WFAN Program Director Mark Chernoff retired last summer, completing a legendary career spanning over three decades at the forefront of the sports media world.
Throughout his time in the industry, Chernoff worked with prominent on-air talents, including Howard Stern, Steve Somers, Don Imus, Mike Francesca and Christopher Russo, and helped develop the sound of sports radio in New York City and across the country.
Additionally, he played an integral part in helping WFAN find his successor and new program director Spike Eskin, who has brought new voices to the station such as Keith McPherson, Tiki Barber and Brandon Tierney. Despite being retired, Chernoff still follows the industry closely and looks for the next generation of talent set to take the airwaves.
In fact, Chernoff will be attending the 2022 Barrett Sports Media Summit in New York City at the start of next month (March 2-3) in order to continue to keep up with the pulse of radio as a communication medium and as a business, along with reconnecting with friends and colleagues.
At the 2020 Barrett Sports Media Summit, Chernoff was honored by Barrett Media founder and president Jason Barrett with the introduction of a new award, eponymously named the “Mark Chernoff Award,” to commemorate his career in sports radio. The award, given annually at each BSM Summit, is bestowed upon sports radio programmers possessing strong leadership, vision, creativity, success in ratings and multi-platform excellence. Mitch Rosen, program director of Chicago’s 670 The Score, was recognized as its first recipient. BSM president Jason Barrett is expected to announce this year’s recipient in the next week or two.
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media landscape was beginning to lean towards cross-platform integration, specifically within the digital space. The future of radio as a viable communications medium, concurrent with alterations in consumption trends, had indeed been questioned and remains as such to an extent today.
With early March right around the corner amid an unprecedented global pandemic and paradigm shift towards convergence, we felt there was no better time than the present moment to catch up with Mark Chernoff to discuss his career, gather his thoughts on the future of sports radio, and discuss the value of the forthcoming BSM Summit.
PART I: How it all started
Q1: How did you get your start in radio?
Chernoff: I started by working at my college radio station, which was WRSU in New Brunswick – I went to Rutgers. As a little kid, [I] would listen to radio all the time [on] a little transistor radio, if that world still exists, under my pillow. I just loved the idea of getting involved with radio. The first week of school at Rutgers, I went up to the radio station to a meeting and never looked back, basically.
Q2: What led to your transition from being a jock to being a program director?
Chernoff: My first real full-time job was at a little radio station in Sussex County in the Northwest corridor of New Jersey – WNNJ – and the FM station, WIXL. After doing about a year in a part-time role while I was going to graduate school, I took a job with an accounting firm, but that’s not what I wanted to do, so I took a full-time job at the radio station.
I loved being a jock, but people come and go so quickly [at these small radio stations] that within about a year-and-a-half, two different program directors got better jobs and it was kind of like, ‘Okay, you’re next, Mark Chernoff.’ I volunteered; I wanted to be the program director. Lo and behold, I was the program director of an AM/FM combo up in Newton, New Jersey, still on the air – doing a shift every day.
After Chernoff left WIXL, he took a part-time job at WDHA in Dover, New Jersey, something he called “a step up,” in terms of market size. Once he was hired full time at the station, he became the new program director and went on to serve as morning show host and music director with the PD role simultaneously. After seven-and-a-half years at WDHA, Chernoff got a job at WNEW in New York City, where he made the decision to focus his career towards management in the radio industry.
“I was a decent jock, and I liked being a jock,” said Chernoff, “but I really thought at that point, that was the turning point where I said, ‘I think management’s a better idea.’ I got the job as the music director. I still continued to do fill-in air shifts at WNEW, which was a big deal being in New York radio. When Charlie Kendall, the program director, left, I became the program director. That’s kind of how it evolved from being a jock to at least the programming end of the business.”
PART II: All things sports radio
Q3: How do you evaluate talent on sports radio?
Chernoff: [Sirius XM Vice President of Sports Programming] Eric Spitz and I worked together for many years. He kind of encapsulated the idea [of] the P.O.K.E. theory: Passion, Opinion, Knowledge, and Entertainment. Those were always the things we were looking for in our air talent, and those that had all four of those qualities really wound up being the best people on the air.
