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This Fire Is Out of Control and ESPN Can’t Put It Out

Jason Barrett

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ESPN SC6

I fully intended to avoid writing about this topic because I’ve grown increasingly tired of the whole political-sports media dance. But then a whole new chain of events unfolded, and now here I am, using a line from a Franz Ferdinand song to describe the mess ESPN finds itself in – “This fire is out of control.”

By now you’re probably aware that Jemele Hill of ESPN’s SC6 went off on Twitter about President Donald Trump. If you haven’t seen her tweets, it’s your lucky day. See below.


Hill’s tweets created a stir on social media, leading ESPN to issue a statement. The network said they had talked to Jemele about her actions and she realized they were inappropriate.

But that didn’t satisfy the masses. The pressure increased when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about Hill’s comments during a briefing with the press, and said Hill’s remarks were “one of the more outrageous comments anyone could make” and added that she thought Hill deserved to be fired.

Media outlets latched on to the story, but it picked up even more steam when Clay Travis spoke to a number of ESPN employees off the record, and broke the news that Linda Cohn had previously been suspended after making public comments about the company turning off their core viewers by moving away from covering just sports and allowing politics to enter the equation during a radio interview in April on WABC radio in New York.

Travis questioned why Curt Schilling was fired for his actions, yet Hill was given a pass. The former MLB pitcher was terminated after sharing a post on social media about the North Carolina law which barred transgender people from using the bathroom and locker rooms that don’t correspond with their birth genders. Schilling also made comments previously about Hillary Clinton deserving to be buried under a jail somewhere, and comparing extremist muslims to Nazi’s which also didn’t sit well with network executives.

After Schilling was fired, respected author James Andrew Miller said, “If you’re taking a paycheck from ESPN, you have to be extra careful about how you communicate publicly and always err on the side of caution and responsibility. It’s not an unfair or impractical position for ESPN to hold. If you want to express your own opinions in a provocative way on social media, then ESPN and a lot of other media organizations are probably not where you should be working.”

Those comments sound reasonable but where things become complex is when you compare how Schilling, Cohn and Doug Adler were dealt with versus the way Hill was handled. ESPN has been labeled as a network which carries a left leaning agenda, and their handling of this situation hasn’t done anything to change that perception.

During an appearance on FOX News, former analyst and NFL defensive back Jason Sehorn confirmed that he had been asked to avoid any discussion about politics while working at the network. Expecting a television analyst to steer clear of political conversations seems like a valid request, except Sehorn was known for being an avid supporter of the Republican party. In fact, he even spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Former sideline reporter Britt McHenry then chimed in, adding that while working at ESPN she was reprimanded for supporting tweets that were conservative leaning.

By now you’re thinking, this must be the worst of it right? Well, not exactly.

On Thursday, Think Progress reported that ESPN tried to take Jemele Hill off the air on Wednesday night, but the plan backfired when her partner, Michael Smith, refused to host SC6 without her. Network executives allegedly reached out to two other black personalities, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, to see if they would step in. When those inquiries were rejected, and the company couldn’t find anyone to step in, they reversed their position and had Hill return to work with Smith.

ESPN denied the report, telling Think Progress they never asked anyone to replace Hill on the show, period. Senior Vice President of news and information Rob King said, “Wednesday was a hard and unusual day, with a number of people interpreting the day without a full picture of what happened. In the end, ultimately, Michael and Jemele appearing on the show last night and doing the show the way they did is the outcome we always desired.”

Think Progress has since updated their story with additional details, painting a picture that suggests ESPN hasn’t been completely truthful about the situation. In every story there are three sides – yours, mine and the truth. Each party has much to lose therefore keeping the specifics behind closed doors is important. Leaks do happen when high profile brands and people are involved and at this point, ESPN is trying to do damage control.

After making her inflammatory comments about Trump, Hill received support from the National Association of Black Journalists. She also received social media support from a few of her fellow colleagues.

There are likely detractors of Hill’s inside ESPN as well, but going public with those opinions would only create unnecessary attention. Given how the network has dealt with previous situations involving employees who see the world differently, the reality of being hurt professionally makes it a wiser decision to stay silent.

Hill has since taken to Twitter to apologize for her personal beliefs putting ESPN in a difficult position. But she didn’t apologize for what she said. In fact, her original tweets remain up on her Twitter account.

If you thought that was the end of this story, guess again. It became an even bigger topic of conversation on Friday when the President of the United States, Donald Trump, posted this tweet.

