Sports talk radio has considerably evolved since its inception as a bona fide programming format in the late-1980s. The unique, live, intimate connection the host is able to foster with their listening audience at a dedicated time during each broadcast had been something that no other distribution mediums could initially compete with.
As time progressed, though, the media industry caught up to the once-incipient format – and fast. Thus, the consumer gained, and still holds to this day, freedom over what program they wish to consume; when they want to consume it; and where they wish to do so. With television, radio, print, streaming, podcasting, social media and the plethora of blogs and websites available on the internet, the sports talk format, and all media in general, has had to evolve to meet the demand of the consumer, and stand out among the pack while doing so.
Deep in a potpourri of content within a disquieted marketplace, I asked several personalities across sports media to gather their thoughts on how they see the evolution in the business of sports commentary, and what concerns may lie ahead for the traditional, sports talk format.
Q1: What is the biggest misconception people have about sports radio?
Robin Lundberg (Senior Host, Sports Illustrated): “The biggest misconception people have is that it’s easy and lazy. I think there’s a lot more care and energy put into it than the average person would know. Doing a show of any length, particularly solo, is a challenge in and of itself, as is standing out now-a-days. There are so many different outlets through [which] people can hear things, and distinguishing yourself with a voice or characteristics is a challenge.”
Zach Gelb (Host, CBS Sports Radio): “I would say the biggest misconception is that it’s a dying medium. I just think there’s ways that people need to improve heading into the future, but doing radio locally and nationally, I still think it’s very successful, but there just has to be alterations that are made; you can’t really [hold] an antiquated belief and only do things on the radio. I think you need to have more of a digital presence. The best part about radio is the connection and how personable… it can be from the host to the listener, and also how immediate [it is]. If there is a news story… people [can] voice their opinions right away.”
Jon Rothstein (Host, College Hoops Today): “I think the one thing that a lot of people don’t understand about radio and podcasts is how intimate the connection can be between the host and the audience. It’s a much different medium than television and being a columnist or a reporter and connecting with someone via the written word. It’s just not how it was years ago when the majority of people listening to talk radio were in their cars commuting.”
John Jastremski (Host, The Ringer/SNY): “I think the biggest misconception about sports radio is that your caller [does not] add intellect to a show. I think there are a lot of people out there who honestly believe the callers add nothing. I think that’s so outrageous. Just like anything else… you have good callers and bad callers. By having the [live call] element in there, it shows off their creativity and their wealth of knowledge. No matter how a call may be going, it sets the stage and tone to what you, [as a host], are bringing to the table.”
Alan Hahn (Host, ESPN Radio/MSG Networks): “That it’s all hot takes. I don’t think it’s all that, at least it shouldn’t be. I still think it’s storytelling and interaction with callers.”
Q2: Where do you see sports radio’s biggest opportunity for future growth?
Lundberg: “The media industry right now is the wild west. Everyone is trying to figure out what’s going on, where it’s headed and how to monetize it. When I did an early morning show on ESPN, the one opportunity I saw at the time was to be the first podcast out. As a result, I was second in podcast downloads to the Michael Kay Show — because I was one of the first podcasts of the day. Then, I was told we had to focus on the ‘pizza’ before we made the ‘cannolis.’ I said that’s not a good analogy because [a podcast] is the same product [as a radio show except] with a different delivery method. I would say the biggest opportunity remains expanding [to] other mediums and flexing that presence in that way. In order for a radio show to truly succeed, you’re going to have the base, but if you want to get beyond that, the digital presence has to be there as well.”
Gelb: “I would say in the digital space. I think that there’s a lot of stations that obviously need to make those changes. You still use your content on the air, but once a segment airs or a show ends, there are other ways you can put your content out there, [such as in] certain digital content features that you can put out.”
Rothstein: “You have to always be ready to evolve. We live in a day and age that’s much different than it was many years ago. We’re in a time where people are clicking links off of Twitter if they want to consume written or editorial content; it was not like that 20 years ago. As far as sports radio and podcasts go, constantly being aware of the changing trends are what is going to lead to its long-term growth stability.”
