There aren’t a lot of stations quite like 101 ESPN. From the on air product to the station’s digital offerings, to management’s willingness to embrace emerging trends like covering gambling and hosting eSports events, Hubbard Broadcasting has never been afraid to let its St. Louis sports talker innovate. Listeners are on board too.
The reason for that is probably best explained in a simple sentence from mid day host Anthony Stalter. “St. Louis is a sports city through and through.”
101 ESPN is a station anchored in both the morning and afternoon by a definitive local sports voice. The station’s PD is a lifelong resident of the city. It’s strange that the best explanation for 101’s success comes from a guy that hasn’t lived his whole life in St. Louis, but then again, Stalter’s explanation is dead on, because it isn’t overthought. In a town full of sports fans, the sports radio brand that has been dominant is the one giving listeners the most local sports conversations surrounded by the least bullshit.
“Nobody was doing it on FM with a big signal,” Hubbard St. Louis’ VP and Market Manager John Kijowski told me when I asked why he thought there was an opening to launch the station ten years ago. The city had two sports stations, both on smaller AM signals, and according to Kijowski, neither of them catered to the city’s hardcore sports fans.
“They were doing a lot of – how do I clean this up? ’T&A’? Guy humor? And then some serious sports talk. I just didn’t think it had to be that way. I thought it can be fun and entertaining. Certainly there are parts that should make you mad and make you laugh. Sports is all about emotion, right? I felt like what I was hearing over there was more T&A and political than good sports talk.”
Bonneville, who owned the cluster at the time, had a struggling Rhythmic AC station on the 101.1 frequency. That is where Kijowski was going to put his new sports station.
“When Bonneville decided to go down that path, they thought that from a company standpoint, they had a stronger ability to sustain some of the early battles if it took some time to get the thing going,” Jason Barrett told me. Before he was the president of Barrett Sports Media, Jason was the program director that launched 101 ESPN.
Barrett had been unemployed for nearly six months when Kijowski reached out to him. Prior to that he had programmed another sports station in town, 590 The Fan. The environment at 590 according to Barrett wasn’t great due in part to financial pressures facing the station.
“The two years of market turmoil at 590 wasn’t exactly what everybody wanted,” said Barrett. “The ownership group had big plans and a successful model in Atlanta but it just didn’t translate the same in St. Louis.”
It made Kijowski’s choice of a guy that had been trashed in local papers and blamed for the station’s failures as his very first sports PD curious to say the least. Barrett says if you were sitting in the room for his and Kijowski’s first meeting, it wouldn’t seem so strange that they ended up working together.
“Having some market experience helped,” Barrett told me. “I had learned firsthand what not to do at 590 and gained a few relationships in the process. Then, on top of it, John and I, the first time we met we just clicked. Our philosophies on radio and vision for the brand was an instant match. I think he liked that I had something to prove and my arrival would create some instant chatter. That just drove me more to make sure I rewarded his faith in me. To this day he’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.”
To make the station a serious ratings contender Barrett felt a major play-by-play partner (which 101 ESPN landed when it acquired the St. Louis Rams broadcasts prior to launch) was important. So too was adding regular contributors that could break news about the local teams. To help set the tone he hired the city’s top three newsmakers, Joe Strauss, Jim Thomas and Derrick Goold from The St. Louis Post Dispatch and added Brian Stull and Brian Feldman as station reporters.
The key to success though would come from featuring live and local programming throughout most of the day. The long-term goal was to be local M-F 6a-7p but Barrett knew 101 ESPN would have to carry at least one show from ESPN Radio at launch. He planned on it being The Herd with Collin Cowherd, but that wasn’t the national show that ended up on air.
“It’s about two months to launch and we were in a big meeting,” Barrett says. “Keep in mind I had just been out of work for six months after a rough two-year run. If there were things that they wanted to do, I was willing to go along with it because I didn’t feel I had earned the right yet to influence any key decisions. I was just happy to have a chance to build the brand.”
Kijowski was passionate about launching with a local morning show. Barrett made plans to put Cowherd in the middle of 101 ESPN’s lineup, and that was what was pitched to Bonneville executives during a fall meeting. But Greg Solk, who was the company’s Senior VP of Programming and Operations at the time, called Barrett’s bluff.
“He said ‘so that’s the plan, right?’ and I said ‘Yeah, local in the morning with Cowherd in the mid days,'” Barrett told me. “‘And you believe in that plan?’ he asked. I said I did, but he saw it on my face and said ‘I don’t think you believe that.’ I was uncomfortable for a moment but so glad he said that because it gave me the confidence to turn to John and say ‘He’s right. It should be Mike & Mike in the morning and then we start with local at 10am. I loved Colin’s show but Greeny and Golic just fit the market better.”
That was how the initial lineup was built. Mike and Mike wound up producing good results for the station until August 2015 when Bernie Miklasz announced he was leaving the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to take over 101 ESPN’s morning show. Since then 101 has featured local hosts on the air from 7 am to 7 pm.
“They trusted us and we’ve served them well with our output. If we were going to make this move it was going to strengthen what we had,” program director Hoss Neupert said of ESPN.
Neupert never had second thoughts about the move. St. Louis is a town that loves sports, but its devotion is to the local teams.
“During football season Mike & Mike did really well because they talked a lot about the NFL, but sometimes a big baseball game would be missed or there was no talk about a Blues game that ended in controversy,” he told me. “Mike & Mike may have mentioned that or Golic & Wingo may mention it, but St. Louis sports fans now know it will be there.”
Miklasz had a previous relationship with the station. He joined the station a few months after it launched, hosting a mid day show, and was at the station until 2014. When he agreed to return in 2015, it was in part because he saw 101 ESPN as a multi-platform brand where he could write, broadcast, and do a podcast under the same umbrella.
