Why does sports talk radio have such a solid footing in both Charlotte and Raleigh but not the Triad?
First off it comes down to commitment to the format. Sports talk spread like wildfire in the mid 1990’s and all three areas started offering the genre roughly about the same time. In Greensboro it was the fondly remembered 1320 The Ticket, in Charlotte 610 The Franchise (though I am not sure if they used the moniker at the start) and 850 The Buzz in Raleigh.The latter two have become stalwarts of the format with hosts whom get national attention and respect. And in the case of The Packman a modest fiefdom of affiliates.
In Greensboro and the Triad however despite the support of the press and a steadily growing fanbase The Ticket in the end became a causalty of the consolidation binge of federak deregulation. So in late summer 1998 the fotmat just finally disappeared. For the next five years The Triad was a proverbial sports talk wasteland.Sure you had Andy popping up from time to time, and occasionally some of the news talk stations would throw a little bone by running the format for filler nights and weekends. But essentially the format was given up for dead.
Then as if out of the blue, straining thru the static at the end of the dial, there was a new player in the field calling itself “The only game in town”. Even though the appearance of this station would lead to yours truly getting a little foothold in the business it was obvious to this observer that the deck was stacked against this organization from the outset. First off was an owner whom is now actually out of the radio game, but whom only got in to flip stations over. This is not a bad business model, hey ‘The Doc’ made out like a bandit on every station he ever owned. However this type of policy makes it hard to build a listener base because one is not given the tools to properly compete.No where was this more true than at ESPN 1590.
In my view though the problem mainly lies with those four letters. ESPN is a great TV network but they are just lacking in my mind when it comes to the sports talk side of the coin. Mike and Mike are blowhards who don’t actually say anything of substance during the entire four hours they are on air. Colin Cowherd is a Jim Rome wannabe with a little dash of The Freak thrown in for flavor, but lacking the compelling nature both of those host provide. Dan Patrick is ok, but he is and will always be more of a TV talking head. The overnight programming is what it is, but then again the nighttime pattern of this station made any nighttme programming inmaterial to 98% of the audienceÂ Plus this station was just hamstrung by engineering problems that were neglected which hurt the listeners ability to properly listen. Perhaps most galling was something that is called ‘motorboarding’ which is what the ‘thump’ thump’ sound you could hear under the automated programming. People all over the Triad at this time were getting out of their cars and looking under the hood thinking something was wrong with their car while in reality it was just us! `
But as our bretheren in the capital and queen city can attest, a sports talk station only goes far as the local hosts can take them. Well Bill Madden is great guy, and I will always owe him a debt of gratitude, but lets just say his show was lacking. Perhaps it was his choice of a co-hort in Jason Troop. Never in the history of this market has their ever been anyone less well informed about what this market is about. At first I gave them the benefit of the doubt because they were new to the area. But in December of 2003 UNC lost to Wake in an epic four overtime affair on a Saturday afternoon that should have served as a focus for the show the following Monday. Instead the conversation the following Monday consisted of half baked takes on the weekend of NFL action and a pointless discussion of Brittney Spears. Finally in the final segment the game was mentioned in passing! Well this elicited a scathing email to Bill, which eventually lead to my alter ego of ‘ Paulie Walnuts’. First though the listening audience would be subjected to another few months of Bill and Troops bad takes. In the spring though a new voice would be heard, that would be Maurice ‘Big Mo’ Stanfield. a couple of months later their would be another addition in the persona of Charles ‘Mac Daddy” MacNeil.
However even with the stability these two provided the station still struggled. In part this was due to the fact they were hamstrung by having to sell all day and therefore they could not give the show the attention it needed. Also they, much like Bill, were initially undone by a poor crew backing them. First off Troop was more concerned with Hi-Toms baseball and he was phased out, and the guy they had for a prodcuer initiallly just lacked the commitment or knowledge they needed. However on a hunch, and I think in part because they knew I was dying for the opportunity, they handed the production duties to yours truly. And to their credit they were patient while I adjusted to the position. They also actually listened to my suggestions in terms of where the program needed to be focused. In short time the show started to gain momentum. And it even gained more when Mac went home as Mo was no longer tied down by the built in constaints a co-host presents. This is not to take anything away from Mac, he was awfully good to me, but Mo is just better solo.
