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A Little Improv Can Take You a Long Way

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Most of our listeners will never understand what it takes to be on air. You can’t blame them really. If you have never worked in radio and seen a talk show done up close, it makes sense that you don’t understand that there is more to it than just knowing what you are talking about.

Last year, I wrote a column about what I learned from working in a Forbes Five Star hotel. If you haven’t already read it, please click here and do that when you have some time. What I don’t discuss in that article is what sports radio did to prepare me for working in the hospitality industry. Namely, it taught me how to have a conversation.

We have discussed the value of active listening before and how it can make your on air conversations better. You can read that here. Today, let’s talk about a skill that can make you a better active listener and a better reactor.

Have you ever considered taking an improv class?

I know it may sound silly at first, but consider what is involved in improve. A good improviser, like Paul F. Tompkins or Amy Poehler, is good at listening. They are creative. They are good at reacting. They have to know how to steer a conversation and recognize their end goal on the fly.

How much value would those skills have in a job where your responsibility is to sit in front of a microphone and create the most entertaining conversation possible? I mean, it seems like it would be invaluable really.

Classes are easier to find than you think too. Most mid-size markets and above have an improv group that teaches classes to pay the bills. Some comedy clubs offer classes too. Many of those classes have students work toward the end goal of performing. That means the “teachers” have a certain level they are trying to get their students to each week. If you sign up for one of those classes, and you’re committed to learning and listening, it can’t possibly be a waste of your time.

Does improv seem too dorky to you? Are you someone that laughs at Chris Farley movies? Can you quote Key and Peele sketches line for line? Is Stephen Colbert appointment television for you? All of them are alumni of the Second City, one of the legendary names in improv comedy.

Do you like Parks & Rec? How about 30 Rock or The Office? Those are all shows that recruited from another famous improv company, The Upright Citizens Brigade. Many of their most memorable moments were unscripted.

A lot of folks in radio have benefited from a comedy or improv background. Adam Carolla was a member of The Groundlings. There are plenty of examples in the sports radio world alone. Jay Mohr came from Saturday Night Live. The Sklar Brothers, who regularly fill in for Jim Rome, came off the improv and sketch comedy series Apt2F. Sarah Spain was part of The Second City.

Remember that improv is all about working without a script. In that way, it is just like hosting a show on sports radio. You may come in with some stats you want to hit or jokes you want to tell, but you aren’t working from a formal, written script. Improv experience can help you make the most of the space between what you know you either want or have to say.

I was in my high school’s acting troupe…sorry. I mean theatre guild. I went to a fancy private school. The kind of place filled with people The Mighty Ducks might refer to as “cake eaters.”

Anyway, I think about what I learned in our improve lessons a lot when preparing for a show with a partner. Know when to get out. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Trust your partner wants you to succeed. Never say “no” only “yes and” and when appropriate add “not only that, but”.

You don’t always have to agree with your partner’s point. In sports radio, the “yes and” and “not only that but” is more of an attitude. You are agreeing to engage and keep the conversation moving forward. Even if that conversation is a debate, you are coming with stats and facts to back up your points, not just telling your partner that his or her point is stupid and ending it there.

You are a performer. It is just right now, your stage is behind a microphone. Care enough about your performance to be willing to improve. What we do isn’t normal. That means sometimes we have to explore abnormal avenues to grow and set yourself apart from others in your market or in the industry.

Give improv a chance. It could make you a better host. Hell, you might even like it.

BSM Writers

Locked On Podcast Network Is Locked In Locally

“We have this incredible foundation and listener base with our team shows and this seemed like a natural translation to the next spot.”

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Podcasting and digital content are as hot as they’ve ever been. You could probably say the same for the Locked On Podcast Network, which produces more than 180 podcasts, covering the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and major college sports teams. In terms of networks that have fully immersed themselves in the podcast space, Locked On is one the best when it comes to sports. It’s been a very successful model that enjoyed a 48-percent year-over-year growth and registered an audience of over 115 million listens and views in 2021. Times are good right now for Locked On. 