“I always wondered in my mind wondered what it would be like if I went all in on radio,” Bernie told me. “I never had the guts to take the plunge, because all over I see radio stations changing formats and people coming and going.”
For Miklasz, it came down to the people he would be working with and for that made him comfortable enough to commit to leaving the newspaper and making radio his primary focus.
“Kijowski had the vision. I appreciated and respected Jason Barrett’s aggressive attitude and desire to always go for it. Then, Hoss Neupert had that same type of attitude. It just got to the point where it was like I like these people. I respect them and what they’ve done.
“Look, I wanted to be a part of this team, so it was time for me to take this leap. It’s like any other job. There are good days and bad, but I took the jump and haven’t looked back once.”
Michelle Smallmon produced Bernie Miklasz’s show when she was at 101 ESPN the first time around. After that she left for Bristol to work on ESPN Radio’s Jorge and Jen and the Ryen Russillo Show. She returned to St. Louis in January of 2018 to become Bernie’s co-host on the morning show.
“The primary difference now is that I am talking on the air for three hours, and not sitting in a producers booth monitoring the show!” Smallmon told me in an email. Still, she says she approaches each show with that same producer’s mindset.
“As I approach each show and topic, I still look at it from a producer’s perspective. What’s the story? What are the secondary angles? Why does this matter to our audience? How can we find an informative and entertaining way to discuss the story? I had to shift from worrying about booking guests and finding sound to compliment a topic, to developing my opinion, anticipating Bernie’s take on it, and thinking about how we want to structure our conversations.”
Does the switch to a local morning show mean 101 ESPN listeners will never hear Bernie and Michelle talking about the kind of national topics covered on Mike & Mike or now Golic & Wingo?
“It depends on the time of year,” Miklasz says noting that the day we spoke the St. Louis Blues were still in the NHL’s Western Conference Finals. He calls the Cardinals “absolutely a foundation” of his shows in the Summer.
There is one area where Miklasz treads lightly and still hasn’t figured out a definitive strategy for national sports talk. “Sometimes I wonder whether people, because there was so much animosity about the way the Rams left and the way the league allowed it to happen, whether we’re turning people off when we talk too much NFL.”
One of the constants through every iteration of the 101 ESPN lineup has been the afternoon show The Fast Lane and the man steering that ship, Randy Karraker. Even as his partners have changed throughout the years, Randy has continued to be viewed as the voice of the St. Louis sports fan. With Karraker at the helm the afternoon show has been a consistent ratings success for the past decade.
“It’s interesting. I didn’t feel pressure,” Karraker told me of his hire in August of 2009. Despite casting a long shadow with fans in the city, he knew that his first partners on The Fast Lane, former Ram D’Marco Farr and long time St. Louis Bilikins play-by-play man Bob Ramsey, were the right people to build a three man collaborative effort with.
“JB had the vision,” Ramsey told me in an email. “He hired the best talent in the market in Randy Karraker (the best I’ve ever worked with), found an ex jock who could handle himself in the very capable D’Marco Farr and found a decent third man in me who would morph to fit a given situation: analytic when needed, a foil to challenge partners and guests, and quite frankly a real smart ass who could make you laugh. “Ramsey said the show’s strength was in Barrett’s demand for “formatics excellence and detail.”
Karraker and Farr had a relationship before the show began, and each said they knew they could rely on the other for great content. Farr took it a step further, saying that if Karraker was involved, he knew the majority of St. Louis’s sports fans would be tuning in.
“If you could boil down St. Louis, and I mean everything about St. Louis, into one person, you would get Randy,” Farr told me. “I mean, he defends St. Louis fiercely and he’ll also call out the warts at the same time.”
The Fast Lane has gone through multiple lineup changes since 101 ESPN launched in 2009. The current crew includes former Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson and Chris Rongey alongside Karraker. Rongey, the latest addition came in the wake of Farr heading back to the West Coast.
That move may have coincided with the Rams leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles, but Farr insists that he didn’t leave St. Louis intending to follow the Rams.
“Regardless of what happened, my family decided it was time to go back West,” he said. “We had some aging and ill family members, so our presence was needed (in California). I think I said this on my last show. If the Rams had stayed in St. Louis forever, we would still be going back west. That is just where our lives took us at the time.”
Ramsey credits the foundation Barrett and Neupert built for some of the afternoon show’s success despite lineup changes, but he is blunt about where the real credit should go. “The key for relevance and continuity is Randy Karraker, period.”
Former PD Kent Sterling told me in an email that the writing was on the wall for the Rams as soon as rumblings of a move to LA began. In his estimation, those started in 2011. “The combination of bad football and distrust for owner Stan Kroenke drove interest south. The staff did a great job of covering the team, but St. Louis will always be a Cardinals town. In a research project, we found that St. Louisans were more likely to be NFL fans than Rams-specific fans.”
Farr was in an interesting position the day the Rams officially announced their move in 2016. “The day it was announced, I am driving the show. So that means I am the one telling St. Louis that the team is moving to Los Angeles,” he says. It was strange, here’s a former Ram telling St. Louis that the team is moving to Los Angeles. It was hard. It’s still hard when I think about it.”
Bernie Miklasz saw the Rams leaving as a shot to his credibility. He had been on the radio for months saying the team was not leaving. That wasn’t just an opinion. In Bernie’s mind, it was a fact based on a conversation he had had with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I’ve told this story on the air, and I don’t feel like I’m breaking any confidences now. Frankly, I don’t care if I am. I actually had dinner with Goodell before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. He invited me out during Super Bowl week because he wanted to sort of get the lay of the land in St. Louis.
“He looked me straight in the eye, in fact it sort of hurt my reputation. He looked me straight in the eyes and said ‘We don’t want that team to go anywhere. We don’t want to leave St. Louis,’ and he seemed very passionate about it.
