a gamble, one that eventually didn’t work out, but when our ratings immediately shot up from 10th to 6th, they didn’t care. It didn’t matter if the station was healthy, and featured Chris Townsend on the show too (the A’s pre and postgame host), only that a former Giant was on our airwaves. It began to feel like the team would rather see us fail doing it their way, than win doing it our way.

I wasn’t privy to the way the A’s operated internally, but I got the sense that Billy Beane understood the big picture, and didn’t care about petty nonsense. I could be wrong, but that’s how he presented himself when we met. I thought he was incredibly sharp and hoped his type of thinking would rub off on others in the organization. Maybe on the baseball side it does, but when we had to navigate issues, and create opportunities to generate interest and revenue with people in other parts of the organization, it felt like we spoke a different language.

For starters, working with A’s PR during the first two years was a nightmare. The former PR head (not Adam Loberstein who was fair and easier to work with) constantly ripped the station, wanting me to set up time with our hosts so he could teach them how to discuss certain issues whenever he disagreed with their positions. If we asked for a bigger name player or someone in the news, it was equal to undergoing a root canal, and the answer was usually no. Even simple stuff like getting tickets to giveaway on-air to the team’s more popular series (Yankees, Red Sox, Giants) was a chore.

When we requested the team promote its players, manager, and GM’s appearances on our radio station via their social media accounts, that too was denied. The franchise tried to blame it on MLB’s rules, but when I provided evidence of how the Twins and Red Sox were using social media to support their radio partners, a few things magically started to change.

Things finally reached the point of no return when the head of PR called our hotline on a holiday threatening to blackball a PT host who had read an update on the air about the stadium issue based on something that had just been posted in the San Francisco Chronicle. He didn’t call me or APD Jeremiah Crowe. Instead he felt it was his place to threaten an employee, even though he had done nothing wrong.

Then, after the radio station spent money to send the midday show to broadcast from A’s spring training, I flew to Scottsdale to personally thank the team for hosting us, and to share some good news that we’d be increasing our player deals for the upcoming season. Before I could even say hello, I was berated like a child in front of a few players just outside the locker room over a few on-air opinions the head PR guy didn’t agree with. I bit back, told him what I thought of his attitude, changed my flight, and headed back to San Francisco a few hours later.

I also had what I would call philosophical differences with the team’s head of broadcasting. When I pitched the idea of Chris Townsend being added as a field reporter during games, it was initially rejected. Nobody loved the A’s more than Chris, and his chemistry with Ken and Vince was great. We were trying to give people more reasons to listen, but they didn’t feel that was important. As it turns out, they finally in 2018 (5 years later) decided to start giving Chris an opportunity to contribute inside the game broadcast.

Challenges also existed at times with the play by play product. Ken Korach and Vince Cutroneo did a great job together, but when Ken had to miss time due to his health or travel issues, the broadcast felt different. I recommended Roxy Bernstein and Guy Haberman as fill-in options, and at first, the team was reluctant. They’d instead put Vince in a booth by himself, and the one-man broadcast often produced lower ratings. That was especially problematic when the team played on the east coast because those start times would be 4pm PT, meaning they were occupying afternoon drive.

After a number of conversations, and constant pleading, they finally gave Roxy and Guy some opportunities, but it wasn’t easy. I even had to battle over a situation where a one-man broadcast was scheduled to happen again in Texas as part of a three game series against the Rangers. The team finally bent, and gave the green light for Roxy to step in, all he had to do was cover his own flight, hotel, and food.

Personally, it didn’t matter to me, which broadcaster they preferred or if they wanted to bring in someone else who the audience might recognize. I just wanted to make sure we were delivering the most entertaining presentation we could to give people a reason to put the game on. It also spared Vince from being put in a spot that was unfair to him.

What I haven’t touched on yet was the business side of the relationship. The team and radio station at that time worked on a rev share. We didn’t pay a rights fee. That was very helpful to a new station which wasn’t ready to absorb huge expenses. However, the reason the Giants did earn a hefty fee from KNBR is because they had what the A’s didn’t, huge ratings, and big advertising. Clients wanted to be at AT&T Park, and associated with the Giants brand.

The desire to be connected to the A’s at that time from a client standpoint was much lower. Our sellers busted their asses to try and get people on board, and they talked up the team’s history, the David vs. Goliath story, and the more affordable pricing, but it was hard. You can only run into a brick wall so many times, before losing confidence.

Making things even harder was convincing the team to create events and revenue drivers beyond spots and on-air segments. I sat in a meeting in 2014, already frustrated by the lack of progress, but decided to take one more stab at it after a chat with my former marketing guy Tony Cafarelli. The 25th anniversary of the A’s sweeping the Giants in the 1989 World Series was happening that season, and I thought, “If ever there was a time for an underdog to remind people the Giants may have the nicer stadium, and the recent track record of success, but when it mattered most, just remember who put who in place” this was it. I wanted to do something big to excite fans, and remind them of what was a special time in Bay Area baseball history.

I pitched a 1989 flashback event featuring appearances by Tony LaRussa, Roger Craig, Will Clark, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Matt Williams, Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson, and others, with the idea that we’d share expenses, sell tickets, and give fans a chance to hear these guys share stories together, sign autographs, and bring together the entire Bay Area sports community.

After the idea was presented, it was almost immediately nixed because of the sheer mention of the Giants. There was no thought given to showcasing both franchises in a way that might bring more people to a central location, or how unique it’d be to hear McGwire and Clark, LaRussa and Craig, or Canseco and Williams together. As the weeks and months progressed, the idea morphed from a partnered event to a team event, leaving the radio station with no ability to share in the revenue success. I already knew that generating ratings with the team was a tall order, but when I saw what was taking place following that meeting, I realized making money together would be just as difficult.

