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Meet The Market Managers: Keith Barton, Max Media Virginia Beach

“It’s nice to get a kiss every now and then. You could exploit those numbers, but if that’s how you’re selling, it’ll work against you at some point.”

Demetri Ravanos

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MTMM Barton

When you think about the markets that set the tone and establish the trends for sports radio, Virginia Beach probably doesn’t leap to the front of your mind. Last year though, Keith Barton changed that, at least temporarily.

In today’s Meet the Market Managers column, presented by Point-to-Point Marketing, Barton explains how the idea came to him to sell the naming rights to his station. ESPN Radio 94.1 became Priority Auto Sports Radio 94.1. The move raised plenty of eyebrows.

In addition to that one move, we also cover the opportunities for both programming and recruiting in a military market, how Virginia Beach is different from other beach markets, and why he makes a point to send Christmas cards to the people everyone else curses on the interstate.

Demetri Ravanos: We have to start with a Priority Auto Deal. Plenty of stations name a studio or hotline after a sponsor, but take me through, from the idea phase to the completion of the deal. How did renaming the whole station come about? 

Keith Barton: We had flipped a financial talker, WGH AM, to Fox Sports earlier this year. When I got here 25 years ago, that station was The Score 1310. It was our only sports station at the time. So I was toying with the idea of let’s go back to The Score 1310. There’s some heritage in this market still, and people remember it – some of them anyways. So we started batting that around.              

One day on my back deck, I was having a cigar and a bourbon and I was thinking, ‘You know, Why wouldn’t we do station naming rights like FedEx Field does and any of the major venues do?”. So I batted that around with some of the folks here in the office, and we couldn’t see any negatives to it.            

Then it was, “Well, who would we approach?” and Priority Auto kind of was a no-brainer. They have been a great client in the past. They’re extremely involved in the community. They’re locally owned like we are. They have a reputation as huge supporters of local sports on all levels. We had about four or five meetings with those folks and the rest is history. 

DR: I’m sure GMs in other markets have reached out with their questions about the deal and how it works for you. Given what you have to say about Priority Auto and their close ties to the local sports scene, is there any general information or general advice you can give, or does the fit have to be so specific for the conversation to even begin in your mind? 

KB: I don’t think it does. Just look at the various different businesses that are involved with venue naming rights. Even in our market, we’ve got a credit union, there’s food vendors. It’s endless.         

We’re heavily involved with Old Dominion University here and Priority is a big supporter of ODU. We broadcast their games. Priority has really stepped up with supporting the school in their stadiums. They’re in the process right now of upgrading and updating the baseball stadium. It’ll allow ODU to host bigger tournaments here locally.                

I’ve had others call and ask do we have any concerns. The biggest concern was how would the listeners perceive this. It didn’t take but a few text messages and a few emails from listeners once we made the change for them to realize the content didn’t change. It was just the name. Advertisers were the same. We really haven’t missed a beat. It’s been a great partnership so far. 

DR: So I do have to ask: ESPN Radio is a network that has been a bit turbulent over the last three years. Was that a factor in the decision to rebrand? 

KB: Yeah, it certainly made it a little bit easier. I think they’re certainly not done. We’re hearing rumors of even more things happening. If there’s been one constant with ESPN over the last, my gosh, probably ten years now at least, it’s change.             

The folks up there, they’ve been very cooperative. I wouldn’t say they were 100% supportive of the decision, but, it is what it is. 

DR: You guys are connected to Old Dominion. In college sports, that isn’t a power conference team. You’ve got the Tides. That’s Triple-A baseball. I would imagine there are things that the station can do or is given access to from those partners that larger sports brands would be a lot more protective of or at least not so easy to work with on. 

KB: Yeah, absolutely. We broadcast the football, women’s and men’s basketball, and baseball as well for ODU. You know, it’s just been a great partnership with them for over 15 years now. Their program has been growing steadily. A couple of years back, they beat Virginia Tech at home. It really put them on the map.                  

