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The Perils of Hiring The Cool Kid at The L.A. Times

“Trying to survive in a troubled media industry, a legacy news operation compromised traditional ethics to hire a hipper sports columnist from ESPN, Arash Markazi, who only made things messier.”

Jay Mariotti

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He’s not a bad guy, Arash Markazi. Last year, we chatted at a Beverly Hills wine bar, and there’s probably a joke in there somewhere because LeBron James and his associates enjoy the same establishment. Years ago, Markazi committed a journalistic sin for not properly identifying himself as a working ESPN reporter at a James-hosted party in Las Vegas, an offense for which I scolded him on an ESPN-owned radio station.

ESPN did not suspend him for the misstep. In January of last year, the Los Angeles Times poached Markazi and made him a sports columnist, with executive editor Norm Pearlstine assuring a concerned Times sportswriter in a subsequent e-mail that he had spoken to Disney Company executives about Markazi. Wrote Pearlstine to Nathan Fenno: “ESPN thought Arash’s flamboyance was a plus — he appealed to the younger fans that ESPN and other sports information outlets must attract if they are to remain viable.’’ The editors specifically wanted Markazi to cover popular millennial and Gen-Z interests, such as UFC and e-sports, while carrying on a gossip-columnist-type persona that led him to celebrity haunts such as — hey, babe — the Beverly Hills wine bar. They also knew he had 120,000 Twitter followers. They also knew he’d be a fresh, hipper face for a fledgling newsroom channel on local cable TV.

So the Times knew it was getting Billy Bush, not Bill Plaschke.

What the Times didn’t know it was getting, apparently, was a youthful writer who continued not to grasp basic journalism standards — in part because Markazi is a product of a media generation that often ignores such practices. Hacks at chop shops such as Deadspin and Barstool Sports have routinely committed worse professional (and human) crimes than Markazi, who lazily ripped off press releases verbatim and received perks at a Vegas casino hotel in exchange for favorable publicity. But Deadspin and Barstool never have tried to prioritize — or, in many cases, remotely cared about — ethics. With the guidelines vague and relaxed in a rotting industry, Markazi might not have realized he was doing anything flagrantly wrong — and certainly wouldn’t have faced reprimands at the chop shops. Hell, Barstool might have given him a raise for sneaking around LeBron’s party.

Life doesn’t work that way, nor should it, at the Times, which forced Markazi to resign last month. His demise was part of an extraordinary and extensive investigative report, published last week, in which the Times rebukes itself for in-house scandals including ethical failures, charges of racism in hiring practices, bullying and a dysfunctional culture that has worsened under Pearlstine. This came after Plaschke — who, at 62, rates among the best sports columnists of his generation — joined other Times sports staffers in calling out Markazi for his work methods.

Aspiring journalists should model themselves after Plaschke, as fair as he is gifted and earnest. But when the last 15 years have been filled with Internet-spawned trash, students think cesspool artists such as Deadspin founder Will Leitch — whose career has gone meh after presiding over the mass libeling of the sports and media worlds — are the role models. The problem for editors such as Pearlstine: In a desperate search for cutting-edge talents who appeal to younger demographics, established prestige sites also might sacrifice longstanding principles to lure the 18-to-35 set.

When the Times bought into Markazi, it bought into a looser way of reporting — as heartily endorsed by ESPN, according to Pearlstine’s infamous e-mail. Just as unsettling, the University of Southern California also bought in, making Markazi an adjunct professor at its Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — which posed another issue when Markazi conducted a cushy interview with then-embattled USC athletic director Lynn Swann, who since has left the position. The Times and USC prioritized youth and pizzazz over traditional scruples. And both lost, including Pearlstine, who also is being eased out of the Times, at 77, after a long and distinguished career.

If any of this is unfair to Markazi, it’s that gossip columnists through the years — think New York tabloids — routinely have cut deals and flouted standards in the spirit of breaking stories. He broke stories. He wrote well enough. He was effective on TV. But the L.A. Times isn’t the New York Post. The old guard had to protect decades of credibility, even if the editors who hired Markazi weren’t listening to early complaints. “They looked at us like we were a bunch of whiny, old dinosaurs who didn’t like this hip, young guy,” Plaschke said in the Times’ self-expose. “There was this feeling of, `Well, it’s just Sports.’ But it’s not just Sports. Sports are the fabric of the community, and readers deserve our care, our trust and our integrity.’’

At least the Times has chosen to look in the mirror and opt for complete transparency, unlike media outlets that take hits and never address them. Such self-pillories are the only chance for long-range media survival: exposing internal warts to a public never more suspicious about those who gather and comment on news. In the Times’ case, gazing inward will help only if the newsroom pivots and uses its ample resources as just three legacy powerhouses have done in a dying newspaper racket: the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. In the 10 years I’ve lived in California, mostly in L.A., the Times has been perpetually turbulent. Things were supposed to improve with the financial might of the multi-billionaire owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. But it was Soon-Shiong who vowed to bring youth and e-sports coverage to his sports pages. So the Times hired the cool kid from ESPN.

Next time, hire the proven and seasoned commodity, regardless of Twitter followers.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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