Positioned for Irrelevance: WTEM ESPN 980’s Terrible Decision to Hold Tony Kornheiser Hostage

It seems that the older I get, the more rituals I develop. One of my daily rituals is to return from lunch and download the Tony Kornheiser Show podcast and listen to it as I work each afternoon. Tony Kornheiser, former Washington Post writer and hopefully future grantland.com contributor, is best known as the host of PTI on ESPN. But, his radio show might be the best thing he does.

The TK Show isn’t all sports. It is a daily ranting commentary on news, pop culture, obituaries, and the weather in the Washington DC area. It is chockfull of inside jokes that leave my work mates wondering what I’m laughing at. Like many other loyal listeners, or “Littles” as Mr. Tony calls us, I gleefully regale my family with anecdotes from that day’s broadcast, only to receive a roll of the eyes and a mournful shake of the head from Vanessa. She doesn’t get it.

But hundreds of thousands of us do. The TK Show is one of the top ten downloaded podcasts in the sports category on iTunes, which makes last week’s change in policy about its broadcast mind-boggling. On Friday, WTEM, ESPN 980 in Washington DC, decided to begin delaying its podcasts for 24 hours. Without explanation and only a brief statement on its website, the station effectively made all of us TK addicts quit cold turkey over the long Memorial Day Weekend.

Since the station has not explained its decision, one can only assume that management believes that the podcast, normally uploaded within a couple of hours of the live show’s completion, was syphoning away listeners that could help their ratings … and thus the amount they can charge advertisers. But they are sorely mistaken. One informal online poll of Littles showed that 79% are unable to listen live, either on the radio or through the live feed on the station’s website. I am among that 79%.

Maybe WTEM is trying to protect ratings. Maybe it is trying to maximize advertising dollars. Maybe it is just experimenting with formats. Certainly, WTEM ESPN 980 is positioning itself for irrelevance.

We live in a culture of instant information. I learned of the death of Osama bin Laden on Twitter. Last week, from several states away on a business trip, I watched live on-the-ground video of the tornadoes that ravaged places dangerously close to my home. News is not what is new; news is what is now. A day later, even a half day later, it is not news. Commentary on old news is stale and irrelevant.

Our media has changed. Gone is the heyday of the network nightly news. Gone is the time of turning on your radio to get the latest update. Soon to be gone are newspapers. In our increasingly shrinking world, we have the means – smart phones, iPads, laptops – to be connected, and we use the media – Twitter, blog commentaries, eBooks, and podcasts – to do so.

WTEM ESPN 980 is short-sighted if it fails to realize this. Certainly it can figure out a way to make money with it’s podcasts, but don’t delay them for 24 hours and alienate millions of loyal listeners. They have not positioned themselves for success. They are positioned for irrelevance.

I wish I could say this is an uncommon example of being positioned for irrelevance, but I can’t. Churches do this kind of thing all the time. Answering questions that no one is asking. Perpetuating ministries and programs that were designed for the culture of the 80s, or worse, the 50s. Alienating younger people by catering to the senior saints who “pay the bills.” Positioned for irrelevance.

And so do politicians. Donald Trump, as an example, flashed in the political pan earlier this year, flirting with a presidential bid. Rather than positioning himself as a pragmatic, deal-making, leader who could serve as an effective alternative to President Obama, he peed around the birther territory, claiming it as his own. Positioned for irrelevance.

And so do parents. I knew a mother once who was so afraid of her teenage kids turning out badly that she attempted to micro-manage every aspect of their lives. Rather than affirming and supporting them for who they were, she made herself a stench in the nostrils of her own kids. The older they got, the more they pulled away in rebellion. She had positioned herself for irrelevance.

I suspect that WTEM ESPN 980 will acquiesce and remove the 24 hour embargo on the TK Show and its other podcasts. They will probably get a sponsor or upload the complete show, commercials and all. At this point, I’d say the chances are 50/50, but we’ll have to see how it plays out. In the meantime, they have proven that they are clueless about what the world is like today, let alone what it will be like tomorrow. Until they get a clue, they are positioned for irrelevance.


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