There’s an old saying in radio, ‘always have a Plan B‘. That’s what this article is because Plan A was to release a great podcast conversation today with Gow Media Chairman and CEO David Gow. Thanks though to a corrupt audio file, that twenty five minute masterpiece (which was certain to be featured in the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame), will unfortunately never see the light of day.
But that’s OK. It’s the news that David passed along that matters most, and fortunately I take lots of notes when conducting conversations.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting or talking with David Gow, he’s a very likable guy. We’ve chatted numerous times during my time as a consultant, and one thing I appreciate is his positive energy. I’ve never heard him talk down about a competitor or the industry, yet consider the challenges he faces each day. Locally he competes against corporate giants iHeart, Entercom, and Cumulus. Nationally he’s up against large networks such as ESPN Radio, FOX Sports Radio, and CBS Sports Radio, not to mention the countless audio options sports fans have available at their fingertips.
It’d be understandable if every now and then David felt frustrated or like he’s pushing a boulder up Mount Everest, but that’s not how he presents himself. You have to appreciate an independent owner and operator who loves the business, and is simply just trying to carve out his own slice of the pie.
When you analyze the Houston sports radio scene, ESPN 97.5 has been a strong local option for quite some time. The station matches up well against local competitors Sports Radio 610 and SportsTalk 790, thanks to the team of Lance Zierlein and John Granato from 7a-11a, Charlie Pallilo, Joel Blank and Nick Sharara from 11a-2p, Josh Innes from 2p-4p, and The Blitz with AJ Hoffman and Fred Faour from 4p-7p.
“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made with 97.5” said Gow. “It’s as good of a lineup as you’ll find in Houston, and we’re fortunate to have great listenership and loyal advertisers.”
The company has also placed a priority on strengthening its digital footprint. Gow Media purchased the website CultureMap in 2017, and quickly began building other sites off of the Map identity such as SportsMap, AutomotiveMap, and InnovationMap.
But in national sports radio circles, the challenges are tougher. ESPN Radio has been a steady force for decades thanks to relationships with hundreds of affiliates, and synergy with the most identified sports television brand on the planet. FOX Sports Radio has enjoyed the support of iHeart and FOX Sports television, and features a high profile lineup that is second to none. CBS Sports Radio has emerged as a solid third option, relying on the strength of Entercom’s local sports brands to highlight the network’s talent and content.
For SB Nation Radio, they’ve had to scratch and claw for everything they have. It’s required striking partnerships with other media outlets to use their brand names and talent, joining forces with stations not under control of the big three media companies, spending wisely on personalities to avoid financial difficulty, and offering clearance flexibility to affiliates to earn content exposure on their radio stations.
Gow entered the national sports radio space a little over 10 years ago. During that time, his radio network has evolved from Sporting News Radio to Yahoo Sports Radio to SB Nation Radio. While those brand names may be familiar to most sports fans, they’ve all lost key personnel, and when key talent depart popular brands, it can affect the perception of how that brand is seen, along with those who partner with it. The question for a radio network associated with the brand then becomes ‘why are we attaching ourselves to someone else’s identity instead of creating our own?’
If you’ve followed the news over the past few months, SB Nation’s parent company Vox Media has made a number of staff reductions. The online site which once featured a number of smart, witty, and creative writers is now much different than what it was previously. Yahoo and Sporting News went thru similar situations years ago. Rather than continue to put their eggs in the basket of media outlets which may or may not look and operate differently in 3-5 years, Gow has decided it’s time to give the network a name that aligns with his company’s focus.
On July 27th, SB Nation Radio will officially become the SportsMap Radio Network. The name is an extension of Gow’s digital outlet Sports Map which has already gained traction in Houston. The company also features other platforms which play off of the Map name as well, including Culture Map, Automotive Map, and Innovation Map.
“We were fortunate to work with a number of great partners in SB Nation, Yahoo and Sporting News, but as we looked at the pros and cons of teaming up with another media outlet or doing our own thing, the time just felt right to make this move and focus on building our own identity,” explained Gow.
I asked if consideration was given to other familiar outlets such as Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, Bleacher Report, and The Ringer, and Gow admitted that conversations did occur with a few other sports digital brands, but he wouldn’t specify which ones were pursued heaviest. He did tell me that there will be additional news to share in the near future regarding a few partnerships his company is close to finalizing.
One of the challenges of aligning a network with a specific partner is it shuts down opportunity with others who offer similar content or services. For example, you rarely hear ESPN Radio and FOX Sports Radio talent appear on each other’s shows, and when you’re trying to expand a brand and put the most eyes and ears on a product, having a relationship with every potential media partner is important.
“We have spent a lot of time looking at media partnerships that can supply great content and distribution, and sometimes brands are strong at one thing, but less effective in another area,” explained Gow. “We see that as an opportunity. I’m happy to create a content partnership with a brand that does content well, and a separate deal with another who’s better at distribution. By having our own identity, and not being tied to one particular brand, it opens the door for us to work with both.”
Being privy to a few of the items Gow is planning to announce in the near future, most industry folks will see the news as a positive for his business. The bigger question among affiliates and potential partner stations will be about the network’s talent and lineup. Though most radio traditionalists are going to examine the M-F 6a-7p lineup, and use it to judge whether a brand should earn clearance from affiliate stations, Gow raised a great point when talking about the path to earning clearance and revenue.
“I believe the most undervalued advertising in national radio is evening programming” shared Gow. “Advertisers have an opportunity to align themselves with a great talent like Tony Bruno during a time period that generates strong loyal listening but at a fraction of the cost. We gain a lot of clearance during the evenings because many stations like to feature local content during the day. This is not only a great opportunity for our network, but it’s an excellent one for our partners as well.”
If you think about that statement for a second, it makes a lot of sense. Is the SportsMap Radio Network in better shape for gaining clearance on a local station by featuring a personality like Bruno at night or in mornings or middays? Given the stacked lineups on other networks during the day, and the likelihood of local stations wanting to feature their own content to drive sales, you can make a case that they’re better served featuring a prime time player at night where he has a better chance to stand out. Wisely the network also cut a deal with SportsGrid to feature Scott Ferrall in PM drive, which gives them a chance to keep the door ajar with local stations looking for a quality network drive time show.
The road ahead for all media operators remains difficult. Many are trying to recover from a 2020 that has taken a mental toll on their teams, and an economic toll on their bottom line. One path that appears promising is the growing importance of sports betting, an area that Gow prepared in advance for by striking a partnership with VSiN to create The BetR Network. With heavier competition around the corner, and large dollars at stake, the more partnerships a brand has in place to attract larger audiences, the better their chances of attracting substantial investments.
But the biggest challenge looming ahead isn’t tied to clearance, talent or partnerships, it’s connected to the word that matters most to all involved in our format – sports. How will the national sports radio scene fare if there isn’t a fall sports calendar? Will local stations explore format flips or further staff reductions? Given the financial difficulties in 2020, it’s hard to imagine the format heading into 2021 in strong shape if sports is silent during football season. But that isn’t going to temper Gow’s optimism.
“2020 has been hard on us, just as it has on many broadcasters” said Gow. “One decision we made as a company was to have everyone share in the pain, so we wouldn’t have to eliminate a number of jobs. By taking that approach we were able to keep our team in tact, and though we’ve all gone thru challenging times this year, if we can get thru this, then I’m sure we’ll come out on the other side in even better shape.”