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Shaping The Sound of a Great Sports Radio Station

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I’ve written a few times over the past year about the importance of quality imaging and production for sports radio stations, and it’s a subject that I am passionate about and believe deserves attention.

During the past few weeks I’ve had my ear on sports radio stations all across the country. The one thing I hear taking place in multiple places (that I’m not sure is necessarily a good thing) is a lack of creativity and simplification of messaging. Promos, ID’s and liners which include actualities, funny clips, and big sounds are being reduced in favor of simple short pieces with little activity behind them.

I understand that there are certain expectations for particular brands, and there’s value in keeping things simple. I’m not here to tell you that following the rules and reinforcing a brand’s identity doesn’t have its place. It certainly does. But does that mean that we can’t attempt to find newer ways to add some flavor and create additional excitement for our brands?

In a time where audio consumption is more splintered than ever, and numerous media brands are taking risks to attract larger audiences, is the answer to building bonds with an audience to stifle the creativity of some radio’s best thinkers?

One of the most overlooked and undervalued positions in sports radio is the Imaging Director. A good one can bring an energy to your brand that connects with your talent and audience. A bad one can absolutely crush you and make your brand feel old, stale, and unimportant. Find yourself a great one, and your audience will be speaking the language of the brand without even recognizing it.

If I’ve learned one thing from running brands, conducting research, and interacting with listeners, it’s that great imaging does connect. Sports is fun, and anytime you’re not in content, and have a chance to re-establish that power of fun, it’s important to do so.

As a programmer, I always believed that it was my responsibility to foster an environment which allowed people to be creative. Developing a relationship and understanding with the Imaging Director is critical, because the way they bring the brand to life through your speakers is going to be a reflection of the way you communicate your vision to them.

Let’s be honest, people who work in this industry don’t do it because of the fame and fortune it provides. Sure there are some personalities who are the exception to the rule, but most of the supporting cast behind the scenes choose this line of work because they love it, connect to it, and appreciate the opportunity to have a platform which allows them to showcase their creativity. They walk through the door each day hoping to create something that inspires people, and when it registers with the audience, that’s the cherry on top of the sundae.

The beauty of imaging is that there are no set guidelines for how to do it. We all have opinions about what we perceive to be cool and effective, but what I think we can all agree on is that there’s a stronger chance of an audience remembering your brand, and forming an emotional bond with it, if you make the station sound fun, alive and creative, instead of plain and simple.

It’s a grind sometimes to manage a brand, run a show, and give time and attention to each department, but as challenging as it may be, spending time on your writing, presentation, and which items to highlight, is too important to dismiss. When done right, it can grow your ratings. Done poorly, it can damage your growth.

We lose sight at times of the amount of influence we have on the audience. If you can make a listener think and feel a certain way about your brand and personalities, they’ll remember it and store it deep inside their subconscious. If there’s no call to action beyond reinforcing the radio station’s dial position, brand name, and slogan, then you’re less likely to receive the extra benefits that are available.

As far as promos are concerned, there are many different categories you can use to resonate with your listeners. Some of those options include:

  • Appointment promos (pieces that highlight when a guest or feature can be heard)
  • Topical promos (pieces that promote content/storylines being discussed on the station)
  • Play-By-Play promos (pieces that promote/sell the next local/national game on your air)
  • Talent/Show promos (pieces from the talent/show that promote when the program airs)
  • Branding promos (pieces that reinforce the brand & why it’s unique in a fun/serious way)

There are other categories too but the ones listed above usually get the most attention.

What you choose to feature most, depends on what your station’s best assets are, and what connects to the vision for the brand. If you don’t carry play by play for example, then game promos are going to be less important. Instead you’ll be more inclined to push your on-air talent, brand identity, station events, and the other offerings your station provides.

If your station though has the rights to three or four sports teams, you’re going to likely drive that messaging home because live play by play delivers strong ratings and a positive brand association, and it’d be silly not to take advantage of it.

I could spend all day explaining the value of imaging, and how it can benefit a radio station, but rather than listen to me pontificate, I thought it’d be helpful to get the perspectives of a few great Imaging Directors. Each of these guys has had a direct influence on brands that operate in Top 5 markets, and some of their work can be heard nationally too.

  • Dan Levy – Imaging Director of 89 WLS in Chicago
  • Mike Brownsher – Imaging Director of ESPN New York 98.7FM
  • Jeff Schmidt – Imaging Director of 95.7 The Game and 98.5 K-FOX in San Francisco
  • Chris Morales – VP/Head of Creative & Imaging for Yahoo Sports Radio. Imaging and Creative consulting for KSPN/Los Angeles, KFNC/Houston & KGOW, KKFN/Denver, KHTK/Sacramento.

Q: How important do you believe it is to be a great writer in order to be a great imaging/production director?

jeffschmidt2 Schmidt: The best imaging directors are a​ triple threat; great writers, producers and VO actor/artists. Writing is vital but it also comes down to what we’re writing about. If we’re promoting crap, great writing is little more than a disguise, and listeners will sniff it out and repay us with indifference.

Brownsher: It’s certainly important, but it’s not the end all be all, and it doesn’t mean your stuff will sound great if you are a great writer. We’re in the audio business. You still need to make sure your stuff SOUNDS great. If you’re not the best writer (I certainly don’t think I am), find other people on the floor, and get them to help with the process. The product will be better for it.

danlevy1Levy: Writing is 90% of the job. You can’t do production without a clear and concise way of communicating your message. With production, it’s commercials and marketing. With imaging, it’s about the station brand and marketing.  So, being a great writer and knowing your audience, it all plays hand and hand.

