From Print to Radio And Back Again: How to Start a Radio Show

Back in 1993, I had the semi-brilliant idea of channeling my longtime sportswriting expertise into a radio show.  It led me in directions I could not have foreseen.

Eighteen years later, the radio show, “Diamond Gems,” which began in January 1994 and focused on baseball past and present, has been retired after syndication on as many as 35 stations, as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. But some 30,000 words of interviews from it were transcribed into interviews from my latest book, “When The Game Changed: An Oral History of Baseball’s True Golden Age 1969-79.” Print to radio and back to print again. And some of the book interviews were transformed into audio segments in “Diamond Gems’” final on-air audio seasons.

And yet, in many ways, the hour-long weekly “Diamond Gems” is the little show that can’t be killed. It now lives on in the form of shorter on-line video segments aired on many of the radio affiliates web sites along with projected postings on newspaper and magazine sites.

Print to radio to print to video to internet. Cross-pollination of media, no matter what combination, is the way to go.

The concept of using one’s print/internet journalistic talents in broadcasting is very much alive and kicking.

If you’re want to create a radio show, consider these ideas:

1. Focus on a topic. Ensuring the show’s theme is not duplicated elsewhere in the market, is the first step to creating a new radio program. What makes your program unique, where nothing on the subject matter is covered elsewhere in the market or on-line?  Legal-advise, handyman and pets shows abound. What is in your background that would make it one of a kind?

In “Diamond Gems’” case, it was vintage baseball broadcast highlights from decades past that were long lost to history. I always loved baseball nostalgia and history. I also had a modest-sized collection of early 1970s-vintage cassettes with long-erased baseball highlights. Through the years, I dramatically expanded my archives, mostly from fans who had taped games off radio or TV. The rarest highlight was a 1965 game in which Jackie Robinson worked as the first network African-American baseball announcer on ABC, with the pre-game show featuring Howard Cosell interviewing Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays together. Talk about a confluence of big names. Both listeners and program directors loved the unique nature of this nostalgia, presented in a kind of pop-culture motif of the era in which the highlights originated.  Stations and sports franchises often give short-shrift to their history, worried that would skew too “old” for advertisers. But I proved there was a market for nostalgia.

2. Check what programming is offered in your market. If your area of expertise is not being served and a logical audience seems to exist, go for it. And try to format your program beyond the “talking heads” model. That’s a sure way to turn people off. Extra work will be required in the editing and production process, but inclusion of interviews, audio bites, and other pieces of audio to vary the flow and sound of the show are a necessity to make the program stand out.

3. Be Frugal. You can do a radio show for as little as $50 or $75 a week, which covers studio time and an engineer, if you don’t mind starting on a small station in the suburbs or a small city.  In any market of size, at least half a dozen to 15 stations will try to broker time. They don’t want to not generate revenue from weekend timeslots, so it might be possible to cut a deal on the broker fee. Of course, the larger the station, the bigger the ratings, the higher the fee. I was knocked off WHB in Kansas City in the late 1990s when it went to a more powerful signal. The sales manager wanted $300 an hour for a weekend slot. If you’re willing to cover that kind of nut, the time will be yours. The biggest stations in the top five markets will charge around $1,000 an hour or up.

The traditional way of breaking into radio, if you’re not lucky enough to draw a paycheck from a station, is the widespread use of “brokered” airtime by many stations, particularly on weekends. Under pressure to generate revenue, stations feel they don’t want to sell commercial time on weekends — it’s more lucrative to sell off half-hour or hour-long chunks to independent producers, who then in turn sell their own time to meet the station’s fees and try to get into the black. On a bigger scale, sports franchises at the pro and college level have often purchased the airtime and re-sold it themselves.

Now, “brokered” radio does not necessarily have a wonderful reputation. Quite a few independent producers do it for vanity, as a hobby, or to promote their business. The airwaves are dotted with attorneys, financial advisers and vitamin peddlers. But legitimate journalistic talents do get their start this way.