Whether you’re a Trump supporter or a Trump critic, it’s undeniable that his message reaches a large volume of Americans. Over 38 million people follow him on Twitter, and his tweets are picked up by media outlets across the nation. For a network looking to decrease the noise, and return to business as usual, that becomes impossible when every local and national news outlet is advancing the conversation and painting ESPN in a negative light.

Which brings me to the point of the column where I’ve got to interject a few opinions of my own.

Why are we in this situation in the first place? We’re having a conversation about sports media personalities and the ramifications of their public political positions because ESPN’s leadership has permitted it and wavered in how they handle different situations. For well over thirty years, ESPN has been the gold standard in sports media, but the past few years have included a large number of self-inflicted wounds, which begs the question, why are these things continuing to happen?

It pains me to see this unfold from afar because I grew up loving ESPN. My affinity for the company and its people moved me enough to want to go to work for them, a dream I was able to realize in 2004. But as I look at where things stand now, I don’t see the same amazing brand I once did. There are many great people still there, and I’m sure they hate this as much as I do because they’d prefer to get back to talking sports, having fun, and representing the ideals for which ESPN became special the past thirty eight years.

I want to pose a few questions that I hope will make you think.

Which direction does Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic, Scott Van Pelt, Freddie Coleman, Louis Riddick, Jon Gruden, Chris Berman, Trey Wingo, Kirk Herbstreit, Karl Ravech and Suzy Kolber lean politically? Maybe you know. Or like most people, you’d have to know them personally, talk to them at a public function, or dig thru pages of content online to find out.

Why does that matter? Because they go to their job, focus on satisfying the sports fan and don’t make the mistake of allowing their personal views on other issues in life to drive a wedge between them and their audience.

If you listened recently to my BSM Podcast episode with Jim Rome, he made an excellent point. The CBS Sports Radio host said that if you asked his audience which way he leans politically they’d have a hard time figuring it out. Keep in mind, Rome has been on the air for over 25 years, and he’s pretty opinionated. He understands his lane, stays in it, and respects his audience enough to avoid giving them a reason to tune out.

Whether they accept it or not, every ESPN personality is a representative of the brand. The second they speak out on a political, racial, religious or social issue, whether intended or not, they are placing their employer in an unenviable position. The public is smart enough to understand that the individual’s views don’t represent the views of the entire company, but that doesn’t mean the attention doesn’t harm the brand’s reputation or business. If a person is going to occupy a public position and use a company’s platform to reach an audience and earn a living, they’ve got to understand that there are a certain set of responsibilities that come with it.

I’ve heard people the past few days say “Jemele isn’t speaking on behalf of ESPN, she’s talking about her own views.” Hogwash. Without ESPN, Jemele Hill the citizen can speak however she wants, but she’d be reaching a much smaller audience.

Anytime an on-air personality enters this territory my first thought is what exactly are you gaining from this? Is the validation of a few thousand fans and colleagues on social media worth it? Is getting under the skin of the political establishment worth the potential damage you could be doing to your career?

ESPN has built a stellar reputation over the past three and a half decades, and when employees of the company take these political positions, they put their employer in a position to be publicly damaged, and lose audience and advertising dollars. The four letter network is in the business of creating content for its fans and using it to sell advertising to existing and prospective clients. Regardless of intent, this conversation does little to help them increase viewership or gain additional business.

Ask yourself this question. What do you tell an ad buyer who’s white, spends a bunch of money on ESPN and voted for Donald Trump? Do you think they’re going to feel good about continuing to invest in a person/show which spit in the face of their personal beliefs? Do you think they’re simply going to make a ‘business decision’ with their ad buys rather than allow their personal feelings to enter the equation?

What about if you’re a white sports fan who enjoys ESPN, specifically SC6, and you voted for Donald Trump. Maybe you liked Michael and Jemele’s style, but when the social media commentary offered by Jemele suggests that Trump’s rise to power is the result of white supremacy, are you OK being labeled that way?

Consider this, Donald Trump, whether you love or loathe him, did receive nearly 63 million votes. He also won 2,728 of 3,113 counties across the country. Political beliefs aside, are we really going to suggest that MOST of those people who voted for him fit the description of which Hill was talking about? Maybe I’m giving people too much of the benefit of the doubt but I don’t believe that to be the case.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, a sports media personality represents their brand at all times. If you don’t like it and prefer not to be branded as Person X of ESPN, Person Y of FOX Sports or Person Z of CBS, then you might want to reconsider whether or not a public life is the right fit.

And it carries over beyond sports media too.

