ESPN Radio suffered big internal losses last week as part of cost-cutting measures at The Walt Disney Company. In a fantastic look at the situation, Jason Barrett stated what needed to be said: Radio is no longer a priority for ESPN, and the entire situation could have been avoided.
Unfortunately for national sports radio brands, the outlook doesn’t appear much rosier.
For better or worse, we live in an on-demand, hyper-personalized world. Virtually every aspect of our lives has become completely customizable. That doesn’t bode well for broad national sports radio.
According to a recent estimation from podcast search engine Listen Notes, there were more than 50,000 podcasts launched in the first quarter of 2023. That number grew the podcasting space to 3 million active podcasts. If you’ve ever thought “Oh my gosh, everyone has a podcast”, you were right.
And that’s part of the problem for national sports radio brands. If the options for daily sports listening are “listen to national sports radio and hope they talk about the leagues, teams, and players I care about” or “find a podcast centered on the leagues, teams, and players I care about”, it’s an easy decision, and it’s never been easier to make that decision.
And yet, many of these national sports radio brands are cognizant of that issue plaguing their organizations, and the remedy is…what, exactly? Try to localize content as much as possible in individual shows?
Keyshawn, JWill, and Max talk about Chicago sports topics in the 6:00 AM and 7:00 AM hours. Why? Because that’s when they’re on in the Windy City. Damn near every day at 8:00 AM, the discussion was about the Giants, Jets, Knicks, Nets, Yankees, or Mets, because that was when the show started in New York City before 98.7 ESPN New York shifted DiPietro & Rothenberg to a full-fledge morning show. So, I’m guessing you can see — if that was the result — just how well that experiment went.
ESPN Radio, FOX Sports Radio, and CBS Sports Radio have their challenges, no question about it. Heck, their own hosts are creating separate podcasts to compete in the audio space.
ESPN Radio, while no longer having that flamethrower, signature, must-hear host, has invested heavily into the podcast space. Frankly, ESPN Radio hasn’t had a host like that since Colin Cowherd departed. Cowherd, by the way, has invested heavily in the podcasting arena with his ownership of The Volume. Not a bad investment for a guy who lampooned the podcasting business just a few short years ago.
Cowherd is still a national sports radio draw, because nearly as many listeners hate him as love him. However, one could argue Cowherd hosts a sports television show that happens to air on radio as much as he hosts a radio show that’s on TV. So Cowherd, the preeminent voice of the national sports radio scene, is more invested in podcasting than radio. Not exactly a great position for the industry to see itself.
In addition to Colin Cowherd, FOX Sports Radio has Dan Patrick…who started a podcast network.
CBS Sports Radio has Jim Rome but lacks much of the distribution and reach of FOX Sports Radio. And yet, Rome’s got a podcast with interviews from high-profile guests.
Unfortunately, the national sports radio host no longer carries the same cachet as the role once did. It used to be a chief driver of the national sports discussion. Now? That role isn’t held by a single individual or a select group nationally. It’s held as much on a market-by-market basis as it is on a national level.
And podcasting has a lot to do with that. You could argue that someone like Ryen Russillo has as much influence on the national level as host of his podcast on The Ringer as he did hosting afternoons at ESPN Radio.
And that isn’t a shot at ESPN Radio, Russillo, or anyone, as much as its an understanding and an appreciation of the times in which we live. It was the likely evolution of the medium. In a world where everything has become individualized, customizable, and on-demand, the downfall of national sports radio was inevitable. But that doesn’t mean it can’t fight back.
I don’t know what the exact answer is, but I do know that pretending as if you can still operate like its 2003 rather than 2023 isn’t the right path for the future of the industry.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio. Reach him at [email protected].
Matt McClearin is Not Just Filling a Void at The Ticket
“As much as I dreamt about this opportunity, it’s even more so than I probably could ever have dreamt.”
