A Peek Inside The Sooner Sports Network
“The Spring Game to be decided right here! Snap, rolling right, (Austin) Kendall looking end zone, looking, stops, looks back left, looks right, throws in the end zone and it’s incomplete! Adrian Peterson’s Team White has won it by the score of 10-9!”
That was just one of the many moments heard inside the Oklahoma football radio booth on Saturday afternoon, as play-by-play voice Toby Rowland gave the action during the OU Spring Game in Norman. But that moment didn’t come without a large amount of time and preparation. In fact, you have to rewind two days prior to Thursday afternoon, to see when the preparations for the broadcast actually began.
Inside an empty Gaylord Family Oklahoma Stadium, on-site engineer Michael Dean is inside the radio booth to start his game day set up. A process that usually takes close to two hours, Dean also needs to coordinate his wireless microphones with the Trace Adkins concert that’s to take place before the game on Saturday. Any interference, would cause his sideline analysts problems and leave them unable to participate in the pregame show.
Though Dean is used to spending several hours setting up a broadcast, he’s not the only member of the team that spends multiple days getting ready for the football game on Saturday. Spotter boards, audio drops and a detailed study of the roster, are just a few of the things that fill the week for the majority of the 8-man crew involved with the Sooner Sports Network.
Inside the booth on the bottom of the two level room, Greg Blackwood (spotter) occupies the seat on the far left. To his right, sits Rowland (play-by-play voice) followed by Dennis Kelly (statistician) and Merv Johnson (color analyst) in the seat furthest right. Up top, sits Dean (engineer) alongside all his equipment to keep the Sooner Radio Network on the air. Down on the sidelines, the remaining three members of the team stand as Teddy Lehman (sideline analyst) and Chris Plank (sideline analyst) are joined alongside Tom Shores (parabolic microphone).
Oklahoma football has never been a stranger to success. However, the same can also be said for the Sooner Radio Network. Legendary figures such as Walter Cronkite, Bob Barry and John Brooks, are just a few of the voices that have told the tale of OU football through the years. Though the names have changed, the success has not. During the 2017 season, the Sooner Radio Network was ranked as the No. 1 most listened to college sports broadcast via TuneIn on three separate weeks. In Learfield’s end of the season list of Most Listened to Teams via TuneIn, the Sooner Radio Network ranked No. 3, making it one of the most popular broadcasts during college football weekends.
But how does it all work? I went inside the booth and asked those questions to several members of the broadcast team.
On-Site engineer Michael Dean
TM: How early do you show up on a game day?
MD: On a normal game day, I try to get to the stadium about 6 hours before kickoff. For home games, I’ll come down Friday and do my set up. So when I get here Saturday morning, everything is already in place and it’s just a matter of turning stuff on.
TM: How long does it take you to complete your entire set up?
MD: If I’m in a hurry, I can do it in a couple of hours. When we’re on the road, and we get to the stadium at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning for a 2:00 kickoff, that gives me a couple of hours to put everything together, to where I’m not pushing it and ready to go. There’s two, great big cases that hold all the paraphernalia for the setup. It’s amazing how much the technology has changed with equipment. When I started in 1991, the technology seemed to change every 3 or 4 years. What we’re doing today, you couldn’t imagine doing that back then. It’s incredible.
Statistician Dennis Kelly
TM: Are you keeping a full stat sheet during each game?
DK: What we found is everyone has access to the game stats these days. So I tend to focus on trends. How many passes in a row have been thrown, how long the drive has been, how many yards or how close to a record someone is, that’s what I’ll focus on. We always have a stats monitor in front of us. When I have something, I write it down and pass it to Toby.
Spotter Greg Blackwood
TM: Since you’re pointing out every single tackle, run and catch, does that mean you have to be familiar with every single player that participates in a game?
GB: Normally, Toby will send me a picture of his spotter boards for that given week, around Thursday or Friday. I pretty much know everyone that plays for OU, but it’s getting to know the opposing team. What I like to do, like, for receivers, I put them on a Post It note, just their number and last name. So when the ball is in the air, I’m immediately able to find who it is and point it out on the spotter board.
