It's that time of year again, where we turn off cable news, put down our phones, and actually talk to each other about one of the most important issues facing America…and the world.
There's an art to brackets – and that's why I included the beautiful design at the top of this post by designer Chris Keach. It was designed back in 2013, and I think it holds up today. If you step away from it, it look like a piece of art – something you might find hanging in on the wall; an abstract conversation piece whose meaning is left up to the interpretation of those who observe it.
The beauty of “bracketology” – as it's called – is that it an activity in which anyone can participate.
Whether you're a hardcore “Dukie,” Tar Heel, Wildcat, or Bruin, or you think Zion Williamson sounds like the name of a law firm, your bracket could win it all in this year's office pool. Of course, all this gambling is illegal, but everyone's doing it. There was a time when even Presidents stopped tweeting for a minute to fill out a bracket.
But I digress.
Here's the thing. Brackets really have nothing to do with sports. Sure, “March Madness” is all about those exciting basketball games we'll be clandestinely watching at work these next few weeks. But what it's really about is a communal, frivolous activity that gets us away from our troubles, our woes, and our angst to instead debate whether Michigan State got screwed, ‘Nova got lucky, or who this year's Cinderella team will be.
I was listening to “The Bob & Tom Show” the other morning, and the conversation turned to brackets. Veteran Tom Griswold hit the nail on the head when he commented about how filling out a “March Madness” bracket is prime escapism during a time in this country where seemingly nobody is having fun, no matter your political stripes. Like many personality shows, Tom might tell you his mission is to entertain people – to make them laugh to start their days.
But the true “job” shows like this accomplishes is providing a respite, a temporary haven from the pressures we all feel – at home, at work, and yes, in the car. In its own way each year, “March Madness” provides a socially acceptable way of talking about nothing of any great consequence in the workplace. None of it really matters, and that's why we gravitate toward it like a religious holiday that falls at the same time every year.
And the beauty of it all is that one need not know doodly-squat about college basketball or even filling out a bracket in order to participate. An examination of past year's bracket winners likely reveals the participants with the lowest college hoops IQ are the likeliest victors of the pool. The term “blown bracket” will soon be heard in the cubicles and office hallways as even the smartest sports mavens see their hopes and dreams dashed by an unforseen upset.
But how did all this begin?
According to Slate, the first bracket was developed in England in 1851 for of all things, a chess tournament. But NCAA brackets didn't become a popular office pastime until 1977. That's when a group of 88 people hanging out in a Staten Island bar first filled them out – at least, according to the Smithsonian.
The term “bracketology” – or the science and art of populating and predicting the bracket – is attributed to the editor/owner of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, Joe Lunardi (pictured right), back in 1995.
And over the ensuing years, brackets have become something Americans look forward to every March, as much as the coming of spring. (OK, maybe not.).
Radio has jumped in with both feet, as it's the perfect medium for staging and presenting creative bracket contests – especially since the advent of the Internet and websites that allow for voting, comments, registration, and the other components that make for successful contests.
No one knows the first radio station to run a bracket promotion, but my earliest memory is KSHE's “March Bandness” which has taken on a life of its own at the iconic St. Louis rocker.
In recent years, stations have gotten highly creative, evolving from pitting bands or songs against each other, and moving into other comparative topics.
Like “March Badness.” Among the stations that have gone this route, KCMQ (Zimmer/Columbia, MO) morning guys Shags & Trevor have put together a bracket of uncomfortable choices.
I'm especially interested in the first-round matchup between “gender reveal parties” vs. “shared Facebook accounts.”
Shredd & Ragan, the snarky overlords of Buffalo morning radio for decades on The Edge (Cumulus, Buffalo) have put together a compelling bracket: Awesome Deaths. The theme is a simple one: death vs. death. And the guys have come up with some novel ways to leave this planet, including “Russian Roulette with Gary Busey” and having your “rocket explode on the way back from Mars.” Tough calls, to be sure.
Radio stations – especially those with wonderful morning shows and/or charming personalities can make these simple one-on-one matchups fun, compelling, and occasion-setting, whether they're pitting bands, burgers, movies, or cabinet members against one another. If you do a little “bracketology” research, you'll run across all sorts of interesting versions that can be adapted to a station, show, or market persona.
While it may be your radio station's mission to play the best songs with the fewest commercials or present the most buzzworthy topics on your talk shows,, the other benefit many programmers forget about is escape.
Whether you're at the helm of a Hot AC, Country, or even a News/Talk station, part of your charge is mindless diversion. Brackets are a wonderful way to provide an emotional rescue, while showing off the wit and humor of your best personalities. In radio, we're consumed by generating so-called “water cooler talk” for the office. “Bracketology” is perhaps the best example of bringing it to life.
And to add fuel to the “bracketology” fire, even public radio stations have jumped into the pool (so to speak). I ran across brackets from WHYY (Philadelphia), as well as this one from KPCC (Los Angeles) – two of teh best public radio stations in the country.
Imagine the drama of hearing “Radio Lab” going up against “The Moth Radio Hour.” And wondering whether “The Splendid Table” could possibly upset “Marketplace” to advance in the “central” division.
In doing some research for this blog, I bumped into a new favorite bracket, posted by Detroit (that is, Hockeytown) resident Jamie Favreau Boudrie, an unabashed Detroit Red Wings diehard.
“Bracketology” may be the best thing for the NCAA, its sponsors, CBS-TV and the other networks that carry the games, and bars all over the world.
So, who's your pick to go all the way?
Thanks again to Chris Keach. You can check his designs out here.
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.