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Why Is ESPN Obsessed With Its Political Perception?

Jason Barrett

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In the business of sports radio, we love dramatic stories that linger and provide countless opportunities to reach viewers, listeners, and readers. Whether it’s recent material like Colin Kaepernick being blackballed by NFL teams or older stories such as Tim Tebow’s quest to play QB in the NFL, Barry Bonds’ rumored steroid use or when will Brett Favre retire. When high profile personalities are in the middle of a media fire storm, we stoke the flames until there’s nothing left to burn.

If you were to identify a media story that fits that description in recent times, it would be the one centered around ESPN and their alleged political bias. I’ve done research on this subject before, and have read numerous pieces from other outlets with differing views, and to be honest, I’ve grown tired of it. It’s a story that is received differently by each individual based on the way they see the world and unless new developments emerge, opinions are unlikely to change.

However, what perplexes me is why the world’s largest sports media company remains fixated on continuing a fight which has no clear path to victory. They’re essentially in the same position that Hillary Clinton was during the late hours of election night. If there’s no way to change the narrative then sometimes its best to move on.

It’s even more troublesome because the company talks out of both sides of its mouth. Disney CEO Bob Iger says there is no left-leaning political agenda at ESPN, yet the company retained Langer Research Associates to conduct a study to determine if they have an issue.

The glass half full crowd in Bristol will tell you that they took that step to alleviate any public concerns. The glass half empty crowd who loathe what the worldwide leader in sports has become will suggest that the network wouldn’t have done the study and contradicted the opinion expressed by their own CEO if there wasn’t something to it.

I was disappointed when the network rolled out their rosy review of the study because they conveniently chose to dismiss that 63% of participants felt ESPN had a liberal bias. When questioned by Michael McCarthy of the Sporting News on why they ignored that part of the survey in their company press release they responded by saying they were trying to keep the press release short.

You and I both know that response is weak and reeks of the company trying to put cologne on a skunk.

The public is going to be cynical when any company researches itself because they assume the results aren’t independently provided. It’s why political folks go bat shit crazy over poll numbers from outlets they don’t like, and why baseball fans initially rejected MLB’s Mitchell Report until it uncovered some damaging results.

Those same reasons are why many media members don’t take ESPN’s ombudsman position seriously. The intent may be to hold the company accountable, but as long as one operates under the same corporate umbrella and receives a paycheck from Mickey Mouse, it’s harder to subscribe to the belief that a writer has free reign to criticize the company.

In analyzing the results from the Langer Associates study, they’re very different from independent surveys conducted by Deep RootYouGov and BSM. That doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong or that the information isn’t valuable. It just means they connected with a different group of people. What you choose to believe or reject is for you to personally decide.

From my vantage point, I could care less about ESPN’s political agenda. I watch games, shows, and documentaries because I love sports and value quality programming. I don’t have the time nor the patience to sit through all of ESPN’s hours of programming and dissect the percentages of right vs. left commentary that pop up during on-air conversations. I still believe that as a whole, the company cares first and foremost about sports programming, and any political on-air influence is going to be rather small when you compare it to the overall delivery of on-air sports content.

But that’s not the entire issue. Here is where I think some people are missing the boat, including the powers that be at ESPN.

Social media is a game changer. This is where connections are made, minds are influenced, and perceptions are formed daily. The network may be right that their programming doesn’t contain a ton of political commentary or one-sided views but the same can’t be said about their personalities on social media. We also can’t ignore the influence of social and political commentary that has appeared on ESPN’s digital brands.

Do yourself a favor. Go take a look at how many ESPN personalities follow CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times compared to FOX News. Examine the number of ESPN talents who follow Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump. Explore the difference between the number of media members following Bill Maher and Anderson Cooper as opposed to Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

But don’t stop there.

Take a look at the opinions and responses provided on social platforms by ESPN personalities when it comes to political issues or feedback from fans addressing sensitive topics. What you’ll discover is that there is a heavier amount of ESPN folks pushing democratic views, opinions, content, and personalities.

Does that mean there aren’t conservative views at ESPN? Of course not. But for every Linda Cohn who acknowledges that political influence is an issue for the company, there are 4-5 countering that position from inside the same building.

In previous years, social media wasn’t an integral part of our lives. Our access to the thoughts, opinions and personal tastes of on-air anchors and commentators were limited, and their public views were directed towards stories that mattered to the sports fan. I’m sure Chris Berman, Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick, and Keith Olbermann all had things that bothered them politically, but we weren’t privy to those views.

