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Q&A with Will West

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Sports radio wasn’t on Will West’s mind during his mid-20’s. That time period tends to be critical for most in the business, West was more concerned about surviving the day, instead of what the local programming in his hometown of Knoxville had in store. Sure, sports radio had been his dream job while growing up, and he even chased that passion into college. But instead of starting at the bottom of a sports radio station, West was at a different bottom in his life – rock bottom.

For five years, a drug addiction sent West’s life to the streets, where the pondering of ‘how to stop the bleeding in life,’ was frequent. What he would eat and where he would sleep, was the daily dilemma he found himself in throughout the course of each day. Sports radio wasn’t exactly a high priority for the future star in Knoxville, but survival surely was.

Through the grace of God, West got saved and then got clean. For the first time in a long time, there was a positive outlook on how things were going to play out in his life. Drug addiction may have taken a lot from him during that dark and difficult time, however, one thing it didn’t touch, was his beautiful voice.

By the time he was 28, he was back in school chasing his dream. This time, he would double major in communications and communications management. His thought process was simple: If he brought something to the table on the sales side, it would serve him a better opportunity to get his foot in the door at a local station. He was right. Almost two years after giving his dream a second try, West was hired at a local station that quickly took notice of his skills with sound production. From there, he was asked to voice a commercial that was a hit piece for a local election. West’s voice was heard on every news station in Knoxville. Soon after, he was asked to voice more commercials and even did the traffic reports at his station.

After all he had been through, West’s life and career were heading in the right direction. While producing a show on Saturday’s, his career would take a complete turn for the best, when he was asked the simple question of: “Hey, have you ever wanted to do sports radio?”

Sports radio WNML in Knoxville gave West his first opportunity at his childhood dream as a morning show producer. Mostly, they wanted his voice to be featured during the updates of the show on morning drive. Six months into his new gig, he was given a Saturday show that showed off his talents as a host. For the next 18 more months, he would produce the morning show during the week and host his show on Saturday, until finally receiving the news that every young person in the business dreams of, being awarded his own weekday show with Josh Ward.

In span of a few years, West had rebounded and gone from being homeless to the host seat. You can hear now him every week day on WMNL with his show Sports 180.

TM: So is it fair to say your dream of doing sports radio was long forgotten during your drug addiction?

WW: Oh yeah. At the time, I just thought about how I was going to eat for the day. Like, how do I get off the streets? It’s hard to stop the bleeding, that’s something you learn when you’re homeless. It wasn’t about getting back on track or into sports radio, it was just, this was my dream when I was 16 years old. It was cool to see how I got back into God’s game and how everything turned around when I got an opportunity to do this later in life.

TM: Do you think going through all of that in your younger years makes you more appreciative of your role now?

WW: I’m playing with house money, Tyler. Every day I just look at this as a blessing, it’s awesome. What we do for a living, and it’s so funny when I talk to other people in the business that complain about this or that, I’m thinking, I’ve worked day labor pouring concrete. This is a lot easier. I also try to look at it this way: There’s somebody out there who’s going through something that’s listening to this radio show and just wants to get through their day. How can I help them just get through their day the best that I can? So, we always try to have a good time. We don’t dodge tough topics but we never take ourselves too seriously. No matter how bad of a day that I’ve had, I’m never going to mail it in because there may be a person out there that might need just three hours of a reprieve from their lives. If I can give that to them, then I’ve had a good day.

TM: Was the Tennessee coaching search the craziest story you’ve ever covered? And was it a dream or a nightmare for a sports radio host?

WW: I wouldn’t really say it was a dream or a nightmare, it was just chaos. What you’re trying to do day in and day out of the coaching search, was try to make sense of the chaos. A lot of people don’t know this, but the coaching search at Tennessee that landed on Derek Dooley was almost as insane as this one. The only difference, is this one played out publicly. They hired Derek Dooley and then went and did an interview with Kevin Sumlin after they had already hired Dooley, just because they planned on doing it. When it comes to football, coaching searches at Tennessee have always been kind of a train wreck. Some of them were because of the big boosters and how many they have, this one was because of how publicly it all played out. The tough part for us, was that so many people were leaking information to us. The key, was deciding which information was good enough to go on the air with, versus, a particular booster or administrator with the university trying to get their way and plant the athletic director into a corner to make a decision. But it was kind of fun, because each day you’re going on the air and waiting for how nuts it’s was going to get that particular day. Each day, you’re thinking it can’t get any worse than it did yesterday. And then sure enough, it would.

TM: Tennessee football is always going to be the lead topic in Knoxville, so how do you give the Titans their due credit, especially when they’re in the playoffs like last season?

