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Sports Radio Should Take Notes On Pat McAfee’s Interviews

“What McAfee does better than anyone is to make his guests part of the show.”

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Aaron Rodgers wasn’t just a guest on The Pat McAfee Show, he became a character.
A recurring character, in fact, and his weekly appearance on McAfee’s show became a forum for him to discuss everything from his decision not to receive the COVID vaccine to the guidelines the NFL placed on unvaccinated players to the most recent appearance when he stated there would be no news about his future. It’s the kind of scenario every host dreams about: to have an exclusive guest whose appearances become events.

Some of this was a product of circumstance: Rodgers appeared on McAfee’s show in September 2019, and he had been making regular appearances for more than a year, but it became a much bigger deal after he tested positive for COVID in the middle of this season.

Some of this was a result of McAfee’s status not just as a former player, but the fact that A.J. Hawk — a former teammate with Rodgers — is part of the show.

But some of this was a result of the way that McAfee has built his show and the way he conducts his interviews, and that’s the part I want to drill down on. There’s something that every host can learn here from the way McAfee sets up and executes his interviews to the overall experience, but first we need to get through a couple of basics.

Step 1

Let’s start with the simplest building block: What’s the purpose of having a guest on the show?

This is an honest question, one that most people answer incorrectly. They say the guest is there to provide information or to give the audience a chance to hear directly from a source or get to know a player personally. These all may be potential results of the interview, but they’re not the primary purpose of the interview, which is to entertain the listener.

The goal of putting a guest on is to provide the listener with content that is superior to what they would hear during a normal segment of the show. Now, there are a variety of ways it can be more entertaining whether it’s through humor, the newsworthiness of the guest or the information provided, but the baseline measurement is that it must be entertaining.

Step 2

What approach with this guest is most likely to produce the most engaging content?

No host would ever dream of answering this by saying: Asking the interview subject the same questions they have been asked, repeatedly, over the course of this month/season/career. Yet hosts constantly take this approach in the course of an actual interview. In the vast majority of interviews involving pro athletes, the subject has a pretty good idea of the questions he or she is going to be asked, and the interviewer has a pretty good idea of the answers they’re going to get. It should go without saying, but this is an utterly terrible way to generate something unique.

What I like most about McAfee’s show is that his interviews are unlike what his guests are used to both in tone and in their substance. This creates a situation where I truly don’t know how the subjects are going to react. While some media members may purse their lips and talk about holding a subject accountable or asking the tough questions, the purpose of an interview is not to satisfy the professional expectations of other media members. It’s to entertain your audience, and I would point to the fact that McAfee’s interviews of Rodgers have produced more engaging content and more insight into the quarterback’s thought process as proof of the effectiveness of McAfee’s approach. It’s more than access that has made these interviews into appointment viewing.

Step 3

You’re creating an experience.

This is true for your audience, but it’s also true for your guests. They’re joining you on stage for part of your performance. They’re following your cues in this regard, and you can use this to your advantage.

What McAfee does better than anyone is to make his guests part of the show. They’re included naturally in the jokes, some of which are told at McAfee’s expense. But McAfee also uses self-deprecation so he can tease his guests back. The result is pretty natural give-and-take in which everyone gets a little grief and no one gets defensive.

What is really interesting is the very thing that I am most impressed by with McAfee’s show — the way his guests and audience embrace the experience — is something that hosts Shan Shariff and R.J. Choppy of 105.3 The Fan in Dallas found to be off-putting.

“I felt like I was back in college at the frat house,” Sheriff said earlier this week, “Oh my lord.”

Maybe, and while I would say certainly McAfee’s audience isn’t my audience as a host or writer, generating that type of passion and investment in your audience is something that I admire and honestly envy. It’s really freaking impressive.

Making light of en elephant in the room is the best way to keep it from overshadowing everything, and this — more than anything — is what I thought McAfee did so exceptionally well. His weekly visits with Rodgers started because Rodgers liked coming on the show. He liked the approach. He liked the vibe. He liked the experience.

And then — when the stakes were raised after Rodgers tested positive for COVID and it became clear he was not vaccinated — he kept coming on the show, and while the subject matter became much more serious, McAfee maintained the same tone and experience of his show.

Step 4

Look for ways to play the long game.

Most often, interviews are scheduled as one-off exercises, which I call the “short game.” Let’s book this reporter to talk about this subject. Ask the local team to provide Player A who has been hot. You make the most of these 7 to 10-minute opportunities and maybe come back to react to audio clips. While this short game can be an effective way to react to news, it is bound to be hit-or-miss in both execution and payoff because it’s essentially a cold interview.

The long game is vastly more important, though. Not just in terms of quality of the content, but potential sponsorship and exposure, and as a host this requires you to think about the guest’s experience. Making them feel like they’re a part of the show is a critical step in making your show a place they would choose to come back to. Making your show a place they’d choose to come back to is a step toward making them a recurring character on your show.

Does that mean you’ll get a weekly engagement with someone like Rodgers? No. I’m not sure if anyone in this country other than McAfee could have pulled that off. But there are lots of former players hosting shows in this country who Rodgers could have joined. He picked McAfee’s show, and I think every host can learn something from exploring what led Rodgers to do that.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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