Thanksgiving week is a big one in the world of college football. It’s rivalry week! The Iron Bowl, The Apple Cup, The Game. These are all names that mean something to college football fans, and they are all the names of games being played this week.
We’re celebrating here at BSM with a series of three articles written by Demetri Ravanos, the company’s resident college football fanatic. These articles highlight some of the interesting, “insider-y” aspects of following the sport.
For the second piece in our series, Demetri looks at the future of the SEC Network. He took a trip to the Charlotte, NC headquarters to talk with talent and executives about how the network has evolved since its inception and what they see as possibilities for its future.
If you don’t live within the geographical footprint or didn’t attend a school that is a member of the Southeastern Conference, chances are you’ve never given the SEC Network much of a look. Maybe you think all the network has to offer is SEC football and replays of SEC football. Look, I get it. That’s the stereotype and stereotypes don’t just come from nowhere, but you’re wrong about what the network is.
Sure, the programming is built around the conference’s sports culture. Live events from every sport, replays of those events, the Paul Finebaum Show, documentaries about the conference’s history. The network has plenty of all of it.
But in 2018 the SEC Network debuted a new show called TrueSouth. It’s a travel show, but it’s a travel show the way Anthony Bourdain used to do travel shows. Host John T. Edge visits some of the conference footprint’s hotbeds of food and culture and asks people to feed him and tell him a story.
I love this show. I am a Greek kid that grew up in Alabama with a chef for a father, so the first episode, which told the story of Birmingham’s Greek community and the restaurants they opened or inherited from their parents, had me in tears. My wife, who could care less about anything involving the University of Alabama, despite it being my alma matter, loves this show. It was something we could watch together every week.
TrueSouth may not have been the beginning of the SEC Network taking a look at the geography it primarily serves and saying “what can we do for these people that goes beyond sports?” but it is the furthest deviation from sports you’ll ever see on a conference network. Even Big Ten Network’s Campus Eats is built around the schools that make up the conference. TrueSouth visits multiple cities that are miles away from an SEC campus in its first season.
What the network is doing, or maybe trying to do, caught my attention, so I went down to Charlotte last month to chat with some of the talent and executives that made the network what it is. I wanted to know what their vision of the future was for the SEC Network. Did any of them see a day where SEC sports was just part of what they do?
Chris Turner, The SEC Network’s Vice President of Programming, and I met in a conference room at the network’s headquarters on a day that a new email system had just been implemented. Amanda Brooks, the network’s head of PR and my guide for the day, along with Turner talked about how hard it has been to receive any office memos on their phones.
I told Chris about the idea behind my article and asked him how far the boundaries can be pushed in terms of what programming is appropriate for the SEC Network. We started at TrueSouth in particular.
“Last year, really as much as anything, after having a few years under our belt, we put a real emphasis on story telling. So (TrueSouth) is an extension of that and taking a look at…you know, you sample other networks. We sample other networks, and what resonates with you when you’re sampling those other networks? What catches your attention? What do you lock in on? Great storytelling,” he says.
I asked him if anything with a good story and a Southern accent would be fair game. Turner’s answer seemed like a long way of saying “maybe.”
“I think at some level you still have to understand what your fan base is, and ultimately that’s how we view it, as how we do anything at ESPN and the SEC Network, is how are we serving our fans? That’s really how we measure everything.
And so whatever it might be, whatever the next big idea might be it’s going to be measured up against that. This is who are fans. This is who we see our fan group to be and how are we serving them.”
When I asked him if that meant we could see reruns of Designing Women or another sitcom set in the Southeast show up in the middle of the day on his network he laughed. “That one’s a new one. I don’t know that we’ve ever had that idea for something that just distinctly fits the Southern Culture like that.”
Turner then looked at Brooks as if to silently say “make a note of that just in case” and then told me that something like that is probably too much of a culture shock to the SEC Network’s most loyal viewers. Reruns will probably always be best left to TV land.
