When you think about New York City, it’s easy to form a mental picture of the city’s landmarks, bridges, skyscrapers, and traffic. Maybe you’ll even think of the large melting pot of people, the amazing food, the yellow taxi cabs, the area’s sports teams or the numerous politicians who chase cameras and microphones on a daily basis.
But at the center of everything lies one key word – competition.
Think about the way the big apple has been presented to you over the years. The concrete jungle. Market #1. The city that never sleeps. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Only in New York. Add them all up and what does it mean? You better stay focused, hungry, and continue evolving every single day because the moment you don’t, might be your last.
For Tim McCarthy, that’s never been a concern. Thirty plus years of passion, drive and success in the nation’s largest market managing some of the biggest brands and personalities buys you not only a little bit of breathing room, but also a front row seat to New York radio history. As much as he’s enjoyed the view though, Tim’s also made sure to leave his prints on the talk radio scene. From Sean Hannity to Stephen A. Smith to Michael Kay and others, McCarthy has played a role in helping launch some of the city’s biggest personalities on both the local and national stages.
Today, you can find Tim in New York doing what he’s always done – using his experience, love for radio and ability to connect with people to deliver results for 98.7 ESPN NY. Sure, his job may include the task of leading ESPN LA 710’s staff from three thousand miles away, and the added challenge of trying to satisfy local fans and clients while doing what’s best for the world’s largest national sports media company, but if this is what life’s biggest problems have become in 2021, McCarthy is more than happy to sign up and deal with it well into the future.
In a city where sports radio ratings stories get shared by multiple newspapers on a monthly basis, McCarthy appreciates that people care enough about his industry to cover it thoroughly. We spoke for forty five minutes last week about the New York sports radio scene, the challenge of serving two masters, the status of the ESPN Radio network, the future of sports betting, challenges with Nielsen, and much more. Tim’s candor and confidence stood out during our conversation, which reminded me that it’s OK to enjoy the ride even in a competitive city like New York. Given all that Tim’s experienced, it’s been one fun, fulfilling professional journey.
Jason Barrett: Before we dive into your experiences in sports radio, let’s go backwards for a minute and educate folks on where your radio journey began. Where did you get your start?
Tim McCarthy: It started at WPLJ in New York. I was lucky enough to start in retail sales. At the time, WPLJ wasn’t what most knew it to become. It was doing horribly and changing its formula it seemed every other day. The economy wasn’t great either. We had a bunch of revolving morning shows, Archer, David Haney, Rocky Allen and then eventually Scott and Todd. I sold there for three years and then the local sales manager job came open at WABC. Although we were on the same floor it was two different countries. The brands were different, ratings were different, the Yankees were on ABC and not very good, and I pitched myself for the job. I remember 78 people applied for the job. I was lucky enough that Don Bouloukus, who was running ABC Radio at the time, took a liking to me. I guess he liked that I did things a little different, and so I went over to WABC.
JB: So was the move to WABC what opened the door to a run with ESPN? I’m guessing that’s where you crossed paths with Traug Keller right?
TM: I crossed paths with Traug at WABC because I eventually became GM there. I was in that position for 8-9 years. I was Traug’s client because we ran the ABC Radio network. Traug would negotiate those deals with me or call me up and say ‘you’ve got to carry this show, you’re killing me’. What changed was when we got Hannity. We took him from Atlanta and put him on at night. Then Bob Grant left and we thought ‘this guy’s pretty good’ and we moved him into afternoon drive. He was young, in his 30’s, and it clicked, so Traug, Mitch Dolan and I got together and said ‘we can syndicate this on all of our stations and force feed the audience.’ Which is how it should work. We made that move on September 10, 2001, the day before 9/11 hit. Talk about timing.
So how that leads to ESPN, I was running WABC and Radio Disney. We got the news in August 2001 that we had picked up an ESPN station. It was going to be all network and we had to put that on the air in 30 days. We went on the air with the station the week before 9/11. That’s how I got involved with the brand.
JB: So the ESPN station you’re referring to is 1050. That station would soon employ Rob Astorino, Wally & The Keeg, and Brandon Tierney among others.
TM: We did in fact have Senator Astorino there. Wally and the Keeg were the only show we aired that wasn’t from the network. Then we added Brandon to host shows at night.
JB: I remember BT would turn the sports updates into :60 to :90 second talk shows. He definitely belonged hosting a show, updates were not his cup of tea.
TM: BT definitely had a lot of personality and he’s gone on to have a very successful career. I’d love having him back in our company someday. So sadly, everything with 1050 happened around 9/11. We took over this station, and nobody paid much attention to it for the first few months. It had been a Jewish radio station before we took control of it. We started simulcasting WABC on both signals first. That was what most people cared about. That put us kind of behind the fray for the first two years in terms of building the 1050 brand.
JB: You mentioned earlier that you started your career in sales. I know many though who’ve worked with you who say you’ve got a lot of strong opinions on programming. You’ve worked with a number of smart programmers including Justin Craig, Dave Roberts, Kevin Graham, Ryan Hurley, Mike Thompson, and Aaron Spielberg just to name a few. Given you have such a strong interest in content and talent and an important voice in shaping ESPN’s major market brands, how did you develop your programming instincts?
TM: Honestly, it was at WABC. I just love the talk format. The more I got into it and listened and heard things whether it be from a caller or someplace else. We had a caller named John Batchelor. I heard John one Friday night while I was driving home from the city, and I called the producer on Monday and asked ‘who was that guy you had on the air on Friday night?’ He said, ‘that was John Batchelor and Paulie who worked with Bloomberg Digital or Bloomberg Magazine.’ I said ‘those guys are really interesting’ and I went to Phil Boyce and said ‘we should put him on more’.
I think I just got better with understanding things over time. At first, people are like ‘yeah OK buddy, you don’t know what you’re talking about’, but over time when things become more successful, you kind of earn your keep. John’s show became a huge hit and we wound up syndicating it. Hannity was another who I felt strongly about as the replacement for Bob Grant. Then we brought John Gambling over, and added Curtis & Kuby and Warner Wolf, so for me it’s all about seeing something grow from here to there. Look at Stephen A. Smith. He was on 1050 and is now a rockstar and I couldn’t be happier for him. In the old days, as a PD you would try someone out at night, listen to how they do, see if some numbers pop, and if they showed something you might move them to middays. Then if that kicks, you consider AM or PM drive. It’s harder to do that these days and I think that’s one of the bigger problems we have in the industry right now.
JB: I’ve always thought it’s silly to assume that someone who’s worked in sales can’t add value to a programming conversation and the same with programming folks not being able to make a difference in revenue discussions. That’s something I pride myself on and I know other programmers in the format who do as well. Ultimately creating must-listen programming comes down to having people on the air who are unique, talented, and interesting. It’s easier when you see someone like Michael Kay or Stephen A. and can look at their body of work and feel comfortable trusting them with a prime spot on your radio station, but you’ve helped elevate folks like Rick DiPietro, Chris Canty and Peter Rosenberg too who also had talent but didn’t walk in the door with lengthy sports media resumes. When it comes to identifying a talent to contribute to one of your radio stations, what is it you’re looking for?
TM: There are a few things. First, what role are they going to play? John Batchelor is probably a little different, but Peter, Chris and Rick, what role are they going to play within a show to add something different and help us win? I think that’s important. Not everyone can do it. Sometimes guys overpower each other and it doesn’t work. You mentioned Michael Kay, Michael has evolved incredibly over the years. I told Michael a long time ago ‘being the Yankees guy is not going to be good enough’. You have to be more than that and remember that it’s about the entertainment and sports not sports and entertainment.
So I think it circles back to roles, and then secondarily, if it’s a singular role and not part of a team, how can I develop this person to be different than anything else that’s out there. That’s kind of what made Peter a great fit for us. A lot of people thought I was nuts at the time for bringing him in, including myself, and I remember going to see Michael at the stadium and tell him ‘you’re not going to like this but here’s what I want to do’. He said ‘isn’t that the disco guy on Hot 97?’ I said ‘if everyone knows the role they have to play on a show it’ll work because the entertainment value will be better.’
JB: What I find fascinating about this is that doing that with one group in one building is hard enough. But then you factor in that you have to also oversee ESPN Los Angeles, a brand in the 2nd largest market in America, and then oh by the way, make sure that anything you do also keeps the bosses in Bristol happy because they too have certain things they want to see happen with your local stations given that they own them. How do you balance trying to appease both the local and national overlords?
TM: It’s not easy. Norby Williamson who we report to gets it. He understands the value of ratings and personalities. What I think is important is that the PD’s understand the symmetry from show to show. Network and local can work really well together if everyone understands the symmetry and connections. That includes updating creative promos, getting the network talent on the local shows and the local hosts on the national shows.
