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Rush Limbaugh’s Style of News Talk Opened The Door For Sports Talk

“If you are building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, it is brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format.”

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I don’t like Rush Limbaugh, both from a political standpoint and from an entertainment standpoint. I don’t understand what the appeal of that show and living with that constant level of ire towards everything around you is. But that is not what this column is about. Reveling in a human being’s death is gross, even if it is the death of a human being you think is gross.

Image result for rush limbaugh studio

Let’s instead examine the good that Rush Limbaugh did for sports talk radio. You read that right. Not news talk, but sports talk.

This won’t be a rehashing of his Donovan McNabb take from his three hilariously awkward weeks on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. That is a moment forever catalogued in history alongside the fact that after Limbaugh said that the media only thought Donovan McNabb was good because he was black, McNabb and the Eagles went on to win 13 of their next 15 and secure an NFC title.

Instead, let’s rewind all the way back to 1987 when Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Radio stations no longer had to provide free air time for the community to respond to a host’s controversial opinions and Rush Limbaugh bloomed into his final form: shameless, unencumbered provocateur.

So this is an important part to add. Rush Limbaugh, despite having some abhorrent opinions on women and anyone with skin browner than an albino alligator, was really really good at broadcasting. He knew how to command the airwaves and entertain his audience. They didn’t know what they wanted until Rush gave it to them, and they responded with blind loyalty that translated into book sales, sold out speaking tours, and most importantly, monster ratings for the stations that carried his show. Monster ratings usually lead to revenue, and if you can reliably generate significant revenue, everyone is going to try and figure out how to do more of whatever it is you do.

But again, Rush Limbaugh was unusually good at talk radio. Programmers around the country could try their damndest to find someone that could copy what it is Rush did, but the result was usually some local politician or newspaper columnist that, at best, could deliver a single compelling segment.

Talk radio programmers have been stuck in this space for decades. Before I put my head down and focused on sports, I gave talk radio a whirl. I thought it would be a natural transition from a rock radio morning show and when I looked at Raleigh, North Carolina’s landscape of clones of Rush Limbaugh clones, I thought there might be an opportunity to succeed doing the exact opposite. I wasn’t going to be a liberal version of those kinds of shows. I was going to come in everyday and just laugh at the absurdity of politics and daily life. Me and my crew would operate from a place of “none of us know anything so let’s not take any of this seriously” instead of “I’m the only one you can trust to get you through this horrible moment in our nation’s history”.

I lasted six months before I became depressed and frustrated and decided I’d rather be unemployed than try to work with a program director who’s advice for me was “use Rush Limbaugh as show prep” or bookers that didn’t understand why I didn’t want to talk to the author of a book called Barack Hussein Obama, The Unauthorized Diary of a Muslim President (a real book by the way).

By relying on nothing but copycats of a single show to occupy every single prime day part, news talk program directors created a format that was exclusively for the angriest, oldest audience in the country. It was profitable. That can’t be denied. But realistically, how smart is it to build your empire on people that are ten years from death?

So, let’s backup a bit, because like I said, “who sounds like a local Rush?” has been the blueprint for hiring news talk hosts for more than 30 years at this point. All of that anger, that total void of variety created an opportunity. Sure, WFAN signed on as the nation’s first full-time sports talk station while Rush Limbaugh was still a local afternoon drive host in Sacramento. As the format was spreading around the country though, finding frequencies not only in Major League cities but also in the Albuquerques and Zanesvilles, the Rushification of news talk radio was in its heyday. And when the company that was then known as Clear Channel started flipping underperforming rock, AC, and CHR stations to talk and branding them all “Rush Radio,” the company then called CBS Radio was busy flipping rock and alternative stations to FM sports talk outlets.

Every time angry old white guy radio made advances, there was sports talk to build its own audience by picking up the guys that were left behind. The people that wanted to be stimulated with stories and conversation on their drives to and from work had their alternative. The format that appealed to the population that wasn’t operating from a place of constant fear had the audience it needed to thrive and grow.

Okay, let’s bring it back to the 2020s. Look at the national sports talk landscape. There is a diversity of backgrounds, a diversity of styles, and a diversity of content. Seriously, put on Colin Cowherd and then put on Pat McAfee. Those guys have the same job title, but their deliveries and styles couldn’t be more different. Put on Clay Travis and then flip over to Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin. Those shows aren’t even talking to the same person, yet they exist in the same format.

Now let’s do the same thing with news talk radio. Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Dan Bongino, and Dennis Prager are all doing the same show, talking to the same guy about the same topics. Did you miss something Glenn Beck said this morning? Don’t worry. Sean Hannity will say the same thing later this afternoon.

On the local level, if you hear audio from a national show in the sports format it is because local hosts want to rip the national host that said something about the home town team that proves he is out of touch. If you hear audio from a national show during a local show in the news talk format, it is because the local host is worshiping his idol.

The politics that Rush Limbaugh embraced demanded sycophancy within the format. He wasn’t just conservative. He wasn’t just a Republican. Rush Limbaugh dared his detractors to disagree with him and then weaponized their disagreement with terms like “feminazis” and “liberal media”.

If you are capable of building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, that’s brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format though.

Image result for rush limbaugh in memory
from RushLimbaugh.com

As a programmer, the job is to get the very most out of your talent. It is to help them get to a place where their show sounds exactly like the version that exists in their head. You throw out the ideas of being a “local Cowherd” and instead find and nurture the thing that makes a host distinctly themselves. Coach your hosts into personalities that listeners are invested in. That is how you create interesting radio.

White guys turn 55 and decide to get really involved with their HOA everyday, so there will always be an audience for news talk…at least I think there will be. As long as that format stays as angry as it has been for more than 30 years, as long as every program director just rolls out Rush fanboy after Rush fanboy during drive times, the format won’t have personalities that listeners are invested in. They will have to rely on those listeners staying mad and bitter constantly. And sports talk radio will be there serving more interesting and fun content and finding an audience loyal to its hosts and advertisers in the millions of people that news talk left behind.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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