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Sports Radio Wins When The Games Become Pop Culture

“Anytime a team that has a history of underachieving makes a deep playoff run, civic pride tends to experience a spike. Every media outlet and business in town wants to be a part of that.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Lately we have bared witness to a pair of pop culture phenomenons. Avengers: Endgame brought an end to a ten-year, 23-movie journey, and made more than a billion dollars worldwide in its first week of release. We are also in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones. That is a phenomenon that my colleague Tyler McComas covered extensively here.

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We know that there’s room to cover those kinds of pop culture phenomena on our airwaves, but how do we protect our territory when the pop culture phenomena is a sports story? That is happening right now where I live.

The Carolina Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is the most success the team has had in a long time. They haven’t been in the playoffs in a decade. In a market that is so fiercely divided by its college sports loyalties, the Carolina Hurricanes are the one team that all of Raleigh can rally behind. That has made their playoff success a story that transcends the sports local sports page.

Back in February, legendary hockey analyst Don Cherry called the Hurricanes “a bunch of jerks” for their postgame celebrations. The whole Carolina fanbase embraced the label. People who hadn’t been to a game at the PNC Arena in years embraced the label. The team built a whole marketing campaign around it. Now, two rounds deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you can’t go anywhere in this city without seeing “Bunch of Jerks” t-shirts.

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Raleigh isn’t the first city to deal with something like this. Anytime a team that has a history of underachieving makes a deep playoff run, civic pride tends to experience a spike. Every media outlet and business in town wants to be a part of that. As a local sports radio station, how do you, to quote the Wu-Tang Clan, “protect ya neck”? What can you do to capitalize on the new audience and continue to super serve the people that have you on one of their preset buttons?

1. EMBRACE THE NEW FANS IN A WAY THAT ACKNOWLEDGES THE LIFERS

You are going to have people in your audience that are annoyed that there are new faces in the stands and that they are seeing more jerseys and caps in the streets than ever before. Those people can be toxic in terms of growing a fanbase, but for a sports station they are likely amongst your P1s.

It also makes sense to embrace the new fans. Make them feel like part of your community and they’re more likely to stick around after the communal playoff high has passed.

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How do you embrace both groups? I have three ideas that combine the promotions and programming departments.

First, consider doing some contesting that gives new fans a prize and allows long-time fans to laugh. Work with an advertiser to put together new fan packs. They can include a t-shirt, cap, and tickets to a game. Give them out by asking new fans the most basic trivia questions about the rules of the sport, history of the team, or players on the roster. For extra impact, get custom shirts made in the home team’s colors that acknowledge these are bandwagon fans with a slogan like “Just here for the playoffs” or “I’m a fan of winning.” I promise, they will be so popular that even people that have been season ticket holders for years will want one.

Next, send an intern or a producer out to games to record audio of fans telling their stories. How did they become a fan of the team in the first place? What does this run mean to them? Use that audio in new imaging to run throughout the playoff run and even after. Get a wide variety of answers and you will have these great audio pieces that represent the team and the town.

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Finally, set up dual watch parties for road playoff games. Have a party at one sports bar for hardcore lifers. Maybe you can work with the establishment to people that bring proof they are season ticket holders. Have a party at another one that is more focused on the social experience. Neither one is more important than the other. They are both official watch parties. They just allow the fans to experience the games exactly how they want.

2. OWN THE SPORTS ANGLE

2006 was the first year I was on air here in Raleigh. I was co-host of the morning show on 96 Rock. It also happened to be the year that the Hurricanes won their only Stanley Cup.

Like everyone else in town, we draped ourselves in red and black for that run. We had t-shirts made up with the O in our name replaced with the Canes’ logo. We changed our name to 96-1 the Cup. We were talking about the games every morning on our show. We reflected the excitement of the city.

But here’s the thing, when we were talking about the games, we weren’t usually talking about the play or the players. We were talking about things that happened in and around the arena. When we had players on we were goofing around with them. It was all very light.

If playoff success is something that rarely comes to your market, stations outside of our format are going to embrace it. Maybe they change the colors of their logo to match the team. Maybe they add liners supporting the team.

Whatever they do, it is less than what you can do. You’re the station talking in depth about the game the night before. You’re the station that is in the locker room after every game and practice that can bring exclusive audio and interviews to the air.