As far as the Tides go, they’ve been fantastic to work with. We broadcast their games as well. They give us access to certain things at the park more than a major league team would ever offer us. That’s for sure. 

DR: Virginia Beach is a unique market given the military presence. So how important is that local identity for the station, given that so many people are from elsewhere and bring their own sports interests and allegiances to town with them?

KB: Yeah, that’s been a challenge over the years. You know, it’s a pretty transient market. There’s a couple of hundred thousand military folks here. We have five branches represented in Hampton Roads. It’s the largest military installation in the world, and that is a challenge. That challenge also comes with a benefit because the listeners, the calls aren’t just based on one sports team or two sports teams. It really spans the nation with some of the calls and what our talent are able to comment on. It is a challenge without having a major brand here, but there’s also that benefit. 

DR: Is it majority transient? People are there for three, four, or five years and then move on, or do a lot of people come and that is where they end up and they establish a new generation of Virginians? Do people come in with their allegiances from wherever and then it is their kids that care more about ODU or Tech or Virginia in the long run? 

KB: That’s a great point. I’m a product of that. We moved here in ’75. My dad was Navy and so I’m a naturalized Virginian at this point.                   

More often than not, you find people that aren’t from here. My wife is actually one of the few born and bred here. It’s such a great community. The summers are hot and the winters aren’t super cold. It’s an attractive place to be. A lot of people come here with the military and they’ll get stationed elsewhere and then end up coming back here. So, yeah, what you suggest is definitely a factor. 

DR: How active were you in seeking out those men and women whose time in the service is ending to then fill roles in your building? I would imagine there is some real question for those folks of “What do I do next?”. You’ve got to be versatile these days to work on the sales side of radio. 

KB: Oh yeah. Currently, we don’t have any former military on our sales team, but four in our I.T. department. We’ve had engineers, we’ve had certainly promotions people and road crew. A lot of retired guys want to just participate in events that we host. We do run across that quite a lot. 

DR: So what are you looking for these days when it comes to talent? Not just in sports, but across the whole cluster? What does somebody on the radio these days need to have a better grasp on than maybe they did four or five years ago?

KB: Well, I mean, social media certainly has played a huge role in who we look for. It’s got to be someone that’s well versed in that. We’ve got some long-term veterans on our country station in particular. These folks are very talented. They’re very smart. They’re tapped into the community, and they’ve evolved. They’re big on social media at this point. I think social media is important to building their individual brands and also our brands. We’re also getting into podcasts and all the different ways to serve our audience now.                     

Our bread and butter is still, and I believe always will be, terrestrial radio. It’s free and it’s accessible.               

I send Christmas cards to the Virginia Department of Transportation every year because, currently, they have 950-plus projects going around the state. It causes traffic jams and, you know 92 out of 100 cars that are stuck in traffic are listening to the local broadcast radio. I like that. 

DR: What is it you’re asking sellers to take to clients and potential clients? Are you selling the numbers or like with 94.1, are you wanting them to go and talk about the kind of community that Tim Donnelly creates with local listeners? Are you asking them to talk about that fact that 92 out of 100 cars stuck in that traffic jam are with broadcast radio? What are the weapons you’re arming your soldiers with as they go into battle? 

KB: We rely a lot on testimonials from clients. I learned years ago that if you live by the numbers, you die by the numbers. So I don’t rely on that. It’s nice to get a kiss every now and then. You could exploit those numbers, but if that’s how you’re selling, it’ll work against you at some point.                    

We sell results. We don’t have cookie-cutter campaigns for our clients. We spend a lot of time with them uncovering the pain that they’re experiencing and we problem-solve. 

DR: So the last thing I want to ask you, because we talk about the market as a military market and as a transient market. Not the entire market, but a good chunk of it is a beach market. So, I do wonder, does advertising change at all during the spring and summer? Does your business experience a peak and an off-season at all similar to other businesses in a beach town? 

