Sarah Spain seems to be everywhere for ESPN these days, and that’s a good thing. As sports fans’ relationships with the hosts and reporters they follow has changed thanks to social media, Sarah is about as real as it gets.
Her show with Jason Fitz on ESPN Radio is built on long, thoughtful conversations instead of competing hot takes. Her podcast That’s What She Said is a window into her personality, a chance for her listeners to learn who and what Sarah finds interesting. Her writing reminds us all that there is a world beyond sports for anyone involved at any level of the industry.
Speaking as a consumer and sports fan myself, I have always found Sarah very easy to connect to as a viewer. She seems to embody the idea of entertainment over access. That doesn’t mean she isn’t very professional or isn’t good at what she does.
When I see Sarah Spain on TV or hear her voice on the radio, I can always tell that she is showing up with the goal of delivering for her audience. It could be funny. It could be informative. It really doesn’t matter. The point is you are going to be happy you invested time listening to what Sarah Spain had to say.
We spoke about a week and a half ago. She was on her way to the airport, leaving Bristol after a morning on First Take to make it home to Chicago in time for her radio show that evening.
Our conversation focused on the lessons she has learned from her experience in the sports media world, but along the way we made time to talk about Christmas-themed pub crawls, her rap skills and Bobcat Golthwaite.
D: When someone says they recognize you, what is it usually from?
S: Usually Around the Horn because it is visual, but a lot of LeBatard too, especially once I talk. It depends too, because if I am in Chicago it might be a lot of local radio and there are a few that know Spain and Fitz too, but mostly it is Around the Horn because it’s everywhere. You see it in every airport. It’s on at least one TV in every bar.
D: So when you meet someone that isn’t a sports fan, how do you describe what you do at ESPN? Like you said, you’re on everything.
S: If they want a short answer I just say “I’m a host and writer at ESPN.” Then if they ask “For what?” that’s when I’ll get specific with Spain and Fitz and I do a podcast once a week and then I write for espnW and I do some SportsCenter reporting for the Chicago teams. And then, of course, you have to mention Around the Horn twice a week and the LeBatard Show.
D: How does preparing for the radio show differ from podcast preparation?
S: Well, the podcast is really different. The podcast is where I get to talk to people that I find really interesting and explore their journey to how they got to where they are and became successful at what they do. That’s really just looking into the background of who they are and what their career has been like. I read. Sometimes I’ll listen to other podcasts they’ve been on.
For the radio show, you know, that’s mining through the news of the day to find out what we find interesting and decide what kind of conversations we want to have about them. Plus we look at the funny stuff or even the serious stuff that isn’t a major headline that we want to weave into the biggest news of the day.
D: How much of your day is devoted to prep? With a national show, and in particular a national night time show, I would imagine there are times you have to remind yourself to turn it off and spend time with your family.
S: No. I mean, there are days where I am swamped and I am working straight through until I get to show prep, which is an hour and a half before the show. The nice thing about having a regular show is you usually won’t have giant gaps of knowledge that have occurred over the course of one day or one weekend, unless you didn’t watch the game, didn’t read anything about it, and didn’t post anything.
The majority of days, I would say I am a big podcast listener between various activities. If I am going for a workout and it’s not a class where I have to listen, I’ll put on that morning’s Golic and Wingo or Dan (LeBatard) or Will Cain to see what those guys are talking about. I also read a lot of articles when I am in transit or sitting down before we start show prep to get a handle on the things that I am into.
It kind of depends too. If I am doing Around the Horn, that means the day starts with a call at 9:30 and then between getting to the studio, sitting down for makeup, and other prep, I usually only have about 45 minutes before the show meeting starts. On those days, I’ve spent my whole afternoon prepping, so I come into the radio show hot with all the stuff we’ve talked about on the TV show.
When you do a radio show every night until 8 pm, there isn’t a lot of time to get anything done after that. So sometimes that means my morning will be about running errands or taking care of my dogs or something to do with my family. On those days I get creative about how and where I do my prep.
D: On days like that, how much are you leaning on your production staff for radio versus say a day on Around the Horn?
S: Well, Around the Horn is great, because they always have a packet full of stories and stats and interesting did bits, so you can pull out the stats and bits you think are most noteworthy. For radio, our producer puts together a shorter packet that Fitz and I will kind of add stuff to, so it kind of depends. For radio, you know, that more of what we find interesting or what we feel needs to be talked about, where Around the Horn is more about the producers.
