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An Unfiltered Conversation with Craig Carton

Brandon Contes

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Every morning for ten years, Craig Carton lived his dream by entertaining New York on the number one sports radio station in the country.

But on September 6th, 2017, Carton’s WFAN dream turned to a nightmare when the popular radio host was arrested on charges of wire and securities fraud amid accusations of running a multi-million dollar Ponzi-like scheme. No listener could have anticipated the prior day being the last time Carton would tell New Yorkers to “stay classy.”

One week later, when Carton resigned from WFAN due to legal uncertainty, it was hard to envision a scenario where he’d return to the airwaves anytime soon. For the next two months Carton remained silent but then started to make his comeback by launching a weekly podcast in November. Suppressing all of his energy and desire to create a radio show for eleven weeks was like trying to recork a bottle of champagne. Even with his legal situation far from being resolved, Carton wanted to stay relevant with the public.

Now, back on the air daily, Carton’s new show on the FNTSY Sports Network still features his free-flowing, high-energy personality. Listening and talking to Craig, he recognizes the severity of his situation, but also appears improbably comfortable with the looming trial, refusing to let it get in the way of the day at hand.

Joined by Michelle Serpico and Corey Parson, Carton and Friends, broadcasts live on the FNTSY Sports Network weekdays from 9a-1p ET from Studio 34, located inside Rock & Reilly’s on West 35th Street.

BC: We’ll start with Carton and Friends, what do you think of your first month back hosting a daily show?

CC: I like the fact that I’m doing a show again on a regular basis because I missed doing it for sure. I miss the immediate connection with the hometown audience, the local listener, so that’s been a period of adjustment to where I know we have a lot of people listening, but it’s not the same relationship as far as them being able to interact with me in the same manner. So I miss that for sure, but I do love the fact that I get to come in everyday and do what I do, because for a long time I wasn’t able to.

BC: Did you know Corey and Michelle prior to this?

CC: No, I had actually never met them.

BC: How did you get paired up with them?

CC: When they first sought to bring me in, one of my deals with the company was that I have to pick who was in the room with me and I didn’t want to be alone. Too much of me or too much of anyone isn’t a good thing.

I casually met everyone and watched some of the shows they had here and thought it would be great to have Michelle on the show because she isn’t a sports person. I didn’t want to have a woman in that role who felt the need to prove how much sports she knew, I wanted someone that doesn’t care about sports the way we do, because I felt it would be easier to play off of that.

And I loved Corey’s New York sensibility, plus he looks and sounds different than I do. While I wasn’t going to find a Boomer, I needed someone who would be different than me and I thought that dynamic would be pretty good.

BC: Assembling a successful three-person show isn’t exactly easy. You have a big personality, and you’ll take the show in a lot of unplanned directions, not to mention the audience is of course going to tune in to hear you specifically, yet you’re still trying to introduce additional voices to make the show more interesting and entertaining. How do you develop that on-air chemistry with two other hosts? Is there a conscious effort to tone it down and involve them or do you approach it with the mindset that the audience is tuning in for you and it’s up to them to catch up?

CC: I think it’s more that than anything else, which sounds really selfish and egotistical, but I’m the show. What they bring to the table and do very well, considering we’ve never met or worked together, is they know when to pick their spots.

It can be tough for them to find their own voice because I’m nonstop, but for me, I need to give them that opportunity to chime in, so I’ve created a segment for Michelle where she can lead a story or topic and then it will come back to me to respond to it. I wanted her to be able to introduce those topics. Corey is on the other side of the room where he has his own section and he comes to the table with his perspective, but the show is only going to get better with time. I think today it would be the best show on radio anyway and it will get even better.

BC: How about the difference of doing a local show vs. a national show. You’re now developing topics that aren’t necessarily focused on New York sports.

CC: I still do the same show I did with Boomer at FAN. Obviously I have two different people sitting with me, one’s far better looking for sure and that’s Corey, Michelle is a… ::Laughs:: I’m teasing

Look, I still do the same show. When I open, I’m talking New York, I’m talking Yankees, Mets, whatever it is and I will never stop doing that. Once I get through that, I’m more aware of national stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of from a talk concept. I want to be sure that if there’s a major or interesting national story that I might not have gotten to on the FAN, I always get to it now. So the mentality of doing the show hasn’t changed, I’m just adding more to it than I otherwise would have.

BC: Did you know what the FNTSY Sports Network was a year ago?

CC: Yes, they came to me for the last five years wanting to work with me from a fantasy and gaming standpoint and I’ve known the owner, Lou, for a longtime, but because I was on the FAN the timing was never right. Then all of a sudden I was affordable ::Laughs::

BC: When you were on WFAN, you didn’t talk much about fantasy sports and you still don’t even though you’re on a channel named the FNTSY Sports Network. Do you think the platform fits what you do?

CC: You’re right, I don’t talk about it and I won’t. There’s been an explosion of fantasy sports interest for sure, but the great thing that Lou, the owner of Sports Grid, saw was you need to entertain people. Some people may have heard of the network because of fantasy, but I’ve brought a lot more attention to the network for sure.

At the end of the day as long as I’m entertaining people, those fantasy listeners will stay and listen because I’m entertaining them and the hope for the network is that all of the new people I bring in will stay for everything else so they can monetize the services and expertise they offer. The Sports Grid concept is to get out of the niche of just fantasy and I clearly do that for them.

BC: Let’s spend a minute on terrestrial radio vs. your current platform…many people listen to a host like Mike Francesa because 660 or 101.9 is on the dial and part of their daily routine. When it comes to regular radio there aren’t many options. If someone is looking for a podcast, or to stream something via an app, they have an endless amount of choices. How do you convince listeners to come to you and tune in consistently?