Morales: In today’s busy world, often being a “great writer” means being an impactful writer who can make the message cut through with a “less is more” approach. Also, us radio people have a tendency of trying to be too cute at times, without really defining what the singular message is for a piece of imaging/production. We need to ask ourselves “would a listener really get what we are saying“?

Q: How do you keep your personal interests and personality/style in line with the brand’s approach when creating liners and promo material?

mikebrownsher1Brownsher: For me, it’s been fairly easy to align with the ESPN brand. I’ve been listening to ESPN Radio roughly since its inception, so that has helped. When I started in New York, I assumed I’d be able to be edgier with my writing in our promos but that wasn’t the case. I had to remember that there was a much larger audience listening to ESPN New York as compared to where I had worked before. That meant I had to check myself a bit and figure out how to best reflect the brand.

Levy: It always helps to try and get a job that matches your style and your personality. I know in real life, it’s not always the case to be able to pick a station that can do that (we often take the gigs we can get) but knowing your boss, sharing similar philosophies and an understanding of where they are coming from, makes it easier to find a way to connect with the listener, both emotionally and creatively.

chrismorales4Morales: Sports Radio is the big tent of all that encompasses a guy’s life. Creating a brand is all about creating the fun and sizzle around the “Sports Radio” base. If you have talent that doesn’t embrace movies/music/tv/pop culture on the air, then it is hard pressed to create imaging and branding that involves your personality/style because most great imagers live and breathe anything creative. I think so many imagers out there sometimes want to force their passions into imaging because it is their opportunity to “be on air”.

Much like in a music format, imaging is made to make the station sound hotter than what it is and create a brand that encompases the full presentation of the station. We have to think the same in sports radio. This is a format, not sports. We are here to make our talent shine and seem bigger than life, which means it is vital to know their personal interests, their style, music, etc. That creates imaging that they will play off of when doing show opens, rejoins, etc. The station imaging/branding then needs to be a collection of the talent’s image. Imaging to sports or PBP can be useful but does that really create an image that carries your M-F 6a-7p brand?

Schmidt: In 20 years of radio imaging, the best circumstances have always been a collaboration with programming where we set the course and tone of the stationality. Often times it falls in line with my personal tastes which are fairly broad, but it’s always about making sure the imaging serves the needs of That Station, in That Market, at That Time.

Q: When you’re writing a promo, what is it that you’re hoping it does for the audience?

danlevy4Levy: Anytime I produce something, I look to execute 3 basic elements.

A) Connect with the listener. Each market, area and region you’re in, connect with them. If it’s crappy weather, use it to relate. If you’re in a big city, use things  that people feel such as frustrations with bikers, cabbies, sports teams and things of that nature. That’s the best way to get your listener to perk up and pay attention.

B) Make sure your message has a call to action. If it’s a spot, you want people to get up and buy that car or drink that beer. For imaging, you want them to stay tuned to a certain show, sporting event, download an app or whatever you are promoting for the station.

C) Let them know where they heard it. Make sure the brand is highlighted so people know exactly what it is and how to get more of it.

Morales: Make the listener feel something. Maybe it’s emotion for a piece about “living and breathing the NFL” with highlights, game sound, and NFL Films music. Maybe it’s laughter from a montage promo of the talent being off the wall. Maybe it’s anger from people talking about a loss from last night. The key is for that promo to pull them in, and make them engage for a moment, and feel something.

jeffschmidt1Schmidt: Some promos are really just announcements in which you want to make sure a piece of information is clearly communicated.​ ​If you want listeners to take a specific action it’s best to keep it as clear, clean and concise as possible.

Other pieces are about image building, and this is where I hope to draw on the emotional connection fans already have with their team/players/hosts etc. Those emotions are available and transferable to your brand if you’re careful and respectful with it.

Brownsher: I go into writing/producing promos assuming that the listener isn’t going to listen or hear it. People are busy and doing things when listening to radio, so my hope is that I’ll actually grab them and create some type of emotional connection to the promo.

Q: How do you decide what type of music, actualities and SFX to use in your imaging, promos, liners, etc.? Is it more in line with the audience’s tastes or your own?

chrismorales3Morales: I’m a big user of music. Sometimes spanning multiple genres, but using it to tell the story that I’m trying to accomplish. Andrew Ashwood, my mentor at FOX Sports Radio, used to call imaging the blank canvas, and the music, drops, effects, VO, highlights, were the paint strokes of colors making the final work of art.

Every piece is different. Some can be quick with multiple SFX from a library like Alien Imaging FX, that is fast moving and sounds like something from a CHR/Rock station. Then another promo can have just a song and VO, depending on the message. I love NFL Game sound. When I started 12 years ago, you could only find it on Inside the NFL every week. Now, NFL Network has Sound FX and makes it easy. That behind the scenes audio is full of passion and energy which helps bring a football promo to life. I try to work in my own tastes, but I think about the audience at every step. A piece of music may be great for a promo just for LA, but may not be cool for the network or in a different market.

Schmidt: I employ what I’ve come to call the Sonic Pallet. It’s setting a ​range of sound styles that are IN and sound styles that are OUT in terms of defining a sonic signature for the radio station. It morphs and evolves over time, but it’s a guide. It’s easiest to do when launching stations because you can start from scratch, but I also do it with re-brands and re-builds too.

