The Sports Radio Imaging Battle

Our extensive coverage of “The Sports Radio Battle” in Cleveland, between Good Karma’s “ESPN 850 WKNR” and CBS Radio’s “92.3 The Fan”, got noticed by someone well-qualified to talk about the respective stations’ sound.

And we mean “sound”…as in “overall station sound”.

After all, Ken Dardis of Cleveland’s Audio Graphics, Inc. was directly responsible for WKNR’s first “sound” in the 1990s, when he was the sports station’s first creative/production director.

Ken adds a much less important title with this item: OMW Guest Columnist, with his take on the imaging side of sports radio in Cleveland in 2011, and just how important that overall “station sound” is.

And we thank Ken for his patience with this rather rag-tag operation…that operation being your Mighty Blog of Fun(tm). So, let’s hand the keys, virtually, over to Ken…


By: Ken Dardis, president, Audio Graphics, Inc., former creative/production director, Sports Radio WKNR (1990-1997)

My caveat for what follows is that it is easy to comment on another person’s work, especially when you have no knowledge of the limitations within each radio station.

There’s been a lot of chatter at Ohio Media Watch over the sports battle now being waged. WKNR and WKRK are competitors in a town that’s not big enough to support two sports talk stations. That neither of these stations has rights to broadcast any of Cleveland’s major sports teams’ games makes this fight brutal.

I’ve read comments at Ohio Media Watch that this is a battle of sports talk stations. In my opinion this war will not be won by the hosts – though they do impact each station’s image. Referring to callers as “idiots” (as I heard on one station) and expressing outrage that callers do not have “common sense” (which a host allegedly does on the other station) are not ways of building a following.

I commented to “Your Primary Editorial Voice(tm)” that this contest boils down to how each station positions itself through imaging. I received a request in reply: “Can you provide me with your current take on both stations’ imaging?”

Being responsible for creating the image of WKNR between the time it went on the air (December 1990) and when it was sold to Clear Channel (December 1997) gives me the latitude to comment on this subject.

In its early days, WKNR was the most-listened-to sports talk station in the nation, four consecutive years (Arbitron). Also, for the first five years WKNR operated without a program director; our General Manager was Jim Glass, Jack Callaghan was News Director, and I acted as Creative/Production Director responsible for what happened when the hosts stopped talking.

After a week of listening to WKNR and WKRK, with the intent of digesting how they are positioning themselves today, I’m left with a sense that neither station invests much time in painting a picture of what it represents.

The only promotions I was exposed to were a few recorded promos – on both stations – that recycle listeners to another daypart. The quality of production was simple voice-over-music, with a clip from the show and a tag of “(host name) on (station name) at (time of day).”

When it came to the act of “positioning,” though, there is a void and it doesn’t matter which station you’re tuned to.

Having stated my opinion, I’ll now mention some immediate adjustments that I would make. (Keep in mind my opening sentence.)

Have the hosts speak about other hosts, and what those “other hosts” are talking about. I cannot recall hearing this happen even once.

Speak about what you’re speaking about. Many times I heard ten-minute stretches of talk with no reference to anything other than the thoughts carried by the host – and no comment on what the conversation was about as it progressed. It was as if the host expected me to have been listening at the onset of the talk, and if I didn’t hear the opening lines it was up to me to figure out what the topic was.

Don’t dwell too long on the same subject. Imagine one person talking for ten minutes on one subject with no outside comment, then place yourself at a bar in a group that includes that person. It gets boring, quickly. (One day I heard nothing but conversation about Hillis sitting out a game, despite the NBA having cancelled pre-season play.)

Someone on staff should carry a recorder to Cleveland sports events and get some soundbites from fans, to use in promotions. Integrating fan comments into promotions, and during programs, ties a station closer to its listeners. Here’s an example of how we handled this concept, which was present in 60% of our promotions –

What caused me the most head-shaking was hearing every sports talk host, on either station, refer to the station name as simply “92.3 The Fan,” or “WKNR.” There was no emphasis, no pride, no attachment to these words or letters as being representative of “bigger than life.” Say the station’s name with conviction. Equate this to meeting someone at a party, shaking their hand, and introducing yourself with enthusiasm.

Finally, it would help audience attention deficit to occasionally mention something other than professional sports. The listeners do have a life outside of sports. They have a family, go out for meals and entertainment, and may even have children who are active in a school or amateur sports program.

The sports talk radio station that walks away with the prize in this fight is going to be the one that positions itself as the heavyweight sports-talker most closely tied to the fans.

Both stations currently focus on the hosts, at the expense of building the station’s image. And, IMO, these hosts sound too caught up in their own importance to place the station’s name above theirs on the marquee.

Imaging is not simple, but it is effective. So far, it’s a draw in Cleveland’s new sports-talk war – with the listener losing.
Here are a few examples of promotional spots I wrote and produced (sometimes voiced) at WKNR. Joe Kelly provided the balls-in-the-throat vocals on most of the copy.

Ken Dardis is now President of Audio Graphics, Inc., a Cleveland based analytive, metrics, and music company focusing on the internet radio industry.


7 Responses to The Sports Radio Imaging Battle

  1. Joe says:

    All I know is as long as WKNR keeps trotting out a has been like Brinda and playing sounders that try to make him sound tough and relavent, they will continue to look and sound like a station in decline. I am a big fan of the new challenger, 92.3 and feel they are a long needed option to stale, condescending, “full of themselves” WKNR. Great article – thanks!!!

