For the past two decades, Sam Pines has played an integral role helping Good Karma Brands establish and maintain a strong presence in Cleveland while expanding its sports radio footprint across the country. The Chicago native has poured every ounce of his energy into helping ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR remain a trusted voice for Cleveland sports fans, a valued partner for local clients, and a loyal and supportive employer that has been recognized by both Front Office Sports and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel among the best places to work in sports.
Under Pines’ watch, WKNR has taken the plunge into the subscription business, strategically formed unique local relationships to share in the local market’s sports success, and produced the largest following of any sports radio brand on Twitter. They’ve also continued generating revenue and results for partners despite challenges caused by a global pandemic, and without relying on Nielsen data. Throw in the fact that Pines hired a former BSM columnist (Matt Fishman) as his program director last year, and you can see why he was the first person I wanted to speak with for our ‘Meet The Market Managers’ series.
Before I share our conversation with you, I’d like to thank Point To Point Marketing for their support of this series. Tim Bronsil and his team do an excellent job helping radio stations reinforce their position in local markets, creating robust audience growth and long-term retention. To find out how Point To Point can help your brand, click here.
Now without further adieu, here’s my conversation with the man who has guided Good Karma Cleveland to countless successes, Vice President, Market Manager, and Partner, Sam Pines. Enjoy!
DEMETRI RAVANOS: Before I dive into some of the business matters involving your company (Good Karma Brands) and radio station, ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR’, I want to raise awareness to something you’ve been doing which I don’t see a lot of other market managers do. You’ve taken it upon yourself to write these essays or opinion pieces on LinkedIn that you share with your followers. Where did that come from?
SAM PINES: I’ll give you the quick story on them. They’re called “Time to Win”. There was a short time I was managing both Cleveland and Milwaukee. This is back when flights used to happen. Because I couldn’t be in both place at once, each morning I’d send out some metrics, but with a little bit of a lesson in there.
It just ballooned over time internally. Our marketing director Debbie Brown, who touches all of our markets, kept bringing it to these other markets. Then in the pandemic, we called it the Good Karma Productivity Project.
We had no layoffs or furloughs. We had to make sure everyone was being productive, because our events teams probably didn’t have as much to do. One of our projects that the team brought up to me was putting this out every week or every other week. They had been after me for a while and I was finally open to it.
The way it works, Liz Staed and Emily Dillinger will take previous ones I have done and together they’ll make some edits and then post it. The nice part on my end is they are all written. Thankfully, Emily and Liz are great writers and great editors, because the public doesn’t need to see the thing that goes out internally. So, it’s one of those fun, uncomfortable things. I don’t consider myself a writer. I don’t think of myself that way.
It has been one of those unintended consequences of the pandemic. As I consume more and think about these things differently, you and I probably listen to radio differently than we did before we were in the business.It has become something else to occupy the mind, and the response has been interesting. That has been pretty cool.
DR: You mentioned the company not implementing furloughs or layoffs. The past year as you know has been very difficult on the entire radio business. How has the pandemic forced you to adjust to a new reality, whether that means running leaner or trying to stay as productive with everyone in different locations?
SP: The content team, starting with Fish (Matt Fishman) and the rest of the crew in Cleveland have been awesome. I think across the country, guys coming in to do it everyday in a situation that was unimaginable this time last year is just awesome. And then the GKB team overall, the way they have come together over this. We’re actually up 10% in terms of how many full time teammates we have versus this time last year.
So, it’s been cool to see. I think that no one ever wants to go through this again, but I don’t think I could ever go through it with anyone other than the local team and this company.
DR: I want to ask you about The Land On Demand, because when you guys launched it, subscription content was starting to become more popular thanks in large part to The Athletic. Some in the industry liked that you were taking the plunge into that space, some questioned if it was the right move. When you’re doing something locally focused in that realm, what is it that you feel has to be in place in order for it to work?
SP: So, Jason Barrett wrote a piece which had a great quote in it. I think he said ‘to grab the brass ring you have to have brass balls‘. I used that quote a bunch when we first launched it. What we needed to get right was what we fortunately already had right. That was great audio content with an absolutely awesome fanbase.
