This week, Barrett Sports Media is featuring a four part mini-series of articles providing helpful tips, lessons, and observations for the sports media industry. Leading up to Thursday we will present a new article each day inspired of course by the NCAA Tournament.
On Monday, Demetri Ravanos kicked things off with his look at 16 Station Bracket Ideas. If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend it. Your promotion next March could be sitting inside of it.
But for today, I thought that since I spend most of my time listening and studying brands on-air, online, and on social, that it’d be fun to write about 16 items that anyone can implement to impact their station in a positive manner. It’s easy to analyze what’s weak, but most of what we do is good. If it wasn’t, stations wouldn’t trust their programmers, personalities or producers to use the airwaves, and the audience wouldn’t respond.
The little details and extra effort can make a world of difference in this business so keep these in mind as you continue working on being the best you can be.
1: 4 Layered Conversation – When hosts and producers outline their show each day, they know have a pretty good idea beforehand what the lead story is going to be. The challenge is taking that lead story and finding multiple ways to talk about it for lengthy periods of time. Even more important, the host must maintain discipline and not introduce every angle and question to the story during a segment, otherwise they’ll become less passionate and interested in the subject as the show rolls on.
The goal should be to identify 4 different questions to build conversations off of and make sure they’re strong enough to last 10-15 minutes. Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a note and a topic. A note is something you explore for a minute or two, a topic is what you invest a large chunk of time into.
If for example the story was the public reaction to LeBron James distancing himself from the Lakers huddle over the weekend, you’d be working to create lengthy discussions around his long-term fit in Los Angeles, what others in sports/media are saying about it (Clyde Frazier’s comments would come up here), what the franchise needs to do this offseason to avoid a repeat, how Luke Walton, Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka factor into the blame game, how you’d view this situation if you were in LeBron’s shoes, how the perception of the Lakers being an elite franchise has changed, etc..
I used the number 4 with the thought of a 4-hour show in mind, but if you do a 2-3 hour show, feel free to modify it. Either way, the key is making sure you don’t combine all of those topics into one conversation. If you do, it’s going to be hard to sound fresh, excited, and interested in the forthcoming hours. Space them out and you’ll find yourself mentally engaged in the topic much longer than you thought you’d be.
2: Writing Improves On-Air Performance – This notion that sports radio hosts who rely on writing are weaker than those that don’t is foolish. I’ve heard many say “It’s about being organic, I need to feel the show, I don’t like having anything written down”, and when I hear that it sounds like an excuse for being less prepared.
Now listen, maybe you have amazing recall. Maybe your producer does such an amazing job laying things out that you feel comfortable that way. I’m not saying those things don’t matter or that allowing room for things to develop organically isn’t important because they are. But, don’t tell me there’s no value in having some of your best thoughts placed on paper and available to you to go to at some point during the show.
Do you think Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarrantino tell their actors to just show up and say some stuff in front of a camera and they’ll figure out the rest? Don’t professional athletes workout, practice, watch tape, and talk to peers, coaches and executives about ways to get better or take advantage of opportunities versus an upcoming opponent?
Great talent are curious and always thinking. They take notes during games. They highlight things in articles. They leave themselves voice mails or texts to recall specific points or ideas. Don’t mistake the value of writing for weakness. There’s a fine line between chaos and organization. Those who create organized chaos though usually enjoy the best of both worlds.
3: Regulars with Different Backgrounds – So many shows feature weekly conversations with people involved in the sports world. Most are arranged by program directors, some with the involvement of talent, some without. In many cases, regular contributors are secured based on budgets, audience and staff familiarity with the individual, and the worst of them all, what’s easiest to arrange. Rarely taken into account is whether the show/station is featuring a mix of people from different walks of life, and attracting new audience.
First and foremost, if you’re paying someone to appear regularly and they show no meaningful lift to your station’s ratings or revenue performance, why would you have them back? Your host may like them personally or your PD may like that it’s affordable but you get what you paid for.