If there is a face of the SEC Network, it is almost certainly Paul Finebaum. The radio host and ringmaster of the circus of college football absurdity that is his radio and TV simulcast was the first person hired to be a part of the SEC Network. He moved from Birmingham to be a part of the network, but not without needing some coaxing. “Well, I really didn’t know what was going to happen when they came to me,” he tells me between sips of his pumpkin spice smoothie. “The reason that I didn’t immediately say yes was because I really wondered if you could move what we have now in Alabama, which was pretty special and try to broaden it and specialize it to so many different schools and interests. I had a lot of people that said that I was making a mistake.”
There is no doubt that Finebaum’s style has changed since making the move to Charlotte. You might not know this if you didn’t live in a particular corner of the Southeast in the early part of this century, but there was a time when no one was hated more intensely by Alabama fans than Paul Finebaum. The version of the show that airs now features Finebaum curating the opinions. Paul isn’t afraid to share what he knows or thinks, but for the most part he is trying to move from one entertaining caller to the next. His own opinions, most of which were about the absolute disarray Alabama football was in the ten years between Gene Stallings left Tuscaloosa and Nick Saban came to town, drove the show when he was based in Birmingham. In hindsight, many of those opinions were more than fair, but try being the guy based in Birmingham telling Alabama fans that their beloved football team wasn’t the be-all-end-all of the college football universe.
“I got death threats early in my career. My phone has been tapped. Probably the scariest wasn’t that long ago, maybe about ten years ago, someone posted on Twitter a Google Earth photo of my house. We were living in Birmingham at the time. Underneath it they wrote ‘You will die Saturday night.’ So I turned it over to the state. Law enforcement got involved and they were able to trace it. They asked if I wanted to press charges and I said no. That’s the last thing I need is to tick this guy off even more and then have the charges not stick.”
He seemed to notice my look of disbelief and simply responded with “I mean, those things happen.” He then quickly followed that up by noting that moving to a national platform has probably made him safer. “As expansive as the show has become I probably think about those things less and less.”
Finebaum has played a roll in the SEC Network branching out beyond sports. In September, the network debuted his interview series Homecoming. The show features captains of industry, the arts, and politics returning to their SEC alma matters to talk about their careers and their future. The first episode featured Auburn alum and Apple CEO Tim Cook. The second episode featured author John Grisham, who has a BS from Mississippi State and a law degree from Ole Miss.
“The concept started with Stephanie Druley, who is a Senior VP at ESPN. She had the idea for the show. Originally it was broader and then we narrowed it to the SEC,” he tells me of Homecoming’s genesis. “She said ‘well, anyone in the world that you could interview, who would it be?’ and I thought ‘probably Pope Francis.’ Then we realized he didn’t go to an SEC school.”
Another of the network’s initial hires was Greg McElroy. The former Alabama quarterback was on the bench in Cincinnati when the network was forming. McElroy, who was 25 at the time, was already thinking about ending his playing career.
“I’m just more fulfilled by discussing [college football] than chasing something that might be unattainable,” he says of his decision to walk away from the NFL and head to the broadcast booth. “I want to do this forever, you know? I wanted this for a long time and I felt like this had more longevity and it was actually a really easy decision for me to make.”
McElroy calls games for ABC and ESPN, but during the week you’ll find him wandering the halls in Charlotte between taping segments of Thinking Out Loud, the show he hosts with former LSU defensive tackle Marcus Spears and SEC Network newcomer Alyssa Lang. The show spun off from McElroy’s and Spears’s appearances on the first year of SEC Now.
“They just they saw the chemistry. Me and Gregg are idiots,” Spears says. “That’s really what it boils down to. We love college football. We know a lot about what we’re talking about. But at the same time, our personalities kind of are so different that it works perfectly.”
Thinking Out Loud is a hard show to describe. There are real hard core breakdowns of the games that happened just 48 hours before taping, but there is also a sense of humor to it. I visited during the week of Halloween and caught the entire cast in costume as KISS – makeup and all. Earlier in the day, Spears and McElroy put on fake mustaches and taped a bit where they played HR directors.
It’s the kind of show that may live in the SEC world for now, but McElroy hopes he and Spears get the chance to spread their wings. He tells me that he is a die hard Dodgers fan and has always loved the NBA and he would love to bring that to the show someday. I asked him if he could ever see Thinking Out Loud becoming a part of the weekday afternoon block on ESPN.
