DJ Hodge is a media pro’s media pro. The market manager at iHeartMedia Cincinnati wasn’t born and raised in radio. He spent time working in the newspaper industry. He has also seen a different side of sports radio, working for the broadcast network of the Xavier Muskateers.
Like so many others associated with talk formats in the town, Hodge is a Cincinnati lifer. You have to be in order to make an impact in the city.
In today’s Meet the Market Managers conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, DJ and I discuss why sports talk in the city is in good shape, even without a full clock of local content, how to keep the Reds happy while still being critical, and why more than just his sports properties get in on sports coverage at iHeart Cincinnati.
Demetri Ravanos: WLW is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I don’t know a whole lot of news talk stations around the country where sports is more associated with the history of their brand. So what role did sports play in that celebration?
DJ Hodge: We celebrated it on March 23rd, and it was an awesome, awesome day! We played a lot of sound from as far back as we could get. We created a lot of fun spots that sounded like 1922. We actually had a really cool promotion. We gave our listeners a chance to co-host on that day, March 23rd. Each of our dayparts on WLW that day had a listener in as a co-host.
Cincinnati is a very special place and WLW is unique in that it really wraps itself around the whole market. As you pointed out, sports is a huge part of the stations, the Reds, the Bengals, UC, Xavier, FC Cincinnati and NKU is part of the fabric of the city and sports is part of the backbone of the station. And we really try and walk that balance.
DR: So you mentioned the Reds and the Bearcats on WLW and then WEBN also has the Bengals. Why is it important to you that sports have a presence across so many different iHeart formats in the market?
DH: So we do a triplecast with the Bengals. That was the brainchild of Joe Frederick, and we have been doing a triplecast of the Bengals for over a decade. So we have it on WLW once the Reds’ season ends. Then we have it on ESPN 1530 in the market, which is a monster signal, and then we have it on WEBN, as you referenced, our heritage rock station. For us, it’s just a way to make the team available across as many of our stations as we possibly can. We really love the inclusion of WEBN and have found that to be a great FM home for the Bengals.
We actually had some fun two years ago when everyone knew we were going to draft Joe Burrow. As you probably know, “Welcome to the Jungle” is kind of the unofficial Bengals theme song. We worked with Zac Taylor to cut some intros for us and the three nights leading up to the drafting of Joe Burrow, we played “Welcome to the Jungle” at the exact time that Burrow would be drafted on Thursday, which I think was 8:07 if I remember. So all of our stations in the market, including our CHR and our news talks, played “Welcome to the Jungle” at 8:07 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with an intro personalized for that station by Zac Taylor.
DR: Ohio is a football state, but Cincinnati is a baseball town. So, how much can a Bengals Super Bowl run do to combat disappointment from the Reds?
DH: Well, the euphoria definitely has continued to carry on. You’re right, this is a high school football, college football, pro football state.
Obviously, the Reds are not out of the gate the way you would hope, but the euphoria of the Bengals has carried over since the postseason run. Everyone thought the Chiefs would make the Super Bowl for the AFC. You kept hearing the national pundits say that the Bengals were a year ahead of schedule or two years ahead of schedule. So it was so unexpected. It really just caught the city a bit off guard, and I’ve not seen this city for any four week period have that much euphoria.
Certainly, after the 90 World Series the town lost its mind and we were excited about UC in the Final Four. There have been events for sure, but a four week stretch where you literally hugged strangers was new. It was one of those hug-a-stranger moments where people were so excited. Everyone wore Bengals gear.
The Reds have not gotten off to the start they’d like. We’re getting a chance to watch a lot of young players and certainly, you hope that the future is bright. This is a chance to watch these young players develop. The city is very much wrapped around the NFL draft, which is this evening, as you and I are talking. Demetri, we’re not used to picking 31, I have to be honest. So the city has draft fever today and everybody’s really excited to see what happens tonight to make the team even better.
DR: So now since we introduced the Reds as a topic, I do have to ask about that uncomfortable moment when Phil Castellini drew criticism for asking, “where are you going to go” when fans questioned the team’s fire sale of talent. He makes this allusion to “it could always be worse,” you can move the team. How, as the market manager, do you approach that? Whether it is talking to talent about balancing serving a partner with acknowledging reality or anything else that maybe I’m not thinking of, what comes along with your role in a situation like that?
DH: Honestly, as you asked the question, you encapsulated it perfectly. You want to treat a partner fairly, for sure. I have the pleasure of knowing Phil, obviously a little bit. He loves this city and cares deeply for the city. Certainly, that message from him didn’t come across the way he intended. I know it didn’t, but you’re right, the response to that has to be authentic. That’s the conversation with our on air talent across all of our stations.
