Some are deemed “veteran broadcaster” and others earn a true “pedigree” in radio. With more than three decades in sports radio, the award-winning Bruce Gilbert is so respected that Cumulus/Westwood One created a new position for him in January 2015, as senior VP of Sports. That gives him oversight of all Westwood One sports play-by-play and the NBC Sports Radio Network.
He also collaborates on the CBS Sports Radio Network, which Westwood One distributes, and assists programmers, talent and management at Cumulus’ 50+ all-sports stations.
Gilbert arrived at his current gig after leading programming and operations at numerous stations across the nation; as iHeartMedia’s senior VP of Sports Operations, including Premiere Networks and the Fox Sports Radio Network; as CBS Radio Dallas’ VP of News, Talk and Sports Programming; DC-based Red Zebra Broadcasting CEO; and GM of ESPN Radio.
Among countless awards, Gilbert has been named Sports Radio Program Director of the Year three times by Rick Scott & Associates’ annual Sports Radio Conference; and received the Andrew Ashwood Award at the Talk Show Boot Camp, which honors broadcasters who have made the most positive impact in the radio business.
He speaks with Inside Radio about sports radio’s continuing success, its evolution beyond “screaming white guys” and how its connection with a passionate audience will continue to score longevity. An edited transcript follows.
What makes sports such an important part of radio’s continued cultural relevance?
First and foremost, sports has become such an important part of our culture across the spectrum, from kids playing sports and adults either playing or watching or gambling on sports or playing fantasy sports. The No. 1 thing that sports radio provides is social currency. When people listen to sports, it gives them the ability to carry on a conversation with their buddies. They can talk at the office and not feel like they’re out of touch. And when you meet someone new, the conversation starters are the weather and the local teams, right? Sports radio really provides that. It’s all about passion. Fans are passionate about their teams and their players, and so it all goes hand in hand.
I’m interested to get your perception of watching TV sports vs. listening to radio sports. What is the particular advantage to radio?
I’m a radio guy and I’m completely biased, but what I love about sports on the radio is, when it is done well, a play-by-play announcer can be so descriptive that you can actually see what’s happening. In your own mind you can sometimes paint an even more beautiful picture than what is happening on television. So I am always going to believe radio has an advantage.
At the same time, I am not naïve. I know the average sports fan has the ability to watch it on screen and they are probably going to do that—but radio of course is No. 1 for sports in the car. We keep sports fans connected with their favorite games.
How important are personalities to sports radio?
Announcers have the opportunity to tell stories, and sports fans listening to the radio want to vicariously feel they’re in the know or in the locker room. Announcers and talent take them behind the scenes with a player or coach. That makes the fan feel like they’re getting something extra. With its well-known personalities, radio is less scripted and has more freedom.
Please explain your role with Cumulus and Westwood One. And what is the synergy between the radio group and the syndicator?
We have an amazing amount of sports assets. At Westwood One, we have the NFL, the NCAA, the Olympics, the Masters, the PGCA Championship and all NCAA sports. Then to have this group of radio stations that include such amazing brands like [“The Ticket” KTCK Dallas, “The Sports Leader” KNBR San Francisco, WAPI Birmingham, “Sports Radio 610” KNML Albuquerque, and the “Sports Animal” WWLS-FM Oklahoma City]. There are absolutely synergistic ties in which Westwood One can enhance those brands.
It is also fun to be involved in both the national aspects of sports and sport events with Westwood One and then to be at the local level with our Cumulus stations, where things really pop in radio, because it’s local that still matters. Regardless of the Westwood One content, it’s also critical that these stations have a local connection to their marketplace and the fans.
What is the greatest evolution you’ve seen in the format?
In 1987, when “The Fan” WFAN in New York signed on as the [world’s first 24-hour sports talk station] to seeing how we now have more than 750 all-sports stations 30 years later is amazing. We went from ‘the phone lines are open’ with caller-driven content to personalities that were a little more opinionated. I call that the ‘screaming white guy’ phase; thankfully it didn’t last too long, because announcers were screaming out what teams suck and what players suck and it was just acerbic.
Then I think we came out of our teens and graduated and started to realize that what fans really want is an escape. That’s what sports radio has consistently given—a place where you can go to get away from your everyday life and stresses and making ends meet. Instead, you’re with your buddies sitting around talking around the games, and just enjoying that camaraderie.
What sport and team are you most passionate about?
I’m a baseball guy, born in Illinois and into a family of Chicago Cubs fans. I am a lifetime Cubs fan. Obviously last year [when the team won the World Series for the first time since 1908] was magical because something happened that I never thought would happen in my life. It was emotional, man, and everything that sports is supposed to be. Yeah, for me, it’s pretty much all Cubs all day.
I would guess you believe sports radio has a promising future as a media platform?
Of course, there is a long-lived affair of baseball on the radio and that’s not going to change. Think about hot summer nights and the game on radio and the romanticism of hearing the crack of the bat. You can almost smell the hot dogs and the taste of the beer. It’s a beautiful thing. I feel bullish about where we are. Sports radio has a great future because of great personalities that connect with the audience. That is what makes radio terrific.