The business model for sports radio in Raleigh, NC is an interesting one. One company, Capitol Broadcasting, owns all three of the market’s sports brands. It also owns the local NBC and FOX affiliates. Combine that with the fact that the company owns the Durham Bulls and a major local sports site called WRALSportsFan.com, and it is obvious that the company is a juggernaut in the local sports scene.
I used to work for Capitol. So many different outlets meant you had a lot of exclusive audio and access to build content around. There was a lot of work involved, but there were plenty of perks too.
The man in charge of all of it is Brian Maloney. He is the focus of the latest Meet the Market Managers column.
In our conversation, Brian and I discuss why he still values play-by-play, his reasons for changing his expectations of a program director, and more. Plus, it ends with an invite to a tailgate party!
Demetri Ravanos: I want to go back to right before the pandemic set in, where 99.9 The Fan went through a major lineup change, splitting up the popular tandem of Adam Gold & Joe Ovies. They had been together over a decade, and you moved Adam to middays, which meant David Glenn would no longer be part of the station’s schedule. Then, just as things were starting to get rolling, the pandemic hit. I’m wondering if you can take me through some of those early moments and what went through your mind as you’re trying to navigate not only the new realities for the station, but across the cluster.
Brian Maloney: You really want me to relive this huh? Oh, my God, it was scary as hell. But I kept telling myself, “We’re going to be so much better on the other side of this.” And I think it’s true.
College basketball rules in this market, and it all came crashing down for us around March 12th or 13th. We were right in the middle of the biggest month of the year for us in ratings and revenue, and then the bottom fell out literally in a matter of a day.
It was really scary for the first six or so weeks because nobody had ever experienced what we were going through. It was like driving down a country road at night with no lights on. You had no idea where it was going to go.
DR: Right. And you’re doing all of that with two new shows, one in afternoon drive that includes a guy that hasn’t done radio before.
BM: Yeah, that was crazy. In hindsight, we either couldn’t have picked a worse time or maybe it was the best time to make changes. We brought in Joe Giglio from the News and Observer and I think he had been on for one week at that point. Here’s a guy with no radio experience doing a sports talk show host’s job from his bathroom, because it was the only quiet space in his house, with a new partner that couldn’t even see. But, man, if you can do that, you can do anything.
We just got really creative. We got really good. And like I said, we are better off than we were 14 months ago.
DR: So that leads into my next question. In terms of both the sound of the two shows and ratings performance, how would you grade that first year and few months of this new lineup?
BM: It was really hard to get a handle on things the first four months because the world was just going nuts. We started to, in July, feel it coming together, and now we’re seeing the performance in the ratings, streaming, and reactions on social media. The street buzz from clients is also good. It’s really starting to gain momentum.
Joe Giglio and Joe Ovies released our Russell Wilson podcast last week. It’s a six part series. We just released part four today, and we’re coming in on fifteen thousand downloads in a week. So we’re really happy about that. That’s an example of a way that we got better, because we really had to stop and think. And that’s something that those guys have been working on since back in the summertime when we were still in the throes of things.
DR: When you were dealing with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, you guys started hosting these virtual town halls with local clients. I think you would open up at one point, correct me if I’m wrong, to just any business. If some of these clients had other friends that were business owners that wanted to be a part of those sessions, they were welcome as well, right?
BM: Yeah, we came out of the chute conducting online seminars, anything from H.R. people talking about how to handle employees going through challenges to attorneys talking about dealing with the business loans and such.
We just went after that right away. It was a way we could help. We were able to position ourselves as somebody there to help the community. As a matter of fact, that was branded as “Here to Help”. I think we built up a lot of credibility when we did that, and it had nothing to do with sports. It was just all about helping businesses in this community.
DR: How did that idea come together so quickly that you were able to act on it right away?
BM: Fortunately, we work for a private company that has a bunch of talented people and we just sprung into action and turned it on quick. We got up and running and it just snowballed from there.
DR: Let’s talk about working for a privately owned, local company. Capitol owns the entire sports radio landscape here in Raleigh. One of the things I look at all the time is certainly it does block out the ability for a competitor to come in and be strong. But is there value to all three of your sports brands? Certainly 99.9 The Fan is a property that any group in the market would want, but The Buzz is on an HD channel, albeit with translators. The Ticket is on an AM signal. How do you value those brands in 2021?
BM: Well, I think there’s no doubt we’ve seen growth in digital listening, but terrestrial still makes up the majority of listening in the United States and in our market as well. So it’s still important. You’ve got to have that real estate. But, you know, I no longer look at it as “The Ticket is on 620 AM. It’s not just on 620 AM. It’s still a brand of ours, and we distribute it. I mean, it is available in many places right now. We have our stations streaming under our TV stations’ webcams of the beach, of the lake, and of downtown Raleigh. We just push it out everywhere.
