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Q & A with Ryan Porth

Brian Noe

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It isn’t every day that you bump into a 27-year-old program director in a top-30 market. Ryan Porth is a name to know in the sports talk radio business. He’s the PD of ESPN Radio 102.5 The Game and 94.9 Game 2 in Nashville, TN.

Ryan’s career path is uncommon. He earned a big promotion in the span of 10 days, one which typically takes years to achieve. I had a chance to connect with him and discuss his unique career path, future goals and his thoughts on the best and worst parts of sports talk radio.

Q: What was it about the sports talk radio business that initially interested you in pursuing it?

RP: When I was born and raised in Cincinnati, the voice of the Cincinnati Reds, Marty Brennaman, was an idol of mine. I used to play imaginary baseball in the backyard and act like I was Marty Brennaman. So as a little kid, I always wanted to be the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds and that desire to work in sports broadcasting stayed with me through middle school and high school. I always knew it was what I wanted to do.

A few years after high school, I got a part-time job here at ESPN 102.5 The Game. That was July of 2012. Five years later I’m the damn Program Director of this thing. It’s crazy to think about. To have a job like this at my age, I pinch myself every day. To be working in the industry that I’ve dreamed of working in my entire life is a real blessing.

Q: Having started at The Game and worked your way up, does that impact the way you look at talent? For example, do you prefer seeing homegrown talent get a promotion rather than taking a look at options outside of your market?

RP: Being here for so long, I’ve seen many people move up the ranks — and it’s mostly been with producers — but I do believe in the theory of promoting from within if you can. You know their strengths. You know their weaknesses. You know everything about them. You can put them in the best position possible to maximize their strengths. That’s one risk with someone out of the market – you don’t know them as well on a personal level.

I’m very fortunate that since I was hired as Program Director, in the last 10+ months I haven’t had to make a change on the air with our lineup. All the guys that I inherited for the live shows from the morning show to the midday show to the afternoon show offer something a little different, and it’s been a pleasure working with them.

I think promoting from within is a trendy way to go. That isn’t to suggest that I won’t consider someone out of the market, but with your on-air talent, you want them to have the backstory knowledge of the Titans, and the Preds, and the Vols and everything that’s a hot-button issue in this town. In Nashville, it’s important to know the history of sports in this town. That goes with any town and radio station. I’m lucky to have a really good staff on board.

Q: It was crazy with the Preds last year. I went to a couple of those watch parties. Broadway street was completely shut down. It was a really, really cool thing. Could you see an MLB or NBA team in Nashville? How big of an impact do you think it’d make in the city and on the sports talk radio scene?

RP: If Major League Baseball or the NBA were to come here, it would only benefit our business in terms of having even more things to talk about. For where the city of Nashville is right now, I think having two pro sports teams with the Titans and the Preds, plus Nashville SC and the Nashville Sounds, is kind of a perfect mix. But with 80 to 100 people moving to Nashville every day, I can see in a decade or two it expanding to meeting a Philadelphia or Detroit in terms of having all the pro sports teams in town and being a hotbed for sports even more than it is now.

Q: Knowing the dynamics of this city, which do you think would make a bigger impact here, the NBA or MLB?

RP: I think Major League Baseball would make a bigger impact because of the timing in which the sport is played. The NBA would be going up against the Preds and I don’t know how successful a team would be here especially with Memphis right down the road. The Grizzlies are kind of viewed as Tennessee’s NBA team.

However, with Major League Baseball — while you do have the Braves, and the Reds, and the Cardinals within a stone’s throw of Nashville — I can envision an American League team working here in the future when the city grows more. I think Nashville in 10 to 20 years will be in a much better position for MLB than it is now.

Q: I hear a lot of negativity about sports talk radio. With all of the bellyaching of ‘this sucks’ and ‘they talk too much this’ and ‘they do too much that,’ what do you think is really, really good about sports talk radio right now?

RP: Whether it’s a negative topic or a positive one, connecting with fans is the most important thing in sports talk radio in my mind. Whether Butch Jones is on the hot seat or the Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final, you want to have that connection with the fans.

