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ESPN Ithaca Is Trying To Keep Things Normal

“I’ve always been a student of business. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in every one of our businesses and how we all make it work.”

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We regularly hear about large media companies combating the COVID-19 pandemic with adjustments to their programming and operations. ESPN’s salary reductions, national layoffs by Entercom, furloughed employees for DAZN and others have all made mainstream news, but smaller media companies and businesses are equally impacted. 

Privately owned radio stations might not be dealt the hand of reducing a seven-figure salary, but those mom and pop media companies still represent a chunk of the broadcast industry.

WPIE in upstate New York has been a privately owned sports radio station for well over a decade. Purchased by Todd Mallinson’s Taughannock Media, now Vizella Media in 2010, ESPN Ithaca fills an important role in the community.

Todd Mallinson

The station relies on the ability to provide play-by-play for local high school sports and they rely on other small businesses for support. Like many of those small businesses, ESPN Ithaca is feeling the negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they continue working to serve their local community.  

Brandon Contes: We see in the mainstream media what’s happening with large media companies, but don’t hear as much about the challenges for locally owned stations. Have you seen a significant impact in the number of advertisers, sponsors and clients you have with ESPN Ithaca? 

Todd Mallinson: Yes, we’ve lost some clients. Most of them are in a suspended mode while others just haven’t renewed a schedule. But we’ve worked diligently to get most of our advertisers to change their message, to be more on point and resonate better with our audience. 

BC: How are small businesses in the area doing? If you drive around Ithaca, are a lot of restaurants and food establishments open for takeout?

TM: The roads just seem different, which I’m sure is no different here than anywhere else. Traffic is way down. There are restaurants that are making it work and the ones that are more successful are the ones that already had takeout and pick up as a regular part of their business model. It’s the ones that weren’t setup for it that are more challenged. But we’re supporting every one of our existing businesses and getting the word out to remind people to patronize their local favorite restaurants to help them get through this period of time. 

BC: Are most of your clients locally owned businesses? 

TM: Yes, most are locally owned. And we typically deal with the principal decision maker, there are some car dealers that have certainly ratcheted down spending. Some are maintaining a schedule with us, but until the sales end of things become essential and people can regularly engage, I don’t think we’ll see them come back. 

Cornell supports local small business COVID-19 fund | Cornell ...

BC: With the clients you have lost, are there ways you look to try and maintain a good relationship with them so once we do come out of the pandemic, they’re looking to invest part of their advertising budget with you?

TM: Absolutely. It’s a fine balance in sales that we’re running right now. We want to be supportive and be a sounding board for customers. We truly are in this together and I’ve always been a student of business. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in every one of our businesses and how we all make it work. Listening to clients and addressing needs, some have been proactive with updating messages, others have been dealing with things that are, in their mindset, a greater priority. We try to be there and encourage them to update messages and I think we’ve done a really good job with that. 

BC: What about the sports awards dinner that ESPN Ithaca hosts every June for high school athletes – Night of Champions. Has that been canceled or postponed? 

TM: We’re in the planning stages of doing something virtually. The fall season was completed, the winter season was all but completed for those teams that were at least halfway into the state tournaments and we’ll be recognizing those two seasons. Obviously, the spring season is in the balance and at this point I don’t foresee it happening. I’m not predicting that, it’s just my gut feeling. The New York State High School Athletic Association is having a meeting the last Monday or Tuesday of this month to make that decision, but I ultimately think it’s going to come down from the governor’s office.

BC: Is the awards dinner more about being a source of income, or used as a way to promote the station and local sports? 

TM: For us, we’re in the community quite a bit with the amount of high school and collegiate sports that we cover locally, whether it’s play by play or reporting. It’s our signature event in terms of recognizing and gathering about 200 top athletes and coaches and families across the 15 school districts. It’s been very well received by our community and this is going into our seventh year. 

BC: How has programming been impacted by the lack of live sports, especially considering ESPN Ithaca carries the amount of local play-by-play that you do. 

