The unexpected news nearly brought Al Eshbach to tears. In fact, it rocked the longtime Oklahoma City sports radio personality, because it was so sudden. Chris Baker, his program director at WWLS The Sports Animal, had just revealed he was retiring at the end of the year.
While the news came across as a complete shock to Eschbach, it was a date Baker had been circling on his calendar for years. After five decades in radio, he’s ready to hang it up at the end of December.
“It’s just like graduating high school,” said Baker. “I’m ready to graduate from work.”
Oklahoma City is home for Baker, but his roots were planted in the far southeast corner of Texas in the town of Beaumont. His first program director job came about an hour away in Lake Charles, LA at KBIU Bayou 104 in 1986, where the morning show host was a guy named Bruce Gilbert.
“The greatest thing about Cumulus is Bruce Gilbert,” Baker said. “The opportunity to work with him was kind of surreal for me. He’s a savant.”
After a stint in Lake Charles, Baker moved back to Beaumont to be the PD of KZZB, where he had previously spent five years as the promotions director. He was in his hometown for a couple of years, before being hired at KCPX in Salt Lake City. After a year, he found himself in Colorado Springs at KKFM and KKMG, which happened to be America’s first local marketing agreement.
“A lot of people in the media said it was illegal and would never happen,” laughed Baker. “It was really interesting.”
Finally, after moving all over the country, he settled in Oklahoma City as the program director of Rock 100.5 The KATT in 1993. Maybe he thought it was just another short stop in his career, but for the next 19 years, he programmed one of the most popular radio stations in the city. Baker also grew into a role as a general operations manager and oversaw programming on eight radio stations under the Cumulus umbrella. One of those being The Sports Animal.
“I’ve been involved with The Sports Animal since the merger of the 640 AM signal and Craig Humphreys’ station he had in Oklahoma City,” Baker said. “We were able to merge two great talents, where we had Jim Traber on one station and Al Eschbach on another. They were competing against one another so they came together at The Sports Animal in August of 1997.”
Baker left Cumulus at the end of 2011, but even while he was away, he was still listening to The Sports Animal every day. Then, a few years later, as it always does, fate stepped in. Changes were happening at The Sports Animal and Jay Davis was now the general manager. One of his first orders of business was to hire a new program director. He didn’t think very long before he realized who he needed to hire.
“When my predecessor left, Chris was the first person I thought of and it worked out timing wise for him to come back,” said Davis. “Chris has been with us for nearly the past 30 years. He was very instrumental in how The Sports Animal grew and how we presented it to the public. His stewardship and forward-thinking have played a huge role in the success of The Sports Animal. Chris has been a very big part of our success.”
He was welcomed into the role by the talent at The Sports Animal with open arms. Most of them already had a strong relationship with him, so the entire building was pumped that Baker was back to be their program director. So much so that Humphreys makes it bluntly clear the only reason he came back to the station was because Davis and Baker would be managing it. If someone from out of the market would have been promoted to the role, he never would have taken over Sports Morning after the late, great Bob Barry Jr.
Baker’s familiarity and experience are just two of the many reasons why he’s so beloved by the many talents he’s coached over the years. But the biggest reason is obvious. He truly cares about everyone in the building. That was best on display when Jim Traber had a serious health scare in 2019 that sidelined him from the show for weeks. During that time, Baker was as supportive as anyone in his role could have been. It’s something Traber hasn’t forgotten, nor will he, for the rest of his life.
“I mean, he was the best,” Traber said. “Obviously, everyone was scared of the situation and he made sure he was in touch with my wife Julie the whole time and he was very understanding of when I could come back. He’s literally the best boss that I’ve ever had, of any coaches or anything like that, he’s the absolute best. He’s going to be missed. He’s a great man, he’s a great man of God and he’s a great man in radio.”
It’s examples such as this that make him the program director he is. It’s about success, sure, but it’s also about having fun and caring about his talent. If you talk to enough people in Oklahoma City sports radio, you’ll quickly learn that Baker is truly one of the good guys in this business.
“He’s the perfect programmer,” said Phil Inzinga, co-host of The Morning Animals. “He’s always understood talent and the audience. Chris is not just a great programmer, but more importantly, he’s a great human being and friend. He gave my son his first dog. True story!”
