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Danny Zederman Is Focused on Serving ESPN 1000’s Fans

“You need to be a good listener to be in radio,” expressed Zederman. “It’s not always about talking – a lot of radio has to do with listening; listening to what’s going on with the fans; listening to what’s going on with the talent.”

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Certain memories from childhood find a way to stick with you. For Danny Zederman, one of those memories is being seated in his mother’s car in Chicago listening to a surfeit of talk radio and being captivated by the power of the aural medium. Whether it was Howard Stern, Jonathan Brandmeier or Steve Dahl, there was always the sound of a familiar voice permeating through the car speakers, cultivating a perdurable appeal to what was being said. Throughout his youth, Zederman was infatuated with radio and thought about potentially pursuing a career in it.

Zederman attended college at The University of Kansas and studied journalism; however, he was relatively uncertain about what he wanted to do upon his graduation. Seeking advice, he conferred with a school counselor who posed a question to him that he remembers to this day.

“‘Danny, what can you do for eight or more hours a day and get paid for it, or not get paid for it; what’s something you’re passionate about?,’” Zederman recalled the counselor asking him. “I said, ‘I’m passionate about sports, and I’m passionate about the radio.’”

The sports radio format was still in its growth phase at the time Zederman attended college in the late 1990s, and the ways to begin working in it were not as widely known. As a result, Zederman had to perform much of his own research to learn the available roles and unearth the path to a successful career. Once this research was complete, he knew that the sports radio industry was for him and started trying to position himself for success in this competitive industry. After all, Zederman grew up in the city of Chicago as an avid sports fan and a steadfast radio listener by osmosis wherefore he sought to merge his two passions into a career.

Over two decades later, Zederman has experienced his journey in radio at home in “The Windy City,” starting his career in 2002 as the operations manager of Newsweb’s conglomerate of Chicago-based stations: WSBC, WCSN, WNDZ and WCFJ. He began working as a producer at The Score in late 2003 and stayed there for just over two years before making the move to ESPN 1000 WMVP Chicago in 2006. In this role, Zederman proved to be an integral part to the station’s development, producing notorious radio programs including Mac, Jurko & Harry, Kap & J. Hood and Silvy & Carmen. One of Zederman’s favorite memories from his time at the station came in 2016 when his beloved Chicago Cubs won Game 7 of the World Series, breaking their infamous 108-year-long championship drought.

“I got to be [at] Game 7 of the World Series, [and] that was incredible,” Zederman said. “The next day we went on the air; my favorite baseball team of all-time just won the World Series… and I’m producing a sports talk radio show celebrating a game that I was at in which the Cubs won the World Series – that was incredible.”

Good Karma Brands purchased ESPN 1000 WMVP Chicago as part of a $15 million long-term affiliation agreement with The Walt Disney Company that also included ESPN 710 KSPN Los Angeles and ESPN 1050 WEPN New York. While ESPN 1000 was being operated by Good Karma Brands since October 2019 under a local marketing agreement, Zederman remained in his role as a show producer.

Yet shortly after the official purchase of the station at the start of the new year, Zederman was promoted to director of content, a role he has since been working in for just under seven months. While he has a new title, Zederman knows working as a producer for over fifteen years effectively prepared him for this new responsibility in radio management.

“I’ve got to think about things further down the line than just the next day’s show like you do when you’re a producer, but you’re still wearing the same hat,” expressed Zederman. “The goal is to find out what the fan wants to hear; what the fan wants to consume; and how to best serve the fan. Although the role’s different, I think being a producer is the best minor-league system for somebody who wants to go into programming because you have a great touch [and] a great feel for what the fans want.”

From an outsider’s perspective, making the shift from being a producer to being director of content could seem daunting because of potential animosity from new subordinates. For Zederman though, garnering their respect was not a difficult task because of his longevity at the station, familiarity with the staff and enduring desire to position the station for sustained success.

“I’ve been here for almost seventeen years. I’ve worked for most of these guys and gals that work in this building,” said Zederman. “They’ve seen my work ethic; they’ve seen how much I care; they’ve seen how much I want this place to succeed, and they respect that.”

In his previous role as a producer, Zederman worked closely with various program directors at ESPN Chicago, including Mitch Rosen, Adam Delevitt and Justin Craig. Over the years, he picked up on various proclivities and other skills they had in an effort to excel in his new role and be the best manager possible, one of which is to value the opinions of colleagues and let them be expressed.

