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Will Audiences Pay For Local Sports Radio Digital Content?

Jason Barrett

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The interest in sports radio programming continues to soar across the globe. But is that appetite for sports audio content strong enough to expect local audiences to pay for it?

Executives at ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR believe it is.

On May 1st, the radio station announced they would start charging $8.50 per month or $85.00 annually to listen to full length podcasts of the station’s top shows, minus local commercials and with the talent having the freedom to express themselves in uncensored fashion on their website and app “The Land On Demand“. WKNR offers their over the air radio programming and short-form clips from their shows on their digital platforms for free, but full-length shows had previously not been made available.

Keith Williams, ESPN Cleveland’s vice president and general manager, told Crain’s Cleveland Business that full-length podcasts are the number one thing listeners have asked WKNR to offer. But unlike the majority of brands across the country that provide that form of programming to their audiences on their websites and digital channels for free, WKNR is hoping the demand for consuming the content will be strong enough to justify additional spending.

“We know the way fans are consuming media in an on-demand world,” Williams told Crain. “They don’t have the time or resources they once had. We’re providing them what they asked for.”

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In the same article with Crain, Talkers Magazine publisher Michael Harrison was a proponent of the move. He said “The biggest problem facing commercial radio is the commercials. If WKNR was charging people to listen to it on the air, then people should grumble, but what the hell do they have to grumble about? They don’t want radio stations to make a living?”

There’s some truth in Michael’s words. Commercials have become viewed as obstacles standing in the way of the listener enjoying the content. Fred Jacobs wrote about this issue recently after his TechSurvey 13 revealed that ads were the number one reason why people say they listen to less AM/FM radio. That’s a reflection on our growing impatience as a society. We want what we want and we want it now or we’re moving on to something else.

However, to suggest that people shouldn’t grumble over the radio station charging a fee to consume audio that they can hear for free over the air is looking at it strictly from the company’s point of view.

It’s not the audience’s problem if the station generates a profit. They have their own financial difficulties to deal with. Their only role in the situation is to listen to the programming. If they do that consistently, the station can then leverage that passion and commitment with their advertisers. Judging from the early feedback on iTunes and Google Play, people aren’t happy with the direction WKNR has chosen to go.

But let’s take a step back for a second and analyze this from a number of different perspectives.

First, if the listener is able to listen to one of WKNR’s shows over the radio airwaves or on the station’s stream during the time that it airs, they pay nothing for it. If they want to enjoy a small portion of a show in podcast form, that too is free. There are options for them to consume content without having to pay for it. However, if they miss a show, and want to enjoy it later on during their free time, that same content (minus the commercials) which was available over the air for free, now requires a monthly or annual fee.

Now let’s add the advertiser’s perspective.

Imagine for a second if you’re a local or national client. You’re being asked to spend your money promoting your products on WKNR’s airwaves. Those are the same airwaves that are encouraging fans to pay the radio station to hear their programs online, without your commercials in them. If that model gains traction and reduces over the air listening, how would it sit with you if you were investing in the brand’s over the air product? Wouldn’t you want a future place at the table in the digital space if it was becoming a hit with the local audience?

The reason advertisers invest in radio stations is because of their ability to help the client reach specific audiences. If that desired demographic though views the client’s over the air commercials as a detriment to their listening time, and the station wants to prevent the advertiser from being included in digital spaces, then why exactly would a client continue spending the same amount or even more of their ad budget on the radio station?

That’s a slippery slope for stations. The executive team is absolutely right to shift their programming online and eliminate roadblocks that hinder the audience’s listening experience. However, they’re also reliant on advertising dollars to continue running a business. If they piss off their key clients during a period when they’re trying to develop a potential new revenue stream, it could harm their business, especially during the short-term.

Another area that I want to examine is the value.

