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How 101 ESPN Created a Decade of Dominance

“There was some thought in the past that someone would step up and try to take the station on. I think that speaks to the power of this brand.”

Demetri Ravanos

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.”

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BSM Writers

Mike Silver Has An NFL Backstage Pass

“When you go through a career transition like that, let alone during a pandemic, you find out a referendum on all your relationships.”

Derek Futterman

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It was the 2010 NFL Draft and standout wide receiver Dez Bryant was eligible to be selected by a professional football team. As a journalist, Mike Silver has always looked to enterprise stories and wanted to be with Bryant when the moment he had been waiting for finally arrived.

Through a preexisting relationship with Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, he got in touch with Bryant and received permission to attend his draft celebration. Before being selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, Bryant revealed to him that then-Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland had asked him during the pre-draft process if his mother was a prostitute.

Once that information was published in Silver’s column, Ireland had to publicly apologize and was subsequently put under investigation by the team’s majority owner Stephen Ross.

“People were like, ‘How did you get that?,’ but I was very proud because really the way I got it was because Deion Sanders respected me enough based on things that had happened decades earlier and the way that I conducted myself that I was able to ultimately get to Dez,” Silver expressed. “That to me is a validation. I’ve nurtured relationships for years and years that have led to zero reporting and thought, ‘It’s okay; it’s just part of the process. It is what it is.’”

From the start, Silver was a believer in journalism and the power the profession had in divulging stories in pursuit of the truth. Born in San Francisco, Calif. and raised in Los Angeles, he would read The Los Angeles Times sports section for a half hour per day, observing the proclivities and vernacular of other writers. As a high school student, he co-authored a sports column in the Palisades Charter High School Tideline with current Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, gaining practical experience in journalism and cultivating professional relationships.

“I was the only Warriors fan in our school because I was born in San Francisco so he used to clown me for being a Warriors and 49ers fan like everyone else in our school – so I ended up having the last laugh,” Silver said. “By old standards, you’d say, ‘You can’t cover Steve Kerr. That’s your friend.’ I think in 2022 if I have to cover Steve Kerr, I’ll just be like, ‘You know what? Everyone knows we’re friends. I’m just going to be up front about it.’”

Silver attended the University of California, Berkeley where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mass communication and media studies. The school was not known for profound levels of success within its football and basketball programs, according to Silver; however, the student newspaper was a place to gain repetitions in covering sports and having finished work published, printed and distributed.

Towards the end of his time in college, Silver wrote stories that were published in The Los Angeles Times, the newspaper he grew up reading and from which he drew inspiration to become a journalist.

“We would tell the players we covered, ‘Hey, we’re trying to go to the pros too, and we’re not going to get jobs in this industry if we don’t write the truth,’” Silver said. “We were trying to break in as legitimate journalists and we definitely ruffled some feathers along the way.”

Once he graduated from school, Silver began his professional career writing for The Sacramento Union where he covered the San Francisco 49ers. Silver grew up as a football fan and was familiar with the team but always tried to find original, untold angles to differentiate his stories from others. Shortly thereafter, he transitioned to join The Santa Clara Press Democrat as a beat writer and used the time to further develop his writing and reporting skills. Five years later, he was in talks to land his dream job as a writer in Sports Illustrated, a prolific sports magazine focused on producing original content.

Sports Illustrated was released on Wednesdays and operated under the belief of trying to omit any stories that may have been reported in the days prior. The goal was to tell stories that were under the radar and would be impactful and memorable for its readers.

During a typical week, Silver would visit both the home and road teams in their own cities with the hopes of connecting with players and team personnel. After a game, he would go to the locker room, yet he would try to avoid doing one-on-one interviews since the content would likely be published elsewhere before the magazine was released.

Then, his writing process commenced and often went through the night, as Sports Illustrated had a 9 a.m. EST deadline the following morning. By taking the approach of enterprising stories, Silver quickly became one of the most venerated and trusted sportswriters in the country, composing over 70 cover stories for the publication.

With the advent of the internet though, journalism and communication was forever changed allowing for the free flow of information and ideas in a timely manner.

“Now I can arrogantly write to whatever length I want and every precious word of mine could be broadcast to the masses, but [back then] you better have it the exact length because it’s going on a page,” Silver said. “You’re maybe reading over a story 15 times or more to get it just right before the seven layers of editing kick in. You’re also leaving theoretically half of your great stuff on the cutting room table never to surface again or seldom.”

Nurturing a relationship built on trust and professionalism is hardly facile in nature, and it required enduring persistence and resolute determination to achieve for Silver. Through these relationships, he has been able to create both distinctive and original types of content. As innovations in technology engendered shifts in consumption patterns though, he decided to do what he originally perceived as being unthinkable and left Sports Illustrated after nearly 13 years.

