The last six weeks haven’t been easy for sports media brands throughout the country, whether they’re a small business or publicly traded company.
For 93.1 The Fan in Lima, Ohio they weren’t far removed from challenges of their own when the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented shutdown of sports and the economy. Last October, The Fan’s longtime weekday host and play-by-play voice Vince Koza was diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to step away from his role with the station. In January, Koza succumbed to the disease.
As a member of the Associated Press Ohio Broadcasters Hall of Fame and a prominent voice on The Fan for over a decade, the station was tasked with replacing a local icon. Launching a new show presented its own challenge for the station and new afternoon host Marty Bannister, but they soon had to deal with the sports shutdown and vast economic impacts of a global pandemic.
Salary reductions, layoffs and furloughs for national sports media brands made mainstream news, but smaller market companies are equally impacted. Privately owned radio stations might not be dealt the hand of reducing a seven-figure salary, but those mom and pop media companies still represent a chunk of the broadcast industry.
I spoke with Garrett Searight, 93.1 The Fan program director and producer of The Drive With Marty Bannister to see how The Fan is dealing with the negative impacts of COVID-19.
Brandon Contes: How has the business side of 93.1 The Fan been during the last couple of months? Have you seen a significant impact in your number of advertisers, sponsors and clients?
Garrett Searight: We saw a big drop off right at the start. Those weren’t a fun couple of days for our sales team. I understood the apprehension and concern from our clients, but it was difficult. The vast majority of anyone who wasn’t a restaurant, either cancelled or cut back by 50%. This week, though, we’ve started to see a shift and sales pick up a bit. There’s some hope because the governor of Ohio has been talking about reopening part of the state a little at a time beginning May 1st.
BC: Are most of your clients locally owned businesses?
GS: Yeah, which is something we’ve talked about, because some other stations in town are iHeart owned. They get national spots that companies are buying on thousands of iHeart stations, while we’re hitting up mom and pop shops that are working from home or offer a non-contact service. It’s an extra challenge for our sales team and you need really strong relationships with these folks. But I would say about 80% of our advertising comes from small, locally owned businesses.
BC: With the clients you have lost, are there ways you look to maintain a relationship with them so if Ohio does start opening back up May 1st, those clients are looking to you with their advertising budget?
GS: A lot of our sellers are really good about that because we can’t just say ‘hey! this station is the top-rated rock station in the market!’ We build relationships where our clients trust our salespeople and know there’s no BS. Our sales team stays in contact with those clients, so they know we’re still here for them.
BC: What about having less commercials, how are you filling those spots? Has it increased the amount of content you need to create in an hour for your local show?
GS: It’s changed, we were doing a SportsCenter update every 20 minutes during our local show and we stopped it recently because the volume of topics to talk about and update listeners on just isn’t there. That creates six more minutes of content you have to fill each hour and then your spot blocks go from four minutes to 90 seconds, so we’ve had to rearrange the format of the show a little bit. Instead of 44 minutes of talking in an hour, it’s now more than 50 minutes and that’s during a time when everyone’s looking for things to talk about. It presents a challenge, but it’s also not a bad thing to have more time for longer form interviews, or delve deeper into different topics.
BC: You have one local weekday show?
GS: Yeah, 4 – 6p with Marty Bannister and then we had a Saturday morning show from 8 – 10a that we put on hiatus for now because those hosts, one is a financial planner and the other works with the Chamber of Commerce. They’re sports hosts, but when it’s not your full-time job, it’s difficult to find two hours of content without sports.
BC: And what about evening programming, did you carry local play-by-play, and was that impacted?
GS: We carry girls high school basketball, there’s also a local college that we did 10 of their 25 games. But the majority of it was finished by the time everything shutdown. In Ohio, they cancelled seasons about 20 minutes before the first girl’s state semifinal.
BC: For those local broadcasts, are the announcers hired by the station?
GS: Yeah, we’ve got a rotating group of announcers. And if you go back a bit, station programming was largely built around Vince Coza who hosted our daily show and did a lot of play-by-play. In October, he found out he had stage IV cancer and passed away in early January. So from late September through now, there’s been a lot of upheaval, change and challenges.
BC: I do think there’s something to be said for small market radio stations being used to dealing with abnormalities. Not to say that anyone could have prepared for this pandemic, but running a small business, you’ve had unexpected issues pop up before.
