If you regularly read what I write here at SportsRadioPD.com, you know that sports radio represents something of a career shift for me. Before debating the merits of bat flips, I spent time in talk and rock formats. I have friends in literally every format on the radio and thought it might be time to dip into their creative wisdom.
I started this week’s column with a simple premise: the rules for making good, entertaining radio are universal. Just because someone has never taken calls about a coach’s job security doesn’t mean they can’t give you advice to make you a better host and your show a better product.
So, I asked around. What lessons can broadcasters from outside the sports format teach us? What advice have they received in their careers that may have been specific to their format, but has sown over time to be universal?
Marty Young is part of the Q Morning Crew, the morning show at 94.7 WQDR in Raleigh. The station has been honored as the large market country station of the year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Awards. Marty and his partner Mike Wheless and Janie Carothers have been honored as country radio personalities of the year by those same organizations. Marty also happened to work next door to me for 6 years. I asked him if he had learned a lesson that could help my readers.
I asked Marty for a specific example of who that happened to him with. “Taylor Swift,” he said. Remember when she was a country artist?
First of all, if you’re looking for a weekly guest from a team, I always advocate finding the best personality as opposed to the biggest star. Second, what I really love about Marty’s advice is that it takes into account the competitiveness of the personalities we deal with in sports. So many stars in this world got where they are by trying to prove someone wrong. If you have the luxury of recording an interview and deciding later whether or not to air it, you can be a little more flexible with your time.
What Marty is really getting at is the power of relationship building. It’s the dirty work, the favors, and to a certain extent the ass-kissing that goes into being able to build the kind of guest lists that can win you new listeners.
For as long as I have known Chris Malone he has been a guy that isn’t afraid to take risks. He came to North Carolina from Memphis to take over a start-up station that was going head to head with a long-unchallenged heritage brand. Now he’s in Boston doing the same thing at 97.7 WKAF-FM in Boston.
His piece of advise should come as no surprise. It is all about shooting your shot, chopping that wood, and all those other metaphors we use for perseverance.
These are all important things to remember. Stay in a constant state of readiness, because in this industry things are always evolving. Sometimes major changes in expectations or in what perception of what a “good show” is can change on a dime.
There is also a lesson about self-confidence in there. Remember that you are good enough to turn dry spells around both in ratings and employment. But if you’re going to actually turn things around, you have to be willing to take a look at what isn’t working for you.
Speaking of Boston, the next person I reached out to was Karson Tager from 104.1 WBMX. Karson and I met back in 2012 when I auditioned for a role on his show Karson & Kennedy. In the ultimate twist of awkward, the gig came down to me and my best friend, Salt MacMillan. The best friend got it, and he was absolutely the right choice, as they have thrived since adding Salt to the show.
Karson is a well-traveled guy in this industry. One of the things that struck me about him in two days of working alongside of him is that he is very comfortable in his own skin. He knows his strengths, the strengths of those around him, and how those can be combined to make a superior on-air product.
Here was his advice.
I have written about this idea a lot on this site. Sports is a format built on current events and trending topics. You stand out by creating content around those topics that other shows are not.
Go back and read my piece about fear. Your goal is always to separate yourself from your competition. That doesn’t just mean other sports shows, but every show across the dial in your market. You accomplish that through creativity and tireless effort.
You don’t have to be the funny guy. You don’t have to have a “live-to-offend” approach. You just have to figure out what you can offer the listener that no one else can, and you have to do it for every segment of every show. Otherwise, what is the point?
I have been in the radio industry for 21 years and in that time I have never known anyone smarter or kinder than Scott Fitzgerald, who has a show on 1110 WBT-AM in Charlotte. He is someone that is always ready to bounce ideas back and forth. He was there for me as I was making the transition to news/talk and had a PD that wasn’t interested in helping me.
His advice may run counter to some of what we learn in sports, but think about how different your show might sound if you tried this even just once.
Certainly there are shows that are really good at generating content from giving callers a wide berth. Paul Finebaum springs to mind immediately, right? But the well-curated madhouse that is the Paul Finebaum Show has grown over years of callers having the chance to “get” the show.
I always advocate for less callers. Listeners are tuning in to hear what your opinion. For the most part, they do not care what Joe in Bucktown has to say about Trubisky vs. Glennon.
Don’t get me wrong, callers do serve a purpose, but that purpose should be to enhance the conversation you want to have, not to do their own tight 5 minutes. Be clear with them. This is what we are talking about. What do you have to say about this specific topic? Then, take the opportunity to thank them for participating and making the show better.
Let’s wrap this up in the format that birthed me…professionally at least. The woman that actually birthed me is a retired kindergarten teacher in Birmingham, Alabama.
Robin Foxx and I met in Raleigh when she did traffic reports on my show. Then she decided to go out West and has thrived. She is now the executive producer of The Men’s Club, a nationally syndicated afternoon show that originates from 99.9 KISW-FM.
I am going to interpret what I think Robin means and then add to it a bit. Listeners are consciously choosing your station. In Robin’s case, they know that is where they will hear the music they like. In your case, it’s because they know you’re talking about the local teams. So, serve that audience. Robin has to be a rock encyclopedia. You need to be connected to all the teams you cover. You don’t have to be a shameless cheerleader. You just have to be the one that can give listeners the access they could never get on their own.
I’ll build on that with a lesson I learned when I started at 94.9 ESPN in Columbia, SC. As I’ve written before, I graduated from the University of Alabama and am a huge SEC football fan. Columbia on the other hand is home to the University of South Carolina, also a member of the SEC.
As I was learning the ins and outs of the Gamecocks’ roster, I built the show around general SEC talk. People responded, but only tepidly. It was on a day that I mentioned that I thought Steve Spurrier was clearly losing interest in this job that the phones really lit up.
Listeners wanted to know where I got off thinking that. To them it was clear Spurrier loved living in Columbia and he still had many years of winning to offer Gamecocks fans. I wasn’t swayed and I didn’t belittle listeners. I just dug into my point.
What I learned that day is that an audience doesn’t care if you like their team or not. They just want to know that you care about them. I framed the topic as “South Carolina isn’t a hopeless program, but they have to have a coach that is engaged in order to make it work.” Sure, the show was one long argument, but we were talking about South Carolina football.
A lot of listeners didn’t like what I had to say, but they could tell I cared. It’s why so many of those callers that told me I was dead wrong or called me an idiot became regular callers on my show. We had a shared passion. We just approached it in different ways.
Sometimes in the sports format we can love the smell of our own farts a little too much. If you dig down into radio you will find every format thinks it is so unique from all the others that there is no way anyone outside that format can give them advice. Then you’ll realize that the goal of every show is the same – to entertain the audience and build their loyalty to you. Accept that and you will see that everyone in this industry is a potential teacher.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.