“I even said ‘Hang on, don’t you want to put a team in LA? Kroenke does have his escape clause and he can probably get a stadium built.” I’ll use his words literally. He looked me in the eye, almost pissed off and said ‘Why the f*** do we need LA?’”.
Miklasz also received a phone call from Rams owner Stan Kroenke around the same time. Kroenke told Miklasz he didn’t like the coverage he was receiving. He brought the team to St. Louis and was a Missouri native after all. Why would he want to hurt fans and a city that are so important to him?
Despite those conversations, Stan Kroenke revealed plans to build his new stadium in Inglewood, California in 2015 and then on January 20, 2016, NFL owners voted 30-2 to move the Rams back to Los Angeles.
St. Louis took the exit hard. To this day, Randy Karraker’s show during the football season still focuses on hating the Rams, and he has no trouble defending doing the show that way. The way the Rams left was an insult to the city.
“I honestly think that if the league and the team would have been more honest about it, I think we would feel better about it, but for the league to tell the people that wanted to build a stadium ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ and for the Rams’ CEO Kevin Demoff to say ‘we want to be here’ was totally disingenuous,” he says. “They had no intention of being here. If they would have just said that this was a business decision and the team saw a chance to be in the country’s second biggest market, I think St. Louis fans would have felt maybe not good about it, but better about it.”
Stalter actually has a positive view on the Rams leaving. It’s not to say that he is glad the team is gone, but he notes that the idea of St. Louis fans only caring about the Cardinals seems to have changed when the NFL team left town.
“There’s still a large contingent that just wants to hear Cardinals content, but the fact that the Blues have a winner now coupled with the fact that the Rams are no longer here, you have a lot of people that are just St. Louis fans now.”
Smallmon said the love the people of St. Louis have for their city and its teams was never more evident than on June 13 of this year. That was the morning after the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup.
“Because this team took us on such a wild ride, the main challenge we faced was being able to accurately convey what this meant, not only to us personally but to the city,” she said. “We were all a little delirious that morning, but I think that was the beauty of it. We often use a feature on our show called ‘mic drops’, where listeners can leave us audio messages. That was my favorite part of that show in the hours after the final horn sounded. Hearing St. Louisans expressing pure joy and celebrating their team and their city. It was a really special day, and one I’ll never forget.”
The Blues will call 101 ESPN their radio home next season, and Kijowski and Neupert are exploring all kinds of ways to take advantage of the relationship.
“We’re talking about a side channel for the farm team and a dedicated all Blues channel,” Kijowski tells me. When I ask him about any concerns he has about something special getting lost on the HD spectrum he insists that if it is promoted right, NHL fans have the dedication to their favorite sport to go and find it.
“Sales as you can imagine is crazy excited,” Neupert says. He has been meeting with PD’s of other stations in the Hubbard cluster in St. Louis since the station and the team made an official announcement. “They realize the bigness of having a major play-by-play and the advantages of utilizing it. Each one looks at their shows and thinks about the different things they can do.”
Neupert even says talent from other stations in the building have discussed the affiliation with the team as a way to dip their toes into the sports radio waters.
“KSHE (101’s classic rock sister station) and the Point (101’s alternative sister station) have on-air talent that came to me right after we made the announcement to say ‘Anything we can do?’ and trust me, they will! I know we have untapped talent that can contribute, and the Blues are open to being creative with anything we want to do.”
For as welcoming as the Hubbard staff can be to people moving to St. Louis to work there, it is still a city built on the idea that most folks that were born there will raise their own families and then die there. Barrett and Kijowski were willing to consider outsiders when they were building the station’s first on air staff, but never lost sight of the parochial nature of the city.
“We had the anchors of Randy Karraker and Bernie Miklasz, so the outsiders could filter in,” Kijowski said. He also points out that having guys like D’Marco Farr, Chris Duncan and Brad Thompson on the station have helped hammer home the local identity the station is so proud of. “Having loved, and truly beloved, St. Louis athletes makes this St. Louis! St. Louis! St. Louis! That lets you sprinkle in some new voices and outside guys.”
Two such outsiders that got sprinkled in during the station’s history were Zach McCrite, who came to St. Louis from Louisville, and Bob Stelton, who is from Seattle but just like the Rams, moved to town following a stint in LA.
Rather than having McCrite come to St. Louis, Barrett went to Louisville to meet the man that wanted to work for him. It was one day at an area bar that McCrite learned just how important it would be to know St. Louis if he wanted to thrive in the job.
“So, we go to a local restaurant and he throws a piece of paper in front of me. It’s a ‘how well do you know St. Louis’ test,” McCrite told me in an email. “And it was stuff like ‘What’s Albert Pujols’ jersey number?’ Five. Okay, I got that. Another one was something like ‘St. Louis is called the Gateway To The what?’ West. Okay. Got that. But then there’s this word association part of the test. He throws a St. Louis-derived word or phrase and I write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind. I only remember one of those and it was the one I had no idea on at the time. The word he gave me was Oshie. I knew I had heard the name, but I couldn’t place it.
“So, I’m sweating and I’m thinking ‘what do I write here? I can’t leave it blank, but I also don’t want to guess wrong.’ So, I just put ‘Oh Shit.’ Turns out, TJ Oshie was, at the time, a third-year player for the St. Louis Blues. He certainly found my blind spot.”
Stelton had the parochial nature of St. Louis sports fans impressed upon him the second he got to town. He heard it from Barrett. He heard it from his partner Bryan Burwell. “I had two very clear thoughts: I was going to consume as much as I could as quickly as I could about the local teams. I was going to watch every moment of every game and give my honest take on what was happening. I moved downtown (despite it not being a great area) so that I was in walking distance to all three arenas/stadiums. And I wasn’t going to try and pretend that I knew something that I didn’t.”
According to Stelton, that honesty and openly asking listeners to fill in the gaps in his knowledge is part of what helped him get over with fans. The other part was being paired with a guy listeners viewed as a heel.
“A large majority of the listeners didn’t like Bryan for whatever reason, so, they seemed to automatically gravitate to my opinion or thoughts, even when he and I had the same exact take on something. When Bryan was let go and it became a solo show, that’s when the ratings took off and the listeners seemed to fully accept me despite me being a guy from the West Coast.”
Stalter says it isn’t hard to win over St. Louis fans. “Once you say ‘this is my home,’ people will embrace you,” the Illinois native, who came to 101 ESPN from Detroit told me.
Stalter is one of those outsiders Kijowski talked about benefiting from being paired with a beloved St. Louis athlete. After being moved from producer of The Fast Lane to hosting The Turn in mid-days, Stalter was paired with Chris Duncan, a member of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals and the son of former Cardinals catcher and pitching coach Dave Duncan.
“When Hoss first paired me and Chris together, he gave me the best piece of advice. He said if you have to play it a little bit slow at first, and be likable as opposed to overly opinionated, that’s okay,” Stalter shared.
Chris Duncan is no longer a member of The Turn. It’s not something anyone is happy about, but Duncan is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. In January of 2019, it was announced that Duncan, who had already been on indefinite leave, would not be returning to the station. Stalter fought back tears as he made the announcement on air.
“Show-wise, it didn’t matter,” Neupert said of trying to figure out the show’s next step while Duncan’s leave was still indefinite. “The poor guy had seizures during the show at times. Stalter was great about being a pro and picking up the slack. It’s easy not to worry about ratings or sales when you’re dealing with real life. So, for us it was always about let’s do things the right way and be supportive. Yeah we gotta take care of the business side, but let’s be human first.”
Now that it is time to figure out what happens next, Neupert says he won’t rush anything. “We’ve been thinking behind the scenes about what we’re going to do. We have to find the right fit and there’s no real timeline on it.”
Stalter says he and Neupert have been grappling with the idea of what the show will be going forward. As Neupert said, they can take the time to find the right person. Stalter just wants to make sure the next iteration of The Turn keeps “the vibe of informing and entertaining.”
101 ESPN has always been local and forward thinking. The approach has earned them strong ratings and a couple of Marconi nominations as the best sports station in the country. For example, they cut back on live phone calls in favor of the more compact mic drops. The website has served as a platform for original video, written, and podcasting content. The promotions and programming departments have taken chances too by creating live events around eSports.
The current approach to new strategies and ideas remains consistent with what Barrett introduced in 2009. He made sure the people he wanted to hire knew he wanted them. He invited Bob Stelton to sit in on a staff meeting the first time he visited St. Louis to get an idea of the working environment. He met with McCrite in Louisville to make sure he knew what he was in for, and he didn’t object to having to win over Bernie Miklasz, who was wary of what he had heard about him following two tough years at 590 the Fan.
Stelton echoed a sentiment about the environment Barrett and Kijowski created that I heard from a number of people. The staff was professional, but also behaved like a family. More importantly, nothing was sugarcoated.
“He’s absolutely my kind of PD. Very invested, very passionate and creative. But most importantly, very honest. I have huge respect for that.”
Barrett left the station in May of 2011 to join Entercom and launch 95.7 the Game in San Francisco. Now, Barrett serves as a consultant for a number of sports radio stations across the country.
“They are the unstoppable machine in the market right now,” Barrett says of 101 ESPN. “There has been talk over the years about someone trying to take them on but it hasn’t happened because it’s a well run brand by an excellent radio company and it’d take a lot to slow them down. John, Hoss and Hubbard’s executive team deserve a lot of credit for taking what we started in 2009 and lifting it to even greater heights.”
Sterling, another former PD, also acknowledges that the station is thriving today and isn’t surprised to see Neupert at the helm of a winning product.
“I’m very pleased for Hoss Neupert’s success as the PD. It’s a better station today than the one I left, and it was a pretty damn good station then, so Hoss has done a hell of a job.”
“The one thing I hope you take away from this is that we are a family here. That matters to us,” Neupert told me. “We want to succeed for each other.”
Randy Karraker echoed that sentiment. He told me that between being asked for input, not just on who he wanted to work with, but on what personalities could thrive with the support structure set up by management, he felt valued. He had a personal stake in 101 ESPN’s success.
“It felt like home,” he told me. “I told John Kijowski that early on. I said “I’ve never been at a place where I’m walking down the hall and it feels like home.’ Everybody to work with here is great. The facilities are great. They want you to feel comfortable. I think that is part of the reason for the success. Everybody here feels that way.”
John Kijowski also wants to succeed for St. Louis. He and the higher-ups at Hubbard know the best way to do that is to talk as much about St. Louis as possible.
“This thing has changed everything,” JK says as he picks up my phone. “People don’t go to the 10:20 news on TV in St. Louis to find out the score of the Cardinals game. They have the score right on their phone. The reason you have to have live and local shows between 6a and 7p is because it’s not about the score. It’s about opinion. It’s about perspective. And you have to have strong personalities. That is why people still believe in sports talk radio.”
Jonas Knox Has Unique Chemistry With His New Partners
“The fact Brady and LaVar have accomplished as much as they have and can still laugh at themselves, and want to do that type of radio and have fun, that excites me.”
Andrea Knox was so excited she could hardly stand it. If you understood the special mother-son bond she shared with her son Jonas, you’d better understand the magnitude of the situation.
Listening to the radio with his mom was a huge part of Jonas Knox’s childhood. The two routinely spent long hours in the car together, meaning the radio was always playing. Most of the time it was on sports radio, which is where Knox’s passion for the business was ignited at a young age. He even called sports radio stations as a kid. The thought of being on the radio was cool, but the added element of sports talk blew his mind. He was hooked.
So when Andrea came to Jonas and claimed she had just heard his name on the radio, it was a huge deal to both of them. Shortly after, they were both back in their nearly-daily routine of listening to radio in the car together when she heard the familiar sound.
“We were in the car that day and the commercial came on and she said, it’s this commercial!” Knox said. “When I’m listening to it, what they said was, join us, it was like a teaser for a show and she thought they said Jonas. What always stuck out to me about that moment was I wasn’t upset they didn’t say my name, it was the fact that she was so excited about the possibility of them saying my name on the radio. It just meant so much to her.”
It brings Knox to tears when he thinks about how he recently got to call his mother and tell her he was hired as a permanent co-host of the new morning show on Fox Sports Radio. It was one of the best moments of his life. While on the phone with his mother, Knox kept using the word ‘we’ because his mother was his inspiration in radio.
“My mom is my hero,” said Knox. “I get emotional talking about her, because she’s my best friend and she’s had a really, really tough go of it. She’s had the type of life where she didn’t really get to do what she wanted to do. She got dealt really bad luck and really bad cards. Getting to spend every single day with her and the opportunity to tell her that, hey, we did it, it was really special and it just meant a lot to me.”
Being the co-host of 2 Pros and a Cup of Joe with Brady Quinn and LaVar Arrington is a far cry from being the rat mascot at Chuck E Cheese, a telemarketer, working security, or any of the other odd jobs he’s had in his life. This is exactly the opportunity he’s been waiting for. It’s why he initially joined Fox Sports Radio as a weekend overnight editor, even though he had on-air experience and Annie Zidarevich told him the job meant he was at the end of the bench. It’s why he did overnight shows on the network for six years. It’s why he’s never called in sick or turned down any shift. He wanted to make himself available to any potential opportunity that opened.
It’s also why he took the fill-in shifts for the morning show while Fox Sports Radio looked for Clay Travis’ replacement. For him it was a no-brainer to enter himself into the same chair he wanted as a full-time role. He had been doing a fantastic job for weeks, but there was never a time when he got his hopes up. In fact, he had the perspective that even if it didn’t work out, he still had the opportunity to do a dream job.
“I never had any expectations,” Knox said. “I never got my hopes up. With radio, right when you think you have everything figured out, something happens and you go, wow, I didn’t see that coming. I just learned a long time ago, don’t worry whether or not you’re going to get kicked in the nuts, just try to cover up as well as you can, and then when it happens, just hope it doesn’t hurt as much as the last time. That’s the way I look at it.”
When Don Martin and Scott Shapiro called him to tell him the news, he had a similar outlook. In fact, he expected the worst news possible.
“I was waiting for the worst possible news,” Knox said. “I’ve been laid off in radio before, where you think, hey, they want to talk to me after the show must be about a raise, or it must be about our ratings and then they tell you something completely different.
“But when they told me the news I was just floored. I was very emotional. I broke down and cried. I just sobbed. It’s just been such an effed up journey and just kept thinking about all the crap I had to go through, both personally and professionally. You kind of get to a point where you think, maybe you’re just never going to get your shot. I was OK with it because I’ve always been very grateful for anything, whether it’s getting to fill-in, doing a show on the weekends, whatever it was I was really thankful. But you always wonder if you’re going to get your chance at that level and to finally hear you got it was really, really emotional.”
2 Pros and a Cup of Joe is on the air every weekday morning from 6am to 9am EST on Fox Sports Radio and the reviews are already incredible. A big reason why is the chemistry Knox, Quinn and Arrington had already developed before the new show made its debut. Martin and Shapiro didn’t just throw a show together and hoped it would work, they took their time and made sure there was going to be the chemistry to make it work.
“Brady and I have been doing a show on Sunday nights for years,” Knox said. “I don’t even know whose idea it was to put us together, because we had never met or even talked before. Once we started I think Brady realized I don’t like to do the X’s and O’s, I know everything, type of radio. I just think there’s too many people that try to do that. Once he saw that, wow, you can really let loose on the radio and sound like a couple of guys playing grab ass at a bar, that’s when we really started to take off and it’s been a blast to work with him.
“We have a unique chemistry and when LaVar started doing shows with us I didn’t know how it was going to go and I was worried for LaVar, because Brady and I are psychos and some of the things we want to talk about are crazy. We always needle each other and it’s one inside joke after another on the air, but it didn’t take very long for us to find out that LaVar was one of us too. We had gotten these practice shows together and by the time Scott and Don called me and I knew the show was going to be with those guys I knew it would be fine. Just based on the shows we had done, I just thought the opportunity to work with those guys was incredible. I love both of those guys.”
In an industry full of egos, Knox doesn’t have one. All he cares about is being genuine and relatable, while having fun. That’s why he’s so excited about his new show. Even with two former NFL players it won’t be an X’s and O’s show where everyone cares about who’s right. It’s going to be loose and fun.
“Just having fun, honestly,” Knox said regarding what he’s most excited about. “And I know that sounds like a pretty bland answer but I think sometimes people in our business take themselves a little too seriously. I always use the analogy of working weekend overnights. I have heard all the jokes for years, oh, that’s why you’re working weekends, or, that’s why you work with the drunks. I hear all that stuff all the time and I tell people I have no ego. In the backyard of life, I’m the pile of dog crap in the corner of the yard. That’s the way I look at it. We’re doing sports radio. Let’s have fun. The fact Brady and LaVar have accomplished as much as they have and can still laugh at themselves, and want to do that type of radio and have fun, that excites me.”
There’s so many things Knox is grateful and excited for with the new opportunity. But the chance to do morning radio is another that he’s excited about. It’s always been his favorite time slot, because of the opportunity it gives to help start someone’s day. Knox has had plenty of jobs he dreaded going to, just like many people on their morning commute, so the opportunity to give them just a little bit of laughter, entertainment and joy is fulfilling.
If you can’t root for Knox in this role, you probably can’t root for anyone in sports radio. He’s done everything he’s been asked, he’s done the shifts nobody else wanted and he’s worked his butt off at every opportunity. And through it all, he’s been an incredible person that wants to help other people. He’s a radio success story.
“We have the best behind the scenes crew anywhere,” Knox said.”The people behind the scenes that don’t get any of the attention, any of the love or any of the shine, I know for me personally, if not for them, I wouldn’t be anywhere close to the position I am right now. That goes from up top to Don and Scott to the technical producers, the editors, the anchors, I just think it’s important to mention that those people are the best in the business. I hope they get the respect they deserve.”
5 Sports TV Minds Explain Why We Love The Manningcast
“Yes, it’s an in-motion experiment but it’s working because the production team at ESPN is being allowed to create a live studio show, something ESPN does very very well.”
Here at Barrett Sports Media, we clearly have Manningcast fever. And look, we aren’t the only news outlet covering the media industry that has mined Peyton and Eli Manning for all the content we can. We have looked at the show from a broadcaster’s perspective. We have looked at it from a fan’s perspective. We have gawked at the ratings growth. We have asked how fair this whole endeavor is to Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick.
One thing we have not done yet is ask accomplished television professionals for their thoughts. Why has this broadcast, which can be hard to follow at times, captured the imagination of football fans? How has it gone from something we were unsure about to truly must-see TV for the sports audience?
I asked five TV pro’s what it is that they see when they watch Peyton, Eli and their cavalcade of guests. Is the Manningcast connecting with hardcore football fans that crave the Xs and Os or is it connecting with more casual fans that enjoy the comedy of Peyton wearing a helmet three sizes too small and Eli shooting the camera the double bird? This is wildly different from a traditional TV booth.
Allan Flowers is a coordinating producer for NFL Network. He’s spent three decades in the industry, and works for a network that lives and breathes football 24/7. Perhaps even more importantly, Allan has the benefit of working on one of the most well received shows in recent memory, one that football fans can’t get enough of, NFL Redzone.
I wanted to pick his brain on traditional TV booths. When the Manningcast first premiered, so many people wanted to tie it to a traditional broadcast and figure out what it means for the future. It raised questions about ESPN’s longterm plans for Peyton Manning, Monday Night Football, and the pros and cons connected to offering two versions of the same game on different channels.
“I can definitely see Peyton in a traditional booth. He is the one constantly talking football on the ‘Manningcast’. Eli mixes football with jabs at his older brother,” Flowers told me when I asked if what he has seen through the first three weeks makes him think that the brothers could be a future fit in a more traditional broadcast booth. “I think the traditional broadcast needs to change anyway. It’s the same formulaic booth that we have seen for decades. That’s why there is an appetite for something like this. As opportunities continue to open for more diverse people (e.g. younger analysts, female analysts, female and black play by play announcers), I think you will see tone of the traditional broadcast booth change regardless. ABC tried comedian Dennis Miller in the booth decades ago. I would not be surprised to see something like that happen again in the future, only if that person is relatable and appears to know football. As for what Eli & Peyton are doing, I think it’s great. They have a connection which is paramount to a great booth. There is a rawness to it that appears fresh (for now). I think their broadcast is still evolving. I’ve noticed some small changes each week. The guests have been great. Nothing but A list people. Why they are taking a break until Week 7 seems odd, but it’s an interesting watch.”
I spoke with a TV executive with experience at multiple networks that wished to remain anonymous. He told me that the Manningcast is the “perfect combination of personality and authority.”
He also said that there is no sense in thinking about Peyton and Eli’s futures as broadcasters. The deal between ESPN and Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions, which produces the broadcast, isn’t about securing Peyton Manning to be the future analyst on the traditional Monday Night Football broadcast.
Disney isn’t looking at Peyton Manning as part of ESPN. They are looking at him as Mickey Mouse or Iron Man or Baby Yoda. He is another of Disney’s mega-brands that is talked about on investor calls and upfront presentations. To that end, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro is smart enough to stay out of the way. He invested in Omaha Productions and is going to let the content it provides grow the way Peyton Manning wants it to.
Patrick Crakes is a former Vice President at FOX Sports and InVivo Media Group. He now runs Crakes Media Consulting. He isn’t sure that ESPN is entirely hands off. Peyton and Eli Manning are important enough that the network wants to keep them happy, but they are also smart enough to know the goal is to put on the best show possible.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that both Peyton and Eli are allowing ESPN to produce them at a very high level. This show clearly has a run-down, producers and directors are speaking live to both of them and the show evolves on-air every week in real time. Yes, it’s an in-motion experiment but it’s working because the production team at ESPN is being allowed to create a live studio show, something ESPN does very very well.”
Flowers agrees. He can’t see ESPN letting the Mannings fly blind. In fact, he had some thoughts on what kind of coaching he would give the brothers to improve on what we have already seen.
“Neither of them know when a commercial timeout is coming, which seems odd since they played the game for so long. It’s very awkward when they have a guest and they ask them to tell a story right before a punt. Then they have to cut the guest off and get to the break. I would also engage the guests in more of their football talk. If it’s a player, see if they all see the same thing. What defense would you call here. If it’s not a player, teach the guest what Peyton/Eli is seeing. There are times when the guest doesn’t know what to do, which seems uncomfortable. It was great when they had LeBron James guess the next play and he was right. More of that will make the booth connectivity better. I think they have the ability to telestrate their own plays. If not, they should. I’m also curious if the button-down collared shirt are the only shirts they own.”
