Since January 1, 1992, ESPN Radio has introduced listeners across the nation to some of the biggest and best personalities in sports media, while delivering ratings, respect, and revenue to hundreds of America’s sports radio stations. The Bristol run network has provided stability to radio affiliates by relying on a mixture of transparency, a powerful brand name, access to the network’s star studded talent roster, play by play of big sporting events, and a second to none lineup, which has been both consistent and talented.
If you say the name ESPN Radio to listeners and industry professionals, it carries weight. Some say it stands for sports and success. Others highlight talent and entertainment. Some point to credibility and quality. The bottom line, ESPN Radio has earned a stellar reputation due to a strong track record of satisfying listeners, rewarding partners, and featuring top notch talent and quality programming. It’s why affiliates continue to pay annual rights fees and give up large chunks of ad inventory to associate their stations with the biggest brand name in sports audio entertainment.
But a couple of recent lineup changes have radio affiliates nervous about the future direction of the network. Some of those concerns were shared last week on this website by ten anonymous program directors in a piece written by Demetri Ravanos. I’ve heard similar complaints and frustrations from market managers, executives and programmers. Some have even contemplated whether it was time to terminate their relationship with the worldwide leader, uncertain that a better lineup, consistency, and higher ratings are around the corner.
At the center of the conversation is ESPN’s Senior Vice President of Production David Roberts, who finds himself with the unenviable task of having to retain confidence of the network’s radio partners, while adding new voices with multi-platform experience to help ESPN Radio excel in a rapidly changing media climate. A seasoned executive who also manages ESPN’s daytime lineup of First Take, Get Up, Highly Questionable, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, and SportsCenter, and recently added oversight of Jalen & Jacoby, ESPN podcasts and events, and production of digital studio shows and YouTube, Roberts understands that change is difficult for some. Though he knows questions may be raised initially of the network’s decisions, Roberts is hoping the introduction of new talent and a lengthy track record of on-air and sales performance will afford the network an opportunity to demonstrate it’s still capable of delivering strong results for its radio partners.
In Roberts, ESPN has a leader who Stephen A. Smith has a high level of confidence in. During an interview with Front Office Sports in August, Smith said “Leadership comes in a variety of forms, varying from quiet, to no-nonsense, to in-your-face. No matter the category, the end result requires winning, and that’s precisely what Dave Roberts does: win. With practically everything he touches, because he’s excellent — and requires it. Because he’s accountable — and demands accountability. And because losing is never an acceptable option for him. That’s Dave Roberts in a nutshell. If you’re about winning, you want to work for this man.”
A ringing endorsement from one of ESPN’s most successful and hard working talents should strike a chord with some, but Roberts knows it’s going to take more than just positive commentary from high profile colleagues to make radio affiliates feel excited and confident in the network’s new on-air direction. What shouldn’t be lost on anyone is that many of the new faces and voices featured on ESPN Radio are diverse, have a presence beyond radio, and are committed to talking sports. Roberts and his leadership team see a big advantage in being able to expose their talent to fans across the company’s various platforms, and by placing an even higher premium on talking sports, one thing ESPN is best known for, they’re hoping to attract more eyes and ears to ESPN Radio’s shows, and lead the brand to its next decade of success.
Given the network’s recent changes and reactions across the industry, I thought it was important to provide balance to this story. I reached out to David Roberts last week and offered him an opportunity to have a candid conversation about losing Dan Le Batard, the multiple lineup changes, the network’s current relationship with radio affiliates, and his vision for ESPN Radio. To his credit, he accepted and answered every question. Whether you agree with the lineup changes or not, I’m sure you’ll appreciate his willingness to go on the record and offer some insight on where the network is headed.
JB: I apologize in advance for aging you, but you’ve been around this game for a while. Over four decades in fact. Some industry folks are going to see your lengthy track record in television including your current list of TV management responsibilities and wonder how important radio is to you. You’re in charge of a brand, ESPN Radio, which has been successful for a long time, and is depended on by a large number of operators. For those who aren’t familiar with your radio story, when did you first take an interest in the medium, and where have you worked prior to assuming the lead executive role at the network?
DR: As a kid growing up in Detroit, I was fortunate to be around one of the great stations in the country WJR. Being a sports fan, I was connected to that radio station. They aired the games of my favorite teams and I listened a lot. I was actually lucky enough to be welcomed into the Tigers radio booth at 6 years old by Ernie Harwell, one of my inspirations to get into this industry. I became a student of radio first before I moved into television and have had a long appreciation for the medium. I then had a chance to venture into network radio with 98.7 ESPN NY. I managed the business of our NY sports radio station and worked hands on with content, sales, and play by play partners, and it gave me a chance to get familiar with our Bristol operation. I believe one of the keys to radio is to operate with a cross platform approach. That’s the way of the world in all of media today.