TM: So, as the game moves on, do you get familiar with where each player is and able to act instinctively to where they’re listed on the spotter board?
TM: I also see an OU Band-Aid and a Band-Aid for the other team. What’s that for?
GB: It’s just something I came up with. Whenever there’s an injury, I point to the player as well as his team’s Band-Aid. That lets Toby know who’s hurt and what team he plays for.
TM: Do you and Toby have any special hand signals for communication?
GB: Oh yeah. I’ll just say, hey, for a substitution I’m going to do this (wiggles his thumb and pinky finger). A lot of the time, I’ll say a player’s name in the headset. That way he hears me, but it doesn’t go over the air.
Sideline analyst Teddy Lehman
TM: You’re one of two sideline analysts (Chris Plank being the other) and you’re usually standing away from each other on the field. Most broadcasts don’t have that. How are you guys able to coincide without stepping on each other?
TL: Toby has a certain rhythm with the way he calls the game. He sets up the play, describes it as it happens and then gives you the result and the upcoming down and distance. You wait for that pause and then jump in with a quick comment. A lot of times it can be difficult, because if you have something to say that’s relevant to that play, sometimes, the offense is going up-tempo and they’re right back up to the ball. You have to get the info out and let Toby get back to calling the next play. It’s just a feel. I kind of know when Plank is going to come in. It’s usually after an injury or in between a series. Usually, during an actual series, that’s when I feel more comfortable coming in with something without stepping over Plank. But it does happen. When you have all the live mics we have, we probably have more than any other broadcast, it’s going to happen.
Play-by-play voice Toby Rowland
TM: How long does it take you to make a spotter board every week?
TR: It’s kind of hard to say, because I work on it every day throughout the week. So, like on Monday, I’ll enter all the information and then as the week goes on, you kind of add info to it. The whole process is probably a few hours. I just work on it all week, keeping adding stuff to it and by the time Saturday gets here you hope it has everything that you need.
TM: Why two sideline analysts? You’re one of the few ones to do it, so why two?
TR: Plank is great at getting all the information like a sideline analyst should be. Injuries, interviews, and all the things you’d expect. So with Teddy, we basically have an extra analyst, except he’s on the field instead of the booth. A lot of times, he gets stuff that we wouldn’t get if he was in the booth, because he’s down there. We tried it a few years ago, just threw it against the wall to see if it would work, and after the first game, everybody looked at each other and said ‘holy cow that was pretty awesome.’ What you’re starting to see now is some other places around the country try it, which is flattering. What Teddy gives us down there is gold. We have an analyst that can see from the booth and another that can see from the sideline. Between those two, we pretty much have it covered. The only tricky part is figuring out when to talk and not step on each other. I think we’ve done it long enough now that everybody had figured out the cadence. During the commercial break, we’ll often work it out to where we’ll tee each other up. It’s a nice chemistry.
TM: Something came up today that sparked this question. There was a number switch to a particular guy that wore a different number last season. Is that tough when you go a whole season identifying a guy as a certain number and then he switches the next year?
TR: They should really call us and ask our approval before they do things like that (laughs). It would really be hard if the player that wore that number last year was still on the team. Thankfully, you have a Spring Game to work it out. A lot of that stuff is why you go to a practice or two before the season starts. Like, next year, we’ll catch a practice or two before the season starts and the only intention is to see body shapes and numbers. You can act like you’re calling a play and mumble to yourself on the sideline, so you get used to that player with his new number. From the radio booth, you can’t always see the number right away. Like if it’s a wide receiver and he’s turned weird. But I can tell if it’s a single digit jersey number. If that’s the case, you’re identifying the player based on body size and movement.
TM: This did happen in the Rose Bowl, but what if the opposing team makes an unbelievable play to win the game? How do you call it when it’s a crushing defeat for your team?