TM: It’s challenging, but ESPN has done a really good, proactive job with #SeniorNight and we jumped right on that locally. It was a perfect dovetail for us with the colleges and high schools here. Secondarily, Hometown Heroes is something else that the network spearheaded and we’ve embraced. We’re getting the word out about stories of first responders and people on the front lines of health and essential businesses that are truly essential. 

We have a newspaper we’ve been publishing for four years called Tompkins Weekly and that’s been a nice balance for us, bringing on some content in the afternoon that we traditionally wouldn’t. We’ve had the mayor on, the Chamber of Commerce president on, the head of Infectious Disease Control at the local hospital, and others to give some insight. So we’re sprinkling in information that we want to get across. We’re running a tremendous amount of public service messaging from a variety of different sources, but the main focus is social distancing. I think it was Dr. Fauci, who two weeks ago said you should act like you have the disease, and that stuck with me. We’ve had to adapt, we’re a pretty small staff of eight or nine and we’re keeping just one or two people in the office at a time, everyone else is working from home. 

BC: The station still has a daily local hour? 

TM: Yes, Between The Lines from 5 – 6pm, and that’s been our lifeline to the community. We’ve balanced entertainment and information during that one hour. The host, Nick Karski has done a really good job, who incidentally has been self-quarantined. His girlfriend is a doctor and she came down with symptoms of COVID-19, so they’ve both been self-quarantined for the last two weeks. We’re expecting they’ll be released from quarantine Wednesday (April 15). 

BC: Nick’s still been hosting the show while quarantined? 

Nick Karski appears on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Hardcore ...

TM: He’s been doing it remotely with the Comrex app that allows him to call in from his phone and it sounds pretty clear, it’s definitely come in handy. We have our producer back in the studio helping to record the interviews and get the show on-air. 

BC: You mentioned highlighting local workers and different things you’ve aired to help the community, do those things happen only during the one-hour local show or throughout the day?

TM: We’re sprinkling it throughout the day. The demand on inventory has certainly lightened due to some of the postponements of schedules and lack of play by play, so with that we’re running public service announcements and voice liners throughout the day, 24/7. 

BC: With losing clients and the lack of play-by-play opportunities, have you had to layoff any employees? 

TM: We have not. There’s Small Business Administration aid available, we’ve applied for the EIDL grant and we’ve also applied for the Paycheck Protection Plan. That seems to be a very fluid situations with things changing a little bit here and there. We applied about 10 days ago, but because things changed, we had to refile parts of the application, so we officially went on file last Wednesday (April 8). We haven’t heard anything, we’re expecting to be approved for PPP and the EIDL, but nothing as of this point.

We’ve maintained the same payroll throughout, but it’s getting very concerning because cash flow is becoming tight, businesses have pulled back and there’s concern that some of that business going forward won’t be there. With everybody looking at cash flow, the concern is that some advertising invoices won’t be paid as routinely as they have been. 

BC: How long can you operate as currently constituted with the economic shutdown, lost advertising dollars and no sports. 

TM: If we don’t receive the PPP approval by the end of this month, things will certainly need to change with staffing.

BC: You mentioned eight or nine employees, does that include the newspaper?

TM: Correct, that’s included with the newspaper. 

BC: Is the newspaper operating normally?

Tompkins Weekly - Home | Facebook

TM: It is operating as normal. We’ve seen a significant uptick to our online content, but less distribution to businesses that we would normally sell to, either because they’re not currently open or their traffic is significantly down.

BC: Have you seen more traffic to your radio station website and podcasts with less people in their car right now?  

TM: The website is down a little bit. Our social is up, and that’s largely due to a great job with #SeniorNight locally and from promoting a lot of the interviews that we’ve been doing. We see a significant amount of traffic to our websites during the school year because of pictures. We partner with local photographers that go to the games we’re calling and set up a photo gallery on the site. Typically, there are about 25-50 photos available for people to see and potentially purchase on our website. So without play-by-play and local sports it’s lowered traffic to the site.