While this was going on though forces were starting to conspire against them. First off The Ball came into the market with a blitzkrieg of billboards and a stick to ESPN 1590 attitude that our management was neither ready to match nor which they wanted to get into a battle with. For a while the strategy of staying above the fray worked as Marc Amazon was showing his ignorance to the marketplace. However in the late winter of 2005 in the span of only a couple of weeks both Bill and Mac left for what would turn out to be greener pastures. And Bills replacement, a woman of no account named Carrie Armstrong, was bought in to run the station. Now she was bought in not because she had real expertise in sports talk or radio in general, but because her father is a broker of radio stations who was assisting in finding the buyer who now owns this frequency.
Still Mo and myself trudged on, but it soon became obvious to us both that the situation was quickly becoming unbearable. The nadir for myself was when Carrie started trying to input her footprint on the program even though she could care less about sports. Now one can get away with this in some formats, but in sport talk I feel it is essential that the station is run by those who actually understand what they are covering.Eventually this lead to pretty much of a complete falling out asÂ I left to pursue what looked at the time as greener pastures. This was facilitated by the fact that there was an untrustworthy addition to our staff in the person of L.A. Batchelor. a below average salesperson and dry as dust announcer whom used the power of being a tattletale to drive divisiveness in order to allow for his moving up the ranks of this corporate stepstool.
Well this allowed this fifth rate talent to do the local segments in the morning and to produce Mo’s show in the afternoons. And lets just say that in my mind the dropoff in quality was obvious. Mo’s show went from sounding like the multi racial cosmopolitan mix I envisioned into a drab one note sounding affair with an overly urban influence. And the morning segments with LA are perhaps the most painful this side of a first semester student over at WQFS or WUAG. That is when he could be bothered to show up for the shift. Then again by this time it was obvious to all still involved that they were just playing out the string and as 2005 turned to 2006 the station itself was on life support. The final sign was when Mo was let go. Eventually within a couiple of months the station was sold and the plug mercifully pulled. Mo moved on to a reunion with Bill Madden at Talk Star and also into the position as play by play man for Winston Salem State. Mac now sells cable adverstising back in Augusta Georgia and LA is still riding Mo’s coattails as perhaps the worst color commentator in this history of sport.Â
Well now The Ball is rolling down much the same path. But to their credit they are at least trying somewhat with local cut in’s during morning and afternoon drive and at least a regional focus with the programs the ship in from 610 in Charlotte. The Ball however has never done well on the sales side, and without any income it makes it hard to validate continuing the format. Perhaps the ownership just cannot think of anything else to do with the signal. But I will be real surprised if they are still here a year from now.
The question now must be asked, what can the next stationÂ do to at least give themselves a fighting chance.
First, stay away from the usual suspects to head up your sales staff, too often the sales are put in the hands of no account ‘vets’ who have failed miserably in every single format they have ever worked in. Bring in someone outside of radio whom has sales experience and let them develop a plan and stick with it if it works. Also don’t get on a moral high horse when it comes to advertisers. The genre is most attractive to estabilshments which cater to an adult crowd, and there are also advertisers whom have a limited number of options in terms of advertising and it is my observation these places will just jump on the chance. And don’t make your host sell, let him concertrate on providing the best programming possible.
Far as programming goes go with someone who understands the local scene without being too focused upon it, one must be prepared to talk local and one has to know the scene for credibility. But there is a fine line between being balanced and coming off like a local yokel. Matt & TJ understood this all too well. They were the unquestioned masters in the art of tying in a local subject to the regional or national picture and visa versa. Also have local shows in both morning and afternoon drive, this will show a true commitment to the area. And encourage your hosts to be a little daring and controversial, especially when it comes to the area teams. Don’t hire someone because they are an ex-jock, hire people who will be compelling. Too often ex-jocks know their positon, but lack the overall understanding needed to discuss a subject or whom hold their former bretheren is such esteem that they sugarcoat the subject. No one ever got anywhere in this genre by being nice.
Get on FM or at least on an AM with a decent nighttime pattern. People are more apt to stay with you when they know that you can always be heard. Signal size is almost secondary, the main goal is to be listenable to as many people for as long as possible. Plus this will make it more appealing to adverstisers.
Make yourself visable at every applicable event. There is no reason why there should not be a persoal presence or at least signage at every single sports event in the area. Also get yourself in the clubs and bars as well, that is a great way to expose people who might not ever bother to tune in otherwise. Radio listenership is declinging accorss the board so one has to be creative in their approach and marketing to get a foothold. This can be done, but suffice it to say that the staus quo must change in order for any sports station in this market to succeed.