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.
Nothing Is Easy In the Cold, Not Even Broadcasting
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end!
No matter what you may think, doing play-by-play for any sport is a difficult thing. The great ones make it look easy, but it’s not. Prep work dominates things leading up to the broadcast, getting notes, nuggets and entertaining tidbits take up time. Then once you’re prepped, some stadiums are better than others to broadcast. Some booths are easier to work than others.
Then there’s the forgotten element, the weather.
How will you handle inclement weather of any kind? Warmth, rain, snow and oh yeah, the dreaded freezing temperature. Before we get into it, here are a few of the less-than-ideal conditions my fellow broadcasters have had to deal with over the years.
THE FOG BOWL
During the 1988 playoffs between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, a dense fog rolled onto the field during the game, making it nearly impossible to play or see. Numerous players complained they couldn’t see 10 yards in front of them. Both teams were forced to use their running game because receivers couldn’t see long passes. The broadcast was called by Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw on CBS.
“We couldn’t see anything—absolutely nothing,” CBS-TV play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist told the Associated Press. “We had to look at the TV just like everyone else.” Lundquist’s color man, Terry Bradshaw, told viewers the game should have been suspended.
THE FREEZER BOWL
At -9 degrees Fahrenheit, the 1982 AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers proved to be the second-coldest game in NFL history. It was so cold that Bengals QB Ken Anderson suffered frost bite on his right ear. The temperature was not only -9 degrees, but the wind chill was measured at -58 degrees, by far the worst in league history.
THE ICE BOWL
The 1967 NFL Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys became known as the “Ice Bowl.” It remains the coldest game ever played in the NFL, at -15 degrees with a wind chill of -48 degrees. Lambeau Field’s turf-heating system actually malfunctioned before the game, leaving the turf rock-hard. Officials actually had to resort to calling out plays and penalties because when referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle, it actually froze to his lips.
The last two are examples of something topical since last week’s “Super Wild Card” game in Buffalo was played in extreme temperatures. At kickoff, it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill made the temperature feel like minus-5. A far cry from the above games, but come on, it was freezing cold out there.
The CBS Sports NFL announcing team of Ian Eagle and Charles Davis said Saturday’s game between Buffalo and New England was the coldest work environment they’ve experienced during their broadcasting careers.
“We kept the windows closed in the booth until one hour before kickoff,” Eagle told The Athletic. “When we finally opened them, I had a sense that it would be manageable. I was wrong. CBS rented some industrial heaters for the night, but unfortunately, they were no match for the Western New York frigid air. It really hit me in the third quarter. I started shivering and actually had a few moments where my jaw got locked up mid-sentence. It was by far the coldest I’ve ever been calling a game.”
Davis recalled two games he called at Lambeau Field that were similar, but not as bad as it was in Buffalo.
“It helped that the evening was relatively clear, and the winds minimal, but make no mistake about it, ‘the Almighty Hawk (wind)’ made its presence felt and I kept drawing on one thought — everyone involved was cold, and they were persevering,” Davis explained to Richard Deitsch.
“In addition, we were watching history be made in front of us by the Bills offense — seven drives, seven touchdowns, something that had never been done in the NFL playoffs. Beyond impressive, and it definitely helped us maintain focus. I’m not sure anyone would choose to do a game under those conditions, but there was definitely a sense of pride among our team that we all worked to the best of our abilities on a night that would test all of us.”
Davis said that there was no way not to think about his discomfort. He gave credit to the stage crew in the booth that helped to keep him and Ian Eagle warm. There was also a jacket involved, a familiar one given to Eagle during the game, leading to an excellent exchange between he and Davis just before the third quarter started.
Charles Davis: Where did you get the jacket?
Ian Eagle: What jacket?
Eagle: Oh, this? Yes, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, you might have noticed, wore this a few weeks ago and it hit the internet by storm. Kurt saw that we had this assignment. Kurt now runs a program “Warner’s Warmers,” he just sends the jacket out to whoever needs it. I feel like, I want Jiffy Pop Popcorn. This thing is very warm. This is the same jacket. Kurt sent this to me. Let me tell you, not all heroes wear capes, they wear “Silver Bullet Puffers.”
