Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sports Radio Not Making News

Getting caught up after a brief vacation..............

Of course, it was a big weekend of sports both on and off the field. Football, hockey, and basketball everywhere, including NBC-TV with its first ever telecast of an NHL game during Black Friday afternoon. Black Friday is not a holiday, but the networks and some local stations realize that many sports fans are available to watch games who would not normally be available for viewing on a Friday afternoon or early evening.

Yet, sports radio stations continue to overlook this fact. A quick listening survey of stations in Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and a couple of others revealed that at least some of the major sports radio stations treated Friday Nov. 25th as a throwaway day. Substitute hosts, "best of" features, and part-timers abounded. That day is always a chance for many to tune in while in the car during shopping marathons, or while spending time at home instead of at work, while at work during a different time, and for many other reasons.

I don't buy the argument that "the other stations do the same thing". Sports radio stations are not merely competing against each other and radio stations with other formats. These stations often overlook how sports fans have so many other avenues to choose from. Sorry, but the sports stations should have gone with most of their "A" team on Friday and taken advantage of a greater opportunity to reach listeners they don't always get to, instead of treating it like we (the listeners) don't matter.

Meanwhile, with so much comment over the past few days about the early media coverage when the Penn State scandal first unfolded, I had not intended to get back into that for this week. However, I feel the need to defend some of the sports media on this one.

Many columnists, bloggers, and even media reporters have been questioning what they perceived as a lack of "hard hitting" coverage of the situation as it was breaking last week. Sources such as ESPN and Big Ten Network often came under fire as if they tried to sweep the unfortunate developments under the rug because they televise Penn State games and there are big bucks involved.

In this instance, my feeling is that the sports networks did not deserve the criticism pointed at them. At least they don't based on the Penn State scandal. This huge scandal happened to involve Penn State football coaches and some Athletic Department personnel. However, this is really NOT a sports story. Therein lies the difference.

Rather, this was hard news. ESPN and BTN, as well as Comcast SportsNet, Versus, and others, report on and cover sports, as in the games, players, team officials, and news which is related to the players and the games.

Think back to that June 1994 day when the O.J. Simpson and the Bronco situation took place. It was CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and other networks and news organizations which went with live wall-to-wall coverage to the point of pre-empting some prime time programming. NBA fans got a split screen during a crucial NBA playoff game because of the O.J. chase and surrounding coverage.

Why are the O.J. incident and this Penn State scandal breaking in the same category? Because they are both hard news stories, and not sports stories. O.J. Simpson happened to have been a Hall of Fame football player and later a commentator and still involved with NFL coverage. But the chase and the then recent murders had nothing to do with football or sports.

The unfortunate incidents surrounding Penn State officials and coaches also are not sports related. They happen to involve personnel involved with the school's football team.

Yet, media critics have been critical of the sports networks' "coverage" as the Penn State details were being unveiled last week. From what I saw, heard, and read about the sports networks' coverage, they seem to have stuck to their angle on the story. From a sports point of view, a major element to the story early on was whether or not Joe Paterno would remain as coach. PSU had a big game coming up on Saturday against Nebraska which would have a big impact on the Big Ten standings as well as being Conference history. (The first time these two schools meet as members of the same conference.)

The job of these networks was to follow Paterno and his situation relative to all that was going on around him. It seems the sports networks generally did a good job of reporting about the sports element. Certainly the crimes committed against the young boys were hideous. But had these horrible crimes been committed by an individual who was not affiliated with the PSU football program, the "news" would not have been so much as mentioned by ESPN, BTN, Comcast SportsNet, Versus, or any of the other sports stations or sports reporters.

People turn to the sports networks for sports related reporting. At the time, the Penn State vs. Nebraska game had elements making it interesting to fans well beyond both schools and of the Big Ten. The fact that a huge scandal was breaking which could (and did) impact who would be coaching one of the teams and how it could impact a major school's football program is and was a huge sports story. It was treated as such.

It was the likes of the Harrisburg newspaper, the Penn State student newspaper, local TV news crews, and news networks such as CNN, which provided the more thorough news coverage and live coverage of the incident. That what is supposed to happen under such circumstances. These news organizations don't care and don't need to report on how it impacts the weekend's football game.

Where are these same media critics when speculation is reported as if it is fact? Where are these same media critics when, as I commented on last week, Mike North "reports" Joe Frazier's death on Fox Sports when it was not true at the time?