“Justin Craig… was a tremendous listener,” said Zederman. “As a leader, he would listen to us; he would let us talk; he would let us vent; he would let us express ourselves; he would hear everything. I think that’s one thing I learned from him is to manage people, it’s important for them to be heard and to feel heard.”

While the quotidian operations of the station did not significantly change following the ownership shift, Zederman began working with senior vice president and market manager Keith Williams, who has been with Good Karma Brands since 1999. Williams started in his role as a market manager for ESPN Digital in Baltimore, M.D. and Washington, D.C. in 2018, and following a three-year stint in Madison, Wisconsin, joined ESPN 1000 in Chicago last October. His leadership skills and ability to relate to people has helped Zederman assimilate into his new role at the station and gives him another dependable colleague on the team.

“Keith is absolutely incredible – he is probably the best leader that I’ve ever worked with,” said Zederman. “He understands people; he understands situations; he’s a great listener, a great communicator and he’s all about teamwork. We’ve always had a great culture here at ESPN Chicago, but he’s taken that to another level with his ability to understand everybody’s role.”

The market manager for ESPN Chicago before Williams was Mike Thomas, who is now the senior vice president and marketing manager for Audacy in Boston. Thomas, a Chicago-area native, left his job as program director for 98.5 The Sports Hub in October 2019 to join ESPN 1000 in Chicago, and was with the station for two years. In that time, he proved to be instrumental in the creation of the morning drive show Kap and J. Hood, along with overseeing the station’s move on FM via digital HD2 transmission. The change in market manager was prompted by Thomas’ resignation from the position in October 2021 to return to Boston.

“Mike Thomas is a wizard when it comes to programming,” said Zederman. “He was innovative; he had a great sense for what good content was [and] he had a great sense for what the fans wanted. I learned from him how content is created for the fan and how to stay ahead of the curb and always be innovating… changing direction… and finding what’s next.”

As director of content for ESPN 1000, part of Zederman’s job is to ensure the station is generating favorable ratings and revenue. Despite Nielsen being the standard for ratings in radio though, Zederman relies on other metrics to genuinely delineate the performance of his station against more than just its radio counterparts.

“I never get too high when the ratings are good. I never get too low when the ratings are bad,” said Zederman. “I understand how Nielsen measures ratings, so I kind of take it with a grain of salt. It’s not an exact science.”

Accurately instantiating radio performance in the 21st-century extends beyond the scope of simply reviewing the Nielsen ratings on a regular basis. Managers today intricately monitor an assortment of other statistics representative of a multiplatform media environment with an excess of voices and audiovisual content.

“I look at the stream numbers; that’s far more accurate,” said Zederman when discussing his dependance on radio ratings. “I look at our podcast downloads – we have over a million podcast downloads a month; that’s a huge number…. So I look at that to know, ‘Hey, we are resonating with our fans no matter what the Nielsen numbers say – positive or negative.’ There are metrics that we have that are far more accurate.”

Shortly before the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the United States in March 2020, ESPN 1000 released its mobile app where users can stream ESPN 1000 programming live wherever they may be. The app also gives users the ability to listen to past programming, along with other original content including podcast-exclusive shows. Additionally, the station live streams all of it’s original shows on Twitch, creating a visual experience and the chance for listeners to join the conversation without even calling in to the show via the platform’s chat function.

Even before March 2020, sports media was in the midst of a rapid shift towards digital content accessible to listeners on their own schedule, and the change remains ongoing. Staying ahead of the curb by continuing to innovate and monitor changes in the industry are parts of the job Zederman seeks to master to ensure the station remains prudent and able to compete with other sources of content creation. Those sources of content creation extend far beyond the other prominent sports radio station in town: 670 The Score.

“I don’t really worry about competing with The Score,” affirmed Zederman. “The truth is I’m competing with iTunes; I’m competing with Spotify; I’m competing with The Ringer. Nowadays, you can get audio in so many different places that if I think I’m just competing with the other sports talk station in town, I’m in big trouble.”

Part of the shift in content distribution is resultant upon a profusion of new research suggesting that while younger demographics enjoy listening to aural content, they do so less through the traditional radio medium. Rather, audio is being consumed in a variety of different ways, whether it be through digital streams, podcasts, on-demand shows or visual simulcasts, and is only continuing to expand. That is why while ESPN 1000 is on the FM dial, albeit through an HD2 stream, it does not make a significant impact in terms of the reach of the station, nor does it serve as a primary driver of future content.

