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What I Learned From The Best In Sports Radio Series

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After six days, List-A-Mania has officially stopped running wild. It was fun putting together Barrett Sports Media’s “Best in Sports Radio of 2015” but now that all of the categories and winners have been announced, I thought I’d take some time to share some of the things I learned from overseeing this project.

I couldn’t have put this together properly without the full support of the industry. For those of you who read the columns, shared them on Facebook and Twitter, discussed them on-air, and personally sought me out to share your input, I simply say thank you! These things only work if the individuals and groups involved get behind them, and I was pleased to see many professionals take pride in the way the format and its top performers were presented.

As I stated from the start, these results are very subjective. Unfortunately in our line of work there is no head to head competition to determine which show, host and station is the best in the format, and there are so many factors to consider that it’s not possible to put together a perfect criteria. But by involving 35 executives from 23 U.S cities and 15 broadcast companies, I think we did as thorough of a job as we could.

That said, there are always lessons to be learned, and areas to be improved upon. The past few weeks taught me a lot about research, talent, perceptions, misinformation, competition, pride, and why projects like this are important for people in the sports radio industry.

When I decided to take the plunge and start working on this project, I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. I knew there’d be tons of feedback, some of it very negative, and with an imperfect criteria and the identity of the executives being kept private, I felt it would leave open too many holes and put me in the line of fire.

I was also concerned about company bias and geographical influence playing a big role in the final decisions. Luckily, I was able to assemble a strong group spread out across the nation, and the members of the executive committee did a nice job of trying to be fair and balanced with their votes.

Was it perfect? No. But a number of shows/hosts who have been overlooked or discredited in the past, received their due, and I was personally comfortable with the finished product.

So what could we have done better, that we may want to adjust if we decide to do this again?

Well, I came up with a few things.

Voting:

As I mentioned repeatedly, I did not vote on any category. I had to remind folks of that because there was this belief that I either recognized or excluded a show, station or programmer from the list but nothing could be further from the truth. I stayed out of the voting process on purpose because I was creating the content and I thought it was important to remain neutral and let the votes of industry executives determine the final selections.

Should I be involved? Should my ballot be available for everyone to see? That’s something to consider next time around.

East Coast Bias:

If you look at the results from the outside looking in, you’re likely to come away with the opinion that the voters favored the East Coast brands. Six categories were decided, and 5 included winners from New York, Boston, and Washington DC.

So that must mean that the East Coast voters helped shape the outcome right?

Not exactly.

17 of the 35 voters were located in the Midwest, Southwest and West Coast, and twelve of those executives listed WFAN in the Top 5, including 7 who ranked the station #1 overall. The Sports Hub meanwhile was in the Top 5 on 10 of those ballots, and earned three 1st place votes. Only two of the 17 listed WFAN or The Sports Hub outside of the Top 10.

It’s easy to criticize the voters for giving a lot of respect to WFAN, The Sports Hub and other top East Coast brands, but the fact of the matter is that each of those radio stations registered high because they’ve earned that respect by being consistent performers.

The Sports Hub’s ratings have been among the industry’s best, WFAN delivers big numbers in the nation’s #1 media market, and the same holds true for brands like WIP, WEEI, 97.1 The Ticket and 97.5 The Fanatic. To suggest they’re not worthy of top billing is to carry bias towards those brands or markets, because there’s no doubt that they’re some of the best our format has to offer.

Small Market Rejections:

A number of folks reached out to voice their displeasure with the way the smaller markets were left out of the Top 20 in multiple categories. They have a valid point. If you’re a small market show or station, I understand how frustrating it must be to do good work and have it overlooked because a larger market station with a similar performance took your spot. There is no perfect solution when you include brands from all locations in the same categories.

Although it may not sit well with you, this exact situation happens in professional sports all the time. How many times do we hear people complain about seeing the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cubs on national television? Those same complaints are heard when big market teams spend big on free agents, making it harder for smaller market teams to compete.

Is it fair? Of course not. But it’s within the rules, and if you want to play in the big leagues, you have to do what the Kansas City Royals did last year, and overcome the odds and force the world to take notice.