The way we’re doing it I think is specific to Cleveland. I am not saying others can’t do it. I’m sure they can. It’s just such a passionate fanbase that if they miss one of our shows or there is something going on behind the scenes, they want to see it for something that costs less than a movie, when we used to go to movies.
That is, at its core, what it really had to be. Then, because it has been successful, we have been able to add to it. We’ve moved Tony Grossi primarily there and we’re continually adding different content there. I know (ESPN Cleveland PD) Matt Fishman is continually thinking about what is next there. We want to improve what is there in addition to what goes out over the air.
DR: That space is a lot more crowded now with so many laid off writers announcing they are going to do a subscription-based site or newsletter on their own. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated said they too were going to launch a subscription model. Is it the local identity that makes you confident that The Land on Demand will continue to thrive even as more options pop up for those subscription dollars?
SP: It’s the fanbase and our team. You have to have them both. You have to have content that fans are willing to pay for. And you need a fanbase that is what the Cleveland sports fan is. There are other fanbases that are like that I’m sure, but obviously that is the one I’m closest to.
Another point to it is that we have the most Twitter followers of any sports radio station in the country. That’s Cleveland, Ohio! We had a team that adopted Twitter really early and didn’t fight it. You need that part of it. Plus, they put great content on it. If you do that and you don’t have the huge fanbase, it’s great social content, but you probably don’t have the most followers of any sports radio station. The combo is unique.
Ultimately we haven’t changed what we do. It’s great content and a loyal fanbase that buys products from our partners. In this case, it’s great content for fans that pay a subscription and then go on Twitter to talk about it. Maybe I am making things too simple, but that is the way I make sense of it.
DR: I don’t know if you’ve seen what Tom Webster of Edison Research wrote but I want to get your reaction to something he shared in his column. According to the latest Share of Ear data, for every hour of podcasts that Americans listen to, they listen to seven hours of AM/FM radio content. The revenue though is nowhere near a 7-to-1 ratio. That’s expected to catch up over time, but I sometimes wonder if the industry as a whole puts too much of an emphasis too quickly on podcasts and social media. You talk about having more Twitter followers than any sports station in the country, but I think everyone in radio is still trying to figure out how to translate that into revenue.
SP: If the question is “are we too quick to pods, are we too quick to social, how do we make money on all of it?” I think the answer goes back to audio. How are we creating loyal fans and why are they loyal to our product versus any of the other great sports content out there? I don’t think this was in the article you mentioned, but there’s a stat that says Americans are spending an hour more per day with their media right now. There’s probably even a larger number of choices. So, why would they go to us?
I think the connection that social gives you, even though we’re not going to have sponsored tweets, it’s going to create and cement that connection and passion. We’re not going to have someone tweet “go to the local dealership and get a Ford for $299 per month,” but you build on your community’s passion so that they come to the audio or the video we put out and those people are there for the live reads on air or the mid-roll in a podcast and they are going to support the partner.
Sometimes in radio, I think we silo it too much. We say “okay, how much are we making on our Twitter account versus our Instagram account, versus our 3 to 6 show?”.
DR: So, are you looking at revenue and trying to forget the silo? It’s about loyalty to something like The Really Big Show translating across multiple platforms?
SP: Correct. And the hope would be that we are a partner first. I want us to ask how we help our partners accomplish their goals and take advantage of the social side or do an event, hopefully sometime in 2021, to overdeliver on what those goals are.
DR: Correct me if I am wrong, but Good Karma, in most markets does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, right?
SP: Well, it’s tough to say “most” now. We don’t in West Palm, Madison, or Cleveland or Beaver Dam. We do in Milwaukee and Chicago. It’s two out of six, but the core of what we do everywhere is still “are we superserving our fans, partners and teammates?”. If Nielsen can help us in a market, great!
DR: Then in your building, what do you say to a new seller or someone having a tough time that wants a specific way to contextualize WKNR’s success?
SP: Well, we have talked about two of them with Twitter and Land on Demand. Those are changing behaviors, but more tangible for the advertising partner is that we have a ton of success stories for partners that have been advertising with us. We have put together a campaign that has overdelivered on what they wanted.
In some cases we’re part of a media mix. In others, we’re the one and only. We have maybe four or five partners that literally don’t advertise anywhere else. They see quantifiable results from us. Being able to have great partners like that who will write a letter or make a call…you know, we have said “hey, call this advertising partner” and the partner will talk to them. It’s pretty cool to have that support.