WW: NFL gets great ratings in Knoxville. In the viewership figures that ESPN releases, it seems like they’re always in the Top 15 or 20 of major sporting events. People watch all sports in Knoxville. So, the one thing we did differently than any other show, was that we realized you can walk into any bar on Sunday afternoon and see people eating wings and watching Sunday Ticket. People like the NFL here. So, instead of doing 70-80 percent of Tennessee football and 20 percent of everything else, all packed into one day, what we would do is 50-60 percent Tennessee stuff and 40-50 percent national sports, to give people that live in this market an outlet and venue to talk about what’s going on with Lebron James or what’s going on with the Titans. Even the Predators, when they made the run to the Stanley Cup last year, we had 6,000 people in Knoxville packed in a bar and watching on a big screen television here in downtown. We looked and realized the strong television ratings for the NFL, which means people are watching it. So we’ve given people an outlet to talk about those things locally, where they might not want to call into ESPN or CBS Radio. We’ve given them an outlet to discuss it. Tennessee football still drives the bus, but we don’t need to completely ignore the fact that people locally care about the national sports stories.

TM: The Vols are big, but how much do you make a point to cover Florida, Alabama, Georgia and other SEC schools that Tennessee fans hate?

WW: The SEC always moves the needle in east Tennessee. It’s a large university town, but it’s also very transient with thousands of workers that have allegiances to a number of schools. Locally, in terms of the Tennessee fan base, you can always talk Vols, but especially the teams they hate. People hate Alabama here, they hate Georgia, they hate Florida, and you can always talk about those things. But also, you’ll get alums from those schools that call in and want to talk about their school. It makes it tough from a show prep perspective, because not only do I have to have a working knowledge of Tennessee, I have to have one of Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and every other working in the conference. I also need to pick about seven schools nationally that I have a working knowledge of and what they’re doing during football season. OU is one of those schools, Texas, Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Clemson, I at least need to know how they run, because people do care about those schools, too. Especially if they dislike them, they seem to really care about them.

TM: What would you classify Knoxville as? Mid-market?

WW: Yeah, mid-market. Knoxville proper doesn’t have a massive population base, but if you look at who we hit with our listener base, we’re both AM and FM, and there’s over 700,000 people. So, we need to make sure we’re servicing not just the areas around Knoxville proper, even though the majority of our advertisers are from that area. So, if we talk high school football, we need to talk about all the surrounding counties.

TM: Why do you think doing sports radio in a mid-market could be more enjoyable than a large market?

WW: Relationships. That’s the one thing I still like. There’s still a relationship game that’s harder in a large market, but one part that’s fun, is that I can just roll into any high school game, because I have the time. I would love to cover a major sports team, but it’s cool to be able to roll in on a Friday night and talk to coaches, players and fans about a small town team that’s doing well and give a little bit of coverage to them. That’s the fun part, is that relationship, because at the end of the day, what we do on air is about relationships you have with the listener. That’s what keeps them coming back.

TM: There seemed to a mob mentality last year with Tennessee fans on why it took Butch Jones so long to get fired. In that situation, was it hard not to just join on that thought and pile on like everyone else?

WW:  You never want to get caught up in the emotion of things. For me, I thought after the Georgia game last year Butch Jones should have been fired. When you know someone is not going to be the guy, to me in business, you always pull the trigger, because it’s only going to create a toxic environment. Everyone around him knew he wasn’t going to make it after that point, why you keep him around I don’t know. It got worse and worse and kept getting that way. By the time Tennessee played South Carolina and lost, it was almost comical when we came back on Monday because people would call in and ask why Butch was still there. I would just have to say, I got to be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m shocked they keep rolling this guy out here, too. You don’t want to be what Jay Mariotti used to be in Chicago, just chucking grenades at everybody and calling for jobs multiple times in a five-day period. What you want to do is to be able to have reason. For me, the key was to never be disrespectful, always empathetic, but I’m also not going to lie for anyone or sugarcoat it. That’s how I decided to handle it.

TM: Ratings wise, was it better when Tennessee was showing improvement with 8-9 wins a year, or when the Vols were tanking and everyone wanted the head coach fired?

WW: It’s very similar. The key is to avoid mediocrity. If it’s going to be bad, let it be really bad. Just go ahead and let this thing tank. With ratings, It doesn’t matter whether people are mad or people are happy, but the one thing you don’t want them to be is apathetic. The moment that happens, you will begin to lose some portion of your audience. If Tennessee is consistently cycling through 6,7,8 wins, that’s when I get concerned that the ratings might take a hit.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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