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Sports talk goes to where pop culture is all the time. That is why Clay Travis does Game of Thrones recaps on Twitter and Tony Kornheiser has made movies and politics a part of his show going all the way back to his very first days on the radio. As long as you are genuinely interested and interesting, you aren’t at a disadvantage to anyone when talking about pop culture.

When pop culture comes to where sports talk is though, everyone else should be at a disadvantage to you. You can give perspective and get access others cannot. You can entertain both the hardcores and the bandwagon fans.

I was at the mall earlier today and the elevators were decorated with Carolina Hurricanes logos. Stores used team jerseys in their window displays. I counted at least a dozen hats and t-shirts on other shoppers. That usually isn’t the case. This market’s hockey interest usually falls somewhere between apathy and mild curiosity. But what is happening in Raleigh right now isn’t about hockey. It’s our community pop culture.

A sports story doesn’t overtake a community’s water cooler conversations everyday. Media outlets of all sorts will rush to embrace that story when it does. That presents a tremendous opportunity for sports stations. Think strategically and creatively. It is possible to super serve your core audience and build a new one at the same time.

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Has Stephen A. Smith Outgrown First Take?

“Stephen A. Smith is irreplaceable at ESPN so long as the network wants to be in the First Take business. Smith is smart enough to know that won’t be forever.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Stephen A. Smith has clearly outgrown First Take. He’ll never say it, because he knows the brand’s success depends on him. However, one look at The Stephen A. Smith Show and it is clear, this is a guy that doesn’t need to spend weekday mornings shouting about Jalen Brunson’s effective field goal percentage anymore. 

Think pieces have been written about what the podcast says about Smith’s ambitions. Plenty of radio hosts have had fun at the expense of the ESPN star’s proclivity for going off-script in ways that might make the Walt Disney Company uncomfortable. None of it has changed The Stephen A. Smith Show

The podcast has taught us that Stephen A. Smith can pull from deep knowledge about the Pixar Cars universe, he will defend his right to use R. Kelly’s music to set the mood, and we have learned that the man loves a big ol’ butt

AND THAT’S ALL WITHIN THE LAST MONTH!

Personally, I like this unabashedly horny, politically vague, and more well-rounded version of Smith than the one I see on ESPN. The guy yelling “How dare you” when Chris Russo tries to argue that some dude who handed the ball off 85% of the time is a better quarterback than Patrick Mahomes is not a human being. He may truly believe his point, but the conviction is goofy. The guy giving truly awful advice for microwaving fish feels real. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about but he is confident that he does.

I don’t claim to know what ESPN will or should do when Smith’s contract comes up for renewal. The First Take star has made it clear that he expects to be made the network’s highest paid talent. He’s certainly entitled to that opinion. He has the numbers to back it up, but the TV business has changed. ESPN is on its way to being a digital product, which will most certainly change its finances and priorities. 

If you’re paying the $30 or $40 per month that we expect ESPN to charge for its a la carte service, you’re not doing it for First Take. You’re not doing it for PTI or The Pat McAfee Show either. It’s all about the games. They are and will always be ESPN’s most valuable asset. I would imagine that in the coming years, the network will take a hard look at just how much anything else is actually worth.

Who from the “embrace debate” universe has crossover appeal? Probably no one. Games attract a large audience. Sports talk? That’s more of a niche. 

Everyone reading this has a very distinct feeling about Skip Bayless. Most of the world doesn’t though. Bayless has leaned hard into the act. It’s important to him to put on the best sports debate show TV has to offer. That’s a perfectly admirable goal, but the ceiling is pretty low. 

Most people aren’t going to go looking for something like that. If Bayless ever wants out of FS1, his options would be limited at best and possibly non-existent at worst.

Stephen A. Smith has big ambitions. He wants to act. He wants to host shows outside of the sports realm. He wants to produce. He may want to run for office. If ESPN determines it doesn’t need to pay over $10 million per year for the star of a show that is largely consumed on mute in airport bars, then he needs to prove he can do those things at a level that gets him paid.

Most of the comments about Smith’s podcast have to do with what it could make him in the eyes of ESPN. I think it is important to consider that as ESPN evolves, maybe no single show or talent will be particularly valuable to the network, at least not to the tune that it currently is. So we have to look at Smith explaining how to skirt the issue of lying to date about how well you can cook differently.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read Brian Stelter’s Network of Lies, which is about the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News and the network firing Tucker Carlson. No matter how you feel politically, I recommend it, because it gives some great insight into how a network built on talking head shows operates.

