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Q & A with Taylor Zarzour

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Overt the course of the last decade I have watched Taylor Zarzour grow from someone who was trying to get back on the air to one of the most in demand names in our industry. We first met when he became the sports director at the Curtis Media Group in Raleigh, and as a result he became the third mic on my show on 96 Rock.

During that time, we discovered that we grew up just nine miles away from one another in Mobile, Alabama. Small world, right?

Today, Taylor has become one of the most valuable sports voices at SiriusXM. He and Greg McElroy co-host The First Team on ESPNU Radio. He also contributes to the network’s PGA Tour Radio, anchoring the coverage of major tournaments and hosts a show called The Starter.

On television you’ll find Taylor on the SEC Network handling play-by-play for both football and baseball. He previously hosted Dale Earnhardt Jr’s official weekly podcast, but with all that he has going on, something had to give, right?

Taylor’s modesty is the kind of thing that might make you want to punch someone. I mean, nobody that has accomplished what he has can really be that modest and “aw shucks” about it, can they? But having spent every morning with Taylor for the better part of four years, I can tell you that it’s genuine. I’ve never thought of him as arrogant, just supremely confident. What may seem like Taylor being unfriendly is his hyper-focus.

Our conversation for this column centers on his career history, his motivation for doing what he does and how he does it, and the message he hopes colleagues and fans will take away from his work.

Q: When someone tells you they think you’re a good broadcaster, do you think it’s because you get to cover the sports you love (college football, golf, NASCAR) or is it because you’ve built a great career by being a good broadcaster?

TZ: It’s probably a little bit of both, but I’d like to think that, hopefully in a non-arrogant way, that being hard-working, passionate, and knowledgeable about the things I’ve always loved have served me well and led me to this place. I count my blessings everyday because not everybody gets to do something as professionally fulfilling as what I’m doing. Hopefully I’m giving off that kind of vibe whether it’s on radio or television. Some of the responses I’ve received from people that I work for have been exactly that and that’s what I think my biggest strength is. It’s the passion and enjoyment in my work, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that. There are countless things I need to improve on. I’ll always be my toughest critic, but I think the thing that has served me best is how much I love what I do.

Q: I’m often asked, “how has Taylor Zarzour created these opportunities for himself?”. When we started working together, your previous position didn’t exist until you became available. The podcast with Dale Jr. didn’t exist until you were on it. How do you manage to get yourself on the radar of people? Is it simply reputation or are you active in promoting yourself?

TZ: I don’t know, Demetri. I’ve never tried to lobby for anything. David Stuckey (Senior Vice President of Curtis Media Group) approached me. Mike Davis with Dale Jr. approached me, and I’m grateful and honored that both of them did. When Mark Packer left to join SiriusXM, DJ Stout in Charlotte asked if I’d be interested in taking that job and joining WFNZ. Steve Cohen reached out through a mutual friend and asked if I’d be interested in working for SiriusXM. All of these relationships began when those guys contacted me. Without them reaching out, I don’t have these opportunities. Maybe I’m just incredibly fortunate, but I’d like to think that through hard work and hopefully what they would consider good performance, that I earned the benefit of their phone calls.

Q: What lessons did you learn from working on a rock show and news show that you carry with you to your current show with Greg McElroy?

TZ: I learned not to be too close-minded and only service the most diehard fans that are going to be interested and watching you no matter what. David Glenn, for example, had a huge impact on me, because David at some point in every broadcast will refer to Coach K as “Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski” or “North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams.” By doing that he brings every person that’s listening into the broadcast no matter how much or little they know. So that’s an example of something that had a huge impact on me, but those experiences made me more open-minded to who is listening and how much knowledge they have. I try to be really careful when talking about an offensive line’s ability to block or certain schemes and the zone read compared to a triple option, because the over-whelming majority of our audience only casually follows a sport. They have so many other responsibilities that they aren’t going to be able to be locked in all the time.

Q: So what about the time that you spent out of broadcasting entirely? What did you learn from it that sticks with you now?

TZ: That this is where I belong. I was working in real estate and realized my passion was broadcasting. I put pressure on myself to be something else because we had just had a family. I wanted to make a certain income and I thought it was a good opportunity, and I’ll never forget my wife saying “(Broadcasting) is what you’ve always wanted to do. You’ve always believed in yourself. Why would you stop now?”. I made the decision that I was going to go back into the broadcasting business, but I don’t know what I would have done to pursue it if David Stuckey hadn’t called.

Q: How old are your daughters now?

TZ: 11 and 12.

Q: I ask because this is a time period where they are involved in so much more. I know your goal is to provide them and Betsy (Taylor’s wife who likes me even though she shouldn’t because I cussed too much in front of their children) with the best life possible, but is there a point where you’d pass something up and say “I’m doing too much and I’m missing too much?”

TZ: I think about that everyday. I’ve seen some of the personal sacrifices that so many of my contemporaries have made and some of the regrets that they’ve had through the years. By taking more professional assignments, they’ve made sacrifices in terms of how much time they spend with their families. I would have so much regret about that if I put myself in that position, so I’ll probably continue to feel that way. There’s nothing I cherish more than my wife and two daughters, and there are other things that I’ve been considered for and turned down because of that.