TR: Naturally, you get more excited if your team is making the big play. Everybody does it different. Some people are super depressed on the air. I think the natural thing for me, is wow that was a giant play to win the game. They need a call that fits winning the Rose Bowl. Even though it wasn’t us that was the decisive play of this event. So it should have a pretty big call to it. But look, if we had made that play to win the Rose Bowl, I would have pulled a hamstring. It didn’t match the level of call to what I would have sounded like if OU had won. That’s just a preference. Every guy does it differently.
TM: What kind of hand signals do you and your spotter use during a game?
TR: There’s a lot of non-verbal communication between us. He can talk in my ear, without it going over the broadcast. But we try to limit that as much as possible, just to make the distractions less. If I don’t immediately recognize a receiver, he may say in my ear “Brown.” Just one word. But most of the time we prefer to communicate non-verbally. He has a hand signal for who the lead blocker was, who applied the pressure, there’s a number of different signals that we have to be on the same page with. That’s just been developed over time over 7 years.
TM: The process to setting up a process can be long. Even for you, is it stressful on a game day until you know everything is up and working correctly?
TR: I don’t think I stress at all about any equipment or the setup process. My plate is full enough that I don’t have the time. I’m stressed enough that my spotter boards are ready and I’m about to call a game. I 100 percent trust Michael Dean and need to. I assume every time we show up at the stadium that everything is going to be ready to go. There’s a bunch to do. We have a bunch of people on the air, so there’s a lot that goes into it, but I’m not stressed about it at all.
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
Ben Mintz Isn’t Too Hot to Touch After All
“I’ve got a lot of options that I’m still weighing on what my next permanent move is.”
If you feel bad for Ben Mintz after losing his job at Barstool earlier this month, you’re not the only one. Stoolies, Barstool employees and even Dave Portnoy voiced their displeasure after Penn Gaming decided to cut ties with Mintz, after he said a racial slur while reading lyrics of a rap song on a live stream. Regardless of that outpouring of support, he’s been out of a job and looking for his next move.
Initially it was a terrifying time for Mintz. He wondered if he’d be too hot to touch for other media companies and if another opportunity would present itself. Fast forward to three weeks after the incident and Mintz is now about to embark on possibly the greatest summer of his life.
Earlier this week, Mintz was at the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, AL. His beloved Ole Miss Rebels didn’t qualify for the conference tournament, but he found it important to still attend the event.
“It’s all about staying relevant,” said Mintz. “I think I need to be making an appearance at the SEC Tournament. Ole Miss and Mississippi State didn’t even qualify but I’m still going.”
After leaving Hoover, Mintz will be driving all over the south to see friends and family. His 40th birthday is next week and he’ll be making several stops to see as many people as possible. After that, he’ll be heading to Las Vegas for several weeks to pursue one of his biggest passions: poker.
Mintz essentially has a summer job with PokerGo. This isn’t his next big venture into the media business, rather a fun gig to pursue while he mulls over his next big decision. PokerGo allows him the opportunity to play the biggest tournaments of the summer in Vegas, as well as provide fun commentary and content.
“I’ve got a lot of options that I’m still weighing on what my next permanent move is,” said Mintz. “The thing with PokerGo that was so intriguing is that it’s a perfect bridge job to the next thing. I’m going to be flying to Vegas on Friday June 2nd and I’ll be there until July 20th. It’s a funny thing, because I feel like I’m in high school or college and I’m going to summer camp or having a summer job.”
Even after the biggest mistake of his professional life, Mintz is on the verge of one hell of a summer. Essentially, he’ll get free lodging, a paycheck and the chance to chase his dream of winning the Main Event. Life is still good, very good, in fact, for Mintz.
“PokerGo, I’m good friends with those guys and what they offered was the opportunity to do commentary for the World Series of Poker final table, reporting, podcasting and poker content,” Mintz said. “They basically are like, hey, don’t feel like you can’t play WSOP. You play whatever you want to play. I have investors, what’s called backers in the poker world, that put me in tournaments. My backing deal, they put me in $1,500 buy ins and the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event. What PokerGo gave me was an opportunity. I get free lodging, getting paid and I get to fire off the WSOP for my backers. It’s literally a dream situation and a six-week job before I figure out what the next step is. I think it’s a perfect summer job.”