If Aaron Judge made the remarks that Jemele Hill did, they would do damage to the New York Yankees brand. If Mark Zuckerberg made them, they’d hurt Facebook. If Taylor Swift made them, they’d hurt her record sales, merchandise sales, and concert attendance. You get the point.

Here’s another question that many are wondering but not comfortable discussing because it stokes the flames of race. If this situation involved Scott Van Pelt or Mike Greenberg blasting Barack Obama while he was in office, in the same manner that Jemele Hill crushed Trump, what do you think happens? If you’re going to suggest the company would have done the exact same thing, wake me when you return to reality so we can have a real conversation.

I love that ESPN has embraced a diverse culture. They’ve not been afraid to take chances whether it’s launching The Undefeated, five thirty eight or rolling out SC6. Heck, even trotting out Sergio Dipp on the sidelines for Monday Night Football was a risk, one which unfortunately didn’t work out due to a rough night of execution. I’ll never rip a company for taking chances because I think that’s essential to growing a business, but in this particular situation, unnecessary tensions have been created, and people have been forced to take sides, all because the conversation shifted into areas that were not in line with the audience’s expectations.

Looking ahead, there are a few elephants in the room that ESPN needs to get out of the way of. The first one involves the issue of political bias. Whenever it’s mentioned, the network quickly rejects it and in many cases, becomes incredibly sensitive over it. Trust me, I know. When BSM conducted a survey in March, it didn’t sit well with many inside ESPN. Some even took me to task publicly for it.

Rather than absorb the information and recognize the very real problem on its hands, the company instead tried to wage a PR war by dismissing the data and criticizing the individuals reporting it. But how else do you explain the double standards in this situation involving Hill? Or the ridiculous controversy that ESPN created with Robert Lee? Or the Caitlyn Jenner decision at the ESPYS? Each of those situations were created by the company or their people, not media critics, FOX Sports employees or viewers who can’t let go of the glory days of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick hosting SportsCenter.

The second challenge, which I think is much harder to change, is to improve diversity of thought inside the company, and that includes at the highest levels. Bob Ley acknowledged last December that this was an area where the network needed to improve, and that may be easier to fix on the air, but what about up top? It’s been well documented that John Skipper and Bob Iger prefer the democratic party, and Connor Schell, who became Skipper’s right hand man in June, shares similar views. It’s wishful thinking to expect things to be approached differently when the top decision makers lean in the same direction.

Clay Travis wrote in his latest Outkick The Coverage column, that ESPN has two choices in front of them for how to handle these situations going forward. Option #1 would be to announce that they will not police speech that takes place off their airwaves or outside of their websites or print publications. The second option would be to take the position that no employee at ESPN is allowed to publicly discuss politics on their social media feeds.

Guess which one I’m going to pick – Option #2!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVM-c2t6KVA

If a company wants to maintain standards and avoid having to read between blurry lines to address these type of issues, they’ve got to be consistent in how they handle each situation. If an employee violates the rules, they face the consequences. If individuals don’t like or agree with the policy, there are other places to work.

By choosing the first option, you’re dismissing the influence that social media has on people, and you’re leaving it open for company employees to operate without consequence. I can only imagine the disasters that would follow if Bristol Inc. operated that way. We’re not talking about some small operation here folks. We’re talking about a company that is publicly traded, features thousands of employees and business partners, and generates billions of dollars in revenue.

ESPN finds itself at a crossroads. They’re faced with different economic realities than they’re used to and they’re operating in a new media world where the lights are always on and microphones are present. Whether it’s on their airwaves, their websites, their personalities social media pages or in public conversation, when an employee speaks out on issues that are removed from what ESPN does best, they create a divide. That helps nobody.

With the network trying to hang on to every customer it can and avoid future mass layoffs, there’s never been a more important time for John Skipper and Bob Iger to fix these issues. The first step is to accept responsibility and acknowledge that the issue was bigger than they had imagined. The second is to install a policy which leaves no wiggle room, and is fair to people on both sides of the aisle. The final part of the puzzle is to invite different points of view on the air and inside of conference rooms to present a more level playing field inside the company. The goal should be to make fans of both political parties feel good about spending a few hours enjoying the network’s content and supporting its business partners. That’s especially important with disconnected fans/viewers ages 35 and up.

Sports isn’t supposed to be a right or left choice. But when on-air talent wander into areas that the audience doesn’t tune into them for, the relationship between host and viewer/listener can suffer. It’s critical to know what your brand is, what the audience expects, and then satisfy those expectations. It may sound silly but sometimes it pays to stick to sports!

