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Taylor Swift, the BSM Top 20, and the Future of Sports Talk Radio

“As ears leave radio for digital, on-demand platforms, do we really think business as usual is the path to the brightest future?”

Demetri Ravanos

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Taylor Swift and Dan Patrick in front of an on air light

Is the future of sports radio less sports talk? It sounds like a strange question, but a perfect storm has been brewing over the last few months. A few of the right stories have broken since the beginning of the year that has me wondering if it may be time to think about the path forward for sports radio in a world where radio is less relevant than it used to be.

Super Bowl week means a couple of things on this website. Sure, at least some of it is going to Radio Row to mingle, but the bigger event is the annual unveiling of the BSM Top 20 lists. The biggest sport in America is putting its best in the spotlight this week. We might as well do the same in our industry.

More than just sports fans are thinking about what is happening in Las Vegas this week. Super Bowl LVIII is the biggest event on America’s sports calendar in 2024, but it’s also a tent pole of American pop culture. That’s true of the game every year, but add Taylor Swift to the mix, and it just goes to a different level.

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen Colin Cowherd’s verbal right hook to the people that claim a few seconds of Swift on screen ruins an entire day of watching football for them. One of the best points he made in that monologue is that a football broadcast is not just football. Nowhere is that more true than at the Super Bowl. It’s something Rich Eisen has said for years – there is a rock n’ roll concert in the middle of the biggest game of every season.

That brings me to my question. We all can agree that as radio usage drops across all formats, sports is the one that offers the most upside to companies large and small, right? News/talk radio is all about Trump, Biden and whatever the hot national stories are, music radio is irrelevant in an age where we don’t have to sit through songs we hate to get to ones we like. Sports radio is built on timely opinions on local topics. Each station’s content is by and of its market. 

So, is the future of our format less about super-serving the super fan and more about being the market’s water cooler? Is it time to give hot talk another try with sports topics and hosts leading the charge?

I know the rocky history of the hot talk format. Ask anyone at CBS Radio between 2005 and 2008 how the Free FM experiment went. These days, there aren’t a lot of stations in the format outside of Florida, and even there, it’s not like every market has one.

Hot talk built on the likes of Opie & Anthony, Adam Carola and David Lee Roth had limited appeal because pure, uncut guy talk tends to have trouble penetrating the money demos in a meaningful way. You can say that the target audience is men 18-49, but when the format is built entirely on fart and d**k jokes, you cut out a huge chunk of the audience because kids are in the car.

What if we re-thought hot talk and sports talk at the same time? There is room for a format that is sometimes pure sports, but always sports-adjacent. The Ticket in Dallas is celebrating its 30th anniversary of mixing sports and entertainment. The Ticket in Detroit rose to prominence on the back of the idea that sports fans care about the games, but probably would rather listen to talk about movies and their favorite hosts’ personal lives than about when the right time is for the Tigers to call up their Triple-A closer.

There are countless shows that are not about sports, but about how sports fits into the hosts’ and other characters’ lives. You hear it on the local and national levels. It’s as simple as letting entertaining people go with their gut on what is entertaining. You never see Dan Patrick lose sight of why the listeners are there, but he knows that they have a relationship with him. His stories or a visit from Adam Sandler can hold their attention better than the minutiae of an NBA game on a Monday night in February. 

That is the crossover of sports talk and hot talk I see in our future – sports when the sports matter, but recognizing that not everything that happened in the game is compelling. 

Podcasts have helped people who once instantly dismissed the idea of talk radio realize that spoken word content can be entertaining. Let’s figure out how to lure some of those folks to our stations.

I often joke that broadcasting companies have a wheel they spin when they launch a sports station. It can be named The Ticket, The Fan, The Game or The Score. Maybe ESPN [insert city here] if they have the right affiliation, but that is it!

Have we ever considered that those names may put up a barrier to who will listen? I think a show like Parkins & Spiegel is tremendous. Danny and Matt have great chemistry. The entire crew is fun to listen to. I think most people who turn them on will like them, but I wonder how many people never turn them on because they hear the name “The Score” and are confident that the station isn’t for them because they aren’t really sports fans.

I’m not advocating for anything here. I happen to like stations that are lowercase sports and capital RADIO. I get it isn’t what every listener wants. 

I am simply asking if it’s time to rethink our format. As ears leave radio for digital, on-demand platforms, do we really think business as usual is the path to the brightest future?

You’ve heard it said a million times. Maybe it was Jason Barrett. Maybe it was a different consultant. Maybe it was a PD or GM. “Sports radio listeners come to this station for sports!”

It’s not wrong, but I think it discounts why anyone turns on any station, buys tickets for any concert or clicks start on any show on Netflix. The audience just wants to be entertained. If you’ve proven you can do that for them before, they tend to trust you can do it again. 