CC: From a podcast standpoint, people come to you because they want you specifically. Then you hope people will also accidentally find you. The people that want you will listen to you longer than the average radio show because they sought you out, whether that’s me or anybody else.

Listen, I desperately miss being on terrestrial radio. I’m happy to say we’ve been approached by a syndication company so the Tuesday after Memorial Day we’ll be on across the country on terrestrial radio, but obviously I miss being on the FAN for sure. The difference is, like you said, the FAN has a built in audience. There are people that wake up with the station on and they don’t turn it off. It doesn’t matter what’s on, they listen to the FAN, just like people will listen to Z100, HOT 97 or something else. There are people that will never turn the dial. My job is to get people to find FNTSY Sports Network and stay there and so far so good with that.

BC: You mentioned adding a syndication deal for the show. Will part of that include your program airing in New York?

CC: We were approached by a New York radio station and I said no to the deal because I didn’t like it. Out of the gate we won’t be, but there is a lot of interest in me being back on a radio station in New York.

BC: Will the show time change?

CC: It might change, that’s possible, but it would only be an hour difference here or there. We’ll have an announcement within a week or so.

BC: You started a podcast in November when you began to get back behind the microphone. Was the goal at that point to just to have your voice heard or own your own platform or use it as a stepping stone to join a ready-made brand?

CC: I didn’t do anything for two months and I was driving myself crazy. I did the podcast, not knowing who would listen or how many people would download it. It was more medicine for my brain. It gave me the ability to express opinions on some topics. Remember, when you’re doing a podcast you’re doing it alone in a room, there’s no audience while you’re talking. The audience comes after you’ve recorded it. So that was new to me. I had never done that before.

It’s interesting being alone with your thoughts and saying those thoughts out loud. Most people, if you’re alone in your apartment talking to yourself, you’re not saying those words out loud. I was now saying words out loud, recording them and hoping that people would want to hear them so it was very weird. I was blessed that it became very popular pretty quickly, but it was never what I wanted to be doing. I also thought, there are tons of people talking about sports, so I started doing other things.

For me, the goal was to be very calculated about how I came back. So I do a podcast and I get through that. The podcast leads to the deal with Twitch.TV so then I’m doing a video show. Do that well and make sure it goes OK, and that leads to this opportunity with FNTSY Sports Network. It’s been step by step to what I hope is an ultimate return back to what I was doing eight months ago.

BC: With the podcast, did you write things down or rehearse them?

CC: Never, can’t do it.

BC: The reason I ask is it sounded very different from the radio show. Part of it is because, as you said, you’re just sitting there talking to yourself, but it came across as if it was something you were reading. You didn’t sound like yourself the first time I listened to it, and I thought maybe you were being held back by legal restraints and someone was telling you everything needed to planned out or approved.

CC: Sure, no, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t love the podcast. People seemed to like it if you base it on downloads.

Listen, ten years on one radio station is a lot of time, so do I have a core audience that loves me and wants to hear what I have to say? Yes. Thankfully they showed up in droves for that podcast, but I would definitely prefer not to do a podcast. ::Laughs::

BC: So for the two months that you weren’t doing anything, I’m sure it had to drive you crazy listening and reading all of the feedback about your legal situation. There had to be a part of you which wanted to preach your innocence, but beyond that, for someone who is creative and been successful and has done a high profile show every day for the past decade in the #1 media market, all of a sudden it’s gone, and you’re being suppressed and not able to entertain the way you were used to. How frustrating was that for you?

CC: It was extraordinarily difficult to not have that creative outlet. I was a pain in everyone’s ass in my inner-circle, my family. I became really good at wood-working. I can build stuff really well now. I’d be happy to show you some stuff. ::Laughs::

I thought for a minute I was going to be like Harrison Ford and become a word class wood shop guy.

BC: That’s true? You actually took up woodworking?

CC: I’ve contemplated building and selling custom wood stuff.

I was going stir-crazy. Yea I wanted to shout out my innocence and I have a lot that I want to show the world. It was extraordinarily frustrating not to be able to do that. Not having that daily outlet was much tougher than I thought it would be and I missed it dearly.

BC: Recently you had a caller bring up Mike Francesa and it transitioned into you talking about your arrest. I would think that whether you’re innocent, or however confident you are that you’re innocent, it’s almost irrelevant because of what you have looming over you. The fact that you’re able to do a daily show, veer off and talk about the arrest, then get right back into the mode of being an entertainer is impressive to say the least and something that I don’t know if a lot of people can do.

CC: You have to compartmentalize a lot mentally. I have to make sure that I don’t go halfcocked and say things that I shouldn’t be talking about, but I’m never going to shy away from the truth. I’m never going to shy away from exalting my innocence. I can’t get into the details of it of course, but I’m never going to stop preaching that and yea, it’s hard, there’s a very fine line of what can you say, what can’t you say and beyond that, what should you say and what shouldn’t you say.

I have a very serious legal matter that’s still there and although I’m doing my brand of radio…which is irreverent, entertaining and in your face…I have not shied away from talking about these silly New York radio wars and all of that stuff. But I’m also very cognizant of the fact that on October 29th I’m going to be wearing a jacket and tie sitting in a court room where 12 men and women are going to hear facts about my life and have to make a determination on what I did and what I didn’t do and that’s very daunting. I’m uber aware of it of course, and I take it very seriously. It’s extraordinary frustrating that for a guy that makes his living communicating and telling it like it is, I’m not able to do that right now.

BC: Do you think you’re different on-air today than you were a year ago?

CC: Not different, but I think I’m better. I think doing this show is making me better.

BC: I don’t think you sound different, which I think is surprising. The show is obviously different, but your approach hasn’t changed much.

