Chad Abbott is a 25-year veteran at KFAN in Minneapolis. Chad worked his way up from interning and knocking out part-time shifts to becoming the program director of the Twin Cities top sports radio station. It’s interesting to hear the iHeart employee describe how much of his brand manager role goes beyond radio. Chad likens his job to a curler, which in my opinion is the best description of the gig out there.
There is plenty of conversation about where the sports radio industry is headed. Will stations continue to downsize or flip? What’s the impact of podcasting? Will new cars treat radio like COVID and socially distance from the medium? What interests me more than things I can’t control is what the future of sports radio will sound like. Chad describes how KFAN steps outside of the sports bubble as a mass appeal radio station. Sports are definitely on the menu, but plenty of other things are served as well. It’s a smart approach that could easily grow in popularity around the country.
You’d be hard pressed to find a PD that speaks as highly about his on-air staff as Chad does. It’s an uncommonly cool setup where Chad and his staff grew up together at KFAN. The Minnesota native says thumbs down on ceilings, plateaus, and Gary Anderson’s missed kick. Instead he emphasizes passion and emotion, two traits he proudly possesses. You don’t last 25 years in this business without them.
Brian Noe: Before sports came back, how did your station thrive during the pandemic?
Chad Abbott: Thankfully KFAN and our lineup have been suited to not talk sports. Quite often we wouldn’t talk sports even well before the pandemic. We really didn’t have to change a lot of what we were doing. We were well equipped to talk about general guy stuff, general societal things that we would talk about normally whether there were sports or not sports. We were able to continue those types of segments and guests and content that we already had established on the station. Quite honestly we didn’t have to change a whole heck of a lot.
BN: How do you go about instructing your on-air staff to handle the balance of providing straight sports talk, and pop culture/guy talk?
CA: Our guys are pretty smart when it comes to what our listeners are looking for. They have a pretty good feel for what this town and region is interested in. I don’t ever want our guys to be attached to whatever our local team’s record might be. If the team’s not doing well, why would we be talking about them? We’ll talk more sports when there’s a team that’s justifying more conversation and more content pieces. But if a team is having a struggle of a year and their attendance is down and their viewership is down, why would we spend a lot of time talking about them?
It’s a lot of just common sense. If there’s an interest level in the town, we’re going to be talking about that team. Obviously the Vikings in most cases are a hot topic. Football as we say always wins here in Minnesota. We’re happy to talk about all the sports but if they’re struggling a little bit, we’ll put less time into it. That therefore leads into the ability to talk about things pop culture wise or things that might interest our listeners besides the Timberwolves team who might be struggling at the time.
BN: Are there any particular topics outside of sports that seem to resonate the most there?
CA: That’s a good question. Back when you could go see movies, if there was a hot movie the guys might talk about it. If there was something happening in the local government, we have political guests that would come on and we would just continue to talk about that. What we have at KFAN is four very different shows. They’re similar in that they are all talented but their content is all different. We like to think of it as four morning shows. All of them are extremely successful because they all do stuff their own way.
BN: Should stations be more concerned with what’s interesting instead of just talking sports?
CA: Yeah, I think you have to have a really good gauge on your community and what that listener base might wants. There’s always going to be somebody that wants sports 24/7. We just don’t feel that that’s going to reach a large enough audience for us to be successful. So rather than uber-focus on a local team, we’re going to try to be more of a mass appeal radio station. It’s allowed for us to reach quite a large base of listeners beyond just men 25-54. That’s always going to be our wheelhouse but we’re always interested in growing.
If you focus, in my opinion, specifically on just sports, you’re going to limit yourself. You’re going to provide a ceiling and we want to reach as many people in this town as we can. We want to serve the community and speak to the community and we can do that if we don’t just focus on sports.
BN: If you had an opening, how would you go about looking for a talent that is more than just a sports person?
CA: We would want to look for somebody with emotion and personality. To me emotion and personality is better than analysis. Talk radio is a format that succeeds with passion and emotion not stats & information. That’s the type of person we would look for is somebody that has a really good personality — is obviously smooth and talented and can entertain — that stuff means far more to me than what knowledge they might have in sports.
