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Dealing with Tragedy in Sports Talk Radio

Jason Barrett



Sports radio serves as a distraction from everyday life for its audience. Whether you listen to it while in transit to or from work or while sitting in an office attempting to perform your responsibilities, the programming is in place to inform, entertain, and at times stir emotions. It’s a format that is listened to largely by males 25-54 and they seek it out because sports provides a genuine joy to their life that few other things can.

But what happens when a real life tragedy occurs in your neighborhood? The thought of listening to two sports radio hosts debate a batter’s ability to hit a baseball or provide context on why a basketball player is able to shoot a little orange ball into an eighteen inch hoop, while serious issues linger in a community seems off-color. The joy and distraction that sports radio is asked to provide suddenly is no longer acceptable. On-air talent who are built to have fun, inform, debate, and connect, are transformed from the cool guys you want to hang out and drink a beer with, into messengers who are there to update information and share the more serious side of themselves by letting you know how an incident makes them feel.

Although many on-air hosts in sports radio have interests beyond the sports world, and some have even dabbled in delivering news/talk shows themselves, the reality is that not many are trained or focused on providing this level of content. It’s easy to tell a talent to adjust and talk about a serious story when it happens, but every good on-air host wants to be great when they turn on their microphone and speak to an audience. When the subject matter requires going outside their comfort zone, it can be very stressful.

Most sports radio people choose to work in the sports format because it’s supposed to be fun, light, and a break from the seriousness of life that adults deal with on a daily basis. We all have bills to pay, families to support, personal battles to wage, and sports allows us for a few hours to put those things on hold. It may not solve our problems but without it we’d be less happy.

Unfortunately, in the past decade alone, there have been far too many instances where sports talk radio hosts have been pressed into action to have to change their programming plans. Major tragedies and serious events have rocked our country numerous times, and although it may not be comfortable, when it happens, the way your radio station and talk show responds can have a lasting impact on the way your audience looks to you in the future.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a servant to the community. When people in your city are grieving and seeking answers to their questions, they turn to you, hoping you’ll provide some measure of clarity for them to make better sense of what has happened. They count on you to help ease their anger, keep them informed and when the mood is right, offer a comment or two that may allow them to laugh.

Listeners cherish their relationship with the on-air talent. They see them as a friend who keeps them company on a daily basis. While the bond may be built from a shared joy and passion for sports, they also expect a local personality to use good judgment and understand that there are times when the script must get tossed.

If you went into work in Baton Rouge, Louisiana today, chances are you’re trying to make sense of why a number of police officers were targeted and killed, just one week after the same horror took place in Dallas, Texas. If you were operating a sports talk show in Nice, France on Saturday, there’s no way you’d be discussing anything other than the awful attack by a madman who chose to run down hundreds of innocent people.

I’ve gone through this situation myself while working in upstate NY on the day that September 11th occurred. It’s a day that no sports host can ever be prepared for. The thought of having a conversation about the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Rangers, Giants or Jets felt unjustified, and luckily the radio station I worked for embraced ditching the sports programming and turning its attention to the serious tragedy that impacted our community, and the entire country.

In those moments you may not be as informed as FOX News, MSNBC, CNN or any other news outlet, but you possess something they don’t, a connection to your local audience. Your listeners understand that you’re out of your element and that you may not have the same level of insight on the story that some of the other news outlets do, but they also recognize that you’re their friend, their companion, the one who shares their life on the air with them each day. You offer the necessary distraction to keep them laughing and looking forward to the games they’ll watch later that evening. They don’t need you to be the most skilled news reporter during those horrific times, just a broadcaster who’s smart enough to read the room and understand that there’s a time in place for fun, and a time where certain things get placed on hold because other things are simply more important.

But not every uprising or tragedy warrants ditching your sports radio programming. Knowing where that line sits is impossible because each station, talent, programmer, and city responds differently. Innocent people have died at the hands of the police, cops have been murdered unjustly, and protests happen in many large cities on a regular basis. Each time they occur, is a sports talker supposed to break its format?

It’s a really tough call because each station has to decide “has this event rocked the community to the point where everyone is feeling it”? “Is our audience going to turn to our brand and people for further opinion and information on the story”? “Is it a development where most local stations feel compelled to break format or is it better suited for the local News/Talk station to provide further context on”?

For example, when the Ferguson, Missouri riots broke out, some programmers would have chosen to drop sports to cover the story locally. Others wouldn’t have. It wasn’t a matter of one way being right, and the other being wrong. I asked 101 ESPN’s Program Director Chris “Hoss” Neupert how he handled the situation and here’s what he shared.

“With such a sensitive issue (the Ferguson riots) we chose to let people who were better informed than us tackle those issues. Our job was to do what we do best which was to be a positive distraction for local people from the real world issues. Our team was compassionate about the situation and wanted to do their part to give people an escape by giving them something that sports does so well which is present a mixture of stats, wins, losses, storylines, and competition, not color or race.”

