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Ramie Makhlouf Has a Laugh Track In His Head

“Ultimately this is entertainment, man. There’s no reason to take it too seriously.”

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Imagine how you’d feel if an opportunity to audition at your favorite radio station came about. Not just the station you simply enjoy the most; the station you grew up listening to in your hometown; the station you dreamed of working for one day. You might be the opposite of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed — “My hand does not shake. Ever.” This surprisingly was not the experience of sports radio host Ramie Makhlouf when he tried out for 670 The Score in Chicago. He felt at ease the whole time. 

The Bears, Bulls, and Cubs fan who was born in Palatine, a suburb on the north side of Chicago, never thought he’d be that comfortable. Ramie talks about his experience at The Score, a series of events at SKOR North in Minneapolis, and his rapport with a man named Mitch that led to him reuniting with 1250AM The Fan in Milwaukee. If you’re scoring at home that’s The Score, SKOR, The Fan and about four moves in two years. Someone get this man a beer.

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Ramie has been a stand-up comedian for the past eight years. It’s really interesting to hear how he applies aspects of stand-up to sports radio. Ramie describes what it’s like to have a laugh track in his head. He also talks about the necessity of having thick skin, the horrors of country music, and the meaning of “put a roof on it”. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat and didn’t even once mention that the Cardinals are better than the Cubs.

Oops. Enjoy.

Brian Noe: How did you get your start in sports radio?

Ramie Makhlouf: When I graduated from college I saw that there was this brand new sports talk radio station starting up in Milwaukee. I had graduated from a small college in Kenosha, Wisconsin — UW Parkside. I grew up listening to two things; The Score in Chicago and the Howard Stern Show. Howard Stern would always say the best place to go especially if you’re getting your start in radio is either a really shitty radio station that was getting no ratings, or a brand new startup station. So I was like man, this is perfect. There’s this brand new startup station right here about 30 miles north. Really just got a foot in the door, man, a really low-level, entry-level job, weekend board up and doing a few things here and there during the week. Just climbed the ladder there over the course of about 14 years. After about seven, eight years I was hosting the afternoon show.

BN: With you being a Stern guy, do you think that sports talk is sometimes too sportsy?

RM: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. I think the debate show phenomenon on ESPN and FOX Sports 1 and these networks has made that problem even worse. One of the things that — and not to say that I wasn’t having fun my first time around in Milwaukee, I had a great time my first time around in Milwaukee and couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to work with and to learn from — but when I went up to Minneapolis at SKOR North with Phil Mackey and those guys, there was a real emphasis put on let’s have fun. It was almost part of the job description that we need to have fun when we’re doing these radio shows because if we’re not having fun, then the people listening to us aren’t having fun. Ultimately this is entertainment, man. There’s no reason to take it too seriously. Not to say that you can’t have sportsy sports talk and you can’t get passionate about things, but at the end of the day there’s hardly ever anything going on in our world that needs to be taken that seriously that we can’t find a way to have fun and have some laughs around it.

BN: How does being a stand-up comedian help you build a show or choose content?

RM: I think it helps a lot. I think that they both help a lot. To be honest with you some of my best bits — not that I’m trying new material or running bits on the air, that’s something that I actively try not to do. Once I’ve written something into a joke or into a bit, I try not to recite that later on, on the air. But some of my best bits have just sort of come up accidentally on the air where I’ll be talking about something and just riffing and I’ll notice that the guys I’m working with are laughing or I’ll get a bunch of tweets like hey man that was hilarious. I’ll sort of form that into a joke or a story or a bit that I can tell on stage. It’s helped my stand-up comedy.

On the other end I think you kind of get a laugh track in your head after you do comedy for a while. When you’re going through the process of writing comedy, you can kind of hear where you’re getting the laughs over the course of writing a joke or writing a story. I think the same thing kind of applies. In radio you don’t get to hear their laughs, you don’t get to see how many people are tuning in or tuning out. I think that you do get sort of a sense of, or even a clock, that people are interested or are losing interest in what you’re doing and it’s time to move on.

BN: In stand-up comedy, the crowd is right there and you learn quickly what the crowd responds to. How do you take that and use it toward sports radio?

RM: I wrote a piece for Barrett Sports Media a few months ago and I talked about the similarities of the two and where there is crossover. One thing I talk about in that article, there’s what’s called the 12-second rule in stand-up comedy that you want to get a laugh every 12 seconds of a joke, or a story, or a bit that you’re telling. Otherwise you’re going to lose that crowd. You need to keep them hooked in to what you’re saying and what you’re doing so that they’re not — in our industry turning off the radio — or when they’re sitting in a comedy club losing interest, or talking to the person at their table next to them, or just spacing out and thinking about what they have to do the next day.