“When I went there, I felt like we had 30 of the 35 best sportswriters in America and it was murderer’s row,” Silver said of Sports Illustrated. “I had a great, great experience there the whole time so I never thought I’d leave.”

After meeting with Yahoo Sports Executive Editor Dave Morgan and being given an offer with flexibility in the job and a promise of a lucrative salary, Silver knew it was simply too good to pass up. He opted to still write a column on Sundays to counterprogram Peter King at Sports Illustrated, who authored his own weekly “Monday Morning Quarterback” column.

Additionally, Silver agreed to write two additional branded columns per week in a quest to adapt to the digital age of media.

“I was trying to stay current and connect to an internet generation and keep up with the way that people were consuming their content at that time,” Silver said. “….We just had a spirit at Yahoo that we weren’t owned by anyone, we didn’t have a deal with the league and we were going to report the news in a very unfiltered way.”

An advent of the digital age in media has been the practice of writers appearing on television to present their information en masse, requiring changes in their delivery. Unlike in a written piece, reporting on television requires efficiently making key points and speaking in shorter phrases to allow the viewer to easily follow the discussion. Moreover, writers are sometimes presented with questions that may provoke deeper thought or analysis, and occasionally challenge their lines of reporting.

Silver never thought he would work in television, but as a part of his contract with NFL Media, he was writing columns and serving as an analyst on select NFL Network programming. In working on television on a league-owned entity, it forced him to step out of his comfort zone and pursue mastery of a new skill set.

“I never wanted to do TV voice and be cheesy and look like someone who was trained for the medium so my strategy was more to try to be myself on camera and see how that translated,” Silver articulated. “It seemed to work to some degree – and then obviously I picked up a lot of tricks of the trade and techniques and got better reps. Essentially, I think reporting is reporting [and] information is information.”

Moving into television, a medium with sports coverage that is, at its core, nonlinear due to the potential for breaking news and unexpected occurrences, changed the manner in which the information was presented and/or prioritized on the air. In a column, Silver’s goal was to find original angles and obtain anecdotes and quotes to implement into the storytelling. Now on television, sources were still used largely on the condition of deep background, meaning no individual or group could be attributed to the information in any way.

“With TV, there was an element of, ‘Hey man, I’m just trying to sound smart when I talk about you guys,’ which is code for, ‘I don’t have to use your name when I say this stuff, but when I’m weighing on why you just traded for Trent Richardson, help me understand what’s really going on with the Indianapolis Colts at this moment,’” Silver explained. “That’s just a random example. I liked [television] more than I thought I would.”

Silver’s contract was not renewed at NFL Network in 2021, providing a stark change in his lifestyle and leaving him looking for a job in the midst of trying economic times. Through a relationship he had with sports radio host Colin Cowherd, he was given the opportunity to join his upstart podcast platform The Volume as a host. Cowherd eagerly recruited Silver to the platform following a lunch in which the topic came up naturally in conversation about future endeavors.

“When you go through a career transition like that, let alone during a pandemic, you find out a referendum on all your relationships and I have a lot of them from players, coaches, owners and GMs to media people and friends in other industries, etc.,” he explained. “Colin Cowherd is someone I’ll never, ever, ever forget or stop being grateful to…. We were kind of talking some stuff out and he was like, ‘Why don’t we do a show on my network?,’ and we started talking about what that would be. We left lunch… and about 10 minutes later he called me and said, ‘Okay, here’s what I think,’ and kind of continued it.”

Today, Silver is hosting an interview-based program called Open Mike featuring guests from the world of professional football. Recent guests on the program have included Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones. Prior to joining The Volume, Silver had hosted a podcast with his daughter called Pass It Down, which ultimately ran for over 50 episodes and gave him experience working within the medium.

“I’m sitting there spending an hour with [Las Vegas] Raiders GM Dave Ziegler or [Buffalo Bills] linebacker Von Miller or whoever we have on,” Silver said. “You’re not only getting to know that person; you’re watching the way I connect with that person and usually have a body of work with that person, and there’s a comfort level there too.”

John Marvel was Silver’s direct boss at NFL Media and a friend he kept in touch with for many years. Through various correspondences and the dynamic media landscape, they decided to start their own media venture called Backstage Media. The company has a first-look deal with Meadowlark Media – a company co-founded by John Skipper, who also serves as its chief executive officer. Skipper was formerly the president of ESPN and someone Silver wished he had worked for earlier in his career.

