Q&A with Jason Fitz
Jason Fitz has seen many parts of the world while touring with The Band Perry. He’ll now get much more familiar with Bristol, CT after landing a huge opportunity with ESPN. Jason is set to co-host a national show with Sarah Spain weeknights from 6p-9p ET. Spain and Fitz debuts on ESPN Radio Tuesday January 2, 2018, and Jason can also be seen hosting SportsCenter on Snapchat.
During our recent conversation, Jason touched on many things including his approach to the sports industry and his love for girlie drinks. Although he just got called up to “The Show” (shout-out to Kevin Costner in Bull Durham) Jason still has very high goals. You’ll find that his mindset is the opposite of complacent even after receiving a giant promotion. By the way, can you believe Bull Durham came out in 1988? Good Lord. Enjoy.
BN: So, you’re packing your bags and heading to Bristol. How excited are you to start this new gig?
JF: It’s all a little surreal. You set out life to have huge dreams, and then they start to come true and you’re like, “Oh, man. There’s like actual consequence I have to start to figure out now and deal with.” It’s kind of funny. We laugh about it a lot I think in our heads. We thought in a few years I might get this chance, not so quick — kind of a first world complaint that I’m like, “Oh, wow. It’s all happening too fast.” We’re figuring it out and it’s really cool. It’s really exciting.
BN: What was your first gig in the radio business?
JF: I started with a podcast. I was touring with The Band Perry and in our busiest year we were gone 300 days. I came home to my wife one day and I said, “You know what? I realize I’ve worked my whole life to be here and I’m successful. I’m really thankful for that, but I don’t love what I do.” So, she said, “If I ask 100 of your friends what you love, what would the answer be?” I said sports. So she said, “Alright well, find a way to talk about sports.”
I took my microphone that I used for my fiddle part of the string section and I sat in my car because I felt like such an idiot. I didn’t even know what a podcast was at that time. I sat in the car and I recorded a 10-minute ‘here’s me talking about sports.’ I put it up on Facebook for my friends, and everybody was like, “Oh my God, this is great.” Me being me, I sort of ripped it apart and said okay, how can I build a business plan and what’s the next step?
I did the podcast a little over four or five years ago and eventually CBS Sports liked it and we tried a partnership for a little bit. In that process SiriusXM actually took note. They gave me my first shot a couple of years ago doing a one off in the middle of summer, solo hosting for four hours on the NFL channel. I did four hours by myself on NFL radio the first time I ever hosted on radio.
They liked my work and eventually gave me a little bit of a run as a fill in during the holidays on Mad Dog Radio. I think they looked at it like, “Hey, if you’re home and you’re not on the road, and you want to do some shows, then come sit in.” I just kept using that to try to get better, and eventually ESPN noticed. My first TV show with ESPN was almost a year and a half ago. My first ever radio show with ESPN was January of 2017, which is now about a year later. I’m about to have my name on a national show, which is very humbling.
BN: What do you remember from that first experience of doing four hours on the NFL?
JF: Man, the funny thing is, I’ve always been sort of a prep freak anyway, but I think I got to the studio — no kidding — probably six hours before the show. I brought in all these different marker boards and paper and I story boarded it like they do a movie or a music video. I looked at it and I said okay, I’ve got four hours. Four blocks per hour, so I have to have 16 topics. I had a buddy that helped me a lot on the podcast and he actually came into the studio with me and just helped me flesh out ‘okay, here’s what we want this to be.’ I tried to find topics and then research it. I’m not kidding, I think I was in there six hours for a four-hour radio show.
And I’ll be honest, I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t even know how to take a phone call. A lot of people don’t realize this at Sirius, you’re not in the room with anybody. I was at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville where there’s a Sirius studio. I was in a room with a mic and a computer in front of me and that’s it. My producer, who I’d never met, was in New York. He hopped on my headphones three minutes before we went live and said, “Okay, here we go.” I didn’t even know how to press the button to answer a phone call. That’s how crazy it was.
BN: Was your heart beating out of your chest?
JF: Yeah, I think I was amped up more than anything. The weirdest part of it was a bunch of my friends had a listening party at one of my buddy’s places in Nashville. They were all listening to it and they were going to throw a big party afterwards.
The funniest thing is I spent my whole life in music. When you finish a show in music you have a crowd and hopefully applause. You walk off the stage, and with your buddies, you can sort of high five and say, “Heck yeah, good show.” Instead, I was in a studio by myself.
The weirdest part was we finished the show and they have to immediately connect the next show, so it was just a, “Great job, man. Hope to talk to you soon.” And they hang up and you’re like, “Oh, okay?” So I was just sitting there in the studio by myself — self high fiving saying “good job.”
BN: Did sports fill you up a little bit more than music or was there something about music that contributed to your feeling unfulfilled?
JF: I started playing the violin when I was four. It was eight hours a day most of my life growing up being a classical musician that I had to practice. I just turned 40 this year. I played the violin for 38 years and you can say I did it as a full-time job for about 32, 33 of them. That’s a long time for anybody in any career.
When I was a little kid — my dad is a big Raiders fan — Sunday, his rule was that was the one day I didn’t practice. It’s not because we were religious. It’s because my dad didn’t want to listen to it while we watched the Raiders game. He would go get a dozen donuts and we would sit down and we’d watch the Raiders game together.