Regarding taste, I do believe we have an obligation to​ reflect the general taste of our audience, but this does not relieve us of our responsibly to smartly lead the audience forward to show them what else is possible. Our tastes should be wider than the general audience, not to be above them, but to use as​ a source of​inspiration ​for ​generating new ideas, and to get a sense of what the audience will consider cool and mainstream 12 months from now.

mikebrownsher2Brownsher: I think the mood and feel is one of the more important things to decide upon when creating promos. I’ll ask myself a couple of different questions such as “What kind of feeling am I trying to elicit with this bed” or “Does this sound byte actually further the story.” I try and assess the reasons why I’m taking a particular approach.

Generally speaking, I can do what I like with respect to the audience’s tastes, and I’m right in the middle of the ESPN Radio demo, so the work I’m producing doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. However, New York City is a rather diverse market, so I’m always conscious of the many different demos we have that are listening.

Levy: This always goes back to what the station is. If it’s a Rock, Top 40 or a Sports station, you can have a lot more fun in terms of getting crazy with SFX and highlights. Newstalk and hard hitting stations use less SFX and more substance. Whatever your station is, you have to know the audience you’re playing to. Especially if it’s a heritage station. Those brands usually require more thought because you have to know how to get your message across creatively, while staying inside the boundary of your station’s standards. That said, there are ways to throw yourself into it no matter what format you’re working on.

For my AM station, they let me have fun, and be creative, because they know that I’m aware of the station’s heritage, and what the audience expects. If I’m doing a sports promo, that comes easy because I’m a sports nut, and my radio background is rich in sports. I’ll set things up with music, SFX, and highlights, and I know how to build it before I even write the copy. For talk shows, if I’m producing a promo, I like to choose the music according to the subject matter.  That’s a good way to put your stamp on something without having to go all out.

Q: How can you tell if your imaging/production is or isn’t connecting with the audience?

jeffschmidt3Schmidt: I’ve been fortunate over the years to be in a lot of research and perceptual meetings where you’ll hear your station’s slogan repeated back. While a lot of people pat themselves on the back for that, I’ve always believed that’s table stakes considering you repeat the slogan on-air thousands of times. I’m much more interested in hearing if certain campaigns and ideas generated a response or an emotional connection/reaction. But that is a very expensive and time-consuming way to get feedback.

You can also get feedback on social media. I have always believed in making sure at least some of the imaging I create is such that it could be shared by the audience on social platforms. That means it has to get out of a “Just The Facts” approach and try to connect with the audience emotionally, and this almost always means the imaging can’t just be about your radio station.

Levy: The beauty of being an imaging guy is that my work is catered to my boss. He sets the tone for the station and the audience. If I create something and he doesn’t get it, I know that I have to go back and fix what needs fixing. Like anything else, after a month of doing stuff for the boss, you’ll know what they like, and that allows you to create production that is in line with what they want on the radio station.

chrismorales2Morales: In network radio, often the imaging is mainly show opens and rejoins, so you’ll hear a caller or see a tweet that references the imaging. They may not know what to call it, but over the years I’ve heard a lot of “we love that thing that brings on the host and recaps the previous show” or they talk about a certain drop, music, or VO phrase. Sean Pendergast of KILT/Houston (used to be with us at Gow/YSR) used to call it the WWE entrance music effect. My imaging helped set the stage and pump him up to come out and perform.

In my years with the Tony Bruno Morning Show at FOX, my goal was to make Tony laugh every morning with the open. If he was pumped up and laughing out of the gate, and referenced the open and imaging, then I knew it connected with the audience.

On a local level, it sometimes is a little more challenging because a lot of the work is station related branding/promos. But hearing callers reference “you guys have that thing saying you’re #1 in LA, that thing they are talking about is the imaging. When you hear that, you know your work is cutting through.

Brownsher: That’s a really tough one. I’m honestly not sure if you can or can’t. Obviously feedback is great, but this has always been an areas that’s been tough for me to gauge.

Q: Do you find listeners more likely to consume shorter or longer promos, and why?

mikebrownsher3Brownsher: I think the shorter the better. If you think a listener is going to sit and consume your promos, that’s not accurate. I especially hate laundry list promos and when I hear them I wonder what the station is trying to accomplish. “We got all this stuff that we wanna tell you about and we know you’re gonna sit here and listen to it and then remember it.” Nonsense! Make it short and impactful.

Schmidt: Obviously with PPM you want to keep everything moving so in general you have to respect that by making your point at concisely as possible. But you have to be able to spot the exceptions, such as when the local team​s are in the news, the playoffs, etc. You want to express, reflect and draw on your listeners increased passion in those times even if it goes over :30 seconds! In the past I’ve created the on-air cut down version and the theatrical release version for online.

danlevy3Levy: This is one that changes like the weather. I don’t think any promo should be longer than 45-60 seconds. I believe any promo can be funny, creative, connect with the audience, and get your point across within 25 seconds or less. In my opinion, that’s all I think listeners can take when hearing any form of creative production. The more time you add to a promo, the more likely people get bored or tune out. Short and concise is the ideal marker.