The Land on Demand’s key selling point is that it’s weekday shows (which you can hear for free on the radio station) are now available in full-length form without interruption. That’s not anything groundbreaking. In fact, most local sports stations already provide that. To expect that offering full-length shows without commercials, with the benefit of using adult language is going to be enough to generate significant spending seems rather peculiar.

However, WKNR did add a section titled WKNR Classics which allows the audience to hear archived shows, guests, and memorable moments. That part is cool and gives the paying consumer something they can’t get over the air. There are also plans to introduce more original content which will only be available to paying customers. That’s a wise move.

But here’s where the problem lies.

Place yourself in the shoes of the consumer for a minute, and consider what you’re up against.

For $11-$20 per month, a listener can purchase a subscription to SiriusXM and gain access to hundreds of programming options. That includes hearing music, comedy, live sporting events, and high profile talent such as Howard Stern, Chris “Mad Dog Russo, and many more.

If you want to save even more money, you can spend $8 per month to become a premium subscriber to TuneIn which gives you access to every MLB and NFL game, commercial-free music, audio books, thousands of radio stations, and millions of podcasts.

I haven’t even touched on the services available to paying consumers on television, video and online platforms. Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, MLB, the NFL, the WWE Network and others, there are tons of options to consider when paying for entertainment. In each case, these companies are offering a ton of value in exchange for a minimal monthly or annual fee.

You may suggest that it’s an apples to oranges comparison because one product is focused on local sports radio and the others aren’t, but they’re all delivering entertainment while reducing an individual’s bank account. I assure you, when push comes to shove, most people will spend money on the things they need first, and then consider the available choices when deciding on whether or not to add luxuries.

But spending aside, another potential concern for WKNR is bad publicity. A decline in ratings is often a natural fear for radio companies but Good Karma Broadcasting (WKNR’s parent company) doesn’t live and die by the ratings, so that shouldn’t be an issue. However, no station or business wants to lose listeners.

That said, one item which can easily be lost in this conversation is the fact that the long-form digital offerings were previously unavailable on WKNR. It’s not as if Good Karma is forcing this on its audience. Instead, they’re supplying an additional option to the audience, which they can hear in exchange for a fee. If they don’t want to pay for it, then they’re in no different shape than they were last month.

If it ruffles the feathers of a Cleveland sports radio fan, they do have other options to consider. They can listen solely to WKNR over the radio or if they’re bothered to the point of considering a switch, they can pledge their allegiance to 92.3 The Fan. If for some reason that doesn’t suit their style, they can also turn to brands like 97.1 The Fan or 105.7 The Zone in Columbus who are also talking about Ohio sports. In fact, Bruce Hooley who hosts mornings on The Zone, used to host shows on WKNR.

If neither of those options satisfy, there are always networks and hundreds of sports stations across the country offering quality content for free, both on-air and online. The one big difference though, they’re not largely focused on Cleveland sports the way that WKNR or those other Ohio sports radio brands are.

From the local fan’s point of view, they’re going to wonder why they’re being asked to pay for something that other stations and cities don’t. For example, a Boston sports radio fan can log on to WEEI.com and gain access to all of the station’s programming, plus a number of original podcasts, including Kirk Minihane’s “Enough About Me” which ranks among the best in the format. The station also offers uncensored programs, commercial-free content, and generates over 2 million web visitors per month. The cost for that experience? Zero.

That same strategy of offering free long-form programming in the podcast space is employed by numerous radio companies who own and operate sports stations. Among them include ESPN, iHeart, Bonneville, Hubbard, Emmis, and Beasley. Cumulus doesn’t employ that strategy, and as I mentioned previously, CBS doesn’t either. Their approach is more focused on offering short-form content clips.

But this begs the question, should digital content require a fee?

Stations are dedicating a lot of hours, creativity and bandwidth to provide valuable listening experiences for their audiences, with the idea being that advertisers will offset it. But most of those dollars are coming from the over the air product, not the digital side of the business. As advertisers continue to shift their ad spending into the digital space, and listeners expect ads to be eliminated from their listening experience, it’s worth examining whether or not a subscription based on-demand strategy makes long-term sense.