“Well, I don’t think any of us would ever do a show that we didn’t have high hopes for, and you know, I don’t think any of us would ever go halfway into a show,” he says. “We’re all the way in on Thinking Out Loud and the SEC Network is too.” He chooses his words carefully before he realizes that he isn’t saying anything that can get him into trouble. “We are so grateful to everyone at SEC Network for the resources and the platform that they give us and we’ll always be true to our roots. No denying that, but I think we’d all like to see this show grow as high as it can grow.”
Staying true to their roots seems to play an important role for everyone involved with Thinking Out Loud. Marcus Spears didn’t just play football at LSU. He grew up in Baton Rouge. It isn’t lost on him how much having something like the SEC Network means to the kids that make it onto an SEC field or court after years of dreaming about it.
“It gives them their own. It’s like the NFL Network for the Southeast, because before all of these teams had to force coverage, or you had to have a story before ESPN would talk about you day in and day out. Now we do features on Vanderbilt. We do spring tour stops in Kentucky and Tennessee…It’s a reciprocating thing. They provide the games and we tell their stories.”
For Alyssa Lang, an alum of the University of South Carolina, this is a dream job. “I mean, I remember when the network launched and I was just like ‘Wow, there’s a building that you can go work at and talk nothing but SEC football and SEC sports? I absolutely want to be there,'” she tells me. “I mean it’s still kind of surreal to me sometimes when I walk in here.”
I tell Lang about TrueSouth sort of sparking my interest to come down and visit and write about the network. Her eyes light up. I ask her if I have discovered a dream job within a dream job for her. “Oh my God! If they asked me to be on TrueSouth and help with eating food from the South, are you kidding?” she responds.
If you’re looking for a show that may capture what the SEC Network can be in the future, look no further than Marty & McGee. Marty Smith and Ryan McGee are about as Southern as you can get. The set for their show looks like a man cave straight out of the Deep South. They call it The Wilderness Lodge after the hotel in Disney World. The faux wood cabin set was a hit with coaches at SEC Media Days in Atlanta this summer.
Beyond just the decorations, which Smith describes as “a bunch of roosters and American flags,” the show is built around stories from Smith’s and McGee’s travels, jokes about their past covering NASCAR, and their signature bit “Hillbilly Headlines.” The day I am on set, we watch a video of a man falling shirtless through the roof of a Waffle House and looking for someone to fight. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is a guest on the show that day.
There’s range there, and McGee tells me it is no mistake. “Maybe you’re watching for Hillbilly Headlines and you learn a little something about Jake Fromm or maybe you’re watching for Jake Fromm and you learn a little something about how to sculpt things out of moose turds.”
Marty & McGee isn’t so much a show as it is a party that plays out in front of cameras. These are two best friends that started out by making each other laugh on the road to NASCAR events. That turned into a podcast, which turned into a radio show, which is now a TV show. The show’s production crew is encouraged to hoot, holler, and shout things out while the show is taping.
As I’m visiting (or “fellowshipping” as Smith calls it) with the duo, they talk about the disappointing state of NASCAR media. These two were motorsports reporters long before SEC football came into their professional lives. Now, they lament the sport’s inability to garner the coverage they feel it deserves. I ask them if given the crossover of fan bases, they could ever see themselves talking NASCAR in a serious way on the SEC Network.
“I think if we wanted to right now you could talk about NASCAR on this show,” Smith says confidently. “And I say that for a couple reasons. Number one, the demo absolutely works and number two, (SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey) is a huge race fan.”
Smith and McGee are huge fans of the direction the SEC Network is moving. Smith calls TrueSouth “a beautiful show.” McGee is clearly in awe of what Finebaum does on Homecoming.
“I love that series that Paul did where he’s doing these kind of Barbara Walters interviews with you know, Tim Cook,” he says as he takes out his iPhone. “I don’t think people understood that the guy that you know is in charge of all of this is War Eagle, right? I don’t think people know Tennessee’s got like a half a dozen astronauts. I like the fact that they’re branching out into the culture of it.”
Smith adds “I think it’s important to do that because it’s an avenue, and this is feedback that (Ryan) and I get everywhere we go now because of this show. It’s an avenue for folks who grew up in the South, and most notably the rural South, to feel like they have a voice. I’m so proud to be someone they consider to be a voice.”
McGee agrees. “And we also have an opportunity to portray those people for what they actually are and they’re not cartoon characters.”
So what is the next step in the evolution of the SEC Network? I told Chris Turner that it seemed like the next TrueSouth should probably tackle the ever changing music scene of the region. After all, three of the most buzzed about music acts around right now – Jason Isbell, The Alabama Shakes, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones are all Alabama fans. One of the biggest country music stars in the world, Kenny Chesney is a Tennessee die hard. Jack White, who is from Detroit originally now lives in Nashville and was a huge fan of Cam Newton while he was at Auburn.
“Music has been an important part of our network from the beginning with our ‘Take it All in’ campaign,” Turner says. “Our marketing team has done a fantastic job day in and day out with the music theme across the board. Every spot we run, every promo has a unique musical footprint to it, so that will continue to be important to us. Can we develop that into a show like TrueSouth? I don’t know. It remains to be seen, but I don’t disagree with you. It seems like the natural extension.”
Marty and McGee joke about the old days of Turner South and TNN and how those networks would go from a morning show produced by Southern Living magazine to professional wrestling to NASCAR in the same day. It doesn’t seem like that kind of extreme variety is on the horizon for the SEC Network, but Turner and his staff are thinking beyond college sports, and in the world of conference networks, that makes them an outlier and a trendsetter.
Landry Locker Takes Something From Everyone
“I think different talent needs different things. In my case, and I don’t like admitting it, I probably sometimes have needed a little bit of a kick, a little bit of tough love, a little bit of discomfort.”
Sports radio has always been a big part of Landry Locker’s life. When he was growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — Grapevine, Texas to be exact — Landry’s dad used to have sports radio on in the house as background noise. How awesome is that? You’ll hear that an athlete like Steph Curry has basketball in his veins. It works the same way with Landry; sports radio has been in his blood from an early age.
Landry hosts In The Loop on SportsRadio 610 in Houston. His program director, Armen Williams, says that Landry digs into the audio vault more than anyone he’s ever worked with. It’s interesting to hear why audio is so important to Landry’s approach to sports radio.
He also describes the PDs he’s worked for, the lowly Texans, replacing the rush of doing radio, and tapping the brakes on self-criticism. Enjoy!
BN: From listening to sports radio in Dallas when you were a young kid, what have you taken from those years that you still apply to today?
LL: Pretty much everything. Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket started in the mid-90s. My dad was the kind of guy, before my parents got divorced, who would have sports radio on in the house as the background noise. When that started, The Ticket and all of that, that was a big influence just because it was 24/7. It’s always been something that I’ve gotten into whether it’s I want to hear what so-and-so has to say after the game, all of the reaction and all of that type of stuff. It’s always been a big part of my life, especially when The Ticket came around during the Cowboys’ second Super Bowl run.
BN: Is there anything in terms of a host’s style, not that you’re copying it, but you look and say I like what that guy does, and maybe subconsciously, that’s gone into your approach?
LL: I take something from everyone, even growing up, or the people that I’ve worked with in the business throughout my career. I think you take stuff from everybody. Different styles, there’s not really anyone that I try to be, but I think you can learn from certain people. I would say The Ticket, not to take yourself too serious. I think you could learn from guys who are real sports guys, old school, just how to do your research and be on top of your stuff.
I’ve worked with Randy Galloway when I was in Dallas and Ben and Skin. I kind of model myself after those guys kind of being loose; being sportsy and non-sportsy at the same time. Ken Carman and Anthony Lima in Cleveland, I was with them for like five months. I had a brief stop in Cleveland. I think the creativity of those guys I take in. I really just try to take in something from everybody, old school, new school, all that, and just incorporate it into what I do on a daily basis.
BN: Why was the Cleveland stint so short?
LL: The Cleveland thing was just a good opportunity because it was a chance to branch out and I really like Andy Roth, their program director. I think he’s a really, really, really good PD. I like Ken and Anthony. It was when their show first started. When I got there it was more so — and Ken and I are still good buddies — but Cleveland wants you to be from Cleveland. It is 100 percent from Cleveland.
When some jackass from Texas comes in there and is talking about LeBron James or something like that — there are some cities where that works. There are a lot of transplants in Houston and there are a lot of transplants even in New York. Sometimes you can go do that; Cleveland’s not the city for that. No matter how well I worked with Ken and Anthony, the shelf life was kind of limited on how much you could climb up.
Nick Wright actually got his job to go national, so I became the producer of the morning show here. They gave me immediate reps on air. I just took that experience as much as I could, the six months in Cleveland, and brought it here. But you know how it is in Cleveland; you could say the smartest thing in the world, but if they check your ID and they see that you’re not from Ohio, you can basically go to hell. It doesn’t matter what you said. That’s not a knock on ‘em. That’s why it’s so popular there. That’s why it’s one of those cities where you go in the gas station, they’ve got The Fan on there. They’re ready to get it, but I could basically solve the cure for cancer and they don’t give a rat’s butt what I’m saying in Cleveland. I understood that from the jump.
BN: Is Dallas like that at all?
LL: I don’t think Dallas is like that because if you just look at the lineup, a lot of the guys from The Ticket, there’s a guy from Wisconsin in Bob Sturm. There’s a guy from Cleveland in Dan McDowell. There’s just guys from other places. RJ Choppy originally went to college at Tennessee, then he went to New Jersey. Shan Shariff was in Maryland, Kansas City and all that stuff. Houston has a lot of transplants. You do want to know what you’re talking about and you do want to have a grasp of history.
There’s a legendary tale about Nick Wright when he came to Houston from Kansas City that I just always admired, even when I didn’t even know anything about Nick Wright. When he had his job interview with Gavin Spittle, who’s the PD now in Dallas, Nick had like four pages, front and back, basically he’d written out the sports history of Houston. It went from the Oilers to the Rockets, all that, and it was handwritten. It wasn’t just printed out. When I came here, even when I went to Cleveland, I would try to follow that. They are open in Houston and Dallas, but you have to show that you respect the history and have a grasp of it. Then you just have to perform on the air.
BN: You’ve had a few different program directors from Jeff Catlin to Andy Roth and Armen Williams. What are the similarities and differences between those guys?
LL: Well, Jeff’s a hard-ass. Jeff Catlin is an ass-kicker. The one thing that I can take from Jeff is that he’s no nonsense. If you deserve to be cussed out, you’re going to get cussed out. If you screw up, he’s going to let you know. He is going to let your work speak for itself. He’s going to welcome feedback and he’s no nonsense. No nonsense Jeff Catlin. Being the ultimate professional, no nonsense, is something I took from Jeff.
Andy’s just a hard worker who is one hundred percent engaged in programming. Whether you’re on at 6am or 10pm; if you play a sound clip and you don’t credit FOX Sports or you don’t credit ESPN, Andy is going to let you know about it. He’s going to give you feedback and it’s going to be transparent. It can get a little bit intense with Andy, but it’s always going to be honest and he cares about the on-air product. And he’s going to work his ass off.
Armen is a guy who has a lot of the same qualities as both of those guys. It’s kind of like a mix of both. I think the thing that Armen has on those guys is he’s been in radio for life. He’s a guy who was working at radio stations when he was young. He’s a guy who was working in promotions. He’s a guy who was a producer. He’s a guy who went and became a PD. I think Armen is just about that radio life and he’s kind of a combination of all those guys.
Armen’s also very, very good at imaging and very, very good at creating the notion that the station is on the right topic. I think he has that grasp down very, very good to where what do we need to be talking about? Sometimes we’ll go in to commercial and imaging will be so new it’s like dang, how did he flip that so quick? I think Armen is kind of a combination of those two. There’s been a lot of guys I’ve worked with and I’ve picked all their brains and they all provide a little bit of something.
BN: If there’s one thing a talent needs most from a PD, what is it?
LL: I think different talent needs different things. In my case, and I don’t like admitting it, I probably sometimes have needed a little bit of a kick, a little bit of tough love, a little bit of discomfort. I think it kind of depends. I think some guys probably need airchecks a little bit more. I think some guys need to be coddled. I think some guys need to be kicked in the butt.
It’s like when someone asks you what’s the key to a good show, I don’t know because there are so many different styles. But I think different guys need different stuff. I think the most important thing is that you need a PD who’s able to treat people differently, almost like a coach. I think you need a PD that’s going to be able to have a grasp of what each guy needs. I’ve been fortunate to work with PDs who’ve been able to do that.
BN: Working with a highly respected talent like John Lopez, who has teamed with Nick Wright and a few others, what’s one of the main things that you’ve taken from him as a talent?
LL: I’ve been very fortunate to work with John because I think that when you’ve been doing it as long as he has — I call him the OG for a reason — there’s a better chance that guy is going to have a little bit of jerk in him, and he’s going to tell you it’s his way or the highway. John has allowed me to not take over, but put my creative spin on it, and he kind of plays off me. I know a lot of times it can be annoying for him. John is like a unique guy in that he’s been doing it as long as he has, but he’s pretty carefree and as long as you develop his trust, he’s going to play off of you.
There’s immediate credibility that comes with somebody who’s been around as long as Lopez has. The likability, the experience, and just the open-mindedness, I’ve been very fortunate with John Lopez. I’ve seen some guys in his situation who will just lay out. They’re not going to do anything. I could ask Lopez hey, give me a list of 10 blah, blah, blah, and he’ll do it. He’s just a lot more open-minded than a lot of people that have been doing it as long as him have been. He has that credibility. He has that likability.
BN: So the Texans stink as you know. And you’re the flagship station at 610. What’s that like to do a balancing act?
LL: Well, we don’t have to. It’s really actually kind of crazy; they are very, very fair to us. You wouldn’t know that we were the flagship with the way we talk. They understand the situation and they’ve let us criticize them as much as possible, which is rare. I know there are other teams in town that don’t allow that. I’ve seen some teams do it, but they really, really do let us be honest and transparent about it. I haven’t had to endure any walking the line or anything like that.
We’ve talked about anything and everything and they’re very fair. We’ve talked about how bad David Culley is at managing games. We’ve talked about the culture problems. We’ve talked about Nick Caserio not winning trades. I mean I can’t lie.
I want to say something good about them; it’s just there’s nothing. They don’t have any good young players. They’ve traded all their draft picks. They’re the worst team in the league. The coach is making brain fart after brain fart. There’s culture issues. There’s trust issues. I want something, they’re just not giving it to me. I haven’t gotten any calls for things that I’ve said or anything. It sucks to cover a team this bad, but they let us do our job for sure.
BN: Armen told me that you dig into the audio vault more than anyone he’s ever worked with. He said you call it going into the lab. Why is it so important to you?
LL: I think that it’s part of the story. I think especially in NFL-centric cities where it’s a week-long buildup, if David Culley said that he trusts the culture after Week 1, and you can remember that and go back to after you lose eight straight games, I think it’s important. I think it’s part of the story and I think you’re not dependent on a team being good. Audio is a big part of what we do. When someone sends a cut sheet, I listen to every single clip and I’ll trim it. If there’s a Sunday press conference or something like that and they say yesterday, I’ll take out the word yesterday just so that it’s timely.
In Buffalo or wherever, like a good city, they can just depend on breaking down each game. But if you’re building up the story and you’re talking about David Culley said this, or David Johnson said that, or I can remember way back in the day when so and so said this, let’s compare it to that, I just think the build-up doesn’t get old and the story doesn’t die. I have a photographic memory where I’ll remember something that someone said like 15 years ago. I think it adds to the intrigue just what is being said and I’m not dependent on the team being good.
BN: When you finish a show do you look back like, ahh man, I didn’t think about playing this one clip or I didn’t think about saying this one thing? Are you built like that, or are you just kind of like hey man, the show was pretty good, we’ll get ‘em tomorrow?
LL: Sometimes I’ll get done with the show and be like man, that sucked. I’ll be like that was terrible; I should have done this, this, this, this. I think you kind of have to stop doing that at a certain point. I don’t ever think you should do a show and just say it’s over, move on. But I used to beat myself up to where it was basically like you can’t sleep and you think you stink and all of that type of stuff.
I do sometimes wonder if we left some meat on the bone. Other times I’ll think it was good and I’ll listen back, and I’ll be like man, that sucked. That really wasn’t that good. That’s probably the most uncomfortable thing for me is listening to myself, but I have to do it. I’m still kind of my own worst critic, but you do have to kind of tap the brakes a little bit when it comes to criticizing yourself. Still be aware but you do have to tone it down a little bit because I would just beat myself up and not even be able to enjoy the rest of my day.
BN: Do you have any particular goals that you’re working toward?
LL: I think eventually I would like to get in drive time. I like having the midday, but I’d like to get into drive time, try to figure that type of thing out. I just want to continue to build credibility. I want to be the guy that people go to in Houston where if something happens, if Deshaun Watson gets traded, it’s hey we’ve got to hear what Landry Locker has to say about that. That’s really the goal.
As far as going national, stuff like that, I like local radio. I think local radio is the best. This is the second time I’ve quoted Nick Wright; Nick was asked about radio and he said local radio is not going anywhere because it’s really the place that you go to figure things out about your squad. It’s a service, it’s part of the community, so I really like the local thing. I just want to continue to get better, branch out, and be as good at this as possible and expand as the business continues to grow.
BN: When it comes to the most fun you’ve had in all your days of doing radio, where were you and what was it about that situation that was so fun?
LL: Man, I feel like I wish I could just point to one thing, but I get such a rush doing shows, even in different roles, that it’s like I can’t even really answer that question. I had a very fun time when I got my first on-air segment; that was with Ben and Skin back in Dallas. They called it the Locker Room. It was so exciting. The first time you get to host that show, that was fun. Cleveland when the Cavs won the championship and I was with Ken and Anthony. When the Astros won the World Series here. Reaction Mondays are just amazing to me because you’re reacting to the game, the fans are feeding off the energy.
There’s really just not one time that I can point to and say — and I’m not trying to be corny or anything like that — but I just think the full rush of putting together a four-hour show, talking to sports fans which are the most passionate, there’s not really one thing I can point to. I wish I could, but there’s just so many good times. It’s hard to list what the one would be.
BN: I agree with you about local radio, I don’t think it’s going anywhere, but let’s just say it did. Or there are cuts or whatever and you’re no longer in radio. It’s almost like an athlete who says what am I doing now that my career is over? What would you do after your radio career to try to get the same rush?
LL: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those things where you just have to have the perspective. I have had that disappointment when ESPN 103.3 got bought out and Catlin said “I think you should try to branch out and figure something else out.” I have tasted it before. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know what I’m really good at. I have no idea what I would do without it. I try not to think about it too much but man, a lot of guys have had to answer that question. I’m just blessed to not have to answer that question right now at the very least. It’s a scary thought to think about not doing this.
Even Sports Talk Hosts Have To Make Halftime Adjustments
“Every walk of life can benefit from halftime adjustments.”
Richard Johnson of Sports Illustrated and the SEC Network didn’t play football beyond high school. Still, he really understands scheme and personnel packages. This past Sunday on his podcast, Split Zone Duo, Johnson said that he had listeners tell him that he could be a coach and he gave a great answer to that.
He said that if you study and if you played football at all, you can probably script an opening drive for a team. That isn’t hard. There aren’t a lot of people on Earth though that can make mid-game adjustments to respond to what the other team is doing. That is something that comes with experience and really, truly knowing football. He isn’t one of those people.
Every walk of life can benefit from halftime adjustments.
We have crossed the halfway point on the NFL season. I reached out to several broadcasters to see how they have adjusted what they do and how they talk about the home team.
The NFL is a league that always throws wrenches at us. Parity allows teams expected to hover around .500 to be in contention for a playoff bye with just a few borderline calls going their way. The violence of football means we are talking about injuries all the time and those injuries can derail even the most promising of seasons. Golden Boy rookies struggle to adjust to the speed of the pro game and fans start to panic. A great local host has to absorb and reflect all of that.
Four hosts in NFL markets told me how their coverage and conversations about the home team have changed from the preseason to now.
ANDREW FILLIPPONI – 93.7 THE FAN IN PITTSBURGH
Our Steelers conversation has focused on the present and future of the quarterback position in Pittsburgh. Initially, it was a referendum on the team’s decision to bring back Ben Roethlisberger for an 18th season. Then, when the Steelers fell to 1-3, it turned into a look at the external options for the position in 2022: the college draft class and Aaron Rodgers.