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Barrett Blogs

Erika Ayers and Spike Eskin Led Barstool Sports and WFAN to Success But Their Exits Raise Questions

“Rod and Spike understand the business. They know people are going to ask these questions.”

Jason Barrett

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There were two big management moves last week that have sports media folks talking. First was Erika Ayers Badan announcing her exit from Barstool Sports as the brand’s CEO. Second was the news of Spike Eskin returning to Sportsradio WIP and exiting his role as the VP of Programming for WFAN and CBS Sports Radio.

Let’s start with Erika. What she did for Barstool was spectacular. In 2016, I thought Barstool had a strong understanding of social media, unique talent and voices, podcasts that were cutting through, and a connection with younger fans that traditional outlets couldn’t deliver. They also produced events that drew a lot of public attention. But I didn’t view Barstool as a buttoned up business capable of generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Erika Nardini aka Erika Ayers Badan and Dave Portnoy deserve credit for making it one.

Erika told me at our 2020 BSM Summit that Barstool didn’t have a P&L sheet when she joined. She had to build systems, hire staff, grow the sales arm of Barstool, and help Dave Portnoy find investors. What followed were marketing deals with major brands, content partnerships with different media outlets, a massive investment from Penn National, and a changed perception of Barstool as a mainstream player. They were no longer just the cool, rebellious brand on social media and the internet that gave no f’s and generated attention. They became game changers in the sports content space.

So why leave?

If Barstool is now clear of restrictions and able to operate without investor influence, that should be enticing, right? In her farewell video Erika said that she felt she accomplished what she set out to do. I understand and appreciate that. But I can’t help but wonder if less structure and investor involvement made it less appealing to stay. She did join the brand after The Chernin Group got involved not before it.

I have no inside knowledge on this, and I’m not suggesting Barstool won’t continue growing and dominating. They likely will. It just raises questions about how the brand will manage sales, PR, critical internal and external issues, and battles with suitors when they try to lure away Barstool’s on-air and sales talent.

The business end of Barstool appears weaker today than it did a week ago. That’s more of a testament to what Erika did than a knock on anyone still there. To grow revenue the way she did the past 8 years speaks volumes about her skill as an executive. Wherever she lands next, it’s likely she’ll make a difference.

Will it be easier to do business with Barstool moving forward? Time will tell. I don’t expect they’ll make it easier for media outlets like ours to cover them. But if I’ve learned anything in eight years of following them it’s don’t ever bet against Dave Portnoy. Too often people have. Each time he’s proven them wrong. Portnoy has built a powerhouse brand, and grown the business by zigging when others zagged. But how Barstool moves forward without Erika will be of great interest to many in 2024.

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Spike Eskin will be leaving WFAN and his position as the VP of Programming for Audacy to return to WIP and co-host the afternoon show. On paper this is a great move for WIP. Spike understands Philadelphia and WIP’s audience, he lives and breathes Philly sports, and has a great rapport with the entire lineup. He’s maintained an on-air presence through his Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, and I believe that moving into a host role alongside Ike Reese and Jack Fritz will be a seamless transition for all involved. Being in his mid to late 40’s, he’s also got plenty years ahead of him to cement his spot as an on-air talent. I expect Spike, Ike and Jack to do well together.

But to exit WFAN and the top programming role at Audacy in less than three years, raises a few questions. Why is this opportunity better for Spike than the programming role he just held? Was he happy at WFAN? Were folks happy with him at WFAN? Many have opinions about WFAN’s changes the past few years. Some love the fresher approach. Others don’t. That’s what makes sports radio in New York fun, people care.

As a follower of WFAN for over thirty years, it’s a different brand than the one I grew up on. That’s not a bad thing by the way. I’m almost 50. If Spike and Chris Oliviero programmed to please the Mike and the Mad Dog crowd that’d be a mistake. Attention spans are shorter, content options are larger, digital is more important and the days of a city flocking to the radio at 1pm to hear a host’s first words are gone. Judging from the ratings, revenue, and turnout for Boomer and Gio’s last live event, the station is doing well. They’ve got a lot of talent, a stronger digital game, and they’ll continue thriving. Spike deserves credit for the brand’s progress.

But why is a hosting role and less influence over a brand better for Eskin? Spike has been a part of WIP’s afternoon show before. Though leading the show vs. being the third mic is a different animal. He also programmed the station really well. In fact, Spike did such a good job at WIP that it landed him the top programming position in sports radio. Is there a personal part to this given that his father made afternoons in Philly must-listen for 25 years? Or is it about the personal relationship he has with Ike and Jack?

