What are audiences looking for in sports content? Certainly they want to know what happened in a game and what it means for the story going forward, but they want to be entertained too. It is why ESPN has brought in talent from outside of the sports world like Will Cain and Mina Kimes. It’s why local stations look at former rock and hip hop DJs to spice up their lineups.
When we talk about the most entertaining and sharpest minds in sports radio names like Colin Cowherd and Brandon Tierney are sure to pop up. Those guys are always looking for smart and unique ways to present their arguments.
Is it possible to think too much? Can a talent be too smart to succeed on sports radio?
“Yes,” says Jeff Rickard, program director of The Fan in Indianapolis, “but only if that host at his core isn’t entertaining and fun to listen to.”
That comment really emphasizes something I have believed for years. There is this old adage about radio content that every segment should either entertain, enlighten or educate. The reality is that those last two don’t really matter. You can be the smartest person in any room you walk into. No one will care if they don’t also find you engaging.
Joe O’Neill, president of 101.7 the Team in Albuquerque, isn’t afraid of hiring a guy that is too smart for sports radio.”I actually think it is an asset much more than a detriment, particularly when the talent can utilize that intellect and also be self-depricating,” he says. “I think the listener finds that quite endearing.”
Joe says he already has a high intellect host in afternoon drive. Jim Villanucci graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in engineering. He spent time in the political talk format before making the switch to sports. O’Neill says that the fact that Villanucci is smart and funny is something that has helped him when telling advertisers why they should spend their money on his station.
“I go to all of the characteristics that make him who he is along with the high intellect: the sense of humor, the charisma, his understanding of pop culture. I think it blends well.”
Mike Thomas oversees ESPN 1000 as Good Karma Brands’ market manager in Chicago. He flat out refuses to believe there is any talent that is too smart for sports radio.
“You can be very cerebral, but it doesn’t mean that you’re too smart for the audience.”
In fact, during his time as program director of 98.5 the Sports Hub in Boston, Thomas says he was very rarely interested in the sports knowledge of applicants. If you wanted to be on the air, Thomas needed to hear you make him laugh and do something creative. Being smart is something he only views as an asset.
So we can agree being smart is good, and if a PD or a listener thinks the host is “too smart” what they really mean is the host is boring. What can the format do then to keep its brightest engaged and motivated? I asked Rickard, O’Neill, and Thomas if they worried that a traditional sports show would bore a host that is smart and inquisitive.
Thomas said you have to let hosts be themselves. If straight Xs and Os bore them, bring on guests and surround the host with a supporting cast versed in Xs and Os.
“Well, I think in that case, you have to look at what their interests are. If it’s not just talking straight sports, what are they into? Does this guy think a meteor is going to hit the world and end things at some point? Find out what his interests are and exploit those,” he said.
Rickard was a little less worried about strategizing around a host to keep him engaged. Being from Indianapolis, he said that the question reminded him of the way Andrew Luck walked away from the NFL.
“You have to let people have their own journey. I can’t worry about not being able to keep people if this is not what they want to be doing,” Rickard said. “All I can do is put as many tools around them as I can, make them as comfortable as I can, push them as hard as I can, and give them a really good place to work. Outside of that, I have to let them follow their heart. I am not going to be the guy that talks them out of that unless I think they are making a mistake.”
The idea that there are hosts that are too smart for sports radio didn’t come out of nowhere. Dennis Miller was supposed to be too smart for Monday Night Football. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith’s take on SportsCenter was supposed to be too smart for ESPN’s audience.
Were both of those statements true? If a sports show goes beyond highlights and dad jokes met with over-the-top fake laughter, is it too smart for the average fan to enjoy? That seems like severely underestimating our audience.
O’Neill doesn’t worry about how an audience perceives his hosts. If they keep tuning in, it means they like what they hear.
“Listeners will come to that conclusion for themselves by simply listening and that’s their choice,” he says. “I don’t think they’re coming just for the high intellect. It’s that in a combination with all of the other traits.”
Sports radio could take a lesson from professional wrestling. Even the most devoted fans of the WWE and AEW realize the outcomes are scripted and the most bitter enemies in the ring are likely best friends behind the scenes. What keeps guys that fell in love with sport at age 8 tuning in every week now that they’re in their 40s?
It’s the understanding pro wrestling has of its audience. The suspense isn’t in who will win the same way it is in the Super Bowl or the Olympics. It’s in how we will get there. It’s the moves in the ring. It’s the storyline building up to the showdown at the pay-per-view event.
Wrestling can be successful being wrestling. It just needs to embrace the basics of storytelling. Smart hosts can be smart. They just need to embrace the basics of entertaining an audience.
“I think one of the smartest people we have in media today is Bomani Jones. Bomani can sit there and lecture you about economics or any theory he has about how the world works, but he also knows how to entertain, so you take a really smart guy with a really great understanding of the world and of sports and how they interconnect and he has strong opinions about those topics,” says Rickard. “What you can see over the last four to five years is the growth. He has become so entertaining and so comfortable with himself. He’s found that sweet spot of giving people what they want but still saying what he wants to say.”
Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable
After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.
Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.
Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.
The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)
OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.
What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY
Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.
This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.
I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.
I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.
What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.
I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.
“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”
Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.
“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “
“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”
OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.
However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.
“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.
“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”
Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.
That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.
Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”
I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.
I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.
I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.
By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”
Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:
Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”
If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.
Media Noise – Episode 75
A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.
Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM
Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.
Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.
I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future.
Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?
Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.
How is advertising on Bleav different?
We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content.
What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see?
The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space.
SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like?
We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?
There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple.
At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram.
If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.