I can make a strong case for 104.5 The Zone in Nashville, 101 ESPN in St. Louis, WJOX in Birmingham, and 97.1 The Fan in Columbus earning more respect. Each of those stations deliver big in their respective markets, and shows like “The Fast Lane” in St. Louis, and “3HL in Nashville” are top rated and very enjoyable to listen to. They are absolutely worthy of being in a conversation with the best 20 afternoon programs in the country.

But what I discovered is that if those brands/shows and other smaller markets with strong sports stations/shows don’t promote their performance and make sure the industry is aware of what they’re doing, then it’s going to be extremely difficult to overcome a top tier station from a Top 10 market.

We’d all like to believe that everything is created equal and it’s an apples to apples comparison, but the reality is that an 8 share in Missouri or Alabama isn’t going to lure as many votes as an 8 share in Boston, Philadelphia, or New York. Not because the talent and performance isn’t special or equal, but because those larger markets reach more people, and they perform under higher company expectations.

The reason broadcasters in this business chase bigger market opportunities is because they want to be seen as the best in the industry, make more money, and perform under the brightest lights. When you succeed in these locations, you earn more respect. That certainly was a factor in the voting process.

You can knock the larger market stations/shows for being ranked above some others that are equally as deserving in smaller regions, but if you expect to change perceptions in the future, you’re going to have to perform higher than those brands, and make sure that everyone is aware of your story.

Perception Trumps Performance:

If there was an area that I felt was inconsistent it was this one. To be fair, it’s difficult to expect every voter to have intimate knowledge of every single brand, when they themselves are running companies and/or radio stations. Even those who aren’t running operations don’t have the hours available to listen to every single station and show on a daily basis.

This is why gaining information about the performance of brands is important. Call me old-school but I do believe that delivering ratings should matter in a process like this.

For example, I am a big Tony Kornheiser fan. Many who voted on this panel are as well, which is why he earned the honor of being named “Midday Show of the Year“. However, while I’m well aware of his track record in the format and the digital impact he’s made for ESPN 980, I also know that his ratings are 3-4 points lower than his competitor. I’m not sure if every member of the executive committee was aware of that fact or considered it when deciding where Tony deserved to be placed.

This doesn’t mean that Tony doesn’t deliver the better show in the market or that he’s not worthy of being rated at the top, because if you’ve listened to him you know he’s unique, interesting and very entertaining. The reason I point it out is to show how perception and a lack of awareness of some facts can play into the process.

I saw this same situation pop up in Seattle, where KJR’s afternoon show made the cut but their competitor 710 ESPN did not, even though they won the Men 25-54 ratings battle for the majority of 2015. I also felt KFAN in Minneapolis and SiriusXM deserved higher placement in a few areas but I’m not sure if everyone involved was as familiar with their content offerings or what they had accomplished during the past year. In KFAN’s case, their ratings story is one of the best in the country.

One other surprise was Jim Rome’s showing in the national voting. He didn’t receive one 1st place vote from the executive committee, and despite ranking 5th, was separated from 4th by over 100 points. Rome gained support thanks to his reputation and previous track record but not many were subscribing to him as a difference maker on the national scene.

Now before you blame the executive committee for these things, I want to ask one question of those brands and personalities who finished ranked lower than their competitor or not on the list at all — “What did you do during the past year to promote your success and make sure the industry knew you were ahead of your competition?”

I’ve touched on this issue before and I won’t let up until it sinks in – if you want people to take notice of the great work you do, you’ve got to let them know! It really is that simple.

One of radio’s biggest issues is its inability to promote its own success. If brands chose to operate behind a wall of secrecy rather than inform the public of the way they’re performing, then they’ve got nobody to blame when they fail to receive the credit they deserve. The reason why New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago stations appear on the radar is because their ratings performances are reported frequently. Why other markets don’t follow suit I’m not sure, but they’re missing out on an opportunity.

If there’s one last thing to remember about perception, it’s that regardless of the way we see things, it doesn’t make us right. I heard from multiple people in the format who were critical of Mike Francesa being ranked #1 as the top afternoon show. They’re entitled to their opinion and I understand where they’re coming from, but that doesn’t make them right.