    I just love it how the former “voice of the fan” (which they NEVER really were) has become the voice of the 10 second sound bite from a random caller and 3-5 minutes of 2 on-air “personalities” repeating themselves and saying NOTHING new!!?? Thank God 92.3 came to be to give us an option!!!

  2. steve says:

    Ken’s comments are spot on and true and apply to all broadcasting today. He is a talented, experienced professional, someone modern stations do not have on their staffs any more. Costs too much, market’s too small, can’t support it is what top men will tell you when you ask why pros like Dardis and many others no longer work at area stations. Simply put, you get what you pay for. Neither station will mount a real attack on the other because it would cost too much money. The victor will not be the “best” station in sports but the station left after the competitor is sold to an operator who will drop the format for something easily networked and automated. Announcer pride in the station and putting the station first? Not in this generation. They don’t anticipate that they or the station will be around long enough to benefit from such a bond.
    The days when Dardis was at 1220/WKNR were the last era of “real” radio, the days just before deregulation and economic collapse. Like the “Golden Age” of TV, these are days that will be fondly remembered until those who can remember them disappear. They are not coming back.

  3. Mike says:

    Can’t see how KNR survives. One I can’t even get a clear signal in my car here in Avon Lake before 8am and in the evening hours. Second, I love having Kiley/Booms on in the early morning with local topics. Yes Booms is over the top, but entertaining regardless. Got so sick of listening to Mike and Mike national stuff with all the commercials. And finally as a die hard Jim Rome listener, KNR really ticked me off when they cut his first hour. Well I got an IPAD and now have access to Rome whenever I want and don’t need KNR anymore.

  4. Mark Mesh says:

    My biggest problem with these sports talk “radio hosts” is the arrogance with which they convey their opinion and when you call in, if your subject is not “controversial enough” or “makes too much sense” they instantaneously dump your call without giving you the ability to defend your stance. I showed my 10 year old this as he lives in Columbus and every other weekend I meet his mother in Mansfield and bring him back to Cleveland. I said to him you want to hear daddy on the radio ? He was all excited but as I was on the proverbial 20-30 minute hold I explained to him how the game works and how the hosts have all the control. My brother covered the Browns for a local newspaper (no longer around) and when he could not make his assignment because of his real life job travel schedule I filled in for him in Berea and realized what a ridicuous job it was. The other “media” treat you like a leper when in fact I could buy and sell their “contracts” ten times over and make them my housekeeper/cook. Let’s face it… it’s boring if a caller has nothing to add but to agree with the host on a subject so they dump you quickly and if they see a chance to “railroad ” you to create hype hoping to attract more listeners, without giving a person the chance to defend their stance, it’s rather irritating. I told my son this would be the last time I call in and waste my time (first on hold) then to only be cut off because the host can’t think quick enough on his feet to handle my objection so they dump you and just ramble on with their justification. It’s really turned me off and without mentioning any names you can only guess who the radio guys are that do this as well as the former ex-con on TV. In two to three years if the Cleveland sports teams continue at their current irrelevant pace all these guys will be unemployed. The most gracious and fair hosts I have encountered (and I used to call Pete Franklin when I was 9-12 years old) were the short lived and ill-conceived internet radio hosts. Unless our sports teams dramatically improve these shows and stations will be filing chapter double hockey sticks !!! I’d like to say I wish them luck but quite frankly I hope they do tank due to the lack of respect given to “their fan base!”

  5. Paul Rado says:

    Steve says “The days when Dardis was at 1220/WKNR were the last era of “real” radio, the days just before deregulation and economic collapse. Like the “Golden Age” of TV, these are days that will be fondly remembered until those who can remember them disappear. They are not coming back.”

    But they can come back, it’s not about talent, it’s about direction. Are the talent getting the proper direction? Hey, even the Dream Team had a coach who gave those stars direction. Sometimes the person that is giving direction has his/her hands tied by management and can’t do what they want to do anyway. That makes them like a Manager of a baseball team or a head coach of a football team, They’re hired as scapegoats (just in case it doesn’t work for the big wigs).

    Steve was right that Dardis costs too much to employ by the corp radio standards. THAT’s the shame, -product takes a back seat to payroll.- Maybe, just maybe, corporate radio will collapse and the number of individual owners will increase causing a real competition that will stimulate a need for talent and direction on the airwaves again.

    (sigh) As long as I’m dreaming, can I find funding for my bowling show?

  6. Jj Connally says:

    Please, let me keep this straight, why does everyone think that our market cannot support two sports radio stations, especially when we are a three sport town? I don’t get this thinking. In a town with several stations with similar formats, why can there be room for two sports stations? I lived in Seattle for many years, a place with now only 2 professional teams, and they have two sports stations. I just drove through Pittsburgh the other day, and they have only 2 pro teams, and have 2 sports stations. I wonder, does thinking come from ad rates/revenue models? The reason I bring this up, is because we, in Cleveland, live in a football mad city that is also heavily invested in their other pro teams, as well as local collegiate and high school action. Sometimes, I wonder if consultants and other oppositional forces push these notions? I feel that two sports stations can be supported here…if this was a one sport town, then I can see the case.

  7. Steve H says:

    Great article. I see two significant problems with both stations. One, neither carries any local sports. Two, all I hear ALL DAY on both stations is Browns, Buckeyes, Browns, Buckeyes… There are other compelling sports stories out there, people. Other college teams, other pro teams. LSU-Alabama play, and I bet neither station spends a minute talking about the game. That’s why I’d like them to mix in some of the national sports network programming. These stations pride themselves on being local, but there are only so many Peyton Hillis takes I can listen to in a day.

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