I think somebody smart in psychology could pinpoint why that was always a release for me, but sports were my release. Even as a kid sometimes when you’re practicing, you’ll mute a game and you’ll watch it. You can have a game on in the background while you’re working on scales and stuff. Rudimentary music stuff was always there with the enjoyment of sports.
As I got older, I think the passion just grew for sports because it was my release. It’s always been my escape and that’s what I love about it. What music is for most people — an escape — it’d become a job for me. Sports has always been my escape, so I just followed that escape passion.
BN: Are there still times when you hear a song and you’re like, man, I wish I was onstage right now?
JF: There’s been a couple of times that I’ve seen buddies play and I’m like, “Oh, it’d be fun.” You always hear athletes say they don’t miss the game as much as they miss the locker room. The comradery of musicians on the road is a very special and unique thing. There’s a part of me that will always miss that. At the same time, no one’s ever going to stop me from picking up a violin when I feel like it, or sitting down at the piano with a bottle of whiskey and writing a song. Nobody’s going to stop me from still having music. It’s just part of who I am.
It’s really nice to not have to worry about — is my song three minutes and 20 seconds? Does it get to the chorus in the first 45 seconds? Will radio play it? What demographic wants it? All the behind-the-scenes business stuff that makes music the music business. I’m so glad to not be a part of, that I haven’t really had that missing-it moment.
BN: Is whiskey your go-to song writing drink?
JF: Well, everything kinda girlie for me, I’m a girlie drinker. Canadian like Crown — I drink a lot of Crown — so Canadian whiskey. There’s always flavored cherry vodka. I get made fun of all the time when I sit down. Most guys, you’ve got this image of a country guy sitting down who’s got the scratchy voice, so he’s going to drink the Jack. I’m the guy that walks in and I’m like, “Oh, do you have a cherry vodka in diet I can drink?” It’s always nice to have that drink now and just sort of relax and try to get in a flow and see what you can write.
BN: What from your history and experiences in music do you apply to your approach in radio?
JF: Everything. I mean literally everything. From the day that I started, I think back to my influences growing up in sports talk radio because it’s all I listened to. Colin was a huge influence. Dan Patrick was a huge influence. Rich Eisen. Stuart Scott. Guys like that were huge influences. Then, when I started piecing together a podcast, my original goal was to — just like in music where you hear something and you say, “Okay, how can I emulate that sound?” — my thing was how can I let those inspirations affect things?
When I solo host especially, taking a look at what guys like Colin do and where they take their pauses at and how they approach their show. That immediately became ingrained in me. Anyone that listens for a little bit knows there are a lot of analogies from me. I’ve always been that guy.
The music business is very similar in a lot of ways. I think it’s why I’ve become fast friends with so many athletes and so many sports broadcasting people. There’s similarities to what that life is and how the connection between guys and the work you put in. Like I just said, the locker room sort of love that you have for everybody.
You think about how all the guys in the NBA seem like they’re friends. Well, I cut my teeth at the same time with the guys that play for Jason Aldean, the guys that play for Rascal Flatts, the guys that play for Florida Georgia Line. We were all sort of coming up together. There’s a special connection and I think that transfers over whether you’re talking about music or you’re talking about sports. I think that’s a huge part. It’s part of what I think makes me different as a host, but it’s a huge part of what is wired into me for sure.
BN: You just mentioned the pausing that you will hear from certain hosts — is there anything along those lines when you heard yourself early on and thought, “Oh gosh, I have to work on that. I didn’t even know I sounded like that.”
JF: I think slowing down was my biggest challenge in the beginning. One thing that I will say is that as I reached out to people in life. I never reached out for people to help me. I always reached out for people to try and make friendships. That was always my goal. Then, eventually as people become your friend and they say, “Hey, you want me to come on your pod? I’d be happy to.” That was sort of my process.
A lot of times I would have people — talent guys or behind-the-scenes guys — that would say, “Hey, if you want me to give your podcast a listen, I’d be happy to.” The biggest thing for me is I took every ounce of coaching I could get.
Early on, I remember one of the pieces of advice I got from a coach was always give people time to catch up. You just said something, you think it makes a ton of sense, but you gotta give it a beat. You gotta let people catch up with what you said. Process it. Agree with you or disagree with you, and then move forward. Stuff like that. Once you hear it, then you know to listen for it in the future.
I think that it wasn’t so much a weirdness of hearing my voice as much as it was, am I applying all of the coaching I’m getting? I looked at every single pod as a demo. Does this sound so good that if I ran ESPN, I would say, “This guy’s got potential.” That was always my approach.
BN: How would you describe your style in radio?
JF: I never want to shy away from saying anything big and important. I have no problem with that, but I also really understand there’s a big part of this that’s entertainment. I’m the guy that is looking at it saying, “What are we doing here? Are we having fun? Is there big energy to it?” Those are all keys for me.
I think when you get in the car especially, and you’re listening to radio — I always said this when I was hosting the morning show in Nashville — you get into the car in the morning. You’re already in a bad mood. You’re going to work. You’re stuck in traffic. And you’re angry because your favorite team is not as good as you think they should be. So how do we have that difficult conversation but still make you smile and laugh along the way? That’s sort of always been my approach. I’m not going to shy away from telling you that your team stinks, but I hope that I can do it in way where we can laugh about it through the process and we can have a good time.
BN: There are players in the NFL that have their welcome-to-the-NFL moment when they’re like, “Oh gosh, I’m not in college anymore. This is a different level.” Have you had your welcome-to-ESPN moment yet?