The Ferguson story was one which the entire community was aware of but it didn’t unify people the same way that the shootings in Dallas, Orlando, Charleston, and Sandy Hook did. Asking a sports station and its talent to tackle racial divides, Mike Brown’s track record, the issues with the Ferguson police department, and the Black Lives Matter movement is asking them to step way beyond their comfort zone. For each listener who may have appreciated 101 ESPN diving into that conversation, many others would’ve rejected the brand for not staying in its lane. Regardless of their choice, they were in a no-win situation.

Given what our friends in Dallas experienced last week, and what others have experienced in other cities, I thought it’d be interesting to get a few perspectives on how to handle these situations. They are impossible to be fully prepared for, and although they may leave you wondering if the work you do really matters, you do the best you can, and understand that just by talking about it you’re able to provide a small measure of comfort for your audience.

No sports radio programmer or host wants to go to work and have to address these types of situations but there are times when they are unavoidable. As much as we love sports, nothing matters more than life itself and our friends, families, and neighbors. When they’re in harm’s way or have been emotionally wounded, we have to adjust and look out for them. The hard part is determining which tragedies require breaking format, and which ones don’t. Those decisions are extremely difficult and they can haunt you forever if you choose incorrectly.

jeffcatlinJeff Catlin – Program Director of The Ticket and ESPN 103.3 – Dallas, TX

The Ticket and ESPN 103.3 are both in the business of LOCAL radio, and this DPD shooting was in our town. That right there made it rise to a different level for us at Cumulus Dallas, regardless of station and format. We have to serve our local audience.

ESPN is slightly different in that there are ESPN Network commitments, but still when we can and could, we had to address what our community at large cares about on a given day.

To ignore this story on Ticket or ESPN or somehow say “people want a distraction from this” would in my opinion just be completely out of step and focus. At a time like this, certainly within the first 24 hours of a major breaking news story literally one mile from our studios, EVERYONE in Dallas Ft. Worth is talking, sharing, feeling emotional about this tragedy and we first and foremost have to reflect that. We also have to be a voice and gathering place for the community.

In the case of the Ticket where our lineup of talent has been in place and together for 20 years, we have a special bond and relationship with our audience. Not only do they expect us to talk about something such as this, but in a complimentary way towards our shows, they welcome hearing what their friends on the Ticket are thinking and feeling. It provides some sort of comfort to them. And if that’s the case, great, because it means that we have served our audience in a time of need.

In terms of our decision making, at Cumulus Dallas, after the San Bernardino shooting, all department heads across the cluster discussed this and came up with a plan of action in case something like this happened in DFW. So when news broke and this actually DID happen, we already knew how we would react. With a heritage News Talk station staffed 24/7 with reporters in the building, they took the lead. The other stations, including the Ticket, are able to take their on-air audio. Which the Ticket did. On Thursday night, the Ticket took the initial police briefing live on-air, and then we simulcast our sister station WBAP all night from approximately midnight to 5am.

I spoke Thursday night with our morning team about ways to handle the story on the show the next day. We were active on social media all Thursday night into Friday with updates.

On Friday on both the Ticket and ESPN I had individual meetings with all the shows to just discuss our plan, how we would handle the story, how much time would be devoted to it, etc. On both stations (On ESPN during our local shows) I estimate that 90% of content on Friday was devoted to the shooting and updating the story.

I knew first thing on Friday that I needed to update the station imaging in a reflective and respectful way. We were able to get that done and on-air during morning drive. Then as a cluster, we focused efforts on providing uniformed information to all of our audiences on-air and on our websites that directed listeners to places where they could help, while letting them know which community activities were planned for the days ahead.

Finally, on Tuesday, making a decision to carry the Memorial Service live on-air on the Ticket and ESPN was a no brainer. The President of the United States, the Vice President, two Senators and former President and Dallas resident George W. Bush, plus the Mayor and Police Chief were all on hand, and their speaking was a statement of how big this was. We HAD to carry this live.

Again, our job is to serve our local audience. This was the only thing on the minds of DFW citizens on Tuesday, and after hearing how poignant every speaker was, individual politics aside, it proved that our decision was the correct one.

It’s part of the healing process, and closure for the community, and this is part of the role that local radio plays during a time like this.

gavinspittleGavin Spittle – Program Director of 105.3 The Fan – Dallas, TX

The decision to change formats when the tragic events of last week hit us was a given. Serving our community is first and foremost. If that hurts me in the ratings, so be it.

Our two brands, NewsRadio 1080 KRLD and 105.3 The Fan, have a tight relationship. On Thursday night, we were still involved in delivering pertinent information because it was an “active” situation. The right thing to do was to simulcast with 1080 and I thought they did an amazing job delivering up to the minute information. The next day, we scrapped the entire sports format.

