You could say Zach Gelb was born into sports talk radio. Growing up the son of a longtime WFAN employee may have triggered Zach’s desire to work in sports radio, but it’s his own hard work that led him to where he is today.
When he was a kid, he’d go to work with his dad, Bob Gelb who produced Mike and the Mad Dog and later moved into sales and marketing for the station. Zach quickly grew an affinity for the industry and knew it was something he wanted to make a career out of.
From hopping on-air with Joe Benigno at eight-years old, to hosting internet radio shows in his parents’ basement, to building a professional sounding station at Temple University, Zach’s educational years always featured sports radio.
But his young career has never been without networking, taking chances and seeking opportunities to prove himself as a rising star in the industry. At the age of 25, Zach began the year 2020 as the new weeknight host for Entercom’s CBS Sports Radio, where you can hear him on their national network of stations Monday – Friday from 6 – 10pm ET.
Brandon Contes: The first time I heard something on-air from you was two years ago, when Boomer and Gio played your “I’m a professional broadcaster” rant [Laughs] with you yelling at your producer.
Zach Gelb: [Laughs] Of course. We were watching the NBA Draft lottery and they were taking forever, interviewing everyone associated with the top draft picks. It was obnoxious how they were dragging it out. My board-op told me to get to a read, which I already did. And then in the middle of the rant he was in my ear again reminding me about the read. I knew we still had a minute at the backend, so I was going to squeeze it in there, but again he says get to the read! That caused me to go off for a second, we were laughing about it afterwards, but it definitely got a lot of exposure when Boomer and Gio had fun with it the next day.
BC: It was a light-hearted, fun moment, but I still give credit to the producer and board-op that’s able to accept the on-air ribbing and realize the entertainment value in that moment. But people hear yelling at someone behind the glass and they go back to Mike and the Mad Dog – nicely produced, never hesitating to blame something on the producer. The funny part is – you’re in a unique spot because for years, their producer was your dad.
ZG: [Laughs] When I was talking about it the next day with Eddie Scozzare (Boomer and Gio’s board-op who held the same role for Mike and the Mad Dog) and Al Dukes (Boomer and Gio producer), they were getting a kick out of it. Eddie called it the cycle of abuse, but if we’re being honest I have a great relationship with everyone I work with behind the scenes, especially because it wasn’t that long ago when I was running my own board and producing my own show, while programming a station.
I have a great appreciation for the people behind the scenes and love their input. A successful show and what makes a great host is someone who comes in with ideas for guests and segments, but then I’ll ask how can we improve this? Because sometimes as a host, we might think we know everything, but it’s good to have people to bounce ideas off.
BC: Obviously you grew up around it, but did you always want to work in radio?
ZG: When I was eight years old all I wanted to do was skip school and go to work with my dad. One of my first on-air encounters, Ray Martel was producing the WFAN midday show. Martel is a big New England Patriots fan, and I grew up a Patriots fan too. I wore a Tom Brady jersey to the studios. Joe Benigno saw me, and they thought it would be a cute bit to have a kid on-air talking smack with Benigno. [Laughs]
In the car ride home, I told my dad I wanted to do sports talk radio for a living. From there I started doing shows in my parents’ basement in high school and it developed into where I’m at today.
BC: Were those shows in your parents’ basement just for fun? Was it a podcast or broadcast anywhere?
ZG: It was on a network that’s no longer around called Shovio. Sid Rosenberg was on it, Leslie Gold The Radio Chick, Buc Wild, and they had an amateur channel which Sid suggested I try. I built some NFL connections, I went to the Super Bowl and got to interview Adam Sandler from Radio Row. I was doing that show when Rob Gronkowski was a rookie, I found him on Facebook, sent him a message and he came on for an interview. That’s also when I joined Twitter, I joined to send Kurt Warner a tweet and he came on the show after the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl the second time. I received necessary reps, even before I went to college.
BC: And then you went on to Temple, did you get to know Matt Rhule while you were there?
ZG: Yea I got to know Matt very well. I broke the story that he was leaving the Giants to become head coach at Temple. I would have him in studio, I would go to his office and Matt is still a guy that comes on with us to this day. We’re working on getting him on the new show soon.
