What Has Cumulus Promised Jim Rome and CBS Sports Radio?

Today word officially came down that Jim Rome’s new CBS Sports Radio show will air from 12-3 eastern on the new CBS Sports Radio Network. Prior to this announcement word had also been released that Doug Gottlieb’s show will air from 3-6 eastern. Cumulus, the nation’s second largest radio company, has also signed on to provide most of the distribution for the new CBS Sports radio network.

Indeed, in the press release announcing Rome’s new show, the following language is added at the bottom, “Cumulus Media Networks serves as the exclusive syndicator and sales partner for CBS Sports Radio.”

The big question hanging out here is this, how will CBS and Cumulus distribute Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb’s shows when distributing them on sports stations that people actually listen to would require the displacement of much more successful shows?

This is a big issue that impacts tens of millions of sports talk radio listeners.

The easy answer is this — not many people will be listening to Rome and Gottlieb.

Let me explain why.

Our Nashville show, 3HL, is one of the highest rated local sports talk shows in the country, airing on the nation’s highest rated sports talk station, 104.5 the Zone in Nashville. (These numbers are from May. After OKTC starting writing about local radio ratings, Arbitron stopped providing any public numbers at all.)

When 3HL launched in Nashville we were initially on from 12-3 central bumping Jim Rome off the air in Nashville.

Why was our show launched?

Because Jime Rome’s ratings were awful in our market. Partly that’s because Jim Rome’s show is atrocious and was already played out in 2009 — Rack ’em! — partly that’s because syndicated programming underperforms local sports programming in virtually every market nationwide. (At least in Nashville, Dan Patrick’s show is the exception to this rule, he puts up tremendous ratings numbers, triple what Rome produced in nearly the same mid-day timeslot.)

The business play with national radio isn’t really about ratings, though, it’s about markets.

As in, we can go to advertisers and sell them national markets.

From a business perspective, it’s cheaper to pay one show and air it in forty markets than it is to pay forty guys in forty different markets. Theoretically, the consumer actually loses — ratings would reflect that consumers prefer local shows with local hosts in local markets — but the business model wins. You eliminate lots of employees and charge higher rates to national advertisers. But that logic only works when there aren’t dominant shows in markets. 

Dominant local shows make lots and lots of money.  

Which brings me to the CBS sports radio network and the biggest question about the new national shows launching on January 4th of 2013: how are they going to distribute their actual shows on stations that people actually listen to on a regular basis?

Let’s dive in and consider the options:

1. First, you need to understand what being on in a market actually means. 

Lots of nationally syndicated shows are on crappy radio stations in tons of markets. That is, no one listens to these stations and you can’t even pick up their signals in the city, but the show is national in scope. Scan around sometime on your radio dial and just listen to how many stations there actually are in a market. Most of them have no substantial listenership. 

Does being on the fourth best sports talk radio station in Birmingham or Salt Lake City, really mean that people are listening there?

Of course not.

But you still sell it to advertisers as if people are listening there.  

2. So distribution on popular stations is actually the key to any national radio network actually having listeners.  

Jim Rome should know all about the power of distribution, since his television show lost 90% of its viewers when he moved from ESPN to CBS.

In terms of listeners, it’s better to be on eight highly rated sports stations than it is to be on eight-hundred bad sports stations.  

For instance, Jim Rome’s show did awful ratings on Nashville’s 104.5, but it was still pretty well listened to because it was on the best sports station in the market.

I’m not even sure if the Jim Rome Show airs in Nashville right now. They might still sell it to national advertisers, but no one in the city listens because the station it airs on — again, I’m not even sure if it does — is basically dead air.

By partnering with Cumulus, CBS is trying to ensure that they’re well-distributed at launch.

At least that’s the perception that they want to be out there in the marketplace, that everyone will be listening.

That’s why the initial press release announcing the CBS and Cumulus partnership trumpeted the popular sports talk stations that Cumulus owns:

“The following Cumulus radio stations in the Top 100 markets will broadcast CBS Sports Radio programming:

  • KNBR-AM (San Francisco)
  • KTCT-AM (San Francisco)
  • KTCK-AM (Dallas)
  • WCNN-AM (Atlanta)
  • WGFX-FM (Nashville)
  • WSJZ-FM (Orlando)
  • WHGB-AM (Harrisburg/Lancaster)
  • WJOX-A/F (Birmingham)
  • WBBL-FM (Grand Rapids)
  • WWLS-A/F (Oklahoma City)
  • KNML-AM (Albuquerque)
  • WMTI-FM (New Orleans)
  • KARN-AM (Little Rock)
  • WNML-A/F-WNRX-FM (Knoxville)
  • KCUB-AM (Tucson)
  • WWBU –FM (Roanoke)
  • WTRX-AM (Flint)
  • WLQR-FM (Toledo)
  • WBGG-AM (Des Moines)
  • WNKT-FM/WYMB-AM (Columbia, S.C.)
  • WUMP-AM (Huntsville)
  • WSKO-AM (Syracuse)
  • KLTD-FM (Waco)
  • WXSM-AM (Tri Cities)
  • KCSF-AM (Colorado Springs)
  • WZAT-FM/WJLG-AM (Savannah)”

Many of these stations own their local sports markets.

