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WFAN-Mike Francesa Reunion Raises Many Questions

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There are times when sports radio news stories break and put me in a very awkward position. I believe strongly in transparency and honesty. No matter how much money is on the table, when all is said and done, the one thing that I’ll always own are my personal thoughts and opinions. I’ll sell those insights to help brands achieve success but what I won’t do is sell my soul to any person or group looking for a favorable spin, especially when the news doesn’t warrant it.

That can be a slippery slope when you operate as a consultant, strategist and trainer.

Fortunately, I have established a lot of relationships in this format, and I value those connections. I think those who know me or read this website understand that my intent is to raise the format’s profile, make people better, and offer a fair and objective opinion or analysis when its warranted, even if the news from time to time hits close to home.

On the other hand, I’m also a business man. I have partnerships with multiple companies. I respect and value those who work with me regularly and am proud of the fact that most of my clients have been loyal for multiple years. My partners know that I love this business and invest myself in their success and work hard to help them grow all areas of their business. When they find themselves in the news for a less than flattering reason though, they know I have to report it because after all, that’s a key focus for this website.

Despite working with many stations, I’m not unwilling to give credit where it’s due to competitors and I avoid taking personal slants against those who I don’t work with. I believe in being fair and keeping relationships strong with everyone because you never know when your paths may intersect down the line.

But just like each of you reading this column, I too have opinions, and when sports radio stories break, many expect me to offer my thoughts. Given the recent developments in New York at WFAN surrounding Mike Francesa’s expected return, it’s a news story which warrants a reaction, even if it might not please a few folks close to the situation.

When I first heard about the possibility of WFAN reversing its direction and bringing Mike back, I thought there was a lot of smoke but no fire. After all, the station went thru a two-year search to find his replacement(s) and the new show hosted by Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott had only received one full ratings quarter.

But in the radio business, as we’ve seen many times, patience can be thin, and changes happen quickly, especially in places where the stakes are incredibly high.

When The Michael Kay Show beat WFAN head to head in the winter book, I thought CMB would be on a short leash. Is that fair? No. But this is WFAN and the expectations are enormous. You’re looked upon to smother the competition so the radio station can continue generating high revenues while further elevating its profile as one of the best sports radio brands in America. You’re also expected to maintain the same standard of success that came before you regardless of the circumstances.

Expectations aside, don’t forget that The Fan was forced to change two dayparts this fall due to Francesa’s highly publicized exit and Craig Carton’s arrest. You can hire a bunch of talented people but usually when you ask an audience to form a connection with four new hosts at once, something doesn’t go according to plan. That’s why you don’t see brands overhaul their lineups on a regular basis. Radio success is largely dependent on consistency.

Also during the fall, Entercom purchased CBS Radio. It takes time for a new owner to wrap their arms around their new investment, and install new policies. What’s sure to gain their attention when they’re publicly traded and under the eyes of the entire industry is when one of their flagship brands hits a speed bump.

In the case of WFAN, the station has been a ratings and revenue winner for a long time. If the station is perceived as not being as formidable as it once was, sphincters get tight and adjustments get made in order to regain client and listener confidence before profitability takes a hit.

But what makes the issue complicated is when you consider the amount of time WFAN allowed for dealing with substantial changes, and Francesa’s difficulty of moving on from The Fan.

No matter how you slice it, the public narrative is that Mike Francesa overestimated his worth on the open market. He spoke about his understanding of the digital space and how he had a plan to excel at it, but since leaving the terrestrial space he hasn’t made a dent. He talked about having a number of irons in the fire, but so far those conversations have only led to guest appearances on multiple shows.

On the flip side, WFAN management shares blame due to their inability to deliver a strong post-Francesa plan.

It took less than six months for station executives to lose faith in CMB in afternoons and drink again from the cup of Francesa. According to reports, CMB were given two-year deals. That suggests that folks involved in assembling the show went into it by dipping their toe in the water instead of diving in. If you think I’m wrong about that, try signing Chris Russo, Max Kellerman or Adam Schein to a two-year deal and let me know how it turns out.

When you make a move of this magnitude, you’ve got to be firmly committed to it. You’re going to take some hits early on, especially in market #1 when you replace a legend like Francesa. It’s like a heavyweight title fight, you have to withstand the early attacks and take advantage in the later rounds.

In this particular case, Chris Carlin was well known by CBS/Entercom folks. He was working in Philadelphia at WIP and doing well with Ike Reese in afternoon drive before making his return to the big apple. Maggie Gray and Bart Scott on the other hand were newbies to full-time sports radio hosting. All three had to gamble and bet on themselves because after all, this is afternoon drive in New York City on WFAN. If they knocked it out of the park, they’d have the advantage in the next round of negotiations. If they didn’t, they’d be remembered as the show that couldn’t replace Francesa, and that puts them in the same company as many shows/hosts who’d fail in that spot.

But what can’t be denied is that Mark Chernoff and his inner circle had time to prepare for this situation. They had two years to scour the globe in search of talent. Guys like Mike Valenti, Chris Simms and Chris Christie earned auditions. Max Kellerman, Chris Russo, Adam Schein and Sid Rosenberg were mentioned as candidates. The company had access to all of CBS Radio and CBS Sports Radio’s personnel. Given the market location and resources, this was a sought after position, and anything less than a successful transition would raise questions about management’s ability to move WFAN forward after Francesa.

What’s perplexing about typing that last sentence is that over the years, few in this format have done a better job when their backs are against the wall than Mark Chernoff. When Imus was fired, he added Boomer and Carton. When Sid left, Evan Roberts was added alongside Joe Beningo. When Chris Russo left, he trusted Mike to win solo and it worked. I don’t forget those successes. But past success doesn’t promise future success and this problem is far from over for Mark and his team.

Making the issue even messier was the New York Post’s report that circulated Tuesday evening. Francesa apparently struck a deal directly with Entercom CEO David Field. The decision was made without Chernoff being on board. If that’s indeed the case, expect speculation to increase about the WFAN programming boss’ future, especially if Field gets further involved with future programming moves.

One also has to wonder which side Entercom VP of programming Chris Oliviero is on. Did he support Field’s decision to rehire Franecsa? Or did he side with his longtime colleague and trusted supporter Chernoff? If it’s the latter, that could create tension between Field and two of the company’s most important programming minds, Chernoff and Oliviero. If he backed Field though, how does that affect his longtime relationship with Chernoff?

Nobody is going to argue with Francesa’s talent or ability to make an impact on the radio, but don’t forget folks that Mike is 64. At some point in the future, they’re going to have to replace him again. Whether it’s next year, two-years from now or three-years later, the situation is unavoidable because Mike isn’t going to work forever.

There’s also no guarantee that Mike’s ratings will be what they’ve been in the past. During the fall book, The Michael Kay Show was tied for 3rd while Francesa was 2nd. This was a period of time where many folks were expected to listen even more to Mike since it was thought to be his farewell tour on The Fan. Francesa did win the head to head battle against Kay and exit without ever suffering defeat to his local rival and his track record in the ratings should inspire confidence that all will be right in the world once he reclaims his place behind a WFAN microphone. That said, even the best in the business eventually slow down. To expect Mike to stay on top for another 5-6 years is asking a lot.

So when that day does come and Francesa exits again, then what happens? If you’re David Field and you’re operating Entercom, would you feel optimistic that your group can identify the next superstar to carry The Fan forward for the next decade when the last time out they didn’t deliver and you needed to get involved? What if you’re a talent or an agent pursuing that opportunity? Are you going to sign a two-year deal with a station to replace Francesa when the last group to try had the rug pulled out from under them after one full book?

What I don’t understand is why this problem couldn’t be solved during the fall before the radio station set up three new personalities to fail. It was well documented that Carton’s arrest wasn’t a good look for The Fan. Entercom was taking over CBS and retaining their most high-profile star would’ve been a good PR move. It also would’ve provided a good PR rub for Mike because he’d be seen as the guy being loyal to his longtime radio home during a time of turmoil rather than needing to use the media to try and create a market for his services as a free agent.

Although it might have made sense for both parties to figure it out this past fall, it didn’t happen, and here we are five months later cleaning up a number of spills.

One thing I did find surprising when The Fan announced the hiring of CMB was that they’d turn afternoons into a three-person show. That wasn’t a dynamic the station had utilized in year’s past. If you look at WFAN’s history, most of their shows have been hosted solo or by a two-man team. Having managed three-person shows before, I know it takes time to find the right flow and chemistry, and sometimes it flat out doesn’t work.

I don’t want to excuse CMB in this process either. The show has had times on the air when it’s been solid and many other times where it’s shown that it’s going thru growing pains. If the program packed a powerful punch, won the first ratings book and generated a ton of buzz, maybe things would’ve been different. But looking back, the odds were stacked against them from the second they were hired and while that may not be the best situation to walk into, they can’t say they didn’t know what they signed up for.

So that brings us back to Francesa.

If being away from the spotlight for less than six months left him this anxious to regain his former platform, what is he going to do when it goes away for good? Can Mike function without WFAN? How will he handle not being a part of the daily New York sports conversation?

As stressful and complex as this situation has been, if Mike does indeed return to WFAN in afternoons, it could have a lasting impact on the brand in a positive way. For the short term, you’d expect the ratings to improve, but perhaps even more important is getting Mike to become more of a leader and use his platform to help the station avoid a similar mess when he leaves in the future.

It’s no secret that Mike hasn’t been a warm and fuzzy teammate. He’s feuded with other station personalities, focused on his brand, and offered little public support for Carlin, a host who spent nine years producing his show. Maybe Mike didn’t believe Chris was worthy of the afternoon show real estate, and if he didn’t, that’s certainly his prerogative. But what should be addressed is how to avoid being in this same exact position in the next few years.

In that sense, Mike could do a lot of good if he wanted to. Rather than being Brett Favre and rejecting the idea of helping Aaron Rodgers, imagine what type of impact he could have and how he could be remembered if he used the next few years to bring others along. It’s probably unlikely, but what if he teamed up with Maggie or Carlin? Think about the lift that would provide their career, not to mention how their addition could provide an infusion to Mike’s show.

It ultimately boils down to this. If listeners and clients are happy and the ratings wins return everyone at WFAN will be happy. But ratings, business, and image issues aside, it’d benefit the group to think about today with their eye on tomorrow. The short-term stability will be fine, but if they don’t use their remaining time together to make sure the future is in good hands, the next time around could be a lot more catastrophic.

Barrett Blogs

2022 BSM Summit Adds Pablo Torre, Joe Fortenbaugh, Kazeem Famuyide & John Jastremski

“By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day Summit.”

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The announcements continue for the 2022 BSM Summit. After recently sharing the news that former ESPN Radio executive Traug Keller would join us in the big apple to accept the Jeff Smulyan Award, and previously revealing the first fourteen participants scheduled to appear, it’s time to inform you of a few key talent who will participate in sessions at March’s show.

I’m thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Pablo Torre to the 2022 BSM Summit. Pablo’s been with the worldwide leader since 2012. During that time he’s served as a senior writer for ESPN.com, the host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and has appeared on shows such as Around The Horn, Highly Questionable, and The Dan Le Batard Show. He also previously co-hosted High Noon with Bomani Jones. Prior to joining ESPN he spent five years writing for Sports Illustrated. Having worked with a mixture of talent from various backgrounds, I’m looking forward to having him share his insight and opinions on the value of it at the show.

Pablo isn’t the only ESPN personality joining us in New York for the conference. I’m excited to welcome back a great friend and one of the smartest sports betting analysts on television, Joe Fortenbaugh. Joe is regularly featured on ESPN’s sports betting program Daily Wager. He also appears on other ESPN programs and segments on television, radio and digital platforms. Prior to joining the network he hosted 95.7 The Game’s morning show in San Francisco, and hosted “The Sharp 600″ sports betting podcast. He’ll moderate a conversation with sports betting executives at the show.

Given that this two-day sports media conference is taking place in the heart of New York City, it’d be silly to not include someone who’s passion, energy, sound, and content embody what New York is all about. The Ringer’s John Jastremski will make his BSM Summit debut in 2022. The ‘New York, New York’ host is known to many for his years of contributions on WFAN. It’ll be fun picking JJ’s brain on the differences between performing on a traditional platform and the digital stage.

Jastremski isn’t the only one with a connection to The Ringer who will participate at our 2022 event. My next guest is someone who I’ve followed on YouTube and Twitter for years, has infectious energy and likeability, and has taken his life experiences and sports passions and turned them into opportunities with MSG Network, SNY, The Ringer, Bleacher Report, WWE, The Source and various other outlets. Kazeem Famuyide will join us to shed light on his journey and offer his perspective on the value of traditional vs. non-traditional paths.

