By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
BOSTON – While some radio stations and companies are working harder and in some cases struggling to make digital dollars and digital traffic work for them, Boston’s WEEI (850AM/93.7FM) has proven digital can work extremely well for them. The Boston and New England region Entercom sports/talk powerhouse weaves its podcasts, along with an unusually strong presence on social media into a mechanism that drives listeners to and from the radio and social media, and advertisers to multiple platforms.
Success for WEEI’s digital arm didn’t happen overnight. The digital and social media launch came nine years ago as the stock market was tanking and businesses crumbling during the “great recession,” and now employs eight full and part-time staffers who also bring strong content to the radio while on-air sports radio hosts enhance their digital domain.
A Team Effort Built From Within
“We’ve always had an understanding that our site can be a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s obviously a reflection of the on-air product, but we have also shown the ability to drive the on-air content perhaps more than most sports stations digital platforms,” says Rob Bradford, site editor and Red Sox beat writer for WEEI.com.
Bradford, who also hosts his own podcast for WEEI titled “The Bradfo Sho,” says it’s not just about the content, as their success really comes from the people behind the content, and as you can tell from Bradford, his staffers clearly each wear more than one hat.
“Perhaps the most important aspect of our growth has been to employ smart, talented people who will do anything at any time. This has been a seven-day-a-week, non-stop venture, and everyone on our staff being at the ready to populate the site, or contribute to the on-air product, has always been part of the deal.”
A great example is Kirk Minihane, who started at WEEI.com as a part-time fantasy sports writer and fill-in copy editor. He soon amassed a following online, becoming an on-air presence and, given the chance, rose through the ranks to now become the popular and brash WEEI radio morning show host.
On the digital side, Alex Reimer writes columns and blogs as well as hosting a podcast. Ryan Hannable interned at WEEI.com in 2012 and now covers the Red Sox and Patriots as well as writing sports news, and they’re just two parts of the digital team.
Social Media Becomes a Listener Hub
“All of our social media platforms have played a role but I’d say Facebook has been the most important,” says the 30-year old WEEI PD Joe Zarbano, and with good reason.
With over 225,000 followers, WEEI has over four times the Facebook followers of New York City’s legendary sports/talk WFAN. Zarbano says the key to their Facebook success is using social media as a way to both promote their on-air effort and tie in their digital products.
“We consistently and strategically post throughout the day. Facebook is another platform that allows us to reach a large audience to help promote what is happening on air and online.”
However, it’s not just Facebook.
WEEI’s Twitter followers rival that of WFAN and Los Angeles’ “ESPN LA” combined, and when it comes to Instagram, more than 16,800 followers can see pics and behind-the-scenes action, some they can’t find anywhere else.
It’s also about using the content to be advantageous both on-air and on-site.
“The unique thing that we’ve been able to do is to have more options, unique material and interviews. We can leverage that one interview and break it down to on-air, blogs, podcasts and site news to drive the conversation,” says Bradford, who added it keeps the listener and reader engaged on multiple levels.
“Deflate-Gate” Culminates a Digital Drive
A story like the one in which the Patriots were accused of deflating footballs might have been a problem for the football team, but it pushed page views on WEEI into the stratosphere, with over 12.4 million page views in January, 2015. However, it was not that one story that has defined their digital domain.
Bradford tells TALKERS, “Storylines are always going to put page views over the top, with our on-air product doing a better job than anybody at capitalizing on anything that might be a talker. What we do a really good job of – not only online, but also on the air – is realizing what are the best stories, and then presenting them in the right way. We have learned a lot when it comes to understanding how to maneuver around a news cycle in terms of timing, tone and where the energy should be devoted to.”
Fast-forward two years, and In March, WEEI.com had 10.3 million page views, and averages 10 million pages views each month. WEEI.com also averages 1.6 million unique page views each month, and spiked just over 2.6 million unique views in April.