When we get on the call (for Around the Horn), we certainly have the ability to say “I don’t think this is a great topic” or “can we tackle this differently?” and the producers listen, but they really are the ones driving the bus. The two are really different in that way.
D: What was your relationship with Jason Fitz like before you started doing a show together? Did you look at him as someone you liked and could be really successful working with, or did management view it as “Here are two people that have been on ESPN Radio. Let’s put them together and see what happens.”?
S: I was doing Izzy and Spain at the time and it was only two hours, and he was filling in a lot for Jalen and Jacoby and that was two hours. A couple of times, I think it was four times, our bosses decided to put the shows together and just do four hours of the shows together. So, that was really the first I had ever even heard of him or knew anything about him.
It was a blast. We had great chemistry together right off the bat. We really hit it off. I found his background super interesting. I liked his approach to things. He’s still really excited about the job and enthusiastic about sports in general. He’s very genuine in his thoughts. Jason isn’t very big on needing to be fabricated or needing to have a take that is going to make people go crazy.
So after that, they were going to change my show, They were looking around for who they were going to pair me with, and I had really enjoyed working with him and Mike Golic, Jr. So I thew out those two names. GoJo was already going to be doing his dad’s stuff, but the radio people really loved Fitz too. They thought he was an up and coming star, and so that was that.
We ended up meeting up in person once. My friends and I were in Nashville for a music festival and I messaged him to say if he and his wife wanted to meet us to go out for the night, that would be awesome. It was really nice to meet him in person and hang out socially. That was really it. We met one more time in Bristol for the photo shoot to promote the show. So we started the show really only having met those two times, but we really just hit it off like gang busters.
We have a ton in common, including really silly stuff. Like, we’re both into costume parties and Christmas pub crawls. I’m having an SNL-themed birthday party this year and his wife had the same kind of party last year. We’re both really obsessed with our dogs.
I like having someone else that comes in with just a lot of energy. We want our show to be thoughtful and fun and not like a lot of other shows.
D: You guys are still hooking up over ISDN, right? You’re not physically in the same space when you’re doing the show.
S: Right. I’m in Chicago and he is in Connecticut.
D: That may not make things harder necessarily, because like you said, you guys already have a raport, but it probably took some feeling out I would guess.
S: Certainly it would be easier to be together in person, but we do use cameras on our computer so we can look at each other and maybe hold up a finger to say “I want to jump in” or “I want to go next”.
Especially with radio from afar, I find that I have a lot of sarcastic asides that I want to get in. I don’t want to take the conversation back. I just have a sarcastic comment I want to get in or I want to make fun of you real fast and we can just keep going. That can be a little easier to do in person, but thankfully Fitz is on to me. He knows that I am just going to make fun of him real fast and let him get back to his point.
D: (Laughing) I have spent so much of my sports radio career as a third mic, where those sarcastic asides are one of my primary roles. It’s funny the way someone who doesn’t quite get your rhythm yet can be thrown off by that, where as I think people like you and me look at those kinds of comments like they are just part of a normal conversation.
S: Right. “Keep going! Of course I am going to make fun of you. I have funny things to say and need to be heard at all times!”
D: I do wonder how the way you prep for your podcast helped you get to know and understand Jason Fitz, because you don’t have to delve too far into his past to realize that it is so different from most people in sports media.
S: Yeah, I actually had him on my podcast pretty early on for that reason. He was so new to sports that I wanted to give listeners that wanted to know who he was the chance to meet him and learn who he is and what led him to this point.
It was important for me too. I think chemistry can come very very quick, but people listening will be able to tell if you really know each other and are friends by the commentary and the jokes. Can they hear that you know each other’s lives? So, it was important to me to have that hour chat and just be able to pick his brain, but also Fitz and I are really open about our personal lives and our friends, so it makes it easier to know thing about each other without really having to pry.
D: With your podcast (That’s What She Said), what is the difference in your preparation for a sports guest versus a non-sports guest? One of the more fun conversations I have heard you have was with Dan Soder, who is a comedian and pretty far removed from the sports world.
S: It’s not very different, to be honest with you. It’s so similar, because I don’t really want to talk to people about the news of the day. I did one with Greg Wyshynski before the hockey season to talk about him just joining ESPN and give everyone a quick primer on what they needed to know to enjoy the season. Usually though, I am not talking about a specific place and time. I want to know about that person and how they got to where they are.
