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For Sandy Clough, Retirement Is Just The Beginning

“The best thing for me in radio and in talk radio was working with a person I connected to,” Clough said.

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One of Denver’s most notable pundits, Sandy Clough, grew up in the suburbs of Westchester County on the sounds of the aggressive, often-combative talk shows taking place just south in “The Big Apple.” 40 years later, he is stepping away from the microphone moving towards a new chapter of his life and grateful for what the industry has bestowed upon him: a chance to be heard and express his nascent infatuation with sports.

Clough remembers being in his bedroom late at night when he was younger – the moon shining brightly outside as the nighttime hours ran their course. By the looks of his room, everything would appear to be normal – but appearances sometimes misrepresent reality. Akin to how a child hides a recently-lost baby tooth under their pillow with the hopes of finding money the next morning, Clough had a transistor radio concealed with the faint yet energetic sounds of sporting events. Whether it was the Mets, Yankees, Knicks. or Rangers, he would absorb the atmosphere and the game itself while the broadcasters painted a picture of the setting through their linguistic command and technical cognizance.

Beyond that, he was captivated by radio as a medium and its ability to transmit the mellifluous sounds of competition, debate and news to listeners by means of an AM or FM signal. He wanted to be a part of it by moving to the other side of the speaker, serving as a source of intrigue and imagination for listeners; their investment in sports notwithstanding.

“I was always attracted to sports,” Clough said. “….I just was captivated by it and really as much by radio as by sports. I’m one of the luckiest people around in that I got to pursue, as a career, something that melded the two.”

As a native New Yorker, Clough had primarily been exposed to the sound of local radio in the 1970s – a time before the launch of WFAN, the first-ever radio station to solely adopt the sports talk format. That is not to say the landscape was bereft of programming discussing sports before that; however, they were not on stations with that focus for the entirety of the day. Even outside of the realm of sports talk though, there was a certain sound indicative of New York City that resonated with Clough and served as the early foundation of his distinctive style.

“I’m an introvert in my personal life, but on the air I really like to perform,” Clough said. “I’ve always tried to be honest and fair but I had some incredible models growing up – both play-by-play broadcasters and talk show hosts.”

In 1979, Clough accepted a full-time radio job in Denver, with KOA 850 AM, a news radio outlet serving as the flagship station of the National Football League’s Denver Broncos. While there, he was the producer of what he refers to as “the best talk show” he has ever heard called Sports from A-to-Z, featuring play-by-play announcer Al Albert and sports anchor Ron Zappolo. Both Albert and Zappolo served as integral mentors for Clough as he sought to make a name for himself in the industry and offered him different perspectives regarding hosting.

“It gave me a chance to find out right away what the business was about and about the nitty-gritty details,” Clough said. “….Their passion rubbed off on me; their preparation rubbed off on me; their personalities rubbed off on me…. They were great people; I loved producing for them and I could have done that forever.”

The staff at KOA 850 AM was largely made up of play-by-play announcers, meaning that many of them were often on the road simultaneously. At 22 years old, he was placed on the air on various different talk shows for the purposes of lack of availability or interest and was willing to do anything it took to cement himself as a part of the industry. Clough was the regular host of Bronco Talk, an hour-and-a-half show following Denver Broncos games in which he would deliver a monologue about the action and then take calls from fans.

This came at the cusp of the debut of Broncos quarterback John Elway and the development of the team into a perennial contender, giving fans a voice with which they could celebrate wins or lament about losses – on a few conditions.

“Many people who [listened] to me didn’t think I was celebrating or consoling much of anyone,” Clough said. “It was a lot of fun to go back and forth with callers, and all I asked was that they not misrepresent what I had said and [that] they have their facts right… and if they were wrong to acknowledge, ‘I was wrong on the facts,’ or ‘I’m sorry I misrepresented what you said.’”

Across town, Carl Scheer had crafted the nearby Denver Nuggets franchise, then-part of the American Basketball Association, into a 65-win team in the 1974-75 season. Once Clough began taking the air and talking about Denver’s sports teams, Scheer took a liking to his hosting style as it was something not previously heard.

Additionally, Clough made it a point to attend sporting events around the city of Denver to interact with players, coaches and other team personnel, along with the fans to give him a better understanding of his audience. Even when he was working as the color commentator during home games for the National Hockey League’s Colorado Rockies in the year prior to the team’s move and subsequent rebrand as the New Jersey Devils, Clough still found a way to attend at least 30 of the team’s 41 regular season home games.

Another reason he traveled beyond the studio walls was to truly gain an understanding of why teams won and lost games, as it better informed his preparation and parlance while working. Additionally, it allowed people he had discussed or critiqued on the air to have a chance to respond to him face-to-face, just as Albert and Zappolo had taught him. In this, his credibility in the marketplace was built and a sense of respect was garnered towards him among his peers.

“There were a number of… people along the way – coaches; players; front office people; owners even – who gave me the benefit of their wisdom,” Clough said. “It didn’t mean I didn’t ever criticize them because I did, but I never criticized anyone or praised anyone based on whether I liked them personally or not.”

In 1990, Clough moved to KYBG-AM, a small sports radio station owned by Century Broadcasting at which he continued to cover sports in the Denver area. Upon the federal adoption of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — most notably the clause removing limits on the number of national AM/FM stations an entity could own — smaller stations were bought out. Because of this, employees were often put out of a job especially if the station switched formats. The cross-ownership of media and ability for anyone to have a stake in communications was now encouraged, harming the existence of independent stations akin to KYBG-AM.

After a short time out of work and cultivation of fanbases for two new teams – Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies and the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche – Clough joined KFFN. The station was widely known as 950 AM The Fan until the station’s change to the 104.3 FM frequency about a decade later.

Over his 25-and-a-half years with the station, Clough has been adroit in his ability to connect with an audience – regardless of whether he was hosting the show solo or with partner(s). Some of those partners have included Scott Hastings, Brandon Stokley, Orlando Franklin and, most recently, Shawn Drotar on their weekday nighttime show Sandy and Shawn.

“The best thing for me in radio and in talk radio was working with a person I connected to,” Clough said. “[When] there was a chemistry from the beginning, that was the best. The worst is working with someone, not necessarily someone you personally dislike, but someone with whom you have no chemistry and nothing really clicks.”

Clough’s preparation for each show, whether or not he was hosting solo, was to expect no callers and to have three hours to fill by himself. By preparing in this way, Clough was always ready to talk about storylines that extended far beyond the superficial nature of a sporting event and made sure to come across as more erudite than sciolistic to his audience. While the situation never unfolded, there were many times on the air where the preparation benefited him and allowed him to be an engaging and informative source of entertainment regardless of which daypart he was hosting in, all of which he has vast experience in much like his broadcast idol Allen Berg.

“Allen did shows early in the day [and] late in the day,” Clough explained. “He could do straight, hard interviews as well as anybody. When he was on at night, he was more free-wheeling [and] that made sense to me [because] at night, you’re dealing with more of the hard-core sports fans. Early in the day and really maybe up until drive time in the afternoon, you’re dealing with fans that are a little more casual.”

The nature of audience interaction in talk radio has changed as consumption habits and technology have evolved. As a result, there has been an alteration in the fundamental structure of a radio program in which fewer listeners call in to offer their opinions but still engaging with the show.

“As time has gone on in talk radio, we’re less and less reliant on phone calls and more on texts, for example, in communicating directly with the audience,” Clough stated. “The shows are much more guest-oriented now.”

One thing Clough never became invested in over his career though was the use of social media platforms. He has no social media accounts of his own and, during his career, relied on connecting with the audience in more traditional ways while being open to progressions elsewhere.

“I saw too many friends get into trouble and lose their jobs – even lose their careers – because of what had happened on social media,” Clough explained. “….I just thought the risk far outweighed the benefits. I didn’t like the vibe I got from social media; not all of the time but much of the time. If I can’t communicate over the course of three hours clearly and effectively, then I shouldn’t be in radio. I don’t need to be on social media telling people what I had for breakfast. Nobody cares about me that much.”

Maintaining a strong sense of objectivity is an essential aspect of journalists’ ability to provide unbiased coverage towards the teams they cover. Being able to identify professional obligations over personal rooting interests meant that rather than rooting for any specific team, it is better to root for good stories and topics that would stimulate conversation that would appeal to the audience.

“I admired and respected individuals but I never rooted for or against teams,” Clough said. “I know this sounds pollyannaish but I rooted for good stories. The two greatest stories in sports are ‘Big guy wins’ and ‘Big guy loses.’ The only thing I didn’t enjoy as much was mediocrity; just being average. Either be very good or very bad.”