And let’s not forget, 9/11 happened sixteen years ago, the US went to war in Iraq in 2003, and the government bailed out the banks and the auto industry in 2008. Those were very sensitive subjects for many people, and had social media been available like it is today, the views expressed by members of the sports media may have changed the way we perceive them, let alone watch or listen to them.

I was fortunate to spend two great years working for ESPN and what I appreciated most during my time there was how focused everyone was on delivering creative and compelling sports programming. There was no attention wasted on outside noise or competitors, only on providing the best possible content experience for sports fans. Although my experience in Bristol was limited, it was a positive one. Not once did I question the company’s direction or feel there was an unspoken dictate to make sure certain stories or positions were presented.

But that was over a decade ago and much has changed since then. It’s pained me to write a few scathing things about the company because there are a lot of great talented people there who I like, respect, appreciate and know are concerned first and foremost with presenting a great product. They don’t go to work thinking about political agendas or countering public narratives, but because certain issues are explored by talent in social circles, and the company adamantly denies those views create any rift with the audience, it puts others in the middle and forces them to absorb the brunt of the outrage and criticism.

The bottom line is this. ESPN can conduct all of the research that it wants and issue press releases and public statements countering the charge that it leans left, but they’re not going to convince people to change their minds when evidence is available to counter it. They also have zero control over what other media outlets write and present on TV/radio to support their own points of view about the network’s position.

If the company really wants to address the subject and create noticeable solutions they have a few options.

  • 1. Go all-in on their current position. The country is divided and the network’s top high profile stars have a greater interest in democratic content and people. Instead of pretending you aren’t what others perceive you to be, embrace it. It might actually help the company gain more fans and respect. One may counter that they should do the exact opposite but that would require eliminating a significant amount of people and replacing them with more conservative thinkers and that would be catastrophic to the brand and its bottom line.
  • 2. Take drastic measures to make sure the network’s talent aren’t providing off-brand messaging. Social media has swung the opinions of ESPN’s brand and people because the on-air talent address issues that divide people. It used to be in radio that race, religion and politics were off limits unless absolutely necessary. Even if those rules still applied on ESPN’s airwaves, if their people are on social platforms, political networks and in public spaces interjecting their views on divisive issues it muddies the waters.

Let me be clear about this, I’m strongly against censorship. If ESPN took the bold step of restricting their talent from addressing non-sports issues in public spaces I think they’d endure even heavier backlash. It’d also be hypocritical given that the company has invested in brands such as The Undefeated and fivethirtyeight. But if they wanted to change the conversation and restore the public’s faith in the company caring about sports and only sports, they’d need to send a serious message. This would certainly do so, although I don’t recommend it.

  • 3. The final solution is to simply ignore the noise. Why waste time and energy worrying about things beyond your control? If the company focuses on creating and delivering exceptional content, satisfying the wants and needs of its advertisers, and forging strong relationships with sports leagues, cable companies and digital providers to protect its current position and assure future growth, then that should be enough to keep everyone feeling good. In the end, that really is all that matters, regardless of what others think or write. If one more second is spent addressing the subject, it’s one too many.

If the past is any indication, this story will not go away. ESPN has shown itself to be thin-skinned and when media outlets and competitors smell blood, they look to further rip open the wound. I have no idea why the company seems obsessed with convincing the public this issue isn’t real but clearly it’s a sensitive subject.

If it were my call, I’d task the company’s brain trust to put their passion and enthusiasm into the programming. After all, it’s the main reason why the network matters to sports fans in the first place! When great content becomes the focus of conversation, it’s amazing how the other issues become less important.

Barrett Blogs

Jimmy Powers to Receive The Mark Chernoff Award at the 2023 BSM Summit

“Jimmy received the most votes from our industry panel to become our third recipient of the Mark Chernoff Award.”

Jason Barrett

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As a former programmer turned consultant, I pay more attention than most to those who lead brands, manage talent, and create consistent success. When you look across the country at the hundreds of stations delivering sports radio content, and analyze who operates at a high level, there’s maybe ten to twenty who are changing the game, and others who are rising and hoping to become a bigger part of the conversation.

What makes this annual award special in addition to having Mark Chernoff’s name on it, is that it’s voted on by eighteen industry heavyweights. These are folks tasked with overseeing radio companies, major networks, and having exceptional track records of broadcasting success. So when they vote and an individual earns an honor, it means a little more.