“You ask somebody between the ages of 15 and 24 the last time they turned on a radio; they probably haven’t done it in months,” Zederman surmised. “If we want to reach our fans, there are so many different platforms to reach them – that’s what they focus on.”

ESPN 1000 has a variety of local and national content varying from live radio shows to original podcasts. While podcasting has incontrovertibly made its assimilation into sports radio, Zederman believes the two aural mediums can effectively coexist despite marketplace saturation because of each one’s innate components that appeal to audio’s consumption base.

“There are times when it is more convenient to listen to a podcast, and that’s obviously why we make our shows available on podcasts, [and] why we have original content podcasts,” Zederman explained. “…I also think there’s an aspect to live radio that will never go away. The day after a Bears game when they lose ugly to the Packers and Aaron Rodgers says ‘I own you,’ there’s nothing like live radio with these hosts pissed off pounding the table and the callers from all over the Chicagoland area calling in to vent their frustration.”

Every source of content distribution seeks to differentiate themselves from others through what materials they release to consumers, yet that also comes with attracting and retaining the most optimal talent. As a director of content, Zederman knows that what the station is able to do is guided by the characteristics of the talent, making the managerial tasks of recruitment and retention essential for future development.

“The number one most important thing in what I do is prioritizing the fan,” said Zederman. “The fan’s the most important thing because they’re consuming the product. The next most important thing is the talent. You have good talent; you have talent that can tell a story. Talent can make any content interesting.”

Talent are also now able to keep in touch with their listeners for more than just their allotted time slot on the air, truly affording radio personalities the chance to better know their consumers and understand their needs and wants. The intimate relationship long-heralded as the crux of the argument for live radio’s perpetuity and eminence indeed extends outside of the reach of the AM/FM frequency.

“Social media is a great way for the talent to become brands and to get a following,” Zederman said, “and hopefully that following tune into the show the next day… Social media is a great way for the talent to engage with the fan, and I think we just have to continue to go that way and embrace it. It’s a great tool for what we do.”

Sports media is unequivocally different than it was when it initially launched, yet the guiding principle of the industry – that is, to serve the fan – remains the same. Just how effectively the fan is being served is representative of the independent variable, and determines the concurrent ratings and revenue, or dependent variable.

“I think the important thing is to just keep giving people content on multiple different platforms,” said Zederman. “We don’t know what’s next, [but] whatever the next platform is, we’re going to be there.”

For aspiring professionals looking to work in radio management, along with those currently holding management roles at radio stations, Zederman knows that being versatile in one’s ability to understand and perform various roles at the station makes you more relatable to colleagues and able to adapt to sudden changes. But there is one truly unspoken rule of being in management that has been imperative in keeping Zederman in Chicago. It’s a piece of advice that does not require power to be supplied to a microphone in a studio. In fact, it does not require any electricity.

“You need to be a good listener to be in radio,” expressed Zederman. “It’s not always about talking – a lot of radio has to do with listening; listening to what’s going on with the fans; listening to what’s going on with the talent.”

As Zederman continues to work in his first year as director of content for Good Karma Brands’ ESPN 1000 WMVP Chicago, he seeks to continue the station’s ongoing innovation and work to create compelling, informative and entertaining sports content. His thinking centers around satisfying three groups of people he is cognizant of every day on the job, imperative to the present standing and rise to an acclivity where the station seeks to soar.

“I want to serve our fans; I want to serve our partners; and I want to serve our teammates,” Zederman said, “and if every day we are doing those three things, then it’s successful.”

BSM Writers

In Defense Of Colin Cowherd

“How did we get to this place where there are sites and Twitter accounts going through The Herd with a fine-toothed comb to create content out of ‘oh my god, look at this!’?”

Demetri Ravanos

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I don’t understand what it is about Colin Cowherd that gets under some people’s skin to the point that they feel everything the guy says is worth being mocked. I don’t always agree with a lot of his opinions myself, but rarely do I hear one of his takes and think I need to build content around how stupid the guy is.

Cowherd has certainly had his share of misses. There were some highlights to his constant harping on Baker Mayfield but personally, I thought the bit got boring quickly and that the host was only shooting about 25% on those segments.