First and foremost, I need the talent to be authentic. We’re not going to read from a script. I’m not going to tell them what to say. Their listeners would see through that. Their credibility matters a ton for us. So it’s about them being credible and them being honest, but again, being respectful of our partner and not wanting to look like we’re piling on or look like we’re doing anything but telling the story.
As you know, topic A becomes topic A. Topic A tells us what you’re going to talk about, and certainly for a couple of days that dominated the airwaves. We had some talent that were very much pro-Phil and stood up and said, “Hey, that’s not what he meant”. We had some that took umbrage with it and took some shots.
It’s about being a good partner. We are as pro-Reds as we can be. I’ve been a Reds fan my whole life. I’m from here. The majority of our on air talent, like your friend Mo Egger, are from here. So we’re lifelong Reds fans. This is personal to us and it’s a passion for us. You just want to be fair there, right? You want to tell the story that’s there. You want to inform fans. You want to let fans vent and listen. We had Phil on right after that to sort of tell his side of what he meant and apologize for the way it came across. We want to be good partners, first and foremost, and we are. We love the Reds deeply!
My on air talent does have to take the stance that they believe in. I said to one just the other day, “listen, you can have the stance as long as it’s fair. Just be able to defend it. If somebody calls to question your opinion, you’ve got to be able to defend it yourself.” I want people to be authentic.
DR: So you’ve been on both sides of that relationship right now with the radio cluster, but before that, you were working with Xavier University’s radio network. How did that help you learn to identify and meet teams’ needs as their flagship station?
DH: That’s a great question. I had five great years with Learfield Sports at Xavier University as the general manager, and that provided me great perspective. You see it through the lens of how you want your brand portrayed. You see it through the lens of how you want your fans to be able to receive content and sort of the opinion around that. I think our talent do such a great job of that on all of our stations.
But you see it through the eyes of the coach as well. I remember having conversations with Sean Miller, who I love and who’s back in the market now, about a loss and the way it was portrayed in the market. At that time, what I was looking at is how the program is viewed and how the fan base is getting content. Now on the other side, I’m very sensitive to that because I’ve been over there. You’re right. I know what it feels like. I know what you want to accomplish, but you also want and hope that your flagship partner will have your back and present your information as fairly as possible.
But again, sometimes, you know, topic A. is topic A. When I was at Xavier, if we lost a game we should have won, like Duquesne one year, you’re going to take some heat, right? And the sports talk guys are going to take some shots. That’s part of the deal. It’s part of being fair and balanced.
DR: So you were also at the Cincinnati Enquirer. The period of time you were there is really interesting because it is sort of the beginning of digital overtaking newspapers in an undeniable way. And I wonder what lessons about adaptability you learned during that time that you brought with you to radio.
DH: Hey man, you’ve done a fantastic job with your research because you’re right. I was there at a time, 2003 to 2007 I believe, off the top of my head. I wasn’t prepared for that, but I think that’s right.
You’re right. It was right at the very apex of print and right as it was starting to get into the digital content space at the Enquirer owned by Gannett. We had launched Cincinnati.com right before that, and it was about disseminating the content. Now you’ve seen that newspapers have great writers. The Enquirer here in this market is somebody that we work closely with. They provide really good content from their beat writers. So people are going to want that content, but you’re right, it was migrating from the print version. It started that migration probably in 07 and then much heavier in 08 and 09. People are still craving the content, just receiving it a little bit differently.
Similar for us, right? We’ve had this explosion of streaming audio and podcasts now that there are smart speakers in the home. People are receiving their content from us, still of course predominantly through the radio in their cars, but now we have hundreds of thousands of session starts per week around our stations through a phone, through a smartphone, through a smart speaker. People are listening to us in different ways. You can get us on Xbox and Playstation and all the different devices where you can get streaming audio now.
It’s about the content. It’s about delivering it in a way that consumers want to receive it and where they are. That is the backbone of what we’re doing. It’s why the podcasting space has been so influential for us. Our leadership team has done a great job of keeping iHeart at the very tip of that spear.
Podcasting is one of those pieces now that people come to us for and they want to learn more and they want to understand how can they reach consumers via that podcast medium. It’s been a really exciting few years and I know that like many things in this business, the next five years will see even more changes and will continue to lead from the front.
DR: You mentioned podcasts. I think for most people, that’s where their mind goes first when you talk about digital audio. Radio has provided a great space where those things can coexist. There is something about the real-time nature of radio that podcasting will never be able to match. I wonder, as you look back on your time at newspapers and as you look at what radio is doing now compared to podcasting, do you see a way that printed newspapers could have better coexisted with the digital space, or is the X factor of live content something that just can’t be replicated?