If one person felt a little bit of healing from listening to our open forum then we did our job. For the last 2 ½ years, a charity that we have heavily supported is the Guns and Hoses Foundation of North Texas. All of our shows have been involved with this charity including going to Swat Training, broadcasting from Fire and Police Departments so there certainly is a special bond. Part of that healing process was to immediately help the families of our heroes affected, and I’m proud to say that we’ve contributed to that cause.

The response from our listeners has been amazing but none of us want credit during this time. The credit goes to those who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way for our safety. The least we can do is to provide a platform through our radio stations.

jasonwolfeJason Wolfe – Former Program Director of WEEI – Boston, MA

Sports radio hosts are actually people too. That’s right, it’s not all fun and games to us. We care about life and about the world we live in, and frankly, we have very strong feelings about the issues that affect us all. Our sole concern isn’t simply whether the hometown team wins or loses on any given night. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with a tragedy.

When terrorism struck the Boston Marathon, my team at WEEI didn’t hesitate. We immediately dropped the sports format and went into crisis mode. All of our imaging changed, hosts were asked to come in early and to stay late, sales efforts and promotions were halted and we focused on being a resource to our audience so that they felt informed and comforted in their time of need. It’s so important not to panic when involved in such a story. Plans need to be well thought out and executed flawlessly if the station is to be effective in its coverage.

At WEEI, I used every resource I had at my disposal, from our partnerships with TV to our sister stations who had people on the ground at the finish line. That allowed us to cover every press conference live, to get first hand updates from the field, and to remain top of mind for our listeners who no doubt, were scouring every channel looking for the most up to date information.

As broadcasters, we have a responsibility to cover these terrible events and to provide the public with information, and an opportunity to react, be it emotionally, angrily or otherwise. Our guys understood that very clearly. Talk radio is talk radio. It doesn’t matter if your core format is sports, politics, music or business, when an event of this magnitude occurs in your city or town, as a staff, you have to act. And frankly, the reality is that there have been so many of these truly unfortunate stories to cover over the years, that smart programmers will have an action plan for events such as this, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Our most important goal throughout our coverage, as it was with any breaking news story, was not to jump the gun and report false information. This was a major problem during the first two days after the bombing. Numerous reports cited imminent arrests, the death toll, as well as erroneous information about the why and how this happened. Frankly, it was completely irresponsible. We had always lived by the slogan by right, not first, so while we knew it was important to provide our audience with the latest, we had to be very careful not to create more problems. As such, we took a measured approach to the news so as not to over-react, specifically, to what was being posted on social media.

Our second goal was simple. Be ourselves. The station has long been known for its ability to report on, discuss and analyze non sports stories, and by giving the staff the resources they needed, and the freedom with which to use them, I thought we did an exceptional job of doing our part to bring the community together by engaging in passionate debate with journalistic integrity. At the end of the day, it comes down to being prepared, being organized, and being thoughtful. That’s what our audience, and I think any audience expects, and if you can achieve that, you’ve done well and your coverage will be held with high regard.

davezDave Zaslowsky – Former Program Director of 97.9 ESPN – Hartford, CT

December 14, 2012 was like any other Friday. We were prepping for the big matchup between the Patriots and 49ers that was scheduled that weekend. One of the other stations in our cluster had the TV on in their studio when the news broke of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, which was about 45 min away from our studios.

Within minutes we were on the phone to our local NBC TV affiliate, whom we had a working partnership with to confirm what was happening. Once the reports were confirmed, which was very quick, our OM called the 3 PD’s of the cluster together to form a plan of action. Our 5 station cluster had 3 live music stations and our 2 sports stations (97-9 ESPN & Fox Sports Radio 1410) which I was the PD for were in network programming at the time.

So much information was out there that we felt the best thing to do for our listeners was to simulcast our local NBC TV affiliate. It was really the only way to cover it correctly, regardless of our format. My 2 stations stayed with the simulcast of NBC CT until 7pm and went back to network programming at that time. Our music stations went into talk mode taking calls and just letting people talk, which during a situation like Sandy Hook is what people want to do.

Our job is to serve the public and give them the information. At that point nobody cared about the Patriots-49ers, Giants-Falcons or Jets-Titans that weekend.  They wanted to know about those little children who were attacked. It was the right way to handle things for our listeners as they had come to depend on us during a crisis, be it a snow storm, a hurricane or awful day like December 12, 2012.

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Barrett Blogs

ESPN Has Made It Clear, Radio Is Not a Priority

“What’s unfolding now at the worldwide leader is disheartening because it could have been avoided.”

