There are times when I wish radio had an All-Star Break. It would be nice to get away from “the game” for a couple days, go fishing, unwind, and recharge.
Now, some of you might suggest that Memorial Day Weekend or July 4th serve that same purpose for radio. But if you talk to most PDs and on-air personalities, that's not how it works. In fact, a holiday weekend is often more stressful – special programming, multiple music logs, and air shifts that conflict with picnics, barbecues, and family reunions.
Still, baseball and radio share a lot in common. They are pastimes that have been around a long time, often competing with faster-paced, modern entertainment catered to younger consumers and the hyper time in which we live.
And of course, play-by-play broadcasts have long been a staple of broadcast radio, going back to the years when President Ronald Reagan called games over the AM airwaves. Today, only 12% of Americans report listening to baseball games on the radio, according to a newly-released study from Nielsen.
Many observers think neither baseball nor radio has kept up with the times or consumer sensibilities. The average baseball game runs over three hours long, despite many concerted efforts to quicken the pace. Baseball is one of the few games without a clock – each contest is unique. Radio, on the other hand, has a clock. And the commercial side of the business continues to be bloated with commercials (like the outfield wall in a minor league ballpark), and other sponsored interruptions that get in the way of the listening experience.
How challenged is pacing and energy in baseball? It's so bad the United Shore Professional Baseball League just a few miles up the road in Utica, Michigan, just instituted a radical new policy:
No new inning will start after the 2:25 mark of the game.
Why that's like a radio station doing something as out-of-the-box as launching a “Two-Minute Promise.”
Sometimes in order to compete, you have to truly try different tactics. The USPBL believes this new policy will, in fact, speed up the game, and most will last the entire nine innings. We'll see how that works out for them.
Oftentimes, smaller market radio stations are especially hard-pressed to keep up with the times. And that's also a challenge faced by small town, minor league baseball teams. There are fewer stars and big distractions to keep fans happy and engaged.
And so, they're innovating. A recent story in AdWeek by David Cohen – “Marketing Independent League Baseball Is All About The Experience – And Not The Game” – talks about how this minor league baseball group of teams is redefining what it's like to attend a baseball game.
Rick White, president of the Atlantic League, talks like someone who's done his homework. His conclusion?
“For 95% of the guests who attend minor league baseball games of all kinds, they are not necessarily there based on the quality of performance, but they are definitely there to enjoy the quality of experience.”
Steve Tahsler is deputy commissioner of the Frontier League. Here's his view:
“The bulk of our fans are not coming for the baseball itself, but for the overall atmosphere and experience. We can't survive just on baseball fans. We cater to people looking for a good time and clean family activity.”
So, they've instituted a AAA policy to redefine the experience:
- Activities (that are family-friendly)
This re-emphasis away from balls and strikes and toward fan experiences – kids running the bases, social media engagement, funny videos, and contests – speaks volumes about how these small leagues have re-calibrated their events. Simply put, it's less about what happening on the diamond, and more about the fans in the grandstands.
Radio stations that offer a no-frills environment – just a focus on balls and strikes – risk the same fan erosion that sports teams face when they're not catering to the lifestyle of fans.
There has to be more to a radio station than just offering up the collection of songs it plays. Just about everyone knows how to replicate a music library or a “safe list.”
More and more, it's about everything else a station provides – the personalities, the production, the promotion, the events, the community service – that defines the experience. Those elements are not at the base of the familiar Coleman “image pyramid” like music or the morning show – but they very much matter.
These days on the radio, music alone can't provide a unique experience, even if you're featuring a lot of new songs or even deep cuts. Without the atmosphere, the vibe, the passion, the heart and the soul, radio stations that are music machines are fated to fade and erode.
Just like how small market baseball teams have had to transcend the meat and potatoes of a sport where it was once enough to have Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax on the diamond, even MLB has had to look to the minor league entertainment model for inspiration and ideas.
As baseball (at all levels) has learned, just watching the games isn't enough to entertain and enchant fans. It's a lifestyle thing – consumers want to be part of the game.
Similarly, your radio station's audience wants more than just music – perhaps they love craft beer, video games, shopping, and online dating. Maybe they want to engage socially, listen to a podcast, or attend a station event. It doesn't take a whole lot of research to learn what they do when they're not listening to music.
A greater focus by radio stations on the fans rather than on myopically sorting music tests and mechanically selling commercials is a start.
Today, it's about the experience.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.