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A Toast To Thirty Years of Sports Talk Radio

Jason Barrett

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Thirty years is a long time. During the span of three decades much can change. That’s never been more evident than when we analyze the current state of the sports talk radio format.

But before we peak under the hood of where sports radio has been and is heading, let’s have fun first by turning back the clock to 1987.

If you’re middle aged or a seasoned veteran then you should remember that thirty years ago Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers knocked off Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics to win the NBA title. Gas at that time cost just .96 cents per gallon, the nation’s top film was Dragnet, and the #1 song on the Billboard music charts was Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

It was a year when President Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, Vanna White showed us more than just a few vowels in Playboy Magazine, and Eddie Murphy dominated the world of comedy. We played witness to Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant, teenage boys obsessed over knocking out Mike Tyson on Nintendo, the Bangles walked like Egyptians, Gangsta Rap opened our eyes to the harsh realities of life in the inner cities, and wearing denim jackets and acid jeans were universally accepted.

But wait there’s more.

1987 also marked the year that The Simpsons, Married with Children and Full House debuted on television, MTV actually played music, the internet, cell phones and social media didn’t exist, and people relied on newspapers, television and radio for information and opinion.

What a difference three decades makes.

When you think about history, it’s common to place a greater value on what you experienced in your younger years and reject the present. The emotions we feel from our youth remind us of a simpler time, and as we struggle to keep up with the fast paced world we now live and operate in, it can become difficult to survive, let alone thrive.

But as much as things change, there’s one thing which has remained the same – WFAN has been and continues to be the top rated sports radio brand in the nation’s #1 media market, New York City.

It was on Saturday July 1, 1987 that America was introduced to full-time sports talk radio. There had been stations previously that aired programs dedicated to sports, but none that had given a 24/7 commitment to featuring sports talk.

WFAN was the brainchild of Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan. It was his willingness to take a giant risk that enabled the format to become part of our American culture. When WFAN launched on 1050AM in 1987, it didn’t get off to a hot start. In fact, the brand underperformed for quite some time. Ratings were stagnant, revenues were down, and patience was wearing thin.

“It was a huge failure the first year,” former WFAN General Manager Joel Hollander told Grantland in 2012. “Nine months in, everybody was ready to throw in the towel.”

It wasn’t until Emmis purchased a group of stations from NBC in 1988 that things started to change. It began with WFAN being moved to 660AM at 5:30pm on October 9th. The New York Mets were playing a playoff game that night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. That forced local fans to switch the dial to hear the game.

The next morning, Don Imus would debut in morning drive on the station. Imus had been hosting mornings on NBC and as a result of the sale, Emmis inherited all of the NBC talent contracts.

That move alone allowed Emmis to add a huge personality to the radio station in a key daypart. Imus brought immediate credibility and familiarity, and gave the brand an entry point for conversations with advertisers and listeners. By solidifying mornings with a big name who had established himself as a top performer in the city, it gave the station an opportunity to focus on solidifying the rest of the lineup and create a powerful brand.

Next came the creation of the most dominant sports talk show in the format’s history, Mike and the Mad Dog.

Pete Franklin was hosting afternoons on WFAN, but a heart attack delayed his start, and his aggressive style and lack of connection to the big apple, made him a tough pill to swallow for local fans. Executives weren’t thrilled with him either. But if a big name like Franklin wasn’t the solution, who was?

Depending on who you ask, many claim to be responsible for two lesser known commodities, Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, being given serious consideration for afternoons. New York Post media critic Phil Mushnick kept their names alive in print, program director Mark Mason raised the possibility behind closed doors, and Imus himself gave a glowing endorsement to Smulyan.

“We liked Mike Francesa, I thought he was great, and I liked Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, I thought he was fabulous,” Imus told Grantland.”

“Imus said, you’ve got to listen to this guy Russo, he sounds like Donald Duck on steroids,” added Smulyan.

Soon thereafter management was ready to shake things up and the wheels were set in motion for Mike and the Mad Dog to take the reigns in afternoon drive.

As excited as many were internally to rid themselves of Franklin and feature two New York voices in afternoons, the friction Francesa and Russo provided off the air was a problem. The two men were very different from one another, and had different visions for their careers. While it made for a great on-air mixture, it also created tension behind the scenes. Trust was lacking, respect wasn’t shared, and an inability to co-exist at times made many wonder if the combination would last.

