“You have to laugh in order not to cry in this situation.” These are some of the words from sports radio host Darren Smith that appear in the interview below. He’s describing his current situation at The Mighty 1090 in San Diego. Nearly two weeks ago on April 10, the station was taken off the air due to lease payments to the transmitting company not being satisfied.
Smith is originally from New Rochelle, New York. He moved from the East Coast to join 1090 back in April of 2003, and has been on the air with the company since March of 2004. The station getting pulled is a major shake-up, or more directly a “crisis” as Smith puts it. In the interview below, Smith does an excellent job of being candid while maintaining his professionalism. He has a positive outlook and talks about the silver lining in this crazy situation, but speaks openly without hiding his frustration.
“It’s radio.” Many people that work in the industry use this phrase to describe the unpredictable nature of the radio business. It basically means to expect the unexpected. What is currently happening to Smith at 1090 is very rare — even for radio standards. It’s easy to root for him to get back on the air. While you’re at it, you might want to root for Smith to achieve his one remaining career goal in radio as well.
Brian Noe: How are you holding up ever since the changes happened at 1090?
Darren Smith: It hasn’t been easy. This business is always a strange one and you think you’re prepared for all the twists and turns that it has to offer. But when you’re used to being on the radio for 15 years and then you’re suddenly off the radio and you didn’t plan that, it is without a doubt a huge shock to the system. So trying to get by using streaming platforms, social media, a lot of love from the listeners, and a lot of optimism. But it’s definitely been different. That’s for sure.
Noe: Is that a bit of a silver lining — there’s been a lot of support in light of the changes — has that help you cope and get your mind around the situation?
DS: Definitely been helpful. It’s been overwhelming to be honest because you hear from so many people. They remind you how big of a part you are of their lives. You know that people listen — we’re always gauging ratings and downloads and things of that nature, but when you hear somebody say — somebody you’ve never met say — “Wow, I miss you,” and you’ve never met that person, yeah it’s a reminder of just how special the connection is in radio.
Noe: What has the experience been like broadcasting on different platforms other than terrestrial radio?
DS: It’s been about the same. I think it’s different in that I’m trying to maintain the same level of energy and the same level of professionalism. You owe that to the people who are going out of their way to find you and listen to you on an app or listen to you on a stream. You owe that to them, not to just get in there and read out of the phone book. It’s been great to connect with those people. It’s really been great, and very flattering, when so many of them are experiencing us in a different way. They’re telling us, “Hey man, we’re out of our data plan because we’re streaming your show so much.” It just is much better when you’re actually on the radio.
Noe: Has your performance slipped in any way due to not feeling the same juice when you’re on the air?
DS: It’s radio so I don’t want to make it seem like it’s hard, physical labor, but mentally you know that there aren’t as many people listening to your show. You just know that. So it is a strict discipline to try to carry about your business the same way. I would tell you that the week that we’ve been streaming only, I have not been as tight with my clock. I’ve not reset interviews as much. I know I’ve done that.
I think it’s probably a bad habit to fall into because when you’re back on radio, you need to get back to the discipline, the blocking and tackling of doing radio. I’ve noticed that. You sort of allow yourself to say, “Well what difference does it make if I’m a couple of minutes late getting to this break?” You know? “It doesn’t matter. We’re not on the radio. This is just people who are streaming us.” Everything about it is different. I also feel like it’s probably a pretty crummy habit to get into.
Noe: What’s your mindset right now? Is the plan to keep doing it this way for the foreseeable future?
DS: The broadcasters can only control what they can control. I’m not part of any negotiation between our tower owner and our management company. All I can control is the broadcast. It’s up to me to continue to behave professionally and make the most out of this situation — make the most out of the audience that’s tuning in on the streaming services.
We’ve approached guests and been honest with them. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had great relationships with a lot of our guests over the years. We’ve had the manager of the Padres on. We’ve had the manager of the Rockies on while we’ve been streaming only. I’m sure that those PR staffs were reluctant to make them available because it is a diminished audience — for as happy as we are with the streaming numbers. It’s supposed to be business as usual. You still have an obligation to an audience even if the audience isn’t listening on an AM transmitter and it’s a bit smaller than what it would be under normal circumstances.
