10 Questions with ... Jason Barrett
July 12, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
WTBQ/Warwick, NY; WALL-WEOK and WPDH/Poughkeepsie; WPYX/Albany; ESPN Radio; WPEN/Philadelphia; KFNS/St. Louis; WXOS (101 ESPN)/St. Louis; KBWF (SportsRadio 95.7FM)/San Francisco.
1. What inspired you to go into radio? Why radio?
From the time I was young I loved radio. I grew up around a lot of music, due to playing the drums, and always enjoyed listening to different stations to discover new artists.
While music stations initially got me to listen, there were 2 specific shows that inspired me to want to want to pursue a career in the industry. The first time I was amazed by the power of radio was during a drive home from NYC to Orange County. I was probably 16, and my father picked me up in the morning in New York City after he got off his shift as a New York Police Officer, and when I got in the car, he told me he was going to let me listen to something on the radio for the first time because he thought I was mature enough to handle it. It was the Howard Stern show. I remember listening and laughing again and again and I was so impressed with how everyone on the show had the ability to be themselves, put their lives on the radio, speak freely on a number of different subjects, and how the program felt like one giant dysfunctional family that you couldn't resist learning more about.
And while I enjoyed Howard's show for its ability to entertain, the station and show that truly inspired me most to pursue a place in this business was WFAN and the "Mike & The Mad Dog" show. Mike's ability to gather inside information and command your attention with his strong opinions and Chris' ability to tug at your emotions and make you love him one second and hate him the next were impossible to ignore. They were passionate, opinionated, knowledgeable and entertaining, and very different from one another, which made them unique and interesting. They absolutely made the biggest impression on my choice to get into this business, and I know a ton of other people in this business today who are in it as well because of what Mike and Chris accomplished.
2. After your success in St. Louis, you're part of the start-up of another FM Sports station, this time in San Francisco, and you're building a lineup from scratch. What do you listen for in hiring talent; what, to your ear, makes a host worth hiring?
Many programmers have different philosophies, which can make it difficult for talent because what may work with me won't necessarily work with a different PD. Speaking for myself, though, the words that matter most when it comes to hosts are: Passionate, Genuine, Likeable, Energetic, and Self-Deprecating. If you have a high motor and are excited about what you're talking about, it typically leads people to want to hear more about what you're discussing. Add to that the ability to be yourself and laugh at your own mistakes and that makes you human, and that's a trait that many listeners identify with. Nothing turns me off more than a talent who preaches on the radio and can't be open minded to a different point of view. We're talking about sports, and most of it is subjective and designed to bring out a variety of opinions and emotions; When on-air hosts take themselves too seriously and present a holier-than-thou approach, that turns me off. Have fun, be prepared, love what you do, and relate to your audience, and you'll have a great shot at breaking thru.
3. Your new station is the A's flagship, and your previous station has the Rams; before that, you've worked at stations without major play-by-play. How much of a difference-maker is having play-by-play for a sports station? Long-term, does having one or more pro PBP contracts make a difference in a station's viability?
Play by Play definitely makes a major difference for a sports radio station and if you look around the country you'll find the majority of successful sports stations having a combination of great on-air talent and local PBP. Without it, you're facing a major uphill climb. It doesn't mean you can't win but you face a much tougher battle. The on-air content M-F 6a-7p is going to be strong and make a major impact with the audience, but if you can add significant ratings at night and/or on the weekend and utilize those partnerships to further promote your brand inside the broadcast and inside the stadium, then that's a recipe for success. The one thing, though, that some folks on the programming side often lose sight of is the cost of the rights deal. It's not all about whether or not the station should add a local teams games, it's whether or not they should be added at the price being requested for the deal. I've seen some stations land Play by Play which has performed well for them but the cost of the deal was so high that it resulted in dramatic staff reductions during the weekday, and that isn't positive either. You've got to have a great lineup and support staff combined with strong PBP partnerships to maximize your station's potential.
4. You're coming from a station and company (at least, before the sale) that were big on digital initiatives to a new company, station, and market. How important do you see the digital side -- websites, streaming, podcasts, social media -- to your new station?
Everyone keeps saying this is the future and we need to be prepared for it. I disagree. It is the present and the future. In my opinion, you've got to make your audio available in as many locations as possible -- website, car radio, phone application, YouTube, etc. Additionally, social media is the biggest phenomenon on the planet. How can you be a successful talent these days and not have some type of connection to your audience via your website, Facebook or Twitter? The listener is in control more now than ever before and the days of being a "sports talk show host" are over. You are now a "personal brand". This means you host a talk show, you chat online with the audience, you post on your Facebook or Twitter account, you make television appearances and do online video, you write a column or a blog, etc. The more involved our people are in these various forms of communication, the better connection we will make with the listener and that ultimately means a stronger performance on-air and in the business community.
5. You're on the FM dial and your direct format competition is on AM, but that raises the question: Who do you see as your real competition? Is it the AM sports talkers, FM music stations, everyone, or non-radio elements? Who are you targeting?
The overall target for our station and most sports stations is Men 25-54 but our specific focus is Men 25-40. FM sports has an ability to connect with the younger demo much better than AM stations because just like the rest of technology, it sounds better. In my opinion, FM is the present and future for the sports radio format. It's already happening across the country, and when you look at the majority of stations who have made the switch, the results have been outstanding.
