Fri. Mar 22nd, 2019

Sports Radio’s Fundamentals Need Some Fine Tuning

“After sampling 13 shows in 2 weeks, Jason Barrett says sports radio programs need to fine tune their fundamentals.”

The fundamentals to doing a sports radio show are known by most who program or occupy the airwaves. The execution though isn’t always reflected in what comes thru the speakers. Since returning to my normal routine following the BSM Summit, I’ve had my ear on a number of shows and stations across the county. Some were local, some national, some highly rated, some not.

What I discovered was an inconsistency to executing the basics. I sampled 13 different shows over the past 2 weeks, and caught many missing the mark on the simplest of details which are necessary for having on-air success.

If you’re waiting for me to praise your brand and trash your competitor, don’t get your hopes up. I’m not going to specifically call anyone out. The intent of this column is to emphasize the importance of blocking and tackling on sports radio and point out why it matters to what you do.

If you’re new to the industry or if some of these things aren’t as clear, let me explain what I’m referring to. Radio show fundamentals include many factors. Among them are diving into the content at the start of a segment, resetting a guest or show/topic, identifying yourself and the brand, teasing the next segment and paying off what you said you’d discuss, and informing the audience of who’s speaking on soundbytes you’re airing.

Sometimes these issues occur because hosts and producers become too dependent on their show sheets. They’re so focused on what’s next or how the current topic or guest is fitting the schedule that they don’t listen close enough to what’s actually happening in the moment. They also fail to remind each other of the simple things that need to be executed throughout a show.

For example, think back to a guest you had on your show who you knew sucked in the first :45-:60 seconds yet you kept them on for 5 more minutes. Why did you do it? Likely because your producer invested time to book him/her or because you thought as the host that if you invested more time in the conversation it would ultimately get better. You also saw that they were scheduled from :30 to :42 so you figured “I’ve got to stretch this and get as close to the end of the segment as possible.”

But it didn’t go well did it? Rather than taking into account the audience’s time, and trusting your gut and ears to move on from poor content, you let the schedule, an individual’s effort, and your own ego stop you from maximizing the minutes you had to work with.

Now you might say “it’s only 5 minutes, big deal.” Well, 5 minutes of listening is what you need to gain to secure a quarter hour of ratings credit. Most listeners don’t give you 3-hours of their time. In fact, if you can grab 2-3 quarter hours a day on your station between 6a-7p ET that’s often a success.

Think about that for a second. A station’s normal broadcast day (weekday prime M-F 6a-7p) is 13 hours in length or 780 minutes. We’re considering 30-45 minutes of listening per day a successful one. The audience could choose not to listen for 735-750 minutes of the broadcast day and we’d still consider that a victory.

There’s also the reality that your audience doesn’t listen every day. I know if you’re a host or producer you’re convinced that 50,000 people arrive each day and hang on your every word, but that’s not how it works. You’re going to have a lot of listeners who check out your show only 2-3x per week and for short periods of time. If during one of those occasions, they listen 4 minutes or less, it’s as if they never stopped by.

When they do tune in, it’s your responsibility to make it easy to play along. You may think it doesn’t matter but something as simple as saying your name, the guests name, the caller’s name, who the person speaking in an audio clip is, the station and/or the name of the show plants seeds in the audience’s mind. Never should your audience exit your station and wonder who or what they were listening to.

This is especially critical if you’re a part time talent. There’s absolutely no reason you should be hosting a weekend show or filling in during the weekday and having an audience go 15 minutes without knowing who you are. What good is exceptional content if nobody can remember who created it?

You may think your tracks were covered when the station ran a liner promoting your name at the start of the segment 20 minutes ago, but what about the people who stopped by 5 minutes into the segment and left 10 minutes later? If they haven’t heard you say your name or the name of the show that would mean it’s been 15 minutes since the liner played and that’s too long to go without announcing your name and the brand/show.