BC: What about if some clients are unable to afford terrestrial ad space, have you moved any of them to the website or a podcast? 

TM: There’s been a couple that we’ve moved over, but mostly they’ve either maintained the course with an updated message or they’re in suspension mode if they’re not an essential business and closed. 

BC: What kind of podcasts does the station carry? 

TM: The podcasts that we’re producing at the moment are the interviews from Between The Lines, sometimes they’re extended versions that don’t completely air on BTL. For the one-hour show, our focus is getting virtually everything we do on-air. We’ve maintained our sports reporting seven days a week, like we always have. We continue to interact with athletes and coaches in the area either about the season they’ve missed or the record-breaking seasons they had because Cornell men’s and women’s hockey ranked #1 in the country and both of them saw their season unfortunately end early.  

Take Me Out to the (Backyard) Ball Game - The New York Times

BC: Have you picked up any classic rebroadcast offerings?

TM: Yea, we’re running a number of features through Westwood One and ESPN. We ran the Best of Masters last weekend, we’ve also had some of the Westwood NFL coverage. We’re an MRN affiliate, we usually do very little NASCAR, but with Yankee baseball completely parked, we’re able to carry some of the Best of MRN. 

BC: How are you communicating with your staff right now?

TM: We connect on a regular basis virtually through Zoom or FaceTime as a team and individually. I want to compliment my staff for rallying together in these uncharted times and staying as focused as best they can. They’ve done a great job engaging with our customers and doing a little hand holding.

BSM Writers

Adam The Bull Is Giving Cleveland Something It’s Never Had Before

“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?”

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After spending 22 years on the radio, Adam “The Bull” Gerstenhaber was ready for a new adventure.  In fact, the former co-host of Bull and Fox on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland did not have a new job lined up when he signed off from his 11-year radio home last month.

“I was already leaving without having a new project,” admitted Gerstenhaber during a recent phone interview with BSM.  “I left before I knew for sure I had a ‘next project’.”

Gerstenhaber was preparing for his final show with co-host Dustin Fox on April 1st when he was contacted by an executive producer for TEGNA, a company that was developing a Cleveland sports television show on YouTube.  The executive producer, who had just found out that Bull was a free agent, made it clear that he wanted Bull to be a part of the new project.

It all came together very quickly. 

“Let’s talk on Monday,” Gerstenhaber told the executive producer. “And within a week they signed me up.”

The Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show on YouTube featuring Gerstenhaber, former ESPN personality Jay Crawford, 92.3 The Fan’s Garrett Bush, and rotating hosts to make up a four-person round-table show, made its debut last Monday.  The show, which airs weekdays from 11am to 1pm, features passionate Cleveland sports talk, live guests, either in-studio or via Zoom, as well as interaction from the audience through social media.

“I’m very excited,” said Gerstenhaber.  “It’s a definite adjustment for me after 22 years on radio doing television.  For the last 11 years, I’ve been doing a radio show with just one other host and I was the lead guy doing most of the talking and now I’m on a show with three other people and it’s such an adjustment.  So far, I’m having a ball.”  

And so far, the reaction to the show has been very positive.

A big reason why is that it’s something that Cleveland didn’t have and really never had, unlike a city like New York, where there are local radio shows that are simulcast on regional sports channels. 

“There’s nothing like that in Cleveland,” said Gerstenhaber.  “And there was certainly nothing like this with a panel.  Cleveland is such a massive sports town and now people that don’t live in Cleveland that are maybe retired in Florida or Arizona, now they actually have a TV show that they can watch that’s Cleveland-centric.”

The new venture certainly represents a big change in what Bull has been used to in his radio career.  He’s enjoying the freedom of not having to follow a hard clock for this show. In fact, there have already been some occasions where the show has been able to go a little longer than scheduled because they have the flexibility to do that on YouTube.