On the other hand, there actually are times when a sports reporting organization really does step into the news arena. The Sunday (11/27) announced firing of Syracuse Asst. Basketball coach Bernie Fine came hours after ESPN aired a recorded phone conversation which it obtained and also reported is being used as evidence in the case against Fine. It's hard to say whether or not this information would have been pursued and obtained were it not for the Penn State situation. I'll keep open the possibility that my comments above could become outdated if and as sports reporting organizations are going to pursue "news" stories.

Let's give NBC & Versus a lot of credit for its decision last week (for Monday 11/21) to switch its NHL game telecast within 48 hours of the game. The network was preparing to show the Boston vs. Montreal game when it learned that Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby would return to the ice against the N.Y. Islanders at the same time. Since Versus originates its telecasts, network officials literally rerouted production staff and equipment on Sunday in order to carry the Penguins game live on Monday night, at its own additional cost. Keep in mind that this telecast went up against Monday Night Football on ESPN. That didn't stop Versus from making a decision to benefit NHL fans.

NBC has moved the Detroit vs. New Orleans game to Sunday Night Football next Sunday, Dec. 4th, as part of its flex scheduling ability. Granted, doing so moves the Indianapolis Colts (vs. New England) out of prime time. All Fox could do is move the Denver vs. Minnesota telecast to a 1 PM ET spot, which at least buries it buries that game more than a 4 PM time slot would have.

On the college football side, still no word from ESPN about possibly adding the University of Montana's quarterfinal playoff game for Saturday Dec. 3rd. ESPN still plans to show these first round games only on, even though the game at Montana is expected to be an instant sellout.

On the baseball side, the Phillies' radio broadcasts are being added to FM starting next season as WIP 94.1 will also air the games along with WPHT 1210. This adds to the occasional separate programming from WIP 610, and that's a good thing.

The San Diego Padres have announced that their games will air on XX Sports Radio 1090, although this is only a one year deal. Still nothing about the team's new TV deal, although the word is that it will not be officially approved and announced until after the proposed new Dodgers TV deal is dealt with.

KNBR San Francisco's newest unpaid intern has some unusual qualifications for the post. Major league experience. Michael Taylor of the A's was reportedly one week into an internship before the station personalities found out that he is indeed the outfield prospect looking toward a future in broadcasting. Among those who didn't know are night host Eric Byrnes, a former MLB outfielder himself. Taylor is on the air during the Fitz & Brooks Show with a 'fan on the street' interview segment known as "What's Bugging You?".

LUBBOCK: The Fan 1340 begins its local morning show this week (as of Monday 11/28). The Sports Shack with Scott Fitzgerald and Alan Berger now airs from 7 to 9 AM, with Steve Dale moving to middays. This gives the station roughly 8 hours of local programming each weekday.

ASTORIA OR: KKEE Sports 1230 has abandoned its sports format and now plays music, but will continue to air play-by-play. The station already carries U. of Oregon football and Portland Trailblazers basketball.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fox Should Send Mike North South For This Blunder.....

Mike North of Fox Sports Radio picked the right week to mess up badly. Understandably, the sports media attention focuses on the Joe Paterno and Penn State situation, a busy NFL week, discussing this year's college football game of the century from last Saturday, and the worsening NBA lockout.

Yet, North's show on Fox Sports Radio late Sunday night (11/6) seems to be flying under the radar, as of press time (11/9 afternoon). For those who missed it, and that's the vast majority of sports fans, Mike North "reported" that boxing champ Joe Frazier had passed away, with his information based on "a text message from a friend". Keep in mind that at the time, Frazier was still alive and did not actually pass until Monday night.

Later in the show, North tried to cover his "possible" error, admitting there was no actual report of his death, and literally saying on the air, "I think when you’re in the hospice and you have liver cancer, it’s may be a little short trip to that point. But if you’re not dead, you’re not dead. So, as far as we know, even though I said earlier that he was dead, he may still be alive. We’re trying to nail it down.”.

As of press time, there was nothing from Fox Sports about any form of discipline, investigation of the situation, or even an apology.

How does Fox Sports allow this to happen? First of all, it's bad enough that Mike North went with the "story" without confirming it. But this was on Fox Sports national radio. Does this mean that there was no one working on the Fox Sports staff who could have investigated? Just because North's "story" aired while the attention of the sports fan was on Sunday Night Football does not give Fox an excuse for such a blunder.

Why aren't North and his producer(s) being held accountable? Where was someone at Fox Sports that night to follow up on the "story"?

This is the same Fox Sports that brings us the NFL, MLB, and Nascar on TV, a 24-hour sports radio network, and a web site with "headlines" and columnists. If they don't discipline an on-air host who misrepresents a major story, how do they expect to maintain our trust?