JB: The first place I want to focus on is the process of making changes. That’s a big topic of conversation right now in the industry due to the network changing up the lineup in August and recently announcing forthcoming changes again in January. When you’re deciding whether or not to switch something with a host or lineup, how do you decide whether or not to stand pat or pursue a new direction?
DR: The first key is to listen to your customers – the audience. And the affiliates of course too. Nobody makes decisions in a vacuum. It’s a matter of understanding the markets, analyzing the research, reviewing the ratings, and placing a focus on the importance of cross platform content creators. The days of being just a radio focused brand are long gone. You have to be focused on audio, video, digital. Those are the parameters you have to operate in.
JB: I’ll get to the recent news in a moment but I first want to go backwards to August because that’s when we first got a glimpse of ESPN Radio’s plans for the present and future. You brought in Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti to host the morning show. Greeny and Max were added between 12p-4p ET, and you launched a new show with Mike Golic Jr. and Chiney Ogwumike in afternoons. What was it that excited you about featuring Keyshawn, Jay and Zubin in morning drive?
DR: When we made changes in August and brought in Keyshawn, Jay, and Zubin, we felt these were three guys who not only worked on radio, but were appearing on major football and basketball franchises, along with SportsCenter. Each is different in their style which is what helps in making a great show. Keyshawn especially has a great, large personality and big opinions, and was very successful doing mornings in Los Angeles. If you’re going to have a vision for the next twenty years, you have to have a vision that’s different from where you were. When you build with people like Keyshawn, Jay, Zubin, Max, Greeny, Golic Jr., Chiney, we’re looking at the essence of diversity, and a renewed commitment to cross platform programming built around sports. We’re in the business of being interesting and these people are willing to do whatever it takes to provide star power to the affiliates across the country. They also know we have to work harder and be strategically smarter to build a new identity for ESPN Radio by using all of our platforms to help us.
JB: I want to ask you about the situation with Dan Le Batard. In August, his show got trimmed by an hour during the initial lineup remodel. Now four months later it’s revealed that he’s no longer going to be with the company. If this was where the relationship was heading, why not just move on in August?
DR: The timing would not have worked out in August to do that. We are in a stronger position now to move Mike into that slot. He reestablished himself on radio the past few months and the response to his show has been great. We believe by moving him earlier in the day it will allow us to build a stronger presence out west with sports being a huge part of our focus. We also now have Bart Scott and Alan Hahn joining the lineup which we also feel good about. The focus for us is on where we’re headed and making sure that we produce the best sports talk radio available to affiliates across the country.
JB: I know that Dan’s radio program wasn’t a big ratings performer and growing the affiliate base had its share of challenges. That said, he was a cross platform star with a large television presence, strong digital success, and he was liked and respected by many ESPN talents. I couldn’t help but notice that in his goodbye statement, he thanked nearly every ESPN employee except yourself and Norby Williamson. What was your reaction to that?
DR: I’m not going to get into that. I have no issue with Dan personally. He served the company well and I’m sure he will do big things going forward at his next stop. We just feel these moves will help us better serve our affiliates, grow our business, and focus more on talking sports. Don’t get me wrong, we will discuss non-sports issues when its appropriate, but we’re in a stronger position to do what we do best, which is talking about sports. People don’t tune into CNN for two to three hours of a format that isn’t consistent with news. We have an audience that expects us to deliver certain expectations and we want to be true to it.
JB: Let’s talk about your radio affiliates. As you know, we produced a piece last week which featured feedback from ten programmers who are very concerned about the multiple changes and future direction of the network. How do you plan to retain and regain their confidence?
DR: I try to make myself very accessible to the people who work for me and those who do business with us. We also have a great affiliate leader in Jeff Martindale who’s frequently in touch with our radio partners. But I want to hear feedback from our affiliates. I won’t provide spin lines or BS. If I like the idea, I’ll tell them. If we can’t do it or it doesn’t make sense, I’ll tell them that too. They can always email me at David.Roberts@espn.com. I hope they’ll take me up on that offer. As a network operator and programmer we know we can’t serve everyone 100% of the time but what we will do is listen to our affiliates. When we pass the Super Bowl, we’ll be at the six month mark of this plan. We’ll be creating a virtual town hall that will include some of our affiliates so we can get more input from them. I’m a believer that nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. We’re all looking to move in the same direction and win together and we want to be a valued partner to our radio stations. We’re going to continue making our talent more available to our radio partners. I know change is difficult for some, but if you’re satisfied with the status quo, you’re expecting to lose, and we’re not interested in losing. People have tons of options of where to spend their time and we want to make sure we’re in position to be one of their top considerations.