At Fox News, where every host has the same opinions, the network is the star. Sure, people rise up and gain a following, but Stelter points out all of the presumed stars that have not hurt Fox by leaving and he theorizes Carlson will eventually be one of them.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot as I listen to Smith shout that he just needs a woman “to be a solid 7.” Has he read Network of Lies? Smith is friends with Sean Hannity. Has he had conversations about how valuable an opinionist is when he only preaches to those already converted? 

Stephen A. Smith is irreplaceable at ESPN so long as the network wants to be in the First Take business. Smith is smart enough to know that won’t be forever. Even if ratings for the show never slip, changing economics could force the network’s hand at some point. 

That is why Stephen A. Smith wants you to know how he feels about big, juicy booties. Maybe sports talk on television will have less value amidst television evolution, but talent that can entertain and make an audience pay attention never will. Smith is betting that he can make you care about what he has to say regardless of what he is talking about.

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Steve Czaban is Helping Mold Sports Radio’s Future at 97.3 The Game

“I’ve seen some really messed up stuff but I’ve seen good stuff as well and I’ve seen good stories.  I just try to lend that perspective…”

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Steve Czaban
Courtesy: 97.3 The Game

After a long run in Washington, DC, Steve Czaban made the move in May 2019 to host the morning show on 97.3 The Game in Milwaukee.  Being part of the Milwaukee/Wisconsin market was nothing new to Czaban as he held down a 30 to 45-minute feature on “Bob and Brian”, the number one FM show in the market for almost a quarter of a century.

The show became so successful that Czaban signed a contract extension in April of 2022 and the show continues to soar.

“The show has gone great,” said Czaban.  “We’re double the nearest sports radio competitor in town and we’re top five target demographic in men 25-54.  I really have been loving it.  It’s the best group of guys and just vibe that I’ve had a sports radio station pretty much in my career.  It’s been a very good situation for me.”

It’s not easy for a talk show host to transition to another market because you really have to have an intimate knowledge on the teams, the players and the fans in a town in order to have a fighting chance to be successful.  When Czaban made the move from DC to Milwaukee, the experience of dabbling in the market certainly helped him to talk about everything Packers, Bucks, Brewers and Wisconsin sports, but it’s not something that comes easy.

In fact, he wonders how other people can do it.

“I didn’t go into it cold,” said Czaban.  “I think if anyone in our business goes into a market cold, I don’t know how you do it because you just have to have a certain base of historic knowledge of this player, this team, this game, this moment and this incident to call upon to at least be fluent in the language of the local sports market.”

So, in order to have that fluency in a new market, you have to literally channel your inner Rodney Dangerfield and go “Back to School” and that means doing your homework to get you ready for your new gig.  You don’t just bag your bags, move to a new city, turn on the microphone and talk about the teams in town without knowing what you’re talking about.

Steve Czaban says there is a textbook for what to do, but it’s certainly a challenge.

“The advice would be if you’re a host and you’re entering a new market and you don’t really have any connection or history, then I would absolutely do a cram session,” said Czaban.  “Every night, flash cards, reading everything, watching YouTube highlights and at least for the first six months if now a year, make sure to tread lightly because there’s a good chance you’re going to walk into a rake if you start talking about “they should never have traded so and so.”  Well, there’s more to it.”

Czaban has spent his career trying to help young talent break into the industry and grow.  He’s had a knack for bringing new people along and educating them on the business and the highs and lows that come with it.

Sort of like a head coach developing quality assists who go on to become head coaches themselves.

“I don’t know what kind of a coaching tree I have,” said Czaban.  “But I do make sure to try to explain to the younger people around me like my producers and what not because I’ve seen so much in the industry.  I’ve seen some really messed up stuff but I’ve seen good stuff as well and I’ve seen good stories.  I just try to lend that perspective of having been in the circus for 30 plus years.”

Many of those years were spent as a host in Washington DC, Czaban certainly spent a lot of time talking about Washington Redskins/Football Team/Commanders owner Dan Snyder had his part in the fall of the once-proud franchise.  He still has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in DC and how the sale of the team from Snyder to a group owned by Josh Harris had an affect on sports radio in Washington

Czaban says the sale and the fan reaction had a huge impact in a positive way.