What should be taken further into consideration is how you’re reaching different parts of your audience. Younger, Older, White, Black, Hispanic, Man, Woman, etc.. One show that does this very well is The Dan Le Batard Show.
Do you have people on your airwaves who represent different backgrounds and provide a different point of view? Are you booking the same 5-6 white writers and reporters who have been around the business for 30-40 years just because it’s easy and familiar? Sports radio may be 80-85% male, and most of that listening comes from White or ‘Other’ men. But rather than looking at the lack of activity from Women and Black/Hispanic listeners, consider this an opportunity to bring more of those folks to the table.
4: Making Endorsements Entertaining – If the majority of your audience is going to tune out when you play commercials, you might as well do your best to make the client happy. By doing that in entertaining fashion, you may even steal :60 seconds of the audience’s time. I saw that in San Francisco in 2014-2015 with the way Greg Papa and John Lund invested themselves in a campaign for Pasta Pomodoro. Their spots became a hit with the audience, many using the text line and social media to voice their approval and use funny lines from the spots to engage in conversation.
Think about this for a minute, why don’t you change the channel when a movie trailer comes on your television screen? It’s a commercial right? But we watch it because it’s interesting, entertaining, and provides a call to action (we want to go see it).
On radio it’s the personalities job to speak for products they feel a connection to and give the audience a reason to check them out. If you’re going to grab the sheet of copy with its 6-10 bullet points :10 seconds before its time to deliver the spot and sleep walk thru the read, it’s going to have less impact. You’ll also likely lose that account at some point.
If you can record them, chances are they’ll be better. If LIVE is a must, then think about how you’re going to make someone care about the next 60 seconds of airtime when it’s not the content they seek. Your personal connection to the product, and the way you use humor and/or relatable issues to make the audience lean forward are critically important.
I saw Barstool launch a campaign two years ago for Burger King using the hashtag No New Year (#NoNewYear). The video spot was simple and silly and they provided a call to action which got the audience involved. Big Cat and PFT had fun with it, and it was more likely to please Burger King’s agency buyer than the standard testimonial from a radio talent telling the audience to sample their new sandwich. With social influencers putting more time, effort and creativity into making advertisers feel valued, radio hosts have to be equally up to the task to keep business strong.
5: Creating a Distinctive Sound – When you turn on WFAN it sounds unique. If you listen to ESPN Radio or FOX Sports Radio they have their own sound. Watch a few TV channels tonight and you’ll quickly see how network channels, news/talk outlets, and outlets like TBS, TNT, AMC, and FX differ from one another. Your show can do the same.
One way to do it is by installing music beds that fit the style of show and are different from the rest of your brand. I’ll never understand why stations rotate 100 beds for all 4 of their shows. If your host is an aggressive personality and you’ve got a Justin Timberlake tune or older and slower classic rock bed playing before they speak, does that match the tone of what they deliver thru the speakers? I don’t think it does.
The other way to strengthen the originality of the show is thru liners. Allow room for your creativity to shine thru and highlight what makes your talent or show style stand out. Rather than spending 5 seconds with something bland that just tells the audience the name of the station and host, take the extra 5 seconds to add some flavor to it. And don’t tell me that’s going to be what costs you a listening occasion. That’s a farce.
For example, I worked with a host years ago who was notorious for stirring things up. My former marketing director wrote a few liners and one that stood out was when he jokingly told the audience the station’s insurance premium’s had doubled due to employing him. It instantly created an image of this host being a rule breaker, and someone who took no prisoners on the air. It was consistent with his approach, and when you heard him start talking over heavier/angrier beds from bands like Korn, Rage Against The Machine, and Sevendust it fit the persona of the personality, and gave the show its own unique style. In a world full of noise, that matters.
