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Travis Thomas and Reese Waters Help Team 980 Break New Ground

“People need to have an open mind about a potential pool of applicants and look at it in terms of skill set, because the skill set that applies to this profession, might also be apparent in another profession.”

Brandon Contes

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Earlier this month, Entercom’s The Team 980 in Washington D.C. announced a revamped weekday lineup, airing Travis Thomas from 9am – noon and Reese Waters from noon – 3pm. In a somewhat groundbreaking move, The Team 980’s weekday schedule now features two solo Black hosts back-to-back, with neither being a retired professional athlete.

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The pipeline to full-time sports radio jobs in major markets has traditionally provided roadblocks for Black hosts. Sports radio has acknowledged the problem in recent years, but most stations still fail to offer a diverse lineup reflecting the cultural representation of its community.

Challenging the odds, both hosts arrived at 980 through very different paths. Thomas experienced the more traditional sports media grind, working various jobs behind-the-scenes and behind-the-mic on TV and radio. For Waters, the grunt work began as a comedian. His stand-up led him to provide sports commentary on television and his extensive TV work earned a full-time radio opportunity.

But for both hosts, the opportunity with The Team 980 is a culmination of their own tireless work, and a program director in Chris Kinard who broadened his talent search.

Brandon Contes: When did both of you take an interest in broadcasting?

Reese Waters: Honestly, I didn’t really consider it a potential career until I was in it. I was working as a comedian and I had a lot of sports in my stand-up material, but the first opportunity I had in broadcasting came because the people at Versus found my comedy. They were looking to cast a comedian on The Daily Line and I didn’t even have representation yet, but they found my stand-up on YouTube and my sportscasting career kind of started by happenstance.

Travis Thomas: I played sports my whole life growing up in a small rural town in Maryland and like many kids, I had dreams of going pro one day. I wanted to go to the NBA and I used to tell my mom, ‘I’m going to get drafted and I’m going to buy you a Jaguar.’ That didn’t happen [Laughs], and I would say early teenage years, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. But I knew I wanted to work in sports, I was never shy, I was never nervous to be in front of a class, I thought I could be a broadcaster, I went to school for it and the rest is history.

BC: Travis, since you knew you wanted to make this a career at a younger age, was there anyone you watched and listened to that became an inspiration, or someone you aspired to be?

TT: Just one. When I tell you I grew up in a rural town, I lived in the sticks, literally. So right around the time I realized I wasn’t going pro, my parents finally got cable and I discovered a channel called ESPN. Stuart Scott – not only looked like me, but he talked like me. He was hip-hop. He was cool. It was an eye-opening, life-changing, career-directional event that still inspires me today.

Stuart Scott, ESPN's Voice of Exuberance, Dies at 49 - The New York Times

BC: Was Stuart instrumental in shaping your career path? Because we talk a lot about the lack of diversity in sports media, it was significantly less diverse 20-30 years ago, was it important for you to have someone that looked like you that you could look up to?

TT: It was more than that. I definitely would have gone down this career path regardless, but for me personally, Stuart made it OK for me to be myself. Without Stuart, I would have tried to talk like every other broadcaster. I would’ve been cookie-cutter and we have enough of that in this business. I have no idea if I’m liked, loved or hated in this business, but the only thing I can hang my hat on is there’s only one me and Stuart allowed for me to be unapologetic about being myself.

BC: Do you strive to be that person for other young Black Americans who might not be thinking about sports media as a career path, but then they look at The Team 980, they see you and Reese, and it becomes a more realistic option.

TT: I hope so. But I feel like I’m failing young Black, minority, and young women broadcasters because I’m not doing as much as I can be. I can do more. Yes, I represent us, I’m not going to do anything to embarrass us, but they need to know who I am or stumble upon me to find me. I want to go to them and show that you can have a career in this. I will do a better job of reaching out and finding them. I don’t want them to have to find me, that’s my fault.

BC: The sports radio industry talks a lot about its diversity problem, and like you just mentioned, this goes for minorities and for women as well. It would be great if this wasn’t a story. I think progress will be when it is no longer noteworthy that a city adds a Black sports radio host or that a female broadcaster is covering a male sport. But two Black hosts, in weekday lineups on a major market station and neither of them are a former athlete, do both of you recognize that as a big deal?

TT: I do, and you have to give props to CK (Chris Kinard) for having the vision and guts to make it happen. The early returns have been fantastic. I can’t tell you how many people have called me just to say what it means to them to have us in this position. People of color and minorities are used to dealing with discrimination, we’ve done it our whole lives and for me to be in this position, a position I’ve earned, for me it’s just validation for all the hard work and all the racist BS I’ve dealt with in my 39 years on earth.

Travis Thomas | RADIO.COM

RW: The non-athlete part resonates with me because a lot of the ways in which places fill their diversity quota is by finding former athletes. For us to be able to ascend to this without being former athletes, it feels legitimate. Because this hasn’t been the prerequisite for many of the people sitting in this chair that looks like us.

BC: Executives used to blame the lack of diversity more on a lack of diverse applicants rather than a hiring issue on their part. I think that’s changed, there’s more accountability, but how important is it for executives to look beyond a pool of applicants for job candidates?

RW: It’s exceptionally important and I think there are a lot of people who can and will thrive in positions that they may not be seeking. People need to have an open mind about a potential pool of applicants and look at it in terms of skill set, because the skill set that applies to this profession, might also be apparent in another profession.

I happen to think stand-up is one of the most underappreciated disciplines we have in America. The idea that I was expected to come into a TV studio initially and have something funny to ad, four or five times in an hour – are you kidding me? That’s easy! I was used to filling a full hour by myself. And now going to radio from TV, it brings me back to comedy. To be able to speak confidently, be funny and engaging for that amount of time, is more like stand-up.

TT: I think smart executives like CK are already doing it and have been doing it for a long time. The issue is bigger than that. Smart executives are doing it, but those don’t grow on trees. I want to continue to ride this broadcasting wave, but my long-term goal is to be an executive. To me, that’s where real change will happen. We need more minority executives, we need more people of color making those decisions, we need more women making those decisions and being part of executive teams. That’s my ultimate goal and that’s when you’ll see change because the majority of executive teams are misrepresented in my opinion.

BC: Have you mentioned that interest to Chris Kinard?

TT: I’ve been very careful to talk to my bosses in radio and TV about that right now. I’ve probably mentioned it in passing, but I don’t make a big deal about it because I don’t want them to think I’m not focused on the task at hand. And I want to be clear, I’m having a blast as a broadcaster, so if I start talking to my bosses about wanting the corner office to run the world, they might think I’m not focused.

BC: What’s interesting is there are a lot of radio executives that didn’t have the ability to be entertaining enough or have the personality to be successful on-air, but they understood the business, they went behind the scenes and worked their way up to become an executive. It’s interesting to see someone who has the personality and creativity to be on-air, but has aspirations to be an executive to better the industry. It would serve executives well to seek your ideas to help the industry grow.

TT: I really appreciate that. My aspirations were always to be a broadcaster and become an all-time great. I never thought of management. It was last summer, 2020 changed my life just like it did for a lot of people. The pandemic, civil unrest, racial injustice. I was laid off due to COVID-19 budget cuts. It was a low point for me just like many Americans.

I was looking at my resume and saw all the behind-the-scenes experience, I saw all my on-air experience, the only thing I never did is something I was born to do. And that’s be a leader. I’ve never led in this business and that’s what really gave me the first inclination that I want to do this. Then you go deeper and see there’s not a lot of representation in leadership roles, it feels like the perfect fit, but it’s just not my time yet. I have more to do on the broadcasting side and I’m going to kick ass doing it, but eventually – I want a seat at the table and I believe I can bring a lot to it.

BC: Reese, what about your other aspiration, are you the type of comedian who has a lot of natural wit and instantly commands a room or are you someone who is more meticulously writing and editing, practicing and perfecting?

RW: I would love to say I’m one of the naturals, but then you see guys like Chappelle where it literally just oozes out of his body. I don’t walk in and command a room the way a lot of other people do in that class, but there are a lot of great comedians in the other class. I’m a little bit more planned and meticulous in how I go about it.

Ventura Harbor Comedy Club :: Father's Day Special Show w/ Reese Waters

BC: What about building a radio show? Is your show more planned and organized, or is it off the cuff?

RW: I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how much I have to plan. I’m still learning and going through that process because I don’t want to be so scripted for a three-hour show, I want some freedom, but I also want to make sure I have material to work with. Right now we’re in the process of figuring out how it works and that’s probably what occupies most of my time right now, figuring out that formula.

BC: Do you feel extra pressure to add comedy and be funny on your radio show because of your background?

RW: Yea, I would say there is. I also feel extra responsibility to service the sports fans. If I didn’t have this background, I might indulge a tangent longer, but I probably give myself a shorter leash because I don’t want to be perceived as lacking in sports content. I want to get to the point where these are things I’m not thinking about and we’re just doing what is the best radio. But right now, it’s all on my mind during a show.

BC: Do you have a preference, television or radio?

RW: TV is a completely different animal. I can take 15 minutes to talk about something on the radio, but on TV, I get 45 seconds and if I misspeak, that counts in those 45 seconds. You have to hit TV aggressively, and that’s been a challenge for me. Being able to know that really funny minute you did on TV, I can turn that into five or 10 minutes on radio. It’s a completely different animal and I’m just getting used to the freedom radio offers, but I think radio is going to be something that I’m able to have a lot of fun with once I figure out the speed of the content.

BC: You were on Letterman, which has got to be an amazing opportunity for any comedian. How were your nerves for that experience?

RW: The Tonight Show with Johnny is the greatest credit a comedian could have, but I still think Letterman is second. It feels like a badge of honor and I was bummed when the show went away, but now it’s something that nobody else can get.

Ray Romano was the guest that night, so I had not one but two comedians watching me. It was a divine moment, I don’t remember it at all, I blacked out, I’ve watched it, but I don’t remember it. I’m very picky with my work, but I watch that performance and I wouldn’t change anything about it.

BC: What about the aspect of being in DC, the heartbeat of our country’s political scene which is such a divisive issue right now, do either of you have a policy on mixing sports with politics or social issues?

RW: Sports and social issues have been mixing for a very long time. I will try to be as honest and truthful as I can with any injustices I see, whether on the field, off the field or tangential on the field. The reality is, most times, there are very few things that go on off the field that don’t affect what goes on the field in some way and I’ll continue to try and be a light for those situations. It’s been a long time that I’ve had to be a fan while ignoring a lot of injustices I see. It’s been a long time, it’s been long enough quite frankly. But I want to hit a note that’s also inviting for people who don’t agree, to feel like they have an opportunity to weigh in and have their thoughts be heard because if I’m preaching to the choir every day, then I’m not changing anything. The ability to have open dialogue and exchange, that’s the highest aim you can have for any enterprise and hopefully we can be that.

TT: My policy is be honest, open, and allow every voice to be heard. When Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee a few years ago, I was doing weekends on The Fan at 106.7. I opened the phone lines with a generic statement, I acknowledged it was happening and said ‘I’m taking all calls on it, just keep it clean.’ I don’t know if I even gave my stance on it.

I welcomed both sides of the aisle and to be honest, a lot of the conservative views would thank me because they didn’t feel they had a platform to discuss it. People would hang up on them, but I didn’t. I don’t want sports to be divisive, sports should bring us together. As long as we’re being respectful and honest, when social issues or politics crosses into sports, let’s just have an open conversation and learn from one another.

BC: You mentioned doing weekends at The Fan, do you view them as competition now? I know Entercom did this in Miami as well, but it’s kind of strange for one company to own two sports stations in the same market.

TT: I’m a unique hire in that I view both as family because I was doing TV work full-time, radio was freelance until recently, so I was basically a mercenary. I would take work with The Fan and I would take work with The Team 980. Whoever called me, I would say yes. This merger is beautiful for me because now it’s one family and I don’t have to view it as competition, I can like both.

BC: How do you help keep this industry from getting old, stale. Younger generations demand content that moves fast. Can sports radio keep up?

TT: I graduated from college in 2005. I remember professors telling me radio was a dying medium! ‘Put all your eggs in the TV basket, because radio won’t be around.’ That was 2005! And here we are, 2021 and I just got a radio gig!

[Laughs]

There’s a lot of content right now and it’s premature to say what’s going to die and what’s going to be the bigger medium, the bottom line is we don’t know. We’re all trying to figure this out. One thing’s for certain, you can get robots to do a lot of jobs in this country, but being opinionated and passionate about sports is not one of them. The demise of radio is a bunch of hogwash. If you’re entertaining and knowledgeable, you’re going to survive anything. That’s a fact.

Automated Radio: Grim Listening For Audiences | FYIMusicNews

RW: Digital content and podcasts are obviously doing well, but the advantage radio has is being able to act with immediacy to things. That’s our advantage. And we have the best of both worlds by giving live commentary and reactions, but also have the ability to get into the digital space by offering our shows as podcasts as well. 

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