Craig Larson is a lifer in the radio business. He started as an intern back in 1990 at what is now ESPN 1000 in Chicago. That lead to one hell of a journey with one company.
In 1996 Craig went to worked for One on One Sports Radio. In 2001 he started working for Sporting News Radio. In 2011 he started with Yahoo Sports Radio. Since 2016 he has been programming SB Nation Radio. Craig never left a job or changed companies, mind you. He has been the constant for a network that has seen a lot of change over its 21 year lifespan.
Craig is now based out of Houston and is a busy dude. In addition to programming SB Nation Radio for Gow Media, he also programs the company’s two local sports stations – ESPN 97.5 and Sports Map 94.1.
If you’ve ever been guilty of dismissing SB Nation Radio as the little guy in an already crowded field of sports networks, Craig says you won’t be doing that much longer. In mid-November he and I spoke about the plan and the strategy that he says differentiates SB Nation Radio from competitors and allows it to grow in places you don’t think it can.
Full disclosure: Craig hired me to do a show on SB Nation Radio for the better part of the first half of 2017. That relationship didn’t shade the questions I asked him or how he is portrayed here. I just wanted to be honest and put that out there.
DEMETRI: SB Nation Radio has some really unique challenges in front of it in terms of adding affiliates. Many of the national conglomerates have deals in place with the larger networks. So, how do you work around that in finding affiliates and what is success for you in that realm?
CRAIG: Well, candidly I think being an independent company helps us in that realm, and the brand partnership with SB Nation has made us competitive in a way I don’t think past partners could have with their creativity and reach. Something like the Bein Sports simulcast of Sean Salisbury probably doesn’t happen without a partner like that.
The other thing is, let’s say you and I start a radio station tomorrow and all we have the need for is overnight programming and maybe Saturday afternoons. Well, we aren’t going to put any restrictions on you or make you take programming that you don’t need just to fill the times you do. Also, we aren’t going to charge rights fees. That helps a lot in growing the network. And finally, I give our talent a lot of credit for finding ways to customize and localize programming for all of our affiliates regardless of market size.
And lastly, it’s the support we can offer an affiliate. If a station owner needs help synergizing with the network on a sales promotion, they probably can’t pick up the phone and get the CEO of any of our competitors on the phone. David Gow is on the road visiting…I think it was 30 different affiliates this year to make sure the local affiliates are getting what they need from us.
D: What is that relationship with SB Nation like? What goes on on those editorial calls? I know they aren’t approving every segment of every show, but do you ever have calls where they tell you what they expect from the radio product to fit with their brand?
C: Well, it’s give and take, and it’s not so much real time “this is broke, how do we fix it” kind of stuff. Like, I’ll give you an example. One of the talents on our roster is the Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the game of the century (UCLA vs Houston in the Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968).
They have folks writing some pieces about it. We’ll have interviews on Elvin’s show with Kareem Abdul Jabar. We’ll do some video with Elvin. That all enhances their story and then you throw the listen live link on there and it takes you right back to our network page.
With them there is never a shortage of content. Maybe a shortage of hours or segments, but always plenty of content. We just interviewed Dak Prescott on his off day. Demetri, you know that is not the end of it. We got the interview, now where does it go? It’s on air and then we send it to the Blogging the Boys site. Maybe it goes on the SB Nation NFL main frame. That is all the fun stuff that comes out of those editorial calls.
D: With Gow Media starting the Sports Map site, do you know what that means for the future of the relationship with SB Nation?
C: Oh, they’re in individual silos. Sports Map was started in large part by Fred Faour and is a Houston-centric site with the weight of the resources we have at Gow Media behind it. It’s a local play and we timed it right with riding the Astros’ wave. But it isn’t SB Nation, which is a national brand that fits a national network.
D: You mentioned Salisbury’s show earlier. As I recall from our time working together, you are pretty hands on with that show. How does Craig Larson the human being manage time between running SB Nation Radio, being the PD of the two local stations, being hands-on with Salisbury, and oh by the way, you have a family too?
C: That’s a great question. I definitely have a passion, but also in interviews I am looking for folks with a passion for the industry and the business who are self-starters. I love talking to broadcasters and giving feedback and finding those people that are going to give as much as I do when they are on air.