The other thing too we’ve done, if we feel a local show is stronger we’ll take all of the network elements and run them in the local show. We may have to cut back on our local inventory but now we’ve served the network in the hopes that we can get a higher rating that benefits everyone. In LA it’s a little more difficult due to the time change. We actually just added two local hours to the lineup.
The challenge is the same, it’s getting everyone to believe in the same thing, and understand the common good. Listen, sometimes local may have to take it on the chin because it’s better for the company.
JB: But I know you, and you’re a very competitive guy. So too are some of the people you manage. You go back to last year, and 98.7 ESPN NY was rolling. The Kay Show was especially strong in afternoons, and then a number of national changes were made, the station expanded to six shows during a 13-hour period which I’m sure like most operators you had to have questions about, and soon thereafter the momentum slowed down. I understand that sometimes you have to give up some ground to do what’s best for the overall business, but you also have to deal with those folks on the inside who are going to look at you and say ‘Timmy, we’re right there, and now you want us to take our foot off the gas?’ How do you handle that?
TM: I get those questions all the time. You’re right, our guys are very competitive, as am I. The honest answer is that when you work for a great company like ESPN, there’s the benefits and the things you have to adapt to. I would say that our benefits far outweigh the other things that some may have an issue with. As a manager, I try to make that clear to people.
Here’s an example, if we have the World Series and the Yankees are in it, we may not have the local rights but now all of a sudden we love running the network. Listen, it’s not easy, but again, there’s a bigger play here. The company provides us with great promotion and opportunity and it works. I think in some ways, and I hope folks understand what I mean when I say this, but the local ESPN stations in some ways are a minor league system for talent. We’ve got Alan Hahn, Chris Carlin, Bob Wischusen, and Bart Scott all doing stuff for us. That’s a good thing for the station, the talent, and the company. So again, sometimes you take it on the chin, but the overall benefit is positive.
My goal is to get people to a better place. Chris Canty did First Take last week. I gave him the week off to focus on that show because he hasn’t done it. Ryan and my sales team were ticked, and rightfully so. They should’ve been mad at me. But I said to them ‘For the good of Chris and the company, I’m going to give him the time off. Our guy is there. He’s in the Olympics. We have to give him the shot to perform. If we lose ratings or revenue for this one week because of it then shame on us. Then we didn’t do something right to make up for him being away.’
JB: Having spent time focusing on the juggling act between local and national, I want to pick your brain on the network. As you know, hundreds of stations take the company’s programming. The identity of ESPN has always been strong, but anytime change takes place, folks are going to have questions. As you look at ESPN Radio today, what do you see as its biggest advantages, and what are some things you believe need to be improved?
TM: The biggest strength of course is the ESPN brand. Affiliates want that brand association. I also believe our play by play is a big strength of ours. Take for instance a game like Clemson-Georgia to kick off college football. That’s a huge game and we have it. Those are I think huge strengths.
In the past, we’ve done a great job developing talent, and right now it’s a work in progress. The network folks are trying different things and seeing what works, and look, it’s hard. We’re a multiplatform company that likes to do multiplatform things, so the question becomes ‘how can we serve our entire audience the right way, satisfy our affiliates, and still generate ratings?’ That’s really hard. I’m a big believer that you always have to be filling the pipeline. But you also have a year and a half of Covid and pipelines cost money. So that’s a challenge too, where do we invest our money? It’s not perfect but I know the network is looking really hard at different things and hopefully it pays off in the long run.
JB: I’ve talked to Dave and Justin before, and both want to deliver for the affiliates. Yes the brand is massive, and that association with the network is worth some of the trade offs for stations when the network is going thru changes. Stations may bitch because they want certain things but they partner with ESPN because they know those four letters have value. That said, I’ve been critical of one thing which I know frustrates affiliates and that’s the inconsistency with the network’s weekday lineup. Change is OK. Everyone goes thru it. But when it happens multiple times in less than a year, it’s going to lead to folks becoming impatient. If you were running a local brand not owned by ESPN and asking local advertisers to support you and local people to listen to you, it’d be hard to expect them to stay loyal when every few months you have to report back with news of another change. Eventually they’re going to be less enthusiastic because stability is important. As a GM, and someone who deals with affiliates and speaks their language, how do you alleviate their concerns that better days are ahead for the network?
TM: Change is never good or easy. There’s always pain with change and we have to all be willing to accept that. By the same token, we have to take chances and one of the challenges we have is that we run our programming on both TV and radio. We may be killing it on TV but not on radio and for the overall good, that’s a win. You look at bringing Mike Greenberg back to radio, that’s a homerun. I don’t care what his ratings are, he does a great radio show. I tell our salespeople all the time, if you can’t sell Greeny and the type of show he does then shame on you.
I would tell affiliates to keep wrapping their heads around the brand. We’re going to keep looking for ways to improve. They’re taking ESPN Radio for a reason. If they felt they had something much better they’d probably not be taking us. We’re glad they do, and it’s not perfect, and change is not easy for everyone, but we’re making moves to try and provide better programming to help everyone.
JB: Let’s move away from the programming discussion for a second and talk about the personal challenges you and many others in leadership positions were forced to navigate over the past fifteen months. Traug left the company, you took on Los Angeles along with New York, and then weeks later the pandemic hits, the industry gets rocked financially, ESPN goes thru some changes on-air and in key leadership roles, and all the while you’re trying to lead staffs while dealing with limitations caused by governments installing measures to try and keep people safe. What has that been like for you?
TM: I’ll tell you what’s been really frustrating, is the fact that I can’t be in LA. I was going out there every other week and I really like our team there. I was excited that the three months before we were building momentum and felt we were going to do some really great things and then the pandemic hit. I’ll tell ya Jason, it’s really hard to manage people over Zoom. We’ve gotten used to it and made the most of the situation but the challenge is ‘how do we motivate people and keep their heads in the game this way?’ Let’s face it, anyone who says ‘I’m working 10x harder than I ever did’ probably isn’t.
I think the quality of certain things have gotten better. The conversations have definitely been better. The advertising side has been really frustrating. Our business, regardless of how much it changes, is still going to be ‘meet, greet, trust’, all those things that matter. Particularly on the retail side. Let’s say you’re meeting with a car dealer, they’ve been with you, you’re going to put a plan together, he or she trusts you, and you both feel good that it’s going to work. But now, we have situations where automobile can’t get cars. The beer business can’t get cans. So what happens? We’re not going to advertise right now, we’re going to push it off. Sports betting fortunately has been tremendous. But you throw all those other factors in, while not being able to see people to sell them, and it’s been nothing but a challenge.
As we come out of it, and I’ve had this discussion with my team, how do we keep motivating our staff and our advertisers? I believe radio is going to come back stronger. I don’t think people are going to be jumping on a bus or train anytime soon. You see it with the traffic in New York. The in-car experience is going to be really important. We’ve done a lot of Zoom events with clients in both NY and LA. We did one with the NY Jets, another with AROD, and we did an NFL Draft show. Engagement, engagement, engagement is very important. Our sales manager Pete Doherty had a great idea, we had these 98.7 ESPN NY speakers ‘listen at home’, and we sent them out to our clients. We’ve got to get our call letters in front of everyone because the number of meters that are out there haven’t increased.
JB: You just struck a nerve because that is a conversation that we could spend hours on. The sports radio format in my opinion remains largely underrepresented. It’s maddening because the programming not only reaches way more people than it gets credit for, but the framing of the format as a niche space rather than as one of the most important places an advertiser can put their business in is foolish. For instance, I produce quarterly ratings stories on this website. We show how stations in the format perform from city to city and most do pretty well. However, these numbers don’t show the true power of their streaming sessions, podcast downloads, TV simulcasts, content created or promoted on social media, etc.. We’re positioned as this niche format that performs for one specific demographic and the results are based on what 8-10 people carrying this antiquated device do yet sports is one of the most important parts of society and one of the last true content destinations where people have to listen live. I know our full reach and influence is greater than the story we present but at the same time, as an industry, that’s partly our fault because we’re the ones who’ve signed up for this service and accepted it, knowing that it doesn’t reflect what we’re delivering on a daily basis.
TM: Exactly. The audio business is very large. I’ve said this all along, Nielsen can not play Switzerland. They have to actually make statements. They can’t allow folks who sell their stream in a different advertising space to combine their streaming numbers and throw it out in the marketplace. It’s no different than me taking Michael Kay’s TV numbers on YES and throwing them into a sales plan when I’m not running the same commercials. I think Nielsen has to embrace all of these platforms and come up with a real measurable way to say here’s a true number. If they’re not going to increase meters, they need to deliver all this stuff. We have radio shows that are offered in multiple locations yet we don’t get radio credit if people consume it on social media or television. How much are we losing because someone says ‘I love the show but I’m going to watch it on TV?’
