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5 Who Get It, 5 Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives tweets from burner accounts belonging to media people.

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THEY GET IT

Steve Kornacki, NBC — What began as a gimmick — let the Election Night “chart-throb’’ wear his Gap slacks and make sports picks — has rocketed into a full-scale credibility explosion. As the media industry plunges into the legal gambling craze, we know of at least one expert tout in Kornacki, who followed his NFL playoff successes as the only NBC prognosticator to nail the Kentucky Derby winner — 12-1 shot Medina Spirit — while 10 others were whiffing. Here was his pre-race rationale: “I scoured the board. I have 11 different theories, but here’s one: Bob Baffert, six-time Kentucky Derby winner, has a horse that can get at or near the front of this race and has double-digit odds. I can’t have my King Fury. I’ll take a shot on Baffert at 12-1, Medina Spirit.” Why would I buy a subscription to the Action Network or Vegas Stats & Information Network when Stevie Khakis provides winners for free? Damn, I just gave his bosses an idea: Kornacki subscriptions. Hope his agent has snagged him a big raise.

Nicole Auerbach, The Athletic — Why not grant parole to a serial killer? That was the approximate reaction in the collegiate sports community when NCAA president Mark Emmert, maybe the most inept in a long conga line of shoddy sports administrators, was given a two-year extension by the university presidents who’ve reaped mega-millions from his reign. Auerbach had worked hard to extricate him from office, reporting that more than two dozen Division I commissioners and athletic directors believed “Emmert’s tenure should end.’’ She was left to conclude: “This is the face that the NCAA’s highest governing body wants as its representative. It is not who athletic directors would choose. It is not who commissioners would choose. It is not who athletes themselves would choose. But in a system designed to stagnate, he was apparently the only viable option — which says more about the system than it does about Emmert himself. And that is what those who claim to love college sports will have to live with.’’ On a beat of toxic excess, Auerbach and Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde continue to be the foremost must-reads.

Social media boycotters — The U.S. sports industry would be much happier and healthier if it adopted the bold lead of the English Premier League: Snub Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the like. Shocking as it seems — think of the cold-turkey withdrawal, the gaping holes in the collective consciousness — the soccer league decided social media didn’t exist from Friday afternoon through Monday night … and survived just fine. Events have been messy there lately, from ongoing racist abuse of players to protests of American-based owners who failed spectacularly in trying to form a superleague. So, clubs and players pressured the companies by shutting them down, joined in silence by English sports such as cricket, rugby, tennis and horse racing. The men in white coats would have to put LeBron James in a straitjacket without his device, but as I always say, don’t let other tweeters’ problems become yours. A vacation from the Internet might be better than Bali at this point.

Mike Tirico, Bob Baffert, Bill Belichick — Before the Kentucky Derby, the trio shared a chat based on mutual admiration between Baffert and Belichick, both multiple winners of the premier events in their sports. Was I the only one who noticed how all three have survived major professional scandals? In scrubbing what went wrong, they must be doing something right, though none should be proud. Obviously, there was no mention of missteps as they laughed through the NBC interview. Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing …

Trevor Lawrence, professional — From the journalists who still exist in this business, here’s a thank you for putting a media charlatan in his place. On his first day in Duval County as would-be savior of the Jaguars — why does no one call it Jacksonville anymore? — the No. 1 overall pick deftly handled a hokey request by the NFL Network’s James Palmer. Armed with a football, Palmer said, “I want to catch the first pass you ever throw as an NFL player. What do you think, you ready?’’ Not knowing James Palmer from Jesse Palmer, Arnold Palmer or the Robert Palmer who sang “Addicted To Love’’ in front of android-like female models, Lawrence rejected the awkward ask and didn’t throw the ball, saying, “I don’t know, man. I think I’m going to save it for some of my new teammates.’’ What motivates working reporters to act like fanboys? Closer to the point, who hires them on the network level?

FoxSports.com — I’m still not convinced this site wants to compete in the highest reaches of sports content trafficking, recalling Fox’s various starts and stops in the website game. But this caught my attention: Pedro Moura left The Athletic, where he covered the Dodgers as a senior writer, to become national baseball writer at Fox. With The Athletic possibly headed for mass layoffs and strategy changes — such as emphasizing national coverage and minimizing (or dumping) local content — will we see more defections? Fox could use stronger commentary and enterprise components to offset its fan-heavy approach to live events and its ineffective debate shows. “We’re lucky to have him,’’ said the site’s managing editor, Kevin Jackson, who once had memorable fun as founding editor of Page 2 at ESPN.com. He’ll need big names before climbing into the daily Octagon — former ESPN personalty Trey Wingo hosted a draft party, I see — but Fox has the money to keep poaching, even after wasting $32 million on Skip Bayless. Should I just change the name of this column to Six Who Get It, Six Who Don’t?

THEY DON’T GET IT

Ted Leonsis, Washington Capitals owner — A tech mogul from way back, Leonsis should be the first to grasp the built-in responsibilities of a team’s social media account. It’s wretched enough that he allows Tom Wilson, the sickest of NHL thugs, to remain on the payroll. But after his double-jeopardy goonery the other night — sucker-punching the Rangers’ Pavel Buchnevich, then appearing to grab Artemi Panerin’s hair while hurling him to the ice — Wilson’s criminal activity was celebrated by the Capitals’ social media site. “atCapitals chooses: Violence,’’ went the tweet, beside a photo of Wilson and a cryptic comment that he lives “rent-free’’ in the minds of others as “the best goal scorer in the league.’’ The tweet quickly was deleted, but the screenshots remain interminably while Leonsis ponders this question: Why would a sports franchise, worth three-quarters of a billion dollars, put creeps and losers in charge of its public image? Maybe because the NHL culture is enabled by a wishy-washy league office, which has suspended Wilson five times in eight years — including a seven-game ban in March — yet this time issued only a $5,000 fine, the most the players’ union allows via the collective bargaining agreement. Leonsis should lock Wilson and the guilty tweeter in the same rubberized room for a week, if not permanently.