“The only times he’s ever had to get on to me are issues with the clock,” laughed Humphreys. “The guy is so experienced and he’s so great with people. He knows how to treat people and he doesn’t try to over manage. Doing a talk show, you appreciate that. Never once have I been told what to say or what not to say by Chris Baker. He lets us do our own show. The guy is a joy to work for.”
“He’s a great person,” said Eschbach. “When he told me he was retiring Saturday night after the OU-Texas game I almost felt like crying. But I knew it was the best thing for him. He’s just a really special person and a great program director. He’s just a tremendous friend of mine.”
“Chris Baker knows radio and has spent his lifetime in broadcasting perfecting the art and science of programming across multiple formats,” said Bruce Gilbert, SVP Sports, Content and Audience at Cumulus and Westwood One. “His radio stations always sound big, bright, tight, and positive with a focused appeal to its target audience. Many don’t know that Chris was one of the first Program Director’s I ever worked for and Chris – by his MANY actions – showed me what leadership looks like. His ability to be empathetic as well as authoritative was a lesson I will never forget. Chris leads by example and the examples he sets are deeply rooted in honesty, integrity, and collaboration. He is an ego-less leader that cares much more about his team and their success than any personal accolades. We are so fortunate to have had such a pro lead our incredibly talented team at The Sports Animal for the last several years. His steady hand and understanding of the Sports Animal brand and all its many moving parts will be greatly missed, however, no one deserves to go out on their terms more than Chris Baker. He earned this and he should know that he is loved by many and that his legacy in our industry is forever secure.”
Baker has always strived to put the best product possible on the air. If you look at his track record, that’s exactly what he’s done. But what’s most impressive is that he’s been able to win ratings battles as well as the hallway. He hasn’t won by ruling with an iron fist. He’s done it by befriending his staff and reminding each of them how important family is.
“One, he’s always available to talk,” said Mark Rodgers, host of The Middle of the Day Show. “Two, I think he did a really good job of letting small things slide. He never made a mountain of a molehill. Not very often did things ever escalate. He’s just the best.”
“He’s a people person and he’s able to keep a proper balance between a lot of disparate personalities,” said Berry Tramel, part of The Total Dominance Hour. “He can keep people rolling in the same direction when it’s not always easy to. It’s a fairly high ego business and Chris doesn’t have much of an ego, he’s able to cushion a lot of that stuff and make it all work. When Jay Davis took over as general manager he had to bring in a program director and brought in Chris back and everyone was just thrilled. Everybody was fired up about that. He’s a conduit of people. He just gets people rallying around in the same direction.”
The appreciation for Baker extends far past the walls of The Sports Animal. Former co-workers still light up when they talk about their experience of working with him. Maybe they’re competing against his signal now, but you won’t find a competitor that will say a negative word about him.
“He’s the best program director I’ve ever worked for, hands down, and that’s saying a lot,” said Erik Gee of Sports Animal Tulsa. “I’ve worked for several in my career, but none were as sharp as Chris and none cared more about their staff than Chris. He’s truly one of my best friends.”
“He was the PD of The KATT and we all called him Big Tex, because he’s so tall,” said Mike Steely of The Ref. “It was 2001 during OU-Texas weekend and we were all at The Crowne Plaza in Dallas and he said, hey guys, we have a radio rep that’s going to buy dinner. Employees came out like rats at a picnic. We went over to Pappadeaux and there was the radio rep that was trying to schmooze Baker. There must have been 15 people that showed up. I remember Lump ordered The Admiral’s Feast, which was about $59.99. They brought him like eight dishes. I just remember that radio rep looking like, oh my God. Baker was kind of like, ‘you guys, I can’t believe you did that.’ But he was good-natured about it.”
“He was the guy you could always go into this office and chat with,” continued Steely.”He had that aura that he was your boss, but you were relaxed enough to say, hey man, what did you think about the game this weekend? It’s kind of rare with some bosses that you can do that. He’s just a great dude. Now, again. If you did something wrong and it was a pretty egregious error, Chris would let you know about it. But it was always done in a professional way. He’s just one of those guys you like to see in the office every day.”
Few, if any, in this business deserve the love and appreciation I hope this article brings to Baker. To echo everything else that’s been said, he’s an incredible human being and one that more in this business should strive to be like.
Not many are fortunate enough to leave the business on their own accord. It’s really cool that Baker is doing just that. The lesson here is simple: work hard, treat your co-workers with incredible respect and always leave your door open to chat.
If you do that, you could be the next Chris Baker. And you should want to be.
“I could not ask for a better way to end my career, to be able to program The Sports Animal,” Baker said. “I laugh and tell my radio friends, as a kid I always wanted to program WLS. I just ended up programming WWLS.”
Adam The Bull Is Giving Cleveland Something It’s Never Had Before
“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?”
After spending 22 years on the radio, Adam “The Bull” Gerstenhaber was ready for a new adventure. In fact, the former co-host of Bull and Fox on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland did not have a new job lined up when he signed off from his 11-year radio home last month.
“I was already leaving without having a new project,” admitted Gerstenhaber during a recent phone interview with BSM. “I left before I knew for sure I had a ‘next project’.”
Gerstenhaber was preparing for his final show with co-host Dustin Fox on April 1st when he was contacted by an executive producer for TEGNA, a company that was developing a Cleveland sports television show on YouTube. The executive producer, who had just found out that Bull was a free agent, made it clear that he wanted Bull to be a part of the new project.
It all came together very quickly.
“Let’s talk on Monday,” Gerstenhaber told the executive producer. “And within a week they signed me up.”
The Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show on YouTube featuring Gerstenhaber, former ESPN personality Jay Crawford, 92.3 The Fan’s Garrett Bush, and rotating hosts to make up a four-person round-table show, made its debut last Monday. The show, which airs weekdays from 11am to 1pm, features passionate Cleveland sports talk, live guests, either in-studio or via Zoom, as well as interaction from the audience through social media.
“I’m very excited,” said Gerstenhaber. “It’s a definite adjustment for me after 22 years on radio doing television. For the last 11 years, I’ve been doing a radio show with just one other host and I was the lead guy doing most of the talking and now I’m on a show with three other people and it’s such an adjustment. So far, I’m having a ball.”
And so far, the reaction to the show has been very positive.
A big reason why is that it’s something that Cleveland didn’t have and really never had, unlike a city like New York, where there are local radio shows that are simulcast on regional sports channels.
“There’s nothing like that in Cleveland,” said Gerstenhaber. “And there was certainly nothing like this with a panel. Cleveland is such a massive sports town and now people that don’t live in Cleveland that are maybe retired in Florida or Arizona, now they actually have a TV show that they can watch that’s Cleveland-centric.”
The new venture certainly represents a big change in what Bull has been used to in his radio career. He’s enjoying the freedom of not having to follow a hard clock for this show. In fact, there have already been some occasions where the show has been able to go a little longer than scheduled because they have the flexibility to do that on YouTube.
Doing a show on YouTube gives the panel a great opportunity to go deep into topics and spend some quality time with guests. And while there is no cursing on the show at the moment, there could be the potential for that down the road.
Don’t expect the show is going to become X-rated or anything like that, but the objective is to be able to capture the spirit and emotion of being a sports fan and host.
“It’s something we may do in the future,” said Gerstenhaber. “Not curse just to curse but it gives us the option if we get fired up. It is allowed because there’s no restrictions there. The company doesn’t want us to do it at the moment.”
There’s also been the shift for Gerstenhaber from being the “point guard” on his old radio show, driving the conversation and doing most of the talking, to now taking a step back and having Crawford distributing the ball on the television show.
For a guy called “The Bull”, that will take some getting used to.
“Jay is a pro’s pro,” said Gerstenhaber. “He’s the point guard for this but he’s also part of the conversation. I’m not used to not being the point guard so I have to adjust to that. I think it’s gone pretty well and the chemistry is pretty good and with time we’ll get used to the flow of it.”
Gerstenhaber’s move from sports radio to an internet television show is a perfect example of how the industry is changing. A good portion of the listening and viewing audience these days, especially those in the younger demographic, are not necessarily watching traditional television or listening to terrestrial radio. For a lot of sports fans, watching and listening on a mobile device or a computer has become a very important way of life.
The desire to adapt, along with a shorter workday, was very enticing to him.
“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?” wondered Gerstenhaber. “There were things about my job that I was unhappy about. I was doing a five-hour radio show. It’s too long. That’s crazy. Nobody should be doing a five-hour radio show at this point.”