But recently, the creator of Locked On, David Locke, who also serves as the radio voice for the Utah Jazz, saw a quicker and more aggressive path for growth. Locke and his team wanted to go all-in on two markets, and hire talent that could bring compelling and unique content to fans in those cities.

The move combines the podcast world and the digital world, bringing daily content centered around Minnesota and Atlanta sports. If a fan in Minneapolis prefers podcasts, there are two shows a day that are released on the Locked On Sports Minnesota podcast and YouTube pages. If a fan in Atlanta prefers digital video on YouTube, the Locked On Sports Atlanta page has multiple videos per day covering the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets and the SEC. 

“The thing about sports talk and what makes it so great, you’ve got entertainment, information and passion,” said Locke. “We’re doing post-casts, which are 10-minute postgame shows after every game in Minneapolis, and for the Braves and Falcons in Atlanta. I think that’s our passion we’re touching on there. I also think it was just a natural expansion. We have this incredible foundation and listener base with our team shows, and this seemed like a natural translation to the next spot.”

The expansion of the network with Locked On Sports Minnesota and Locked on Sports Atlanta is already showing a lot of momentum. But creating these brands took a lot of time, ideas, and the willingness to invest in multiple people in each market. The thing is, you don’t just make the decision to expand without a well-thought-out plan. Locke and his team first had to identify which markets they wanted to tap into. After speaking with a consultant, Locke decided Minneapolis and Atlanta were the best two sports to expand into first. 

“Minneapolis is a unique market, because it’s been at the forefront of digital innovation with multiple other groups,” said Locke. “KFAN is a sportstalk beast that has done incredible, amazing work and has built up the sports audience there in a strongly provincial sports town. Atlanta is kind of a contrast, right? It’s the melting pot of several different markets. I feel like it’s the southern hub. It did have the unique circumstance of a particularly large amount of talent.”

Mark Zinno is one of the talents in Atlanta that Locke found and wanted to bring on. An Atlanta sports radio veteran, Zinno brings instant credibility to Locked On Sports Atlanta. But as familiar of a face and voice as he may be, the success of the Locked On Network was one of the biggest reasons why he wanted to jump into the new digital venture.

“I decided to join Locked On Sports Atlanta because it was a recognizable national platform and of course, the opportunity to be back behind the mic every single day,” said Zinno. “Plus, combined with the success of my Hazard Ground podcast, this was another opportunity to dive deeper into the digital audio space. Locked On was the first real company to be part of the digital audio space on a by-market basis. I’m so glad they’ve chosen to make a great sports city like Atlanta part of their footprint.”

Zinno isn’t the only talented host that’s been hired at Locked On Sports Atlanta. He has an entire team around him that has experience in the digital space. 

“Tenitra Batiste is a rising star and I think the same about Jarvis Davis,” said Locke. “Jon Chuckery has done a great job there and was available because of the uniqueness with his night show. I think we’ve built a great lineup and have a unique marketplace that has a vibrant city with a lot of really good sports talk but a lot of recent turnover. We had a really good consultant that told us Atlanta was loaded with talent.”

All talent, be it in Atlanta or Minnesota, is brand new to the network, outside of Sam Ekstrom, who is the executive producer in Minneapolis. At one point, he hosted Locked On Vikings. Everyone had the familiarity of Locked On, but now they’re fully immersed in the network. 

A huge development for Locked On was the integration of TEGNA in January of 2021. With TEGNA wanting to expand its footprint in sports, Locked On was the perfect platform to help it expand in the digital space. 

“In both of those markets, there’s a massive TEGNA TV station,” said Locke. “You’ve got KARE in Minneapolis and 11 Alive in Atlanta that are powerhouses stations. One of our hosts in Minneapolis is Reggie Wilson who’s the lead sports anchor. And then Reg Chapman and Maria Martin are stars that we hope to integrate them as much as we can. TEGNA’s powerhouse TV stations matter a great deal in those marketplaces.”