6: Storytelling Thru Production Returns – Playing a piece of sound over music to lead into a segment is fine. Taking a few clips and connecting them to a song with a specific title that creatively leads your host into their next conversation is even better.
One thing I’ve consistently done during my career is take new music and create :15-:20 seconds of an instrumental bed, follow it with the hook or chorus, and leave trailing instrumental music afterwards for a host to talk over. Regardless of what stories pop up, I have something already on standby. Strong imaging directors like Jeff Schmidt and Justin Dove do this with their promos, but producers could easily impact their shows by doing this too.
When you watch a football game or show feature, TV producers do this with regularity. The feature or highlights package plays over a familiar musical bed and often connects to the story they’re trying to tell. Most of the time it makes the storytelling more powerful.
To give you an example of what I’m talking about, here are two pieces I’ve created in the past. The first is for a lead up to the Panthers-Eagles Thursday Night game in 2017, and the second is one of the returns we used on 95.7 The Game in SF after learning of Al Davis passing away.
Radio is all about sound, so why we wouldn’t do this more I’m not sure. It makes a show sound better. The only challenge is finding the time to do it. I’ve always felt that those who care enough to make their production matter will find the time. Others will take the easier way out. Figure out which music best fits your show, think of how to use the hook to connect to the story you’re discussing, and it’ll give your program a nice touch.
7: Turning The Mundane Into Must Listen – Every now and then you’re going to be given something you consider less than spectacular. A team may ask you to promote something that you don’t care about. The GM makes a call to help out sales which doesn’t please the PD or personality. Or you roll the dice yourself on something you think mght be good and it turns out to be bad.
First, remember that it’s one segment. If you think your show’s success or failure is going to depend on that one 10-minute piece of content, you may want to go back and re-examine everything else happening over the course of the week.
That said, look at how Dan Le Batard took a spot with Zoo Keeper Ron Magil and made it cool. He did the same thing years ago getting Florida Panthers play by play man Randy Moller to interject one liners into his goal calls. That’s an example of taking something that most shows would say ‘I’m not doing that it’s bad content’ and making it good.
Rock morning shows are usually very good at this because they take the simple and turn it into entertaining content. Case in point, I once worked on a FM music morning show where the hosts had one time sent out the stunt guy on a slow rainy day to stand on the side of the road near a giant puddle. They then asked the audience to drive by him and splash him while he was calling in. My first thought was ‘this is what we’re doing?’ but it resulted in hysterical on-air moments. They created something out of nothing.
But maybe you don’t operate like Le Batard or think the way a Rock morning show does. My suggestion then, bring the guest you’ve been saddled with into whatever your day’s top conversation is. As an example, if you’re talking to an NFL coach on the day LeBron James is being criticized for distancing himself from the Lakers huddle, that can be related to NFL issues that arise between coaches and players. Find a conversation that’s meaningful to your audience and get them on that conversation instead of spending your majority of time on something you know has limited value.
There’s always a subject out there to explore deeper, and when you know you’re up against it with someone that doesn’t feel right to the show, it’s better to try to bring them into what you’re doing rather than rely on what they’re doing. After all, that’s what had you not wanting to do the spot in the first place.
8: Well Timed Drops – Opinions and information may be what we spend most of our energy thinking about, but when a producer or board operator can think along with the host, and introduce audio drops that add to the conversation or result in hilarious moments, it’s worth its weight in gold. OMF on WEEI in Boston and The Michael Kay Show on 98.7 FM ESPN NY are two programs who do this exceptionally well.
My one rule to those behind the scenes is to be careful of not being too clever. Nobody needs to hear your entire library over the span of 3-4 hours. You also need to use good judgment when discussing specific stories. Case in point, you probably don’t want to play The Waterboy’s “That’s What It Feels Like To Open Up a Can of Whoop Ass” while your host is talking about Tyreek Hill being accused of hurting his son. That’s likely to get you suspended or fired.
