IBJ article on Kent Sterling Show excellent, but incomplete – more questions to answer

by Kent Sterling

kentAnthony Schottle of the Indianapolis Business Journal does a great job covering media in central Indiana.  He’s accurate, fair, and actually transcribes quotes accurately – a major point of differentiation between him and several of the other guys doing the same job in other markets.

When he called on Thursday to talk about my show on CBS Sports 1430 (weekdays 3p-6p), I felt confident that he would report rather than exercise some pre-conceived agenda, so I was happy to talk to him about radio – both on and off the record.  The piece available by clicking here was fair and factually correct, and that’s all we can ask of journalists.

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There were questions that were unasked because Schottle is not a mind-reader and was not interested in writing a definitive work, just a description of why someone decided to crowd further the competitive landscape in Indianapolis sportstalk radio.

Here are some additional questions and answers about sportstalk radio in Indianapolis, and the three-way battle for ears in which I am embroiled:

Can three shows survive in afternoon drive?

Of course.  There are roughly 25 options for radio listeners in Indianapolis, and sportstalk represents only three of them.  If the content is unique, fun, and the result of hard work, those three won’t just pull listeners from one another, but from the other 22.  If the quality of all three shows is outstanding, all will find an audience.  If not, well…  It goes without saying that we plan on providing the best possible show day after day.

The Kent Sterling Show seems to talk about sports all the time – why?

Because I love sports.  Indianapolis is a major league sports town, and talking about sports is more fun for me than talking about where people are buried or music of the late 1980s.  For listeners who want to listen to talk about sports, we present that option.  For those who want to hear a pot luck selection of topics because hosts are bored with sports, that option exists too.  I’m fascinated by sports – how they serve as a microcosm of society – and delivering on the sports-centric expectations of listeners is the least I can do.

Why don’t you take callers?

Callers are a crutch, a contrivance designed to build drama because the hosts either can’t or won’t work hard enough to perform a show themselves.  Think of the last stand-up comedy show you saw.  Did the comic invite a guy in the audience to share a joke, or his perspective on comedy?  Hell, no.  Listeners deserve more than a host who reads tweets and shuffles through callers.  If you go to see someone sing, he or she doesn’t invite someone from the crowd to sing.

Wandering into the studio three minutes before a show starts and relying upon the creativity of callers represents the low quality of radio and laziness of hosts that reinforces the belief that radio is dying.

The truth is that radio isn’t dying, but bad radio is forcing media consumers to choose alternate sources of entertainment.

Your show is three hours.  Why?

A couple of reasons – first, 12 segments can be produced each day that talk about a variety of sports related topics.  Sixteen segments is just too daunting, and causes the problem of abandoning sports or relying too heavily on calls.  Second, available audience drops substantially at 6p no matter what the content.  It’s done to expand the available sales inventory by an hour, so the 3p-7p window is what can be sold despite 6p-7p being of far lesser value.

The Kent Sterling Show features anywhere from four to six guests.  Why so many, and how are the guests chosen?

I like talking to people about their specific areas of expertise.  Everyone has a great story, and getting experts to passionately share parts of theirs is incredibly enjoyable, and I think it provides listeners a great look at what makes people successful.  There are definitely common traits of those who succeed, and sharing sports related stories is very interesting to me.

Quinn Buckner was on the show last week, and long before he was a basketball analyst, Quinn was one of the best athletes ever to attend Indiana University.  He played both football and basketball, so getting Quinn’s perspective on specialization in youth sports was fascinating to me.  In fact, it was the reason I asked him to do the segment.  I had to ask the questions about Paul George and Lance Stephenson not being a part of the Pacers in 2014-2015, but what I really wanted to have him share was whether he felt kids should work on one sport to the exclusion of all others when young.

Is there a rivalry between you and the other afternoon drive sportstalk hosts?

I can’t speak for the others, but my focus is on doing 12 great segments everyday that validate the trust listeners show in choosing to listen.  It’s like golf.  You play against your own capabilities given the specific challenges of the course, not the other golfers.  That said, I’m glad I’m on in afternoon drive.  Dan Dakich brings unique insight and humor to sports, and Michael Grady is a gifted interviewer who brings out the best in guests.  I hired both guys, and would have less fun beating them.  There I go forgetting my own theory about playing against the course.