With Sean, he has great charisma. He has a great rolodex as well. I can’t tell you how many times he has been the one to pick up a phone and call Charles Barkley or Joe Buck. He’s involved in his content creating process.
In 2004, there was a time, when we were based in LA that I would go from producing James Brown to Petro Papadakis to Fred Roggin. It was like an eight hour shift and I had to learn these guys’ needs and voices. This isn’t a 9-5 deal. As a PD, I can tell you not a weekend goes by where Sean and I aren’t texting each other to set up future shows. I’ve always been wired that way. It’s just how you have to operate in this business.
D: So what are the challenges of growing the Sean Salisbury Show? Certainly the Bein deal is huge, but your marquee show is at a time when I think most PDs would tell you they prefer local programming.
C: Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. I mean in an ideal world of local radio you’re not turning on the network from 6 AM to 7 PM. Maybe even starting morning drive a little earlier. It’s been a challenge for sure, but we have had some nice affiliate wins along the way and then the increased visibilitylity with Bein Sports.
At the end of the day, I am a firm believer that content is going to win. Shows that are unique are going to differentiate themselves in the corporate landscape. So, we hired someone like Robin Carlin a year ago out of Denver. There’s no one like her on network radio. No one is doing what we’re doing each and everyday.
Since we put Sean in afternoon drive, I would say we have added somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 affiliates. Now, that’s not 500 affiliates, but we cherish each of those 35-40 relationships. And it’s Sean, again, customizing his sound and calling into local shows in markets that clear his show. And we’re working with stations. If you can make up the spots, but can’t take the full three hours, we’ll give you the last two if that’s all you need. Hell, Phoenix is tape delaying the show and running it at night. Any way we get exposure for Sean makes me happy.
D: There are also a number of brokered shows on SB Nation Radio. What is expected of those businesses? As a PD do you sit with those shows and say “this is what you have to bring to the table if you want to do this”?
C: Well, they have to fit content-wise, but they also just have to be good content. That actually represents a small percentage of our overall business, but we have our golf hour. Charlie Epps, who is Angel Cabrera’s swing coach, gets great people on. It is at a time of day on Saturday morning where it is programmed correctly. And it is one every week. He never says “Oh I don’t have it in me today.” It’s a compelling and well-packaged listen.
And look, I understand the cynicism to it. Would we have a golf hour on Saturday morning if we didn’t have Charlie? Would Charlie do a golf hour if Insperity weren’t a part of it? Probably not, but I am looking at it from the content side.
In all the years I have been with this network, I have never had a complaint about something we put on on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Plus they’re all seasonal, so they are timely. The fantasy football hour or anything else. These all have appropriate expiration dates.
D: So outside of SB Nation Radio, brokered programming is a growing part of the business. As someone that has had to program brokered shows, what would you tell the guy that is looking to own his own show he needs to know or do to be a success?
C: First and foremost you have to have a voice. You have to know what differentiates you from everything else and what qualifies you to be on the radio period. And do it in a way that makes sense for you. Sometimes it is easier to do a weekly or biweekly podcast if you aren’t used to the preparation and consistency that goes into a daily radio show.
Next, I would say make sure you are comfortable on a mic. You can have a whole show scripted out and then suddenly Muhammed Ali dies and you have to pivot. So, maybe you were going to do a draft preview, but now you have to be ready to talk to Larry Holmes and put this in the proper perspective for what you do.
Learn to prepare. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say “Just get name any NFL guest. I need to kill ten minutes.” WOW! Okay, already the wrong approach. You can’t come into this just wanting to get to the finish line. Know why I, as a listener, as a programmer, would want to hear from you. If that’s not an easy answer you probably shouldn’t be playing in this space.
Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench
“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”
As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.
Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.
Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.
Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.
Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media.
Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???
One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.
My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”
Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.
Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country.
Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format.
There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.
If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.
I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort.
Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.
Digital Platforms Should Signal The End Of Niche Linear Networks
“Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.”
