A year off from radio was more than just a possibility for Jeff Rickard. In fact, earlier this year, it looked likely that he was going to take time away from the business to spend time with his family. The decision was going to be totally his and he was at peace with it.
After a five-month tenure at WEEI in Boston as the station’s brand manager, Rickard decided to leave and return to Indianapolis. The decision wasn’t made because he hated his new job or found it incredibly difficult, it was made with his family in mind. He wanted more of a work-life balance.
“I really liked working with the people that were there,” said Rickard. “We were all on that train ride together. Boston is an intense sports town and I loved that part of it. I love the passion the fans have. I think maybe the biggest thing for me is where I am in my life with my family and the type of company that I want to be a part of. No one did me wrong and there were no big moments of, oh my God this is terrible. I was just at a point in my life where I wanted to make sure I had some work-life balance.”
It was late-January and Rickard was out of the radio business. A strange place to be for a guy that had enjoyed an incredible career as both a host and program director. But as he pondered the possibility of taking a year off, another opportunity approached. Sports Radio WFNZ in Charlotte was interested in Rickard for an opportunity as Program Director. Soon, Rickard was meeting with Vice President and General Manager Marsha Landess. Then the two met again. And then again for a third time.
“The thing that attracted me to Charlotte is that it’s such a young, growing, diverse city, which is the vibe I like to be a part of,” said Rickard. “Honestly I was at a point where I was going to take a year off and hangout with my kids. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to catch my breath for a minute. This opportunity came up and I started to talk to Marsha Landess and I liked her vision for things.
“We visited three different times before we came down here and we decided it was going to be a really good thing for us. I love Charlotte and I love my Vice President and General Manager, Marsha. She is fantastic and it’s the very beginning stage but I think there’s a lot of potential at this station.”
By mid-May, Rickard had been hired as the new program director at WFNZ. Unlike his stop in Indianapolis, the new job didn’t include a daily radio show on the air. Some might think that Rickard has really missed being on the air, and at times he has, but he’s also enjoyed the freedom that being off the air has provided.
“It’s been a nice break and I tell people I don’t miss it, but when I have done some shows it’s like jumping back into a familiar spot again,” said Rickard. “I can see myself continuing on with that but it’s been a nice break, just to watch games and feel like, ok, I need to figure out what tomorrow’s show is going to look and sound like, which you do anyway. It’s been a nice break, but either way I’ll be fine.”
So is Rickard back regularly behind the mic, something we can anticipate seeing at WFNZ? That’s a bit complicated and depends on how the current midday slot at the station is filled.
“We are looking for a midday show right now,” Rickard said. “We have it down to about four finalists and depending on how things break, I may or may not be one of the hosts there and I may be doing a one or two hour show on the station. I’d like to hire the next voice or voices of that daypart for the next decade, so I’m taking my time and being real careful.”
The Charlotte market isn’t different from Rickard’s two previous stops in Boston and Indianapolis, in that the NFL rules the content. However, the station is the flagship for FC Charlotte, a new MLS team in town the station is helping get off the ground. With that being said, how does WFNZ manage content between the NFL team in town and the MLS team the station supports?
“It’s like anyplace else where the NFL is king and we’re going to spend all day today talking about the Panthers losing to the Giants,” Rickard said. “We’re going to do mostly NFL but this region is a real hotbed for UNC, North Carolina State, Clemson, and App State is right down the road. College sports certainly get their fair share of run. I’d say it’s probably 60 percent NFL, 30 college sports, and 10 percent FC Charlotte. We do a lot of FC promotion during the breaks because we’re the home of the broadcast and this is their inaugural year so we’re doing our best to get the word out for the team we’ve invested in.”
Hiring Rickard and his track record of improving ratings was a really smart move for WFNZ. There’s proof in the resume he knows how to get the most out of a station, while also finding a way to mesh with others in the building. That’s a lethal combo.
The secret of getting better ratings at a station may not be a one-size-fits-all response. It could be very situational, depending on what exists inside the walls. Rickard likes to use the same system when trying to diagnose what should be next for a station.
“For me, the first thing I like to do is get a real sense of who the people are at the radio station and what makes them tick, from traffic to promotions to producers,” Rickard said. “You have to figure out what that sweet spot is and figure out what makes that station go. You try to do a lot more of the good stuff and a lot less of the bad stuff.
“I think it’s just being real with people and getting them on the same team and playing to the strengths of the people that you have and always look to improve. I look at it no different than if you went in as the coach of a sports team. You’ve got to find out what your talent is like.”
There’s an instant level of respect from a host when they see what Rickard has accomplished as both a programmer and on-air talent. That probably helps when it comes to air checks and critiques with hosts. Whether it’s fair or not, sometimes it’s just easier hearing it from someone who’s been on the air before and has sat in the same seat you’re sitting in.
“I think when we sit down to do listening and coaching sessions, or sessions where we’re all trying to figure out the best thing to do, I think everyone I work with gets the sense that I have been where they’ve been and sat in that chair knowing I just gave a really good 20 minutes and I still have three hours and 40 minutes to go,” Rickard said.
“I’ve got to make the three hours and 40 minutes just as entertaining as the 20 minutes. Meaning, they know they can identify with me because I’ve been in that chair and I know the pressures they’re going through. I know what it’s like to prepare a show, when a show goes great, when a show doesn’t go as well as you planned, I just know what they’re going through.”
Trying to get accustomed to a new market has gone well for Rickard, but he’s had to do that while looking for hosts to fill a midday show, and now, a signal change at the station. As of 12:01 Monday morning, 610 AM is no more for WFNZ after 30 years. Earlier this year, WFNZ moved its FM frequency from 102.5 FM to 92.7 FM, which has been a much stronger signal.
“I think the decision was made that we had gotten a bunch more powerful and clear signal at night on 92.7 and we decided not to get 610 rated and for those that were still listening to us on 610, we weren’t getting any credit for that,” Rickard said.
“It’s just the natural way things are going these days. It seems like every year, there’s another heritage AM signal that’s losing out to a clearer FM signal. As a guy that grew up on 850 KOA in Denver, it’s tough to see from that perspective, but I just don’t know how much sense they make from a business perspective anymore.”
Rickard is proud of what he’s accomplished in his many career stops, but you won’t find him spending much time looking back at his previous stops. Instead, it’s all about his current stop in Charlotte and enjoying the perfect work-life balance that best suits him and his family.
The two-year anniversary of his sudden heart attack is next month, and fortunately, he can look forward with a ton of optimism about his life in and away from radio.
“What happened two years ago, made me heighten my sense of paying more attention to my family. That’s still the most important thing in my life. It doesn’t mean I’m not hyperfocused on what I do. It doesn’t mean I’m not writing promos, reading emails at 8:00 at night or 6:00 in the morning, I still do those things. I just try to make sure that the time I do have with my family that I’m incredibly present with them.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
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 DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.