Jason Barrett




This is not a column I wanted to write. For years, I’ve expressed how much better the industry is when ESPN Radio is healthy. I’ve maintained friendships at the network, the company has supported our BSM Summit, and I reflect fondly on the few years I spent working there earlier in my career. It was a special place to work and I learned a lot about becoming a pro in Bristol.

But this ESPN Radio is not the one that I and many others were fortunate to be a part of under Bruce Gilbert. It is not the one that Traug Keller, Scott Masteller, and other radio-first believers oversaw. This current version lacks radio instincts, focus, passion, and care. That may be an opinion that folks in Bristol, New York, and Los Angeles offices don’t want to hear but the decisions made in recent years make it difficult to see it any other way.

ESPN Radio used to obsess over serving the sports fan, its radio affiliates, and network advertising partners. But serving the company’s television and digital interests is what matters most now. Relationships with radio operators have changed, interest in operating local markets has decreased, and though I’m sure some will defend the network’s interest in satisfying advertising partners, it’s hard to do that a day after the entire national audio sales team was gutted. Thankfully Good Karma Brands is passionate about the audio business and helping their sales efforts. If they weren’t involved, who would be leading the charge in Bristol?

I didn’t start this week planning to drop a truth bomb but as I sat here on Tuesday and fielded text after text and call after call, I couldn’t help but be disappointed and upset. This network has been a staple of the industry for over thirty years. Yet in less than ten it feels they’re closer to turning off the lights than celebrating success. That should not happen when you have the partnerships, history, and talent that ESPN has.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to reach this point. ESPN Radio had chances to sell in the past to outside parties. They declined. Folks inside of Disney felt the network was worth more. Well, how’s that looking now? If the company wasn’t going to commit to doing it the right way, and was just going to cut its way to the bottom, why stand in the way of others who’d pay to save it? It’s eerily similar to what just happened with Buzzfeed News. The company thought it was better than it was, and within a few years, the whole thing crumbled.

If this were the first time the network looked bad, I’d go easier on them. I understand the business, and sometimes brands or companies make mistakes or have to make difficult choices. It’s why I didn’t bury the network when Mike and Mike ended. Though I knew replacing their stability in mornings would be tough, I felt the network had earned enough clout over the prior years to be given the benefit of the doubt with a new show/lineup. I also applauded the company for replacing Zubin with Max, defended paying Stephen A. Smith top dollar, and supported GetUp! when it was popular to predict the show’s funeral.

But how can leadership in Bristol expect radio operators to trust their decision making at this point? I’ve talked to network executives privately and publicly about these issues for years, and have been told repeatedly that the radio business matters to them and becoming more consistent was a priority. At some point though the actions need to match the words. Unfortunately the only consistency taking place is change, and it often isn’t for the better.

I’ve lost count of the phone calls, texts, emails and direct messages I’ve fielded from PDs, executives, market managers, and ad agency professionals who’ve asked ‘should I be doing business with this network? Can you help me rebrand and redesign my radio station without ESPN Radio?‘ Yesterday alone I took five calls including from two who have expiring deals coming up. Think they’re in a rush to extend a partnership given what’s going on?

If you turn back the clock, some will say that things began to go in the wrong direction when Bruce Gilbert and Dan Patrick left. Though those were big losses, there was still a lot of confidence across the industry in ESPN Radio after they left. The early signs of issues at the network really started in 2014. That’s when Scott Masteller and Scott Shapiro departed. Masteller went on to program WBAL in Baltimore, and Shapiro teamed up with Don Martin to strengthen FOX Sports Radio.

Fast forward to 2020, and the heart and soul of the network, Traug Keller retired. Traug had more in the tank when he signed off, and when I talked to him prior to his exit, he denied being forced out or having concerns about the future direction of the network. Those who know Traug, know that’s he’s a class act and not one to air dirty laundry. But I also know he’s smart. As I look back now, I can’t help but wonder if he knew the ship was headed for an iceberg. I have no doubt that the network would be in better shape today if he were still there.

After Traug’s exit, a year later, Tim McCarthy was let go in New York. The network even cut ties with longtime voice talents Jim and Dawn Cutler, though they stayed on the company’s top stations in NY and LA.

Though I hated to see all of them go because they were good at their jobs and valuable to the network, the one that made a little more sense was Tim’s exit because that had more to do with Good Karma taking over in New York. Tim has since landed with the Broadcasters Foundation of America, and Vinny DiMarco is now leading 98.7 ESPN NY, and I’m a fan of both men.

But now here we are in 2023, and once again, the folks being shown the door are the people who dedicated their lives to radio. Among the casualties, Scott McCarthy, the network’s SVP of Audio, Pete Gianesini, Senior Director of Digital Audio, Louise Cornetta, Digital Audio Program Director, and two good local sports radio programmers, Ryan Hurley at 98.7 ESPN NY, and Amanda Brown at ESPN LA 710. All of them good, talented people with track records of success in the format. I struggle to explain how ESPN Radio is better today without them.

