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Rush Limbaugh’s Style of News Talk Opened The Door For Sports Talk

“If you are building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, it is brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format.”

Demetri Ravanos

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I don’t like Rush Limbaugh, both from a political standpoint and from an entertainment standpoint. I don’t understand what the appeal of that show and living with that constant level of ire towards everything around you is. But that is not what this column is about. Reveling in a human being’s death is gross, even if it is the death of a human being you think is gross.

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Let’s instead examine the good that Rush Limbaugh did for sports talk radio. You read that right. Not news talk, but sports talk.

This won’t be a rehashing of his Donovan McNabb take from his three hilariously awkward weeks on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. That is a moment forever catalogued in history alongside the fact that after Limbaugh said that the media only thought Donovan McNabb was good because he was black, McNabb and the Eagles went on to win 13 of their next 15 and secure an NFC title.

Instead, let’s rewind all the way back to 1987 when Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Radio stations no longer had to provide free air time for the community to respond to a host’s controversial opinions and Rush Limbaugh bloomed into his final form: shameless, unencumbered provocateur.

So this is an important part to add. Rush Limbaugh, despite having some abhorrent opinions on women and anyone with skin browner than an albino alligator, was really really good at broadcasting. He knew how to command the airwaves and entertain his audience. They didn’t know what they wanted until Rush gave it to them, and they responded with blind loyalty that translated into book sales, sold out speaking tours, and most importantly, monster ratings for the stations that carried his show. Monster ratings usually lead to revenue, and if you can reliably generate significant revenue, everyone is going to try and figure out how to do more of whatever it is you do.

But again, Rush Limbaugh was unusually good at talk radio. Programmers around the country could try their damndest to find someone that could copy what it is Rush did, but the result was usually some local politician or newspaper columnist that, at best, could deliver a single compelling segment.

Talk radio programmers have been stuck in this space for decades. Before I put my head down and focused on sports, I gave talk radio a whirl. I thought it would be a natural transition from a rock radio morning show and when I looked at Raleigh, North Carolina’s landscape of clones of Rush Limbaugh clones, I thought there might be an opportunity to succeed doing the exact opposite. I wasn’t going to be a liberal version of those kinds of shows. I was going to come in everyday and just laugh at the absurdity of politics and daily life. Me and my crew would operate from a place of “none of us know anything so let’s not take any of this seriously” instead of “I’m the only one you can trust to get you through this horrible moment in our nation’s history”.

I lasted six months before I became depressed and frustrated and decided I’d rather be unemployed than try to work with a program director who’s advice for me was “use Rush Limbaugh as show prep” or bookers that didn’t understand why I didn’t want to talk to the author of a book called Barack Hussein Obama, The Unauthorized Diary of a Muslim President (a real book by the way).

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By relying on nothing but copycats of a single show to occupy every single prime day part, news talk program directors created a format that was exclusively for the angriest, oldest audience in the country. It was profitable. That can’t be denied. But realistically, how smart is it to build your empire on people that are ten years from death?

So, let’s backup a bit, because like I said, “who sounds like a local Rush?” has been the blueprint for hiring news talk hosts for more than 30 years at this point. All of that anger, that total void of variety created an opportunity. Sure, WFAN signed on as the nation’s first full-time sports talk station while Rush Limbaugh was still a local afternoon drive host in Sacramento. As the format was spreading around the country though, finding frequencies not only in Major League cities but also in the Albuquerques and Zanesvilles, the Rushification of news talk radio was in its heyday. And when the company that was then known as Clear Channel started flipping underperforming rock, AC, and CHR stations to talk and branding them all “Rush Radio,” the company then called CBS Radio was busy flipping rock and alternative stations to FM sports talk outlets.

Every time angry old white guy radio made advances, there was sports talk to build its own audience by picking up the guys that were left behind. The people that wanted to be stimulated with stories and conversation on their drives to and from work had their alternative. The format that appealed to the population that wasn’t operating from a place of constant fear had the audience it needed to thrive and grow.

Okay, let’s bring it back to the 2020s. Look at the national sports talk landscape. There is a diversity of backgrounds, a diversity of styles, and a diversity of content. Seriously, put on Colin Cowherd and then put on Pat McAfee. Those guys have the same job title, but their deliveries and styles couldn’t be more different. Put on Clay Travis and then flip over to Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin. Those shows aren’t even talking to the same person, yet they exist in the same format.

Now let’s do the same thing with news talk radio. Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Dan Bongino, and Dennis Prager are all doing the same show, talking to the same guy about the same topics. Did you miss something Glenn Beck said this morning? Don’t worry. Sean Hannity will say the same thing later this afternoon.

On the local level, if you hear audio from a national show in the sports format it is because local hosts want to rip the national host that said something about the home town team that proves he is out of touch. If you hear audio from a national show during a local show in the news talk format, it is because the local host is worshiping his idol.

The politics that Rush Limbaugh embraced demanded sycophancy within the format. He wasn’t just conservative. He wasn’t just a Republican. Rush Limbaugh dared his detractors to disagree with him and then weaponized their disagreement with terms like “feminazis” and “liberal media”.

If you are capable of building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, that’s brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format though.

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from RushLimbaugh.com

As a programmer, the job is to get the very most out of your talent. It is to help them get to a place where their show sounds exactly like the version that exists in their head. You throw out the ideas of being a “local Cowherd” and instead find and nurture the thing that makes a host distinctly themselves. Coach your hosts into personalities that listeners are invested in. That is how you create interesting radio.

White guys turn 55 and decide to get really involved with their HOA everyday, so there will always be an audience for news talk…at least I think there will be. As long as that format stays as angry as it has been for more than 30 years, as long as every program director just rolls out Rush fanboy after Rush fanboy during drive times, the format won’t have personalities that listeners are invested in. They will have to rely on those listeners staying mad and bitter constantly. And sports talk radio will be there serving more interesting and fun content and finding an audience loyal to its hosts and advertisers in the millions of people that news talk left behind.

BSM Writers

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.

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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.

Quick bites

  • 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.

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BSM Writers

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.

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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.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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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.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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