BC: What station did you do your first professional show?
ZG: Right out of college, I did an afternoon drive show, producing a sports station and the irony is I was also running a Catholic station as a Jewish man which I get a kick out of. But it was Connoisseur Media and 920 The Jersey. Then I was hired to do Eagles postgame for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philly and soon after I spoke to Eric Spitz to start doing some shows with CBS Sports Radio. Last fall I moved to SiriusXM and now I’m back with CBS Sports Radio.
BC: Your dad has worked at WFAN throughout your whole life, but were you listening to Mike and the Mad Dog when he was producing or were you too young at that point?
ZG: I was younger, but for as long as I can remember I was listening. My birth was announced on-air!
Two early FAN encounters that stick with me, first when I met Don Imus. I remember my dad coming home and talking to my mom after work and even when he had a rough day, he would never curse in front of me or my sister. But with Imus, he would refer to him as the grouchy grandpa when talking in front of us. I was probably four or five the first time I met Imus, we were in an elevator and my dad said, ‘Zach this is Mr. Don Imus’ and I said ‘oh yea! the grouchy grandpa!’
Another time when I was with my dad, Mike and Chris were talking about famous Jewish baseball players, and I was in studio, as a kid, shouting names like Shawn Green in the background. Mark Chernoff quickly came in to tell the producer my shouting didn’t sound good off microphone so stop doing it. And now Mark is one of my bosses. [Laughs]
BC: You also interned at WIP in Philly, with another legendary radio host.
ZG: Yea, I interned with Angelo Cataldi which was great. What you get on-air with Angelo is what you get off-air. Angelo is so benevolent with his time. To this day, if you ever worked or interned on his show, you’re part of the family. Even as an intern I would sit in production meetings and offer suggestions of guests I had contacts for, Tom Glavine or Joe Theismann, and that helped us develop a relationship. Angelo gets to the studio around 3:30 in the morning and he was always helpful and great with his time in showing me how to think about things and present them on-air.
BC: So Mike Francesa, Chris Russo, Sid Rosenberg, Angelo Cataldi, that’s some incredible names and talent to grow up around, watch first hand and learn from. It doesn’t get much better for a kid that wants to work in radio.
ZG: I think I have some of the greatest education that anyone my age received in broadcasting because I grew up around it and I would talk to them and network at a young age. To be able to learn from Sid Rosenberg, Mike and Chris, Angelo and Howard Eskin, it really helped.
BC: I’m sure it’s also fun for them to see you come back as a host because you being a middle school kid, high school, college, those days probably don’t feel very long ago to them, so to see you hosting on a national stage now at 25, it’s gotta be cool to watch that growth.
ZG: Absolutely. A lot of hosts like to give back because they remember me, that goes with players and coaches too. Matt Rhule, I first interviewed him when I was in college and now I’m on a national stage. They respect that grind.
The first time I interviewed Jim Nantz, I was in college. A few weeks ago, when he was doing a game in Philly he still invites me up to the broadcast booth and I think he appreciates the craft, the grind and the hard work. Kevin Harlan once said I’m better than he was at my age and – my jaw hit the floor – pinch me, there’s no way he said that. But they enjoy seeing the progression and it helps me realize the hard work is paying off.
BC: Do you have a show prep method? Do you listen to a lot of other shows, take in a lot of opinions, load up on stats and information?
ZG: I know some hosts say they never listen. I don’t buy that because people in this business are a fan of this business. Are there times I’m in my car listening to music? Sure, but it’s important to listen because you can develop a relationship with other shows.
As far as preparation its 24/7, my philosophy is simple. Give a product that’s compelling and entertaining. You want to encourage fan interaction on-air and on social media and you need to get guests that are some of the biggest names in sports. Don’t put someone on for the sake of putting them on and we’ve done that exceptionally well.
In the last two years on weekend overnights, we made national news. Whether it was Hue Jackson talking about Baker Mayfield, Bob Wylie about Freddie Kitchens, Donovan McNabb saying Carson Wentz needs to get to an NFC title game or the Eagles need to look for a new quarterback in the next couple years.