Davis: Let’s talk about the game for a minute. Kurt, a brother would like a jacket too…
I’ve never really experienced calling a game in that extreme weather, especially after all the years I’ve called baseball games. But being in the Midwest, even those early days in April and sometimes into May, cold temps are a factor.
I think the coldest game I ever called was a game with the Cubs where the temperature at the start was about 31 degrees with a wind coming off the lake. We debated on whether or not to open the windows in the booth. One voted no, one voted yes, so the compromise was the window near the play-by-play guy was cracked open just a bit. Games just sound different with the windows closed. It’s not as clean. It sounds like you’re doing a game in a closet. But sometimes self-preservation comes first. The same goes for extremely warm weather too.
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your pen isn’t working all that well, and how do you score a game without taking your gloves off? In those conditions, as Eagle was saying, your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end! I know it sounds exaggerated but in the moment, its not.
People sitting at home still want you to call the game. They are looking for the same information you would have given if it were 40 degrees instead of 40 below with the wind chill. It’s a big ask, but the broadcast crew has to find a way to adjust to the conditions and do what they are there to do. It helps when everyone understands that. It’s not to say that you can’t talk about the way things are in the booth or on the field from time to time. But don’t let it dominated the airtime, as tempting as it might be to do so.
Just think, if you’re cold in the booth, what’s life like for the sideline reporter?
Ben And Woods Aren’t Doing a Show For One Person
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show.”
There’s no confusion about where their allegiances lie. And when it comes to being relatable to the audience, there’s few things Ben and Woods do better than buying season tickets at Petco Park, wearing Padres hats and cheering for the lone professional team in San Diego.
Some hosts choose to never openly root for the teams they talk about on an everyday basis. Steven Woods and Ben Higgins strive to never hide who they are on the air. They’re Padres fans and they’re not afraid to show it.
“I was in music radio before and sometimes it was hard to hide my disdain for some of the music that I played, so I just decided not to,” said Woods. “I just let it out there. People I think appreciate authenticity and if I didn’t like a song I’d tell you. But I still had to play it, right? With the Padres, it’s why I never sit in the press box, because I can’t cheer in there. I bought season tickets so that I can go and scream at the players like I want to. I think it resonates, because there’s fans listening in the car that want to see them do well too.”
“I do believe in journalistic integrity,” said Ben. “But to me that means you have to be honest. You have to be honest in your opinions and you can’t be afraid to be critical. No one is more critical of a team than their own fans. They are the most critical people of all. I don’t wanna be the fan that constantly criticizes, but at the same time, why would you listen to a show that is just relentlessly positive and gives you a white wash version of what’s not really reality? Every team has problems and it’s our job to point them out or nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
When you think of baseball towns, New York, Chicago and St. Louis are probably the three cities that immediately come to mind. But in a football world, San Diego has emerged as a new baseball town with the Chargers recently leaving for Los Angeles.
If you have any doubt that San Diego is now a baseball city, just listen to Ben and Woods on 97.3 The Fan from 5-9 am every weekday morning. The duo has no issues with doing three-plus hours of Padres talk, even during the offseason.
That’s not a new thing. Ben and Woods have always conducted the show the way it is now. They want to talk baseball, but they also want to hit off-topic content that will give the listener a chance to laugh on their way to work.
That’s been the case since the show was at Mighty 1090. Ben and Woods were at the station as the morning show when it folded in 2019. That was an incredibly trying time for both talents.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I had a brand new baby and the show was going great. We were on the rise and then it went away. It was shocking. It was also scary. I think uncertain is the best word. We believed in our product and we knew there was a market for it and there was a station that just so happened to need a morning show. The timing was pretty serendipitous.”