If you can find things that are unique to your show and that you know connect with your host, and introduce them at the right times, the entertainment value can ascend to higher levels. That becomes a win with the audience.
9: Directing The Audience’s Reactions – This one is simple but important. A host must spend time researching stories, watching games, crafting a game plan, giving their opinions, and asking their audience how they feel about the issues they’re introducing. Equally as necessary is being committed to directing them. Don’t follow the callers, lead the callers.
An example of this would be talking about the Odell Beckham trade, and then turning to the phones and fielding a call that wants to discuss the NY Knicks. Are you a host in control of a show or are you a telephone operator who’s just there to answer as many questions as possible? You can wait to take that call. You can also choose to notify the listener that topic will be happening later, but you’re on something else right now so their time isn’t wasted. They’ll appreciate it.
The bottom line, you create the content, and guide the conversation. If all you’re going to do is look at the light on the phone and go wherever the audience takes you, be prepared for them to listen for much shorter periods of time to your presentation.
10: The Guest Element of Surprise – Booking guests is a regular part of sports radio. People love to hear people talk to other people, especially when it involves issues about other people.
But sometimes these conversations become routine and uneventful. Hosts and producers don’t often drop the guest after their 3 big items have been answered, they extend them for an extra 5 minutes because it kills time, and they think their 7th best question is important.
Rather than spending extra time on stuff that has less value, have you considered doing something to surprise your guest? That might be playing a piece of sound for them and getting them to react. For example, one time at 101 ESPN Bryan Burwell and Bob Stelton played Mark Schlereth’s analysis on the St. Louis Rams for GM Billy Devaney. Little did we know Devaney would unload on Schlereth and it would become the focus of the next few hours of the show.
Other times it may involve asking a guest about someone, and then having that other person on the line ready to react. That’s exactly what I did at the BSM Summit having 3 PD’s analyze one of Doug Gottlieb’s segments and then surprise them on stage.
Sometimes it becomes a cool moment for all involved. For example, if you’re talking to Joe Torre about managing the Yankees it’s probably going to be a fun conversation. But if Joe Girardi phoned in during that chat and you now have both men taking part in an interesting conversation, it surprises the audience, makes the moment cooler, and becomes something you’re probably discussing throughout the rest of the show.
Pulling it off requires work, but if you’re committed to creating cool moments, they’re out there to be made. You just need to think and take chances. That’s part of what makes radio fun in the first place.
11: Asking The Right Questions – For years ESPN invested in a guy named John Sawatsky who was brilliant when it came to interviewing. Producers and talent were trained on the principles of interviewing, and although you may not agree on everything John suggested, most of it was on point. To this day his interview class was the best piece of instruction I’ve ever sat thru.
What John tried to get across was the importance of asking questions that delivered the best responses. When hosts ask short focused questions that start with Who, What, Where, Why, When or How, they often generate better answers from guests.
It sounds simple but if you go back and listen to your last interview and the responses that you receive from people, you might be surprised by what you hear. Many personalities start questions with Do, Does, Can, Is, If, Will and when the replies are weak they blame it on the guest rather than taking into account their line of questioning.
Just like athletes take time to review their performance and find the areas of weakness, you have to do the same as a host. If interviewing is one of them, consider using short open ended questions and see what transpires during your next few conversations.
12: Multi-Purposed Social Content Promotion – A typical 3-4 hour show produces 12-16 segments per day. Those may each be pieces of content worth highlighting or there may be shorter snippets inside each segment that are more valuable to share with the audience. But what I don’t often see is a strategy to highlight content in various ways across social channels. That’s part of why I’m heading to San Diego this week to attend Social Media Marketing World 2019.
One thing I loved hearing at the BSM Summit in Chicago last year was how the Chicago Bulls approach social content. Their head of digital content Dan Moriarty explained how the Bulls expect content to be either Human, Iconic, Timely, Thumb Stopping, Inclusive or Differentiating, no piece of content should be published unless it checks at least three of those boxes. He also explained that the franchise looks to take one piece of content and find 10-12 ways to promote it across multiple platforms in different ways.
