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Inside The CBS Sports Radio Network

Jason Barrett

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The CBS Sports Radio Network is approaching its fourth year in business. The operation launched in September 2012 with 80 stations clearing the CBS Sports Minute, and once the full programming lineup was introduced in January of 2013, the affiliate base expanded to 150.

Currently, CBS clears network programming on 330 affiliates nationwide. To avoid confusion, that doesn’t mean their shows are available 24/7 on all affiliates. It means that some form of the network’s content is cleared by each of these stations. One component not included in that equation is the network’s distribution through online streaming.

What makes the CBS Sports Radio Network’s situation unique, is that the programming decisions are made by CBS officials, but the content is distributed and sold by Westwood One, who are owned by Cumulus. Having two of the nation’s biggest radio operators team up to develop and grow a national sports network doesn’t happen everyday, but without their marriage, this would be a very different column.

The Beginning:

Before the CBS Sports Radio Network was born, former CEO Dan Mason and Executive Vice President of Programming Chris Oliviero were searching for a way to exponentially grow their business. They felt they were successful at local sports radio but wanted to find an opportunity that would allow them to become difference makers on the national circuit.

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Mason said “We had a lot of great local content and wanted to string it together somehow, but didn’t have the right mechanism. But then Lew Dickey came to visit, and suddenly all of the pieces began to fall into place. With Cumulus providing their support and a great play by play component from Westwood One, and our team offering great talent and high quality content, the fit felt right.”

The involvement of Cumulus was critical to turning CBS’ vision into a reality. The company understood the network sales business from previously partnering with ESPN Radio, and owned and operated hundreds of radio stations across the nation. Upon making the decision to form an alliance with CBS, they announced they would drop 47 ESPN Radio stations in favor of CBS’ new national product. That news alone drew instant attention from the radio industry, and its top advertisers.

With two powerful operators now on the same team, and looking to use their collective muscles to move aside ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio, the questions became – who would run it, where would it originate from, and which personalities would be part of it?

Finding The Right Leader:

The man who received the call to lead the operation was Eric Spitz, the prized protege of WFAN boss Mark Chernoff. During the course of his career, Eric gained tremendous value from learning from the top Program Director in the format. But while he may have been satisfied with the body of work that he had produced, he was also eager to spread his wings and find out if he could fly.

When word trickled out that CBS was considering entering the network space, Eric let everyone know that he was ready for the challenge.

“I had the good fortune of learning from the best programmer in the business, Mark Chernoff” said Spitz. “I enjoyed every moment of my time with WFAN, and I learned a lot, and developed a lot of relationships. But, eventually I wanted to test myself and oversee my own brand, and that wasn’t going to happen with WFAN. Mark built that brand and turned it into the most successful sports radio station in the country and he’s not leaving until he decides it’s time. And he’s earned that.”

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He continued “For myself, the network presented an opportunity to find out what I was capable of as the point man. But, it also provided the best of both worlds because I had the opportunity to remain inside the same building with Mark and Chris Oliviero. That allowed me to be a resource to them, and them to me, and it’s worked out really well.”

Before Spitz was trusted with the assignment, CBS had a lot to consider. Moving Spitz to run the network, meant having to make adjustments with WFAN (where Chernoff was still deeply rooted). The company also had Bruce Gilbert programming a few of their Dallas stations, and his reputation in national circles was popular from his tenure with ESPN Radio and iHeart’s sports properties.

Although conversations took place with Gilbert, it was clear to Mason, Oliviero, and Chernoff that the network needed to operate out of New York. By doing so, they’d present a strong brand image, keep open the line of communication between CBS’ key executives, plus it was ideal for the sales team and advertisers to forge better relationships with the network’s talent and key people. The facilities in New York were also big enough to house the operation.

“We wanted stability with our key people because when you’re starting a new operation it’s important to have everyone under the same roof,” said Mason. “We felt having the brain trust of Mark, Eric, and Chris was a big advantage for what we were creating and being in NY made the most sense to keep things streamlined.”

Another benefit to shifting Spitz over to run the network was that he was already in house, knew the way CBS did business, and had strong relationships with everyone involved. The further the company gave consideration to launching the network, the more clear it became that he was the right person to lead it.

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Oliviero shared the reasons why: “Promoting from within is important to us, and in Eric’s case, he has an incredible operational strength and great temperament. He’s an excellent coach who has a great demeanor with talent, plus he gained some national experience while working previously for Westwood One. We knew we had to hit the ground running and a big reason we were prepared the way we were on day #1 was because we had Eric leading the way.”

Olivero was not alone in his assessment, Mason felt equally as strong about Spitz: “Eric knew the CBS language and playbook. He anticipates everything well and has learned a lot over the years from Mark. His demeanor and ear for good programming gave Chris and I a lot of confidence that he’d do well. His involvement is a big reason for the network’s success.”

Since being charged with running the network, Spitz is happy and feeling professionally challenged. He invests a lot of his time in supporting the Westwood One sales team, and tries to provide the same for many of the network’s programs. One host who has taken notice of the way Spitz manages, and appreciates it, is Damon Amendolara, who hosts “The D.A Show” Monday-Friday from 6p-10p ET.

“Eric is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, and working with him was one of the biggest reasons I jumped at the opportunity to come here” said D.A. “He trusts me, but reigns me in when I need it. I look at the show as four-hours of an artist’s pad. I figure out what to draw, then I get to decide how to color it. There are rules. I can’t paint on the walls. I can’t draw on the table. It’s got to be in good taste. We touch base regularly, and I bounce ideas off him. He’ll let me know when we need to reel it in, but he doesn’t micromanage me in any way.”

Creating Synergy Between Local Stations and The Network:

While Eric may guide the ship, that doesn’t mean his mentor Mark Chernoff isn’t involved or accessible. Chernoff’s office is within walking distance for Spitz, and often the two men will collaborate on opportunities to bring the local and national brands together.

“We see some of the benefits come into play with the way the CBS Sports Minute’s are incorporated into our local brands” said Chernoff. “We’ve also had some of our network talent like Doug Gottlieb and Gregg Giannotti fill in on shows on WFAN, and some of our markets pick up the national programming during evenings, overnights, and weekends which is nice.”