The subject of digital and podcasting came up in a recent interview with Mike Francesa of WFAN. Talking to Bryan Curtis of The Ringer, the New York sports talk show host said most brands bastardize their own content by giving it away for free. While radio preaches the importance of being on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it hasn’t figured out how to make a dime off of those platforms. As a result, Francesa says radio is destroying its own business.

I can see Mike’s point. From the product end of the business, brands are doing an incredible job of building audiences and generating interest. Turning that passion and dedication though into profitability in the digital and social media world remains a daunting task.

As it applies to WKNR’s situation, one positive working in their favor is that their local competitor (92.3 The Fan) doesn’t currently offer long-form versions of their shows online. That’s a CBS strategy that exists on most of their sports radio brands websites. You can download and listen to interviews, highlights, and occasional monologues, but not full-length programs. But with WKNR announcing their new digital initiative, might that lead The Fan to make a future adjustment? It probably wouldn’t be a consideration under CBS, but with Entercom on the verge of taking over the company that’s certainly possible. Especially since they offer free full length programs in podcast form on the majority of their sports radio brands.

Throughout the years, WKNR has built a familiar brand in Cleveland. Many of their personalities have appeared on the station for a lengthy period of time, and it’s clear they’re counting on local fans having a strong enough interest in their personalities and content to help them enhance their digital business. It’d be foolish to suggest the radio station won’t attract a market for what it’s offering, but whether or not it’ll be sustainable is way too early to tell.

What should be appreciated, regardless of how things play out, is that WKNR is taking a risk. We often talk about our industry being stuck in mud and unwilling to take chances, yet the second someone does, we’re quick to pounce on them and sign their death certificate. Maybe there are some holes in the existing strategy, and the public’s reaction to the news certainly leaves little to be desired, but immediate feedback to any change is often negative, and people have demonstrated numerous times that they’ll pay for things we never expected them to. What one person believes is worth $1, someone else values at $1000.

All of that taken into account, not every risk is a wise one. To simply present shows without commercials in exchange for a fee, and turn it into a thriving revenue stream is expecting a lot. I believe that WKNR will need to add more original content to its digital channels, plus offer additional unique benefits associated with a premium experience to satisfy and grow its subscriber base. I’m sure they’re already working on that. The beauty of a project like this is that it’s in its infancy, so there’s still plenty of time for making improvements.

In life, if you want to grab the brass ring you have to have brass balls. ESPN Cleveland certainly has those. But if you push the audience further than they’re willing to go, those same brass balls can be kicked in by steel toed boots. Hopefully WKNR has invested in a sturdy athletic supporter and cup. I just hope for their sake they don’t end up needing to wear it.

Barrett Blogs

BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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Barrett Blogs

Mina Kimes, Bruce Gilbert, Mitch Rosen, and Stacey Kauffman Join the 2023 BSM Summit

“By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference.”

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit is returning to Los Angeles on March 21-22, 2023, live from the Founders Club at the Galen Center at the campus of the University of Southern California. Information on tickets and hotel rooms can be found at BSMSummit.com.

We’ve previously announced sixteen participants for our upcoming show, and I’m excited today to confirm the additions of four more more smart, successful professionals to be part of the event. Before I do that, I’d like to thank The Volume for signing on as our Badge sponsor, the Motor Racing Network for securing the gift bag sponsorship, and Bonneville International for coming on board as a Session sponsor. We do have some opportunities available but things are moving fast this year, so if you’re interested in being involved, email Stephanie Eads at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

Now let’s talk about a few of the speaker additions for the show.