“They definitely had a surge,” said Czaban.  “I was very happy for everybody still on the air doing sports radio day to day at seeing the bad man run out of town who wrecked the franchise, lost the team, name, logo and soon to be history that he was finally gone.  I think it was definitely good but now with the Commanders being so bad, there’s hope with a new owner but there’s a lot of cleaning out that has to be done first.  I think the guys on sports radio are going to be very busy this next year or two.”

Transitioning to full-time hosting duties in Milwaukee a few years ago, Czaban saw the Aaron Rodgers era with the Packers wind down.  After the Packers traded Rodgers to the Jets this past off-season, the keys to the offense were transferred over to Jordan Love.  While there were some growing pains inside Lambeau Field at the start of the season, the Packers have rebounded.

Not everyone in town thought it was going to happen and some hosts patience ran thin…but not Czaban.  He had gone through too many lost seasons in Washington to realize that you just can’t throw in the towel until a season is done.

“There were guys on my show and on other shows (when the Packers were) at 2-5 they were like “season is over, they’re going nowhere” and they were event talking about draft position,” said Czaban. “I was the only guy saying whoa the season can be over when it’s over.  We have all the time in the world for that but it’s not over now.  Now, I kind of look pretty smart.”

Steve Czaban also looks very intelligent for being able to do something that not many people in the sports radio industry can do.  He was successful in one market for a very long time and has made the transition to a new market and is, once again, having success with a tremendous sports talk show.

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Brian Murphy is Preparing to Write His Next Chapter at KNBR After Layoffs Ended ‘Murph and Mac’

“I don’t want to say, ‘This too shall pass,’ or, ‘Time heals all wounds,’ but you’re only as good as your next ratings book.”

Derek Futterman

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Brian Murphy
Courtesy: Brian Murphy on Instagram

After the morning show signed off at KNBR last Wednesday, co-host Brian Murphy was called into a meeting with Cumulus Media market manager Larry Blumhagen. Although there had been signs of potential changes, Murphy had partnered with Paul McCaffrey for nearly 18 years and survived all of the turmoil.

A simple look around the building represented proof of an alteration, evinced by reductions in the number of stations under its roof. A once powerful news station, KGO-AM, underwent a sudden format flip last year after nearly a century on the air. A few years earlier, alternative rock station KFOG was eliminated from the company’s portfolio as well. KNBR has weathered the storms, but not without alterations to the station’s programming department.

“I would say everything has shrunk,” Murphy expressed, “and that includes sending us on road trips or to Super Bowls, etc.”

Layoffs have reemphasized the importance of the quantitative bottom line, sometimes overshadowing the qualitative utility and widespread impact derived from talent and popular shows. It is partially why the deluge of palpable support after Murphy learned in a short meeting that McCaffrey was being laid off was surprising and reinvigorating. But first came an immediate, jarring feeling surrounding the decision.

“Truthfully numb,” Murphy said regarding his sentiment after learning what happened. “I guess it’s a cliché to say that people go into shock, but to know that Paulie and I wouldn’t be together was something that didn’t register. I mean, it registered, but it didn’t register until fully; the next 48 hours is when it really started to really hit.”

McCaffrey was one of seven laid off at KNBR that day. Morning show producer Erik Engle, former programmer Lee Hammer, host F.P. Santangelo and members of the outlet’s digital department lost their jobs as well. Even the long-running KNBR Tonight evening show, which aired for decades was canceled, and replaced with CBS Sports Radio programming. While Murphy always hoped that the morning show would continue in the iteration before the end of his contract, he is now facing a new reality without his longtime colleagues.

“I think what we were disappointed by was sort of an abrupt and premature end, particularly to our partnership, which I think we’ve learned from an incredible outpouring of social media is way more than we knew,” Murphy said. “We learned our partnership for whatever reason connected to a lot of people for a long time. It’s funny they say radio is dying, but radio sure is personal and effective in many ways baked on what we’re hearing from our listeners.”

During the next two days, Murphy was off the air and contemplating his future. There were moments where he thought about leaving KNBR. However, he knew that he had a contract to fulfill and a family to support. Additionally, the person that he was set to work with on Monday and beyond – Markus Boucher – had contributed to the morning show for nearly four years, rendering familiarity and comfortability.

“There’s a chance that Markus and I could do this for a long time; we’ll see how it goes,” Murphy said. “Maybe things go great and that would be awesome, and I’m definitely leaving that door open. For whatever reason, we recover from the pain of losing my partner for almost two decades and the next chapter works out.”