CC: I think the show on FAN is more different than the show I do today. I think if you heard both shows today and didn’t know what was going on, you would point to my show as the show you’ve heard for the last ten years as opposed to the show on the FAN today.

BC: Have you listened to Boomer and Gio?

CC: Sure…yea…

I mean I’m typically taking my kids to school all day everyday ::Laughs::
(referring to Francesa saying he never listened to Boomer and Carton)

I listen, of course, how could I not listen to it. Yes, I listen.

BC: Do you like it?

CC: No! No…

Giannotti was put in a great position for the opportunity and I called him before he started to wish him well. I have no axe to grind with Gregg. He was offered a job, Imus was fired and I was offered a job. It’s a great opportunity and he has the chance now to make the most of it and be the morning guy at the FAN if they’re successful, for a longtime. I don’t root against him, but I think our show was obviously much better.

It’s a very weird, awkward situation for me to listen to it, but I think that show has become two guys talking about sports and that’s not the show I did. That doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, it’s just not the show I did and it’s not the show I would do. If they’re successful then they don’t have anything to worry about and if they’re not successful then I think like any other person in radio…they have something to worry about…not just with me, but with anybody. They have Yankee and Met baseball, the NFL Draft, Odell…they should be number one.

BC: One of the biggest differences of that show is also the biggest similarity…and that’s Boomer. Once you left he took on a stronger leadership role. He went through a few months working with different hosts where he began to focus more on sports and dominate the conversation, quarterbacking a program in a way that he didn’t have to while you were there. Now that he has Gio, he hasn’t yet reverted back to the co-host that he was while it was Boomer and Carton. Have you noticed that?

CC: I think that’s carried over for sure and that’s the awkward part of starting a new show and new relationships. Boomer had to take over a lot of the type A hosting duties of a show, the mechanics of a show. While Gregg can do that very well, he’s a professional at it, that dynamic of the show is still very different and everyone will compare that to what we did and while it’s not a fair comparison, it’s a real comparison. That doesn’t mean they’re doing a bad show, they’re not, the show is good, it’s fine, it will be okay.

I always viewed what Boomer and I did as something special in radio and I take great pride in that. I know this will be viewed as me being cocky and I don’t mean it to be, but if you look at the great morning shows historically, I think you can go Imus, Howard Stern, Opie and Anthony, and us…as far as dominant morning radio shows. We were not at the level Howard Stern was at and I’m not making that comparison, but we were a dominant morning show and there was something very special about our relationship and how the audience would react and connect with us and you can’t replicate that. Every station is searching for that. Z100 has it with Elvis Duran, he’s probably the biggest morning show guy in NY now and I thought we were it for a decade, but there is no longer a dominant morning show in New York City. We were the last one and god-willing, I will be the next one.

BC: You were getting back into radio and looking for a platform at the same time FAN was looking to replace you, did you ever just talk to them about returning?

CC: I was not actively looking for a job. I never went to FAN and said hey you know my case, I’m available the next year or two or whatever, I wasn’t actively looking. I was content doing what I was doing, staying somewhat relevant by doing something and keeping my name out there. My fear, the insecurity of what I do for a living is that if I disappear for eight months, or until my trial was over and my case was figured out, that people would forget about me. That’s the insecurity of what we do. It was important for me to do something, just so every now and then, whether it’s saying something on Twitter or doing a show, people would remember oh right…there’s Craig.

BC: Are you confident that this relationship with FNTSY Sports Network can last awhile or is this a temporary stop until you get back to a major terrestrial station?

CC: Listen, I want to be back on a major station, but if that’s through the FNTSY Sports Network, I’m cool with it. I’m very loyal and they were very good to me when a lot of people approached me about doing different things, but they put a piece of paper in front of me with a signature on it so I’m loyal to that.

Other people would approach me with deals that didn’t always follow through. FNTSY actually signed the paper. If we can grow this and get it on terrestrial radio in New York City, that’s great…and if we can’t…we can’t, but the future will determine that. The results of my case will determine that, and I’m very comfortable with the fact that when I’m exonerated I will have opportunities and Sports Grid and FNTSY Sports Network will be the first company that has a shot at that opportunity.

BC: How much do you miss the competitive nature of being on terrestrial radio? Not only the radio wars in terms of the fun you had with Francesa’s show, but also competing with Hot 97? If you were on the air in New York right now you’d also be going up against Sid Rosenberg who took over mornings on WABC with Bernard McGuirk.

CC: Well it wouldn’t be a competition…but I loved it.

One of the things that moved me in radio was I wanted to be the most listened to show at the FAN and the most listened to show in the marketplace. Those are two very different things that we were able to achieve. Not competing, battling and getting involved in that back and forth, which I always thought was fun, yea I miss the hell out of that. That’s why I’ve kind of invoked myself into it a little with Mike and Chris and CMB at the FAN and with that troll…Rosenberg with Don and…what’s his name over there? Michael Kay.

To me, radio is much like being an athlete. The magnifying glass is on you, and everyone has ears and it’s either good or it’s not good and of the ones that are good, which is the best one? I think Michael Kay has not done what he should do when he had the opportunity and when I resigned at FAN, there was a huge opening for a lot of people to come take it and nobody took it.

BC: One of the biggest things I expected to be different with your radio show is, regardless of how confident you are that you’re innocent, the public perception from a large percentage of your listeners is that you have a gambling problem. I would have thought you would make gambling a lesser part of your show than you did in the past, but you went the other way and actually make it a focal point. Do you think you need to work to build your credibility or do you view it as, people are interested in it, so we’re talking about it?

