by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. Try not to freeze out there today. Over the next few posts I’ll be discussing some stories to watch in 2019. This is Part Two. Part One, on Toronto sports media’s top free agent, can be read here.
I’d like to extend a special thanks to those of you who take the time to contribute to the discussion in the comments section. The best part about writing for TSM is being able to dig into sports media topics with likeminded folks. Thanks as well to the people in the industry who reach out via email, DM, and text to provide feedback and background. I am very grateful to those who maintain professional working standards with me despite differences of opinion, occasional disagreements, and the odd error on my part.
Podcasting Goes Mainstream
One of the biggest stories of 2018 in local sports media was the continued investment in podcasting by the major networks. Sportsnet made news with three high profile additions:
- The Lede featuring Stephen Brunt and Jeff Blair
- A Swing and a Belt featuring Dan Shulman
- 31 Thoughts with Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman
All three are welcome additions and each brings distinct elements to the media marketplace. 31 Thoughts converts Elliotte’s popular column into an hourlong (or more) listening experience with the professional and likeable Marek doing a good job as host. The Lede allows two old journalists to trade stories and discuss current events without the constraints of commercial breaks. Interestingly, both Brunt and Blair have radio shows so this is a case where the podcast is directly competing with the established legacy product. More on that in a moment. Finally, AS&AB gives the popular Shulman a vehicle to speak in his own voice on topics of interest. This is a way to expand his reach beyond merely being a guest on Sportsnet radio and TV shows.
These podcasts join a suite of existing specialty podcasts and on-demand versions of TV and radio shows. This continues efforts from previous years, as SN has tried and then abandoned various podcasting concepts, most recently Point Taken with radio’s Greg Brady and TV’s Caroline Cameron.
The strategic question to ask is why Rogers saw fit to branch out into these areas at this time. All of these media personalities have other roles at the network and so this is not a case of anyone being hired into a new role. Rather, Sportsnet clearly sees podcasting as one of the platforms on which they want their multi-platform guys to be active. And in each of these cases the network is investing time and money into creating new content rather than repackaging existing content. (You might recall that Sportsnet Magazine chose to publish a Bob McCown interview that was just a transcript of something from PTS. Not the best way to establish the credibility of your publication.)
One possible answer to the “why now?” question could be revenue. 31 Thoughts has a sponsor, though there are no actual commercial breaks. A source tells me that even niche podcasts can generate significant income from advertising, so it’s possible that the sponsorship deal is lucrative. But the other two new podcasts don’t have sponsors (as far as I can tell) so this explanation isn’t terribly satisfying.
Another possible answer is that all of these people are collecting big league salaries and working jobs with significant downtime. Radio hosts are only on-air for 3-4 hours a day, hockey reporters don’t work full-time from June to September. Of course the truth is more complicated than that but one can imagine that executives would look for ways to squeeze more out of existing human resources, especially if money is tight.
A related possible explanation is that TSN took the lead with McKenzie, Dreger, Ferraro, and Jay & Dan all publishing regular podcasts. As the battle for #1 specialty brand goes back and forth, Sportsnet might not want to cede any ground in this space, even though they have a healthy lead when it comes to the much more valuable radio space. Interestingly, neither network boasts about their podcasts in their end of year press releases.
As someone who grew up on radio I am thrilled that more resources are being devoted to media made for listening. Functionally, I can listen while cooking or biking to work or on the treadmill. I can’t do that with TV or reading, so the more options there are the better.
That said, podcasts like these new offerings from SN exemplify the growing quality chasm between conventional radio and podcasts. For example, this end of year episode of The Lede has tons of clips and other production elements that greatly enhance the storytelling, and consequently the listening experience. There is no producer listed on the show page but I believe this is the fine work of ex-PTS producer Ryan Walsh. (He spoke to me a few years ago before transitioning to his new role on the Tim & Sid TV show. It’s a great read that holds up well.)
Obviously this is just one example — there are plenty of podcasts that are just as forgettable as your run of the mill call-in show — but once you get a taste for quality conversation it’s very hard to go back to the other format. This same difference was immediately noticeable when Tim & Sid switched from their Score podcast to a 15 hour a week radio show on the FAN.