First, I am thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Mina Kimes to the Summit for her first appearance. Mina and I had the pleasure recently of connecting on a podcast (go listen to it) and I’ve been a fan of her work for years. Her intellect, wit, football acumen, and likeability have served her well on television, podcasts, and in print. She’s excelled as an analyst on NFL Live and Rams preseason football games, as a former host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and her appearances on Around The Horn and previously on Highly Questionable and the Dan Le Batard Show were always entertaining. I’m looking forward to having Mina join FS1’s Joy Taylor and ESPN LA 710 PD Amanda Brown for an insightful conversation about the industry.

Next is another newcomer. I’m looking forward to having Audacy San Francisco and Sacramento Regional Vice President Stacey Kauffman in the building for our 2023 show. In addition to overseeing a number of music brands, Stacey also oversees a dominant news/talk outlet, and two sports radio brands. Among them are my former station 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and ESPN 1320 in Sacramento. I’m looking forward to having her participate in our GM panel with Good Karma’s Sam Pines, iHeart’s Don Martin, and led by Bonneville’s Executive Vice President Scott Sutherland.

From there, it’s time to welcome back two of the sharpest sports radio minds in the business. Bruce Gilbert is the SVP of Sports for Westwood One and Cumulus Media. He’s seen and done it all on the local and national level and anytime he’s in the room to share his programming knowledge with attendees, everyone leaves the room smarter. I’m anticipating another great conversation on the state of sports radio, which FOX Sports Radio VP of programming Scott Shapiro will be a part of.

Another student of the game and one of the top programmers in the format today is 670 The Score in Chicago PD, Mitch Rosen. The former Mark Chernoff Award recipient and recently appointed VP of the BetQL Network juggles managing a top 3 market sports brand while being charged with moving an emerging sports betting network forward. Count on Mr. Rosen to offer his insights and opinions during another of our branding and programming discussions.

By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference. My focus now is on finalizing our business and digital sessions, research, tech and sports betting panels, securing our locations and sponsorships for the After Party and Kickoff Party, plus working out the details for a few high-profile executive appearances and a couple of surprises.

For those looking to attend and save a few dollars on tickets, we’ll be holding a special Black Friday Sale this Friday November 25th. Just log on to BSMSummit.com that day to save $50 on individual tickets. In addition, thanks to the generosity of voice talent extraordinaire Steve Kamer, we’ll be giving away 10 tickets leading up to the conference. Stay tuned for details on the giveaway in the months ahead.

Still to come is an announcement about our special ticket rate for college students looking to attend the show and learn. We also do an annual contest for college kids to attend the event for free which I’m hoping to have ready in the next few weeks. It’s also likely we’ll give away a few tickets to industry professionals leading up to Christmas, so keep an eye out.

If you work in the sports media industry and value making connections, celebrating those who create an impact, and learning about the business from folks who have experienced success, failure, and everything in between, the Summit is worth your time. I’m excited to have Mina, Bruce, Mitch and Stacey join us for the show, and look forward to spending a few days with the industry’s best and brightest this March! Hope to see you there.

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Barrett Blogs

Barrett Media is Making Changes To Better Serve Our Sports and News Media Readers

“We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future.”

Jason Barrett

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When I launched this website all I wanted to do was share news, insight and stories about broadcasters and brands. My love, passion and respect for this business is strong, and I know many of you reading this feel similar. I spent two great decades in radio watching how little attention was paid to those who played a big part in their audiences lives. The occasional clickbait story and contract drama would find their way into the newspapers but rarely did you learn about the twists and turns of a broadcaster’s career, their approach to content or the tactics and strategies needed to succeed in the industry. When personal reasons led me home to NY in 2015, I decided I was going to try my best to change that.

Since launching this brand, we’ve done a good job informing and entertaining media industry professionals, while also helping consulting clients and advertising partners improve their businesses. We’ve earned respect from the industry’s top stars, programming minds and mainstream media outlets, growing traffic from 50K per month to 500K and monthly social impressions from a few thousand to a few million. Along the way we’ve added conferences, rankings, podcasts, a member directory, and as I’ve said before, this is the best and most important work I’ve ever done, and I’m not interested in doing anything else.