Cowherd has said some objectionable things. I thought Danny O’Neil was dead on in pointing out that the FOX Sports Radio host sounded like LIV Golf’s PR department last month. It doesn’t matter if he claims he used the wrong words or if his language was clunky, he deserved all of the criticism he got in 2015 when he said that baseball couldn’t be that hard of a sport to understand because a third of the league is from the Dominican Republic.

Those missteps and eyebrow-raising moments have never been the majority of his content though. How did we get to this place where there are sites and Twitter accounts going through The Herd with a fine-toothed comb to create content out of “oh my god, look at this!”?

A few years ago, Dan Le Batard said something to the effect of the best thing he can say about Colin Cowherd is that he is never boring and if you are not in this business, you do not get what a compliment that is.

That’s the truth, man. It is so hard to talk into the ether for three hours and keep people engaged, but Cowherd finds a way to do it with consistency.

The creativity that requires is what has created a really strange environment where you have sites trying to pass off pointing and laughing at Cowherd as content. This jumped out to me with a piece that Awful Announcing published on Thursday about Cowherd’s take that Aaron Rodgers needs a wife.

Look, I don’t think every single one of Cowherd’s analogies or societal observations is dead on, but to point this one out as absurd is, frankly, absurd!

This isn’t Cowherd saying that John Wall coming out and doing the Dougie is proof that he is a loser. This isn’t him saying that adults in backward hats look like doofuses (although, to be fair to Colin, where is the lie in that one?).

“Behind every successful man is a strong woman” is a take as old as success itself. It may not be a particularly original observation, but it hardly deserves the scrutiny of a 450-word think piece.

On top of that, he is right about Aaron Rodgers. The guy has zero personality and is merely trying on quirks to hold our attention. Saying that the league MVP would benefit from someone in his life holding a mirror up to him and pointing that out is hardly controversial.

Colin Cowherd is brash. He has strong opinions. He will acknowledge when there is a scoreboard or a record to show that he got a game or record pick wrong, but he will rarely say his opinion about a person or situation is wrong. That can piss people off. I get it.

You know that Twitter account Funhouse? The handle is @BackAftaThis?

It was created to spotlight the truly insane moments Mike Francesa delivered on air. There was a time when the standard was ‘The Sports Pop’e giving the proverbial finger to a recently deceased Stan Lee, falling asleep on air, or vehemently denying that a microphone captured his fart.

Now the feed is turning to “Hey Colin Cowherd doesn’t take phone calls!”. Whatever the motivation is for turning on Cowherd like that, it really shows a dip in the ability to entertain. How is it even content to point out that Colin Cowherd doesn’t indulge in the single most boring part of sports radio?

I will be the first to admit that I am not the world’s biggest fan of The Herd. Solo hosts will almost never be my thing. No matter their energy level, a single person talking for a 10-12 minute stretch feels more like a lecture than entertainment to me. I got scolded enough as a kid by parents and teachers.

School is a good analogy here because that is sort of what this feels like. The self-appointed cool kids identified their target long ago and are going to mock him for anything he does. It doesn’t matter if they carry lunch boxes too, Colin looks like a baby because he has a lunch box.

Colin Cowherd doesn’t need me to defend him. He can point to his FOX paycheck, his followers, or the backing for The Volume as evidence that he is doing something right. I am merely doing what these sites think they are doing when Colin is in their crosshairs – pointing out a lame excuse for content that has no real value.

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BSM Writers

Even After Radio Hall of Fame Honor, Suzyn Waldman Looks Forward

WFAN recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, but that’s not something that Waldman spends too much time reflecting on.

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Yankees radio broadcaster Suzyn Waldman was at Citi Field on July 26th getting ready to broadcast a Subway Series game between the Yankees and Mets. A day earlier, Waldman was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame and sometimes that type of attention can, admittedly, make her feel a bit uncomfortable.

“At first, I was really embarrassed because I’m not good at this,” said Waldman. “I don’t take compliments well and I don’t take awards well. I just don’t. The first time it got to me…that I actually thought it was pretty cool, there were two little boys at Citi Field…

Those two little boys, with photos of Waldman in hand, saw her on the field and asked her a question.

“They asked me to sign “Suzyn Waldman Radio Hall of Fame 2022” and I did,” said Waldman.  “I just smiled and then more little boys asked me to do that.”  