Social media is so important, we need to get those clips out, send them to local writers because not everyone’s listening to the show for four hours so pushing that content out on social and getting others to share it is very important.
BC: How about hosting nationally vs locally. You grew up around local radio, but they’re not talking about Hue Jackson and Baker Mayfield much on WFAN, do you like having the freedom to create different topics?
ZG: I like the options, it keeps you on your toes. For example, in New York you can do four hours on Carlos Beltran and the Mets easily. On the national stage, you need to find a larger conversation. You need to mix in the Astros and bring in the discussion of should players be suspended for the sign-stealing scandal? Broaden the conversation and invite the listener into the discussion so they’re not getting into their car saying he’s just talking about the Mets again.
Taking a topic and branching into conversations that fit nationally can be challenging, but it’s also the fun part, as is interacting with fans from all over the country and having those diverse opinions join the discussion.
BC: You’re 25 years old, you have a full-time gig on a national platform, what are you chasing? Is it a different time slot? A bigger platform? Going back to local, staying national? Are you even able to look ahead?
ZG: I want to grow the show, develop as a broadcaster and take advantage of the opportunity I have right now. I don’t like to look too far ahead, I have an incredible opportunity being 25 and doing a show Monday through Friday. If I try to think too much ahead, it will be a disservice to the audience. You’re only as good as your last show in this business and you don’t want to slip up.
BC: It’s happened quick, to get where you are at 25 is a testament to your hard work and talent, but going from being a kid shouting in the background of a Mike and the Mad Dog broadcast, to internet radio, college radio, 920 The Jersey, local radio, part-time radio, to where you are now as a national host, have you been able to enjoy the progression? Absorb the ride?
ZG: No question, I appreciate it greatly and it shows hard work pays off. I don’t get complacent, I’m hungry as ever, grinding and booking my own guests, continuing to network. If anyone gets upset in this business, I always find that comical. You can be frustrated, but if you get upset and start to resent the business – there are so many people that would love to wear jeans and a t-shirt to work everyday and do this for a living. I have fun with it and don’t take myself too seriously. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life just with what’s happened the last couple months.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@gmail.com.
In Defense Of Colin Cowherd
“How did we get to this place where there are sites and Twitter accounts going through The Herd with a fine-toothed comb to create content out of ‘oh my god, look at this!’?”
I don’t understand what it is about Colin Cowherd that gets under some people’s skin to the point that they feel everything the guy says is worth being mocked. I don’t always agree with a lot of his opinions myself, but rarely do I hear one of his takes and think I need to build content around how stupid the guy is.
Cowherd has certainly had his share of misses. There were some highlights to his constant harping on Baker Mayfield but personally, I thought the bit got boring quickly and that the host was only shooting about 25% on those segments.
Cowherd has said some objectionable things. I thought Danny O’Neil was dead on in pointing out that the FOX Sports Radio host sounded like LIV Golf’s PR department last month. It doesn’t matter if he claims he used the wrong words or if his language was clunky, he deserved all of the criticism he got in 2015 when he said that baseball couldn’t be that hard of a sport to understand because a third of the league is from the Dominican Republic.
Those missteps and eyebrow-raising moments have never been the majority of his content though. How did we get to this place where there are sites and Twitter accounts going through The Herd with a fine-toothed comb to create content out of “oh my god, look at this!”?
A few years ago, Dan Le Batard said something to the effect of the best thing he can say about Colin Cowherd is that he is never boring and if you are not in this business, you do not get what a compliment that is.
That’s the truth, man. It is so hard to talk into the ether for three hours and keep people engaged, but Cowherd finds a way to do it with consistency.
The creativity that requires is what has created a really strange environment where you have sites trying to pass off pointing and laughing at Cowherd as content. This jumped out to me with a piece that Awful Announcing published on Thursday about Cowherd’s take that Aaron Rodgers needs a wife.
Look, I don’t think every single one of Cowherd’s analogies or societal observations is dead on, but to point this one out as absurd is, frankly, absurd!