Once again, it drives down this editorial from the press that radio is going this way while podcasting is going the other way. Podcasting is a radio station in short form. We need to start getting credit for the things we do and whether it’s Nielsen, ourselves or the industry as a whole, we need to come up with a solution because we’re doing a lot of the right things but don’t have enough to show for it.
JB: Before I got on a tangent over ratings, you mentioned earlier how important sports betting business has been to radio. I want to dive deeper into that space for a minute because everyone recognizes that the category is hot right now and being able to seize the opportunity is important. But where does this road eventually lead to? Do we eventually have an ESPN The Bet? Does Betcasting around live games become more mainstream? Do we one day have a surplus of national sports radio betting networks the way we have a flood of sports television programming on television? How do you see this shaping up?
TM: It’s not going to go away. It’s always been here. It’s always been part of our lexicon in the sports world. The only difference is it wasn’t allowed to be broadcast or pushed and now it is. You have these great companies like DraftKings, FanDuel and others doing it and our format is where the fish are. We consume it, bet on it, and live it. Do I think it’s going to be a bigger content play? I do but I don’t think it’ll ever replace great personalities. If a great talent can provide strong entertainment value you won’t have to worry about it because you’ll drive ratings and revenue.
Will sports betting content become a bigger part of other areas whether it’s weekend shows, nighttime shows or vignettes? Yes. I think that’s going to grow. But I don’t think it’s going to grow to the level where you’re replacing shows like Michael Kay’s afternoon program or SportsCenter simply because it’s more focused on betting.
JB: Let’s wrap up on a few New York sports radio items. Each day you wake up and you go to work representing the bigger brand in sports in the nation’s top market, facing the brand that started the format, WFAN. You’ve taken your hits from them, and you’ve also caused them some real headaches along the way. What is the best and worst part about the daily grind of going head to head against The Fan?
TM: First, our biggest challenge is whether or not the radio is off. Next, our competitor isn’t WFAN. It’s any male brand that can take our audience away. The challenge I love is the everyday battle of how are we going to do things better, faster, younger, etc..
Listen, The Fan is a great radio station. They always have been. Their brand is huge. They got good people there. I know their market manager Chris Oliviero. He’s a great guy. I love the fact that they never give up and it’s always a head to head battle. It’s Curry vs. LeBron. I remember when I was on the AM band starting out, it wasn’t the same. Now, everyone is always adapting. That’s good. It keeps everyone on their game. We have the ESPN brand, and all the things we do around that brand are important. Simple things such as ‘what promos are we creating to build up interest in the Knicks playoff game and the shows on Monday?’ That’s the stuff I drive Ryan crazy over.
The downside is that it never ends. As good as you are, you’re always pushing that rock up hill. If we beat The Fan, great, that’s now, what’s next? They’re not going to give up. They’re going to make changes. They brought in Craig Carton, we knew that was going to happen, and they keep coming so what are we doing to stay on top of our game?
JB: You mentioned Craig. I don’t know if you saw this, but Michael was on JJ’s podcast and he mentioned being more concerned competing against Craig than he was with Mike Francesa. Those prior battles against Francesa drew a lot of attention, and the road ahead vs. Carton should provide more of the same. When you hear that, what do you tell Michael?
TM: I tell Michael, Don and Peter all the time, keep doing the show you’re doing. They’ve been successful for a reason. They’re a morning show in afternoon drive. I listen to that show for the camaraderie, storytelling, the bits and connection they have with their audience. Don’t worry about Craig or anyone else. The listeners will seek out what they want. You can’t adapt to them. I tell them ‘Guys, you’re doing a great job, don’t worry about it. When Ryan or I hear something that’s off, we’ll tell you. We don’t hear that though so keep rolling.’
JB: The last thing I have for you is ‘what keeps you motivated to do what you’re doing and are there any goals you haven’t accomplished yet that you still hope to achieve?
TM: I love working with the talent and helping them get to the next level. Whether it be someone like Chris Canty earning a bigger role on TV or something else. This is going to sound kind of lame but my job is to help people get to that next place. That keeps me engaged. I’m also proud of the fact that a lot of people have stayed with this radio station in New York for a long time, all the way back to when people were making fun of us when we were on 1050AM. Now they’re not making fun anymore. They care about this brand and the people involved in it. That keeps me energized.
And the same with LA. I was out there eight years ago and now I’m back involved and we have a really good group that gives a crap about radio and what we do every single day. Whether it’s a call on a Friday night or the weekend, I have no problem taking those calls because they care. As I tell everyone at the station, listen more. If you hear something that doesn’t sound right, let us know about it. I like taking on challenges and helping brands and people improve. We want our products to be the best they can be. Just being able to make things a little better keeps me motivated and engaged.
Meet The Market Managers: Brian Maloney, Capitol Broadcasting Raleigh
“I know a lot of people aren’t using the R word anymore. You know, it’s audio this or whatever, but we’re in the sports content business, period. It’s that simple.”
The business model for sports radio in Raleigh, NC is an interesting one. One company, Capitol Broadcasting, owns all three of the market’s sports brands. It also owns the local NBC and FOX affiliates. Combine that with the fact that the company owns the Durham Bulls and a major local sports site called WRALSportsFan.com, and it is obvious that the company is a juggernaut in the local sports scene.
I used to work for Capitol. So many different outlets meant you had a lot of exclusive audio and access to build content around. There was a lot of work involved, but there were plenty of perks too.
The man in charge of all of it is Brian Maloney. He is the focus of the latest Meet the Market Managers column.
In our conversation, Brian and I discuss why he still values play-by-play, his reasons for changing his expectations of a program director, and more. Plus, it ends with an invite to a tailgate party!
Demetri Ravanos: I want to go back to right before the pandemic set in, where 99.9 The Fan went through a major lineup change, splitting up the popular tandem of Adam Gold & Joe Ovies. They had been together over a decade, and you moved Adam to middays, which meant David Glenn would no longer be part of the station’s schedule. Then, just as things were starting to get rolling, the pandemic hit. I’m wondering if you can take me through some of those early moments and what went through your mind as you’re trying to navigate not only the new realities for the station, but across the cluster.
Brian Maloney: You really want me to relive this huh? Oh, my God, it was scary as hell. But I kept telling myself, “We’re going to be so much better on the other side of this.” And I think it’s true.
College basketball rules in this market, and it all came crashing down for us around March 12th or 13th. We were right in the middle of the biggest month of the year for us in ratings and revenue, and then the bottom fell out literally in a matter of a day.
It was really scary for the first six or so weeks because nobody had ever experienced what we were going through. It was like driving down a country road at night with no lights on. You had no idea where it was going to go.
DR: Right. And you’re doing all of that with two new shows, one in afternoon drive that includes a guy that hasn’t done radio before.
BM: Yeah, that was crazy. In hindsight, we either couldn’t have picked a worse time or maybe it was the best time to make changes. We brought in Joe Giglio from the News and Observer and I think he had been on for one week at that point. Here’s a guy with no radio experience doing a sports talk show host’s job from his bathroom, because it was the only quiet space in his house, with a new partner that couldn’t even see. But, man, if you can do that, you can do anything.
We just got really creative. We got really good. And like I said, we are better off than we were 14 months ago.
DR: So that leads into my next question. In terms of both the sound of the two shows and ratings performance, how would you grade that first year and few months of this new lineup?
BM: It was really hard to get a handle on things the first four months because the world was just going nuts. We started to, in July, feel it coming together, and now we’re seeing the performance in the ratings, streaming, and reactions on social media. The street buzz from clients is also good. It’s really starting to gain momentum.
Joe Giglio and Joe Ovies released our Russell Wilson podcast last week. It’s a six part series. We just released part four today, and we’re coming in on fifteen thousand downloads in a week. So we’re really happy about that. That’s an example of a way that we got better, because we really had to stop and think. And that’s something that those guys have been working on since back in the summertime when we were still in the throes of things.
DR: When you were dealing with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, you guys started hosting these virtual town halls with local clients. I think you would open up at one point, correct me if I’m wrong, to just any business. If some of these clients had other friends that were business owners that wanted to be a part of those sessions, they were welcome as well, right?
BM: Yeah, we came out of the chute conducting online seminars, anything from H.R. people talking about how to handle employees going through challenges to attorneys talking about dealing with the business loans and such.
We just went after that right away. It was a way we could help. We were able to position ourselves as somebody there to help the community. As a matter of fact, that was branded as “Here to Help”. I think we built up a lot of credibility when we did that, and it had nothing to do with sports. It was just all about helping businesses in this community.
DR: How did that idea come together so quickly that you were able to act on it right away?
