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Are Callers Still Essential To Sports Talk Radio?

“Some sports talk radio shows have begun to abstain from having callers on the air altogether, instead transitioning to new avenues of engagement centered around the multimedia platforms that people use most.”

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Frank Mortensen

The phone is ringing off the hook. The buttons, glowing in an assortment of different hues, are indicative of listener engagement, with a genuine interest in what is being discussed. And the more the phone rings, the better. There’s no harm in having too many callers. Is there?

As sports talk radio’s dissemination has broadened across multiple platforms, the inclusion of audience interaction directly with the hosts of the show has remained constant, with some shows even including it in their daily rundowns. However, including callers on the air just for the sake of adding a new voice to the show is frequently being diminished in its practice, with show producers realizing the importance in putting the right callers on the air.

The role of a caller is beginning to be thought of as an additional enhancement to the listener experience, rather than a standard by which to judge the success of a show. Resultant upon this shift in psyche, the art of call screening; that is, preparing a listener to go live on a sports radio show, has become more than just saying: “Please hold.”

“Screening calls has always been a bit of a challenge, but it’s critical to verify the content that the caller is bringing to the table,” said Steve Bute, assistant program director and producer of The Drill on 1010 XL/92.5 Jax Sports Radio, Jacksonville. “The ability to dial seven digits doesn’t necessarily facilitate your passage to the airwaves.”

While it may seem superficial on the outside, call screening is indeed a thorough process that ensures the on-air hosts interact with people prepared to make a point about or take a new angle related to the topic at-hand, giving the hosts something new on which to expound. Occasionally, callers will partake in some debate, but often, their appearance on the airwaves is as swift as possible.

“Ideally, the caller comes on [with] a focused, brief point — they make it — then, if it’s obvious that they understand the flow and dynamic of what their role is, we move on,” said Michael Lefko, producer of Wyman & Bob on ESPN 710 AM Seattle. “Sometimes, they are rambling [because] they may not be used to being on the radio — then, you have them almost hijacking the segment.”

Sports fans, often passionate and zealous, may unintentionally struggle to formulate a cogent, succinct point, instead speaking impetuously about whatever is on their mind. As they speak to more callers, screeners have been able to find ways to quickly get the listener to focus and get their point out.

“A guy I used to work with [got callers] to take a deep breath and calm down, [then] took everything they said, and summarized it back to them,” reminisced Aaron Raybould, producer of The Blitz on ESPN 97.5 Houston. “He had that understanding that brevity is such a good thing in talk radio because the caller can be there to give an opinion and then let the hosts take off with it.” 

Being concise is vital for radio shows implementing callers, and when a caller does not let the host speak or continuously cuts them off, the producer or the host must take action to maintain the quality of the on-air product.

“You have to have an assertive host who will just drop the caller or interrupt them,” said Lefko. “Our hosts have the ability to drop the caller. I don’t think there’s any malice with that. The callers are in a supporting role with our hosts on the air.”

Evolving technology and distribution has brought enhancements to call screening, assisting both the producer and the hosts in ensuring that new voices are being heard. Those who call in to radio shows frequently, while they are appreciated, render themselves more of a nuisance to other listeners eager to hear new perspectives from the hosts and the occasional new caller.

“I will always take a first-time caller over someone who has been on the radio station multiple times,” said Al Dukes, executive producer of Boomer & Gio on WFAN New York. “We have the software now that tells us how many times each caller has called in, [so] I don’t pick up the frequent ones anymore; I have no interest in them.”

“I think there is still value in doing pre-recorded calls instead of [taking] live calls,” said Declan Goff, producer of Mackey & Judd and Purple Daily at SKOR North Minneapolis. “When you pre-record a call, it gives you a safer space. The hardest part about doing anything live is that you only have one take, whereas if you do it pre-recorded, you can take your time and do it a couple of times to get the right point out.”

While there are callers who enhance the on-air product by complementing the hosts with compelling, shrewd opinions on sports, finding and hearing from them is less common than ever before, largely due to advances in technology.

“Over the years that I’ve been doing this, I like the callers less and less,” said Dukes. “I like a caller that can add something to the discussion that we don’t already know or [something that] the host hasn’t already said. To me, there’s not a lot of them. The longer I go, the less calls we are using.”

Listening to other radio shows is something producers often do to determine how they will structure and/or innovate their own program. Something that is often remonstrated and being moved away from is the tendency for some radio shows to take a large number of callers at once, or to talk to the same caller every day for their opinion.

“I’ve heard other shows that take caller after caller where they ramble or it’s the same caller every single day and it becomes boring,” said Paul Reindl, executive producer of Ben & Woods on 97.3 The Fan San Diego. “We don’t want to do that; we try to keep it limited and on topic for us.”