“It was like being a kid and just knowing that your mom and dad hated each other,” WFAN producer Ed Scozzare told Grantland.

Despite the internal chaos, the duo were onto something special. When the spring ratings came out in 1989, less than a year of being on the air together, Mike and the Mad Dog had soared to #1 with Men 25-54.

For those of us who currently work in sports media or have done so previously or hope to in the future, Mike and Chris’ place in history is well documented. I could go deeper into their story but I’m sure ESPN’s 30 for 30 on July 13th will supply a much deeper look than I can supply in this piece.

However, what I do want to draw attention to is the impact WFAN has had on our entire industry and what it means for the next few decades. One piece I highly recommend reading if you want to know more about the early days of The FAN is the article Grantland produced in 2012. I used a few quotes from it earlier in this column and it’s a very thorough piece which includes feedback from many of the key players who were involved in the early days of the radio station.

Ratings success aside, when you turn on a local CBS sports radio station today it’s common to hear many similarities in the way they operate to how The FAN presents their programming in New York. Whether it’s WIP, WQAM, 92.3 The Fan or Sports Radio 610 or the CBS Sports Radio Network, you’ll find many use jingle packages instead of individually voiced liners over music. Those liners often feature the same powerhouse voice, Paul Turner, and the music which leads shows back into segments often has a rock vibe. Additionally, the stations rely on live or produced liners to promote station games, events and benefits instead of featuring produced :30-:60 promos.

You’ll also discover that most CBS sports stations implement updates from local anchors two to three times per hour. The stations also feature a plethora of play by play partnerships, which has been critical for generating large local cume, ratings and revenue.

Perhaps the biggest similarity though is the heavy influx of callers each station takes in its local market. WFAN was built on giving local fans a voice, and that’s instantly detectable when you hear how frequently CBS radio hosts engage with local listeners. They’re also a lot looser with their content flow than other operators.

When you add up all of those elements, they’re a part of WFAN’s secret sauce. They’ve gone on to shared that successful recipe with many of the company’s brands in various local  markets, and while the formula has certainly produced great results, we’ve also learned over the past three decades that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

It was initially considered sacrilegious to operate a sports radio brand differently. But now many have blazed their own trails. Some brands prefer to steer clear of callers and interact through texts and tweets. Others have either decreased or permanently eliminated sports updates, emphasized stronger production values, and built programs around as many as five on-air personalities.

What I find fascinating is that everything we’ve learned and been introduced to over the past three decades, which has influenced the expansion of the format, isn’t guaranteed to make us successful over the next three decades. We’ve been fortunate to have amazing talent occupy our airwaves and build strong relationships with local audiences and advertisers for lengthy periods of time. However, many of those hall of fame personalities are now riding off into the sunset. That requires a new wave of hosts to emerge and tackle the challenge of sustaining and advancing the sports talk format into the future.

In pro sports, we’ve become accustomed to watching players fulfill a career and then sign off while a new crop of stars comes along to carry on the tradition. But in sports radio, we haven’t had to worry about those situations too often. A large number of successful sports stations have enjoyed the benefit of featuring the same lineup or personalities for the better part of two decades. As those hosts continue to exit, it leaves listeners, advertisers and colleagues wondering if the brand will remain as important and successful in the future.

Fortunately there have been many instances of shows continuing on without missing a beat. Kirk and Callahan in Boston, Bernstein and Goff in Chicago, and Boomer and Carton in New York are a few that immediately come to mind. You can probably add Mike Francesa going solo after Chris Russo and Tom Tolbert continuing on after Ralph “The Razor” Barbieri to that list as well.

But as we sit here celebrating three decades of excellence for WFAN and the rise of the sports talk radio format, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the next thirty years offers no guarantees.

What happens when the people our audiences have become accustomed to hearing aren’t there anymore? Will they accept new voices? Will those voices be given a long enough leash by their companies to enjoy success? Will we still feature 3-4 hour shows or shorter programs aimed at a public which has more options, increased distractions and less availability?