Even though the NFL season is in full swing and continues to attract huge ratings, the NHL season is into its second month, the college football season is coming down to a few key regular season games, and college hoops start for real within the week, there is the matter of the lack of NBA games.

As of press time, the NBA lockout continues, and there isn't much hope it will end soon. It seems that TV and radio are each taking different approaches in dealing with the lack of games to broadcast. I'm not happy with either.

Those local and regional sports TV networks which would normally be showing NBA games this month have not all been able to find suitable replacement programming. Several, such as Houston and Chicago, have begun showing classic games of the local team from years past. That translates to "We have nothing else to show". These networks and stations shouldn't think in terms of repeats.

Sure, I enjoy a "classic" game on occasion. Those should be saved to be shown prior to training camp starting, or on holidays, weekend mornings, and other times when there really is nothing else to show.

I'd like to think that the TV sports local and regional networks really are dedicated to local/regional sports coverage and not to filling time. The "We'll put an old NBA game on instead of a live one" approach doesn't cut it. Look at the NFL ratings again this season. The LSU vs. Alabama college football game last weekend (11/5) drew the 2nd highest ratings for a CBS telecast of college football since 1987. It shows that viewers continue to want live sports. Showing an NBA game from 1997 is not meeting that demand.

Not having live NBA games to televise should not mean "give up", put on a game recorded years ago, and call it a night. It should mean a search to find other live basketball and football games to show during those times. What about showing key high school and small college football games?

Now with college and high school basketball season upon us, we should be seeing games and players we would not have had the opportunity to see otherwise.

There are announcers and production people who are ready to work, NBA or not. There are fans who want to watch local live sports, NBA or not. It's about the image these regional networks need to maintain. Let me tune in to my local sports channel and see what LIVE game they are showing. If it's interesting, I'll watch to see the outcome and/or certain players, even if it's not the NBA. Even if I don't watch for long, it reinforces that I should check my local sports channel to see what actual live game is on from night to night.

On the radio side, the sports stations have moved on and simply talk about football, college basketball, hockey, and now baseball hot stove talk. Of course, I don't expect these stations to spend time with fans expressing their frustration with the players, owners, or both. However, there is still a void to fill, especially for sports stations in NBA markets. The hosts seem to overlook that if and when the lockout is settled, there will need to be a time period to sign free agents, talk trade, sign draft choices, hold tryouts, and allow the team officials to plan for the coming season.

As an NBA fan, I will admit that I have long forgotten which key players are free agents, which teams selected many of the top draft picks, and how the coming season might shape up. We could use a "If the (name of local team) season were to start today, they would need a forward......." discussion. Who might they look to sign? How would their recent draft picks fit in? What trades should they make?

For every week the sports stations go without talking about team personnel it's another week for fans to "forget" about their team. Thus, if and when the NBA season comes around, fans will then not be thinking in terms of their local sports talk station being a source to learn about their favorite team. One less reason to listen, even though the listeners were not "locked out" by the stations.

It's great to see NBC Sports Network (currently Versus) developing an interview show with Bob Costas to host. It will feature Costas interviewing players and team officials from the major sports. Word is that there will be less emphasis on baseball. It's not just because NBC doesn't have a national MLB agreement. Rather, it is so that Costas will continue to also host interview shows and do play-by-play for MLB Network as well. Costas will host a "town hall" format sports show during the week leading into the Super Bowl, and his regular interview show may not begin until 2nd quarter. The only negative about it is that, as of now, his show may only be monthly. Here's hoping it ramps up to weekly before too long.

Speaking of NBC, they are already working ahead on the flex scheduling for Sunday Night Football. The network announced more than two weeks before it needed to that the Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots has been scratched from its original Dec. 4th schedule for obvious reasons. The game they will televise instead probably won't be determined until just before Thanksgiving. Looks like they don't want NFL fans to even think about making other plans for that night.

Versus' weekly "NFL Turning Point" show moves from Thursday nights to Wednesday nights at 10 PM ET as of this week in order to not conflict with Thursday Night Football on NFL Network which starts this week.

And, a couple more notes about the most recent sports radio ratings. I commented about many of the big markets last week, showing how it's the events in local sports that are driving the sports radio audience rather than the hosts. Milwaukee's ratings certainly bear this out, with WTMJ and it's Brewers, Packers, and U. of Wisconsin play-by-play helping drive the station to one of its strongest ratings periods ever. Yet, the market's two all sports stations continue to show less than a full ratings point overall.

