It took Steve Wexler a long time to find the right man for the job when he was looking for a new PD for WTMJ and ESPN Milwaukee. He was in no hurry, and why should he be? The guy has as strong of a programming background as anyone.
Wexler came up in the radio business through the programming side of things. Now, he is the market manager for Good Karma Brands’ Milwaukee stations. He has experienced plenty of wins and a few losses too in one of the country’s most competitive sports radio markets.
In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Steve and I talk about losing the Packers, serving advertising categories that have been forever transformed by the pandemic, what matters most in a station’s digital offerings, and so much more. Enjoy!
Demetri Ravanos: I want to ask you about your approach to working with programmers. Obviously that is how you came up in the business. So how do you balance sharing your own knowledge with letting the person you have hired now conceptualize and execute their own vision for a station?
Steve Wexler: Great question. I mean, I guess the quick answer is when I was a programmer, I know that the best dynamic I had with a general manager was somebody that could make me better, not to steer the car necessarily, but to make me better, which might mean ideas, it might mean critique, it might mean praise.
I hope what I’ve done over the years since I came up through the programing ranks is help the programmers around me think critically, evaluate programming, and provide ideas. I’ve worked pretty hard not to grab the wheel because when I was a young PD, I didn’t really want somebody grabbing the wheel, but I sure as heck wanted help driving.
I think the good programmers have a vision and they have a sense of the brand, but they also want to get better all the time. Hopefully, I help them do that.
DR: Because that leap from programing to sitting in the big chair is becoming more common, did you have guys reach out to you from other markets to ask about what the experience was and what it is like to go from solely worrying about programming to overseeing an entire building?
SW: Yeah, I’ve had the chance to talk about that with people at some of the industry conferences. I will tell you that I think that “big chair,” as you call it, has less to do with whether you came up through programing or sales or marketing or whatever. I think it has more to do with whether you’ve got a sense of strategy and at the end of the day, whether or not you’re a leader. There are great leaders in programming. There are great leaders in sales. There are leaders all over our organizations. Really good companies start there and develop and groom leaders who understand our business and aren’t too worried whether they came up as programmers or sales managers.
DR: So as a sports radio market, Milwaukee has a lot of options. Let’s put programming to the side for a second. In terms of standing out with clients, with partners, what is the strategy to make sure that when your sellers are on the streets, they can differentiate or they can tell people what makes ESPN 94.5 different from the Audacy and iHeart brands in the sports radio space locally?
SW: You know, it’s interesting. We don’t spend too much time in our company worrying about or thinking about the other sports brands. We have a ton of respect for them.
Our view is that the boats all rise with the high tide. So we like a very robust, active, successful sports marketplace. We think that’s good for everybody. And it’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever spent less time really thinking about my, “competition.”
We know they’re there. We’re aware of things that they’re doing, but our view is that if we overdeliver for our partners, if we give them tremendous value, if we give them great ideas, if we execute and activate seamlessly and flawlessly, then we know we’re going to be successful. So we really don’t spend time comparing ourselves to the others, not out of arrogance, but more out of a real sense of partnership with our advertisers.
DR: Speaking of those advertising partners, I am guessing it is no coincidence that WTMJ and ESPN 94.5 fit together like puzzle pieces when it comes to sports programming. Is that how you have sellers talking about what you can offer new clients?
SW: Well, we definitely like the fact that there’s so much we can offer in our portfolio. I mean, we have hospitality. We have the Tundra Trio, which are homes that we own and operate up in Green Bay. We offer our ESPN Digital exclusive products, our news talk on WTMJ, our play-by-play with the Bucks, Brewers, and Marquette. Of course, we have the talent that’s on these stations that all do the endorsements.
So yeah, I mean, we definitely have a market that is designed strategically to do what you just described, which is to really take partners’ needs and solve them in a big way.
It is our belief that to differentiate today, you better have content that is not easily replicated given the amount of choices people have. I mean, you were talking about competition a moment ago. The competition is worldwide, right? So we have an intensely local focus, a real laser focus on making sure that partners who we work with hopefully come away with such a great experience that they can’t imagine going anywhere else.
DR: Unfortunately, I do have to ask you about the Packers play-by-play deal. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the conversations you were having and the strategizing you did that moment you realized that the door was closed and that the team would not be back on WTMJ? How quickly did you start thinking about what this meant from both a ratings and revenue standpoint?
SW: Look, we’re huge Packers fans and we have been since 1929. We are today. We always will be. And quite frankly, we’re going to be doing some amazing programming around the team this year on WTMJ and on ESPN and with our hospitality at the Tundra Trio. All I would tell you is that the model changed from us running the network a couple of years ago to the Packers, obviously well within their rights, running it themselves.