While Mintz is enjoying his summer job with PokerGo, he’ll be thinking about what his next move is. Luckily for him, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of options on the table. However, he knows the importance of his decision for the rest of his professional life.
“I’m at a humongous crossroads,” said Mintz. “You really only get one or two spots in your life or career like this. I don’t want to hurry or rush to make this decision. I’m definitely weighing stuff right now, but summer is a little slower in the sports world and it sets up for me to hopefully get something figured out before football season.”
As for what the next move could look like, Mintz is leaving his options completely open. He’s confident he can contribute and produce content in several areas and isn’t going to pigeonhole himself into one particular platform.
“I think my strength now is my versatile background,” Mintz said. “I have a gambling background with poker and sports gambling. I have a sports radio background and I’ve also worked for Barstool, which is one of the biggest platforms in the world. I do think what I learned at Barstool in consuming media, the 30-second to 1-minute short form videos are a big thing. I feel like the podcast space, I’m not saying I won’t do one, but it’s kind of over saturated now.”
Before Mintz got his first big break at Barstool, his background was in sports radio across Louisiana. Could he make a return to the radio airwaves?
“I love doing sports radio,” Mintz said. “That’s certainly an option for the next step. I’m an open minded guy. Anybody that’s trying to talk to me, I’m listening. I’m not going to close any doors.”
His love for sports radio and understanding the need to stay relevant are big reasons why you can hear Mintz on various radio stations across the south. For instance, he was a Monday guest on Off The Bench at 104.5 ESPN with T-Bob Hebert and Jacob Hester. Mintz can join most radio shows now, since he doesn’t have an affiliation with Penn Gaming anymore. While employed, he could only be on radio shows that had the same sportsbook sponsor as Barstool.
It’s not time for a decision yet. In fact, right now, Mintz is largely focused on being thankful. The amount of opportunities at his disposal after what happened earlier this month, he been a pleasant surprise.
“Everybody that knows my character knows there was no maliciousness,” he said. “I made a very stupid, but honest mistake. Just reading my song like a rap song, I had to pay a very big price for it. I have nothing negative to say about Penn Gaming at all. I put them in a terrible situation and I disagree with their decision, but that’s their decision. They’re a billion-dollar company. It is what it is. What I’m thankful for is that I thought I was going to be too hot to touch and it seems like it’s broken the other way.”
Ben Mintz clearly feels shame and remorse, but he is trying to make is mistake just a bump in the road. Has it completely stolen his happiness? Not for a second.
“It’s been interesting being in public. At Jazz Fest or in the Carolinas, I’m still out in public all the time. I have so many fans and Stoolies coming up to me and saying how they stand with me. Some act like I’m dead. It’s a bump in the road, but I have my health, friends and family and opportunities. The way it broke I feel like I’m in a spot where my next place is a launching pad. I think people want to support me even more.”
Mintz will undoubtedly rebound in his professional career. He’s too unique and talented not to. But in the meantime, even during his incredible summer, he appreciated all the support he’s received from fans. Most notably, he’s seen that on his Cameo page, where hundreds of fans have spent money on personalized videos to try and help him out financially.
“It wasn’t that my Cameo always boomed, it didn’t,” said Mintz. “In the meantime, I’m in a situation right now where all the Stoolies were so mad about what happened to me. I’m getting a lot of support and they’re asking how they can help, and it’s to buy Cameo videos. That definitely helps me in the meantime for sure.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
What Does a Sweep Mean For The Guy Calling the Games?
“These situations can put some pressure on the broadcasters, no matter if your team is the sweeper or the one getting swept.”
This year in the NBA and NHL playoffs there have been a good number of sweeps. While it’s always a possibility, the leagues and their broadcast partners cringe at these short series. There’s very little drama, hence very little reason to tune in, unless you’re a fan of the team on the right end of the sweep.