Then there are the connection questions. If people are using the phone less in life to talk to one another, how does that affect the way they interact with our programs? Does social media continue to rise and become the preferred method of communication? Does texting? Or does something else come along that isn’t presently available?

Next we have measurement and business issues to address. Does sports radio continue to tout its success by using its performance under the Men 25-54 umbrella? Or do we modify the format’s demo? Do ratings continue to matter to advertisers or does the existing model get put out to pasture? How do we combat the challenge of shrinking our commercial inventory yet remain profitable? Will the public pay for great content or continue to listen to whatever is free and easy to locate?

I also wonder about the growth of our population, and how that will impact the way we present our lineups. Given the way the world is changing, I think it’s a safer bet that we’ll see more individuals from different races and genders appear on our brands in the future. I also think we’ll see similar progress behind the scenes in station management.

Maybe the biggest question to answer though is how does the inside of a vehicle and the emergence of voice activated and on-demand technology change the way we reach audiences and satisfy advertisers? In years past we competed primarily against local radio stations, but as the dashboard evolves and devices like Alexa, Google Home and Apple Air Play catch on, how will that affect our recall, relevance and ratings? Will podcasting become a platform that generates significant revenue or is it a great benefit for consumers that shrinks the demand for our on-air product?

And that leads me to my final point.

How do those changes register long-term with professional sports teams? Sports radio depends heavily on local play by play for cume, ratings, and advertising solutions. If the dashboard though didn’t feature the AM/FM band and drivers began to install their favorite apps or use voice technology to listen to anything they wanted, couldn’t teams eliminate the middle-man (the radio station) and offer the broadcast themselves?

The downside to that move is that teams would immediately lose substantial rights fees. The other challenge is that radio provides a free broadcast. But, if there was enough of an appetite from the public to purchase a play by play audio package from the team through its app or website, that could change the conversation.

Some of these challenges aren’t on our radar right now, and may never become problems for us to solve over the next thirty years. But I think it’s fair to expect that a few will become a part of our reality. Some maybe even sooner rather than later.

Before we start worrying though and game planning for the next set of difficulties, let’s take a minute to celebrate where we’ve been and appreciate the progress that’s been made.

The sports radio format now features hundreds of stations across the nation, and gives thousands of people an opportunity to make a living doing something they truly love. We owe a debt of gratitude to WFAN, its executives and employees, and every single listener who spent time listening because they helped pave the way and validate the belief that full-time sports talk radio could be successful.

The future will require us to evolve. Some will embrace change, others will reject it and long for the past. But regardless of what transpires, we should all welcome those conversations. If a group of executives in New York didn’t roll the dice and stay the course on an idea that produced no immediate return on investment, we wouldn’t be in a position to face these issues and debate the best path forward for the format. And now that’s something I can raise a glass and drink to.

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Erika Ayers and Spike Eskin Led Barstool Sports and WFAN to Success But Their Exits Raise Questions

“Rod and Spike understand the business. They know people are going to ask these questions.”

Jason Barrett

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There were two big management moves last week that have sports media folks talking. First was Erika Ayers Badan announcing her exit from Barstool Sports as the brand’s CEO. Second was the news of Spike Eskin returning to Sportsradio WIP and exiting his role as the VP of Programming for WFAN and CBS Sports Radio.

Let’s start with Erika. What she did for Barstool was spectacular. In 2016, I thought Barstool had a strong understanding of social media, unique talent and voices, podcasts that were cutting through, and a connection with younger fans that traditional outlets couldn’t deliver. They also produced events that drew a lot of public attention. But I didn’t view Barstool as a buttoned up business capable of generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Erika Nardini aka Erika Ayers Badan and Dave Portnoy deserve credit for making it one.

Erika told me at our 2020 BSM Summit that Barstool didn’t have a P&L sheet when she joined. She had to build systems, hire staff, grow the sales arm of Barstool, and help Dave Portnoy find investors. What followed were marketing deals with major brands, content partnerships with different media outlets, a massive investment from Penn National, and a changed perception of Barstool as a mainstream player. They were no longer just the cool, rebellious brand on social media and the internet that gave no f’s and generated attention. They became game changers in the sports content space.

So why leave?