You can argue whether or not his content is as stellar as the other shows he’s measured against, but you can’t dispute his ratings success in the nation’s top market. Judging by the way the voters voted, being a top dog in New York seems to be important. That doesn’t make it right, but it also doesn’t make it wrong.

Where Is The Diversity?

As I browsed through the shows that made our Top 20 lists, I couldn’t help but be reminded and disappointed by the format’s lack of women and minorities. The morning show category featured only one female, and one minority talent. Three of the twenty midday programs contained a minority host and no women, and four afternoon shows included a minority host and no women. There were also zero minorities or females on the program director list.

The national picture was better, but only slightly. In that case, five of the twenty programs included minority talent, but once again no women! Two of those shows (Stephen A. Smith and Bomani Jones) were built around a minority personality, something none of the local programs offered.

I’ve written before about sports radio’s challenges with diversity and the need for more women in key roles and if these results didn’t open your eyes to the balance issues that exist in the format, I’m not sure what will.

How can we improve it? Should it even be changed?

Those are questions each station will need to answer on their own. I only hope that as we look at these lists in the future they include more people from different backgrounds because it’s an area that will help the format grow and enjoy larger success.

The Voting Totals:

I thought it’d be beneficial to share an example of what one of the scoring charts looked like. For this particular exercise I included the Program Directors chart and listed the candidates who were 1-25 in scoring. This allows you to see which 5 programmers were on the outside looking in, but not far away from reaching the Top 20. These types of grids were used for scoring each category.

PD

I was also asked by a couple of people which shows were within striking distance of reaching the Top 20 and I’ve listed below the different categories and who was slotted between 20-25. You’ll see a number next to each show which is the amount of points they needed to reach 20th place.

Morning Shows:                                             

20. Bob Fescoe – 610 Sports Kansas City = 136

21. In The Loop – KILT Houston = 135 (-1)

22. Norris & Davis – 105.7 The Fan Baltimore = 111 (-25)

23. Joy & Zaslow – 790 The Ticket Miami = 100 (-36)

24. The Wake Up Zone – 104.5 The Zone Nashville = 92 (-44)

25. The Morning Animals – WWLS Oklahoma City = 87 (-49)

Midday Shows:

20. Mad Radio – 610 KILT Houston = 118

21. Soren Petro – 810 WHB Kansas City = 115 (-3)

22. Bickley & Marotta – Arizona Sports 98.7FM Phoenix = 115 (-3)

23. Big O – WQAM Miami = 107 (-11)

24. Darren Smith = Mighty 1090 San Diego = 94 (-24)

25. Vinny & Rob – 105.7 The Fan Baltimore = 93 (-25)

Afternoon Shows:                                                  

20. DMac & Alfred – 104.3 The Fan Denver = 113

21. Burns & Gambo – Arizona Sports 98.7FM Phoenix = 110 (-3)

22. Chuck & Chernoff – 680 The Fan Atlanta = 110 (-3)

23. Starkey & Mueller – 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh = 98 (-15)

24. Kevin Keitzman – 810 WHB Kansas City = 94 (-19)

25. The Fast Lane = 101 ESPN St. Louis = 74 (-39)

National Shows:

20. Damon Amendolara – CBS Sports Radio = 159

21. Jason Smith – Fox Sports Radio = 146 (-13)

22. Freddie Coleman – ESPN Radio = 97 (-62)

23. Gio & Jones – CBS Sports Radio = 92 (-67)

24. The Morning Men – Sirius XM Mad Dog Radio = 84 (-75)

25. Ferrall On The Bench – CBS Sports Radio = 79 (-80)

Conclusion:

Although I felt the finished product was reflective of the industry’s viewpoints and showcased the shows and stations in a positive light, I’m always contemplating what I can do to make it better. The response was strong, and many personalities, programmers and radio station executives felt good about the way they were presented, so that gives me confidence to explore doing it again.

However, if we do so, I’ll have a number of things to consider. Are 35 executives too many or not enough? Should there be a major market and smaller market category? Do we create a category for the Top 20 sports anchors? Does podcasting enter the picture as a future category? What other suggestions will pop up between now and then?

There’s a lot to think about and fortunately I’ve got a lot of time to mull things over before diving back into it.

