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Will Audiences Pay For Local Sports Radio Digital Content?

Jason Barrett

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The interest in sports radio programming continues to soar across the globe. But is that appetite for sports audio content strong enough to expect local audiences to pay for it?

Executives at ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR believe it is.

On May 1st, the radio station announced they would start charging $8.50 per month or $85.00 annually to listen to full length podcasts of the station’s top shows, minus local commercials and with the talent having the freedom to express themselves in uncensored fashion on their website and app “The Land On Demand“. WKNR offers their over the air radio programming and short-form clips from their shows on their digital platforms for free, but full-length shows had previously not been made available.

Keith Williams, ESPN Cleveland’s vice president and general manager, told Crain’s Cleveland Business that full-length podcasts are the number one thing listeners have asked WKNR to offer. But unlike the majority of brands across the country that provide that form of programming to their audiences on their websites and digital channels for free, WKNR is hoping the demand for consuming the content will be strong enough to justify additional spending.

“We know the way fans are consuming media in an on-demand world,” Williams told Crain. “They don’t have the time or resources they once had. We’re providing them what they asked for.”

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In the same article with Crain, Talkers Magazine publisher Michael Harrison was a proponent of the move. He said “The biggest problem facing commercial radio is the commercials. If WKNR was charging people to listen to it on the air, then people should grumble, but what the hell do they have to grumble about? They don’t want radio stations to make a living?”

There’s some truth in Michael’s words. Commercials have become viewed as obstacles standing in the way of the listener enjoying the content. Fred Jacobs wrote about this issue recently after his TechSurvey 13 revealed that ads were the number one reason why people say they listen to less AM/FM radio. That’s a reflection on our growing impatience as a society. We want what we want and we want it now or we’re moving on to something else.

However, to suggest that people shouldn’t grumble over the radio station charging a fee to consume audio that they can hear for free over the air is looking at it strictly from the company’s point of view.

It’s not the audience’s problem if the station generates a profit. They have their own financial difficulties to deal with. Their only role in the situation is to listen to the programming. If they do that consistently, the station can then leverage that passion and commitment with their advertisers. Judging from the early feedback on iTunes and Google Play, people aren’t happy with the direction WKNR has chosen to go.

But let’s take a step back for a second and analyze this from a number of different perspectives.

First, if the listener is able to listen to one of WKNR’s shows over the radio airwaves or on the station’s stream during the time that it airs, they pay nothing for it. If they want to enjoy a small portion of a show in podcast form, that too is free. There are options for them to consume content without having to pay for it. However, if they miss a show, and want to enjoy it later on during their free time, that same content (minus the commercials) which was available over the air for free, now requires a monthly or annual fee.

Now let’s add the advertiser’s perspective.

Imagine for a second if you’re a local or national client. You’re being asked to spend your money promoting your products on WKNR’s airwaves. Those are the same airwaves that are encouraging fans to pay the radio station to hear their programs online, without your commercials in them. If that model gains traction and reduces over the air listening, how would it sit with you if you were investing in the brand’s over the air product? Wouldn’t you want a future place at the table in the digital space if it was becoming a hit with the local audience?

The reason advertisers invest in radio stations is because of their ability to help the client reach specific audiences. If that desired demographic though views the client’s over the air commercials as a detriment to their listening time, and the station wants to prevent the advertiser from being included in digital spaces, then why exactly would a client continue spending the same amount or even more of their ad budget on the radio station?

That’s a slippery slope for stations. The executive team is absolutely right to shift their programming online and eliminate roadblocks that hinder the audience’s listening experience. However, they’re also reliant on advertising dollars to continue running a business. If they piss off their key clients during a period when they’re trying to develop a potential new revenue stream, it could harm their business, especially during the short-term.

Another area that I want to examine is the value.

The Land on Demand’s key selling point is that it’s weekday shows (which you can hear for free on the radio station) are now available in full-length form without interruption. That’s not anything groundbreaking. In fact, most local sports stations already provide that. To expect that offering full-length shows without commercials, with the benefit of using adult language is going to be enough to generate significant spending seems rather peculiar.