BM: Fortunately, we work for a private company that has a bunch of talented people and we just sprung into action and turned it on quick. We got up and running and it just snowballed from there.
DR: Let’s talk about working for a privately owned, local company. Capitol owns the entire sports radio landscape here in Raleigh. One of the things I look at all the time is certainly it does block out the ability for a competitor to come in and be strong. But is there value to all three of your sports brands? Certainly 99.9 The Fan is a property that any group in the market would want, but The Buzz is on an HD channel, albeit with translators. The Ticket is on an AM signal. How do you value those brands in 2021?
BM: Well, I think there’s no doubt we’ve seen growth in digital listening, but terrestrial still makes up the majority of listening in the United States and in our market as well. So it’s still important. You’ve got to have that real estate. But, you know, I no longer look at it as “The Ticket is on 620 AM. It’s not just on 620 AM. It’s still a brand of ours, and we distribute it. I mean, it is available in many places right now. We have our stations streaming under our TV stations’ webcams of the beach, of the lake, and of downtown Raleigh. We just push it out everywhere.
DR: And with that association with WRAL, the local NBC affiliate, certainly there are advantages to The Fan being branded as part of WRAL’s online sports empire. I wonder if there are any disadvantages of The Fan using that WRALSportsFan banner. The Buzz and The Ticket too for that matter. Do you see any disadvantages of radio brands not having their own distinct online location?
BM: No, I think it’s actually a huge advantage. I think seven years ago, 10, 12 years ago, you might have said, “wow, man, they don’t have their own identity”. But if you look at where our industry has gone and where it’s going, it’s not just about radio. It’s about radio, video, and articles online.
We’re doing what we’ve always done, and that’s the way of the world now. I mean, our radio stations are just a piece of the big machine and our on air talent write articles. They do videos. We video stream our shows. It’s almost like the radio shows themselves are just a small piece of what we do. Our sports website generates millions of page views every year, millions. The overall website gets billions.
DR: And that’s why I asked if there are disadvantages. Forget the website. Look at it from a mobile perspective. The WRALSportsFan app offers a user considerably more content than you might expect from an independently owned radio station’s app.
BM: Yeah, it’s 360. It’s a very robust platform of sports content. I know a lot of people aren’t using the R word anymore. You know, it’s audio this or whatever, but we’re in the sports content business, period. It’s just that simple. I think people try to complicate it, but we are in the business of producing sports content, whether it’s podcast, video, audio, on a radio station, Alexa or whatever.
DR: During the pandemic you made a change at PD. You and I talked about the job and you were very clear from the get go, you were rethinking what that position should be. You’ve had guys like Adam and Joe, who had been with you for over a decade and Alec Campbell, who has run their show for five years. Was that a big factor in being willing to experiment because you knew the sports side was full of people that had established successes, or did you simply feel it was time for the role of a program director to evolve and move building clocks and coaching talent to the backburner?
BM: Absolutely. Sammy Simpson is the brand manager for our cluster, which includes the mighty WRAL FM, Adult Contemporary, and then our sports stations.
You’re absolutely right. Sammy views this, the whole operation as a unit, including sales. There are many times that Sammy comes up with ideas and ways to market ourselves to clients and solve their problems, all the way down to how are we going to market this new podcast that we’re putting out. How are we going to brand anything we do?
So, yeah, I think the days of program directors fiddling with clocks and the less important stuff, that’s done in my mind.
DR: Raleigh is still a market where the ratings come out and advertisers pay attention. It helps them in setting up their buys. Given that so much of this is now about producing content that’s consumable on people’s own schedules, are we reaching a point where part of the reason PDs will have to offer more than just fiddling with clocks and coaching talent is it’s less about what that number is at the end of each quarter?
BM: I think for sports radio, it’s never really been about the ratings. That’s been one of the beauties and attractions of the sports format, is we all know how powerful it is, no matter what the ratings say, and now I think it’s even more powerful. To give you an example, last week we did a countdown to the NHL playoffs promotion, where we took a 500 pound block of ice and froze a puck in it. We asked listeners to guess when they thought the puck would drop. They won tickets to the playoffs and a chance at money and everything.
So we had this block of ice set up with a webcam on it 24/7 that got hit in our newscasts on our TV station, and it was talked about on the air, it was watched on social media. We had over 7000 people tune in to watch ice melt last week, okay? When they watched ice melt, they also saw the client’s logo, they heard the client mentioned on the air, and they saw the client on social media.
It just goes so far beyond the radio promo mention now. That’s what we bring. I don’t care if you’re a music station or a talk station. That’s what you should be doing right now.
DR: You guys have a history of doing some really cool podcasting projects. You mentioned the Russell Wilson podcast earlier. I’ve told clients to listen to Lauren Brownlow’s NC State Stuff podcast from 2017 too. I think it’s a great example of what radio stations should be doing in that realm. As successful as the creative side has been, looking at it from a business standpoint, do you feel like it’s been successful in terms of getting ad reps and clients to see the value of putting their messages on those products?
BM: It’s been a learning process. You really have to stop and think about what you’re doing. So just to walk you through briefly, the latest thinking with this Russell Wilson podcast is that we see so many, what is it at now? 1.6 million podcasts out there today? You see so many people who are just sitting down in front of a microphone and think they’re going to just talk sports. We tried that and it didn’t really work. So we started to be thoughtful about what we’re doing.
We know from the data that NC State and Russell Wilson move the needle. Credit Joe Giglio and Joe Ovies for coming up with that topic and for phoning in their contacts to get great content for that podcast. We knew that if we did something that went really deep and was really thoughtful about a topic we know moves the needle, maybe we can get something cranking here.
We got a sponsor involved. They were like “Oh, Russell Wilson? Big name! NC State? Big School! Yeah, sign me up!” So we were able to sell a title, exclusive sponsorship for it. And like I said in the first week, we’re coming up on fifteen thousand downloads.
So take it a step further. We thought let’s buy digital ads in Richmond, Wisconsin and Seattle. So now we’ve touched, our market, Raleigh/Durham, but we’ve also touched Richmond, Wisconsin and Seattle, where Russell’s footprints or fingerprints are. So now we believe securing a sponsor for our next podcast effort will be easier, because we know we have a nice track record of success with the Russell Wilson podcast and also with other ones we’ve done in the past, too.
You really have to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and strategic. It takes a lot of work. We do have an advantage of a great machine in Capitol broadcasting that can promote that podcast on the news and a massive website. But you’ve just got to be thoughtful about it. You can’t just crack the mike and talk about the football game.
DR: I remember when I was working for you how much you emphasized the value of live play-by-play and how every other liner I read was about carrying this game or that race. I wonder as we fast forward five years, is that value the same? There is an ACC Network now that replays every game multiple times during the week. ESPN+ and other sports streaming services have games and events available on demand. During the pandemic, it became clear that matters to people. So where does that leave live play-by-play on the radio? Has the value been diminished at all?
BM: I think there’s still a tremendous value there because not everybody can be in front of a screen to watch the game. Whether it’s hopping in your car and headed to the Home Depot on a Saturday afternoon and you’re catching the score or getting updated, I think there is – actually, it’s not that I think I know there is real value in live play-by-play because again, we can look at our screen numbers when the game comes on and you will see a spike. Right when the puck drops or the ball is kicked, you will see a spike in listening. Now Nielsen may not show it, but don’t get me started on that.
DR: Listen, I’ve done this series now for three months. You wouldn’t be the first I’ve heard complain about it.
BM: We have a lot of work to do there.
DR: I worked on a story back when Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin were getting ready to launch, taking the lay of the land from market managers who ran local ESPN stations to see how they felt about the new lineup. You told me that you were really optimistic about the show, pointing out Jay Williams’ local connection from having won a title at Duke.
Things haven’t gone the way they were initially designed, so adjusting could be necessary again. I don’t think it’s fair to ask “is it great” less than a year into a new show’s life, but are you still optimistic about the show’s future?
BM: I really am. I believe in that show. It’s a new show that started in the middle of a messed up sports world and then some tragedies happened within the show, which were just horrible. But I believe that is a very entertaining show, and I can’t wait till the fall. I think you’re going to see, at least I believe for us, that’s really going to explode.
I don’t know that we can judge that show yet in such an unstable sports world that we’ve been in since it was launched. I think Keyshawn is one hell of an entertaining person to listen to. JWill’s role is well-defined. I really am optimistic about it.
DR: I moved to Durham 15 years ago and read a statistic that said in the time that I’ve been here, 35 percent of the people that were here then are now gone. The Triangle is growing. We’ve got Apple coming in real soon. That’s going to spark a whole new wave of population turnover. Does the nature of our market make national sports media, whether it is network radio or satellite radio a more formidable competitor here than it might be elsewhere?