As a result, some sports talk radio shows have begun to abstain from having callers on the air altogether, instead transitioning to new avenues of engagement centered around the multimedia platforms that people use most, most notably those centered around the advent of the smartphone.

“We do not take live phone calls,” said Brad Barnes, producer of FastLane on 101 ESPN St. Louis. “We have a text line that is available for us at all times, along with a mic drop feature on our app where people can leave a 30-second snippet of whatever they want. It’s worked out a lot better for us because we can control what content goes out [and are] able to get straight to the meat of the conversation.”

Other terrestrial radio stations, such as SKOR North Minneapolis, are shifting their avenues of audience to incorporate visuals with the audio being broadcast. They are utilizing the transmission of video through live social media streams and conferencing platforms to include listeners in the conversation in ways never before possible. 

“An AM or FM dial can reach thousands of people, but you are pigeonholing yourself in where you want to target,” said Goff. “The thing with radio and where it’s heading is that you need to look at other spaces where you can maximize fan engagement. We have now transitioned [from taking traditional calls] to having people on our video screen with us. It’s been a rewarding experience because they feel like they are more of a part of the show. Being able to be digitally-focused has added a completely new element for us which has been really fun to see.”

Changes in consumption trends that were already taking place prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were starting to catalyze evolution; however, it was not until the worsening of the pandemic in which radio stations had to react to a changing world — and fast.

“The traditional workplace has changed,” said Lefko. “If someone is working and has us on in the background, they can write out a text and send it to the text line. On Twitter, we will put out a question or a video clip that will generate engagement. I think it feels like they engage in the same way a phone call used to do.”

Some producers believe that audience interaction hinders radio broadcasts, putting the focus on subsets of the listening population rather than the on-air hosts, one of the principal factors as to why people are listening in the first place. Al Dukes of WFAN believes producers and hosts should act in the best interests of their listeners, many of whom listen to hear the hosts instead of guests or callers.

“For the longest time when you would talk about your show, it would be ‘How was the show today?’ ‘Good, who’d you have on?’ That does not matter for my show; it does not determine if I had a good show or not. I love talking about callers and guests, and to me, the less of both of them the better, but it puts a lot of reliance on show hosts and contributors. The shows really need to rely on those people — not callers and guests. I think [sports radio would] be better for it.”

BSM Writers

Keeping Premier League Games Shouldn’t Be A Hard Call For NBC

“Beyond its massive global fanbase, the Premier League offers NBC/Peacock a unique modern 21st-century sport for the short attention span of fans.”

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NBC Sports is facing some tough, costly decisions that will define its sports brand for the rest of this decade.  A chance to connect with viewers in a changing climate and grow Peacock’s audience as well.  However, making the right choice is paramount to not losing to apps like Paramount+ (pun intended).

NBC is currently in the business of negotiating to continue airing the Premier League as their current deal ends after this 2021-2022 season.  NASCAR is contracted to NBC (and FOX) through the 2024 season.

NBC’s tentpole sports are the NFL and the Olympics.  

Negotiations for the EPL are expected to go down to the wire. Rather than re-up with NBC, the league is meeting with other networks to drive up the price. NBC has to then make a decision if the rights go north of $2 billion.

Should NBC spend that much on a sport that is not played in the United States? It’s not my money, but that sport continues to grow in the US.

If NBC re-ups with the Premier League, will that leave any coins in the cupboard to re-up with NASCAR? Comcast CEO Brian Roberts hinted that there might be some penny pinching as the prices continue to soar. This may have been one of the reasons that NBC did not fight to keep the National Hockey League, whose rights will be with Disney and WarnerMedia through ESPN and TNT, respectively.

“These are really hard calls,” Roberts said. “You don’t always want to prevail, and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong, but I think the sustainability of sports is a critical part of what our company does well.”

Roberts was speaking virtually at the recent Goldman Sachs 30th Annual Communacopia Conference. He told the audience that between NBC and European network Sky, that Comcast has allocated approximately $20 billion towards these sports properties.

Comcast CFO Michael Cavanagh spoke virtually at the Bank of America Securities 2021 Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference and echoed that the company is in a good position to make some strong choices in the sports realm. 

“The bar is really high for us to pursue outright acquisitions of any material size,” Cavanagh added. “We got a great hand to play with what we have.”

While the European investments involve a partnership with American rival Viacom, the US market seems to have apparent limits.

Last Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol Motor Speedway was seen by around 2.19 million people. It was the most-watched motorsports event of the weekend. That same week eight different Premier League matches saw over 1 million viewers. More than half of those matches were on subscription-based Peacock. 

Beyond its massive global fanbase, the Premier League offers NBC/Peacock a unique modern 21st-century sport for the short attention span of fans. A game of typical soccer fan is used to a sport that is less than two hours long. The investment in a team is one or two games a week. 