KB: You would think that and it does to an extent, but certainly not like our neighbors to the south on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We used to have stations down there as well. Our ops manager who’s working with us now, worked at those stations. They are absolutely restricted to about four good months of selling and then it just dries up. The sidewalks roll up and they’ve got to make their nut in those four months.                   

Here it’s not so much. There are some seasonal clients that typically don’t spend in the winter. It’s a pretty stable flow of business here overall though. We’re not as affected by the tourist industry as you might think. 

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Greg Hill is Turning the Tables in Morning Drive on WEEI

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen.”

Derek Futterman

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Greg Hill
Courtesy: Audacy

Earlier in the week, the Boston Celtics secured their 18th NBA championship. Across a variety of sports radio stations, especially those in the Boston-Manchester designated market area, the triumph was a subject of discussion on Tuesday morning. Within morning drive on WEEI, host Greg Hill provided his thoughts on the team and its achievement.

Akin to the Celtics, Hill aims to position his weekday program to thrive and sustain success. After working in the industry for many years, some professionals can exhibit a sense of apathy, but for Hill, it is quite the opposite, exhibiting congeniality and authenticity to the audience as a whole amid this quest.

Although Hill broadcasts on a sports talk station, the morning show spans beyond comprehensive sports discussion while implementing a variety of other topics into its daily discussion. In fact, Hill defines the breadth of topics into two distinctive categories, one of which is sports while the other covers an assortment of miscellaneous subjects mentioned on the show.

“I think it’s more beneficial if you are a radio person and you know what you think works when it comes to doing radio,” Hill said. “If you can find a way to keep the audience entertained and engaged and try, if you can, to present content that’s different than [what] they might find somewhere else, then that’s more important than necessarily a vast X’s and O’s knowledge when it comes to sports from my perspective.”

Sports teams in the city of Boston have established a tradition of grandeur and excellence, making a habit of remaining in contention for championships every year. In fact, the Celtics championship ended the city’s title drought that spanned just over five years. During that time, the media ecosystem has changed with a prioritization on digital distribution in addition to more niche content offerings. As a long-tenured radio host, Hill has been able to successfully adapt by optimizing the idiosyncrasies of the medium while also being open to innovation.

“The old adage about, and I think it still remains a unique advantage when it comes to this medium, is that when you wake up in the morning, you want to know, ‘What happened? What happened last night?,’ and you want to hear people give you their slant on it,” Hill said. “My function, I think, is to give everybody the opportunity to share their opinions on stuff.”

While Hill has become a respected sports radio host, he initially started working in another sector of the industry. During his time as a middle school student, he worked a paper route and saved his money to buy two turntables and several 45-rpm records. Hill would then go to the garage of his parents’ house and host a radio show with no audience, working to master the craft in his nascence. As he grew older, he started to bring his records to his high school radio station and take the air.

The passion and verve he possessed for the medium, along with his talent in the craft, helped him land a job at WAAF as a promotion coordinator. As he began to showcase his abilities, he earned chances to go on the air over the weekends and overnight. Morning show host Drew Lane later asked Hill if he wanted to do sports on the program, and he continued to grow from there.

When Hill was named the host of the new Hill-Man Morning Show on WAAF a few years later, he needed to find a way to stand out in the marketplace. After all, he was facing competition from Charles Laquidara on WBCN and a variety of other media outlets, and it took time for the program to eventually break through. Hill took the opposite approach of other stations in the area to render the show distinct from those on other media outlets.

“WBCN at the time was an older-targeted station, so we targeted the station towards Men 18-34 and figured that we could grow as they grew,” Hill said. “So we were just going out attending every single possible event where somebody might be, going out before concerts and shaking hands, and doing all that stuff that I think you have to do in order to try to get people to try your show and try your station.”

