The Evolution of Sports Talk Radio


(By Deborah Parenti) Before stepping up to the consultant plate, Jason Barrett was a successful sports radio program director. Over his 20 years at mar­kets including San Francisco and St. Louis, Jason had the opportunity to work with, and to coach, some of the most accomplished broadcasters in the country, among them Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Sean Salisbury, Doug Gottlieb, Chuck Wilson, D’Marco Farr, Chris Dimino, Brandon Tierney, Eric Davis, and others. In August 2015, he launched Barrett Sports Media, a full-service sports programming and marketing company that works with sports radio and television companies, professional sports teams, and sports agencies, in developing and building their brands.

The format used to focus on what happened inside the lines and follow the direction of the caller. Now the content revolves around what happens outside the lines and the interaction (calls, texts, tweets, and Facebook — not just phone activity) that follows is tied to what the host is interested in. I also feel the pace, production value, and variety of content have become more focused and crisp. On-air talent has also become more comfortable living their lives on the air, displaying their flaws and having fun. We hear much more guy talk and discussion similar to what we’d hear in a sports bar rather than the old stuffy sports broadcasts we were privy to in the ’80s and ’90s.

Radio Ink: Thirty years has also brought a new generation of “digital natives.” What has been the impact of social media-savvy millennials on sports radio programming?
Barrett: We’re living and operating in an A.D.D. world. If you can’t grab the audience’s attention quickly, they’re gone. It’s why the best talent and content now revolves around drama and opinion. If those two qualities are included in the content presentation, people will emo­tionally connect to the station, show, and host.

Social media has taught us that the conversation doesn’t end when the show does. People now expect their favorite personalities to be available to them before, during, and after their shows, and our atten­tion is no longer on only one screen. You have to multi-task and be “on” more than ever. In a nutshell, life is content, and what we used to think was sepa­rate from the job is now potential material for the next day’s show.

Radio Ink: Speaking of social media, how would you grade its use by sports radio? What are the most effective social media tools, and which are underutilized by radio?
Jason Barrett: Many sports radio stations are skilled at pushing content to the audience. They also do a good job of tap­ping into their creativity and making their personalities look fun and relatable. The peek behind the curtain has become attractive to sports talk listeners. Given that sports is one of the most popular discussions on social media, it’s natural for sports radio hosts to be more involved and engaged with listeners in the space than other formats that lack the same emotional connectivity.

That said, many brands treat Facebook like it’s the old MySpace, yet it’s where most people begin and end their day. It’s much more popular than Twitter and has become today’s newspaper. I don’t subscribe to the belief that it’s only for old people and millennials don’t care about it. As a whole, on-air talent and radio sta­tion pages could be much more interactive on Facebook, especially when listeners respond to topics or submit questions to a brand’s page. I think using Facebook Live to interact with an audience is smart, especially during or immediately after live sporting events.

Radio Ink: You have the broadcast rights for a major league franchise that is currently in the cellar. How do you hold the interest of the audience and keep advertis­ers happy during a lackluster season? What other elements can help a sports talk radio station win?
Jason Barrett: First thing to do is set a realistic goal and articulate the vision internally. If you’re building a team from the bottom, you need to recognize that it’s going to take time to reach the Promised Land. Focus on self-improve­ment and growth, not whether or not you dominate the market in 12 months. The goal shouldn’t be to put the other sports talker out of business, it should be to create a second strong-performing sports radio brand that gets listeners, advertisers, and sports teams excited. In many markets there’s no reason two sports stations can’t thrive and keep each other on their toes. That’s good for everyone, especially listeners and clients.

To continue, though, on the building part, the reason why a coach like Bill Parcells was successful is because he’d start at the bottom, build his foundation, make adjustments, and within three or four years compete for titles. It may sound great to say you’re going to be num­ber one when you’re in last place, but you lose credibility with the industry, your advertisers, and most impor­tantly, your people, when you promise to accomplish something in a certain period of time that’s unrealistic.

Instead, take inventory of what you have. Figure out who is part of the puzzle and who isn’t. Challenge everyone in your organization to step their game up — and those who don’t respond will ultimately need to be replaced by others who can get the job done. Sports are built around competition, and the same holds true in radio. You should be driven to win but also smart enough to recognize that it takes time find­ing the right people, introducing an effective strategy, and converting people from being casual listeners to hardcore fans.

You set reachable goals that you can hold the staff accountable to along the way. Celebrate those mini-successes, and keep your eyes on the short-term and long-term plans. Make sure, too, that your company has a long-term view and isn’t expecting an over­night success. Remember, if it were simple taking a team from 30th in the ratings to first, someone else would’ve done it sooner. Be patient and assemble a brand that has the ability to last the test of time, not be remembered as a one-hit wonder.

Radio Ink: Is it possible to grow the format beyond its tradi­tional young male demo? And if so, how?
Barrett: Yes, but some of it depends on the market, the talent, and the vision of the station/company. The for­mat has brands like The Ticket and The Fan in Dallas, KFAN in Minneapolis, The Zone in Nashville, The Ticket in Detroit, and WEEI and The Sports Hub in Boston all enjoying large success outside the Men 25-54 demo. Some operate in cities with tremendous passion and interest for sports talk, and they serve those fans with highly opinionated personalities and a ton of sports play-by-play. In other instances, guy talk is a focus, and brands create a vibe that makes hardcore listeners feel like they’re friends of the family and part of a special club.

In each instance, though, the brand strategy and execution are in line with the talent on the air. The station doesn’t run lighthearted promos and aggres­sive production while offering hosts who are reserved and focused solely on sports. It starts with analyzing the market, looking at the competition and what posi­tion they hold in the marketplace, and then figuring out where your opportunity is and which talent can best fit that strategy to help you create a successful brand.

There are many ways to win and be unique in this format. The more versatile you are and the more assets your brand has, the better your chances of expanding your cume and attracting more than just the hardcore sports radio listener.

Jason Barrett can be reached at [email protected].


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