Our view is that we love sports. We love all of it. We’re obviously going to be all about the green and gold this year. I think at the end of the day, we have to do what’s right for our partners and for our business and frankly, for our teammates. I like to say they lost us, not we lost them because, you know, the big signal is obviously going to be an issue. They’re going to do just fine, and the folks at iHeart will take good care of the franchise. And we’re going to be there with amazing programing, including Brett Favre. We just signed him to an exclusive deal with us for this coming season that we’re very excited about.
DR: So I want to talk to you about another station in your building, 101.7 The Truth. When you launch a format like that, what did you need to learn or maybe understand better before you could properly support that staff as the leader in the building?
SW: Yeah, what a great story that is. I’ve launched a lot of formats over the years in the different stations I’ve been involved in. This one was definitely the most unique for a number of reasons. One is we were right smack dab in the middle of the pandemic lockdown. So, you know, business conditions in the markets were not great. People really weren’t innovating and creating and building. At that time, we were all just sort of holding on for dear life.
We’re very fortunate to have a founder and CEO (Craig Karmazin) who really doesn’t play from a position of defense. He plays from offense and “what’s the best thing for the company long-term?”.
He came to me a couple of days after the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis and said “Wex, shouldn’t there be a really well-resourced, local Black talk station in Milwaukee? There’s some different choices here, but there’s nothing that’s really local that has outreach, that’s resourced to really reflect the community.” And I said, “Well, I know people have tried it over the years.” And he said, “Well, look, we’re a locally owned company. We believe in being here in the long term. Why don’t we do that?”
I’m thinking, okay, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, right? And I’ve never built a Black talk station from scratch.
I said, “Well Craig, we’re going to need to start with a staff. We’re going to have to really get the people who can do this,” because I was concerned, if you do it wrong, it could be worse than not doing it at all. I didn’t want to come up with a poor version of this.
I was fortunate to be able to find an African-American general manager, Cherie Harris, and program director, Kyle Wallace. We went and found talent that we had to recruit either virtually or off-campus.
We didn’t even have a signal! I mean, I said to Craig, “You know, one problem is we don’t have a place to put this”.
DR: It’s just a small problem, right?
SW: Small, a small problem.
Craig said, “Oh, well, I’ll figure that out.” And of course, a couple of weeks later he says, okay, I got a signal. So, you know, we went and built a logo and a brand and we got the team together.
I remember the meeting where we were deciding on the name of the station and the team said, “we want to call it The Truth because we want this to be raw. We want it to be authentic. We want it to be real. Let’s call it the truth.” And I said, “Guys, we can do that, but we’ve got to be careful because that’s a big word. You know, we’re setting ourselves up here with ‘The Truth'”. And they said, “Well, it’s our truth and it’s going to be real and it’s going to be honest.” So we went with it.
That was, gosh, a year and five months now. And the station has grown. It’s winning significant awards locally and statewide and nationally. The business is really starting to gain traction. I couldn’t be more proud of that team and what we built from very, very humble beginnings. We didn’t have a signal, we just had an idea. And here, a year and a half later, we’ve got a bona fide, important voice in our community.
DR: We talk all the time on our site about the lack of diversity in leadership in sports radio. I think you could probably say the same for news talk. Certainly, you want The Truth to be able to continue to serve the Black community in Milwaukee, but I wonder if you’ve had conversations with Ryan Maguire and others in the company about maybe using that station as the incubator to then create that diversity in those other formats.
SW: Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, we saw not only the opportunity to build that Truth brand, but we really did feel it was important to have a diverse workforce in our building. I’ll give you a great example. Not this season but the year prior, the Milwaukee Bucks go to the NBA Finals. We have a huge championship parade in Milwaukee. Our team, and I’m not sure we would have thought of this a couple of years ago, our team got together and put together a three-station championship parade, triple-cast. We mashed up The Truth talent, the ESPN talent, the WTMJ talent.
So imagine this. You’ve got a program where we’re providing live coverage of the championship parade for the Milwaukee Bucks, and you’ve got the morning team from the Black talk station on the air with the ESPN team on the air with the WTMJ team all at different locations around the city. I will tell you, it was one of the most amazing days that I’ve been part of. Not only did I think we did a really great job and captured the day, but you heard voices you would not normally have heard and perspectives that you normally would not have heard.
Remember when the Milwaukee Bucks wouldn’t come out of the locker room? That one night after the Kenosha police shooting? The perspectives we were able to share were just different from what we normally would have had.
The Truth team, it is not uncommon to hear them on WTMJ. It’s not uncommon now to hear the WTMJ team now on The Truth, which is really fascinating. So I love the fact that we can now, you know, whatever you want to call it, cross-pollinate, inform each other. I think we’re all better for hearing more diverse points of view and we’ve certainly created that.
