Knowing what your audience wants is so important for a radio station. But not every brand puts the time or resources into doing research. It’s common in radio to assume we know what listeners want, but people’s tastes change, their work schedules switch, and their entertainment options increase. One day radio’s vital, the next it’s less necessary.
One of my biggest pet peeves with our ratings system, is that it influences how many of us think about what does and doesn’t work. I’ve seen bad shows earn numbers, and good ones come up short, but because this is the way we decide whether or not something is good, we ignore a lot of other evidence that tells us if something truly is good or not.
Just the other day I heard a 3 person show execute a 26-minute interview in the 2nd segment of their show. The guest’s call dropped, they killed time to get him back on, and the result was a less than stellar listening experience. This was done by a good show too, one with strong ratings. Good numbers or not, turning the show over to a guest for 2 segments who isn’t breaking news and isn’t a major name isn’t wise, especially when 3 hosts haven’t had a chance yet to offer their opinions and establish the content. But hey the ratings are good right?
Unless you know every single person carrying a meter in your market, and you study their daily habits, you really don’t know why they put your radio station on or turn it off. You ‘assume’ you know what works based on the trends you see in your reports from Nielsen, but the way 4-5 people with a meter use a station isn’t always a true reflection of what an entire market wants. Often times your digital story is much more interesting.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m active on Twitter. I like the platform a lot. It’s a great place to learn about sports news, engage in conversation during games, or just flat out laugh at silly things people post. Like many things in this world, it isn’t perfect. You have to put up with out of bounds comments from faceless profiles and people using names like StretchNuts09, but otherwise it has a lot of positives.
Given the nature of the content we produce at BSM and who our most avid readers are, Twitter has been a great resource for connecting with people who share similar interests. Many turn to my profile for information and opinions on the sports media business, and it’s helped some improve at their craft, others land jobs, and forced a few who disagree to consider an alternative point of view.
But aside from that, Twitter can also come in handy for researching the audience. In years past some would discredit the results from social media because there was this perception that people on social media were from another universe, and drastically different than the everyday listener. As the years have gone by though, that viewpoint has started to change.
Every research project, whether thru phone calls, emails, online surveys, in person focus groups, or social media platforms, isn’t 100% accurate. If you want proof, go look at the data prior to the last election. So much depends on who’s involved in the study, how the questions are written, and when the project takes place. For example, if you asked baseball fans about their excitement for the sport in November, you’d get a much different reaction than if you asked them in April.
If you follow me on Twitter (@SportsRadioPD) you’ve likely noticed we’ve been running more poll questions over the past month. My social media director Clarissa Magliochetti has been leading the charge, and we’ve made it a daily focus to engage with people because A) it’s called ‘social’ media and B) knowing what people like and dislike and the reasons behind their feelings is helpful to making brands better.
Yesterday, we ran a poll that I thought might generate a few more responses than usual, but I had no idea it would snowball the way that it did. We asked ‘What do you value least when listening to a sports radio morning show?’ The four choices were Callers, Guests, Sports Updates, and News-Traffic-Weather. Nearly 22,000 voted on the question, and the biggest tune out according to the results was Callers.
First, I want to thank everyone in the format who took a second to hit the RT button to help us. I chose these 4 selections because they’re additions to a show based on the preferences of a host or program director. They’re not a mandatory part of delivering a sports radio show. Some folks listed commercials and hosts as their main reasons for tuning out, and I expected to hear those opinions, but the difference with those choices is that they’re non-negotiable. Without commercials, the station doesn’t exist. Without a host, you have no show.
Some also said they didn’t like non-sports conversations without a purpose, especially ones that enter the political arena. There were also remarks about being turned off by arguing and yelling, fake hot takes, gambling talk and a few others. I understand that some will exit a show when those things come up, but much of it depends on the host and their interests. Someone with a passion for betting is going to bring it up on their show, and portions of the audience will like it, others won’t. Same goes for non-sports stuff, hot takes, parody songs, and political commentaries.
There are a number of different things to takeaway from these results, but to be clear, just because the feedback says one issue is a bigger tune out than others, doesn’t mean it works this way in every market. What resonates in the Northeast is different than what works in the Midwest, and what works there isn’t the same as it is in the North, South or West Coast.