Morales: When PPM was still relatively new, Craig Larson (YSR PD and Gow Houston) said something very wise when I was referencing another station’s concerns that I had been working with. They were worried about promos being too long. Craig looked at me and said, “If it’s 15 seconds and garbage, then it’s garbage. If it’s 60 seconds and amazing, then isn’t that the goal, to have amazing imaging”?

I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with PD’s like Mike Thompson and Nate Lundy who have my back when I get a little long in painting the picture of what we’re striving for. The ratings and results back up that having a long promo doesn’t hurt the station. I think we need to concentrate on listeners consuming “GREAT” promo messaging that builds an image, sells the station and its personalities, and creates theater of the mind. THAT is what makes imaging part of the magic of radio.

Q: What type of promos do you feel connect best with the audience, and why? (Ex: Appointment promos, Funny bits, straight forward brand builders/slogans, play by play/game promos, etc)

jeffschmidt4Schmidt: If a listener hears a dry liner over a music bed saying a big guest is coming up in 10 minutes and they remember to check back in, did that connect? PPM says yes. But let’s not forget that “Connect” also means an emotional connection that could deepen a listeners bond with your radio station.

I think station imaging not only has the opportunity but the responsibility to deliver on both fronts. How you do that should be specific to the needs and wants of your listeners, ​and station.

Morales: I think you have to offer a few different categories in today’s PPM infested world. We know we want cume recylclers, appointment builders, guests, PBP game promos, and those are vital depending on the station and it’s presentation. But, I love “imagers” centered around the talent and the message of the station. I think of them like beat mix/hook promos for a music station. A promo that is a collection of talent drops, with a great music mix, etc. sounds fun and cool, and they differentiate our format from the political spoken word world.

They can also really sparkle amongst the other straight forward imaging we do on the station. To the listener, it makes their choice of our station resonate as a good one in their heads and minds. Who doesn’t want to feel like they’ve made the right choice in something? We want to image that their “fraternity” is our station’s performers.

brown2Brownsher: I believe it’s probably a combination of all of the above. I do value appointment guest promos if the guest is a really good one, or highly topical. I’m not much of a funny bit producer for promos in stopsets, but I do think they can add some value during the actual shows. We carry a lot of play-by-play on the station so we do our fair show of game promos and try to make them feel like a big deal.

Levy: The station itself dictates what promo’s connect best with the audience. The AM station that I image for, we have a lot happening at once. We have HUGE on-air talents hosting shows during the day. We also have Notre Dame football, and now we will be carrying the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls starting next year. The promos I create are catered to the audiences of each of those elements.

Q: When you listen to the imaging/production of other sports stations around the country, what do you hear them doing well, and where do they miss opportunities?

chrismorales1Morales: I hear many pushing the envelope these days with creative writing that makes the station sizzle and seem more edgy than what it may really be. For a format growing rapidly into M18-34, and FM sticks, we want to image being the best MALE station, not just the best sports station. We want to compete with top 5 M25-54 music stations, not just be the #1 sports talker. It’s awesome to hear stations that can capture this.

Where many miss the opportunity, is because they still view our format as something that needs to be imaged simple. A dry liner from Jim Cutler, that is thrown over a bed coming back from break. It’s sad. Cutler is one of the best VO people on this planet, so why would you waste his read? Why would you waste the listener’s time?

This is the old mindset that sports radio is the format that will never get past a 0.5 in the market, and it’s just turn key and all about sports. Sometimes this happens because a station doesn’t have an imaging person or if there is one, they’re stretched inside the cluster. It also starts with the PD. If they don’t care about imaging, then why would their production person? When Dave Shore was the OM of KSPN, he could literally recite every on-air promo back to me. If he didn’t like something, I would get a text at all hours. He understood the importance of imaging, and was as passionate about how the station sounded as I was. That is vital.

Schmidt: In general, great stations take advantage of the fact that imaging has the unique opportunity of being totally pre-planned, where the exact script, actors, music, and sound effects can all be ​used ​in full force to create something powerful.

On the missed opportunity side I perceive a calcification in Sports Radio Imaging where “the way it’s done” has already been decided (by whom?) and is senselessly copied. From both revenue and unique programming perspectives, Sports Radio has major advantages that Music Radio doesn’t have, but it isn’t immune from ​becoming​ what U.S. AM Talk Radio has devolved ​in​to if it stops innovating and just keeps repeating itself.

brown3Brownsher: I’m always impressed when stations are doing very directed specific promos that point to something. Whether they are topicals or teasing to something that’s coming up. In my opinion, it means they’re thinking about what they’re putting on the air and trying to make it easy for the listener.

The opposite would be stations that run promos saying “look at us and how great we are” or “here’s a laundry list of what we’re doing”. The other ones that I reject are giant fluff pieces that don’t push me towards anything and are just taking up inventory.

Levy: Sports radio all across the country is at an awesome level. There are so many great shows and talents that are being featured. I’m a sucker for show promos. I always hone in on how a station market’s and brand’s their lineup, and how long they go with their promos.

Are they only giving me the funny stuff? Are they giving me guys who try to ram stats down my throat? Are the promos providing a great blend of all of those attributes? Most importantly, if they’re making a long show promo, the build up to the ending better pay off. If it doesn’t, my ears will tune out their future promos.

Q: Why is good production, messaging, and branding important for a sports radio station?

danlevy2Levy: Because sports radio is huge and outlets are everywhere (the internet, social media, sports alerts on my phone). A radio station needs to find a way to separate themselves from this massive pack.