DR: So I want to ask you about something that your colleague, Sam Pines, has said to me many times. Whenever we talk about ratings and the Good Karma stations, he’s very fond of saying that “a ratings point never bought a cheeseburger,” right? It’s something I’ve heard other Good Karma market managers repeat too. But there’s a difference for you. You guys in Milwaukee do use ratings. I wonder if that changes the standard for what success is at your cluster versus the rest of the company?
SW: You’re talking to a guy who came out of a more traditional world, right? I ran a radio group for E.W. Scripps, a large, publicly-traded company. Things like ratings and being more attuned to cost per point was definitely part of how I grew up in the business.
I do look at the ratings. I’m aware of them. I want to know, at least based on Nielsen’s methodology, you know, whether I’m growing or whether we’re stalling. I’m with Sam though. Our partners do not call me and ask me, “hey, what are the ratings at 3:00 in the afternoon?”. They’ll call and say, “Hey, do you guys have any ideas to help me grow my business or help me solve the problem or help me build my brand?”. And if I could do that and do that really well utilizing our digital broadcast and event assets, I don’t care what the rating was in the afternoon.
You know, I’m a fan of being smart about the market and being well-informed and knowing what the ratings maybe are telling me in terms of which way the wind is blowing, but we don’t rely on them to make our strategic decisions about the things we’re going to do.
DR: So I want to ask you about your advertising partners because a lot of businesses have changed with the pandemic. I wonder from an advertising standpoint, are there any sectors that you see that seem to be changed forever, business categories that you’ve had to completely change your strategy?
SW: I would say the health sector for sure. Not only was there a greater need that is continued, but I think for them that sense of information and helping the public just be smarter was a change that we saw during the pandemic that has continued. You know, what they tell us is “help us inform as opposed to try to sell you a colonoscopy.”
I think this plays to audio’s specialty. I mean, if we’re able to provide information, some of the other categories that are similar are like finance will see the benefits of that model. We’re in times right now where there’s a lot of head-scratching about savings and retirement coming out of the pandemic, especially right now with inflation and the stock market. A lot of our partners are saying, can you help us inform the market and help people be smarter about their money and their health? So I think any partner, any advertising category where information is power is definitely a change we’ve seen and stations like ours are in a perfect position to take advantage of that.
DR: So along the lines of things changing with the pandemic, obviously more and more listening has moved to streaming in the last two years than ever before. Have given any thought to what a station’s app needs to be now? Are there things that we can all be doing better or services that make sense to provide beyond just on-demand listening?
SW: I think I would say that there are always features and I guess other ways to engage that might be good. But I will tell you, sometimes we’re so quick to decorate the tree. I think it was A Charlie Brown Christmas where he’s got a little tree and he puts all those ornaments on it and the thing falls all over.
Early on, I think we all were like, “oh, we can have like instant engagement, we can have polls and we can create fireworks when you hit that button.” And what we’ve noticed is that when you make it really easy, it pays off. First of all, let’s assume the content is compelling and good. I’ve said for a long time, I worry to some degree that we talk a lot about the technology, as well we should, but if we’re not focused on the content, I kind of think the technology might not matter.
You know, a lot of us, years ago, realized that with ad insertion, I think the accountants must have come up with that idea, not the broadcasters in the room. The listening experience, at least in my world, was not very good. You know, shows would get joined in progress and you’d miss 20 seconds because we had these clunky ad insertions.
If I’ve got an hour, I’d rather spend 50 minutes of that on making sure our content is as great as it can be, and we’ll spend the last 10 minutes on making sure it is a great listening experience for the fan.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Would TNT Prefer NBA All-Star Weekend Without the All-Star Game?
Credit the TNT crew with playing things about level — nobody tried to pretend this was anything other than a freestyle show — but there is just such a limited audience for the kind of tripe that was on the court in Indianapolis.
I could tell you why you almost certainly didn’t watch the NBA All-Star Game, or why you watched it for only a few minutes and then bounced. Really, though, you already know.
The game has gotten fat. Bloated. Sloppy.
Unwatchable, even with a galactic collection of talent.
And over the past couple of years, the All-Stars themselves have finally given up pretending that either the action or the outcome matters at all. (I mean, they’re right.)
You are not legally required to care about any of that, of course, since it’s not your job. You’re just supposed to create and influence the marketplace by either watching or not watching.
But what happens if holding the broadcast rights to All-Star weekend eventually begins to feel like something a network gets saddled with, rather than something it’s eager to pay good money for?
That question may help explain why NBA commissioner Adam Silver looked like he’d just eaten paste on Sunday night as he presented the winning trophy to the Eastern Conference team after a no-defense-allowed 211-186 shootaround that involved popular players wearing uniforms.
“And to the Eastern Conference All-Stars, you scored the most points,” the Silver Robotron intoned before adding, “Well … congratulations.”
