Tue. Dec 1st, 2020

Sports Radio Must Address It's Own Issues

Sports Radio Must Address Its Own Minority Issues

“Radio companies have made it a priority to give women and minorities more opportunities at the Market Manager level, but it doesn’t excuse a lack of progress in programming.”

For the past few days, I’ve debated pressing send on this column. It wasn’t because I was uncomfortable addressing a serious issue or concerned that my words could piss off high ranking media executives. I swore to myself 5 years ago that if I became a publisher, influencer, consultant, and strategist that I’d use my voice, speak from the heart, and reject those who sought to use their power to control my opinions.

The reason I struggled publishing this piece is because new information continued to pour in, and the more that I digested, I wondered if the radio industry cared to hear the truth about where it’s missing the mark. When tough conversations start, some corporate folks tend to ignore the message and attack the messenger. The quick reaction is to shield the company from negative attention, and protect the bottom line, because after all that’s what matters most.

Well, if you’ve read this site at all in the past 5 years, I’m confident that we’ve improved your education on the sports radio industry. I love this business, the people involved in it, and I enjoy telling their stories, sharing ideas, and helping brands grow their ratings and revenue. I dedicate myself daily to using my eyes, ears, hands and mouth to observe the sports format, advocate for it’s value, and help those who contribute to its success.

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But what I can’t stomach is the hypocrisy that I’ve seen take place during the past week of events.

If you turned on your television or radio or used your cell phone to scroll thru your social media timelines during the past few days, you likely were exposed to an avalanche of images, videos and soundbites reflecting reality, pain, frustration, and inequality. Some situations have been organized and peacefully executed, others have showcased the very worst of what America has to offer.

What each of these protests have reminded us of is the imbalance that exists in white and black America. Tensions may have resurfaced recently due to the disgusting actions of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, costing the man his life and creating an uproar across the nation, but this issue has brewed beneath the surface for quite some time. The names and faces may change, but the results don’t. All that awaits is the next victim, legal process, and destruction of another American city.

But as a 46-year old white male, who’s role in the media industry is to help companies, brands, and people make improvements to their business, I’m not going to profess to be an expert on how to improve race relations in the United States. That’s a much bigger job for someone with very different credentials. What I do possess though is the skill and ability to weigh in on an issue which sports radio continues to sweep under the rug, hoping nobody will notice – hiring and promoting minorities.

On Tuesday, I saw sports radio brands across the country use their social media accounts to post statements and share the blackout Tuesday image to show that they were standing up against racism and violence. That same day, Sports Radio 1140 KHTK in Sacramento terminated longtime host Grant Napear, after he answered a question on Twitter from former Kings player DeMarcus Cousins using the words ‘All Lives Matter’, not realizing that the term was hurtful to members of the black community. Each brand may have had the best of intentions, but forgive me if I’m not rushing to pat the industry on the back for claiming to stand for a cause that it’s conveniently turned a blind eye towards.

The cold reality is that sports radio has and continues to fail at giving minorities opportunities to occupy larger roles, especially in programming circles. All you have to do is look across the nation at the nearly eight hundred sports radio stations in existence and count how many on-air hosts are of Hispanic or African American descent. As of last check, it was between 10-14%. The number is higher if you focus solely on Major Markets, but as you add smaller cities to the mix, the percentages decline.

Now, take a peak behind the curtain to see how many Hispanic or African American’s have been given the opportunity and privilege of programming sports radio stations. The results are even more staggering. If you can find more than 5 minorities in programming positions it’d be a shocker. Quite frankly, it’s unacceptable, and each of us who are part of this format should be embarrassed by it.

I realize that some corporate leaders are going to hate this column. The last thing a radio industry executive wants to deal with is a story that draws attention to their lack of attention to a serious matter. But if nobody has the courage to say what needs to be said, then how on earth can we expect any type of progress to be made?

What especially pisses me off is that there isn’t a ton of focus being placed either on grooming future African American sports radio executives. If Dave Roberts is qualified to run the ESPN Radio network, and Terry Foxx was good enough to build 92.9 The Game in Atlanta and 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh into successful brands, shouldn’t that be enough evidence to open some eyes and pave the way for other minority programmers?

Unfortunately the answer is no.

In Terry’s case, his reward for being recognized as one of the Top 20 programmers in the format, developing another minority leader in Sean Thompson, and leading The Game in Atlanta to a 2nd place finish in his final ratings book was a trip to the unemployment office. It used to be that if you delivered results, you were untouchable. Now, it’s about the dollars and cents that you earn each paycheck. Clearly Terry didn’t lose his gig for poor performance.