CC: People have an interest in it. Sports wagering is about to be legalized by the United States Supreme Court, (it since has been legalized) being that my listeners are going to be doing it, if I shied away from it as a topic I wouldn’t be keeping it real with the audience or a representative voice of how they live their lives.

I’m obviously very sensitive and aware of what people say about me and the accusations that have been made against me. All I can say is…one of the toughest things is when people make accusations about you that aren’t based on anything factual, it’s very hurtful and not being able to respond to those accusations is even worse.

I will do that in the court of law on October 29th and I look forward to that. I wish the case was tomorrow. I would love to have my legitimate tangible story out there for everybody to see and the way I always viewed it is, when I’m able to tell the whole story and you and the public can see everything, make your determination on who I am then.

There’s a great quote that I put on my Twitter account… “Accusations fit on a bumper sticker; the truth takes longer” and I live by that now. I’m accused of stuff every day of the week, on Twitter, on social media I’m called every name in the book. People make assumptions as to what they think I did and what I’m accused of doing, but no one has heard the entire story. You can accuse all you want, attack me all you want from a social media standpoint, but let’s wait until the whole story comes out and when it does comes out…if you, meaning the people that want to attack me, feel like you have the grounds to keep doing so, then go ahead. My feeling is that once my story is told, everyone will feel very different about me.

 BC: Have you thought about leaving Twitter altogether?

CC: Yea, and for months I didn’t look at it at all. You can drive yourself crazy looking at it. Every so often there are people that I feel cross the line. I can take a joke, but some people cross the line and I have actually found them and called their places of employment. I’ve called their families and everyone of them backed down as soon as I did it because they can’t handle what I deal with on a daily basis.

BC: I’ve seen you respond to some of them, or retweet with a comment and they come right back with ‘I was just kidding Craigy, I’m a big fan and I’m rooting for you,’ but they clearly never expected you to actually respond.

CC: Right, they’ll say I’m a big fan and hoping for the best. I hate Twitter, I hate social media, I hate every aspect of it because it’s like guys with beer muscles. Everyone knows where I live now, everyone knows where I work, if you hate me that much, why are you following me? If I say good morning, there are five guys telling me to go F myself, they wait for me to say something. That mentality, I never understood it. if I hate you I’m not following you because I don’t care what you have to say.

It will be nice to prove all those people wrong.

BC: With your current situation, are you ever concerned about saying something that could get you into more trouble, or hurt your legal situation?

CC: Listen, I don’t talk about my case, other than the overview of I proclaim my innocence and always will. No one is ever going to trick me into talking about it, so I’m not worried about making the mistake of talking about it. I will not get into the specifics of my case, everything else…I don’t see why I wouldn’t talk about anything else.

BC: What about outside your case, with the current climate, radio hosts are often apologizing, you don’t have much of a filter and you might not be trying to offend someone, but it can still happen. Do you try to be conscious about that?

CC: There are people that are sensitive about everything. During the course of my career I have said things I wished I could take back and I had apologized for, but that was prior to joining the FAN. I’d like to consider myself a mature broadcaster and not once during my FAN career do I think I had to apologize to a group of people. Actually, I think chiropractors once. I think I had a thing with chiropractors where I agreed I wouldn’t call them quacks anymore.

But I’m not worried about it because I don’t do it, that doesn’t mean you won’t be offended by an opinion, but I don’t think I ever cross the line of offending a group of people. I don’t think anyone could accuse me of that today or in the last ten years.

BC: Who is your target audience on FNTSY?

CC: We go after young men. At WFAN it was men 25-54, but even with that, talk radio appeals to an older part of that demo for sure. Doing what I’ve done with Twitch and FNTSY Sports Network has arbitrarily made me younger. I mean I play Fortnite…we’re about to do a marathon where I play Fortnite live on-air until I win…that could take a long time…so doing the Twitch.tv deal and the FNTSY deal has knocked a few years off me. I’m more relatable to an 18 year old than I was a year ago.

BC: Is that something you wanted to do? Does relating to a younger audience fit your personality?

CC: Yea, I’m a kid at the end of the day. As a parent, I always thought the day my kids can beat me at video games will be the day I officially cross whatever that line of getting old is, and they beat me at everything now so I need to practice as much Fortnite as possible. I can still get them in Madden, but they kill me in these new games.

BC: What were your thoughts on Mike Francesa returning to WFAN?

CC: It’s a smart move for the radio station. CMB wasn’t working. I have no idea the financial part of it, I would imagine he will bill more. I got the sense that the station, although they did fine in the ratings, there was no buzz about WFAN anymore. I think Mike and I kind of brought that factor of what’s going to happen today? So it reenergized the listening audience. I’m sure it pissed everybody off inside the building from an on-air perspective, but listen…we’re in show business right? If he’s not getting it done he’ll get replaced. If the midday guys aren’t getting it done, they’ll get replaced. If I wasn’t getting it done I would have been replaced, so I think he’s probably good for the station overall. If Mike Francesa decided he wanted to do sports talk in New York, the only place that should ever be done at is WFAN.

BC: Were you surprised how quickly he came back?

CC: No

BC: Were you surprised he actually retired, especially after you left?

CC: As the story goes he asked for a lot of money. When you do talk radio for a living, there are not a lot of other things you want to do, or that you’re good at, but if you’re good at talk radio it’s special. I’m not surprised he missed it. I’m not surprised he wanted to comment on the stories of the day, and I’m not surprised he wanted to come back. I’m also not surprised at the lack of interest in hiring him at the financial level he wanted. Mike made a lot of money. I made a lot of money talking on the radio and if I could get back there, of course…why wouldn’t I want to go back? So I get the mentality of wanting to return.