With that said, any station or device which is pulling away our audience is viewed as competition -- AM sports talk stations, FM music stations, the IPod, etc. We are in an A.D.D world and to get people to listen for 5 minutes especially in a talk format, is very difficult. The content has to be compelling, have a purpose and provide a payoff. Too many times I hear hosts rely on the phones with no specific direction of where they're headed and that type of content is not unique, informative or compelling. I've been known in the past to ask my guys "were you more compelling for the past 5 minutes than the new hit record just released by a popular artist"? If Eminem, Green Day or another artist releases a great song, the music station has the benefit of putting it on and knowing that it will work. Talk show hosts don't have that advantage. This is why it's so vital for the content to be focused and have a specific purpose. Good content simply isn't enough to get it done in today's world.
6. Who have been your mentors, influences, and heroes?
The one person in this business who I'd list as a mentor is Bruce Gilbert. I still remember being in Poughkeepsie, NY and receiving a critique from Bruce Gilbert when I pitched him syndication for a wrestling talk show on ESPN Radio and I thought to myself at the time, "The GM at ESPN Radio really spent this amount of time reviewing a wrestling show?" Not only was the feedback accurate and helpful, but it displayed how much passion he had to help make people better. Then when he told me he'd hold my resume and get in touch if an opening were to come up in the future, he actually followed thru on it. A year later I was offered producing jobs on the same day by WFAN in NY (the station I loved and grew up on) and ESPN Radio, and the decision ultimately came down to the opportunity to learn sports radio from Bruce Gilbert. I'm glad I took that path, because the 2 years I spent at the network learning from him have helped me tremendously in my career.
When it comes to influences behind the scenes, I'd list Rick Scott for his ability to strategize, analyze situations, create solutions to problems and provide meaningful and candid feedback. When it comes to on-air people, I'd have to list Mike Francesa, Chris Russo, and John Tobin. Nobody struck a chord with a local sports radio audience better than Mike & The Mad Dog and few people I've been around have had the ability to simply turn on the switch and entertain a room and an audience better than John Tobin. I still tell him to this day he should be working on Comedy Central. The guy was extremely entertaining.
As for heroes that's an easy one: my father. Nobody has taken a deeper interest in my career path than him and he's been there to caution me, guide me, challenge me and support me during the process.
7. As a former producer yourself at ESPN and in Albany and the Hudson Valley, do you think radio places the right value on producers? What makes a good talk or sports radio producer?
When I started my career in the Hudson Valley, I had no idea what a producer did. I hosted talk shows, booked my own guests, did my own production and I just assumed what I was doing was working because it felt good to me and because I kept moving up to bigger opportunities over my first 7-8 years in the business. It wasn't until I got to ESPN that I learned how a strong producer can make a major difference on a talk show. Too often people in the industry view the producer as someone who simply answers the phone, books a guest or prints off the host's articles. That's not a producer. That's a phone screener, guest booker or production assistant. There's nothing wrong with any of those jobs but they're not the person ultimately responsible for crafting a game plan with a talent and making decisions on topic selection, which guests fit for the stories being discussed, which production is being used to advance the on-air discussion and which callers belong on-air and which don't.
Overall, as an industry, I do think we do a less than stellar job of placing value on the producer position. Can you imagine if the film industry told every actor to show up and perform the scenes they want that day with one extra person on standby to help put up the green screen and get them a cup of coffee? In our medium, our producer can either be that "extra person" or they can be Steven Spielberg. I prefer the latter. For example, "The Green Mile" was a fantastic movie because of the ability of Tom Hanks, the supporting cast of characters, the various locations where different scenes were filmed and because of the storyline. This is what a great producer does -- identifies "the right topics and various angles aka the storyline", secures "the right guests aka the supporting cast", develops "the right sound and production aka the right scenes" and figures out how to get "the maximum ability out of the on-air talent (aka Tom Hanks)."
8. Of what are you most proud?
Personally, it's being a father. For the past 6 years I've been flying every other weekend to NY to spend time with my son and as much as I love radio, nothing matters more to me than the time I spend with my little guy Dylan.
If it's about performance then I'd point to taking 101 ESPN in St. Louis to #1 with Men 25-54 in January 2011 and to a level of consistency inside the top 3-4 for the year of 2010. That was one of the greatest years of my career, and I was fortunate to do it with some amazing people who cared deeply about what we were trying to accomplish. While that may be the result I am proudest of, I am even more proud of how I have been able to coach and influence a few people to do bigger and better things. When we built 101 ESPN in St. Louis and started talking about ratings, many of the people in the building had a very jaded view on having ratings success because they were constantly fed the "ratings don't matter" nonsense. 2 years later we were not only having ratings success but everyone had bought in and took a personal interest in it and the team's willingness to embrace the challenge and work to understand it better has put them in position to be successful for many more years to come.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without _______________.
...my iPhone. Take it away and I am helpless and lost.
10. What's the best advice you've ever gotten? The worst?
Best advice came from my father who told me, "You don't get what you deserve, you get what you work for and if you want to make it in the radio business you better be prepared to outwork everybody."
Worst advice came from a former boss who wanted me to get a specific line into a newspaper column for a new show we were launching and said, "Don't worry about whether or not it's your quote or how you would say something. They won't remember it months from now anyway."