Of course, monetarily, the television networks hate the sweeps. Most of them have already sold advertising for the “if necessary” games that they won’t be able to cash in on. Sometimes a sweep will eliminate not just a marquee team, but some top tier players. For example, the Lakers and LeBron James were shown the door by the Nuggets in 4 games. Like him or not, LeBron is a draw.
“Definitely not ideal! Lakers–Celtics is the gold standard for an NBA Finals Matchup,” Adam Schwartz, senior VP, video investment, sports at Horizon Media, told Yahoo. “Nothing can compare from a ratings standpoint. You hope for a long series between Heat-Nuggets. Playoff ratings have been great but the shortened series will have an impact overall,” Schwartz said.
There are sweeps setting up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as well, short series in hockey have the same effect on TNT and ESPN as they do in hoops. It’s all about the money and what could be lost if the series only goes 4 games.
These situations can put some pressure on the broadcasters, no matter if your team is the sweeper or the one getting swept. Local play-by-play announcers have it a little tougher than the national broadcasts. Hometown crews are expected to deliver the call geared towards their fans. These announcers have built up trust and credibility in their market and have to play it as such. They are still expected to provide an entertaining and informative broadcast, but it has to be professional.
Nationally, play-by-players and studio shows can get away with a little more, because, the main goal is to entertain. These telecasts can be a little more critical and sometimes a little out of control. Take for example the exchange on Inside the NBA after Miami beat Boston in Game 3. The Heat went up 3-0 and all bets were off. Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith were on the set.
The crew couldn’t wait to rip the Celtics. “I’m embarrassed as a Celtics’ fan right now,” said Barkley. O’Neal agreed, “Yeah, that was bad.” Barkley says “That’s bad, man,” and O’Neal responds “Beatdown. Beatdown at the beach.” Smith asks Barkley “You’re a Celtics’ fan?” and Barkley responded with “I say, if you’re a Celtics’ fan, I don’t think you even mind losing. but that was humiliating.” Johnson then goes “We welcome you to Inside The NBA, presented by Kia, even though it feels a lot more like a Forensic Files episode after watching that.”
That’s certainly one way to handle it, but it would not work for a local broadcast.
The problems for broadcasters of the team winning and losing are very similar actually. Creating drama and storylines and keeping games interesting. It is the playoffs, so that last point should be able to take care of itself. There is one thing broadcasters that are experiencing the playoffs or significant games for the first time have to watch out for – getting too amped yourself.
It happened to me when I called my first NCAA Tournament game in 2008, when covering the University of San Diego team. It took me most of the pregame show and until the first media timeout to ease back into my comfort zone.
To me, the best way to approach the playoffs is to realize that each game should stand on its own. Each game is like a separate battle within the total fight. If treated correctly it should appease both sides of the series. Game 4 is its own entity. Whether one team is up 3-0 of 2-1, the result is not a foregone conclusion, so make sure it is treated as such. You have the ability to build up optimism if your team is in the hole. At the same time, if your team is up in the series, you as the announcer, can keep things at a level so the fans don’t get too far ahead of themselves.
I know this can be difficult at times. After all as the team’s play-by-play announcer, you’ve been with the club from training camp, through the ups and downs of the season and now into the playoffs. Human beings are emotional creatures and control of said emotions isn’t easy in these situations.
I’m not suggesting making this broadcast sound just like a normal November NBA or NHL broadcast. Give it the reverence that it deserves but in a controlled way. Get excited when warranted and when things aren’t going well, reflect that in your voice. Big games should be treated as such. But, the difficulty in keeping your edge without going too far one way or the other is a real challenge.
I think of some of the best to ever do it and how easy they made things sound. They all stayed in that moment and rode the wave of emotion seamlessly. Guys like Marv Albert, Chick Hearn, Jim Durham and Joe Tait knew how to rise to the big game occasion. You could just tell by the tone and pace how their team was doing. They were always in control of their instrument, but still were able to deliver the message and meaning of each playoff game they called.