(WFAN listeners know Carton and Francesa did not have the warmest relationship and choosing to view Francesa’s return from a business standpoint might seem surprising. Recently on “Carton and Friends,” Craig stated he appreciated Francesa choosing not to talk about his arrest when he easily could have piled on. Carton even told the audience he left Francesa a hand written note thanking him for not giving an opinion about his arrest.)

BC: Have you listened to Carlin, Maggie and Bart?

CC: I listened to a little bit of it yea. I made the comment when I started my show, that my goal was to prove that a woman, a white guy and a black guy could do an entertaining show ::Laughs:: and I think we’ve already proved that.

It’s a hard mix of people they put in there. You have everyone wanting to be the sports authority, and there isn’t a lot of room for all three voices. I think the biggest mistake they made were the amount of guests they brought on. If you have three people in the room talking sports, you don’t need a Daily News writer. I thought it didn’t allow them to develop and grow, which they have a chance to do now. I would say no guests, you three do a show and figure out your roles and the only way to truly do that is on the radio and maybe they’ll find it. Everyone that’s pissed that they got demoted…they have two hours of prime New York radio real estate, figure it out.

BC: It’s still early, but it sounded at times like they were concerned about giving everyone equal time, whereas with your show everyone recognized you were going to dominate the conversation…and the same thing would happen during an interview, they would take turns asking questions which made it difficult to develop a good back and forth.

CC: Yea it wasn’t natural. It wasn’t like the way you and I would talk at a bar and by the way it’s okay to interrupt one another, just don’t step on each other all the time. It was always you have to get your question in, then I have to get my question in, but with Boomer…if I was in the zone or Boomer was, the other guy would shut up during an interview. I might go five minutes straight if it’s good. That show had a lot of pressure on them, and I don’t know how much of a chance it had to make it.

The other thing I can’t stand are these shows that yell at you all day. I don’t get that part of it, stop yelling at me…I get yelled at at home, I don’t want to be yelled at. That seems to be a popular model today, two people yelling at each other about sports. Maybe that works on TV for a half hour, but I don’t think the radio audience wants to tune into you and me yelling at each other.

BC: Do you still keep in touch with anyone from the Boomer and Carton Show?

CC: I talk to all the guys that I was on the show with. We don’t talk every day, but we stay in touch. Boomer and I played golf together a couple weeks ago. I went to the Mikey Strong charity event which was important to me and I wanted to be at, it was about Mikey and the Reeve Foundation and nobody else, but the fact that it was important to me and they recognized that and extended the invitation to me…it meant the world to me.

So for the people that don’t think I get along with everybody…I do. I get along with the company. I get along with the show. I get along with the radio station and I think they would all say the same thing.

BC: That begs the question, do you see yourself going back to WFAN?

CC: Yea, I dream about it all the time. I don’t know when it will happen, or if…that’s out of my control, but yea, I dream about it every day of the week. I love what I’m doing now. I enjoy working for this company, but I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about it every day, because I do. And now that Mike came back who knows?  ::Laughs::

Maybe Mike actually, in a very strange way, paved the way for my return one day in the future, who knows…

BC: It is interesting that since you left, FAN has hired five hosts; Gio, Carlin, Maggie, Bart and now Mike, but you weren’t one of those hires and more surprisingly Sid wasn’t one of those hires.

CC: Yea, well I think Sid is doing just fine over at WABC. There is nothing expected of him there…the station has no ratings, you just do a show and go home I guess, but we’ll see, should be interesting.

BC: Before I let you go, I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask you this…what are you benching these days?

CC: Thank you! I’m up to 280! Does it look like it? ::Laughs::

BC: It’s hard to tell with that jacket

CC: I hide it well, all good. ::Laughs::

Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.

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Ryan Clark is Ready for ‘The Pivot’ to Grow with Channing Crowder, Fred Taylor and Fanatics

“We want to be a place where you can just be yourself and you can love yourself and truly tell your story and show people who you are.”

Derek Futterman

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Ryan Clark
Courtesy: The Pivot

Answering a call from Emmy Award-winning producer Alicia Zubikowsi, Ryan Clark learned of a potential new media venture in a niche space. Zubikowski had produced the I Am Athlete podcast for nearly two years, which rapidly proliferated in size, scope and prominence. A financial dispute among the colleagues, however, led to the departures of Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor from the roster, along with Zubikowski, and they branched out on their own to actualize a new vision. After speaking with Zubikowski, Clark met with Crowder virtually and evinced compatibility that compelled him to become involved in the project.

Less than two years later, The Pivot Podcast has quickly amassed notoriety and prestige within sports media. The athlete-driven podcast contains weekly conversations with contemporaries and luminaries alike, to talk sports, music and entertainment. Clark, Crowder and Taylor possess an evident rapport and retains the audience while encouraging prospective listeners to hear the genuine endeavor.

“We felt like there was some synergy there, we thought we could do some good things and we decided to give it a try,” Clark said. “I had already been doing my own podcast that I was funding myself, editing myself and cutting promos myself just because I understood what the space was and I knew that that’s where a lot of media was going, and at the time I didn’t have a partnership or anyone kind of showing me the way, but I was like, ‘These people have already been successful.’”

Since its launch in the winter of 2022, The Pivot Podcast has amassed over 158 million views and 870,000 subscribers on YouTube alone. The show has welcomed guests across a variety of professions, some of whom have included Caleb Williams, Snoop Dogg, Gayle King and Travis Kelce. During its time in circulation, it has made an indelible impact on the landscape and recently agreed to a multi-year partnership with Fanatics.

Through the deal, The Pivot Podcast will feature Fanatics’ verticals surrounding commerce, betting, collectibles and events, and the Fanatics Sportsbook garnering the title of the “official sportsbook” of the show. Additionally, the program will be part of company events such as Fanatics Fest NYC and its annual Super Bowl party.

