As a longtime listener to Joe & Evan, WFAN’s afternoon show immediately struck me as one that might struggle when sports were abruptly stopped in March. But behind some creativity from the 36-year old Evan Roberts and a willingness to buy in from 66-year old Joe Benigno, the show has produced strong content as of late.
Benigno and Roberts portray the sound of being sports fans first, radio hosts second. And for 14 years, it’s worked, especially when the Jets and Mets are in action. After the two officially partnered as WFAN’s new midday duo in Jan. 2007, they quickly became a must listen anytime the Mets or Jets made headlines. But without sports, hosts need to find other ways of entertaining listeners, as the ability to emotionally react to a game is erased.
I remember Sept. 14, 2018, (yes, I actually remember the date) Joe and Evan did a simulcast spot with Shan Shariff and RJ Choppy from their sister station in Dallas, 105.3 The Fan, to preview the upcoming Giants-Cowboys game. The two shows have very different styles, which caused some uncomfortable moments during the segment and had Benigno later asking, “is this what sports talk radio is not in New York…bells and whistles?”
Sports radio is different in other parts of the country, it’s even different right next door on 98.7 ESPN Radio where they include more of those “bells and whistles.” No longer does the sports radio format feature just turn the mic on, take calls, offer some opinion, and go home.
Benigno, specifically, is at his best when reacting to something that involves his teams. A bad Jets loss, Adam Gase, a blown save by the Mets, the Wilpons refusing to sign a high-priced free agent. That ability was mostly stripped away when sports stopped, so how do you keep the 66-year old engaged and fired up?
The term “bracket” in radio sounds repetitive because so many shows used it, especially to compensate for having no NCAA Tournament this spring. When Roberts announced the “Benigno Bracket of Pain,” I had a similar, ‘this is repetitive’ sentiment. But the bracket ended up being a fantastic idea for someone like Benigno, who can relive the moment and offer specific details. Credit Roberts for organizing 64 of the worst sports moments in his radio partner’s life, and credit Benigno for buying into the bit which became a popular 5 o’clock segment on the show.
Benigno offered his insight, memories and intricate details to 64 events including the Mets trading Tom Seaver, the ’82 AFC Title Mud Bowl in Miami and the ultimate bracket winner, Charles Smith missing four consecutive layups against the Chicago Bulls in the ’93 Eastern Conference Finals. These are moments that make Benigno cringe, they make him yell, but best of all, they promote passion. Hearing him react to the painful memories is exactly why he’s beloved by New York area sports fans and exactly why they tune to Joe & Evan when the Mets or Jets are in the news.
As much as they’re passionate about their teams, Joe and Evan have been criticized for sometimes tuning out the Yankees and Giants. Being a Mets fan, Benigno’s Bracket of Pain naturally didn’t include Yankees moments to discuss, except for a few Subway Series games. Introducing the “Sterling 5” was a fun way to create unique Yankees content, featuring radio play-by-play voice John Sterling, an icon, who’s unique style is unmatched.
Joe and Evan went through approximately five Sterling home run calls each day, totaling 112, most of which are very entertaining. The Yankees centric segment includes trivia, nostalgia and comedy thanks to Sterling’s charm and character.
Both the Benigno Bracket of Pain and the Sterling 5 provided strong direction for callers. There are varying opinions regarding the benefit of a sports radio show taking calls, but WFAN was built on that model and their afternoon show takes a lot of them. New York fans expect to be heard and listeners expect to hear callers on WFAN.
Still, their call segments are generally better when topics are limited. They’re easier to screen and organize, helping to avoid having a listener shout out three outfielders and mindlessly ask the hosts to rank ‘em.
One negative of Benigno and Roberts is despite their 30-year age difference, they have similar mindsets as fans. Their opinions rarely build separately and lead to passionate debates or arguments. And when they do fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, Benigno is unlikely to dive deeply into discussion even when pressed by Roberts for insight and examples.
Segments will feed off each other’s rooting misery, more than they will a disagreement, which is where taking calls benefits them. If Joe and Evan agree on a topic, callers can play the role of devil’s advocate. The following is an example of an annoying call, but they weren’t monotonous, they played devil’s advocate and also highlighted one of Roberts’ strengths as an opinionated sports encyclopedia.
Over the course of 14 years, Joe and Evan drew attention from a community of Mets and Jets fans who relate to “oh the pain,” more than they built their own community of listeners as a radio show. Continued efforts in creating unique segments, even when sports return, can help develop a communal feeling with listeners. Let the listener learn more about behind-the-scenes occurrences, opinions and interests outside of sports. Bring in additional voices, part-time producer Tommy Lugauer’s enthusiasm and energy sounded great when he chimed in recently.
Roberts has a background that includes the old Maxim Radio channel on SiriusXM and can revert to that style of show, but a lot of his inventive ideas have been featured off WFAN’s airwaves. Not that listeners want to hear Twitter baseball or a narration of Roberts playing H-O-R-S-E on WFAN, but he’s proven fully capable of creating unique content.
One relationship Joe and Evan are better at building than most shows, is with their weekly guests. Welcoming a reporter who just tweeted all the information they’re going to rehash on-air can be “filler radio.” But Joe and Evan are able to build strong connections with players and beat reporters. Guests seem to find their rooting passion amusing – Michael Irvin, Ty Montgomery and Terry Bradshaw are examples of paid weekly spots who genuinely sounded like they enjoy joining the show. MLB Insider Jon Heyman is a guest on many shows nationwide, but he has a tendency to discuss more non-baseball topics with Joe and Evan. When Heyman is on with Benigno and Roberts, he’s not rehashing his last hour of tweets, the trio are able to entertain on a variety of topics.
As a listener, I’ve enjoyed hearing hosts conduct long-form interviews. With COVID-19 leading to less commercials, it’s not uncommon for shows to take up two segments and offer a deeper conversation. Scott Boras, John Heyman, Ian Eagle, Xavier McDaniel all topped the 30-minute mark with Joe and Evan last month, with a multitude of others going longer than 25 minutes.
While I thought Benigno and Roberts would be hit hard without live sports, one area they’ve had no trouble adjusting to was hosting from separate locations. Benigno, having gone through two hip replacements in recent years, had the duo well-versed in hosting remotely. The 66-year old regularly talks about retiring to Florida, (probably too much), but based on how they sound apart, there’s little reason why they couldn’t continue the show from different states.
Joe and Evan went from being untouchable in middays, to underdogs in the afternoon with a tough hill to climb, challenging the timeslot’s incumbent No. 1 sports program, The Michael Kay Show. Normally when hosts come in as the underdog, you expect competition and a willingness to try new things. But for 14 years, we already knew what Joe and Evan were. Maybe the sports stoppage is what Benigno and Roberts needed to experiment, and once game action returns on a nightly basis, hopefully they’ll continue in the same direction.
Media Noise – Episode 44
This week’s episode is all about the NFL. Demetri explains why the league embracing kids is long overdue, Andy Masur stops by to breakdown the first Manningcast, and Ryan Maguire explains why some sports radio stations are missing a golden opportunity to shine on Sundays.
Interviews Thrive On Podcasts In A Way They Can’t On Radio
“Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.”
Live radio vs. podcasts seems to be a heavyweight fight that isn’t ending anytime soon. Podcasts are growing so much that companies that do radio are also now offering podcasts. This column is hardly about that fight.
Instead, this is about how a podcast interview is a better way to get the best out of the guest than anything live on a radio station. This is not about downloads or clicks or sponsors. Solely about the content that is being produced.
A podcast makes the guest more comfortable and is more intimate than a live radio show. Especially in sports.
Since 2015, I have hosted and produced 656 podcasts (yes it was fun to count them) and hosted many radio shows. My current shows are called Sports with Friends, Hall of Justice, and Techstream. That last one I host with tech expert Shelly Palmer.
On radio, there is a myriad of things the host has to do besides focus on the guest.
First, there are the IDs. Program directors have always told me ID the guest every chance I get. “We are talking with Eli Manning on WFAN,” is heard 7 times during an eight-minute segment.
On a podcast, the name of the guest is on the player or app that is playing the podcast. “Episode 1. Eli Manning, New York Giants” scrolls across smartphones, car radios, or other devices constantly. Never interrupt the guest with an ID.
Then, there’s the fact that it is recorded and not live. I have a standard preamble that I say to any guest before any record light turns on.
“I will push,” I explain. “I will see where the conversation takes us, but I do tend to push. However, I’m on your side. This isn’t some expose’. If something comes up that you don’t like your answer, tell me. I’ll take it out. If there’s something that I say that is bad or wrong, tell me, I’ll take it out. This is a conversation, not an interview.”
In 656 podcasts, only one player, Bryce Harper (then of the Washington Nationals) asked me to take something out of a podcast.
We were doing Episode 54 of Sports with Friends when the subject of Dusty Baker came up. He had just been hired to manage the Nationals. I mentioned in passing that Dusty had given the eulogy at my best friend Darryl Hamilton’s funeral.
Bryce was so intrigued that he recalled the comments I had made and asked if we could pause. We then spoke for a good 10 minutes about the kind of person Dusty was. Why Darryl held him in such regard. It was a really inciteful chat. Never was on the podcast.
Still, guests do relax when told that the editing option exists. They let their guard down. The host of a podcast can ask deeper questions.
“Who was the first person you called when you found out you were traded?”
“Have you seen a life for you after football?”
“How much do you hate a certain player?”
All questions, that if asked live, could seriously backfire. So not only does the guest have a guard up, but the interviewer also has to play it relatively safe, when they are not IDing the guest for the umpteenth time.
Time constraints also don’t exist in a podcast where they are beholden on live radio. The guest is just about to tell you they did cocaine during the World Series, and you are up against the clock.