BN: How about the station’s reputation in the community — if you went up to 10 people on the street and asked them to describe KFAN, what do you think they would say?
CA: I think they would think of us as a talk station that also does sports. When there’s a big news event, people want to tune in to find out what Dan Barreiro thinks of that event or topic. We’re the station people come to when there’s news in this town whether it’s sports or societal or political. This is the station that has become the voice of Minnesota.
We have a large radio network now and I think our personalities have been doing this long enough and have such a great base of listeners that they want to hear what these personalities think of a topic that might be hot in the community. It might not be sports. It might be the Vikings. It might be the Minnesota Wild, or it might be something the governor has just announced. I think when things happen in this town people want to hear what our personalities have to say about it.
BN: How long have you had the mentality of approaching radio in Minnesota this way?
CA: Most of the existence of KFAN has been we’re going to talk sports and other stuff. We took a beating early on from listeners that would call in and say they don’t want to hear our hosts’ opinion on things outside of sports. We continue to receive complaints like that. We understand that. We understand that we’re not for everybody, but we want to be there for the largest audience we possibly can.
We have personalities like Dan Barreiro, Dan Cole, Paul Allen, Chris Hawkey, Cory Cove, and Paul Lambert who have all been doing it for a very long time. They’ve developed that reputation in town. It’s a reputation that’s been built over 20-plus years. I think it’s allowed these guys to be established in this town where people respect the fact that they’re going to leave the sports department for a while but they’ll come back to it when news dictates it.
BN: Do you think it helps humanize your on-air staff if they go beyond just sports, sports, sports?
CA: Certainly. Our guys are very good at letting people behind the curtain and into their lives. People are familiar with the names of our hosts’ kids. They’re familiar with the things that our hosts do outside of radio. In a lot of cases they’ve grown up with these hosts. It certainly personalizes their shows when they let people behind the curtain of what they do when they’re not here at the station. That extends into their social media. If you were to look at our personalities’ social media followings, they’re among the largest anywhere in the country when it comes to radio hosts. I think it’s because of that connection we have with the listeners. Greg Swedberg, our SVP, has always preached to us, to have a really good talk station, it takes time and talent. We are blessed to have both here with these guys. They’ve all been doing it for a very long time and they all have a lot of talent.
BN: How did you get your start in the radio business?
CA: I started interning here after my freshman year in college. I got an internship and I transferred to a school down here in the Twin Cities and worked part-time through college doing nights and weekends and overnights and board ops and whatever I could. It just kind of grew from there. I worked at one radio station my freshman year up in Fargo, North Dakota for one year. Outside of that I’ve been here at KFAN for 25.
BN: Wow man, that’s a long haul.
CA: It’s a long time and I realize how blessed I am because not many people get to just go to one station for this long. It’s been a blessing.
BN: What college did you go to?
CA: I was up at North Dakota State when I was working at the Fargo radio station. Then I transferred down here to the University of St. Thomas. This will bore your audience. You won’t want to write about this.
CA: Going into my senior year one of the local colleges had just started doing online learning — you’ll appreciate this — I got an endorsement to take classes at this school. I finished my senior year at Concordia University here in St. Paul through an endorsement. It was almost like a scholarship for radio. Of course I took it. Man, you’re working part-time in radio; you’ve got no money.
BN: I know that’s right. How would you describe what sports fans in Minnesota are like?
CA: The sports fans in Minnesota are just dying to have a winner. We’ve had so many different close calls and so many strange outcomes to games that we’ve been beaten down. Minnesota fans have been beaten down, but they’re certainly passionate about it and they’re still thirsty for a winner. When somebody shows that success it becomes a very popular team.
