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Entercom Does Sports Pretty Well Too

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As 2012 winds to a close, the sports-talk format is slowly but surely crowding into more markets. The past few weeks have been relatively quiet, as far as news announcements go, but come January 2013 the all-out donnybrook for affiliates to air this exciting format will be in full-swing. And while we wait to see the execution from the teams of CBS/Cumulus and NBC/Dial Global, and how those new networks will affect ESPN, Fox Sports, and Gow, let's not forget about Entercom.

Entercom is also a major player in the sports format. They are a company committed to sports and executing local sports talk successfully in very high-profile markets like Boston, San Francisco, and Buffalo, where sports fans are rabid. Jason Wolfe is the Vice President of Programming for WEEI and the Entercom sports product on eight stations across the New England region. He's been in the format for 23 years and with Boston powerhouse WEEI-FM for 21 years. We recently spoke to Wolfe to get his perspective on the growth of the format, how to execute it successfully, and how important it is to be local. You can listen to our interview or read the transcript below.

RI: Give us a rundown of exactly what your responsibilities are and what you are in charge of as far as the sports formats for Entercom?
JW: Well, my main responsibility is Vice President of Programming for WEEI, and the network, and all of our New England sports properties. Our product is on eight stations across the New England region. We also have the rights to the Red Sox, Celtics, and Boston College football and basketball. So, I am in charge of all of the content for all of those stations, anything that is related to marketing, public relations, and promotions. It is quite the plate filler.

RI: Entercom is really big into sports. They do a great job with it. They love their sports format and they are behind it 100 percent. So, it must be kind of neat to work for a company that you know is really behind that exciting format.
JW: Yeah. There's no question. They are great operators. I have been privileged to be able to be involved with the other sports markets that we have: Kansas City, Buffalo, Milwaukee. I was able to help out with the launch in San Francisco, New Orleans and Portland, OR. We are really in great shape in this area. The company is committed to sports in the markets where we are doing it. We put a full court press on in terms of trying to provide the best content, with the best talent, with the best staff. It is a meaningful format. It is an exciting format. It matters to listeners and it certainly matters to advertisers. We have been privileged to be very successful across the board.

RI: You have probably seen that all these sports-talk networks are popping up and about ready to launch in the next few months. What do you think about that? Is there enough room for all these additional sports-talk formats? Is there enough of an audience out there?
JW: I kind of look at it this way: in many of the major markets now, there is more than one sports radio station locally. In some cases there are three or four, depending on which market you look at. So, if there is room on the local level, I think there is room on the national level. I think the more content that is available, the better it is for all of us. There are more opportunities. It becomes a bigger platform and a higher profile for the format itself. I think, at this point, a lot of us are in "wait and see" mode because no one truly knows what CBS is going to roll out, what NBC is going to roll out. We are all very anxious to see how that comes to pass. I am sure that they are going to attract great talent in both of those situations, in addition to what you already have with ESPN and FOX. So, it's going to be crowded for sure. Those two companies have great resources, and I am sure that they are going to put on fine products, and they will give us a lot to choose from to complement what we are doing on the local level.

RI: Why do you think it has taken so long for everybody else to get involved in this format?
JW: I think on the network level it is hard to put together a 24/7 format that is going to be compelling 24/7. Until the companies are actually ready to indulge in the process and put the full resources of the company behind it, there was probably some hesitation there. I think also, that ESPN has had such a -- at least from the brand awareness perspective -- a monopoly on the national platform because they have become so big and done so many things, and so many different things, especially being able to promote it throughout their television platform. You certainly can't buy that kind of advertising. I think that strategically, CBS and NBC wanted to make sure that they had everything in order before they were ready to go forward. But again, they have tremendous resources and I am sure they are going to do a fine job.

RI: Do you think there is an advantage to being local? To have that local talent?
JW: I've worked in local radio my whole life. So, my perspective is probably a little bit biased on that question. I think that sports in the local market is always going to have the upper hand, especially in a market as passionate as Boston is about sports. You can talk about Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit and some of the other majors, where there is such a focus on the sports format and the sports scene... Somebody told a joke to me years ago, when I had a brief stint in television, that if sports led a TV newscast, everybody would turn it off after the first couple of minutes, because that's all they cared about. It was a tongue in cheek comment, but I think in markets where the format and the focus is so strong and the fans are so passionate, that really matters. The network content is reaching a wider range of people. There are people that, in all these local markets, will take bits and pieces and will like a certain segment -- if they are focused on college basketball and that person happens to be a college basketball fan. But on the whole, local markets want to talk about a local sports team, and everything else is secondary.