It seems as though Locked On is in a great position to take another giant step. Consider that the brand already has several hosts with built-in followings that can serve as experts on each team in the market. That means the talent covering the teams in Minneapolis and Atlanta will extend past the crew that was initially hired. 

“We’re seeing a rise with people in the car listening,” said Locke. “It’s audio and video that’s available to you all the time. The beauty of on-demand is the power of it. You’re going to see it become more and more a part of people’s listening habits. I really think it’s going to be listening through different mechanisms than they’ve been used to listening.”

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BSM Writers

Mark Jackson Already Has One Of The NBA’s Best Jobs

“He’s guaranteed a trip to the NBA Finals every season. Isn’t that more appealing than coaching a team in need of a reboot?”

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Why would he ever go back? Why would he want to leave a good job in television to get back on the sidelines? Those were the questions facing Mark Jackson as he was a finalist for an NBA head coaching job again. Jackson interviewed for both the Lakers’ and Kings’ vacancies in the last few weeks as he looked to get back into the coaching ranks. 

Following his playing days, Jackson got involved in television, then left the media gig for the head coaching spot with the Warriors. Jackson coached at Golden State for three seasons winning 12 more games than he lost. He led the Warriors to the postseason twice, but after losing a Game 7 first round playoff game in 2014, he was fired and headed back to television. 

He is currently an ABC/ESPN analyst working on the top broadcast team with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. Jackson is at the top of his game, carving out a great niche for himself alongside Van Gundy. The two make a terrific pair, playing off each other extremely well, with the traffic cop being Breen. There is a chemistry between the three that’s pretty much evident in every broadcast. There is a unique bond between the two analysts as well. 

As I wrote about a year ago, the banter and comradery between them go back to when all three were with the Knicks. Because of their familiarity, the disagreements at times could sound heated on the air. But what you have to understand is that friends can take these liberties with each other and know exactly where that line is, and never cross it. In other words, Jackson is in a good spot and working with good friends. It seems to be a great situation for him, but the coaching bug hasn’t left his system.

Jackson’s time in Golden State was not without its bumps in the road. There are many who feel like the fallout from his first, and so far, only head coaching job, is keeping him from the next opportunity. There was a perception that Jackson couldn’t get along with anyone in the Warriors front office. Some felt like he pushed his religion on his players as well. Whatever the case, he hasn’t gotten another chance since. 

Which brings me back to the question. Why leave the relatively low stress life as a top analyst for the grind and high-stress that goes along with a head coaching position? A couple of years ago, before an NBA Finals broadcast, the question was posed to Jackson about whether he’d like to return to the sidelines. He appeared on Club Shay Shay with Shannon Sharpe. 

“Well, obviously it’s an incredible job we have and we’re blessed and fortunate to be able to call another NBA Finals,” he said. “I think coaching is in both of our veins (he and Jeff Van Gundy), and we look forward to the day — I know I can speak for myself and say I look forward to the day that I’m coaching again, but I’m having a blast.”

During that interview in September of 2021, he was asked why he currently didn’t have a head coaching job in the NBA.  

”I don’t know. That’s the full answer I do not know. What I will say is that I look forward to the day that I am coaching again. It will happen, I truly believe that with everything in me.” 

Once it’s in the blood, I guess it’s always there, right? What else could explain it? I get it, but still, why? Is it the challenge? Is it a respect thing? It could be all of the above. But there’s another side to it. 

Of all the former players, coaches and managers I’ve ever worked with, they’ve all said pretty much the same thing. Something along the lines of, “wow, it’s great to put down the headset at the end of a game and just go home.” No hours of breaking down what went right or wrong in that particular game, no time figuring out tomorrow’s lineup, no worrying about that 0-for-15 slump, no watching hours of tape trying to game plan for those next hoops opponents.

It’s freeing to be in the booth. That’s the impression that I get.

