Getting to sit down with Steve Mason was no hard feat, as he was happy to share his story with me. Our text exchange was simple. The Los Angeles Dodgers were a few hours away from a pivotal wild card match-up against the St. Louis Cardinals. Naturally, his mind was there, on whether the 106-game winning, reigning World Series champion would have its season cut short. Alas, the Dodgers won and we jumped onto a Zoom call the next day.
We got to speak about his journey, Mason & Ireland, podcasts, and more.
Mason is a bit of an expert on LA sports and their fans. He sang high praises for the Angelenos, who tend to be knocked for their laid-back demeanors.
“The attitude is a little different. Maybe the attitude’s a little bit more laid back. But, man, the fans here are hardcore and really smart. You take a call from the average Laker fan, man, they know what’s going on. Dodger fans know what’s going on.” It’s hard to not be on the pulse of a sports town with two teams, the Dodgers and Lakers, winning their respective league championships in 2020.
Just last year Mason & Ireland landed at #2 in BSM’s Major Market Midday Shows. The show has spanned for nearly two decades at its current home and first came to be in the 1990’s. Mason has seen it all in a career that’s gone over four decades.
Did Mason know his calling would be sports broadcasting? Absolutely. Unbeknownst to his parents, he would secretly listen to his transistor radio when he was supposed to be sleeping.
“I was listening to that when I was seven or eight years old, I just knew I knew I wanted to be on the radio from a very early age.” He would spend his evenings listening and learning from the greats, Larry King on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and Tom Snyder on NBC. Among those names, his other inspirations were the likes of David Letterman, who he got his comedy from, and Howard Stern.
Before becoming a prominent voice of LA sports, he had a five minute sportscast the Toledo Sports Whirl on WGOR, a Christian station in Ohio. “It was $150 was the total for each show, so I needed three $50 dollar spots in order to be able to pay for it.” Mind you, Mason was 15 years old at this point.
As his eagerness and growth towards working in sports progressed, music radio propelled his career. Rather than taking the step towards college radio at Bowling Green, Mason found his opportunity at WRQN in Toledo. After jumping on board to do overnights, management moved him over to morning drive, where he blew the competition away for a whopping seven years.
“I was programming the station. I was running all the promotions, and all the marketing, it was really my baby and we ended up doing, I think the morning show ended up doing like a 20 share in Toledo. It was just a dominant, dominant show and I’m really proud of that part of my career.”
The ratings were the catalyst to the next step. Noble Broadcasting Group, later acquired by what is now iHeartMedia, owned a station in Toledo and wanted Mason out. Can’t beat him? Make an offer he can’t refuse. Morning drive at The Mighty 690 in San Diego became the new home for Mason, where the show subsequently became a ratings failure after six months and he was moved to nights. On a station that featured Jim Rome and Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, both very successful in the San Diego market, Mason’s lack of early success put a dent in his aspirations.
He wanted out.
“I was demanding that my contract be terminated. I wanted out of my deal. I did not want to do nights they would not leave me. They held me to my contract.” He was pissed. However, the night shift in America’s Finest City is where he obtained his edge.
“I just had this ‘F it’ attitude. I was just like you banished me to nights, so I’m going to do whatever the hell I want.” It worked. Mason’s ‘I don’t give a fu–’ approach put him in a much different cut of radio personalities. It opened doors such as getting to work alongside Snyder, one of the personalities he’d listen to on his little transistor radio, as his co-host on The Late Late Radio Show on CBS Radio. He lasted there from 1996 to 1998.
After a leave of absence, The Mighty 690 allowed Mason to slide back into the morning drive slot, where he got to sit alongside his night-shift fill-in, John Ireland. After a five year stint in the 90’s together in San Diego, the duo that is Mason and Ireland got back together in 2003 to do the show in their current home, ESPN LA.
The show lasting as long as it has makes it a unicorn in the media world. What’s the recipe? Evolution. “The one thing that we’ve done over the years that I think has kept us where we are is that we’ve evolved. We’ve constantly evolved. If you listen to a show that we did in 2006 and a show that we did last week it’s a completely different show.”
Mason’s vast career has seen much success in what has been an ever-changing field. His firm belief is “that radio is the single most intimate form of broadcasting” and he, too, acknowledges the new ways the medium hits people’s ears.
Podcasts, Mason mentions, have “helped to drive the business.” Mason & Ireland, for example, is available via people’s favorite podcast providers for on-demand listening. He also does his own podcast, Culture Pop, where he talks about popular culture with Emmy-nominated producer Sue Kolinsky, whom he co-hosted a show on WNEW in New York in the 90’s. The avenues in which audio content is consumed have changed but the approach generally stays the same.
Culture and chemistry is always important at a workplace. Program directors set the tone of how they want their station to sound. “Our last program director moved us to afternoon drive, which is a slot that I never really wanted to do, never really liked. I was unhappy with that move. I love mid-days, but we did it for a year.” Amanda Brown, who took on the role of program director at ESPN LA in late 2019, turned the station into a live and local powerhouse.
“You don’t see a lot of women as program directors of sports radio station, so she’s kind of a landmark person.” Her understanding of chemistry and identity has allowed Mason & Ireland, as well as the rest of the local slate of Travis & Sliwa and Sedano & Kap, to play off of one-another. “We goof on each other, we pop up on each other’s shows,” said Mason.
How does one balance serving local fans and working for a major brand powerhouse like ESPN? “Well, ESPN has been great to work for,” Mason says. “They’ve also been very hands off. They’ve allowed us to invent a show that is organically the right one for Los Angeles.”
The current climate around sports has been supercharged by the divisive nature of American politics. It has become increasingly difficult not to touch upon difficult subjects. However, Mason abides by this simple rule. “It is a hard and fast rule that we do not talk about politics at all.” He understands what his role is, which he explains lands in the “fun and games department.” His goal is to welcome and have fun with the listener rather than remind them of the everyday difficulties they try to escape from.
How can this evolving industry move in the right direction? Radio has seen a massive shift away from localization and towards network programming, killing off local jobs, content and connection to a community. “I think a focus on personality is stronger than a focus on play-by-play.” As important as carrying play-by-play and being a team’s flagship is, listeners keep coming back in for the personality-driven local content that focuses on the home teams.
“There’s really good network shows but local is always king, and the more local you can be the better. That’s why I’m happy with the station right now. We’ve got more local than we’ve ever had.”
You can listen to Steve Mason on Mason & Ireland on weekdays from 1:00pm to 4:00pm PST on 710 KSPN. Also check out Mason’s podcast, Culture Pop, wherever you get your podcasts. Feel free to give him a follow on Twitter @VeniceMase.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.