The Future of Radio Play-By-Play

| October 5, 2017

Larry Stone
Stonecom Radio
President and General Manager

 

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — As the radio world awaits word on the merger of Learfield and IMG, we must face a bigger issue.  Does radio play-by-play have a place in the media world of the future?

Today, we can watch any event on any device.  Outside of driving and watching TV (which technology will apparently soon fix as well), I no longer need radio for sports.

But the technology is only a small part of the issue.  We as radio broadcasters (including the two major producers of play-by-play) need to look long and hard at the product we are putting on the air. We, as an industry, are not making it fun or entertaining or, in many cases, even possible, to follow our favorite teams on the radio.

Do not dismiss this as a “tech-geek” approach or a “sky is falling” message.  I love radio sports…because I grew up listening to Woody Durham on the Tar Heel Sports Network – a genius at painting the picture of sports on radio.  I worked with Woody and Mick Mixon — the voice of the Carolina Panthers — during my time in college and saw first hand to make radio sports come alive.  I went on to produce the NFL’s Titans for 17 years on radio and am proud of our work.

The sky is not falling….but its foundations are shaky….unless we WAKE UP!  This is not a technology issue. This is a content issue.

This weekend, I heard a broadcaster come back from a 90-second commercial break…with a welcome to the CAR MANUFACTURER broadcast booth where we have not witnessed a AG COMPANY Red Zone trip today…but we have had 2 INSURANCE COMPANY field goal tries.  I went more than three minutes (listening while working on my lawn) without the score…but there were plenty of sponsor mentions.  Sports broadcasts have become an albatross of clutter.  There’s an SEC broadcast that features a broadcaster between every two plays reading two or three sponsor plugs in a row.  How does this do anything for the client?

As important, how does it do anything for the listener?

Many network broadcasts see local commercial breaks as NON commercial breaks. Why? Because they come back from a local break with multiple readers.  Local commercials are the same as network commercials in the ears of the listener.  They are commercials.  To our listener…they are tune-out clutter.

I hear many local broadcasters celebrate that they’ve created dozens of these local features in their high school game, from the first down to a timeout to the national anthem, and all sponsored.  We are fooling ourselves if we believe the audience does not see this for what it is (e.g., NASCAR).  If it’s a good practice, we should run this kind of commercial content during a music shift.

Another broadcast I heard recently celebrated a first down with a local bank.  Year one of the Oilers in Tennessee featured the “First American first down.”  Not great content, but sometimes you are forced into it.  I get that.  However, this broadcast took it further; they celebrated the opposing team’s first downs with the same bank sponsor.  Why does the listener want to celebrate the hated opponent getting 10 yards on us?  Our rival just ran for 58 and that’s a “LOCAL BANK FIRST DOWN.”  Sure makes me feel good about that sponsor.

The listener wants the game.  He/she understands that commercials come with that.  But live-read after live-read after live-read insults the listener.  And he/she wants the broadcast to reflect my-team-winning-sensitivity. We’re going to offer the good ol’ statewide bank to do that every first down for the opponent. We are running listeners away.  And now, for the first time, the listener has other options.

But the deluge of commercial content represents just part of the problem. Increasingly, play-by-play talent clearly assume we are all watching on television, because the broadcast seems much closer to a sports talk show than a picture of the field or court.  Color commentators are not trained to fit their thoughts between plays.  Miss a play??  No big deal. Everyone’s watching on TV.  Really?  They are?  If we keep forcing them that way, they will.  If I’m mowing the yard or driving, I need you to tell me what’s happening and why.

Further, I hear university broadcasts that have lost all the flavor of the universities they cover.  They are cookie cutter broadcasts that do not portray the color of their schools.  Where’s the pageantry and the tradition of each school?  Most universities have those events — the songs, the cheers, the historic plays. Where are those in the broadcast? Lots of local broadcasts have dropped their school network names in lieu of the corporate broadcast names.  But as an alum or a fan, I want to listen to MY TEAM’S network. I don’t know these corporate broadcasters.  Tennessee has done this better than most, understanding the value of the name “VOL NETWORK” across the state of Tennessee.  But they should not be alone.

You further hear this lack of local personality when you go to scoreboard centers hosted by young broadcasters not being trained in what THAT SCHOOL’S listener wants.  If I’m listening to the UNC broadcast, I am most interested in ACC scores.  Duke vs Wake Forest might not raise the national hairs on the arms, but if I am a UNC fan, it’s a big game in my world.  It’s much bigger than a USC-Washington State game. But, a 22-year-old sports freak is too inexperienced to understand that. He knows the world is talking about a top 15 game, and so that’s what he is supposed to be talking about.

