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.
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
If Netflix Wants Live Sports, F1 May Be Just The Beginning
“Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.”
In the past, Hollywood dealmakers and stockbrokers wondered whether another studio or streamer would catch Netflix. Its dominance stemmed from being a first-mover and not having a serious competitor until Amazon and Disney ten or more years after their launch. However, Netflix would eventually have to compete for content, original and licensed, other platforms that offered less expansive ad-based options, and additional content like live sports or a very popular series or movie premiere.
Arguably, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital and it allowed competitors to gain subscribers because people were spending more time at home. More subscribers and additional streaming options for consumers has not caused Netflix to faulter, but it has caused Netflix to rethink its sports strategy. For years, Netflix was dead set again streaming live sports because of their cost and commercials—Netflix does not have advertisements on its platform currently.
Netflix’s popular Drive to Survive docuseries about the Formula 1 (or “F1”) racing circuit, which was renewed for a fourth season, and the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls The Last Dance represents a golden era and renaissance of sports documentaries. As much as fans of feature films and television series enjoy learning about actors during and off camera they similarly want to know about sports stars, their coaches, and franchises. In other words, the business of sports is booming in valuation and behind-the-scenes content.
Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated that the popularity of Drive to Survive has caused the company to rethink its stance on purchasing live sports content. The broadcast and streaming rights to Formula 1 will become available via ESPN and Sky Sports in 2022 and 2024. Netflix, will have some competition to secure F1 rights, which will drive up the cost. It was also reported by Front Office Sports that the Netflix CEO would require a level of exclusivity for sports rights that other platforms do not normally require. The exclusivity is likely required because Netflix will want to justify the purchase price and to keep-in-line with what Netflix customers expect—exclusive content on the platform.
With Premier League club Manchester United looking to secure a broadcast deal for selling its rights outside of the traditional league format, it might be the perfect acquisition for Netflix. An exclusive team vs. an entire league would also be less expensive and more targeted. One aspect of uncertainty for all streamers is their subscribers overseas, particularly in untapped China. The international market is far from settled or established. Netflix also has a large operation in India so possibly cricket via the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) could be a rights purchase to consider.
In 2018, the original content on Netflix only accounted for 8%. This means that 92% of the content on the platform just a few years ago was all owned (at least partially) by someone else. That statistic has changed because Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple+, and many others have since been created and stocked or restocked with content. Controlling interest in Hulu was even purchased from FOX by Disney. Disney and Amazon now both rival Netflix in terms of subscribers. Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.
As Comcast-owned NBCUniversal CEO Brian Roberts recently said, purchasing sports rights can be difficult. Sports rights are expensive. Exclusive sports rights are even more expensive. Sports rights only become available every five to ten years. Networks and streamers are highly competitive to secure those rights with the hope of landing viewers, subscribers, and advertising dollars.
Will Netflix get into sports rights bidding? In the past, the digital entertainment giant has been steadfast is its non-sports approach. However, the market has changed and is flooded with more competitors now. Netflix has to change to meet its customer and the market needs.
Formula 1 presents an interesting scenario for Netflix as a buyer and partner. F1 is a popular league internationally and growing in the United States. Two new F1 races in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, in addition to season four of the Drive to Survive Netflix series are sure to drive traffic, pun intended, and interest in the racing sport.
Formula 1 is a sports league that will cost less to purchase streaming rights than a traditional American “Big 4” like the NBA, NFL, or MLB. Formula 1’s structure is also centered at the top so it would be easier to make an exclusive deal that Netflix seeks. The remaining questions being, will Netflix pursue Formula 1 sports rights to increase its streaming platform subscribers and compete with others? Second, will Netflix be the first to offer commercial free live sports programming—for a premium price—or offer in-screen ads and additional during-break inside looks, content, and analysis? Or will Netflix act more like a traditional broadcaster and offer advertisements to pay down its purchase price? One will know more after a few laps around the sun.
Manningcast Is Best Experienced As A Fan, Not As A Broadcaster
“I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat.”
Much has been written on this site already about the ESPN alternative to a traditional Monday Night Football broadcast, the Manningcast. Andy Masur asked if it worked and questioned the network pulling its audience in two different directions. Mark Madden said the concept undoubtedly works, but the content is poor.
Both articles are good reads. Both provide another level of insight from those in the industry and how they view this unique/high-profile concept. Industry views provide solid insight to the success and quality of the show itself, what works – what doesn’t. But if we can’t sit back and take our industry glasses off, and just look at this broadcast as sports fans, I feel we’ll never see it in clear view.
I’ll admit, for me, it took me no more than 5 minutes of watching week 1’s Ravens vs Raiders game to say “yeah, this isn’t meant for me”. I didn’t like the non-traditional approach of the broadcast, it felt like it lacked the energy of a traditional sportscast. The stadium volume was turned way down, the excitement was more in the conversation they were having with each other, rather than the game itself. It took me out of the moment of the game, rather than allowing me to get sucked in.
Now, in fairness, I kind of went into it with a narrow mind, thinking that would be the case. I am not someone who has the desire to flip around during the College Football Playoff broadcasts and catch the coaches corner or studio chatter, I want the game.
Bottom line is, I hated the Manningcast when I watched it in Week 1. I even went on the air the next day and trolled members of my audience that were effusive in their praise of it. In the limited sample I provided for myself, I had come to the conclusion that this broadcast wasn’t made for REAL football fans (insert caveman sound effect here) and that only the most casual viewer would want to watch this SNL wanna be of a football broadcast.
However, week 2, I decided I was going to be more open minded to it. I made it a point to break away from the traditional Packers vs Lions broadcast and watch the Manningcast, no matter how painful. I was completely wrong in my initial opinion.
Was Peyton Manning wearing a helmet and acting a little too zany for my taste in week 1? Yes. Is the guest connection quality well below what we should find acceptable in broadcasting? Yes. But that’s where I made the mistake. I was looking at this broadcast through the eyes of a broadcaster and not as a sports fan.
Peyton Manning’s charisma jumps off the screen, he is elite at describing what he sees on the field in a way that no one else can. Eli can be a little dry, but he’s low key funny. And they have real chemistry together, as they should. They are family after all.
The thing that hooked me the most was just how invested Peyton was in the plays on the field, he really gets into the game, truly invested in the success and failure of the quarterbacks. There was a moment in week 2 when Jared Goff threw the ball to an empty patch of grass 15 yards down the field and was subsequently called for intentional grounding. You could see Goff yelling at the referee, pleading his case. Peyton surmised, probably accurately, that Goff was telling the ref that the ball was thrown to the right place and that its not his fault the receiver didn’t run the correct route. Peyton then carried on and told stories of when this type of thing would happen to him when he played for Indianapolis and Denver. I was hooked.
I realized that I was far more invested in week 1 as a stand alone football game, I’m from Baltimore, I have a lot of love for the Ravens. Being invested in the game itself doesn’t lend as much flexibility. As a fan, you to want to hear about anything else but the action on the field. However, when watching two teams that I have no personal interest in, the Manning broadcast took on this new life. It created a level of interest for me as a REAL football fan that I otherwise would not have had. I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat. I felt like I had a front row view to a football clinic, held by two of the most accomplished players in league history.
Personally, I could live without the guests. I am not as entertained by the back and forth with Rob Gronksowski or Pat McAfee as it seems the majority of social media is, but the Manningcast does a brilliant job of bridging the gap between the hardcore football fan and the casual observer. It’s an absolute hit and I’ll be locked in for the next one.
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