You have the ability to shop around for the best deal. I did not have the additional outlets that are available now to would-be producers/hosts. In 1993 only terrestrial radio existed. In a new century, satellite radio is established. Better yet, the internet has given birth to audio talk networks and production houses, where programming never beams out over 1,000-watt transmitters. On-line talk networks like TalkZone.com, WSRadio.com and AllTalkRadio.net have set up shop and produce dozens of shows a week. You can reach anyone in the world.  But on terrestrial radio, total airtime and signal coverage have specific limits. Not so on the internet.

4. Covering that production cost. The easiest way is knowing someone who shares your passion, runs a related business and can promote his/her product or service by covering the weekly broker fee.  Failing that, a tactic is to approach marketing departments of colleges to recruit a student who desires experience in sales and marketing. They can work on a commission basis — say, 15 to 25 percent if you’re really generous — and could have an on-air role as a reward for producing sales. It’s tough to sell airtime, to be sure, but everyone wants to be on radio (or the internet). You tap into the enthusiasm of youth. Everyone wants to get a start — remember your own? That’s the carrot you use.

The most frustrating way to sell is trying to do it yourself. That’s why editorial and sales departments at media outlets exist in different worlds and are posted in different parts of the office  – they are like apples and oranges. They require radically different skills and temperments. Rejection is the sales person’s constant companion. You can also try sales and marketing firms, but make sure they share your passion. If they don’t, it won’t work. Most often they want upfront money or the assurance they’ll make money — too few of them are in the rainmaking business. Beware of anyone who makes too many promises. You can get burned. Been there, done that.

I got lucky in starting Diamond Gems by getting ad commitments from magazines for which I worked or people that I had met over the years who ran businesses. Later I was extremely lucky to land State Farm Insurance. That mega-advertiser alone kept “Diamond Gems” afloat  to last as long as it did. Amazingly, I got a modest ad deal from the Chicago Cubs in eight different seasons, but not after 2003, when the team began selling out 98 percent of its seats — no reason to plug tickets on my show anymore.

5.  Syndicate online. The concept of syndication is easier if you want to go internet-only. Prior to the advent of online networks, you had to affiliate with a regional radio network if you wanted multiple stations to pick up your show. My method was producing “Diamond Gems” at the Chicago-based Illinois Radio Network starting in the program’s second season in 1995. The show was offered up on satellite, with any network affiliate or any station tuned into the satellite’s coordinates able to pick it up. I simply got on the phone and pitched affiliates. Over the years enough signed up to boost the station count to around three dozen, with some stalwarts with me all the way through since around 1996 and 1997.  At different junctures, I distributed the show via cassette, then CD, and finally via an internet download system, which stations prefer now. I also worked out of two independent production houses, paying them between $3,000 and $7,000 a year to produce and distributed the show after I left the Illinois Radio Network.

The longevity of “Diamond Gems” built up some great relationships with station executives.  Some of these same loyalists are picking up the video show for their web sites as “Diamond Gems” soldiers on.

I did self-syndication, but a lot of independent producers are trying the same method. Stations are inundated with such pitches. Meanwhile, national networks like ESPN do a “land grab” of many stations’ weekend schedules — they do an all-or-nothing hard sell with affiliates. That limits the airtime for new, unaffiliated shows. As a result, I’ve lost affiliates over the years. Others, under financial pressure, want you to broker the airtime.

So in a radically changing media landscape, going the internet route seems the best best if you want to have a widespread audience, and you can also connect to other article writers to spread the word. If you don’t care about being limited to one market, you’ll keep your costs down by programming on a smaller station. You’ll always have the shot of being heard by a station exec who might just want your show for his station.

You were forewarned. If you still desire to proceed and do your show, you have a lot of options. You won’t make a lot of money under the best of circumstances. Yet you have the chance of cross-pollination across media platforms if you maintain your other work. One platform promotes the other. It’s a cliche, but better to have your fingers in one too many pies than not enough.

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