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There’s A Little WWE In Everything Tony Rizzo Does

“I need either an A or an F. That’s what I’m after.”

Brandon Contes



For 14 years, Tony Rizzo has entertained audiences with The Really Big Show on ESPN Cleveland and for decades, he’s been a sports media star in The Land.

“A star who draws attention and brings it every day on-air, but he’s also a great team player,” newly appointed ESPN Cleveland PD Matt Fishman said of the 59-year old Rizzo. “The great thing about Tony is that he cares about everyone here. He knows everybody on the team and their families, whether they’re in sales, marketing or an intern.”

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Creativity, a willingness to adapt, build and grow a community has seen ESPN Cleveland’s midday show morph from what started as Rizz On The Radio into The Really Big Show we hear today. It has the sound of a drive time radio show, with characters, bits and intricacies, but because of Rizzo’s TV schedule, it launched and has remained in middays since 2007.

“If we had this conversation 15 years ago, I would have said we need RBS in afternoon drive,” Fishman said. “But with the app, smart speakers, our website, people find what they want to listen to no matter what time of day it is.”

The Really Big Show wasn’t the plan in 2007 when Good Karma hired Rizzo and paired him with Aaron Goldhammer, a radio producer from Wisconsin. But that’s because the plan was not to be contrived by the traditional sports talk format.

“The biggest stroke of luck in my career is that I got a chance to work with Rizz,” Goldhammer told me.

The best depiction of Rizzo as one of Cleveland’s premier sports voices came from Ohio native and ESPN NBA Insider Brian Windhorst.

“For years when Rizzo hosted the Browns postgame show, no matter where I was in the country I always turned on my ESPN App and wanted to hear what he had to say. Sometimes I turned it on too early and just waited until he came on the air,” Windhorst said. “As someone who doesn’t live in Ohio anymore, only really follows the Browns out of morbid curiosity than actual fandom and works in the sports business where I turn down 5-10 radio shows a day, that I made that a priority is the best thing I can say about Tony and his influence.”

Before I spoke with Rizzo, I kept hearing how he doesn’t do interviews and I was even met with surprise that he agreed to do this one. Usually, it’s easy to find past interviews featuring on-air personalities because let’s face it – many radio hosts enjoy talking about themselves. I told Rizzo this at the start of our conversation and he admitted with a chuckle, that he doesn’t do many interviews.

Brandon Contes: I tuned into the show the other day and within seconds, I hear you telling a story from FOX 8, when you had to do a last minute interview with who you thought was an assistant football coach for Ohio State, but a couple questions in, you found out he was actually the new basketball coach.

Tony Rizzo: It was Thad Motta [Laughs].

BC: I don’t want to make the same mistake with you, so can I have some background?

TR: I’m a native Clevelander, I went to school here at Ohio University and started my career in 1986. I was lucky, my dad was a broadcast Hall-of-Famer in Northeast Ohio – Jack Reynolds.

He did radio and TV locally and then went to work for Vince McMahon and the WWF in the ‘80s, so we were big sports fans and had a broadcasting background growing up. He worked with Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, I was able to hang out with Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. I had a really charmed childhood and it prepared me for this business.

BC: Did you know you wanted to be a sportscaster and follow in your dad’s footsteps from a young age?

TR: I didn’t. I actually went to Ohio State to be a dentist, but that lasted two semesters before I came home and realized my calling was broadcasting.

BC: Were you a big wrestling fan?

TR: I was a huge wrestling fan, but my biggest passion was the Browns. My dad grew up in the ‘50s when the Browns ruled the NFL. We were born and raised Browns, Cavs and Indians fans. One of my first childhood memories was going to the old Cleveland Stadium and watching the Indians at five or six years old. 

BC: Your broadcasting career started in 1986, was that TV or radio?

TR: I started with an AM station called WBBG as the overnight board op. At that time, the FM affiliate was WMJI and they hired John Lanigan, a big star in Cleveland who replaced Don Imus here in the ‘70s. They didn’t do a lot of sports, but they did news every half hour. The Browns were expected to be good in ’86, so that summer I said ‘let me go get you guys some interviews.’