If I’ve learned anything over seven years of operating a digital content company it’s that you need skill, strategy, passion, differentiating content, and good people to create impact. You also need luck, support, curiosity and an understanding of when to double down, cut bait or pivot. It’s why I added Stephanie Eads as our Director of Sales and hired additional editors, columnists and features reporters earlier this year. To run a brand like ours properly, time and investment are needed. We’ve consistently grown and continue to invest in our future, and it’s my hope that more groups will recognize the value we provide, and give greater consideration to marketing with us in the future.

But with growth comes challenges. Sometimes you can have the right idea but bad timing. I learned that when we launched Barrett News Media.

We introduced BNM in September 2020, two months before the election when emotions were high and COVID was a daily discussion. I wasn’t comfortable then of blending BNM and BSM content because I knew we’d built a trusted sports media resource, and I didn’t want to shrink one audience while trying to grow another. Given how personal the election and COVID became for folks, I knew the content mix would look and feel awkward on our site.

So we made the decision to start BNM with its own website. We ran the two brands independently and had the right plan of attack, but discovered that our timing wasn’t great.

The first nine months readership was light, which I expected since we were new and trying to build an audience from scratch. I believed in the long-term mission, which was why I stuck with it through all of the growing pains, but I also felt a responsibility to make sure our BNM writing team and the advertising partners we forged relationships with were being seen by as many people as possible. We continued with the original plan until May 2021 when after a number of back and forth debates, I finally agreed to merge the two sites. I figured if WFAN could thrive with Imus in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog in the afternoon, and the NY Times, LA Times, KOA, KMOX and numerous other newspaper and radio brands could find a way to blend sports and news/talk, then so could we.

And it worked.

We dove in and started to showcase both formats, building social channels and groups for each, growing newsletter databases, and with the addition of a few top notch writers, BNM began making bigger strides. Now featured under the BSM roof, the site looked bigger, the supply of daily content became massive, and our people were enjoying the increased attention.

Except now we had other issues. Too many stories meant many weren’t being read and more mistakes were slipping through the cracks. None of our crew strive to misspell a word or write a sloppy headline but when the staff and workload doubles and you’re trying to focus on two different formats, things can get missed. Hey, we’re all human.

Then a few other things happened that forced a larger discussion with my editors.

First, I thought about how much original material we were creating for BSM from our podcast network, Summit, Countdown to Coverage series, Meet the Market Managers, BSM Top 20, and began to ask myself ‘if we’re doing all of this for sports readers, what does that tell folks who read us for news?’ We then ran a survey to learn what people valued about our brand and though most of the feedback was excellent, I saw how strong the response was to our sports content, and how news had grown but felt second fiddle to those offering feedback.

Then, Andy Bloom wrote an interesting column explaining why radio hosts would be wise to stop talking about Donald Trump. It was the type of piece that should’ve been front and center on a news site all day but with 3 featured slots on the site and 7 original columns coming in that day, they couldn’t all be highlighted the way they sometimes should be. We’re actually going through that again today. That said, Andy’s column cut through. A few sports media folks didn’t like seeing it on the site, which wasn’t a surprise since Trump is a polarizing personality, but the content resonated well with the news/talk crowd.

National talk radio host Mike Gallagher was among the folks to see Andy’s piece, and he spent time on his show talking about the column. Mike’s segment was excellent, and when he referenced the article, he did the professional thing and credited our website – Barrett SPORTS Media. I was appreciative of Mike spending time on his program discussing our content but it was a reminder that we had news living under a sports roof and it deserved better than that.

I then read some of Pete Mundo, Doug Pucci and Rick Schultz’s columns and Jim Cryns’ features on Chris Ruddy, Phil Boyce, and David Santrella, and knew we were doing a lot of quality work but each time we produced stories, folks were reminded that it lived on a SPORTS site. I met a few folks who valued the site, recognized the increased focus we put on our news/talk coverage, and hoped we had plans to do more. Jim also received feedback along the lines of “good to see you guys finally in the news space, hope there’s more to come.”

