July 23, 2013
While many radio powers-that-be are turning their competitive fire against non-radio interests such as Pandora, Net radio and music streaming services. Probably the hottest competitive battleground can be found within radio itself - specifically, Sports Talk Radio. On top of established brands such as ESPN and Fox Sports, two media titans -- CBS and NBC -- have launched their own networks. CBS Sports Radio is off to an auspicious start, offering a powerful lineup of hosts such as Jim Rome, John Feinstein and Scott Ferrell. Directing the network's programming is Eric Spitz, who honed his chops at the premier Sports station in the country, WFAN/New York. Here's how he got the network off and running.
Was going from PD at the #1 Sports station in the country to a Sports network role a tough decision?
The opportunity to be able to run something myself was hard to pass up. I had the PD title at WFAN, but Mark Chernoff runs the programming department at the station and he does an amazing job. This opportunity for me was going from being a Defensive Coordinator of a winning team to the Head Coach of an expansion team, where I could start from the ground up. Opportunities like that don't come around too often; it's a terrific opportunity for me.
Besides the obvious difference in scope - national vs. one market -- are there differences between running a network vs. running a station in terms of programming, use of clocks, etc.?
The clock strategies are basically the same. Much like local radio, what we do at the network is take full advantage of PPM techniques to keep people listening as long as they can, as often as possible. The difference is actually in the programming itself. At the Fan, it's all about the nine local New York sports teams. On any given hour of the day, there are good local stories for our passionate sports fans to talk about. The topics are always obvious to them.
For the network, we're trying to find those stories that our hosts and our listeners can be passionate about on a national level. Some stories may be obvious from a national perspective, but some not so much. We have to work harder to find the stories that elicit a passion on a national scale.
You mentioned the PPM. Initially, there was an assumption among some radio observers that the PPM would make it harder for Talk and Sports Talk stations to be successful. Fortunately for you, that hasn't been the case. Why do you think that is?
The PPM has worked out well for Talk, but the bottom line is this: If you put out a quality program, people will listen to it. Sure, we also play to PPM's strengths, but it's all about quality programming.
I get a lot of people who say they want to get into Sports radio, and ask me if they need to leave New York to start or should they take any job in this market and work their way up. The answer depends on how talented they are. It doesn't matter if it's in the Diary world or the PPM world; it always comes down to compelling programming. If you provide that, people will listen.
You mentioned that taking the programming reins of CBS Radio was like becoming the head coach of an expansion team. Taking that analogy further, most expansion teams take their lumps before becoming competitive. What are you doing to speed up the growth of CBS Sports Radio?
There is a difference. In a football expansion, you get a top draft pick along with the castoffs from everyone else. Fortunately, we brought in a lot of top picks who were #1 wherever they were before. We've been able to hit the ground running right out of the gate.
And we didn't have a lot of time to pull a full staff together. Right after Labor Day, the first couple of weeks we had to hire an entire staff. The only two employees that we had when I started the job were Doug Gottlieb, who was hired as a talk show host, and Boomer Esiason, who was going to anchor five CBS Sports Minutes each day. We immediately started working on other Sports Minute anchors, the other full-time hosts, then the weekend hosts ... and now we probably have 60-70 employees, full and part-time, both on and off-air.
Of course, to have a successful launch, you need to do more than hire top talent. We developed a whole infrastructure to support us. Putting all this together over the course of several months was a major challenge. I think we did an excellent job in hiring the right people. We're really proud of the staff we put together; they're extremely hard-working and smart.
This was the second time I was in this position. I was also involved in the start-up of WFAN back in 1987. At the time I was a desk assistant -- a college graduate who was happy to have any position -- but I was there when it started and developed. I saw The Fan grow, saw what mistakes we made -- and learned from them. I took that knowledge and told Chris Olivero, Dan Mason and Mark Chernoff that after living through The Fan's launch, I was finally prepared to launch one myself. That helped prepared me to help CBS Sports Radio basically hit the ground running.
Although all of your hosts are experienced and successful, you still had to team various personalities together for the first time. How did you ascertain whether they had the right chemistry together?
Obviously, for Jim Rome, John Feinstein and Scott Ferrall, there were no auditions as they host solo shows. But for mornings and evenings, we did many auditions last fall. Granted, you can't tell that much from 15 minutes of an audition, but we sifted through the talent to find the right combinations. Judging by the response so far, it looks like we're succeeding.
Did you take a "hands off" approach to the established solo shows?
