How A’s Cast Made Oakland The Digital Gem Of MLB
“I get thanked every day from fans. People are thrilled there’s finally A’s content out there”
Catch an A’s highlight in 2019 and you’re quickly reminded the club still shares the Coliseum with the Raiders. The final intersection of Major League Baseball and the NFL. The last link between America’s past time and America’s game.
The faded sideline and hash marks streaking the outfield serve as a metaphor for the unique challenges the A’s face year in and year out. These challenges would be viewed as problems to most sports franchises, excuses to underachieve.
The A’s don’t see problems. They see opportunities.
In 2003 Micheal Lewis provided an explanation to the question baseball fans had been asking themselves for years; how are the A’s consistently at the top of the standings and the bottom of the league’s payroll? At the time, the Moneyball outline of Billy Beane’s philosophy towards building a team was viewed somewhere between radical and sacrilegious by baseball purists. The franchise didn’t have the checking account to compete with their counterparts, so they relied on numbers. They leaned on data. They reassigned value from things like batting average to on-base percentage and did little else but win in the process. The rest of the league took notice. Within a couple years, “Sabermetrics,” went from an obscure term coined by Bill James in the 70’s to common sports vernacular.
Billy Beane changed Major League Baseball – but he did it out of necessity, by playing the hand he was dealt. 16 years after Moneyball, history could be repeating itself in Oakland – this time in the broadcast booth.
It’s the 9th inning of Game 153 on a Wednesday afternoon in Oakland, but Chris Townsend’s energy level would make you think it’s Opening Day.
“Are we going to have a scoreless game go into extra innings? How often do you see that in the American League? This hasn’t happened here all year,” he asks from his familiar corner of the Coliseum Press Box.
Townsend’s love for the game is infectious. His interest in obscure stats (like the A’s MLB-best 19-5 record on Tuesdays) is beyond genuine. He’s also the first to admit his enthusiasm has a lot to do with his new role as the voice of A’s Cast Live, the flagship program of the A’s Cast streaming station. If this sounds foreign, that’s because it is. It’s a somewhat unprecedented digital radio network conceived by the A’s, run by the A’s, and consumed by more than just A’s fans.
“The development of A’s Cast was driven out of necessity,” explains Matt Perl – the team’s Director of Performance Marketing and Broadcasting.
Perl is eluding to another challenge unique to the Oakland A’s – their lopsided share of the Bay Area market. A’s fans don’t lack passion, and there’s always been frustration with the Giants being an above-the-fold favorite to most of Northern California’s media outlets.
“We listened to the fans,” Perl continued. “They kept saying they wanted more coverage, so A’s Cast is a direct result of that Fan Feedback. There’s incredible digital streaming technology, we knew we could do it, we just needed the right people to help us grow.”
Enter Chris Townsend, a Bay Area sports veteran who’s hosted morning shows, evening shows, pregame shows, post game shows, and everything in between. As a personality who came up through terrestrial radio, Townsend was leaving his comfort zone by committing to a digital format, but it was a gamble he was happy to make.
“I love this franchise,” declared the 47-year-old. “I’ve also always thought streaming radio was the future.”
Townsend’s job description wasn’t well defined when A’s Cast launched at the start of the season. He would host a couple podcasts, and maybe a few live stream pre and posts a week. All he had to start was a table, some equipment – and unprecedented access to the team.
“I went out there Opening Day and started talking, and they just kept bringing me people,” Townsend shrugged. “I talked for four hours and after we found out fans were listening, so we just went from there.”
And like that – A’s Cast was born. A streaming network with a handful of A’s related podcasts under it’s umbrella. On paper, it all appears modest – until you look at the numbers.
Since the debut on March 28, a staggering 181,000 hours of programming has been live streamed – and that’s just the beginning. Perl’s department has counted nearly 500,000 individual downloads of the network’s podcasts – a 1500% increase over the previous 12 months. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that kind of growth – but what’s more attractive is the team’s instant access to information no one’s ever had.
“The data is unbelievable,” exclaims Townsend. “We could tell you how many people are listening in Hayward, how many people are listening in Fremont, and we get a crazy number of downloads out of Sacramento.”
The lifelong AM/FM radio veteran is giddy when discussing the information made available to him – as he should. His team is making history, and it’s turning some heads.
Several weeks ago, MLB announced that the A’s surpassed every other franchise as the league’s most popular and downloaded property. With the full support of baseball, the humble digital network started booking guests that would headline any national syndicated show.
Scott Boras, Matt Vasgersian, Tim Kirkjian, Tom Verducci, Bert Blyleven, John Smoltz and Rickey Henderson are just a few examples of the laundry list of A-listers A’s Cast Live has featured.
“When we got Jim Palmer – I knew we were onto something,” Townsend paused and looks around the room before determining he was the only one who remembered the Hall of Famer’s career as a Jockey underwear model.
“You guys don’t understand! Palmer was more than a pitcher! Everyone knew Jim Palmer!”
“Jim Palmer was definitely before my time,” admits Cody Elias, A’s Cast Live producer.
Elias, better known as “Commander Cody,” to A’s fans, joined the operation in May, when it was clear the A’s Cast experiment was here to stay. Since Memorial Day, the franchise has committed to a 3 hour A’s Cast Live broadcast Monday through Friday. They set up on the field during home games and at Townsend’s San Jose home during road trips. Listen to an episode, and it becomes clear A’s Cast Live isn’t just for Oakland homers – it’s a baseball podcast that happens to specialize in the A’s, making it relatable to just about any baseball fan.
When Townsend and the Commander aren’t chatting with Hall of Famers on air, they’re talking with PR representatives from visiting clubs off air. The Red Sox, Cardinals, Mariners and Angels are just a few clubs that have expressed interest in the operation. While the data and the national attention is great, it pales in comparison to the feedback Townsend receives from the fans.
“I get thanked every day from fans. People are thrilled there’s finally A’s content out there – and as I talk to one person, another may ask, ‘hey, what’s A’s Cast?’ If it’s an older fan I’ll set them up on their phone right there. The whole thing has been pretty cool.”
Pretty cool is probably an understatement. In less than 6 months, the A’s shifted from the younger brother in the Bay Area to MLB’s digital leader, all because they chose to listen to their fans.
So stand the A’s. One foot planted in America’s final MLB/NFL venue, the other on the doorstep of the digital frontier. A franchise that refuses to make excuses on the field or in the booth.
“It’s like Brad Pitt’s line in Moneyball when he’s talking to the scouts,” Townsend offered as he was setting up for the A’s Cast Live postgame show, minutes after Mark Canha’s walk off RBI single. “Adapt or Die!”