Radio is still a special thing. Despite all of the hand-wringing and fear over what podcasts and streaming audio will do to the industry, all of the numbers say that the majority of listeners are still with us. The majority of ad dollars are still with us.
Does that mean we go back to what was business as usual in 1995? Of course not! But here is a question worth pondering: does radio know that radio is still more popular than digital audio or social media?
It sure doesn’t seem like it.
Brad Carson, program director of ESPN 92.9 in Memphis, told me that he views social media as a means to support what is happening on air. That has been valuable, particularly during the pandemic, when media was the only way most people had to be social.
“Last summer we saluted local high school seniors for the month of May in Memphis who had their season cut short due to COVID and made it an athletic celebration of sorts to brighten those student-athlete’s days shouting out them, their achievements, and their local school name. It wasn’t just on-air. It became part of all of those viral platforms because we married our on-air audio from the salute moment with images of the students. And we needed that last May because major league and college sports games vanished for a brief moment.”
He thinks that all social media is worth understanding. I’m not sure I totally agree with that, but Carson’s point is that if you make time to understand something like TikTok or figure out the most relevant content for Instagram, it expands your reach beyond the target demo.
But isn’t the target demo where we put most of our eggs in media? Certainly when sales reps hit the street they are telling the story of the station’s performance with target demos. Does it make more sense to try to pick up a little bit from every age group by stretching a social strategy as far as you can or should a station focus on the platforms that deliver the highest number of 35-54 year old men?
Brian Long, program director of XTRA 1360 FOX Sports San Diego, has built a social media strategy for his station based on what makes sense for his audience and what his station can make the most use of.
“Twitter is by far the most easily integrated with terrestrial news & sports,” he told me. “I also think Facebook and FB Live plays well with the older demo, but certainly not something that has the immediate impact of Twitter.”
I asked Long what he thought the best case scenario was for the performance of a radio show’s replay podcast. To him, it was an example of investing in things that are worth investing in. That doesn’t mean you don’t offer on demand replays. It means those are not the digital products you expect to draw the interest of your already dedicated listeners.
“I’ve found most traditional radio shows that develop a podcast that is slightly different from the daily show seem to cut thru better. The goal should be to try and give the listeners an experience that is unique.”
The opinion echoes something Joe Ovies told me earlier this year when he explained to me why he prefers to release best of podcasts instead of full show replays. The afternoon host on 99.9 the Fan in Raleigh told me that what makes radio special is the spontaneity of what happens live. That is something you cannot get on a podcast. If a station is going to invest time in creating a digital strategy and podcasts are a huge part of it, don’t you need to make sure all of your audio is special? You can’t recreate live on a podcast. Likewise, your podcast isn’t doing anything for you if it is the exact same thing listeners get on radio.
Carson reiterates that he doesn’t think radio companies’ emphasis on technology and digital platforms has to be viewed as a problem. Just look at his relationship with video.
Brad Carson puts out a video every single day on his social media platforms. It is him staring into the camera and talking about what is going on in his city and at his station. Usually all of that is happening while his dog licks his face.
For Carson, the videos are about building and supplementing the connection he and his staff have created over the airwaves.
“Whether it’s in the form of Twitch, video clips in-studio, Zooms, FB Live, Instagram live, or daily talent videos, we have found that it’s important to use video to connect,” he told me via email. “Think about it. During the pandemic, THAT IS the appearance. The pandemic seemingly has taught us the importance of RADIO.COM, smart speakers, and social. Video is part of those.”
He made it clear to me that the digital platforms should not interfere with the way radio companies think about what goes out over the airwaves. When I tell him that radio needs to do a better job of showing how silly the “radio is dying” narrative is, he takes things one step further.
“It’s definitely not dying. Frankly, I’ve been in radio for over 25 years and I’m not kidding when I tell you it’s the best I’ve ever felt about our industry. ESPECIALLY Sports.”
Long agrees. In fact, it never really dawned on him that focusing on a digital and social strategy could be conceived as sending a message that radio doesn’t know its platform’s own value. A digital strategy is just the 2021 version of trying to do what radio has always tried to do: be where the people looking for information are.
“The reality is long gone are the days of waiting for the newspaper to arrive on your door step or waiting for a radio show to begin to get up to date,” Long says. “People expect information as it’s happening. Social has the best chance of delivering that.”
Brad Carson acknowledges that everyday a new digital competitor to local radio pops up. Entertainment encompasses such a wide swath of options that it will always be a crowded field, but radio isn’t going to be lost in it.
“Yes, there are a lot folks not in radio starting podcasts, launching beats to cover teams for internet only companies, the dying newspaper industry, or the TV sports people who get a minute at night on the local news that’s DVR’d. Those things are great, but radio has a massive advantage over all of them because we can leverage the most listened to medium in the country and expand into those areas in unique and special ways because of our local talent,” he says.
Radio is a unique medium and sometimes it is easy to wonder if the people at the top realize that. ESPN has rebranded their offerings in the space as “ESPN Audio,” and that is a more accurate reflection of the way they approach the business now. It certainly makes sense to use other media to supplement the business you have established using the terrestrial airwaves. Too often though, it feels like radio companies are focusing on those other media and losing sight of facts like radio’s widespread familiarity and accessibility because it is something we know how to do well.
The need to learn a new platform can often create a warped sense of its place in your organization’s hierarchy. The radio business cannot ever lose sight of the fact that for us, the old fashioned broadcast has to remain on top. Everything else we do should serve it!
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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