Thu. Apr 25th, 2019

Producing Sports Radio 101

I am fairly certain no one grows up with a burning desire to be a sports radio producer. It’s the producer’s job to make sure the show reaches or exceeds its potential. That takes a lot of work, even when working with the most talented hosts. In this week’s column, I give advice to producers working at local sports stations to help them build their careers. These are skills that I have seen in some of the best local radio producers in the country:

1. Guest Booking

At many (not all) stations, producers are judged first and foremost by their ability to book guests. The bigger the name and the more timely the guest the better. Booking those guests nowadays is a huge challenge. There are more than 500 sports radio stations in the country, five national sports networks, a million sports channels on SiriusXM plus every sports podcast in America looking for the same guests. So how do you as a producer differentiate yourself, your show, and your station?

This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hours and hours and hours of hard work building relationships. You need to build strong relationships with the local teams. Get to know everyone at every level of the organization—media relations, the players, equipment managers, secretaries, front office. Literally anyone you come across. You want everyone with your local sports teams to know you and speak highly of you. 

2. Managing Talent

If you can master managing talent, you will survive a long time in this business. The Score’s first PD Ron Gleason, now at WBBM Newsradio in Chicago, crystallized managing talent in one sentence early in my career, “What makes them (hosts) great on the air is what makes them hard to deal with off the air.” In other words, good talent can react strongly in an instant to anything going on or happening—which is great for a talk show, not so great for trying to have a logical, off-air conversation. 

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Managing talent as a producer comes down to being able to learn how to think like your hosts do. You have to know how they will react to anything–guest, topic, bit, anything you bring their way before you talk to them about it. You also have to know how they like to be communicated with. Phone call, text, email, Facebook chat and how frequently. I think the frequency of communication gets overlooked. A producer can drive a host crazy by either under or over communicating. Finding the right balance and knowing that it’s not a set number but a feel. If a major news story or trade happens, you are going to communicate more than you would on a regular day/night. 

3.  Audio

You have to remember that this is sports radio. The audio you use gives you the radio part. Otherwise it’s just a host or two hosts talking. I would break the audio down into three categories: 

  • News audio–sound bytes and highlights from a recent game or press conference that adds flavor and fits in with one of the major topics of the day.
  • Show staples–the regular pieces that are part of the show. I’m talking about opens and drops that you use on a daily basis and during regular segments or bits. 
  • Creative audio–this is stuff that is typically produced and is fresh. It can pair something a host said with other audio, music, movie/tv drops etc. It’s great when you can bring something back that a host, caller or guest said and have it produced with something clever. Include parody songs and clever rejoins in this category as well. 

The key to being good at this, frankly, is listening. Not just having your ears open but listening with intent. You need to hear something that triggers something else. No one is better than this than Dan McNeil. The Score’s afternoon host has remarkable recall and can think of something somebody says and what audio would go great with it. Luckily that rubbed off on me at least a little bit.

Here’s an example. A couple weeks back I was listening to The Fan in Columbus the Monday after the Buckeyes loss to Purdue. Their very talented afternoon host “Common Man” was going on this rant and was emphasizing that Ohio State doesn’t lose to Purdue and was really emphasizing “Purdue.” All I could think about was the famous Bobby Knight rant where part of it was him saying, “I did not come here to lose to fucking Purdue!”

Common Man’s rant interspersed with the Knight clip would have been a priceless use of fresh audio–the rant, with the infamous audio from Bob Knight. For more about audio on sports radio stations, check out my previous column here:

4. Show Prep

Nothing varies more widely than the amount of show prep hosts do, how much they want from the producer, and how they want it. It’s insane the differences. I’ve seen hosts who literally just want the show run-down of guest and segments for that day. Other hosts need or want pages and pages of show prep on everything scheduled and everything that could possibly be talked about.

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For the host, it’s about a comfort level. Some hosts don’t want too much prep to get in the way of doing their show, some want to do all the prep themselves, and some don’t want to do any prep. Give the hosts what they need to sound like the smartest, funniest, most prepared talent in America. 

I understand that today more and more is asked of the show producers. Many producers also do updates, run their own board while screening calls and updating social media and show podcasts. I’m not saying the advice is easy, but these are four areas where you can really differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack.