COVID-19 has sports radio scrambling for new ways to produce content

The studio for Radio DePaul Sports' office in the Loop campus.

Courtesy of Abbas Dahodwala

The studio for Radio DePaul Sports' office in the Loop campus.

Live sports and entertainment was disrupted by the coronavirus. Stakeholders and entities within that sports ecosystem have also been impacted. From television to print to radio, no one has been immune. 

The pandemic has shifted the way both college and professional radio stations operate while making the best out of an unprecedented situation.

Sports stations, alongside everyone else, needed to prepare for the new normal and to ensure the safety of their employees. 

“It was really a complete team effort,” said Mitch Rosen, the operations director at 670 The Score. “We had every single on-air host broadcasting from home. That’s a total of 12 people. I’m so proud of our entire team for pulling this off. We did this for everyone’s safety. A number of our producers are also working from home.”

Events such as the NFL Draft and the documentary about the Chicago Bulls, “The Last Dance,” offered a much needed reprieve and gave both hosts and listeners alike something to focus on. But it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge what’s happening with regards to the virus.

Which is why 670 The Score carried Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s press conferences in which she provided updates about the virus and what the city was doing to protect its citizens. They even had her on the Mully and Haugh Show to discuss the city’s response and even managed to get to talk a little about the Chicago Bears.

There needs to be a balance in entertaining people but also acknowledging current events. It’s the reason why they carried the press conferences and had the mayor on a show. Those in charge felt that it was important to keep the public informed.

But the pandemic isn’t only impacting professional sports radio stations, it’s also impacting college stations as well. With campuses shut down, students weren’t allowed back in the radio stations meaning they’d have to get creative in terms of programming.

“We have to be very creative with what we talk about now,” said Abbas Dahodwala, the general manager at Radio DePaul Sports. “We did a fake all-time NBA draft with a few people, we talked about how we are watching older games/events and we also have been doing recap episodes for ‘The Last Dance’ documentary, among other topics.”

It’s also impacted the role that some people have within their radio station. 

“My role as PD is normally about listening to shows, scheduling shows, giving feedback to people and just overall helping everyone,” said Gina Ciolli, the program director for Radio DePaul Sports. “My role has changed significantly because we have switched to podcasts and people pretty much doing their own thing.”

Podcasts have become increasingly popular and people tend to listen to sports radio on their commute. With the shelter-in-place order, people aren’t commuting to and from work which may have an effect in terms of listenership.

“I listen less because I’m not commuting and don’t have the ease of having it there in my car with a sporting event happening or [hosts] talking about something I want to know more about,” said Abraham Ruiz, a CPS teacher. “But I’ve been listening to more podcasts as I do stuff around the house. I think that’s replaced sports talk for a good amount.”

Yet, for the moment, it hasn’t affected 670 The Score as much as one might have expected. Whether that changes or not remains to be seen. 

“Listener patterns have changed a little with less people driving back and forth,” said Rosen. “But we have seen more and more people listening from home through all of our platforms.”

The lack of live sports has had a detrimental effect. For some, it’s the only reason they might listen to sports radio. Without it, they no longer have that escape that sports can provide. Instead, it can serve as a reminder of what we’re missing.

“The combination of no live sports, coupled with the stay-at-home order, have basically eliminated my usual scenario for sports radio consumption,” said Ari Jordan on Twitter. “At the same time, the usual go-tos, such as speculating about future schedules and rosters or reliving the past glories, have lost appeal for me. I think for me – these topics remind me that sports continue to be gone so I don’t know if I’ll gravitate back to sports radio until I know concretely when/if sports are returning.”

People don’t want to be constantly reminded of why they’re stuck indoors. As mentioned, they need that escape. There are other types of content available like the aforementioned podcasts as well as streaming platforms that can provide a respite.

For Rosen and the people at 670 The Score, the most challenging thing isn’t listeners but making sure there is sound communication between producers, on-air hosts and everyone else involved. Those in Radio DePaul Sports, the challenge has been a little different. 

“The most challenging part for me so far has just been that my role in the station is no longer as vital at the moment with no live shows,” said Ciolli. “I also really miss just being in the station with everyone because I love seeing everyone interact with each other and Radio DePaul Sports is the one thing on campus that has given me an identity so without that it’s a bit hard.”

That sense of identity is perhaps what differentiates college radio and professional radio. In college, it’s much more a feeling of camaraderie and being with people who share the same passion as you and less of a job at that point. It’s about getting better and then eventually making that next jump.

Still, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops at places like The Score. Like other businesses, The Score was also hit financially due to the pandemic and were forced to lay off and furlough staff.

There still isn’t a set date for when professional, or college sports are going to come back. Baseball is trying to come up with a plan but nothing’s set in stone. The same goes with the fall sports for DePaul. 

Until then, everyone is going to continue to need to be creative and find content to fill air time. They’re also going to need to be adaptable because who knows how the sports landscape will be when things get “back to normal.”