BM: That’s a really good question. We were just talking about this today because we were doing our planning session for the upcoming football season and one of the topics we kept going back to was that you have just a melting pot of fans here. Do we address the Steeler fans, the Lions fans, the Tampa fans? And so we’re paying attention to it and trying to weave those teams into discussions and promotions. A few years ago, we found a unique way of addressing it by doing a thing called Transplant Tuesdays. We would, on any given Tuesday, focus on the city and the teams and the food and the beer from that city. If it was Pittsburgh, we would talk about the teams of Pittsburgh and it went over really well.
You have to address it. You have to acknowledge it. The other thing too is because of that influx of population into a market where there’s three major universities, not everybody in town is an NC State, Duke or Carolina fan anymore. I mean, as a matter of fact, half of them have no emotional ties to those schools anymore.
DR: I’ll give you an example of exactly what you are talking about. When I got here in 05, I was living in Durham. If I wanted to go watch a football game with other Alabama fans, my only option was 40 minutes away in Garner. Now I have my choice of three different fan groups.
BM: Yeah, like in our meeting today that we had, we were talking about throwing tailgate parties for teams that aren’t even in the Triangle. In fact, Alabama was number one on the list. So I’ll make sure we let you know when that is going to be.
DR: Please do!
BM: But you are right. It’s really something, and I think that’s probably true for any market in the Southeast right now. You have just such an influx of people coming from all over the country. You can’t just ride the coattails of your traditional school and market. You’ve got to think broader.
Meet The Market Managers: Dan Bennett, Cumulus Dallas
“If you want a big job, you better be able to handle the big responsibility. And it’s not just me. It’s all of my department heads. A ton is expected of us. That’s just the way it is.”
I think most people in radio wish their career could look at least a little bit like Dan Bennett’s. The man has worked in the same city and same cluster, working his way up for the past 37 years.
Since 1999, he has served as the vice president and market manager for Cumulus Dallas. His cluster includes some of the company’s most valuable brands including three music stations, two news talkers, and the well known Sports Radio 1310/96.7 The Ticket, a sports radio station every bit as important to the history of the sports talk format as WFAN, WIP or any other station in the Northeast.
The well respected Dallas leader cleared some time from his schedule to connect with me to discuss the challenges of building a bench behind legendary talent, the pressures that come with being a company’s top revenue generator, and why you’ll never hear a host on The Ticket talk about a third string running back at SMU. With nearly four decades of success under his belt, when this man speaks, industry people are wise to listen.
Demetri Ravanos: You’ve been involved with The Ticket for a long time and I’ll get into the specifics of that brand, your talent, and lineup later, but I want to start by focusing on program directors. Not just at The Ticket, but all of your stations. You have six brands to look after. When it comes to filling a key role and determining who to place your faith in to lead a brand forward, what do you look for? Does the desire to be in Dallas for the long haul factor into your decision making?
Dan Bennett: I think that’s really important, and I realize sometimes that people have other opportunities they may want to go and pursue. I think one of the advantages we have is that this is a top five market. Just the other day, they released new market sizes. We’re now number four. Once you get to a top 10 market, you don’t run into the same issues with people wanting to move up and up the way you might in some other places.
I originally came from the programing side. So I tell all of our PDs up front that I listen to all of our stations a lot. I talk to the PDs all the time about product and content and everything else, because it’s real simple, we’re the company’s biggest market for revenue and the only way we’re going to get there is if we get ratings. You can only do so much with mediocre ratings.
I meet with our PD’s every week. I also oversee Houston, KRBE there. I mean, I’m really in tune. When I hear outdated promos or outdated commercials or whatever, I’m texting them. When PD’s come here they know and understand that they’re working for a guy who came from the programing side. And you know, I’m really lucky because my team embraces it. I’d imagine that maybe some people out there wouldn’t like that situation, because most market managers come from sales. I’m fortunate in my career that I’ve been involved in both.
We’re here to win and I’m here to help them do that. I always tell them that I just have one rule. That is when I hear a mistake or something that isn’t right, I’ll let you know about it and don’t ever say it came from me. I don’t want the PD to call somebody and say, “Hey, Dan heard you mispronounce this guy’s name” or “Dan heard you with the date of the promotion being wrong”. What I try to do with the PD’s is I try to empower them.
DR: So is that the way you feel you need to run the building so that you’re comfortable doing the best job that you can? Or if you had a talented programmer at any station who said, “Dan, this is one of the reasons I’m looking for something different is I need to be able to do this on my own”. Is that something you’re open to pulling back on at all?
DB: Look, every department head, including me, has to be accountable to somebody. What you’re describing is “I don’t want to be accountable to anybody”. And that wouldn’t work.
DR: That’s fair.
DB: Even the best PD’s in the country cannot listen to their station 24/7. What I’m here to do is maybe catch something that you didn’t know about and then you can pick up the phone and deal with it. Again, I’m here to be your wingman, not to play a game of gotcha.
DR: So going back to the idea that people stay with your stations for a long time, let’s talk specifically about The Ticket. I’m sure you saw not just in your city, but across the sports broadcasting landscape the emotional reaction towards Mike Rhyner deciding to call it a career. I believe we’re coming up on two years, right?
DB: Yeah. You know, when Mike told me he wanted to hang it up, it was right around Christmas. I told him to take two weeks and think about it because I didn’t want him to have a knee jerk reaction. Rhyner is such character that he came into my office, and in that gruff voice of his, he started out by saying “Dan, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve lost my fastball.” That was his way of telling me it’s time to hang it up.
I believe we’re fair to the air talent. We’ll pay you a good salary, but you’ve got to show up and put points on the board. You know, there’s a lot of people out there that want to go to a big station and make big money. And that’s fine. But you have to do your part and deliver ratings.
DR: Some of those guys that have delivered ratings for you, The Musers, Norm Hitzges, are going to reach a point sometime down the road where they too knock on your office door and say, “Dan, I think it’s time”. You’ve grown with these guys for so long at the radio station, does that make it harder to think about that day or do you sort of fall back on the old college athletic director stereotype of always having a list of five names available because you never know when you’re going to need to pull it out?
DB: This is why we’re always developing people, whether that be a producer that gets to pop on the air every once in a while and next thing you know, they’re on the air or more and more and more. I mean, Corby Davidson came up that way. Danny Balis came up that way.
Shoot, Donovan Lewis, who does the noon show with Norm, he was a board operator who worked for me on KLIF. I’ll tell you how that happened, how we put him on the air. Donovan is one of the best guys in the world and he’s funny. One day I was in the kitchen in the break room and he had about five people around him. He was telling stories and had everybody laughing hysterically. I just sat there and watched this guy who’s a board op, and I remember going to Bruce Gilbert, who didn’t want to do it at the time, and when Bruce left and Jeff Catlin came in as PD, I said “We ought to try this guy, because I think he’s got something. He does stand up in the company kitchen. Plus, he really knows and loves sports. We ought to start just putting him in”. He’s the greatest guy in the world. Everybody loves him. He’s funny and he’s smart about sports.
So we’re constantly looking, whether it is in the break room or in a producer booth or a part time guy on the weekend. Who are we developing for that day when these long term guys decide they don’t want to do it anymore?
DR: I want to circle back on something you said earlier about being the primary market for revenue generation within the company. Last year, every company, every business went through the challenges of the pandemic. When you have the company’s spotlight on your performance, is there added pressure when the whole industry is facing challenges and everyone is trying to figure this thing out on the fly?
DB: Well, I mean we’re the company’s number one market for revenue and cash flow. Yeah, it becomes a lot of responsibility. I’ve been the market manager since 1999. I have been here since 1984. That’s 37 years. I mean, I’m used to the pressure. If you want a big job, then you better be able to handle the big responsibility. And it’s not just me. It’s all of my department heads. A ton is expected of us. That’s just the way it is.
I think this is a really good recent example. I needed another sales manager and felt that I needed to make a change on the music side for reasons I won’t go into. I hired Dawn Girocco, she was our market manager in Los Angeles. When we sold KLOS to the Meruelo group, they didn’t keep her. My belief is when you hire department heads, do not hire beneath you. Hire at your level or somebody who is good at something that you’re not.
Dawn had been a market manager in Los Angeles and I hired her to be the director of music sales. I think that that’s how you deal with the pressure, by having really incredible department heads all around you. People fail at this when they hire beneath themselves. That’s absolutely a fact.
DR: Do you have a vision or blueprint in your mind of what works for an advertising partner in 2021? Do you have a set of trends you can point to, whether it’s Ticket clients or clients at any of your other stations, that you can say “This is what our most successful advertisers are doing. So I know it works across the board”?
DB: Yeah, I do. It’s the association with our talent who have been there many, many years. I mean, the average person on The Ticket has been there for like 22, 23 years.