Jastremski: “On-demand content. [The consumer] being able to listen when they want, [and] whenever they want, [along with] the ability of the host to be timely when things are happening. If there’s a trade, you don’t have to wait until your time slot [to talk about it]. It’s the idea of getting your voice out there immediately so that the audience hears from you. Some stories will warrant that more so than others, but I think that’s the biggest change now. When there’s something big going on in your market, you have to be able to react instantaneously.”
Hahn: “The on-demand world. I’ve been all over the place. A lot of people are just looking for your content, so I do think on-demand is going to matter the most. A schedule is still a schedule, but sports radio is also about personalities, and people will find those personalities. Sometimes a podcast isn’t the whole show; you just take bits and pieces. The consumption of a show on-demand needs to be more available in a car just as much as it’s available on a phone.”
Q3: How do you measure your effectiveness as talent and the aggregate success of your show?
Lundberg: “Sometimes it can feel like a popularity contest where you are constantly checking for downloads, views, clicks, listens, etc. I think, in radio in particular, one of the things that’s great about it is that it’s a very intimate medium, so you get that immediate feedback from the audience. The first thing you need is self-belief, and belief within your team that you’re putting out a good product. One person in charge might not like it, and the next person in charge might think it’s the coolest thing ever. The second thing comes from the audience response and the feedback you hear. The third is that you can’t ignore the raw numbers; you have to bring in either revenue or ratings, ideally both. If you’re getting big money, it doesn’t matter what the ratings are; If you’re getting high ratings, the money will eventually come.”
Gelb: “The POKE Scale. Passion; Opinion; Knowledge; Entertainment. For me, if you do a show that’s passionate, that gives opinions, that’s knowledgeable, and that’s entertainment, those are the best shows. Ratings determine that, and being able to make a lot of news. I think it’s establishing that connection with the listening audience and then also behind the scenes, developing good chemistry with co-workers and also just really giving 110% each and every day. There are ways to measure it in terms of ratings, and there’s also ways in terms of a healthy work environment.”
Rothstein: “Consistency, having a plan and sticking to it. The biggest thing I learned from my time at WFAN was the consistency Mark Chernoff had at the station. He wasn’t going to alter the lineup if a big event happened or if there was a big story. He had confidence in the product he was putting on the air and their shows. I think when it comes to my podcast, it’s a certain length each and every week. Over time, that consistency has led to great growth, and I’m proud to say that last year was our best year ever. I’m trying to keep building on that without sacrificing the model that works.”
Jastremski: “The idea of generating reaction. In the radio world, ratings tell the story. I can give you the cliché numbers that we want to have good podcast metrics and we want to have as many listeners as possible — that goes without saying. Getting the interaction; the feedback; the needle moving that way — that’s what I’m looking for more than anything. We recently hopped on a Spotify green room after a Mets game [where] we had 200 people in a room [within] five minutes of starting, and I [took] 15 calls. Generating that reaction within your base is how I’m judging whether or not we are doing what we need to do, whether it’s momentum or traffic. I understand that, from an old-school mentality, it’s all about ratings. Obviously, podcast numbers, downloads and subscribers are gigantic, but I don’t want an inactive listener base; I want an active listener base that’s dialed in, engaged and participating in what I’m looking to do.”
Hahn: “I used to measure it with ratings [when] I was local. That seemed to be the be-all, end-all [and] how you bragged about your success. Feedback has become the more important one. It’s not just feedback from listeners, but also the people at your business and, to be honest with you, I [had] never really considered it before. Being on a national platform, I think what athletes think of the show is [also] important because that also drives the idea [of if you] are talking about what matters. I feel like ratings are so antiquated of a system that there’s no way that’s the [sole] indicator.”
Q4: What do you consider to be sports radio’s biggest area of concern now and moving forward?