If I do this again in 2017, there’s one thing I know for certain, it will once again be presented during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. I have had my fair share of misses in this business but if there’s one thing I know made sense, it was the decision to present these awards during a time when 75-100 media brands were at radio row for a full week. What can I say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.

To close this out, I want to congratulate everyone who received recognition from our executive committee and thank the members of the panel for taking part in it. If you have an opinion you’d like to share about this year’s awards, please email me at JBarrett@hvy.tcp.mybluehost.me. It’s been a fun process, one that drew a lot of attention to many great performers and brands in our industry, but for now it’s time to give the lists a rest! At least until next year’s Super Bowl!

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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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Programming In Fear Is a Recipe For Failure

“The best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong.”

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If you haven’t read Demetri Ravanos’ column this week, which included feedback from five programmers on whether or not they’d hire sports radio’s equivalent of Deshaun Watson, you should. It’s interesting, enlightening and sparked my interest to write a follow up column.

When it comes to decision making in the media industry subjectivity is at the center of everything. It’s not as simple as the NFL where wins and losses are often decided by talent and coaching. Instead, our business is judged by a small amount of meters and their activity using our products as determined by Nielsen, and personal relationships formed with advertisers and media industry professionals. All three of these areas may be less than perfect in determining if something is going to work or not, but it’s the way it is.

Let’s start with something I think most of us can agree on – listeners spend time with brands and individuals that cut through the noise. Most will also agree that advertisers value that too. If a talent can attract an audience and convert them into customers on a consistent basis, a company will employ them. Advertisers will ask to be included in their program too. If issues with a host’s track record or character exist it may turn off a few sponsors, but when there’s money to be made, the bottom line usually wins.

It’s similar in some ways to the NFL, which is why players like Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown, Michael Vick, Aldon Smith, Kareem Hunt, Joe Mixon and others are given second, and in some instances third and fourth chances to play. In a league where wins and talent impact the bottom line, executives care more about success than their morale standing. I know some folks would prefer that to be different but competition and business success drives many to look past certain situations.

In every business, there are people who are dirt bags. You may not want to associate with them or see them receive second or third chances, but if they can help a team win, make the franchise money, and excite a fanbase by helping to deliver a championship, owners are going to turn a blind eye to outside issues. They’ll even pay these players insane amounts of money despite their problems. Just look at the recent deals inked by Watson and Hill.

I know radio and television isn’t exactly the NFL, but as I read Demetri’s column I couldn’t help but think about the dilemma radio programmers face; to hire the best talent and run the risk of dealing with increased attention by inviting baggage into the building or play it safe and hire people with less problems even if their talent level is lower.

We work in the media industry. The job is to deliver audience, and ad revenue. If someone possesses the ability to help you do that, you owe it to your bosses to look into it. If you are going to pass up hiring someone with special talent because you value character more, I applaud you. It’s commendable and speaks volumes about who you are. But producing high ratings and revenue isn’t determined by who’s a better person. If your competitor loses to you in the morale department but wins consistently in those two areas, you may one day be calling me for advice on saving your job or finding the next one.

Audiences care far less about an individual’s behavior or the negative PR you have to absorb. They simply listen and/or watch people they find interesting and entertaining. Did the Chiefs and Bucs sell less tickets after adding Hill, Mixon or Brown? The answer is no. Fans wanted to see their teams win, and as long as those players helped them do that, far less cared about whether or not those guys were good or bad people. I’m sure Browns fans will do the same with Watson if he delivers a title for the city of Cleveland.

This issue is red meat for many in the media because it makes for great discussion, and generates a lot of reaction. However, as nice as it’d be to have good people in every enviable position, this is a business, and what matters most is the final result in generating audience and advertising. Sometimes that means adding people who bring baggage through the door.

Advertisers aren’t much different than fans either. They may voice concerns or reject being connected to someone initially who comes with negative attention, but if people start to listen or watch, they’re going to want to be involved eventually because it presents an opportunity to improve their bottom line. It’s why you don’t see a surge of advertising partners abandon NFL teams after they sign or draft a player with a troubled past. If it’s good for business, exceptions will be made.