In Seattle, KJR and KIRO-AM tied in overall audience, although KIRO has the advantage during afternoon drive. In looking for an edge, KJR just began simulcasting on the former country music KNBQ, which broadcasts out of Centrailia. This will give KJR's programming addition coverage in that part of the market as well as into Tacoma.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's The Game - Not The Sports Station

The release of radio ratings for the mid-September to mid-October period provide reasons to re-visit the impact of sports radio stations around the country. These ratings come during the busiest time of the year in sports, with football, baseball, hockey, and (not quite) basketball all keeping the sports pages busy.

Several of the large market sports stations have recently done some lineup shuffling, whether to fend off competing sportstalk stations, add a fresh approach, or both. Over the past year, I have taken the point of view that sports station ratings are driven too much by the local teams or major sports happenings moreso than the personalities hosting the shows day after day.

With so much time spent talking about rumors, speculation, and predictions by the various hosts instead of increasing "hard sports news" reporting and having more quality guests, many of the sports stations continue to not make a significant impact with the local radio audience, local programming or not. For the most part, when local teams are making significant news or changes, it reflects positively on the local sports stations.

This is not good for the industry. It tells me that sports fans know these sportstalk stations are there, but choose to listen for a hot topic, and not the personalities.

Not everyone who reads and responds to me on this topic agrees, and that's fine. However, I'm seeing even less to support their arguments on this. Let's look at the latest radio ratings for a group of larger markets.

In New York City, WFAN is now #12 in the market in overall audience, and did increase .4 from the previous month. WEPN showed a 50% overall audience increase over the September ratings and has more than doubled its total audience since July, which is impressive. Yet, there were no significant program lineup changes during this time. Fans are not listening more to these stations because "such-and-such is now on in the afternoon". The audience increases for both stations came during the Yankees' run to the post-season with higher expectations and the start of the Giants' and Jets' seasons.

In Chicago, WSCR The Score 670 came in at #18 overall with another slight increase. Yet, rival WMVP ESPN 1000, while tied for #20 showed its strongest overall rating this year. This coincides with the Bears' season starting, as evidenced by WBBM 780 and 105.9, which airs the play-by-play, rising from a 5.4 to a 6.6 overall in just one month to finish #1 in the market.

I'm going to comment more (and separately) on Los Angeles sports radio later this month, since that market again failed to place either of its sports stations in the top 25 in overall audience.

San Francisco also brings the point home. As the Giants were fading from their chance to repeat a World Series championship and the 49ers brought low expectations (at the time), KNBR 680 lost about 20% of its overall audience from one month earlier and fell to #9 in the market. KTCT The Ticket did show a large increase in listeners, but shows a total audience less than 1/3 of KNBR.

In Dallas, KESN showed a 25% audience increase and finished #9 in the market, while KRLD-FM showed a similar increase while rising to #18 overall. KTCK The Ticket held steady. This while the Rangers were on their way to another World Series (decided after this ratings period) and the Cowboys' season was now in full swing.

Houston is another significant example of why it is the sports climate and not the stations themselves. The 3 "leading" sports radio stations showed increases for the October ratings just as Texans began a season with higher than usual expectations. Heck, KILT's audience increased enough to put a Houston sports station into the top 20 stations overall, even though they are at #19. (Other than Los Angeles, Houston's sports stations have shown perhaps the lowest major league market sports radio ratings over the past couple of years.)

Boston was a sports 'hot bed' during this time, with the severe Red Sox collapse at the same time as the start of the Patriots' season. WEEI/WMKK moved up over a full ratings point over the one month. Before I get the argument that the WMKK simulcast recently began and this would account for the increase, consider that WBZ-FM The Sports Hub ALSO rose more than one full rating point during the same time. Sports talk had been on FM in the Boston area. The late September local sports scene is what brought the fans to want to talk about it.

In Detroit, the Tigers' run to the post-season, the Lions best start in more than 40 years, the opening of the Red Wings season, and early success of Michigan and Michigan State football created a sports frenzy. WXYT-FM 97.1 The Ticket had a second straight record-setting ratings month, rose by .6 overall, and finished #1 in the market.

In Phoenix, the success of the Diamondbacks into the post-season brought KTAR-AM up to more than double the audience ratings it had for August.

In Columbus, WBNS-FM's overall ratings rose from a 5.5 a month earlier to a 6.7, an impressive increase, raising the station to #4 in the market. Why? You guessed it. The sportstalk station carries Ohio State football play-by-play.