The message that you brand yourself with is the one that listeners will identify you as. Are you the station that is the home for a certain team? Are you the station to turn to and vent your frustrations to after the big game or big sports story of the day? Great imaging and production is essential to building the brand, and that includes on-air, marketing, and the sales side too.

Brownsher: People ultimately come to the radio station because of the personalities. If I can be an effective extension of that and remind them though our promos and messaging of their importance, then maybe it helps them enjoy the experience more. If they enjoy the station and the way it makes them feel, it should help with getting them to listen more.

JeffSchmidt: I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some iconic brands and was able to see first hand how powerful that can be. The best stations are more than the sum of their parts. They have a distinct stationality that ties it all together. If done correctly, it can deepen a fan’s connection to the brand.

Morales: Imaging and good messaging is vital in helping build your P1’s and TSL. It reaffirms that the listener has made the right choice, and that we want them to spend more time with us, showing them the menu of the station and hosts, making them laugh, smile, mad, essentially feeling something.

Think of the legendary “This is Sports Center” promos. It created an amazing brand and image, and made us feel part of something that was on our TV’s every day, even though we weren’t in Bristol. That’s why it matters.

Q: What advice do you want to pass along to other Imaging Directors, Programmers, and Industry professionals who are looking to upgrade the sound and quality of their brands thru good imaging and production?

chrismMorales: Try new something new each week. John Frost said that to me many years ago. Whether a new VO effect, type of music in a promo, grabbing drops from a source you normally wouldn’t go to, etc. Stay fresh. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a colossal failure, but you’ve got to keep sharpening your skills. Listen to as much imaging from others out there as you can. I’ve done sports radio imaging for 13 years, and it may sound cliché but I learn something new every week from listening to the imaging of others.

Also, ask for help and advice. When I was FSR’s imaging director, Bob Schmidt was imaging the Clear Channel affiliate in Syracuse, WHEN. He’d email me every week for drops of Tony Bruno and our talent, and send me his stuff. He was passionate and lived and breathed the talent on his station. He’s now in LA at KLAC, and doing some great work across the country.

His right hand man, is my former right hand man, Vito Violante. Vito was young and new when he started with me, but was hungry and worked his ass off to learn. We came up with ideas, and different approaches, and I bounced stuff off of him and our team daily because I wanted ideas and feedback. He’d be the first to come in with a new DVD to pull drops, or find different songs we could use.

To be a great imaging director you need to listen to feedback, and make the talent, producers, and interns all feel part of the imaging process.

Schmidt: Reach out. I’m happy to help! Seriously, we would all be better served by sharing thoughts and ideas and helping each other develop new ideas. It’s far too easy to sit in our offices and studios doing the same things today that we did yesterday. That’s how stations, brands and formats stagnate.

Additionally, when I got to San Francisco in 1997 I was immediately ushered into regular research and perceptual meetings and it changed how I viewed Radio and the role of imaging forever. It made me really appreciate all that goes into creating and maintaining powerful radio brands. It helped me become a more valuable Imaging Director. I encourage every cluster to include their Imaging talent in those essential meetings.

mikebrownsher4Brownsher: Be smart about what you’re putting on the air. Write short, keep your ears open, and remember that no one listens to your work more than the people in your own building (keep that in perspective).

Also, don’t waste the listener’s time by patting yourself on the back. Music selection is incredibly important, and can’t be overstated in my opinion. Most of all, try to make the listener feel something.

Levy: Don’t ever be afraid to go outside the box. Great imaging/production talents are everywhere. Maybe an alternative imaging guy is exactly what the sports station needs. Separate yourself from those sports stations that beat their chests and say they’re number 1 at everything. Add some splashes that simply make your station sound good!

Remember, sports is fun, not hard hitting. You’re not breaking down the presidential debate or reporting on ISIS. That said, not everything needs to be funny. If it calls for it, great. Know the audience and keep in mind that we are all competing against video and the internet. So great audio, content and especially production, are essential to gaining back that audience.

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Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?

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How many times have you heard this sentence uttered at conferences or in one of the trades; radio has to do a better job of telling its story. Sounds reasonable enough right? After all, your brands and companies stand a better chance of being more consumed and invested in the more that others know about them.

But what specifically about your brand’s story matters to those listening or spending money on it? Which outlets are you supposed to share that news with to grow your listenership and advertising? And who is telling the story? Is it someone who works for your company and has a motive to advance a professional agenda, or someone who’s independent and may point out a few holes in your strategy, execution, and results?

As professionals working in the media business, we’re supposed to be experts in the field of communications. But are we? We’re good at relaying news when it makes us look good or highlights a competitor coming up short. How do we respond though when the story isn’t told the we want it to? Better yet, how many times do sports/news talk brands relay information that isn’t tied to quarterly ratings, revenue or a new contract being signed? We like to celebrate the numbers that matter to us and our teams, but we don’t spend much time thinking about if those numbers matter to the right groups – the audience and the advertisers.

Having covered the sports and news media business for the past seven years, and published nearly eighteen thousand pieces of content, you’d be stunned if you saw how many nuggets of information get sent to us from industry folks looking for publicity vs. having to chase people down for details or read things on social media or listen to or watch shows to promote relevant material. Spoiler alert, most of what we produce comes from digging. There are a handful of outlets and PR folks who are great, and five or six PD’s who do an excellent job consistently promoting news or cool things associated with their brands and people. Some talent are good too at sharing content or tips that our website may have an interest in.