However, WKNR did add a section titled WKNR Classics which allows the audience to hear archived shows, guests, and memorable moments. That part is cool and gives the paying consumer something they can’t get over the air. There are also plans to introduce more original content which will only be available to paying customers. That’s a wise move.

But here’s where the problem lies.

Place yourself in the shoes of the consumer for a minute, and consider what you’re up against.

For $11-$20 per month, a listener can purchase a subscription to SiriusXM and gain access to hundreds of programming options. That includes hearing music, comedy, live sporting events, and high profile talent such as Howard Stern, Chris “Mad Dog Russo, and many more.

If you want to save even more money, you can spend $8 per month to become a premium subscriber to TuneIn which gives you access to every MLB and NFL game, commercial-free music, audio books, thousands of radio stations, and millions of podcasts.

I haven’t even touched on the services available to paying consumers on television, video and online platforms. Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, MLB, the NFL, the WWE Network and others, there are tons of options to consider when paying for entertainment. In each case, these companies are offering a ton of value in exchange for a minimal monthly or annual fee.

You may suggest that it’s an apples to oranges comparison because one product is focused on local sports radio and the others aren’t, but they’re all delivering entertainment while reducing an individual’s bank account. I assure you, when push comes to shove, most people will spend money on the things they need first, and then consider the available choices when deciding on whether or not to add luxuries.

But spending aside, another potential concern for WKNR is bad publicity. A decline in ratings is often a natural fear for radio companies but Good Karma Broadcasting (WKNR’s parent company) doesn’t live and die by the ratings, so that shouldn’t be an issue. However, no station or business wants to lose listeners.

That said, one item which can easily be lost in this conversation is the fact that the long-form digital offerings were previously unavailable on WKNR. It’s not as if Good Karma is forcing this on its audience. Instead, they’re supplying an additional option to the audience, which they can hear in exchange for a fee. If they don’t want to pay for it, then they’re in no different shape than they were last month.

If it ruffles the feathers of a Cleveland sports radio fan, they do have other options to consider. They can listen solely to WKNR over the radio or if they’re bothered to the point of considering a switch, they can pledge their allegiance to 92.3 The Fan. If for some reason that doesn’t suit their style, they can also turn to brands like 97.1 The Fan or 105.7 The Zone in Columbus who are also talking about Ohio sports. In fact, Bruce Hooley who hosts mornings on The Zone, used to host shows on WKNR.

If neither of those options satisfy, there are always networks and hundreds of sports stations across the country offering quality content for free, both on-air and online. The one big difference though, they’re not largely focused on Cleveland sports the way that WKNR or those other Ohio sports radio brands are.

From the local fan’s point of view, they’re going to wonder why they’re being asked to pay for something that other stations and cities don’t. For example, a Boston sports radio fan can log on to WEEI.com and gain access to all of the station’s programming, plus a number of original podcasts, including Kirk Minihane’s “Enough About Me” which ranks among the best in the format. The station also offers uncensored programs, commercial-free content, and generates over 2 million web visitors per month. The cost for that experience? Zero.

That same strategy of offering free long-form programming in the podcast space is employed by numerous radio companies who own and operate sports stations. Among them include ESPN, iHeart, Bonneville, Hubbard, Emmis, and Beasley. Cumulus doesn’t employ that strategy, and as I mentioned previously, CBS doesn’t either. Their approach is more focused on offering short-form content clips.

But this begs the question, should digital content require a fee?

Stations are dedicating a lot of hours, creativity and bandwidth to provide valuable listening experiences for their audiences, with the idea being that advertisers will offset it. But most of those dollars are coming from the over the air product, not the digital side of the business. As advertisers continue to shift their ad spending into the digital space, and listeners expect ads to be eliminated from their listening experience, it’s worth examining whether or not a subscription based on-demand strategy makes long-term sense.