Now with the Steelers 5-3-1, there’s more interest in how this team will finish. Will it make the playoffs or not? Will there be another December/January collapse? So I anticipate there will be a lot of discussion about the current team’s performance in the weeks ahead.
JASON MARTIN – 104.5 THE ZONE IN NASHVILLE
Covering the Titans is always a ride, or it certainly has been during the time I’ve had a regular platform to talk about them. The fanbase has been battered and beaten down by mediocrity and disappointment, though under Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson, the hope and optimism is high. The beginning of the 2021 season was different because Tennessee won the AFC South last season, exorcised some of the old Colts demons, and had a legit MVP candidate in Derrick Henry. Add to it big name free agent moves like Julio Jones and Bud Dupree and it grows into an electric atmosphere in the audience and one where they look everywhere for applause for the team they love so much.
That said, it’s also one that has a tendency to get overly defensive whenever any of the optimism is challenged. I’ve found myself on the outs with some people at times, like any local host would, because I’ve been a little more negative, not by design, but just because I don’t feel my own analysis is worth anything if it isn’t objective. If I don’t tell you exactly what I think, if I just go along to get along all the time, why would anything I say have any relevance or weight? It’s just my opinion, but I want it to matter when I say something’s going right, when I offer up praise, or when I say the Titans are one of the best teams in the league. The only way to make that happen is to also be direct when things aren’t going well and when criticism is warranted.
Once Henry was injured, I felt strongly that the chances of winning a Super Bowl dropped off a cliff. I predicted before the season this team would win the big game (I’d never done that before), but had to pivot and say a few weeks ago if 22 didn’t return this season, the playoffs would be the ceiling, not the Lombardi. But, the key is in always keeping a door open until it’s fully closed. I may have learned that a few weeks ago also, because of course, there’s still a chance until this team loses a playoff game. You have to be authentic, but also be willing to listen to a passionate fanbase that educates itself well on the team and cares deeply about the results every season. There’s no reason to be confrontational just for the sake of it. Objectivity with frank discussion and respectful debate is our goal and hopefully we achieve it in the audience’s eyes more often than not. I love our group in the studio and love the Fam (our audience) outside of it. Just like any family, sometimes we argue over dinner, or in our case, since it’s morning drive… over breakfast.
And often, they teach me as much or more than I could ever teach them. That’s why radio is great. The interaction is EVERYTHING.
CODY STOOTS – ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 IN HOUSTON
The Texans are very bad and there are only so many ways to plainly say the Texans are bad. Game breakdowns are less and less useful as the losses pile up. It becomes a focus to critique players and coaches who will be on the team next year. We have to get creative in our approach to talking about the team. An example from last week is we took the temperature of the fanbase by asking for their “fandom injury report” during the show. There were plenty of funny responses and sometimes, with the Texans, you have to laugh to keep from crying.
They don’t have a quarterback for next season and should be loaded with an expected Deshaun Watson trade this offseason. We find ourselves lusting after quarterback situations and also explaining how we would like the Texans to avoid replicating other teams’ mistakes at quarterback. It’s also worthwhile to examine how the Texans found themselves in this situation when something jars our memory and if they have cleaned up the process which led to their failures.
NICK WILSON – WFNZ IN CHARLOTTE
Sports talk adjustments halfway through the NFL season depend entirely on the market and the path of the organization. When Cleveland was winning 4 or less games every year, I knew I had to have my scouting reports for the next quarterback crop ready by early November.
In Carolina, draft talk doesn’t sustain an audience the way it does in Cleveland when teams are bad. You’re left with this moving target of national NFL stories, the start of the ACC basketball season and recently, LaMelo Ball and the Hornets to accentuate whatever day-to-day storylines are available.
This year Carolina 3-0, proceed to lose 5 of their next 6 and then brought back the former face of the franchise, Cam Newton, to save the season. Today our topic was “which p-word are the Panthers closer to embracing: panic or playoffs.” I’m awaiting our Marconi.
Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench
“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”
As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.
Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.
Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.
Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.
Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media.
Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???
One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.
My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”
Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.
Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country.
Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format.
There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.
If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.
I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort.
Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.
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