By the way, I haven’t even touched the talent department yet. But let’s go there next.

In less than eight years, ESPN Radio’s morning show has featured Mike & Mike, Golic & Wingo (Mike Golic Jr. and Jason Fitz were added as contributing voices), Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin, and Keyshawn, JWill and Max. Middays have included Colin Cowherd, Dan Le Batard and Stugotz, Scott Van Pelt, Ryen Russillo, Danny Kanell, Will Cain, Mike Greenberg, Jason Fitz, Stephen A. Smith, Bart & Hahn, and Fitz and Harry Douglas. Afternoons have been a combination of Le Batard and Stugotz, Bomani Jones, Jalen & Jacoby, Golic Jr. & Chiney, Canty & Golic Jr. & Canty and Carlin. I could run down the changes at night too, but you get the picture.

As a former programmer and current consultant, I know that radio is a relationship listen and investment. You can’t build an audience and attract sponsor support for talent and shows if the product constantly changes. Most PDs or executives who make this many changes during a short period of time, usually aren’t around very long. Yet ESPN has allowed this to continue, which leaves me to question how much they value their radio network.

Look, I’m sure this is a tough week for those in management at ESPN. Having to tell folks they’re not being retained and watch friends say goodbye is a crummy part of the job. I’m sure some have even fought to try and avoid this bloodbath. But when the news comes down from up above that 7,000 jobs are being eliminated, it’s not a question of whether or not people are talented and valuable, it’s simply about the bottom line. I feel for the folks at ESPN who have to deliver the bad news this week but also for those who are staying and now have limited support around them to make a difference.

By decimating the radio department there are now bigger questions to be answered by Jimmy, Burke, Dave, Norby and the rest of the management team. How much does ESPN value the radio business and the stations they’re in business with? If most of the people who’ve built relationships with local stations are gone, talented programmers are being ousted, talent changes happen far too frequently, and the company becomes less involved in local markets, why is anyone to believe this space matters to ESPN? What exactly are stations gaining from partnerships besides the use of four letters and the opportunity to air play by play events?

The network expects these stations to provide them with inventory, rights fees, branding, promotion, and clearance of certain programs so isn’t it fair of stations to have expectations of the network too? Don’t radio network partners deserve consistent quality programming, relationships with managers who prioritize audio, and less negative PR?

Most who I talk to about this situation believe the network’s glory days are gone. That’s fine. Just because this isn’t the ESPN Radio of 2005 doesn’t mean it can’t be great. The product exists now to primarily serve mid to small market operators who can’t afford local content, major market stations who don’t want to spend on evening and overnight shows, and company owned stations that can be utilized to promote the company’s digital and television content. ESPN does gain value for their radio shows on TV and podcast platforms, but those benefit the company much more than their radio partners.

The general feeling in industry circles is that FOX Sports Radio now delivers the best national radio product, CBS Sports Radio has better consistency but similar east coast content issues, and others don’t have strong enough brand recognition or content to justify a change. If sports betting continues to gain mainstream acceptance and bring cash into the marketplace, that could help outlets like VSiN, BetQL, and SportsGrid gain greater traction. If Outkick gets more aggressive with offering content to local markets, especially in the south and Midwest, that could be another interesting option.

The bigger question is whether there’s enough audience, revenue, and excitement for national content in today’s sports radio space. If most major markets are focused on local, is there enough out there in rural America to keep networks excited?

I do know that just ten years ago CBS Radio entered the space because they saw value in it. NBC Sports Radio leaped in too. FOX Sports Radio went all-in for Colin Cowherd, and ESPN Radio was healthy. Even SiriusXM continues to expand its national offerings, and three sports betting networks saw value in pursuing national distribution. It’s hard to convince me that there isn’t financial upside for national sports radio brands in today’s media environment. It may not be a big ratings play but from a business standpoint there is value.

What’s unfolding now at the worldwide leader is disheartening because it could have been avoided. Instead, brands have been damaged, relationships changed, jobs lost, and questions raised about future viability.

If the world’s leading sports operator values radio, they’ll prioritize restoring confidence across the industry. A good start would be putting people in place who champion radio’s future, and make decisions that best serve the radio brands carrying their product. If they can’t do that, then maybe it’s time to step aside, and let someone else try. I know a few groups who’d be happy to take a shot at restoring the network’s pride.

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Barrett Blogs

Radio Must Bring Back The Fun

“The promotions you’re creating are not producing massive recall across the format, national media attention or revenues that change the fate of your next quarter.”

Jason Barrett




Five and a half days in Las Vegas can feel like an eternity. Especially when you’re in town for business not pleasure. But though I’d rather sleep in my own bed, eat at home, and avoid walking from convention hall to convention hall, I’m glad I made the trip because the NAB Show delivered. 