Logan Swaim is the Head of Content for Colin Cowherd’s The Volume podcast network. Prior to diving into the world of audio and social video, Swaim spent decades in TV including serving as an Executive Producer for Good Morning Football on the NFL Network, and also with DAZN, and NBC Sports. Swaim told me that at it’s core, the Manningcast isn’t an original idea. It’s the next evolution in megacasts and second screens. It just happens to be considerably better than anything that has come before it in that realm.
“They have the cheat code with Peyton and Eli – two likable, entertaining, and authentic personalities. But they’ve smartly created a show where all the bells and whistles are made only to accentuate what makes the talent interesting. The pre-planned segments are all intended to make fun of the hosts, like Peyton reading a list of all the stuff they messed up last week. It feels partly like watching a game at a bar and partly like Inside the NBA.”
Eric Weinberger is a former sports media executive and executive producer at the NFL Network now running his own company. He described the Manningcast to me as “part Ted Lasso, part Beavis & Butthead“. I love a good Beavis and Butthead reference, so I asked him to explain a little more. He said “the broadcast comes with some rough edges that make it more charming,” although he did have additional suggestions of what he might add.
“You want it to feel ‘clunky,’ seem less polished. That is what is appealing about this production.” Weinberger told me. “Maybe I would try a little local radio game play-by-play every once in a while to break up the Mannings ever present voices and give them a breather.”
We have to wait three weeks for another Manningcast. The brothers will not return until Week 7, when the Saints play in Seattle. That has to be a bummer for ESPN executives, who have watched the audience for Peyton and Eli grow each of the three weeks it has been on air, even when games seem irrelevant. I asked that TV executive that didn’t want to be identified what he would do to keep the momentum going both on TV and on social media.
He said nothing was off the table. You have Peyton and Eli film vignettes that can be used to lead into the traditional ESPN broadcast, you have them breakdown a series or play for SportsCenter, and anything else you can think of. Right now, you put as much of the Mannings as you can on TV.
“Pay them more money and have them do more games,” he said was the lesson for the next contract.
Any good idea will have its imitators. Like every major pro sport, television is a copycat league. Allan Flowers had a series of suggestions for what he could see this spawning in terms of alternate broadcasts. He suggested tight end Zach Ertz and his wife Julie, a member of the US Women’s National Soccer Team, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, even Charles Barkley and Phil Mickelson.
Weinberger also expects to see copycats. He just doesn’t expect them to be as good as the Manningcast.
“Secondary screen viewing can work for all sports. Football really lends itself to multiple opportunities, as there are so many complexities with specialty positions and moving parts. The dynamic the two brothers have though is unique and special, always has been.”
Swaim says at the end of the day, what makes the Manningcast special is the broad appeal. There is no right answer to “who is the target audience?” and that means everyone can find something to like about it.
“It seems like it’s found a way to appeal to two different audiences – hardcore football fans and the social media audience. There is plenty of ‘ball’ talk where they nerd out and talk about Football Film Room terms. And then there are hilarious conversations where Gronk is talking about his dog and McAfee is telling amazing stories about roulette. They have pulled off the delicate balance of serving two distinct audiences.”
Remember the 2000 Presidential Election? There were polls leading up to November that asked people that planned to vote for George W. Bush how they arrived at their decision. A significant number of those that responded said that Al Gore seemed more qualified to be President of the United States, but Bush was more relatable – the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.
Crakes says the same logic can be used to explain the mass appeal of the Manningcast. Sure Peyton and Eli are smart, but it is their appeal as people, as characters, that draw audiences looking for different things out of an NFL broadcast.
“They don’t take themselves seriously and their genuine competitive love for the sport of football comes through via the dynamic of two brothers who respect and like each other. It’s for pretty much the entire audience. Everyone would like to have a beer and watch the game with them. That’s the key ingredinent.”
Chris Carlin Doesn’t Want Any Caller To Be That Guy
” There are some calls that you get that don’t enrich the show and sometimes, it’s more fun to kind of make fun of it a little bit and try to entertain that way. It’s not a knock on the people personally.”
We all know those sports radio callers – someone with a hot take that makes you want to flip the dial even for a split second. However, they do have the tendency to make us laugh every once-in-a-while. In his new series on Tik Tok called Sports Radio Callers: Don’t Be That Guy, ESPN Radio New York host and Rutgers football play-by-play broadcaster, Chris Carlin, tends to make light of some of the calls he receives on a daily basis.
He wants you to know that he isn’t making fun of anyone in particular. He has been in the business long enough to have plenty of inspiration to draw from.
It is very clear that Carlin values his listeners and while he may have a little fun with some calls, he is never afraid to make fun of himself and that is what makes any show he does an entertaining listen. Of course, we could also all probably relate to maybe being one of those callers when we started out calling into shows too, which he wasn’t shy about reliving when we spoke last week.
Ricky Keeler: Where did you come up with the idea to do these Tik Tok videos? Was there a particular call on your show that led to this?
Chris Carlin: I wouldn’t say there was a particular call. There have been plenty over the years. There is a genre of calls. It’s not just about the host, but it’s about the listener as well. There are some calls that you get that don’t enrich the show and sometimes, it’s more fun to kind of make fun of it a little bit and try to entertain that way. It’s not a knock on the people personally.
The way I look at it is nobody makes more fun of themselves than me. It’s just some types of calls are ones that I just think are entertaining in a not so informative way.
I got the idea from watching a guy on Tik Tok named Scott Seiss, who is a stand-up comedian. He apparently used to work at IKEA and he talked about all the complaints of people at IKEA in that same way. He’d say what the complaint of the person is and then say his response in a very straightforward funny way and using that same kind of music. It just kind of struck me when I heard that, yeah, I can do that for sports radio callers, there’s no doubt.
RK: Is there a particular call or caller that the minute you hear them, you just know that’s a perfect Tik Tok video?