If you’re in the business and follow sports radio, then you’re aware of Mark Chernoff’s accomplishments as a program director. He was one of the true architects and consistent winners, and his ability to excel as a sports radio manager has influenced and shaped many careers. Mark graciously agreed to be part of our awards ceremony a few years ago when I approached him with the idea in New York City. I’m thrilled to share that although he doesn’t attend many industry conferences on the west coast, he will be with us at the 2023 BSM Summit in Los Angeles for the ceremony.

Which brings me to this year’s winner.

It is my honor to congratulate the leader of 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, Jimmy Powers. Jimmy received the most votes from our industry panel to become our third recipient of the Mark Chernoff Award. He follows Rick Radzik of 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, and Mitch Rosen of 670 The Score in Chicago. Jimmy will be in attendance at the Summit to pick up the award, and will take part in a program director panel at the show. Further details on that to be shared next week.

“It’s such a great honor not only to be mentioned in the same breath with Mark Chernoff, but to receive the ‘Mark Chernoff Award’ is really, really cool” shared 97.1 The Ticket Program Director Jimmy Powers. “With so many great program directors across the country who are deserving of this award, I truly appreciate the recognition.”

Since late 2009, Powers has led the Detroit sports radio station to unmatched local success. Brought in to build upon what was created by the late great Tom Bigby, he’s helped The Ticket become one of the format’s best examples of success. The station has consistently dominated the Male 25-54 demo, while also becoming a ratings force with Persons 12+ and Adults 25-54.

“Jimmy has done an amazing job over the years running 97.1 the Ticket,” said legendary sports radio programmer Mark Chernoff. “He knows how to work with talent, and maintain balance while managing relationships with the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons, which is not an easy job. The ratings remain high, and the Ticket continues to be one of America’s top sports stations, which reflects the great work Jimmy has done as the station’s program director.”

In addition to delivering double digit shares, quarterly ratings wins, and presenting a star studded lineup and Michigan’s top sports franchises, The Ticket has taken home plenty of hardware too. The station has won the Marconi award for best sports station in 2016 and 2022. And now, they can add the 2023 Mark Chernoff Award to their trophy case.

“2022 was another big year for The Ticket, and many in Detroit deserve credit for the brand’s consistent success, but none more so than their exceptional brand leader, Jimmy Powers,” added BSM President Jason Barrett. “Jimmy has been a staple of consistency, guiding one of the crown jewels of sports radio, managing top personalities, important play by play partnerships, and helping the brand generate large revenues. I’m thrilled that our industry voters took notice of the fantastic work Jimmy has done and look forward to celebrating his career and accomplishments in Los Angeles this March.”

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California College Students Earn Chance to Win 10 Free Tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit Thanks to Steve Kamer Voiceovers

“In order to win tickets to attend the Summit, students must submit a 2-minute video by email explaining why they’d like to be in attendance and what they hope to learn at the event.”

Jason Barrett

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With a new year comes renewed energy and optimism for the sports media business. Yours truly is looking forward to showcasing the best our business has to offer when we gather the industry in Los Angeles, CA at the 2023 BSM Summit at the Founders Club at the University of Southern California on March 21-22, 2023. Our conference is returning to the west coast for the first time since 2019. We’ve announced some super talented speakers. We’ve got additional things in the works and I plan to make additional announcements in the next few weeks.

People often ask me what the biggest challenge is putting this event together. My answer is always the same, it’s getting people to leave the comfort of their office and spend two days in a room together learning and discussing ways to grow the business. We have great sponsorship support and exceptional people on stage and are fortunate to have a lot of folks already set to attend. Our venue this year has extra space though, so I’m hoping a few more of you make time to join us. If you haven’t bought a ticket or reserved your hotel room, visit BSMSummit.com to make sure you’re all set.

If there’s one thing our industry could get better at it’s opening our minds to new ideas and information. There’s more than one path to success. Just because you’re in good shape today doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow. Building brands, growing audiences, increasing revenue, and examining new opportunities is an ongoing process. There are many shifts along the way. We may not solve every business challenge during our two-days together but you’ll leave the room more connected and informed than when you entered it.

Each year I’ll get two or three emails from folks sharing that they learned more about the industry in two-days at the Summit than they have in ___ years inside of their building. That’s truly gratifying and what I strive to achieve when I put this event together. I remember when conferences like this didn’t exist for format folks and I take the risk and invest the time and resources to create it because I love the sports media industry and believe I can help it thrive. I see great value in gathering professionals to share ideas, information, and meet others who can help them grow their business, and if we do our part, I’m confident some will want to work with us too. That’s how we benefit over the long haul.