If you’re a fan of the A’s, I realize this matters little to you. You just want to hear the team’s games on a good radio signal, and hear the hosts on that station talk about them to make you further invested in their success. When you’re not provided with that type of content, and hear the other team in the market receiving it, it pisses you off.

But sports radio isn’t a labor of love, it’s a business. The Game wasn’t built to please an audience of one, it was created to try and reach as many Bay Area sports fans and advertisers as possible. There were many hosts on the station who would’ve loved to have spent more time talking about the team, but when the numbers showed a significant disadvantage every time they did so, it made it harder to continue down that road.

Case in point, during the 2012 playoffs, the A’s provided as thrilling of a finish to the season as I have seen. Korach’s final call was awesome, and our entire staff got swept up in it. If memory serves me right, the A’s were 5 out with 9 games to play, and somehow rallied in the final week to sweep Texas, and win the AL West.

Everyone in the building at that time was bleeding green and gold, and convinced the A’s were going to shock the world. They weren’t interested in hearing about the Giants also being in the playoffs. I warned the crew not to lose sight of what was happening in San Francisco, but sure enough they did.

As it turned out, Justin Verlander and the Tigers ripped the A’s hearts out in Game 5 of the ALDS, sending the team home early. The Giants then bounced back from being down 2-0 to win their first round series against the Reds.

The following week, our talent sounded like the baseball season was over, even though the team eight blocks away was headed to the NLCS. The Giants went on to beat the Cardinals in the NLCS, advancing to the WS, and do what Oakland couldn’t, sweeping the Tigers to win the World Series.

When the ratings data came out the following month, I shared it with the staff, and we talked about what happened. I explained that we allowed our personal fandom and professional allegiance to blind us from what most fans in the market were feeling, and as a result, it came back to hurt us. We treated the Giants as a less important story, yet their games vs. the Reds produced mid 30 shares, and when they advanced to the WS the numbers soared into the 50’s.

Meanwhile, at their peak (Game 5), the A’s popped an 18 share, with the majority of ALDS games registering between an 8 and 14 share. We were pleased with the playoff numbers, because they were much better than the 1-4 shares we were accustomed to receiving during regular season games, but it painted a clear picture of where things stood.

The NY Times produced a piece in 2014 showing how different regions rooted for teams involved in the postseason, and when the Bay Area was shown, all you saw was a sea of orange, including in Oakland. Each piece of evidence offered the same results, and whether diehard fans liked it or not, we couldn’t ignore the signs.

Look at it like this, if you opened a restaurant and served a particular type of meal, and nobody showed up to eat, you’d either change the menu or hang a ‘Going Out of Business’ sign in your window. I didn’t move to the market to oversee a folded radio brand, and neither have any of the managers who have operated the radio station since I left.

The sad part in all of this is that I LOVED the underdog story. It epitomized in many ways who we were at The Game. I thought the franchise had great history, and even this past year I felt myself pulling for them. I wish the team’s games on the radio would’ve brought more fans and advertisers to the dial, but for whatever reason, attracting a large audience at the stadium or on the radio or television was a big challenge.

Though I had differences with some inside the A’s organization, and felt the problems stemmed from jealousy over the Giants, and a lack of creative thinking, there are folks there who I still hold in high regard. Ken Korach is as good of a human being as he is a broadcaster. He’s consistently invested in every game, and whenever the station needed a few minutes of his time to assist with closing a client or creating a quality segment on the radio, he was there to answer the call. He’s a true professional.

I also enjoyed having Billy Beane on the radio. He was not only intelligent, and well spoken, but also candid and comfortable. In many ways, he’s been the face of the A’s brand for the past two decades, and everyone from Brandon Tierney to Chris Townsend to Ric Bucher and Damon Bruce shared positive views of his segments. If anything I wish we could’ve talked him into more appearances in the booth. When he did do it, it was spectacular.

I shared a similar opinion of Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson, Sean Doolittle, and Stephen Vogt. They weren’t just entertaining on the air (each could have a future in media if they wanted to), but they did extra stuff such as meet and greets, public events, and signing merchandise to help us further connect with fans. The only shame is they weren’t kept around longer.

Last but not least, A’s manager Bob Melvin was a class act to work with. On more than one occasion he went the extra mile to support the station, including going outside of the stadium before a game in uniform to join Chris Townsend on the air. It wasn’t uncommon for Bob to tune into the postgame show on his drive home, and call the hotline to chat with Chris about what transpired that evening. He understood the relationship, and was a pleasure to deal with.

When teams and media outlets work together, things can feel personal at times. I know there are people there now who had zero to do with the first four years of this relationship, and have just been trying to make things better during the past three, but some of the same issues exist. You can say “It’s not us, It’s you” but you may want to ask yourself why three different program directors and four general managers at the same radio station have come away with the same opinion. Not to mention, why the franchise is on the verge of adding its 15th radio partner in 50 years.

These type of relationships are very much like a marriage. You tie the knot with the best of intentions, but as times change, sometimes you discover the fit isn’t right. In this particular case, the A’s and The Game have different needs. The A’s want a radio station that makes them a priority, and The Game wants content on its airwaves which can produce ratings and revenue. That’s why the two sides are getting divorced after seven years together.

But rather than taking shots on the way out the door, it’s wiser to chalk up the split to irreconcilable differences, and move on amicably. The tweet the A’s put out may have rallied their fan base, but it sends a bad message to media partners who might consider working with the team. Putting a sour taste in Entercom’s mouth after a seven year run is also foolish, because they have more play by play partnerships in the radio business than anyone else, and keeping them interested, even if it’s just for leverage purposes, is smart business. Then again, that’s what businesses with a big picture view do. Unfortunately, that’s not the Oakland A’s.