DH: I think you nailed it right there. It is the live companionship that we provide. The one thing I would disagree with you on is that if I went to the mall, people still do that I think, and said, “Hey, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of streaming audio or digital audio?” I think they would say playlists. I think they would say it’s Pandora or Spotify or iHeart. “I type in an artist that I like and I hear songs like that”. That was really the first thing most people were using streaming audio for.
Now, podcasting is coming on really strong. We were really in that space early on with, as you again, touched on, perfectly on-demand listening. If you couldn’t listen to The Bill Cunningham Show live because you had a work meeting or a lunch meeting, you could listen that night! You could listen when you got home if you were cutting the grass, and people still do. The downloads for those on-demand shows are still really significant each month in terms of monthly listens and uniques. The space has exploded though.
It’s not replacing what we do in terms of companionship, but it’s replacing that time exercising or walking your dog. It’s making people say “hey, I want to listen to a story”. I, personally, love the crime dramas and all those criminal investigation podcasts, comedy and sports and all the different genres that we thrive in. But it’s a great place to tell a story, but it’s very different than the live companionship that we provide people through the broadcast radio during the day.
DR: Let’s talk about Cincinnati. I know it is often described as a very parochial market. You know, it seems like the kind of place that would embrace a station with 12 hours of local sports talk every day. Why hasn’t that happened? It seems like no competitor has had real staying power with that strategy.
DH: Yeah, news talk and sports talk are expensive to run for sure. I think we’ve done a great job with 1530. We’ve expanded our local hours. We still have a great partnership with ESPN in morning drive, but we’re now more live and local. We started a few years ago carving out one hour in the middle of the day for a show called Cincy 360, which is hosted by Tony Pike, the former Bearcat and Carolina Panthers quarterback. We then expanded that to 2 hours with Tony every day. We do an hour of ESPN programming and then it leads to Mo’s show in the afternoon, 3 to 6. I feel like we really found a great balance with the right amount of local content.
You’re right, Cincinnati is a parochial city. We largely don’t move away. It’s very neighborhood-based. Cincinnati, similar to St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Salt Lake, is a place that is very traditional and people don’t typically leave. Your parents lived here, your grandparents lived here, and you cared deeply about local sports.
For us, the national perspective in the mornings on ESPN 1530 is great. Especially when the Bengals are good or the Reds are good, or like UC football, it has been amazing. So it’s fun to get the national perspective when we’re in the national spotlight. Then we have a couple of different opportunities every day to really dig into the local piece. Plus there’s Lance McAllister, our flagship sports talk program that launched the career of Cris Collinsworth. Lance has a show every night on WLW. It is really the foundation of our sports talk, and it’s a great way to culminate what’s going on and really drive home the local stories from a lot of different perspectives.
DR: So without that 6A to 6P or 7P approach, does that make it easier for your sellers to market Mo and Lance to new advertisers as the authoritative voices on sports in the market?
DH: For sure. You’re really familiar with the radio measurement tool. It’s tough sometimes, just given the amount of people. That can’t give you a great, clear picture. But today, you can get a great measure of the impact of people like Mo Egger and Lance McAlister have in the marketplace by their social media engagement. When you see Mo and Lance have 70,000 Twitter followers, you know exactly how important they are in the market. You know exactly how big their level of impact is. Believe me, the businesses in Cincinnati know that. That’s why they want people like Mo and Lance to speak for them. They know the connection that they have with the audience.
Sports talk doesn’t typically crush it in ratings, as you know, but the level of engagement, the passion of the audience that’s there every day is really beyond what is measured. That’s been the really cool piece about watching that unfold with social media. Mo and Lance are really never off the air, right? I mean, they’re on the air, but then when they’re not, they’re still engaging with fans and getting into debates and having an understanding of what the fans are thinking and feeling. That really drives the content of the shows the next day.
It’s really a 360-degree approach in the sports space that has been driven by the impact that Lance and Mo and people like them around the country can have, which again drives listeners to their show and then creates that engagement that is so important.
DR: So I’ll ask you one last question before I let you go. And I think this is an important one. Is Cincinnati chili a prank that you all are pulling on the rest of us?
DH: Absolutely not, and we do not understand those of you that don’t get it, Demetri. Listen, Cincinnati Chili is not a traditional chili. We get that, but it is yummy and delicious and should be eaten as often as possible.
Who doesn’t like noodles and sauce with meat and covered in cheese? It’s hard not to like. We are very passionate about our Cincinnati chili and we all authentically love it. I promise you.
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.