JF: I’ve had a bunch of them. I think even the first time I actually hosted on ESPN Radio, it was January of 2017. It was a two-hour show. I was flying solo. I was in a remote studio connecting with people in Bristol. I think that when you first hear the voice that everybody knows — the this-is-SportsCenter guy — but he actually says your name. That’s a very holy cow, this-is-real moment.
I’ll even go back to the much talked about talent meeting last week that happened in Bristol, where they brought in everybody that works for ESPN. Walking through the halls and seeing the studios filled with every person you’ve watched for a generation, and you’ve listened to for a generation, all working their butts off. That was a holy cow, I’m not watching this, I’m a part of it. It’s a very inspiring moment.
I’ll give you one more cheesy one. My first TV show with ESPN was College Football Daily with Mike Golic Jr. and Elika Sadeghi. We’d been into that maybe a couple of months. I was walking through the halls of ESPN. I had gone up there to meet with a few people. I didn’t have anything going other than the TV show at the time, but Mike Golic Sr. was in the hallway. He stopped me and he was like, “Hey, Fitz. You’re doing a good job on the TV show. Really like it.” I realize his son is on it and that’s why he’s watching, but the fact that he knew who I was, it was a very kid-in-a-candy-store, man-I’m-making-it moment.
BN: Can you give me an idea of what the process has been like for you over the past few months leading up to this weekday opportunity with ESPN?
JF: Man, it flew by. I did my first solo hosting last January. Then they gave me a Sunday night show with Jordan Rodgers for part of the winter, Jordan & Fitz, that we did in I think February and March. That was sort of the end of my contract. We knew that was going to be the end of contract one. The question was what were they going to do for contract two. They made me another offer, which took me to the next level. In July, my first eligible day to work back, they put me and Golic Jr. together on Mike & Mike, which was another sort of what-the-heck-am-I-doing, how-am-I-already-in-this-chair moment? That was July 3rd this year.
I was working my tail off. I’m not going to deny that, but I think you have to have a little bit of right place, right time in life to make it. In July, everybody was on vacation. I was doing my four hour Braden and Fitz show on ESPN Radio in Nashville. Then I would go home long enough to maybe take a nap or grab a bite. Then I would come back to the studio.
There were a lot of days for six to eight weeks where I was in solo hosting on Jalen & Jacoby, and then filling in with somebody on Izzy and Spain. There were weeks and weeks and weeks of four hours of national at night, and four hours of local in the morning. A lot of times I would just sleep in the studio and then wake up the next morning and do it the next day.
I spent July and August grinding with no idea where that was going to lead me, but I just knew that if I said yes to everything and I worked my ass off, that’s all I could do. You have to trust that process. I said yes to everything. I just kept my head down and did all the work I could, but once football season starts, as you well know, that’s the primetime, the most important time for the sports talk world.
When football season started my ESPN assignments sort of went away because that’s when they want all of the regular hosts in — to be there and make sure that fans are getting the voices they’re used to hearing at the right times. So my work just sort of went away. I just wasn’t sure what was going to happen. You hear rumblings. You hear rumors, but after all the years in the music business I know not to count any chickens before they’re hatched. Again, I just sort of kept my head down and said, well whatever happens happens.
It was really kind of out of the blue. I was up there doing some screen testing for what I now get to do — the SportsCenter Snapchat that I do on Thursday nights and launches on Friday mornings. I got called in to meet with some of the big wigs and thought nothing of it. A couple of days later I got a call and they said, “Hey, we know you’ve worked with Sarah. We know you and Sarah get along. Sarah likes you and you like her. We think it’s a good pairing. What would your level of interest be?” Within days it went from not working all that much and we’ll see what’s going to happen, to by the way, you need to move to Bristol and we’re going to give you a bunch of opportunities.
BN: Your general vibe seems to work really well in radio in terms of a two-person show. Do you find that you have a natural chemistry with whomever you’re working with and it can be even better depending specifically on who you’re working with?
JF: To a certain extent. I spent a lot of the summer hosting solo. I love hosting solo because it’s the Colin in all of us — you get to give a monologue, make a big statement, there’s a lot of nice things to hosting solo. The great thing about the co-hosting in general — I’ve always felt like — as long as I know my role, things are going to go really well. My role in co-hosting is to make it fun and conversational and to facilitate. I feel like I’m at my best in that role when I’m acting as a point guard.
For example, hosting with Jordan. Jordan played football. He played in the NFL. If I can find a way to get a great tidbit, a great story, a great moment out of Jordan, then I’ve done my job. If we’re talking about what quarterbacks we do or don’t believe in in the NFC, of course I have an opinion. I’m going to give you that opinion, but then I’m also going to make sure that Jordan gets his opinion out. His opinion comes with weight because he played in the NFL. I’ve looked at it that way with everybody I’ve hosted with.
I’ve been really lucky at ESPN. They’ve put me with great people and the biggest thing that I find at ESPN that’s sort of empowering, is there’s so much freaking mutual respect for everybody. They believe that because you’re in the room, you belong in the room. I was afraid it was going to be this super cutthroat, I hate you, get off my radio show environment like the music industry can be at times. When you’re sitting in with somebody and they’re like, “Get out of my way. Don’t play on my song. I want my solos.” ESPN’s much different than that.