But as much as I focus on serving the professional crowd, I also think we have a responsibility to educate young people who are interested, passionate, and taking steps to be a part of our business in the future. The BSM website is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each month and it’s become a valuable resource for folks who enjoy sports radio and television. I think it’s vital to use our platform, influence and two-day event to connect generations and I’m happy to announce that we will once again welcome college students at this year’s Summit.

Most of us who’ve been in this line of work for two or three decades learned the business without podcasts, YouTube, social media, the web or conferences delivering two full days of sessions that taught you more about the business than what’s available inside of a class room. We learned by doing, and hoping we were right. Then we copied others who had success. Some of that still exists, and that’s not a bad thing. But where our business goes in the future is going to be drastically different.

I’d like to see the difference makers in our format remembered for years to come, and practices that have stood the test of time remain valued down the line. Change is inevitable in every business and I’m excited about the road that lies ahead especially some of the technological advancements that are now available or will soon become a bigger part of our industry. I think we can embrace the future while enjoying the present and celebrating the past. The best way to do that is by bringing together everyone who is and is hoping to be a part of the sports media universe.

So here’s two things we’re doing to make sure future broadcasters have an opportunity to learn with us.

First, I want to send a HUGE thank you to Steve Kamer Voiceovers. Thanks to Steve’s generosity, TEN (10) college students will be given FREE tickets to attend the 2023 BSM Summit in March. Steve is a USC graduate (Class of 1985) and he bought the ten tickets to help young people learn about the industry, save money and make valuable connections. When I first received his order, I thought he hit the wrong button. I reached out to tell him a mistake was made and I needed to refund him. That’s when he told me what he wanted to do for students who were pursuing their broadcasting dreams just as we both did years ago. A very classy gesture on his part.

As it pertains to the contest, here’s how it’s going to work.

To win tickets to attend the Summit, students must submit a 2-minute video by email to JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com explaining why they’d like to be in attendance and what they hope to learn at the event. Included in your email should be a list of steps that you’ve taken or are pursuing to explore opportunities in the media industry. If you want to pass along a resume and audio or video clips too to showcase your work and experience, that’s fine as well. BSM will accept submissions until February 17th. The winners will be announced on Friday February 24th.

Helping me select the winners will be an exceptional panel of media executives. Each of these folks below will choose one person to attend our L.A. event. The final two will be picked by Steve Kamer and myself.

  • Scott Shapiro – Senior Vice President, FOX Sports Radio
  • Justin Craig – Senior Program Director, ESPN Radio
  • Jeff Sottolano – Executive Vice President, Programming, Audacy
  • Bruce Gilbert – Senior Vice President of Sports, Cumulus Media & Westwood One
  • Amanda Gifford – Vice President, Content Strategy & Audio, ESPN
  • Jacob Ullman – Senior Vice President, Production and Talent Development, FOX Sports
  • Greg Strassell – Senior Vice President, Programming, Hubbard Radio
  • Scott Sutherland – Executive Vice President, Bonneville International

To qualify for the BSM Summit College Contest, students must be enrolled in college in the state of California, pursuing a degree that involves course work either in radio, television, print or the digital business. Those attending local trade schools with a focus on broadcasting are also welcome to participate. You must be able to take care of your own transportation and/or lodging.

This is a contest I enjoy running. We’ve had great participation during our prior two shows in New York City but haven’t done it before on the west coast. I’m hoping it’s helpful to California students and look forward to hearing from many of them during the next month.

For students who live out of state and wish to attend or those enrolled at local universities who enter the contest but aren’t lucky enough to win one of the ten free tickets from Steve Kamer Voiceovers, we are introducing a special two-day college ticket for just $124.99. You must provide proof that you’re currently in school to take advantage of the offer. This ticket gives you access to all of our sessions inside the Founders Club. College tickets will be limited to forty (40) seats so take advantage of the opportunity before it expires.

The 2023 BSM Summit will feature award ceremonies with Emmis Communication CEO Jeff Smulyan and legendary WFAN program director Mark Chernoff, sessions with influential on-air talent such as Colin Cowherd, Jim Rome, Joy Taylor, and Mina Kimes, big picture business conversations with executives from groups such as Audacy, iHeart, Bonneville, Good Karma Brands, Barstool, The Volume, Omaha Productions and more. For details on tickets and hotel rooms visit BSMsummit.com.

I look forward to seeing you in March in Los Angeles!

