Sports PDs Reveal How To Win At Their Position


(By Rob Dumke) It’s not about who won or lost the game anymore. In the Sports Talk radio world, it’s the platform where diehard-to-casual fans go to vent, to commiserate, and to celebrate their teams. Winning the hearts and minds of fans, and ultimately the market, is the challenge Sports PDs face daily.

We have put together a panel of experts who understand the nuances of the format, the subtleties of how to select and motivate talent, and how to create product and content that enhances the bottom line. 

Here is our panel of sports programming experts: Armen Williams, PD at Bonneville’s 104.3 The Fan and ESPN Denver 1600; Jeff Catlin, PD of Sportsradio 1310/96.7 FM The Ticket and 103.3 FM ESPN and OM of Cumulus Media Dallas; Allan Davis, PD of Entercom’s WGR/Buffalo; Eric Johnson, PD of Beasley’s 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia; Joe Zarbano, PD of Entercom’s WEEI Sports Radio Network in Boston; and Ryan Hurley, PD of ESPN New York. 

Radio Ink: How has being a Sports PD evolved over the years?
Armen Williams: It’s such a crowded environment now for the listener. They have so

Armen Williams

many options to consume sports content, a PD has to dig deeper and spend more time asking the question “Why and how would a sports fan listen to my station?” 

With that, the responsibilities have gotten broader, mainly because of the wide landscape of places we can now distribute audio. It’s important to understand, research, and monitor so many new platforms and then make educated decisions on where to strategically focus our efforts to strengthen the brand.

Jeff Catlin: Probably most important is that it is now rare for a PD in any format to just have one station to program. In some cases a sports PD has two Sports stations in the same cluster to oversee, or they have to program their Sports station and a station in another format too. The digital space has certainly changed radio too, as podcasting and streaming need a PD’s attention just as much as the traditional over-the-air station does. 

Jeff Catlin

And as the format has grown and evolved over the years, focusing on presenting sports in a unique way becomes more of a challenge. Every fan now has an app on their phone for their favorite teams, sports, or leagues. Once the games are over, the score doesn’t change and the box score doesn’t change. All fans, including the Sports radio talent, saw the same game and read every blog post and all the Twitter reaction to it. So bringing unique content and perspective around an event that is so widely absorbed by the listeners is a challenge for the format that wasn’t there even five years ago.

Allan Davis: When I started as a PD in the Sports format in 1991, everything was new and we were not sure what would work and what would not. We had sports updates every 15 minutes, then on the :20s, and now just at the top of the hour, or maybe not at all. Some stations had no callers, some all callers, some a lot of guests, some more guy talk than sports talk, some single-host shows versus a cast of characters. 

Cell phones were becoming useful in getting reporters on the air in primetime. We tapped

Alan Davies

into newspaper reporters for in-depth sports coverage. Those reporters became regular guests, then co-hosts, and now many have their own shows. A PD spent every hour just listening to the station and offering as much feedback as possible. There were a lot of meetings, with plenty of changes. 

Now mobile devices connect us to listeners and followers all the time — over the air, online, digitally, instantly, in real time or on their own time. Always and everywhere. Being a PD in the format today means managing all these touchpoints every hour, every day. It’s not just what the talent says over the air. It’s what they write, what they tweet, what they post. What comes out of the speaker is still as important, but now, every form of communication is in play. It all matters. A lot! Don’t just ask your fans to listen. Connect with them and invite them to engage.

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson: Other than managing the brand on the platforms additional to radio (web, stream, social, and now TV for our afternoon drive Mike Missanelli Show), I’m not sure it’s changed all that much. About 25 years ago, a former general manager once asked me what my job was. I answered, “Well, pick the music, hire and work with the DJs, create compelling imaging — and make the station sound great.” “No,” he told me, “it’s your job to get ratings.” I never forgot that. That’s the job. 

So while the platforms have expanded to all things digital, and whether your title is program director, content director, or brand manager, we are still in the business of growing audience and analytics.

Joe Zarbano: Since I’ve only been PD at WEEI since 2016, I have to give my opinion based off my observations from my predecessors. One thing is the continual rise of digital and social media. Staying ahead of the curve is difficult. First it was Facebook, then Twitter, now Instagram is becoming more prominent and useful. Podcasting continues to become more and more important. 

Additionally, we live in a world in which audiences want instant gratification and can get

Joe Zarbano

whatever they want by a couple of taps on their phone. Listeners want the latest news by the second. That is why it is crucial that your radio station is constantly up to date as well. We strive to make sure everything from the RDS to the website to our social platforms to our on-air product is current and up to date. 