And how does this work from a financial standpoint? It’s likely that Spike was paid more to lead Audacy New York than Jon Marks was to host WIP’s afternoon show. If that’s the case, and nothing changes for Eskin, and WIP just adds payroll, does it affect what Chris Oliviero can spend on Audacy New York’s next brand leader? I can’t see that happening at all. Chris is going to make sure he has what he needs to land the right leader in New York.

Finances only come up because it’s known that Audacy is going through a bankruptcy process. Adding expenses right now seems unlikely. However, to add someone with Eskin’s skill and track record at a station where he previously shined is smart business, especially when you consider that he can win as a host and programmer if needed. That’s going to naturally lead to folks asking ‘will Spike eventually host PM drive and program WIP? If so, what does that mean for current PD Rod Lakin?’ ‘What happens when talent at WIP that Spike had a hand in hiring don’t like what Lakin suggests or if WIP’s ratings decline?’

Spike told Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie that’s not on his radar and the idea of joining the afternoon show was raised by PD Rod Lakin. Some of you may read that and be surprised that Lakin would suggest it. But Rod stepped into the role that Eskin previously held. I’m sure they’ve talked plenty the past few years. If their relationship is strong that should help. I don’t know it well enough to say if it is or isn’t. This move suggests Lakin’s more concerned with strengthening WIP than worrying about himself or industry chatter.

If anyone can navigate the situation and make it work, it’s Rod Lakin. He’s calm, cool, collected, smart and doesn’t get flustered by noise and pressure. I know this because we’ve known each other for over a decade, and I introduced him to folks years ago, which led to him landing the Philly role. If you read Derek Futterman’s piece on Angelo Cataldi last month, the Philly icon shared a small example of what makes Rod a great leader.

But Rod and Spike understand the business. They know people are going to ask these questions. The flurry of texts and emails I received about this last week was insane. I’m sure it was even louder on the local level. Many will suggest that Audacy will use this as an opportunity to eventually reduce expenses and stay strong by having Eskin handle two roles. Only those involved know the answers but one thing I know is that Rod Lakin knows how to program. If he’s not supported there, he’ll have plenty of interest elsewhere.

In a perfect world, Spike excels in afternoons, Rod leads WIP to greater success, and WFAN finds a great leader to move the brand forward. But until the smoke clears, noise will fill the air in the big apple and city of brotherly love.

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Thumbs Up:

Colin Dunlap, 93.7 The Fan: While on the air last week, Dunlap received a call from a 65-year old woman named Colette. She told the Pittsburgh host that she and her husband were disabled and after undergoing 28 surgeries, she was physically struggling to clear her walkway of snow. Hearing her story moved Dunlap to react. He then called on the audience to step up and help. Shortly thereafter, one of 93.7 The Fan’s listeners, a gentleman named Tom, phoned in, and made the drive over to help out a fellow listener. That’s the power of live radio at its best, all possible by Dunlap reading and reacting to the situation perfectly.

Clay Travis, Outkick: Whether you love him or hate him, Clay delivers strong opinions and commands your attention. A perfect example was his Friday night reaction video to the demise of Sports Illustrated. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth checking out. It’s nearing one million views at the time of my writing this.

VSiN: The sports betting network based out of Las Vegas recently redesigned its website and the new look and feel of it is excellent. Clean throughout, easy to navigate, and rich of content. Nice work by Bill Adee all involved.

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Thumbs Down:

Sports Illustrated: Laying off the majority of its staff was bad enough, but to notify people by email or have them find out on social media shows a lack of class and a disgusting approach to running a business. All of those traits by the way are the exact opposite of what SI once stood for – RESPECT.

During SI’s glory days, the content was must read. But in recent years, the outlet landed in the hands of operators who valued clicks over quality. Many predicted and expected this once storied brand to crumble. Unfortunately, the naysayers were proven right.

To those affected, I’m sorry for the crummy news. Some will rebound and help other established brands. Some will launch their own platforms or exit the industry. Anyone looking to do future freelancing work is invited to email [email protected].

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BSM Summit Update:

I’m happy to share that Good Karma Brands president Steve Politziner, Edison Research co-founder and president Larry Rosin and ESPN Chicago program director Danny Zederman have been added to our lineup. We’ve also finalized two of our four awards recipients and are working on a third. I’m hoping to share those details soon along with a few other high profile additions to this year’s show. I’ll be heading to Las Vegas during Super Bowl week, which is when we reveal our BSM Top 20 of 2023, and after that I’m hoping to finalize our schedule so it can be released by the end of February.