Whether I give the green light to publish the material or not, I appreciate that folks look for ways to keep their brands and shows on everyone’s radar. Brand leaders and marketing directors should be battling daily in my opinion for recognition anywhere and everywhere it’s available. If nobody is talking about your brand then you have to give them a reason to.

I’m writing this column today because I just spent a day in New York City at the Disney Upfront, which was attended by a few thousand advertising professionals. Though I’d have preferred a greater focus on ESPN than what was offered, I understand that a company the size of Disney with so many rich content offerings is going to have to condense things or they’d literally need a full week of Upfronts to cover it all. They’re also trying to reach buyers and advertising professionals who have interests in more than just sports.

What stood out to me while I was in attendance was how much detail went into putting on a show to inform, entertain, and engage advertising professionals. Disney understands the value of telling its story to the right crowd, and they rolled out the heavy hitters for it. There was a strong mix of stars, executives, promotion of upcoming shows, breaking news about network deals, access to the people responsible for bringing advertising to life, and of course, free drinks. It was easy for everyone in the room to gain an understanding of the company’s culture, vision, success, and plans to capture more market share.

As I sat in my seat, I wondered ‘why doesn’t radio do this on a local level‘? I’m not talking about entertaining clients in a suite, having a business dinner for a small group of clients or inviting business owners and agency reps to the office for a rollout of forthcoming plans. I’m talking about creating an annual event that showcases the power of a cluster, the stars who are connected to the company’s various brands, unveiling new shows, promotions and deals, and using the event as a driver to attract more business.

Too often I see our industry rely on things that have worked in the past. We assume that if it worked before there’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the client. Sometimes that’s even true. Maybe the advertiser likes to keep things simple and communicate by phone, email or in-person lunch meetings. Maybe a creative powerpoint presentation is all you need to get them to say yes. If it’s working and you feel that’s the best way forward to close business, continue with that approach. There’s more than one way to reach the finish line.

But I believe that most people like being exposed to fresh ideas, and given a peak behind the curtain. The word ‘new’ excites people. Why do you think Apple introduces a new iPhone each year or two. We lose sight sometimes of how important our brands and people are to those not inside the walls of our offices. We forget that whether a client spends ten thousand or ten million dollars per year with our company, they still like to be entertained. When you allow business people to feel the excitement associated with your brand’s upcoming events, see the presentations on a screen, and hear from and interact with the stars involved in it, you make them feel more special. I think you stand a better chance of closing deals and building stronger relationships that way.

Given that many local clusters have relationships with hotels, theaters, teams, restaurants, etc. there’s no reason you can’t find a central location, and put together an advertiser appreciation day that makes partners feel valued. You don’t have to rent out Pier 36 like Disney or secure the field at a baseball stadium to make a strong impression. We show listeners they’re valued regularly by giving away tickets, cash, fan appreciation parties, etc. and guess what, it works! Yes there are expenses involved putting on events, and no manager wants to hear about spending money without feeling confident they’ll generate a return on investment. That said, taking calculated risks is essential to growing a business. Every day that goes by where you operate with a ‘relying on the past’ mindset, and refuse to invest in growth opportunities, is one that leaves open the door for others to make sure your future is less promising.

There are likely a few examples of groups doing a smaller scaled version of what I’m suggesting. If you’re doing this already, I’d love to hear about it. Hit me up through email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com. By and large though, I don’t see a lot of must-see, must-discuss events like this created that lead to a surplus of press, increased relationships, and most importantly, increased sales. Yet it can be done. Judging from some of the feedback I received yesterday talking to people in the room, it makes an impression, and it matters.

I don’t claim to know how many ad agency executives and buyers returned to the office from the Disney Upfront and reached out to sign new advertising deals with the company. What I am confident in is that Disney wouldn’t invest resources in creating this event nor would other national groups like NBC, FOX, CBS, WarnerMedia, etc. if they didn’t feel it was beneficial to their business. Rather than relying on ratings and revenue stories that serve our own interests, maybe we’d help ourselves more by allowing our partners and potential clients to experience what makes our brands special. It works with our listeners, and can work with advertisers too.

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Takeaways From The NAB Show and Six Days in Las Vegas

“I’m certainly not afraid to be critical but my enthusiasm for the NAB Show was elevated this year.”

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Six days on the road can sometimes be exhausting. Six days in Las Vegas, and it’s guaranteed. That was my world last week, as I along with more than fifty thousand people headed to sin city to take in the 2022 NAB Show.

The event didn’t draw as many as it had in the past, but after two years of inactivity due to the pandemic, it was good to be back. Judging from some of the vendors I talked to, the sessions I attended, and the feedback I received from folks I met with, though far from perfect, it was a solid return for an important event. Seeing people interact, celebrate others, and talk about ways to improve the business was a positive reminder of the world being closer to the normal of 2019 than the normal of 2020-2021. The only negative from the week, the consistent failure of Uber to appear in the right place at the right time. But that had zero to do with the NAB.

It feels like whenever I attend industry conferences, there are two different type of reviews that follow. Some writers attend the show and see the glass half full. Others see the glass half empty. I’m certainly not afraid to be critical but my enthusiasm was elevated this year. Maybe it was because BSM was a media partner or maybe it was due to the show not happening for years and just being happy to be among friends, peers, and clients and operate like normal. Either way, my glass was definitely half full.