Some may not like hearing this, but a brand manager is paid to improve their brand’s business not to manage the media’s morality department. I’d much rather work with good people who provide little drama. It makes work more enjoyable. But this is the entertainment business. Some high profile stars have ego’s, issues, ridiculous demands, and they create a lot of bullshit. Some are worth it, some aren’t. If they can help attract big dollars and a large audience, it’s an executive’s job to find a way to employ them and manage them.

I’m not suggesting that we should hire everyone with a prior track record of problems. I’m also not advocating not to do background checks, ask questions, double check with references, and feel as comfortable as possible with who you’re adding. It’s important to analyze the risks vs. the rewards when hiring someone who may cause some initial blowback. Not everyone is worth a second or third chance. More times than not, the HR department is going to prefer you add people with minimal risk who make the hiring process easier. But if a special talent is available and they come with baggage, you can’t be afraid to make a move that can grow your brand’s performance and bottom line.

For example, you may dislike some of the prior incidents that Howard Stern, Joe Rogan, Craig Carton, Dave Portnoy, and Ryen Russillo were involved in, but they’ve all shown a consistent ability to deliver an audience, revenue, and relevance. I used those 5 personalities as examples because Demetri specifically used Deshaun Watson, a QB who is widely recognized as a Top 5 QB in the NFL as the example. He’s seen as a game changer on the field just as these personalities are recognized as stars behind the microphone. If a programmer had a chance to hire one of those talents and bypassed them because they were worried about the ‘noise’ they’d have to deal with, I hope and pray their competition takes a pass too. If not, they’d be paying for it for a long time.

That said, I would not put my career on the line for a talent who has twenty two counts of sexual misconduct hanging over their head. I’d tell them to handle their legal situation first and then wait and see how the situation plays out. You can tell me how special a talent is, and I’ll tell you I’m all for second chances and I’m not afraid to put my job on the line to hire someone exceptionally gifted, but I’m also not stupid. Most corporate companies are going to want no part of that association and neither are advertisers. It’d be a bad bet.

But in Watson’s case, he was cleared of the criminal charges. That was decided in a court of law. Are we supposed to never hire him even though he was found innocent? This world is littered with examples of people who are talented, have been accused of wrongdoing, have prevailed legally, and have gone on to make the most of second opportunities. Yet social media is often seen as an approval ground where ‘noise’ matters more than facts.

Human beings are flawed and do stupid things sometimes. It doesn’t make them bad people or not worthy of being hired again. We also have a legal system for a reason. If one is accused of a crime, they have their day in the court, and a judge and jury decides if they are guilty or innocent. For some reason, whenever a high profile individual is linked to a situation, we have a tendency to react quickly, often declaring them guilty and permanently damaged. But that’s not right, and it often blows up in our face.

How did that work out with the Duke lacrosse case? Or when Rafael Palmeiro waved his finger at congress and said he never took steroids? Instant reactions were the Duke lacrosse team needed to be put away for life, and the media needed to leave Palmeiro alone. We later learned, both reactions were wrong. The same thing just happened again with Watson. In the court of public opinion, he’s guilty. In a court of law, he’s not. There’s something very wrong with that picture.

The minute you hire a person connected to controversy you have to know people are going to bring it up, and media outlets are going to draw attention to it. So what? If people listen/watch, and clients spend, deal with it. From the movie industry to politics to the world or sports and the media business, there are many examples of highly skilled people with imperfect records that were worth betting on. You have to have thick skin and be able to absorb negativity if you’re going to hire and manage people. You’re responsible for serving the audience, advertising community, and growing a business, not being the most liked inside your office or on social media.

Secondly, speaking of social media, I think we place way too much value on what listeners say on Twitter and/or Facebook. The majority of your audience isn’t living on Twitter. If they’re not happy with your product, they’ll change the dial or avoid pressing the button to stream your content. There is a lot of good that comes from social media, but when you make decisions for a brand that could raise a few eyebrows, your best move is to tune it out. Let people say what they want. If you’ve done your homework and added an individual who’s capable of making an impact, trust your gut that it’ll be proven right over time.