“Luckily for us, it’s been such a blessing,” Clark said. “Some of the stories we’ve been able to tell, the people we’ve been able to work with and have as guests on the show, and then obviously now having an opportunity to partner with Fanatics and be a part of Michael Rubin’s team and sort of head their media division, especially when you’re speaking of Alicia and what she’ll be able to do, it just makes so much sense.”

Fanatics itself had inked some deals in the sports media space over the last year, including agreements with Bleacher Report and Overtime, but they were largely under the aegis of merchandising and/or live events. The company also hired Ed Hartman as its chief strategy officer in media, trying to discover content that fits various key business sectors. For The Pivot, retaining creative control and autonomy over the content was essential and being involved in other ventures added more value to the proposition.

“To be a part of those things and bringing those things to the world, but also an opportunity to showcase the athletes and entertainers that are part of the Fanatics family – and I think that’s a different and a bigger opportunity than any podcast has ever had with any partnership, and that is why it was important for us to find the right partnership,” Clark said. “And if I’m being honest, our producer has turned down multiple deals saying that she believed that this was the one before this was ever even a thing that Michael Rubin was talking about.”

Reaching this point required hard work, consistency and confidence that The Pivot would ultimately resonate with audiences and establish a rapport in the space. Luckily for Clark, he had a viable fallback plan in that he was working at ESPN as an NFL analyst, a role he had positioned himself to attain while he was still an active player.

During his career, he had worked on 93.7 The Fan hosting a radio show from a hibachi restaurant in Pittsburgh and also appeared on local television. Clark played 13 years in the NFL as a safety and won a Super Bowl championship as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 season.

Although Clark had been told as a player that he had a chance to thrive in sports media, his formative years in the business broadened his understanding of the landscape and how to achieve success. Upon retiring from the NFL, he signed a multi-year agreement with ESPN to appear on NFL Live, SportsCenter, ESPN Radio shows and additional network programming.

Over the last several years, he has been a consistent part of NFL Live. Clark explained that the show contains underdogs who have crafted chemistry that has coalesced into an on-air product and meaningful friendships. Laura Rutledge, Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears, Mina Kimes and Adam Schefter work with Clark and blend their football knowledge and expertise with entertainment.

“I could see how much work they all put into their craft, and I respected that, and then once you get that respect and you start to work together, now you get to know the people,” Clark said. “You get to know about their kids, you get to know about their home life, you get to know about what makes them tick and what makes them themselves, and then we care about each other.”

As members of the show watch NFL games every week, they remain in constant communication through a group chat. Additionally, Clark ensures that he is actively listening to what his colleagues say on the air so he can disseminate informed, substantive opinions that play a part in the overall product.

“The smartest of analysts understand what they have to be on each show based on who they’re working with,” Clark said. “I think you just also have to be versatile enough to do that. You have to know when you’re on NFL Live, that show is so heavy X and O; that show is so heavy, ‘Let’s educate – let’s talk about the things that are important in ball, even if they aren’t the most popular things.’”

Starting last season, Clark was added to Monday Night Countdown as a studio analyst as part of a revamped iteration of the program hosted by Scott Van Pelt. Joining Clark as analysts on the show were his NFL Live colleague Marcus Spears and incumbent analyst Robert Griffin III. While there were some memorable moments both in studio and on site throughout the year though, Clark felt that the show struggled to capture an essence on the air.

“I think the show is just hard because it’s sort of like rolled over the entire infrastructure and changed the people, and it happened so late that I don’t think we ever got an opportunity to find our voices on that show, and we tried to work through that throughout the season,” Clark said. “….I think last year was a learning experience where if I’m being really honest, we did bad TV sometimes, which was new for me because I felt like I haven’t done bad TV in a very long time, and it was embarrassing for me because I put so much time into it.”

Former Philadelphia Eagles center and Super Bowl champion Jason Kelce is joining the show and was formally introduced this week. During a charity golf outing this offseason, Clark had a chance to meet Kelce and learn more about him as a person while also answering questions about ESPN and the sports media business.

“I told him to be himself because being himself is what got him here,” Clark said. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my opinion, so he has so much knowledge, experience and wisdom that people will crave, and he can give it to them uniquely with his personality, with his honesty [and] with the openness and vulnerability about who he is. Other than that, he’s going to have to learn.”

Akin to Clark hosting The Pivot and working at ESPN, Kelce hosts the New Heights podcast with his brother, and will now be joining Monday Night Countdown on ESPN. Clark anticipates that Kelce will be a huge addition, referring to him as the “hottest free agent ever,” and hopes to grant him longform chances to express himself on the air. Being on the show for a second season, however, nearly was not a reality for Clark amid an expiring contract at ESPN.

“I was gone,” Clark said. “I wasn’t considering – I was done. Normally they extend your contract until it gets done most times. I was out – my contract had ended.”

Clark took part in discussions with other people in the business, some of which included having his own show and organizations starting networks around him. Throughout the process, he was cognizant about the relationships and memories he had built at ESPN and was appreciative for various personalities speaking up for him, including Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith. In the end, Clark signed a multi-year extension with the network that implemented a raise and additional responsibility while also continuing his other projects.

“Obviously my family is the NFL Live crew,” Clark said. “Scott Van Pelt and I probably share one of the most memorable nights in television when Damar Hamlin went down. And so those relationships were things that I didn’t want to leave unless there was a good enough reason to leave, and I don’t think that’s just money.”

Clark started hosting Inside the NFL last season on The CW, a storied sports franchise that presents highlights, analysis and interviews every week during the NFL season. After spending approximately four decades on HBO and subsequent years on Showtime and Paramount+, the program moved to broadcast television for the first time. Clark conceptualizes his role as a point guard who is able to score when necessary and successfully facilitate his colleagues Jay Cutler, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Chris Long and The Pivot co-host Channing Crowder.