The subject of digital and podcasting came up in a recent interview with Mike Francesa of WFAN. Talking to Bryan Curtis of The Ringer, the New York sports talk show host said most brands bastardize their own content by giving it away for free. While radio preaches the importance of being on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it hasn’t figured out how to make a dime off of those platforms. As a result, Francesa says radio is destroying its own business.

I can see Mike’s point. From the product end of the business, brands are doing an incredible job of building audiences and generating interest. Turning that passion and dedication though into profitability in the digital and social media world remains a daunting task.

As it applies to WKNR’s situation, one positive working in their favor is that their local competitor (92.3 The Fan) doesn’t currently offer long-form versions of their shows online. That’s a CBS strategy that exists on most of their sports radio brands websites. You can download and listen to interviews, highlights, and occasional monologues, but not full-length programs. But with WKNR announcing their new digital initiative, might that lead The Fan to make a future adjustment? It probably wouldn’t be a consideration under CBS, but with Entercom on the verge of taking over the company that’s certainly possible. Especially since they offer free full length programs in podcast form on the majority of their sports radio brands.

Throughout the years, WKNR has built a familiar brand in Cleveland. Many of their personalities have appeared on the station for a lengthy period of time, and it’s clear they’re counting on local fans having a strong enough interest in their personalities and content to help them enhance their digital business. It’d be foolish to suggest the radio station won’t attract a market for what it’s offering, but whether or not it’ll be sustainable is way too early to tell.

What should be appreciated, regardless of how things play out, is that WKNR is taking a risk. We often talk about our industry being stuck in mud and unwilling to take chances, yet the second someone does, we’re quick to pounce on them and sign their death certificate. Maybe there are some holes in the existing strategy, and the public’s reaction to the news certainly leaves little to be desired, but immediate feedback to any change is often negative, and people have demonstrated numerous times that they’ll pay for things we never expected them to. What one person believes is worth $1, someone else values at $1000.

All of that taken into account, not every risk is a wise one. To simply present shows without commercials in exchange for a fee, and turn it into a thriving revenue stream is expecting a lot. I believe that WKNR will need to add more original content to its digital channels, plus offer additional unique benefits associated with a premium experience to satisfy and grow its subscriber base. I’m sure they’re already working on that. The beauty of a project like this is that it’s in its infancy, so there’s still plenty of time for making improvements.

In life, if you want to grab the brass ring you have to have brass balls. ESPN Cleveland certainly has those. But if you push the audience further than they’re willing to go, those same brass balls can be kicked in by steel toed boots. Hopefully WKNR has invested in a sturdy athletic supporter and cup. I just hope for their sake they don’t end up needing to wear it.

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Jeff Catlin, John Mamola, Gordy Rush & Maggie Clifton Join The 2023 BSM Summit Lineup

Jason Barrett

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We’re less than two months away from the 2023 BSM Summit in Los Angeles. This year’s conference takes place on March 21-22, 2023 at the Founders Room inside of the Galen Center at USC. Many industry professionals are set to attend but sports media folks tend to be a last minute crowd whether it’s buying a ticket, reserving a room or committing to be a sponsor. Yes, tickets, rooms, and a select few sponsorships are still available, but the longer you wait, the more you risk not being in the room, featured as a partner, and paying higher prices for travel. To make sure you have a seat and a place to stay, log on to BSMSummit.com. For sponsorship inquiries, email Stephanie at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

I am really excited about this year’s Summit. The venue is tremendous, the agenda is coming together nicely, and there’s no doubt we’ll have great weather when we gather in LA. Some have asked me why I don’t reveal the full schedule of sessions months in advance, and it’s because I believe in swinging for the fences and trying to do big things. To do that, you’ve got to be willing to invest time and explore every opportunity that can be impactful. It’d be much easier to fill the schedule and be done with everything but if it’s going to take a little longer to deliver the best speakers, discussions and experiences for all in the room, then that’s what I’m going to do.

Those involved in the creation of this conference know that I set a very high standard for it. We’ve run some great events over the years, and it’s because we put everything we have into making sure each session is valuable to a different segment of the industry. My goal each year is to present an action packed agenda that helps people learn, gain access to information to improve themselves and/or their brands, and create a few connections and memorable moments to justify it being worth a few days away out of the office or studio. If we can do that, it makes the sacrifices worthwhile. If we can’t execute at a high level, then I’d probably pass on doing it.