If Barstool is now clear of restrictions and able to operate without investor influence, that should be enticing, right? In her farewell video Erika said that she felt she accomplished what she set out to do. I understand and appreciate that. But I can’t help but wonder if less structure and investor involvement made it less appealing to stay. She did join the brand after The Chernin Group got involved not before it.

I have no inside knowledge on this, and I’m not suggesting Barstool won’t continue growing and dominating. They likely will. It just raises questions about how the brand will manage sales, PR, critical internal and external issues, and battles with suitors when they try to lure away Barstool’s on-air and sales talent.

The business end of Barstool appears weaker today than it did a week ago. That’s more of a testament to what Erika did than a knock on anyone still there. To grow revenue the way she did the past 8 years speaks volumes about her skill as an executive. Wherever she lands next, it’s likely she’ll make a difference.

Will it be easier to do business with Barstool moving forward? Time will tell. I don’t expect they’ll make it easier for media outlets like ours to cover them. But if I’ve learned anything in eight years of following them it’s don’t ever bet against Dave Portnoy. Too often people have. Each time he’s proven them wrong. Portnoy has built a powerhouse brand, and grown the business by zigging when others zagged. But how Barstool moves forward without Erika will be of great interest to many in 2024.

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Spike Eskin will be leaving WFAN and his position as the VP of Programming for Audacy to return to WIP and co-host the afternoon show. On paper this is a great move for WIP. Spike understands Philadelphia and WIP’s audience, he lives and breathes Philly sports, and has a great rapport with the entire lineup. He’s maintained an on-air presence through his Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, and I believe that moving into a host role alongside Ike Reese and Jack Fritz will be a seamless transition for all involved. Being in his mid to late 40’s, he’s also got plenty years ahead of him to cement his spot as an on-air talent. I expect Spike, Ike and Jack to do well together.

But to exit WFAN and the top programming role at Audacy in less than three years, raises a few questions. Why is this opportunity better for Spike than the programming role he just held? Was he happy at WFAN? Were folks happy with him at WFAN? Many have opinions about WFAN’s changes the past few years. Some love the fresher approach. Others don’t. That’s what makes sports radio in New York fun, people care.

As a follower of WFAN for over thirty years, it’s a different brand than the one I grew up on. That’s not a bad thing by the way. I’m almost 50. If Spike and Chris Oliviero programmed to please the Mike and the Mad Dog crowd that’d be a mistake. Attention spans are shorter, content options are larger, digital is more important and the days of a city flocking to the radio at 1pm to hear a host’s first words are gone. Judging from the ratings, revenue, and turnout for Boomer and Gio’s last live event, the station is doing well. They’ve got a lot of talent, a stronger digital game, and they’ll continue thriving. Spike deserves credit for the brand’s progress.

But why is a hosting role and less influence over a brand better for Eskin? Spike has been a part of WIP’s afternoon show before. Though leading the show vs. being the third mic is a different animal. He also programmed the station really well. In fact, Spike did such a good job at WIP that it landed him the top programming position in sports radio. Is there a personal part to this given that his father made afternoons in Philly must-listen for 25 years? Or is it about the personal relationship he has with Ike and Jack?

And how does this work from a financial standpoint? It’s likely that Spike was paid more to lead Audacy New York than Jon Marks was to host WIP’s afternoon show. If that’s the case, and nothing changes for Eskin, and WIP just adds payroll, does it affect what Chris Oliviero can spend on Audacy New York’s next brand leader? I can’t see that happening at all. Chris is going to make sure he has what he needs to land the right leader in New York.

Finances only come up because it’s known that Audacy is going through a bankruptcy process. Adding expenses right now seems unlikely. However, to add someone with Eskin’s skill and track record at a station where he previously shined is smart business, especially when you consider that he can win as a host and programmer if needed. That’s going to naturally lead to folks asking ‘will Spike eventually host PM drive and program WIP? If so, what does that mean for current PD Rod Lakin?’ ‘What happens when talent at WIP that Spike had a hand in hiring don’t like what Lakin suggests or if WIP’s ratings decline?’

