As our hearts pound in horror, our stomachs tumble in nausea and our heads throb in disgust, we ask: What now, fellow Americans? In a nation lampooned wherever laughter exists on this planet, a country where the President is a cartoonish hooligan who won’t condemn white supremacists while his Botox-ed rival stoops to name-calling and Elks Club-level taunting (“Will you shut up, man?’’), no one is sure where we turn next, man.
The best answer is a permanent move to Croatia or Kyrgyzstan, but short of that, I suppose we escape again to sports. You might argue, of course, that Donald Trump and Joe Biden have become our only sport, a hybrid of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and the classic MTV hoot, “Celebrity Deathmatch,’’ where two claymation figures batter each other in a ring. A hundred or so cable channels allow daily visits to the unflushed Trump-Biden toilet bowl if you so choose, until a first Tuesday in November that can’t arrive soon enough, when the conversation shifts to tampering and fixing and whether a crane or bulldozer will be required to extract Trump from the White House.
Our President can’t even claim his usual ratings victory — the debate numbers were down appreciably from 2016 — which suggests the next moderator have a mute button similar to the one on my old ESPN show, “Around The Horn.’’ Clearly, people were tuning out. To quote Vladimir Putin, which is appropriate in the aftermath of the Cleveland disgrace: “When people cross certain boundaries, boundaries of decency, they don’t look strong. They look weak.’’
Or, there is convenient solace in a barrage of meaningful sports events (courtesy of Trump) that, alas, come with the relentless medical risks of Covid-19 (also courtesy of Trump). In a dizzying week in American history, as the NFL is slammed by its first major coronavirus outbreak, escapism is available in the round-the-clock form of another LeBron-centric NBA Finals and the quick-out Major League Baseball postseason, among other options. Trump’s fantasy of winning re-election via football is crumbling in a heap of positive coronavirus tests, including campus outbreaks that already have broken the college season. Anyone foolish enough to think the sport was immune to the pandemic — hello, American South — can stop writing me after I predicted a Covid crisis in August on Paul Finebaum’s ESPN show. What NFL quack assumed the Tennessee Titans would be safe from a heap of infections — nine total, including four players — because they didn’t allow their Covid-ridden outside linebackers coach, Shane Bowen, to travel with the team to Minnesota? And what NFL doofus continues to think the Titans can play the Steelers on Monday night in Nashville, which sounds like a blueprint for a coronavirus spread? Just as we saw MLB struggle outside a restrictive environment with a flouting of protocols, we’re seeing NFL coaches refuse to wear masks and Raiders players not wearing facial coverings during a charity event in Las Vegas. You snooze, you lose.
You sneeze, you lose worse. And if the coaches don’t follow the plan? The league is threatening to sock them with suspensions and lost draft picks, which sounds much like local governments that issue warnings of prosecution to maskless Covid-iots, only to stop short of enforcing the so-called policies. All of which feeds the political invective that has turned America into the hottest of messes — and one that put LeBron James at the intersection of sports and society one night after a debate that hopefully is a one-off, for the sake of our collective wellness.
It’s much too simplistic to say James is en route to a fourth NBA title with a third team, the Lakers, or even that he’s honoring the memory of the late Kobe Bryant. As witnessed in Game 1 against the refreshing but already battered and lost Miami Heat, this one will be easier to navigate than past roller-coaster rides, armed with a deadly accomplice in Anthony Davis. James’ aim is to combine a 2020 championship — which would be the most unique and challenging ever won by a sports legend — with the demise of Trump, a mission he has plotted for years via his belief that the President is a racist. “PLEASE VOTE!!!!!’’ he tweeted after the debate in his native northeast Ohio, where his 2016 comeback triumph with the Cavaliers was assumed to be his career touchstone … until this hellish year.
Suddenly, almost 36 and only a year after he looked ready for retirement and a Hollywood mogul’s life, he is looking at an unprecedented survivalist takeover: overcoming three months in a depressing Bubble, a dissension-plagued franchise, the helicopter crash that killed Bryant before they ever had a chance to meet for dinner, his polarizing embrace of activism and Trump-bashing amid the police shooting deaths and Black Lives Matter protests, a geopolitical flap in which he was widely ripped for his pro-China view after Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweet, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Luka Doncic and a faux Clippers team that splashed LeBron-mocking billboards throughout Los Angeles — remember “We Over Me’’ — when James was the one who united a team. Oh, and he also made “Space Jam 2,’’ though it won’t open in theaters until theaters can be opened.
Do not make the mistake, as some have already, of declaring LeBron as the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time if he pulls it off. Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T., no recall vote permitted. But Jordan, I dare say, could not have withstood the year’s non-stop trauma and drama — never bearing the burden of activism during his playing career, for instance. James is about to slay not only the Heat, but opponents — attrition, mental and physical health, isolation, American misery — never tackled by his all-time brethren in sports.
“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” he said of central Florida confinement, which keeps him from his just-purchased $36 million Beverly Hills mansion. “I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the Bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it’s been extremely tough. But I’m here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to compete for a championship.
“That was my mindset once I entered the Bubble, once I entered the quarantine process the first two days. Then, right from my first practice, my mindset was to — if I’m going to be here, make the most of it and see what you can do and lock in on what the main thing is. The main thing was for us to finish the season and compete for a championship. So that’s just been my mindset throughout these — I don’t even know how many days it is. However many days it is, it feels like five years. I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career.”
The Lakers are far from perfect, which is why Heat leader Jimmy Butler said before Game 1, “Not going to say that we’re any better than anybody else, but I just don’t think that we’re underdogs. I don’t.’’ LeBron’s cast includes hotheads who go off for the wrong reasons and three-point shooters who often don’t go off when needed. But after all the Miami injuries and all the obstacles he has overcome, LeBron isn’t going to falter now? With emerging star Bam Adebayo nursing a shoulder strain after a collision with Dwight Howard and Goran Dragic finished with a tear in his left foot, the Heat could be swept. Plus, there’s the Miami grudge factor. James is facing Heat patriarch Pat Riley, who brought him to South Beach, then seethed when he returned to Cleveland. And Erik Spoelstra, the coach he initially didn’t accept in Miami, who since has become a strategic wizard and master developer of homegrown pieces Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
Losing to the Heat, before they are ready to win championships, would be devastating to LeBron’s legacy. It would make him 3-7 in the Finals, this one against a team he was favored to beat. Only a catastrophe can stop James and Davis, by far the best two players in the series, from winning the Lakers’ 17th NBA title. “To be back in the Finals against Miami, I think, means a lot more to him winning this than anyone else,” said Davis, who dominated Game 1 with 34 points and backboard domination. “I think this championship is probably second behind Cleveland, being able to get this one for him.”
All considering, this one would trump Cleveland.
Pun fully intended.
The baseball diehards have their dream playoff-o-rama, with whatever happened in a shotgun, Covid-dinged regular season rendered meaningless beyond seedings. Being a lower seed hasn’t mattered yet to those cheatin’ Houston Asterisks, who didn’t have to steal signs to eliminate the Twins and give America a hating interest — especially in L.A., where the Dodgers won’t be waiting but Dodgers fans know the team bus route. “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,’’ Carlos Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?’’ On the lovable side, admire the Marlins, who have the Cubs on choke alert again without benefit of Steve Bartman. And don’t we love lower scores — the balls have been dejuiced! — such as Trevor Bauer and Max Fried in a scoreless duel in what became a 13-inning, 1-0 Atlanta victory. The networks desperately need the Yankees, who are slugging again — past 1 a.m. this morning in Cleveland — to advance to a monster divisional series against the Rays. TV also needs the Dodgers, who have no reason not to finally win the World Series, though that was said much of the last decade. Like L.A. neighbor James, manager Dave Roberts thinks winning in 2020 would mean more because of the whirlwind circumstances.
“It’s kind of World Series-or-bust every year,” Roberts said. “This year, I think, certainly would be more special. We’ve all gone through a lot. The whole industry has.”
Imagine if the Rays win it all, giving Tampa Bay at least two champions in the Covid era — in a state, Florida, that doesn’t take the virus seriously.
“For the most part, it’s been a really cool experience,’’ said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who can state that as a champion when the experience sucked for also-rans who wasted weeks in Bubbles. In lieu of a traditional parade, players and coaches boarded trolleys for a ride to Amalie Arena, where a private team-only ceremony was held. If the NHL can be believed, more than 33,000 coronavirus tests in the two Canada igloos produced zero positive outcomes, furthering two 2020 sports truths: (1) The leagues with Bubbles avoided major Covid drama, and those with no Bubbles have been slammed; and (2) We all should move up north, where the virus has been controlled. Unlike the NBA, which is adamant about a 2020-21 season with fans in all 30 arenas, the NHL is exploring a season with four to six Bubbles in states that will allow spectators inside arenas. Could it by the embattled Gary Bettman will be remembered, along with the NBA’s Adam Silver, as the commissioners who figured it out when others flopped? A big difference: The NBA’s experiment has been fascinating; the NHL’s was boring.
Certainly, college football’s Power Five commissioners aren’t showering themselves in glory. They’re just grabbing whatever TV money falls their way, regardless of the rash of positive tests, as many top programs hide behind privacy laws that protect infected players. I applaud Missouri’s new coach, Eli Drinkwitz, for calling out the SEC and its lack of transparency about test results. “It’s kind of a free-for-all,’’ he said. I also applaud Notre Dame for trying to explain how 18 players tested positive last week, which led to 39 players being isolated or quarantined.
“Throughout our entire time together, we had not had one meal where we sat down together. Everything was grab and go,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We get into our game situation where we have pregame meal together, and that cost us. Big. We had somebody who was asymptomatic, and it spread like wildfire throughout our meeting area where we were eating and then it got guys in contact tracing.”
Why that wasn’t understood to begin with — do not eat team meals together — is beyond me. And when a player vomits on the sideline, don’t assume he’s dehydrated when, sure enough, he tested positive for the virus. “It becomes very tricky,’’ Kelly said. “Just being vigilant and understanding this thing can hide in so many different areas make it a tricky proposition, even if you’re doing all of the right things.”
Or, everyone could just go home and wait until next season. Oops, here come those Southern trolls again.
It brings to mind a comment by Our President during the Great American Cluster Dump. “By the way, I brought back Big Ten football,” he said. “It was me, and I’m very happy to do it, and the people of Ohio are very proud of me.’’ The people of Ohio might be proud of LeBron James. But Trump?
Proud probably is the wrong word.
Landry Locker Takes Something From Everyone
“I think different talent needs different things. In my case, and I don’t like admitting it, I probably sometimes have needed a little bit of a kick, a little bit of tough love, a little bit of discomfort.”
Sports radio has always been a big part of Landry Locker’s life. When he was growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — Grapevine, Texas to be exact — Landry’s dad used to have sports radio on in the house as background noise. How awesome is that? You’ll hear that an athlete like Steph Curry has basketball in his veins. It works the same way with Landry; sports radio has been in his blood from an early age.
Landry hosts In The Loop on SportsRadio 610 in Houston. His program director, Armen Williams, says that Landry digs into the audio vault more than anyone he’s ever worked with. It’s interesting to hear why audio is so important to Landry’s approach to sports radio.
He also describes the PDs he’s worked for, the lowly Texans, replacing the rush of doing radio, and tapping the brakes on self-criticism. Enjoy!
BN: From listening to sports radio in Dallas when you were a young kid, what have you taken from those years that you still apply to today?
LL: Pretty much everything. Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket started in the mid-90s. My dad was the kind of guy, before my parents got divorced, who would have sports radio on in the house as the background noise. When that started, The Ticket and all of that, that was a big influence just because it was 24/7. It’s always been something that I’ve gotten into whether it’s I want to hear what so-and-so has to say after the game, all of the reaction and all of that type of stuff. It’s always been a big part of my life, especially when The Ticket came around during the Cowboys’ second Super Bowl run.
BN: Is there anything in terms of a host’s style, not that you’re copying it, but you look and say I like what that guy does, and maybe subconsciously, that’s gone into your approach?
LL: I take something from everyone, even growing up, or the people that I’ve worked with in the business throughout my career. I think you take stuff from everybody. Different styles, there’s not really anyone that I try to be, but I think you can learn from certain people. I would say The Ticket, not to take yourself too serious. I think you could learn from guys who are real sports guys, old school, just how to do your research and be on top of your stuff.
I’ve worked with Randy Galloway when I was in Dallas and Ben and Skin. I kind of model myself after those guys kind of being loose; being sportsy and non-sportsy at the same time. Ken Carman and Anthony Lima in Cleveland, I was with them for like five months. I had a brief stop in Cleveland. I think the creativity of those guys I take in. I really just try to take in something from everybody, old school, new school, all that, and just incorporate it into what I do on a daily basis.
BN: Why was the Cleveland stint so short?
LL: The Cleveland thing was just a good opportunity because it was a chance to branch out and I really like Andy Roth, their program director. I think he’s a really, really, really good PD. I like Ken and Anthony. It was when their show first started. When I got there it was more so — and Ken and I are still good buddies — but Cleveland wants you to be from Cleveland. It is 100 percent from Cleveland.
When some jackass from Texas comes in there and is talking about LeBron James or something like that — there are some cities where that works. There are a lot of transplants in Houston and there are a lot of transplants even in New York. Sometimes you can go do that; Cleveland’s not the city for that. No matter how well I worked with Ken and Anthony, the shelf life was kind of limited on how much you could climb up.
Nick Wright actually got his job to go national, so I became the producer of the morning show here. They gave me immediate reps on air. I just took that experience as much as I could, the six months in Cleveland, and brought it here. But you know how it is in Cleveland; you could say the smartest thing in the world, but if they check your ID and they see that you’re not from Ohio, you can basically go to hell. It doesn’t matter what you said. That’s not a knock on ‘em. That’s why it’s so popular there. That’s why it’s one of those cities where you go in the gas station, they’ve got The Fan on there. They’re ready to get it, but I could basically solve the cure for cancer and they don’t give a rat’s butt what I’m saying in Cleveland. I understood that from the jump.
BN: Is Dallas like that at all?
LL: I don’t think Dallas is like that because if you just look at the lineup, a lot of the guys from The Ticket, there’s a guy from Wisconsin in Bob Sturm. There’s a guy from Cleveland in Dan McDowell. There’s just guys from other places. RJ Choppy originally went to college at Tennessee, then he went to New Jersey. Shan Shariff was in Maryland, Kansas City and all that stuff. Houston has a lot of transplants. You do want to know what you’re talking about and you do want to have a grasp of history.
There’s a legendary tale about Nick Wright when he came to Houston from Kansas City that I just always admired, even when I didn’t even know anything about Nick Wright. When he had his job interview with Gavin Spittle, who’s the PD now in Dallas, Nick had like four pages, front and back, basically he’d written out the sports history of Houston. It went from the Oilers to the Rockets, all that, and it was handwritten. It wasn’t just printed out. When I came here, even when I went to Cleveland, I would try to follow that. They are open in Houston and Dallas, but you have to show that you respect the history and have a grasp of it. Then you just have to perform on the air.
BN: You’ve had a few different program directors from Jeff Catlin to Andy Roth and Armen Williams. What are the similarities and differences between those guys?
LL: Well, Jeff’s a hard-ass. Jeff Catlin is an ass-kicker. The one thing that I can take from Jeff is that he’s no nonsense. If you deserve to be cussed out, you’re going to get cussed out. If you screw up, he’s going to let you know. He is going to let your work speak for itself. He’s going to welcome feedback and he’s no nonsense. No nonsense Jeff Catlin. Being the ultimate professional, no nonsense, is something I took from Jeff.
Andy’s just a hard worker who is one hundred percent engaged in programming. Whether you’re on at 6am or 10pm; if you play a sound clip and you don’t credit FOX Sports or you don’t credit ESPN, Andy is going to let you know about it. He’s going to give you feedback and it’s going to be transparent. It can get a little bit intense with Andy, but it’s always going to be honest and he cares about the on-air product. And he’s going to work his ass off.
Armen is a guy who has a lot of the same qualities as both of those guys. It’s kind of like a mix of both. I think the thing that Armen has on those guys is he’s been in radio for life. He’s a guy who was working at radio stations when he was young. He’s a guy who was working in promotions. He’s a guy who was a producer. He’s a guy who went and became a PD. I think Armen is just about that radio life and he’s kind of a combination of all those guys.
Armen’s also very, very good at imaging and very, very good at creating the notion that the station is on the right topic. I think he has that grasp down very, very good to where what do we need to be talking about? Sometimes we’ll go in to commercial and imaging will be so new it’s like dang, how did he flip that so quick? I think Armen is kind of a combination of those two. There’s been a lot of guys I’ve worked with and I’ve picked all their brains and they all provide a little bit of something.
BN: If there’s one thing a talent needs most from a PD, what is it?
LL: I think different talent needs different things. In my case, and I don’t like admitting it, I probably sometimes have needed a little bit of a kick, a little bit of tough love, a little bit of discomfort. I think it kind of depends. I think some guys probably need airchecks a little bit more. I think some guys need to be coddled. I think some guys need to be kicked in the butt.
It’s like when someone asks you what’s the key to a good show, I don’t know because there are so many different styles. But I think different guys need different stuff. I think the most important thing is that you need a PD who’s able to treat people differently, almost like a coach. I think you need a PD that’s going to be able to have a grasp of what each guy needs. I’ve been fortunate to work with PDs who’ve been able to do that.
BN: Working with a highly respected talent like John Lopez, who has teamed with Nick Wright and a few others, what’s one of the main things that you’ve taken from him as a talent?
LL: I’ve been very fortunate to work with John because I think that when you’ve been doing it as long as he has — I call him the OG for a reason — there’s a better chance that guy is going to have a little bit of jerk in him, and he’s going to tell you it’s his way or the highway. John has allowed me to not take over, but put my creative spin on it, and he kind of plays off me. I know a lot of times it can be annoying for him. John is like a unique guy in that he’s been doing it as long as he has, but he’s pretty carefree and as long as you develop his trust, he’s going to play off of you.
There’s immediate credibility that comes with somebody who’s been around as long as Lopez has. The likability, the experience, and just the open-mindedness, I’ve been very fortunate with John Lopez. I’ve seen some guys in his situation who will just lay out. They’re not going to do anything. I could ask Lopez hey, give me a list of 10 blah, blah, blah, and he’ll do it. He’s just a lot more open-minded than a lot of people that have been doing it as long as him have been. He has that credibility. He has that likability.
BN: So the Texans stink as you know. And you’re the flagship station at 610. What’s that like to do a balancing act?
LL: Well, we don’t have to. It’s really actually kind of crazy; they are very, very fair to us. You wouldn’t know that we were the flagship with the way we talk. They understand the situation and they’ve let us criticize them as much as possible, which is rare. I know there are other teams in town that don’t allow that. I’ve seen some teams do it, but they really, really do let us be honest and transparent about it. I haven’t had to endure any walking the line or anything like that.
We’ve talked about anything and everything and they’re very fair. We’ve talked about how bad David Culley is at managing games. We’ve talked about the culture problems. We’ve talked about Nick Caserio not winning trades. I mean I can’t lie.
I want to say something good about them; it’s just there’s nothing. They don’t have any good young players. They’ve traded all their draft picks. They’re the worst team in the league. The coach is making brain fart after brain fart. There’s culture issues. There’s trust issues. I want something, they’re just not giving it to me. I haven’t gotten any calls for things that I’ve said or anything. It sucks to cover a team this bad, but they let us do our job for sure.
BN: Armen told me that you dig into the audio vault more than anyone he’s ever worked with. He said you call it going into the lab. Why is it so important to you?
LL: I think that it’s part of the story. I think especially in NFL-centric cities where it’s a week-long buildup, if David Culley said that he trusts the culture after Week 1, and you can remember that and go back to after you lose eight straight games, I think it’s important. I think it’s part of the story and I think you’re not dependent on a team being good. Audio is a big part of what we do. When someone sends a cut sheet, I listen to every single clip and I’ll trim it. If there’s a Sunday press conference or something like that and they say yesterday, I’ll take out the word yesterday just so that it’s timely.
In Buffalo or wherever, like a good city, they can just depend on breaking down each game. But if you’re building up the story and you’re talking about David Culley said this, or David Johnson said that, or I can remember way back in the day when so and so said this, let’s compare it to that, I just think the build-up doesn’t get old and the story doesn’t die. I have a photographic memory where I’ll remember something that someone said like 15 years ago. I think it adds to the intrigue just what is being said and I’m not dependent on the team being good.
BN: When you finish a show do you look back like, ahh man, I didn’t think about playing this one clip or I didn’t think about saying this one thing? Are you built like that, or are you just kind of like hey man, the show was pretty good, we’ll get ‘em tomorrow?
LL: Sometimes I’ll get done with the show and be like man, that sucked. I’ll be like that was terrible; I should have done this, this, this, this. I think you kind of have to stop doing that at a certain point. I don’t ever think you should do a show and just say it’s over, move on. But I used to beat myself up to where it was basically like you can’t sleep and you think you stink and all of that type of stuff.
I do sometimes wonder if we left some meat on the bone. Other times I’ll think it was good and I’ll listen back, and I’ll be like man, that sucked. That really wasn’t that good. That’s probably the most uncomfortable thing for me is listening to myself, but I have to do it. I’m still kind of my own worst critic, but you do have to kind of tap the brakes a little bit when it comes to criticizing yourself. Still be aware but you do have to tone it down a little bit because I would just beat myself up and not even be able to enjoy the rest of my day.
BN: Do you have any particular goals that you’re working toward?
LL: I think eventually I would like to get in drive time. I like having the midday, but I’d like to get into drive time, try to figure that type of thing out. I just want to continue to build credibility. I want to be the guy that people go to in Houston where if something happens, if Deshaun Watson gets traded, it’s hey we’ve got to hear what Landry Locker has to say about that. That’s really the goal.
As far as going national, stuff like that, I like local radio. I think local radio is the best. This is the second time I’ve quoted Nick Wright; Nick was asked about radio and he said local radio is not going anywhere because it’s really the place that you go to figure things out about your squad. It’s a service, it’s part of the community, so I really like the local thing. I just want to continue to get better, branch out, and be as good at this as possible and expand as the business continues to grow.
BN: When it comes to the most fun you’ve had in all your days of doing radio, where were you and what was it about that situation that was so fun?
LL: Man, I feel like I wish I could just point to one thing, but I get such a rush doing shows, even in different roles, that it’s like I can’t even really answer that question. I had a very fun time when I got my first on-air segment; that was with Ben and Skin back in Dallas. They called it the Locker Room. It was so exciting. The first time you get to host that show, that was fun. Cleveland when the Cavs won the championship and I was with Ken and Anthony. When the Astros won the World Series here. Reaction Mondays are just amazing to me because you’re reacting to the game, the fans are feeding off the energy.
There’s really just not one time that I can point to and say — and I’m not trying to be corny or anything like that — but I just think the full rush of putting together a four-hour show, talking to sports fans which are the most passionate, there’s not really one thing I can point to. I wish I could, but there’s just so many good times. It’s hard to list what the one would be.
BN: I agree with you about local radio, I don’t think it’s going anywhere, but let’s just say it did. Or there are cuts or whatever and you’re no longer in radio. It’s almost like an athlete who says what am I doing now that my career is over? What would you do after your radio career to try to get the same rush?
LL: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those things where you just have to have the perspective. I have had that disappointment when ESPN 103.3 got bought out and Catlin said “I think you should try to branch out and figure something else out.” I have tasted it before. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know what I’m really good at. I have no idea what I would do without it. I try not to think about it too much but man, a lot of guys have had to answer that question. I’m just blessed to not have to answer that question right now at the very least. It’s a scary thought to think about not doing this.
Even Sports Talk Hosts Have To Make Halftime Adjustments
“Every walk of life can benefit from halftime adjustments.”
Richard Johnson of Sports Illustrated and the SEC Network didn’t play football beyond high school. Still, he really understands scheme and personnel packages. This past Sunday on his podcast, Split Zone Duo, Johnson said that he had listeners tell him that he could be a coach and he gave a great answer to that.
He said that if you study and if you played football at all, you can probably script an opening drive for a team. That isn’t hard. There aren’t a lot of people on Earth though that can make mid-game adjustments to respond to what the other team is doing. That is something that comes with experience and really, truly knowing football. He isn’t one of those people.
Every walk of life can benefit from halftime adjustments.
We have crossed the halfway point on the NFL season. I reached out to several broadcasters to see how they have adjusted what they do and how they talk about the home team.
The NFL is a league that always throws wrenches at us. Parity allows teams expected to hover around .500 to be in contention for a playoff bye with just a few borderline calls going their way. The violence of football means we are talking about injuries all the time and those injuries can derail even the most promising of seasons. Golden Boy rookies struggle to adjust to the speed of the pro game and fans start to panic. A great local host has to absorb and reflect all of that.
Four hosts in NFL markets told me how their coverage and conversations about the home team have changed from the preseason to now.
ANDREW FILLIPPONI – 93.7 THE FAN IN PITTSBURGH
Our Steelers conversation has focused on the present and future of the quarterback position in Pittsburgh. Initially, it was a referendum on the team’s decision to bring back Ben Roethlisberger for an 18th season. Then, when the Steelers fell to 1-3, it turned into a look at the external options for the position in 2022: the college draft class and Aaron Rodgers.
Now with the Steelers 5-3-1, there’s more interest in how this team will finish. Will it make the playoffs or not? Will there be another December/January collapse? So I anticipate there will be a lot of discussion about the current team’s performance in the weeks ahead.
JASON MARTIN – 104.5 THE ZONE IN NASHVILLE
Covering the Titans is always a ride, or it certainly has been during the time I’ve had a regular platform to talk about them. The fanbase has been battered and beaten down by mediocrity and disappointment, though under Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson, the hope and optimism is high. The beginning of the 2021 season was different because Tennessee won the AFC South last season, exorcised some of the old Colts demons, and had a legit MVP candidate in Derrick Henry. Add to it big name free agent moves like Julio Jones and Bud Dupree and it grows into an electric atmosphere in the audience and one where they look everywhere for applause for the team they love so much.
That said, it’s also one that has a tendency to get overly defensive whenever any of the optimism is challenged. I’ve found myself on the outs with some people at times, like any local host would, because I’ve been a little more negative, not by design, but just because I don’t feel my own analysis is worth anything if it isn’t objective. If I don’t tell you exactly what I think, if I just go along to get along all the time, why would anything I say have any relevance or weight? It’s just my opinion, but I want it to matter when I say something’s going right, when I offer up praise, or when I say the Titans are one of the best teams in the league. The only way to make that happen is to also be direct when things aren’t going well and when criticism is warranted.
Once Henry was injured, I felt strongly that the chances of winning a Super Bowl dropped off a cliff. I predicted before the season this team would win the big game (I’d never done that before), but had to pivot and say a few weeks ago if 22 didn’t return this season, the playoffs would be the ceiling, not the Lombardi. But, the key is in always keeping a door open until it’s fully closed. I may have learned that a few weeks ago also, because of course, there’s still a chance until this team loses a playoff game. You have to be authentic, but also be willing to listen to a passionate fanbase that educates itself well on the team and cares deeply about the results every season. There’s no reason to be confrontational just for the sake of it. Objectivity with frank discussion and respectful debate is our goal and hopefully we achieve it in the audience’s eyes more often than not. I love our group in the studio and love the Fam (our audience) outside of it. Just like any family, sometimes we argue over dinner, or in our case, since it’s morning drive… over breakfast.
And often, they teach me as much or more than I could ever teach them. That’s why radio is great. The interaction is EVERYTHING.
CODY STOOTS – ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 IN HOUSTON
The Texans are very bad and there are only so many ways to plainly say the Texans are bad. Game breakdowns are less and less useful as the losses pile up. It becomes a focus to critique players and coaches who will be on the team next year. We have to get creative in our approach to talking about the team. An example from last week is we took the temperature of the fanbase by asking for their “fandom injury report” during the show. There were plenty of funny responses and sometimes, with the Texans, you have to laugh to keep from crying.
They don’t have a quarterback for next season and should be loaded with an expected Deshaun Watson trade this offseason. We find ourselves lusting after quarterback situations and also explaining how we would like the Texans to avoid replicating other teams’ mistakes at quarterback. It’s also worthwhile to examine how the Texans found themselves in this situation when something jars our memory and if they have cleaned up the process which led to their failures.
NICK WILSON – WFNZ IN CHARLOTTE
Sports talk adjustments halfway through the NFL season depend entirely on the market and the path of the organization. When Cleveland was winning 4 or less games every year, I knew I had to have my scouting reports for the next quarterback crop ready by early November.
In Carolina, draft talk doesn’t sustain an audience the way it does in Cleveland when teams are bad. You’re left with this moving target of national NFL stories, the start of the ACC basketball season and recently, LaMelo Ball and the Hornets to accentuate whatever day-to-day storylines are available.
This year Carolina 3-0, proceed to lose 5 of their next 6 and then brought back the former face of the franchise, Cam Newton, to save the season. Today our topic was “which p-word are the Panthers closer to embracing: panic or playoffs.” I’m awaiting our Marconi.
Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench
“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”
As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.
Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.
Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.
Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.
Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media.
Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???
One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.
My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”
Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.
Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country.
Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format.
There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.
If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.
I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort.
Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.
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