Norm Hitzges is considered an industry pioneer, helping establish morning sports talk radio in the Dallas area. Spending a total of 48 years in the format, he made an immense contribution to the field. When Hitzges officially retired in June, there were questions surrounding who would move into the midday slot on Sportsradio 96.7 and 1310 The Ticket to work alongside host Donovan Lewis. The station eventually made the decision to bring one of its own home in Matt McClearin, and he has excelled in the assignment since officially taking over in August.
McClearin, a Texas native who grew up listening to Hitzges and other programs on the outlet, is living his dream with the medium he set his sights on from the time he was young. Over the years, he had a chance to be around Hitzges and saw his elite level of preparation and congeniality firsthand.
“One of the kindest humans I think that I’ve ever met,” McClearin said of Hitzges, “especially in this business, and that says a lot, I think, about how to carry yourself. Even when you have success and get to a certain level, [knowing] the right way to treat people and the right way to go about your daily business.”
It is safe to say that Hitzges had an impact on everyone at The Ticket, and it is a legacy that McClearin hopes to further perpetuate. Every time he walks into the studios, it is not lost on him the magnitude of the assignment he has been entrusted with, and he remains focused and driven on realizing his full potential.
Reaching this point took endurance and patience, but the timing ultimately ended up working out in his best interest. Growing up in the metroplex, The Ticket was a fundamental part of the sports sound and represented McClearin’s innate ambition.
McClearin was selected by station management to work in paid positions for two years while attending Texas State University – production director and program director – which entailed 20 to 25 hours per week within the offices and studio. In addition to working on job-specific functions, he also used the time to perfect his editing skills and board operating procedures and gain on-air repetitions. By the time he graduated and sought to apply for a job, he surmised that possessing versatility would engender a larger swath of chances to become immersed in the craft.
“Originally, [I was] kind of practicing the craft as much as [I] could and learning as much as I could,” McClearin said. “I could increase [my] value, I think, of being able to walk into a radio station in Dallas in a Top 5 market and say, ‘I can run the board; I can do production [and] I can do on-air stuff,’ but not just talk.”
By happenstance, he learned that The Ticket was looking for a part-time sports anchor to fill in for various shows, leading him to send his demo reel to the outlet. After some conversations with station management, McClearin officially joined the team and became immersed in refining his on-air skillset with guidance from program director Jeff Catlin.
“He’s very hands-on [by], early on, giving you a lot of constructive criticism and helping you to learn the ins and outs and proper formatics and how to set up each segment correctly,” McClearin said of Catlin. “Doing things like that and having those opportunities [are things] I always enjoyed.”
McClearin eventually began working as a pregame and postgame studio host for Dallas Stars broadcasts. Moreover, he would attend Dallas Cowboys games and collect audio from the players and coaches to edit and send back to the radio station to be used across its programming.
Working hard and going the extra mile helped separate McClearin from his competition both inside and outside of the radio station, ultimately earning him a weekend show with Scot Harrison. His candid assessments of the local teams and ability to delegate on the show, indifferent towards whether or not he is the center of attention, have rendered his hosting abilities conducive to success.
“I’m just a big believer in being who you are and being real and presenting that on the air,” McClearin said, “so no matter what you’re going through or what’s different about you, there are listeners out there that can connect with that and understand that you’re being real.”
The program remained a fixture on the weekends before both hosts were offered the chance to become part of the weekday programming lineup, following sports radio luminary Paul Finebaum. This opening, however, would require McClearin and Harrison to pick up and move to Birmingham so they could broadcast from the studios of Jox 94.5.
Both hosts eventually agreed and spent the next three-and-a-half years on the outlet, growing a new audience and becoming an indispensable part of the evenings in the area. There are certain instances in any business that are fugacious and unexpected in nature though, and the show cancellation in 2016 was an example of such.