Ryan Hurley: New technology has revolutionized the way our content is consumed. Understanding how best to use mobile devices, apps, and podcasts to a station’s advantage is a big part of the job these days. So, too, is leveraging social media to promote station initiatives, contests, and events. Now audiences can interact with on-air personalities beyond just calling in to shows, and that’s opened up new opportunities for communication. 

Ryan Hurley

The PPM ratings system is another example of technology’s impact on the business. Using its data to improve the overall product we deliver is crucial. I believe Sports Talk radio has shifted from being largely X’s-and-O’s-oriented to combining sports credibility with entertainment — a better experience for listeners. A Sports PD’s search for talent has also evolved over the years, as we’ve drawn candidates from more nontraditional sources.

Radio Ink: What are five tips to get the most out of sports talent?
Jeff Catlin: 1. Give them a framework and guidance for the way their show should be prepped and presented, but don’t micromanage the day-to-day.
2. Listen! With all of the responsibilities a PD has, listening in a critical and meaningful way to the talent and their shows remains the most important thing a PD can do. Talent knows when you are listening, and they like the specific feedback (not the generic “Hey, great show! Killed it!” comments).
3. Have certain expectations or “musts” that are non-negotiable, and then hold them accountable for executing whatever those things are. Great talent works the gray areas; they aren’t robots, and they need room to create. Allow all of that, on a quid pro quo basis. They have to deliver consistently on the execution side while still being creative and entertaining. Maybe a simpler way to phrase this is, as a PD, know when to pick your battles with talent and which ones you are going to go to the mat with them over. They will understand that and deliver.
4. Teach them about and help them understand both the art and science of ratings, especially in PPM markets. Explain how what they do on the air positively or negatively impacts ratings. When the books come out, be completely transparent with the numbers. Go back and show correlations between the ratings and the content on the show. The numbers are the numbers. Own the good and the bad.
5. Explain to the talent how the revenue side of the business works and what their part in the bigger picture is. This is a ratings and revenue business. The talent that has success with both will have the longest careers.

Allan Davis: 1. Catch them doing something good. I usually hear a show executing an element really well every day. It might be the way they handled a caller, a followup question to a guest, a fun interaction with a sponsor promotion, a heated discussion, or a controversial opinion. Take the time to point it out. I have been called a cheerleader at times, but when I hear good radio, I like to recognize it. I like to let the show know I heard it and it connected. 

2. Tease, tease, tease. It’s been proven that magic happens to TSL when a tease for an upcoming segment is executed properly. A good tease makes me want to hang around longer. Don’t say, “The head coach joins us for his weekly segment next.” Say, “I can’t wait to hear the head coach’s response to this question when he joins us for his weekly segment, next.”

  3. Play the hits. In Buffalo, listeners tune in to their local shows to hear the latest about the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres. Don’t make them wait for it. It might mean having the same discussion over and over, but listeners are not with you through a whole show. They are in and out all day long. It’s important to develop a reliable relationship with listeners they can count on. They know when they tune in to your show they will get the latest on their teams. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about other hot topics. It just means you have to be aware of why your listeners are tuning in in the first place. Let the national shows handle the wider hot topics.

  4. What you don’t say, they won’t know. I am continually frustrated by the host who says, “I know nothing about Nascar,” “I don’t watch golf,” “I could care less about the Olympics.” You may not talk about these sports every day, but you need to at least stay in touch with the hot topics around these sports and, more importantly, leave the impression that you follow them. It’s an expectation the listener has of you. And don’t broadcast that you don’t know or care about these sports.

  5. Build your on-air character around who you really are. If you are naturally funny, then be funny. If you aren’t, don’t try to be. If you are comfortable and enjoy debating, then develop that skill set. Be prepared to take the other side, be argumentative, be controversial. If you are really informed, then promote it. Bring the facts to the discussion. Be the smart one. It’s easier fitting into a character you identify with and are comfortable in each day than trying to be someone you really aren’t.

Eric Johnson: 1. Be clear with the station’s strategic goals.
2. Give talent a PPM-friendly, consistent format to follow.
3. Deliver sincere praise — when earned.
4. Teach and learn from talent and everyone you work with.
5. Work with the talent’s strengths and put them in the best possible position to win. 

Joe Zarbano: 1. Tangible ratings evidence. Provide talent with data that backs up your programming philosophies or strategies. If you tell them talking more football will lead to higher ratings, show them examples.
2. Competition. Appeal to their competitive instincts. That could be a rival radio station, host, show, etc. 
3. Strong producers. Surround the talent with producers who are smart, motivated, and hard-working — producers who will challenge talent to be at their very best each time they’re on the air. 
4. Communication, feedback, support. Support the talent with the resources they need to be the very best at what they do. Consistently provide feedback, partake in airchecks, tell them when they are doing well and when they miss the mark. 
5. Financial. One of the easiest ways to motivate talent and get the most from them on the air is providing them with financial motivation — ratings bonuses and incentives. 