I know everyone likes waiting until the last minute to buy tickets and reserve hotel rooms. If you want to avoid being left out though, the time to act is now. Everything you need is posted on BSMSummit.com. Our deadline for hotel room reservations is February 13th. We’ve also sent out free ticket contests by email to the advertising community and tri-state area colleges. We’ll have two more this week for executives and programmers. Be sure to check your spam folder just in case it doesn’t arrive in your inbox.

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2-Seconds to Vent:

Jimmy Pitaro, Eric Shanks, John Skipper, Nick Khan, Colin Cowherd, Paul Finebaum, Clay Travis, Craig Carton, Adam Schein, Michael Kay, and Fred Toucher all have something in common with many others across the industry. They’re accomplished professionals with plenty on their plate yet when contacted, they always respond. Most of the time, they do so quickly. That’s greatly appreciated.

If those tasked with running the largest media companies in America, and hosting shows with content, advertising, and audience commitments can find time to respond, why is it so hard for other professionals to do the same? If you don’t want to be featured on BSM, speak at a Summit, market with us or answer a question, just say ‘not interested‘. It takes two seconds. The best in the business understand the value of relationships and promotion. Unfortunately, many do not. I don’t use this platform to draw attention to these issues but sometimes I wonder, should I?

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Original Projects:

On BNM this week we’re doing five days of features on NPR professionals as part of ‘Public Radio Week‘. It’s not easy pulling it off but we’re trying some different stuff. Next week we launch ‘Where Are They Now‘ on BSM. Peter Schwartz will have the first feature next Tuesday. Coming up in February, we drop the BSM Top 20, Derek Futterman’s ‘Day Spent With‘ series which includes spending a day with professionals across different areas of the industry, and we’ll profile a number of black voices on BNM as part of the brand’s focus on Black History month. I hope you’ll check them out whenever time allows.

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Recommended Viewing:

If you’re looking for a movie to watch during the week, check out Blackberry if you haven’t already done so. The film is about the rise and fall of the Blackberry phone, and I thought it was excellent. It had a similar feel to the movie Jobs, and the series Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber. Worth your time if you’ve got two hours available to watch something different than live games or sports programming.

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If you have a question or comment you’d like addressed in a future column, please send it to [email protected]. That same email address can be used to pass along press releases, interview requests or news tips. Thanks for reading!

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Justin Craig, Chris Kinard, Mary Menna Added to 2024 BSM Summit Lineup

“What I’ve always enjoyed about the BSM Summit is that it showcases speakers from many different areas of the industry.”

Jason Barrett

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To kick off 2024, we’re announcing the additions of three more talented broadcasters to our 2024 BSM Summit. More on that shortly. The Summit takes place March 13-14 at the Ailey Theater in New York City. For tickets, hotel rooms, and additional details, visit BSMSummit.com. Those interested in sponsorship opportunities, contact Stephanie Eads. A number of items are already claimed but she can tell you what’s left. Reach her by email at [email protected] or by phone at 415-312-5553.

What I’ve always enjoyed about the Summit is that it showcases speakers from different areas of the industry. We’ve featured top talent, researchers, agents, digital leaders, podcasting experts, ratings analysts, tech builders, play by play voices, and of course, program directors and market managers. There’s many ways to succeed, and no better way to learn than to hear from folks who consistently win.

In the sports audio world, 98.5 The Sports Hub, 106.7 The Fan, and ESPN Radio are highly respected brands. The Hub and The Fan are dominant in Boston and Washington D.C.. ESPN Radio meanwhile maintains a strong position as one of the top national audio brands. All feature strong leaders, and we’re fortunate to have all of them represented in NYC.

It’s a pleasure to welcome Beasley Boston Market Manager Mary Menna to the Summit. This is her first appearance at the conference. Mary is responsible for managing The Hub’s business, currently the top revenue generating brand in all of sports radio. I’m excited to have her offer her insights on a panel with Chris Oliviero and Scott Sutherland. More details on the session, date/time closer to the show.

On the programming side, it’s great to welcome back Chris Kinard of 106.7 The Fan, and Justin Craig of ESPN Radio. Both will be involved in programming panels at the show.

CK has helped lead The Fan and Team 980 to consistent growth in the nation’s capital. He’s a forward thinking type of leader with a great feel for the current and future challenges facing the business. I’m looking forward to having him share a few lessons he’s learned with the rest of the room.