McClearin returned to Dallas to work as a part-time radio host on ESPN Radio 103.3 FM, an extraordinary circumstance in that he was in the same building he used to work in with The Ticket. The station was operating under a local marketing agreement (LMA) with Cumulus Media and competing with the very outlet they were sharing the building with, cultivating a professional atmosphere mired by the ratings. The onset of the global pandemic caused the station to shutter.
“It was one of those things where you’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing and believe that there’s an appeal to what you’re doing,” McClearin said. “You get hired for a reason, and you continue to perform and try to grow what we were doing at the time.”
Catlin continued to serve as a mentor for McClearin during his years away from The Ticket, a venerable radio professional who has helped further build the outlet into a local powerhouse. The station frequently posts stellar ratings each quarter, representing a place where McClearin feels he can grow his brand and show to unrealized heights.
“The goal is to be No. 1 in the ratings in our [demographic] and to continue that,” McClearin said. “That’s something that I think drives me every day. When you’re not No. 1, you want to know, ‘Okay, well why aren’t we No. 1?,’ and when you get to that point, the question then becomes, ‘Okay, well how do we maintain this and continue to go and be better and bigger than what we were the previous month?’”
Before he ultimately returned to The Ticket to work with Lewis in the midday time slot, there was a bit of irony in that he, once again, called Birmingham home. When McClearin’s original program was canceled, he felt as if he had assimilated into the city and found his niche. He was disappointed in the outcome and always thought of the area in a favorable light, which then led to his phone ringing with a call from program director Ryan Haney.
As fortune would have it, Haney asked McClearin if he would be interested in returning to the station to host a solo program as part of a refreshed local lineup. Without hesitation, he conveyed that he would be interested in making a comeback in the locale, a full-circle moment filled with feelings of both satisfaction and gratitude.
“I never thought that I would go back to Alabama, much less work for the same station that, five years prior, had made the decision to let, at the time, Scot Harrison and I go,” McClearin said. “….I never wanted to leave in the first place, [so] I was really, really happy and I’m very fortunate that Ryan believed in me and gave me that opportunity to come back.”
The dynamic of the show differed the second time around in that he was the primary host, yet he also had help from John Saber and Conrad Van Order. Being around the Birmingham audience for a second time gave him more chances to talk about college football, basketball and other sports topics dominating the local and national scene.
Moving from one marketplace more focused on professional teams to one that was dominated by college sports, he furthered his abilities and worked to finish at the top of the ratings.
“I say the things that I actually believe in and I talk about the things that I really do to where, yes, sometimes I think I probably do some weird things and I’m a different type of person, but that’s just my personality and I have my quirks and my eccentricities,” McClearin said. “Again, I think if I present that and that is me, then the audience understands that and I think it comes across that way.”
Just as he thought during his initial stint in Birmingham, McClearin was prepared to stay in the marketplace for the long haul and try to further cement his name in the radio airwaves. Being able to reconnect with the audience and discuss meaningful, impactful topics was validating and worthwhile for him, and he was especially steadfast to the outlet. After all, he never had a particular interest in voyaging to television and still, to this day, concentrates his efforts on growing and maintaining the sports radio format.
“My brain just doesn’t think like that in those three-minute little quips that you do,” McClearin said. “TV is just so much more structured and short than radio, where we can have a 15-minute segment and have a real conversation.”
The only way McClearin was going to leave the station was if The Ticket came along, and sure enough, an opening became available concurrent with Hitzges’ retirement. While he enjoyed his time in Birmingham, he doubled down on his commitment to the Dallas-Fort Worth marketplace for the long run in making this move and conceding a solo program for a new co-host.
“When I got the call and went through the process with Jeff Catlin, [it] was a little bit surreal because it truly is a dream coming true,” McClearin said. “I found out that they’re going to put me with Donovan Lewis is kind of when Norm Hitzges decided to retire and I was going to walk in, [and] it’s really such a new show. Donovan and Norm had had such success for a while.”