I just think that passion was really important because on sports radio, you need to be opinionated. If you’re not opinionated, I don’t believe you’re going to go far, nor have people gone far… It was important that talent had those qualities and that they knew how to entertain people, and particularly were very passionate and opinionated about what they were speaking about, and of course you wanted them to know the facts to go with whatever their opinions were, and how they spoke about topics and stuff like that.
Q4: How do you manage talent on sports radio?
Chernoff: I was pretty lucky at WFAN; I had Mike and the Mad Dog, who were the most unbelievable sports duo that has come about in sports radio. What I was able to discern from them and Don Imus, was how good they were and that my role as the program director was to do what they felt they needed. If they wanted me to help, I would be there to help.
I learned, especially from Howard Stern [at K-Rock], that those talents that are great talents don’t really need to be managed. These people knew what to do, so you didn’t have to fight and argue. We would discuss promotions and things like that because I wanted things done to help the radio station in general. But to me, I wanted to have good relationships with the air staff. I wanted them to know that I was there to be helpful and to work with them on an as-needed basis, but I didn’t want to sit in with hosts at every one of their meetings.
Q5: Was there a difference in your management style for those who are more difficult to work with?
Chernoff: I tried not to look at anybody as being difficult. You just have to manage people to what their style is, not what my style is. I hope most people – if you spoke to them – would say that I was a good manager in that I didn’t want to sit and get into arguments and fights. I didn’t think that was a good thing to do. I didn’t want to be managed like that when I was a jock or a host. I didn’t want to manage like that. If there were issues, then we spoke about them. I was lucky in that most people that worked with the radio station really got it [and] understood what the station was all about.
Q6: How important was it to you to stick to a specific format while on the air?
Chernoff: WFAN was a mature radio station when I got there. Whether it was Steve Somers, Don Imus, Mike and the Mad Dog. I just wanted to make sure that they knew that I was there to support them. There are all these rules – we break at such and such a time, the breaks are this long, make sure you promote things, make sure you give the call letters and so-on and so-forth.
What I also learned [is that] great talent can break the rules. Rule-breakers work. It’s not that I wanted everybody to be like that because sometimes you did want to teach people the rudiments of radio so that they knew how to tease and do some of that other stuff. If they had the innate talent, that was the most important thing to me. You could just hear it when people started.
Q7: What are your thoughts on sports radio hosts talking about topics not pertaining to sports?
Chernoff: At WFAN, we ran through a number of midday shows. We finally really, really clicked when Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts [were put] together and they did middays. [It was the] same thing with Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton doing the morning show – they clicked. With the morning show, and then even now with Evan and Craig, who we put together before I left this past summer, it was ‘Just make sure that everything emanates from the world of sports.
You can move along and talk about other things. But if sports isn’t your ‘bread and butter,’ then I think the expectation of a listener will be, ‘I’m not sure that’s what I want to listen to.’ You’re allowed to go off on tangents, you’re allowed to talk about other stuff, you’re allowed to do lifestyle, but if you don’t heavy up on knowing what’s going on in the world of sports and what ‘Topic A’ is, I think that’s a problem.
Q8: What impact did including regular callers on programming have on the station?
Chernoff: Whether people were right or wrong in what they said, our listeners wanted to be involved with the radio station. We had so many loyal listeners – and I never said [not to] take calls from the regulars – [instead], do take calls from the regulars because they are part of what’s making WFAN WFAN.
We’ve lost some through the years, but people knew who the listeners were. They knew Bruce from Bayside and Bruce from Flushing, and they knew Al from White Plains – so many of these people – Short Al, Doris – I can go through dozens of them – that meant a lot to them.
Q9: How was WFAN involved with the New York-Metropolitan area community?
Chernoff: The station was always involved in the community. Imus got behind the Tomorrow’s Children’s Fund [to help] kids with cancer. He literally, not with his bare hands because he didn’t get out and do the physical work, but the money he raised, and adding to that with Mike and the Mad Dog and their help in the afternoon, they built that whole wing over at… Hackensack University Medical Center… We’ve always been community-minded, which I think is so important for a radio station. There are many causes; we ran public service announcements just about every hour for charities.
Q10: Why do you feel WFAN has such a special connection to New York sports?
Chernoff: For so many years, we had the Mets on the radio station, then it became the Yankees. We had the Jets early on when I was there, and then we had the Jets and Giants, and then just the Giants. We had the Knicks and Rangers, and eventually we had the Devils and the Nets, and even the Islanders for a short while.
So we’ve been very much involved with the teams; we’ve always taken all of those teams to talk about and let our hosts [and callers] talk about them. I think just being wrapped up in New York sports, and again, being 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the station was able to grow and become part of the essence of New York, and those call letters – W-F-A-N – meant an awful lot. In the sports world, people know E-S-P-N; important in TV, and they’ve had radio and still have some radio. I believe that the voice of sports in New York has always been W-F-A-N, [and] that when people think of us, they think of us as the preeminent, predominant sports station as it continues to be after all these years.
PART III: Looking to the future
Q11: What would you like to see happen in the future for all brands to gain a stronger and more accurate measure of their performance?
Chernoff: We’re always going to do surveys. We’re never going to do a census – you can’t measure every single person out there. I know people dispute the accuracy of the numbers, but it’s what’s there. I’m not sure I know how to make it better. You can only survey so many people. I would hope that they would get better results.
I know the complaint always is one or two meters in a week that go awry negatively or even positively, you sometimes say ‘Oh, look at that. We got a 10-share, great! We sound wonderful,’ or ‘Oh, no — we had a two-share this week. We’re awful.’ I never wanted to look at it like that. It was more important about the consistency. Are we doing the right things? You’re at the mercy of the ratings, and I’m not sure that anybody is going to be able to make it better.
Q12: How does the Nielsen portable people meter (PPM) ratings method compare to the diary ratings method?
Chernoff: The [PPM method is] a better way [to measure ratings] than the old diary method because at least it’s people listening to radio whatever their device is at the moment – whether it’s a mobile phone, a smart speaker, computer, laptop, or the actual radio…. In the old diary world, people would get a diary, and then once a week they would try to remember what they listened to over the last week. To me, that was completely inaccurate. I know this system is not perfect; it will never be perfect.
Q13: Do you believe there can be a competitive ratings service to Nielsen?
Chernoff: People have come and gone — whether it was Accuratings way back when; there was Pulse and other things. They all went by the wayside, and Arbitron, now being Nielsen, is what we’ve got, and I think we’re going to have to keep using it.
One of the important things about spoken word and particularly sports is that it was a concept to people. We’ve liked that, and always done what is working for the client. If you get a 10-share or a two-share, but a client says ‘X amount of people came into my place of business, and they love your radio station and they’re buying my cars, buying my product, buying my service,’ then you know you’ve been successful.
Q14: Did WFAN ever consider selling advertising spots to clients based on the ratings alone?
Chernoff: We’ve never really done ‘Let’s just sell the ratings.’ I know many of the media buyers, that’s what they deal with. At WFAN in particular, we’ve had great salespeople who go directly to the clients and discuss with the talent. They endorse products, they get to know the service and the product. We’ve had all these great people who have done that through the years.
When that works for the client, that’s more important than what the ratings are at the moment because the ratings are going to go up and down. You’re at the mercy of a survey; it’s not a census. If there are 10 people in the room, and you get an opinion from one or two of them, but you tell people they’re representing all 10, it may be accurate or it may not be accurate.
Q15: What is the future of cross-platform integration in sports radio?
Chernoff: I think it’s important and I think so many are doing it now. At WFAN obviously, the morning show is being simulcast on CBS Sports Network. For many years, the afternoon show was on the YES Network; we worked with Fox for a while. Carton and Roberts right now are on SNY.
‘I think the TV integration is great; the streaming is extremely important. Some of the shows — Moose and Maggie, for example the last few years — the show was being video-streamed so people had the opportunity to watch it as well as listen. I think all of the elements are really important. It’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, Alexa. Play WFAN,’ so it’s easy to stream on a smart speaker. On your phone, you have your apps and you go right to the app of what you want to listen to. I think the integration is just extremely important. Those that don’t integrate are going to be left behind.
Q16: How does cross-platform integration impact the Nielsen Audio ratings?
Chernoff: Last spring, I did a call with the sales department with the Audacy people. There must have been 45-50 people on the call. I could see all of them and I said, ‘How many of you have radios at home?’ Maybe three or four people raised their hand… It’s not like they didn’t listen, but they had other ways of listening. As long as the measurement can pick up all of those ways, I think that’s important too so people get a real idea.