Noe: Has it been difficult to avoid the temptation of voicing your displeasure publicly or having bellyache sessions with co-workers?
DS: Yeah, well bellyaching off the air, that’s just radio. (laughs) That’s when things are good. That’s when things are bad. That’s just the business. I’ve never known the business to be any other way than at times dark humor, at times deprecation and all that, self-loathing if you will.
On the air, I think we’ve been honest, but we’ve tried to inject a little bit of humor. When the manager of the Padres came on we were like, “Hey, welcome to internet radio. It doesn’t mean you can bring your B-game. You’ve got to bring you’re A-game.”
Given the overall uncertainty during the period of time, we’ve not said anything about “tomorrow.” There is no tomorrow for us as far as we know. We’re just going day-to-day. Our approach to doing radio has always been to inject a little bit of humor into it. Whether that’s watching the Alliance of American Football go under a couple of weeks ago here in San Diego, or whether that’s our own current situation, just trying to be as consistent with that as possible. You have to laugh in order not to cry in this situation and other situations like it.
Noe: Is there any talk, or any possibility of things working out with 1090 being back on the air?
DS: I think so. I hope so. Our fingers are crossed that there’s going to be a resolution with 1090. There’s nothing that I would feel comfortable sharing publicly, but you certainly do hope so. There are a lot of people who have invested time into this radio station that’s going on 16 years. Whether it’s the people who currently work at The Mighty 1090 or people who have passed through The Mighty 1090 in yesteryear. A lot of people want to see this succeed because of what the radio station has meant.
The radio business is different than it was in 2003 when this sucker got going, but people across the board here, nobody — I don’t even think our competition wants to see us go under to be honest, because of what we’ve represented in the market and in Southern California. That’s been reassuring when you hear from competitors — people who stand to gain from your station’s failure — when they’re telling you that they’re rooting for you, maybe they’re being disingenuous, but I don’t think so.
Noe: If someone were to come up to you and ask why you’re doing non-terrestrial radio — what’s the point — how would you answer them?
DS: Well, personally I would tell you that I’m under contract, so I’m going to do what I’m told. (laughs) That’s number one. But number two, there’s no doubt in my mind that streaming is the present and certainly the future. I don’t know what the future is of AM radio, but I feel certain about the future of streaming. I don’t think that’s just on the television medium. I think that we’ve seen the success of Netflix. I saw that over 17 million people streamed Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1. There’s no doubt that streaming is a part of our future.
We want to be a digital company. We don’t want to just be a radio station. Being a digital company is what everything’s going to have to become at some point. We weren’t prepared for it to happen when we got taken off the air. I’m firmly of the belief that digital companies might not include radio antennas. The connected car is a real thing. There are cars being made that don’t even have AM radios in them. That’s something we have to think about certainly as we get closer into the future. This is a good test run for us, but I don’t want to pretend like this is part of our plan because it wasn’t.
Noe: Do you view any of this as a blessing in disguise with the attention that it’s garnered?
DS: I do. I think it’s been a blessing in disguise in that we’re reminded of what we represent. We’re reminded of our status in this market. I think that this time away from being on the radio will rejuvenate all of us who are on the air. I don’t think we’ll take it for granted. I don’t think that when we get back, if we get back, I think that all of us will make sure we’re doing everything in our power to make sure something like this never happens again. We weren’t taken off because of ratings. The winter book tells the story of where we’re at ratings-wise. The phrase is a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. This is a crisis. If this makes us a better company on the other side of it, then absolutely something good came from this.
Noe: As a radio guy, if your ratings stink and you get fired, at least you can make sense of it. Your situation is something totally different. Is that the toughest part of the whole thing?
DS: The toughest part of that is, you’re right, even though the ratings system is totally imperfect and I find it to be flawed and I also think that it is not favorable to sports talk radio — that’s neither here nor there — I think the toughest part is that our ratings were good and we had momentum. We were reminded when the Padres signed Manny Machado, even in a three sports station market like San Diego, when there was news, when something important happens, good and bad — and the signing of Machado was across the board a good thing — everybody came to our station.