As soon as McClearin took the air with Lewis for the first time, he felt an instant connection. Just a few months into the program, both hosts know there is plenty of room for growth and consistent improvement to create enthralling and proprietary content that will amplify cume and serve the community.
“We both are just two people, I think, that really care about the listener [and] what we’re putting together each and every day to make it the best that we can,” McClearin said. “So far, it’s been really easy and it’s been just – as much as I dreamt about this opportunity, it’s even more so than I probably could ever have dreamt.”
The Ticket is in competition with 105.3 The Fan in the Dallas-Fort Worth marketplace, along with other media outlets across various platforms. Whereas the Birmingham market releases its ratings through quarterly diaries, Dallas has monthly figures through PPM, but he makes sure the influx of quantitative data does not command his mindset.
“We can all see the ratings that the two main sports stations here have – they’re very healthy ratings and I think there’s a real hunger,” McClearin said. “A lot of that is football-driven – the Cowboys, nationally, are crazy relevant. All the [networks with] NBC and ABC and FOX and everybody; they always want to put them on because the Cowboys drive the needle. Well, they also drive the needle in Dallas very, very much so.”
Understanding and capitalizing on the reach and relevance of the Cowboys helps these local programs gain further traction. Arriving unprepared equates to marketplace malfeasance.
“Prep is very important to me, and I like to try to come into the pre-show meeting that I have with Donovan and our producer Travis every day with my own ideas, but also, ‘Okay, Donnie, what do you think?,’ and then, ‘Travis, what do you think about that?,’” McClearin said. “From that and our own individual prep, we kind of do the show prep together [to present] the in-depth segments that we roll out.”
The majority of content focuses on the Cowboys since they are the team that exhorts the most interest in the area, but there are plenty of other storylines within the landscape. The Texas Rangers are headed to the Major League Baseball postseason for the first time since 2016, while the Dallas Mavericks organization enters its first full season with superstar guard tandem Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Sometimes, sports fans do not want to solely listen to discussions about the teams themselves but rather hear about other pertinent topics in which they may be interested.
“I like to call them, I guess, lifestyle segments because I don’t think anybody, even the most passionate sports fan, only does sports in their life,” McClearin said. “We all have relationships and we have TV shows that we like to watch, and we went to the store and [some] random thing happened. We incorporate that, I think, into the show, and I think that’s The Ticket itself. It’s a very real station that has real conversations with a focus on sports.”
Everything throughout McClearin’s professional journey has centered on reaching this moment, and he wants to maximize the opportunity he has earned by bringing his best to the air on a daily basis.
From the onset, he knew where he wanted to end up and took the necessary steps to get there, even if it meant enduring some difficult setbacks. By taking advantage of every opportunity in his purview, he has made it in front of the microphone, and he has no plans on going anywhere at any time soon.
“I want to continue to grow the audience and have as many people enjoy doing what I love to do as possible,” McClearin said. “I get a lot of motivation from that [and] just the excitement of driving into the station every day and the excitement of when that light comes on and it’s time for the show. It’s like being on stage to me; it’s almost like you just get kind of high off of that feeling, and I love it.”
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.
Focused on Today With My Eyes on Tomorrow
“Our sites perform best when they are original, creative, and going beyond the surface, and we will do more of that in 2024.”
It’s been a minute since I managed the editor’s desk for our websites but as we look for the right leader to execute our strategy, I’m back involved assisting my team. The positive is that it gives me a chance to get further connected with our writers and see what’s being produced. The challenge is trying to balance website duties with consulting work, conference building, content creation for two newsletters, and tabling ideas until we’re at full strength. We already made a few tweaks to BNM with the addition of a Media Stock Ticker on the website and the addition of On The Record and Job of the Week in the newsletter. If you haven’t checked them out, please do so.
