All Things Football: Sideline Reporting Public Radio Style

Oct 28, 2014

"Innovate or die" is one way to describe my approach to journalism. This past August, that meant hosting Georgia Public Broadcasting's All Things Considered live from a Friday night high school football game.

Another piece of this experiment was covering a half hour with a local special about -- you guessed it -- football. Naturally, it would become All Things Football.

Interest in GPB's High School Sports Programming Rising

A note of context: GPB-TV is in its third season airing "Football Fridays in Georgia" and is becoming a go-to platform for high school sporting events from cheerleading to basketball. With a network of nine television stations and 17 radio stations across the largest state east of the Mississippi, audience (not to mention underwriter)  interest in GPB's high school sports programming is on the rise.

And GPB is more than Georgia's public radio and television station. The company produces significant curricular support programs for Georgia's 80,000 K-12 teachers. This means GPB has large but distinct audiences that come to us for services beyond PBS and NPR programming. Broadcasting All Things Considered alongside GPB-TV's high school football broadcast was an opportunity to raise GPB Radio's profile with the station's non-radio audiences.

Sports for Fans and News Junkies?

Balancing the desire to draw new audiences while serving existing listeners presented comprehensive challenges. How to excite sports fans while selling a football-themed show to a news audience? How to hold such a varied audience, including many who may not care about amateur sports? How to keep the show consistent with the public radio brand? And don't get me started on the engineering obstacles of broadcasting from a loud and crowded football stadium 45 minutes north of Atlanta.

The first solution to serving all audiences was a tried and true staple of show business -- booking a celebrity. The University of Georgia Bulldogs' longtime and winningest football Coach Vince Dooley was delighted at the opportunity to discuss his favorite topic on live radio. The hero worship of Coach Dooley by Georgians cannot be overemphasized.

Yet, as we know, public radio listeners won't stand for pure sensationalism. To hold their sophisticated curiosity, I took a page from NPR's summer series on male identity. This was a brilliant way of exploring a single, complex topic from multiple angles to build a multi-layered picture of the modern American male. The goal of All Things Football would be to build a picture of modern American football in the South.

Skip the Scores and Stats

A few key decisions served to maintain public radio core values: skip the scores and stats to focus on the social, economic, educational and political aspects of the game; keep the same pacing and format as All Things Considered; use social media to demonstrate the audience's stake in the conversation.

Here's an outline of All Things Football elements:

  • football's economic impact on Georgia, from Pop Warner to the Atlanta Falcons
  • pros and cons of offering more money and benefits to college players
  • how new awareness of concussions is impacting the game at all levels
  • conversation with a College Football of Fame inductee from Georgia
  • regularly inviting listeners to #askcoachdooley a question and having him answer questions live
  • conversation with the founder of the Atlanta Phoenix, a women's professional football league
  • archival audio from Coach Dooley's 1980 National Championship win for the Georgia Bulldogs
  • archival audio from a 1940's Georgia Tech game
  • ending the show with James Brown's 1974 song "Dooley's Junkyard Dogs" about Dooley and his team

A Word About Engineering from the Sidelines

Many things went wrong. There was about a five second delay on my voice, and all audio had to be fired from the station instead of the field. To compound this challenge, neither I nor my guest had program audio. (This is impossibly nerve-wracking over 30 minutes.) A producer at the station had to count me in and out of every element while guessing at the delayed timing.

There are several things to do differently next time. Examples include starting the television, radio and social media marketing earlier, more strategically engaging GPB Sports' large Twitter and Facebook audience, trouble shooting the engineering earlier in the week and doing more to capture the "sense of place" at the football stadium.

The Home Team Wins!

We pulled it off thanks to the extraordinary efforts of people in the engineering, television, sports, radio, digital and other departments. A side benefit of this project was unprecedented inter-departmental cooperation.

Another benefit came from challenging ourselves to step outside of our comfort zones. All Things Football was an exercise in thinking up new ways to plan, to program, to produce, to engineer and to write. It also forced us to find new storytelling opportunities outside the sound-proof studio. It kick-started a newsroom-wide shift in thinking about how and where we tell stories.

Stay tuned. We plan to produce more "All Things ..." specials and, hopefully, inject that innovating spirit into many more projects to come.