We were very involved with all the shows. Scott Ferrall is a good example. Most recently he was doing a satellite radio show that was different from the Sports show he used to do. When we met Scott, we told him we wanted him to just go back and do a solid sports show - and he hasn't skipped a beat. He's made a very smooth transition. Scott's engaging, has got a great sound, and is extremely knowledgeable.
Currently, one could say ESPN offers straight-ahead sports, while Fox Sports Radio adds more attitude and a lifestyle edge. Where do you see CBS Sports Radio positioned?
We balance both camps. The thing is ... we don't want everyone on-air to sound the same. When I try to find people to do a Sports Talk show, I look for four factors: passion opinion, knowledge and entertainment.
This came up years ago when we was looking to find an overnight host for The Fan. I was listening to tapes, hundreds of them, and they started to all blend together, so I came up with the P-O-K-E scale when I listened to each demo. I'd play one tape and go, "Passion ... 7, Opinion ... 6, Knowledge ... 8, and Entertainment ... 5."
That's still an effective measurement. I don't want them to sound the same. Jim Rome is Jim Rome; no one else on our lineup sounds anything like him. Same thing with John Feinstein and Scott Ferrall.
Will CBS Sports Radio consider getting involved for play-by play broadcasts of certain sports and/or leagues or conferences, a la SEC football?
We're certainly going to be players in the bidding for play-by-play rights. When certain association rights deals come up, I expected us to definitely be involved in them.
How difficult has it been for CBS Sports Radio to get major stations as affiliates when ESPN and Fox Sports, to name a couple, have had a head start in trying to lock them up?
That's not a part of the business I oversee, so I can't comment on how that process is going, but I think we've done incredibly well in getting affiliates so far. We launched with 200 stations and now, six months later, we have over 300. That's a terrific success story - and we're continuing to grow the network.
In terms of major markets, we have key affiliates in San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Tampa. It's great to be on so many CBS and Cumulus stations, but we're also on non-CBS and Cumulus stations in markets such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Miami.
How important will optimizing your website and other digital platforms be in CBS Sports Radio's growth?
CBSSportsRadio.com is extremely important to us. CBS Radio has done a great job digitally in local markets; CBSNewYork.com is a terrific website. We're definitely committed to growing our site. Each show already has its own individual page; there's audio of interviews. We'll be streaming through the website, and we plan on making our shows' pages even bigger.
CBS has made a major commitment to digital. The company is being very aggressive in putting more resources into it.
With so many heavyweights in the network space -- CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and Sporting News -- is there room enough for all of them to succeed?
I'm not going to comment on the other networks. I'm totally focused on CBS Sports Radio, and from the evidence I've seen, our launch was very effective and we're continuing to grow.
When a station flips formats, management used to give that format a certain amount of time to succeed. On the network level, how does corporate business pressure impact your timeline?
The mandate from corporate on our launch was just to make it a great day. And for day 2, make it a better day. When Chris Olivero, Mark Chernoff, Dan Mason and I first sat down to talk about CBS Sports Radio, they made it very clear to make sure we had a polished sound from day one - and we've done that.
Now is that pressure? Certainly there was some pressure on us to sound great at launch, starting January 2nd, and to put a staff together in a short amount of time. But when you surround yourself with great people, from those who go on-air to those providing technical support, to those who work with our affiliates, to those who man our newsrooms, you create a great energy of people who want to be here. As long as we maintain that positive energy, I feel we can be successful five years, 10, years, even 20 years from now.
If you're talking about pressure to generate revenue, I don't deal with that side of things. I can't speak to that because that pressure isn't put on me to specifically generate more revenue. As far as ratings go, we're starting to see some nice success stories. Is there pressure to see more? Sure, but as time goes on, I'm confident we're going to see more. It's not like I walk in here every day thinking, "Oh my God, the pressure to win is incredible." The only pressure I feel, I put on myself - and that's to make sure we sound as great as possible.
Finally, has this new opportunity impacted what your future career goals are?
I really don't ever put myself in that equation. I know it's trite to say, but I'm just happy to get up every morning and go to a job that I love to do. I don't think about what I'll be doing six months from now, let alone 10 years from now. I've been very fortunate to be able to have the opportunities I've had. I've been lucky; I had an internship at WNBC radio, which led to a second internship in the sports department at NBC Radio. Some of the people who I worked for at NBC had connections with the new management team at WFAN, a new all-Sports radio station that was about to launch. I graduated at the perfect time -- May of '87 - because The Fan launched in July of '87. Who knows what would've happened if I graduated in 1986 ... or 1988? It was very fortunate timing because it enabled me to get to where I am today. And that's a great place to be.