I think as I get to doing second time around pods, I may go back and listen to the first episode I did with that guest to see what I missed or follow up on stories they told before. Right now though, it’s really the same no matter what their job is.
It starts out with who they are, what their childhood was like, the decisions they made that got them to where they are, and if there are larger thematic issues I want to get to, we might do that at the end, but honestly, interviewing these people for the first time, I want to know what brought them to this place in their lives regardless of what that place is.
D: When you first joined ESPN, what did they tell you about wearing your Chicago fandom on your sleeve? Because that, I think, is a huge part of your appeal. It is part of Vn Pelt’s appeal the way he talks about the University of Maryland. What was that conversation like about being a fan versus…I don’t know, being a professional or whatever the word would be they use.
S: It didn’t come up for a little bit actually, because my first gig with ESPN was at ESPN 1000 in Chicago as an update anchor, so that is mostly just straight, although they did tell me they wanted me to add some personality. So that changed my delivery sometimes to something like “Blackhawks eliminated the Canucks with a game six win last night, so hand that golf bag right over to the Sedins” or whatever. So for the most part that was it. My appearances on the station were tinged with bias, as anything is in a local market.
When I joined espnW about 8 or 9 months later, that was less about my fandom and more about the specific assignments of that job. It wasn’t something I ever hid or that they asked me to hide. I think the first conversation I remember having about it was when they called me up and asked me to do some SportsCenter stuff, and that is only when those teams are hot, so the Blackhawks or Bulls playoffs, the Cubs’ run. Even just recently they sent me to cover Loyola.
In that case, I do like to have the conversation of what is my role. I’m not a bureau reporter. I’m not Josina Anderson or Michelle Steele. All I heard was “we want you to be you. We don’t want you to change or be ‘reportery’. We want Sara Spain’s reaction.” And then on top of that it is what is the mood? How does the city feel? What is the vibe?
It’s engrained. People would rather hear it from someone that is living it and gets the vibe rather than someone that is parachuted in to say “Well, Cubs fans seem very nervous.” That just doesn’t feel the same as me saying “Well, there’s a lot of puckering going on, and I’m not going to lie to you. It’s getting pretty real around here.”
That’s the difference in all outlets now, is that there is this understanding for certain jobs. It’s not going to work for Adam Schefter obviously. There is no harm in showing your allegiances, particularly if you can prove that you aren’t going to be too soft on your own squad. Sometimes I am more critical of my own guys and openly disappointed when they aren’t doing things right.
I think the Patrick Kane story is a good example of me getting simultaneously accused of going easy on him because I am a Blackhawks fan and also not giving him a chance to defend himself because I am a woman that has covered sexual assaults in sports. People are going to assume biases in any direction in sports anyway. I think the goal is to be as fair as possible at all times, so that can’t get you on anything genuinely if you’re covering things equally.
D: I started thinking about that a few months back. I live in Raleigh, NC, where Bomani Jones came up doing radio and he and I have been friends for a long time. He told this story on his show one time about the two of us watching the Bama/Texas National Championship game together and he said something on air to the effect that it broke his heart.
I immediately flashed back to being in college and listening to Dan Patrick. I distinctly remember him saying at one point that he was a Cincinnati Reds fan until he started doing this professionally. I think Bomani talking about Texas breaking his heart, you talking about the Cubs is a step more towards what sports radio should be as opposed to that old school demeanor of we wear a suit and tie and have no emotion about the outcome.
That’s not to take anything away from Dan. His show is the reason I wanted to be in sports radio. I guess they way you allow yourself to be a fan feels a little more real and of the time.
S: Yeah, certainly for the sports radio medium, right? I still think there are absolutely elements of sports reporting where there is an appeal to the idea of what you are getting is absolutely unbiased. I think for the beat reporter, and the Schefter’s, and the breaking news people, that makes sense. But I think if you’re going to be a host, I don’t really see the point in trying to hide any fandom if you have it.
Now, I don’t think you need it. Particularly if you are a national host, there is no need to interject your fandom throughout, but if you have it and it’s natural and it’s passionate, it drives conversation in a way that’s interesting. So, why not? People are going to figure it out anyway.
Even someone like Mike Wilbon, who was on back when they were encouraging more neutrality, you know his teams. You know where he went to school. You know where he came up. So trying to hide it would be just kind of silly.
D: So when you’re coming up in sports radio and starting to host shows on a national platform and you’re so closely associated with the Dan LeBatard show, how do you go about trying to carve out your own identity? Because when you’re on that show listeners know you in the Commish role. What was your thinking in trying to trying to establish something different than that for Izzy and Spain or Spain and Fitz?
S: Actually, my first national radio exposure at all was on a weekend show called Spain and Prim.
D: Oh right. And then the Trifecta (alongside Jane McManus and Kate Fagan).
S: Yes, so when I did my first appearance on LeBatard was to discuss Patrick Kane. No, the first one was Mayweather and then maybe Patrick Kane. Maybe Ray Rice was somewhere in the middle. Anyway, it was always these very serious issues I was writing about for espnW.
I think during that time, Dan realized they had never had a woman come in as one of their regular guests and thought that I might be able to go toe to toe with them on some of those issues and give it a shot. So, when they first asked me to come in, I listened to that show occasionally, but I wasn’t a regular listener, and you need to listen to them on the regular, right? It is so of the time.
I walked in that day not knowing what to expect and not really able to keep up. I didn’t even know what The Club (the LeBatard Show’s weekly recap aired in the show’s final segment on Fridays) was. I didn’t know we were on the air when I was asking him to explain it to me.
Radio listeners in Chicago knew me already. Maybe there were regular listeners of Spain and Prim or the Trifecta that knew me already, but LeBatard was huge in terms of getting my voice out.
The Commish thing is funny. It just came out completely organically. It came out of either the second or third time I was on. Stugotz had to eat all the powdered donuts from the Grid of Death (LeBatard’s list of punishments he and his staff must complete for picking games incorrectly during the NFL season). I am a stickler for rules. I always have been, and I think it is a waste to do the grid of death if you are going to chicken out and a waste of people’s time if you are not going follow through.
So I was like “Wait, you’re crumpling the donuts up and brushing the powder off. You’re managing to get away with throwing away donut you should be eating. Keep your hands above the table!” And he was like “Jeez. She’s like the commissioner of the grid.” It sucks a little bit because I guess my personality is a little bit bossy, so it felt like the perfect role.
D: Well, the rap certainly helped.
S: Yeah, the rap took it over the top. It seemed natural to use that as my rap alter ego.
I think what’s very interesting is that there is a lot of feedback on the LeBatard show. It is a community. Dan’s very aware of it. Stu’s very aware of it. The guests are very aware of it, wanting to, as they say, “fit in don’t fit out,” and I got a lot of positive feedback early on. Then the guys that run the LeBatard reddit page asked if I would do an “Ask Me Anything”.
There were certain questions that made it feel like people that I was trying to act like I could be a certain way on that show. I think that was more just, they just weren’t used to hearing a woman be the way that I am. I am just not very stereotypically diminutive in any way.
I like to talk smack. I have a lot of opinions. So, they thought it was sort of fake. I think, and I hope, that most people have figured out that that is just sort of who I am all the time in any context. I think people who listen to me regularly know that’s who I am.
I think you have to be on LeBatard enough times that people can get used to you, because it’s hard for anyone to step in. So, you just do your best to fit in with their vibe and bring whatever you can to it.
I also have always said that I would rather be thoughtful and honest and speak up when I think something is wrong or offensive or even just stupid. You know, some people don’t want to hear opinions that don’t jive with theirs, but sometimes I am going to have those and that’s okay.
D: I would imagine just by virtue of being a woman in sports radio you have to deal with a lot of people that think they know more than you or are confident that you’re putting on an act.
S: Yeah, well what is interesting is the assumptions about me are so varied. It’s either people on Twitter telling to me quit pretending I am watching the game, which is like “What? You think I don’t even watch sports?”. They’ll respond with something like “They’re just going to give you some talking points anyway” and I’m like “That’s not how this works.”
So it’s either to that extreme or people going to the extreme of “Oh you’re not really like that.” And with that, all you can do is genuinely be yourself all the time and hopefully they see that is who this woman really is.
D: Yeah, but even trying to win people over in that way, I would think looking at Twitter must be tiring for you sometimes.
S: Yeah for sure, it can be super exhausting. Other assumptions about women in sports that can be super exhausting are like “you slept your way to the top” or “you’re only in it to meet athletes”. I remember my mom when I first started because they were really off base. Like, they go find a photo of me on vacation from like 15 years ago and be like “you’re always showing your boobs” and in actuality I never am.