JB: I think it’s great that you’re willing to make yourself accessible to your customers thru email because these folks are important to your success, just as you are to theirs. I did speak to one executive last week who said that they’ve voiced their concerns about ratings challenges with the morning show but when the issue was raised it was dismissed by someone at the network who pointed to places where the show has done well. Though that may be true, if a station is struggling they’re not going to care much about another market that’s having better luck. You obviously can’t please each affiliate all the time but that specific example prompted the station executive to question if radio matters to the network’s brass. What do you say to that?
DR: Radio absolutely matters to me and our management team. We’re making these changes to grow our business, as well as the business for our radio partners. We have a lot of people on this roster, men, women, white, black, during the weekday and weekends, and we’re doing this to expand the audience and help everyone who’s part of our success. This is an intimate medium and we take this business seriously. But understand that these things don’t happen overnight. It takes time. Our focus is firmly planted on the future, and we are just reaching four months of this new identity of ESPN Radio. Our promise is to be transparent with our partners and advertisers, and to work harder, strategically smarter, and bring our effort and commitment 24/7.
JB: You’ve been an advocate for diversity and have made a number of changes to the lineup to introduce talent from various backgrounds to the audience and your affiliate partners. Why do you believe it’s important for the company to demonstrate it’s not only an all-inclusive company with strong values, but also to expand the listenership for ESPN Radio?
DR: We have a strong belief at ESPN that diversity is not only the right thing to do but a key part to growing any successful business. The depth of our African American/black voices on our radio network in prime dayparts clearly represents our commitment to demonstrating that you can and must do more than sit around and talk about diversity. You can and must take action and stop making excuses about how difficult it supposedly is to find “diverse” people.
JB: Stephen A. Smith left his radio show last January to focus more on his TV work. This year, Mike Greenberg and Max Kellerman returned to radio, and though their additions were welcomed because they’re both very good at hosting radio programs, there’s a little bit of concern out there that these are short-term moves rather than long-term ones. How do you assure your radio partners that these guys are here for the long-haul?
DR: Greeny and Max are not placeholders. They are solid building blocks for us now and in the future. You don’t commit to these type of names without saying to everyone, including those involved that this is important. Once people get to know our talent better I am confident they will grow to appreciate them more. I’m proud of where we are and where we’re going. I think we’re going to do a lot of great things with this brand and Max and Greeny will be a big part of that success.
JB: I’m sure you can understand though David that when big changes like this are made twice within a span of four months, there are going to be a lot of people in local leadership positions who are worried about it happening again in the near future.
DR: I do understand that, but throughout the course of my career I’ve tried not to worry about reactions to decisions. If you are in a leadership position it comes with the territory. The objective is to wind up with better programming than what you had on before. That’s no slight on those who were there previously. It just means we’re looking for ways to continue growing our product. We’re listening to the feedback, and appreciate it, even when it’s not favorable, but there’s a plan in place and we’re committed to it.
JB: If you look at the national sports radio landscape today, FOX Sports Radio has really strengthened its product. SiriusXM has a wide array of strong national content. You also have CBS Sports Radio, VSiN, and SportsMap who are in the space and vying for stations to carry their programming. How much attention do you pay to your competition and does it factor in at all when considering how you position your lineup?
DR: I have the utmost respect for our competition. There are some very talented personalities and brands out there. But I’m not focused on what they’re doing. I’m looking at how we can improve ESPN Radio. A key part of our strategy is making sure our platforms are connecting with one another. It’s why you see many of the people on our product today. That underscores the commitment we have to maximizing the strength of the ESPN brand to the depth of talent. That’s integral to our strategy and growth. Any decisions we make are going to be made with that being a key focus.
JB: Some may read that David and say ‘but that just means you’re not committed to radio people. You’re just putting TV personalities on radio.’ Does it matter to you if the on-air talent are or aren’t radio hosts?
DR: The media business has evolved. It’s a cross platform landscape. The days of being a ‘radio person’ have long ended. If you think otherwise you’re not being realistic. Today, you have to connect in multiple ways. That’s how you build a bigger brand. If we have partners who’d like me to explain my thinking on that further I hope they’ll reach out. I want to learn more from them too, and I hope they’ll be open to how we can help each other. We’re trying to create win-win scenarios.
JB: Every operator that makes changes to a product understands that there are going to be more eyeballs watching to see if the results improve afterwards. But in the network world, growth isn’t as simple as looking at ratings because you could be up 50% in two key markets, yet down 50% in two others. When you analyze these changes a year or two from now, how will you know if these moves produced success or a step back for ESPN Radio?
DR: For us, success will depend on a couple of factors. We’ll of course look at the ratings, and where we are in the growth cycle with affiliates, but our main focus is to position the network to be strong. This pandemic has created a lot of challenges for media operators and we want to provide a sense of normalcy for our audience. Our expectations are to deliver the strongest programming we can, using the best talent we have available. This is going to take a full team effort from myself to our staff, our affiliate partners and advertisers. We feel good about the direction we’re heading in, we believe in our people, and we will listen to our affiliates and deliver them a successful product.