Hill’s program catapulted to the top of the marketplace, and he signed a lifetime contract after 26 years on the air to stay at WAAF. In signing the deal, he never thought he would work anywhere else, but things changed three years later when Gerry Callahan hosted his last show in morning drive on WEEI. Then-Entercom announced that it was adding Hill to the daypart to host a new morning drive program and retained co-host Danielle Murr in the process, commencing a new era for the outlet. Shortly thereafter, WAAF was sold to the Educational Media Foundation and re-formatted with contemporary Christian programming.

“I never thought [W]AAF would go away,” Hill said. “It was a legendary rock station, and I still to this day will flip by that station and hear Christian rock music and sit there in silence for a couple of minutes for that great radio station, but being the same company and the same market manager at the time [in] Mark Hannon, when that opportunity came up [to] try something different and to make a change, I was really excited about it.”

In moving formats, Hill and his colleagues evaluated the program and determined how they could grow their audience on WEEI while staying true to the essence of the show. The program, however, was going up against Toucher & Rich, the hit morning show on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and others.

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen,” Hill said. “To me, the most important thing is that we’re doing what we should do to get partners for the radio station on the business side of things and delivering results for them.”

Hill is cognizant of the success of 98.5 The Sports Hub but articulated that the ranking does not matter to those spending money on radio. Instead, he claims that it is about the level of engagement and patronization of the product that facilitates interest in the brand.

“From a differentiator point of view, we’re up against, on the sports side of things, an incredible radio station that has done an amazing job of being #1 in this market for a long time with really compelling personalities,” Hill said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to find ways to be different when it comes to our choice on content and the way in which we present it, and then outwork them when it comes to going out and meeting people who might listen to the show.”

Whereas Hill was originally a solo host during his early days on WAAF, he is now joined by Jermaine Wiggins and Courtney Cox, both of whom bring unique aspects that enhance the program. Wiggins, a former tight end for the New England Patriots, provides his knowledge of football and the perspective of a professional athlete. Cox is the youngest person on the program and has a unique approach from her time covering sports at NESN while embracing the humor and repartee on the show. Show producer Chris Curtis, who worked with Hill at WAAF, also contributes to the conversation as well and has helped maintain synergy.

“Whether it’s the co-hosts on the show or callers, I love when they are having fun at my expense, and I think that self-deprecating humor to me is the best,” shared Hill. “If we have a show in which I end up being the punchline or end up, whether it’s my age or lack of technological skill or my frugality – whatever it is – that to me is my favorite part of what we do and that personality coming through, I guess.”

Hill uses his platform to benefit the community through The Greg Hill Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide families affected by tragedy with immediate needs. He created the foundation in 2010 to celebrate two decades on the air at WAAF before the advent of crowdfunding in a quest to give back. The foundation has donated over $20 million to more than 9,000 beneficiaries during its 14 years.

“We’re lucky in radio because we have this incredible tradition of public service, and I think everybody in radio feels this obligation – this great obligation to use the airwaves to help others,” Hill said. “We’re granted the incredible platform in which we can actually get people to respond when help is needed, and so I wanted to be able to use that microphone and the radio station on those days to be able to help the beneficiaries in our area who needed it.”

Hill recently signed a multiyear contract extension with Audacy-owned WEEI to continue hosting The Greg Hill Show. Part of what compelled him to remain at the station was working with Ken Laird, the brand manager of the outlet who used to be his producer at WAAF. Moreover, he has known Audacy Boston market manager Mike Thomas for over two decades as he leads the cluster of stations in an environment with many entities looking to garner shares of attention.

“To be able to have the opportunity to work with those guys, know what they are, what I need them to do to keep them happy and to have the opportunity for us to, from a team perspective, that we have one clear mission in mind, and that is to be No. 1,” Hill said. “No. 1 in revenue and No. 1 when it comes to ratings, so to be able to sit there and go, ‘Alright, since I came here five years ago, we definitely have some wins, but there’s still a lot that we have to do,’ and to be able to do it with them together was way more interesting to me than any other opportunity.”

Even though Hill has worked in the sports media business for many years, he remains energized by the prospect of achieving goals and having the privilege to host his radio program. In the past, he has stated that he would like to slow down in his career, yet he is unsure what he would do without working in radio.

