I have a soft spot for Louisiana. I love the food. I love the music. It is where I was born.
So, when JB suggested I talk to Gordy Rush from Guaranty Broadcasting for our Meet the Market Managers series, I didn’t need convincing. Not only do I get the chance to bring you lessons from the Sportsman’s Paradise, but I get to put a spotlight on the guy that runs one of the most underrated brands in all of sports radio, 104.5 ESPN.
That station does everything its own way. The studio is set up for television. The morning show features two ex-jocks and no broadcast nerd. It is just a really cool, really local brand that is worth studying.
In our conversation, Gordy and I discussed how owning a digital ad agency has helped Guaranty’s traditional broadcast business, how he let one of his biggest stars deal with bad news on the air, what he brings to the workplace that he learned on the football field, and so much more.
Demetri Ravanos: Baton Rouge is a big college town, so I would guess you have access to those kids coming out of LSU looking for sales jobs. But I wonder how much interest you see from young people in selling not just radio, but media in general?
Gordy Rush: Well, we get a lot of interest from LSU and from New Orleans – Tulane, UNO and Loyola. People that are interested not only in sales but on air. And of course, LSU had a good run in recent years here with Ryan Clark, Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland all landing with ESPN. They’ve done very well. That means there is a lot of talent that comes out and a lot of people that are interested in the profession.
DR: So what do you see as Baton Rouge’s potential in terms of market growth?
GR: Well, I think Baton Rouge is in the 70 to 80 range market-wise. It had a big boom post 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, where a lot of people from New Orleans kind of relocated to the surrounding parishes down here. But it kind of is what it is.
I think the uniqueness of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, for that matter, is that you have LSU and then you have the New Orleans Saints. And for a state that size, you really just have those two sports. And the Pelicans, I think, are certainly getting more interest, but it’s a considerable drop. Whereas, if you go four hours over to Houston, Texas A&M sometimes struggles to crack the top 10 in interest in a city of that size. So it’s really a two trick state when you talk about LSU and the Saints.
DR: LSU is a rare college sports culture. I really think it is only in Louisiana and Mississippi where there is this gigantic college baseball culture. That lets you monetize that rights partnership year-round in a way that a lot of SEC markets can’t. Do you get how rare that is or does it just feel normal to you at this point?
GR: Well, let’s start with the fact LSU has led the nation for umpteen years in attendance. It’s like a triple-A stadium – ten thousand plus per year. Of course, the big exception this year was the Covid year. So it is like a triple-A town. I will tell you that we carry all the games on a 100,000 watt classic rock radio station.
When we were a subscriber to Nielsen and I would go up to to Columbia, Maryland, and look at the books, you’d get thirteen quarter hours Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You know, I’ve seen numbers back before ESPN+ was the thing, when it was ESPN3, and LSU would be playing a non-conference opponent on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and the streaming rights for television – there was one point that it outdrew North Carolina vs Duke streaming-wise. It gives you an idea of the popularity of baseball here. And of course, they’ve won five national championships.
DR: So how does that affect bringing local sponsors on board? Are most people advertising on LSU sports year-round, or because you have three distinct seasons, do you have advertisers that lock into just football or just baseball or just basketball?
GR: I think 75% of our sports are sold the complete athletic year, starting with football, basketball with Will Wade, he’s done a phenomenal job, I think the best three year run of SEC win percentage in the history of the school, if I’m not mistaken. And, of course, baseball. And so we sell 75% of it all through. Certainly there’s some people that are baseball purists. They’re people that started with Skip Bertman twenty or twenty five years ago that have stayed with them.
The unique thing about baseball is it’s a three and a half hour game, right? You think about a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you have a lot of people listening on the radio, cutting the lawn. There’s a lot of waterways here in Louisiana and people will have the Tigers on their radio, out on their boats partying or they’re doing what they do on Saturday and Sunday. So it is a big deal.
DR: So you have one station in the cluster that carries the Saints. Just this year, it was 104.5 that put the Kansas City Chiefs on.
GR: So it’s interesting. 98.1 has been the flagship for LSU. It’s a classic rock station that carries football, basketball and baseball. I don’t think you’ll see a top hundred market that has a 100,000 watt rock station with that much sports on it. I think back in 2010, we started with ESPN Radio, just two class A radio stations, 104.5 and 104.9, as a simulcast.
So what we wanted to do this year with the question mark of whether or not LSU was going to play, we knew the NFL was going to go. We have a Westwood One contract. Of course, we also have the Saints on on our classic rock station. They’re an affiliate. We wanted to get aggressive with the NFL. We already have the Westwood One package with the Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games, and decided to reach out and talk to Cincinnati because they had Joe Burrow. Then we talked to Kansas City because of Tyrann Matthieu, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Daryl Williams, a number of former LSU players with Kansas City, and we really struck a good relationship with the local affiliate there. So we carried all the Kansas City Chiefs games on 104.5 ESPN. You know, what a season to do that too! So, yeah, it was a good ride. It was the first time that we did that, so we were airing five NFL games every weekend on our properties.