Professional announcers are able to adapt to the situation, whether or not their team is winning. The stress is the same, ahead or behind, to bring the fans a detailed account of what is happening on the court.
The good ones understand this implicitly and are up to the challenge. Remember what’s important give the fans the information and be honest. It’s what your audience has come to expect, win, lose or draw.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at Andy@Andy-Masur.com.
Meet The Market Managers – Amy Crossman, Good Karma Brands Cleveland
“We don’t even consider ourselves to be an AM radio station. We are content creators, and we serve it up on many platforms.”
Good Karma Brands dabbles in other formats, but sports radio is its bread and butter. In Cleveland, it is Amy Crossman that is charged with making sure the staples are always in stock and of the highest quality.
This is her first foray into the world of radio, and man, what a time for it! Frankly, what a group for it.
ESPN Cleveland can be heard on 850 AM. That is the way listeners consume the station as a terrestrial broadcast product, but in 2023, no one is consuming any station in only one way. ESPN Cleveland takes the idea of going where the listeners are to an extreme and Crossman says that is why she feels confident for the station’s future regardless of what car companies decide to do about the AM band.
That is one of many subjects she covers in our conversation as part of the Meet the Market Managers series presented by Point to Point Marketing. Amy Crossman also shares her thoughts on live events after Covid, how the premium content model works in radio and what she learned at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Demetri Ravanos: Rather than start with the broadcast product, I actually want to start with The Land On Demand. I am surprised in 2023 that the premium content model for a radio station is still a relatively uncrowded space. Not a lot of groups have followed your lead on the local level.
Amy Crossman: So true. It is really unique and it just goes back to our hosts and our talent creating content that people want to get on demand. Maybe they’re at work or doing something else when The Really Big Show is on, and they want to hear what happened with Rizz and Aaron. They’ll listen at the gym or on their way home.
We found the on demand desire was really high and immediately our fans took to that model. So for us, it’s it’s been this really fun, interesting thing to see. It doesn’t hurt that it’s six figures to our bottom line, right? And it gives us an environment to test things out, podcasts and other kinds of audio and video products, with a group of really diehard loyal fans.
DR: What has been the enthusiasm for that very product from advertising partners? These shows run ad-free but you guys do have a landing page for The Land On Demand. That’s plenty of space to be sold.
I do wonder though, when they look at, say, the Audacy stations, for instance, that’s not behind a paywall. So what sort of conversations do you have with advertisers about that?
AC: Yeah, it’s a great question. It is a commercial free environment. That’s part of the play certainly for the subscriber. Our live reads still happen during programing content. We really just strip the commercials out.
We hadn’t explored sponsorship as a whole until last year and then had one of our partners as a title sponsor of The Land On Demand. We were really thoughtful about how to make that a great experience for the partner but not really intrusive for the fan. We kind of rearranged the title so that the logo was locked up with the title. We had a bug on the video screen and some other kind of careful placements for that partner. It was really about reaching the most loyal fans that we have.
They also did, as part of their partnership, an open house. Leading into training camp, wih the Browns really being our biggest season all year round, we opened up The Land On Demand and lifted the paywall brought to you by this partner so that there was a lot more fan sampling.
DR: That sort of leads into my next question as we talk about fan sampling and these conversations with advertising partners. On average in the industry, we talk a lot about the common man sort of being a little bit more media savvy than ever. I wonder if that if you see that showing up in real life conversations, whether it’s with listeners or advertising partners. Do they have a better grasp or at least do they think they have a better grasp of our industry a little bit?
AC: From a partner standpoint, I would say yes. I think our partners are more media savvy. Their kids are more media savvy. They really see kind of where media is evolving to and we certainly do and have invested in that here in Cleveland.