Waldman, along with “Broadway” Bill Lee, Carol Miller, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Ellen K, Jeff Smulyan, Lon Helton, Marv Dyson, and Walt “Baby” Love, make up the Class of 2022 for the Radio Hall of Fame and will be inducted at a ceremony on November 1st at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago.

Waldman, born in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, was the first voice heard on WFAN in New York when the station launched on July 1st, 1987. She started as an update anchor before becoming a beat reporter for the Yankees and Knicks and the co-host of WFAN’s
mid-day talk show. In the mid 1990s, Waldman did some television play-by-play for Yankees games on WPIX and in 2002 she became the clubhouse reporter for Yankees telecasts when the YES Network launched.

This is Waldman’s 36th season covering the Yankees and her 18th in the radio booth, a run that started in 2005 when she became the first female full-time Major League Baseball broadcaster.

She decided to take a look at the names that are currently in the Hall of Fame, specifically individuals that she will forever be listed next to.

“Some of the W’s are Orson Wells and Walter Winchell…people that changed the industry,” said Waldman. “I get a little embarrassed…I’m not good at this but I’m really happy.”

Waldman has also changed the industry.

She may have smiled when those two little boys asked her to sign those photos, but Waldman can also take a lot of pride in the fact that she has been a trailblazer in the broadcasting business and an inspiration to a lot of young girls who aspire, not only to be sportscasters but those who want to have a career in broadcasting.

Like the young woman who just started working at a New York television station who approached Waldman at the Subway Series and just wanted to meet her.

“She stopped me and was shaking,” said Waldman. “The greatest thing is that all of these young women that are out there.”

Waldman pointed out that there are seven women that she can think of off the top of her head that are currently doing minor league baseball play-by-play and that there have been young female sports writers that have come up to her to share their stories about how she inspired them.

For many years, young boys were inspired to be sportscasters by watching and listening to the likes of Marv Albert, Al Michaels, Vin Scully, Bob Costas, and Joe Buck but now there are female sportscasters, like Waldman, who have broken down barriers and are giving young girls a good reason to follow their dreams.

“When I’ve met them, they’ve said to me I was in my car with my Mom and Dad when I was a very little girl and they were listening to Yankee games and there you were,” said Waldman. “These young women never knew this was something that they couldn’t do because I was there and we’re in the third generation of that now. It’s taken longer than I thought.”

There have certainly been some challenges along the way in terms of women getting opportunities in sports broadcasting.

Waldman thinks back to 1994 when she became the first woman to do a national television baseball broadcast when she did a game for The Baseball Network. With that milestone came a ton of interviews that she had to do with media outlets around the country including Philadelphia.

It was during an interview with a former Philadelphia Eagle on a radio talk show when Waldman received a unique backhanded compliment that she will always remember.

“I’ve listened to you a lot and I don’t like you,” Waldman recalls the former Eagle said. “I don’t like women in sports…I don’t like to listen to you but I was watching the game with my 8-year-old daughter and she was watching and I looked at her and thought this is something she’s never going to know that she cannot do because there you are.”

Throughout her career, Waldman has experienced the highest of highs in broadcasting but has also been on the receiving end of insults and cruel intentions from people who then tend to have a short memory.

And many of these people were co-workers.

“First people laugh at you, then they make your life miserable and then they go ‘oh yeah that’s the way it is’ like it’s always been like that but it’s not always been like this,” said Waldman. 

It hasn’t always been easy for women in broadcasting and as Waldman — along with many others — can attest to nothing is perfect today. But it’s mind-boggling to think about what Waldman had to endure when WFAN went on the air in 1987.

She remembers how badly she was treated by some of her colleagues.

“I think about those first terrible days at ‘FAN,” said Waldman. “I had been in theatre all my life and it was either you get the part or you don’t. They either like you or they don’t.  You don’t have people at your own station backstabbing you and people at your own station changing your tapes to make you look like an idiot.”

There was also this feeling that some players were not all that comfortable with Waldman being in the clubhouse and locker room. That was nothing compared to some of the other nonsense that Waldman had to endure.

“The stuff with players is very overblown,” said Waldman. “It’s much worse when you know that somebody out there is trying to kill you because you have a Boston accent and you’re trying to talk about the New York Yankees. That’s worse and it’s also worse when the people
that you work with don’t talk to you and think that you’re a joke and the people at your own station put you down for years and years and years.”