CC: I wouldn’t say that. For instance, I did one where the caller is going to call up and say, it’s the same old Jets. You know, it’s lazy and it’s kind of like really? Where it came to I get it, you’ve been through all the pain in the world. We all understand. But, it is silly to come out and say something like that, but you know it’s going to come.
I started jotting down ideas a few weeks ago, putting them on Tik Tok about a month ago. I just completely made up names, so there’s not a direct one. So, it’d be like “Is it the same old Jets or is it the same old Tony from Freehold? It feels like you called and said the same thing before because you did last week. Here’s an idea for your next phone call. Have a point.”
Callers know, listeners know when they hear a call or make a point like that, we’re all rolling our eyes and it’s okay, listen, it’s part of the gig. It’s what you sign up for when you dial the phone that if you don’t bring a good, informed take or you don’t want to go after something I said, you could be fodder for the show. This was just something that I did separately to have some fun.
I actually had a caller bring it up to me like should you really be doing that? It is not a knock on our listeners at all. What it is is just kind of a parody and at the same time, nobody makes more fun of themselves than me.
RK: How would you describe to someone not from New York, what New York sports radio callers are like?
CC: I think New York sports radio callers are very similar to callers all over the country. In every town, sports radio callers kind of have a knock against them and I think it’s unfair. As much as we are seen, not just callers, but hosts, like you just take the laziest take and you just do all that stuff. I think the majority of callers and the majority of hosts that are really bringing up good points and trying to illuminate in addition to bringing some heat to it. I think every market has their funny callers, their guys that you know what you’re going to get when they call.
RK: What has the reaction to this series been like from other people in the business? Are people able to enjoy it or do you hear feedback that you’re being too mean?
CC: It’s been pretty positive because everybody knows who I am. People kind of know my personality and my personality is yeah, I’m going to deliver you some good takes and stuff like that, but I’m also not going to act like we’re splitting the atom here. It’s not a personal attack in any way. It’s just kind of a generic piece of advice. That’s why I titled it Don’t Be That Guy.
There are better ways to spend your time waiting on hold. When I would produce for Mike [Francesa] and Chris [“Mad Dog” Russo], I’d get callers who would call up and say “I want to talk about the Mets.” Okay, what do you want to say? “I think they’re pretty good.” Yeah, let me get you right on. It’s that kind of thing. The reaction I’ve gotten, it hasn’t been executives or anything, it’s mostly been colleagues and it’s all very much, they’re entertained by it. Some sports radio hosts are like thank god, somebody’s doing this, but more than anything, it’s just a tongue in cheek thing.
RK: The Yankees, Mets, Giants, and Jets are all struggling. In these situations, are the more ridiculous calls likely to happen or do these people always exist?
CC: They always exist. There are some weeks like this week if you’re calling up and saying Zach Wilson is not the answer, I’m going to hang up on you pretty quickly. That’s what this week has got the potential for. I’m pretty open-minded to a lot of takes, but it’s the takes that callers call up with that are not well-reasoned. Just too much of an emotional reaction right out of the gate that has actually nothing behind it.
RK: Do you prefer to do these types of shows when all the teams are winning or does it give you more content when all the teams are not playing well?
CC: It’s always better for business in general when teams are good. As far as this kind of content, I could do this year round. I just frankly haven’t had enough time. I’ve been working a lot of late hours recently and I just haven’t had enough time to do more of them. I’m going to try, but I also am very cognizant of I don’t want callers to think that I’m not evaluating their inputs to the show because there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. It’s just more of let’s not take ourselves too seriously here.
RK: If you could go back to a younger version of yourself, were you one of those callers?
CC: I’ve been one of those callers. When I was in college, I called Steve Somers once. I was so nervous and I called up and said Hi, Chris, this is Steve and I made some inane points shortly thereafter. Steve had fun with me and I completely understood it because I was the guy that was on the other end of this. Frankly, if Steve was doing Tik Tok videos in the 90’s, I would have fully expected to make an appearance on one.
RK: Would you rather be a Tik Tok video or a drop on a radio show?
CC: I think I’d rather be a Tik Tok video because there’s more opportunity for viral spreading now. I know I’m doing a lot of New York guys, but it’s callers in total. As I do more national stuff as I have been for the last couple of years really, I’ll start to expand it a little bit. I don’t see this going on and on because you don’t want to beat a bit to death. It’s just been something that has been fun to do and something that’s different and something that’s made me think differently. Everybody’s trying to make their own impressions in every kind of space and I am just trying to do my own version of that, but also not beat a joke to death, so to speak.
RK: We’ve seen Twitter and Instagram used to help people in this industry. How do you feel Tik Tok can be a tool that hosts can use to work out content that maybe wouldn’t make the best sense for live radio?
CC: I think it’s interesting. I think things that you don’t get to, you certainly could. We all want to think that we’re funny. I want to think that I’m funny. I don’t believe I am all that funny. I think it is an area where you can expand a little bit more into. Admittedly, I am not a guy who sits here and studies it and understands exactly what all the machinations of it are that different people are doing. This was just something that I was taking a whack at. Absolutely, it’s a genre or an app that people should be more involved in if they’re not. I think every bit now helps.
RK: For someone who is reading this piece and worrying about being one of those callers and they are a first-time caller, what advice would you give them?
CC: I would think out your point in advance. If you’re nervous, I would even jot a couple of things down. Not read it, but I’d jot a couple of things down. If you’re going to try to tell me that the Jets should give up on Zach Wilson already, you better come with plenty of facts to back it up. That’s probably the quickest way to become one right now.
I would say just make sure that what you want to say is adding to the show. For you, that’s giving me your well-thought out take. I don’t think it’s anything too crazy. Chances are I’m not going to call you out personally because this is never going to be a personal thing or anything that’s mean in any way. At least, I hope it doesn’t come across that way. I don’t think it does.”
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