“I had been a listener for 15 years before I ever worked at that station for the first time,” Ben said. “And then you get there and you feel like, wow, we’re here and then all the sudden it’s gone. It wasn’t overnight, at some point we lost the signal transmission then we went streaming and it was kind of a slow death over the last few weeks. Ultimately it just ended one day. It was a very strange thing. The fact we got picked up at 97.3 The Fan, got back on the air so quickly was really great.”
Things are going extremely well for Ben and Woods at 97.3 The Fan. They’re thriving in morning drive with a unique show that’s different from any other in the market. Sure, they’ll talk about sports, but their focus is more on the overall entertainment of the show.
“It’s morning drive, you’re there to entertain,” said Woods. “You do have to get really creative. We get very creative, because we have to. We take a lot of risks, more so than people would like. The way I look at it as no one remembers us talking about the NFL Playoffs. But they do remember the time we played a 17-minute Bob Dylan song in its entirety on the radio and sat through it. I remember that and always will. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘man, nobody breaks down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like you guys’. But they’ll remember, ‘holy crap, you guys literally played a 17 minute Bob Dylan song it’s entirety’.”
“When we started it was 95 percent sports and I was afraid to do anything else,” Ben said. ”We started doing segments like Ben reads raps, there was a really good response and I started to warm up on OK we can branch out a little bit. Now, if there was a day we didn’t have a non-sports topic I would say that was a weird show.”
“Rest assured, Opening Day comes, we’re blowing out every bit we have, period,” Woods said ”We’re one of the few shows in town that has no problem doing 3 1/2 hours of just Padres talk. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself a little bit. I always call it punting. It’s an easy thing to say, hey, the playoffs are this week let’s get the local beat writer on from every single team and we’ll interview them. Like anyone here gives a rats ass what the Packers beat writer has to say. There may be one guy, but I’m not doing a show for one guy.”
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show,” laughed Ben.
One of the reasons the show has the identity that it does, is because of Woods’ background in multiple formats of radio. No, he’s not a sports radio lifer, and in a way, it’s probably greatly benefitted the show. He’s taken his creativity from the music side and perfectly blended it with his love for sports.
“I like sports radio more because there’s a lot more creativity,“ said Woods. “ I didn’t get to pick the music I got to play at all. Not even a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk so for me, as a creative person, this is tremendous. We can do whatever we want and our bosses are pretty cool about giving us a lot of leeway. I’ve learned how audiences react. I’ve learned how to keep an audience. It’s energy, it’s being compelling, breaking balls, having fun. Guy’s driving to work in the mornings, he wants to get a snicker or a laugh, he’s not looking for breakdowns of defenses and things like that.”
Ben and Woods is much more than just the two hosts in the chair every weekday. The cool thing is that anyone that listens to the show knows that. Paul Reindl is the executive producer of the show and has a talent and relationship with the hosts that anyone would dream of.
“He’s the worst,” laughed both Ben and Woods. “Paulie is great. We were able to get away this weekend and after we drank like 40 beers and whiskeys, I was like bro, I’m so proud of you and you’re so valuable to the show. But he’s an unsung hero behind the scenes. He has an uncanny ability to bring sound drops almost intuitively. He’s got pages and pages of drops we’ve collected over the years. He’s just an awesome producer.”
Sports Are Learning To Meet Gen Z Where They Are
“The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity.”
Should sports radio be concerned about where audiences will come from in the future? It is an interesting question that we talk about here a lot. It is also something that the New York Times tackled indirectly last week.
A column from Joe Drape and Ken Belson declared this generation of kids “The eSports Generation” and went on to explain just how disconnected from traditional sports they really are.
An alarmist might ask if this is the beginning of the end of traditional sports leagues. Someone a little more level-headed, like Joe Ovies, may want to dive a little deeper to see what leagues are learning and how they are adapting.
Joe hosts The OG in afternoon drive at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. He is always interested in how changes in technology and consumption patterns effect sports and his audience. I saw him tweeting about the New York Times piece last week and asked if he would want to write a little something for us.
“Meet your audience where they are.”