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He sites one specific example of how the two platforms have come together to create programming that is beneficial to all involved.

“Some people may have noticed that we’re creating more specialized content and carrying it on many of our local stations. For example, Taz is providing a WrestleMania post-show edition of his show on Sunday night April 3rd and WFAN, 670 The Score, The Sports Hub, The Fan in D.C and a number of our other local sports stations are picking it up. We give them the option to do that. They don’t have to take it if they don’t think it fits their radio station, but when they do, it’s because they believe the quality is good and provides a benefit to their listeners.”

Critics point out that the network may have hurt its own growth by not being forceful enough with airing the network’s key programs on the company’s own local stations. However, if you look at the success of brands like WFAN, 98.7 The Sports Hub, WIP, 670 The Score, etc. you can understand why CBS has no plans to change that strategy. It doesn’t make much sense to damage one part of the company’s business, for the benefit of another.

Oliviero says that it’s all a part of the company’s operational strategy: “The vision was to create two channels of programming – the best in local sports radio programming, and the best in national sports programming.  The consistency we’ve had is something I’m proud of. I believe we’ve served the CBS brand well, and delivered for many of our affiliates, and in building this network, we’ve remained committed to our local strategy too which is vital to our business success.”

Adding High Profile Talent: 

As great as the synergy might be, a national product won’t have success without A+ talent. Most in the industry would agree that Jim Rome fits that description. Adding his name to the CBS marquee gave instant credibility to the brand, and allowed the company to enter into some markets that it may have otherwise needed more time to clear.

Spitz talked about the importance of landing an established talent like Rome: “There’s no doubt that Jim’s addition brought instant credibility and awareness to our product. It helped us gain entry into some big markets to establish our legitimacy.”

Chernoff said that the relationship with CBS television helped create that possibility. When the opportunity was presented by TV executives, everyone involved on the radio end agreed that it was a no-brainer. To launch a national product with Rome serving as the face of it was exactly what CBS needed to plant its flag in the ground.

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Since venturing into the jungle, CBS executives couldn’t be more pleased. Spitz explained why: “The one great benefit of working with Jim is that he’s a professional who you can count on to deliver a great program. I don’t need to babysit the show. It’s one of those programs that’s almost like a plug and play because you know it’s going to be good. That allows me to be able to focus my attention in a few other areas that are more pressing to growing the business. If I have feedback or a suggestion he’s open to it and he’s great with our clients too.”

While Rome possessed the largest profile, the remainder of the network’s lineup at launch time was impressive.

In mornings, the original show featured local radio/television personality Brandon Tierney, former NY Giants running back Tiki Barber, and former ESPN Anchor Dana Jacobsen. Middays belonged to nationally recognized author and columnist John Feinstein who hosted a show which served as a lead in for Rome. Completing the M-F 6a-7p picture in afternoons was former ESPN Radio/TV personality/analyst and former Oklahoma State basketball player Doug Gottlieb.

During the evenings, the network featured former ESPN Radio host Chris Moore and CBS College Football Analyst Brian Jones, former local radio and SiriusXM personality Scott Ferrall, and local radio personality Damon Amendolara. A slew of other well established local and national radio personalities rounded out the network’s weekend coverage.

Developing a Different Sound and Strategy:

After getting the lineup in place, the next focus was to establish the network’s identity. From a listening standpoint, there are a few things that CBS does differently than their competitors. If you’ve heard a CBS local sports radio station before, then you should notice the similarities with the network’s jingles and voice talent. Each are distinct and present an alternative sound to what ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio deliver.

Another noticeable difference, is the network’s focus and commitment to taking calls. Spitz said the decision was a strategic one, and one he’s glad they made.

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“We felt that taking calls on a national level would have appeal, and differentiate us from the ESPN’s and FOX’s of the world,” said Spitz. “It’s still important for producers to screen them well, and the hosts to use them properly, but sports stories that are hits are going to draw a reaction everywhere and we encourage our talent to include the audience in their conversations.”

By employing that approach, it’s allowed the network’s hosts to further develop their relationship with listeners, especially in markets where they may not have been previously familiar. Sports radio fans may know Rome therefore it may not be as valuable to him, but for talent like Amendolara who are growing their profile, the ability to connect verbally with the audience and develop a bond has tremendous value.

“The audience is my top priority,” said D.A. “On my show, we have states like Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that are really interactive. Cities like Baltimore, Green Bay, Seattle and Atlanta have been amazing for calls, and social media interaction. So many people can listen to the show via our 170+ show affiliates, or our live stream, or the app. It’s an amazing new world in consumption.”

Making Lineup Adjustments:

Despite the buzz and two years of on-air stability, Spitz, Chernoff, and Oliviero reached a crossroads where they felt some adjustments had to be made to take bigger steps forward. It’s sort of like buying a new home. You can love everything about it, but at some point, the walls get painted a different color, a rug gets placed over the hardwood floors, and the furniture gets moved around from one side of the room to the other to give the home a different look.

Luckily for CBS, some of the answers were already inside the company.

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Gregg Giannotti was brought in from The Fan in Pittsburgh, and paired with Brian Jones from the evening program, to host mornings nationally. With “Gio and Jones” in place as the network’s new morning show, “Tiki and Tierney” shifted to middays. The moves left Dana Jacobsen and John Feinstein on the outside looking in (they were given other roles in the company).

The network also made the decision to take Amendolara off of overnights and put him on at 6pm, replacing his overnight slot with Amy Lawrence. That left Chris Moore without a five nights per week opportunity (he still fills in on WFAN).

“We tried some things early on with the lineup and some worked and a few didn’t,” said Spitz. “We’ve since adjusted and think they’re well positioned now”.

Such moves can rattle the psyche of a sports radio personality, but for Brandon Tierney, he tried to find the positive in the situation.

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“If I’m being honest, our style is probably better suited for this timeslot than it was in mornings. Tiki and I have very good on-air chemistry, and we understand what we’re looking to accomplish individually and collectively. I enjoy working with him, and think that the audience can tell that. The switch turned out to be a big positive for us.”