I have hosted shows over the years where the guest was phenomenal, but I screwed up the PPM clock. That was the takeaway. The clock is important on a live medium that needs to get that quarter-hour.
I try to keep my podcasts short. You wouldn’t see it from looking at the lengths of my episodes. Still, I feel that if someone wants to talk and dive into a topic and it goes a little long, I will never cut the guy off.
Ken Griffey Jr. spoke for 45 minutes with a cigar and his feet up on the phone by his pool. He was telling jokes and stories. I wouldn’t have stopped that if a train was coming. When I hosted Mariner content at KJR in Seattle, our interviews usually last 5 minutes.
Jon Morosi broke down the future of clubhouse access and how he traveled during Covid. Then he told an amazing story of his wife working in the medical field and how that impacted all of his family. Shannon Drayer of 710 KIRO got so in-depth in her arduous journey from being a coffee barista to the Mariners on-field reporter. It was split into two episodes.
Former porn star Lisa Ann talked about her decision to quit the business. Even Jason Barrett himself was Episode 173 of Sports with Friends.
(When in the past has Jason Barrett been in the same paragraph as a porn star? Note to Demetri: please leave it in.)
The radio industry is seen to be cutting costs wherever it can. Mid-market stations are not doing night shows anymore, instead offering nationally syndicated programming.
Weekends are another avenue that perplexes me. Talent that is not deemed good enough to be on during the week is often given weekend shifts. Also, some Monday-Friday hosts add a weekend shift to their duties. Here’s a theory: play podcasts. Format them to hit your PPM time marks.
They don’t have to be my podcasts, but in the crowded podcast space, surely there are sports talk podcasts that are intimate, deep, and fun. Since we live in a data-driven age, let’s see how a radio station fares playing high-quality podcasts or portions of them, vs. weekend hosts.
Program directors often worry about the outdated nature of a podcast. That sells the podcaster short. As someone who has been in the podcast space since 2003, I know how to make them timeless, and companies make shows often enough, that rarely would they be outdated.
Quality shines through the speakers. The spoken-word audio format is continually evolving. Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.
The podcast industry is continually evolving. Radio needs to evolve as well. Then, it can be a fair fight.
National Voices Can Work For Local Clients
“Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder.”
Selling personalities is one of the hottest trends in media today. Sure, most of the buzz is around social media influencers, but radio has long had a relationship with its audience based on personal connections between host and listener. And nobody has a better relationship with their audience than a sports radio host.
I am sure you are leveraging your local hosts by now. Live spots, testimonials, remotes, and promotions are all great tricks of the trade, as well as sponsored social media posts. But does your station carry syndicated shows? I am sure you do either from 7 pm-12 am Monday-Friday or on weekends.
In 2018, The Ticket in Boise, Idaho brought CBS Sports Radio host Damon Amendolara and his co-host, Shaun Morash, to town for a Boise State football game. Damon had just switched to mornings from evenings, and his show aired in Boise from 4 am-8 am Monday – Friday. His ratings were decent, but nothing that stood out considering the daypart. It was thought to be risky to sell him into sandwich shops, pizza places, appearances at local legend hangouts, and so forth.
Boise State head football coach and QB Bryan Harsin and Brett Rypien did a live shot on the show from the on-campus bookstore. At dark thirty. It all worked. DA and Morash were hits! Everywhere they went, lines and crowds awaited them and they hit spots in a two-county area. The few days of appearances worked so well that DA is back in Boise three years later, this time for a week. Now, DA is doing his show from resort hotels 2.5 hours away, taking riverboat adventure fishing trips in Hell’s Canyon, craft beer tours for his sidekick Andrew Bogusch and hosting college football viewing parties at brewpubs. Every station that carries syndicated shows probably has a DA success story waiting to happen.
Start by listening to the shows, know the benchmarks and quirks of the national personalities or call the affiliate rep and ask. Does the talent discuss their love of beer, BBQ, pizza, whatever? If they do, then go ahead and sell them to a local client. The national talent can do the spot and endorse your client. If it’s a product, send one to them. Figure out how to get them a pizza. If it’s a service, do a zoom call with the client and let them start a relationship. Include some social media elements with video. The video can be used in social media and can sit on the client’s website. Yours too!
If you want to bring the talent to town, do it for a big game, local event, or 4th of July parade, and the sponsors will follow. Run a promo during the talent’s daypart asking local sponsors to text in to reserve their promotional spot. Have the talent cut liners asking the same thing. Take the NFL Sunday morning host and sell a promo to a sports bar where the host zooms in to a table or room full of listeners, and they watch a portion of a game together. Or sell the same idea to a national chain and do an on-air contest for a listener to have a home watch party with the zoomed-in host complete with food and beverages from your sponsors sent to both locations. How about sending your #1 BBQ joint that handles mail orders and sends some food for the talent? They can videotape themselves reheating the BBQ and make some great Facebook and Instagram videos.
Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder. Try selling a nationally syndicated host inside your market. I promise you’ll like it.
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