Spike told Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie that’s not on his radar and the idea of joining the afternoon show was raised by PD Rod Lakin. Some of you may read that and be surprised that Lakin would suggest it. But Rod stepped into the role that Eskin previously held. I’m sure they’ve talked plenty the past few years. If their relationship is strong that should help. I don’t know it well enough to say if it is or isn’t. This move suggests Lakin’s more concerned with strengthening WIP than worrying about himself or industry chatter.

If anyone can navigate the situation and make it work, it’s Rod Lakin. He’s calm, cool, collected, smart and doesn’t get flustered by noise and pressure. I know this because we’ve known each other for over a decade, and I introduced him to folks years ago, which led to him landing the Philly role. If you read Derek Futterman’s piece on Angelo Cataldi last month, the Philly icon shared a small example of what makes Rod a great leader.

But Rod and Spike understand the business. They know people are going to ask these questions. The flurry of texts and emails I received about this last week was insane. I’m sure it was even louder on the local level. Many will suggest that Audacy will use this as an opportunity to eventually reduce expenses and stay strong by having Eskin handle two roles. Only those involved know the answers but one thing I know is that Rod Lakin knows how to program. If he’s not supported there, he’ll have plenty of interest elsewhere.

In a perfect world, Spike excels in afternoons, Rod leads WIP to greater success, and WFAN finds a great leader to move the brand forward. But until the smoke clears, noise will fill the air in the big apple and city of brotherly love.

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Thumbs Up:

Colin Dunlap, 93.7 The Fan: While on the air last week, Dunlap received a call from a 65-year old woman named Colette. She told the Pittsburgh host that she and her husband were disabled and after undergoing 28 surgeries, she was physically struggling to clear her walkway of snow. Hearing her story moved Dunlap to react. He then called on the audience to step up and help. Shortly thereafter, one of 93.7 The Fan’s listeners, a gentleman named Tom, phoned in, and made the drive over to help out a fellow listener. That’s the power of live radio at its best, all possible by Dunlap reading and reacting to the situation perfectly.

Clay Travis, Outkick: Whether you love him or hate him, Clay delivers strong opinions and commands your attention. A perfect example was his Friday night reaction video to the demise of Sports Illustrated. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth checking out. It’s nearing one million views at the time of my writing this.

VSiN: The sports betting network based out of Las Vegas recently redesigned its website and the new look and feel of it is excellent. Clean throughout, easy to navigate, and rich of content. Nice work by Bill Adee all involved.

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Thumbs Down:

Sports Illustrated: Laying off the majority of its staff was bad enough, but to notify people by email or have them find out on social media shows a lack of class and a disgusting approach to running a business. All of those traits by the way are the exact opposite of what SI once stood for – RESPECT.

During SI’s glory days, the content was must read. But in recent years, the outlet landed in the hands of operators who valued clicks over quality. Many predicted and expected this once storied brand to crumble. Unfortunately, the naysayers were proven right.

To those affected, I’m sorry for the crummy news. Some will rebound and help other established brands. Some will launch their own platforms or exit the industry. Anyone looking to do future freelancing work is invited to email [email protected].

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BSM Summit Update:

I’m happy to share that Good Karma Brands president Steve Politziner, Edison Research co-founder and president Larry Rosin and ESPN Chicago program director Danny Zederman have been added to our lineup. We’ve also finalized two of our four awards recipients and are working on a third. I’m hoping to share those details soon along with a few other high profile additions to this year’s show. I’ll be heading to Las Vegas during Super Bowl week, which is when we reveal our BSM Top 20 of 2023, and after that I’m hoping to finalize our schedule so it can be released by the end of February.

I know everyone likes waiting until the last minute to buy tickets and reserve hotel rooms. If you want to avoid being left out though, the time to act is now. Everything you need is posted on BSMSummit.com. Our deadline for hotel room reservations is February 13th. We’ve also sent out free ticket contests by email to the advertising community and tri-state area colleges. We’ll have two more this week for executives and programmers. Be sure to check your spam folder just in case it doesn’t arrive in your inbox.

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2-Seconds to Vent:

Jimmy Pitaro, Eric Shanks, John Skipper, Nick Khan, Colin Cowherd, Paul Finebaum, Clay Travis, Craig Carton, Adam Schein, Michael Kay, and Fred Toucher all have something in common with many others across the industry. They’re accomplished professionals with plenty on their plate yet when contacted, they always respond. Most of the time, they do so quickly. That’s greatly appreciated.