We added a digital content team at the beginning of this year who are really focused on the content that we create and taking it to every platform for every fan to consume in the way that they want to. It’s a little bit of a catalyst from The Land On Demand, more focused on social video YouTube, but this content team really has created this very different energy, not only in the studio but with our partners. We are allowed to have different types of conversations with the success that we’re seeing with digital content. It’s literally like a TV studio around here because digital content team is running around with cameras, capturing behind the scenes in the studio, capturing what’s going on quickly, editing and posting. So it creates a very different pace around the studio.
DR: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I just had this conversation with a doctor earlier today. I don’t know how old you are. I’m 41 and she is a little bit older than me.
We were talking about popular podcasts and how some of them have blown up into TV series and movies and stuff like that. I said, “You know, as much as we talk about this being true with our kids, I genuinely start to wonder if my generation is the last one that traditional, terrestrial media really means something to.” Has that idea of “I go where the great content is, regardless of platform” trickled all the way up to the oldest ends of millennials and the bottom end of Gen-X?
AC: It’s a really interesting question because to your point, whether it’s children or whatever the generation is, even some of the teammates that we have working here, how they consume media we talk about things like the magazine I used to work for, and it doesn’t mean anything to them.
We don’t even consider ourselves to be an AM radio station. We are content creators, and we serve it up on many platforms. I think that really resonates with that generation instead of kind of building all this great content on this station and asking people to come to us, we’re now going to where they are. It’s just a different model, but it makes it a lot more fun because we’re able to approach them in different ways. We launched a YouTube show three weeks ago and we’re launching a second one before Browns season. All of that is behind-the-scenes content, right?
We know how much our fans love our on-air teammates. And they’re always curious about what happens when they go to break right or the end of the show or what happens at the beginning of the show. So we’ve seen a lot of success, really fantastic success, on YouTube with showing the fans a different side of our on-air teammates.
DR: Given the success of The Land On Demand, the investment in the digital side that you’re talking about, also the station streams through the ESPN app, which has very reliable proliferation every single year. I wonder if you feel pretty prepared if we are indeed headed for the day that access to the AM band in new cars just isn’t there anymore. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is or isn’t any more important to you. It’s just there is a different level of preparedness, it sounds like, in Cleveland.
AC: We’re trying different things and we’re not going to get them all right, but that’s okay. I think the fact that we are eager to test things out and most importantly, our on-air teammates are just as eager matters. If we didn’t have the entire team behind the idea of “let’s get our content to where our fans want it,” it would be a little bit more of a struggle.
We just have an amazing group of people that come from varied backgrounds on our team. And so everybody is involved in the idea is like, “How about if we try this” or “What if we travel this way”. That has certainly been a different level of energy and pace on the team, which just kind of trickles through all of the teammates, sales, marketing, production, and otherwise. I like to think we’re kind of prepared.
DR: I want to talk about the part of your job that is recruiting talent, particularly on the sales side. If you had experience with radio sales at this point in 2022, you expect you’re going to be selling, a portfolio of stations, right? That can be good. That can be more opportunity, but it could also mean you’re stretched thin. How do they react to the idea of coming over to a place where, sure, there are many different products within ESPN 850, but it is a single umbrella that you are selling under?
AC: To be totally honest, I’m looking out at the team right now, I don’t think we’ve hired anybody in radio sales in the past three years yet. We really have kind of a great intersection. We have some tenured salespeople here, marketing consultants who are amazing and know our assets inside and out. The newer teammates we’ve hired over the last three years don’t come from other stations. In fact, we just hired someone who’s starting at the end of May, and he’s coming from Rocket Mortgage, the top seller at Rocket Mortgage. So, there is a there’s a learning curve to teach and coach them in media.
I think that recruits are energized by the fact that it’s not just AM radio, which is a critical part of our business in Cleveland, but there’s the opportunity to test and sell and have different conversations about different products. I think it’s probably an advantage for us from a selling perspective because we really are kind of trying so many new things.
DR: So you guys have a sales opportunity that is not unique to you guys. It is unique to ESPN Radio stations though – ESPN play-by-play. It’s not like you don’t have the Guardians. It’s not like you don’t have the Cavaliers. I mean, hell, they just went to the playoffs for the first time in forever and it was on your airwaves. It’s just not there all the time. It’s not the hometown broadcasts.