By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day event. I’ll be announcing the addition of a very special executive in mid-October, as well as a few high profile speakers and awards recipients in the weeks and months ahead. I’m appreciative of so many expressing interest in speaking at the conference, and as much as I’d like to include everyone on stage, I can’t. Keeping the Summit informative, fresh and focused on the right issues is important, and to do that, I’ve got to introduce different people, perspectives and subjects so our attendees gain value to further improve the industry.

A reminder, the 2022 BSM Summit is strictly for members of the sports media industry and college students aspiring to work in the business. It brings together people from more than thirty different media companies and focuses on issues of relevance and importance to media industry professionals. The show takes place March 2-3, 2022 in New York at the Anne Bernstein Theater on West 50th Street. Tickets and hotel rooms can be secured by visiting BSMSummit.com. For those unable to attend in person, the Summit will also be available to view online. Virtual tickets can be purchased by clicking here. Hope you’ll join us!

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Traug Keller Named 2022 Recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award

“Former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award.”

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Photo Credit: ESPN Images

Sometimes decisions are difficult. Other times they’re not. This was one of the easiest ones I’ve made since launching the BSM Summit in 2018.

If you haven’t attended the Summit before, one of the cool parts of the conference each year is that we take time to honor people who have left a permanent mark on the industry we love. Awards ceremonies are held both days to recognize difference makers who have made positive contributions to the sports radio business. At our 2022 BSM Summit, I am pleased to share that a great man will be celebrated for his life’s work.

It is my honor to announce that former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award. Keller becomes the third industry executive to earn the honor. Kraig Kitchin and Dan Mason were the first two to be recognized at the 2019 and 2020 BSM Summit’s.

Upon learning that Traug had been selected as the next Jeff Smulyan Award winner, Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan said, “Traug Keller has left an indelible imprint on not only sports radio, but on all of broadcasting through his remarkable career. I’m proud to call him my friend, but I’m just one of the legions of people who have loved every minute of their time with him. He’s a broadcaster’s broadcaster, but more than that he’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”

“I am humbled for sure but thrilled to be receiving an award with the name of my good friend on it, Jeff Smulyan,” added Traug Keller, now the EVP and COO of American Media. “Jeff did what all too few leaders in business do, he took risk and action against all kinds of headwinds and the rest of us in the great business of Sports Audio were the beneficiaries of it. Thanks to BSM for this great honor and I look forward to seeing a bunch of old friends in March!”

Anyone who has crossed paths with Traug over the past three decades knows how important he was to the success of ESPN Radio. He’s been a friend to many, a great partner to hundreds of radio affiliates, and a champion for talent. His support for BSM has also meant a lot.

Perhaps even more impressive was Traug’s ability to connect with his affiliates, clients and colleagues, offering steady leadership and on-air stability for ESPN Radio. No executive leaves with a perfect record, but Keller had a knack for landing on the right side of many decisions. None as impressive though as retiring from sports radio in February 2020, one month before the sports world came to a screeching halt and a global pandemic rocked the entire advertising industry. Talk about timing Traug, haha.

In all seriousness, having Traug and Jeff together on the same stage in front of the industry to give folks an opportunity to show their appreciation for their accomplishments is a real treat. So many enjoy professional success today due to bold and smart decisions made by each of these men, and I couldn’t be happier to spend time with both in New York City this March.

For tickets, hotel and additional details regarding the 2022 BSM Summit visit BSMSummit.com.

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Barrett Blogs

14 Participants Announced For The 2022 BSM Summit

“The industry is rapidly evolving, so as a professional, it’s vital to learn new skills, build relationships, discover what clients want in order to generate more revenue, understand audience behavior, and pick the brains of your peers to create new ideas.”

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To most people, six months is far enough away to not think much about it. But when you’re building a conference, it feels way too close to get everything done in time that’s required to execute a high caliber event.

By now you’ve likely heard that the 2022 BSM Summit is returning to New York City on March 2-3, 2022. I shared that news on July 19th, but didn’t provide many details other than the date and venue (Anne Bernstein Theater). Tickets weren’t even put on sale because I wanted to make sure a few other items were nailed down first before we started accepting payments.