I look at it and say my job is to make it conversational. That’s why I love working with guys like Golic. Golic Jr. and I have become really good friends. Jordan and I have become really good friends. When you can do that, and you can talk to somebody about sports, that’s when I think you’re giving the world hopefully the most entertaining product. When it can be smart, but it still sounds like a bunch of buddies sitting at the bar having a conversation. That’s when I know I’m doing my job.
BN: I know you just got this major opportunity and it probably sounds strange to ask you about your career goals, but is this it or are there other things that you eventually want to achieve?
JF: Heck no. That’s the thing, the first day I walked into ESPN and actually met with anybody years ago when I was just a podcaster, I had to convince people that they should let me have some sort of a format on air. They asked me what my goal was. My answer to them was quite simply to be the face of the network for a generation. I know that that sounds just as obnoxious as it is.
To me, the goal has always been very simple — I want to combine the things that I love the most about guys like Colin Cowherd, Rich Eisen, and even Jimmy Fallon. They’re so damn likable in what they do, and it’s so much fun to watch them perform, that you feel connected to them. You feel like you are hanging out with a friend. That’s what ESPN offers on all of their platforms.
The radio piece was a huge part of my first step, but there’s also a desire to have a daily presence on TV. I also want to make sure that I’m involved in all the social media things that we’re doing now. I’m really excited by the brand’s focus on Twitter and Snapchat and the things that they’re letting me be a part of.
Mike Golic Jr. and I did a college football playoff rankings reaction show through the course of the fall. The last episode that we did after the final four came out got 3.3 million views on Twitter. I think that we’ve got a format that’s averaging over 1.5 million views for episodes of SportsCenter on Snapchat. There’s a big piece of the future of the network that I’m working hard to try and be a part of.
I think as generations of fans grow up, I want to be to a generation, what the Rich Eisen’s of the world were to me.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide on FOX Sports Radio’s Countdown To Kickoff. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Media Changes, Bob Costas Hopes Standards Remain
“Some people are cynics, and they confuse cynicism alone with insight. That’s not me.”
Growing up in New York, Bob Costas frequently listened to broadcasters such as Red Barber, Mel Allen and Marv Albert call games on the radio. To him, their voices were inseparable from the players. Although he idolized Mickey Mantle, Costas knew the only way he would pass through the Yankee Stadium gates without charge would be by working in the press box. Recognizing that many national broadcasters began their careers by working in radio, he searched for an esteemed college program to accentuate his pursuit of a media career. Once Costas picked up a New York Knicks yearbook and learned that Glickman and Albert had both attended Syracuse University, his mind was, somewhat consequentially, made up.
“When I got there, I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to be a writer or a broadcaster,” Costas said. “Almost as soon as I got there as a freshman, I started getting airshifts doing sports reports and whatnot on the campus radio station. I felt like this was something that I enjoyed and I might have a knack for.”
Costas on the Air
Costas was fond of a specific type of sports broadcasting early in his career, one promulgated by Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker wherein an announcer is more than just someone who documents the game. It led Costas to espouse a multifaceted approach with shades of humor, journalistic elements and some historical references.
“[They] were essayists and at times journalists,” Costas said. “Not just announcers, but journalists with a respect for and a command of language with the occasional literate touch [and] I admired those people. I think I was influenced by them in that they showed me that was an avenue [and] that not every good broadcaster had to be generic.”
When Costas graduated from college, he was hired at KMOX radio by general manager Rob Hyland. He was assigned to be the new play-by-play announcer for the American Basketball Association’s (ABA) Spirit of St. Louis, and later called Missouri Tigers college basketball.
In 1976, Al Michaels was slated to be a regional football play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports, but ended up signing a contract with ABC less than one week before the regular season. It left the network with no one to call an opening week game between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers from historic Lambeau Field, resulting in CBS Sports calling Hyland to inquire about a potential replacement.
“Mr. Hyland said, ‘We’ve got a young guy here. We think he’s pretty good. He’s 24 and looks like he’s 15,’” Costas recalled. “They said, ‘Send him to Green Bay,’ and I signed a one-game contract for $500 to go to Green Bay.”
Costas continued calling regional games for CBS Sports while working at KMOX, being used every so often on football and basketball coverage. It gave him additional exposure in various marketplaces around the United States, and ultimately prepared him to join NBC Sports. By the end of 1981 though, Bryant Gumbel departed the sports division to join Jane Pauley and Chris Wallace as a co-host on TODAY. As a result, Costas was elevated to become a more visible part of NBC’s football coverage. He eventually started hosting the pregame show for the NFL on NBC, and had to learn the mechanics of the studio and how to read from a teleprompter.
“For the first several years that I did it, I didn’t use a teleprompter at all,” Costas said. “I just had notes and ad-libbed around those notes, but then as the production became more sophisticated, they’d want a specific cue to roll in B-roll or whatever, and I began using the prompter for that. I still ad-libbed in and around it because I felt more comfortable doing that.”
Costas on America’s Pastime
Costas continued hosting studio coverage for football, but had also impressed network executives when hosting NBC’s coverage of the 1983 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Earlier that season, he had started broadcasting games with Tony Kubek on Game of the Week, a partner to which he credits accentuating his development. Kubek introduced Costas to key figures around the sport, such as players, general managers and scouts, implicitly communicating the trust he garnered in his abilities.