The commish genuinely looked disgusted, but what did he expect? Not only have things been trending in this direction for years (no competition, all open shots, absolutely no fouling or body contract of any note), but the league’s own structure practically screams at the teams — and thus their players — to tank the All-Star Game in the name of stretch-run health.
Which is to say: It’s all about the playoffs.
That’s where the rub lies. The NBA wants its post-season lengthy and lucrative. The league leaves no doubt that the playoffs are where the real money lies, and its more recent bracket renovation involves 10 teams out of a possible 15 in each conference.
Twenty teams — out of 30 — hit the post-season, beginning with the play-ins.
It’s all about bank.
You don’t even have to question that — it simply is. It’s a fact of the business of the NBA. And so Adam Silver can hardly be surprised when the message that goes booming forth through the league’s 30 franchises to their stars is, For God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t go and get yourself hurt in the All-Star Game.
Did you hear LeBron James after Sunday’s debacle? No one is ever going to jump on LeBron when the subject of competitive fire comes up, but in this case, James made it very clear what the big motivation was on All-Star Sunday.
“I think the good thing that came out of tonight was none of the players were injured, and everybody came out unscathed or how they were before the game started,” James said. “So it (a competitive game) is a deeper conversation.”
James noted that while the stars don’t mind the up-and-down style of a defense-free game, it’s not normally in their competitive nature to just avoid guarding an opponent. But the bigger picture — no injuries — won out handily on Sunday.
It’s hard to know where a network is supposed to go with that. Credit the TNT crew with playing things about level — nobody tried to pretend this was anything other than a freestyle show — but there is just such a limited audience for the kind of tripe that was on the court in Indianapolis.
The last two All-Star Games, 2023 and Sunday, are the two lowest-rated in the history of the event. This year’s numbers actually represented a 20% jump over last year, which tells you how low the bar has been set lately. Even the hastily assembled, post-pandemic game of 2021 drew more eyeballs than the last two faux competitions.
Is there a way out of this? The short answer is, not with the game itself, which feels broken beyond repair. But the ratings for All-Star Saturday Night, which included the heavily hyped Steph Curry-Sabrina Ionescu three-point shootout, were up 31% from the year before and equaled the total viewership of the 2023 game itself, which at least signals viewers’ willingness to watch something that is, you know…interesting.
There is still value in having an All-Star weekend. Any time a league can get its brightest stars together under one roof, a massive amount of attention will be paid. It’s actually remarkable, considering the individual popularity of these guys, that they could be the featured players in such a widely trashed game.
Every All-Star game in every sport was originally designed with one goal: Increase positive publicity for the league that sponsors it. In recent decades, the game is also supposed to be a gold mine for the network that broadcasts it, or at the very least not a loss leader.
Now, Adam Silver and his cohorts have to come to grips with the reality that their players, and the people who cut those players’ checks, have no interest in seeing any sort of effort on All-Star weekend that would open the door to an injury, not even a crack. What results, as a broadcast, is a tough watch — and maybe, someday, a tough sell.
Mark Kreidler is a national award-winning writer whose work has appeared at ESPN, the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and dozens of other publications. He’s also a sports-talk veteran with stops in San Francisco and Sacramento, and the author of three books, including the bestselling “Four Days to Glory.” More of his writing can be found at https://markkreidler.substack.com. He is also reachable on Twitter @MarkKreidler.
Social Studies: Amanda Anderson, ESPN Sr. Director of Social Media
“Because ESPN and our team is so focused on many different sports properties and leagues and sport verticals, how we celebrate that and what engagement looks like varies. What’s considered success varies.”
This week’s edition of Social Studies features Amanda Anderson, ESPN’s Senior Director of Social Media. Anderson started with the network right out of college in 2011. When she started with the social team they primarily focused on Facebook and Twitter with Instagram being the “new platform.” Now she oversees an expansive team that works directly with tech companies, teams and athletes to stay on the cutting edge.
In this interview Anderson discusses ESPN’s social media KPIs, partnerships with athletes and how a ubiquitous sports brand like ESPN approaches audience expansion. We also dive into the Creator Network which comes to Bristol February 28th and the value of influencer marketing in sports media.
Note that this interview was conducted on February 16th and has been edited for brevity and clarity. Visit the Barrett Media YouTube Page for the full conversation.
AR: What does the sort of typical day at ESPN in your role look like?
AA: I’m so multifocal focused. I’ll use today as an example. Today we were celebrating a huge part of our efforts that we’ve been planning for more than a month, which was Caitlin Clark, and her moment last night. We started to see the likelihood that she would be breaking this record and we had a full team-wide brainstorm the first week of January to start the build up for it.
So today, I started by doing a clean sweep of all of our content and looking at the numbers. We have a Slack channel. We’re big slack users on the social team that we call ‘Crush Bucket.’ That’s where we celebrate all of our wins and highlight and shout people out for leading an event or discovering an amazing piece of content.