Before I tell you about the four people we’re adding to our speaker lineup, I do want to remind you that we recently announced a contest for California college students. We’re giving away ten (10) FREE tickets to the show courtesy of Steve Kamer Voiceovers. If you know a student in California please let them know about this. If they’re not in California but want to attend the event, we’ve created a special college rate to make it affordable for young people. Everything is listed on BSMSummit.com.

Now, for the new additions to the lineup.

I’m excited to welcome Jeff Catlin of The Ticket in Dallas to the Summit. This will be Jeff’s first Summit visit, and I appreciate him making time to share his programming wisdom with the rest of the room. Jeff will be part of a programming panel that kicks off day #2. That panel will include Jimmy Powers of 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, Raj Sharan of Denver’s Sports Station 104.3 The Fan, and our next addition, John Mamola of WDAE. John has been at all of our events dating back to our first test event in Chicago. I’m looking forward to giving him an opportunity to offer his programming insights alongside this talented group.

Also joining the Summit lineup is Maggie Clifton, Blue Wire’s Senior Vice President of Business Development. Maggie has played a vital role in growing Blue Wire’s revenue, and I’m looking forward to having her join Barstool Sports’ SVP, Head of Sales Matt Berger, and Magellan AI’s Chief Revenue Officer John Goforth on a panel that focuses on digital monetization.

Guiding that conversation will be Guaranty Media’s Gordy Rush. The Baton Rouge Vice President and General Manager who doubles as LSU’s sideline reporter on football broadcasts is well versed in monetizing content, and understanding the opportunities and challenges broadcasters face. I’m confident those in the room charged with maximizing digital revenue for their brands will gain great value from these four professionals.

There’s much more in the works that I’m looking forward to announcing in the coming weeks. Whether you own a company, manage a cluster as a GM, lead a sales team, host or produce a podcast or radio/TV show, buy advertising, oversee a brand’s social media strategy or program a network or local outlet, there’s something for every sports media professional at the BSM Summit. I invite you to come see for yourself. To do so, visit BSMSummit.com.

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Jimmy Powers to Receive The Mark Chernoff Award at the 2023 BSM Summit

“Jimmy received the most votes from our industry panel to become our third recipient of the Mark Chernoff Award.”

Jason Barrett

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As a former programmer turned consultant, I pay more attention than most to those who lead brands, manage talent, and create consistent success. When you look across the country at the hundreds of stations delivering sports radio content, and analyze who operates at a high level, there’s maybe ten to twenty who are changing the game, and others who are rising and hoping to become a bigger part of the conversation.

What makes this annual award special in addition to having Mark Chernoff’s name on it, is that it’s voted on by eighteen industry heavyweights. These are folks tasked with overseeing radio companies, major networks, and having exceptional track records of broadcasting success. So when they vote and an individual earns an honor, it means a little more.

If you’re in the business and follow sports radio, then you’re aware of Mark Chernoff’s accomplishments as a program director. He was one of the true architects and consistent winners, and his ability to excel as a sports radio manager has influenced and shaped many careers. Mark graciously agreed to be part of our awards ceremony a few years ago when I approached him with the idea in New York City. I’m thrilled to share that although he doesn’t attend many industry conferences on the west coast, he will be with us at the 2023 BSM Summit in Los Angeles for the ceremony.

Which brings me to this year’s winner.

It is my honor to congratulate the leader of 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, Jimmy Powers. Jimmy received the most votes from our industry panel to become our third recipient of the Mark Chernoff Award. He follows Rick Radzik of 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, and Mitch Rosen of 670 The Score in Chicago. Jimmy will be in attendance at the Summit to pick up the award, and will take part in a program director panel at the show. Further details on that to be shared next week.