We were reminded that we were at the top of the totem pole in this market. We were flying high. Our morning show was doing well. My show was doing well. Afternoon drive was doing well. That’s a huge part of the frustration. What makes it exponentially more frustrating is that we had killer momentum. I think we’ll get it back. Hopefully we’ll be on the air sooner rather than later. But it stops you in your tracks. The tens of thousands of people can download this app and it’s not the same as being on the radio and cruising around in your car in Southern California.
Noe: I like your Twitter bio. It says the goal is high IQ radio with a splash of absurdity. How do you describe your own brand of absurdity?
DS: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t worry that you might get something wrong every once in a while. Don’t be afraid to say three simple words; I don’t know. I don’t know. Absurdity is reminding everybody that this is the toy department. This is not news.
We’re not analyzing the Mueller Report. We’re talking about sports. We’re talking about what people do to get away from the realities of their difficult lives. To get away from the stresses of work, of home, of finances, taxes, politics, whatever. That’s what we’re doing here.
I’m sure some people want their sports to be taken very, very seriously, but that’s not what we want to do. There’s a time to be serious when you’re dealing with serious subject matter. But a Tuesday night game, to fly off the handle because somebody struck out three times isn’t us. We’re there to make sure everybody’s laughing and to simply get you from 12 o’clock until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Noe: Do you roll your eyes as a listener when shows get way too serious?
DS: I don’t. I just don’t listen. I think everybody has their own personal preferences, what they want out of sports radio. I’m okay with that. I laugh.
Stephen A. Smith is my lead-in every day. When I hear him at 10 o’clock in the morning, fly off the handle about the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, then Tuesday he flies off the handle about what’s happening with Kevin Durant, then Wednesday he’s so angry you just sort of laugh at that and you understand that he’s a performer. I don’t think he really takes it all that seriously.
I’m of the opinion that sports radio is sort of like a baseball lineup. Not everybody should be a left-handed power hitter. Everybody should be a little bit different. You should have an average guy. You should have a power guy. You should have a doubles hitter. You should have a base stealer. I think that good radio stations, the programming should be differing. It all compliments one another in a perfect setting.
Noe: Take it a step further — if sports radio is like a baseball lineup, what’s it missing? What does sports radio generally not have enough of?
DS: Honesty. I think that’s missing in a lot of places. I think too often people are more concerned with giving an audience what it is that they want to hear than just giving an honest opinion. I’ve always said I’ll never listen to a radio show where I feel like the host isn’t being sincere.
You might not like my opinion. You might think that I hate your favorite team, or I’m too much of a homer. We all get called that. All I can say is that this is my honest opinion. You can take it. You can leave it. But you’re never going to have to worry about me being compromised. This is the honest opinion here.
I don’t begrudge Stephen A., or Cowherd, or anybody else who puts on a great performance every day — they make a ton of money — but I believe that if your radio host isn’t being honest with you, I don’t know why you would listen to that person.
Noe: Has it been challenging for you to remain honest with the audience while painting your employer in a good light?
DS: Absolutely. I might not always tell my audience the truth, but I’m never going to lie — if that makes sense. Clearly there are things that I cannot say during this time on social media or on streaming. Even in certain public settings there are things I cannot say about what’s happening.
There are certain things that you’re told off the record when it tracks back to sports that you can’t say. I can’t always tell the audience who’s told me something or where I may have heard something. That’s part of the agreement that you make with the people who you cover. They can fill you in and they can tell you certain things, not scoops, but they can just make you more knowledgeable, which in turn will help make your audience more knowledgeable. Whether it’s our situation or covering any of these teams, as I said I won’t lie, but I just might not always be able to tell the truth.
Noe: Can you take me through that day, Darren, when you found out right before your show that your station would be taken off the air? What did you do after the meeting? Take me through that whole day.