“I think that was the hardest adjustment with Inside the NFL initially was like, ‘Okay, how do I set these guys up for success while still doing something I’m really good at, which is analyzing football?,’” Clark said, “and it’s taken some time to really sort of find a space for it, but I think I did find that on Inside the NFL.”

In working on The Pivot, Clark built relationships organically through conversations surrounding strategy, content creation and lifestyle. One episode in particular that stands out to him is when the show interviewed former NBA forward Michael Beasley where he opened up about his mental health struggles and hardships he has endured throughout his life. Furthermore, he talked about struggling to find the right people and explained that everyone stole from him except his kids. Clark, Crowder and Taylor sympathized with Beasley and offered him assistance, underscoring the unscripted, genuine nature of the show.

“Everybody wants The Rock to be able to come on their show and talk about his battles with depression, but we also want Kevin Hart to be able to come on the show and invite him to nudist camp too,” Clark said. “We want to be a place where you can just be yourself and you can love yourself and truly tell your story and show people who you are. And I don’t necessarily know if it’s distinctive in effort or goal; I think it’s been distinctive in execution, which, in the end, is what we deliver to people.”

Through the new partnership with Fanatics, Clark looks forward to continuing to take part in candid conversations and storytelling on The Pivot while continuing to thrive in his work with ESPN and The CW. As someone who attained a successful NFL career after signing as an undrafted free agent, he maintains a mentality built on an indefatigable work ethic and resolute dedication towards his professional endeavors. Once the show signed the partnership with Fanatics, it had an opportunity to interview Tom Brady, who discussed topics including his experience being the subject of a Netflix roast and the lessons he learned playing in the NFL.

“Not everybody understands Tom Brady, right?,” Clark said. “Who knows that story? Who has ever lived that, ‘I’m the greatest to ever do something’? But everybody has understood what it’s like to struggle; what it’s like to doubt yourself, right? And so we bring them that story, and in bringing them that story, we talk about the things that Fanatics is doing and the ways that they are now moving in the sports world.”

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Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo Making the Most of His Resurgence with the Help of ESPN

Far from a close-minded fuddy-duddy. He is an open-minded observer of sports, one of the greatest of all time.

John Molori

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Screengrab of First Take on ESPN with Chris Russo
Screengrab from ESPN/First Take

The true essence of Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, Version 2024 can be found in the open to the May 15 edition of First Take on ESPN.

In the aftermath of the Knicks defeating the Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, superstar showstopper Stephen A. Smith opened the program with an emotionally joyous soliloquy lauding his favorite New York basketball team. Smith was jubilant, ebullient, and thrilled.

The segment ended with Smith walking over to panelists Russo and Kendrick Perkins and hugging them in glee. After the show’s open, the Knick rapture continued, that is, until “Mad Dog” was let out of the kennel.

Russo brought things back down to earth, predicting that Indiana would win Game 6 of the series. He then went through a mental historical timeline of the Knicks choking in playoff games at home. This level of historic context is largely lost on modern sports fans, many of whom believe that nothing existed before LeBron James or Tom Brady.

Russo’s beautiful dose of reality ticked off the jovial Smith but set the discourse on a more levelheaded road. Russo is a talking history book, and let’s face it, not everybody likes history class. The difference, however, is that Christopher Russo lived this history, and indeed, made history himself. A 2022 National Radio Hall of Fame inductee, he has uniquely entertained sports fans for more than four decades, becoming one of the most memorable and imitated personalities ever.

He created Mad Dog Sports Radio on SiriusXM in 2008 and headlines the channel with his popular Mad Dog Unleashed show. In addition, he hosts the daily High Heat program on MLB Network. Still, it is one of Russo’s earliest and most recent gigs that set him apart.

Beginning in 1989 and for the next 19 years, Russo and Mike Francesa hosted the landmark Mike and the Mad Dog afternoon driveshow on WFAN radio in New York. It was a ratings mammoth and ensconced Russo as a stone-cold sports media legend.

I am going to make the case that Russo’s latest incarnation as a First Take Wednesday regular is just as significant. It has exposed a whole new audience to the Russo experience. On a more basic level, it is just really special to see a classic radio guy like Russo welcomed into the most progressive and popular sports talk show on the air right now.

Kudos to Stephen A. Smith for making Russo a regular on his program. You can tell that Smith, author of an historically significant media career himself, truly respects those who came before him and blazed the trail. In fact, to a certain extent, Smith is a media offspring of Russo. They both possess riveting personalities, unquestioned bravery, and on-air dominance. Like or dislike, agree or disagree, these are two men who must be listened to and respected.

With Max Kellerman’s 2021 exit from First Take, I was doubtful as to what would happen to the program. My worst thought was that Smith would bring in a bevy of co-hosts who would bow to his greatness – like Jerry Jones’ Cowboys’ coaching hires since Jimmy Johnson. Thankfully, Smith went in the other direction. Russo has the same cache as Smith, so there is no hero worship. He says what he feels and talks straight – real talk in a colorful and exciting manner.

As the Knicks discussion continued, Smith wanted to tap into Russo’s New York sports sensibilities and emotion asking Russo if he felt Madison Square Garden shaking during the Knicks’ Game 5 win. It didn’t work. Russo responded that at 65 years-old, he has been in the Garden for many big games and then cautioned Smith to take it easy with the Knicks.

He again harkened back to New York’s less than sparkling history in big games and menacingly joked that it is his job to “spoil Stephen A’s fun.” Russo then spectacularly took the air out of the building with an ominous What If asking what the Knicks would do if it came down to a Game 7 and the game was tied with the clock winding down.