This isn’t Cowherd saying that John Wall coming out and doing the Dougie is proof that he is a loser. This isn’t him saying that adults in backward hats look like doofuses (although, to be fair to Colin, where is the lie in that one?).
“Behind every successful man is a strong woman” is a take as old as success itself. It may not be a particularly original observation, but it hardly deserves the scrutiny of a 450-word think piece.
On top of that, he is right about Aaron Rodgers. The guy has zero personality and is merely trying on quirks to hold our attention. Saying that the league MVP would benefit from someone in his life holding a mirror up to him and pointing that out is hardly controversial.
Colin Cowherd is brash. He has strong opinions. He will acknowledge when there is a scoreboard or a record to show that he got a game or record pick wrong, but he will rarely say his opinion about a person or situation is wrong. That can piss people off. I get it.
You know that Twitter account Funhouse? The handle is @BackAftaThis?
It was created to spotlight the truly insane moments Mike Francesa delivered on air. There was a time when the standard was ‘The Sports Pop’e giving the proverbial finger to a recently deceased Stan Lee, falling asleep on air, or vehemently denying that a microphone captured his fart.
Now the feed is turning to “Hey Colin Cowherd doesn’t take phone calls!”. Whatever the motivation is for turning on Cowherd like that, it really shows a dip in the ability to entertain. How is it even content to point out that Colin Cowherd doesn’t indulge in the single most boring part of sports radio?
I will be the first to admit that I am not the world’s biggest fan of The Herd. Solo hosts will almost never be my thing. No matter their energy level, a single person talking for a 10-12 minute stretch feels more like a lecture than entertainment to me. I got scolded enough as a kid by parents and teachers.
School is a good analogy here because that is sort of what this feels like. The self-appointed cool kids identified their target long ago and are going to mock him for anything he does. It doesn’t matter if they carry lunch boxes too, Colin looks like a baby because he has a lunch box.
Colin Cowherd doesn’t need me to defend him. He can point to his FOX paycheck, his followers, or the backing for The Volume as evidence that he is doing something right. I am merely doing what these sites think they are doing when Colin is in their crosshairs – pointing out a lame excuse for content that has no real value.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Even After Radio Hall of Fame Honor, Suzyn Waldman Looks Forward
WFAN recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, but that’s not something that Waldman spends too much time reflecting on.
Yankees radio broadcaster Suzyn Waldman was at Citi Field on July 26th getting ready to broadcast a Subway Series game between the Yankees and Mets. A day earlier, Waldman was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame and sometimes that type of attention can, admittedly, make her feel a bit uncomfortable.
“At first, I was really embarrassed because I’m not good at this,” said Waldman. “I don’t take compliments well and I don’t take awards well. I just don’t. The first time it got to me…that I actually thought it was pretty cool, there were two little boys at Citi Field…
Those two little boys, with photos of Waldman in hand, saw her on the field and asked her a question.
“They asked me to sign “Suzyn Waldman Radio Hall of Fame 2022” and I did,” said Waldman. “I just smiled and then more little boys asked me to do that.”
Waldman, along with “Broadway” Bill Lee, Carol Miller, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Ellen K, Jeff Smulyan, Lon Helton, Marv Dyson, and Walt “Baby” Love, make up the Class of 2022 for the Radio Hall of Fame and will be inducted at a ceremony on November 1st at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago.
Waldman, born in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, was the first voice heard on WFAN in New York when the station launched on July 1st, 1987. She started as an update anchor before becoming a beat reporter for the Yankees and Knicks and the co-host of WFAN’s
mid-day talk show. In the mid 1990s, Waldman did some television play-by-play for Yankees games on WPIX and in 2002 she became the clubhouse reporter for Yankees telecasts when the YES Network launched.
This is Waldman’s 36th season covering the Yankees and her 18th in the radio booth, a run that started in 2005 when she became the first female full-time Major League Baseball broadcaster.
She decided to take a look at the names that are currently in the Hall of Fame, specifically individuals that she will forever be listed next to.
“Some of the W’s are Orson Wells and Walter Winchell…people that changed the industry,” said Waldman. “I get a little embarrassed…I’m not good at this but I’m really happy.”