When Audacy worked with Triton Digital, we were able to see in real time how many people were streaming the radio station. Sometimes you look and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot higher than what we actually see when Nielsen gives us a number.’ Those numbers are important because a client could know that 23,000 people were listening at 2:22 p.m. in the afternoon, or 180,000 people; whatever the number is listening. You can target people. I think that’s what all of the platforms are able to provide. More platforms for stations to show off their products, whether it’s just on the audio side or adding video as well, plus podcasting of shows, nevermind the original ones which is something separate.
PART IV: The return of the BSM Summit
Q17: What do you enjoy most about the Barrett Sports Media Summit?
Chernoff: I’ve missed it. I think it’s a good experience, for one — getting together with other programmers, and trading ideas, trading different thoughts, trading ideas about talents, trading ideas about programming; who’s doing what. People have good ideas. If there’s a good idea out there, it’s not a matter of stealing it, but it’s a matter of ‘Hey, let’s share. I have an idea; you have an idea.’ It’s a good way and a good place to meet people, and also just to find out what’s going on with everybody.
The panels were great. Sometimes you learn stuff, and sometimes you got to see people you haven’t seen and hear what they have to say; how they’re running their stations, what their thoughts are about sports, how they program locally, or mix-in national with local, and there’s a case that can be made in some ways for that as well.
I’m really looking forward to being able to see everybody in-person again. We all hope that the virus doesn’t take a bad turn in the next month so that we can all be together and just hang out, listen to what people have to say, get some new ideas and work on some old ideas and see old friends and make new acquaintances as well, and find out about up-and-coming talent.
Q18: What does it mean to you to be annually recognized with an award in your name at the BSM Summit?
Chernoff: I’m more than flattered. I know when Jason [Barrett] brought it up, I was sort of embarrassed like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ I thought it was very nice. I know I’ve been in radio a long time, but I’m just truly honored and humbled by doing that. Even if there was an award that wasn’t in my name, but it was to honor somebody special every year, I think that’s great. But again, honored and humbled by him wanting to do that. I was just very flattered and it’s truly a nice honor. Sometimes, I scratch my head and I’m like ‘Really, somebody’s naming an award in my name?’ Again, I’m humbled, honored, flattered by it.
PART V: Chernoff’s future and advice to others
Q19: How have you adjusted to life not being inside a radio building each day?
Chernoff: It’s very different. I do hear from people. I’ve had a wonderful time being with family and kids and grandkids, but I can see myself wanting to get back and doing stuff again at some point. I do miss the action of being there, and I certainly miss the people.
To me, working at a radio station is all about the people, and that goes for not just the on-air people, but all of the support staff, all of management, sales, engineering. I just love the action of being there. Kind of retiring from that — it seemed like a good thing, but I think at some point, I would like to be back doing stuff — whether it’s full-time, part-time, project work.
I do get calls from people who ask for my opinion or my advice. I do that and I feel good about being able to help where I can. It’s not paid work; it’s just sometimes — all the acquaintances and friends I’ve made — it’s like ‘Hey, I don’t mind your opinion,’ or ‘I’d like to have your opinion’ I should say. When asked, I’m happy to give.
Q20: What is one piece of advice you have for upcoming programmers?
Chernoff: I say it’s to be a good listener. In life, I think that’s one of the most important things you can do as a human being. It’s not important to speak. It’s important to listen. You get so much out of listening. You find out so much about people.
When I listened to the radio station or radio stations, I tried to listen in two ways. I tried to listen as the program director, and I also tried to listen as a listener. I’d put on a different hat, and I’d be driving around, and if I put on, whether it’s my radio station or another radio station. If I’m listening as a listener, when something sucked or that I didn’t like, I would make a mental note of why and I would go turn to something else. If I’m sitting there trying to critique, that’s different. I want to listen and I want to say what’s good and what’s bad about that.
I think a lot of program directors don’t take the time to listen. They may sit in their office and calculate this and ‘When should we do the break?’ and topics to talk about and stuff like that. Listening to your radio station, and talking to your people every day, just even being friendly. Just talk to them.
Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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.