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How is it possible that in 2020, a format as universally loved as sports, doesn’t have more than a handful of African American and Hispanic’s in key programming roles? Are we proud of that performance? If our report card on this issue were a ratings book, the PD and GM would be fired for historically bad results. And before you tell me that females are poorly represented too, I’m well aware. That’s another massive issue that deserves its own column.

What’s even more troubling is that this topic isn’t new. I wrote columns on it in 2015 and 2017, guided numerous conversations with executives and talent at the BSM Summit and other industry events, and I’ve shown data to draw attention to our format’s abysmal track record. This may not be what you want to hear, but it’s what you need to hear because if you think the issue is going to vanish into thin air, you’re making a massive mistake. The noise will only get louder.

So why does it continue to get overlooked? Am I supposed to believe that no minorities have interest in running sports radio stations? The United States is made up of roughly 50% Whites, 25% Hispanics, 14% African Americans, and the remaining numbers are split between Asian Americans and Other. Yet on sports radio stations, 85-90% of the hosting roles belong to White personalities, and in management the percentages are even higher.

That’s just not good enough.

When I’ve asked leaders about this issue, most acknowledge that the sports format’s report card is unsatisfactory. The responses I often hear are along the lines of ‘we do care about this issue, realize we’ve under performed, and need to do better‘, and though I appreciate the honesty, what I’m not seeing or hearing is a plan for fixing the mistake. Words are great, but actions are greater.

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So how do we make sports radio hosting and management jobs more attractive to minorities? Why would a non-white person assume they had a chance to land one of these jobs if they don’t see people from a similar background occupying them? Are we leaving our studios and heading to areas that are largely occupied by minorities to talk about the sports radio industry and why it’d be worth pursuing?

What about creating digital shows to give young minority voices a chance to develop and engage with an audience? Do we have training programs set up to help minority employees grow? And what about the interviewing process for management jobs – are minority candidates receiving a fair shake or are managers just gravitating to those they already know?

It’s disappointing and hypocritical that a business as big as ours, which currently has personalities flooding the airwaves and social media with opinion after opinion over protests, injustice, inequality, and politics, continues to ignore what exists inside of its own closet. Countless hosts are speaking about these issues, expressing their emotions, and challenging others to rise up and seek a new direction yet they fail to acknowledge that the same disparity exists inside their own place of employment.

Case in point, Bonneville is a company that I greatly respect, admire and was proud to be a part of for two years of my career. They employ people who I like, have helped, and want to see do well. On Tuesday, the company cut ties with Grant Napear, a man who was the face of Sacramento sports radio for 26 years, and who spent 32 years calling Sacramento Kings games. His career was ruined by a tweet which many feel was an honest mistake. Even the Sacramento Bee’s Marcos Breton, who wasn’t close with Napear, took issue with the company’s decision.

I have no idea if Grant Napear is or isn’t racist. Chris Russo says he isn’t, Matt Barnes says he is. Only Grant and those close to him know the truth. I certainly won’t shape my opinion on him or anyone else by listening to folks on Twitter who claim to know what someone is or isn’t simply by reading an article or a few tweets. I prefer to talk to people and gather facts before assigning labels.

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What bothers me though about incidents like these is that companies won’t hesitate to extinguish an individual’s career in order to save face but many do so while throwing stones from inside of glass houses. Bonneville for example owns sports radio stations in Phoenix, Seattle, Sacramento, and Denver. On those 4 stations, they employ 30 local hosts M-F 6a-12a – 11 in Denver, 9 in Seattle, 7 in Phoenix and now 3 in Sacramento. Guess how many minorities occupy key hosting roles on those stations? Three. Two in Denver, and Doug Christie in Sacramento, Napear’s former partner. The amount of minority producers and program directors employed is also low.

I believe Bonneville tried to do the right thing in this instance. They showed compassion, understanding, and a willingness to make a tough decision to show their support for the black community. It’s hard though to offer praise when the stations under their control aren’t exactly booming with diverse personnel. Similar to sports stations tweeting out the blackout Tuesday image, it’s a well intended gesture, but it means little unless you actually follow thru and make improvements. How the company responds moving forward will tell you if they’re committed to change or just reacting to negative attention.

And don’t think that this issue only applies to Bonneville. Other radio companies have similar challenges. So too do sports digital outlets. Just yesterday, the New York Post published a piece after employees at The Ringer took aim at Bill Simmons for failing to provide a diverse workplace. The comments came after Ryen Russillo praised Simmons on a podcast for hiring a diverse work force.

“Diversity in the newsroom is essential to covering police brutality and systemic racism, including in the worlds of sports and pop culture. The Ringer has a lot of work to do,” said The Ringer Union on Twitter.

Staff writer John Gonzalez added “If you’ve heard someone say The Ringer is a super diverse place, sadly that person does not know what he’s talking about. We have a long way to go, and I hope we get there”.

The Ringer, Bill Simmons podcast, Ryen Russillo racial diversity

If I dug deep into other sports digital brands, I’m sure I’d find similar issues. Jobs shouldn’t be given to people based solely on their skin color but when 90-95% of opportunities are provided to individuals from the same background, it tells you that the system isn’t working.

I believe sports radio could be the biggest format in this business. I say that without a shadow of doubt because I already see what sports does for television, print, podcasting and social media. But in order to grow, this issue has to be addressed up top, and then sent down, received, understood, and embraced inside the market manager’s office. We don’t need hollow speeches and bullshit quotes delivered to industry trade outlets about our concern for the issue, we need to take action and show proof that we’ve made things better.

Making real progress won’t be easy. It’s going to require adjusting our mindset, improving our education, abandoning prior strategy, demanding better execution, holding corporate leaders accountable, and actually hiring people who look, talk, think and live differently. Vince Lombardi once said “Some of us will do our jobs well and some will not, but we will all be judged on one thing: the result”. Unfortunately for the sports radio business, the result right now is a collective F.

If you’re in a position of power and have been emotionally moved by the events of the past week, you might not be able to improve the relationship between the black community and local police departments. Nor will you be able to control if people choose to loot stores or assault other human beings. But never forget why it is that people are acting out. They’re fed up with being mistreated, overlooked, and ignored.

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I’d love to tell my minority friends in the industry and anyone who’s non-white and thinking about getting into our business that this situation will get better. I want to believe that the future will be brighter because radio executives will put a greater focus on addressing these issues, but I don’t want to make empty promises. I honestly don’t know if it’ll improve. I’m sorry that opportunities in our format have been scarce. Lord knows we’d all benefit from a more diverse workplace.

All I can add at this point is that if you’re black, Hispanic, Asian or female, don’t stop letting others know of your desire to advance your career. There aren’t a ton of these jobs available, so keep working on your craft, seek input from those you trust and respect, and answer the call as often as possible when you’re asked to perform. As an advocate for this industry and independent resource who works with a number of companies, I’m happy to help any minority who’s interested in growing. All you have to do is reach out by email to schedule a call.

I understand that there will be mixed reactions to this column. I’m OK with that. What I hope we can all agree on once emotions subside is that the sports radio format hasn’t done enough to address this issue. If we truly care about growing our business and changing for the better, then it’s time to switch the game plan, because the one we’ve been using clearly isn’t working.

Additional Note: After this column was posted, 610 Sports PD Steven Spector reached out on Twitter (see below). If you’re a minority host, producer or future program director interested in receiving feedback, asking questions, and developing a relationship, email Steven at Steven.Spector@entercom.com.

4 thoughts on “Sports Radio Must Address Its Own Minority Issues

  1. Jason, well said. I’ve been doing a lot of listening and thinking these past two weeks, and I have also been struggling with the right message to send on my megaphone – my blog. It will run tomorrow, and hopefully, I’ll have stones to hit “submit.” You will likely hear from the naysayers. Ignore them. This is an important, inspiring message, and I commend you for saying it.

    1. Appreciate the kind words Fred. As you know, our industry isn’t keen on being called out when it misses the mark. But if we don’t treat critical issues with the attention they deserve, they’ll continue to linger. I’ll take my chances pissing off a few if it means better progress down the line. This format desperately needs to get serious about it.

  2. When people are fed up they still have no right to destroy or vandalize property. Many Americans are watching in horror and fully understand the dramatic differences between peacefully protesting and felonious behavior. Police officers have been shot and killed this week. Great people all smeared with the same brush. Bonneville executed an innocent man this week. Maybe one day you’ll venture into an ambush yourself. Just remember when this dust all settles (and it will). We’ll all be right where we started. Guaranteed. Because the change that most of us desire lies within. If we can fix ourselves from the inside, anything is possible. Burning and stealing simply moves one further away from progress.

    1. I appreciate your feedback. This piece is focused on the lack of minority progress in sports radio. The other issues you mention are a much different discussion. Thanks for reading.

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