You’re not going to make everyone happy in this industry, and a listener doesn’t have to agree with everything that a host has to say. But if a host can connect with the listener and make them understand where they’re coming from with their opinions, it makes for great radio. We’re also fortunate at ESPN 102.5 The Game to have two popular former Titans figures – wideout Derrick Mason and GM Floyd Reese – who can take fans behind the curtain on their experiences in the NFL and provide unique insight the listener can’t get elsewhere.

In the social media world that we live in now, it’s a different world than it was 10-15 years ago. You can get a lot of people’s opinions right there on Twitter and Facebook, but the medium of radio is still powerful. The mic that our hosts turn on every day is still powerful and the way that sports talk radio hosts can connect with listeners as they drive to work or lunch, with hosts wearing their emotions on their sleeves as if they’re a fan themselves, is one of many positive things about sports radio right now.

Q: What do you think could be better about sports talk radio?

RP: The one thing that I think people can fall victim to is hot-take radio. I think it only works for so long. Not only in sports talk radio but with TV, it can be a little overbearing at times. That’s something that a lot of listeners or viewers would appreciate seeing or hearing less of. We’ve got an afternoon host, Jared Stillman, that has a lot of opinions about everything in Nashville, but I wouldn’t consider him among the hot-take sports talk radio hosts. He’s just a Nashvillian that wears his emotions on his sleeve. I think those are the type of things that make sports talk radio great. Having a hot take just to have a hot take on something in the sports world, and doing that too much over time, can wear on the consumer.

Q: When you target new talent or hear a host for the first time, what characteristics appeal to you most?

RP: I’m a diehard Cincinnati Reds fan. I remember turning on ESPN 1530 after Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. Mo Egger, who’s one of my favorites in this country in terms of talking sports, said something along the lines of, “I’m paid to know what to say, but I don’t know what to say right now.” It was real emotion, expressing exactly what the entire Reds fanbase was feeling at that time. If a sports talk radio host can connect with listeners and fans in that way, that is one of the best qualities in a host.

You have to be compelling and discuss topics that will make the listeners think, whether they agree or disagree. I think likability is another really good quality for radio hosts. Especially in the south where Southern hospitality is a real thing. Nashville is a different market from anywhere up north where it’s a heritage sports town. Everything is a little bit more laid back in Nashville and having some likability is an important trait in radio hosts. You don’t necessarily need them to like you, but you need them to like listening to you, and enjoy listening to you, because you obviously want to keep them listening. You don’t want to scare listeners away, because they may not come back.

Q: Likability and relatability are important everywhere, but might be even more important in Nashville. Do you think that what separates a good host from an excellent host can range based on the region they’re working in?

RP: I think so. A good host can handle the x’s and o’s of sports talk radio well. They can tease well. They can set up topics well. They can interact with callers well, but an excellent host has to have those intangibles of connecting and forming a relationship with the listeners without actually knowing them on a personal level. Making a listener feel like they’re in the studio with them, or sitting at the bar with them listening to your hosts share what they’re passionate about – those things help put you over the top as an on-air personality in my opinion.

Q: Some topics these days can be divisive. That can damage a host’s likability and relatability. Whether it’s the anthem protests or the sign at the Red Sox game, “racism is as American as baseball,” do you have a certain tactic or approach with your on-air staff about do’s and don’ts when addressing those subjects?

RP: I’m pretty lucky to have a lineup of hosts that know the right and wrong of what to say in those situations. When it comes to political stuff like that, no radio station wants their hosts to say something that will hurt the credibility or likability of a host or the radio station as a whole. But at the same time, giving hosts that freedom of speech when it’s necessary, when it’s valid, I think is important as a Program Director.

A lot of people use sports to escape from some of the crazy happenings going on in our country. There’s a good chance they have no desire to hear about politics when flipping on a sports radio station. So that’s what we try to offer our listener in times like those – talking about the Preds or Titans, or sports in general, to provide that escape.

Q: How do you balance big national stories with your local content? Is there a specific message you relay to your staff?

RP: In the last year, we’ve had the the Chicago Cubs win a World Series. That was a huge national story that our hosts talked about. Maybe not at length, but they talked about them winning it all. While there are Cubs fans in Nashville, they’re not considered a local team at all. But that was a huge story in sports and when those things happen, I think it’s important to talk about them.