Doing a show on YouTube gives the panel a great opportunity to go deep into topics and spend some quality time with guests.  And while there is no cursing on the show at the moment, there could be the potential for that down the road.

Don’t expect the show is going to become X-rated or anything like that, but the objective is to be able to capture the spirit and emotion of being a sports fan and host.

“It’s something we may do in the future,” said Gerstenhaber.  “Not curse just to curse but it gives us the option if we get fired up.  It is allowed because there’s no restrictions there.  The company doesn’t want us to do it at the moment.”  

There’s also been the shift for Gerstenhaber from being the “point guard” on his old radio show, driving the conversation and doing most of the talking, to now taking a step back and having Crawford distributing the ball on the television show.

For a guy called “The Bull”, that will take some getting used to. 

“Jay is a pro’s pro,” said Gerstenhaber.  “He’s the point guard for this but he’s also part of the conversation.  I’m not used to not being the point guard so I have to adjust to that.  I think it’s gone pretty well and the chemistry is pretty good and with time we’ll get used to the flow of it.”  

Gerstenhaber’s move from sports radio to an internet television show is a perfect example of how the industry is changing.  A good portion of the listening and viewing audience these days, especially those in the younger demographic, are not necessarily watching traditional television or listening to terrestrial radio.  For a lot of sports fans, watching and listening on a mobile device or a computer has become a very important way of life.

The desire to adapt, along with a shorter workday, was very enticing to him.

“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?” wondered Gerstenhaber.  “There were things about my job that I was unhappy about.  I was doing a five-hour radio show.  It’s too long. That’s crazy.  Nobody should be doing a five-hour radio show at this point.” 

Broadcasting on the internet has arrived and it’s not just a couple of sports fans doing a show from their garage anymore.  The business has evolved to the point where the technology has provided more opportunities for those who have already enjoyed success in the industry and are looking for new challenges.

Kind of like Adam The Bull!

“I think years ago, probably like many people in the radio business, we looked at internet and podcasts as like whatever…those guys aren’t professionals…they’re amateurs,” said Gerstenhaber.  “But the game has changed.”

Gerstenhaber, Crawford and everyone associated with the “Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show” should not have much of a problem attracting the younger audience. That demographic is already accustomed to watching shows on YouTube and other streaming platforms.  The challenge now is to get the more mature audience on board. There are certainly some obstacles there.

I know this from experience with trying to explain to my mother in Florida how she can hear me on the radio and watch me on television simply by using her tablet.

Bull can certainly relate to that.

“My mother is still trying to figure out how to watch the show live,” said Gerstenhaber with a chuckle.  “The older fans struggle with that. A lot of my older fans here in Cleveland are like how do I watch it? For people that are under 40 and certainly people that under 30, watching a YouTube show is like okay I watch everything on my phone or device.  It’s such a divide and obviously as the years go by, that group will increase.” 

With the television show off and running, Gerstenhaber still has a passion for his roots and that’s the radio side of the business.  In the next couple of weeks, “The Bull” is set to announce the launch of two podcasts, one daily and one weekly, that will begin next month.  But he also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to terrestrial radio at some point.

“I have not closed the door to radio,” said Gerstenhaber.  “I still love radio.  I would still, in the right set of circumstances, consider going back to radio but it would have to really be the perfect situation.  I’m excited about (the television show) and right now I don’t want to do anything else but I’m certainly going to remain open-minded to radio if a really excellent opportunity came up.”

The landscape of the broadcasting industry, particularly when it comes to sports, has certainly changed over the years and continues to evolve.  Adam Gerstenhaber certainly enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on the radio side, both in New York and in Cleveland, but now he has made the transition to something new with the YouTube television show and he’s committed to making it a success.

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BSM Writers

Why You Should Be Making Great TikTok Content

“We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds.”

