Oct. 15--Jason Bailey was preparing for a remote broadcast of his ESPN affiliate sports radio station on the University of Tennessee campus three years ago when he looked around and saw every student with a smartphone and ear plugs.
It was the day he knew the radio business would have to change to be successful going forward.
Bailey, 39, and his team of former athletes, sports journalists and contributing writers have since embraced a digital approach for the now Tennessee Sports Radio brand, distributing sports news and entertainment beyond the radio to the Internet through its website and social media platforms and to mobile devices through its own app.
"What we really tried to do is be as interactive as possible. Radio used to be just a one-way street, used to just turn it on and you could listen. You could possibly call in but that's not good enough for sports radio," Bailey said. "We're putting out our brand on as many places as we can so we can interact with people because that's what they want."
The result is 20,000 podcast downloads, not including iTunes subscribers, each week, and a website that is averaging more than 300,000 monthly unique visitors, up from just under 40,000 at the beginning of the year. Broadcasts are streamed live and callers can text in their questions or tweet directly to hosts.
"We have people coming to us now who could care less about the radio side. They want to advertise on Tennessee Sports Radio.com. They want on the app. All they're interested in is the social side," said Rick Laney, who handles the station's marketing and business development.
Bailey acquired the radio station in January 2010, or as he remembers it, the day former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin left. The station was housed in a tiny building on South Central in downtown Knoxville complete with bars on the windows, a leaky roof and rats.
"It was a lot of trial and error that got us to where we are today," Bailey said. "We kinda had a vision for it all, but a lot of the technologies weren't there yet and a lot of the things we could do we couldn't afford. But we just kept working and finally we were able to get a lot of things accomplished."
Part of that required Bailey to end its affiliation with ESPN, which wouldn't allow the station to have an app or design its website. Now billboards along the interstate that promote the brand don't even mention the radio station's frequency, only its app and website.
"Are we too soon? Probably, but the first one always wins. That's why we're trying to be the first at everything we can do. We have to take a few lumps here and there, but so far the lumps haven't been that bad," Bailey said.
The station just moved to its third, larger location in three years. It has 11 employees, including hosts former UT quarterback Erik Ainge, former UT defensive back Chris Treece and former UT basketball player Steven Pearl, whose father is former UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl. In addition to fans who write for the site, there is sports journalist Dave Hooker and, more recently, former WBIR sports director Steve Phillips.
"Ever since we changed to Tennessee Sports Radio, everything has really taken off for us. If we have an idea that we think makes sense, we just do it," former UT wide receiver and host Jayson Swain said.
Bailey admitted it's been a progression and they still "got a long way to go in a lot of different areas." With the addition of Phillips, video will be the next big push.
"Anything that's new, we always try it because it might be the next big thing," Bailey said. "We want to be on that next big thing, whatever it is. And the great thing about us is we don't have to ask permission to do it."