GS: When everything started getting cancelled, our boss asked what are we going to do with the show? My initial reaction was to shut it down and turn on The Will Cain Show. But then I thought, well that’s kind of a crappy, take the easy way out approach – so we stayed with our local show.
Our market manager Allen Willis would send me articles from Barrett Sports Media about what other stations are doing. But a station like 101 ESPN in St. Louis, might have more people working on one show than we have in our entire building! It’s different, we’re not apples to apples here, but we’re experienced in problem solving and going through challenges.
BC: And now looking back, how do you feel about the decision to keep the show going?
GS: I’m really happy we didn’t just take the easy way out. People are going to remember who was there for them, who put in the effort and who tried when everything turned. We’re in the same boat as our listeners. All of our lives have been disrupted and it’s been a good way to connect with our audience and say, ‘we’re in this, just the same way you are.’ It brings an authenticity to the show that I don’t know if a syndicated simulcast from New York City could’ve had.
BC: Because you’re going through this together with the audience, has it helped listeners connect with Marty as the new afternoon host?
GS: For Marty, it’s definitely not easy to step in and replace someone who was a prominent voice in this market for years. But when two months into your full-time stint replacing that person, everybody has to go home and stay there for who knows how long, it’s pretty endearing to be a steady voice for everyone, every day. Now you also have more time to talk and build those connections because it’s not as fast paced of a show that we’re used to. It’s a slower speed and you do get to know somebody that much more because of the situation we’re in.
BC: Are there things you’ve implemented into the show as a way of trying something new since you don’t have games to react to everyday?
GS: Actually, on Monday we’re starting a segment called ‘Football 4:15’ because no matter what, it’s always football season on sports radio here. Even without sports, no matter what day it is, we can still talk Ohio State football, high school football, Bengals, Browns, it doesn’t matter. So every day at 4:15 we’re talking football. We’ve had segments where we talk to local golf course owners or the city Parks and Rec Department about how they’ve been impacted, while also getting information out there regarding new schedules for local baseball, tee ball and other youth sports. It’s been nice to offer more community-based content that we may not have time for in a two hour show when the world is normal.
BC: How about when sports do return, will some of these changes carry into the future? Maybe you keep commercial time down or continue with some local spotlights?
GS: The longer we’ve gone without doing SportsCenters, I’ve thought about if it’s better to have more time to talk instead of me just regurgitating that Francisco Lindor hit a homerun last night. There are things to reevaluate. And I’ve told my bosses this, I don’t think we’re just doing good shows considering the circumstances, I think we’ve been creating really good shows even if everything in the sports world was normal. And since we’re all working from home, now we know we can take the show on the road more if we need to for our clients. We can do remotes more easily than I ever thought we could. So we’ll look back at what we liked from this time frame and see what changes to implement going forward.
BC: Have you seen more website or social media traffic in recent weeks?
GS: Social media is up, our Facebook numbers have been up and Facebook isn’t typically the ideal social media platform for a sports station. But now we’ve started producing more content for Facebook and Twitter and our audience has reacted pretty positively to those videos and engagements. That’s something we’ll certainly look at continuing in the future.
BC: Do you know if the company applied for or received small business loans?
GS: Yeah, we did, and we did get approved which is certainly reassuring. We see other markets and how it’s not going great for people even in larger markets and big media companies. So it’s good to have that reassurance and know we have some financial help.
BC: How long could the station operate without that assistance?
GS: That’s a good question. Part of the good of being a small company and part of the bad of being a small company, is that you are frugal. You’re used to finding corners to cut and save where you can. It’s something we’ve been cognizant of for years and maybe helped prepare us for this.
BC: Did the station have to make any personnel cuts?
GS: No, we’ve been lucky that everybody is still on. There was discussion of having five furlough days before the end of May, but even that was deemed not necessary for now.
BC: Is the unknown exciting in a way? The priority is to survive into next week and next month, but you’re also balancing finding ways to grow and build a better radio station.
GS: I’ve looked at it as, if we shoot for thriving and miss – at least we’re surviving. If I shoot for surviving and miss, then we’re in trouble. Let’s not think about whether or not we’re going to make it through the month, let’s try to win a Marconi this month and if we miss? We’ll still be doing alright.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@gmail.com.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
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.