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ESPN Syracuse Wants To Bring Back Sponsors & Hosts

“Usually, when you’re going to hit a downturn you can see it coming, but this literally happened in 48 hours. I’m optimistic we’ve hit the bottom, the question now is, how quickly does the recovery happen?”

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Nearly two months after COVID-19 forced major sports leagues to shut down, ravaging industries nationwide, radio brands are still unsure when the upturn is coming.

It’s something radio companies couldn’t have anticipated and it’s especially frustrating when your operation was running as a profitable business before the pandemic hit. It took just two days for the world to stop, but it could be closer to two years before things get back to where they were, with no guarantee of impacted industries ever making a full recovery.

Galaxy Media’s ESPN Syracuse was one of the first brands to make programming cuts when the sports hiatus began. Interestingly enough, the changes had less to do with the financial impact of COVID-19 and more to do with the end of the Syracuse University athletic season.

Still, the locally owned sports radio station went from having a great year, to now being in the midst of their worst year. I spoke with Galaxy Media CEO Ed Levine and ESPN Syracuse afternoon host Brent Axe about managing the pandemic’s current and lasting impacts.

Brandon Contes: How has ESPN Syracuse been impacted by the pandemic, in terms of losing revenue?

Ed Levine: Obviously with sports being on pause, most sports related marketing has also gone on pause and the revenue is way down. Our sports focus is very much controlled by Syracuse University athletics. During baseball season, we do a good amount of business with the Yankees, but once the Syracuse University athletics season is over, we typically put most of our shows on pause and this year we did that a little sooner.

Our Team | Galaxy Media

BC: ESPN Syracuse cut some of their local weekday programming in March, but those shows were going to be paused soon regardless of the pandemic?

EL: Yeah and realistically, we only shut them down about three weeks early.

BC: So the lineup change was more about the sports shutdown than it was an immediate reaction to losing advertisers?

BC: Obviously we can’t predict how quickly things will bounce back, but is there hope that you’re able to bring back some of those paused weekday shows?

EL: Absolutely. We’re in contact with most of them and I think it will happen sequentially over time. We’ll need to make some different financial arrangements because it’s hard to accept the revenue hits we’ve taken and then put everyone back to where they were, but I think most people understand that.

We have a great group of hosts, but we make our money talking about local sports and without that, there just isn’t enough revenue to pay local hosts. But the idea is, once Syracuse University is back in full swing, our local content will return. We also launched a 24/7 streaming network on Twitch and expect that to come back as well. But much like the revenue will come back in phases, we’ll add expenses back in phases, so we don’t get ahead of ourselves.

BC: Locally, ESPN Syracuse kept SportsZilla going, as well as Brent Axe, has it been beneficial to have some local voices still on-air even though there isn’t much Syracuse sports to talk about?

EL: Absolutely, Axe is without question the premiere sports journalist in the community and he’s done a phenomenal job of creating interesting shows without having obvious content and I give him a lot of credit for that. The SportsZilla shows have also done a great job and they have the ability to branch off into topics outside of sports, but as a sports talk host, you earn your chops by continuing to entertain in this environment.  

BC: You mentioned car dealerships reopening and hopefully returning as clients, I’m sure it helps to have local voices on-air when you’re trying to get sponsors back.

EL: Right, in retrospect, it was a good thing that I anticipated the advertising would dry up. We had a very good 2019 and great start to 2020. We went into March at 90% of budget, we finished the month at 75%, which basically means for every dollar we added in March and April, we took $1.50 off. But the state is now allowing car dealerships to operate again, so our sense is that April was the bottom, it was a dreadful month, but I’m optimistic we’ll see improvement in May.

We’re the only major local broadcast company in central New York and certainly, the only one doing sports. We’ve been doing recovery packages, where we run some free advertising because if we have the ad inventory, we might as well help. I own a local business, I’m in the same boat as them and that’s our calling card. We compete with iHeart, Cumulus and Townsquare and they do a good job for who they are, but they’re not local and you can’t pretend to be local when you’re a nationally traded company.

BC: Have you had to layoff any full-time workers?