One of the highlights last night was how many different athletes rallied around ESPN content about Caitlin. That was my morning – let’s celebrate this, let’s make sure my leader sees that. Let’s celebrate that we owned a moment that wasn’t on ESPN, it wasn’t ‘ours’ necessarily. But we really brought all the creative energy and creative juices to be a gathering place for athletes and sports fans alike around that moment.
Another big part of my job from an ops standpoint, is engaging all of our partners so right before this, I was on a call with Meta talking about new events that they have coming up some potential collaborations, engaging them around our Creator network, so they can help elevate the creators that we’ve selected in this class using their platform.
Then it’s on to hiring development and one-on-ones. Managing people is such a huge part of any leader on the social team’s job. That’s really important because so many employees on our team, it’s their first job. They’re very young and very hungry, so molding and investing in the energy that they bring and showing them the ropes of how to succeed in a corporate company like ESPN (Disney) is a big passion of mine. It’s really a point of emphasis for our entire team.
AR: So let’s dive in a little more specifically. What do those wins actually look like? Which numbers do you look at and then take to your higher ups?
AA: The obvious KPI and we say it constantly is engagement. So there’s more nuance to it than that. Because ESPN and our team is so focused on so many different sports properties and leagues and sport verticals, how we celebrate that and what engagement looks like varies, and what’s considered success varies.
We know that a women’s volleyball post on ESPN isn’t going to engage at the same rate that a Steph Curry post will and that’s fine. So I would just say engagement is our North Star but we get a lot more nuanced and sophisticated. It’s not just a simple, “our average on ESPN or SportsCenter on Instagram is this, anything above that is a success, and anything below that is not.”
Audience expansion which is such a big part of all of our roles, and mine in particular, especially with regard to women’s sports, or underrepresented sports, which is what we’re trying to account for in the Creator network. We have so many more layers of numbers to say, ‘Hey, did this post about Caitlin Clark, get more people to follow [ESPN] W?’ That’s an added layer besides over indexing. We’re often getting a lot more granular than that. But engagement is a good starting point to say how many fans took action on this? How did it move them in such a way that they had to do something with it? Like, comment, share, etc.
AR: Tell me a little bit about the Creator network, and how the importance of micro-influencer marketing plays into that strategy.
AA: Everyone who works in social knows the importance of creators in the space. With the fans that are coming up, we’re increasingly seeing these younger cohorts identify less and less as avid fans. At the same time, this younger generation, the majority of them are looking to influencers for guidance on how they spend their time, money, and what shows they’re watching. We want ESPN to be at the forefront of that conversation and top of mind, even for people who maybe aren’t sports superfans – who we at ESPN serve really, really well.
This year’s class is all female, which is new from last year, and what we’re hoping to do with the Creator Network is serve not only the super fans, of which there are many, but we’re also trying to find new ones and use the power of sports and storytelling to help new fans connect with either the athletes, teams or creators themselves that look like them. So it’s multifaceted – our approach of what we’re trying to do with this group.
AR: In terms of leveraging personality to reach people, tell me how the social team works in conjunction with ESPN talent who are commanding really big audiences themselves.
AA: It’s the same approach where, Stephen A. Smith, Adam Schefter or Lachina Robinson are talking about something, a fan is going to connect with them like they would a friend, fellow fan or teammate. It’s done in a way that a brand just doesn’t have that versatility and flexibility. And one doesn’t have to compete with the other, we want to do both.
So with our talent strategy, it’s that same goal of how are we connecting with fans in a person-first approach. That is going to be really effective in a different way than our brand handles. It deepens the connection and allows and affords a lot more unique distinction and flexibility, like what a talent can say as their opinion is not the same as a social brand that’s speaking for a large company.
AR: How do your partnerships with athletes play out on social?
AA: Being able to align, as I mentioned before with the Caitlin Clark example, athletes rallying around our content helps us stay relevant. That helps us keep our brand distinct. One example I would offer is, we worked with Mikayla Schiffer last year when she broke the All-Time World Cup wins record. We got ahead of that well in advance, spoke with her agent, and were able to create a storytelling piece that talked about her whole journey and comeback after the Olympics.
Ultimately, that resulted in a collab from espnW to her own handle. Again, it helps us target and be more precise with who we’re reaching. Everyone who is a fan of Mikayla is going to rally around that story from her brand standpoint. And then on the espnW side, we may be telling people about Mikayla’s story that aren’t alpine skiing superfans. So we look at it as mutually beneficial. When we’re able to collaborate with athletes, we’re able to establish ourselves with the fans of that athlete. And on the flip side, maybe create new fans who are less familiar with them with our brand handles that are trying to serve everyone.
AR: So as you mentioned, you’ve been at ESPN since you graduated college. Can you tell me about your experience and how social media at ESPN has shifted over that time?