CBS Sports Network just isn’t built to last. It seems obvious, but it was really hammered home for me on Friday when Jim Rome went off on the network for preempting the simulcast of his radio show for coverage of swimming.
“You idiots are going to preempt this show for swimming?” Rome said. “Stupid.”
You don’t even have to watch the video, right? You can just read the quote and his voice is immediately what you hear in your head.
John Skipper went off on a number of topics during Sports Business Journal’s Media Innovators Conference last week. Some dismissed it as sour grapes. Others said his comments were those of a man that is completely unencumbered by rights deals and corporate interests.
One thing the Meadowlark Media leader said that was dead on was that there are only a few properties in sports television that truly matter.
“Until you can get the NFL, or the SEC, or the NBA on a streaming service, it’s going to be marginal in this country,” Skipper said in a conversation with John Ourand.
He was answering a question about the relevance of streaming services, but the fact is, he could have been talking about any outlet in the world of sports television.
With that being said, it isn’t just CBS Sports Network that isn’t built to last. Comcast got this message last year. That is why NBCSN is about to go dark. Sure, every niche sport has its fan base, but can you build a profitable and powerful brand on swimming, lacrosse and 3-on-3 basketball? You probably can’t.
BSM’s Jeremy Evans recently wrote about life in the metaverse and what it means to sports media. So much happens digitally now. Think about the last time you felt like you HAD to have a physical copy of a movie or album. It always made sense that television networks would get to this place.
Peacock, ESPN+, CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+ all have plenty to offer. Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.
CBS Sports Network isn’t the only cable sports network whose existence may be on borrowed time. You know about FS1. Did you know there is an FS2? Did you know beIN Sports still exists? Don’t worry. It seems most major cable operators don’t know it either. The same can be said for networks with names like Eleven Sports, Maverick, and Pursuit.
In fact, when you look at that group of channels, CBS Sports Network is probably in the best shape. It may carry the low end of college football and basketball, but it at least has sports with large, national followings.
Radio simulcasts have always been cheap programming. Once the production costs are recouped, there is a straight-line path to profit. Sports networks on this level will always be interested in carrying radio simulcasts, and that is a good thing. It means better studios and more exposure for the hosts involved. When the suits can have a legitimate debate whether the live sports their network carries will draw as many viewers as the simulcast of a radio show, it may be time to rethink the path forward.
Streaming platforms weren’t built exclusively for niche sports. ESPN+ launched with college football and college basketball at its core. Now that streaming platforms are here to stay though, it should start a conversation and migration.
The cable sports network was never anything more than a prestige play. It was a way to show that a broadcast network was so serious about sports that the few hours it could devote to games would never do. The problem is that ESPN got that memo decades earlier and established a juggernaut.
Even FS1, which has major talent and rights to major college football and basketball and Major League Baseball, is behind the eight ball compared to ESPN. They got a 34 year head start in Bristol! CBS Sports Network is behind FS1 and it has college football, basketball and hockey. It also has the WNBA and the NWSL. Still, it seems like it is on borrowed time. What does that mean for networks that can’t get a league comissioners to take their call?
I like some of the programming on CBS Sports HQ. I think Paramount+ has been a valuable tool this college football season. There would be nothing wrong with CBS shuttering CBS Sports Network. It is just the reality of where we are headed.
CBS is run by smart people. I have faith they will see the forest thru the trees in sports media and find the right solution before they start losing money. Streaming means consolidation and unfortunately, that means there may not be room for the FS2s, Mavericks, Pursuits, and Eleven Sports of the world. That doesn’t mean the sports those networks carry cannot find a new home. They may even find a home that makes more sense for them and their fans.
Can Your Station Create Its Own Holiday?
“Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape.”
A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!
Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape. The best part, from a marketing standpoint, is fans were captivated by it. They either didn’t realize it was a commercial or they just didn’t care.
The execution was masterful. Granted, we Star Wars fans were left wanting a bit, but Disney dropped teasers for series and movies we didn’t know were coming and showed the first footage from one we have been anticipating for more than a year now.
I started thinking how a radio station could do this. How could it go out and create its own holiday? How for one day, can we make our fanbase excited and glued to social media eagerly anticipating announcements about what is coming next?