Find a photo of me doing my job where you can see them or can even remotely tell I have them. I am constantly hiding them. You found a picture of me on vacation from more than a decade ago. Those are on Google because other people found them and made stupid lists, not because I’m putting that out there.
That happens because people make assumptions about others when they don’t know them. That absolutely happens to every woman with big boobs no matter what. There’s always going to be a whole bunch of assumptions being made just purely based on that.
I get less bothered by people insulting me, like saying something rude, than I do by feeling like I’m misunderstood. If someone wants to be like “you’re fat” or “you’re ugly” you can just think to yourself “oh that person’s not very nice,” whereas if I get “I can’t believe you said x,y,z” and I respond with “No, here’s what I actually said and here is the nuance to it” and they just give up because, frankly they aren’t smart enough to have the argument, that’s what infuriates me.
I shouldn’t be annoyed by some random person, but the fact that they misrepresent what I said because they don’t want to take the time to listen or understand is so annoying. Like just yesterday I was writing some tweets and making jokes about Jemele (Hill) directly to Jemele, and some people who didn’t get the context were asking Jemele “who is this bitch trying to get famous off of you” or telling me “You’re a coward Spain because you deleted what you tweeted.” I had to say “No, no, no. What I retweeted was deleted, so go talk to that person. And I was making fun of the clip! And I’m friends with Jemele. You’re confused!”
I’m more confused by lack of reading comprehension and not understanding sarcasm. I think that is true of most women trying to crack jokes on the internet. I think it has gotten a little better, but there is still that group that thinks “there’s no way she’s making a joke, because a woman wouldn’t get that”.
I remember the rap that I wrote for the Commish bit (on the Dan LeBatard Show) one of the comments I saw was “That was really funny, but there is no way she wrote that. She wouldn’t know all those show references.” What? I’m on the show! Of course I know all the show references!
D: For you it’s not only online though, right? I mean, look, I love sports radio. I love studying and writing about sports radio, but there is this segment of our audience, particularly in the older end, that doesn’t want nuance. The sports radio they like is a bunch of listener calls and have a take and don’t suck. Nuance isn’t something we have always done well in sports radio. So, forgive this term, but I from a radio perspective, I am sure there is a very dumb segment of the audience that you have to fight back against.
S: Tony Reali told me he is going to start muting me when I use the word “nuance.” He has his buzz words that annoy him. He doesn’t like “narrative.” He doesn’t like “optics.” He says “nuance” is going to be one of those words for me now too, because sometimes he’ll ask me a question and I say “Look, the answer isn’t as simple as a yes or no. There’s nuance to it, because it depends on x or y.”
I am still learning. When I first started doing radio I would answer questions with “Well, we’ll see,” and my program director was like “No, that’s not a take,” and I would say “Yeah, but we will see!” and he was like “Nope. That’s not how this works”.
So I’ve learned to have stronger takes, but I am still never going to be one of those people that thinks I’ve gotta pick a side and I have to hammer it home like I’ve never believed anything more in my life if there’s a part of me that thinks there really is some grey area there.
That’s one of the things I really like about my show with Fitz. It’s what I like about LeBatard’s show. It doesn’t feel like anyone is coursing their way through takes. It feels like there is time to have intelligent conversations.
Now look, not everyone is going to like that. Absolutely there are sports fans that just want the yelling. They don’t want to think too hard. I did Second City Improv, the conservatory in LA. They would always say about our improv “Always assume your audience is smart. Make them come up to your level, do not ever think you need to play down because they aren’t going to get this joke.”
I feel that way about sports radio. I think there are plenty of intelligent and smart and thoughtful sports fans who want to hear real conversations and not just back-and-forth yelling on a take. I hope they’re the ones listening, and if there are other that don’t like it, that’s fine. They can find other places to go get their sports.
D: What sort of advice would you give a host about diversifying their media presence? You’re on TV and on the radio and you write and you host a podcast. Let’s take it a little bit at a time for the guys on the local level. What would be the advice you would start with for establishing a podcast presence outside of the radio show?
S: I tell people coming up that they need to be diverse in their skills. Even if you grew up all your life thinking “I want to be a TV person,” well you better still know how to write. You better be willing to give radio a shot. I never thought I wanted to be on the radio and now I love it. It is a huge part of my career.