Waldman has also changed the industry.
She may have smiled when those two little boys asked her to sign those photos, but Waldman can also take a lot of pride in the fact that she has been a trailblazer in the broadcasting business and an inspiration to a lot of young girls who aspire, not only to be sportscasters but those who want to have a career in broadcasting.
Like the young woman who just started working at a New York television station who approached Waldman at the Subway Series and just wanted to meet her.
“She stopped me and was shaking,” said Waldman. “The greatest thing is that all of these young women that are out there.”
Waldman pointed out that there are seven women that she can think of off the top of her head that are currently doing minor league baseball play-by-play and that there have been young female sports writers that have come up to her to share their stories about how she inspired them.
For many years, young boys were inspired to be sportscasters by watching and listening to the likes of Marv Albert, Al Michaels, Vin Scully, Bob Costas, and Joe Buck but now there are female sportscasters, like Waldman, who have broken down barriers and are giving young girls a good reason to follow their dreams.
“When I’ve met them, they’ve said to me I was in my car with my Mom and Dad when I was a very little girl and they were listening to Yankee games and there you were,” said Waldman. “These young women never knew this was something that they couldn’t do because I was there and we’re in the third generation of that now. It’s taken longer than I thought.”
There have certainly been some challenges along the way in terms of women getting opportunities in sports broadcasting.
Waldman thinks back to 1994 when she became the first woman to do a national television baseball broadcast when she did a game for The Baseball Network. With that milestone came a ton of interviews that she had to do with media outlets around the country including Philadelphia.
It was during an interview with a former Philadelphia Eagle on a radio talk show when Waldman received a unique backhanded compliment that she will always remember.
“I’ve listened to you a lot and I don’t like you,” Waldman recalls the former Eagle said. “I don’t like women in sports…I don’t like to listen to you but I was watching the game with my 8-year-old daughter and she was watching and I looked at her and thought this is something she’s never going to know that she cannot do because there you are.”
Throughout her career, Waldman has experienced the highest of highs in broadcasting but has also been on the receiving end of insults and cruel intentions from people who then tend to have a short memory.
And many of these people were co-workers.
“First people laugh at you, then they make your life miserable and then they go ‘oh yeah that’s the way it is’ like it’s always been like that but it’s not always been like this,” said Waldman.
It hasn’t always been easy for women in broadcasting and as Waldman — along with many others — can attest to nothing is perfect today. But it’s mind-boggling to think about what Waldman had to endure when WFAN went on the air in 1987.
She remembers how badly she was treated by some of her colleagues.
“I think about those first terrible days at ‘FAN,” said Waldman. “I had been in theatre all my life and it was either you get the part or you don’t. They either like you or they don’t. You don’t have people at your own station backstabbing you and people at your own station changing your tapes to make you look like an idiot.”
There was also this feeling that some players were not all that comfortable with Waldman being in the clubhouse and locker room. That was nothing compared to some of the other nonsense that Waldman had to endure.
“The stuff with players is very overblown,” said Waldman. “It’s much worse when you know that somebody out there is trying to kill you because you have a Boston accent and you’re trying to talk about the New York Yankees. That’s worse and it’s also worse when the people
that you work with don’t talk to you and think that you’re a joke and the people at your own station put you down for years and years and years.”
While all of this was happening, Waldman had one very important person in her corner: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who passed away in 2010.
The two had a special relationship and he certainly would have relished the moment when Suzyn was elected to the Hall of Fame.
“I think about George Steinbrenner a lot,” said Waldman. “This is something that when I heard that…I remember thinking George would be so proud because he wanted this since ’88. I just wish he were here.”
Waldman certainly endeared herself to “The Boss” with her reporting but she also was the driving force behind the reconciliation of Steinbrenner and Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra. George had fired Yogi as Yankees manager 16 games into the 1985 season and the news was delivered to Berra, not by George, but by Steinbrenner advisor Clyde King.
Yogi vowed never to step foot into Yankee Stadium again, but a grudge that lasted almost 14 years ended in 1999 when Waldman facilitated a reunion between the two at the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey.