Does your station even create 3 ways to promote the best thing you did on the air yesterday? People have asked me before why I promote the BSM Podcast with so many different images, links, and video clips, and it’s for this very reason – you’re trying to stand out in a very crowded field.
Whether it’s a great monologue, an interview, a funny impression, or something just interesting that might generate a reaction from your audience, think about how you’re promoting that content socially. Between using different images with texts, audio links, written articles, and video highlights, there are plenty of ways to use your social channels to make your audience more aware and interested in your content.
13: Video is a Friend to Audio – One great advantage shows have now is the ability to utilize video to make their show more of a destination. If Facebook, Instagram or Twitter is where your audience starts their day, you have a chance to be in front of them before they reach their car. That’s a good thing.
But standing out from a few thousand people isn’t easy, which is why video can make a big difference. Two shows that I’ve enjoyed over time who I think do this well thru social media are The Morning Men on Mad Dog Sports Radio and The Mac Attack on WFNZ in Charlotte. There are many others I’m sure but these guys do a nice job of taking topical events and utilizing humor to make the audience want to hear more.
When you’re at home browsing thru your Twitter timeline and a video pops up of Mac being tripped by T-Bone in the studio just as Zion Williamson experienced on the court last week, it makes you stop, watch, and laugh. That then gives the audience a reason to want to spend more time with the show either on their phone via the app at home via their smart speaker, or thru the radio once they get into their car.
It starts with thinking about your audience and how they connect to your show. Reach them thru social channels by providing a visual peak behind the curtain and it’ll lead to more sampling of your audio content.
14: Quick Paced Updates – If you’ve read this site for a while you know I’m not a big fan of sports updates. However, if you’re going to do them, you might as well make the most of them. One way you do that is by keeping the pace moving. The audience doesn’t need a deep dive into the content, just the quick notes version of it.
As the anchor you may hate not having the ability to further explain the story, but that’s why the host is in the room. It’s their job to do that. Think of yourself as the audio version of House of Highlights. If it’s not brief and entertaining, the listeners will skim past it.
If you’re doing a :60 second update, don’t focus on 2-3 stories and include a :15 second soundbyte. That makes an update feel slow. I’ve always preferred 5-6 stories in the span and audio clips between :05-:07 or less. Some even pull it off with :03 clips. Give the audience the meat of the story, and remove the meaningless drivel surrounding it.
If it’s quick, fun, entertaining, and interesting, you’ll have done your job to steal :60 seconds of the listener’s time.
15: Research Your Audience – If your station has the ability to retain Edison Research, Jacobs Media, Amplifi Media, Coleman Insights or Harker Research, excellent. All do tremendous work to help brands learn more about their listeners.
But if you don’t have those resources available, that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to learn more about your listeners. Whether it’s creating in-house focus groups, newsletter surveys, social page groups to encourage station feedback, social chats with the PD or face to face conversations at station remotes, all provide you with input that can help you improve your brand.
Programming and executing a show does require having instincts and trusting your gut but you also benefit by using data and feedback. Otherwise your decision making is solely based on what you think is right. Not what you know is right.
16: Do Your Homework – Getting a host to read and be informed isn’t difficult. Most understand that’s essential to doing the job. Others take it a step further and watch or attend games. You’d assume that’d be necessary to do this line of work, but not everyone spends 6 days a week watching sports. That said, those who do, often sound more convincing, and informed. They also tend to receive better access.
Sports is a never ending job. You watch, you read, you attend, you discuss in person, you debate on social media, it seriously never ends. If you want to be successful in any line of work you’ve got to do the things necessary to have success. This is a full time commitment. There are no shortcuts. It’s a long day and night, but it’s a fun day and night. I can think of much worse things to do than having to stay informed about the world of sports.