Thanks to my kids, I have spent the last year listening to A LOT of Taylor Swift, and you know what? I think she’s awesome. My favorite song happens to be “Style”. I like her best when she is doing fun, upbeat pop songs. That doesn’t mean I’m going to shut off the album she is going to drop in April the second I hear an acoustic guitar.

Taylor Swift has earned my loyalty. Her music is interesting and fun. I will give anything she does a chance. I think our listeners feel the same way about their favorite hosts and shows. We should embrace that.

Media changes. That should be the case, and it shouldn’t be a limited thing. It’s not just about technology. Tastes change, so hosts and formats should too.

Sometimes, our view of what a sports radio listener is can be too narrow. I think it is possible to respect them, deliver on what it is they expect, and still expand the boundaries of our format in a way that makes sports talk more welcoming for people who may not be all in on every single game.

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WWE’s Paul Heyman Joins the 2024 BSM Summit

“I am thrilled to share that on Wednesday March 13th in New York City, we will welcome a man who has experienced every part of the wrestling and entertainment business both on-air and behind the scenes.”

Jason Barrett

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The final few weeks leading up to the BSM Summit are my least favorite time of the entire process. Between last-minute preparations, unexpected changes, laying out a schedule that fits everyone’s schedule, giving speakers direction, and handling the creative for the banners, programs and what appears on the screen, it can be overwhelming. This event isn’t created and produced by a large organization. It’s done by BSM’s small team and a few volunteers. There is no production team. That’s me. There is no sales team. That’s Stephanie. The creative squad that brainstorms ahead of the show? That’s me peppering Dave Greene, Demetri Ravanos and Stephanie Eads with every single thing that pops into my head.

I share this because on Monday I’ll be releasing our full schedule for the 2024 BSM Summit. You’ll find it on BarrettSportsMedia.com/Summit. If you type in BSMSummit.com it will take you to that page. I’m also hoping to announce our final collection of speakers. You guys will like some of the folks coming to speak who we’ve yet to announce.

Booking this event month’s in advance could be easily done. I could execute a radio conference in my sleep. But I’m not interested in easy. I’m focused on delivering a two-day event that unites professionals across the entire media universe, many who you may never share space with again. I believe in this concept because it helps you learn, stay sharp, discover what others do to create success that you may not have thought about, and in the process, you build new connections.

Creating an event that dives into radio, podcasting, social media, newsletters, television, video execution, sales and promotions, the economic climate, and programming strategy, requires thinking outside the box and swinging for the fences. Think about it. Where else are you going to hear the CEO of a radio company one minute, two local sports talk show hosts the next, four digital executives after that, four social media superstars once they’re done, and cap it all off with discussions about business, entertainment, and the future? It may not be perfect or rolled out the way a few would prefer but it works for us. By the time we hit the stage on March 13-14, that’s when the six months of hard work pay off and the fun begins.

Speaking of fun, if you’ve been to a Summit before, you’ve heard me connect the world of sports media to professional wrestling. The battle for audience attention, understanding how to leverage social media, incorporate advertising, create interest in on-air talent, and design programming to capture ratings are something the two world’s have in common. We’ve been fortunate to have Shawn Michaels and Eric Bischoff speak at prior shows but never have we had a speaker involved who’d be part of the upcoming main event for WrestleMania.

I am thrilled to share that on Wednesday March 13th in New York City, we will welcome a man who has experienced every part of the wrestling and entertainment business both on-air and behind the scenes. It is an honor to have the great Paul Heyman joining us at this year’s Summit.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Heyman, here’s the cliff notes version of what you need to know. Currently, Paul serves as the special counsel for WWE Universal Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns. Reigns has been world champion for 1269 days, and the storyline he’s involved in (The Bloodline) has been a massive hit on television and digital for the WWE. Roman will be competing in the main event at the WWE’s largest show of the year, WrestleMania with Heyman in his corner. The event has become so big that The Rock has returned to become part of the story.

As an on-air character, Heyman is gifted in his ability to command the audience’s attention. His promos are always well thought out, well executed, and interesting. Learning about his process as a talent and what goes into creating a compelling monologue is going to be a real treat for on-air folks in the room.

In addition, Paul is an accomplished writer, executive, promoter and booker. He’s served as the lead writer for both WWE RAW and Smackdown, leading both to the top of the ratings charts. He’s also been on the other side as the leader of an underdog promotion (ECW) tasked with building a brand and competing against the top dog, WWE. Paul is also well versed in advertising having co-founded the Looking4Larry Agency, which is known for its wildly imaginative campaigns for 2K Sports, NASCAR, Smart Cups, Monster Trucks, EA Sports and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Las Vegas.