Lundberg: “Is hosting a sports radio show enough? As things do change with platforms, we’ve seen podcasts, Sirius XM and digital platforms emerge. The way people get their media has changed rapidly over the last few years. Luckily, sports radio’s steady base has been able to help it survive through it, but if you’re going to be a true crossover star right now, can you do that primarily through radio?”
Gelb: “I would say it would be improvements in the digital space. I think that’s something people really need to focus on. I think companies need to be careful in understanding that Twitter does not reflect [whether you’ve had] a successful show or not. Sure, if you have a host with a bunch of followers, or [put] out a viral video, great — but a lot of the comments on any social media are going to be negative. I think it’s important that radio stations do as much as they can digitally, but I would not let the comments make the program director’s decisions if a show is successful or not.”
Rothstein: “There are so many ways for people to get information. People are not really in the business anymore of consuming things for longer periods of time. People have interest in watching videos on their phone instead of listening to the radio or watching a long-term show. When people are driving, there are so many different options.”
Jastremski: “I think the biggest challenge for any of these sports radio or podcast markets is [determining] how you stand out. There’s so much out there; what makes you unique; what makes you special; what makes you different from a host standpoint, a brand standpoint, a market standpoint. That to me is what I’m kind of looking at down the road as to what might be an obstacle for sports radio; there’s so much out there now. When sports radio started in the late-80s and 90s, they were the only game in town. Now, that’s no longer the case. I think for each talent and or each platform, what makes you different, what makes you unique, what do you bring to the table that somebody else doesn’t. Not just from a program director’s standpoint, I think that has to be the focus for hosts. It’s not that you want to reinvent the wheel and be crazy different, but you want to stand out. If you stick to that, you can have a ton of success.”
Hahn: “Podcasts. Everyone has one now. There’s also a million sports talk radio stations and a lot of shows. Everyone is trying to become the ‘next something’ of this realm. It’s so easy to get lost in that sea; it’s very hard. The oversaturation of sports talk; anyone can do it because the technology is there. That’s a great thing, but the oversaturation just starts to become white noise. There isn’t a delineation of who are the professionals [that] are doing this for a living, who put the time in and who is just regurgitating what they saw on SportsCenter or FirstTake. The saturation of this type of media in the last five years has created a feeling of white noise among content.”
Q5: If there’s one thing upcoming hosts should be prioritizing in order to be successful in the future, what would that be and why?
Lundberg: “I think that comes with knowing what the audience wants. The one thing that doesn’t go away is the instinct of what people care about. The Jordan vs. LeBron debate is the bread-and-butter of what sports talk is: two people arguing about it on barstools. Stories aren’t going anywhere; sports aren’t going anywhere. Knowing how to read what the audience wants and then spin it in a way that is unique to your program is most important.”
Gelb: “You have to have the work ethic. You have to have the reps. And you have to find a way to develop a connection with the audience that makes you stand out differently from the others. Everyone can give an opinion about sports, but can you give an opinion, and can people believe that opinion is authentic, and does it make the person want to come back and stay throughout the show?”
Rothstein: “Authenticity. You hear so much that people want to be the next this person or that person. You have to be the first and version of yourself because there’s only one of us.”
Jastremski: “Watch the damn games — simple as that. I think there’s way too many folks out there who don’t know what they’re talking about. I think it comes across, and it’s easy to point out if you’re a listener. You don’t need to be drooling over the box score of every game that’s played, but in order to formulate the best possible opinions that you can, you have to be dialed in and you have to have a sense of what’s going on around the teams that you covered. That might sound like a real simple answer but in order to have those opinions, you have to watch the games.”
Hahn: “Compelling conversation. You’ve got to be able to not just have a guest, but make it a listenable conversation. I think the most successful people in this business are great at that. Everyone just wants to be the first one to say something or have a crazy reaction to something. To get an athlete or a former player to relax to a point where they can tell you something that can take you into the world that regular people are not privy to makes it a compelling listen. Relaxing the guest and making them feel like they are in a room hanging out is a great conversation. If the guest is boring, it’s your fault [as the host] that they are boring.”
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.