Ramie Makhlouf - Insult and Batter, March 23rd, 2018 - YouTube

While it’s not always a joke or a punchline or a laugh that you’re trying to get when you’re doing the radio show, I think that there needs to be something every 12 seconds, or a handful of times every minute that’s keeping an audience — or I like to think of it as just one listener — that keeps them interested and keeps them hooked in to your radio show. That could be a sound bite. It could be a joke or a punchline where you’re going for a laugh. It could be an inflection or a change in your tone or a pregnant pause. But there has to be something where you’re changing it up and it’s not just you talking for 60 seconds straight. There has to be a handful of things every minute where you’re changing it up and giving the listener something to hook in to and stay tuned in to.

BN: Can you walk me through your timeline with SKOR North? Once the station went away, how did it unfold from there with The Score in Chicago and with Milwaukee?

RM: So I was laid off from SKOR North on May 31 last year. I had been in contact with Mitch Rosen before that. I had applied for jobs in Chicago at The Score and he kind of was coming into The Fan in Milwaukee just as I was on my way out. We had established a bit of a relationship already and a bit of a rapport. A few months after I was laid off in the Twin Cities, he asked me if I’d like to come back to Milwaukee and start doing some fill-in work there. I was doing that for a little bit.

Then the incident with Dan McNeil; one of the afternoon hosts at The Score tweeted some unfortunate things and lost his job as a result. They were looking for a co-host for Danny Parkins. I ended up on the short list. I tried out. It started off with a field of five or six people that they were trying out for that. Nobody told me this but just based on how far I went in the auditions, I think it came down to me and Matt Spiegel, who was already Danny Parkins’ co-host in a previous radio life before Dan McNeil came back to The Score. And Spiegs won it. And rightly so, man. 

I got to know Matt Spiegel a little bit in my time working there and worked with him a handful of times. He’s a great dude and a radio professional. He gets this thing as well as anybody gets it. Obviously he and Danny have a lot of chemistry and a lot of history together. I’ve caught their show when I’m not working — we’re on at the same time — and those guys are great together. I’m happy for everybody involved and who knows? Like I said, I’m doing some weekends there so who knows what’s in the future. But I had a great time doing it, man. It was a dream come true being on those airwaves and that team of guys they have working behind the scenes with Danny Parkins and Matt Spiegel, the best in the business. They couldn’t have been nicer and more welcoming to me. It was a great experience.

BN: Is there anything about Danny’s approach to radio that differs from other hosts?

RM: I think he puts an emphasis on fun and being entertaining and not taking this thing so damn seriously. Bringing your life on to the air is something that I think Danny puts an emphasis on. It’s something that I put an emphasis on too. If there’s something that can make you relatable and entertaining to the audience that’s about you and outside the world of sports, I think that’s always a good thing to bring to a show. He does that and he encourages the people that he works with to do that.

As a kid growing up in Chicago listening to The Score and getting your shot on that station auditioning for the afternoon job that you always dreamed about having, there’s a lot of pressure with that. It can be a little bit nerve-racking. From day one starting with Danny and down to Shane Riordan and Chris Tannehill, his former producer Nick Shepkowski, and Spiegs when he was in there, all of them just made me feel like part of the team. Like hey, come in here and contribute, do what you do, just act like you’re part of the show and do what you’ve done on every other show that you’ve been on. I can’t tell you how easy that made the whole thing. I felt very at ease the first time I sat in that chair and was working in the shift on the station in the city that I had always dreamed about working with. I never thought I’d be that comfortable and a big part of the reason was because Danny and all those guys were so easy to work with and so welcoming to me.

BN: What do you like most about working for Mitch Rosen?

RM: One thing I love about working for Mitch Rosen — and I can’t say that about everybody who sits in that chair in radio stations across this country — he treats all of his employees like human beings and checks in on you and sees how you’re doing. How you’re doing on the air and with the job and if you need anything from him, he’ll help with that, but also how you’re doing just in general outside of work and in your day-to-day life. That’s a trait I’ve noticed about him in terms of how he handles the people that work for him is the same across the board whether you have the top rated show in the number three market in the country out there in The Score, or if you’re working at the 30th ranked market or whatever we are currently in Milwaukee. He treats all of his guys the same and I love that about him, man. He’s a really good sports radio program director, but he’s just a really good dude, and I appreciate working for a good dude.

BN: You’ve been outspoken about the abuse that Muslim people have faced and continue to face. What’s the reason you’ve been so involved?

RM: I’m not Muslim, but I am an Arab. Many people assume that all Arabs are Muslim, and so I catch blowback. When there’s an issue that has to do with Muslim people or the Muslim religion that might come up in sports or in the news or in pop culture, I get tweets, I get blowback, I get hate.

Just in general I try to push back on that stuff even if it has nothing to do with me. It has become like a personal thing even though it’s not my religion. I’ve caught so much flak for it. If there’s Muslim hate or just general Arab hate out there, I kind of feel like I need to take up for them in a sense. It’s an unfortunate part of people’s ignorance and blind spots that they don’t even know who they’re hating. Somebody told me to go back to Mexico on Twitter one time. I was like man, I’ve never been but I hear it’s nice. [Laughs]

BN: [Laughs] When you get off-the-wall hatred like that, does it ever make it hard to be funny if you aren’t feeling upbeat?

RM: Oh no. Nah, man. I learned a long time ago to let that stuff roll off my back. I feel like I had built-in defenses before I ever stepped on a stand-up comedy stage in terms of people heckling or throwing hate your way because when you work in the public eye, if you can’t handle that stuff and let it roll off your back, it’s going to be a long road to hoe and you probably won’t last long in this business. One of the things I always tell younger people when they’re getting into the business, if they’re dumb enough to ask me for advice, is have thick skin, man. Have thick skin about what’s going to happen in the industry and what people are going to throw your way from outside the industry because that’s just part of the job unfortunately.

BN: I have to ask about your stance that every stadium in the Midwest should have a roof. What’s this about?

RM: Not just every stadium in the Midwest, every stadium that’s not on the West Coast or in a desert should have a roof in Major League Baseball. Especially if it was built in the modern era. It blew my mind when I went to Minneapolis to work at SKOR North that you had a stadium built in 2010, in the northern most baseball city in these United States of America, where it regularly snows into April, and we have the technology to put retractable roofs onto buildings in 2010, and you just chose not to? You just decided, nah we’re good, we’ll play baseball in this crap? It makes no sense. It’s not good for the game. It’s not good for the fans who are sitting in the stands watching the game. There’s no benefit to it. 

All you have to do is look however many miles to the east in Milwaukee and see what that stadium has done for the Brewers and the city of Milwaukee in terms of financial and business impact. People flock to the stadium because they know there isn’t going to be a rainout. And they just chose not to do that in Minneapolis and Detroit and in Cincinnati? It makes absolutely zero sense to me, so I started the ‘put a roof on it’ movement when I got to Minneapolis. I was surprised how it caught on. I just went with it because it became a thing that people knew me for. I’d go out to Target Field and people would be like, “Hey Ramie, put a roof on it.” I was like oh, this thing is working. I’m gonna keep going with it.

BN: That’s awesome, dude. It just pops into my head, Miguel Cabrera sliding into second base in Minneapolis because he didn’t know he hit a home run.

RM: He didn’t know! He couldn’t see the ball clearing the wall because there was just a curtain of snow covering the field. It was ridiculous. Why are we doing this?

BN: [Laughs] I have to ask you — your long hair made me think of music — what are your musical favorites?

RM: I’m all over the board. The one thing I can’t do — people think that I’m making this up just to be funny and I do maybe exaggerate a little bit but I have a literal phobia of country music. I have a fear of flying. I have a fear of heights. And I have a fear of country music. I get the same feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear Luke Bryan or Morgan Wallen or whoever is today’s hot country music artist. I get the same bad feeling in the pit of my stomach as I do when I feel the wheels lifting up on an airplane and I’m sitting on that thing. [Laughs] I can’t do it.

I do love classic rock. That’s probably something that you would have assumed from the hair. The Beatles are the greatest band of all time and if you don’t believe that, don’t talk to me. Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, all the classics from those days. But more recently — the hair probably doesn’t indicate this — I’m more into hip-hop and rap. Kanye, Drake, Run The Jewels, that’s more often what I’m listening to nowadays than anything else.

BN: In terms of goals, is there anything specific that you would like to accomplish in the next few years?

RM: You know, man, to be honest I’ve never been shy about the fact that I want to land in Chicago. Like I said that’s the station I grew up listening to. That’s the city I grew up loving and the teams that I grew up rooting for.

The last few years of my life have been constant change. I think that if there’s one thing that I’ve learned through all of that it’s always be ready for change and be prepared for it and embrace it. I think we all kind of learned that lesson over that last year. A lot of things in my life have changed multiple times over the course of the last two years. That’s probably the case for a lot of people, so whatever comes, I’ll be ready for it.

Landing in Chicago would be great and I’m going to start getting some at-bats out there, but if that doesn’t happen, I’d love to build something great here in Milwaukee. I’m focused on what I’m doing now and whatever comes next I’ll be ready for it.

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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