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What Media Execs Can Learn From Tennessee’s Coaching Search

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By the time you read this, the University of Tennessee may have a new football coach. Given all that has transpired between November 26th and December 2nd (when I am typing this) though, it’s pretty safe to assume that either no, it hasn’t or Tennessee has hired a cardboard cutout of Nick Saban advertising Coke to fill the role left vacant after Butch Jones was fired mid-season. Seriously, what about this coaching search makes you think anyone in Knoxville had even a rough idea of a plan before this process started?

Sports fans have taken notice. Hosts and producers have definitely taken notice. Have program directors and general managers taken notice? It seems like anyone in the hiring business should be paying real attention to the missteps Tennessee has made. There are four of them that apply directly to sports radio.

1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

It wasn’t that long ago that the entire athletic department at the University of Tennessee was facing some tough questions about sexual assault on its campus. The football team was under an even brighter spotlight when it was alleged that the school’s athletic department had allowed that team and its players to operate above the law for decades.

I mean this was national news. The firings and reorganization from that scandal is what resulted in John Currie becoming the school’s athletic director. So why on Earth would he think hiring someone that has been accused of helping cover up Jerry Sandusky’s years of sexual abuse at Penn State is a good idea?

Here’s what Currie learned as fans, students, and politicians from across the state spoke out against the hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator and former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano as the Volunteers’ new head coach: wins matter, but the program matters more. So, if you are going to hire someone that has been accused of having the same kind of skeletons in his closet that your program has been dealing with for years, he better be DAMN good. And Schiano is just slightly above okay.

What can you learn from that? Well, it’s important to hire people the listeners can get behind. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to recycling local names listeners already know. I’m advocating for quite the opposite actually. Don’t force feed your audience more of the same. Any host that is willing to embrace the community and bring an interesting new voice to a station will always be a bigger hit with listeners than a guy that just got fired by the competition and is planning to do the exact same show on your airwaves.

2. KNOW YOUR OPENING

The University of Tennessee is a second-tier program in the SEC. This seems to be the one thing that John Currie was aware of when he began his search. As a result, he was willing to settle for a name like Greg Schiano, a name that even without the Penn State baggage, would excite absolutely nobody. It doesn’t take an SEC lifer to realize that Greg Schiano is the Cool Ranch answer to Butch Jones’ Nacho Cheese. At the end of the day, they’re both Doritos.

You can be aware that there are limitations in your market or at your company and still make an effort to land A+ talent. If you think you’ve identified the right candidate, it’s time for the two of you to switch roles.

When someone sends you their demo and resumé they aren’t necessarily saying they want to work for you. They’re saying your company or city is somewhere they’d consider calling home. As soon as you identify your target your job is to convert interest into desire. Part of that is putting together the right compensation package, but the other part of that is selling the strongest part of your offer.

Is your company notoriously cheap? Sell the market. Does the market have a less than desirable reputation? Sell the position’s and company’s growth potential. Do what you have to do to make the candidate as excited about you as you are about them.

3. DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME ON PEOPLE THAT DON’T WANT THE JOB

If there is anything the University of Tennessee is bad at (aside from football, of course) it’s reading the room. How many coaches turned interviews with Tennessee into a raise from their current employer? I can think of three and I’m not really racking my brain.

Oklahoma State is Mike Gundy’s alma mater. He was never going anywhere. Jeff Brohm just got to Purdue. Dave Doeren isn’t going to leave NC State for a school with the same disadvantages but a lot more pressure.

On top of that was the pining for Jon Gruden. Now granted, most Tennessee fans I know don’t think Jon Gruden is ever coming to Knoxville to be the savior of that program, but the fact that Currie made time to try and interview Gruden and the fact that he never stepped up and said “This idea is silly. We want an experienced college coach” paints a picture of desperation.

These two lessons are interconnected. Yes, you do have to sell a candidate on all you have to offer, but be perceptive. Recognize that maybe all you’re doing is building this guy strength to go to his current employer. That is a waste of your time.

4. CAN ANYONE MEET YOUR EXPECTATIONS?

What are candidates seeing when they look at your station? What do they think when you lay out your vision?

One thing that I have been told turned off at least one candidate for the Tennessee job was the outsized expectations. Most fans and boosters in Knoxville believe what the team accomplished in the late 90’s should be the norm. The problem with that kind of thinking is that consistently recruiting to that level takes time. And if you can’t tell, trigger fingers get itchy quick in the SEC.

Do you give hosts the time they need to establish an identity and grow an audience? Is there an active and engaged sales staff at your station? Are they all working towards a common goal? It’s hard to sell any candidate on your vision if what they see when they walk in the door runs counter to everything you say.

It’s too late for John Currie. Who knows, maybe new athletic director Phil Fulmer will turn this whole thing around and make an excellent hire, but it seems like 2018 is already a lost cause for Tennessee.

Know what you want. Companies that take stock of their shortcomings regularly are the ones that can consistently improve. Know what your target wants and show him/her that addressing it is a priority for you. If anything good comes of all of the Vols’ mistakes, let it be the lessons you learn about talent acquisition.

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 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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