And talk he does…in clichés and adjectives.  A lack of active verbs.  Loads of passive voice.  No stats.  No substance.  No meat.  Tell me something.  Inform me.  I don’t need the standard drivel of the week “battle of two of the best teams in the early part of the season.”  Leave the hot takes for Stephen A.  Know your role and make your impact as a young broadcaster by telling good stories concisely.

And understand basic news formatics. I heard a young broadcaster recently reporting scores from Thursday Night!  In our 24-7 world?  That might as well have happened in 1960.  Another 15-minute conference preview show did a three-minute recap of last Saturday’s game.  Why?  I assume to fill time.  What part of PREVIEW features a REVIEW?

How much of pre-games and halftimes are about filling time?  There are so many stories to tell.  If I love good old State U, I want to meet the players.  I want to hear from the coaches.  I want insight into the game plan. That’s what the local broadcast delivers that CBS, ESPN or Westwood One cannot.  Use your built-in advantage.

By the way, where have the score updates gone in games?  They are, by far, absent.  Talk about a good feature to sponsor.  My rule of thumb was apply sponsors to content that delivers something to the listener. A scoreboard update.  The latest stats.  Then look for a way to make the content flow with the sponsor.  You DO want integrated marketing.  We don’t have that.  We’re just throwing stuff at the wall.

The good news: all of this can be fixed.  It starts with producers and executive producers that focus on the content.  Are we producing broadcasts that speak to our primary listeners?  Are we painting the picture of the game?  Can the listener smell the popcorn and see the green grass and imagine the moves of the players?  Name your favorite legendary play-by-play man and those types of descriptions made him special.

What is the color analyst’s role?  Is he doing it?  Is he involved?  Does he have the right role?  Do you send him to the lockerroom to do interviews (because that’s our history) when he has no business doing it?  Who keeps him interested in the game when his team is down 25?  What picture is he painting?

What amount of time are we spending on sponsor reads?  Have 15-second reads grown to 30 seconds with no one looking?  Is the producer working with the sales team to be PROACTIVE in developing features that speak to the audience, features that a client would be happy to be involved in?  Is the producer pointing out 35-second live reads or just going with it?  Are we doing features that make sense or instead take away from the broadcast?  Are features that DO ADD to the listener experience being done?

As we look at the amount of time being spent on features, examine your formatic rules.  Formatic rules for sports? Of course. We have them for music, why not sports? Our rules: there always had to be content between live reads.  Something.  Some stats.  Scores.  Quick game summary.  Fact or piece of analysis. Meat AND vegetables.

Formatic rules like the score should always be among the first things out of the announcer’s mouth coming out of a break.  Just like in music programming, it does not have to be ‘SUNNY 103.1’ every time. “Two touchdowns from Marcus Mariota…Titans lead the Browns 14-3 (OR) Titans hold the first quarter lead…14-3 over Cleveland (OR) First quarter in the books from Nashville….Titans 14-Cleveland 3.”

Pre-game, halftime and post-game shows that reflect the flavor of the school or team being covered. Colorful imaging that brings the history and pageantry of sports to life.  These are formatic gestures that keep the alum or lifetime fan of “my team” engaged.  Sounds a lot like how we ask our jocks and program directors to work on music stations.

These types of formatic rules need to be developed and adhered to.  And young broadcasters must be trained in these rules.  If not, they pick up the habits of radio talk shows and television debate shows – which are SO FAR AWAY from what a radio play-by-play broadcast is all about. Being a good afternoon drive jock is different from being a morning show zoo leader. Different skill set.

Roles need to be defined in a broadcast just like they are on a morning show. What does the listener expect from the sideline reporter? Is he an analyst? Is he on top of injuries? The host? The pre-game host? What are the roles? Is the play-by-play man the center of the broadcast? Then, let him do his job and reduce the clutter around him.

In a world constantly being changed by technology, we as an industry need to realize how different the radio play-by-play experience is.  We need to focus on what we’re putting on the air.  There’s only so far the love of the home team can take us.  We seem, as an industry, not focused AT ALL on the listener experience.  We’re caught up in revenue.  What happens if the listenership declines as much from listener disinterest as from technological advancement?

Listeners have a choice.  And we are encouraging them to take it.

I am happy to hear from and engage with sports broadcasters at larry@stonecomradio.com.

Larry Stone is president and general manager of Stonecom Radio based in Cookeville, Tennessee. He operates news/talk WUCT-AM/W231DG “News Talk 93.1,” adult contemporary WLQK, country WKXD, and rock WBXE.

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Category: Sales, Sports