Throughout his career, the composition and expectations of the audience have altered, requiring Costas to adapt the way in which he calls a game. Research departments compile tedious amounts of information for broadcasters to consider, and it is in their purview to determine what deserves emphasis. When sabermetrics first began to pervade into the everyday vernacular of the sport, Costas had Bill James on KMOX to discuss his theories and baseball abstract, and he considers himself an early adopter of the metrics.
Costas is familiar with postseason baseball as a fan and broadcaster, appearing on World Series broadcasts five different times either as a host or play-by-play announcer. Through his lifetime, he has seen and embraced the evolution of the sport. Yet he is frequently labeled as a “traditionalist.” That led to extensive criticism regarding how he called last year’s American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians on TBS.
“If it ever gets to the point in a broadcast where the statistician eclipses the storyteller, then some of the elements of romance and legend that are part of baseball are lost,” Costas expressed. “What you’re looking to do is strike a balance between those two things. They all have their purpose, but it’s a matter of balance.”
In addition to baseball, Costas also covered basketball with NBC, helping further cement the Association into the collective awareness of the viewing public. He was elevated to lead play-by-play announcer for the 1997-98 season and called three NBA Finals, including one of the most consequential shots in the history of the game. Costas, who announced games locally for the Bulls on WGN-TV during the 1979-80 season, punctuated Michael Jordan’s championship-winning basket in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Although he no longer calls basketball, Costas is a fan of the game and regularly tunes into the NBA Finals while staying aware of ratings.
“A good portion of it is on cable,” Costas said of league broadcasts. “There are very large rights fees paid, so that explains the league’s willingness to go in that direction, and the quality of the broadcasts are generally very, very high. There’s no criticism of the way the games are presented, but it’s less present in the minds of the casual fan than it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s.”
Costas on Reporting
When Costas was at NBC, he was presented with a proposal from producer Dick Ebersol about starting his own late-night talk show, entering a space where sportscasters had not often frequented. While he looks back at that stage of his career with a sense of appreciation, he turned down the program multiple times. Once he reluctantly agreed to host the show, Costas welcomed guests including Paul McCartney, Don Rickles and Mel Brooks among others for longform, insightful interviews.
“It wasn’t confined to five minutes or a quick soundbite,” Costas said. “I think I was well-suited to that format, and once I got my footing after the first few months of doing it, I realized that even though I hadn’t planned anything in that area, it was something that I was suited to do.”
As a journalist, Costas affirms that it is his responsibility to address uncomfortable subjects with his audience in an objective manner. Through this approach, people feel empowered to formulate their own opinions and contribute to the discourse, especially since they do not have to start the entire conversation. In working as the prime-time host of the Olympic Games on NBC for 24 years, Costas had to balance highlighting the competition with bringing light to international affairs and global issues.
“Some people are cynics, and they confuse cynicism alone with insight. That’s not me,” Costas said. “But I hope that I’ve had a healthy skepticism, and I’ve never thought there was any contradiction between embracing the drama; the theater; the human interest [and] the occasionally and genuinely moving and touching things that can happen in sports… and then turning a journalistic eye towards what’s happening within those same events or those same sports.”
Before Costas took over the hosting role from Jim McKay in 1992, they had a lengthy conversation about the duty of the host and how integral the person is in the network’s coverage. It requires being familiar with notable athletes while also having the dexterity to seamlessly pivot, take a briefing and discuss unexpected occurrences. For example, during Costas’ second Summer Olympics in 1996, he had to cover the Centennial Park bombing. At the same time, he needed to know about the competitions and the significance of certain milestones the athletes achieved.
When Costas inked his final contract with NBC in 2012, he insisted that a stipulation be placed that the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be the final time he would host the games on the network. At the time, Costas was also hosting Football Night in America on NBC, which led into Sunday Night Football broadcasts with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. The network suggested he take on an emeritus role similar to what Tom Brokaw did as a newscaster, a proposal to which Costas obliged.
Costas has hosted two different nationally syndicated radio programs during his career – Costas Coast to Coast (1986-1996) and Costas on the Radio (2006-2009) it’s a parallel path to the ones takes by some of the biggest names to follow in his footsteps in sports media.
Stephen A. Smith, for example, is a featured commentator on ESPN’s First Take, broadcasts an alternate telecast for select NBA matchups, appears on NBA Countdown and hosts his own podcast titled The Stephen A. Smith Show. He does all of this while building his own production company, occasionally guest starring on television shows and ensuring he is well-positioned for the future. Smith has not been shy about his desire to expand beyond sports, pondering trying to host a late-night talk show of his own. Costas, it should be noted, is the only person to ever win Emmy awards in news, sports and entertainment. He has amassed a total of 28 throughout his illustrious career, the most wins in the history of sports media. Nonetheless, he believes discussing more than sports takes a specific archetype and is not a route all personalities are inclined to forge.
“You could name a lot of people that do one thing, but they do it extraordinarily well,” Costas said. “They don’t have to check every box…. I just had varied interests, and I guess people identified that I had varying abilities, and so I was able to do that.”
Costas has been on MLB Network since its launch in 2009. This followed an eight-year run with HBO as the host of On the Record, which was later revamped into Costas NOW, but he departed the premium television network when they insisted he grant them “cable exclusivity.” He desperately wanted to join MLB Network because of his passion and interest in the game – and ultimately ended up doing so – but not before making a monumental decision about his future.