While all of this was happening, Waldman had one very important person in her corner: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who passed away in 2010.

The two had a special relationship and he certainly would have relished the moment when Suzyn was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“I think about George Steinbrenner a lot,” said Waldman. “This is something that when I heard that…I remember thinking George would be so proud because he wanted this since ’88.  I just wish he were here.” 

Waldman certainly endeared herself to “The Boss” with her reporting but she also was the driving force behind the reconciliation of Steinbrenner and Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra. George had fired Yogi as Yankees manager 16 games into the 1985 season and the news was delivered to Berra, not by George, but by Steinbrenner advisor Clyde King.

Yogi vowed never to step foot into Yankee Stadium again, but a grudge that lasted almost 14 years ended in 1999 when Waldman facilitated a reunion between the two at the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey.

“I’m hoping that my thank you to him was the George and Yogi thing because I know he wanted that very badly,” said Waldman.

“Whatever I did to prove to him that I was serious about this…this is in ’87 and ’88…In 1988, I remember him saying to me ‘Waldman, one of these days I’m going to make a statement about women in sports.  You’re it and I hope you can take it’ (the criticism). He knew what was coming.  I didn’t know. But there was always George who said ‘if you can take it, you’re going to make it’.”

And made it she did.

And she has outlasted every single person on the original WFAN roster.

“I’m keenly aware that I was the first person they tried to fire and I’m the only one left which I think is hysterical actually that I outlived everybody,” said Waldman.

WFAN recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, but that’s not something that Waldman spends too much time reflecting on.

“I don’t think about it at all because once you start looking back, you’re not going forward,” said Waldman. 

Waldman does think about covering the 1989 World Series between the A’s and Giants and her reporting on the earthquake that was a defining moment in her career. She has always been a great reporter and a storyteller, but that’s not how her WFAN career began. She started as an update anchor and she knew that if she was going to have an impact on how WFAN was going to evolve, it was not going to be reading the news…it was going to be going out in the field and reporting the news.

“I was doing updates which I despised and wasn’t very good at,” said Waldman.

She went to the program director at the time and talked about how WFAN had newspaper writers covering the local teams for the station and that it would be a better idea for her to go out and cover games and press conferences.

“Give me a tape recorder and let me go,” is what Waldman told the program director. “I was the first electronic beat writer.  That’s how that started and they said ‘oh, this works’. The writers knew all of a sudden ‘uh oh she can put something on the air at 2 o’clock in the morning and I can’t’.”  

And the rest is history. Radio Hall of Fame history.

But along the way, there was never that moment where she felt that everything was going to be okay.

Because it can all disappear in a New York minute.

“I’ve never had that moment,” said Waldman. “I see things going backward in a lot of ways for women.  I’m very driven and I’m very aware that it can all be taken away in two seconds if some guy says that’s enough.” 

During her storied career, Waldman has covered five Yankees World Series championships and there’s certainly the hope that they can contend for another title this year. She loves her job and the impact that she continues to make on young girls who now have that dream to be the next Suzyn Waldman.

But, is there something in the business that she still hopes to accomplish?

“This is a big world,” said Waldman. “There’s always something to do. Right now I like this a lot and there’s still more to do. There are more little girls…somewhere there’s a little girl out there who is talking into a tape recorder or whatever they use now and her father is telling her or someone is telling her you can’t do that you’re a little girl. That hasn’t stopped. Somewhere out there there’s somebody that needs to hear a female voice on Yankees radio.”

To steal the spirit of a line from Yankees play-by-play voice John Sterling, Suzyn Waldman’s longtime friend, and broadcast partner…“that’s a Radio Hall of Fame career, Suzyn!”

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BSM Writers

No Winners in Pittsburgh vs Cleveland Radio War of Words

“As talk radio hosts, we often try to hold the moral high ground and if you’re going to hold that position, I can’t help but feel integrity has to outweigh popularity. “

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For nearly 18 months, we’ve known the NFL would eventually have to confront the Deshaun Watson saga in an on-the-field manner, and that day came Monday. After his March trade to the Browns, we also could more than likely deduce another item: Cleveland radio hosts would feel one way, and Pittsburgh hosts would feel another.