“We cover the teams more relentlessly than other sites – breaking as many stories as any media outlet while also traveling to a good chunk of events – but then have the luxury of being able to surface the most powerful voices (on the air and online) when notable moments arise. I guess it once again comes back to the ability to offer more of everything — columns, show audio, news of the day, podcasts, video to our listeners and users,” says Zarbano.
Podcasting Brings In New Listeners
To say WEEI has made an investment in podcasting may be an understatement. From “Enough About Me,” hosted by WEEI morning show host Kirk Minihane, to “Two Outs,” a podcast featuring two openly gay sports enthusiasts in Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley and Reimer, this gives the station added programming and targets listeners in almost every possible demographic, especially younger demos.
According to Zarbano, despite having a strong number of podcasts, there’s still more work to be done.
“We have two different types of podcasts, podcasting that is not on the radio and podcasting that are the segments on the radio that we upload to the website. As an example, our exclusive Tom Brady podcasts are uploaded to the website and get thousands of clicks and listens,” says Zarbano, who oversees podcasts including fantasy football and movies along with national and local sports.
Now that Entercom has bought a stake in DGital Media, this will allow Entercom to become one of the largest providers of original sports audio content in the country, enhancing an already strong digital and podcasting presence for WEEI.
“Entercom will be the clear leader in creating original audio content and we are committed to reaching our listeners in any way they wish to engage with us,” says Entercom president & CEO David Field, adding they will rely heavily on Entercom’s “deep roster of local talent and relationships in the world of sports, news, politics, music, comedy, and technology.”
Branding Leads To Sales
One thing Entercom has done in Boston is intertwine WEEI’s on-air product with WEEI.com in a way that both sales and station content complement one another.
“Many of our sales packages include digital. It’s a great advantage to have when enticing a prospective client. We can offer more than just our on air product when closing a deal,” says Zarbano. “Our dot.com staff are ‘brand personalities.’ Bradford, John Tomase, and Reimer and others all contribute original content to our site on a daily basis and also have a regular presence on the air as well.”
WEEI’s exclusive content gives advertisers unique access to Boston’s celebrity athletes and teams on multiple levels that can improve their own digital presence.
“It allows us to put together packages and tell clients you can sponsor Tom Brady’s interviews on WEEI, but also have a presence on the website, and that’s a great incentive for advertisers who don’t have the digital access and number of page views we have. It gives our clients an opportunities they can’t get anywhere else that can compliment and improve their own digital presence,” says Zarbano.
After Nine Years of Digital – What’s Next?
“Our audience just wants more WEEI – they want to consume more content,” says Zarbano, but Bradford makes clear, “There’s not a template on how to do this.”
For WEEI, their drive into digital began in 2008, just as the recession was crashing all around them. Despite an extremely uncertain economy, Entercom gave the go-ahead and since then, it has only grown.
Credit for WEEI’s success, according to Zarbano, starts at the top and cites the company’s faith in the product and digital vision.
“David Field and Entercom management believe in WEEI and had a vision before most that a website generating an enormous amount of new content on a daily basis could be extremely beneficial to the WEEI brand. We’ve been able to grow because of the unwavering faith the company has in us,” says Zarbano. “When we started it was the worst possible time to start anything, the economy tanked right away. Entercom stood by us and despite losing a lot of great people we’ve gained a lot of great people and thanks to our reputation, and a powerhouse radio station, we’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve.”
When it comes to what is ahead, the goal for WEEI is to continue to build the brand.
“You want to keep building your numbers. We can put up an audio file and now that we have so much traffic it helps the on-air product, or they’ll listen live to an interview and then go to the site for more of the story. It’s not just a radio station or website – it’s the entire brand,” says Bradford.
“Finding young talent that can be opinionated, entertaining and informed both on-air and on-line will be key for us as well,” says Zarbano, who adds, “One day hopefully we’ll have an even larger staff on WEEI.com, more assets, more podcasts, I think that’s part of the future. We need to create more content that’s not just traditional radio content, especially as cars become more connected.”
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com.