AA: Oh my gosh, it’s evolved so much. This is kudos to our leader, SVP Katie Daly, who had the vision for this group. She has always seen it as an extension and a way to reach fans in a unique way. When I started, we were programming, primarily Facebook and Twitter and Instagram was like the new thing. At the time, everyone working on social media was also working on other parts of ESPN digital.
It’s amazing to see how it’s evolved from a handful of people in a scrappy, startup-mentality environment working on just the ESPN account and maybe two or three others to now where we are programming 20 different brand accounts on six different platforms 24/7. The fact that it requires an ops management team that I oversee now is just wild.
I like to think that we’re the best of both worlds. We still maintain the scrappiness, hustle and competitive drive as a startup but now they have established it to be a revenue producing and generating group that’s only rising in the amount of fans we’re able to reach.
AR: Does that start up mentality lead to a need to be on the cutting edge? What does innovation look like?
AA: Something we remind our own internal partners outside of the social group is that the platform’s are changing their algorithms and what’s prioritized. They’re rolling out new capabilities all the time. It can be frustrating sometimes to partners when they say, ‘hey, we’d like to collaborate with you on social and the story. Does this thing that we talked about six months ago, is this still what you want to do?’ And oftentimes the answer is like, ‘nope, actually. TikTok is now testing out horizontal video and eight months ago, we said give us everything vertical.’
So we really pride ourselves on being quick to experiment with and be like scientists to some degree of learning the platforms. No one hands us a playbook. So it’s on us to figure it out. And we know that the playbook is constantly evolving. Instagram Reels is another example where at one point it’s really hot and other times we’ll pivot our strategy to a carousel format, depending on what we’re seeing. And that just changes so quickly.
So what does that do for a team’s mentality? No one is ever complacent. And no one ever wakes up and says, I know exactly what’s going to hit today and what works, because there’s always this standard of evolution.
AR: You touched on some of the innovations and things that you’re working on right now. But outside of those, what are the big goals on social in 2024?
AA: Audience expansion is a big one. Finding new fans is our primary focus especially on youth sports and youth fans. Women through the lens of women’s sports and female sports fans is another huge area of focus for us. We measure ourselves every year on certain areas of engagement. So every account will have its own follower goals. Every account will have its own average engagement rate every year.
The other thing that is a constant goal is responsibility. We measure ourselves in trying to up our approach around women’s history. Black History Always is in our internal corporate branding for February. We have leads established every month and we’re always trying to up the game and increase what we’re doing with storytelling. One thing that we’ve learned since this has become a consistent part of managing social is how to show up in these spaces authentically while increasing our storytelling, experimentation and overall reach.
We rally around events like Black History Always, Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day and AAPI [Heritage Month] and now because we’ve been doing it for several years, we create content that performs above our averages. It’s not just like checking a box. We want our storytelling and the ways we show up in those spaces to be empowering. We want to move a fan with what we’re telling them to be a part of change, or to educate them about a trailblazer or a pioneer in sports that maybe they were less familiar with and be inspired by.
That’s a big component outside of the obvious, reach a lot of people and grow and find new fans, but also do it in a way that is reflective of our brand authentically.
AR: Where do you see the social space going forward?
AA: I think that there will be even more platforms. We’ve sort of seen the emergence of TikTok and other platforms emerge, like BeReal and Discord. It’ll be interesting to see where brands decide to be.
One thing we’ve learned as the social space has become more established is that the strategy is not the same for every platform. Therefore, if you’re operating with a small team, or even, let’s say one person, it’s more valuable, for you to be in one space, doing it really well, and connecting with fans in an intentional way, versus what many of us working in this social industry experience, trying to be everywhere, and maybe only doing a 20% effort.
I think more brands and social platforms are going to emerge. That seems like a given. Whether that number doubles or triples, I think brands will have to make harder decisions about where they can feasibly show up in a way that’s having impact from a reach and revenue standpoint.
Alex Reynolds serves as Barrett Media’s Digital Director. In this role, he oversees all social media scheduling and content creation, monitoring of the brands analytics, and contributes to the brand’s newsletters, conferences, and websites. Originally from Rockville, Maryland, Alex is a passionate lacrosse fan, and graduate of Elon University. He can be found on Twitter @Reynolds14_.
Danny Parkins is Playing to Win at 670 The Score
“We’re not going to do any sort of sanitized version of a story, and I think that’s our strength.”
As Danny Parkins was recovering from spinal fusion surgery that stymied his high school athletic career, a science classmate informed him about the institution’s radio station. Finding the studios required a trek to the fifth floor of the building, a tier that Parkins was wholly unaware existed. Shortly thereafter, he was asking a college counselor the best schools where he could pursue a career in sports media, resulting in him selecting to attend Syracuse University and enroll for membership at WAER-FM. The sports division of the outlet had a path focused on play-by-play announcing and another focused on talk show hosting and commentary for students to consider. Parkins explored both segments before realizing his ultimate focus.