If those tasked with running the largest media companies in America, and hosting shows with content, advertising, and audience commitments can find time to respond, why is it so hard for other professionals to do the same? If you don’t want to be featured on BSM, speak at a Summit, market with us or answer a question, just say ‘not interested‘. It takes two seconds. The best in the business understand the value of relationships and promotion. Unfortunately, many do not. I don’t use this platform to draw attention to these issues but sometimes I wonder, should I?

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Original Projects:

On BNM this week we’re doing five days of features on NPR professionals as part of ‘Public Radio Week‘. It’s not easy pulling it off but we’re trying some different stuff. Next week we launch ‘Where Are They Now‘ on BSM. Peter Schwartz will have the first feature next Tuesday. Coming up in February, we drop the BSM Top 20, Derek Futterman’s ‘Day Spent With‘ series which includes spending a day with professionals across different areas of the industry, and we’ll profile a number of black voices on BNM as part of the brand’s focus on Black History month. I hope you’ll check them out whenever time allows.

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Recommended Viewing:

If you’re looking for a movie to watch during the week, check out Blackberry if you haven’t already done so. The film is about the rise and fall of the Blackberry phone, and I thought it was excellent. It had a similar feel to the movie Jobs, and the series Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber. Worth your time if you’ve got two hours available to watch something different than live games or sports programming.

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If you have a question or comment you’d like addressed in a future column, please send it to [email protected]. That same email address can be used to pass along press releases, interview requests or news tips. Thanks for reading!

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Justin Craig, Chris Kinard, Mary Menna Added to 2024 BSM Summit Lineup

“What I’ve always enjoyed about the BSM Summit is that it showcases speakers from many different areas of the industry.”

Jason Barrett

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To kick off 2024, we’re announcing the additions of three more talented broadcasters to our 2024 BSM Summit. More on that shortly. The Summit takes place March 13-14 at the Ailey Theater in New York City. For tickets, hotel rooms, and additional details, visit BSMSummit.com. Those interested in sponsorship opportunities, contact Stephanie Eads. A number of items are already claimed but she can tell you what’s left. Reach her by email at [email protected] or by phone at 415-312-5553.

What I’ve always enjoyed about the Summit is that it showcases speakers from different areas of the industry. We’ve featured top talent, researchers, agents, digital leaders, podcasting experts, ratings analysts, tech builders, play by play voices, and of course, program directors and market managers. There’s many ways to succeed, and no better way to learn than to hear from folks who consistently win.

In the sports audio world, 98.5 The Sports Hub, 106.7 The Fan, and ESPN Radio are highly respected brands. The Hub and The Fan are dominant in Boston and Washington D.C.. ESPN Radio meanwhile maintains a strong position as one of the top national audio brands. All feature strong leaders, and we’re fortunate to have all of them represented in NYC.

It’s a pleasure to welcome Beasley Boston Market Manager Mary Menna to the Summit. This is her first appearance at the conference. Mary is responsible for managing The Hub’s business, currently the top revenue generating brand in all of sports radio. I’m excited to have her offer her insights on a panel with Chris Oliviero and Scott Sutherland. More details on the session, date/time closer to the show.

On the programming side, it’s great to welcome back Chris Kinard of 106.7 The Fan, and Justin Craig of ESPN Radio. Both will be involved in programming panels at the show.

CK has helped lead The Fan and Team 980 to consistent growth in the nation’s capital. He’s a forward thinking type of leader with a great feel for the current and future challenges facing the business. I’m looking forward to having him share a few lessons he’s learned with the rest of the room.

For my friend JC, he’s seen ESPN Radio evolve for the better part of two decades. Liked and respected by most, he’s valued and trusted to guide ESPN Radio’s day-to-day operations. Given the network’s change in focus, talent, and structure, he’ll have great insights to share on where national sports audio is moving.

Our speaker list now sits at twenty. It will grow much more over the next two months as we reveal other additions to the show. We’ll also be announcing our award winners, and a few other surprises. This is a fun and informative two-day event for sports media professionals. If you haven’t joined us before, I hope you’ll do so this time. Everything you need to know prior to the event will be available at BSMSummit.com.