Talent have praised his creative ideas and ability to design and structure compelling television. Audiences have emotionally connected to his on-air commentaries, and on Wednesday March 13th, BSM Summit attendees will learn what it takes to create, cut through, and command the room’s attention when I sit down with Paul Heyman for an in-depth conversation.

A reminder, tickets for the 2024 BSM Summit are on-sale through BSMSummit.com and the BSM Store. Prices will increase on March 4th so act now and save money before it’s too late. I hope to see you in NYC in three weeks.

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Sports Broadcasts Should Remain Political-Free Zones

There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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A cartoon depicting political candidates talking sports
Credit: Maia Lathrop / Clarion

Political thoughts and ads are everywhere. It seems like everything these days is politicized. Sports hasn’t escaped either. Athletes take stands, some commentators have made their political positions well known too.

In this case, politics is more of a catch-all term. It doesn’t just mean Democrat or Republican, it can mean making a comment on any hot button issue in America or anywhere else. Controversies that create a public stir. We’ve had a few over the course of the last few weeks that drummed up lots of emotion and certainly could have been avoided.

The most recent example took place last weekend at the NBA All-Star Saturday on TNT. As I’m sure you know by now, Kenny Smith had some things to say about the Steph Curry/Sabrina Ionescu 3-point shootout. Such choice things as, “She should have shot it from the women’s line, that would have been a fair contest.” Ionescu more than held her own, with 26 points which would have qualified her for the men’s finals in the event. Smith’s partner Reggie Miller didn’t make things much better, when he chimed in, “According to you, you want her to be playing with dolls.” Smith’s response: “Playing with dolls is good, too.” The fallout was swift thanks to social media.

Smith went on to Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN show earlier in the week to defend his commentary. “I think it’s much ado about nothing, honestly,” Smith said, when asked about the controversy. “Most people who know basketball understood what I was talking about. Actually, I was advocating for her, more than anything else, because basketball is muscle memory. So, he practices from one range, she practices from another.” Smith further explained, “Most people just don’t check the tape, they want to just check the bait. My history and track record speaks for itself,” Smith said. “I was clueless why people thought I didn’t want equality.”

Can. Worms. Opened. I get it, social media can make things appear one way when they are intended in another. My question to Smith and Miller, why make the commentary at all in that moment? Ionescu is a terrific basketball player and shooter. Everybody knew the rules going into the exhibition, so why make a stink about it? Or, if the need outweighs the caution, how about putting some notes down on paper so that you aren’t taken out of context? There are ways to make the commentary smoother. It’s not like the event was a surprise.

Talk shows fall into a different light. That’s all about opinion and it is likely up to each individual to understand how far to push it. Hosts should know their markets and from there can figure out what may or may not work. Topics like these generally lead to more fan engagement, because everyone has an opinion. It’s up to the host or hosts to keep the topic ‘on the rails’ or it becomes a free for all.

When it comes to announcers, hosts and reporters in the industry, mistakes can happen. I get that. It’s live and sometimes thoughts can go awry. We’ve seen it countless times. My question is this, why even go there? What is the benefit? Some like to try and make a name for themselves, to be controversial just for the sake of “look at me” or “listen to me” and trying to make headlines. That’s kind of sad to me. There is more to lose than to gain in these cases.

We’ve seen cases of misspeaking and/or controversial ‘hot button’ statements made on air that have proven costly to livelihoods. One of the more recent moments took place in May 2023. Glen Kuiper and the A’s were in Kansas City and had visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum earlier in the day. He was discussing the visit on air when he dropped the n-word. His claim was that his pronunciation of “negro” was misheard. After an investigation, he was fired. Kuiper was one of the best local television announcers.

Before that Reds announcer Thom Brennaman was caught on a hot mic, making a homophobic remark. Brennaman was pulled from the broadcast mid-game and suspended. The Reds later told Brennaman that he would not be returning, which prompted his resignation. To his credit Brennaman owned it and is trying to improve himself as a person. He’s been forgiven by the LGBTQ+ community in Cincinnati, after he attended several meetings with leaders. They weren’t easy as he told me a couple of years ago, but he made the extreme effort.

If there’s one entity in sports broadcasting that needs to stay out of the fray, and be ‘politic proof’ it’s the sports broadcast and telecast. The booth needs to remain pure. It needs to be a sanctuary for fans and broadcasters alike. There aren’t many fans that are tuning into a baseball, basketball, football or hockey broadcast to learn about your opinions about anything else but the game. Fans look to escape that when listening to or watching a game. Sports is the place we go to forget about the real world for 3-4 hours at a time.