For my friend JC, he’s seen ESPN Radio evolve for the better part of two decades. Liked and respected by most, he’s valued and trusted to guide ESPN Radio’s day-to-day operations. Given the network’s change in focus, talent, and structure, he’ll have great insights to share on where national sports audio is moving.

Our speaker list now sits at twenty. It will grow much more over the next two months as we reveal other additions to the show. We’ll also be announcing our award winners, and a few other surprises. This is a fun and informative two-day event for sports media professionals. If you haven’t joined us before, I hope you’ll do so this time. Everything you need to know prior to the event will be available at BSMSummit.com.

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The Media Business Must Reset Its Message and Market Its Stars in 2024

“The only way to change perception is to remind people what makes radio/TV special, and how well it works.”

Jason Barrett

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The end of the year is upon us, and I hope you’re happy, healthy, and excited about what lies ahead in 2024. The older I get, and the more I work with different companies and people, I’m reminded that the relationships and results are what makes this all worthwhile. In my thirties, I wanted to stomp competitors into the ground, and own the space in the cities I worked in. I even did it a few times. But as happy as I was for my crew and seeing our strategy work, the more I learned it was about growing a business, and enjoying the ride with colleagues, not seeing others unemployed. If there’s only one game in town, the game itself becomes less fun. The professional benefits shrink too for those on the winning side.

It’s no secret that 2023 has been a roller coaster ride for the media industry. Take for instance this recent Forbes article. If their math is correct, more than 20,000 people lost media jobs in 2023. That can’t make you feel good about the state of our business. It doesn’t inspire confidence in advertisers to invest in us either. With 2024 approaching, there’s optimism, pessimism, and focus on what may change. The common belief is that revenues will rise due to a political year, but we can’t just look at dollars and cents when it comes to evaluating our industry. If we do, we’ll be back here in 2025 when political advertising shrinks.

I started covering sports media in 2015. News media coverage was added in 2020. During that time, radio and TV revenues haven’t risen like a Phoenix and headlines about both mediums have been mostly negative. Do a quick google search and look at how many stories focus on low stock prices, headwinds/layoffs, revenue projections missed, bankruptcy, executive’s on shaky ground, brands losing their identity and purpose, AM radio becoming extinct, etc.. This is what investors and advertisers see every day. It creates a negative perception of our business. You’d see it that way too if you were in their shoes.

Now combine that with the way media sells the next big thing. Meta told us virtual reality was the future but bailed on that idea in favor of artificial intelligence. Spotify dove into podcasting with its foot on the gas but is now driving under the speed limit. Elon Musk bought X to be the everything app yet can’t inspire confidence in the advertising community.

Radio’s issues are more self inflicted. Groups have been saddled with so much debt that even a good year in local markets gets ignored due to larger corporate problems. Judging from what gets printed you’d think no radio station grew revenue this year, which is false. TV isn’t immune either. All too often the focus is on viewers aging or watching less, and young people streaming yet the biggest point gets missed – people are still watching content, most of it produced by the TV industry. They just do it in different ways.

I’m sure there are exceptions but those I know who work in radio, TV, podcasting or social media do so for the access, content, creativity and fun. If you do the job well enough and long enough, the pay can be pretty good too. Most don’t enter the business to discuss plans to boost a stock, raise quarterly revenue or frame a press release to soften the blow when laying people off.

Our industry is attractive because we create programming that excites viewers/listeners and is led by people who are passionate about the content featured on their brands. When that content is supported by data that shows people enjoy it, it attracts advertisers. If those paying clients invest in a brand, and it increases sales, that creates a healthy business. This isn’t rocket science, folks.

My hope for 2024 is that the media industry puts greater focus on resetting its messaging and marketing its stars. Podcasting and streaming get discussed with high enthusiasm. Marketers are made to feel that they are growing spaces they have to be in. Radio and TV, which are both larger, and have delivered results for decades, are seen as less attractive. But they shouldn’t be. We’ve allowed that to happen. The only way to change it is to remind people what makes radio/TV special, and how well it works. It starts with marketing the right people and message. Otherwise perception becomes reality.

Too often I see narratives shaped for advertisers and investors instead of the public. If you want the business world’s money and attention, don’t bore them with business headlines. Create a party with your stars, attract a passionate audience, and generate results. Do that consistently and watch how fast the money follows. Given how our industry has been portrayed the past decade, we’re not inspiring many with hype about revenue projections, profitability, and staff reductions.