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The Media Business Must Reset Its Message and Market Its Stars in 2024

“The only way to change perception is to remind people what makes radio/TV special, and how well it works.”

Jason Barrett

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The end of the year is upon us, and I hope you’re happy, healthy, and excited about what lies ahead in 2024. The older I get, and the more I work with different companies and people, I’m reminded that the relationships and results are what makes this all worthwhile. In my thirties, I wanted to stomp competitors into the ground, and own the space in the cities I worked in. I even did it a few times. But as happy as I was for my crew and seeing our strategy work, the more I learned it was about growing a business, and enjoying the ride with colleagues, not seeing others unemployed. If there’s only one game in town, the game itself becomes less fun. The professional benefits shrink too for those on the winning side.

It’s no secret that 2023 has been a roller coaster ride for the media industry. Take for instance this recent Forbes article. If their math is correct, more than 20,000 people lost media jobs in 2023. That can’t make you feel good about the state of our business. It doesn’t inspire confidence in advertisers to invest in us either. With 2024 approaching, there’s optimism, pessimism, and focus on what may change. The common belief is that revenues will rise due to a political year, but we can’t just look at dollars and cents when it comes to evaluating our industry. If we do, we’ll be back here in 2025 when political advertising shrinks.

I started covering sports media in 2015. News media coverage was added in 2020. During that time, radio and TV revenues haven’t risen like a Phoenix and headlines about both mediums have been mostly negative. Do a quick google search and look at how many stories focus on low stock prices, headwinds/layoffs, revenue projections missed, bankruptcy, executive’s on shaky ground, brands losing their identity and purpose, AM radio becoming extinct, etc.. This is what investors and advertisers see every day. It creates a negative perception of our business. You’d see it that way too if you were in their shoes.

Now combine that with the way media sells the next big thing. Meta told us virtual reality was the future but bailed on that idea in favor of artificial intelligence. Spotify dove into podcasting with its foot on the gas but is now driving under the speed limit. Elon Musk bought X to be the everything app yet can’t inspire confidence in the advertising community.

Radio’s issues are more self inflicted. Groups have been saddled with so much debt that even a good year in local markets gets ignored due to larger corporate problems. Judging from what gets printed you’d think no radio station grew revenue this year, which is false. TV isn’t immune either. All too often the focus is on viewers aging or watching less, and young people streaming yet the biggest point gets missed – people are still watching content, most of it produced by the TV industry. They just do it in different ways.

I’m sure there are exceptions but those I know who work in radio, TV, podcasting or social media do so for the access, content, creativity and fun. If you do the job well enough and long enough, the pay can be pretty good too. Most don’t enter the business to discuss plans to boost a stock, raise quarterly revenue or frame a press release to soften the blow when laying people off.

Our industry is attractive because we create programming that excites viewers/listeners and is led by people who are passionate about the content featured on their brands. When that content is supported by data that shows people enjoy it, it attracts advertisers. If those paying clients invest in a brand, and it increases sales, that creates a healthy business. This isn’t rocket science, folks.

My hope for 2024 is that the media industry puts greater focus on resetting its messaging and marketing its stars. Podcasting and streaming get discussed with high enthusiasm. Marketers are made to feel that they are growing spaces they have to be in. Radio and TV, which are both larger, and have delivered results for decades, are seen as less attractive. But they shouldn’t be. We’ve allowed that to happen. The only way to change it is to remind people what makes radio/TV special, and how well it works. It starts with marketing the right people and message. Otherwise perception becomes reality.

Too often I see narratives shaped for advertisers and investors instead of the public. If you want the business world’s money and attention, don’t bore them with business headlines. Create a party with your stars, attract a passionate audience, and generate results. Do that consistently and watch how fast the money follows. Given how our industry has been portrayed the past decade, we’re not inspiring many with hype about revenue projections, profitability, and staff reductions.

An Important Year For Barrett Media

We enter 2024 with a lot of promise. Dave Greene was recently announced as our new Chief Media Officer. I also revealed a few additions, and shared that I’d write a weekly column and host a podcast in April. But we’re not done. We’re adding two more columnists, who I’m very excited about.