Many media members have attended this event over the years, and it’s easy to come up with reasons not to attend. Budgets are tight, you can’t afford to be out of the office, or you think it isn’t beneficial. That’s where I’ll take exception. If you can’t find something of value at a five-day event that exists to serve broadcasters and brands, that’s on you, not the conference.  

Over the past few days, I did what many do and took necessary business meetings at Encore, but I also listened to speakers offer valuable insights on artificial intelligence, marketing, programming, technology, dashboard connectivity, the future of AM radio, and more. All of these are subjects that should matter to media professionals. Having Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso star Roy Kent) on hand to talk about content creation was an added bonus. 

As I spent my final hour inside the North Hall on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about how large this event is, what goes into creating it, and how many different industries and brands are represented at it. What the NAB does to make this event possible for sixty-five thousand plus is amazing, and I commend all involved because it truly is informative, and it helps bring together business leaders and brands to help move our industry forward. 

There were many takeaways from the conference sessions, but one in particular stood out. I thought Mike McVay’s session with J.D. Crowley and Paul Suchman of Audacy was excellent. Crowley’s insights on listener choice, distribution, and personalization were spot on, and I was very impressed with Suchman’s feedback on some of the behavior testing Audacy has done to learn how consumers respond to different types of content and messaging.

Crowley’s final message about people in the audio industry needing to be proud of the business they’re in was easy for me to relate to because I feel similarly. This is a great business to be in. I get tired of hearing folks in and out of the industry tear it down. So much attention gets placed on who exceeded revenue goals, what a brand’s ratings were, and what a company’s stock price is, losing sight of the more important part, our brands, personalities, and content, and the way they’re received by those who consume it.

Additionally, I was honored to speak about the growth of BSM and BNM. Joe D’Angelo of Xperi and Pierre Bouvard of Cumulus Media treated folks to information on advertising and in-car data, and Erica Farber, Tim Bronsil, and Mary DelGrande did a nice job guiding multiple business conversations. I also enjoyed stopping by the Veritone booth and learning about their products and staff. My only regret, I missed Buzz Knight’s session with Nielsen’s new audio team due to a business meeting running long. Thankfully Inside Radio put together a detailed recap of what was discussed. 

But what I want to draw attention to most is something Dan Mason said on stage during his acceptance speech when receiving the Lowry Mays Award at the Broadcasters Foundation of America breakfast. It’s something I raised at last month’s BSM Summit. 

After sharing how local is a key differentiator in helping radio stand apart from other forms of media, and reminding everyone about the importance of longevity, Mason said that radio has to get back to having fun. He shared a story of a promotion he was part of in the 1970’s that wouldn’t fly today. It was a short people’s convention that included six-ounce drinks, pigs in a blanket, and strawberry shortcake. The event put his radio station on NBC Nightly News, and created a ton of buzz.  

Just because that type of event wouldn’t work in 2023, doesn’t mean others can’t. We have got to create special events that produce national attention, local market interest, and fear of missing out spending. This is what radio is supposed to be exceptional at yet it doesn’t happen enough.  

At our Summit in LA, I asked three PD’s to share with me the one promotion in sports radio today that they viewed as a killer event. It wasn’t an easy one to answer. In fact, two referenced WIP’s Wing Bowl, which ended in 2018. Had I asked five or six other PD’s, they’d have likely been in the same boat, struggling to name three or four killer events. 

I mentioned how the Mandy Awards at 710 ESPN in Los Angeles stood out, but this format should be able to deliver more than one standout promotion. I realize there are stations doing promotional events, and if they’re helping you produce revenue, great. I’m not telling you to abandon that strategy. But I will challenge you if you try to tell me sports radio’s report card on promotions in 2023 is superb. It is not.

One gentleman I listened to during the week who was attending a session shared one reason why this is the case. He was asked about creating ideas and said ‘we use a committee to brainstorm and find that sometimes the best ideas come from different departments, in fact, our last successful event was the idea of our engineer.’ 

I’m all for collaboration, and if you’re creating events that satisfy your goals, continue doing it. I’m not here to rain on your parade. But let me share an opinion some may view as unpopular. If the best ideas in your organization are coming from departments other than programming, you have a problem.

The program director and talent are supposed to be the people you turn to for leadership, ideas, passion, creativity, and execution. They’re supposed to be able to think of things that others can’t. Do you think Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would turn over the direction of their next film to others inside their companies? Imagine the focus of Ted Lasso’s next episode being decided by someone other than Jason Sudeikis, Brett Goldstein, and the rest of their writing team. You’d be wasting the talent of your best storytellers.

Radio companies pay premium dollars for elite programmers and hosts because they’re supposed to be able to bring things to life that only exists inside their brains. If your HR or engineering department are creating the station’s best promotions, you don’t have enough creativity coming from your programming team. That could be due to having a PD who lacks ideas and vision or it could be the result of the way your creative process is structured.