“That being said, I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn for 30-something years, and I’m definitely feeling it more than I used to,” Hill said. “But sometimes I think it would be fun to go and do one more radio show where I play seven great songs an hour, as long as I get to pick whatever I play and there’s no research and there’s no computer programming the music. I sometimes think about that, but I just love doing this.”

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If Jim Rome is Willing to Innovate, So Can You

Jim Rome is 59 years old and has been at this for 35 years. And if he finds value in embracing new platforms, you, your hosts, and your stations should be able to do it, too.

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Photo of Jim Rome and a logo for the X platform

Jim Rome is 59 years old. He’s been in the sports talk radio game since before I was born. And earlier this year, his show left CBS Sports Network to begin a live simulcast on the Elon Musk-owned X platform.

And it has exposed him and his show to a much wider, and frankly much younger, audience in the short time since the simulcast began.

If you search X, you’ll see either “I didn’t know Jim Rome was still around” or “I’ve never heard of Jim Rome, but I saw his show on here,” posts.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning terrestrial radio. In fact, he recently chastised a caller for talking poorly about “scratchy AM radio”, which elicited a strong defense of the medium from the sports talk legend.

But I can’t help but think that if — at this stage in both his life and his career — Jim Rome is willing to try new things, so can you, your show, or your station.

To be frank, Rome has every reason to coast. Rest on his laurels. Simply collect a paycheck and call it a day until his contract is up. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s innovating. He’s taking chances. I’m sure it’s a much safer feeling — especially for someone about to reach 60 (you look great by the way, Jim) — to stick to a familiar simulcast on cable TV. For damn near 40 years, that’s been the dominant player in the space. But it isn’t 1992 anymore.

Listening to Rome describe the new simulcast makes either one of two things true: Either he doesn’t truly understand what he’s doing, or he believes that his audience is potentially too old to understand streaming. Because he talks about the new venture like he’s trying to explain it to a five-year-old, but at least he’s out here attempting it.

Listening to many shows or stations around the country has at times led me to have a cynical view of the industry. Lipservice is often paid when you hear leaders say “We’re in the content business, not the radio business,” but then only put their content on the radio. Or in podcast form, in three-hour blocks with the live traffic reports still included in the audio to really cement home the fact that the producer couldn’t be bothered to even attempt to edit it before publishing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some stations that have fantastic radio, podcast, digital video, and social media strategies. Others excel at live events.

But many — you could argue too many — are resting on their laurels, taking a “this is good enough,” approach to the format and its content, and hoping that nothing ever changes.

The problem is the world changes every single day. And if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind. If the biggest and best stations in the industry fall behind, the entire format falls behind. And I don’t want to see that happen.

If you don’t have a digital video strategy in 2024, I have one quick question: Why not? I was a Program Director in market #228, and we had a digital video strategy.

If you don’t have a podcast strategy in 2024 that’s better than “just put up the entire show from today”, I have one quick question: Why not?

“Why not?” is likely the question Jim Rome asked when he was presented with the opportunity to move his show from the safe haven that was CBS Sports Network and bring it to a wider, younger, and more accessible audience on social media. Now, was it a risk? Absolutely.

But that’s the point. Be willing to take the chance. Be willing to try something different. Experiment. Learn. I can empathize with those who are frozen by the fear of failing. It’s a completely valid worry. But not growing, not chasing every revenue and content avenue possible, and not learning something new is a bigger risk, in my book.

I’m not here to suggest you take an ax to everything you’ve done on your show, your station, or your cluster, but I will strongly advocate for expanding your horizons and attempting to meet your audience wherever they may be. And even if that audience might be in places you’re unfamiliar with, familiarize yourself. Do I get the impression Jim Rome was super familiar with live video streams on X before taking his show there? No. But he was willing to take a chance, knowing that it might benefit in the long run.

I hope you operate in the same spirit.