In 2023, KNBR has experienced two subpar quarterly ratings books. The decrease in performance has affected all dayparts on the outlet. Murphy knows that when the San Francisco Giants do well, it generally leads to KNBR succeeding. The station did improve in its summer and fall books for 2023, but there already were repercussions being felt.

“I just know that that happened and it damaged people’s perception of the station, but I don’t think it was an accurate reflection of all of our listenership at all; I just don’t,” Murphy said. “I know for a fact that we still had a huge audience, and it’s evident by what happened after the news; just so many people reacted and people in the demo too.”

Even though he knows it does not directly relate to his role as an on-air host, Murphy believes that the local advertising market was damaged because of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the city. San Francisco was one of several major metroplexes that instituted strict health and safety protocols in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, which had an effect on sports talk radio consumption. With more people working remotely and fewer people commuting to the office, the transition to digital content and audio on-demand offerings has hastened in order to realize previous levels of engagement and keep the format alive.

“KNBR is going to have to weather this storm,” Murphy said, “and there’s this feeling of, I don’t want to say, ‘This too shall pass,’ or, ‘Time heals all wounds,’ but you’re only as good as your next ratings book.”

The station recently held an all-staff meeting to discuss its direction, which has been somewhat complicated by three program directors at the outlet over the last five years. Following the departures of Jeremiah Crowe and Kevin Graham, Adam Copeland took over the responsibilities last month. The layoffs took place two weeks into his tenure, causing some people to question how involved he was in the decisions and whether or not he advocated for the morning show.

“I think these things come from beyond San Francisco,” Murphy said. “Our headquarters are in Atlanta, and I think something this big – like I said, it wasn’t just Paulie Mac; it was seven people. Paulie Mac is personal for me, but that to me says, ‘Well, that’s obviously a big budget decision that’s being made at a level far above the San Francisco program director.’”

Although Copeland has minimal previous experience as a program director, Murphy is confident that he will be able to effectively lead the station through his energy, youth and passion for the medium. Copeland grew up listening to KNBR and worked at the station over the last several years as a producer and host, eventually earning a spot in afternoons alongside Tom Tolbert. Copeland remains in that time slot, pulling double duty for the radio station. His relatability and familiarity with the craft is something that Murphy views as an advantage.

“I think people are pretty excited that we have somebody who cares as much as Adam Copeland does about KNBR,” Murphy said, “I think if there’s anything to be optimistic about in 2024 that despite this ending to 2023, it’s that we have a program director who’s all-in on the station.”

Thinking about what comes beyond the immediate future though is not within Murphy’s mindset. At the moment, he feels it is too soon to determine if there will be a potential Murph & Mac reunion on a digital platform. Instead, he is focused on being able to continue to serve San Francisco sports fans without his longtime on-air partner. Murphy realizes how fortunate he was to have someone like McCaffrey by his side and valued both his consistency and dependability on a daily basis.

“Every single segment he was the same energetic, relentless, hilarious partner who only wanted what was good for the show – not what was good for him; not what was good for me – he only wanted what was good for the show,” Murphy said, “and it was such a lesson for this newspaper guy to learn, for lack of a better word, showbusiness.”

When Murphy entered the studio Monday to host his first show without McCaffrey, everything felt surreal to him on the air. There was ostensible tension in the room and from listeners about how he would address the news, and share his feelings with the audience. The program ended with a monologue from Murphy regarding McCaffrey, something that he is grateful Boucher did not raise objection to and that he was able to make his statement on the air.

“The 49ers had just destroyed the Philadelphia Eagles, which actually was a huge positive break for us because it allowed everything to happen Monday with the backdrop of great positivity because that was a huge game for the Niners and people were pretty jacked up about that game,” Murphy said. “So I opened the show by saying, ‘I know it’s corny, but that one was for Paulie.’”

The shock and surprise from McCaffrey being laid off is hardly evanescent, but Murphy is now thinking about how to optimize the morning program with Boucher. Predicting what may come next is an arduous task. Murphy considers himself fortunate to have had nearly 18 years hosting with McCaffrey, and he is now thinking about the next chapter of his time at KNBR while having reference for the enduring legacy of Murph & Mac.

“For whatever reason, I’ve never lost my absolute joy and passion for the sports world – sports content; sports stories; sports history; sports media – everything about it,” Murphy said. “And so every morning when my alarm goes off and my feet hit the floor, I’m like, ‘Let’s go! I’m stealing money. This isn’t work.’”

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