Sportsmanlike Conduct

Will Podcasts Kill the Sports Radio Star?

 
(Photo: wolfheadfilms - flickr)
By Hank Brockett for Valet.
Published on October 22, 2008
 

The quote could have come from anyone, but it was notable for its time and its place.

I don't want to do normal sports talk. I'm bored by it. It's repetitive, it's monotonous, it's mundane. It doesn't require any thinking to me ... put a pool cue in my eye.

That was Dan LeBatard, who now makes his living talking about sports in Miami. He said it at a time when new competitors have emerged to grab listeners who feel the same way. And he said it in a long-form interview that qualifies as one of those competitors: the On the DL podcast.

Sports podcasts are such a new phenomenon that they didn't exist in a world without the Boston Red Sox as perennial World Series champions. Since late 2004, the idea of a digital delivery option for sports talk has grown from fanboy trash talk to well-produced audio programming, all available with ease through an RSS feed or the iTunes store. And for the sports fan who might not get a chance to sit down for a SportsCenter or hunker down with a beer for a half-hour of sports talk radio, the medium allows for indulged passions without time wasted.

As with any advancement in sports media, one must look to ESPN as a barometer of the podcast's prominence. The channel's devoted more and more Web presence and workforce to an array of podcasts, both compiling ESPN Radio programming and creating all-new material only available online. Marc Horine, a VP for ESPN Digital Media, went so far to call it "one of the most amazing growth areas" for the network.

According to Horine, it began with a daily podcast of highlights and interviews in July of 2005 and within a year grew into PodCenter, which offered 10 different shows covering various topics. That number has grown to include such original content as boxing, fantasy sports and such singular-focus shows as Baseball Today. On a random day in October, ESPN produced 11 of the top 15 most popular sports podcasts on iTunes.

Developments in podcast programming have trended toward three categories, each with its charms: original programming, the brand extension and the hybrid.

From Buds to Earbuds

You can excuse Dan Levy for, every so often, telling his listeners how he can't believe how much has changed in one year's time.

And it's not in reference to his Philadelphia Phillies—who've gone from first-round sweep victims to possible World Series participants. Last year, Levy and former co-worker Nick Tarnowski turned their office banter into On the DL, a Philadelphia-centric sports podcast. The show has since morphed into an informative, behind-the-scenes analysis for anyone who wondered how prominent members of the sports media turned out the way they have.

"My brain was always on the media side more than the fan side," Levy says. "Now what we've become is more of a media show." A who's who of guests has included ESPN's Mike Greenberg, prominent authors of the sports blogosphere and Levy's sportscasting idol, Tony Kornheiser. "Talk radio is talking at you," said Levy. "Podcasts allow people to talk with them, letting them into the conversation."

Levy originally set a goal of 10,000 consistent listeners, but the show has far surpassed those expectations. He attributes that growth to links by bloggers, who he refers to as "the most important people in my professional life." On the DL offers up text summaries of the interviews, segment audio clips (an full show runs about 40 minutes) and especially enticing pull-quotes culled from the interviews.

While talk show hosts in major metropolitan markets can bring home startling salaries for proven personalities, mosts online entrepreneurs like Levy still struggle with the revenue-generating possibilities of a podcast. Shows like ESPN's Fantasy Focus Football podcast come with a prexisting corporate sales team offering sponsorship deals to the producers of movies like Eagle Eye and companies like Charles Schwab. Levy said he has measured his new venture's success in other ways, such as the opportunity to write on sports blogs like The700level.com and the Washington Post's football blog. "I'd rather wait and get $500 a show than get $5 a show," said Levy. "I'm just going to let it happen."

Going Deep With the Brand

For existing media, podcasting offers the opportunity to create content that reaches new ears, thus increasing the potential audience for the existing publications. Such is the case for Baseball Prospectus Radio.

BaseballProspectus.com offers a mix of free and subscriber-only content focusing on the statistical analysis of baseball. Some pieces crunch the numbers and create useful stats you won't find on the normal FOX television broadcast, while others examine the intricacies of team and roster-development as teams struggle with the best way to field a World Series winner.

That wide range extends off the screen and into the realm of audio. Will Carroll, in addition to focusing his bylines on baseball health issues, helps create the mix of player, coach, media and executive interviews that make up the podcasts.

"We get guests that the mainstream media doesn't and then give them a chance to talk for as long as it's interesting and substantive," he says. "Since we don't go daily, we're free to follow stories as they occur."

Carroll admits that the site still struggles with what works in podcast format, but says it helps add a level of content that separates BP from other online media. "I've done features where hearing someone makes all the difference," says Caroll. "I mean, where else will you hear Alyssa Milano, former commissioner Fay Vincent and Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger?"

The Hybrid

Though podcasters might position themselves as a refuge from the ills of sports talk radio, the big boys still keep the pulse of most sports fans.

ESPN's first foray into podcasting brought the media giant's radio shows to the iPod and that source hasn't dried up. In addition to nationally syndicated shows, cable heavy-hitter also has used its affiliates in Chicago, Dallas, New York and Los Angeles to create similar daily "best of" features—meaning displaced fans can join in the sorrow of an unsuccessful Chicago Cubs season without catching flak from the office IT guy for streaming shows online.

And ESPN's competitors haven't backed down in this new battleground, either. Competing radio stations like The Score (670 AM) in Chicago beefed up their online presence and set up shop through iTunes too.

The most interesting development on this front might be what happens each weekday in Los Angeles. Radio veteran Dave Dameshek went from co-hosting an on-air show for ESPN 710 to serving as online emcee for a daily podcast. Dave Dameshek on Demand allows for the humorous segments and interviews one would expect from the radio veteran, but without the time constraints usually necessitated by squeezing in commercials for male impotency drugs and guaranteed gambling tips. The show has nestled itself into both the ESPN 710 Web site and ESPN's offbeat offshoot, where columnists sometimes make the leap from the page to the pod on Dameshek's show.

The show separates itself with professional production values and catchy jingles most beginning podcasters would kill for. And as podcasts reach more and more casual technology users, that envy figures to grow. To wit: a search for "fantasy football" on iTunes brings up mainstays like ESPN's Fantasy Focus, as well as dozens of other prospective podcast hosts all hoping to offer a little bit of something you can't hear anywhere else.