DS: Sure, so it was a Wednesday and Stephen A. Smith’s show was on. It was about 11:34am — not that I remember looking at the clock — and our station president walked into the studio and said, “I need to see everybody in the common area right now. We just got pulled off the air.” Myself, my producer, my associate producer and update guy — the three of us walked out. Some of the sales people who were there, they had already gathered. Imaging people, station employees, about 15 of us. Our station president, Mike Glickenhaus, says, “We’ve been pulled off the air. I’m sorry.”
Obviously this was an incredibly shocking moment, which you could see on his face and everybody else’s face. He started talking to us about the situation the station was in and gave us some background as to why this would have happened. From there everybody was free to go. I asked if we should stream. I was told no. Then a group of us on the programming side went back into the radio studio and started watching a baseball game and a soccer game.
As we sat there, my show — sense we were the one that was preempted — what we did was we decided to record something and post it through the website and allow people to hear in our words what was going on. We wanted them to hear not on a video, not on Facebook Live or anything like that. We put out about a 21-minute audio clip where the three of us just talked and told the audience what was happening.
We said that this situation was something that people had worried about, but it’s still shocking that we find ourselves in this situation and we don’t know what our future is. We wanted our audience to hear from us — hear being the key word — we wanted them to hear from us what it was that we knew. We put that out and it got like 12,000 downloads that day, which was pretty overwhelming. Then we went home.
A group of us went to a local brewery in San Diego. We weren’t sure — this could have been the last time that we were all together. We didn’t know that we would be called back in. Then a station-wide email came out about five o’clock in the afternoon and said we’re all working tomorrow. So we dispersed and went our separate ways and we’ve been in there business as usual since.
Noe: What a crazy day, man. Has there been a situation where you’re scrolling through Twitter and a co-worker posts something colorful where you say, “Ooo, Joe shouldn’t of posted that”?
DS: (laughs) No, not too bad. I haven’t seen anything along those lines — nothing in terms of proprietary information. You get trolled. We all get trolled, any of us on social media, especially those of us with any kind of public persona. People come out of the woodwork and they say, “Hey good, I’m glad you guys are off. You guys are terrible.” As if people are forced to listen to us, right? I’ve seen some of my colleagues clap back with some pretty harsh language, but that’s the closest thing that would even come to what would be described as anything inflammatory. But no, nobody’s crossed any lines. Some people have just pushed back a little bit on the trolls.
Noe: What gives you the most joy being a sports talk host and are you able to feel that joy with this current setup?
DS: The most joy has to be similar to a home run or a great golf shot; you just sort of know you got it. You just know that what you just did — whether it was an interview, or whether it’s a breakdown, it’s a bit — you just know that the segment crushed. You can feel it in your bones that you hit the sweet spot.
I don’t think we’ve been able to do that since we’ve been streaming just because we know that our audience it’s not what it was before we got taken off the air. I think that there’s been some good stuff done. I appreciated the banter and interaction with people who are listening to us on streams, but I don’t think we’re going to be made whole again until we actually get back on the radio.
Noe: If you could script out your next five years as a sports talk host what would it be like?
DS: I got to be honest, I don’t really think that way. I feel like I’m in the minority. I always hear people talking about what’s your one-year plan, what’s your three-year plan, what’s your five-year plan? I live so segment-to-segment, show-to-show that I always am envious of the people who have that kind of thought process. I just get so wrapped up in the moment.
I tend to think that the next five years are going to bring about even more change in terms of the digital capabilities. We’ll probably all have YouTube cameras in our offices. I don’t know that we’re going to be sitting around exclusively worrying about radio ratings as an industry. For me personally, I gave up on those kind of things when I moved to San Diego.
When I moved to San Diego I was really only interested in staying here for two years. I moved from New York to San Diego and I remember telling my mother before I left that I would be out of there in two years. Two years of experience and go climb the ladder and try to go to bigger markets and keep climbing and get back to WFAN in New York at some point.
Your goals change. You come out to the city and everything that you thought was important turns out to be not as important as trying to stay here — meeting a future wife here and buying your first home here. I would love to continue to be successful in this business. I have no idea where this industry is going to take me. I would love to be able to adapt with the industry as the industry modernizes with technology.
