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How Sports Radio Deals With Tragedy

“Not only was it unprecedented nationally, with the way everyone felt like they lost a friend, but I think in Los Angeles, they lost a family member.”

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Mike Breen said what we were all thinking during his broadcast of the Knicks-Nets game on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. 

“Just don’t feel like broadcasting.”

It was an unbelievably beautiful and emotional tribute that left Breen in tears. All of America joined him in sadness. 

Whether it was a local host in Los Angeles or even one of the many doing national radio shows, everyone behind the mic on Sunday felt exactly what Breen was feeling in that moment. But as tough as it may was, being on the air was an absolute necessity. Many Americans, whether they loved or hated the Lakers, whether they cheered or booed Kobe, all looked for an outlet to help cope with the sudden and unexpected loss. Sports radio was that outlet. 

When the news broke, Greg Bergman, assistant PD at 710 ESPN Los Angeles knew his team had to get on the air. His first order of business, was to get on the phone with the station’s PD, Amanda Brown. From there, the two made the necessary arrangements to try and help carry the city through the day.  

“We called Steve Mason and LZ Granderson, it was just really all hands on deck,” said Bergman. “We made contact with every host. We made sure to call a board op or two to come down to the station. We also had someone cutting up sound so that we could play it on the air. Our social team came down so that we could be putting out quotes on social media. They even had a guy outside Staples Center that was filming everything that was happening. We just had to make sure everyone was on the same page, being available and getting down there and going to work.”

Nick Cattles was hosting on ESPN Radio and planned on discussing, how just hours before he went on air, Lebron passed Kobe in career points. Unfortunately, his show took a more somber tone. There’s no script for how you handle a situation like the one that unfolded on Sunday. Especially when multiple erroneous reports were being floated around on social media. It’s already tough enough for a host to have to guide his audience through a tragedy like Kobe’s passing, it’s even harder when trying to decipher which reports are actually true to relay on the air. 

“During a moment like that, you just have to take direction from the people above you to make it as easy as possible,” said Cattles. “It really came down to communication during the show, between producer and me, and then my producer getting the OK or the not OK from the top. ESPN is great when it comes to having enough hands on deck.

“There were a lot of people, when this story started to break, that were in the studio up in Bristol, if not hovering around the studio. It was difficult to try to focus on hosting while seeing everything that was coming through on Twitter, because you just didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t. I think in a case like that, you want to rest on the side of caution and not say something you’re going to regret later.”

One way to help get through such an agonizingly tough show, was to quickly book guests. Whether it was a reporter that covered the Lakers, a former player that played with or against Kobe or even someone that knew him personally, multiple perspectives and stories played well over the air on Sunday. 

John Ireland, radio play-by-play announcer for the Lakers and co-host of Mason and Ireland on 710 ESPN LA was on the team plane when the news broke of Kobe’s passing. While on the air via cell phone with ESPN Los Angeles, he said, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get over the looks of the faces of the people that were closest to him.”

Yes, that’s chilling to read. But it’s also authentic and real. As tough as it is, that’s the type of content his station can be proud of during such an emotional day. 

Clips of former Lakers great James Worthy were played over the air on local stations in Los Angeles. Worthy said, “It’s something you don’t want to hear. And you can’t believe it when you hear it. Extremely devastating. My mother used to always say that you can’t put a question mark behind God’s period. Something has happened to a great person and a father that has given us everything.”

Station promos were specifically made for the day’s events. The unmistakable voice of Jim Cutler led-in from breaks with the read of, “We are with you today. Dealing with the news of the death of one of our favorite players and people to ever be a part of our life. Celebrating the life of Kobe Bryant on 710 ESPN.”

Anything and everything was used to try and provide an escape for the city, even if it was just for a few hours. Dave Shore was the Operations Manager for ESPN Los Angeles from 2010-2015. He was also a pregame host and sideline reporter for the Lakers’ radio broadcast. He witnessed first-hand how much Kobe meant to the community. He also thinks there isn’t a public figure that means more to the city.

“I think this was unprecedented,” Shore said. “Not only was it unprecedented nationally, with the way everyone felt like they lost a friend, but I think in Los Angeles, they lost a family member. Seeing the photos of what used to be just right outside my office there on the courtyard around the Staples Center, to see everybody that had shown up and were just standing and putting down flowers, that’s what they felt inclined to do. That’s what he meant to the city.”

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Sunday was a tough day of radio, but one nobody that was behind the mic will ever forget. Steve Mason, alongside Andy and Brian Kamenetzky, said, “It just doesn’t seem possible.” 

The trio spent their time Sunday on ESPN Los Angeles discussing his incredible career after basketball, what kind of father he was and how much his death stings the city. Between the three, things were said such as:

 “There were new things with Kobe, that if you were a fan of him, you could take pride in. There were brand new achievements that didn’t just end the day he retired.”

“No matter what profession you’re in, you can apply the Mamba mentality to your work.”

“And of course, he loved being a dad. Gah, I’m going to tear up saying that in past tense.” 

All of the emotion that was felt when the news broke didn’t fade off into the night. The hurt was still there when Monday morning arrived. 

Colin Cowherd was one of the many that got choked up remembering Kobe. Petros and Money of AM 570 LA Sports had guests such as Clayton Kershaw, Mark Madsen, Cody Bellinger and others throughout the show to share their thoughts on his legacy. Though the initial shock may be gone, radio in Los Angeles will still have a somber tone for several more days. 

But all you can do as a station is to work through it and give your listeners the best content possible. Whether it was hosts in Boston talking about the bombing at the Boston Marathon, New York City sports radio trying to pull the city together after 9/11 or the very situation going on with Kobe’s death in Los Angeles, this is where sports radio can never be duplicated. It knows the pulse of its city and what people need to hear. Like Shore told me over the phone, “There’s no one better than your local host to help walk somebody through by hand.” 

Whether or not hosts in Los Angeles, around the state of California and even the ones hosting national radio shows know it, they served a major role in the healing process on Sunday. That’s truly what it’s all about. The consensus amongst the ones on the air will probably be that they’ve never experienced anything like this in their careers, but it should be one where many should take pride in the effort they showed on such a tragic day. 

Image result for kobe bryant gigi

“I’m very proud of the way that we handled it,” said Bergman. “It was pretty incredible what they did on such short notice and without any objections. LZ Granderson flew down from San Francisco to be here. Travis Rogers drove from Santa Barbara to the station. Alan Sliwa, who did the last four hours, drove from Lake Arrowhead on his time off to come be here. Mason was at home doing his own podcast and other things, which he had to drop everything and leave to come down here. It was such a complete effort but also on such a difficult day. We’re all Kobe fans. It’s a Kobe town. I’m incredibly proud of what everyone did.”

BSM Writers

Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content

Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.

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USA Today

When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.

“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.

Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:

1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”

2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.

The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.

I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.

Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”

There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.

First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.

The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.

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BSM Writers

The Client Just Said YES, Now What?

We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.

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One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!

We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.

When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.

They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.

A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 74

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This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.

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