Wanting to better understand our opportunities and challenges, I reviewed our workflow, looked at which content was hitting and missing the mark, thought about the increased relationships we’d worked hard to develop, and the short-term and long-term goals for BNM. I knew it was time to choose a path. Did I want to think short-term and keep everything under one roof to protect our current traffic and avoid disrupting people or was it smarter to look at the big picture and create a destination where news/talk media content could be prioritized rather than treated as BSM’s step-child?

Though I spent most of my career in sports media and established BSM first, it’s important to me to serve the news/talk media industry our very best. I want every news/talk executive, host, programmer, market manager, agent, producer, seller and advertiser to know this format matters to us. Hopefully you’ve seen that in the content we’ve created over the past two years. My goal is to deliver for news media professionals what we have for sports media folks and though that may be a tall order, we’re going to bust our asses to make it happen. To prove that this isn’t just lip service, here’s what we’re going to do.

Starting next Monday November 28th, we are relaunching BarrettNewsMedia.com. ALL new content produced by the BNM writing team will be available daily under that URL. For the first 70-days we will display news media columns from our BNM writers on both sites and support them with promotion across both of our brands social channels. The goal is to have the two sites running independent of each other by February 6, 2023.

Also starting on Monday November 28th, we will begin distributing the BNM Rundown newsletter 5 days per week. We’ve been sending out the Rundown every M-W-F since October 2021, but the time has come for us to send it out daily. With increased distribution comes two small adjustments. We will reduce our daily story count from 10 to 8 and make it a goal to deliver it to your inbox each day by 3pm ET. If you haven’t signed up to receive the Rundown, please do. You can click here to register. Be sure to scroll down past the 8@8 area.

Additionally, Barrett News Media is going to release its first edition of the BNM Top 20 of 2022. This will come out December 12-16 and 19-20. The category winners will be decided by more than 50 news/talk radio program directors and executives. Among the categories to be featured will be best Major/Mid Market Local morning, midday, and afternoon show, best Local News/Talk PD, best Local News/Talk Station, best National Talk Radio Show, and best Original Digital Show. The voting process with format decision makers begins today and will continue for two weeks. I’ve already got a number of people involved but if you work in an executive or programming role in the news/talk format and wish to be part of it, send an email to me at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

We have one other big thing coming to Barrett News Media in 2023, which I will announce right after the BNM Top 20 on Wednesday December 21st. I’m sure news/talk professionals will like what we have planned but for now, it’ll have to be a month long tease. I promise though to pay it off.

Additionally, I’m always looking for industry folks who know and love the business and enjoy writing about it. If you’ve programmed, hosted, sold or reported in the news/talk world and have something to offer, email me. Also, if you’re a host, producer, programmer, executive, promotions or PR person and think something from your brand warrants coverage on our site, send it along. Most of what we write comes from listening to stations and digging across the web and social media. Receiving your press releases and getting a heads up on things you’re doing always helps.

If you’re a fan of BSM, this won’t affect you much. The only difference you’ll notice in the coming months is a gradual reduction of news media content on the BSM website and our social accounts sharing a little about both formats over the next two months until we’re officially split in February. We are also going to dabble a little more in marketing, research and tech content that serves both formats. If you’re a reader who enjoys both forms of our content, you’ll soon have BarrettSportsMedia.com for sports, and BarrettNewsMedia.com for news.

Our first two years in the news/talk space have been very productive but we’ve only scratched the surface. Starting November 28th, news takes center stage on BarrettNewsMedia.com and sports gets less crowded on BarrettSportsMedia.com. We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future. If we can count on you to remember two URL’s (add them to your bookmarks) and sign up for our newsletters, then you can count on us to continue delivering exceptional coverage of the industry you love. As always, thanks for the continued support. It makes everything we do worthwhile.

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