Nonetheless, there were times throughout his career where Clough believes he moved beyond simply having a professional relationship, threatening his ability to legitimately maintain his objectivity.

“I don’t think it affected my commentary [or] made it any less unvarnished [and] I don’t believe I ever pulled any punches, but I got too close to a few people,” he said. “Even subconsciously if that had an effect and at times maybe it did, I have to concede that point. I’m a human being; if I’m treated well, I will treat the other person well in turn. I always tried to keep my relationships respectful and friendly as it relates to having open lines of communication but… I always tried to maintain a certain distance.”

104.3 The Fan, which is now owned and operated by Bonneville International, is currently led by Program Director Raj Sharan who has worked at the station in some capacity since 2016, including as a show producer for Clough. Sharan began his career in public relations and moved into radio in 2010 with the Front Range Sports Network, developing the expertise and technical acumen necessary to lead a major market radio station, ranked No. 13 in Barrett Sports Media’s top 20 major market radio stations of 2021.

“Like so many other Denver sports fans, I spent hours glued to The Fan listening to Sandy Clough entertain and educate,” Sharan said in a statement announcing Clough’s retirement. “It was thrilling to have the opportunity to produce Sandy as there’s never been a more prepared host. Sandy’s passion came through the speakers in captivating fashion, and his legacy will be forever engrained into The Fan, carrying on for generations to come.”

Clough has sought to have professional relationships with his colleagues and managers over the years and has utilized the various program directors he has worked under for feedback and advice on how to best craft his shows to create a solid on-air product. Through being coached and meticulously preparing and understanding his audience, he has cultivated on-air products that finish well in the ratings and, in turn, are able to gain more revenue.

“They critiqued me, but if criticism was necessary they would offer it and I welcomed that,” Clough said of working with program directors over the years. “….With every program director I’ve ever dealt with, I explained [that] I wanted to be coached hard. I was coached hard, especially when I was younger and I would make mistakes.”

Now after 40 years on the air, Clough is retiring from working as a full-time host with 104.3 The Fan, ending a robust broadcast career interacting with listeners and covering Denver’s sports teams. The change was prompted by a culmination of different factors, along with a keen awareness of the future of radio as a communications medium in an era with more media outlets than ever before.

“Increasingly, radio executives [and] radio owners are shifting their emphasis to digital,” Clough explained. “I believe as much as newspapers have evolved to the point where most of all newspaper reading is done online now, that will be true with radio. There will be packages, I think in the not too distant future, offered for every radio station and people can subscribe if they choose and get all the content they want for a certain price. That resulted in the deemphasis and even elimination of nighttime radio.”

At this point, Clough felt it would be best to exit from the business to pursue other opportunities in which he can make an impact; however, that does not mean he may never consider returning to radio in the future. For now though, he plans to take at least six months in retirement to see where his life takes him and will reevaluate a potential return or becoming involved in sports media in some other way down the road.

“I’m a traditionalist; I’m a purist; I’m even a perfectionist,” Clough said. “I’d like to think I was adaptable, but this seemed like a good time to get out of at least full-time work at 104.3 The Fan.”

Clough leaves 104.3 The Fan as the co-host of the highest-ranked talk show in Denver in the 9 p.m. to midnight time period amid strong ratings for the station as a whole. Moreover, he is grateful for the recognition he has received from his friends and colleagues since his retirement became official this past Friday.

For aspiring professionals looking to build a career in sports media though, Clough reminds them that they are not indispensable no matter how good they think they are, meaning it is essential to leave your ego at the door. Aside from that, while being versatile is likely to increase your value to whatever broadcast entity you work for, it remains crucial to prepare as a host and embrace your own personality. It is what helped Sandy Clough work in sports media for the last 40 years, leaving behind a legacy and reputation among Denver sports fans as a trusted, honest commentator ready to demonstrate his intelligence and share his opinions to the masses.

“Chart your own path, be authentic, be yourself and even if you’re different, hold on to that,” Clough said. “We have too many cookie-cutter people in our business now; too many people who listen to something and decide: ‘Well, that’s the way I’ll go. I’ll just go along and get along with everybody’ or ‘I’ll be controversial for the sake of being controversial. I’ll just say outrageous things all the time.’ Those are at the two extreme edges of the spectrum [so] find those gray areas.”

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The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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