Another one I’ve heard a lot lately that drives listeners crazy is guests going for extended periods of time without being identified. There’s no set rule for when to ID a guest but my preference was every 3rd question if the answers are short or every 2nd question if a guest rambles for minutes at a time. If it’s easier to just say “every 4 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 2nd or 3rd question” that’s fine. Everyone has a different plan of attack. The bottom line, don’t leave the audience wondering for 10-15 minutes who you’re talking to.

A couple of other examples that I want to focus on are not identifying audio clips, teasing segments and providing payoffs, diving into content, and forgetting to reset prior conversations.

Starting with teasing, I want you to answer one simple question: What gives you a better chance of keeping your audience listening to the next segment, telling them you’ve got bills to pay and you’ll come back after commercials or leaving them curious by promoting something interesting? I find that people usually respond better when they have something to look forward to.

This doesn’t mean you have to frame everything in a way that makes it seem like you’ve located the cure for cancer. If you’re doing a 16 segment 4-hour show, I don’t think you’ll be believable if you tell the audience every time you go to break that you have something that’s going to change their life. It doesn’t need to be oversold.

For example if you said “LeBron James’ future in Los Angeles is in question and in 4 minutes we’ll reveal a clue that makes it clear his time in the city of Angels is coming to an end” it might get your audience to come back, but you’re also going to look silly if that situation doesn’t happen. You may have a good clue, but unless you’re Magic Johnson, Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, and LeBron James, and you’ve made a collective decision about what the next step of the relationship is going to be, you don’t know exactly what will happen.

Instead keep it simple: “We’ve discovered a clue that may lend insight into the future of the Lakers relationship with LeBron James….we’ll share it with you next.”

Just as important, if you told the audience that’s going to be discussed next, make sure it is. Nothing pisses people off more then when they look forward to something, and the host develops amnesia during the commercial break and decides to spend the next 10 minutes talking about everything but what they said they would. The bottom line, give the audience something to look forward to and deliver on your promises.

The other part of this that I hear a lot of hosts make mistakes with, tell me what you’re doing NEXT. Tease one simple thing, that’s it. If a listener is engaged with your show and you’re heading to a break, you might get them to the next segment if you make it sound worthwhile. If you think they’re setting calendar appointments of when to tune in later in the show, be prepared to be disappointed.

When you tell the audience everything you have planned for the next 4 hours while heading to break or hit them with the 5 topics you’re hot on today it’s just noise. There’s no call to action. So too is the common throwaway of “we’ve got some Lakers, some Patriots, the Odell trade, we’ll do a little bit of Westbrook + Bryce Harper’s in the news.”

Why not just tell them “we’ve got a whole lot of sports to talk about” while you’re at it. That’s a classic case of “I have nothing planned for the next segment, but here’s a bunch of stuff.” As I’ve told hosts in the past who’ve worked for me, I put stuff in a suitcase. I need to know why I should spend my next 5 minutes listening to you. To use some baseball advice, throw your best pitch and hit your spot. Don’t get cute trying to show off all of your pitches at once.

Next, let’s talk about diving into content. Simply put, when the music bed plays and you utter your first sentence, are you wasting words or making them count? Nobody cares about your studio view of the city or who beat you to the soda machine during the commercial break. If you sound unfocused and waste people’s time with minutia, they’ll get tired of it and change the dial.

A host who does a great job of diving right into content is Colin Cowherd. When his segments start, he’s usually right into the the topic off of his first word. You may love or hate his personality and style or the topic he’s chosen but when it comes to not wasting time getting into a discussion he’s exceptional at it. Case in point, here’s a sample from yesterday’s show. You’ll hear the music playing under him as he wastes no time getting right into conversation.

A good exercise to help yourself as a host or producer is to take a drive in your car and just listen to 15-20 minutes of radio. 93.7 The Fan PD Jim Graci said at the BSM Summit that he has his talent listen back to an hour of their show each day. When the 5 minute commercial break hits it’ll feel like an eternity, especially if a station is running :15 and :30 second spots. If they do, you might hear anywhere from 6-15 different advertising messages.