Russo is also self-deprecating. When host Molly Qerim asked him for a prediction on the Nuggets-Timberwolves series, Russo said that he predicted that the Bills would blow out the Giants in Super Bowl XXV – the famed Scott Norwood missed field goal game. Qerim, who does an excellent job in controlling Hurricane Christopher, acknowledged the obscure reference.

While Russo has a database of past stats and stars, he is not lost in history. In fact, on this edition of First Take, he made a bold statement that the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić has the greatest offensive skill set of any center in the history of the NBA. These are not the words of a stodgy curmudgeon whose mind cannot be changed.

Russo is an astute observer of our games. He sees greatness and gives that greatness credit. Far from a close-minded fuddy-duddy. He is an open-minded observer of sports, one of the greatest of all time. His opinions are not to be chided. They are to be listened to and appreciated.

During First Take’s Quick Takes segment, Russo ably put his encyclopedic knowledge to use. The question posed was whether the Celtics or Lakers are the greatest franchise in NBA history. Russo’s analysis was spot on and long overdue. First, he discounted the Minneapolis Lakers’ five titles as part of the pro-Lakers argument. He also cited the Celtics’ overall dominance when the two franchises have met in the NBA Finals over the decades.

Lastly, he remarked that the Celtics have had four eras of greatness: Russell in the 1960s, Havlicek-Cowens in the 1970s, Bird in the 1980s, and Pierce-Garnett in the late 2000s, while the Lakers have only two: Magic-Abdul-Jabbar in the ‘80s and Shaq-Kobe in the 2000s. It was the best analysis of a longtime debate.

In a debate about Bronny James and his NBA hopes, Russo again was the voice of reason giving a very realistic analysis of why he is not a top pro prospect. It is clear that Russo has nothing to prove, nobody to impress, and no apple to polish. He made his bones years ago, and his takes are refreshing and objective.

The cherry on top of Russo’s First Take sundae was his What Are You Mad About? segment. Viewers tuning into this part of the program are no doubt wondering who the hell, and at times, what the hell they are watching. Russo pushes the limits of his angst, heart rate, blood pressure, and decibel level picking apart several news items from the week in sports. At times, he closes his blurbs screaming to the heavens, “May God strike me down!”

In this particular segment, he went off on late NBA playoff start times, the intrigue surrounding the 2024 NFL schedule release, and his distaste towards the vulgar humor in the Tom Brady roast. Russo gets up close to the camera and goes off in a boisterous way. It is simultaneously fantastic and frightening.

In his last piece on the roast, Russo looked into the camera and yelled to Brady, “How stupid can you be!” This is the same question I will pose to anyone who dismisses Russo as an out of touch old guy. This cat is no curmudgeon. He is a killer. Elderly? No, epic. Bygone? How about straight up bad ass. That is Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, Version 2024.

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How to Renegotiate Your Annual Sports Radio Advertising Contract

Reducing expenses within an annual radio agreement takes a strategic negotiation and budget management approach.

Jeff Caves

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Graphic that shows two people negotiating
Graphic Courtesy: Soject.com

If you are a small to medium-sized business, there is no doubt you are facing rising costs, and making ends meet is a top priority. Sometimes, that means cutting expenses on things you have committed to via contract, like a 2024 annual radio advertising agreement with level monthly payments. You are on the air each month and appreciate the value of advertising consistently. You understand the necessity to maintain a market presence within the budget you laid out last year. You negotiated a win-win contract and are happy with it. However, with your costs spiraling to deliver your services, cost-cutting measures have become critical for financial viability in the long term and better cash flow in the short term. You are now tasked with the need to reduce expenses wherever you can, and your sports radio advertising is next on the list. The station doesn’t want to lessen your committed budget. It’s time for strategic negotiation and decision-making. Here are some effective strategies to accomplish this objective while keeping your annual budget intact:

Pricing and Rates

Initiate negotiations on pricing and rates for ad spots with the radio station. They know where they have more demand than supply and could even make more money by freeing up some of your commercials to be sold to other clients, sometimes at higher rates. This is typically during the weekday drive time periods; you probably got an annual rate for your commitment. If the station is willing, you could move into off-peak nighttime buys or weekends. Off-peak hours typically come at a lower cost and can still reach a substantial audience, enabling you to stretch your budget further. Give the station 30 days to see if they can accomplish this, and if not, go to plan ‘B.’

Longer Commitments

Consider committing to a longer-term contract, like a multi-year agreement, to potentially lower your monthly cash commitment. Maybe you could move off $2,000 per month from July to December and move it to the first six months of 2025. Emphasize your dedication to maintaining a consistent advertising presence over time, which can incentivize the radio station to continue the partnership.

Frequency and Unit Length

If the station allows you to reduce the monthly budget, focus on maximizing frequency by strategically choosing the length of ad units. Instead of running only thirty and sixty-second ads, opt for :15 slots to increase frequency without exceeding your budget. Shorter units are more cost-effective per spot and can deliver well-known messages repeatedly.

Budget Reallocation and Trade

Explore avenues for reallocating funds within your annual budget to optimize expenses. For instance, negotiate a reduction in the monthly budget and allocate the saved funds to months where your cash flow is strongest. Having a payment schedule that matches your cash flow will give you the best chance to meet expenses. Furthermore, explore opportunities for service or trade to offset your monthly bill, leveraging resources you have already paid for that may match up well with what the station needs.

Reducing expenses within an annual radio agreement takes a strategic negotiation and budget management approach. Concentrating on pricing, rates, contract length, frequency, and budget reallocation can keep your station relationship intact, honor your contract, and increase cash flow.

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