Although the afternoon show didn’t feature a hosting change, it did make a location adjustment. Doug Gottlieb originally signed on to host his program from California, but as the relationship grew with television and radio, it became clear that a move back to the east coast was necessary.

During a recent visit to San Francisco, Gottlieb explained to me how the situation came about, and what the initial challenges were. “When they asked me to move back, at first I was reluctant. But, once I had time to think about it, I realized it made the most sense.”

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He also pointed out that there was one other hurdle still left to clear.

“The only issue we had was that I was going to do the radio show from another studio, not inside the same building with everyone at the CBS Sports Radio Network. The challenge with that is that you feel removed from what’s happening with the company, and you don’t get an opportunity to connect with your bosses much. I asked them, if I moved back could I do the show from the same building that way there’d be better synergy and allow us to further develop our relationship, and they were receptive to it and I think it’s worked out well for all of us”.

If anyone knows what it’s like to make adjustments on a national stage, it’s Bruce Gilbert, Cumulus’ Senior Vice President of Sports. Having led ESPN during a time when Gottlieb, Erik Kuselias, John Seibel and Freddie Coleman were added to the weekday lineup, and Colin Cowherd replaced Tony Kornheiser, Gilbert now has an interesting position of managing Cumulus’ local sports properties, and Westwood One sports, while also working with CBS.

“Whenever you start something new, you begin with a plan and find out at some point that the plan needs tweaking,” said Gilbert. You try to listen to your affiliates and partners and make the necessary adjustments that you believe will bring your brand larger success. CBS came out of the gate with a lot of star talent, and the creation of the CBS Sports Minute was smart and a huge success because it allowed the brand to gain clearance on a lot of powerful local sports radio brands. They’ve since shown an ability to adapt and the internal feeling is very positive because the network has continued getting better.”

Major Market Clearance Issues:

But despite making moves to the lineup that many consider positive, the one challenge that remains is the ability to gain clearance for the network’s key weekday programs in major markets. On the affiliate sheet it may show that the network clears a number of bigger major market brands, but most are picking up the CBS Sports Minute, nights/weekend programming, or the content is being featured on secondary signals in the local market.

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Of the network’s four core weekday shows (M-F 6a-7p), Rome has received the best major market clearance. That was to be expected. However, his show was dealt a blow recently when The Beast 980 in Los Angeles was sold, and its format flipped. The sale caused the show to lose its largest market affiliate. Luckily for Rome, his show is offered on the Mighty 1090 in San Diego, which has a big enough signal to penetrate the L.A area.

The network also hasn’t found a home yet on the New York City airwaves, even though CBS runs the operation out of the concrete jungle, and provides two signals of support for local powerhouse WFAN. CBS executives point out that the network can be heard on HD2, and an affiliation was formed with WFAS in Westchester (which reaches certain parts of the big apple), but while those are indeed options for the audience, they’re not seen the same way by local radio listeners. The one major benefit the network receives in New York, is when WFAN airs the CBS Sports Minute, and picks up select programming.

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Mark Chernoff acknowledges that there’s more work to be done but there are other factors beyond their control: “Sure we’d like to have more major market clearance, and we knew the Los Angeles situation was possible because the radio station had been up for sale for quite some time. But, we can’t let ourselves worry about which cities take us, and which ones don’t. We try to put out a great product and make sure our stations know what’s available to take advantage of.”

He continued “We have to remind people that the programming can be heard on our app, website, and on our HD2 channels. In New York for example, the network comes in very clear on HD2. I listen to it everyday. It’s not just about local signals anymore.”

Spitz, Oliviero, and Chernoff plan to continue analyzing situations to help the network gain entry into larger areas, but they won’t do it at the expense of their local stations. This is why the focus on digital can’t be understated. With listeners flocking to tablets, mobile devices, and desktops to listen, it’s easy to forget how vital it is to be active and effective in the digital audio space. While it may not satisfy the appetite of radio industry insiders who want to see the network’s programming available in larger cities on bigger sticks, if it leads to larger digital numbers, and a stronger interest from listeners in major market cities where the programming isn’t available, I doubt CBS will worry much about industry opinions.

Understanding How National Success Is Measured:

It’s become the norm inside radio circles to knock a network for not receiving enough major market clearance, and to highlight how national programming doesn’t compare in the ratings to local shows. But, what’s misunderstood in the industry is how a national network’s success is measured.

Bruce Gilbert offers his perspective. “There are no two networks where the answer is alike. At ESPN, protecting the brand was the top priority. If an affiliate wasn’t going to present the product the way we felt it needed to be presented, we’d pass on working with them. The brand integrity was too important to the company.”

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He adds, “At CBS, there’s a larger focus placed on generating revenue. Here we have access to some of the best rated local sports radio stations in America through our partnership with CBS, and when you combine that with Westwood One’s distribution, sales team, and play by play, it creates an impressive package for advertisers. The reason it works, is because of the strength of the CBS brand, and the muscle of the WW1 sales team.”

Former CBS CEO Dan Mason says that each business must run on its own and have the right people in place. “In local, sales are a straight rifle shot. In network, sales come in a basket. Both have unique opportunities for clients but are two very different concepts. The key is to have people in place who understand how to utilize both and grow each business without taking away from the other.”

For Chris Oliviero, it’s a matter of gaining repeat business, and seeing growth in the on-air product. “The number of affiliates is important but so is gaining consistency with local stations,” he said. “When an affiliate stays with you for a long period of time, that says that they’ve had other options available, but they believe in your product and enjoy doing business with you.”

Oliviero adds “the second part that’s important is the satisfaction of our sponsors. Are they getting results? Since we launched nationally, our sponsors have grown every year. We’ve seen our platform distribution expanding, and our editorial judgment and collection of radio talent has been exceptional. All of those things factor into the way we analyze the growth of our network.”

Three Things That Deserve To Be Acknowledged:

From where I sit, the CBS Sports Radio Network deserves credit for a few specific things that it often doesn’t receive recognition for.