Ultimately my one career goal is to leave on my own terms. This isn’t a business that many people retire from. It’s a very cruel business especially as people start getting a little bit older. There is example after example after example of aging radio hosts who end up becoming the butt of a lot of mean jokes. I’m super aware of that and I’m super cautious to not be in that situation when this is over. I don’t want to hang around here just for the sake of hanging around. I want to at least come up with some plan so that I don’t end up being Willie Mays stumbling around in center field.
Nothing Is Easy In the Cold, Not Even Broadcasting
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end!
No matter what you may think, doing play-by-play for any sport is a difficult thing. The great ones make it look easy, but it’s not. Prep work dominates things leading up to the broadcast, getting notes, nuggets and entertaining tidbits take up time. Then once you’re prepped, some stadiums are better than others to broadcast. Some booths are easier to work than others.
Then there’s the forgotten element, the weather.
How will you handle inclement weather of any kind? Warmth, rain, snow and oh yeah, the dreaded freezing temperature. Before we get into it, here are a few of the less-than-ideal conditions my fellow broadcasters have had to deal with over the years.
THE FOG BOWL
During the 1988 playoffs between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, a dense fog rolled onto the field during the game, making it nearly impossible to play or see. Numerous players complained they couldn’t see 10 yards in front of them. Both teams were forced to use their running game because receivers couldn’t see long passes. The broadcast was called by Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw on CBS.
“We couldn’t see anything—absolutely nothing,” CBS-TV play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist told the Associated Press. “We had to look at the TV just like everyone else.” Lundquist’s color man, Terry Bradshaw, told viewers the game should have been suspended.
THE FREEZER BOWL
At -9 degrees Fahrenheit, the 1982 AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers proved to be the second-coldest game in NFL history. It was so cold that Bengals QB Ken Anderson suffered frost bite on his right ear. The temperature was not only -9 degrees, but the wind chill was measured at -58 degrees, by far the worst in league history.
THE ICE BOWL
The 1967 NFL Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys became known as the “Ice Bowl.” It remains the coldest game ever played in the NFL, at -15 degrees with a wind chill of -48 degrees. Lambeau Field’s turf-heating system actually malfunctioned before the game, leaving the turf rock-hard. Officials actually had to resort to calling out plays and penalties because when referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle, it actually froze to his lips.
The last two are examples of something topical since last week’s “Super Wild Card” game in Buffalo was played in extreme temperatures. At kickoff, it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill made the temperature feel like minus-5. A far cry from the above games, but come on, it was freezing cold out there.
The CBS Sports NFL announcing team of Ian Eagle and Charles Davis said Saturday’s game between Buffalo and New England was the coldest work environment they’ve experienced during their broadcasting careers.
“We kept the windows closed in the booth until one hour before kickoff,” Eagle told The Athletic. “When we finally opened them, I had a sense that it would be manageable. I was wrong. CBS rented some industrial heaters for the night, but unfortunately, they were no match for the Western New York frigid air. It really hit me in the third quarter. I started shivering and actually had a few moments where my jaw got locked up mid-sentence. It was by far the coldest I’ve ever been calling a game.”
Davis recalled two games he called at Lambeau Field that were similar, but not as bad as it was in Buffalo.
“It helped that the evening was relatively clear, and the winds minimal, but make no mistake about it, ‘the Almighty Hawk (wind)’ made its presence felt and I kept drawing on one thought — everyone involved was cold, and they were persevering,” Davis explained to Richard Deitsch.
“In addition, we were watching history be made in front of us by the Bills offense — seven drives, seven touchdowns, something that had never been done in the NFL playoffs. Beyond impressive, and it definitely helped us maintain focus. I’m not sure anyone would choose to do a game under those conditions, but there was definitely a sense of pride among our team that we all worked to the best of our abilities on a night that would test all of us.”
Davis said that there was no way not to think about his discomfort. He gave credit to the stage crew in the booth that helped to keep him and Ian Eagle warm. There was also a jacket involved, a familiar one given to Eagle during the game, leading to an excellent exchange between he and Davis just before the third quarter started.