If you’re not in tune to the “rivalry” between the two cities, that’s understandable. Both are former industrial cities looking for an identity in a post-industrial Midwest. Each thinks the other is a horrible place to live, with no real reasoning other than “at least we’re not them”. Of course, the folks in Pittsburgh point to six Super Bowl victories as reason for superiority.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when news started to leak that a Watson decision would come down Monday. I was sure, however, that anyone who decided to focus on what the NFL’s decision would mean for Watson and the Browns on the field was in a no-win situation. As a former host on a Cleveland Browns radio affiliate, I always found the situation difficult to talk about. Balancing the very serious allegations with what it means for Watson, the Browns, and the NFL always felt like a tight-rope walk destined for failure.

So I felt for 92.3 The Fan’s Ken Carman and Anthony Lima Monday morning, knowing they were in a delicate spot. They seemed to allude to similar feelings. “You’re putting me in an awkward situation here,” Carman told a caller after that caller chanted “Super Bowl! Super Browns!” moments after the suspension length was announced.

Naturally, 93.7 The Fan’s Andrew Fillipponi happened to turn on the radio just as that call happened. A nearly week-long war of words ensued between the two Audacy-owned stations.

Fillipponi used the opportunity to slam Cleveland callers and used it as justification to say the NFL was clearly in the wrong. Carman and Lima pointed out Fillipponi had tweeted three days earlier about how much love the city of Pittsburgh had for Ben Roethlisberger, a player with past sexual assault allegations in his own right.

Later in the week, the Cleveland duo defended fans from criticism they viewed as unfair from the national media. In response, Dorin Dickerson and Adam Crowley of the Pittsburgh morning show criticized Carman and Lima for taking that stance.

Keeping up?

As an impartial observer, there’s one main takeaway I couldn’t shake. Both sides are wrong. Both sides are right. No one left the week looking good.

Let’s pretend the Pittsburgh Steelers had traded for Deshaun Watson on March 19th, and not the Browns. Can you envision a scenario where Cleveland radio hosts would defend the NFL for the “fairness” of the investigation and disciplinary process if he was only suspended for six games? Of course, you can’t, because that would be preposterous. At the same time, would Fillipponi, Dickerson, and other Pittsburgh hosts be criticizing their fans for wanting Watson’s autograph? Of course, you can’t, because that would be preposterous.

When you’re discussing “my team versus your team” or “my coach versus your coach” etc…, it’s ok to throw ration and logic to the side for the sake of entertaining radio. But when you’re dealing with an incredibly serious matter, in this case, an investigation into whether an NFL quarterback is a serial sexual predator, I don’t believe there’s room to throw ration and logic to the wind. The criticism of Carman and Lima from the Pittsburgh station is fair and frankly warranted. They tried their best, in my opinion, to be sensitive to a topic that warranted it, but fell short.

On the flip side, Carman and Lima are correct. Ben Roethlisberger was credibly accused of sexual assault. Twice. And their criticism of Fillipponi and Steelers fans is valid and frankly warranted.

You will often hear me say “it can be both” because so often today people try to make every situation black and white. In reality, there’s an awful lot of gray in our world. But, in this case, it can’t be both. It can’t be Deshaun Watson, and Browns fans by proxy, are horrible, awful, no good, downright rotten people, and Ben Roethlisberger is a beloved figure.

Pot, meet kettle.

I don’t know what Andrew Fillipponi said about Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault allegations in 2010. And if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but I’m guessing he sounded much more like Carman and Lima did this week, rather than the person criticizing hosts in another market for their lack of moral fiber. Judging by the tweet Carman and Lima used to point out Fillipponi’s hypocrisy, I have a hard time believing the Pittsburgh host had strong outrage about the Steelers bringing back the franchise QB.

Real courage comes from saying things your listeners might find unpopular. It’s also where real connections with your listeners are built. At the current time in our hyper-polarized climate, having the ability to say something someone might disagree with is a lost art. But it’s also the key to keeping credibility and building a reputation that you’ll say whatever you truly believe that endears you to your audience.

And in this case, on a day the NFL announced they now employ a player who — in the league’s view — is a serial sexual assaulter, to hear hosts describe a six-game suspension as “reasonable” felt unreasonable. As talk radio hosts, we often try to hold the moral high ground and if you’re going to hold that position, I can’t help but feel integrity has to outweigh popularity.

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