First, the network isn’t made up of a collection of New Yorkers lacking a national perspective. I have heard that comment numerous times since the network launched, and while there are certainly a fair amount of east coast people on the network, (many with New York roots), that shouldn’t discount the fact that they’ve traveled the world and been involved in many different local markets.

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For example, Brandon Tierney has hosted in Detroit, San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Damon Amendolara has hosted local shows in Miami, Kansas City, and Boston. Scott Ferrall has worked in New York, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Miami. Amy Lawrence has spent time in Oklahoma City, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. By the way, she happens to be the only female on a national network who hosts her own full time weekday sports talk show.

Need more examples?

Doug Gottlieb has hosted radio shows in Oklahoma City, and Connecticut. Gregg Giannotti has worked in Pittsburgh and New York, and if you look at the network’s weekend lineup, it originates from Cleveland, OH, Atlanta, GA, Houston, TX, Grand Rapids, MI, Hartford, CT, and New York.

To suggest that the network is a New York focused product with personalities lacking a national perspective is simply inaccurate.

What also stands out is CBS’ commitment to building their network with dedicated radio personalities. ESPN has adopted a strategy of utilizing a large number of talent who possess the skills to perform on radio and television. Fox and NBC have done so too, although to a lesser degree. Yahoo Sports Radio would be the closest in comparison to CBS in terms of providing radio-focused on-air hosts.

If you look at CBS’ hosts (weekday and weekends included), they treat radio as their first love. The company believes in using people from their local markets who have the ability to talk sports on a national level, and that approach has helped a number of on-air talent expand their profiles, elevate the image of their radio station’s, and provide a benefit to each of their sales teams.

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The one downside to that approach is that other national outlets pay attention and when they discover talent, they don’t hesitate to strike. Case in point, Fox Sports this week lured away Sports Radio 610 morning personality Nick Wright. He had been with CBS Houston for close to four years.

But despite those potential challenges, Oliviero says he’s not afraid to lose good people. “We want our people to grow and we’re not going to hide them out of fear that someone out there may recognize their talents and steal them away from us. If they have the talent to do a national show and they reach a point where they can’t go higher with us and someone else swoops in with an opportunity to help them take another step in their career, I applaud them.”

Chris continues, “If we help our people expand their profiles, it not only helps them on a national level, but it helps us on a local level. It tells our listeners and advertisers that they’re connecting with someone who has A+ talent. Networks sometimes look for a name or high profile individual to host their shows, but it takes a certain skillset to host a great radio program. At CBS we focus on providing GREAT radio hosts who can deliver dynamic content and are focused first and foremost on being masters at the radio craft.”

The Progress, The Future, and The Sale:

That leads us to the final part of this column, which I’d like to use to focus on the future. The critics will tell you that the network’s lack of major market clearance needs to be addressed. CBS will respond by reminding their advertisers, listeners, and employees how the network has grown from 150 affiliates in 2012 to 330 in 2016. Call it what you want, but I label that as progress. Whether it’s enough or not, depends on who you ask.

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What isn’t disputable though is that CBS is up for grabs. The uncertainty of the future could potentially spell problems for the network, but right now the road is much too foggy to navigate. All we know is that the company is considering its options. Some of the possibilities include selling all or some of their radio stations, trading assets with another media group, or creating an entirely new company and shifting all of CBS’ radio assets over to it.

Regardless of which path they choose, one thing appears set in stone, the current company structure will experience some form of change in 2016.

One network employee who wished to remain anonymous says the potential of the sale has caused concern: “I’m not going to lie, it sucks. CBS has been a great company, and they’ve been a leader in the sports radio business. Not knowing who you’re going to work for is unsettling, but you can’t let it distract you. Hopefully whoever buys the company agrees that the network is on the right track and with some additional support, can help us expand and make it even more successful.”

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I’m certainly no Nostradamus, and I’m not privy to the offers CBS has received to sell its radio properties, but if there’s some solace I can provide to those on the inside looking out, it’s to remember that IF the company sells, and another group spends hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase them, it’ll be because they see value in the brand, its people, and each station’s ability to deliver results.

Former CEO Dan Mason said it best, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen for sure, but if a company is going to spend the money to buy the car, then I don’t think they’re going to want to tear out the seats.”

Assuming that the network continues operating under its current arrangement, the big picture questions become:

  • What must be done to reach 400 affiliates?
  • How much revenue can the network generate?
  • When will CBS gain clearance in larger markets?
  • How long will CBS and Cumulus continue their relationship?
  • Does CBS reach a point where they nationally simulcast Boomer & Carton?
  • Is there a path to overtaking ESPN and FOX as the leader in national sports programming?

For Mason, he feels the network’s growth will come down to two factors. “The biggest challenges are to continue growing talent. Who are the next Boomer and Carton’s and Mike Francesa’s on the national level? The distribution coupled with the brand name of CBS is strong, but talent is key. I also think the production is going to need a fresh coat of paint and need to ascend to a higher level.”

Bruce Gilbert sees the network needing to place a stronger emphasis on improving its digital business. “It’s not all about which sticks we’re on. We’ve got to play bigger in the digital arena, especially with podcast creation. I also think we need to explore developing more events and adding play by play which will help the product and the bottom line.”

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When a company is providing a content experience aimed at serving the entire country seven days per week, twenty four hours per day, there’s always going to be work to do. That’s the type of challenge that keeps an executive like Chris Oliviero up at night.

“If you combine our local stations and the CBS Sports Radio network, we’re churning out almost 300 hours of local and national content each week. That’s massive. For us to maximize those hours, we need to create quality programming, and that can only be done by continuing to invest in A-level personalities.”

In a business where the first thought is to trim expenses, CBS has stuck to its strategy of creating a national sports radio network, independent of its local brands. That’s to be applauded. It’s rare that companies invest in quality content on two platforms without insisting on one being crammed down the throats of local operators.

Whether that strategy will continue or be adjusted remains to be seen, but after spending the past two months working on this project, I’ve come away with a deeper respect and appreciation for the way CBS runs its business. It’s clear that Eric Spitz, Mark Chernoff, Chris Oliviero, and former CEO Dan Mason share a common belief in the future of this network, and the approach, and adjustments made along the way have served them well in their quest to becoming leaders on the national scene.