My connection to the Premier League began before the pandemic.  When I cut the cord in late 2017, I purchase Apple TV.  Setting it up, it asks you to name your favorite teams.  After clicking on the Syracuse Orange and the New Jersey Devils, I recalled that my wife has family based in London, England.  They are season ticket holders for Arsenal, and that family redefined the word “die-hard” fans.

I’ve long been a believer that sports allegiances are best when handed down by family. I love hearing stories of people loving the New York Giants because their parents liked them, and they pass it down to their children.

I’ve successfully given my allegiance to the Devils to my young daughters. 

By telling Apple TV that I liked Arsenal, I get alerts from three different apps when the “Gunners” are playing. The $4.99 is totally worth it to see Arsenal.

Whenever I told this story, I was amazed to see how many other American sports fans had a Premier League team. Students of mine at Seton Hall University rooted for Tottenham Hotspurs, while an old colleague cheers on Chelsea.

Global Is Cool': The Growing Appeal of Premier League Soccer in America
Courtesy: Morning Consult

This is not meant to say that NBC should sign the EPL on my account. The key for any US-based soccer fan is that between Bundesliga, Serie A, and other leagues, there will be no shortage of soccer available on both linear television and streaming services.

Besides, Dani Rojas did say that “Football is life.”  NBC, originator of the Ted Lasso character, should make keeping its Premier League US connection a priority.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 45

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Today, Demetri is joined by Tyler McComas and Russ Heltman. Tyler pops on to talk about the big start to the college football season on TV. Russ talks about Barstool’s upfront presentation and how the business community may not see any problems in working with the brand. Plus, Demetri is optimistic about FOX Sports Radio’s new morning show.

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BSM Writers

6 Ad Categories Hotter Than Gambling For Sports Radio

“Using sports radio as a back page service for gambling will have a limited shelf life.”

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For years sports radio stations pushed sports gambling advertisers to early Saturday and Sunday morning. The 1-800 ads, shouting, and false claims were seedy, and some stations wouldn’t even accept the business at 5 am on Sunday.

Now, with all but ten states ready to go all in on sports gambling, sports radio stations can’t get enough of that green. Demetri Ravanos wrote about the money cannon that sports gambling has become for stations. Well, what if you are in one of those ten states where it isn’t likely to ever be legal like California or Texas? Where is your pot of gold?

A Pot of Gold Articles - Analyzing Metals
Courtesy: iStockphoto

Or, let’s face it, the more gambling ads you run, the more risk you take on that the ads will not all work as you cannibalize the audience and chase other listeners away who ARE NOT online gambling service users and never will be. So, what about you? Where is your pot of gold?

Well, let’s go Digging for Gold. 

The RAB produces the MRI-Simmons Gold Digger PROSPECTING REPORT for several radio formats. In it, they index sports radio listeners’ habits against an average of 18+ Adult. The Gold Digger report looks at areas where the index is higher than the norm – meaning the sports radio audience is more likely to use the product or service than an average 18+ Adult who doesn’t listen to sports radio. The report, generated in 2020, indicates that sports radio listeners are 106% more likely to have used an online gambling site in the last thirty days. That’s impressive because the report only lists 32 activities or purchases a sports radio listener indexes higher than an average adult. I looked at those 32 higher indexes, and I think we can start looking for some gold.

Using sports radio as a back page service for gambling will have a limited shelf life. The gambling companies who commit significant money to get results will continue advertising and chase the others away. So, the future of sports radio needs to include other cash cows.

If it is evident to online sports gambling services that sports radio stations are a must-buy, who else should feel that way?  I looked at the Top 32 and eliminated the media companies. ESPN, MLB/NHL/NFL networks, and others aren’t spending cash on sports radio stations they don’t own in general. But Joseph A Bank clothing, Fidelity, and Hotwire should! Here’s your PICK-6 list I pulled together that’s hotter than sports gambling:

  • Sportscard collectors, Dapper Labs, Open Sea- read about Sports NFT $.
  • Online brokerage firms-Fidelity, Charles Schwab, Robinhood, Webull, TD Ameritrade
  • Golf courses, resorts, equipment, etc.- we play golf at home and vacation
  • Hotwire.com, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Airbnb, Carnival Corporation, and Priceline.com- we’ve used Hotwire in the last year.
  • FedEx, UPS, U.S. Postal Service, Venmo, PayPal, Zelle-we wired or overnighted $ 
  • Jos. A. Bank, shein.com, macys.com, nordstroms.com- we went to Jos. A. Bank in last three months

The sports card/NFT market is 32% hotter than the sports betting market for sports radio listeners. Everything on the PICK-6 is at least 100% more likely to purchase than an average 18+ Adult who doesn’t listen to sports radio. All listed are at or above indexing strength compared to sports betting. The individual companies I added are industry leaders. Bet on it! Email me for details. 

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