“I’m hoping that my thank you to him was the George and Yogi thing because I know he wanted that very badly,” said Waldman.
“Whatever I did to prove to him that I was serious about this…this is in ’87 and ’88…In 1988, I remember him saying to me ‘Waldman, one of these days I’m going to make a statement about women in sports. You’re it and I hope you can take it’ (the criticism). He knew what was coming. I didn’t know. But there was always George who said ‘if you can take it, you’re going to make it’.”
And made it she did.
And she has outlasted every single person on the original WFAN roster.
“I’m keenly aware that I was the first person they tried to fire and I’m the only one left which I think is hysterical actually that I outlived everybody,” said Waldman.
WFAN recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, but that’s not something that Waldman spends too much time reflecting on.
“I don’t think about it at all because once you start looking back, you’re not going forward,” said Waldman.
Waldman does think about covering the 1989 World Series between the A’s and Giants and her reporting on the earthquake that was a defining moment in her career. She has always been a great reporter and a storyteller, but that’s not how her WFAN career began. She started as an update anchor and she knew that if she was going to have an impact on how WFAN was going to evolve, it was not going to be reading the news…it was going to be going out in the field and reporting the news.
“I was doing updates which I despised and wasn’t very good at,” said Waldman.
She went to the program director at the time and talked about how WFAN had newspaper writers covering the local teams for the station and that it would be a better idea for her to go out and cover games and press conferences.
“Give me a tape recorder and let me go,” is what Waldman told the program director. “I was the first electronic beat writer. That’s how that started and they said ‘oh, this works’. The writers knew all of a sudden ‘uh oh she can put something on the air at 2 o’clock in the morning and I can’t’.”
And the rest is history. Radio Hall of Fame history.
But along the way, there was never that moment where she felt that everything was going to be okay.
Because it can all disappear in a New York minute.
“I’ve never had that moment,” said Waldman. “I see things going backward in a lot of ways for women. I’m very driven and I’m very aware that it can all be taken away in two seconds if some guy says that’s enough.”
During her storied career, Waldman has covered five Yankees World Series championships and there’s certainly the hope that they can contend for another title this year. She loves her job and the impact that she continues to make on young girls who now have that dream to be the next Suzyn Waldman.
But, is there something in the business that she still hopes to accomplish?
“This is a big world,” said Waldman. “There’s always something to do. Right now I like this a lot and there’s still more to do. There are more little girls…somewhere there’s a little girl out there who is talking into a tape recorder or whatever they use now and her father is telling her or someone is telling her you can’t do that you’re a little girl. That hasn’t stopped. Somewhere out there there’s somebody that needs to hear a female voice on Yankees radio.”
To steal the spirit of a line from Yankees play-by-play voice John Sterling, Suzyn Waldman’s longtime friend, and broadcast partner…“that’s a Radio Hall of Fame career, Suzyn!”
Peter Schwartz has been involved in New York sports media for over three decades. Along the way he has worked for notable brands such as WFAN, CBS Sports Radio, WCBS 880, ESPN New York, and FOX News Radio. He has also worked as a play by play announcer for the New Yok Riptide, New York Dragons, New York Hitmen, Varsity Media and the Long Island Sports Network. You can find him on Twitter @SchwartzSports or email him at DragonsRadio@aol.com.
No Winners in Pittsburgh vs Cleveland Radio War of Words
“As talk radio hosts, we often try to hold the moral high ground and if you’re going to hold that position, I can’t help but feel integrity has to outweigh popularity. “
For nearly 18 months, we’ve known the NFL would eventually have to confront the Deshaun Watson saga in an on-the-field manner, and that day came Monday. After his March trade to the Browns, we also could more than likely deduce another item: Cleveland radio hosts would feel one way, and Pittsburgh hosts would feel another.