Here’s to hoping that four years from now we’re able to analyze additional progress made by the CBS Sports Radio Network, and share the next part of their story.

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Barrett Blogs

ESPN Has Made It Clear, Radio Is Not a Priority

“What’s unfolding now at the worldwide leader is disheartening because it could have been avoided.”

Jason Barrett

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This is not a column I wanted to write. For years, I’ve expressed how much better the industry is when ESPN Radio is healthy. I’ve maintained friendships at the network, the company has supported our BSM Summit, and I reflect fondly on the few years I spent working there earlier in my career. It was a special place to work and I learned a lot about becoming a pro in Bristol.

But this ESPN Radio is not the one that I and many others were fortunate to be a part of under Bruce Gilbert. It is not the one that Traug Keller, Scott Masteller, and other radio-first believers oversaw. This current version lacks radio instincts, focus, passion, and care. That may be an opinion that folks in Bristol, New York, and Los Angeles offices don’t want to hear but the decisions made in recent years make it difficult to see it any other way.

ESPN Radio used to obsess over serving the sports fan, its radio affiliates, and network advertising partners. But serving the company’s television and digital interests is what matters most now. Relationships with radio operators have changed, interest in operating local markets has decreased, and though I’m sure some will defend the network’s interest in satisfying advertising partners, it’s hard to do that a day after the entire national audio sales team was gutted. Thankfully Good Karma Brands is passionate about the audio business and helping their sales efforts. If they weren’t involved, who would be leading the charge in Bristol?

I didn’t start this week planning to drop a truth bomb but as I sat here on Tuesday and fielded text after text and call after call, I couldn’t help but be disappointed and upset. This network has been a staple of the industry for over thirty years. Yet in less than ten it feels they’re closer to turning off the lights than celebrating success. That should not happen when you have the partnerships, history, and talent that ESPN has.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to reach this point. ESPN Radio had chances to sell in the past to outside parties. They declined. Folks inside of Disney felt the network was worth more. Well, how’s that looking now? If the company wasn’t going to commit to doing it the right way, and was just going to cut its way to the bottom, why stand in the way of others who’d pay to save it? It’s eerily similar to what just happened with Buzzfeed News. The company thought it was better than it was, and within a few years, the whole thing crumbled.

If this were the first time the network looked bad, I’d go easier on them. I understand the business, and sometimes brands or companies make mistakes or have to make difficult choices. It’s why I didn’t bury the network when Mike and Mike ended. Though I knew replacing their stability in mornings would be tough, I felt the network had earned enough clout over the prior years to be given the benefit of the doubt with a new show/lineup. I also applauded the company for replacing Zubin with Max, defended paying Stephen A. Smith top dollar, and supported GetUp! when it was popular to predict the show’s funeral.

But how can leadership in Bristol expect radio operators to trust their decision making at this point? I’ve talked to network executives privately and publicly about these issues for years, and have been told repeatedly that the radio business matters to them and becoming more consistent was a priority. At some point though the actions need to match the words. Unfortunately the only consistency taking place is change, and it often isn’t for the better.

I’ve lost count of the phone calls, texts, emails and direct messages I’ve fielded from PDs, executives, market managers, and ad agency professionals who’ve asked ‘should I be doing business with this network? Can you help me rebrand and redesign my radio station without ESPN Radio?‘ Yesterday alone I took five calls including from two who have expiring deals coming up. Think they’re in a rush to extend a partnership given what’s going on?

If you turn back the clock, some will say that things began to go in the wrong direction when Bruce Gilbert and Dan Patrick left. Though those were big losses, there was still a lot of confidence across the industry in ESPN Radio after they left. The early signs of issues at the network really started in 2014. That’s when Scott Masteller and Scott Shapiro departed. Masteller went on to program WBAL in Baltimore, and Shapiro teamed up with Don Martin to strengthen FOX Sports Radio.

Fast forward to 2020, and the heart and soul of the network, Traug Keller retired. Traug had more in the tank when he signed off, and when I talked to him prior to his exit, he denied being forced out or having concerns about the future direction of the network. Those who know Traug, know that’s he’s a class act and not one to air dirty laundry. But I also know he’s smart. As I look back now, I can’t help but wonder if he knew the ship was headed for an iceberg. I have no doubt that the network would be in better shape today if he were still there.

After Traug’s exit, a year later, Tim McCarthy was let go in New York. The network even cut ties with longtime voice talents Jim and Dawn Cutler, though they stayed on the company’s top stations in NY and LA.

Though I hated to see all of them go because they were good at their jobs and valuable to the network, the one that made a little more sense was Tim’s exit because that had more to do with Good Karma taking over in New York. Tim has since landed with the Broadcasters Foundation of America, and Vinny DiMarco is now leading 98.7 ESPN NY, and I’m a fan of both men.

But now here we are in 2023, and once again, the folks being shown the door are the people who dedicated their lives to radio. Among the casualties, Scott McCarthy, the network’s SVP of Audio, Pete Gianesini, Senior Director of Digital Audio, Louise Cornetta, Digital Audio Program Director, and two good local sports radio programmers, Ryan Hurley at 98.7 ESPN NY, and Amanda Brown at ESPN LA 710. All of them good, talented people with track records of success in the format. I struggle to explain how ESPN Radio is better today without them.

By the way, I haven’t even touched the talent department yet. But let’s go there next.

In less than eight years, ESPN Radio’s morning show has featured Mike & Mike, Golic & Wingo (Mike Golic Jr. and Jason Fitz were added as contributing voices), Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin, and Keyshawn, JWill and Max. Middays have included Colin Cowherd, Dan Le Batard and Stugotz, Scott Van Pelt, Ryen Russillo, Danny Kanell, Will Cain, Mike Greenberg, Jason Fitz, Stephen A. Smith, Bart & Hahn, and Fitz and Harry Douglas. Afternoons have been a combination of Le Batard and Stugotz, Bomani Jones, Jalen & Jacoby, Golic Jr. & Chiney, Canty & Golic Jr. & Canty and Carlin. I could run down the changes at night too, but you get the picture.

