In 2013 America, one can scarcely scan a radio dial without finding sports talk somewhere. Nashville has three excellent stations on the FM dial – 95.9, 102.5 and 104.5 – another, 560, on the AM band. It’s hard to believe that sports talk radio didn’t exist until the 1960s and wasn’t really popular until 20 years ago. In Nashville, our start came back in the early-1980s and grew as local radio legend George Plaster, one of the pioneers of our sports talk scene, became popular. Plaster, now the host of “Sports Night”on 102.5 The Game, has provided listeners with decades of his analysis of our country’s sports scene.
You, the reader, may be a sports talk listener and have some idea of what’s involved. But there’s still so much behind the scenes you don’t know. Here’s a look behind the curtain at sports talk radio, courtesy of my friends at Nashville Sports Radio (95.9 FM, 560 AM)
The business side
Many stations are owned by corporations, but not WNSR, which is privately owned. One owner is Ted Johnson, who works at his in-studio office each day. When asked about what’s involved in owning a station, his answer comes immediately and with a smile.
“Headaches,” he responds as we share a laugh. “The one constant you have owning a radio station is change, and so you have to be flexible. The hardest thing is to be a stand-alone radio station in a top-50 market, because you’re fighting against the big guys that have five, six, seven stations in the market, and so you have to work smarter and not harder and try to get as much as you can out of what you have.”
For all the troubles of being an owner, though, it remains Johnson’s passion.
“I knew I wanted to go into radio since I was 10 years old. I worked my way through college in radio, came out of college and worked at WSM here for 11 years, then got out of it for a while,” he says.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. While out of radio, Johnson owned a television production company, but he felt a pull to get back in. He heard of a local radio station that had gone off the air, and he led a group of investors to buy it. The result was the creation of Nashville Sports Radio, which first broadcast in 1997 and is now the longest-running sports talk station in Nashville.
All joking aside, Johnson’s description of running a radio station sounds much like any other business.
“Keep the investors happy. … Keep the bank happy. … Try to keep your sales manager and sales people motivated, and keep a pretty clear image of where you want to go and what you want the station to be, and try to present that and keep it on track with where you want to be,” he says.
In its infancy stages, the sports talk radio industry was not very lucrative. Some would even say it was close to bankruptcy. Now, however, Nashville’s sports talk radio industry has grown much more stable, though you’ll still notice many references to money.
For instance, radio shows can’t air without sponsors, and thus, you need a sales manager. At WNSR, it’s Thom Abraham, who doubles as on-air talent. Abraham has done radio for a couple of decades now, and he’s become a natural at both jobs.
Once an advertiser is on board, ads are then created and prepared to air. Advertising businesses may have their own spots, but if not, WNSR can help create them. That job falls on production director Paul Hughes, who records and edits the ads. Sometimes, Hughes – who has been blessed with tremendous pipes – does the voice-over work. By the time Hughes is done, the rough edges have been sanded, and a professional-sounding commercial is ready to hit the air.
Hughes started out in radio – he had his own show in high school and built the only radio station on a domestic Air Force base – before doing other things. He’d worked with Johnson in Kentucky, and when approached about getting back in the business, he jumped and has been with WNSR ever since.
“Radio was always my first love,” he says.
A sports radio production is like a concert: the performance is live, and there are folks behind the scenes making the performer sound the best he can. At WNSR, that’s Adam Johnson, who produces Nashville Sports Radio’s afternoon shows.
When you hear a commercial air or background music playing in transition to and from commercial breaks, Johnson’s the guy pushing the button to make that happen. He’s the guy answering the phones and putting callers on the air, adjusting voice volumes so they can be heard by listeners.
In short, he’s the one who makes sportscasters sound good. Johnson’s been doing it for well over a decade now and makes it look easy. He loves it because he gets to talk sports all day and hang out with others who also love to do so.
Johnson produces shows for various personalities, and that’s the biggest challenge.
“Everybody is a little different,” he says. “(I’m always) planning ahead in a show to make sure all the audio is in the correct order to play – and to make sure Thom hits his breaks on time, which rarely happens,” Johnson laughs.
That brings us to those of us behind the microphone. I say “us”because 13 months ago, I started my own radio career.
So, what’s it like?
First of all, it’s a dream come true. Had you told me when I was a kid that I could talk sports every day and get paid for it, I’d have probably passed out from the excitement. Abraham, who was a football coach before he got into radio, shares a story about his first day in radio that illustrates that quite well.
“I walked out of the booth and someone said, ‘This is who you submit to for payment.’And I said, ‘I get to sit up here, I get the best seat in the house, I get to play with the Telestrator – and you’re going to give me a check?’That’s kind of where it took off for me. When you can do something you love, you’re fired up every day,” he recalls.
But it’s work, too. Rule No. 1 in radio is this: be interesting. Radio is usually more compelling when it’s a dialogue and not a monologue, so I spend part of each day reaching out to find interesting on-air guests, whether they’re current or ex-coaches and athletes or fellow journalists. The goal is to find something relevant for today and to find someone who can speak intelligently on that topic.
That brings me to rule No. 2: be prepared. While you should keep interviews conversational and not according to a strict script, I almost always write questions out ahead of time – you never know when you can get distracted or your mind can go blank.
You must also be ready for curveballs. Sometimes, your guests forget that they’ve agreed to come on the air – or, as happened to me recently, they drive to a remote part of Mississippi and lose phone service. If you run a call-in show, sometimes your audience doesn’t cooperate with your pleas to dial in. I always have a list of four to six topics that I’m prepared to speak on in case I’m on alone.
So once you’ve done the prep work and your approach is right, it’s all easy from there, right? Not by a long-shot. While good sports talk sounds conversational, even the most articulate of us could use more polish in how we speak. That means eliminating our “uhs”and “you knows”and not wasting words – the latter of which can be difficult when you’re filling time. That art can take years to master. Before I was ever employed by a radio station, I’d done hundreds of guest appearances all over the country, which helped.
However, I found that being on the station side was a whole different world, especially if you’re manning a mic by yourself. Sometimes, as is the case with being a producer, it’s almost like being an air-traffic controller.
One minute, the phones might be dead and you’re filling time with a pre-planned topic. You’re on a roll, until you look at the caller screen and notice two callers are on hold. Then, you’ve got to switch gears and talk about whatever the caller wants.
Once you take calls, you want to be courteous to them, but you also have to watch for other needs. The caller may be droning on and you have to tactfully escort him off the air. Or the call may be fantastic, but you have to cut it off to get to a commercial break. You have to remember to mention sponsors’names at the appropriate times in the midst of all this.
It’s overwhelming enough that it can be easy to forget how good you have it. That’s when a little 30,000-foot perspective can come in handy.
The esteemed George Plaster, who’s been a mentor for many in the past, has often recommended to his younger, less experienced counterparts that they should just do the best show they can do everyday and let the ratings and everything else take care of themselves.
And listen to the words of Abraham’s son, Joe Anthony, who briefly sums up why we’re all here in the first place.
“The best thing about being in sports talk radio is being able to enjoy my passion, which I love – sports. That’s it,” he says.