We have discussed the problems of commercial radio for years on this site. You need to break for advertiser spots. You need to wedge in traffic and news. Depending on the timeslot there will likely be no budget for guests so you have to recycle in-house experts or take calls from the folks who have nothing better to do than to sit on hold for a chance at 30 seconds on air. None of these things apply to non-radio podcasts. You only need to record one if you have something to say, and you can end it when you’ve run out of things to talk about. No filler required. Further, podcasts don’t have the same problem of being content that goes stale very quickly.
As I wrote recently, if your life doesn’t involve a car commute then it’s very hard to justify spending your listening time on commercial radio or its on-demand derivatives. The recent investment in produced podcasts by both networks has exacerbated the issue. Why would I listen to Brunt on PTS, with all the risks that this entails, when I can listen to The Lede instead? The choice becomes increasingly easy once you factor in the amount of weekly sports content one can acquire. Richard Deitsch has a nice list of podcasts here. Sure, you might not get the chance to listen to up-to-the-minute discussion of last night’s games but unless you’re stuck in the car then there are plenty of articles, tweets, message boards, and GIFs that will give you the engagement you want.
Where is all this headed? Right now podcasting is a minor revenue stream for places like TSN and SN. If my habits are any indication of a larger trend, this minor revenue stream is a potential threat to their major revenue stream in radio. I don’t have room in my life for both. It’s important to note that radio is a tiny revenue stream relative to TV. So it’s possible that this is just moving a small bump in the rug around without threatening the major cash cow. However, cord-cutting continues to grow and sports networks are especially vulnerable to these losses due to the high fees that each subscriber brings in. Perhaps investing in podcasting is an instance of skating to where the puck is going, if this is a place where more revenue will eventually end up.
Notably absent from the podcasting game are the legacy media outlets. The Star tried a podcast with Laura Armstrong and Doug Smith but didn’t stick with it. Globesports is … Globesports. The Sun/Post tried a pivot to video that is continually cringeworthy.
It’s worth pointing out that all of the papers employ people who appear on TSN and SN. This is a healthy secondary salary for some, and pocket money for others. Good for those people, but it seems like a missed opportunity for the legacies.
For example, I would love to listen to a twice a week podcast on baseball featuring Richard Griffin. (TSN ditched their baseball podcast on which he was a regular guest a few years back). I would probably subscribe to a weekly roundtable with Bruce Arthur, Feschuk, and Cox on the Leafs and Raps. I would also listen to a Sun sports podcast featuring Steve Simmons and some of his colleagues This could be a version of his popular Sunday column, like what SN did with 31 Thoughts. I might even listen to Cathal’s Corner (TM), where we can really dig into why there is no such thing as a light-hearted reference to cannibalism. (never forget)
It seems odd to me that all of these outlets just let their full-time employees moonlight at other places when they could be producing similar content in-house. Sportsnet has shown that you can hire people to write for you and still ask them to do a podcast. If there is enough time in the week for regular spots on a TV network, or time to write a book on the side, then maybe writing for a newspaper isn’t a full-time job anymore, especially if you’re covering the games from your couch or the bar.
Toronto sports radio started to lose me in 2017 for reasons that I have explained elsewhere. 2018 made it easier than ever to cut the cord with conventional radio. Surprisingly, the off-ramps and alternatives are coming from inside the house.
Currently local consumers don’t have to pay anything for all this premium content, and the ad intrusions are minimal to non-existent. Will that change in 2019? I could easily see The Bobcast, for example, becoming a flagship show on a premium subscription service for TSN, or a bonus for Bell cable customers only. Neither would be a good thing for consumers but there are highly paid people at both networks whose job involves developing new revenue streams.
More generally, just as cable (HBO) and streaming (Netflix) have become homes for great original content that couldn’t be produced on conventional TV, we are seeing a similar revolution in the aural area. The technology on the consumer side has been available for a long time now, with portable MP3 players and rss-feeds. As supply has increased, so has demand. It is unclear which side is driving the current boom in podcasts but there is no indication it has reached an equilibrium yet.
Over to you: have podcasts killed the radio stars?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)
photo credit: Jeff Marek’s Twitter