Charles Davis: Where did you get the jacket?
Ian Eagle: What jacket?
Eagle: Oh, this? Yes, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, you might have noticed, wore this a few weeks ago and it hit the internet by storm. Kurt saw that we had this assignment. Kurt now runs a program “Warner’s Warmers,” he just sends the jacket out to whoever needs it. I feel like, I want Jiffy Pop Popcorn. This thing is very warm. This is the same jacket. Kurt sent this to me. Let me tell you, not all heroes wear capes, they wear “Silver Bullet Puffers.”
Davis: Let’s talk about the game for a minute. Kurt, a brother would like a jacket too…
I’ve never really experienced calling a game in that extreme weather, especially after all the years I’ve called baseball games. But being in the Midwest, even those early days in April and sometimes into May, cold temps are a factor.
I think the coldest game I ever called was a game with the Cubs where the temperature at the start was about 31 degrees with a wind coming off the lake. We debated on whether or not to open the windows in the booth. One voted no, one voted yes, so the compromise was the window near the play-by-play guy was cracked open just a bit. Games just sound different with the windows closed. It’s not as clean. It sounds like you’re doing a game in a closet. But sometimes self-preservation comes first. The same goes for extremely warm weather too.
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your pen isn’t working all that well, and how do you score a game without taking your gloves off? In those conditions, as Eagle was saying, your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end! I know it sounds exaggerated but in the moment, its not.
People sitting at home still want you to call the game. They are looking for the same information you would have given if it were 40 degrees instead of 40 below with the wind chill. It’s a big ask, but the broadcast crew has to find a way to adjust to the conditions and do what they are there to do. It helps when everyone understands that. It’s not to say that you can’t talk about the way things are in the booth or on the field from time to time. But don’t let it dominated the airtime, as tempting as it might be to do so.
Just think, if you’re cold in the booth, what’s life like for the sideline reporter?
Ben And Woods Aren’t Doing a Show For One Person
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show.”
There’s no confusion about where their allegiances lie. And when it comes to being relatable to the audience, there’s few things Ben and Woods do better than buying season tickets at Petco Park, wearing Padres hats and cheering for the lone professional team in San Diego.
Some hosts choose to never openly root for the teams they talk about on an everyday basis. Steven Woods and Ben Higgins strive to never hide who they are on the air. They’re Padres fans and they’re not afraid to show it.
“I was in music radio before and sometimes it was hard to hide my disdain for some of the music that I played, so I just decided not to,” said Woods. “I just let it out there. People I think appreciate authenticity and if I didn’t like a song I’d tell you. But I still had to play it, right? With the Padres, it’s why I never sit in the press box, because I can’t cheer in there. I bought season tickets so that I can go and scream at the players like I want to. I think it resonates, because there’s fans listening in the car that want to see them do well too.”
“I do believe in journalistic integrity,” said Ben. “But to me that means you have to be honest. You have to be honest in your opinions and you can’t be afraid to be critical. No one is more critical of a team than their own fans. They are the most critical people of all. I don’t wanna be the fan that constantly criticizes, but at the same time, why would you listen to a show that is just relentlessly positive and gives you a white wash version of what’s not really reality? Every team has problems and it’s our job to point them out or nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
When you think of baseball towns, New York, Chicago and St. Louis are probably the three cities that immediately come to mind. But in a football world, San Diego has emerged as a new baseball town with the Chargers recently leaving for Los Angeles.
If you have any doubt that San Diego is now a baseball city, just listen to Ben and Woods on 97.3 The Fan from 5-9 am every weekday morning. The duo has no issues with doing three-plus hours of Padres talk, even during the offseason.
That’s not a new thing. Ben and Woods have always conducted the show the way it is now. They want to talk baseball, but they also want to hit off-topic content that will give the listener a chance to laugh on their way to work.
That’s been the case since the show was at Mighty 1090. Ben and Woods were at the station as the morning show when it folded in 2019. That was an incredibly trying time for both talents.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I had a brand new baby and the show was going great. We were on the rise and then it went away. It was shocking. It was also scary. I think uncertain is the best word. We believed in our product and we knew there was a market for it and there was a station that just so happened to need a morning show. The timing was pretty serendipitous.”