DR: Airing the Chiefs, like you said, comes with a number of LSU connections. With your market being such a Saints-heavy sports culture, do you just go to advertisers and say “we have a package that includes 5 NFL games every weekend,” or do those LSU connections make it possible to sell the Chiefs as their own package?
GR: Well, they got the Saints and then we presented the whole NFL package. We have different levels, right? There are people that buy LSU and the Saints, and then I think that you have entry level opportunities for people that just get the NFL. I think for some some smaller businesses, it’s a really good play where they get the five NFL games and maybe some more or less that will air on the radio station.
But we really handpicked those games. I will tell you, there were games that were with Westwood One, we did some stuff with Compass, we had ESPN Radio and of course we had the Chiefs. Anytime we could get Joe Burrow before he got hurt, we put Joe Burrow on the radio. So, it was an NFL schedule that really lent itself to our market and our market interest.
DR: So with the insane success of that 2019 LSU team, not just winning a title, but all the guys they put in the NFL, is there anyone encroaching on the hardcore Saints fans? Could you see a future of carrying the Chiefs or Bengals regularly?
GR: Baton Rouge is a Saints town first and foremost and always will be. But, you know, the Saints are only going to fill one of those five spots Thursday night, Sunday night, Monday night or the 12 o’clock and the three thirty Central Time kickoff. So it’s an opportunity for four other ones. And I think with the success that LSU’s had and you look around and so many teams like Cincinnati with Burrow and what Kansas City has done, Devin White is down with Tampa Bay, Patrick Peterson with Arizona. So, it’s one of the things we will promote locally to our market here. If Patrick Peterson and the Arizona Cardinals take on Devin White and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s Sunday 3:30 pm on 104.5 ESPN.
DR: I want to turn the attention next to your on-air shows. Earlier this year, you had a high profile departure from the morning show. Jordy Culotta exited. The next day, T-Bob Hebert told the audience he didn’t like the decision and didn’t agree with it. Can you take me inside the conversation that happened before that? As a market manager, how do you ride the line of giving T-Bob the space to express his frustrations and also making sure he is on board with the plan moving forward?
GR: Yeah. You know, I get paid to make those decisions. Sometimes they are hard decisions. I had to sit down with T-Bob and give that explanation. And he told me, “I need to be me.” Which I certainly respect.
I think that’s a big part of it. We tell our people, “I need you to be real. You have the room to critique. Just don’t be an ass.” There’s lines to keep things between, and our guys do a good job of that. I respect his opinion. He’s been paid to do a morning show and I’m getting paid to run a business. I think we both understand that and I respect what he has to say.
DR: T-Bob is a guy that I think the world of. He is uniquely talented and just hard not to like.
GR: So, I know his dad, right? I’m in between them age-wise. His dad is a New Orleans legend, Bobby Hebert, the quarterback for the Saints. Now he’s down with WWL and the New Orleans Saints’ broadcast team.
I think both of them are tremendous talents. What I’ll say about T-Bob is that I don’t know where you get an offensive lineman that is intellectual, and loves Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and all the things that he does. I tell people it’s kind of like an acquired taste. But what I love about T-Bob is he is passionate. He really does the show prep and puts a lot of thought into his segments and where he’s going with the show.
It’s been really interesting to see him grow. He was an intern with us, and then went to WWL to do nights. We recruited him to come back to Baton Rouge. He was just getting married, and wanted to have a family. I said “Look, it’s a better quality of life. You can come do morning drive here in Baton Rouge. At that point, we did not have a New Orleans affiliate. We do now with ESPN Radio New Orleans. And with this recent transition, he’s now partners with Jacob Hester. That show is on state-wide, really Gulf South-wide on Cox Sports Television, which is the equivalent of like the Yes Network. It’s a big deal. I’m really happy and thrilled with the way that he’s grown.
DR: Let’s talk about that new morning show. T-Bob and Jacob are both former athletes. There is no lifelong broadcaster in the room. Do you think we put too much value on the idea that an ex-jock needs a radio nerd on air with him? Do you see that as something that can get in the way of letting former players grow beyond their stereotypical roles?
GR: I think the interesting part about it is, let’s talk about T-Bob. He has been more in the analyst role, the second seat. He did a little little lead with WWL, but primarily with us he has been in the second seat. And then you’ve got Jacob Hester that came from Shreveport, I think four years ago. He was really in the second seat and we put him in the first seat and went back and forth. In fact, I think I sat in on Mondays for a year with him, just to kind of get him with some different people so he could get comfortable. He ran lead. We wind up flipping him after Covid to middays and into the second seat with a veteran host in Charles Hanagriff. While he was doing that, he was also doing a lot of SiriusXM’s SEC Network with Chris Doering and Peter Burns. You have a lot of rotation with that.