For those who see events this way, it’s likely they’ll remember the numerous opportunities they had to create and reestablish relationships. They’ll also recall the access to different speakers, sessions, products, and the excellent research shared with those in attendance. The great work done by the BFOA to recognize industry difference makers during their Wednesday breakfast was another positive experience, as was the Sunday night industry gathering at The Mayfair Supper Club.

Included in the conference were sessions with a number of industry leaders. Radio CEO’s took the stage to point out the industry’s wins and growth, credit their employees, and call out audio competitors, big tech, and advertisers for not spending more with the industry. When David Field, Bob Pittman, Ginny Morris and Caroline Beasley speak, people listen. Though their companies operate differently, hearing them share their views on the state of the business is important. I always learn something new when they address the room.

But though a lot of ground gets covered during these interviews, there are a few issues that don’t get talked about enough. For instance, ineffective measurement remains a big problem for the radio business. Things like this shouldn’t happen, but they do. NBC and WarnerMedia took bold steps to address problems with TV measurement. Does radio have the courage to take a similar risk? That’s an area I’d like to see addressed more by higher ups.

I can’t help but wonder how much money we lose from this issue. Companies spend millions for a ratings service that delivers subpar results, and the accountability that follows is often maddening. Given the data we have access to digitally, it’s stunning that radio’s report card for over the air listening is determined by outdated technology. And if we’re going to tell folks that wearables are the missing ingredient for addressing this problem, don’t be shocked if the press that follows is largely negative. The industry and its advertising partners deserve better. So too do the reps at Nielsen who have to absorb the hits, and make the most of a tough situation.

Speaking of advertising, this is another one of those critical areas that deserves another point of view. Case in point, I talked to a few ad agency professionals at the show. Similar to what I’ve heard before, they’re tired of hearing radio leaders blame them for the industry’s present position. This has been a hot button topic with executives for years. I often wonder, do we help or hurt ourselves by publicly calling out advertisers and ad agencies? How would you feel if you ran an agency which spent millions on the industry and were told ‘you don’t do enough’? I’m a champion of radio/audio, and am bullish on spoken word’s ability to deliver results for clients, but having attended these shows for nearly seven years, it might be time for a new approach and message. Or maybe it’s time to put one of our CEO’s with one of theirs and have a bigger discussion. Just a thought.

Of the sessions that I attended, I thought Erica Farber’s ‘What Business Are You In?’ was excellent. I especially liked Taja Graham’s presentation on ‘Sharing Your Truth’. I also appreciated Eric Bischoff’s tips on ways to monetize podcasts, and am curious to see how Amazon’s AMP develops moving forward. My favorite session at the show though was “A GPS Session For Your Station’s Car Radio Strategy” led by Fred Jacobs. The insight shared by Joe D’Angelo of Xperi and Steve Newberry & Suzy Schultz of Quu was outstanding. Keeping the car companies on our side is vital to our survival, and how we position ourselves on the dashboard can’t be ignored. Other tech companies and audio operators take it seriously. We must too.

Sessions aside, it was great to check out the VSiN and Blue Wire studios, connect with a bunch of CEO’s, GM’s and Market Manager’s, and visit with Kevin Jones, Joe Fortenbaugh, Jeremiah Crowe, Jon Goulet, Bill Adee, Q Myers, Mike Golic Jr. and Stormy Buonantony. The NFL’s setup for the Draft, and the light show presented at the Bellagio was without a doubt spectacular, plus Stephanie had a chance to say hello to Raiders owner Mark Davis who was inside the back room of a Westgate restaurant where we were having a business lunch meeting. The personal tour we received at the Wynn showed off some of the best suites I’ve seen in Las Vegas, and I was finally able to witness Circa’s Stadium Swim in person, and meet owner Derek Stevens (heck of a suit game). What an outstanding hotel and casino.

Altogether, it was a productive trip. As someone who knows all about building and executing a conference, I appreciate the work that goes into pulling it off. This event is massive, and I have no idea how the NAB makes it happen so flawlessly. This was the first time my head of sales, Stephanie Eads, got to attend the show. She loved it. Our only negative, going back and forth between convention halls can get exhausting. Wisely, Stephanie and Guaranty Media CEO Flynn Foster took advantage of the underground Tesla ride to move from the North hall to the West hall. I wasn’t as bright. If that’s the worst part of the experience though, that’s pretty solid. I look forward to returning in 2023, and attending the NAB’s NYC show this fall.

Additional:

You’ve likely seen posts from BSM/BNM on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn promoting a number of open positions. I’m adding crew to help us pump out more content, and that means we need more editors, news writers, features reporter’s and columnists. If you’re currently involved or previously worked in the industry and love to write about it, send a resume and few writing samples by email to JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

With that said, I’m excited to announce the addition of Ryan Brown as a weekly columnist for BSM. Ryan is part of ‘The Next Round’ in Birmingham, Alabama, which previously broadcast on WJOX as JOX Roundtable. The show left the terrestrial world in June 2021 to operate as its own entity. Ryan’s knowledge and opinions should provide a boost to the site, and I’m looking forward to featuring his columns every Tuesday. Keep an eye out for it tomorrow, and if you want to check out the guest piece he previously wrote for us, click here.

Demetri Ravanos and I have talked to a lot of people over the past month. More additions will be revealed soon. As always, thanks for the continued support of BSM and BNM.