Ryan Hurley: 1. Communicate regularly with talent, and stay thoroughly engaged with what they bring to the team.
2. Foster creativity and idea-sharing, and then see those ideas through.
3. Make sure talent knows you have their back and will fight for them when it matters most.
4. Keep talent aware of potential opportunities for them to expand their roles and profiles.
5. Provide talent with the resources they need — technical or otherwise — to perform their jobs at the highest level.

Armen Williams: 1. Get to know the talent, and be genuine about it. 
2. Make yourself available. 
3. Don’t jump to conclusions. Ask questions. 
4. Overcommunicate. If you’re not sure they 100 percent understand, reach out again. 
5. Always be as honest as you can. 

Radio Ink: What is your philosophy on dealing with super strong egos to make things work for the talent and for the station?
Allan Davis: You have to have an ego to perform on the air each day. It’s performance art, and you always have to be on. It’s not easy. It can sound easy, but it is not easy. Many of the really successful hosts have created a character that is onstage every day. And now, with social media, these talents are onstage all the time, so a healthy ego is even more important. 

The great talents with super strong egos need support. It has to come from their reporting point first — the PD. They have to know the PD has their back. Will fight for them. Will do what is necessary to help them achieve their high goals and produce the desired results for the talent, the show, and the station. 

The staff also has to know the PD has this talent’s back, and for good reason. Not everyone is a star. They are hard to find and tougher to develop. Take care of them. Conversely, the super ego who does little to contribute and does not perform consistently should be removed.

Eric Johnson: Regardless of the size of ego (which is a must ingredient for every on-air talent), I’ve always treated talent, and everyone, with the same respect I would like to be treated. Every on-air talent needs something slightly different from you — some need teaching, others excel when left alone, but all need your support. I’ve never been a “my way or the highway” type of manager. I work with every on air-talent individually based on their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been in this business for 40 years and programming for about 28 of those 40 years, and while I’m teaching some of our talent, I’m still learning from others.

Joe Zarbano: Managing strong egos means setting yours aside. Listen to talent when they voice concerns, opinions, etc. The ability to admit you’re wrong or made a mistake is important. Honesty is critical because it’s difficult to manage a strong ego if that individual doesn’t trust you. Finally, consistency in your approach and philosophy when making key station decisions will help earn you the respect you need in order to manage those strong personalities. 

Ryan Hurley: I’ve been fortunate in my years as an in-studio producer and as an executive to be surrounded by some very high-level talent who also happen to be easy to work with. Situations do arise, though, and in my experience the key is remembering that everyone is different and then working with talent on an individual basis to figure out the best solutions.

Armen Williams: Oh, come on! I’ve never worked with any of those! 

Seriously, find out what’s important to them. Why do they do the things they do and say the things they say? Take them out of the office. Build a relationship with them because you need each other. Be mindful of the aspects within their personality that make them special on the air and try your best to really nurture and protect those areas. 

Jeff Catlin: It’s really the same no matter who the talent is. There are certain non-negotiable expectations they have to meet. Then just allow them to be themselves and do their show, create and perform to their highest ability. Outsized egos (if they also perform at a level that matches it) are simple — they want praise, and they want meaningful feedback and to know that they are important. Where trouble tends to come in is if a talent’s ego does not match their performance. Then it is the responsibility of the PD, for the good of the team, to get that in check, or remove it.

Radio Ink: How important is it to have a sports franchise/play-by-play on your station — or how hard is it to compete with a station that does when you don’t?
Eric Johnson: I think it’s very important. It lends to a station’s credibility and certainly helps with promotions, revenue, and ratings. We are fortunate to have the Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Flyers on our station. We certainly do get a lift in ratings at night and on the weekends in basketball and hockey season. And while we do not have the NFL Eagles play-by-play, we talk Eagles at least 80 percent of the time — and even though we don’t have their play-by-play, we see a great ratings increase in football season. 

Yes, it’s hard to compete during the Eagles games, so we do what the play-by-play station can’t: we do a real-time, during-the-game talk show where listeners can call and comment on what they are seeing, and we incorporate social media. 

Joe Zarbano: It’s important to have play-by-play rights, but not required. It’s all about how you program the station. We don’t have the play-by-play rights to the Patriots, but I’d put our coverage up against anyone’s. We have exclusive weekly interviews with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. We have a great lineup of football guests, and we image the station heavily around the Pats. It’d be great to have the rights to broadcast their games, but listeners know they can count on WEEI for around-the-clock coverage.