This is going to take some creativity. Disney+ is a platform full of multiple brands with multiple fanbases buying in. A sports talk station is one brand. It has varying levels of fanbases, but largely, your dedicated audience are the people that not only love sports, but also like your programming enough to be called P1s. Is that enough people to build an event like this around?
Who cares if it is or not! Go for it.
One thing that Disney did masterfully on November 12 is it brought partners into the fold and made them a key part of Disney+ Day. Fortnite announced that Boba Fett was coming to its game. TikTok announced Disney character voice changers would be available on the platform. Disney found the kind of partnerships that could spread its holiday to even the Disney+ Day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge.
You can do the same. Surely you have a local brewery as a partner. Can they brew a one day only beer for you? Partner with a restaurant. Can they put your station’s name on the day’s special? Would other partners offer discounts and promotions for celebrating the day? There are a lot of options here.
Now, what are YOU doing on your holiday? Disney has a deep well of franchises. It could squeeze Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, its own studio and more for content and announcements. Again, you are just one brand, but there is still a lot you can do.
Build the day around announcing your special contributors for the football season. Drop new podcasts and play an extended clip on air. Announce new podcasts, the kind of things that will only be available digitally.
Look at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio have created great, multi-episode series that are events for their audience. Like any narrative podcasts, those don’t come together overnight. As long as you have enough audio to build a solid 90 second to 2 minute long preview, you have something worth bringing to the air as part of the celebration.
Do you have a contract you are waiting to expire to make a change in a prime day part? Make your station’s holiday the day that the new talent or show hits the air for the first time. You can do the same for new weekend programs. Whether it is someone new coming to the station or just a new pairing, put them on air for your prime time audience to meet and have your weekday hosts help create some buzz for them.
As for the shows that are on every weekday, you have to make them special that day. Give away a big cash prize. Make the guest list epic – I mean everyone that is on air that day has to be a home run.
The other thing that Disney did so well was work to get all of its divisions involved. Check out this tweet from the Disney Parks account. Every single park around the world lit their iconic building up blue in celebration of the streaming platform’s holiday.
Can you work with other stations in your building? Maybe they won’t give you full on promotion, but between songs, if a DJ brings up a sports topic, would the PD be willing to have them mention that their sister station is celebrating all day? Would a news/talk PD let your talent pop on air to talk sports with their hosts and promote what is happening on your airwaves today?
The answer to these questions could be no. You don’t know if you don’t ask though. Also, if the answer is no, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little backup from your market manager. A station holiday is a major sales initiative after all.
The final piece of this puzzle to take away from Disney is you have to be everywhere. Any local show you air from 6 am until midnight needs to be on location. Fans should have easy access to them. How can they celebrate you if they are not allowed to be where you are?
Use the broadcasts however the sales department sees fit. Take them first to long-established clients to celebrate their loyalty on the station’s holiday. Use them to draw in new clients. Show off what your station can create with its fanbase.
Money has a way of motivating everyone. So, even if your hosts don’t like leaving the studio, these would be remote broadcasts priced at a premium and should have larger-than-usual talent fees attached.
Finally, let’s do something Disney didn’t. I was shocked that a company with this many iconic characters at its disposal and with a CEO that came from the consumer products division, didn’t have a line of merchandise ready to go. Don’t make that same mistake.
Create cool station shirts (not the cheap giveaway crap). Throw the logo on unexpected things like water bottles, bottle openers, facemasks, whatever! Have a merch tent wherever you go. Maybe set up a site to sell it for the day. Make the people come to you to get this stuff.
Twitter is a huge part of promoting what you do. Constantly show off what you are offering and what you have created. That is how Disney sold their event to its most dedicated fans as something not to be missed.
What were we celebrating with Disney+ Day? Nothing. Disney wasn’t even really celebrating anything. It was just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging. Actually, there are a lot of holidays that are just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging.
Not every holiday has to celebrate something once in a lifetime. Not every holiday has to even be real. Building your own will take a long lead time, but it is doable. Get sales, promotions and programming in a room and build a plan together. If Disney+ Day taught us anything, it is a valuable way to motivate your fans to spread your message too.
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