I think the great thing about being with Guaranty Broadcasting is that I tell people we have the ability to be a dry erase board. If there was anyone that’s going to buck standards, it’s going to be us.
Who says that you have to have a lead and a second guy? You don’t. They take turns going back and forth and do it. To me, what’s more important is you’ve got two guys who really, really want to work with each other. When we made the transition, both of them raised their hand and they wanted to work with each other. Hester was in the midday, and when I sat down and had the discussion with T-Bob I said, “I’m open to whoever you want to work with. We posted the job. You tell me what you want to do.” Hester’s name came up and his eyes lit up like it was Christmas. And I think the same for Hester. Then we took a month to figure out what we wanted to do and the television element came into play and we made sure that we had a good vision of where we wanted to go. I think sometimes people in radio just panic.
We took our time. I think they planned it out well, and I will tell you, I’m absolutely thrilled with the success. We’ve had one affiliate pick up a third hour already. We’re working with another. Even the television syndicator, you know they looked at it from 7am to 9am, and we have discussions. Hopefully they’re going to pick it up for a third as well. So it’s been a home run for us so far.
DR: With Hester moving to mornings, are you still looking for someone to fill the midday vacancy?
GR: Yeah. So we have again, Charles Hanagriff, who was paired with Hester. Like everyone else, we’re just coming out of Covid and we had to do some layoffs, especially the part timers. We’re rebuilding our staff and we posted the job. Now of course, we shifted our focus from morning to somebody that would be in mid day.
The question is, at one point we had four shows on the radio station. We had two in the midday, and right now we have one. I think it’s all about finding the right fit. We’ve just started that process, and we’re not sure yet what that is. We’re a locally owned company. We don’t make a whole lot of changes, so we will take our time to make sure we get the right person.
DR: Speaking of culture, I’m from the Gulf Coast. I know that even though the whole culture is built on hospitality, Louisiana specifically is very parochial. How important is it that whoever you hire be from Louisiana or at least the Gulf Coast?
GR: I don’t think that you go in saying that you need a local person. I’ll tell you, I was on the search committee for the new play-by-play guy for LSU probably six years ago or so. And Chris Blair got the job and he was a play-by-play guy from Georgia Southern.
Some local knowledge may be a part of it. I don’t think you could come in 100 percent foreign to everything LSU and Saints. I’d think they’d struggle with that. But does it have to be somebody locally? I don’t think so.
DR: So for you, the local knowledge that matters is sports culture, not do you know we have parishes, not counties and can you pronounce all of their French names correctly?
GR: (laughing) Well, you know for all the years ESPN and CBS butchered Metairie, Louisiana as Mah-tari, that’s probably not a good look. But, I think this interview evolved to it. It’s not just hiring a talk show host anymore. You’re an influencer, right? I mean, you’re almost on 24/7.
One of the big things that we’ve been successful with is we sell live endorsements. I think that’s why we’ve outperformed the market during Covid. Our clients look at it as “There’s no way I’m canceling because so-and-so moves product for me. It’s got to be a part of my marketing plan.”
So it’s just not the on air role. The right fit will understand what we’re doing, our culture, and that we’re truly looking for an influencer.
DR : So let’s circle back on those affiliations. You have two shows heard on stations across Louisiana. How did that happen? Was it you going to stations and selling the access to LSU or did the stations have holes to fill and came to you?
GR: A little bit of both. We have great relationships. The owner in New Orleans sat down with myself and my friend Jeff Martindale with ESPN Radio when he made the effort to become an ESPN affiliate. Now he’s the flagship for the Pelicans and he’s got both our morning and afternoon shows on. Then you go to Cenla Broadcasting, tremendous broadcasters up there in Alexandria. We helped them with ESPN Radio to get that partnership going. So then up in Shreveport, Hester’s from there, so they broadcast his show. He was on the air there, and we found a way to kick it back.
So it’s being a Louisiana broadcaster. Our owner, Flynn Foster, was the chair of the LAB. So we have great relationships within the state. Then there was just an incredible relationship with Cox Sports Television. So the morning show’s on from seven to nine, hopefully seven to ten soon. Then Matt Moscona is on from three to six in the afternoon. So right now, six hours of their daily programing. We do a prep scoreboard from ten to twelve that goes statewide every night after their game, which has been a real win win. Then Hester and I do, I guess you’d say it is the equivalent of an ESPN GameDay that’s called LSU Game Day Live from 11 to 12 from wherever LSU plays.
CST’s a tremendous platform. It is the main cable provider in the state of Louisiana. You can see it in the whole state of Arkansas and on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, parts of Florida, San Diego, California. It’s tremendous visibility for us.
DR: Your studio has been set up to do something like that for a long time. Was it always about the Cox partnership or was the set and the camera setup put in thinking about creating multi-platform content?
GR: It was before we had the CST deal. Our studio is a hybrid of what Van Pelt and Rusillo had. I remember watching that studio in person and I was blown away how small it was. There are aspects of it that we took from that. We have a great relationship with Bonneville. One of my best friends in the business is Bonneville Phoenix, and they weren’t doing much in Phoenix, but they were doing this in Seattle. I made a trip because I’m a Portland Timbers fan, so one of my Oregon boys and I made the trip and flew out to Seattle to see the Bonneville studio, and we took pictures. Then of course, I went to watch Clint Dempsey play and then jumped on a overnight flight back to New Orleans.
So it’s a hybrid of ESPN Seattle and Scott Van Pelt and Rusillo. It’s really progressive and has been awesome for us. Our guys love it, and every piece of real estate in that thing was sold. It’s been a win for not only our sales, but our talent as well.
DR: In addition to radio, Guaranty Media owns a digital firm called Gatorworks. How involved are they every time you set out to pitch a new client?
GR: Any time that you sit down with a new client, you want to introduce additional questions. “What do you do on your website?” “What do you do in digital tactics?”
I want to say it was the 2014 NAB show in Indianapolis. Flynn Foster and I made the trip there. One of the great things about Flynn is he gives us the opportunity to see people face to face. I told him that when I started as GM in 2010 that I’m going to go somewhere and sit in the front row and learn. I think body language and tone and everything else is just as important than what’s coming out of people’s mouths.
We realized what was going on with digital. You know, a lot of people just went and got a third party firm. I think that our strategy was it’s not who we are. We are local. A higher percentage of our business is local. We needed a local digital company that did business the same way that we did, especially where clients can go in and sit at a table and look at analytics and do all the things that we do.
The reality of it is that if you take the third party out of it, one or two things can happen – the advertiser can get more bang for their buck or they can get a lower cost per thousand. It’s a great competitive advantage that we have. It’s a real simple pitch that we can make to advertisers.
Gatorworks has so much inbound and referral traffic. It’s been a great marriage. Ryan Rodriguez does an incredible job with data works.
DR: I saw Flynn talking about Gaterworks at the NAB in Dallas. He didn’t bring this up, but I did wonder in this time when there are people out there spinning the narrative that radio is old fashioned or dying, this is probably a really good way of kicking down that door if it’s a barrier you’re facing with a potential client.
GR: You do get some of that, but I think it goes back to the top of the funnel. You still need to do some sort of branding. You need to bring people to the top of the funnel. People need to know who you are. You spend all that money on the bottom part of the funnel and you tell people to click, and if they don’t know who you are, they’re less likely to click. So I think it’s a holistic marketing plan that we’re able to bring with top of the funnel and bottom of the funnel options.
DR: So you played football at both LSU and Purdue, correct?
GR: Purdue as a true freshman. We went 3-8. It was really cold. I had to play right away. I was only 17 years old and they fired the coach, Leo Burnett, and brought in Fred Akers.
I played in the All-Star Game in Tiger Stadium at the end of high school. It was LSU people running the thing and LSU did not recruit me. They did not offer me. I had a really good All-Star Game. They got back to me and said, “hey, look, we might have made a mistake. If things don’t work out, let us know.” And so that time came, 3-8 and a coaching change. I’d never seen snow, Demetri, in my life.
Anyway, long story short, I looked at options. I had good grades and I was considering going to Cornell. My old man and I had a long discussion. I flew back and I drove up and had a talk with Coach Archer. He decided to go ahead and give me the opportunity to walk on. I sat out that year and then played special teams right away as a sophomore and played all three years and eventually earned a scholarship. And so it was a great experience. I’m really blessed that it opened so many doors for me, life and work wise. I’m grateful that that was the path that I took.
DR: How much of what you learned as a player and saw from your coaches has translated into your management style?
GR: Well, you know, a little bit of everybody. I’ve done the sidelines for LSU games the last ten years and the beautiful thing is all the access to different voices and styles. Nick Saban, the process and his attention to detail, you pick a little bit of what he does. I love some of the stuff that Coach O does and what he brings to the table.
Not only that, but even to look across the field. I enjoy watching Dan Mullen going back to his days at Mississippi State. You could see why he’s successful in the way he approaches games and his game management. I’ll tell you, recently, one of the guys who I really enjoy is P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, I mean, wow, a breath of fresh air.
So, yeah, there’s no doubt that I think, the crossover to football for leadership and management exists. It’s an enjoyable way to learn and there is plenty to pick up from some of the best in sports.
Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?
How many times have you heard this sentence uttered at conferences or in one of the trades; radio has to do a better job of telling its story. Sounds reasonable enough right? After all, your brands and companies stand a better chance of being more consumed and invested in the more that others know about them.
But what specifically about your brand’s story matters to those listening or spending money on it? Which outlets are you supposed to share that news with to grow your listenership and advertising? And who is telling the story? Is it someone who works for your company and has a motive to advance a professional agenda, or someone who’s independent and may point out a few holes in your strategy, execution, and results?
As professionals working in the media business, we’re supposed to be experts in the field of communications. But are we? We’re good at relaying news when it makes us look good or highlights a competitor coming up short. How do we respond though when the story isn’t told the we want it to? Better yet, how many times do sports/news talk brands relay information that isn’t tied to quarterly ratings, revenue or a new contract being signed? We like to celebrate the numbers that matter to us and our teams, but we don’t spend much time thinking about if those numbers matter to the right groups – the audience and the advertisers.
Having covered the sports and news media business for the past seven years, and published nearly eighteen thousand pieces of content, you’d be stunned if you saw how many nuggets of information get sent to us from industry folks looking for publicity vs. having to chase people down for details or read things on social media or listen to or watch shows to promote relevant material. Spoiler alert, most of what we produce comes from digging. There are a handful of outlets and PR folks who are great, and five or six PD’s who do an excellent job consistently promoting news or cool things associated with their brands and people. Some talent are good too at sharing content or tips that our website may have an interest in.
Whether I give the green light to publish the material or not, I appreciate that folks look for ways to keep their brands and shows on everyone’s radar. Brand leaders and marketing directors should be battling daily in my opinion for recognition anywhere and everywhere it’s available. If nobody is talking about your brand then you have to give them a reason to.
I’m writing this column today because I just spent a day in New York City at the Disney Upfront, which was attended by a few thousand advertising professionals. Though I’d have preferred a greater focus on ESPN than what was offered, I understand that a company the size of Disney with so many rich content offerings is going to have to condense things or they’d literally need a full week of Upfronts to cover it all. They’re also trying to reach buyers and advertising professionals who have interests in more than just sports.
What stood out to me while I was in attendance was how much detail went into putting on a show to inform, entertain, and engage advertising professionals. Disney understands the value of telling its story to the right crowd, and they rolled out the heavy hitters for it. There was a strong mix of stars, executives, promotion of upcoming shows, breaking news about network deals, access to the people responsible for bringing advertising to life, and of course, free drinks. It was easy for everyone in the room to gain an understanding of the company’s culture, vision, success, and plans to capture more market share.
As I sat in my seat, I wondered ‘why doesn’t radio do this on a local level‘? I’m not talking about entertaining clients in a suite, having a business dinner for a small group of clients or inviting business owners and agency reps to the office for a rollout of forthcoming plans. I’m talking about creating an annual event that showcases the power of a cluster, the stars who are connected to the company’s various brands, unveiling new shows, promotions and deals, and using the event as a driver to attract more business.
Too often I see our industry rely on things that have worked in the past. We assume that if it worked before there’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the client. Sometimes that’s even true. Maybe the advertiser likes to keep things simple and communicate by phone, email or in-person lunch meetings. Maybe a creative powerpoint presentation is all you need to get them to say yes. If it’s working and you feel that’s the best way forward to close business, continue with that approach. There’s more than one way to reach the finish line.
But I believe that most people like being exposed to fresh ideas, and given a peak behind the curtain. The word ‘new’ excites people. Why do you think Apple introduces a new iPhone each year or two. We lose sight sometimes of how important our brands and people are to those not inside the walls of our offices. We forget that whether a client spends ten thousand or ten million dollars per year with our company, they still like to be entertained. When you allow business people to feel the excitement associated with your brand’s upcoming events, see the presentations on a screen, and hear from and interact with the stars involved in it, you make them feel more special. I think you stand a better chance of closing deals and building stronger relationships that way.
Given that many local clusters have relationships with hotels, theaters, teams, restaurants, etc. there’s no reason you can’t find a central location, and put together an advertiser appreciation day that makes partners feel valued. You don’t have to rent out Pier 36 like Disney or secure the field at a baseball stadium to make a strong impression. We show listeners they’re valued regularly by giving away tickets, cash, fan appreciation parties, etc. and guess what, it works! Yes there are expenses involved putting on events, and no manager wants to hear about spending money without feeling confident they’ll generate a return on investment. That said, taking calculated risks is essential to growing a business. Every day that goes by where you operate with a ‘relying on the past’ mindset, and refuse to invest in growth opportunities, is one that leaves open the door for others to make sure your future is less promising.
There are likely a few examples of groups doing a smaller scaled version of what I’m suggesting. If you’re doing this already, I’d love to hear about it. Hit me up through email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com. By and large though, I don’t see a lot of must-see, must-discuss events like this created that lead to a surplus of press, increased relationships, and most importantly, increased sales. Yet it can be done. Judging from some of the feedback I received yesterday talking to people in the room, it makes an impression, and it matters.
I don’t claim to know how many ad agency executives and buyers returned to the office from the Disney Upfront and reached out to sign new advertising deals with the company. What I am confident in is that Disney wouldn’t invest resources in creating this event nor would other national groups like NBC, FOX, CBS, WarnerMedia, etc. if they didn’t feel it was beneficial to their business. Rather than relying on ratings and revenue stories that serve our own interests, maybe we’d help ourselves more by allowing our partners and potential clients to experience what makes our brands special. It works with our listeners, and can work with advertisers too.
Brandon Kiley Doesn’t Pretend To Be Someone He’s Not
“There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it.”
There must have been something about Brandon Kiley that everyone saw as a young aspiring sports radio host. Nick Wright saw enough to bring him to Houston at SportsRadio 610 as an intern for a summer. Will Palaszczuk saw enough to urge him to apply for his old job in Columbia, MO at KTGR. Ben Heisler saw enough to know he’d fit perfectly with Carrington Harrison in afternoon drive at 610 Sports in Kansas City.
Maybe you can chalk it up to Kiley being able to make such great contacts. Or maybe it’s just that he was supremely talented at a young age. Odds are it’s a combination of both. But he was destined to be a sports talk host somewhere, it just turns out he’s having success over the air in a city he never imagined he’d work in.
A Kansas City kid, Kiley knew at 16 years old he wanted to be a sports radio host. He was even more sure of it when he started doing college radio at Mizzou. But it was in Houston where he got his real taste of what sports radio was like.
“I went to 610 in Houston for the morning show with Nick Wright,” Kiley said. “He basically just assigned me as an extra producer. We had known about each other through Twitter and I had a little bit of a relationship with him beforehand. I think he knew I was willing and able to take on more tasks than a typical intern would usually do. Essentially, I became an extra guest booker, cut audio for them, and came up with topics at night. It was like he had an extra producer for the summer and it was my first real experience doing something like that.”
Imagine the confidence he left Houston with as he traveled back to Columbia for another year of college at Mizzou. Few, if any, on campus could have claimed the kind of summer Kiley just had. He parlayed that experience into a once-a-week show at KCOU, the student radio station. The following semester, he pitched the idea of doing a daily show
“I told them I’d take any time slot available,” Kiley said. “The one that I got was the very glamorous 6-7 am time slot. There weren’t a whole lot of college kids that wanted to wake up that early every morning. I ended up having a rotating cast of co-hosts and it ended up being super valuable because I learned how to work with a lot of types of personalities.”
He excelled as a host and found his style behind the mic, and soon after, he got his first big break. In March of 2014, Will Palaszczuk contacted Kiley and told him he was taking another radio job outside the market. The two knew of each other, seeing as both were in Columbia and covering the same games in town. Palacsuk told Kiley he needed to apply for the spot he was leaving at KTGR.
“There was literally one sports station and one sports show in town and it was that one,” Kiley said. “I applied to him the previous semester and said, hey man, if you guys have anything available I would love to come work there. It just so happened he got a job elsewhere and he called me up and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t know what your plans are, I’m about to take another job and they’re going to post my job available. I don’t know if they’re going to make it a producer or co-host gig, but I think you should apply because I think you’d be good at it’. Will’s good work helped a ton in terms of me landing the gig. I graduated and told them I wanted to make it full-time.I was essentially a producer and co-host for the afternoon show. I never even applied anywhere outside of Columbia”
For two years, Kiley stayed at KTGR and covered the Missouri Tigers. He was fresh out of college and living in a college town doing what he loved in his early 20’s. It wasn’t a bad life. But one night in Columbia changed his entire professional career. It just so happened it occurred on the rooftop at Harpo’s, one of the most well-known establishments in town.
“My roommate at the time, we both worked at the radio station in Columbia,” said Kiley. “He worked at the hit music station and I worked at the sports station. We all went out one night at Harpo’s and he said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you guys know I’m getting out of radio and moving to Kansas City.’ I was like, oh shit, what am I going to do? Our lease was up in two months, so the timing worked out well and I was looking at Barrett Sports Media looking where I could go next.”
“My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was from St. Louis and there was a job available there. I had always thought, that’s not a place I want to live, why would I ever want to live in St. Louis? They didn’t have a football team, it just didn’t seem like a great fit for me. But my buddy tells me he’s moving and I’m like, St, Louis it is! That night I ended up applying for the job and got a call back from Chris “Hoss” Neupert, who at the time was the PD here, and asked if I would be interviewed with him and Kevin Wheeler, whose show I would be producing.”
So off to St. Louis he goes. For three and a half years, Kiley embraces his new city and tries to work his way up at 101 ESPN.
But the Kansas City kid felt a pull back to his hometown. Oddly enough, Ben Heisler even reached out to tell him he was leaving the station to pursue another opportunity in sports. It felt like the perfect time to pursue his dream of doing sports radio at the station he grew up listening to.
“I’m from Kansas City and grew up listening to 610 Sports Radio,” Kiley said. “A guy I listened to growing up was Nick Wright. I also listened to a bunch of Carrington Harrison, Danny Parkins and Ben Heisler. Those guys had what I consider one of the best shows in Kansas City sports radio history. I got to know them through Twitter and Heisler sent me a text. He knows I’ve always been interested in moving to KC. He tells me he’s about to get out of radio and into more fantasy football stuff and his job is going to come open.
“I had applied for multiple other jobs in KC over the years and had never gotten any real consideration. When Heisler left, I knew Carrington and thought this might work out. I ended up getting in contact with their PD Steven Spector and it felt like a real opportunity. I got what I considered to be my dream job, producing in the afternoons and hosting a Saturday show at 610 Sports. I thought, what could there be more in life than this? This is the best.”
But life happened and he had to make a decision around three months after moving to Kansas City.
“2-3 months later it became clear, it was going to be difficult for my girlfriend, now wife, to move to Kansas City with all of the family ties she had in St. Louis,” said Kiley. “It was the decision of, do you stay in Kansas City and chase the dream or do we alter the dream, in terms of the job, and see if there’s anything in St. Louis?”
He never thought his best years and most successful years as a sports radio host would come in St. Louis but they have. It’s a city he loves and he’s worked hard in hopes it will love him back. But he’s also not going to pretend to be someone he’s not. Though it can sometimes be hard for St Louisans to accept someone that’s not from there, Kiley doesn’t act like he attended World Series games in 1982, listened to Jack Buck growing up or watched Kurt Warner at the Edward Jones Dome. He’s himself.
“That wasn’t my love and I can’t pretend that it was,” said Kiley. “Have there been times, especially early on where that was a potential issue for me? Yeah it was. There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it. It does in a lot of ways remind me of Kansas City, where if you take the time to know what the soul of the city really is, in terms of sports, I think people can appreciate and respect it.”
Kiley doesn’t hold on to his Kansas City roots on the air, in terms of the topics he talks about. He’s a Chiefs fan and even writes for Arrowhead Pride, but he’s not going to talk a lot about the Chiefs in a city that doesn’t have an NFL team. He’s also a Mizzou grad and talks about the teams on Rock M Nation, but again, he’s rarely, if ever, going to do several segments a day on the Tigers. Instead, he knows the audience wants to hear about the Cardinals. Blues talk is clearly next in line. Everything else falls down the order if not off of it completely.
Kiley grew up watching baseball, so he can easily break down what issues the Cards’ offense may be having in the middle of May, but hockey was different. He didn’t grow up around the game and the transition to having in-depth conversations on the Blues was a more difficult task.
“When I came here the first time it was during the middle of a Blues’ playoff run. At that time I was just plopped into this thing, and I didn’t know shit about hockey. I had probably watched about 10 hockey games in my entire life. I’m looking at Kevin Wheeler like, I’ve got to be honest I don’t have a lot on hockey I’m going to be able to help you with. If you could help bring me along with it, that would be great. Over the years I’ve been able to take it in. I used to host a show with Jamie Rivers, who’s a former Blues player. If you told me five years ago I’d be able to do that, much less enjoy doing that, I would have said you’re out of your damn mind.”
Whereas most sports radio shows in football markets are searching for content to help fill segments, this is one of the sweetest times of the year for Kiley and everyone at 101 ESPN. The Blues are deep in the playoffs and the Major League Baseball season is underway. His show BK and Ferrario covers it all every weekday from 11 am – 2 pm.
Kiley never thought this would be his life, but he loves what he’s built in St.Louis and doesn’t give off the vibe he’s looking to leave anytime soon. He’s a great example of someone who didn’t pigeonhole himself into just one market. He was willing to look outside of his hometown and has found true success.
Will Middlebrooks Has Been The Breakout Star Of The Red Sox Season
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?”
The Boston Red Sox experience in 2022 is just different. In every way.
The team has struggled out of the gate. They certainly aren’t the team that was two wins away from the World Series last year.
Fenway Park doesn’t even accept cash anymore.
But it’s not just that the Red Sox are different on the field or at the ballpark – they are different on television too.
When loveable, longtime Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy died in October 2021 at the age of 68, we knew that consuming the Red Sox on TV would never be the same.
There is no replacing Jerry Remy. One person can’t do it. No way.
And the fans know it.
The bosses at the NESN know it too. They haven’t tried to replace Remy on the broadcasts with just one person.
In fact, they’ve brought in several new people to the broadcast team. A group of people just rotating in, giving viewers a different experience and a different perspective every night.
They’ve added former Red Sox players Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar to the broadcast booth roster. They’ve added Tony Massarotti of 98.5 The Sports Hub as well.
And in the pre- and post-game studio, they’ve taken a similar approach, which is an extension of previous years, mixing and matching host Tom Caron with a slew of former Red Sox players including Jim Rice, Tim Wakefield, Ellis Burks, Lenny DiNardo, and former Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks, who will be in the studio for about 40 games this season.
I think that NESN has found a formula that works. It’s been fun and informative – and different. In a year that serves as a constant reminder of what’s been lost as a viewer, it’s refreshing to realize that these broadcast teams are giving you something gained.
A star is born.
When I mentioned to Caron that I wanted to write a piece on Middlebrooks, he said: “He’s a rising star.”
And it’s easy to see why he feels that way.
Will Middlebrooks is young (33), accessible, opinionated, active on social media, and he has the playing resume to legitimize his point of view.
But it took some real coaxing to get into the business in the first place. After a devastating leg injury ended his playing career in 2019, Middlebrooks was unhappy.
“I sat around and sulked and was angry about it for about three months,” he said. “And my wife, Jenny (Dell), finally said, ‘You need to get off your butt and do something, find not just, work, but find something you’re passionate about again.’”
He didn’t know at that time that he was passionate about media work, but Dell, who works for CBS Sports, volunteered him to do a show at CBS Sports HQ in Ft. Lauderdale, near where their family resides.
“She said, like it or not, you have a show in three days. You’re going to try it out, and if you’re good at it, they’re going to hire you,” he recounts of their conversation. “I was like, I don’t want to do it. I’m not ready to talk about baseball. I hate baseball right now. I just have such a bad taste in my mouth from everything that happened over the past year.”
But that didn’t deter Dell from pushing her husband to take the chance.
“She said, well, I don’t care. I already told them that said you would do it,” he says. “So she kind of threw me to the wolves, but for the best. And I went in and I gritted my teeth and just got it done and then talked baseball. I did it a couple of more times and they said, ‘Hey, you’re decent at this. We’re going to hire you on for a year!” “And here we are, I’m four years into it,” he joked.
And over those four years, Middlebrooks has ballooned into one of the most recognizable follows for baseball fans. In addition to working at NESN and CBS Sports, he’s also one-half of the Wake and Rake podcast, has appeared on ESPN Radio, has done color commentary for college baseball, and has more than 155,000 Twitter followers.
Resonating with Boston
When I ask Middlebrooks about landing the NESN gig for 2022, he beams through the phone. He says he wanted the challenge of working in Boston and he welcomed the opportunity to expand his media footprint.
It’s evident that he loves the Red Sox – and the city of Boston. How couldn’t he? He made his Major League debut with the organization, played parts of three seasons with the team, won a World Series with the Sox, and met his wife in the city.
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?” he said.
While it’s clear that Will loves Boston, and it’s clear why NESN loves him, what needs more unpacking is the attachment that the Red Sox fans have to him considering he spent just those three seasons there and doesn’t live in New England full-time.
Middlebrooks can’t quite figure out why the people of the region hold him so close, but he does have a good hypothesis.
“I think that if I left anything, it was people saying, ‘well, he played hard. He gave everything he had,’ he said. “And I know that’s really important in Boston, just the blue-collar mentality of ‘keep your head down, work, play as hard as you can, even if things aren’t going well, just bust your butt and be a good teammate and all that.’”
But there just may be something else at play.
“I think a lot maybe had to do with when the marathon bombings (2013) happened…I’m pretty outspoken on social media about that stuff and with my teammates, we all rallied around each other,” he said. “I think I was just lucky enough to be a part of a team that was really special to everybody in Boston. So they embraced me after that.”
The Family Dynamic
Dell has been in sports media for more than a decade as a host and sideline reporter for CBS and NESN before that. She knows the business and its nuances. She understands when and how to look at the camera and when and how to ask questions of athletes. She knows the expectations of her husband’s current employers. She’s undoubtedly a great resource to have.
But as Middlebrooks finds his own footing in the business, and as his star grows, what is that dynamic like? She has the answers to the tests already, but how does he balance using that resource versus figuring things out on his own?
“I’m very open to anything she has to say,” he said. “I’ll come out of my office, like, ‘Hey, that was pretty good!’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it was good…but…”
“She always has something, and at first it used to really annoy me, because I’m like, man, I thought I was doing really good,” he said. “And she’s like, ‘No, you are doing good. I’m just trying to help you get to that next level. There are just little things here and there that you don’t know.’ And as a competitor, it’s really frustrating. But you know, after a couple of minutes I walk away, I’m like, you know what? I’m really appreciative to have that access to someone that can help.”
At such a young age with such already vast experiences, it seems plausible that even bigger media steps could be in play for the former infielder. I asked him if he has a goal he’s working towards. Sunday Night Baseball? The MLB Network? Something else?
“One thing I’ve really learned is to not look too far down the road and kind of just live in the moment and enjoy the moment,” he said. “I’m really happy with being with with CBS and with NESN, and within that umbrella, of course, I would like to grow. Does that mean in the booth? Does that mean more games pre and post? Sure I’m up for anything where they want me, because what I’m doing right now, I feel like is a dream job outside of playing and I’m so happy with it.”
Middlebrooks has been on the NESN broadcasts all week and will continue through this weekend as the Red Sox host the Mariners in a four-game series.