Ryan Hurley: I think being the flagship station for a team brings some great opportunities to the table. A chance to build relationships with that team and its staff can help both sides. If a sports franchise is a success, or if there is a hot storyline surrounding that franchise, the relationship and access you have as a partner could be advantageous, improve the quality of your content, and potentially boost ratings. Revenue opportunities are also a factor, as new advertising avenues open up. Joint marketing and promotional campaigns can be built to help the station and the team, raising brand awareness for both entities.

Armen Williams: The key here is to communicate with your supervisors and know what the company’s agreed-upon strategy is for your station. Go through exercises: “If we have this team’s play-by-play, our positioning will be…” Or, “If we don’t have this team’s play-by-play, our positioning will be…” There can be advantages to both scenarios, and a lot of it depends on the individual market makeup.

Jeff Catlin: I have been lucky in my career in this regard. We had the play-by-play rights to the Dallas Cowboys for three seasons. The Cowboys are one of the premier sports franchises in the world. But our Sports radio brand is pretty strong in DFW too. The station was ranked number one before we had the Cowboys games, number one while we had the Cowboys games, and we are still number one years after we no longer air the games. 

Not having the play-by-play of a franchise allows certain branding and imaging opportunities versus a rights holder. It is also an opportunity to create your own unique content around the games, even if you don’t air the actual play-by-play from whistle to buzzer. At the same time, the rights holder likely gets unique content from the relationship that competitors don’t. You can use that against them at times. And if your station does air any play-by-play, and most Sports stations do — either from a network or locally produced — then understanding how your station can wrap around play-by-play and recycle the audience coming in for a game back to other dayparts is critical.

Allan Davis: Having the market’s pro team play-by-play rights does offer a station a competitive advantage, but that advantage is only realized if you can convert the incoming play-by-play cume to your other dayparts. You have to have entertaining personalities with compelling content to do that. The station with the best shows, with talent that consistently delivers content that connects and engages an audience, will ultimately win the primetime tuning hours. 

Additionally, while I don’t agree with the perception that home team play-by-play partnerships constrict the station’s hosts from being really critical of the team (a.k.a. “State Radio”), not having play-by-play rights does allow a station the freedom to position itself any way it wants to attract and hold an audience. Done properly, with the right talent and an aggressive and competitive program director, no play-by-play affiliations can be a winning formula.

Radio Ink: How important is it for PDs to be able to work with sales?
Joe Zarbano: It’s extremely important to be able to have a strong working relationship with sales. At the end of the day, the sales department wants what’s best for the radio station just like the PD does. Working collaboratively with your sales department to develop programming that is not just highly entertaining, but highly profitable, will ensure a PD a job for a long time. 

Ryan Hurley: It’s very important. Working together on ideas to increase revenue and build a winner is what we are all here to do. Building on-air as well as off-air campaigns that can create buzz for a station means daily communication. Bridging relationships between talent and the sales team is also part of that. When opportunities arise, discussing them ahead of time allows us to best communicate what the sales team needs from our talent to help us achieve our goals. 

Armen Williams: It’s vital. We’re each other’s lifeblood. Without one, you don’t have the other. It’s a daily focus to communicate with each other and be on the same page. And look, it isn’t always pretty. Both sides have their own prerogatives that make them succeed, and at the end of the day, it’s about meeting in the middle for the greater good of putting forth the best product possible. I’m lucky that my sales manager, Sean Brennan, has an incredible amount of experience in this market and has a great team that believes in what we’re doing.

Jeff Catlin: One hundred percent an absolute must, period, end of story. It’s 2018, not 1998. Nationally, radio revenues are shrinking. This business is tough enough without old school animosity between the programming and sales departments. Ratings drives revenue in major markets. So job one for every PD is to create ratings. But beyond that, the PD needs to be an ally and asset for the sales team — get them excited about what you’re excited about. Give them stuff to sell that makes sense for programming. As PDs, we are sellers too — we sell our brand and vision to the sales team. 

Allan Davis: Critical. Sports stations have always been measured more by advertiser results than listener ratings. The success all-Sports radio has displayed in delivering results for clients is largely the reason the format survived its first 20 years over the air. It’s hard to reach men and keep their attention. Sports radio does it better than any other medium, and the fact that you can customize a marketing program for advertisers wanting to talk to guys that weaves them into the content and makes them part of the station is a big win. 