What this poll should make obvious is that people aren’t in love as much these days with shows being driven by the audience. The sports format’s first 20 years were built on turning the airwaves over to listeners to voice their thoughts, but often shows lacked direction and focus. With social media, texting, and podcasting a bigger part of our lives now, interaction is still important, but it’s done differently.
Another key factor is that younger people have less desire to talk on the phone. The majority of voices you hear call into sports talk shows tend to be older, and often times they call back a few times per week. Each time that same individual hits the air, it creates the impression that there isn’t a lot of interest in calling the show because the same person can get thru multiple times. Listeners under 35 are less tolerant and loyal than those of us who are older and have grown up with the format, and younger hosts tend to be less adamant about needing calls than older hosts who’ve made it part of their routine for years.
In defense of caller participation, I do believe there is more entertainment value in hearing someone express a passionate opinion or outlandish thought than listening to a host read it thru a text or tweet. It can also lead to a great reaction from a personality which can make the show more entertaining. But if the audience has to sit thru 3-4 meaningless calls that bring the show to a screeching halt just to potentially get that one great payoff, they’ll lose interest and tune out.
That said, this format is called Sports TALK right? We should want our fans to feel part of the content experience. The good news is that there are many ways to do this besides slowing down the pace of your shows, and making your hosts sound like telephone operators inside a call center. For starters, you can set up a Google Voice number and use social media and the airwaves to encourage leaving messages. You can turn to your social platforms to encourage people to leave video or audio responses via YouTube. There are also cool ways to utilize your app such as what 101 ESPN in St. Louis does with their Mic Drop feature.
The advantage to doing it this way is it gives you a chance to edit out the bad stuff and direct your show. Maybe you use the audience reactions in a produced return or station promo. Perhaps you strategically incorporate them into an open segment as a counter or supporting piece to the points being made by the host. Making people feel part of the show is wise, but there’s a difference between ‘interaction’ and ‘calls’.
We live now in a world where people communicate differently. As a host, you may get an adrenaline rush when you see six lines blinking, but that doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Depending on the market, most will tell you 1-5% of your audience call, the rest just listen. You may be excited to hear from someone because you feel it validates your content choice, and gives you a sense that people are listening, but if adding them to the discussion tunes out the other 95% is that a smart choice?
I remember a host coming into my office a while ago and being fired up after receiving 60 calls during his show. It made him feel like the audience was into his content. I then reminded him that the market had 7 million people in it and based on my math that meant that we didn’t get a call from 6,999,940 people. My comments were no doubt a buzzkill for someone who was excited about what they had just experienced, but I wanted them to understand that a show’s success wasn’t based on how many times we made the phone ring.
When it comes to guests, I think they add value BUT what should be taken into consideration is how long they’re on. Who says you have to do a 10-minute interview? Why not 3-minutes, 4-minutes or 5-minutes? Before you tell me ‘JB you can’t do an interview in that length of time‘, save it. That’s BS. Put your TV on and you’ll see hosts do it every day. It comes down to having a game plan and asking the 2-3 questions that matter right now. Nobody needs a history lesson with a guest every time someone of significance appears on your show.
Booking a guest also doesn’t mean they have to be on 10 seconds after the music hits and stay until the end of the segment. You can start with talking about the topic before bringing them on, and leave a minute or two to share what stood out to you from the conversation. If you’re up against a break at the end of the segment, you can also hold over your reaction to it, and spend 2-3 minutes on what stood out before moving into your next topic.
Often I’ll hear a show start a segment with a guest, keep them 10-12 minutes, say goodbye and then tease the next segment which has no connection to the one they just did. It leaves the audience with no insight on what the host thinks of the subject or any of the responses given by the guest. Isn’t the goal to gain insight and then explain what we think about it?
Another issue that more hosts should think about, is when the interview takes place. In mornings, people are less ready for a lengthy discussion than they are later in the day. We also should be able to separate what we want from what the audience wants. I’ll hear hosts mention how much they hate interviews yet when they promote their next day’s show on social media, they use the guest as the hook. Why? Because it’ll produce interest. They just don’t have confidence that they’ll be able to consistently deliver big names or timely people. The issue there isn’t whether a guest adds value, it’s needing to do a better job of adding people of substance.