RI: What does it take for a local host to connect with the audience? What do you teach people about making it happen?
JW: You certainly have to be credible and knowledgeable about the subject matter. The fans in these markets are extremely knowledgeable. I talk all the time about the audience that we have. Some of them know more about the station than some of us. Some of the different things that have come out over the years -- they will pick out the littlest thing. You might forget you said it, a week or two ago, and they will call you out on it. And, they'll know if you are not prepared. You've got to be prepared. You've got to be able to connect on a one-to-one basis from a knowledge standpoint. You have got to be able to deliver your message in such a way that it not only informs, but entertains. Everybody can get stats and figures and news stories about these events, but what it really takes is personality and the ability to articulate in a way that draws the audience to you. Thankfully, where we are, we have a tremendous amount of success in that area, because the guys are just awesome at it.

RI: When I listen to sports-talk, I like to listen because I want to hear about sports. I may be different. I am hoping you can straighten me out on this. I don't want to hear about the entertainment part of it. I don't mean not being funny, not being humorous. When hosts go into things that have nothing to do with sports, I just can't turn the dial fast enough. Do you think that really needs to be a part of sports-talk radio?
JW: I think it naturally is. But, I think it also depends what you are talking about. If there is a water cooler subject that everybody is talking about, regardless of what the format of the radio station is... Let's use Charlie Sheen as an example. When he went through all of his problems at CBS, his contract ended and the show changed, and there were all these stories out about him constantly, it became such a viral story, that everybody had an opinion on it. It didn't matter if you were doing a sports talk-show, or a news-talk show, or music show, or any other kind of show. Everybody had an opinion. I do think that type of content has a place, because you just can't break down the stats and figures four hours a day, five days a week, if you are doing a sports-talk show. You've got to be able to provide more in order to tie the audience in for longer periods of time, especially in markets that are measured by PPM. The research will tell you, at best, you are going to get them for nine to 10 minutes at a time if you are doing a great job. That doesn't sound like a lot of time, but one place to do it is to introduce some of these other subjects that can fill the holes and fill the gaps where they need to be filled.

RI: Does PPM play a role at all in how you guys deliver the format, or is it not really a factor?
JW: No, it's a huge factor. It has everything to do with it. You really need to understand it. You really need to know which buttons to push. You have to be proactive in telling people what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. Then you have to live up to that. If you say you are going to do something, you have to do it. If you are going to tease a certain segment that's coming up, then the next break, when you come out, you'd better be doing that segment. The audience is impatient, for the most part. If you say you are going to do something, and don't do it, you are giving them the opportunity to leave. You also need to be very targeted. The days of the long tangent that kind of takes you off subject, when you are in the middle of discussing something, are really over. Especially in markets where there are multiple outlets, where people can go back and forth. I think it is critical, that not only programmers, but talent, producers, anybody on the programming side of the aisle, really needs to focus and study hard on how PPM works and how it can be really effective for you. Because, if you are not focused on that, it's hard to win.

RI: This format just seems to be rife with new topics. Whether Melky Cabrera is on steroids, or the perfect game in Seattle, or the bounty in the NFL ... it just seems like every single day a great topic comes up. Is that why the format is doing so well?
JW: I am sure it is part of it. It is a very exciting, fascinating format. There are certainly many times where the subject matter, when it comes up, in sports is very positive and very interesting to a wide variety of people. I think the fact that the country has gone through such a difficult period economically, people are looking for interesting and positive, exciting things to bite into. That's probably another reason why sports has become such a outlet that a lot of markets want to focus on, that a lot of stations want to focus on. The three things that you mentioned are all great examples. But there are also examples that can be very negative, but still very polarizing and very beneficial to bringing in and holding an audience. I think of the Sandusky trial, which is a sports story with a heavy news angle to it, but every sports station in the country was talking about it when it happened. Then when it became a Joe Paterno issue, it made it even more so. Those kind of things, at least in that sense, will never come up again in terms of the context of that story, but the way that it developed, the way that it just kind of overflowed and exploded, I think those kinds of things are always going to be there.

RI: With all these additional formats and you guys doing all the local the way you do it, it seems like for a change on the programming side, there is some opportunity rather than some layoff. Do you see it that way? And, if there is opportunity out there, what can you tell people who are thinking about getting into sports and sports-talk about how they can really make it on the air?
JW: There is no question that the more outlets there are, the more opportunity there is. Certainly, with these additional networks that are coming there is going to be a ton of opportunity. I think in those cases, people who are interested are going to need to have some experience. They are probably not looking for rookies per se who haven't had the opportunity to host their own show or be part of hosting their own show in the past. I think people who are just getting into radio who are hard working, who are passionate about the subject matter, who have the drive and the desire, who want to get in potentially on the ground floor of something and then build their way up to a lucrative position, there is no better time to do it than now, because of all the new content that is about to be created by the sports format.  
Reach out to Jason and congratulate him for over two decades executing great sports programming at

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