The Sports format offers a deep and varied menu of effective marketing options for an advertiser to reach its target (star power, personality endorsements, live reads, sponsored features, full live broadcasts, play-by-play, special events, digital, social, etc.), so it is critical for a Sports PD to work closely with sales to make sure all these options are maximized in customizing a program for an advertiser.

Eric Johnson: As the business model changes, with advertising dollars being distributed among more platforms, as an industry we’ve needed to be more creative to keep old business and earn new business. I spend a lot of time with our general sales manager, Jaime Frankel, ADP Eric Camille, and promotions director Mike McMonagle to develop sales programs and station features, but they must pass the three-prong test. 1) Is this in line with our strategic plans? 2) Will it contribute to listening (ratings)? 3) Is the revenue right? We get into some in-depth discussions, but in the end, we figure it out and fulfill these needs. 

Radio Ink: What advice do you have for program directors reading this on how to master the job of PD heading into 2019 and beyond?
Ryan Hurley: I think the ever-changing technological landscape pertaining to how radio content is consumed is very important to be out in front of, but when it comes down to it, the content produced and delivered to the audience is what is most important. If it is great content, people will find it. Stay in tune both with your own content and with content outside of your station. Both are key when looking for ways to improve your product and attract new listeners. 

Regularly meet to hash out ideas with your team, and be willing to take risks. You might not always hit on something, but taking chances can lead to great things. Work on gaining as much knowledge of the Nielsen PPM ratings system as you can. The more you understand about the research and data, the better you can plan and strategize moving forward. 

Developing relationships is crucial, whether it’s with agents, talent, clients, teams, your current audience, or your potential audience; the relationships you build can be very helpful to your growth as a program director and to the growth of your station. Be available to people seeking help or looking to pick your brain. Sharing what you’ve learned can be fulfilling, and also remind you of where you once were in your career. Most importantly, listen. Listen to your content, to your teammates, to your talent, and to those who have come before you. There is always something new to learn.

Armen Williams: Surround yourself with a strong network and ask as many questions as you can. Always be willing to learn, every day. Man, who knows what this job is going to look like when it comes to the “beyond”? Bonneville Denver Market Manager Bob Call does a great job of always encouraging us to look ahead. Stay on top of technological advances by reading up and even doing personal research on how your target demographic is consuming the product. 

I’ve been in radio for 23 years, and it’s completely different from when I got started. My hunch is that the next 23 years will bring more changes than we’ve ever seen. Hang on tight. Let’s all support each other to keep Sports radio strong. We got this. 

Jeff Catlin: It’s never mastered. We are all still learning — whether that’s keeping up with the latest trends or just being creative in new, exciting ways, there is never a time as a PD to kick back in the office chair and say, “Now I’m done” and relax. 

This is still a talent business, so I would tell other PDs to look everywhere for talent that can help propel this format forward over the next 20 years. I would also say don’t be afraid to take a chance on an idea. Try it! Try new things, experiment within a show or on a new show.

Regardless of the delivery system, AM or FM, streaming, podcasting, we are in content creation. Users and listeners will find and make time for the content that has value for them, regardless of where it lives. 

Allan Davis: I think the best advice I can give is for PDs to stay close to the studio. Be a manager, but be part of the team as well. You really have to be hands-on. You have to delegate, but you also have to participate. It may be more important to listen to your talent off the air than it is on the air. Respect your staff. Work for them, and they will work for you. Pay attention to your young talent. Find a way to develop them. Automation doesn’t do that for you. Stay up to date on all digital advancements. It’s where we are now, and it’s where are going tomorrow. 

Eric Johnson: Never let anyone hear you say the words “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” Keep learning! I know pretty well how to make a station sound great, but there are always new ways of doing things, so keep an open mind! I’m currently learning more about what makes the best-sounding podcast, how do we incorporate e-sports into our brand, what’s the best way to incorporate our broadcasts into Twitch. Also, I’ve learned that if I don’t obsess over something, I won’t do it well. Of course, that needs to be a healthy obsession. 

All the small things add up to one big thing! So pay attention to all the smallest details of content including imaging, audio processing, the look of all digital platforms, trip tones on spots — it all adds up! The station and its brand extensions need to become a part of you. You have to love it! And while you may be great with technology, your most important asset is your people skills. Be kind, be respectful. 

Joe Zarbano: I can just go by what I’ve learned, but I believe it’s important to set an example as it pertains to your work ethic. Show your staff by action, not words, how dedicated you are to the success of the radio station. Take ownership and responsibility in moments of failure. Praise and give credit to the staff when there is success. Remain calm when challenges present themselves. Make decisions and take action based off of what is in the best interest of the radio station, not the individual.


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