“I did not know John Skipper before I left NFL Network,” he said. “I didn’t particularly have a dream to [ever] work at ESPN. We’ve had conversations over the years – ESPN and I – and it never seemed like the perfect fit for me. Now that I know John Skipper, it’s like ‘I would have worked for that guy any time.’ He’s fantastic, [and] I’m just so pumped to be in business with him.”

The company, which focuses on producing documentaries and other unscripted programming through the intersection of sports, music and entertainment, has various projects in development. The idea was derived out of both of their penchants for storytelling and an attempt to utilize new platforms built for engagement within the modern-day media marketplace.

“We’re hoping that documentaries, docuseries [and] episodic podcasts – mostly unscripted – …will be kind of our wheelhouse,” Silver said. “….There’s about four big things that are [hopefully] close to being announced. One’s football; one’s boxing; one is basketball; and one is kind of a blend of some things. I feel like we have a pretty diverse set of interests.”

Joining The San Francisco Chronicle as a football reporter has been indicative of a full-circle moment for Silver, as he is once again around the San Francisco 49ers and writing columns about the team and other sports around the Bay Area at large. Today, he is working with Scott Ostler and Ann Kllion, and directly with Eric Branch on the outlet’s 49ers coverage. Through it all, he seeks to continue gaining access to places that the ordinary person would only be able to dream about in order to tell compelling and informative stories, no matter how they may be delivered or on what platform(s) to which it may be distributed.

“I’m old school in a lot of my mentality in terms of journalism and storytelling and all of that,” Silver said. “I think those things don’t go away. I think it’s journalism first; relationship first; access first; storytelling first; and you figure out the rest.”

As for the future of the profession which has ostensibly become less defined because of the evolution of social media and communication, relationships and storytelling have truly become the differentiators. Silver aims to continue practicing what has allowed him to gain exclusive scoops in the industry and tell stories that would otherwise, perhaps, fly under the radar, but do so in a way that does not jeopardize his sources.

“I’m going to try to develop relationships and cultivate relationships where people trust me and give me a sense of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m going to try to get into places that you, as the consumer, couldn’t otherwise go and take you there, and I’m going to err on the side of the relationship as opposed to finding out one thing that could cause a splash that day on Twitter.”

Some athletes are hosting podcasts or writing columns to directly communicate with their fans, including Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green on The Volume, intensifying the quest for engagement and attraction. Yet Silver advises journalists looking to break into the industry not to get distracted in meeting certain metrics, instead adhering to best practices and reporting truthful information without ambiguity.

“Just don’t get undone by the noise,” Silver said. “Put your head down; hyperfocus; grind; tell good stories; do journalism and hopefully over the course of time, that will stand out. I’d still like to believe that.”

Covering professional sports, specifically football, generates a large amount of potential storylines on which journalists can report – and today, digital platforms give them the ability to cover them in different ways. While some scoops may requit a large article, others may be able to be told in 280 characters or less, such as a trade rumor or injury. The amount of information Silver and his colleagues uncovered working for a print publication and then had to omit because of space limitations underscores a key journalistic principle of efficient and truthful storytelling. In today’s media landscape, he hopes to be able to do that regardless of its means of dissemination.

“If you went back and just looked at our normal… feature or story off a game [and] the level we reported on a Wednesday and translated that to a Twitter generation, people would lose their minds about how much we found out and how much we reported with on-the-record quotes usually, and they’d be like, ‘He said what!?,” Silver said. “That’s all we knew and that’s [how] we did it…. I don’t think people understand how much the threshold has changed. It’s all good. The most important things hopefully haven’t changed.”

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Video Simulcasts Are Now A Must Have For Sports Radio

All of these shows have done an amazing job of constantly communicating with their audiences to make sure they’re aware of changes coming their way. 

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Video simulcasts of sports talk radio and podcasts have gone up extraordinarily in quality as of late. The craft started as a novelty that very few participated in. ESPN and YES Network dominated the genre with their simulcasts of Mike and Mike in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog respectively. Slowly but surely other sports networks and RSN’s picked up the genre over time and it has now become a major component within sports coverage in the streaming world.

The most popular and prominent shows in the medium right now include The Dan Patrick Show, The Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz, The Pat McAfee Show, and The Rich Eisen Show. These four shows in particular have done an excellent job of independently producing and building out their video content to look visually appealing while also engage with the audience through graphics, pictures, stats on screen. In McAfee’s case, his company even entered into a rights agreement with the NFL for highlights.

Finding their shows can be difficult at times. Eisen’s show has moved from television to Peacock and to Roku Channel all within the span of a couple years. When LeBatard’s shipping container first began their live video voyage they didn’t have a consistent schedule. Patrick’s show has also leapt between RSNs, national networks, YouTube and its current home on Peacock. But all of these shows have done an amazing job of constantly communicating with their audiences to make sure they’re aware of changes coming their way. 