If you’re not in tune to the “rivalry” between the two cities, that’s understandable. Both are former industrial cities looking for an identity in a post-industrial Midwest. Each thinks the other is a horrible place to live, with no real reasoning other than “at least we’re not them”. Of course, the folks in Pittsburgh point to six Super Bowl victories as reason for superiority.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when news started to leak that a Watson decision would come down Monday. I was sure, however, that anyone who decided to focus on what the NFL’s decision would mean for Watson and the Browns on the field was in a no-win situation. As a former host on a Cleveland Browns radio affiliate, I always found the situation difficult to talk about. Balancing the very serious allegations with what it means for Watson, the Browns, and the NFL always felt like a tight-rope walk destined for failure.
So I felt for 92.3 The Fan’s Ken Carman and Anthony Lima Monday morning, knowing they were in a delicate spot. They seemed to allude to similar feelings. “You’re putting me in an awkward situation here,” Carman told a caller after that caller chanted “Super Bowl! Super Browns!” moments after the suspension length was announced.
Naturally, 93.7 The Fan’s Andrew Fillipponi happened to turn on the radio just as that call happened. A nearly week-long war of words ensued between the two Audacy-owned stations.
Fillipponi used the opportunity to slam Cleveland callers and used it as justification to say the NFL was clearly in the wrong. Carman and Lima pointed out Fillipponi had tweeted three days earlier about how much love the city of Pittsburgh had for Ben Roethlisberger, a player with past sexual assault allegations in his own right.
Later in the week, the Cleveland duo defended fans from criticism they viewed as unfair from the national media. In response, Dorin Dickerson and Adam Crowley of the Pittsburgh morning show criticized Carman and Lima for taking that stance.
As an impartial observer, there’s one main takeaway I couldn’t shake. Both sides are wrong. Both sides are right. No one left the week looking good.
Let’s pretend the Pittsburgh Steelers had traded for Deshaun Watson on March 19th, and not the Browns. Can you envision a scenario where Cleveland radio hosts would defend the NFL for the “fairness” of the investigation and disciplinary process if he was only suspended for six games? Of course, you can’t, because that would be preposterous. At the same time, would Fillipponi, Dickerson, and other Pittsburgh hosts be criticizing their fans for wanting Watson’s autograph? Of course, you can’t, because that would be preposterous.
When you’re discussing “my team versus your team” or “my coach versus your coach” etc…, it’s ok to throw ration and logic to the side for the sake of entertaining radio. But when you’re dealing with an incredibly serious matter, in this case, an investigation into whether an NFL quarterback is a serial sexual predator, I don’t believe there’s room to throw ration and logic to the wind. The criticism of Carman and Lima from the Pittsburgh station is fair and frankly warranted. They tried their best, in my opinion, to be sensitive to a topic that warranted it, but fell short.
On the flip side, Carman and Lima are correct. Ben Roethlisberger was credibly accused of sexual assault. Twice. And their criticism of Fillipponi and Steelers fans is valid and frankly warranted.
You will often hear me say “it can be both” because so often today people try to make every situation black and white. In reality, there’s an awful lot of gray in our world. But, in this case, it can’t be both. It can’t be Deshaun Watson, and Browns fans by proxy, are horrible, awful, no good, downright rotten people, and Ben Roethlisberger is a beloved figure.
Pot, meet kettle.
I don’t know what Andrew Fillipponi said about Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault allegations in 2010. And if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but I’m guessing he sounded much more like Carman and Lima did this week, rather than the person criticizing hosts in another market for their lack of moral fiber. Judging by the tweet Carman and Lima used to point out Fillipponi’s hypocrisy, I have a hard time believing the Pittsburgh host had strong outrage about the Steelers bringing back the franchise QB.
Real courage comes from saying things your listeners might find unpopular. It’s also where real connections with your listeners are built. At the current time in our hyper-polarized climate, having the ability to say something someone might disagree with is a lost art. But it’s also the key to keeping credibility and building a reputation that you’ll say whatever you truly believe that endears you to your audience.
And in this case, on a day the NFL announced they now employ a player who — in the league’s view — is a serial sexual assaulter, to hear hosts describe a six-game suspension as “reasonable” felt unreasonable. As talk radio hosts, we often try to hold the moral high ground and if you’re going to hold that position, I can’t help but feel integrity has to outweigh popularity.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio.