They never ask the fans, do they? Sports wants your life, your eyeballs, your disposable income, your first born and your unconditional loyalty through scandals and labor standoffs, but when an existential crossroads arrived in the devilish summer of 2020 — how, when and why sports should resume — did anyone ask you?
Say, how you might feel if mere days into the Major League Baseball restart, there already were fears of various COVID-19 outbreaks.
The games are back. The broadcasts are back. The commercials are back. The malcontents are back, including Lou Williams, who bolted the Disney World Bubble for a “family matter’’ that involved a rapper, a photo, an Atlanta gentlemen’s club and the risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus and sabotaging the NBA season. The referee-baiting is back. The juiced-up home runs are back. Alex Rodriguez is back, tragically. Even the frat-boy code is back, with the Cubs and Brewers engaging in dugout-emptying trash talk oblivious to a virus that still rages across America and will continue to impact Bubble-less MLB — including the Miami Marlins, who delayed a trip home from Philadelphia after four players tested positive, and the Cincinnati Reds, who sent two regulars home after a teammate tested positive.
Yet, through the early blur of sport’s doubtful resumption, let’s pause, take a breath and ponder this: Can we honestly declare that “Sports Are Finally Back’’ — as rhapsodized in a Bud Light ad that runs as often as A-Rod flubs a fact — when the spectators aren’t back? As an entertainment function, is this not closer to “The Walking Dead’’ than an exercise gauged by daily standings? Are these stadiums and arenas … or sensory deprivation tanks?
Whether it’s baseball opening in spookily desolate parks or NBA players swallowed by court-length neon LED boards inside a video chamber, the absence of energy is numbing. This is the point in time when everyone should acknowledge that fans, always the bastard children of the industry, are vital to the live event experience and never should be taken for granted again. For as long as I’ve been writing and commenting on sports, they’ve been perceived as necessary evils — tolerated by athletes and coaches, trivialized by media and patronized by owners who periodically toss the stock go-to bouquet, “Our fans are the best in the world.’’
But after taking in underwhelming, low-buzz scenes in what should have been electric moments — faint echoes of “Celebration’’ after Matt Olson ripped a walk-off grand slam in Oakland, or a Wrigley Field slumber as Kyle Hendricks finished a complete-game shutout — it’s obvious no amount of piped-in crowd noise or life-sized cardboard cutouts can put lipstick on the pandemic pig. We don’t want to hear balls banging off the Green Monster; we want to hear Red Sox fans thrilled that balls are banging off the Green Monster. We don’t want to hear Max Scherzer grunting “goddammit’’ as Giancarlo Stanton launches a mistake pitch almost 460 feet; we’d rather hear the groans of Nationals fans and roars of Yankees fans.
“When Stanton hit the ball out of the stadium, you kind of miss hearing those oohs and aahs,’’ said Aaron Judge, Stanton’s fellow Bronx Bomber.
And if Kike Hernandez delivered a memorable quip about kid Dodgers pitcher Dustin May — “He wasn’t nervous or intimidated by the amount of cardboard we had in the stands tonight,’’ he said — come on, I want real butts in those seats, not cartoonish mannequins that mock what the men in uniforms are taking seriously.
Admit it, sports: The fans not only are missed dearly, their involuntary sabbatical has undeniably diluted the return of games in America. The sounds, the smells, the buzz, the beer, the concourses, the cityscapes — without the surrounding vitality, what is this, exactly? The pandemic has robbed sports of its spark, its essence, and if you don’t believe it, consider the weirdness at Wrigley.
Know how cool it was to see Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo offer a splash of hand sanitizer to Milwaukee’s Orlando Arcia, who accepted? Well, the mood quickly grew feisty, as Rizzo was plunked in his next at-bat in what became a succession of purpose-pitch tit-for-tats over two games, leading Cubs star Javy Baez, who had been hit on the arm, to jump over the dugout railing. Next thing you knew, Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain was saying he doesn’t care about MLB protocol prohibiting fighting, that he’ll be ready to rumble regardless of social-distancing violations. “I think this is going to be part of this season. I mean, the dugouts can hear each other and umpires can hear everything,’’ Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “There’s talking that goes on in a game that you never hear with fans here.’’
A part of me wants to hear that talking. But in this case, I miss the fans much more. I’ve been at Wrigley during on-field fracases, and without fury in the stands — fueled by differences between large-market Chicago and an inferiority-ridden town 90 miles to the north — this felt like a bar argument across the street at the Cubby Bear.
No doubt the visuals are uplifting, if not historical and miraculous. We are watching the world’s greatest athletes competing again in famed stadia and dazzled-up gyms in Orlando. We are mesmerized once more by Mike Trout, LeBron James and — would you believe, Yoenis Cespedes? NFL camps are opening this week, somehow, though the league remains a longshot to survive COVID-19. The NBA Bubble really starts to blow up Thursday, without Williams. The NHL Igloos launch in Canada a few days later. Golf, soccer, NASCAR and the lunacy spun by Dana White have been online for weeks. And didn’t we all laugh and crack wise when Dr. Anthony Fauci nearly hit the Washington Monument with his ceremonial first pitch, which he could have attributed to an act of physical distancing if he wasn’t busy explaining why he wasn’t wearing a mask while watching the game in the barren stands. “I had my mask around my chin. I had taken it down. I was totally dehydrated and I was drinking water, trying to rehydrate myself,’’ said Fauci, who is starting to make me nervous.
In so many unimaginable ways, there is a renewed and refreshing sense of familiarity, if not normalcy, and even if the virus sabotages leagues and shuts down seasons before they end, at least we were privy to glimpses. Still, this isn’t sports as we know it, nowhere near it. A game cannot be played in a studio, like the taping of a TV sitcom. What makes it explode is the convergence of humanity — lavishly compensated athletes and the fans who cheer/boo them — within an emotionally charged pit. Some teams are going big on booming music and effects, such as the La La Land Dodgers, who had organist Dieter Ruehle blast out “Welcome Back’’ and let him rev up fitting tunes during lulls: “Zombie’’ and “Enjoy The Silence.’’ Tropicana Field actually sounded louder with no fans, thanks to revved-up gimmicks, than it does amid the smattering of people who show up for Tampa Bay Rays games. Other teams have opted for the sounds of silence, with the Nationals choosing not to use organist Matthew Van Hoose, who moved his Viscount organ to a nearby Buffalo Wild Wings — where only a couple of voices in a sparsely populated bar sang along to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.’’ In Houston, the organist foolishly played the opening beats of an age-old rally starter — Dun-dun-dun-DUN-dun-DUN! — when no one was in the stands to yell, “CHARGE!’’
Turns out the resumption of sports isn’t a diversion from the virus.
It’s a creepy, incessant reminder of life as we’ve never known it.
“There’s a lot of strange going on right now,” said Justin Turner, the Dodgers third baseman. “This is a day that if I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t 100 percent certain we were going to see happen this year. The fact that we are here, the sacrifices and choices and responsibility that players across the league have taken to ensure we’re getting to this opening day, it’s unbelievable.”
Said Oakland pitcher Chris Bassitt: “I think we as athletes kind of took the fans somewhat for granted before all this. I think the majority of us have realized the true value of a fan, especially at the game. The energy that every game has is just drastically different. It’s just, it’s very awkward. It really is.”
Baseball’s 60-game regular season and the NBA’s seeding-games-plus-postseason sprints both have shotgun feels. But the novelty of Sports In a Pandemic, which could be a sequel to “Snakes On a Plane,’’ will give way at some point to a slog. How will the players find motivation? How many will want to bolt the Bubble like Williams, who not only must serve a 10-day quarantine — and miss three regular-season games for a messy Clippers team — but now has hundreds of players worried that he caught the virus in a strip joint, even if he claims he was just eating dinner there. And how will the poor fans, confined to their homes, remain engaged enough to keep watching on TV? Just because games are back doesn’t mean they’re all going to be well-played, right? And won’t baseball get boring in a hurry because, um, the players still aren’t in a hurry? Now more than ever, MLB should be quickening the pace of play so players have minimal time at the ballpark to reduce health risks. So why were players in damp uniforms cramming together in clubhouses during a two-hour rain delay in D.C.? Why not examine the radar and quickly declare Gerrit Cole and the Yankees as winners, which eventually happened? Why did we see a Summer Camp exhibition game last almost four hours?
Oh, for the same reason MLB suddenly thinks it has solved the COVID-19 crisis: by simply downplaying it and pretending a positive test is an ankle sprain. Yep, Juan Soto, only the best player in the lineup of the defending champion Nationals, tested positive for the virus last Tuesday, meaning he was exposed to teammates during an exhibition game that evening, then worked out with the same teammates Wednesday before learning of his positive sample the next day. Only two weeks earlier, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had ripped MLB for lengthy delays in test results. Now, he was uttering cringeworthy sports jargon.
“Next man up, let’s go,’’ RIzzo said. “You feel bad for him. He’s a great player. The fans want to see him. And it affects our lineup. But what can you do about it? You’ve got to play ball.’’
Actually, you didn’t have to play ball. MLB could have postponed the game and avoided another potential crisis: Nationals personnel that had been exposed to Soto were exposed to Yankees personnel. All Nationals players tested negative following Soto’s positive, the team said, but should we believe that? Why would MLB, which lies about everything, be truthful about an outbreak that instantly would trigger cries to shut down a team or a season? Nationals, Braves, Reds, Marlins — each day brings a new team with a COVID-19 problem, causing players to miss valuable time in a short season, if not eventual widespread panic in the sport. “There’s no such thing as a common cold anymore,’’ said Braves star Freddie Freeman, just back from an evil bout with the Corona. “If you have symptoms, this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to miss three to four days. Not just to us — it’s going to happen to probably every single team.”
Said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, explaining the travel delay “We’re talking about these guys traveling back home to their families and their kids, and it’s the reason we wanted to be safe.’’
But hey, ESPN is desperate for programming, knowing the Opening Night telecast would average a big number (four million viewers) and deflect headlines from the daily Bristol soap operas. And MLB was back-burnering the virus to push its business envelope, daring to announce an expanded postseason. The so-called commissioner, Rob Manfred, didn’t want the positive test of a star player reopening the central questions: Why are you playing baseball during a pandemic? And why are you playing at five parks in California, where testing sites — such as one at Dodger Stadium — are dealing with crippling supply shortages? And while on the subject, why is Manfred letting players break protocol with post-victory hugs, close dugout proximity and arguments between managers and umps?
Does Manfred realize many of America’s four million COVID-19 patients are bothered by serious symptoms for months, if not years? That includes people in their 20s and 30s, the age groups of almost all MLB players. Or is he too busy accepting congratulatory phone calls from the networks?
The players say they’re up to the monumental challenge of dodging the virus and trying to win games in quietude. But no matter how young, strong and resilient they are, they’re human beings. They thrive on fan noise and interaction. What if they wilt, burn out? “It’s going to take a lot of focus,’’ said Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, who, as a New York icon, was saluted by regular fan chants in the first inning. “The team that is focused the most and shows the most discipline ultimately is going to be the team that’s standing at the end of the season. It is going to take you back to playing summer ball when you were in grade school and high school. It’s going to take you back to your true love of the game. It will be a challenge to focus.”
“I think it’ll be more of a challenge once we settle into the regular season,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said. “What happens when you get into the rest of August and you start to fall into that routine? There’s so many times you get into those dog days of summer and there’s a monotony, it starts to get really monotonous. And there are nights where the fans really carry you through the game. They help you through an outing. They help you snatch a come-from-behind victory.”
One gimmick that won’t help — any of us — is Fox’s computer-generated virtual crowd. Animation-based tech allows the network to control how fans react (500 possibilities from a high-five to the dreaded Wave), how they’re divided in percentages of team allegiance and even how they’re dressed according to the weather. I’d be more impressed if Cleatus The Robot joined A-Rod and Terry Bradshaw in a mascot race (I should be careful what I wish for). When Fox isn’t airing NFL content, it’s a non-player in sports TV, forcing bosses to rely on attention-grabbing stunts. What’s peculiar is that the first several rows behind home plate and most other sections are empty, giving a true impression of an empty ballpark — until we see these virtual imposters squeezing together in certain sections.
Of course, none are wearing masks or socially distancing.
“It’s not like we are trying to make people feel like there is a crowd there,” Fox executive Brad Zager told the New York Post.
Then what exactly is the purpose?
As usual, the NBA has a better chance of getting it right, turning three Disney facilities into TV experiences. Still, despite music, a barking p.a. announcer and “DEE-FENSE,’’ chants, along with creative camera angles and practical innovation for home viewers, the Bubble dearly misses the energy that defines any game night. Hopefully, commissioner Adam Silver scraps the idea of 300 virtual fans watching games on 17-foot video boards, even if they include players’ family members. See: dumb Fox idea. The NBA might yet create a miracle in Orlando, but it can’t recapture its common arena experience. “There’s no crowd energy, so the energy is going to have to come from the players,” said the Clippers’ Joakim Noah.
Look, I get it. Leagues and broadcast networks are trying to survive a horrific, unprecedented catastrophe. If they manage to complete half the games the rest of this year, I’ll be amazed. I just want everyone to know — executives, athletes, TV people, everyone — that it wasn’t only about you all these decades.
It was about the paying customers, the ones that keep you in business and support your wealthy lifestyles. And you might want to thank them for continuing to pay attention, amid a pandemic, instead of trotting out virtual crowds and cardboard cutouts that only seem to insult them.
The Craig Carton/FanDuel Deal Is Undeniably A Good Thing
“Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better.”
Craig Carton is destined to forever be a polarizing figure in the world of sports media. Long before he was arrested, he had plenty of detractors that considered him less of a talk show host and more of a shock jock. Add to it a conviction for his role in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors in order to pay back gambling debts, and it is clear that the guy’s approval rating will never hit 100.
There are understandable reasons not to like a guy and then there are grudges. Grudges don’t have to be personal. They don’t have to spring from some sort of affront. They can easily be born out of feeling like someone has figured out a way to live a life above the rules and free of consequence for their awful actions.
Grudges can (and often do) blind us to reality. I think that is a big part of what is happening when people point to Craig Carton’s new deal with FanDuel and say that there is something wrong with it.
If you missed the announcement last week, Carton is joining FanDuel as the company’s first “responsible gaming ambassador.” He will create content about gambling responsibly and also work with FanDuel engineers to create AI to spot problem gambling patterns. The deal gives Craig Carton a seat at the table with one of the biggest mobile sportsbooks in shaping their responsible gaming policy. Isn’t that a good thing?
I probably cannot convince you to view the guy in any particular light. When it comes to former inmates being rehabilitated and getting a second chance, we tend to be very dug in with our opinions, whatever may influence them.
Undeniably, Carton did a bad thing. Swindling people out of huge chunks of money is always bad. In America, it somehow seems worse. As costs of living increase and wages remain flat, every dollar is accounted for and allotted to something for most of us. The guy should be ashamed of himself. And here’s the thing: he clearly is.
Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better. Hell, what other station in America dedicates any time at all, even just a half hour on the weekend, to issues of addiction and recognizing problem habits? This deal with FanDuel seems perfectly in line with his previous attempts to atone.
You don’t have to like Craig Carton, but you do need to acknowledge that everything he has done in terms of highlighting his problem with gambling and offering help to those that he sees a little bit of his own struggles in has been sincere. There is no reason to believe it isn’t.
Under the terms of the deal, not only will Carton advise and create content for FanDuel, but the company will also make sure Hello, My Name is Craig finds a bigger platform. You can be cynical and say that this is just part of a bigger deal between FanDuel and WFAN parent company Audacy, but FanDuel’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mike Raffensperger explained that it is good for the gaming industry to promote betting responsibly.