Before I discuss some of those details, I want to remind folks that for the first time ever, the Summit will be available to attend both in-person and virtually. A big thanks to Nuvoodoo for partnering with us to make the Summit available online. If you’ve been to this event before, then you know the live experience is extremely valuable. That said, due to the ongoing issues in our country with Covid-19, some may prefer not to travel and watch it online instead. We’ve gone to great lengths to make this valuable for industry professionals, including pricing tickets differently on BSMSummit.com to account for the live vs. online advantages. If you’re planning to attend, you can now purchase tickets on the website.

As far as other key items are concerned, finding the right hotel partner was important. I’m pleased to share that Hotel Edison will serve as the official hotel of the 2022 BSM Summit. I know that keeping travel costs low is vital yet industry professionals also want to stay in a nice location close to the event. I think we’ve pulled that off again. Hotel Edison is only a 3-block walk to the Anne Bernstein Theater and they’ve provided an excellent rate for attendees. Rooms will go fast though, so click here to reserve your room asap to avoid missing out.

The next part of this process involved gathering sponsors. As an independent operator who focuses more on content and consulting than sales, this part isn’t always easy. I don’t have a sales team working for me nor do I have 40-hours a week to focus solely on Summit sponsors. Fortunately, I’ve built a few great partnerships over the years, so I’d like to thank ESPN Radio, Compass Media Networks, and Stone Voiceovers for offering their support once again. I know other clients will return too, but there are many other broadcasting companies and businesses with products targeted to industry professionals who haven’t been part of this event before. So here’s an opportunity to change that. Check out our Advertising page, and if you see something that appeals to your group, get in touch so we can discuss how we might be able to work together. Your support allows us to continue doing this event for the industry.

Now that we’ve taken care of the business, let’s talk about the thing that everyone cares about most, the speakers. I usually start off by announcing some of the high profile personalities who will be part of the show. This year though, I’m going to start by focusing on some of the top programming minds in the industry. It’s an honor once again to welcome Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan, Premiere Radio Networks SVP of Sports Don Martin, Westwood One and Cumulus Media SVP of Sports Bruce Gilbert, SiriusXM SVP of Sports Steve Cohen, Audacy New York Market Manager Chris Oliviero, former WFAN Program Director Mark Chernoff, current WFAN Program Director Spike Eskin, 670 The Score and 1250 The Fan Program Director Mitch Rosen, and Hubbard’s Director of Digital Content Phil Mackey to the BSM Summit.

As great as it is to have those nine gentlemen part of the event, I’m equally excited to welcome a few new faces. Joining us for the first time will be Blue Wire Podcasts CEO Kevin Jones, The Volume’s Head of Content Logan Swaim, Nuvoodoo Media’s CEO Carolyn Gilbert and EVP of Research Analysis Leigh Jacobs, and WFNZ Program Director and the creator of 92.9 The Game in Atlanta and 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, Terry Foxx.

If you’ve followed how we promote this event over the years, you know that I don’t share all the details at once. The credentials of these fourteen individuals are well documented, and having them involved is important to me. By the time March rolls around though, we’ll add 30-40 others with similar qualifications. I won’t tell you who else has committed to join us for the show, but there’s some serious firepower to be announced in the coming weeks and months. I’m especially excited to spend time on stage with one well respected executive during one of the Summit’s featured sessions.

What I value most about the Summit is that it brings the industry together and allows us to examine many different layers of the industry over a sixteen hour period with a lot of smart and successful people. In doing so, folks are able to return home with valuable knowledge and action steps to help themselves and their brands. This conference started with a focus on radio but has since expanded to cover podcasting, social media, sports betting, marketing, video, print, etc.. The industry is rapidly evolving, so as a professional, it’s vital to learn new skills, build relationships, discover what clients want in order to generate more revenue, understand audience behavior, and pick the brains of your peers to create new ideas. The more informed you are, the better your chances of being successful, and the education provided at the BSM Summit will absolutely help you grow as a professional.

Look for our next announcement early next week. There’s a lot to dive into in New York and I’m eager to spend time with the industry’s best and brightest, as we work on making 2022 a huge bounce back year for the sports media business.

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