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It feels like there’s a new social media platform to pay attention to every other week. That makes it easy to overlook when one of them actually presents value to your brand. It wasn’t long ago that TikTok was primarily used by teenagers with the focus being silly dance trends filmed for video consumption with their friends and followers alike. Now, as the general public has become in tune with how this complicated app works, it’s grown far beyond that.

TikTok is now an app used by all types of demographics and unlike TikTok’s closely related cousins Instagram and Facebook, this app provides a certain type of nuance that I think people in our line of work can really excel in. 

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how you can use TikTok to your advantage and how to make your videos catch on, I think it’s important to first mention why this matters for you. Now, if I’m being realistic, I’m sure there are some that have already stopped reading this or those that could scroll away fast enough when they saw the words TikTok. You might be thinking that this doesn’t fit your demo, or maybe that it’s a waste of time because productivity here won’t directly lead to an uptick in Nielsen ratings. But I’m not sure any social network directly leads to what we ultimately get judged on, and we aren’t always pumping out content directly to our core audience.

TikTok, like any other app you may use, is marketing. This is another free tool to let people out there know who you are and what you offer in this endless sea of content. And the beauty of TikTok is that it directly caters its algorithm to content creators just like us. Bottom line, if you are a personality in sports talk, there’s no reason you can’t be crushing it on TikTok right now. All it takes is a little direction, focus, consistency, and a plan. 

Unlike Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where you can throw a photo up with a caption and be done for the day, TikTok’s whole model is built on creative videos that keep users engaged for longer periods of time. This approach works. According to Oberlo, a social media stat tracking site, people spend more time per day on TikTok than any other popular social media application. 38 minutes per day!

This is where this is good news for us in talk radio. We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds. TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t care how many followers you have, your level of credibility, or the production on your video. All ir cares about is 1) Is your content good. and 2) Are people watching it. 3) How long are they watching it. The more people watch and the longer they watch creates a snowball effect. Your videos views will skyrocket, sometimes within hours. 

So, how do you create content that will catch on? It’s really not all that different than what you do every day. Create thought-provoking commentary that makes people think, argue, or stay till the end to get the info you teased up for them. I’ve found through my own trial and error that it’s best if you stay away from time-sensitive material, I’ve had more success the more evergreen my content is. That way, the shelf life expands beyond just that day or week. This is different for everyone and there’s no one-size-fits-all, but this is where I’ve seen the most success. 

Also, put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to say something that people are going to vehemently disagree with. Again, it’s not unlike what we do every day. It’s one thing to get someone to listen, it’s another to get them to engage. Once they hit you in the comment section, you’ve got them hooked. Comments breed more views and on and on. But don’t just let those sit there, even the smallest interaction back like a shoulder shrug emoji can go a long way in creating more play for your video. 

If you want to grow quickly, create a niche for yourself. The best content creators that I follow on TikTok all put out very similar content for most of their videos. This means, unlike Instagram where it’s great to show what a wildly interesting and eclectic person you are, TikTok users want to know what they’re getting the second your face pops up on that screen. So if you are the sports history guy, be the sports history guy all the time. If you are the top 5 list guy, be the top 5 list guy all the time, and on and on, you get the point. 

Other simple tricks

  • Splice small videos together. Don’t shoot one long video. 
  • 90 seconds to 2 minutes is a sweet spot amount of time. 
  • Add a soft layer of background instrumental music (this feature is found in the app when you are putting the finishing touches on your video) 
  • Label your video across the screen at the start and time it out so that it disappears seconds later. This way a user gets an idea of what the content is immediately and then can focus on you delivering your message thereafter.  
  • Research trending hashtags, they are far more important than whatever you caption your video. 
  • Use closed captions so that people can follow your video without sound. 

Finally, don’t be intimidated by it or snub your nose at it. Anything that helps your brand is worth doing and anything worth doing is worth doing well. 

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BSM Writers

Does Tom Brady’s Salary Make Sense For FOX In a Changing Media World?