DR: And with that association with WRAL, the local NBC affiliate, certainly there are advantages to The Fan being branded as part of WRAL’s online sports empire. I wonder if there are any disadvantages of The Fan using that WRALSportsFan banner. The Buzz and The Ticket too for that matter. Do you see any disadvantages of radio brands not having their own distinct online location?
BM: No, I think it’s actually a huge advantage. I think seven years ago, 10, 12 years ago, you might have said, “wow, man, they don’t have their own identity”. But if you look at where our industry has gone and where it’s going, it’s not just about radio. It’s about radio, video, and articles online.
We’re doing what we’ve always done, and that’s the way of the world now. I mean, our radio stations are just a piece of the big machine and our on air talent write articles. They do videos. We video stream our shows. It’s almost like the radio shows themselves are just a small piece of what we do. Our sports website generates millions of page views every year, millions. The overall website gets billions.
DR: And that’s why I asked if there are disadvantages. Forget the website. Look at it from a mobile perspective. The WRALSportsFan app offers a user considerably more content than you might expect from an independently owned radio station’s app.
BM: Yeah, it’s 360. It’s a very robust platform of sports content. I know a lot of people aren’t using the R word anymore. You know, it’s audio this or whatever, but we’re in the sports content business, period. It’s just that simple. I think people try to complicate it, but we are in the business of producing sports content, whether it’s podcast, video, audio, on a radio station, Alexa or whatever.
DR: During the pandemic you made a change at PD. You and I talked about the job and you were very clear from the get go, you were rethinking what that position should be. You’ve had guys like Adam and Joe, who had been with you for over a decade and Alec Campbell, who has run their show for five years. Was that a big factor in being willing to experiment because you knew the sports side was full of people that had established successes, or did you simply feel it was time for the role of a program director to evolve and move building clocks and coaching talent to the backburner?
BM: Absolutely. Sammy Simpson is the brand manager for our cluster, which includes the mighty WRAL FM, Adult Contemporary, and then our sports stations.
You’re absolutely right. Sammy views this, the whole operation as a unit, including sales. There are many times that Sammy comes up with ideas and ways to market ourselves to clients and solve their problems, all the way down to how are we going to market this new podcast that we’re putting out. How are we going to brand anything we do?
So, yeah, I think the days of program directors fiddling with clocks and the less important stuff, that’s done in my mind.
DR: Raleigh is still a market where the ratings come out and advertisers pay attention. It helps them in setting up their buys. Given that so much of this is now about producing content that’s consumable on people’s own schedules, are we reaching a point where part of the reason PDs will have to offer more than just fiddling with clocks and coaching talent is it’s less about what that number is at the end of each quarter?
BM: I think for sports radio, it’s never really been about the ratings. That’s been one of the beauties and attractions of the sports format, is we all know how powerful it is, no matter what the ratings say, and now I think it’s even more powerful. To give you an example, last week we did a countdown to the NHL playoffs promotion, where we took a 500 pound block of ice and froze a puck in it. We asked listeners to guess when they thought the puck would drop. They won tickets to the playoffs and a chance at money and everything.
So we had this block of ice set up with a webcam on it 24/7 that got hit in our newscasts on our TV station, and it was talked about on the air, it was watched on social media. We had over 7000 people tune in to watch ice melt last week, okay? When they watched ice melt, they also saw the client’s logo, they heard the client mentioned on the air, and they saw the client on social media.
It just goes so far beyond the radio promo mention now. That’s what we bring. I don’t care if you’re a music station or a talk station. That’s what you should be doing right now.
DR: You guys have a history of doing some really cool podcasting projects. You mentioned the Russell Wilson podcast earlier. I’ve told clients to listen to Lauren Brownlow’s NC State Stuff podcast from 2017 too. I think it’s a great example of what radio stations should be doing in that realm. As successful as the creative side has been, looking at it from a business standpoint, do you feel like it’s been successful in terms of getting ad reps and clients to see the value of putting their messages on those products?
BM: It’s been a learning process. You really have to stop and think about what you’re doing. So just to walk you through briefly, the latest thinking with this Russell Wilson podcast is that we see so many, what is it at now? 1.6 million podcasts out there today? You see so many people who are just sitting down in front of a microphone and think they’re going to just talk sports. We tried that and it didn’t really work. So we started to be thoughtful about what we’re doing.
We know from the data that NC State and Russell Wilson move the needle. Credit Joe Giglio and Joe Ovies for coming up with that topic and for phoning in their contacts to get great content for that podcast. We knew that if we did something that went really deep and was really thoughtful about a topic we know moves the needle, maybe we can get something cranking here.