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Do HBO and Hard Knocks Determine Part of the NFL Schedule?

Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

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Graphics for NFL Films and HBO's Hard Knocks

We could debate the merits of HBO’s decision to feature the entire AFC North in its end-of-season version of Hard Knocks, but we won’t. Say this much: It hasn’t been done before.

That’s because HBO and the NFL never before decided to do it, nothing more. The network and the league set the parameters for Hard Knocks, after all, and you can tell by this year’s lineup (Hard Knocks: Offseason, Hard Knocks: Training Camp and Hard Knocks: In Season) that they’re running out of ways to keep things fresh.

Featuring an entire division, especially one that includes longtime rivals, does help accomplish that. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens, Browns, Steelers and Bengals all finished with winning records in 2023.

But let’s skip the rest of the gloss and get to the nubs of it: Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

And should a network get to call that big of a shot?

The league hasn’t said anything about Pittsburgh’s schedule, and HBO certainly won’t. But Steelers fans – and anyone interested in the AFC playoff picture – immediately took notice when the NFL’s 2024 slate was announced on May 15.

The Steelers’ schedule was never going to be cake; six games within the AFC North takes care of that. But the NFL placed all six of those games within the final eight weeks of the season. Pittsburgh’s other two games in that stretch? At Philadelphia, and home to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Christmas Day.

A schedule like that could build some drama into a series about four teams trying to outlast each other and make it into the post-season, wouldn’t it? And while we can’t outright say the NFL planned this into the mix, we can think it.

The Steelers have never appeared on the HBO series, as you probably know. There’s been a bit too much made of head coach Mike Tomlin’s reluctance to open up either himself or the locker room to the network’s cameras and boom mikes, but it’s true that Pittsburgh dodged the bullet for more than two decades – until now.

Tomlin isn’t the only coach who’d rather skip the intrusion. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on The Adam Jones Podcast recently that he doesn’t watch the show, in part because it’s so obviously forced. “Everything’s put on,” Harbaugh said. “You got to put a microphone, and a camera in your face – people aren’t the same.” But he said he’ll tell his team to conduct business as usual, assuming that’s possible.

Tomlin and crew got a weird schedule in general, not only at the finish. The Steelers open with two straight on the road, which hasn’t happened to them in 25 years. I guess you could say they were due.

Week 2 happens to place them in Denver, the site of Steelers quarterback Russ Wilson’s bad breakup with Sean Peyton and the Broncos last offseason. They don’t get a divisional opponent until Week 11, two weeks beyond their bye. After that, it’s a broken-glass crawl to the finish.

“It’s probably not exactly how I would have drawn it up, but we’ve got to do the best we can,” team president Art Rooney II said. “A lot of the division games are at the end of the schedule, so it will be an interesting stretch there toward the end.”

That’s one way to put it. The Steelers went 5-1 versus the North last season, but they grabbed two of those wins within the season’s first five weeks. This year, not so much.

Tomlin hasn’t discussed any of this publicly, and nobody needs to feel sorry for either him or the franchise. They’ll get by. Close watchers of the Steelers noted that in the club’s announcement of the Hard Knocks news, not a single member of the organization was quoted, but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess other than the obvious, which is that –  like lots of teams – Pittsburgh probably views HBO as one of those things the NFL makes the franchise live with. Not everybody craves that stage.

The league always tries to build suspense into the season’s final several weeks, and TV ratings are the tail that wags the dog. No argument there. It’s common for divisional opponents to square off down the stretch, with a team often playing each of its division foes one more time over the final four or five weeks.

But that’s after they’ve already played their rivals once, usually much earlier in the year. Viewed in that light, meeting again toward the finish becomes a great way to gauge how much teams have changed through the season, and who’s left standing.

That is good drama, the kind we all want to see. This season’s Steelers schedule, on the other hand, smells like forced theater – weird, because it isn’t really necessary. But there we go again, overcomplicating things. It’s show business, kids.

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