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Barrett Blogs

Barrett News Media To Gather The Industry in Nashville in September 2023

“I’ve been lucky enough to play a key role in bringing the sports media industry together on an annual basis, and in 2023 we’re going to attempt to do the same for news/talk media professionals.”

Jason Barrett

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One of the best parts about working in the media business is that you’re afforded an opportunity to use your creativity, take risks, and learn if an audience or advertisers will support your ideas. Sometimes you hit a homerun, other times you strike out, but regardless of the outcome, you keep on swinging.

I’ve tried to do that since launching a digital publishing and radio consulting company in 2015. Fortunately, we’ve delivered more hits than misses.

When I added news media industry coverage to our brand in September 2020, I knew it’d be a huge undertaking. The news/talk format is two and a half times larger than sports, many of its brands are powered by national shows, and the content itself is more personal and divisive. I wanted our focus and attention on news media stories, not politics and news, and though there have been times when the lines got blurred, we’ve tried to be consistent in serving industry professionals relevant content .

What made the move into news media more challenging was that I’d spent less time in it. That meant it’d take longer to find the right writers, and it required putting more time into building relationships, trust, respect, and support. Though we still have more ground to cover, we’ve made nice strides. That was reflected by the participation we received when we rolled out the BNM Top 20 of 2022 the past two weeks. Hopefully you checked out the lists. Demetri Ravanos and I will be hosting a video chat today at 1pm ET on BNM’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and through Barrett Media’s YouTube page discussing the series, as well as this article.

It’s because of that growing support, trust, and confidence in what we’re doing that I’m taking a risk yet again. I’ve been lucky enough to play a key role in bringing the sports media industry together on an annual basis, and in 2023 we’re going to attempt to do the same for news/talk media professionals.

I am excited to share the news that Barrett News Media will host its first ever BNM Summit on Thursday September 14, 2023 in Nashville, TN. Our one-day conference will take place at Vanderbilt University’s Student Life Center Ballroom. The venue we’ve selected is tremendous and I’m eager to spend a day with news/talk professionals to examine ways to further grow the format and industry.

If you’re wondering why we chose Nashville, here’s why.

First, the city itself is awesome. The access to great restaurants, bars, entertainment, hotels, and famous landmarks is unlimited, and when you’re traveling to a city for a business conference, those things matter. Being in a city that’s easy for folks across the country to get to also doesn’t hurt.

Secondly, a conference is harder to pull off if you can’t involve successful on-air people in it. If you look at Nashville’s growth in the talk media space over the past decade, it’s remarkable. Many notable talents now live and broadcast locally, major brands have created a local footprint in the area, and that opens the door to future possibilities. I have no idea who we’ll include in the show, and I haven’t sent out one request yet because I wanted to keep this quiet until we were sure it made sense. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of interest in participating and I can’t promise we’ll be able to accommodate all requests but if you have interest in being involved, send an email to Jason@BarrettNewsMedia.com.

Third, finding the right venue is always difficult. We looked at a bunch of great venues in Nashville during our vacation this past summer, and when we stepped on to the campus at Vanderbilt University and walked through the SLC Ballroom, we knew it was the right fit. It had the space we needed, the right tech support, access to private parking, a green room for guests, and it was within walking distance of a few hotels, restaurants, and the Parthenon.

As I went through the process of deciding if this event was right for BNM, a few folks I trust mentioned that by creating a Summit for news/media folks, it could create a competitive situation. I don’t see it that way. I view it as a responsibility. I think we need more people coming together to grow the industry rather than trying to tear each other down. I hear this far too often in radio. We worry about what one station is doing rather than strengthening our own brand and preparing to compete with all audio options.

For years I’ve attended conferences hosted by Radio Ink, NAB, Talkers, and Conclave. I’ve even spoken at a few and welcomed folks who operate in the consulting space to speak at my shows. I’ll continue to support those events, read various trade sites, and invite speakers who work in a similar field because they’re good people who care about helping the industry. I believe BNM and BSM add value to the media business through its websites and conferences, and though there may be a detractor or two, I’ll focus on why we’re doing this and who it’s for, and let the chips fall where they may.

I know juggling two conferences in one year is likely going to make me crazy at times, but I welcome the challenge. In the months ahead I’ll start lining up speakers, sponsors, building the conference website, and analyzing every detail to make sure we hold up our end of the bargain and deliver an informative and professionally beneficial event. The news/talk media industry is massive and making sure it stays healthy is critically important. I think we can play a small role in helping the business grow, and I look forward to finding out on September 14th in Nashville at Vanderbilt University.

Hope to see you there!

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