Getting an endorsement now is way more than a live spot on the air. Now it’s social media and many times it’s a video. It’s a pre-roll video. It’s all these other things that your business can align itself to thru a personality. It isn’t any different than a GEICO ad. Look at all the different famous people that do GEICO ads. We have really well known local people. I will tell you, our music stations have more endorsements by the talent than any music station in town.
I think our talent is the number one asset that we can offer our clients, whether it be through an endorsement, an appearance, or due to the ratings they generate on the radio station. Even if you don’t have a Norm or Donovan doing your endorsement, the fact that your spot is on during our show gives you a better shot at making sure that the commercial works. I just think our best asset is our on-air talent. I really do.
DR: So you talked in there about the idea of an endorsement not just being the live read anymore. And that sort of dovetails into something that I’ve been thinking about a lot across the board, not just with The Ticket or your cluster. Is there any sort of consistency that has developed in terms of trying to get a new client on air? Before it was very much about the personal approach. But now I wonder how much of it is just selling the idea of radio as opposed to all digital or any sort of other new media that there are always deals and plenty of options to get in on?
DB: Well, we sell the concept of radio, your base buy and why. It really is involved in selling it in combination with digital. We try every time we go out to combine the two. Some people buy it on that. Some people don’t. When you can take two different mediums like digital and radio and even some of the podcasts that our guys do and combine them all together, then you have a consistent message, which is important. Then you can make it all work in concert with one another, and have a better chance of being successful. I think radio is doing a better job of embracing this thing called digital, but not by selling it and abandoning radio, but by making them run in concert with one another.
DR: Let me ask you about the social side for a minute, because part of my job with Barrett Sports Media is studying brands all over the country. I would say, looking at social, The Ticket is a little less active than most major market stations. I wonder, is that something you want to see improve or is that a strategic choice on your part?
DB: Do you mean in terms of the advertiser and being incorporated into our social media?
DR: Not just that. I mean just the amount of content you guys put out on social.
DB: Well, yeah. Quite frankly, Jeff Catlin and I have talked a lot about this. I think we need to do more of it.
We’ve got a guy that we hired on The Wolf, Jason Pulman, to do afternoon drive. It’s a heavy personality show. The guy is just entrenched in social and the amount of ratings he’s been able to generate in four months has been unbelievable. So I think that’s probably an area that we can improve and do more of. I think you’re going to see that elevated over the next three to six months.
We’re always looking at ourselves and asking, “if you were a competitor to us, how would you come at us?”. You know, we can’t get so full of ourselves that we think we can’t get beat. Everybody can get beat somehow.
DR: Honestly, that’s why the question was, is it a strategic choice? Because I’m not even sure that it is incorrect necessarily, because one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year is that not everybody in the industry has had success selling digital products. Maybe they’ve had success selling it as part of a package with on air. But I’ve often found myself wondering if, as an industry radio has put more focus on digital than it is ready to at this point.
DB: You’ve got to be careful. I’ll give you a perfect start. Believe me, we are focused on digital. We’re focused on selling it. However, in the last Miller Kaplan in the market, this is the whole market, 83 percent of all the revenue was still spot revenue. So, the careful thing there is don’t take your eye off 83 percent chasing some other shiny object.
That’s why any sales presentation really needs to incorporate both. Look, social and all that, that’s great. Whatever the air talent do, that’s great, but if the content that comes through the speakers isn’t good, I mean, you can promote on social media crappy content and they’re not going to listen to it. That’s why you’ve got to watch all of it, because it’s not just one thing. It never is.
DR: I’d love your insights on the growth of Dallas as a sports radio market. You guys have remained this behemoth even as challengers have arisen. 105.3 The Fan has tightened the race, but you’re no stranger to local sports radio competition. There’s never been a moment where another sports/talk station could say ‘we’ve firmly put The Ticket in the rearview mirror’. What do you attribute that to?
DB: One of the most important things is to always keep your feet firmly on the ground and not get full of yourself. We’ve all had bad books or books where there was a hiccup or whatever.
I do think one of the things that is dramatically changing, and I think Covid had a big effect on this, is the way people consume radio and sports radio. Many times you are listening through your phone. Most guys nowadays don’t have a clock radio on their nightstand. They get up in the morning and they stream The Ticket. The last book, 50 percent of The Ticket’s ratings were coming from streaming. A contact of mine at Nielsen said that there is no radio station in America that comes close to that.
So many of these men that listen to us had to work from home. And here we are a year later and still 50 percent is being consumed on stream. I mean, that’s changed dramatically. That’s why a station like The Ticket is total line reporting. We did that in October and it’s been a big help.
DR: What’s funny is you talked about most guys not having a clock radio in their house anymore. I’ve got an 11 year old daughter and we have just sort of gone through the fight of you cannot sleep with your iPad and phone in your room anymore. We went out to buy her a clock radio and found very few clocks include a radio anymore. I mean, it’s so crazy that alarm clocks, it seems, are very much embracing the idea that this is not where people listen anymore.
DB: You’re right. That’s why we’ve got to be accessible. Any of the platforms like Alexa that we’re available on, we have to be sure that we’re able to count those ratings. Before we went to total line reporting, we weren’t able to do that.
Here we had a whole bunch of listening sitting over on our stream, but we weren’t able to count any of it. Of course, when you go to do that, you know Nielsen is going to charge more money. But we made that decision and it was the right one for us.
DR: We recently ran this piece on the strategy of selling news stations and sports stations as a combo, and received a lot of feedback from all over the country that it’s now harder than ever before because there are so many advertisers that view news talk radio as the the shining example of the divide in this country. Some feel being associated with it, whether you mean to or not, means that you’re choosing sides. Are you seeing that in Dallas?
DB: Yeah. The thing is when we had Rush Limbaugh, we would have certain, mainly national advertisers that wouldn’t want to run on his show. We have two teams. We have a news, talk and sports team, and we have a music team on our sales staff. However, if a music seller has somebody that wants The Ticket and there’s nobody calling on that account on the news/talk/sports side, they can go over and sell it.
There is a bit of that with conservative talk radio. There’s always going to be, but I think it was more of a national issue and more about Rush Limbaugh than anybody else.
DR: Really? I’ve been critical of of news talk because I think one of the format’s failings is that for so long, programmers were just looking for the next Rush. Even though he’s no longer with us, there are still plenty of clones doing a similar show. It’s interesting to hear that for the most part, what you saw was specifically with Limbaugh.
DB: Most of the pushback that we have gotten is from national accounts. Now, I am not going to tell you who, but we have a car dealer in this town. It’s a big one. They won’t advertise on The Ticket because of the content.
DB: Yeah, they think there’s too much innuendo and guy talk and discussion about the sophomoric things that oftentimes get brought up on a sports station. They just won’t do it, and they’re a big advertiser. So, it can happen on the sports side, too, when somebody doesn’t want to be associated with something that they deem not appropriate.
I think on the news talk side, and boy, we’ve really worked at this, the biggest problem is that so many of the talent want to get on the air and jam their agenda down your throat rather than playing the hits. We had to have some pretty intense meetings with a couple of people on the air on our news talk stations. I said, “you’re jamming your agenda down people’s throats and you’re trying to change their minds”. When people are 40 or 45 or 50 or 55 years old, you’re not going to change their political sway in one way or the other. The best thing you can do to attract a bigger audience is play the hits.
Just like in sports radio, when Dak Prescott blew out his leg, that was the story. If you’re on the air in this town and you aren’t talking about what happened in yesterday’s game to Dak, you’re not playing the hits. I think a lot of these news talk shows just totally quit playing the hits, and they wanted every day to jam a political agenda, that’s part of why I think news talk struggled.
We had to make some real fundamental changes with a few of our talent to start playing the hits or this wasn’t going to work anymore. Fortunately, we’ve made a lot of progress.
DR: You brought up the advertiser that objects to what you called the sophomore nature of The Ticket. I do feel like I need to ask you, you’ve got this great bit on The Musers of the Fake Jerry Jones that sometimes performs better than the real Jerry Jones calling into the competition. You have been with the station through its whole run. There has to be a moment that you can point to and say “that is when I knew our approach to sports radio was perfect for this market”.
DB: I was at Susquehanna. We bought The Ticket in 1996. I’ll just say somebody in the company said, “well, we need to change those guys and talk about real sports”. And I said, “no, no, no, no, no. You don’t understand. They’re on to something, and what we’ve got to do is we have to champion it, encourage it, support it”.