The video simulcasts have become so lucrative for these shows that they’ve found sponsors to advertise against what they’re offering and they ensure that they pay attention to the look of the show. Commercials that feel like television play during Patrick and Eisen’s shows. Logos are displayed during LeBatard’s broadcast and NFL Films vignettes that you would find on NFL Network air in the middle of McAfee’s broadcast.

McAfee’s show recently moved into a new studio in Indianapolis specifically built for them by FanDuel and just yesterday LeBatard announced they would be moving into their own state of the art studio in Miami that will help expand their creativity. Patrick’s show doesn’t even have guests call into their show anymore – most join via Zoom. Eisen’s guests are more often than not in studio. All of these shows also upload highlights relatively quickly to YouTube. They’re still audio-first but video is no longer secondary. It is 1A in terms of importance.

As much as these simulcasts feel close to real TV, there are still some hijinks that fans have to get used to that aren’t the same as a regular TV broadcast. During LeBatard’s broadcast, a rolling loop of their own self produced album plays during breaks. While the songs are hilarious in nature, if you’re a weekly viewer of their simulcast it might get tiresome to hear every time there is a break.

A loop of some of the show’s greatest moments and some of the side projects Meadowlark Media produces might be more engaging and help reduce drop off rate. McAfee’s show also struggles with white balancing their cameras almost every telecast. At times in the middle of a conversation during the show, discoloration occurs before changing back to normal skin tones.

Patrick’s show has used the same set of graphics since it began simulcasting on NBC’s linear sports network years ago which could be a turnoff for younger viewers of the internet era who always want change in order to grab their attention. Eisen’s show has awkward interruptions happen in the middle of conversations because commercial breaks are different in length on terrestrial radio vs. streaming.

At the end of the day though, these shows are the epitome of what it means to have grit and guts to achieve your American dream. Although their productions are subsidized and/or licensed by big media platforms and sports books, their social media presence and the actual production of these shows was built on their own. During the first couple of weeks after LeBatard’s show left ESPN, the former columnist could often be heard teasing listeners that they were working on building a video enterprise and how difficult it was.

It’s hard to stand on your own in sports talk media without the backing of superpowers like ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS and Turner who have been producing live broadcasts for decades. But these shows have found a way to do so in a new world that is tailored towards doing everything on your own. 

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5 Ideas For December Sales Success

How much better will you enjoy Christmas and New Year knowing you have some presentations to make to prospects who want to roll into 2023 with a new idea?

Jeff Caves

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Now is the time to put your foot on the gas for a great start to 2023-not waiting til January. With Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day all falling on weekends, you can’t count on who will be at work the Friday or Monday around those holidays in December.

So, looking forward from here, you only have 15 or so days that you can count on your clients and prospects to be at work before the end of 2022. And, if they are at work, consider their motivation or lack of it before approaching them. But here are five ways to attack December.

Cutting a year-end deal

Make sure you go back from the potential start date of the schedule and allow for production, proposal, and acceptance. That usually means you need a week from when you present a year-end idea to when the schedule starts. So, aim to have all appointments booked by 12/9, so you can sell 2-week packages that begin Monday, 12/19. That will give you a sense of urgency and gives you five solid business days to sell your ass off starting Monday.

5-day sale

Make all your pricing and payment terms expire by Friday, 12/9. You can always extend if need be once they give a partial commitment. You want anybody involved in the decision to sign off and let you cut this deal! The idea here is to create urgency and work ahead.

Beat the bushes

Do you want to wake up on 1/2/23 with an empty pipeline? How much better will you enjoy Christmas and New Year knowing you have some presentations to make to prospects who want to roll into 2023 with a new idea? Don’t try to qualify these prospects over the phone. Do it in January when both of you are fresh but get that commitment NOW. Look for your new client avatar.

Be gracious

From now til the end of the year is also an excellent time to meet with your sales assistant, traffic manager, production person, or anybody who helps you at the station. Sit down with them face to face and see what you can do better to make their job easier. Give them some ideas on how they can help you as well. Mend some fences or make new friends; the reason tis the season. Surprise them with a Cheetos popcorn tin for less than $10. Please do it. You will be surprised by what you hear because this is a popular time of year for layoffs, transfers, and people taking new jobs.

Practice a new pitch

December is also a great time to record yourself doing a webinar and start planning to let your content do the talking. Wouldn’t it be nice if your 10-minute talk on how to make live reads work, how to buy radio, or why your audience buys the most widgets produced some warm leads? Practice and get going!

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