How many times have you heard that phrase in the last 5 years from a consultant, manager, or any number of Barrett Media posts as content consumption trends continue to spread out over a variety of platforms? Turns out the same applies for pro sports leagues, who are fearful that an entire generation of fans will be lost and their traditional business model will crater as a result.
The New York Times recently highlighted what sports marketers are doing to win over Generation Z, which typically applies to kids born from 1997 to 2012. The Times hits the usual beats.
There’s a reference to Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, an esports star who is also a traditional sports fan, who the NFL hoped would be a Pied Piper for youth fandom. There are examples of MLB, famously stingy when it came to fans using their content on social media, now working with TikTok influencers. And of course, highlighting the NBA’s wide ranging approach to online engagement and their franchise run NBA 2K esports league. Most of the article was based on a recent SSRS/Luker on Trends report, which conducts regular surveys about sports and society.
The issue for pro sports leagues isn’t that Gen Z kids aren’t “passionate” enough about sports. It’s that Gen Z is more likely to admit they simply don’t like sports.
“Only 23 percent of Generation Z said they were passionate sports fans, compared with the 42 percent of millennials (defined as 26 to 41), 33 percent of Generation X (42 to 57) and 31 percent of baby boomers (57 to 76) who identified themselves as passionate. More striking was that 27 percent of Gen Zers said they disliked sports altogether, compared with just 7 percent of millennials, 5 percent of Gen Xers and 6 percent of boomers.”The new york times, Jan. 12, 2022
Also factoring into the waning interest in sports from Gen Z is the dramatic decline of youth sports participation. There is a larger discussion to be had about the role of parents and specialization in this decline, but we can address that topic another day. As it relates to pro sports leagues today, the drop in youth participation absolutely impacts the level of interest in kids who might want to watch the best in the world of sports do their thing.
“Participation in youth sports was declining even before Covid-19: In 2018, only 38 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
In June 2020, the pandemic’s early days, 19 percent of parents with kids in youth sports said their child was not interested in playing sports, according to a survey conducted by The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. By September 2021, that figure was 28 percent.
On average, children play less than three years in a sport and quit by age 11, according to the survey. Why? Mostly, because it is not fun anymore.”the New york times, Dec. 19th 2021
The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity. Meeting up on the playground or at a friend’s backyard for a pickup game has been replaced with meeting your friends on a Discord server and deciding if you’re going to play Halo or Call or Duty after school.
If you have kids in the age range that I do, none of this should be a surprise. You see it every day and don’t even think twice about it. But if you do stop and think about how frictionless it has become to be online all day with your friends, you start to realize the impact of never being bored or getting dragged to things by your parent because there were no other options.
Watching sports and going to sporting events isn’t frictionless. It’s a pain in the ass. Older generations deal with it because we don’t know any better, it’s just what we do. But Gen Z isn’t about to stop what they’re doing just to watch a game. Why would they? They can get the highlights later.
Gen Z is about dropping in and out of entertainment options whenever they feel like it. In other words, why would they sit around waiting for their favorite song to be played on the radio when they can easily pull it up on YouTube or Spotify.
Pro sports leagues can create all the social content and tout billions of views. They can tout engagement with Gen Z because a bunch of kids bought NFL related skins in Fortnite.
Awareness of their leagues isn’t the problem. It’s getting Gen Z to care enough to watch the game. Take my kids, who are fully aware of what’s going on in the world of sports, but getting them to sit down and actually watch the game is torture. Throw in the increasing cost to attend sporting events, I’ve started leaving them at home because it’s a waste of money given my 13-year-old is just gonna play Clash Royale in that $75 seat.
To be clear — I’m OK with my kids just not being into sports. It’s not like I didn’t try. It’s simply understanding we’ve transitioned to a world of niche communities. You can still thrive within those niche communities. Just look at sports talk radio as an example, where you’re not winning with cume, but with passion around sports. That’s what great sports talk radio stations sell. Pro sports leagues will be fine doing the same.
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