One of the things I enjoyed most as a PD was coming up with ideas that created buzz, ratings, and revenue. My job was to think and execute BIG, and whether it was Lucky Break in San Francisco, Stand For Stan at 101 ESPN in St. Louis, the Golden Ticket at 590 The Fan in St. Louis, the 20 in 20 tour or Goodbye Roast at 95.7 The Game or the Gridiron Gala in both cities, we produced buzz, grew ratings, and made money. If we did something and it failed, that was ok. I’d rather swing and miss than be afraid to try. I took that responsibility seriously, and feel that when you’re making calls by committee, you’re not allowing your best people to do what they’re best suited to do. 

Case in point, I attended Boomer & Gio Live in Jersey City, NJ a few weeks ago. It was a fun event with a lot of different things going on. WFAN’s PD Spike Eskin worked the event on stage, and if you recall, the station made national news when Jets GM Joe Douglas said that Aaron Rodgers would end up in New York. There were multiple sales activations included throughout the show, and much of the fun content that took place on stage came from the creators. Because the FAN crew were allowed to do what they do best, the station produced a successful event. Had that been an ‘all departments contribute’ approach, it’d have not been the same show. 

What Dan Mason said in Las Vegas was accurate. Radio has to get back to having fun but it also has to be unafraid to take risks. I fear that we worry so much about the ‘what ifs’ and the potential noise on social media that we’re killing creativity, and the next big idea.

If I asked you to list five GREAT sports radio promotions today, could you? And I’m not talking about golf tournaments, charitable bowling events, host debates or bar remotes. If I ask this same question in five years and we’re in the same spot, that’s going to say a lot about where we are as an industry. We have to excite ourselves, our listeners, and our advertisers because when we showcase our creativity in a way that no other medium can, we make a statement, which results in increased attention, and financial investment.  

Some of that creative spirit is still alive. You see it in Boston with WEEI’s Jimmy Fund Telethon, and if you attended the Michael Kay Show 20-year anniversary special or Barstool’s Upfront, you saw what great planning, and execution looks like. But I also remember The Fanatic’s Celebrity Week, The Millen Man March in Detroit, Ticketfest in Dallas, Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, and 790 The Zone in Atlanta becoming a national sensation by creating multiple home run events.

I don’t believe enough brands today create events that deliver meaningful impact. Yet they’re needed. When done right, brands ascend to a different level. Sports radio has too many sharp, creative minds to not be creating the biggest and most successful promotions in all of media. If you work in programming and your station isn’t producing promotions that generate recall across the format, national media attention or revenues that change the fate of your next quarter, it’s time to step up your game. If you don’t, the interns, street team, and receptionist may soon be deciding the future direction of your brand’s promotional strategy.

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Reflecting on the 2023 BSM Summit

“Barrett Media president Jason Barrett reflects on last week’s BSM Summit in Los Angeles.”

Jason Barrett




One of the best parts about the world of sports is that every season ends with one team being crowned champion. It doesn’t exactly work that way managing a media company, even though we invest the same amount of time leading up to the BSM Summit, our equivalent of the Super Bowl or WrestleMania.

Having had a few days to recover and reflect after last week’s Summit in Los Angeles, I know that what we did last week was special. I’m a perfectionist and have a hard time patting myself on the back because I know there’s plenty we can do better, but last week, we hit a homerun. The venues at USC were perfect, the signage was spectacular, the tech ran well, the speakers were awesome, the crowd was great, and the sponsorship support was outstanding. It’s the first time I’ve walked away from an event and felt we accomplished what we set out to do. If time allows, check out Garrett Searight’s piece on some of the key takeaways from the show.

In 2018, Mitch Rosen invited me to utilize his space at Audacy Chicago to take a shot at trying to execute an event for PDs. Now here we are five years later with a few hundred people joining us from all across the industry. It’s pretty incredible. We’re only successful because a lot of people have come together to make sure we are. Without the speakers, sponsors, and staff around me stepping up to get things done, I’d just be a guy with an idea incapable of executing it.

In the next week or so we’ll be sharing video clips from the show on the BSM social media pages. I’m also planning to make full sessions available via on-demand for free for those who attended the show in California. If you didn’t come to the event and want to watch it online, it will be available for a small fee. Stay tuned for further details.

What matters most to me with the Summit is that folks in the room get something out of it. I thought many of our speakers delivered a ton of value this year, and there were a few WOW moments along the way as well. Colin and Rome were outstanding as expected, and Jay Glazer and Al Michaels’ speeches had everyone hanging on their next words. I thought the Shawn Michaels and Jack Rose led sessions were outside the box and well received, and I was beyond impressed by Joy Taylor, Mina Kimes, and Amanda Brown. We used 14 hours in that room to explore issues dealing with management, research, technology, programming, talent and social media, so it gave everyone a little bit of everything, which was the goal.