Mark Kreidler joins BSM to write a weekly column on Wednesday’s. Mark is an award winning author who previously wrote for ESPN, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Sacramento Bee. He has also worked in radio for 95.7 The Game, Sactown Sports 1140, and ESPN 1320.

Dave Williams is also joining us to write a weekly column each Friday on BNM. Dave has spent over four decades in news/talk working for top brands such as WBAP/KLIF in Dallas, KNX in Los Angeles, and KFBK in Sacramento. He announced his retirement from radio in early November.

Cementing our position and value as a media outlet is a priority. We root for the industry, support it, and try to educate, celebrate, inform, and challenge those inside of it. But with that comes a responsibility to offer opinions and cover the news. We prioritize 4 key things on our websites: features on industry people, expert opinions from columnists, daily news about brands/people changes or performance, and industry reactions. The occasional 5th area of focus is original projects like the BSM Top 20.

Our editors and news writers watch, listen and read daily. If it’s said on the air or social, it may end up on our sites. You’ll agree with some, and disagree with others, but it’s no different than how athletes react to hosts talking about sports. The difference is we highlight discussions about media brands, people, and the industry not local teams.

If you see something you don’t like, Garrett and Dave manage our websites. Both are accessible – [email protected] or [email protected]. Just understand that if brands make decisions, results are bad or public comments are offered, we are going to cover it.

We’ve spent 8 years building two respected brands and working hard to attract industry professionals. With two websites, newsletters, social media brands, and conferences, I feel good about our progress. The web traffic, social media impressions, and newsletter data shows that we’re on the right track.

Consulting clients and executing top notch events remain my top priority but growing our marketing partnerships is vital too. Stephanie Eads has worked hard on this and we are excited to welcome Ramsey Solutions, JJ Surma Voiceovers, Harker Bos Group, Doug Stephan’s Good Day Networks, and the Motor Racing Network as 2024 partners. We’re also thrilled to extend relationships with our friends at Point to Point Marketing, Backbone, Steve Stone Voiceovers, Core Image Studio, Jim Cutler, and Premiere Networks. If you’d like to work with us too, contact Stephanie by email at [email protected].

To continue building BSM and BNM, we are launching two new newsletters next week. BSM will deliver the 8@8 weekdays at 8am, and the Press Pass at 5pm. BNM will distribute the Rundown weekday mornings at 9am, and the Wrap Up at 6pm. Our afternoon editions will feature a different content approach so I look forward to your feedback on it. To sign up for BSM’s newsletters, click here. For BNM, go here.

Sticking with BNM, we will have a special announcement on Tuesday January 2nd at 9am. I’ll be announcing the dates, host city, and venue that day for our 2024 BNM Summit. Our 2023 event in Nashville was excellent but I think this next one could be even bigger and better. The Rundown and BNM’s website and social media accounts will relay the details. Also, BNM is launching a special series the week of January 22-26. Public Radio Week will feature NPR folks all week long.

Before I wrap up the column, I want to address a few BSM items. First, the BSM Top 20 of 2023 drops February 5-9 and February 12. Voting opens next week (January 2nd) and emails will go out to all PDs and executives invited to participate in the process. We’ll also have two new original projects in January starting with Social Studies written by Alex Reynolds on Wednesday January 3rd. Peter Schwartz’s monthly feature Where Are They Now debuts Tuesday January 30th.

We have other things in motion for February including a cool project titled “A Day Spent With.” Derek Futterman will run point on that series. I’ll share more in my next column on January 8th.

Last but not least, the 2024 BSM Summit takes place March 13-14, 2024 in New York City. We’ve already announced a number of people and I’ll have another announcement next week. If you plan to attend, don’t wait until the last minute to buy a ticket and reserve your room. Go to BSMSummit.com to take advantage of our holiday sale. It expires Sunday December 31st.

I want to thank you for continuing to read our work, following our brands, attending our events, and considering the different ideas and opinions offered by our writers. Covering this business is complex. It has its fair share of warts but it also provides a ton of value, massive creativity, incredible content, and a path full of untapped potential. More importantly, it’s full of quality people. I look forward to watching each of you build stronger businesses in 2024, and helping those who I’m fortunate to work with.

Cheers to 2024!

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