The writing thing is one of the most important things I tell up and coming people, because texting and social media has turned people’s English into garbage. It’s such a bad representation of you as a professional if you can’t write an email or a letter that comes across as remotely intelligent.
I always tell this story and it is so random, but when I first moved to LA and was trying to be an actor I found this book that was one of those things that you do when you go to LA. You get an agent and you go to Samual French and you get this book.
There was an anecdote in it from Bobcat Golthwaite. Most people I talk to don’t even know who that is. I don’t know how old you are, but do you remember Bobcat Golthwaite?
D: I’m almost 37. Prime Hot to Trot age.
S: Okay perfect. You’re on my level then. I usually have to say “kinda like Pee Wee Herman.” He’s just someone who’s different and weird and doesn’t quite fit in. I can’t think of a modern equivalent, because the way our media has changed, it is full of weird and quirky people, but it didn’t used to be.
Anyway, the point of the anecdote was that there wasn’t anyone in Hollywood going “Man, we really need someone that half wheezes and half talks and his face screws up into this weird look and he never seems to make any sense” and Bobcat Golthwaite walked in and said “here I am!”.
No, he showed up. He was uniquely and strangely himself, and he created a space that no one even knew they needed. Same with Pee Wee Herman, right? No one knew they were looking for that, so he created his space. The advice was don’t try to be a version of what you have already seen. You’ll just be a copycat. Instead, be yourself and if you need to, create a space.
I really took that to heart in my comedy and when I was getting into sports. I took all that I learned in Second City into the sports world, because I thought it didn’t seem like women were allowed to be funny in sports. All they could be was bubbly sideline reporters or serious anchorpeople, and I thought I think there is a place for women to be funny if they know their shit.
That’s my advice. Figure out what it is about you that’s unique. Don’t worry about filling a space that exists. Especially if you want to be diversified, people need to know who you are and what strengths they are getting out of you even in spaces where they may not make the most sense. Stugotz is Stugotz on the radio and he’s Stugotz on SportsCenter.
That’s what was great about ESPN telling me with SportsCenter they wanted me to be me. My first appearance on SportsCenter I said the Bears were a garbage fire. I didn’t say “well, the team is struggling this year”. I was myself. The Bears are a garbage fire.
If that’s not who you are, that’s fine. If you’re someone that prides themselves on being professional and serious, there is a model to follow in Bob Ley, but whatever it is, I think the key is if you want to be on all these different platforms, people need to know what to expect no matter the space or place.
Meet The Market Managers: Ryan Hatch, Bonneville International Phoenix
“Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it.”
For as long as I have known Ryan Hatch, he has been a good friend, encouraging me to take advantage of each opportunity put in front of me. When someone treats you that way, you cannot be anything but thrilled when you see them do the same thing.
Late last year, Ryan was elevated from a programming executive role with Bonneville to become Market Manager of the company’s Phoenix cluster. He is now overseeing every aspect of a building that he has worked in for a long time.
I thought it would be fun to visit with him to see what has changed. The last time I profiled him, he was serving as PD of Arizona Sports 98.7. The last time we profiled Bonneville Phoenix for this series, it was Scott Sutherland in the Market Manager’s chair. So, what has changed?
In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Ryan and I discuss the changing nature of our business, retaining great talent, and supporting the person who’s tasked with filling your former position and leading the programming team forward. When a company is ahead of the curve with its digital strategy and generating strong ratings and revenue, what’s next?
Demetri Ravanos: So how has the transition gone moving from programming into the market manager’s seat? We’re a little over six months into the change. How steep has the learning curve been?
Ryan Hatch: You know what? It’s been fantastic. And I have to give so much credit to Scott Sutherland, who was in the chair before me, and others within the company for really preparing me for this moment. But it’s not just a transition from programming. I would think even if I came up through the sales, marketing or finance side there would be a curve.
I’m learning new things every single day and loving it. So whether it’s six months or six years in this chair or more, I hope that I can always say that.
I love the job. I love the market. Obviously, you know, I’ve been here for such a long time and it’s the best chair to be in. I’m thrilled.
DR: You mentioned Scott and I started thinking about this after you and I set a time to talk. There’s this advantageous environment of education there, right? Because Scott is still in the area. He held your job before. You’re obviously in the building and that’s got to be advantageous for Sean Thompson. How much do those conversations take place day-to-day? There seems to be an opportunity for everybody to learn and build on the person that came before them because they can just walk down the hall and ask.