An Important Year For Barrett Media

We enter 2024 with a lot of promise. Dave Greene was recently announced as our new Chief Media Officer. I also revealed a few additions, and shared that I’d write a weekly column and host a podcast in April. But we’re not done. We’re adding two more columnists, who I’m very excited about.

Mark Kreidler joins BSM to write a weekly column on Wednesday’s. Mark is an award winning author who previously wrote for ESPN, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Sacramento Bee. He has also worked in radio for 95.7 The Game, Sactown Sports 1140, and ESPN 1320.

Dave Williams is also joining us to write a weekly column each Friday on BNM. Dave has spent over four decades in news/talk working for top brands such as WBAP/KLIF in Dallas, KNX in Los Angeles, and KFBK in Sacramento. He announced his retirement from radio in early November.

Cementing our position and value as a media outlet is a priority. We root for the industry, support it, and try to educate, celebrate, inform, and challenge those inside of it. But with that comes a responsibility to offer opinions and cover the news. We prioritize 4 key things on our websites: features on industry people, expert opinions from columnists, daily news about brands/people changes or performance, and industry reactions. The occasional 5th area of focus is original projects like the BSM Top 20.

Our editors and news writers watch, listen and read daily. If it’s said on the air or social, it may end up on our sites. You’ll agree with some, and disagree with others, but it’s no different than how athletes react to hosts talking about sports. The difference is we highlight discussions about media brands, people, and the industry not local teams.

If you see something you don’t like, Garrett and Dave manage our websites. Both are accessible – [email protected] or [email protected]. Just understand that if brands make decisions, results are bad or public comments are offered, we are going to cover it.

We’ve spent 8 years building two respected brands and working hard to attract industry professionals. With two websites, newsletters, social media brands, and conferences, I feel good about our progress. The web traffic, social media impressions, and newsletter data shows that we’re on the right track.

Consulting clients and executing top notch events remain my top priority but growing our marketing partnerships is vital too. Stephanie Eads has worked hard on this and we are excited to welcome Ramsey Solutions, JJ Surma Voiceovers, Harker Bos Group, Doug Stephan’s Good Day Networks, and the Motor Racing Network as 2024 partners. We’re also thrilled to extend relationships with our friends at Point to Point Marketing, Backbone, Steve Stone Voiceovers, Core Image Studio, Jim Cutler, and Premiere Networks. If you’d like to work with us too, contact Stephanie by email at [email protected].

To continue building BSM and BNM, we are launching two new newsletters next week. BSM will deliver the 8@8 weekdays at 8am, and the Press Pass at 5pm. BNM will distribute the Rundown weekday mornings at 9am, and the Wrap Up at 6pm. Our afternoon editions will feature a different content approach so I look forward to your feedback on it. To sign up for BSM’s newsletters, click here. For BNM, go here.

Sticking with BNM, we will have a special announcement on Tuesday January 2nd at 9am. I’ll be announcing the dates, host city, and venue that day for our 2024 BNM Summit. Our 2023 event in Nashville was excellent but I think this next one could be even bigger and better. The Rundown and BNM’s website and social media accounts will relay the details. Also, BNM is launching a special series the week of January 22-26. Public Radio Week will feature NPR folks all week long.

Before I wrap up the column, I want to address a few BSM items. First, the BSM Top 20 of 2023 drops February 5-9 and February 12. Voting opens next week (January 2nd) and emails will go out to all PDs and executives invited to participate in the process. We’ll also have two new original projects in January starting with Social Studies written by Alex Reynolds on Wednesday January 3rd. Peter Schwartz’s monthly feature Where Are They Now debuts Tuesday January 30th.

We have other things in motion for February including a cool project titled “A Day Spent With.” Derek Futterman will run point on that series. I’ll share more in my next column on January 8th.

Last but not least, the 2024 BSM Summit takes place March 13-14, 2024 in New York City. We’ve already announced a number of people and I’ll have another announcement next week. If you plan to attend, don’t wait until the last minute to buy a ticket and reserve your room. Go to BSMSummit.com to take advantage of our holiday sale. It expires Sunday December 31st.

I want to thank you for continuing to read our work, following our brands, attending our events, and considering the different ideas and opinions offered by our writers. Covering this business is complex. It has its fair share of warts but it also provides a ton of value, massive creativity, incredible content, and a path full of untapped potential. More importantly, it’s full of quality people. I look forward to watching each of you build stronger businesses in 2024, and helping those who I’m fortunate to work with.

Cheers to 2024!

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