But the reason why those stations own their local markets is because they have strong local sports programming.

That is, people listen because they want to hear about their teams, not about national sports from a blowhard like Rome.

So far the only CBS programming that my station has featured is a one minute CBS sports radio updates.

These updates have no real significance and primarily exist to dupe advertisers into believing that people are actually listening to the national network.

So what does “broadcast programming” actually mean within the context of this new relationship? Especially since CBS has its own network of stations as well.

Well, let’s go to the press release.

3. CBS radio also bragged about its powerful stations that will be a part of the new radio network.

Quoth the press release:

“At launch, CBS Sports Radio will reach listeners in nine of the nation’s Top 10 markets, with a cumulative audience reach at debut close to 10 million listeners – nearly 90% of them located in Top 50 markets.”

Sounds good, but the devil is in the details. Just because you can “reach” them doesn’t mean people are actually listening.

Surely, since this is a CBS property, the stations that CBS owns will actually distribute Rome and Gottlieb’s programming, right?

Wrong.

Quoth the press release:

“The following CBS RADIO stations will add various components of CBS Sports Radio programming to their lineup:

  • WFAN-AM (New York)
  • WSCR-AM (Chicago)
  • KRLD-FM (Dallas)
  • KILT-AM (Houston)
  • WJFK-FM (Washington, D.C.)
  • WIP-FM (Philadelphia)
  • WBZ-FM (Boston)
  • WXYT-FM (Detroit)
  • WSJT-FM (Tampa)
  • WJZ-FM (Baltimore)
  • WFNZ-AM (Charlotte)
  • KDKA-FM (Pittsburgh)
  • KHTK-AM (Sacramento)
  • WKRK-FM (Cleveland)

And by “various components” what the stations really mean is “hardly any” actual programs.

How do we know this?

Because the press release continues: 

“The following CBS RADIO stations will broadcast CBS Sports Radio programming as their 24/7 lineup when the network debuts on Jan. 2, 2013:

  • KIKK-AM (Houston)
  • WIP-AM (Philadelphia)
  • WXYT-AM (Detroit)
  • WQYK-AM (Tampa)
  • WJZ-AM (Baltimore)
  • WBCN-AM (Charlotte)
  • KRAK-AM (Riverside)
  • KYDZ-AM (Las Vegas)

Look at this release, is CBS really going to knock off top local programming on successful stations in favor of national radio?

Nope.

Instead, in cities like Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Charlotte the national CBS sports programming will air on the lower tier stations, the ones that no one is actually listening to.

That is, CBS will actually create competition for its own sports stations by airing national programming at the same time as its lucrative local sports programming airs.

Why would CBS do this?

Because no one is listening to the other stations anyway, but now they can sell it to advertisers as if they are.

It’s a bait and switch.

If even CBS isn’t willing to distribute the national programming on its top stations, what will Cumulus do?

4. Which brings us to the key question: what promises have Cumulus execs made to the CBS sports radio network?

If CBS isn’t featuring the Rome and Gottlieb shows on its top stations, will Cumulus?

It seems doubtful.

In fact, Cumulus’s blockbuster CBS partnership and the entire CBS sports radio network, upon closer examination, seems pretty worthless.

Cumulus would seem to have two options, neither good, when it comes to how to distribute the new CBS radio network:

a. bump more lucrative local programming in the hope that piecing together national ad sales will make up for the local loss in ratings and advertising dollars

Even CBS isn’t doing this, so it’s hard to see Cumulus doing it.

or

b. air the national programming on your weaker stations, the ones that no one is actually listening to. 

Judging from the CBS press release, it looks like CBS has already picked option b.

I assume that Cumulus will probably do the same. Otherwise bumping popular local programming for national shows would be a public relations disaster. Of course this assumption could be wrong, Cumulus could have promised CBS something that CBS wasn’t even willing to promise itself. Granted that would be incredibly stupid and incredibly costly. But, then again, we’re talking about Cumulus, so who knows for sure?

(The other option here is to air Rome and Gottlieb in the evenings or late at night, but the ratings dive off then already and airing old news seems like a bad plan.) 

5. Which means that CBS’s “national” radio network, is really not much of a network at all. 

It’s just a collection of weak radio stations that no one listens to pieced together with “national” programming that advertisers will be sold.     

The lesson here?

Advertisers beware.

It’s not what markets you’re on in, it’s how many people in those markets are actually listening to your legitimate programming. (A one-minute sports segment is not “legitimate programming.”)

How many stations that people actually listen to will really be airing Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb’s CBS shows live at launch?

Not many at all.

Buyer beware.

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