Look, if you’ve ever gone to a game with a group of guys, just think back in your life. One time we took a group of clients to a Mavericks game in San Antonio. And at the time, I was probably in my mid 40s. You know, it’s a bunch of guys and everybody’s married and we’re on this trip and it was just clients. It was everything from a discussion about the game, to who’s going to go get the next beer, to “Oh my God, look at what just walked right outside of the arena!” and they’re pointing at some attractive woman.
Guys don’t sit around and just talk about sports statistics all day. They talk about every aspect of sports, which includes the camaraderie, the game, the crazy people in the stands, the next beer. I think what The Ticket tapped into is the mindset of the ideal listener. They’re not so myopic in their view about sports. The people who fail at this or the people that, get on the air and want to talk about the third team running back for SMU. Well, I’m sorry, but nobody cares. I think what our guys have done is they’ve tapped into what men really talk about.
Kind of an interesting example is my wife. She grew up with four brothers. She was the only girl. She loves The Ticket, is a P1, listens every morning. Okay, so why is that? Well, because she grew up with four brothers and understands brother humor and gets it. You know what’s interesting? When I run into women who don’t like it, many times they are women didn’t grow up with brothers.
The Ticket tapped into how guys think, how guys act, what guys want to talk about, and they’re just really in tune with the demo. That’s why The Ticket has been a success. We aren’t so myopic that all we do is talk about serious sports, but a lot of these sports stations, that’s what they do. They don’t get it.
What they do is they go out and hire a sports writer. Well, I can tell you, I’ve tried that. I’ll tell you, most of the time it doesn’t work. You’d be better off hiring a guy at the end of the bar who holds court every night and and talks sports. Hire somebody like that.
Meet The Market Managers: Ivy Savoy-Smith, Audacy Washington DC
“We’re just efficient and we can show you that. We can show you by the qualitative of our listeners. We can show you the research and I can show you who my listeners are, where they live, how much money they make, how smart they are, and what types of jobs they have.”
Ivy Savoy-Smith has been leading Audacy’s Washington, DC cluster since December 2019. That doesn’t mean she is new to the seven-station cluster by any means. The Maryland native has spent virtually her whole life in the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) and the majority of her entire career inside the same building.
Being a local is important in the nation’s capitol. It means something different to the people that grew up there than it does to those who relocate there to work in government, defense or the lobbyist industry. If you’re a transplant, DC is built on politics. If you grew up inside the Beltway though, you know shutting out politics is important to maintaining your sanity.
A big part of the success of 106.7 The Fan has been due to the station’s ability to do just that – shut out politics. Ivy told me that it’s a big part of what’s helped the station remain strong when competing for advertising dollars against powerhouse news/talkers like WTOP and WMAL. As strong as The Fan has been, it’s no longer the lone brand inside Audacy DC headquarters. 2020 ended with Audacy adding another weapon to its sports radio arsenal when the company struck a deal with Radio One to acquire Team 980. With two familiar local brands operating under one roof in a city that loves sports and isn’t afraid to spend to be associated with it, Ivy and her team like their chances, even if politics occasionally cause a little chaos.
Demetri Ravanos: You were born and raised in the DMV-area, right outside of DC. I think for those of us from the outside, it’s hard to understand what that is like, because politics is what keeps the town ticking to a certain extent. And because of that, it becomes part of people’s everyday life and everyday conversation because everybody knows somebody that works in that field. With that being the case, how important is it that your sports stations be a pure escape from those conversations? I would imagine that is a real selling point, not only for listeners, but also talking to advertisers too.
Ivy Savoy-Smith: Absolutely it is. Our sports stations are just that. They are an escape from everything. We’re here to engage our listeners with great conversation about what’s going on, to have unbiased content that we’re talking about in the sports world, and to give them an opportunity to then engage with our talent over their thoughts and opinions. Obviously, we dive in sometimes when sports transcends, into other things. You have some athletes that maybe doing something in the music world or in the political world, so we will touch on it a bit, but at the end of the day, we are an escape for people. We want you to come to 106.7 The Fan or The Team 980 to listen and hear great content about your favorite and even your not-so-favorite teams here in the in the DMV.
DR: With it being such a transient area, I would imagine that there are plenty of the hometown teams that some of your listeners hate as well.
ISS: Exactly! I mean that is the awesome thing about sports. We have fans all over for the Junkies. I can’t tell you how many listeners that we have for the Sports Junkies who may have left the DMV and don’t live here anymore, but they have that option of listening to the station and still feeling like they’re right here. It’s just a great opportunity. People can still listen to their favorite sports teams wherever they live with streaming and with so many options that we have that are available now for people that weren’t available years ago.
DR: Whether it’s you or people at various levels on your sales staff, when you’re talking to potential clients, WTOP is the highest billing station in America. It’s right there in your backyard. WMAL is also a legendary news/talk station that is very strong. How do you approach local businesses spending money on those stations and hammer home the idea that it benefits them to buy sports on The Fan or Team 980 in addition to News Talk?
ISS: We’re just efficient and we can show you that. We can show you by the qualitative of our listeners. We can show you the research and I can show you who my listeners are, where they live, how much money they make, how smart they are, and what types of jobs they have. Our time spent listening with our sports stations is high. So again, it’s the quality of the listener and you have them engaged. That also goes a long way with a client’s commercial messaging on our stations. We have affluent listeners. Obviously they’re male-dominant stations that we have right there at that median age of the 48 or 49 year old man, who has been working, who has a disposable income.
So we’re able to deliver that more well-rounded buy than, I would say our competitors can. When you think about a TOP or an MAL, and not to take anything away from those two stations. They’re two good stations for news content, but they’re older-skewing stations. Our median age of who were reaching has disposable income and are spending and are engaged, versus some of our competition. They’re on the older end.
Let’s talk about “qualified.” When I’m talking to clients about that, it’s like, “I’m giving you qualified leads. Who’s going to come into your business? Who has more propensity to purchase than someone who isn’t? Who is set in their way and doesn’t need to purchase your product? Who is already comfortable? Who already has these things? Or do you want the person who is going to buy, is looking to buy, is thinking about buying, and has the money to purchase?” We make sure that we’re having that conversation with each and every client that we’re talking to. It’s a different conversation every time based on, obviously, the client in the category. But yes, we are a viable talk station that has listeners who engage, who listen longer, who have the income to come into your locations, and who are in our key demographics. We’re right here to compete with those other stations, and we do a pretty good job of it – and more efficiently I’ll say.
DR: You used the phrase “different conversations” and that feels like a good way to dive into the city’s two biggest sports radio brands now being inside the same building. Your group added Team 980 and the reconfigured lineup at the moment very much has its own identity. It’s not treated like an afterthought. I do wonder what the long term play is for the station or if you even have thought that far ahead yet. The Fan is such a powerhouse in the sports format, at some point I wonder if it just makes more sense to quit splitting the focus and devote all the resources to the top bread winner.
ISS: Absolutely not. We are committed to Team 980 and we feel like it is a great complement to The Fan. Yes, The Fan is our powerhouse and we take nothing away from that, but The Team is also a viable radio station that is a heritage brand and it has a very loyal base of listeners. We’ve made some changes because we want it to evolve with the marketplace right now and with our listener’s demands.
We want The Team to be a complement to The Fan as a sports station, not a one dimensional station. The demographics are similar, but yet they are different in some key ways. The team has a higher comp of African-Americans. The station does very well in Prince Georges County, an area that is very affluent with African-American males. The Fan does very well in Fairfax County with their key demographics. The station’s mirror each other in the right way. You’re getting all men with both stations as opposed to one brand reaching one type of man and the other station reaching another type of man. By having them both, we’re able to deliver the total demographic with 106.7 the Fan and Team 980.
I believe they’re efficient together and it’s a well-rounded buy. All of the games we carry, they’re going to transcend. So even though one station may carry it, we’re still going to talk about it on the other station. That’s what we’re doing with The Team that hasn’t been done. We’re giving Washingtonians and the DMV options and opportunities to listen to both stations. They’re going to get something different from both stations that we believe they’re going to enjoy.
DR: Is that something that you and Chris Kinard had to talk about with candidates, be it for the hosting roles or producing roles? Did you have to make it crystal clear that Team 980 is important to Audacy because it serves a purpose that The Fan can’t or accomplishes a certain goal that The Fan can’t in order to assuage any fears they may have because it’s an AM signal versus an FM signal and it’s not going to be treated the same way in the building?
ISS: Chris and I’ve known each other for 20 years. He’s been with the company as long as I have. So immediately we knew that we were going to make a few tweaks with the station. Overall, 980 is a heritage radio station. It is a brand that has done very, very well in the marketplace. We just wanted to continue that and also enhance it. But immediately we made sure that it was one team, because when you’ve been on opposite sides and you’ve been competing for years, obviously it’s going to be different that day when you make the announcement that your number one competitor is now in the building. So we wanted to make sure, with both teams, to be as transparent as possible. It is one team now. You both bring valuable assets to the table. It does not have to be one or the other. If we do this right, we complement each other.