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Six New Contributors Join Barrett Media

“These latest additions will make our product better. Now the challenge is finding others to help us continue growing.”

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Building a brand starts with a vision. Once that vision is defined, you identify the people who fit what you’re creating, lay out the game plan, and turn them loose to execute. If the product you’re creating is original, fills a gap in the marketplace, and the work turned in by your team is consistently excellent and promoted in the right locations, more times than not you’ll build an audience.

As you grow, the focus turns to studying what your audience wants, needs, and expects from your brand. Certain things you expect to be big turn out small, and the things you saw limited upside in create opportunities you never saw coming. It’s critical to be open minded and ready to pivot while also examining where and when people consume your product, which pieces of content do and don’t matter, and then use that information to direct your team to give folks more of what they value and less of what they don’t. Team members should want that feedback too. It tells them what is and isn’t worth spending their time on.

As I lay all of that out it may sound like I’m talking about a radio station or television operation. These are the things programmers do frequently to make sure the talent, shows, and brand is satisfying the expectations of an audience. But what I’m actually referring to is the brand you’ve made a choice to click on to read this column, Barrett Media.

I’ve mentioned many times on this website how I started this operation by myself, and didn’t expect to have a team of writers involved in it. I was focused on consulting sports stations, sharing my programming views on this website, and as I cranked out content consistently, I discovered others loved the business like I did and had a desire to share their insights too. Rather than sticking to my original plan, I pivoted and increased our content offerings. In return, the audience grew, clients grew, and it’s led this brand to grow beyond my expectations. Now we cover sports AND news media, we run an annual conference, feature a membership program, create podcasts, deliver a daily 8@8 and three times per week BNM Rundown newsletter, and work with various brands and companies across the broadcasting industry. I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position and don’t take it for granted.

But with growth comes change. We’ve been blessed to have a lot of talented people contribute to this site over the years, and as they produce quality work, and others across the industry recognize it, they earn interest for their services. That then leads to some having to sign off for bigger opportunities. I see that as a great positive for the brand. Would it be nice to have more consistency and keep a crew together for years? Of course. I know it’d make Demetri’s life a lot easier. If we’re losing people for the right reasons though, and they’re landing opportunities that help them advance their careers, I’m going to be happy for their success, and trust that we’ll find others to keep us moving forward. The success of our team helps make what we do more attractive to others because it shows that if you do good consistent work here, you can put yourself in a position to attract attention.

Over the past two months, I have challenged Demetri Ravanos to invest more time talking to people about writing for us. Expanding our Barrett News Media roster is a priority. So too is adding quality people to help us improve Barrett Sports Media. BSM has had just under seven years to earn trust with readers. BNM has had less than two. We’ve put out ads on our website and newsletters, social posts, an ad on Indeed, and we’ve reached out directly to people who we’ve felt may be able to add something interesting to our brand. Most of my time is spent listening to stations and talking with clients, but my eyes are always roaming looking for content, and my mind is always thinking about what we can create next to make an impact.

I don’t judge our brand’s success based on clicks, shares, breaking news before other outlets or showing up in the top three listings on Google. I care more effort accuracy, timeliness, passion, consistency, storytelling, insight, and being fair and non-agenda driven. We’ve found our niche being able to tell stories about broadcasting professionals, relaying news, and offering expert knowledge to serve those involved in the broadcasting industry. If we continue to excel doing those things consistently, I’m confident our audience will reward us by reading and sharing more of our content. It’s why we never stop recruiting to keep things fresh.

Having said that, I am excited today to reveal six new additions to the Barrett Media staff. Peter Schwartz is a name and voice many in New York sports radio circles are familiar with. Peter has spent three decades working with various outlets and I’m thrilled to have him writing weekly feature stories for us. Brady Farkas is a talented host and former programmer who now works for WDEV in Burlington, VT. Karl Schoening is a play by play broadcaster who has worked in San Antonio sports radio and has had the added benefit of learning the industry from his talented father Bill who calls Spurs games. Each of them will produce bi-weekly feature stories for the brand. Jason Ence is in Louisville and has written about sports betting for Twin Spires while also working for ESPN 680. He’ll be writing sports betting content for us on a weekly basis. Jasper Jones will help us by adding news stories on Friday’s. He’s presently in Philadelphia learning the business working for Audacy. Last but not least, veteran author, Brewers writer, and former radio professional Jim Cryns comes on board to help us with features on news media professionals.

These six additions make us stronger, and I’m excited to have them join the team to help us add more quality content to the website. That said, we’re not done yet. Demetri and I are still talking with others and I expect to make a few more additions in the weeks ahead. As I said earlier, we want to improve the news media side of our operation and continue adding people to help us make a bigger dent in the sports media space. Broadcast companies invest in us to help them, and I believe it’s important to invest back.

If you’ve programmed, hosted a top rated show, worked in measurement, led a cluster as a GM, sold advertising, represented talent or have worked in digital and feel you have knowledge to share, reach out. I can’t promise we’ll have room but we’re always willing to listen. I’m not worried about whether or not you’ve written for professional publications. Passion, experience and unique insights matter much more than a resume or journalism degree.

I appreciate everyone who takes time to read our content, like and share it on social, and all involved with this brand who help bring it to life each day. The latest additions of Schwartz, Farkas, Schoening, Ence, Jones and Cryns will make our product better. Now the challenge is finding others to help us continue growing.

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