The ultimate value of focus groups depends somewhat on how definitively the solicitor regards the results. But we don’t need to look far for situations in which the conclusions did not justify the investment in time and money.
Consider, as documented in Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy’s new book “Francona: The Red Sox Years,’’ the buzzy revelation that the Red Sox spent $100,000 in 2010 to convene a focus group to gauge the desires of viewers. After the information was studied, the Red Sox reacted to the thin conclusion that more star power was needed in part by shelling out $142 million to make Carl Crawford NESN’s new prime-time idol.
Judging by how that went, Tom Werner might have done better to put the $100,000 toward turning the focus group itself into a sitcom. Or perhaps to unite another focus group to determine how the previous one led them astray.
Obviously, a focus group’s findings can be misinterpreted and the reaction misguided. But they are commonplace in the business world, including sports media, and the reason is because if the right questions are asked, the information can provide great value, and perhaps even some real solutions.
“These things are common,’’ said WEEI program director Jason Wolfe via e-mail Thursday. “All companies do market research from time to time to gain insight into how they can improve.’’
Which brings us to WEEI, and a recent effort by the sports radio station, through a third-party Seattle-based research group, to gather opinions on current and potential personnel from listeners who had been identified as converts to their rival station, 98.5 The Sports Hub.
Actually, where it literally brings us is to the Fieldwork Boston facility in Waltham on Jan. 22, where 15 men, all appearing to be on the younger end of the age 25-54 demographic, were paid $75 each to answer specific questions for little more than an hour about the state of sports radio in Boston.
The moderator of the Waltham event never specifically mentioned that WEEI or its parent company, Entercom Boston, was behind it. But WEEI’s involvement in the event was confirmed by industry sources, and multiple participants who shared their experiences here left no doubt who was listening behind the figurative glass.
Participants were specifically asked how they heard about The Sports Hub, which launched in August 2009, almost instantly became competition to be reckoned with in the Arbitron ratings, and finished first in the recent fall ratings among men 25-54 — while WEEI fell to a seventh-place tie with WBUR.
They were told to focus on the morning and afternoon drive programs — “Dennis and Callahan” and “The Big Show with Ordway and Holley’’ — and were asked how they would fix those programs. Names of potential contributors and cohosts were mentioned to measure popularity, including Curt Schilling, Tedy Bruschi, and Cedric Maxwell. The moderator asked why they liked or disliked three specific personalities: John Dennis, Gerry Callahan, and Glenn Ordway. There was little mention of the midday and evening programs. The final question asked how the participants felt about the possibility of female cohosts.
Most of the questions align with common sense. I’m often asked why WEEI doesn’t alter the middling midday show featuring Lou Merloni and Mike Mutnansky, which has struggled to find its niche during its two years in the 10 a.m.-2 p.m. window. The answer is that any issues in midday don’t particularly matter in comparison with the drive-time programs, where the stations rake in the advertising dollars when the ratings are high.
In retrospect, it’s a wonder that it took until his contract was up in early 2011 for WEEI to move Michael Holley, its most youthful and distinctive voice, from midday to afternoon drive.
As for female cohosts, perhaps the recent audition of Jen Royle, Trenni Kusnierek, and Jess Moran for a weekend program suggests their voices will be heard more often on the station Monday through Friday.
While the gathering may be standard procedure, the timing is fascinating given the belief by industry sources with knowledge of WEEI’s situation that programming changes are coming. We don’t have to look hard for clues in the focus group questions that indicate the line of thinking, and it’s all but impossible to resist suggesting what they should do.
Which, I believe, is starting in the morning, where D&C look staid and angry compared with The Sports Hub’s top-rated “Toucher and Rich.’’
Callahan doesn’t exactly exude grace when opinions diverge from his own, but he’s a compelling personality who comes across as more likable when he’s paired with someone who challenges him. Dennis, the morning radio equivalent of your father’s Oldsmobile, too often does not.
Callahan was terrific with Michael Felger during the latter’s occasional fill-in days at WEEI before he became the one that got away. He’s very good with Dale Arnold, Kirk Minihane, and so many others who have pinch-hit through the years. A new partner with more appeal in the younger demos would rejuvenate the program. Minihane, an honest, opinionated new voice, might be the answer. Dan Sileo would not.
In afternoon drive, I’m not convinced major change is needed. The chemistry between Holley and Ordway isn’t perfect, but it has improved since the initial arranged marriage, and their ratings were very strong just this spring, when they finished second in the ratings with a 7.9 share, ahead of 98.5’s “Felger and Massarotti’’ program, which was third but since has regained the top spot in the day part.
What would strengthen the show is a regular, daily third voice for all four hours — perhaps Bruschi, who collaborated on a book with Holley, one day, or Schilling, Maxwell, or Tom Curran. I’d love to see WEEI’s relationship with ESPN result in Michael Smith making regular appearances. During fill-in stints years ago, he had tremendous chemistry with Holley, their genuine friendship making for engaging radio.
Whether WEEI’s querying of lost listeners is due diligence or a harbinger of change will be revealed soon enough. However it plays out, here’s hoping whatever happens isn’t the sports radio equivalent of giving Crawford $20 million a year. At its current crossroads, WEEI can’t afford such a mistake.