EL: That’s the thing I’m proudest of. We’ve all shared responsibilities and sacrifices throughout the company, but none of our full-time employees have been laid off, they all have jobs still. Our sports talk hosts all mostly have other jobs away from the radio station, we’re their side hustle. But we haven’t had to layoff any full-time employees and we hope to keep it that way.

We also have an event division which has been shut down and it would’ve been an easy decision to shutter that. But the event division has been our secret sauce and it’s what separated us from other local media companies, so I didn’t feel it was right to put them on the unemployment line.

BC: What kind of events does the division handle?

EL: Everything from the “Taste of Syracuse” which is the largest festival in the community, drawing 200,000 people. We do wine and chocolate events throughout the state, we have our holiday festival “Lights on the Lake” which draws 40,000 cars to the light display. We’re in every area of New York State from Buffalo to Long Island. The division contributes about half of the company’s revenue, so it’s been a huge loss to have that shuttered.

BC: My wife works in the corporate event industry, global and domestic and that industry was hit before sports came to a stop. Canceling travel, canceling events, employees being furloughed, losing revenue, each step happened shortly before it hit sports radio.

EL: I’m hoping that 12-15 months from now we can get back to where we were and what’s maddening about this is, we were on a tremendous roll from 2019 into 2020. Usually, when you’re going to hit a downturn you can see it coming, but this literally happened in 48 hours. I’m optimistic we’ve hit the bottom, the question now is, how quickly does the recovery happen? While the radio industry has struggled in the last ten years, our events division was able to help fuel our company’s growth. They’re brainstorming some great events right now and as soon as we get the go ahead, we’ll be back stronger than ever. 

BC: What about across your different radio brands, have you seen one format be less impacted than another?

EL: Our sports talk stations have clearly been the most impacted. The music stations have also taken significant revenue hits, but people emotionally still felt those brands were a more viable place to advertise after sports were shut down. If we were down 50% overall, it was probably down 70% on the sports talk side. But once everything gets running again, we’ll go from having nothing, to having everything at the same time which will present a challenge in itself, but one we’ll certainly look forward to.

Brent Axe hosts weekday afternoons on ESPN Syracuse and has been a local sports radio and journalism fixture since 2002.

Brandon Contes: You’ve been doing sports talk in Syracuse for about two decades now, how important do you think it is for the city to still have a familiar voice on-air during a difficult time?

Brent Axe: The feedback I’m getting from listeners is that they enjoy the break from what’s going on out there. We’re all in the same boat and it’s been helpful for me too. I really enjoy being able to come in every day and keep a similar routine, so it’s been great to stay on-air from all angles.

Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) | Twitter

BC: What are you doing now without live sports, are you still able to find local sports stories to discuss?

BA: There has been some great local content in terms of what local athletes are doing to stay in shape. Recently, there was a celebration of the 2003 Syracuse men’s basketball national championship team and Jim Boeheim and a bunch of former playoffs did a Facebook Live event where they watched the game and reacted to it. Recruiting stories have popped up, discussing players like Elijah Hughes entering the NBA Draft, so there have been a lot of local stories and a lot of nostalgia with people looking back and watching old games.

BC: People love reminiscing, even before sports stopped, there’s been a big emphasis on the ‘90s, just look at the amount of TV shows and sitcoms that have returned in some way.

BA: Everyone’s watching The Last Dance, so I look for a local connection. Syracuse played Michael Jordan and North Carolina at The Dome twice. Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk is a Syracuse grad, you can take what’s hot nationally and find the local angle because there are so many connections if you know where to look.

BC: Do you enjoy having the blank slate of topics every single day, or do you prefer having some direction of knowing what you’re going to talk about tomorrow?

BA: I don’t like having this much freedom, because sports is naturally something you react to, but I do enjoy the challenge. When the NFL Draft came, it was a relief to be able to react to fresh news and it gave a glimmer of hope for what’s to come. I still enjoy the challenge, because anyone can watch the games and react to it, but I’ve always said you learn how to do radio during the summer when there isn’t a lot going on. It’s like going to the grocery store right now, some aisles are more full than others these days, so you get creative with what you can make.

BC: Have you been able to try new things on-air?