As a former programmer and current consultant, I know that radio is a relationship listen and investment. You can’t build an audience and attract sponsor support for talent and shows if the product constantly changes. Most PDs or executives who make this many changes during a short period of time, usually aren’t around very long. Yet ESPN has allowed this to continue, which leaves me to question how much they value their radio network.

Look, I’m sure this is a tough week for those in management at ESPN. Having to tell folks they’re not being retained and watch friends say goodbye is a crummy part of the job. I’m sure some have even fought to try and avoid this bloodbath. But when the news comes down from up above that 7,000 jobs are being eliminated, it’s not a question of whether or not people are talented and valuable, it’s simply about the bottom line. I feel for the folks at ESPN who have to deliver the bad news this week but also for those who are staying and now have limited support around them to make a difference.

By decimating the radio department there are now bigger questions to be answered by Jimmy, Burke, Dave, Norby and the rest of the management team. How much does ESPN value the radio business and the stations they’re in business with? If most of the people who’ve built relationships with local stations are gone, talented programmers are being ousted, talent changes happen far too frequently, and the company becomes less involved in local markets, why is anyone to believe this space matters to ESPN? What exactly are stations gaining from partnerships besides the use of four letters and the opportunity to air play by play events?

The network expects these stations to provide them with inventory, rights fees, branding, promotion, and clearance of certain programs so isn’t it fair of stations to have expectations of the network too? Don’t radio network partners deserve consistent quality programming, relationships with managers who prioritize audio, and less negative PR?

Most who I talk to about this situation believe the network’s glory days are gone. That’s fine. Just because this isn’t the ESPN Radio of 2005 doesn’t mean it can’t be great. The product exists now to primarily serve mid to small market operators who can’t afford local content, major market stations who don’t want to spend on evening and overnight shows, and company owned stations that can be utilized to promote the company’s digital and television content. ESPN does gain value for their radio shows on TV and podcast platforms, but those benefit the company much more than their radio partners.

The general feeling in industry circles is that FOX Sports Radio now delivers the best national radio product, CBS Sports Radio has better consistency but similar east coast content issues, and others don’t have strong enough brand recognition or content to justify a change. If sports betting continues to gain mainstream acceptance and bring cash into the marketplace, that could help outlets like VSiN, BetQL, and SportsGrid gain greater traction. If Outkick gets more aggressive with offering content to local markets, especially in the south and Midwest, that could be another interesting option.

The bigger question is whether there’s enough audience, revenue, and excitement for national content in today’s sports radio space. If most major markets are focused on local, is there enough out there in rural America to keep networks excited?

I do know that just ten years ago CBS Radio entered the space because they saw value in it. NBC Sports Radio leaped in too. FOX Sports Radio went all-in for Colin Cowherd, and ESPN Radio was healthy. Even SiriusXM continues to expand its national offerings, and three sports betting networks saw value in pursuing national distribution. It’s hard to convince me that there isn’t financial upside for national sports radio brands in today’s media environment. It may not be a big ratings play but from a business standpoint there is value.

What’s unfolding now at the worldwide leader is disheartening because it could have been avoided. Instead, brands have been damaged, relationships changed, jobs lost, and questions raised about future viability.

If the world’s leading sports operator values radio, they’ll prioritize restoring confidence across the industry. A good start would be putting people in place who champion radio’s future, and make decisions that best serve the radio brands carrying their product. If they can’t do that, then maybe it’s time to step aside, and let someone else try. I know a few groups who’d be happy to take a shot at restoring the network’s pride.

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Barrett Blogs

Radio Must Bring Back The Fun

“The promotions you’re creating are not producing massive recall across the format, national media attention or revenues that change the fate of your next quarter.”

Jason Barrett

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Five and a half days in Las Vegas can feel like an eternity. Especially when you’re in town for business not pleasure. But though I’d rather sleep in my own bed, eat at home, and avoid walking from convention hall to convention hall, I’m glad I made the trip because the NAB Show delivered. 

Many media members have attended this event over the years, and it’s easy to come up with reasons not to attend. Budgets are tight, you can’t afford to be out of the office, or you think it isn’t beneficial. That’s where I’ll take exception. If you can’t find something of value at a five-day event that exists to serve broadcasters and brands, that’s on you, not the conference.  

Over the past few days, I did what many do and took necessary business meetings at Encore, but I also listened to speakers offer valuable insights on artificial intelligence, marketing, programming, technology, dashboard connectivity, the future of AM radio, and more. All of these are subjects that should matter to media professionals. Having Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso star Roy Kent) on hand to talk about content creation was an added bonus. 

As I spent my final hour inside the North Hall on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about how large this event is, what goes into creating it, and how many different industries and brands are represented at it. What the NAB does to make this event possible for sixty-five thousand plus is amazing, and I commend all involved because it truly is informative, and it helps bring together business leaders and brands to help move our industry forward. 

There were many takeaways from the conference sessions, but one in particular stood out. I thought Mike McVay’s session with J.D. Crowley and Paul Suchman of Audacy was excellent. Crowley’s insights on listener choice, distribution, and personalization were spot on, and I was very impressed with Suchman’s feedback on some of the behavior testing Audacy has done to learn how consumers respond to different types of content and messaging.

Crowley’s final message about people in the audio industry needing to be proud of the business they’re in was easy for me to relate to because I feel similarly. This is a great business to be in. I get tired of hearing folks in and out of the industry tear it down. So much attention gets placed on who exceeded revenue goals, what a brand’s ratings were, and what a company’s stock price is, losing sight of the more important part, our brands, personalities, and content, and the way they’re received by those who consume it.

Additionally, I was honored to speak about the growth of BSM and BNM. Joe D’Angelo of Xperi and Pierre Bouvard of Cumulus Media treated folks to information on advertising and in-car data, and Erica Farber, Tim Bronsil, and Mary DelGrande did a nice job guiding multiple business conversations. I also enjoyed stopping by the Veritone booth and learning about their products and staff. My only regret, I missed Buzz Knight’s session with Nielsen’s new audio team due to a business meeting running long. Thankfully Inside Radio put together a detailed recap of what was discussed. 