At the same time, if there are other storylines going on nationally that we can relate to locally — for instance, if Jon Gruden says that Jameis Winston should be an NFL MVP candidate. Having our hosts take that and frame it in a way where they’re saying, “Jameis Winston, if he’s an NFL MVP candidate, then why isn’t Marcus Mariota?” Just doing things like that — finding that local connection where it can still be a good listen for the people who are tuning in just for local news or local sports talk.

There are so many outlets now where you can get national talk. We’ve got 102.5 The Game, but we’ve also got 94.9 Game 2, and 94.9 Game 2 is mostly the ESPN Radio syndicated lineup. So, we’ve got Mike & Mike in the Morning, and Russillo, and Le Batard, and Paul Finebaum in the afternoon. All of them talk about national storylines. Finding a way to connect the two — local and national — to bridge that gap, is an important thing for our local hosts to do.

Q: In Nashville, you’re up against 104.5 The Zone. Some view it as a huge challenge or a mountain that you’ve got to climb. What are the opportunities that it presents from where you guys are and how you’re going head-to-head with an opponent in the same town?

RP: I think the opportunity for us is the fact that we have a little bit of a different strategy in terms of on air. 104.5 The Zone, while they do talk their fair share of sports, they also like to dip into pop culture, entertainment, and things of that nature. For the listener that wants deep sports talk, they know they can come to 102.5 and we’re going to be talking about the local teams. We’re going to be talking about the Preds. We’re going to be talking about the Titans. We’re going to be talking about the Vols and anything else that is hot in this town. That’s our identity.

We don’t pump ourselves as Nashville’s Best Sports Talk just because it’s a catchy line. It’s something that we all believe in. We truly believe we deliver the best sports talk in this town. When it’s Preds, we have the best Preds talk. When it’s the Titans, we have the best Titans talk. When it’s the Vols, we have the best Vols talk. That’s something that we pride ourselves on. Their model has been successful for them and I respect them for that. At the same time, there are many listeners out there that just want sports talk and that’s what we try to deliver to them on a daily basis.

Q: Having transitioned from APD to PD, when you look back, what’s the biggest area of your personal growth that you’re most proud of?

RP: Well, it was a very quick transition. August 15th last year was my first day as Assistant Program Director. Then on August 26th, I became the interim Program Director. So, I had a grand total of 10 days under my belt as an Assistant Program Director. We were going through a lineup change at that time and I was the EP of our afternoon show, Jared & The GM. During those 10 days I didn’t have any time to learn how to be an Assistant Program Director.

I was put in a position where I went from Executive Producer of the afternoon show, and within two weeks I was steering the ship. It was a scary few weeks stepping into a role where I was learning everything on the fly. Fortunately, I had a great support staff and still do to this day. As a 27-year-old Program Director, I still learn things every single day. Hopefully, a year from now, I’m in an even better position in terms of knowing little nuances of how to be a PD. I feel like I’m light years ahead of where I was at this time last year when I was just worried about keeping us on the air.

I’d say the biggest thing in transition that I’ve had to learn is how to interact with each of our talent. Every single cat is skinned a different way. Learning how to handle the on-air talent, push their buttons and try to get the best out of them is something that I’ve had to learn very quickly. Luckily, as someone who was in the building for 4+ years before the change, I think I benefited because I knew most of our on-air talent already. I wasn’t a brand new PD at a brand new station. I’d say talent coaching and interaction are the biggest things for a Program Director to tackle and I’ve tried to make that a big focus of mine over the past year.

Q: What are your future goals in sports talk radio?

RP: The dream of being the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds will always be there. If I’m 60 years old and haven’t been the radio voice of the Reds, I think I would still love to do that. Obviously the path that I’ve gone down in radio may not lead to that and I’m okay with it.

To be honest, I have no idea where this whole thing is gonna take me. I’ve been appreciative just to have 5+ years in this business in this building — to develop relationships and friendships that I’ll have forever. If something comes up nationally in the future, then I’m sure I’d consider it. If something suited my strengths well outside of radio, maybe I’d consider that too. But I love Nashville. I may be biased, but it’s the best city in the country to live in. It’s home and I don’t really want to change that.

I just take it day by day and see where each one takes me. Hopefully I can continue to add to what I’ve built during my last five years in this business.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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