“It was a really difficult choice because HBO was the gold standard when it came to sports journalism,” Costas said. “But given my love of baseball and given the fact that NBC hadn’t had it since 2000, I went with the baseball network.”
Costas on the Gridiron
Costas’ infatuation with baseball was contrasted with a perceived indignation towards football, although Costas affirms that was not the case. He had generally been allowed to express his opinions about different topics on radio programs or television shows, but there was a point where it became too much.
After he went on CNN to discuss the topic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) following remarks he made at the University of Maryland about football having adverse mental effects, Costas was removed from the NBC’s Super Bowl LII broadcast. The decision did not bother him, as he had been assigned to host the Super Bowl without any prior knowledge before it was publicly announced. In fact, he was somewhat apathetic towards the proceedings.
“What I did suggest was I could make a more significant contribution if, during the course of a six-hour Super Bowl pregame show, you carved out 15 to 20 minutes for a real journalistic interview with Roger Goodell,” Costas shared. “That would be good programming, and it would be solid journalistically, but Goodell declined. So then that left me with no role that I was interested in for the Super Bowl.”
The ambivalent feelings Costas had towards the sport precipitated his exit from the network, officially parting ways in January 2019 and moving to the next stage of his career. Upon his exit though, Costas knew his previous roles were in good hands with Mike Tirico at the helm. The plan from the beginning was to have Tirico assume the host role of both prime-time Olympics coverage and Football Night in America. Once Al Michaels left NBC Sports to join the incipient Thursday Night Football property at Amazon Prime Video, Tirico was duly named the new play-by-play announcer on Sunday Night Football. It was one transaction in a deluge of broadcast movement in the final offseason before the start of the NFL’s new national media rights deal, reportedly worth over $110 billion over 11 years.
“The NFL doesn’t just reign over sports TV; it reigns over all of television and over all of American entertainment,” Costas said. “It’s the only thing that consistently aggregates audiences of that size, and therefore it isn’t just valuable to the networks; it’s indispensable to the networks.”
With these sizable media rights agreements comes substantial compensation for on-air talent. ESPN is reportedly paying Joe Buck and Troy Aikman a combined $33 million to serve as the Monday Night Football broadcast tandem, a figure some people would consider overpaying. Costas does not view it that way, instead perceiving broadcasters as harbingers of credibility.
“When you think about a company spending billions and billions of dollars for a property like they do with football, and then add on all the production costs, why should it surprise anybody that they’re willing to pay a very high premium to get Joe Buck or to retain Jim Nantz or to retain Tony Romo?,” Costas articulated. “Not doing so would be the equivalent of, ‘You spend $5,000 on a suit, but now you’re not going to splurge for the tie or the belt.’ These are accessories to a larger investment, and they’re important accessories.”
ESPN announced it was signing Pat McAfee to a multiyear, multi-million dollar contract to bring his eponymous show to its linear and digital platforms. McAfee conducted the negotiations independently and will still retain full creative control over the show in its new phase. The move, however, received considerable backlash from those inside and outside of ESPN since it occurred amid Disney CEO Bob Iger’s directive to lay off 7,000 employees across all divisions of the company. On several occasions, sports media pundits and personalities alike have expressed that ESPN concentrates its attention on a small sector of talent while neglecting everyone else. While FOX Corporation, Paramount Global and various other companies have engaged in layoffs this year, none made a hire with the star appeal, gravitas, and price tag of McAfee.
“Someone like McAfee; he moves the needle,” Costas said. “He moves it, I guess, [on] various platforms – YouTube, as well as ESPN now, so he can make a difference so that’s what they’re paying for.”
Costas on Modern Media
An existential question those in the media industry are grappling with is how to offset the effects felt by cord-cutting. In the first quarter of 2023, cable, satellite and internet providers experienced a loss of 2.3 million customers, and the latest Nielsen Media Research Total Audience Report says 34% of consumption derives from streaming services. With digital forms of media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms taking precedence in the marketplace, companies must establish alternate revenue streams while continuing to innovate.
CNN laid off employees last year, and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, will reportedly be laying off additional employees during the summer months. Costas joined the company in 2020 as a correspondent for CNN. Earlier this week, Costas appeared on the network to talk about the merger between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf, which marked a seminal moment in the history of the game.
Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive Officer David Zaslav recently relieved CNN chief executive officer Chris Licht of his duties as CEO following a pernicious feature in The Atlantic. It only worsened a dwindling company morale predicated by several controversial decisions regarding coverage, casting and the network’s commitment to journalistic integrity.
While Costas expressed that he had a “cordial, but not deep relationship” with Licht and did not have shrewd insight into the decision to part ways with the embattled CEO, he does understand the shifts in news viewership and how its subject matter can penetrate into sports media.
For years, consumers regarded MSNBC as being biased to left-leaning politics, FOX News having bias towards right-leaning politics and CNN as nonpartisan, although that sentiment has somewhat changed.
“There’s a battle for viewership, and there’s some thought that people only want to go to the places that reinforce what they already believe,” Costas said. “‘Feed me the same meal every time over and over,’ and now CNN is trying to chart a different course more down the middle. Maybe you have to be more partisan in order to attract a larger cable audience; I underline ‘maybe’ because my insight into this is not as valuable as a lot of other people who are closer to it.”