“I think what we recognize we needed is to add some humanity as to how we get this message across,” he said when explaining why Carton was the perfect face for this campaign.
We see it every time we post a story about sports betting. Someone will comment that it is an evil practice and that the advertising has made sports radio disgusting. The reality is that it is no different from alcohol. For most people, it is harmless. Plenty though, cannot handle it. Still, you tell me the first time you hear an ad break on sports radio or see a commercial break during a game without a beer commercial.
If you really believe sports gambling is evil and want people to stay away from mobile or physical sportsbooks, who do you think the ideal person to be delivering that message is?
You can go with the puritan approach of tisk-tisking strangers and telling them they are flawed people that are going to Hell or you can have a guy that has literally lost it all because of his addiction out front telling you “I know I cannot place a bet and here is why. If that sounds familiar, maybe it is time for you to seek help.” It seems pretty obvious to me that the latter approach is exactly what Raffensperger is talking about – using humanity to reach the people they need to.
Craig Carton committed a crime. A court of law said he had to pay for that both with restitution to his victims and with jail time. He served his time. Deals like this one with FanDuel make it possible for him to stay on schedule with the restitution payments. Even if you think he is unforgivable, that should make you happy, right?
It is admittedly strange to see a mobile sportsbook hire a “responsible gaming ambassador.” I would argue though that it is only strange because it isn’t something we have seen before. Be skeptical if you are the “I’ll believe it when I see it” type, but I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to congratulate and celebrate both Craig Carton and FanDuel.
Sports Radio America: The Starting Point When There Is No College Radio
“If we want to replace talent with talent, we have to develop talent at the lowest levels much more than asking for requirements at the highest levels. Every industry needs their farm-system.”
It is a laboratory. A place to make mistakes. A spot to make friends. The hub of many communications schools. College radio stations are the pipeline by which young, aspiring broadcasters, engineers and producers carve their path to the pros. Broadcasters from around the United States credit college radio for helping them get to where they are today, and view it as a conduit for the next generation of talent.
“I can’t speak highly enough about my college experience doing radio,” said Evan Wilner, senior radio producer at ESPN and former member of WRHU-FM at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “I realized in college that I am much better at fixing things rather than talking while other people tried doing something about it. Every place I’ve been, I feel like I’ve been ahead of the game because of the experience I got in college.”
Wilner’s story is far from unique among professionals in broadcasting today, and proves valuable in ascertaining the role college radio plays in preparing broadcasters in their journey. Travis Demers, the radio play-by-play voice of the N.B.A.’s Portland Trail Blazers, shares a similar sentiment regarding the opportunities college radio afforded him, and how it helped him work in the industry he had a nascent passion for.
“In sixth grade, I was listening to WFAN, and when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player, I started [radio] right away as a college freshman.”
Demers attended LIU Post in Brookville, N.Y. beginning in 1999, and eventually served as the sports director of WCWP-FM. In his time at the station, Demers was given numerous opportunities to broadcast football, basketball and lacrosse games on campus, eventually leading to an internship, and corresponding full-time job, at ABC Radio in New York City.
“Everything I could do specifically with sports is what I was trying to do right from the start,” reminisced Demers, “and I was fortunate enough to do that.”
Dan Zangrilli, who serves as a play-by-play announcer at West Virginia University and host of the M.L.B.’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ pre- and post-game shows on 93.7 The Fan, got his start in college radio at Clarion University in Clarion, P.A. The 4,000-watt WCUC 91.1 FM was Zangrilli’s place to get practice broadcasting live basketball games, and hosting a morning talk show.
“I had free reign; it was basically like my easel,” elucidated Zangrilli. “I started out as a freshman and became the sports director, and ascended to the general manager position by my junior year. That’s just such invaluable experience to be immersed in every aspect of the radio industry, and I wouldn’t trade that place for anything.”
In a media landscape full of changes accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifespan of college radio as a subset of the industry is at greater risk of being classified as ephemeral than ever before, a harrowing realization that one former operations manager for a mortgage company had in Memphis, Tenn. had just over a decade ago.
Ayokunle Spencer, a graduate of the University of Memphis and former paralegal, was working for the Rawlings Company in Louisville, Ky., when he happened to overhear a conversation that forever changed his life. One of his co-workers was apprehensive about how his daughter, set to graduate from the University of Louisville, would leave as the school’s radio station would be shut down due to a lack of funding. At the onset of the 2008 economic recession, college radio stations were slashed from budgets around the country, stymying the development of prospective talent and rendering vagabonds heavily involved, and invested, students. Forsaken from the ability to develop the skill set and collect the air checks needed to land a job in the industry, Spencer decided it was time to make a concerted effort to resuscitate an ostensibly-dying concentration of the evolving medium.
“When the need presented itself… we [tried to] put something together [to give] people opportunities to sharpen the skills, and develop the next broadcast talent,” said Spencer. “We posted on the message boards at the colleges and, in about a year’s time, there was an influx of different students we were getting a chance to work with.”
Sports Radio America was founded by Ayokunle Spencer in 2008 as a digital broadcasting network intended to give college students attending universities without a campus radio station the chance to polish their on-air skills and perfect their craft. A member of the jazz-format WUMR while attending the University of Memphis, Spencer had previous experience in pitching up-and-coming hip-hop and R&B artists to local radio stations, including the likes of All-Star and Yo Gotti, through his promotional company and record label, Dynasty Digital Entertainment. Progressive in his thinking, Spencer was one of the first to stream radio broadcasts on the Internet, assisting Bishop G.E. Patterson in the dissemination of a small, A.M. religious station to the masses.
“Radio was always a passion for me as a kid,” said Spencer, “but I always took steps towards that passion before the University of Memphis. I felt, at that time, I was more at the forefront of what was going to come next. I wrote a paper that the Internet would be the place for media in thirty years, and twenty-five years later, I think I was dead on with that one.”
Conceived by means of necessity, Sports Radio America is a haven for young talent, broadcasting live games and talk radio shows on the Internet. The outlet, though, became more of a potpourri of commentators and journalists alike in order to help them evolve to the dynamic world of mediated communication.
“What it started out to be isn’t necessarily what it is now, although I want to get back to those roots of working with highly-talented students and getting them prepared for the next stage of their careers,” said Spencer. “Other journalists that were leaving FOX or ESPN, or older guys that had gotten kicked out of their radio stations because they didn’t know anything about digital, they ended up here. It kind of became a collage of different broadcasters and media personalities from around the U.S.”
As Sports Radio America celebrates its 10-year anniversary, Spencer remains focused on positioning the media venture ahead of the pack, cogently aware of industry changes and best practices to help its broadcasters land jobs and the company prosper after unforeseen circumstances over the previous year-and-a-half.
“We just came through COVID, and in terms of advertising, all that stuff was crushed,” explained Spencer. “We are kind of almost in a rebuild mode now. We give people the opportunity to create something new, build up your audience and see if something works.”
Once Sports Radio America’s popularity began to grow around the country, the broadcasting outlet, to avoid being overwhelmed with participants, began interviewing and selecting talent to join them. Throughout his professional career, Spencer has had an innate ability to evaluate talent across all industries, something he calls “a God-given gift.” In his current role, which he compares to a professional football scout, one of Spencer’s jobs is to find the best people to join Sports Radio America, and help them get to where they want to go.
“The way my brain processes information, I can just tell certain people in certain things are creative enough to meet industry standards and excel,” said Spencer. “In sports radio, I evaluate voice, how interesting they are in being able to hold a conversation, the topics they pick out, etc. It’s really the only gift I think I actually have.”
Spencer has been successful in helping aspiring collegiate-level industry talent get the experience they need, with his organization serving as the pipeline many colleges have come to eliminate from their campuses. His method of evaluating talent aligns with principles employed by current hiring managers and industry professionals, such as Nick Cattles, host of The Nick Cattles Show on ESPN Radio 94.1 in Virginia Beach. Cattles highly values relatability and uniqueness in his evaluations of talent, along with if they are able to keep a listener actively engaged in their program.