RH: Absolutely it can be advantageous because you’ve got institutional knowledge. Every person that’s been in your chair before can certainly provide important information to help expedite the onboarding process.
The other side of it is making sure that there are clear boundaries. I can speak with Sean Thompson coming in on the programming side. My goal is to empower him and embolden Sean to take this brand to a different level with new ideas and thoughts.
I’d been in that chair for so long, we were certainly ready for somebody new to come in with a new perspective and new experiences, and Sean’s done a wonderful job doing that. I think if you talk to Scott, he would probably say something similar. So when you ask the question, “is it advantageous?”, the answer is unquestionable. Yes, it is. At the same time, you have to really be clear on where those boundaries are, how much you want to give and share, and how much you want to let that person learn and experience it on their own as they’re creating their new environment, if that makes sense.
DR: So with those boundaries, are there things you see Sean putting into place that make you think, “Oh man, that’s really cool. I kind of miss programing at this moment”?
RH: Well, the irony is in asking that question, I think today is actually his 90th day on the job. So we’re still in the basic stages of him taking that chair.
He’s full of ideas, full of energy. I can’t wait to see so much of it come to fruition. But again, when you’re only three months in, you’re doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning before you dig in to start making change. I expect that to come, but he walked into a position with a great on-air staff, fantastic talent, an unbelievable digital team, with a great marketing and promotional support team behind him as well.
I’ll tell you what I’m most excited about is what’s going to happen this fall. After the listening and the learning is done, we’ll be starting to really build some exciting plans into the NFL season around the Cardinals and the NFL. We’re also hosting the Super Bowl in February of ’23 as well. So we’ve got a great big build coming here in Arizona.
DR: So let’s talk a little bit about the future and where things can go, not just for Phoenix, but for Bonneville overall. I told you this a million times. What has always impressed me about the company, even before you and I got to know each other, was that you guys were so ahead of the curve on recognizing the value of digital content. Arizona Sports is not a radio station, it is a brand.
I wonder now that you are in the market manager’s chair, how you look at all of the money from these different companies being put into podcasts. I mean, the deals being made to turn podcasts into TV shows or movies, do you ever think about what is possible or maybe what the next evolution for the digital side of Bonneville could or should be?
RH: Well, I think as a company, and not to speak for Tanya Vea, who’s in a new EVP position helping oversee a lot of our content initiatives, we’re opening up a mechanism for local ideas to be funneled up to a team led by our VP of Podcasting, Sheryl Worsley. The idea is to be able to support a local that might scale on a national level and help it achieve that potential. I think that we’re very aggressive. I think that we’re also very strategic in the podcasting world.
There’s a blessing and a curse there. The blessing is that that audience is expanding rapidly and the revenue’s been following, you know, slowly, but still following in that direction. The downside is how much time and energy and creativity a lot of our best talent have.
Do we want to put our talk show hosts, who are spending 4 hours a day creating live broadcast content, at the forefront of that effort? How many more hours a day of creative juice do they have left for a podcast or a passion project? It could be something that might not be entirely complimentary to the brand.
I think you have to be smart and strategic and understand how big of a bed it is you want to make. I think we’re being strategic about it and making the best decision for each individual circumstance.
DR: So what about from a broadcast angle? As podcasting continues to grow and becomes the kind of thing that sellers see as easier to get clients involved with, what are the things that terrestrial radio is going to have to do to secure its own future?
RH: Well, speaking on behalf of our properties here, where we’re all local news and all local sports. Really, that’s our business. I don’t think that there’s anything that can replicate the power of live, in the moment, information-based content. And that is the value proposition that broadcast has.
Now, will that traditional radio audience continue to decline and find other venues? Potentially. I mean, that’s just natural, and I think that we’ve seen that accelerate through the pandemic. That doesn’t take away from the importance though.
If you look at Bonneville Phoenix, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR, our streaming numbers are way, way up. Our monthly app users are way, way up. Our smart speaker usage is way, way up. And I think too many times we categorize one as digital and one as radio. I look at it more through the lens of what is a live broadcast and what is driven by more destination-based, story-based, topic-based choices. That’s a different experience and you can serve both.
DR: What is your view of having that live content accessed by both radios and streaming devices? When you’re a programmer, I think it is it is easier to say, “Look, people are coming to this content. This is good content. That is what matters.” But now that you’re the market manager, I know you are a real advocate for total line reporting, but now the ratings take on this whole different meaning to you than they did before. What is your view of the right path forward to paint that picture easily and accurately for advertisers about just how powerful these brands are, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR?