Tell me about the conversations locally you have with whether it is advertising partners or listeners when you’re out at events about the fact that your teams are here, it’s just we’re doing it a different way and there is opportunity there for you still.
AC: Yeah, I’m glad you brought it up because, you know, we are obviously the official home of the Browns. We talk about the Browns 13 months out of the year, of course, as important in Cleveland.
DR: Can I tell you that I use your market as an example all the time. I live in Raleigh. I tell people this is a great place to live. It is a terrible sports radio market. And I always follow that up by saying, “We’re not Cleveland. We don’t have a team that unites us in misery like the Browns. That’s what you need to be a great sports radio market.”
AC: It’s so true. Our content mission is Browns, drama, fun. If the content that the teammates are creating does not fall in one of those buckets, we’re probably not going to be talking about it.
Matt Fishman, the director of content, has done an amazing job with adding teammates that are insiders in those other teams. Right? So Brian Windhorst is a teammate and he is our NBA insider for all things Cavs Andre Knott is a teammate, and he obviously travels with the Guardians and is an insider there. So that really is our approach.
Again, we like that it’s less traditional. We don’t obviously have the rights to the Guardians and the Cavs, but having an insider. Our fans really like that, right? They’re getting information from the source and maybe a little bit different than it would be served up in in a traditional environment where we had play-by-play. So we feel like we’ve covered the bases.
Cleveland’s a unique town. The Cavs went to the playoffs and people were okay with it, but they were really still talking about, “is Stefanski going to get fired in the bye week in week five?”. That’s really where all of the buzz is.
We liken the approach that we have to dating. We have great relationships with the Cavs’ and the Guardians’ front offices. They’re great partners with us to try new things and different approaches and unique ways to partner together.
DR: Tell me a little bit about live events post-COVID. Do you see any lingering effects that have changed?
AC: I think Ohio just kind of forgot about the pandemic and really moved on. I’ll tell you, to be honest, we really saw it in 2021 when the NFL Draft was here. It was touch and go on were they going to come or were they not going to come. They were kind of just plowing through.
Pre-pandemic, we would do up to 250 events a year and that may be anything from a small street team at a bar for Corona up to our big thousand-person draft party. So we were certainly itching to get out and create live events. Our fans were itching for it and our advertising partners were as well. So we hosted a VIP event, pre-NFL Draft, which was we we kind of laugh that maybe it was the super spreader event. I think we had 250 guests and everybody was hugging and kissing babies and just being so excited to be back together again. So that was probably the only one where we were incredibly cautious about how we were rolling that event out.
By football season, we were doing our Browns tailgate that we do every week and everything just seemed to kind of come back in Ohio. This year we’re doing as many events as ever.
DR: I don’t doubt the appetite is there for advertisers, but we have entered a whole new economy since the pandemic and I wonder what that does to the to the live event business or those advertisers’ dedication to live events.
AC: Yeah, it really depends on the advertising partner. For so many of the businesses that partner with us on our live events, their objectives are really to have the face-to-face interaction with fans and we can provide that for them. There really aren’t many that have strayed away from that because it affects their business in such a positive way. So we may have streamlined our events a little bit more just so that we could develop a best-in-class event versus just cranking out 250 events a year, but for the most part, the fans still come out.
We have a big event on June 25th, our block party. It started last year. There’s just so much excitement around it in Cleveland. All of the teams are participating. It’s really just a great celebration of football and of sports in Cleveland.
DR: You came to this job from a very untraditional place. You came from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What lessons can you bring from there into running a media operation?
AC: Prior to that, I was in New York for 20-plus years in the media business. So for me, the great opportunity to work at the Hall of Fame and get into the sports marketing world was really a highlight for me, but what I really missed the most was the media component to it. Media is my currency and it’s how I know to create solutions for advertising partners and great content for fans. So that was really my foray from kind of big corporate media to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and then landing here at ESPN Cleveland.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.