The fractionalized media landscape, whether it be pertaining to news coverage, morning sports debate shows or afternoon drive programs, has, perhaps, engendered more disparate audiences than ever before. People tend to stick with outlets they know will provide them with information and coverage more favorable to their own points of view, and there is somewhat of an implicit chilling effect associated with channel surfing in certain scenarios. Viewers are obstinate towards programs that reinforce their points of view and hesitant to change, sometimes creating misinformation or, worse, disinformation.
“I think one of the most important courses that should be taught beginning fairly early – probably at the junior high school level and certainly continuing through college – is media literacy,” Costas opined, “which is not telling you what to think, but helping you to navigate this crazy jigsaw puzzle that’s out there.”
There are many people following the business of sports media, but a smaller group of people who tend to break news and report on the beat itself. While there are reporters specialized in different niches of the industry, there are others who indolently parse stories and/or spin aspects of it to render it compatible with their platform.
Established reporters and outlets certainly engage in some level of repurposing; however, these entities safeguard what they are disseminating is true and take accountability for their mistakes. Conversely, there are perpetrators who transmogrify things into engrossing headlines designed to attract traffic. It is disheartening for journalists such as Costas.
“Many sites now, and this is true in sports perhaps especially, [are] just aggregators,” Costas said. “They do no reporting; there doesn’t appear to be any editor overseeing any of it. They just look for stuff wherever it might appear, and then they repurpose it, and almost always, the context, the tone [and] the nuance is lost. At best, it’s reduced to primary colors. At worst, it’s totally misrepresented for clicks.”
In the past, Costas remembers genuine local programming which was exclusive to certain geographical areas. Because of the advent of the internet and social media though, nothing is truly local since people from around the world can consume content live or on demand. While this has brought many people together and improved cultural perceptions, ethnocentrism persists and has hindered accurate comprehension.
“If what you say is inevitably going to some extent be distorted where ‘A’ won’t just become ‘B,’ but it might become ‘X,’ ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ by the time it’s gone through all of its iterations, you sort of say to yourself, ‘What’s the point?,’” Costas elucidated. “Sports is not brain surgery – but you can make a more or less thoughtful point when asked a question, but if it’s then going to be seen, heard or read by more people than heard it initially, and if it’s going to be mangled in the process, it’s almost like a fool’s game to be part of that.”
Costas on the Future
The term ‘pretentious’ is wholly inaccurate in describing Costas. He does not view himself as a visionary and knows that he will not be an “active participant” in the industry that much longer, but is reassured regarding the direction of sports broadcasting. He looks at revered announcers such as Jim Nantz and is able to effectively identify similarities with Curt Gowdy. Although the degree of information available to people has certainly shifted, play-by-play announcing, at its core, remains similar to the on-air product people first heard in 1929, although the lexicon and flow of a broadcast are somewhat different.
“The essentials of the craft remain the same,” Costas said. “If you’re talking about sports talk radio; if you’re talking about the internet’s coverage of sports, that in some cases bears no resemblance to the notions that people of my generation had about credibility and quality of presentation. No one’s saying that sports coverage is masterpiece theater or something that should be taught at a Ph.D. class at Princeton [University], but it can be done more or less thoughtfully. It can be done more or less credibly, and we see wide variations now in how it’s done.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
There is Nothing Old School About a Human Touch in Radio Sales
“Digital buyers are different, and that’s okay. They may not be the right buyer for you to sell to anyway.”
We are not dumb or dumber when it comes to buying radio advertising. Being a radio ad sales rep is old school to some advertising buyers. To others, we write the book on how to get advertising done. Find those clients!
The digital automated ad buying platform AudioGo described selling radio ads as old school and wrote that automated buying is smarter. I am sure that is true for some buyers who have grown up with tech and automation, namely programmatic buying, and have changed their view of a radio salesperson. They don’t see the unique value radio sales reps bring to the process.
Digital buyers are different, and that’s okay. They may not be the right buyer for you to sell to anyway. Plenty of other local direct clients are not ready for algorithms to automate ad buys. They want a human touch, a helping hand, and the kind of expertise that no algorithm can replace. YOU. Radio salespeople add value to these types of clients. Here is why we do and how we are not the “dumb and dumber” of media of buying.
ONE-ON-ONE PERSONALIZED CONSULT
A radio salesperson offers specific solutions to meet a client’s goals with the right target audience and within their budget. We allow real-time interaction to understand the client’s business better, so we can match up the perfect advertising strategy. We are the ultimate live FAQs page. Building strong client relationships is critical. How can trust, collaboration, and a long-term partnership be created based on algorithms?
EXPERTISE AND INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE
Most successful Radio salespeople have invaluable expertise and industry knowledge they picked up through years of experience. Twenty percent of the reps do eighty percent of the business. The vets know all about 6a-8a, 4p-6p, and live endorsement spots.
We get the nuances of radio advertising, like shifting audience demographics, programming trends, and effective messaging strategies. We can advise a client to make a much more informed (and time-saving) decision that can maximize the impact of their ad campaigns. No algorithm can see that.
Automated programmatic buying may offer convenience, but it isn’t too custom of a solution. We tailor advertising campaigns to meet the unique needs of each client. We take in specific target audience preferences, locations, and competitive market trends to produce effective strategies. We listen to real-time feedback and get results. Algorithms rely on predefined parameters and can’t customize.