BA: We do segments in different ways. Every day I do a segment called ‘Hot Takes’ and it’s my way of touching on national topics at a rapid pace. That segment has become a daily discussion of what we’re hearing in terms of when and how will sports return? I used to do a segment called the ‘Blind Side’ where my producer would hit me with five questions about anything. I don’t have a producer right now, so I might have my listeners ask questions. They’re not necessarily new segments, but it’s doing what we do differently.

BC: How is that aspect of doing your show without a producer?

BA: It reminds me of my college radio days, doing everything myself. Booking guests, doing all of the prep, it’s been interesting and a learning experience. It makes me appreciate the job my producer and our support staff do at the station that much more because you kind of take for granted being able to focus only on content and being on-air.

BC: Without a producer, who do you bounce ideas off of, especially with a blank slate of topics, I’m sure it’s helpful to have someone to discuss ideas with before the show starts.

BA: Absolutely, I talk with Paulie Scibilia, our operations manager. I’ll text him ideas, he’ll offer suggestions for guests as well. My normal producer, Seth Goldberg is home in New Jersey right now, but I still talk to him all the time. And even my other colleagues at Syracuse.com, who aren’t in radio, but I get feedback and input from them as well. There’s a definite chain of communication when trying to develop topics and content.

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

I Heard A Lot of Boring, Uncreative Sports Radio On Friday

“Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released”

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Maybe this one is on me for expecting better. Maybe I need to take my own advice and accept that there are times the sports radio audience just wants a little comfort food. Still, this is my column and I am going to complain because I listened to probably six different stations on Friday and all of them were doing the exact same thing.

The NFL schedule was released on Thursday night, so on Friday, regardless of daypart, every show seemingly felt obligated to have the same three conversations.

  1. How many games will the home team win?
  2. What does the number of primetime games we got mean for how much respect we have nationally?
  3. Why do the Lions still get to play on Thanksgiving?

Football is king. I get that. Concrete NFL news is always going to take priority. That is understandable. But where was even an ounce of creativity? Where was the desire to do better – not just better than the competition, but better than the other shows in your own building?

I listened to shows in markets from across the league. The conversations were the same regardless of size or history of success. Everyone that picked in the top 5 in last month’s draft is going to go 10-7. Every team that got less than 5 primetime games feels disrespected. It was all so boring.

Those of us in the industry don’t consume content the way listeners do. We all know that. Perhaps I am harping on something that is only a problem to me because I listen to sports talk radio for a living. If you don’t ever want to put more than the bare minimum of effort into your show, decide that is the reason for my reaction and go click on another article here.

Consider this though, maybe the fact that I listen to so much sports radio means I know how much quality there is in this industry. Maybe it means that I can spot someone talented that is phoning it in.

I want to be clear in my point. There is value in giving your record prediction for the home team. Listeners look at the people on the radio as experts. I will bet some futures bets in a lot of markets were made on Friday based on what the gambler heard coming through their speakers. All I want to get across is there is a way to have that conversation that isn’t taking two segments to go through each week one by one. I heard no less than three stations do that on Friday.

Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released. It’s a very familiar rhythm: pick the wins, get a guest on to preview the week 1 opponent, take calls, texts and tweets with the listeners’ predictions.

I didn’t hear anyone ask their listeners to sell them on the over for wins. I didn’t hear anyone give me weeks that you could skip Red Zone because one matchup is just too damn good. I didn’t hear anyone go through the Sunday Night Football schedule and pick out the weeks to schedule dates because the matchup isn’t worth it.

Maybe none of those ideas are winners, and that is fine. They are literally three dumb ideas I pulled out of the air. But they are all ways to review the schedule that could potentially leave a smile on your listener’s face.

Show prep is so important, especially in a group setting. It is your chance to tell your partner, producer, or host that you know you can do better than the idea that has just been thrown out. Quit nodding in agreement and challenge each other! It may mean a little more work for you, but it means more reward for the listeners. And if the listeners know they can rely on you for quality, creative content, that leads to more reward for you.

And lay off the Lions. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re stuck at home. The NFL could give you Lions vs Jaguars and you’d watch.

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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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