“It’s such a great honor not only to be mentioned in the same breath with Mark Chernoff, but to receive the ‘Mark Chernoff Award’ is really, really cool” shared 97.1 The Ticket Program Director Jimmy Powers. “With so many great program directors across the country who are deserving of this award, I truly appreciate the recognition.”

Since late 2009, Powers has led the Detroit sports radio station to unmatched local success. Brought in to build upon what was created by the late great Tom Bigby, he’s helped The Ticket become one of the format’s best examples of success. The station has consistently dominated the Male 25-54 demo, while also becoming a ratings force with Persons 12+ and Adults 25-54.

“Jimmy has done an amazing job over the years running 97.1 the Ticket,” said legendary sports radio programmer Mark Chernoff. “He knows how to work with talent, and maintain balance while managing relationships with the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons, which is not an easy job. The ratings remain high, and the Ticket continues to be one of America’s top sports stations, which reflects the great work Jimmy has done as the station’s program director.”

In addition to delivering double digit shares, quarterly ratings wins, and presenting a star studded lineup and Michigan’s top sports franchises, The Ticket has taken home plenty of hardware too. The station has won the Marconi award for best sports station in 2016 and 2022. And now, they can add the 2023 Mark Chernoff Award to their trophy case.

“2022 was another big year for The Ticket, and many in Detroit deserve credit for the brand’s consistent success, but none more so than their exceptional brand leader, Jimmy Powers,” added BSM President Jason Barrett. “Jimmy has been a staple of consistency, guiding one of the crown jewels of sports radio, managing top personalities, important play by play partnerships, and helping the brand generate large revenues. I’m thrilled that our industry voters took notice of the fantastic work Jimmy has done and look forward to celebrating his career and accomplishments in Los Angeles this March.”

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California College Students Earn Chance to Win 10 Free Tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit Thanks to Steve Kamer Voiceovers

“In order to win tickets to attend the Summit, students must submit a 2-minute video by email explaining why they’d like to be in attendance and what they hope to learn at the event.”

Jason Barrett

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With a new year comes renewed energy and optimism for the sports media business. Yours truly is looking forward to showcasing the best our business has to offer when we gather the industry in Los Angeles, CA at the 2023 BSM Summit at the Founders Club at the University of Southern California on March 21-22, 2023. Our conference is returning to the west coast for the first time since 2019. We’ve announced some super talented speakers. We’ve got additional things in the works and I plan to make additional announcements in the next few weeks.

People often ask me what the biggest challenge is putting this event together. My answer is always the same, it’s getting people to leave the comfort of their office and spend two days in a room together learning and discussing ways to grow the business. We have great sponsorship support and exceptional people on stage and are fortunate to have a lot of folks already set to attend. Our venue this year has extra space though, so I’m hoping a few more of you make time to join us. If you haven’t bought a ticket or reserved your hotel room, visit BSMSummit.com to make sure you’re all set.

If there’s one thing our industry could get better at it’s opening our minds to new ideas and information. There’s more than one path to success. Just because you’re in good shape today doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow. Building brands, growing audiences, increasing revenue, and examining new opportunities is an ongoing process. There are many shifts along the way. We may not solve every business challenge during our two-days together but you’ll leave the room more connected and informed than when you entered it.

Each year I’ll get two or three emails from folks sharing that they learned more about the industry in two-days at the Summit than they have in ___ years inside of their building. That’s truly gratifying and what I strive to achieve when I put this event together. I remember when conferences like this didn’t exist for format folks and I take the risk and invest the time and resources to create it because I love the sports media industry and believe I can help it thrive. I see great value in gathering professionals to share ideas, information, and meet others who can help them grow their business, and if we do our part, I’m confident some will want to work with us too. That’s how we benefit over the long haul.

But as much as I focus on serving the professional crowd, I also think we have a responsibility to educate young people who are interested, passionate, and taking steps to be a part of our business in the future. The BSM website is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each month and it’s become a valuable resource for folks who enjoy sports radio and television. I think it’s vital to use our platform, influence and two-day event to connect generations and I’m happy to announce that we will once again welcome college students at this year’s Summit.