There is that quote that a rating point has never bought a hamburger, or it is something like that. We’re in the business of getting people to buy our partners’ products or whatever their goal is. So, if ratings points can help people better understand that, great. But in Cleveland, what we have is stories of “this is the product and this is how it was sold” and that helps. It works.
DR: I would imagine that helps in recruiting younger sellers. I’ll be 40 this year. You and I didn’t grow up with so many different social media platforms to encourage creativity, but 23 and 24 year olds did. I wonder if this way of explaining to potential new partners what ESPN Cleveland can do for their business benefits that younger generation.
SP: It’s a great question and one I haven’t really thought of. As I think of the inexperienced marketing consultants, I think it is probably a little bit exciting by having that more consultative mindset.
They have never checked a fax machine for an order. They grew up as marketers. By the time I got Facebook, I was already out of college. When I go on Facebook or go on LinkedIn, I am marketing, right? I am putting myself out there.
These kids have grown up as marketers. At first, it is what do your parents let you put out there. Now we’re out there at all times because of camera phones…I am not sure, I don’t think we even call them camera phones. That is just a standard phone now.
Because of that, at all times you are marketing yourself in a positive or negative way. That makes it kind of innate in that generation. They aren’t that much younger than you or I. I’m 46, so just a bit older than you. But the generation that grew up like this might be just six or seven years younger than you. They might have had Facebook in high school.
I remember going on college visits and hearing “If you come here, you’ll get an email account”. And where I went, I got my first email account. That was like a recruiting tool.
I have a daughter who is 13 and how she is consuming on Instagram and TikTok is fascinating. I don’t think she would accept a role anywhere that I am manager, but whoever is talking to her, she will have so much of an identity in the marketing world that you and I may still never have.
DR: Right! My kids are 9 and 11, in third and fifth grade respectively, and they have graphic design classes in a public school. Now, that isn’t marketing exactly, but it is a great skill to have in the world. The people that educated our generation, it never would have crossed their mind that those skills were useful.
SP: It’s crazy. I will say, I don’t know how much your kids are on TikTok, but my daughter and her friends were on TikTok the other day watching a video about how to talk like millennials. Just imitating the generation above them. It was shocking to me. All of the millennials in our office that make fun of my age, well look, it’s coming.
DR: You guys have a relationship with the Cleveland Browns that makes for a unique relationship with your direct competition. The team’s games air locally on both 92.3 The Fan and WKNR. Are the games the only thing you share with Entercom Cleveland or are there other joint marketing and promotions which both brands get involved with in order to help the team with the way they want their product presented to the fans?
SP: There’s definitely a decent amount of collaboration. The biggest part is the 20 games, although in future years, I guess it will be more than 20.
They are great partners. The Browns are great partners, but also Tom Herschel, Andy Roth, and everyone at The Fan. They’re great partners to work with. Going back to “fans, partners, and teammates,” I think it made sense for the fans. It made sense for the partners, and it put a lot of our teammates in position to do great work on the Browns Radio Network.
DR: Just a few weeks ago, you did something we almost never see. Your station paid tribute to Les Levine, who was a major figure in sports media in Cleveland. 92.3 The Fan’s Anthony Lima appeared on your midday show, and Tony Rizzo went on The Fan’s morning show. Given how competitive stations can be in the sports format, was this a no brainer decision made easier due to the two stations working together on the Browns relationship? Was there any concern of it not going well?
SP: Les wasn’t a Cleveland sports radio legend. He was a Cleveland legend. Beyond that though, an incredibly nice guy, and incredibly welcoming to Good Karma.
That was all about Les. Maybe it helped that we had that relationship, but it was something our guys really wanted to do. Tony Rizzo, in his early days at WHK, which was one of the predecessors to WKNR, worked with Les. Les was one of the first people I met when I got here. His family’s been great to us. What we did was all about Les.
Tom Herschel, Entercom’s market manager in Cleveland, and I talked regularly even before they were ever doing sports. There’s always been a good deal of trust between us. Craig Karmizin and Steve Politziner were Andy Roth’s interns at WIP. There was a relationship between the two buildings before the Browns that was probably a little different than other markets. That was nine years ago, and those bonds have only gotten stronger.