When he was a sophomore, Parkins met colleagues Nick Wright and Andrew Fillipponi as he aimed to materialize his media aspirations in the sports talk radio format. Wright was running the talk show staff at the time, and they quickly became close friends who assisted each other by listening to tapes and offering feedback. Moreover, they all engaged in sports debate and spent time together outside of the radio station, strengthening their bond as lifelong friends and Syracuse alumni. The three hosts will reunite on stage at the 2024 BSM Summit in New York City alongside fellow Syracuse alumnus and SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio host Damon Amendolara.
“It will be fun to just be up there with these guys who we talk about the industry [with] all the time off the air doing it in front of people who kind of helped shape the present and future of the industry because I think that the three of us are pretty damn good at it if I’m being honest,” Parkins said. “That will be a valuable exchange of ideas, and they’re just some of my best friends in the world, so I’m looking forward to that and seeing them.”
Outside of his endeavors with WAER, Parkins hosted his own sports talk program on Z89, another student-run radio station at the university. Additionally, he gained professional experience by producing Brent Axe’s talk show on The Score 1260 after completing an internship. Parkins graduated with qualifications that he hoped would lead to a job, but things became difficult because of a hiring freeze at various media companies because of widespread economic hardship amid a nationwide recession.
Parkins had money for graduation that he used to pay the necessary rent to live with his friends in Wrigleyville and spent time playing poker to attain profits. While unemployed, he also traveled to various destinations around the world, one of which happened to be Syracuse where he met Axe for lunch.
Axe revealed that the station was thinking about adding local midday programming, a revelation Parkins immediately volunteered to enact. While Axe was somewhat incredulous that Parkins would move back to Syracuse for the role, which was compensated hourly, he followed through and started hosting The Danny Parkins Show. Furthermore, he produced Bud and the Manchild and was paid for six hours of work per day while living with two people in a home he found on Craigslist.
“[I] was embarrassed that I hadn’t gotten a job with a salary and health insurance and in a bigger market but was thrilled that I was hosting and doing my thing,” Parkins said. “I was doing what I wanted to do, and it ended up being the best thing for me because then I could apply for other jobs and point to, ‘Hey, you can listen to my show on the website.’”
While beginning his professional career in Syracuse, Parkins developed invaluable versatility that he utilized in his ensuing occupations. Collecting sound at Syracuse practices, operating the board while hosting and booking interviews coerced him to effectively balance multiple tasks. Parkins felt the move back was humbling and fostered a deeper connection with the city by meandering to different social outlets and interacting with listeners. After he found success in Syracuse, Wright helped him land a role with 610 Sports Kansas City where he signed a two-year contract and expected to have a short stay in the city.
Conversely, Parkins remained with the station for approximately six years and covered several marquee events, including the Super Bowl and World Series. He was eventually paired with Carrington Harrison for a four-hour afternoon program and reaffirmed his commitment to the city.
“Some people that were there would still go back to Minneapolis for dentist appointments or whatever, and they didn’t really sink their teeth metaphorically into Kansas City and it never really made any sense to me,” Parkins said. “It was like, ‘No, if you’re here, you’re going to be here. You’re going to meet the people and go cover the practices and go to the games and go to the restaurants and be about town and really be a Kansas Citian for as long as you were there.’”
Anticipating that Chicago sports radio host Terry Boers would retire, he signed a one-year deal with 610 Sports to position himself for a move back to his home market. Sure enough, the situation ended up working out and led to him being partnered with Matt Spiegel in afternoon drive on 670 The Score. Parkins underscored that the outlet usually promoted from within and that his hire from another market was rare.
“I just kind of had to prove myself to everybody, including myself,” Parkins said. “I knew I was good enough to do it, but until you do it, there’s always going to be that shred of doubt. There were certainly challenges, but it was still getting behind a microphone and talking sports for four hours a day, and I knew that if I was given enough time that I was good enough to do the job.”
Parkins continues to host in afternoon drive with Spiegel today, forming a duo that has frequently finished among the top programs in the marketplace. There was a stretch, however, where he was hosting with Dan McNeil, a former member of the illustrious Mac, Jurko and Harry program on ESPN 1000 Chicago. Parkins had interned with McNeil and expeditiously formed a connection with the host with a cognizance about his controversial opinions and fickle nature.
Jimmy de Castro, former senior vice president and market manager of then-Entercom Chicago, split Parkins and Spiegel to form the new afternoon pairing in an overall downsizing at the station. Despite the adjustment, no changes were made to Parkins’ contract and he was referred to by de Castro as “kid,” a moniker he felt indicated that he needed to further prove himself.