Most of us who’ve been in this line of work for two or three decades learned the business without podcasts, YouTube, social media, the web or conferences delivering two full days of sessions that taught you more about the business than what’s available inside of a class room. We learned by doing, and hoping we were right. Then we copied others who had success. Some of that still exists, and that’s not a bad thing. But where our business goes in the future is going to be drastically different.

I’d like to see the difference makers in our format remembered for years to come, and practices that have stood the test of time remain valued down the line. Change is inevitable in every business and I’m excited about the road that lies ahead especially some of the technological advancements that are now available or will soon become a bigger part of our industry. I think we can embrace the future while enjoying the present and celebrating the past. The best way to do that is by bringing together everyone who is and is hoping to be a part of the sports media universe.

So here’s two things we’re doing to make sure future broadcasters have an opportunity to learn with us.

First, I want to send a HUGE thank you to Steve Kamer Voiceovers. Thanks to Steve’s generosity, TEN (10) college students will be given FREE tickets to attend the 2023 BSM Summit in March. Steve is a USC graduate (Class of 1985) and he bought the ten tickets to help young people learn about the industry, save money and make valuable connections. When I first received his order, I thought he hit the wrong button. I reached out to tell him a mistake was made and I needed to refund him. That’s when he told me what he wanted to do for students who were pursuing their broadcasting dreams just as we both did years ago. A very classy gesture on his part.

As it pertains to the contest, here’s how it’s going to work.

To win tickets to attend the Summit, students must submit a 2-minute video by email to JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com explaining why they’d like to be in attendance and what they hope to learn at the event. Included in your email should be a list of steps that you’ve taken or are pursuing to explore opportunities in the media industry. If you want to pass along a resume and audio or video clips too to showcase your work and experience, that’s fine as well. BSM will accept submissions until February 17th. The winners will be announced on Friday February 24th.

Helping me select the winners will be an exceptional panel of media executives. Each of these folks below will choose one person to attend our L.A. event. The final two will be picked by Steve Kamer and myself.

  • Scott Shapiro – Senior Vice President, FOX Sports Radio
  • Justin Craig – Senior Program Director, ESPN Radio
  • Jeff Sottolano – Executive Vice President, Programming, Audacy
  • Bruce Gilbert – Senior Vice President of Sports, Cumulus Media & Westwood One
  • Amanda Gifford – Vice President, Content Strategy & Audio, ESPN
  • Jacob Ullman – Senior Vice President, Production and Talent Development, FOX Sports
  • Greg Strassell – Senior Vice President, Programming, Hubbard Radio
  • Scott Sutherland – Executive Vice President, Bonneville International

To qualify for the BSM Summit College Contest, students must be enrolled in college in the state of California, pursuing a degree that involves course work either in radio, television, print or the digital business. Those attending local trade schools with a focus on broadcasting are also welcome to participate. You must be able to take care of your own transportation and/or lodging.

This is a contest I enjoy running. We’ve had great participation during our prior two shows in New York City but haven’t done it before on the west coast. I’m hoping it’s helpful to California students and look forward to hearing from many of them during the next month.

For students who live out of state and wish to attend or those enrolled at local universities who enter the contest but aren’t lucky enough to win one of the ten free tickets from Steve Kamer Voiceovers, we are introducing a special two-day college ticket for just $124.99. You must provide proof that you’re currently in school to take advantage of the offer. This ticket gives you access to all of our sessions inside the Founders Club. College tickets will be limited to forty (40) seats so take advantage of the opportunity before it expires.

The 2023 BSM Summit will feature award ceremonies with Emmis Communication CEO Jeff Smulyan and legendary WFAN program director Mark Chernoff, sessions with influential on-air talent such as Colin Cowherd, Jim Rome, Joy Taylor, and Mina Kimes, big picture business conversations with executives from groups such as Audacy, iHeart, Bonneville, Good Karma Brands, Barstool, The Volume, Omaha Productions and more. For details on tickets and hotel rooms visit BSMsummit.com.

I look forward to seeing you in March in Los Angeles!

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