Here’s another way to think about it. Let’s say you were in NY this week and you had Phil Simms on to discuss the Daniel Jones-Eli Manning saga. Let’s say Phil’s energy wasn’t great, 7 of the minutes he was on he didn’t say anything significant, but during 3 of those minutes he delivered a strong opinion on the issue. Most shows would go to break bitching that Phil had low energy, didn’t say a lot, and reinforce why they don’t do interviews, but what they don’t ask themselves is ‘how can we use that good portion of the discussion to advance this story throughout this show and the others?’
If I told you that the interview segment you did would produce a zero but it’d lead to 8-9 higher rated segments on your station the rest of the day, a surge in podcast downloads, promos and social graphics built to highlight the content you created, and local/national media outlets using portions of the discussion to make their own content more interesting, would you still say Phil had no value?
I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t put guests on. That depends on the host, station, market, and importance of the guest. My point is, if you’re going to book a guest on your show, you should be thinking about whether or not they’re important enough to be discussed multiple times throughout the day on your station. If you’re booking someone who the majority of your audience don’t know, and they can’t add anything new to the day’s top stories, then you’re filling air time instead of maximizing it.
Next is the subject of Sports Updates, and I’ve said before on this site that I don’t think they provide a ton of value to a sports station. The content is very repetitive, and if you took away the :10 second sponsor tag or Update Desk title sponsorship, nobody in sales would be bitching about not having them on the radio station. It’s strictly a marketing tool to push your content and sponsor mentions.
I do love that you get the benefit of additional voices in the room as a result of having an anchor on a show, and there are some who do the job well. A great example is Jerry Recco at WFAN who executes them in a more conversational and entertaining fashion with Boomer and Gio’s morning show. However, many don’t provide more than the obvious stuff. Anyone with a cell phone can find out what time MNF starts, who’s pitching for the Red Sox, and whether or not Jalen Ramsey has been traded. Anything significant is likely going to be mentioned by the host too during the show.
The final one we need to discuss is what many refer to as ‘service elements’. From where I sit, I don’t believe in running News, Traffic or Weather reports on a sports station. In fact, I used to run liners on 101 ESPN in St. Louis and 95.7 The Game in San Francisco that said ‘No Traffic and Weather Together, We Do Sports.’
The exception is if you’re a brand such as WFAN, KNBR, WEEI and they’ve been part of your identity for decades. Unless you’ve created an expectation with the audience that they’re going to hear those things on your air, I don’t see any reason why they’re necessary for a sports station. The News/Talk brands are going to own this position more than a sports station will, and when you put on sports television shows, they do just fine without a bunch of filler content that denies the audience what they want. Radio should be able to do the same, and I know it works because I’ve done it.
The reason these service elements are on is for sales purposes. If we can’t make money though with 12-20 minutes per hour of spots, studio and hotline naming rights, time checks, text lines, play by play assets, podcasts, merchandise, and big name weekly guests who drive appointments, then we have much bigger issues. Sellers won’t like the idea of not having something to sell that’s always been in their toolkit, but if you value the audience’s time, and take into consideration why they use your brand, you’ll find more people happy to have the roadblocks removed than those who are frustrated because something on the station changed.
What we’ve learned from this exercise is that there are a lot of mixed opinions, and pleasing each person is impossible. The results shouldn’t influence you to go the rest of your career never taking a call, but you also shouldn’t dismiss the feedback. When more than 10,000 people tell you in overwhelming fashion that they don’t value something, a smart host and PD pays attention. If your morning show is relying on the audience to call in and do the heavy lifting, you may want to reconsider your approach.
When you look at why people are gravitating more to podcasts, it’s because there’s a premium placed on people’s time. Podcasts don’t overload the audience with less important bullshit. If they can hear 20 great minutes without obstacles or 20-minutes on the radio with constant disruptions, why would they choose your radio station? Nobody is rushing to add updates, calls, and service elements to podcasts. That should tell you something.
People have tremendous passion for sports talk but their expectations are different than they once were. It’s our job to learn what they value, and eliminate the things that stand in the way of a good listening experience. Given the instability of ratings measurement, there are no guarantees that changes will lead to immediate results, but I’d rather listen to my customers and give them what they asked for than ignore it and wish I had listened sooner.