We got a sponsor involved. They were like “Oh, Russell Wilson? Big name! NC State? Big School! Yeah, sign me up!” So we were able to sell a title, exclusive sponsorship for it. And like I said in the first week, we’re coming up on fifteen thousand downloads.
So take it a step further. We thought let’s buy digital ads in Richmond, Wisconsin and Seattle. So now we’ve touched, our market, Raleigh/Durham, but we’ve also touched Richmond, Wisconsin and Seattle, where Russell’s footprints or fingerprints are. So now we believe securing a sponsor for our next podcast effort will be easier, because we know we have a nice track record of success with the Russell Wilson podcast and also with other ones we’ve done in the past, too.
You really have to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and strategic. It takes a lot of work. We do have an advantage of a great machine in Capitol broadcasting that can promote that podcast on the news and a massive website. But you’ve just got to be thoughtful about it. You can’t just crack the mike and talk about the football game.
DR: I remember when I was working for you how much you emphasized the value of live play-by-play and how every other liner I read was about carrying this game or that race. I wonder as we fast forward five years, is that value the same? There is an ACC Network now that replays every game multiple times during the week. ESPN+ and other sports streaming services have games and events available on demand. During the pandemic, it became clear that matters to people. So where does that leave live play-by-play on the radio? Has the value been diminished at all?
BM: I think there’s still a tremendous value there because not everybody can be in front of a screen to watch the game. Whether it’s hopping in your car and headed to the Home Depot on a Saturday afternoon and you’re catching the score or getting updated, I think there is – actually, it’s not that I think I know there is real value in live play-by-play because again, we can look at our screen numbers when the game comes on and you will see a spike. Right when the puck drops or the ball is kicked, you will see a spike in listening. Now Nielsen may not show it, but don’t get me started on that.
DR: Listen, I’ve done this series now for three months. You wouldn’t be the first I’ve heard complain about it.
BM: We have a lot of work to do there.
DR: I worked on a story back when Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin were getting ready to launch, taking the lay of the land from market managers who ran local ESPN stations to see how they felt about the new lineup. You told me that you were really optimistic about the show, pointing out Jay Williams’ local connection from having won a title at Duke.
Things haven’t gone the way they were initially designed, so adjusting could be necessary again. I don’t think it’s fair to ask “is it great” less than a year into a new show’s life, but are you still optimistic about the show’s future?
BM: I really am. I believe in that show. It’s a new show that started in the middle of a messed up sports world and then some tragedies happened within the show, which were just horrible. But I believe that is a very entertaining show, and I can’t wait till the fall. I think you’re going to see, at least I believe for us, that’s really going to explode.
I don’t know that we can judge that show yet in such an unstable sports world that we’ve been in since it was launched. I think Keyshawn is one hell of an entertaining person to listen to. JWill’s role is well-defined. I really am optimistic about it.
DR: I moved to Durham 15 years ago and read a statistic that said in the time that I’ve been here, 35 percent of the people that were here then are now gone. The Triangle is growing. We’ve got Apple coming in real soon. That’s going to spark a whole new wave of population turnover. Does the nature of our market make national sports media, whether it is network radio or satellite radio a more formidable competitor here than it might be elsewhere?
BM: That’s a really good question. We were just talking about this today because we were doing our planning session for the upcoming football season and one of the topics we kept going back to was that you have just a melting pot of fans here. Do we address the Steeler fans, the Lions fans, the Tampa fans? And so we’re paying attention to it and trying to weave those teams into discussions and promotions. A few years ago, we found a unique way of addressing it by doing a thing called Transplant Tuesdays. We would, on any given Tuesday, focus on the city and the teams and the food and the beer from that city. If it was Pittsburgh, we would talk about the teams of Pittsburgh and it went over really well.
You have to address it. You have to acknowledge it. The other thing too is because of that influx of population into a market where there’s three major universities, not everybody in town is an NC State, Duke or Carolina fan anymore. I mean, as a matter of fact, half of them have no emotional ties to those schools anymore.
DR: I’ll give you an example of exactly what you are talking about. When I got here in 05, I was living in Durham. If I wanted to go watch a football game with other Alabama fans, my only option was 40 minutes away in Garner. Now I have my choice of three different fan groups.
BM: Yeah, like in our meeting today that we had, we were talking about throwing tailgate parties for teams that aren’t even in the Triangle. In fact, Alabama was number one on the list. So I’ll make sure we let you know when that is going to be.
DR: Please do!
BM: But you are right. It’s really something, and I think that’s probably true for any market in the Southeast right now. You have just such an influx of people coming from all over the country. You can’t just ride the coattails of your traditional school and market. You’ve got to think broader.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.