“The risk here doesn’t have to do with Brady specifically, but rather the business of televising football games in general.”

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FOX is playing it too safe when it comes to adding Tom Brady.

That’s going to sound weird given the size of Brady’s broadcasting contract. Even if that deal isn’t worth as much as initially reported, it’s a hell of a lot of loot, especially considering Brady has remained steadfastly uninteresting for a solid 20 years now.

Let’s not pretend that is a detriment in the eyes of a television network, however. There’s a long line of famous athletes companies like FOX have happily paid millions without ever requiring them to be much more than consistently inoffensive and occasionally insightful. Yes, Brady is getting more money than those previous guys, but he’s also the most successful quarterback in NFL history.

The risk here doesn’t have to do with Brady specifically, but rather the business of televising football games in general. More specifically, the fact that the business of televising football games is changing, and while it may not be changing quite as rapidly as the rest of the sports-media industry, but it is changing. There’s an increasing number of choices available to viewers not only in the games that can be watched, but how they are consumed. Everything in the industry points to an increasingly fragmented audience and yet by signing Brady to be in the broadcast booth once he retires, FOX is paying a premium for a single component in a tried-and-true broadcasting formula will be more successful. 

Think of Brady’s hiring as a bet FOX made. A 10-year commitment in which it is doubling down on the status quo at a time of obvious change. FOX saw ESPN introduce the ManningCast last year, and instead of seeing the potential for a network to build different types of products, FOX decided, “Nah, we don’t want to do anything different or new.” Don’t let the price tag fool you. FOX went out and bought a really famous former player to put in a traditional broadcast booth to hope that the center holds..

Maybe it will. Maybe Brady is that interesting or he’s that famous and his presence is powerful enough to defy the trends within the industry. I’m not naive enough to think that value depends on the quality of someone’s content. The memoir of a former U.S. president will fetch a multi-million-dollar advance not because of the literary quality, but because of the size of the potential audience. It’s the same rationale behind FOX’s addition of Brady.

But don’t mistake an expensive addition from an innovative one. The ManningCast was an actual innovation. A totally different way of televising a football game, and while not everyone liked it, some people absolutely loved it. It’s not going to replace the regular Monday Night Football format, but it wasn’t supposed to. It’s an alternative or more likely a complement and ESPN was sufficiently encouraged to extend the ManningCast through 2024. It’s a different product. Another option it is offering its customers. You can choose to watch to the traditional broadcast format with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth or you can watch the Mannings or you can toggle between both. What’s FOX’s option for those audience members who prefer something like the ManningCast to the traditional broadcast?

It’s not just ESPN, either. Amazon offered viewers a choice of broadcasters, too, from a female announcing tandem of Hannah Storm and Andrea Kramer beginning in 2018 to the Scouts Feed with Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks in 2020.

So now, not only do viewers have an increasingly wide array of choices on which NFL games they can watch — thanks to Sunday Ticket — they in some instances have a choice of the announcing crew for that given game. Amid this economic environment, FOX not only decided that it was best to invest in a single product, but it decided to make that investment in a guy who had never done this particular job before nor shown much in the way of an aptitude for it.

Again, maybe Brady is the guy to pull it off. He’s certainly famous enough. His seven Super Bowl victories are unmatched and span two franchises, and while he’s denied most attempts to be anything approaching interesting in public over the past 20 years, perhaps that is changing. His increasingly amusing Twitter posts over the past 2 years could be a hint of the humor he’s going to bring to the broadcast booth. That Tampa Tom is his true personality, which remained under a gag order from the Sith Lord Bill Belichick, and now Brady will suddenly become football’s equivalent of Charles Barkley.

But that’s a hell of a needle to thread for anyone, even someone as famous as Brady, and it’s a really high bar for someone with no broadcasting experience. The upside for FOX is that its traditional approach holds. The downside, however, is that it is not only spending more money on a product with a declining market, but it is ignoring obvious trends within the industry as it does so.

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