What’s the biggest point of differentiation between successful and unsuccessful talk radio shows?

Likability is necessary to succeed, and most hosts have a reasonable level of that.  You can’t be a repellent person and accumulate listeners.  A radio show is like a party – fun host, fun party.  That said, the effort in planning and executing the party is most important.  Preparation is key.

A good producer is like a party planner, and Nick Bosak is really good at planning our party everyday.  He works hard, understands the product, and is a huge part of our success.  The one part of management I loved was hiring the right people to help build our culture.  Nick is exactly the right guy to plan our daily party.

Another key is the ability to listen.  Scripted questions just don’t work as well as a host who listens and responds with good follow ups.  Hosts should have a specific idea of what they want to get out of a guest, and then ask follow ups based upon the answers.

Two kinds of interviews leave me bored – those where the host has the questions scripted and those where the host has a lazy conversation without a clear point.  Another great piece of advice for interviewing is to ask the question and shut the hell up.  Make the guest comfortable, and let them talk.  Interviews are not about the host.  They are about the guest.  Hosts talk too much during interviews.  I try not to.

The show is still evolving.  When will it be in its finished form?

Never.  Shows constantly evolve.  Segments change organically from one thing to the next.  If we ever have a show on a Tuesday that is exactly like Monday’s, I’ll get bored and so will the audience.  Every show is a high wire act.  When the minds of tightrope walkers start to drift, they fall.  We are never going to fall.

What made you get out of radio management and into the talent end of the game?

Like I told Anthony Schoettle of the IBJ, I believe there is a specific number of meetings a manager can participate in where efficiencies – business speak for staff reductions (a polite way of saying firings).  It corrodes the soul, and it was never what I wanted to do anyway.  I’ve always enjoyed performing.  Whether it was improvising in Chicago, or being in a band in high school, I like the work needed to earn the payoff of an audience well served.  To sit alone in a room knowing all that stands between listeners and silence is preparation and the ability to communicate ideas in a semi-coherent and hopefully amusing or insightful way is high-stakes fun.

Listening to improvident lackwits opining about radio station strategies that would disrupt lives became more than I could bear without communicating too honestly and directly for my own good.

Who have been your best guests?

You know, it’s not the most famous people like Pete Rose, Tiki Barber, Kevin Wilson, Paul George, any of the other Colts or Pacers, or the regulars we have every day at four o’clock even though they are great.  We did a series of interviews with 30 local high school football coaches, and they were incredible.  Each devotes so much time to helping boys become men.  Being a coach isn’t really a job, but a calling.  I loved hearing them share their wisdom.

4 thoughts on “IBJ article on Kent Sterling Show excellent, but incomplete – more questions to answer

  1. JD

    Kent,

    This week I think I turned to 1430 on my way home from work every single day. May have been the first time in years that I have done that. I like the fact there always seems to be a sports discussion between you and producer, or a guest when I turn radio on.

    Reply
  2. David Spellman

    I thought Anthony did a good job considering his space limitations. The amplifications that Kent added were excellent, but of the length of a NY Times Magazine profile and not IBJ.
    Competition is good. Competition in the marketplace is best for everyone. Were I still living in Indiana, I would have been listening to music on the way home after the demise of Kravitz and Eddie. The Kent Sterling Show is what I would now listen to…and do by computer.
    I have felt that Kent is doing a show for people who want intelligent analysis and insight. His demographic is high education and high income. Don’t meant to sound snobby but that is the fact…Kent is not doing least common denominator radio. The absence of calls is key, vital to the excellence of the show.
    My impression is that Kent knows that the typical listener hears 2 or 3 segments a day and he wants to make those 2 or 3 segments the best damn radio that the listener has heard in 24 hours. I listen and so I know that Kent has been successful in that.
    So keep improving daily!
    Tom Peters is my management guru and Tom speaks of “wowification.” Keep doing segments with wowification.

    Reply
    1. kentsterling Post author

      David – You would have made an excellent program director – at least for me. The only people thrilled with callers are the callers themselves. I don’t mind interaction through Twitter because it can be managed, but turning the content over to the callers seems a strange and lazy decision.

      The only reasonable justification is that callers can annoy a host and that conflict provides compelling content. I am quite capable of being annoyed without a prompt from some bored guy in his car.

      Reply

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