This seems like a good time to remind you that I am looking for a full time editor/writer to help lead BSM and BNM. A passion to write, manage people, provide ideas, and execute the vision is important. I’m looking for the equivalent of a digital program director who enjoys creating content. Covering the media industry is different than writing about sports or news. If you don’t love the broadcasting business and understand the brands, people, issues, and challenges and opportunities facing those involved, this won’t work. If you do, and you have the ability to manage a writing team and editorial calendar, dig for stories, expand relationships, and understand SEO and how to grow traffic and influence, then let’s talk. My email is [email protected]. Please include your resume and a few writing samples.
In the short term, you won’t notice much different on our websites. Our columnists will keep delivering timely opinions and insights, our features on broadcasters will remain thorough and interesting, and our daily news will occupy most of the space on both home pages. However, starting in 2024 we will begin placing a greater focus on original storytelling, expert insights, and creative features and benchmarks. This was a bigger focus during our early days but we’ve done less of it over the years as news began to dominate our daily content focus.
Though we will continue to relay industry happenings, personnel changes, and key details involving sports and news media brands and professionals, our sites perform best when they are original, creative, and going beyond the surface. That’s why our annual conferences are a hit. They educate, celebrate, and investigate key issues with the right people. I know that in today’s media climate aggregation is impossible to avoid especially when we’re seen as a resource for relaying key stories that others may not have seen but my hope is to do less of it and place a higher premium on original material. This means examining more of the radio, television, podcasting, advertising, and social media business from all angles not just reacting to things said on the airwaves.
I’ve already assembled a content plan for BSM and BNM for 2024 and am fired up about it. Stephanie Eads and I will share some of those plans with existing and prospective partners during Q4, and we’ll start rolling things out little by little once the new year rolls around.
Having shared that, I mentioned when we celebrated our 8 year anniversary that this year has been harder than others. The more we grow, the more we have to manage, and that’s why it’s so important to find a strong editor to help me maximize our websites while I remain heavily involved with our clients. One thing I haven’t done in a while that I’d like to take advantage of while I have you here is ask you two simple questions: What is it that you enjoy reading most on our sites? What would you like to see more and less of? Your feedback is appreciated at [email protected].
On a daily basis, we publish 14-16 pieces of content on BSM and 10-12 on BNM. That’s a ton, and let’s be honest, you’re not reading all of that. We constantly provide a full menu of options and try to avoid it feeling like we’re throwing up content to fill the page but truth be told, sometimes it feels like we’re filling the page. I don’t want to invest time and resources in busy work that is less relevant. I want to create stories that are worth your time to help you stay informed, entertained, challenged, and inspired. I realize readers have different opinions and pleasing everybody isn’t possible but we’re trying deliver more of what you want and less of what you don’t. It’s why I’m asking questions, interviewing candidates for our editor role, and reviewing our analytics to make sure we have the right content plans in place.
If there’s one lesson we’ve all learned it’s that the rules are constantly changing. What worked 5 years ago on Twitter isn’t the same today on the X. What was a guaranteed way to produce ratings on the radio a few years back is more complex now with video and podcasting part of the overall sum of success. It’s no different for BSM and BNM. If we’re writing about stations, networks or people that others don’t care to read about, we change our focus. If our ability to generate interest through social media platforms changes due to an algorithm adjustment, then the content and amount of posts we had planned changes too. Is it inconvenient sometimes? Yes. But if the winds of change are blowing, it’s on us to adapt or risk getting blown away.
I’m going through these next few months of 2023 making sure we stay focused on what matters each day while also inspecting our brands to make them the best they can be for 2024. In between all of that is hiring an editor, creating our annual BNM Top 20 (December) and planning a 2024 BSM Summit (March). One thing I’d like to do entering the new year is add 1-2 additional columnists on BSM and possibly another reporter/features writer for BNM. I’m also planning to bring back The Jason Barrett Podcast in April except with guests from both formats, sports and news.