We all have opinions about things in the sport and out of it. Opinions about the game you are broadcasting is what you’re there for, right? For example, I can’t stand the ‘ghost runner’ at 2nd base in extra innings in Major League Baseball. It’s gimmicky and takes away from the way the game was meant to be played. Me expressing that opinion as the game heads to extras is appropriate, as long as you don’t lose track of the game. My thoughts on the Presidential race or a Senate race is inconsequential in the scope of my baseball broadcast. Be engaging to your audience about things they care about in the moment, the game.

I hate when people tell us in the industry to “stick to sports”. Nothing grates on me more. I keep thinking, oh, because I talk about sports, that’s all I know? So, all that doctors know about is medicine then, right? It’s a simple-minded criticism, but I have to say, in these cases, in a booth, we should stick to the sports aspect of things.  There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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Jeff Rickard Understands The Benefits of Attending the BSM Summit

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Jeff Rickard is one of the truly familiar faces of the BSM Summit. He’s not involved in the planning or with the company, but it’s an event he never misses.

“It went from a small group in Chicago the first year to recognition from everyone in our industry, and there’s a lot to be gained when we all get together from different markets and cities,” said Rickard of the event’s growth. “We’re not competing against each other. Instead, we’re there to bring each other ideas, lift each other up, and give each other not just support necessarily, but different ways of looking at and doing things. It allows you to kind of take some energy from another building and bring it back to your own.”

Since the BSM Summit first launched as an invite-only event, Rickard has held jobs in Indianapolis, Boston and Charlotte. In fact, it was at the 2022 Summit in New York where he had his first meeting that would lead to him taking the reins at WFNZ.

Different jobs have come with different situations. Rickard has been able to talk with fellow attendees about translators, transitions to FM, and building digital strategies. He appreciates the networking opportunities that exist at the Summit, but the access to new points of view have helped him grow as a programmer.

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot,” he says. “In the last, I don’t know, three to four years, I think BSM has helped that along the way.”

The “radio is dying” narrative is a popular one. We can pretend that it only exists outside of our industry, but how many of us know someone very much inside the industry that exclusively speaks the language of doom and gloom when asked about future goals and plans? 

Rickard says that coming to the Summit is a necessity for anyone stuck in or around that mindset. Radio may not be as popular as ubiquitous as it used to be, but there is still enthusiasm for sports radio. That is something to feed off of!

“Local sports radio, if done right, will always attract an audience, because [listeners] can go to Sirius XM and they can go to ESPN and they can get the main stories of the day, and they can talk about the Chiefs winning another Super Bowl, and they can talk about if the Golden State Warriors being past their prime,” he says. “That’s all great, but if you’re in Indianapolis or Charlotte and you want to hear about respectively the Pacers or the Hornets, you know that we’re going to be talking about them. I think we’ve learned about the things that our local audience is going to want.”

Lessons Rickard has learned at past BSM Summits have had a major impact in Charlotte. WFNZ’s cume isn’t just up since he arrived. It has nearly quadrupled. 

According to Rickard, that is the result of valuing all perspectives. He’s a programmer, but that doesn’t mean he is only paying attention to sessions featuring other programmers. He also isn’t focused only on executives that could offer him the next opportunity. Rickard encourages any programmer that attends the BSM Summit to come and take notes when talent from other markets are on stage. 

“You have to realize that they’re not on a level below you. They are in large part you’re partners,” he says. “I always enjoy listening to guys that are highly successful, at those summits, talk about what motivates them, what they’re thinking about, how they go ahead and put a show together. There’s a reason we hire those talented people because they’re really good at what they do. They’re really good at attracting an audience, and they’re better at holding that audience. That’s why they’re speaking at a conference like BSM.”

Day-to-day operations are always on the minds of the people that attend the BSM Summit. When Jeff Rickard comes to New York next month though, he wants to hear conversations about the bigger picture. Whether it is from the stage or at networking events, he wants to be part of the conversations that are fundamental to the future of radio as a medium and broadcasting as a business. The one at the forefront of his mind? Audience measurement.

“We’ve been dealing with Nielsen for a long time,” he says. “There’s good, there’s bad. We all understand the system and how it works. But with so many of our listeners coming to us now through an app or coming to us by downloading what we’re doing online, they’re coming to us straight to the website. We’re starting to be able to kind of pick and choose our own numbers. We can see with certain day parts and certain guests or certain topics that, ‘wow, a lot of people checked into the app at that particular time.’ 

“So I think moving forward, the biggest thing for our industry is how do we continue to more accurately assess who our audience is and what’s really happening there on a moment to moment basis. I think we’re getting better every year, but I’m curious to see what the industry believes is the future for the next ten years, because I don’t think we’re using it now.” 

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