“I think hosts around the country are better off when they allow themselves to be an open book,” said Cattles. “I always listen, probably more intently, to somebody who is willing to give the ‘secrets’ so to speak as opposed to somebody who is more guarded. The cool thing about radio is that there are so many talented people, and there is no one way to do it right. You try to find people who can do it their own way with the passion and the work-ethic that you can invest and believe in.”
Hardly esoteric in understanding, radio, and media altogether, is changing, and seismically in that matter. With today’s reliance on digital platforms for distribution, programs are, evidently, being adapted to fit the proclivities of the listening audience, including a shortening total attention span.
In a recent study by Microsoft, the average human being has an attention span of eight seconds, down a whopping four seconds over the last twenty years. This figure, which is shorter than that of a goldfish, is a direct byproduct of the principle of instant gratification, and the evolution of technology to enable its propagation. The inability to sustain focus has become an endemic in today’s society, and mediums of communication have had to adjust to fit this dynamic psychological paradigm.
Furthermore, consumers of mass media are more apt than ever before to selectively filter information; that is, specifically choosing what to concentrate on. As a result, media, in all of its forms, is less concentrated in scope, being narrowed to appeal to the target audience. The conflation of methodologies, simultaneously existing within a preponderance of content and a widening definition as to just who is considered to be a journalist, challenges the fundamental precept of what media is entirely. So how is radio adapting in this new landscape? By expanding its means of dissemination.
“It’s much more multi-faceted, social media-oriented and digital as opposed to [it being] siloed, [as it was] when I got into it,” said Brad Carson, operations and brand manager of 92.9 FM ESPN and Audacy Memphis Sports. “It used to be that you were a radio guy. Now in 2021, you are getting people that are entertainers. The latest joke is, ‘Hey, here’s our latest talent with one million TikTok followers.’ I think you can get people on a radio station or on our Audacy platforms from all walks of life. It’s a much more inexact science than [ever before].”
Spencer, whose progressive thoughts on the media landscape are openly conveyed in conversation, believes the introduction of streaming to be a considerable advancement that can play across multiple platforms. Unsurprisingly, he was ahead of the game at Sports Radio America, basing the online platform on this technology.
“The market for audio is always going to be there. The question is what medium we are going to use to deliver it,” said Spencer. “Everything will probably be streaming by 2030. I think that there will still be the public channels on the airwaves, but the majority of media will be consumed [via] streaming because [it is] a more accurate [platform] to measure who is listening. Whatever the next area of audio is, we will probably start it here first.”
Based on my conversations with these industry professionals, it is safe to say that Ayokunle Spencer, Brad Carson, Travis Demers, Evan Wilner, Dan Zangrilli and Nick Cattles attribute their college radio experience as one of the reasons they possess the skills to succed in their current jobs. Being able to have the flexibility to make mistakes, try new things and establish long-lasting professional relationships are invaluable to ambitious young broadcasters, and all evolving broadcasters for that matter. Belonging to a college media outlet is undoubtedly something many students savor, with many largely basing their choice of college on the quality of the media outlets if they are so fortunate. However, not all ambitious young broadcasters are equally privy to the same resources.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters are able to provide sufficient previous experience when trying to secure an internship or a job.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters are privy to changing industry trends, nor do they have the resources to render them an understanding as to how to achieve their goals.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters have a place to be mentored, and mentors willing to leverage valuable industry connections that could lead them to an internship or a job.
For Ayokunle Spencer and his team at Sports Radio America, lessening the discrepancies between those with the ability to easily make connections and expend resources, and those looking to establish or collect them, has always been at the forefront of their mission — and they intend to keep shrinking the gap.
“I am surprised there aren’t more places like this where people can develop their skills before they reach the big-time,” expressed Spencer. “If we want to replace talent with talent, we have to develop talent at the lowest levels much more than asking for requirements at the highest levels. Every industry needs their farm-system.”
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
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