The Minnesota Vikings are always the most popular team in town. We’re the self-proclaimed state of hockey. Hockey is a big sport here and the Twins have been hot for a while. The recent success of the Gophers; they’ve reached the highest levels they’ve been at in quite some time. It’s a fan base that is dying for a winner and is going to show that emotion after every tough loss. They have just another notch on the belt, just another example that they can explain to their kids how Minnesota sports might be jinxed, but we’re hoping to be here for a winner when we finally get one.
BN: If you were able to turn one team into a championship team, who would be your pick for that?
CA: If the Minnesota Vikings won a Super Bowl here this town would lose its mind. Having experienced a couple of World Series; those were fantastic and a lot of fun. The Gophers being successful last year was great. The Minnesota Wild have had a couple of playoff runs, but if the Minnesota Vikings won the Super Bowl this town would lose its mind and we wouldn’t know what to complain about after that.
BN: Which team has caused you the most heartbreak?
CA: There are plenty of different heartbreaks. For me personally 1998 when Gary Anderson missed a kick that would have sent the Vikings to the Super Bowl and they lost in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons, I was just starting in radio. I was the producer of the midday show. We had our trip planned for Miami. We knew where we were going to go. We had radio row all set up. It was a done deal. That was tough because I was younger. But then I was in the booth with the broadcast when we lost to New Orleans in the NFC Championship in overtime as well. Because of how close I was with the team and because I was there living the moment, that one stung a little bit different. As a sports fan, ‘98 I think a lot of people would point to as the most heartbreaking because we had everything going for us.
BN: What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
CA: Working with the talent. Working with the show hosts. We have among the best radio hosts in the entire country. I think many people in many markets would agree that we’re blessed by the staff that we have here. Being able to work with them and have personal relationships with them, kind of all of us growing up together — it’s a really unique situation. I think we all realize how fortunate and blessed we are to be at a station like we are, to have the flexibility that we do, to do the type of content that we do. It’s just a lot of fun to come to work, even when you’re working remotely with text and Microsoft teams and whatever we need to do to stay in communication. The best part of my job is the personalities, there’s no question.
BN: What would you say is the most challenging part of your gig?
CA: The personalities. No question. [Laughs]
It’s just keeping everything running smoothly and staying out of the way. I’m like a curler. I’m just kind of sweeping away the obstacles to make sure that they can continue to have good shows and have everything they need to do so. It’s no different than a lot of people’s challenges. You get different challenges that the pandemic creates and just try to navigate those challenges while keeping the consistent brand that we have going. I guess that’d be the biggest challenge but it’s just staying out of the way. That’s the biggest challenge; letting our guys do what they do best.
BN: This might be pretty broad but is there anything that on-air hosts might not be aware of regarding a PD’s job that you think would benefit them if they did know it?
CA: I think PDs now are asked to do a lot more than just radio. Much like every industry, our industries are changing. Our role as a brand manager is probably more important now than just being a program director.
When you think about it, program directors are in charge of how their stream sounds, how their app is working, what their website looks like, what their social following is, and what the messaging through social media is. It’s a lot different than it was 25 years ago when I first started. I think sometimes people forget that PDs have to wear a bunch of different hats like everybody in many industries do. Those different hats to maintain the brand, they extend beyond just radio these days.
BN: Being in that market for so long, could you see yourself working anywhere but Minneapolis?
CA: Yeah, I certainly could. I was born and raised in Minnesota. I like the outdoors. I like the relationships that the station has with all the different local teams. I think it would be hard to replicate what we do here at KFAN at another market, but I would certainly be open to it.
I love the business and I love radio and I’ve always wanted to try to find a job in the business. If that required me to leave town to do so, yeah I suppose I would look at that. But I’m really happy here. I’m a Minnesotan from the start and I want to be a Minnesotan when I finish.
BN: What would be the ideal ending to your radio career? Over the next however many years, if you could write your script, what would it be?
CA: My script would be for KFAN to not have peaked. I don’t want this station to ever plateau. I don’t want this station to ever grow old. That’s my challenge. I want to make sure KFAN is the station for Minnesota, the voice of Minnesota, to continue that as it is now, and continue that until I hand it off to the next guy.