Houston We Have A Problem

Ode to Bill Houston
Ode to Bill Houston

Farewell to Bill Houston. This evening, Houston hit the send button on his final article for the Globe And Mail. While folks in the inners of sports in Toronto read Simmons every Sunday, the media tuned into Houston’s column to read the gossip of the industry. I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t at least a little bit of inspiration for this blog by Bill Houston’s work. I was honored when Houston wrote about this blog on his globesports.com site. My favorite articles of his where when we broke down the sports radio ratings. How fitting that his last column ventured into that area:

“What will the recession mean for all-sport radio in this country?

Potential cuts, perhaps a decrease in local content and plenty of anxiety.

The markets hit hardest are Toronto and Vancouver, although sources say CTV’s Team 1200 in Ottawa also is hurting. At Rogers Communications-owned The Fan 590 in Toronto and CTV’s Team 1040 in Vancouver, staff reductions are not ruled out.”

Let’s get this straight and out of the way from the get go. No one wants anyone to lose a job. It’s not fun nor funny and what is happening from coast to coast right now is scary. So when criticism is launched at an on air talent it is not in hopes they get fired…

““I don’t control Rogers, and it’s status quo for now,” Fan 590 vice-president and general manager Nelson Millman said. “We’re not planning on any major changes, but as with any business, I suppose you adjust as you go.”

Millman said everybody in radio, whether it’s in music, news or sports, is hurting. “We’re all operating on the same cruise ship and as the boat floats up, we all float up. And as the tide wanes a little, everybody feels it.”

One, that doesn’t sound overly optimistic. The reality of there world is that no one is buying radio ads right now like they were before. Those who are buying aren’t buying at the prices they were before. Houston discusses briefly what happened at stations like WDFN. It’s pretty simple what happened in the US. One big company owned a ton of stations. The problem was cyclical. Ratings were down for local programming and advertisers were saying go stuffit to local ratings cards. So when a monster company can cut costs and realize the same ad revenue it will do so. I am not making the argument or justifying it…it is what it is. What is happening here is that advertisers aren’t spending the money that they used to. This means that they are only going to spend money where the ears actually are.

“The Fan 590’s ship set sail in September of 1992. It was the first station in Canada to move to an all-sport format. After some lean early years, the business model started to pay dividends. Anchored by Bob McCown’s afternoon drive show, the station’s weekly cumulative audience steadily increased.

But in market share, the percentage of radio listeners in Toronto tuned in, it’s been up and down. The morning show, with Don Landry and Gord Stellick, has not improved its position. In the fall of 2008 survey, its share dropped to a 4.6 from a 5.4 in 2007.

There is a sense among some that the on-air talent has become stale. One journalist, upon returning to Toronto after several years, said, “I couldn’t believe that [several personalities] were still on the air, sounding the same, saying the same things, filling the same slots.”

I have given you my feelings on the morning show. The show is beyond stale. Look at the 8-9 hour. They come out of the news, do a comedy bit- talk to an insider do the news again, do a bit, talk to Mike Eppel, do the news and wrap it up. That’s it. While the bulk of their audience is in their cars they do next to nothing. If you look at the quote, who could he be referring to? The morning show has been intact for a while and they say the same things (hello ken dryden bits). Hogan is still after them, sounding the same and yes, saying the same things (wholly shnidkees). The lunch show is different. Fairway is new-ish. McCown is McCown and I don’t care who criticizes him his ratings are still good. The later hours, are still Norm Rumack’s and to be honest I think they are irrelevant. Whomever the returning journalist is, is talking about the morning guys and hogan. Wilbur could be thrown in to the mix. However his gig is too new to be stale i would think.

“But Millman said he believes in consistency.

“I think sometimes radio stations hurt themselves with too much tinkering,” he said. “My decisions are made based on the trending of ratings over a period of time, direct audience feedback and my 37 years of experience. I think it’s important for the audience to develop relationships with the on-air talent, and that takes time.”

The bread and butter for all-sport radio, which targets well-to-do males 25 to 54, is automotive advertising. And the decline in that sector has been precipitous.

Millman wouldn’t comment on speculation The Fan 590 is several million dollars short of its sales target.”

Now you see here is where you and I come in. Most of us (me writing and you reading) are in that target market. The problem for guys like Nelson is that they have yet to be able to properly tap into the next generation of advertisers. Seriously, would you click on a car ad on your favorite website? When the ads for a car dealership come on the air do you think of buying it? That ship has sailed. Those who are going to be successful in this environment are the ones who realize what the this version of the target audience are into. When I hear an ad for a car I think to myself, where in the ad is the fine print so small it needs to be magnified 600x to be read and my law degree isn’t good enough to decipher the legalese… Not only that but who is buying cars these days? I don’t mean to pick on the guy either, but do you know many 25 year old who are that interested in Zegina suits being sold by a guy who is old enough to be there grandfather who spends the entire month of January in the Caymans? How many times in the last year have you reached out to the uniform people who advertise on the fan? Seeing the point?

“One advantage for radio in tough times is it offers cheap advertising relative to print and television.

Millman said, because of the nature of sport radio, it is essential to maintain local programming in the two big revenue-producing time slots, the morning and afternoon drives.

“Sports radio is a local phenomenon,” he said, “And I think it’s incumbent that your prime-time hours are locally focused.”

But a locally produced show, counting the salary of a host and producer, costs a station $100,000 or more. A syndicated show can be bought for a few thousand.

Not surprisingly, sport radio staffers are anxious. One said he takes it day by day.”

Syndicated shows in this country would be a disaster. No two markets are alike. You can’t talk NHL hockey the same way you do NFL football. There isn’t the same market for news on the NFL, MLB and NBA so US radio would be worthless here. The stations need to reinvent the advertising model. They need to tap those companies who never thought they could afford radio or that their audience would on it. That would take care of the revenue part. The programming part, like everything else needs to be changed, to be improved. It will be interesting to see what Nelson does. It will be interesting to see if 640 tries to add more sports to take advantage of the opportunities. Change isn’t always bad. I only hope that these same changes come to the sports print business too.

I love how Houston ends his column. Classy and dignified.

“The finish line

After more than 5,000 bylines in The Globe and Mail over 29 years, this is my last. I’m moving on to new pursuits. I leave with fond memories and good friendships. Thanks for reading.”

Wholly shit 29 year is a long time. With the exception of the basic functions of life I haven’t done anything for 29 years.

Having said that I am a tad cynical with this last piece. You see, stories like this don’t just get written. There is always a hidden meaning, or an agenda. As I read earlier this week, an NHL executive admitted to floating a trade rumor to see how a move would be perceived by local media and fans before making the move. I am pretty certain that this article isn’t so dissimilar. Houston didn’t need to go out for someone. He very likely didn’t owe anyone a favor big enough to write a last column for. McCown said last week that he liked reading Houston to see what people weren’t making. Who knows, maybe Houston and Millman are buddies. Maybe the morning show got mentioned, and only the morning show, to gauge reaction. Maybe it is coincidental. I doubt it. We are all replaceable. The world will go on without all of us should it have to. So it says here that changes are coming in this market in the not so distant future. That is a good thing for us, the fan. Maybe not for those at The Fan. So yes the economy is shitty. Yes its an obvious topic. I think there is more at play here…just call it a hunch.

To you BIll, thanks for your efforts. When you started I was 8 years old, bitching to my dad to please get a paper with a real sports section. Any breadcrumbs on how to get the info you used to write about?????

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