Q: What are the benefits and struggles of doing a show, particularly a morning show, out of your home?

TZ: There are a lot of benefits to being home. We can live anywhere we want. I can broadcast from almost anywhere because of my job with SiriusXM, so there are few restrictions which is a huge benefit. The downside to it is cabin fever. I have a room in my house that is my work room. When I’m in there it’s like I’m at work. When I get done, I am literally leaving the office and trying to mentally power down which is a huge challenge compared to getting in your car, driving home, and having enough time to mentally escape to a different place.

Q: There has been a lot of talk lately about the way people consume media. Whether it’s cord cutting or the ESPN cutbacks, there are many in our industry who are skeptical. One area which is included in that conversation is the future of satellite radio. How much do you concern yourself with these topics?

TZ: I actually worry less about that kind of stuff today than I used to. I used to worry a lot about the terrestrial radio ratings game and competing against other radio stations and how much money the station could make off of my show. SiriusXM is in a tremendous place and growing day by day. I am ecstatic. I don’t have any concerns about the company’s future. As far as ESPN goes, there will always be tremendous demand for live play-by-play programming. I can’t envision a day where that goes away. To be connected to ESPN and the SEC calling games every weekend is something that is the chance of a lifetime, and the only concern I have is my performance.

Q: You grew up playing golf, so certainly you’re a fan of the sport. When it comes to NASCAR, if there was one thing I learned about you from working with you, it’s that you were a fan of Dale Jr. But you’re also an SEC guy through and through. So when you cover these sports, how do you balance your fandom with remaining professional? Particularly when you’re hosting a show with Greg McElroy who won an national championship at Alabama, a school you grew up rooting for. It’d be very easy for someone with less skill and experience to turn that program into a daily Crimson Tide report.

TZ: I’ve never thought it was any different than any other business where someone is considering what is best for their family and financial future. If they went to a certain school and are a banker, they aren’t going to take their business from only UNC fans or the side of the community that they can most relate to. That would be foolish.

Q: Right, but none of us got into this field without being a passionate sports fan. When you’re younger and developing your interests as a fan, it’s hard to love the sport as much as you love the team you’ve invested most of your time and energy into. That has a lasting impact on a lot of people.

TZ: I’m sure that’s the case for some, and maybe it is for you, but honestly, that’s never been the case for me. I’ve always cared much more about the sport than I ever did a particular team. My objectivity and professionalism is far more important to me than any team I’ve ever cheered for or who wins or loses a game. I didn’t go to Alabama, and while I do have four siblings that went to school there, I also had a brother that went to Georgia. I have a father that went to Florida. I have all kinds of relatives that went to Auburn and that’s always kept me much more open-minded to those schools and how great they are. Getting into this business and developing relationships at all of those places, has made me pull more for people. Roy Williams told me years ago that the longer you’re in this business, you will start to pull for people over teams because of the relationships you build, and that’s where I am now. The only exception to that is when I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was a Carolina Hurricanes fan because I wanted the team and the city to be successful. That didn’t in any way shape or form mean I was an NHL fan which is probably the way most people look at their teams. But I love college football. I love college basketball. I love the sport far more than any one team and I try to be as objective as I can because this is a lifelong passion for me.

Q: Who have you looked at in the broadcasting industry and said, “If I can be a tenth of the broadcaster that guy is, I’ll be okay”?

TZ: Vin Scully had the biggest impact on me. I used to watch the Saturday NBC baseball game of the week and Vin’s ability to paint a picture and provide perspective on what I was watching – I still think he is the best that has ever lived. Even until the end of last season when he called his final game, I just marveled at his preparation, his passion and his perspective for what he was seeing in front of him. In my opinion, he is above all the others. I can never sound like Vin Scully, and I’ll never have his vocal chords, but I can try to emulate his ability to be prepared and be passionate about what I am talking about.

Q: Your tag line at the end of every show is “Whether you agree or disagree it’s all for him,” right?

TZ: Correct.

Q: How much when people talk to you about your show does that come up? Do they notice or appreciate the message?

TZ: It happens from time to time. I decided to say that back when I first had a sports radio show in Mobile (on WNSP-FM). My point in saying it was no matter how animated we get when we discuss certain topics, let’s try to keep things in perspective of what really matters. “Him” to me is God. “Him” to someone else listening may be someone else or something else, but I think that keeping things in proper perspective whether we’re calling for guys to be fired or sharing our predictions for who will win a game, let’s realize this is for fun. We’re supposed to be enjoying what we’re discussing. I always appreciate it when someone notices or has something to say about that.

Taylor Zarzour hosts The First Team with Greg McElroy, weekday mornings from 7a-10a ET on SiriusXM. He also calls college football and college baseball games for ESPN’s SEC Network, and hosts golf coverage for SiriusXM’s PGA Tour Radio. He can be found on Twitter @TaylorZarzour.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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