We’ve come a long way since September 2015. This started as a one man show with a thousand people reading each day, and it’s turned into a talented team producing quality, relevant industry content read by 10-20 thousand people per day. Our challenge moving forward is figuring out what we need more of, what we need less of, diving deeper into the original content pool, adding more support, and seeing just how far we can ride this train. As always, thanks for reading and supporting our journey.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at [email protected].
3 Questions to Ask Before Booking a Guest
Nobody has more passion for your show than you do. Be very careful who you invite to share that passion.
In my formative years of sports talk, the legendary Rush Limbaugh was at the absolute height of his popularity. Limbaugh had a very simple formula, nobody could argue against the success of that formula. Each hour was pretty much the same; a monologue or two, a sound bite, a few phone callers, and lengthy reactions to those calls. One thing that was absent was a guest, Limbaugh almost never had a guest on his show.
He was once asked about that and maintained there isn’t a guest that has the same passion for his show as he does so, why hand the show over to someone without that passion? It is an intriguing and thought-provoking strategy.
Each show has a unique approach to guests; the type that work, the length of the interview, the times they should be on. There is no cookie-cutter approach that works for every show in every market. I do think a strategy for a show as it relates to guests is absolutely crucial. Scheduling them without first answering a few “whys” would be a critical mistake. We only get so much time with each listener, few things can run them off like a bad one.
More on the “whys” in a moment but I first need to address what I believe to be a misconception. I often hear that a show is good because “it gets great guests”. That may be a plus for the listener but I refuse to believe it is what makes a show great.
Ultimately, a show is great because the entire production is entertaining. Guests are only part of what makes a show entertaining. Even two in an hour on a show still leaves the hosts having to fill the majority of the time. If they aren’t entertaining hosts, there isn’t a guest alive that makes the show good. All of that gets me to the “Whys”.
Why is this guest on?
There must be a reason to hand part of your show over to a guest. They must be extremely entertaining, covering a topic that is of great interest to your audience, or be someone you know beyond a shadow of a doubt your audience loves.
If you can get at least two of those three, you have a winner.
Otherwise, it feels like a segment filler and I think most audience members can spot a segment filler from miles away. I get it, I’ve done small market shows solo before and felt like I was the only one listening. I know the appeal of having someone to help fill a segment.
The truth is, it does more harm than good if it isn’t entertaining.
Why does this guest want to be on?
Every guest you have on has an ulterior motive. It is part of the transaction: They scratch your back and they get something out of it. The more they feel they get out of it, the more likely they are to give you a better interview.
Having someone who understands the value of a spot on your show will exponentially increase the interest and effort of that guest in their given segment. Simply put, if they’re not into it, the segment isn’t going to work.
I’ve seen shows chase the “big name guest” and the big name has very little interest in the interview. It shows. We once had a former athlete turned analyst on our show who was doing the interview on speakerphone while he was packing for a trip. He could not have been less interested in doing the interview and I still don’t know why he agreed. It was a show killer.
I don’t care how big the name is, if the big name just goes through the motions, it will be a failure.
Why is this YOUR guest?
Most topics you’ll discuss on a show have numerous possibilities tied to them. Rarely is there only one guest that can discuss that topic. Try finding the person who has the best chemistry with your show. Show chemistry matters when selecting hosts, I think it should matter just as much when selecting guests. It is likely your show has a unique personality of its own, lean into that when you are selecting guests.
As an example, my show is far more likely to discuss a player’s haircut rather than his NextGen Stats. When we have someone on, it is important to us that they understand that and isn’t thrown off by it. That is an understanding of the chemistry of the show and the importance of that to the audience. I think every booking has to be viewed through that prism.
Ultimately, I have always believed having no guest is far better than having a bad guest. If people are consuming your show, they already value your opinion and insight, don’t lend that audience trust to someone who will not value it to some extent. Rush Limbaugh may have taken it to extremes, he was good at that, and he was also correct in his assessment.
Nobody has more passion for your show than you do. Be very careful who you invite to share that passion.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.