But what I want to draw attention to most is something Dan Mason said on stage during his acceptance speech when receiving the Lowry Mays Award at the Broadcasters Foundation of America breakfast. It’s something I raised at last month’s BSM Summit. 

After sharing how local is a key differentiator in helping radio stand apart from other forms of media, and reminding everyone about the importance of longevity, Mason said that radio has to get back to having fun. He shared a story of a promotion he was part of in the 1970’s that wouldn’t fly today. It was a short people’s convention that included six-ounce drinks, pigs in a blanket, and strawberry shortcake. The event put his radio station on NBC Nightly News, and created a ton of buzz.  

Just because that type of event wouldn’t work in 2023, doesn’t mean others can’t. We have got to create special events that produce national attention, local market interest, and fear of missing out spending. This is what radio is supposed to be exceptional at yet it doesn’t happen enough.  

At our Summit in LA, I asked three PD’s to share with me the one promotion in sports radio today that they viewed as a killer event. It wasn’t an easy one to answer. In fact, two referenced WIP’s Wing Bowl, which ended in 2018. Had I asked five or six other PD’s, they’d have likely been in the same boat, struggling to name three or four killer events. 

I mentioned how the Mandy Awards at 710 ESPN in Los Angeles stood out, but this format should be able to deliver more than one standout promotion. I realize there are stations doing promotional events, and if they’re helping you produce revenue, great. I’m not telling you to abandon that strategy. But I will challenge you if you try to tell me sports radio’s report card on promotions in 2023 is superb. It is not.

One gentleman I listened to during the week who was attending a session shared one reason why this is the case. He was asked about creating ideas and said ‘we use a committee to brainstorm and find that sometimes the best ideas come from different departments, in fact, our last successful event was the idea of our engineer.’ 

I’m all for collaboration, and if you’re creating events that satisfy your goals, continue doing it. I’m not here to rain on your parade. But let me share an opinion some may view as unpopular. If the best ideas in your organization are coming from departments other than programming, you have a problem.

The program director and talent are supposed to be the people you turn to for leadership, ideas, passion, creativity, and execution. They’re supposed to be able to think of things that others can’t. Do you think Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would turn over the direction of their next film to others inside their companies? Imagine the focus of Ted Lasso’s next episode being decided by someone other than Jason Sudeikis, Brett Goldstein, and the rest of their writing team. You’d be wasting the talent of your best storytellers.

Radio companies pay premium dollars for elite programmers and hosts because they’re supposed to be able to bring things to life that only exists inside their brains. If your HR or engineering department are creating the station’s best promotions, you don’t have enough creativity coming from your programming team. That could be due to having a PD who lacks ideas and vision or it could be the result of the way your creative process is structured.

One of the things I enjoyed most as a PD was coming up with ideas that created buzz, ratings, and revenue. My job was to think and execute BIG, and whether it was Lucky Break in San Francisco, Stand For Stan at 101 ESPN in St. Louis, the Golden Ticket at 590 The Fan in St. Louis, the 20 in 20 tour or Goodbye Roast at 95.7 The Game or the Gridiron Gala in both cities, we produced buzz, grew ratings, and made money. If we did something and it failed, that was ok. I’d rather swing and miss than be afraid to try. I took that responsibility seriously, and feel that when you’re making calls by committee, you’re not allowing your best people to do what they’re best suited to do. 

Case in point, I attended Boomer & Gio Live in Jersey City, NJ a few weeks ago. It was a fun event with a lot of different things going on. WFAN’s PD Spike Eskin worked the event on stage, and if you recall, the station made national news when Jets GM Joe Douglas said that Aaron Rodgers would end up in New York. There were multiple sales activations included throughout the show, and much of the fun content that took place on stage came from the creators. Because the FAN crew were allowed to do what they do best, the station produced a successful event. Had that been an ‘all departments contribute’ approach, it’d have not been the same show. 

What Dan Mason said in Las Vegas was accurate. Radio has to get back to having fun but it also has to be unafraid to take risks. I fear that we worry so much about the ‘what ifs’ and the potential noise on social media that we’re killing creativity, and the next big idea.

If I asked you to list five GREAT sports radio promotions today, could you? And I’m not talking about golf tournaments, charitable bowling events, host debates or bar remotes. If I ask this same question in five years and we’re in the same spot, that’s going to say a lot about where we are as an industry. We have to excite ourselves, our listeners, and our advertisers because when we showcase our creativity in a way that no other medium can, we make a statement, which results in increased attention, and financial investment.  

Some of that creative spirit is still alive. You see it in Boston with WEEI’s Jimmy Fund Telethon, and if you attended the Michael Kay Show 20-year anniversary special or Barstool’s Upfront, you saw what great planning, and execution looks like. But I also remember The Fanatic’s Celebrity Week, The Millen Man March in Detroit, Ticketfest in Dallas, Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, and 790 The Zone in Atlanta becoming a national sensation by creating multiple home run events.

I don’t believe enough brands today create events that deliver meaningful impact. Yet they’re needed. When done right, brands ascend to a different level. Sports radio has too many sharp, creative minds to not be creating the biggest and most successful promotions in all of media. If you work in programming and your station isn’t producing promotions that generate recall across the format, national media attention or revenues that change the fate of your next quarter, it’s time to step up your game. If you don’t, the interns, street team, and receptionist may soon be deciding the future direction of your brand’s promotional strategy.

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Barrett Blogs

Reflecting on the 2023 BSM Summit

“Barrett Media president Jason Barrett reflects on last week’s BSM Summit in Los Angeles.”

Jason Barrett

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One of the best parts about the world of sports is that every season ends with one team being crowned champion. It doesn’t exactly work that way managing a media company, even though we invest the same amount of time leading up to the BSM Summit, our equivalent of the Super Bowl or WrestleMania.

Having had a few days to recover and reflect after last week’s Summit in Los Angeles, I know that what we did last week was special. I’m a perfectionist and have a hard time patting myself on the back because I know there’s plenty we can do better, but last week, we hit a homerun. The venues at USC were perfect, the signage was spectacular, the tech ran well, the speakers were awesome, the crowd was great, and the sponsorship support was outstanding. It’s the first time I’ve walked away from an event and felt we accomplished what we set out to do. If time allows, check out Garrett Searight’s piece on some of the key takeaways from the show.