You’ll find that the commercial breaks for many brands often include station promos, sports updates, service elements (traffic, news, weather, stock), station liners to send you back into the show, a music bed that starts the segment and plays for :05-:10 seconds, and in some instances, :10-:20 seconds of a soundbyte airing over the bed to send the host into the topic. That means your listener can be separated from your last sentence for 8-9 minutes.

The average commute time in the United States is 25.4 minutes. In most major market cities during drive times, that length may be double. Add it up and it means that the commuter is with you for 2-4 segments during their drive. If you have an 8-9 minute stoppage every 15-20 minutes, and fail to focus your content, dive in, and give the audience nothing to look forward to, you may turn out alright, but your odds of earning additional listening are going to be greatly enhance by teasing, paying things off, and diving in.

Moving to soundbytes, you can attach the best :10-:15 seconds of audio to a produced return or play it over a music bed, and then dive into your content, but is it too much to ask to tell the audience who was speaking on the clip when you begin building your stance off of it? Do you think your entire audience knows the voice of every single football, baseball, and basketball player and coach?

If you’re pitching to a cut inside of the segment, that too requires identification. Doing something vague like “The Raiders have opened up the checkbook but not everyone is convinced they’re spending their money wisely” and not referencing who shared the opinion that differs from yours is foolish. You’re making the audience work harder than they need to.

Make it easy for people to play along. Giving the name of the person speaking adds credibility to the discussion, and it’ll likely make your audience want to join the conversation. They may even tweet at the person who made the comment, offering their own opinions on what they said, or let them know that you disagreed with their point of view which opens the door to a rebuttal and additional content.

The last item I want to draw attention to is not resetting prior on-air conversations. What you’re talking about now is what matters most to your audience. Too often hosts forget that. When you say things like “We discussed this at length on Tuesday so we’re not going to beat a dead horse” or “People took issue with our position yesterday on LeBron James and I don’t get it” and don’t follow up by explaining what those points were and where you stand, you’re leaving them out in the cold.

As great as it would be, the audience is not going to dive into your podcast archives and re-listen to everything you said just so they can follow along easier. Furthermore, if you’re going to discuss something that’s clearly triggered an emotion in you, take the time to expand on it. Otherwise what was the point in bringing it up in the first place?

Remember that you have listeners who like your show, but aren’t addicted to it. They may form a deeper connection with you in the future, but if their schedule only allows for them to hear you 2-3 days per week for 15 minutes at a time, don’t give them reasons to tune out from the current occasion or future ones by not making it easy to consume the content.

In sports, so much of success depends on preparation. A player like Tim Duncan was known for his ability to block shots, grab rebounds, score points, and make his teammates better, but he earned the nickname “The Big Fundamental” because of his knowledge, ability, and commitment to improving his footwork, taking high percentage shots, establishing good rebounding position, passing the ball to the open man, and executing consistently. All of those things helped him earn the respect and admiration from fans, teammates, and competitors, and a number of NBA titles.

For sports radio professionals, it’s no different. You’ve got to have talent or you wouldn’t be on the air. But others are on the airwaves and capable of entertaining audiences too.

You have a short window of time to lure people in before they find other options. There are over 700,000 podcasts available, 20-75 local radio stations (depending on your market) supplying content, social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, plus apps, videos, satellite radio, and friends or family texting or calling. Each wants the listener’s attention and is competing against you to earn it.

To succeed you’ve got to be able to entertain, inform, and provide unique opinions and angles that make the audience think and feel. Guests, soundbytes, and callers are the props which enhance your presentation, and the last step for hosts is to navigate the show smoothly by executing effective blocking and tackling principles.

Look at it like this, if your topics, opinions, and personalities are the equivalent of a main course meal, then it’s the fundamentals that are your sides and appetizers. Depending on who’s at the table or in this case listening in the car, on the phone, or thru a smart speaker, those extras can be the difference between the audience feeling full or still hungry.