“I had been a listener for 15 years before I ever worked at that station for the first time,” Ben said. “And then you get there and you feel like, wow, we’re here and then all the sudden it’s gone. It wasn’t overnight, at some point we lost the signal transmission then we went streaming and it was kind of a slow death over the last few weeks. Ultimately it just ended one day. It was a very strange thing. The fact we got picked up at 97.3 The Fan, got back on the air so quickly was really great.”
Things are going extremely well for Ben and Woods at 97.3 The Fan. They’re thriving in morning drive with a unique show that’s different from any other in the market. Sure, they’ll talk about sports, but their focus is more on the overall entertainment of the show.
“It’s morning drive, you’re there to entertain,” said Woods. “You do have to get really creative. We get very creative, because we have to. We take a lot of risks, more so than people would like. The way I look at it as no one remembers us talking about the NFL Playoffs. But they do remember the time we played a 17-minute Bob Dylan song in its entirety on the radio and sat through it. I remember that and always will. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘man, nobody breaks down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like you guys’. But they’ll remember, ‘holy crap, you guys literally played a 17 minute Bob Dylan song it’s entirety’.”
“When we started it was 95 percent sports and I was afraid to do anything else,” Ben said. ”We started doing segments like Ben reads raps, there was a really good response and I started to warm up on OK we can branch out a little bit. Now, if there was a day we didn’t have a non-sports topic I would say that was a weird show.”
“Rest assured, Opening Day comes, we’re blowing out every bit we have, period,” Woods said ”We’re one of the few shows in town that has no problem doing 3 1/2 hours of just Padres talk. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself a little bit. I always call it punting. It’s an easy thing to say, hey, the playoffs are this week let’s get the local beat writer on from every single team and we’ll interview them. Like anyone here gives a rats ass what the Packers beat writer has to say. There may be one guy, but I’m not doing a show for one guy.”
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show,” laughed Ben.
One of the reasons the show has the identity that it does, is because of Woods’ background in multiple formats of radio. No, he’s not a sports radio lifer, and in a way, it’s probably greatly benefitted the show. He’s taken his creativity from the music side and perfectly blended it with his love for sports.
“I like sports radio more because there’s a lot more creativity,“ said Woods. “ I didn’t get to pick the music I got to play at all. Not even a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk so for me, as a creative person, this is tremendous. We can do whatever we want and our bosses are pretty cool about giving us a lot of leeway. I’ve learned how audiences react. I’ve learned how to keep an audience. It’s energy, it’s being compelling, breaking balls, having fun. Guy’s driving to work in the mornings, he wants to get a snicker or a laugh, he’s not looking for breakdowns of defenses and things like that.”
Ben and Woods is much more than just the two hosts in the chair every weekday. The cool thing is that anyone that listens to the show knows that. Paul Reindl is the executive producer of the show and has a talent and relationship with the hosts that anyone would dream of.
“He’s the worst,” laughed both Ben and Woods. “Paulie is great. We were able to get away this weekend and after we drank like 40 beers and whiskeys, I was like bro, I’m so proud of you and you’re so valuable to the show. But he’s an unsung hero behind the scenes. He has an uncanny ability to bring sound drops almost intuitively. He’s got pages and pages of drops we’ve collected over the years. He’s just an awesome producer.”
Sports Are Learning To Meet Gen Z Where They Are
“The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity.”
Should sports radio be concerned about where audiences will come from in the future? It is an interesting question that we talk about here a lot. It is also something that the New York Times tackled indirectly last week.
A column from Joe Drape and Ken Belson declared this generation of kids “The eSports Generation” and went on to explain just how disconnected from traditional sports they really are.
An alarmist might ask if this is the beginning of the end of traditional sports leagues. Someone a little more level-headed, like Joe Ovies, may want to dive a little deeper to see what leagues are learning and how they are adapting.
Joe hosts The OG in afternoon drive at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. He is always interested in how changes in technology and consumption patterns effect sports and his audience. I saw him tweeting about the New York Times piece last week and asked if he would want to write a little something for us.