In 2018, Mitch Rosen invited me to utilize his space at Audacy Chicago to take a shot at trying to execute an event for PDs. Now here we are five years later with a few hundred people joining us from all across the industry. It’s pretty incredible. We’re only successful because a lot of people have come together to make sure we are. Without the speakers, sponsors, and staff around me stepping up to get things done, I’d just be a guy with an idea incapable of executing it.

In the next week or so we’ll be sharing video clips from the show on the BSM social media pages. I’m also planning to make full sessions available via on-demand for free for those who attended the show in California. If you didn’t come to the event and want to watch it online, it will be available for a small fee. Stay tuned for further details.

What matters most to me with the Summit is that folks in the room get something out of it. I thought many of our speakers delivered a ton of value this year, and there were a few WOW moments along the way as well. Colin and Rome were outstanding as expected, and Jay Glazer and Al Michaels’ speeches had everyone hanging on their next words. I thought the Shawn Michaels and Jack Rose led sessions were outside the box and well received, and I was beyond impressed by Joy Taylor, Mina Kimes, and Amanda Brown. We used 14 hours in that room to explore issues dealing with management, research, technology, programming, talent and social media, so it gave everyone a little bit of everything, which was the goal.

We did have a little bit of friction on stage during the Aircheck on Campus session, which wasn’t a bad thing. Personalities and programmers have passionate conversations inside the office every day. Rob, Mark and Scott just happened to have one on stage. All three are smart, talented, and willing to be candid. I thought that was healthy for the room.

I know networking is important at these type of events and there was plenty of opportunity for folks to do that. I look at it like this, if you can get face time with others, meet your heroes or folks you admire and pick up some ideas and insight in the process to elevate your business, that should justify it being worthy of a few days out of the office.

As crazy as it may sound, I step away from each of these events asking my team ‘is that the last one?’ I know I can create and execute a great conference, and I enjoy doing it, but I also don’t want to invest eight months of time building a show that becomes predictable and stale. It’s why I change speakers and topics frequently. This year’s lineup was phenomenal, and I’m so pleased with who we featured on stage and had in the room, but the competitor in me will also look back and say ‘Bill Simmons, Ice Cube and Lincoln Riley Should’ve Been On Stage Too!

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If we do host an event in 2024, it will take place in either Boston, Chicago, Dallas or New York. You can cast your vote on BSMSummit.com.

I want to thank everyone who stopped me last week to share how much they enjoy this event. That support means a lot. I think Good Karma Brands broke a record with 20+ employees in attendance, and iHeart was also well represented, which was great to see. I was also excited to have 15-20 college students in the room. The more we can educate the next generation, the better it is for all of us. I also was thrilled to learn a few of our partners and attendees made time to arrange further business conversations. If two groups can help each other, that’s what it’s all about.

But as much as I love my radio brothers and sisters, I’ve noticed more folks showing up the past two years from areas outside of sports radio. That’s both exhilarating and concerning. This year we had folks in the room from WWE, Amazon, The Volume, Omaha Productions, Dirty Mo Media, Barstool Sports, Spotify, Blue Wire, Locked On, BetRivers, Bleav, etc.. I hope that trend continues because sports media is a lot larger of a business than sports radio. As I told the room, we’re not in the radio business, television business, audio or video business, we are in the content business. That covers a lot more ground for brands than focusing on one specific platform.

I’ve been on cloud nine for a few days because overall, this went as well as I could ask for. If there’s one thing I’d like to make better it’s that I hear from a lot of folks throughout the year who say they want to learn, meet new people and give themselves a competitive edge yet when an event exists that can help them do that, they’re not in the room. Some of my radio friends didn’t come because they weren’t asked to speak. Others said they couldn’t make it because their company wouldn’t cover the costs. A few said they thought the Summit was only for programming people not managers or sellers.

First, growing and selling an audience should matter to everyone not just programmers and hosts. GM’s and Sales Managers can gain a lot at this show. So can advertisers and agencies. I’m hoping to change that in the future. Second, I can’t tell you whether or not to prioritize attending but groups outside of radio are passionate about sports audio and video, and they’re finding ways to be in the room. At some point, you have to decide if investing in knowledge, ideas and relationships matters to you and your business. Your employer isn’t going to cover everything you want to do so especially when the economy isn’t strong. Sometimes you have to invest time and resources in yourself.

Many of you reading this website know my track record in the radio industry. I built my career in radio. My passion for the business remains strong. I consult brands all across the country, and root for the industry’s success. It’s why I sink my heart and soul into this event and share all that I do over two days because I want to help people grow their businesses.

But it is strange that over the course of four live events I’ve still not had one current radio CEO sit down for an in-depth sports media business conversation. It’d be one thing if they were pitched and I turned them down but that’s not the case. I’ve had great conversations and support outside of radio from Jimmy Pitaro, Eric Shanks, Erika Ayers, and John Skipper. Jeff Smulyan has been a huge supporter taking part in our awards ceremony, and we’ve had high ranking TV executives in the room watching the show. Maybe things will change in 2024 but whether they do or don’t, I’m going to focus on helping brands and individuals who gain value from this two day event, and continue challenging this industry to think and act differently.

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Now that the 2023 BSM Summit is over, my focus shifts to supporting my clients and gearing up for a massive challenge, hosting our first BNM Summit for news media professionals. The conference will take place in Nashville, TV on September 13-14 at Vanderbilt University. I’ll be announcing the first group of speakers in April after the NAB. Tickets will go on sale at that time too.

I know it won’t be easy but I tend to do my best work when I’m out of my comfort zone. This is a space I have passion for and feel I can add something to so there’s only one thing left to do, get to work, and put together the news media equivalent of what we just created for sports media professionals last week in Los Angeles. That may be a tall order but if anyone is ready to meet the challenge head on, yours truly is certainly up to the task.

Thanks again for a spectacular time in Los Angeles. Onward and upward we go!

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