Buying advertising can be complex, with regulations, industry standards, and market trends constantly changing. Radio salespeople have the experience to anticipate roadblocks and offer proactive solutions. Additionally, we can provide insight into budgeting, negotiation, and buying other media. Algorithms lack intuition and can’t maneuver fast enough to handle the unknown.
While automation and algorithms have their place with certain buyers, remind yourself of the value you offer clients. You provide personalized consultation, industry expertise, customized solutions, and the ability to navigate. You are indispensable to the right buyers. Now find them!
Jeff Caves is a sales columnist for BSM working in radio, digital, hyper-local magazine, and sports sponsorship sales in DFW. He is credited with helping launch, build, and develop SPORTS RADIO The Ticket in Boise, Idaho, into the market’s top sports radio station. During his 26 year stay at KTIK, Caves hosted drive time, programmed the station, and excelled as a top seller. You can reach him by email at email@example.com or find him on Twitter @jeffcaves.
Vic Lombardi Turns Nuggets Disrespect into Great Content
“I keep telling people they’re going to go where the money is. The money is the Lakers and the big city teams. The Nuggets don’t sell.”
There was a feeling of Denver vs. Everyone during the 10 days that separated the end of the Western Conference Finals and Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The word “boring” was being used to describe what it was going to be like watching the Nuggets play for an NBA title. It didn’t sit well with Denver media and sports fans, as the unfair tag was being consistently referenced by certain members of the national sports media.
Vic Lombardi of Altitude Sports Radio in Denver, along with several of his co-workers, decided to fight against a narrative they found uneducated and unfair. In their eyes, all you had to do this season was to actually watch the Nuggets to find them interesting.
“We assume everyone else knows what we know,” said Lombardi. “We assume that the rest of the country is watching. And all this has done, to be honest with you, has proven that a lot of national folks don’t watch as carefully as they say they do. Because if they watched they wouldn’t be as surprised as they are right now.”
There was even an on-air spat with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated on the Altitude Sports Radio airwaves. During an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show, Mannix said there weren’t any compelling or interesting storylines surrounding the Nuggets first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
Lombardi, along with other hosts at Altitude Sports Radio took exception to the comment and fired back with their thoughts. A few days later, Mannix appeared on the station to defend his position and stick up for what he thought was accurate. Though the tensions were high during the back-and-forth it was incredible content for the station.
But Lombardi says he doesn’t take the spats, whether they’re public or private, all that seriously when other fellow media members.
“The arguments, if they’re anything, they’re all in fun,” said Lombardi. “I don’t take this stuff personally. We had a little back and forth with Chris Mannix. That was fun. I actually saw him in Denver when he came out for media. I respect anyone who’s willing to make their point on the air. It’s not the media’s job, it’s not your job as a host or a writer to tell me what I find compelling or interesting. We’re all from different parts with different needs and you can’t tell me what I desire. Let me pick that. Chase a story because the public may learn something. We’re curious by nature, that’s why we got into this business. All I ask is be more curious.”
The entire team at Altitude Sports Radio did an incredible job of sticking up for their own market and creating memorable content out of it. That should be celebrated inside the station’s walls. None of the outrage was forced; it was all genuine. But what’s the lesson to learn here from media folks, both local and national with this story?
“I think the takeaway is number one, it’s a business,” said Lombardi. “I keep telling people they’re going to go where the money is. The money is the Lakers and the big city teams. The Nuggets don’t sell.
“Well, you start selling when you start winning. They’ve got to sort of earn their way into that club. I think with what the Nuggets have done recently, and hopefully with what they’re about to do, they’re at the adult table. The media business is not unlike anything else. The biggest common denominator is what sells. I get that. I just don’t understand why a team like this, with the most unique player most people have ever seen, why wouldn’t that sell?”
Maybe it’s still not selling nationally, but locally in Denver, Nuggets talk is on fire. For years, the Denver market has been seen as one where the Broncos and NFL rule. The Nuggets have not been close to the top of Denver sports fans’ interests and have probably fallen routinely behind the Avalanche.
But there’s been a real craving for Nuggets talk during this historic run. Granted, it didn’t just start two weeks ago, there’s been momentum building for the team ever since Nikola Jokic started asserting himself as one of the best players in the NBA. But there’s more than just an appetite for the Broncos in the city and the past few years have shown it.
“I think it’s just proven to people in the city that the town is much different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Lombardi. “The Broncos continue to rule this town and will do so because the NFL is the NFL. But I can tell you this. There are sports fans outside the NFL. I’m born and raised in Denver and I always believed, what’s so wrong about being an ardent fan of every sport? If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. There’s nothing I hate more than territorializing sports. Like, ‘oh I’m just a football fan’. Or, ‘oh I’m just a hockey fan’. Why? Sports crosses all borders and boundaries.”
Lombardi and Altitude Sports Radio have settled into local coverage of the NBA Finals, rather than fighting with a national narrative. The payoff for the entire ride has been very rewarding for the station. It included what Lombardi called the “highest of highs” when the Nuggets beat the Lakers on their own floor. It even included one of the biggest events the city has seen in the last five years, when the Nuggets hosted its first-ever NBA Finals game last week.
The last few weeks could even be considered one of the most rewarding times in station history for Altitude Sports Radio.
“Our ratings have never been higher,” said Lombardi. “It’s a great display of, sometimes in the media, we think we know what the listener wants. We think we do and we try to force feed them. I think the national folks do that, but so do the local folks. You think they know, but if you give them a nice diet, they’ll choose what they want. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.