All former players or coaches have to do in their role is rely on previous experience to describe what is happening. They aren’t responsible for wins or losses. They don’t have to worry about correcting players’ mistakes. As an analyst, you can try and predict a move, and not be responsible if it doesn’t work. You have no skin in that game. Analysts get paid a lot of money to second guess, not to be second guessed. Seems like an ideal situation, doesn’t it?

What could still be the lure? I’m sure in Jackson’s mind there is no way to compete with his desires to be back as a head coach in the NBA. He probably wants to prove that he can coach again, to show either that he’s learned from that first experience or that the common perception of his first experience is not accurate.

Well, he is great on TV. The partnership with Van Gundy and Breen works. There’s safety for himself in this current job. He’s guaranteed a trip to the NBA Finals every season. Isn’t that more appealing than coaching a team in need of a reboot? 

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BSM Writers

Meet The Market Managers: Debbie Kenyon, Audacy Detroit

“We’ve never been judged on Men 25-54. We’ve always been judged on adults, and we’re top one, two, or three consistently for probably ten, 12 years, 14 years running.”

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A lot of people would kill to be Debbie Kenyon. There aren’t a lot of stations in America that have a reliable performance that is as strong as 97.1 The Ticket’s in Detroit.

Her team is formidable. From her brand manager to the talent to the support staff, everyone in Audacy’s building in the Motor City are pushing in the same direction, and it pays off ratings book after ratings book.

This kind of success comes from really knowing what you’re dealing with. It’s about understanding both your product and your audience. Debbie Kenyon is from a media family. Her dad led a TV station. Her brother led a radio station.

Add into that background the experience of being with CBS as it grew, changed names, changed owners and then changed names again, and she has more institutional knowledge to work with than most GMs in major markets.

In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Debbie and I talk about relationships with play-by-play partners, managing through tragedy, why America has the wrong idea about her city and so much more.

Demetri Ravanos: As you look at all of the brands that you oversee, is there any particular adaptation or change with the times that you are particularly proud that you were able to help pull off? 

Debbie Kenyon: I guess we can look back two years, not that that’s a happy moment in everyone’s life, but clearly, in a couple of days’ time, to get two spoken word stations running remotely. We were able to keep everyone safe, not one COVID case. And technically, we sounded great during that entire two years.        

We brought talent back much more quickly, but there were two months of literally a couple of people in the building and that was it. So from a technology standpoint, it’s not me. It’s my phenomenal engineers that gave us and our listeners some sense of peace during a very hard time.            

I think from an innovation standpoint, on a more positive note, just some of the things that we’ve done with the sports teams and how we used to broadcast with phone lines. It was just somewhat antiquated compared to now. My engineering team is pretty cutting edge. The amount of cost reduction that we’ve been able to have over the past five or six years is great, and I think the sound quality is so much better and the likelihood of dropping out has really disappeared. 

DR: I want to talk about the history of the frequency of 97.1, because it has evolved in an interesting way. Think back to those free FM days. Howard Stern leaves CBS and the company starts putting this hot talk format on a lot of the stations that he used to be on. You guys were already doing the FM talk that wasn’t politically centric even before the Free FM branding came about. I wonder how much of a model was CBS pointing to you guys to set the example for the rest of the country? 

DK: At that point, I was a DOS and might have been the GM too, but not of that station. It was such an expensive format. Unfortunately, it never really got a ton of rating traction. There were a lot of passionate listeners, but from a financial stability standpoint, it couldn’t hold.           

The company looked at us to move to FM for sports. We were fortunate because it was driven 100%. by one of my favorite mentors, Dan Mason, to bring in the very best program director at the time, Tom Bigby.                   

We had kind of a rough launch for The Ticket. It was really just a hardcore X’s and O’s sports format. Sales really wasn’t doing anything. I asked Dan for the opportunity to take the station over from a general manager standpoint. It gave me the opportunity to simultaneously hire Tom Bigby. That’s when the real phenomenon of The Ticket was created. 

DR: So it’s interesting to hear that. The Ticket does so well beyond just the target demo, right? This is a station that performs well with not just men, but all people in the market. I was wondering if that might have come from the hot talk base of the FM station, but it sounds like that wasn’t really the case. 