One more large market to comment on. I'm sure I'll hear from a few of you who will argue that the WEEI to FM simulcast was a factor in the Boston sports radio increase. Perhaps you should also research the Philadelphia market. WIP killed off WYSP-FM's music format to simulcast sports radio, giving this long time sports leader an AM-FM presence for the first time. For October, WIP-AM dropped to #23 overall in the market, and has lost more than half of its audience since July. Yet, WPEN rose to #18 in the market, but showed nearly a full ratings point increase. This looks like the impact of Howard Eskin leaving WIP and many of his listeners trying out the competition - during the Phillies' post-season run and with the Eagles' season in full swing.

Here's hoping that sportstalk stations will strive for more than "Let's go to Joe on the north side who thinks that (name of team) needs a new linebacker" to try and attract more listeners.

Elsewhere, I'm glad that ESPN thought to televise the announcements of MLB's Gold Glove Award winners on Tuesday (11/1) night. With all of the time on the national, regional, and league/conference networks, there is room for shows surrounding award announcements, since many fans want to know exactly when these awards will be announced.

However, if ESPN or MLB Network is going to televise these awards (such as Silver Slugger, MVP, Cy Young, etc.), they need to do a better job of making it interesting or there won't be enough of an audience to make it worthwhile in the future.

"All" ESPN did for each position in both leagues was give the list of nominees, have a former player announce the winner, and THEN show highlights of that player's performance. Sorry, but that wasn't enough of a buildup to make it worth watching again.

Show us clips and information about each nominee, like the major movie and TV awards shows air a clip of each show or film in consideration. Instead, ESPN made it seem easier to go to another news source later that night or the next morning and see the list all at once.

Even an MVP or Cy Young Award telecast could be made interesting. They could include some clips and statistical comparisons of some players not even in the "top 10" in the voting to raise the "How could this guy not have been voted higher?" discussion. In this context, it enhances the winning of the award while adding more suspense. That would be a thousand times better than what seemed like it could have been a pre-recorded presentation.

Next Thursday (11/10) begins Thursday Night Football on NFL Network when the Raiders take on the Chargers. Once again, a new season means a new announcing team. This year Brad Nessler, known for his college football play-by-play over the years, will handle it for NFL Network, along with Notre Dame on NBC analyst Mike Mayock.

Although Nessler and Mayock each do a very good job and figure to be a good team, it seems odd that the NFL's own network would not go with an announcing team strongly associated with the NFL instead of college games.

NEW YORK: It wasn't announced until after our press time last week, but the Yankees broadcasts will indeed return to WCBS-AM for the 2012 season. The significance is that this is a one-year extension and not a multi-year deal. Sister station WFAN has the Mets broadcasts, and that contract is also up at the end of next season. One of the aspects the bears watching is how CBS Radio stations approach retaining or bidding for local play-by-play rights over the next few months. If CBS is looking at a lesser role for sports broadcasts, it could create a wild scene in NYC with both teams coming up. Or, CBS could be bidding against itself and others for both teams next summer.

The Yankees' radio team of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman will return. How much or how little those two will actually talk to each other directly on the air remains to be seen - or heard.

While WEPN 1050 lacks for programming since there are no Knicks broadcasts during the NBA lockout, the station will carry Seton Hall basketball starting on Nov. 12th vs. St. Francis. The contract allows for the Seton Hall broadcasts to move to WABC 770 if and when there are Knicks conflicts during the coming season, as well as when there will be Rangers conflicts. (WEPN airs the Rangers games as well.)

WASHINGTON D.C.: Although the college basketball season is about to start, it took until the last minute for Georgetown University basketball to get a deal with WTEM 980. The ESPN station or WSPZ-AM 570 will air the Hoyas games again this season, with Rich Chvotkin going in to his 39th season as play-by-play voice.

DENVER: Nate Kreckman has moved into a co-host role from Noon to 3 PM on 102.3 The Ticket, teaming with Charles Johnson. Former Colorado QB Joel Klatt has left the station, with details sketchy as to what happened there.

ALLENTOWN PA: A Saturday morning mystery, radio style. This past Saturday (10/30), The Fox AM 1470 did not air the "Calling All Sports" Show with Keith Groller, although there was no official announcement. Later, Groller stated in his local newspaper column that the show was taken off the schedule "due to some transitions". The station is owned by a large national radio group which has been eliminating jobs around the country over the past two weeks, and this was a weekly locally produced show. So now the guess is it's no longer a mystery and the show won't be back.