“It was not a perfect set of circumstances to work with one of your radio heroes, but I’m really glad it happened in the whole,” Parkins said. “Mac and I had and have a great relationship, and I love the man.”
McNeil was fired in 2020 after posting a misogynistic comment towards a sports media host on social media, marking the conclusion of his third stint with 670 The Score. The station utilized Leila Rahimi and the aforementioned Spiegel as temporary co-hosts with Parkins as they deliberated the long-term solution. After some time, Parkins and Spiegel were reunited and have been hosting their show together ever since.
“I think that Spiegs and I work really well together because we complement each other,” Parkins said. “We’re similar in ways that are valuable, and we’re different in ways that are valuable.”
As they prepare for a typical program, Parkins and Spiegel focus on how they can offer a unique perspective for the listeners to prevent the station from sounding repetitive. There exists a lot of content within the media ecosystem, and it is essential that the Parkins & Spiegel Show stands out from others.
“The goal is to make four hours feel like four minutes and help people get through their day and be an escape for people,” Parkins said. “….People are not going to remember the brilliant point I had about the Cubs bullpen or a fourth-down call, but maybe they’ll remember an honest story that I shared about personal hardship or parenting or a story of being an incompetent homeowner and that makes them relate and laugh and smile a little bit while they’re sitting in their cubicle.”
The show does not take many listener calls, but it seldom goes more than two segments without some form of listener interaction. Aside from listening to the program on traditional AM radio, consumers can access the show using the free Audacy app or livestream on Twitch, which includes a live chat functionality. Shane Riordan and Chris Tannehill contribute to the show as well in producer roles, both of whom infuse the show with additional energy.
“It needs to be entertainment-focused,” Parkins said. “I hate when people say on a show, ‘Later on, we’re going to have some fun,’ but the whole thing is supposed to be fun. I think that’s what the great shows do – they put every story they can through the prism of fun.”
As the vice president and brand manager of 670 The Score, Mitch Rosen has a responsibility of overseeing programming and ensuring that the station is achieving its goals. Rosen is responsible for hiring Parkins in the first place and is someone he greatly respects and appreciates for his efforts and reliability.
Although the media marketplace is changing, Rosen and Parkins are continuing to execute their roles to safeguard the consumption of sports media content. Parkins used to intern with ESPN 1000 Chicago, and he believes it is a good thing to have two successful sports talk radio outlets in the city. Yet there is an element of competitive fervor, especially going against another local program, that adds to the fuel Parkins has to be the No. 1 program in the city.
“I think people come to The Score because we’re the heritage radio station with the great signal that’s live and local all day that is going to be raw and authentic and genuine and edgy and unapologetically ourselves,” Parkins said. “We’re not going to do any sort of sanitized version of a story, and I think that’s our strength.”
There is a contrast in Parkins’ desire to be the No. 1 show, however, related to a philanthropic project for which he utilizes his platform. Parkins lost his brother last April after he suffered with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, and is committed to raising money and awareness surrounding research to treat and cure the disease. Over the summer, Parkins will host a 24-hour radio-thon in partnership with the Chicago Cubs to expedite these efforts and has a goal of raising more than $1 million.
“We have a pretty selfish job,” Parkins explained. “I know people don’t like to admit that, but I get to tell my wife, ‘Hey, I have to watch this game for work,’ and then I get to come in and BS with three of my buddies about sports for four hours a day and judge success based on how many laughs we have in the greatest city in the world, get paid handsomely for it and then go home. It’s a pretty awesome way to make a living and live your life, so it would feel selfish to not use that platform for some good.”
Parkins recognizes there to be considerably more supply than demand for content and evinces dedication from aspiring professionals looking to break into the format. He is cautiously optimistic about the future of the audio format if executed correctly but also asserts that the glory days of radio have come to their conclusion.
“The Score will exist in 20 years,” Parkins said. “Will it exist primarily as a radio brand? I don’t know, but The Score will be doing live sports talk content in Chicago in 20 years – there’s no doubt in my mind about that. It’s just got too much brand equity in the market, so I just want to be sure that it’s as relevant as possible in 20 years.”
Although he cherishes the Chicago marketplace and the platform he has built, Parkins values his versatility and continues to take part in other areas related to sports. For example, he co-authored with a close friend titled “Pipeline to the Pros” is set to be released this April. Parkins is also continuing appearances on television programs with Marquee Sports Network, a local regional sports network. Through it all, he remains committed to the Parkins & Spiegel Show trying to do his part in achieving a consensus No. 1 finish.
“I don’t have undisputedly the best show in the country yet; we aren’t No. 1,” Parkins elucidated. “I haven’t done this next radio-thon to hopefully raise seven figures for cancer research, and then after we do that radio-thon in August, I’m going to say, ‘Well, when’s the next one and can we beat it and raise more?’ I’m always looking for the next thing; the next side-hustle; the next project.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.