ESPN — So here was a serious news story, building for two seasons: The electronic-sign-stealing, trash-can-banging Astros returning to the Bronx to catch hell from enraged Yankees fans. And how did ESPN handle the telecast? With play-by-play man Karl Ravech dressed as Luke Skywalker, analyst Tim Kurkjian as Yoda, analyst Eduardo Perez as a Jawa and host Steve Levy in the studio as Darth Vader. See, it was “May the fourth’’ — a nod to the “Star Wars’’ franchise — and nothing was getting in the way of Disney Company synergy. ESPN insists on cartooning-up sports events, even those with violent potential, with cross-promotional silliness. And this time, unlike the alternate NBA all-gambling broadcast and a Marvel-themed NBA cast, the schlock was on the blowtorch feed. Had a riot broken out, Ravech would have looked all-time-ridiculous as he reported the details. Apparently, I’ll have to keep cutting-and-pasting my thoughts of recent weeks: A sports event is a sacred competition featuring athletes guided by the common tenet that nothing — nothing — shall infiltrate The Game. Meaning, there are ways of engaging a youthful audience without bastardizing existing cachet.

Terry Bradshaw, Fox Sports — The appropriate response is to feel pity for Bradshaw more than disgust, knowing he was hit in the head quite often in his playing days. His crackling take on malcontent Aaron Rodgers, who is trying to politicize his way out of Green Bay, was noteworthy if not for one not-so-small detail: Bradshaw carried out a similar drama in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s. This week on WFAN, Bradshaw said of Rodgers, “Him being upset shows me just how weak he is. Who the hell cares who you draft? I mean, he’s a three-time MVP and he’s worried about who they drafted last year No. 1? … Let him cry. Retire. You’re 38. Go ahead and retire. See you later.’’ If Bradshaw is familiar with a trove known as a newspaper archive, he might want to scroll back to 1984, when he ripped Steelers coach Chuck Noll for acquiring David Woodley from Miami. After hearing Noll express concern about Bradshaw’s injured elbow, Bradshaw shot back, “If he wants opinions, he ought to call me and ask me and stop making all these comments. He ought to just keep his mouth shut and pay attention to the draft and not make statements about me until he’s absolutely certain what he’s saying.’’ Such a hazy disconnect doesn’t bode well for Bradshaw’s long-term future at Fox, which should be pondering changes in a studio-show lineup that is showing wear and tear … and amnesia.

The Undefeated, ESPN — As long as media companies spin off websites to reflect racial divisions, we won’t progress as a society. I’ve never understood why The Undefeated explores “the intersection of sports, race and culture’’ with a predominantly Black staff when such a cultural convergence could be examined more effectively by a diverse group of writers and editors. I can just hear the “Mariotti is a racist’’ nonsense, but I’d rather unite than divide. ESPN missed an opportunity to merge its editorial initiatives when editor-in-chief Kevin Merida left this week to become executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, which, like many legacy news operations, struggles with a lame digital product. Merida quickly was replaced by Raina Kelley, The Undefeated’s managing editor, which means the site will continue on a private island that should be affixed to a larger continent.

Mike Greenberg, ESPN — I knew Greenberg long before Roger Goodell was calling him “Greeny,’’ back when we covered the Jordan dynasty years in Chicago. He has the mind to be Bob Costas, but I fear ESPN has turned him into another mush-and-gusher thrilled to be in the anchor seat. I was shocked to see him profusely thank the NFL commissioner for allowing him to host the Draft, which only reinforced the naked truth: ESPN is beholden to the league for a new 11-year rights deal that places Disney in the Super Bowl rotation. If Greenberg slobbered over Goodell any longer, I’d have suggested he get a room. Then he proceeded to shriek at high decibels about Kings of Leon, who jammed on stage for a half-hour when America just wanted the damned draft picks. Rich Eisen and Rece Davis were the Kings of Lake Erie. Greeny did too many greenies.

Max Kellerman, ESPN — I don’t see skin color. Kellerman does, shaming himself and his network with concerns before the NFL Draft that the stock of White quarterbacks was rising as the status of Black quarterbacks was falling — and that it has been happening for years, as if premeditated. “That’s why my antenna are up when I notice one, two and three this year — White guy, White guy, White guy,’’ said the “First Take’’ opinionist. Well, the third “White guy’’ turned out to be Trey Lance, who is Black, and the quarterback who dropped farthest in the first round was Mac Jones, who is White. Kellerman is one of these protected morning hosts who aren’t held accountable for outrageous and/or inaccurate takes. The audience does keep score, ESPN should know.

Richard Deitsch, The Athletic — I critique media as a weekly passion project, having performed the same gig out of college in Detroit. The job is aligned with the responsibilities of a movie critic or restaurant critic — you praise and pillory, based on honest and independent appraisals — and some sports media writers do it well, bringing heat with equal parts approval and disapproval. Deitsch broke down the NFL Draft by calling the lead production bosses, Disney’s Seth Markman and NFL Network’s Charlie Yook, and letting them extol the efforts of their respective crews in Cleveland. If sports was covered this way, we’d let managers and coaches write flowery stories and temper our personal assessments. It’s time Deitsch consider a beat change, as he wearily reminds us too often of his lengthy run covering sports media. I’ll give him this much: He counts better than I do, because Five Who Don’t Get It became Seven Who Don’t Get It. I could do nine or 10 this week, but, like John Lennon, I’ve got blisters on my fingers.

Barrett Blogs

Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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BSM Writers

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?”

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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.”

What’s Next?

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.

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