Today’s column begins with a story from my short run in news talk radio. I was hosting the morning show at Talk Radio 850 in Raleigh. My producer was a guy named Jason Kong, who to this day remains one of my very best friends. Jason was presented with an opportunity to take over as general manager of the ACC Sports Journal, a magazine our parent company owned. There was no doubt he was going to be leaving the show.
Jason and I worked well together because we got each other’s senses of humor. We made time to hang out outside of the office. Most importantly, we knew we could trust each other to hold up our side of the equation. Our personal relationship predated our professional relationship, and I knew I could rely on him to make my ideas sound better and to show up with ideas of his own.
When I met with my PD to discuss the next step and how we replace Jason he told me “We’ll just promote one of the part timers. Don’t worry about it.” It was such a misunderstanding of what the show needed. The show’s new executive producer was a good guy that was eager to learn, but it brought the show to a screeching halt, because he wasn’t properly trained before getting the promotion.
He wasn’t creative off air. He didn’t know how to hold a conversation on air. The show suffered because our PD didn’t view the producer’s role as being at least as important as the host’s. This guy was good at hitting hard outs and firing the traffic bumper. Those were his sole qualifications for running my show.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately in the wake of BSM’s various top 20 lists, as I have received texts from friends in the industry asking “How did ___ not make the list? He’s the future of the format!”. It’s great that we look at young hosts and can recognize if they’ve got “it” and it’s great that PD’s invest time in turning a young guy that’s got it into a great broadcaster.
But is that enough?
In order to secure a prosperous future for sports radio, we have to nurture young producers and make sure anyone we put behind a board is properly trained. Honestly, this is more important than recognizing talent in young hosts.
A producer shapes a show’s identity. The producer chooses the show’s soundtrack (both music and production elements) and thus sets the tone for what is to come. Is the show fun or even funny? Sure, a charismatic host is going to play a role in that, but the drops a producer chooses and the timing with which he interjects those drops or a comment is just as important.
We also have to make sure that producers are confident when they step behind a board. Recently I filled in for a friend and he texted me the night before to “take it easy” on his producer. That was discouraging to say the least.
I am not someone that yells at producers. I used to be a producer myself. I understand that they have a lot going on behind the glass, but like any other human, I can get frustrated when my success depends on the competency of another. It doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence to have someone essentially imply that the producer you’re going to be working with cannot be trusted.
A producer needs to have the confidence to know that even if one segment is a disaster, the show isn’t lost. Producers are the last line of defense. They’re the ones making the call on when to wrap a segment or if a show rundown needs to be shuffled, so we need to empower them to challenge their host when necessary.
Our format also puts a lot of emphasis on a producer’s rolodex. This idea is a little misguided in my opinion, but let’s take a long, hard look at how this jives with the idea that if you can press buttons on a board you can also run a show.
It goes back to confidence, right? We deal with egos a lot in this business. A producer has to be ready to have his own ego kicked around a bit and get back up again, because when it comes to booking guests, or even getting your ideas on air, it’s not just about knowing you’ll hear the word “no” a lot. It’s about being able to change minds.
Finally, consider the power flow of an on air product. In sports radio, the daily product is the result of the efforts of two people: the host and the producer. Is the power flow a 50/50 split? Well, sort of, but think about this. How much can a good host do to elevate an untrained producer?
Not much, right? The producer actually has way more power over the day-to-day success of the show. If you have a host that is still coming along, a good producer is still capable of elevating the overall product through production elements and good guest booking.
Now let’s switch levels. A good host can absolutely be dragged down by a bad producer. Imagine you took Colin Cowherd out of his regular surroundings and paired him for just one day with a guy that is good at running a board for minor league baseball games, but that’s it. Do you think Colin’s takes would hit as hard or his opinions be as quotable if he is having to work around misfired elements or staring at an emotionless blank slate? Even a host who builds his show largely around monologues can be thrown off if his producer isn’t properly engaged.
So to secure the future of sports radio we have to put a focus on producers. I don’t mean to diminish the role of a good host. Obviously that is really important. But the attention we give producers has fallen to the point that a former PD recently told me that even in major markets he had trouble finding producers that were ready to hit the ground running.
It seems like the days of kids coming out of school wanting to be producers is over, and look, that is okay. Someone that wants to eventually be a host can still make for a really good producer. We just have to do a better job of showing them that this is a legit stepping stone whether it be to hosting or programming. Ryan Haney at WJOX in Birmingham, Tony DiGiacomo at WFNZ in Charlotte, Chris Kinard at WJFK in DC, these are all examples of guys that used the skills they amassed as a producer to climb the programming ladder.
If programmers truly care about the sound of their station, and I know most of them do, they need to take the same interest in the people behind the board that they do in the people behind the mic. Training producers to understand how to listen to their own show and the role they play in the station accomplishing its goals empowers them. Empowered people are more engaged and engaged people are better able to learn and grow. If every program director approached their producers this way, we wouldn’t have to scratch our heads in wonder at the lack of quality candidates whenever an opening is posted.
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.