Lanigan’s news director, John Webster wasn’t sure about it, but he ended up sending me to Browns training camp at Lakeland Community College. They used the sound on-air and I finagled my way on the show. I worked for free for a year, getting sound for the Browns and doing a couple of sportscasts, but that’s how I broke into this business. My dad helped me a lot, but I also owe Lanigan plenty. He taught me how to sell, how to be entertaining, informative and I can’t compliment him enough.

BC: Did you listen to a lot of radio growing up in Cleveland? Pete Franklin?

TR: I did, I listened to Pete Franklin, my dad even worked at the same station as him. My dad was a disc jockey there, he also did a movie show for channel 83.

BC: And now your son also followed the same path and is working for ESPN Cleveland?

TR: What a treat for me to have Michael here, we actually got to do an NCAA Tournament game together. We did one of the MAC Championship games down at the Q, and working with my son was one of the biggest thrills of my career.

BC: When did you get started at FOX 8?

TR: I did Lanigan’s show and then went part time to FOX 8 working a show called the Sunday Sports Page. We were fortunate to do very well and won multiple Emmy awards. I also did sports talk around ’93 – ’94 for an AM station, WHK. They called me and said, ‘we have a new sports talk radio format. Do you think you can do it?’

I was young and of course said absolutely, even though I had no idea how to do sports talk. I actually got cassette tapes of Mike and the Mad Dog, I listened and formulated my own show. From there, the format changed and I went to TV full time. I was the sports anchor for FOX 8 from ’97 until 2010, on the 10 o’clock news every day. In 2010 I left to work full time for Good Karma and the show I do now with Aaron. I still do a Sunday night show on FOX 8 called The Rizzo Show, a half hour at 11pm every week.

BC: Do you have a medium preference, TV or radio?

TR: I enjoy both, but I love radio. We do a four hour show every day on the radio and there’s not a whole lot that goes unsaid. When I was on FOX 8 as a sports anchor, you might get three or four minutes a night.

It helps to work for a great company. Good Karma Brands is fantastic. Aaron and I have worked together for 14 years now and he’s not only a great friend, but we’re a team and our show wouldn’t be what it is without Aaron.

BC: Was it always The Really Big Show? Because it’s not just turn the mic on, take calls and go home. There’s a creative and even comedic aspect to the show, did it morph into what it is now?

TR: It did morph into it. In fact we called it Rizzo on the Radio in 2007. It only took about six months until we realized we had something special. I learned this from Lanigan, we use life as content and in today’s COVID-19 world, our show was made for this. A lot of people are scrambling without games, but we’ve always been more than sports and tried to reach a bigger audience.

BC: Did growing up around wrestling impact the way you do a show? Using the audience, using drama, and that’s part of why it’s more than just sports?

TR: Without a doubt. We have drama, some of it we perpetrate, some of it the audience does. Aaron and I both have theatrical backgrounds from college and we play that up on-air all the time. We try to be as real as we can, but I’d be lying to you if I told you every once in a while there’s not a little WWE in our show.

“He makes everything going on, on-air or off-air, all part of the fun of the show,” Goldhammer said. “Even though I was just running the board and producing at the start, he encouraged me to keep the mic close. Because whatever drama was going on with an angry caller trying to get on-air, he wanted that to be part of the show. It helped make me comfortable and understand his vision, that it was an inclusive brand of sports talk.”

TR: The show’s called The Really Big Show and that was originally to poke fun at ourselves because we didn’t think we’d last six months. I was a fan of The Big Show on ESPN so I said ‘let’s call this The Really Big Show,’ and then it turned out to be a really big show! It’s RBS for short and we have characters that call in who we refer to as RBSers, much like Finebaum or Howard Stern have on their shows. And Howard is another show I’ve listened to for a long time. I’ve stolen a lot of things from him and I’m proud of it. We have a saying in radio, nothing is original, everything is stolen from someone.

BC: Like Howard, your show does a great job of building a community. You have listeners that contribute and feel part of the show, you have listeners that love the show and listeners that hate it, but still tune-in.

TR: I need either an A or an F. That’s what I’m after. The people that love Howard listen for an hour, the people that hate Howard listen for three hours.