DK: Yeah, I think philosophically we’re a little bit different than most sports stations. Tom started this and then you’ve probably talked to Jimmy Powers over the years, our current brand manager has been here for quite a while. Our theory has always been a little different. Even though sitting in Detroit, Michigan, we are one of the best sports markets obviously with Michigan, Michigan State and then all four professional teams, we’ve kind of built this brand on, of course we’re talking sports all day long, but per show, we’ll have one mass appeal topic per day. The only thing which we stay away from is politics. We’ve gone through the years and some will dabble too much and it’s just a ratings killer.              

We’ve never been judged on Men 25-54. We’ve always been judged on adults, and we’re top one, two, or three consistently for probably ten, 12 years, 14 years running. A nice long run. But you know, you can never get satisfied because when you’re at the top, everyone’s gunning for you. So we always have to think about new talent, new platforms, and how we communicate with our listeners.         

This is a phone-based interactive format. Well, phones have changed. We certainly still take phone calls, but each show now will have thousands and thousands of texts. People communicate through text or Twitch or Twitter or on any of our social accounts and then by phone too. So that’s drastically changed over the past 14 years. 

DR: What is the formula that keeps you in the top three? I mean, it’s got to be more than just topic selection. There has to be something about finding the right talent that you and Jimmy have done to make The Ticket the sort of institution that it became relatively quickly in Detroit. 

DK: It’s not just one talent. We just have great, great talent. Between the talent and I believe we’re the only sports station in the country that has all four professional teams. I think the combination of that and I mean, Jimmy grew up as a programmer under Tom. So that same philosophy has carried through even to our newer and younger guys.         

You know, we’re never afraid to make a change. We’ve had top-five, winning shows in the past where we just felt like something might be getting a little bit stale, and we’ve made changes. I know on some of my other stations, I’d be thrilled if it’s top five. Don’t mess with it! But for this station, the bar is so high and we all hold each other, whether it’s the talent on the air, a producer, the screeners, it’s myself, it’s my brand manager, it’s my APD. We all have that same expectation of excellence. I know it sounds kind of silly, but it actually is true. 

DR: So let’s talk about that expectation of excellence. You mentioned that you can never be satisfied, but you guys have the ratings that you do. You mentioned all four franchises, plus, correct me if I’m wrong. You’ve got the Wolverines as well, right? 

DK: We do. 

DR: So certainly you don’t feel invincible, but you have to recognize it would be very tough for someone to come in and unseat you, at least in the sports format in the market. 

DK: Sure. I mean, listen, you’re always on guard, but, you know, sports is just an expensive format to run. There’s no team or talent that is bigger than what the brand of The Ticket is. We’ve had competitors over the years that have tried to come in and it hasn’t worked out.

I think we owe it to our listeners and the community to make sure that we are constantly pushing to make sure that we are the best, whether it’s reviewing our social and making sure that we’re cutting edge. We were five years ago. Are we still cutting edge today? I think there are some changes that we could do to help freshen things up. There are all these basics, but they’re basics that over the years I think people have forgotten about.                

Everyone kind of has to drink the Kool-Aid and they do. People love working at this radio station. It’s fun. Like, come on, you can appear at events and you get to work a Tigers game. But it’s just maintaining the same level of excitement. You know, no matter what the job or event is, we all want the same thing. 

DR: Mike Valenti has not been shy about the fact that the Lions wanted him off the station back in 2015. When that happened, the station dropped the Lions. You said at the time that this was not about Mike individually. This was about not letting a partner censor what was happening on the station. Was that an easy decision to make? I mean, standing by your talent is one thing, but it certainly takes the next level of bravery and trust in your talent to do that at the expense of an NFL flagship deal. 

DK: I never wanted to lose the Lions, but it just, at that time, made sense. What I’m very proud of is, that although it took me five years, I was so happy to get the team back because there’s a lot of time invested in relationships.                

It’s challenging. If they’re not having a good season, you know what the guys are doing on air. You know, to manage relationships through that is a big deal.                    

I have nothing but great things to say. For the most part, the group of people are much different than who I was dealing with back then. But they’re a great, great partner and I’m so excited, as are all of our talent, to have them back. It’s just the perfect scenario for us. 

DR: So if it’s different people that you’re dealing with there, I am going to guess there was not some sort of big clearing of the air that had to be done to start negotiations to bring them back. 

DK: We’re really good at doing sports here, and I think the teams know that and appreciate it and respect it. Certainly, there can be frustrations at times with some things that are said on the air, but I think I think they all realize that there’s so much value that 97.1 The Ticket brings by having their team on the air with us. I think it really outweighs a lot of things.  

DR: I don’t even know if you would call it a joke, an old talking point or whatever, but it’s very easy for people that have never spent time in Detroit to make the joke about it being a dying city. I guess I wonder, what is it that people don’t get about the market? Certainly, if it were dying, The Ticket couldn’t have the kind of success that it does book after book. 

DK: I think it was an NBC Dateline. There was some show that was on like eight years ago and it showed someone was up in a tree and they were eating like a raccoon or a possum. And it was like, “this is Detroit”. I remember Chris Oliviero had called and he’s like “I saw Detroit on the news!” And I’m like, really?                     

I just feel like we’re a city where a lot of times the negative is portrayed in the media and there are so many great things here. The birth of auto sits in our marketplace and everything that we’re doing with electric vehicles. You should see what our auto show, which has certainly suffered a loss in the last couple of years, but what they have planned for September of this year will make everyone in the city so proud.         

There are so many national events that we have here that we don’t always get recognition for. The Grand Prix in 2023 is coming back and will be in downtown Detroit versus Belle Isle, where it is right now. We have national golf tournaments.             

You know, if you go downtown, and I’ve been to quite a few Tigers games, the city is alive right now. You’ve got Ford Field, Comerica Park, and LCA all within walking distance. There are all these great entertainment venues and concert halls. We launched something called Music Town just three and a half, four years ago now. It’s a downtown performance space. We wanted to be part of the revitalization. 

DR: So I want to end by asking you a little bit about the loss of Jamie Samuelson. Certainly, that was a tough time for the station. The studio has since been renamed for him. There’s been a lot of great charity work done in his name, and I wonder if there is ever enough that the station could do to honor not just what he meant to the station, but to Detroit sports fans, period. 

DK: That was a tough time. I don’t know if you realize this, but we had talent from a few stations around the same time frame that passed away. How do you manage through that?              

You’re right. His name is on the studio now and we have no intention of changing that. We do a lot of charity work. The Tigers have actually been great and have helped us raise quite a bit of money for him.          

The next challenge from that was we had this top-rated show. Jamie worked almost the entire way through it, which he didn’t have to do. No one knew until the very end, our listeners didn’t know. Even the majority of our staff did not know at that point.                 

When he did pass away, then it was trying to figure out what are we doing and what’s that respectful time period that would be accepted by our staff, most importantly, and by the community and the listeners. We ended up going in a pretty different direction because we didn’t just want to do the same show. That was Jamie’s show. I think he’d be proud of what we’ve created with Jon Jansen and Stony.

I don’t know if you know him, but he’s just a great guy. Jon has been a professional football player and it’s just a different dynamic. So we weren’t just trying to find Jamie’s replacement. 

DR: I hate to end here, but I don’t know many GMs that can go into a situation like that with some similar experience. That is really hard to comprehend what it must be like to be you in those moments. 

DK: Yeah, it’s not fun. You have your own emotions, but it’s not about your emotions. It’s more about everyone else.           

We really have had three significant losses in our market over about a three-year period. It’s being supportive to your staff and then taking your time. With Jon, he was already someone that was in our talent bank essentially. Still, we needed to make sure that we gave it enough time. We needed our staff to grieve and, of course, his family. His family became part of this and I think we did it the right way.

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