“Meet your audience where they are.”
How many times have you heard that phrase in the last 5 years from a consultant, manager, or any number of Barrett Media posts as content consumption trends continue to spread out over a variety of platforms? Turns out the same applies for pro sports leagues, who are fearful that an entire generation of fans will be lost and their traditional business model will crater as a result.
The New York Times recently highlighted what sports marketers are doing to win over Generation Z, which typically applies to kids born from 1997 to 2012. The Times hits the usual beats.
There’s a reference to Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, an esports star who is also a traditional sports fan, who the NFL hoped would be a Pied Piper for youth fandom. There are examples of MLB, famously stingy when it came to fans using their content on social media, now working with TikTok influencers. And of course, highlighting the NBA’s wide ranging approach to online engagement and their franchise run NBA 2K esports league. Most of the article was based on a recent SSRS/Luker on Trends report, which conducts regular surveys about sports and society.
The issue for pro sports leagues isn’t that Gen Z kids aren’t “passionate” enough about sports. It’s that Gen Z is more likely to admit they simply don’t like sports.
“Only 23 percent of Generation Z said they were passionate sports fans, compared with the 42 percent of millennials (defined as 26 to 41), 33 percent of Generation X (42 to 57) and 31 percent of baby boomers (57 to 76) who identified themselves as passionate. More striking was that 27 percent of Gen Zers said they disliked sports altogether, compared with just 7 percent of millennials, 5 percent of Gen Xers and 6 percent of boomers.”The new york times, Jan. 12, 2022
Also factoring into the waning interest in sports from Gen Z is the dramatic decline of youth sports participation. There is a larger discussion to be had about the role of parents and specialization in this decline, but we can address that topic another day. As it relates to pro sports leagues today, the drop in youth participation absolutely impacts the level of interest in kids who might want to watch the best in the world of sports do their thing.
“Participation in youth sports was declining even before Covid-19: In 2018, only 38 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
In June 2020, the pandemic’s early days, 19 percent of parents with kids in youth sports said their child was not interested in playing sports, according to a survey conducted by The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. By September 2021, that figure was 28 percent.
On average, children play less than three years in a sport and quit by age 11, according to the survey. Why? Mostly, because it is not fun anymore.”the New york times, Dec. 19th 2021
The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity. Meeting up on the playground or at a friend’s backyard for a pickup game has been replaced with meeting your friends on a Discord server and deciding if you’re going to play Halo or Call or Duty after school.
If you have kids in the age range that I do, none of this should be a surprise. You see it every day and don’t even think twice about it. But if you do stop and think about how frictionless it has become to be online all day with your friends, you start to realize the impact of never being bored or getting dragged to things by your parent because there were no other options.
Watching sports and going to sporting events isn’t frictionless. It’s a pain in the ass. Older generations deal with it because we don’t know any better, it’s just what we do. But Gen Z isn’t about to stop what they’re doing just to watch a game. Why would they? They can get the highlights later.
Gen Z is about dropping in and out of entertainment options whenever they feel like it. In other words, why would they sit around waiting for their favorite song to be played on the radio when they can easily pull it up on YouTube or Spotify.
Pro sports leagues can create all the social content and tout billions of views. They can tout engagement with Gen Z because a bunch of kids bought NFL related skins in Fortnite.
Awareness of their leagues isn’t the problem. It’s getting Gen Z to care enough to watch the game. Take my kids, who are fully aware of what’s going on in the world of sports, but getting them to sit down and actually watch the game is torture. Throw in the increasing cost to attend sporting events, I’ve started leaving them at home because it’s a waste of money given my 13-year-old is just gonna play Clash Royale in that $75 seat.
To be clear — I’m OK with my kids just not being into sports. It’s not like I didn’t try. It’s simply understanding we’ve transitioned to a world of niche communities. You can still thrive within those niche communities. Just look at sports talk radio as an example, where you’re not winning with cume, but with passion around sports. That’s what great sports talk radio stations sell. Pro sports leagues will be fine doing the same.
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