So the same conversation that we had with them internally is the same conversation I had with the buying community externally, because it is the same conversation. They complement each other. Does it have to be one or the other? It’s worked really well. I will tell you that I am proud of them. They have worked well together and we do a lot together with them. If The Fan hears of one thing, we immediately let The Team know and vice versa. And that’s because everyone knows their strengths. And when everyone knows their strengths and their value and you’re transparent, I think it goes a long way. That’s the difference maker.
DR: We did a story not too long ago at the site about the uniqueness of 980’s lineup with Travis Thomas and Reese Waters airing back to back. I looked this up to confirm. It is the only station in America where you have solo hosts, both African-American, neither are former athletes, airing back to back anywhere in the country. Was that a conscious choice in terms of the positioning? Like you said, 980 has historically performed better with the African-American community. Or was it just a matter of this is where these two sort of fit in the overall lineup and by happy accident, we stumbled on something unique to sports radio?
ISS: I wish I could take credit for that, but that is not the case. I have to give all credit to Chris Kinard, because he was the one who spearheaded this lineup and was adamant about Travis. We worked with Travis before and thought that he was a great talent and when it made sense we we’re going to put him somewhere. When 980 came up, it was just the perfect time. Reese, the same thing. We’ve worked with Reese Waters for years on different things. Chris has wanted him for some time, even when Reese was at ESPN. So Chris knew a lot of their strengths and the different things that they bring to the table. And he liked that. So those were really the reasons it worked out this way. I mean, it took a little creativity to rework the slots. It just so happened with the timing that when everything came about with Team, it was like, “OK, now we know where we can put these guys and bring them into the Audacy family.”
DR: Speaking of Chris Kinard, he has spent his entire career with the company. You mentioned the two of you have worked together for a long time. What have you seen change in him as he has ascended up the ladder from starting out as a producer to now being considered one of the format’s very best programmers anywhere in the country?
ISS: Oh, he definitely is! As I have evolved at the station, we’ve kind of evolved together. He also handles operations for the entire cluster. Chris is a creative genius, but he will also will get in the trenches with you. His guys respect him because he will work with them and he is very transparent. He does the work and gets in front of things.
I will say from a market manager’s standpoint, he is the best. If he comes to me with an issue, he already has an answer for it. He doesn’t walk into the office and say “we’ve got this problem. What are we going to do, Ivy?”. It’s, “hey, we have this problem, Ivy. And I think I have the answer to the problem,” and that’s something that you don’t get all the time. He’s a team player and he listens, and that’s critical.
Chris is not afraid to listen to what other brand managers and PDs are doing across the country at their sports stations. When he sees that they’re doing something great, he’ll reach out and say, “Hey Ivy, I just saw in Philly, they’re doing this, maybe it’s something we can tweak for DC”. He’s always looking and thinking about what else can he do next.
It goes back to Travis and the Reese. He’s always looking at that bench too and thinking, “who are tomorrow’s up and coming star talents? Who’s going to bring that fresh new energy to the team and the talent that we need?” So, for instance, when all of this happened with Team 980, some of the things that we needed to do were already in his head. To me, Chris is the best in the business.
DR: You mentioned before that you’ve been in the building together for a long time. I would imagine that both of you sort of shared major life moments with one another. But now that you are his boss, was there any sort of difficulty in the transition of the relationship? You know, we have this deep familiarity, we’re friends and peers, but now it’s become technically a boss/employee situation. How does the relationship make it easier to navigate thru that?
ISS: I can’t speak for Chris, but it may be easier for me. There’s a confidence at this level of knowing that I have someone that I can trust. I know his work ethic. I know he cares about what he does. He cares about his work. More importantly, he cares about his staff and he will run through a wall for them. I love that he is that way.
Coming into this role and knowing that I had him as my brand manager over The Fan at the time, and since then promoted him to operations manager. Then of course, we acquired The Team, and I knew it’d work because again, I trust him. I know that I don’t have to worry about anything with Chris.
So the transition has worked fine for us. We sat down and went over how does this role look for me, what are my expectations over what he’s doing? There really wasn’t much to change, but obviously we had a conversation and our relationship changed a little bit. But that’s okay, because guess what, I told him “you’ve been doing a good job even before I sat in this seat. So nothing’s really changing for you. You’re going to continue to do what you’re doing. And if anything, I hope me being in this position just empowers you to do more because, I support you and I have your back.
DR: Audacy has certainly done a very good job of making sure that women are in charge of buildings across the entire landscape. From the smallest markets to the biggest, the company seems to have a real focus on putting women in positions of leadership. Being a black woman in that position, unfortunately, still is kind of a rare thing though. I wonder if that makes you willing and eager to be a mentor for the next generation of black women that want to reach the same spot or if it feels more important to advocate for changing minds and addressing biases that may exist at the top.
ISS: I think it’s both. I would love to have more black women with a seat at the table. I would love more opportunity for that. I mentor women whenever I get a chance. I’m in a couple of women in sales advisory groups and councils where I mentor women as a whole and from all backgrounds. So I’m always excited to mentor and elevate women in any capacity that they want to be in, especially in sales, because it has always been a male dominated industry, not just radio, but just sales in general as well. So that’s important.
I also want to make sure that we are recruiting and networking at historically black colleges and universities. If we’re trying to reach women of color, we’ve got to go where they are, right? I think we have done that in the office with Audacy. We do have a fellowship program that we have partnered with Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College in Atlanta. Part of that is so that we are having conversations and we’re inviting people who are interested in sales into our program so that we can mentor them and to help bring them into the industry because we do want that.
It is very critical and very important because we have to have different voices and different opinions that bring about different conversations. And you have to have an open mind and hear things differently. That’s how you help to create change.
DR: I do want to ask you about the departure of Chad Dukes. I know that had to be a tough situation to manage. You were pretty early in your tenure as market manager. It’s a tough call to make and due to the nature of the offense, you had to show some discretion. You didn’t want to damage anything regarding The Fan as a brand. I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the conversations that you had with advertisers after you made that call. I’m sure that some get used to being in business with a particular host and when he’s gone and you can’t give all the answers they’re looking for, it leaves questions.
ISS: Well, that was a very tough decision early on in my career. I mean, I’ve known Chad for years. I’ve known Chad since he started. No decision like that is easy, okay? Not with anyone and especially not one like that, but it was necessary and it’s a part of what we have to do as managers. We have no tolerance with that. Our company doesn’t.
Having that conversation with clients actually wasn’t as difficult because most understand our policy. They have it as well in their workplace. It was just unfortunate because of the climate and because it’s happened in most companies, and it’s happened one too many times. Unfortunately, the familiarity with it was something that they had. So it wasn’t as tough a conversation as you might think with most clients. If anything, I got quite a few clients who reached out to me to say sorry, which there was no need for a client to do that. But I had quite a few clients who actually did.
DR: What about inside the building? Your team had to be looking for answers about their colleague, someone who was with them for a long time. How did you handle it with them?
ISS : This is very personal for a lot of people in our building. I’m very transparent. Chad worked with us for quite a while. Over 12 years. Chad had a lot of friends in the building and still does, and rightfully so. Those are his relationships, and when you work with someone every day, you form friendships and bonds.
It wasn’t something that I looked forward to doing, but again, it was necessary to have those conversations. Anyone who felt that they needed a separate conversation about it, my door was open so that we could talk about it. I will say that did not happen. I do think conversation is the first step to moving forward if you’re feeling any kind of way. That was what I asked of the staff. If you have any issues, please feel free to reach out to me separately and we will have a separate conversation.
DR: I think it’s really interesting with 980 in the building now, because you have The Fan, which is a really strong brand. 980 is a heritage station that you guys have inherited and are trying to reinvent, and it is now on strong footing. If those two stations stayed what they were from now until the end of our existence, nobody would say boo about it because they are both successful. But that’s not our business. Right? So how do you figure out what the next evolution is in terms of overall health of a station? I mean business, programming, branding, everything. And for each one, how do you get there?
ISS: With the Fan, I think we continue to do what we’re doing. We provide the best sports content, the best interviews, the best relationships that we have for our listeners, the best engagement, the best talent that continues to give it 110 percent. I think we continue to do that. We continue to have both stations cross promote each other and to help each other out across the table and listen to what our listeners want. Give our listeners what they want.
They want information. They want content. They want breaking news. They want it first with us because they know that we’re going to give it to them. Our personalities are going to talk about it without any bias. We’re going to say exactly what’s going on in the sports world and with whomever did what. And I think that’s what we’ll continue to do. We just have to stick to that and, continue being first with news and information from the sports world and staying connected to our listeners.
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