BC: What about social media’s impact on the industry, because you’ve had interactions with Joe Thomas and Dan Le Batard that can bring attention to the show, but there are negative sides as well.

TR: It’s a love hate relationship. There’s good and bad, but when I started doing this stuff in the ‘80s, you had to watch sports on the news to find out any information. Now athletes can go ahead and tell you their plans on Twitter which makes things difficult, but also keeps everyone connected. The one thing I stress to Aaron, that my dad and Lanigan always stressed to me was you have to adapt with the times. I try to stay as current as I can. I have 134K Twitter followers. I don’t tweet a lot, but I do tweet news and during games. Social media is a big part of our show, it changed the industry forever.

BC: The pairing with Aaron is unique. You come from different generations, different areas of the country, you root for different teams – was that relationship smooth from the start?

TR: When I came to work for Craig Karmazin, I told him I want to use someone I worked with at WHK in the ‘90s for the show. He said ‘no, I got this young kid who’s been working his butt off for me in Wisconsin, could you just meet him and tell me what you think?’ I met Aaron at a Cleveland State basketball game and we hit it off. To your point, the dichotomy is great. Aaron is 20 years younger than me. He’s from a different part of the country. That good cop bad cop perspective has worked really well for us.

“We have the kind of relationship where he does not hesitate to tell me if an idea I have is bad,” Goldhammer added. “99 of my ideas might get cut, but if one idea works, then it was successful. It’s absolutely a collaborative effort and we build on each other. Rizzo’s real genius is not just in coming up with the idea, but taking a good idea and turning it ever so slightly to make it great.

We don’t hold anything back with each other, we’re due to get mad and have a screaming fight once every few months. But I think it’s healthy for our relationship because we don’t bottle anything up and having that brutal honesty is so important and even refreshing.”

BC: How was being part of the Draft Day movie, were you and Aaron on set for that?

TR: Ivan Reitman came and directed Aaron and I for five hours one night in Cleveland at our studios! But they elected to use us in a very cool way in the movie, they used us on the radio. At one point in the movie, I’m talking about the Browns GM, played by Kevin Costner, and I said ‘If you get this wrong you will be gone!’ Costner slams his radio shut and you can see 850 AM on the screen. My company went absolutely bananas.

BC: In addition to your media gigs, you also owned a pizza place?

TR: I had a bunch of businesses, I owned limousines, I was always trying to make a buck when my kids were young.

BC: Has that helped in terms of being relatable right now with small business owners during the pandemic?

TR: Absolutely, it’s a great point and it helps me connect with our listeners and advertising partners. I have advertising partners that have been on with me the whole 14 years I’ve been on-air, we pride ourselves on that and I think it helps especially in difficult times like this. You can relate to somebody who’s calling their own shots, paying their own healthcare and trying to keep their own businesses.

BC: At 59 years old, how much is left in the tank?

TR: There are days I’d like to retire and then there are days where I feel like I can go 10 more years. One thing COVID has done, is it’s given Aaron and I a lot of reps doing this show from remote locations. We’ve talked about me maybe moving down to Florida and doing the show from there, but I can’t see myself leaving The Really Big Show any time soon.

“It’s something I don’t want to think of, but always have to keep some names in mind and I have some people on the list, but I’m anxious to not have to go to that list for a long time,” PD Matt Fishman said of having to find Rizzo’s replacement someday. “He’s great on-air, he’s a great teammate and one thing we all miss working from home right now is that he brings as much energy to the office as he does to the show.”

Goldhammer was much less sympathetic when I asked, ‘can you imagine a time having to do the show without Rizzo?’

“Yea. Quote me on that, I’m itching to get rid of him,” Golhammer said with a hearty laugh. “I can imagine doing the show without him because he takes about 20 weeks of vacation a year. They call it in the NBA, ‘load management.’ And I think the key to increasing and maximizing Rizz’s career is just like LeBron and Kawhi. If we play him 48 minutes a night every game, we’re gonna get him closer to retirement. I think we have to do some load management to make sure he’s ready for the playoffs.”

BSM Writers

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!’?”

Demetri Ravanos



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.

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BSM Writers

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!”

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BSM Writers

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.

Keeping up?

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.

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