Broadcasting on the internet has arrived and it’s not just a couple of sports fans doing a show from their garage anymore. The business has evolved to the point where the technology has provided more opportunities for those who have already enjoyed success in the industry and are looking for new challenges.
Kind of like Adam The Bull!
“I think years ago, probably like many people in the radio business, we looked at internet and podcasts as like whatever…those guys aren’t professionals…they’re amateurs,” said Gerstenhaber. “But the game has changed.”
Gerstenhaber, Crawford and everyone associated with the “Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show” should not have much of a problem attracting the younger audience. That demographic is already accustomed to watching shows on YouTube and other streaming platforms. The challenge now is to get the more mature audience on board. There are certainly some obstacles there.
I know this from experience with trying to explain to my mother in Florida how she can hear me on the radio and watch me on television simply by using her tablet.
Bull can certainly relate to that.
“My mother is still trying to figure out how to watch the show live,” said Gerstenhaber with a chuckle. “The older fans struggle with that. A lot of my older fans here in Cleveland are like how do I watch it? For people that are under 40 and certainly people that under 30, watching a YouTube show is like okay I watch everything on my phone or device. It’s such a divide and obviously as the years go by, that group will increase.”
With the television show off and running, Gerstenhaber still has a passion for his roots and that’s the radio side of the business. In the next couple of weeks, “The Bull” is set to announce the launch of two podcasts, one daily and one weekly, that will begin next month. But he also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to terrestrial radio at some point.
“I have not closed the door to radio,” said Gerstenhaber. “I still love radio. I would still, in the right set of circumstances, consider going back to radio but it would have to really be the perfect situation. I’m excited about (the television show) and right now I don’t want to do anything else but I’m certainly going to remain open-minded to radio if a really excellent opportunity came up.”
The landscape of the broadcasting industry, particularly when it comes to sports, has certainly changed over the years and continues to evolve. Adam Gerstenhaber certainly enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on the radio side, both in New York and in Cleveland, but now he has made the transition to something new with the YouTube television show and he’s committed to making it a success.
I Heard A Lot of Boring, Uncreative Sports Radio On Friday
“Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released”
Maybe this one is on me for expecting better. Maybe I need to take my own advice and accept that there are times the sports radio audience just wants a little comfort food. Still, this is my column and I am going to complain because I listened to probably six different stations on Friday and all of them were doing the exact same thing.
The NFL schedule was released on Thursday night, so on Friday, regardless of daypart, every show seemingly felt obligated to have the same three conversations.
- How many games will the home team win?
- What does the number of primetime games we got mean for how much respect we have nationally?
- Why do the Lions still get to play on Thanksgiving?
Football is king. I get that. Concrete NFL news is always going to take priority. That is understandable. But where was even an ounce of creativity? Where was the desire to do better – not just better than the competition, but better than the other shows in your own building?
I listened to shows in markets from across the league. The conversations were the same regardless of size or history of success. Everyone that picked in the top 5 in last month’s draft is going to go 10-7. Every team that got less than 5 primetime games feels disrespected. It was all so boring.
Those of us in the industry don’t consume content the way listeners do. We all know that. Perhaps I am harping on something that is only a problem to me because I listen to sports talk radio for a living. If you don’t ever want to put more than the bare minimum of effort into your show, decide that is the reason for my reaction and go click on another article here.
Consider this though, maybe the fact that I listen to so much sports radio means I know how much quality there is in this industry. Maybe it means that I can spot someone talented that is phoning it in.
I want to be clear in my point. There is value in giving your record prediction for the home team. Listeners look at the people on the radio as experts. I will bet some futures bets in a lot of markets were made on Friday based on what the gambler heard coming through their speakers. All I want to get across is there is a way to have that conversation that isn’t taking two segments to go through each week one by one. I heard no less than three stations do that on Friday.
Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released. It’s a very familiar rhythm: pick the wins, get a guest on to preview the week 1 opponent, take calls, texts and tweets with the listeners’ predictions.
I didn’t hear anyone ask their listeners to sell them on the over for wins. I didn’t hear anyone give me weeks that you could skip Red Zone because one matchup is just too damn good. I didn’t hear anyone go through the Sunday Night Football schedule and pick out the weeks to schedule dates because the matchup isn’t worth it.
Maybe none of those ideas are winners, and that is fine. They are literally three dumb ideas I pulled out of the air. But they are all ways to review the schedule that could potentially leave a smile on your listener’s face.
Show prep is so important, especially in a group setting. It is your chance to tell your partner, producer, or host that you know you can do better than the idea that has just been thrown out. Quit nodding in agreement and challenge each other! It may mean a little more work for you, but it means more reward for the listeners. And if the listeners know they can rely on you for quality, creative content, that leads to more reward for you.
And lay off the Lions. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re stuck at home. The NFL could give you Lions vs Jaguars and you’d watch.
Why You Should Be Making Great TikTok Content
“We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds.”
It feels like there’s a new social media platform to pay attention to every other week. That makes it easy to overlook when one of them actually presents value to your brand. It wasn’t long ago that TikTok was primarily used by teenagers with the focus being silly dance trends filmed for video consumption with their friends and followers alike. Now, as the general public has become in tune with how this complicated app works, it’s grown far beyond that.
TikTok is now an app used by all types of demographics and unlike TikTok’s closely related cousins Instagram and Facebook, this app provides a certain type of nuance that I think people in our line of work can really excel in.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how you can use TikTok to your advantage and how to make your videos catch on, I think it’s important to first mention why this matters for you. Now, if I’m being realistic, I’m sure there are some that have already stopped reading this or those that could scroll away fast enough when they saw the words TikTok. You might be thinking that this doesn’t fit your demo, or maybe that it’s a waste of time because productivity here won’t directly lead to an uptick in Nielsen ratings. But I’m not sure any social network directly leads to what we ultimately get judged on, and we aren’t always pumping out content directly to our core audience.
TikTok, like any other app you may use, is marketing. This is another free tool to let people out there know who you are and what you offer in this endless sea of content. And the beauty of TikTok is that it directly caters its algorithm to content creators just like us. Bottom line, if you are a personality in sports talk, there’s no reason you can’t be crushing it on TikTok right now. All it takes is a little direction, focus, consistency, and a plan.
Unlike Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where you can throw a photo up with a caption and be done for the day, TikTok’s whole model is built on creative videos that keep users engaged for longer periods of time. This approach works. According to Oberlo, a social media stat tracking site, people spend more time per day on TikTok than any other popular social media application. 38 minutes per day!
This is where this is good news for us in talk radio. We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds. TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t care how many followers you have, your level of credibility, or the production on your video. All ir cares about is 1) Is your content good. and 2) Are people watching it. 3) How long are they watching it. The more people watch and the longer they watch creates a snowball effect. Your videos views will skyrocket, sometimes within hours.
So, how do you create content that will catch on? It’s really not all that different than what you do every day. Create thought-provoking commentary that makes people think, argue, or stay till the end to get the info you teased up for them. I’ve found through my own trial and error that it’s best if you stay away from time-sensitive material, I’ve had more success the more evergreen my content is. That way, the shelf life expands beyond just that day or week. This is different for everyone and there’s no one-size-fits-all, but this is where I’ve seen the most success.
Also, put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to say something that people are going to vehemently disagree with. Again, it’s not unlike what we do every day. It’s one thing to get someone to listen, it’s another to get them to engage. Once they hit you in the comment section, you’ve got them hooked. Comments breed more views and on and on. But don’t just let those sit there, even the smallest interaction back like a shoulder shrug emoji can go a long way in creating more play for your video.
If you want to grow quickly, create a niche for yourself. The best content creators that I follow on TikTok all put out very similar content for most of their videos. This means, unlike Instagram where it’s great to show what a wildly interesting and eclectic person you are, TikTok users want to know what they’re getting the second your face pops up on that screen. So if you are the sports history guy, be the sports history guy all the time. If you are the top 5 list guy, be the top 5 list guy all the time, and on and on, you get the point.
Other simple tricks:
- Splice small videos together. Don’t shoot one long video.
- 90 seconds to 2 minutes is a sweet spot amount of time.
- Add a soft layer of background instrumental music (this feature is found in the app when you are putting the finishing touches on your video)
- Label your video across the screen at the start and time it out so that it disappears seconds later. This way a user gets an idea of what the content is immediately and then can focus on you delivering your message thereafter.
- Research trending hashtags, they are far more important than whatever you caption your video.
- Use closed captions so that people can follow your video without sound.
Finally, don’t be intimidated by it or snub your nose at it. Anything that helps your brand is worth doing and anything worth doing is worth doing well.