Third, when you’re talking to someone who has gone through a situation that can potentially create headaches for the brand you represent, remember that they’re going to act remorseful and tell you what you want to hear. They’re hoping to land a high profile job and recover from a setback. Talking to others who’ve been around them and have history with them is part of the process, and hearing them out is too. After you’ve gathered your facts and weighed the pros and cons, it ultimately comes down to whether or not you trust them, believe in them, and have the courage to handle the heat that will soon hit you when you enter the kitchen.

You can avoid all of that and hire someone safer. Sometimes that works. But in a business where talent ultimately wins, others eventually find ways to improve. If the brands you compete with have the guts to take the risk that you didn’t, you may pay for it later. Which is why you can’t dismiss star talent with blemishes on their resumes. It’d be great if we could all go through life, do the right thing, and never have to answer questions for controversial decisions, but that’s not realistic.

I’ve shared this story before, back when I was in San Francisco in 2013, I hired Damon Bruce. He had previously generated heat for comments about not wanting women in his sandbox. It was a bad take, one he endured a lot of negative attention for, and despite apologizing and serving a suspension, nothing seemed to satisfy the masses. When we started talking, I entered those conversations knowing if I brought him on board I’d have to deal with the noise. I got to know him, talked to others, and reviewed the facts. One thing that stuck with me, he had never been in serious trouble and he had spent a decade working for the same employer. More times than not, you don’t work somewhere for that long if people don’t value you and enjoy working with you.

Damon would be the first to admit that back then he could be a pain in the ass, and he came to the table with public attention that made him harder to hire. I chose to believe in his talent, trust my eyes and ears, and focus on how he could help us improve our business. There were emails, tweets, and voicemail complaints I had to deal with but typing this now nine years later, after Damon just signed a three year extension to remain in afternoons at 95.7 The Game, I know the right call was made. He had to own his mistake, learn from it, and I had to have the courage to give him a shot and support him. In the end, everyone benefitted.

One story I haven’t shared, took place in 2006. I had just been hired to program Sports Talk 950 in Philadelphia, which has since become 97.5 The Fanatic. Our roster was bare, our lineup had national shows occupying the majority of the weekday schedule, and we needed more top level local talent to get to the next level. As I reviewed local and external options, I put Mike Missanelli and John Kincade high on my list. Ironically, they now both host drive time shows on The Fanatic.

Well, as we were preparing to reach out and talk to people, Missanelli got fired by WIP for ‘violating company policy’. It was alleged that he got into a physical altercation with a part time producer. I wasn’t there so I didn’t know all the facts, but the noise from that situation affected our process. When I raised the idea of meeting with him it was quickly dismissed. I knew he was ready for the next step, would have a chip on his shoulder to beat his former employer, and had a ton of local relationships which could be good for business. I was willing to meet and learn more, and if during that process we felt it made sense to bring him on board, I’d have handled the heat that came from it.

It never even started though. Others worried about the ‘noise’ and decided to pass up the opportunity to add a difference maker to the lineup. The brand struggled to gain traction for the next few years, and when Matt Nahigian arrived in town, he wisely went and hired Missanelli. Almost instantly, the success and perception of the brand changed. Now, The Fanatic consistently competes against WIP, and Missanelli has helped deliver a lot of wins in afternoons over the past 13-14 years.

Each person who makes a decision to hire someone has a lot to consider. If a radio talent is seen in a negative light because of prior history with other professionals or because they delivered an insensitive rant that’s much different than being found guilty of twenty two counts of sexual misconduct. Having said that, I worry that some managers ignore the facts (Watson was found not guilty) and will add a solid talent with less negative attention than a more talented person with extra baggage. As a programmer, would you have had the guts to hire Craig Carton after he served time? Would you have the stomach to handle the heat if Dave Portnoy worked for you and the Business Insider story cast a dark cloud over your brand? Would you stand by Joe Rogan when others attack him for comments made in the past or as artists pull their music because of not agreeing with his views?

I’m not sure if I’m right, wrong, smart or stupid, but I know this, if I believed in them enough to hire them knowing that the noise would increase the second they entered the office, then I’d do my best to have their back. I’d also not think twice about my future or whether or not my corporate boss had a bullseye on my back. I think the best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong. If you program in fear and play it safe to avoid the noise, you run the risk of hearing silence. And sometimes that peace and quiet comes when you’re sitting at home rather than dealing with headaches inside of the office.

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