We did have a little bit of friction on stage during the Aircheck on Campus session, which wasn’t a bad thing. Personalities and programmers have passionate conversations inside the office every day. Rob, Mark and Scott just happened to have one on stage. All three are smart, talented, and willing to be candid. I thought that was healthy for the room.

I know networking is important at these type of events and there was plenty of opportunity for folks to do that. I look at it like this, if you can get face time with others, meet your heroes or folks you admire and pick up some ideas and insight in the process to elevate your business, that should justify it being worthy of a few days out of the office.

As crazy as it may sound, I step away from each of these events asking my team ‘is that the last one?’ I know I can create and execute a great conference, and I enjoy doing it, but I also don’t want to invest eight months of time building a show that becomes predictable and stale. It’s why I change speakers and topics frequently. This year’s lineup was phenomenal, and I’m so pleased with who we featured on stage and had in the room, but the competitor in me will also look back and say ‘Bill Simmons, Ice Cube and Lincoln Riley Should’ve Been On Stage Too!


If we do host an event in 2024, it will take place in either Boston, Chicago, Dallas or New York. You can cast your vote on

I want to thank everyone who stopped me last week to share how much they enjoy this event. That support means a lot. I think Good Karma Brands broke a record with 20+ employees in attendance, and iHeart was also well represented, which was great to see. I was also excited to have 15-20 college students in the room. The more we can educate the next generation, the better it is for all of us. I also was thrilled to learn a few of our partners and attendees made time to arrange further business conversations. If two groups can help each other, that’s what it’s all about.

But as much as I love my radio brothers and sisters, I’ve noticed more folks showing up the past two years from areas outside of sports radio. That’s both exhilarating and concerning. This year we had folks in the room from WWE, Amazon, The Volume, Omaha Productions, Dirty Mo Media, Barstool Sports, Spotify, Blue Wire, Locked On, BetRivers, Bleav, etc.. I hope that trend continues because sports media is a lot larger of a business than sports radio. As I told the room, we’re not in the radio business, television business, audio or video business, we are in the content business. That covers a lot more ground for brands than focusing on one specific platform.

I’ve been on cloud nine for a few days because overall, this went as well as I could ask for. If there’s one thing I’d like to make better it’s that I hear from a lot of folks throughout the year who say they want to learn, meet new people and give themselves a competitive edge yet when an event exists that can help them do that, they’re not in the room. Some of my radio friends didn’t come because they weren’t asked to speak. Others said they couldn’t make it because their company wouldn’t cover the costs. A few said they thought the Summit was only for programming people not managers or sellers.

First, growing and selling an audience should matter to everyone not just programmers and hosts. GM’s and Sales Managers can gain a lot at this show. So can advertisers and agencies. I’m hoping to change that in the future. Second, I can’t tell you whether or not to prioritize attending but groups outside of radio are passionate about sports audio and video, and they’re finding ways to be in the room. At some point, you have to decide if investing in knowledge, ideas and relationships matters to you and your business. Your employer isn’t going to cover everything you want to do so especially when the economy isn’t strong. Sometimes you have to invest time and resources in yourself.

Many of you reading this website know my track record in the radio industry. I built my career in radio. My passion for the business remains strong. I consult brands all across the country, and root for the industry’s success. It’s why I sink my heart and soul into this event and share all that I do over two days because I want to help people grow their businesses.

But it is strange that over the course of four live events I’ve still not had one current radio CEO sit down for an in-depth sports media business conversation. It’d be one thing if they were pitched and I turned them down but that’s not the case. I’ve had great conversations and support outside of radio from Jimmy Pitaro, Eric Shanks, Erika Ayers, and John Skipper. Jeff Smulyan has been a huge supporter taking part in our awards ceremony, and we’ve had high ranking TV executives in the room watching the show. Maybe things will change in 2024 but whether they do or don’t, I’m going to focus on helping brands and individuals who gain value from this two day event, and continue challenging this industry to think and act differently.


Now that the 2023 BSM Summit is over, my focus shifts to supporting my clients and gearing up for a massive challenge, hosting our first BNM Summit for news media professionals. The conference will take place in Nashville, TV on September 13-14 at Vanderbilt University. I’ll be announcing the first group of speakers in April after the NAB. Tickets will go on sale at that time too.

I know it won’t be easy but I tend to do my best work when I’m out of my comfort zone. This is a space I have passion for and feel I can add something to so there’s only one thing left to do, get to work, and put together the news media equivalent of what we just created for sports media professionals last week in Los Angeles. That may be a tall order but if anyone is ready to meet the challenge head on, yours truly is certainly up to the task.

Thanks again for a spectacular time in Los Angeles. Onward and upward we go!

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