RH: Thank goodness we have fantastic sales management and account executives on the streets telling that story and big brands to back them up with that unique content that our stations are delivering. And as I’ve told you in different settings over the years Demetri, Nielsen is one of many tools that tell that story. When we’re on the streets talking to a potential advertiser, and understand that our game is not as national or our market is not as regional, we are hyper-locally focused. In Phoenix, Arizona, that’s a lot of small to medium-sized businesses. So when we can walk in and share a total audience report that gives a glimpse of Nielsen, which we know is antiquated and really, really needs to be reformed and updated. You’ve got to bring your Google Analytics and your Triton numbers. You have so many other tools to use to evaluate how our content is being delivered and consumed. You’ve got to paint that entire total audience story, and I will tell you that it’s a story that is very well received in Phoenix with our products.
DR: Maybe this is more of a question for your sales staff, but is it a matter of walking potential advertisers and current advertisers through each individual number, or do you find a way to synthesize it down into a simple illustration of how many people are listening to your content every day?
RH: It’s not a numbers game. It’s not getting into detail about how many tens of thousands of listeners we have on one platform and how many on another and how many views or clicks on websites. Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it. When you have something that works for your advertisers, they’re not going to be coming in and scrutinizing the numbers left and right.
Now, you have to deliver to the audience, and we have significant audiences. In fact, I’ll tell you right now, combining everything together. And it’s not apples to apples, because these are all different channels. But our audience is here in Phoenix between our websites, our apps, and our radio distribution. Our audiences have never been better. I mean, that’s a wonderful and easy story to tell.
DR: Play-by-play is obviously a big part of what you do on Arizona Sports. You and I have talked before about the landscape of Phoenix sports, and I think you’ve described it as, because Phoenix is a transplant market, you find yourself talking about everyone’s second favorite team.
So how does that play with advertisers? Do they buy into the idea that this is a unifying thing or is there some concern that it is too much of a transplant market for the value returned by play-by-play doesn’t match the cost to advertise in that space?
RH: Our original franchise, the Phoenix Suns, while, they had a disappointing end of the season, it couldn’t have been more galvanizing. That is the one team that has been here for 50-plus years. That orange blood does run deep. The Cardinals have had their moments. The Diamondbacks have the only championship in the major sports here, but that was back in 2001.
I’ll answer that question in a couple of ways. Number one, we are catering to the fans and to the super fans, but we try to create content that is going to be accessible and interesting for those that would claim that any of the franchises are their second favorite team in a given league. When you move into a market and you head to the office or nowadays maybe it’s a Zoom call, you still want to be able to have a conversation about something that’s relevant. You want a shared experience with your coworker or a neighbor, somebody at school when you’re hanging out waiting to up the kids. So often that conversation is sports.
We have a fantastic sports market. Now, where’s the passion level? Is it as high as a Boston or Philadelphia? Of course not and we’re not going to act like it is. But at the end of the day, what does an advertiser look for? They’re looking for an audience and they’re looking for something exclusive to put their message on. That’s what we’re able to offer with our play-by-play. On top of that, what’s become more and more important to us in our model, especially on the digital side over the years, is the access to those decision-makers, to the coaches, the exclusive access to the general managers with weekly calls, and things like player shows.
There’s so much more that you can offer beyond just the game itself that makes these partnerships great for our business and the advertising community.
DR: So coming out of what is being called The Great Resignation, what are you experiencing as a market manager and what are your other hiring managers experiencing? What are the new challenges of recruiting, whether it is sales or programing, any kind of talent in an environment like this?
RH: Well, let’s add to that and talk about inflationary pressures as well. I mean, there are so many factors at play right now, and I think it’s as tough as I can ever remember it.
What we’re doing here at Bonneville Phoenix is really leaning into our culture and making sure that we’re an employer of choice because we have a culture that people want to be a part of. It’s a good team environment full of hungry people that want to succeed not just for themselves. So the more hungry, humble, and smart people we find, the better off we’re going to be.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost. There’s been a dramatic shuffle. Right now, I can say that we’re close to a full boat, but that wasn’t the case a month ago. There are so many different forces at play right now. It is a difficult environment. Our news side alone faces unique challenges. News itself has been under attack for multiple years. Don’t you think that burns people out?
Absolutely I have concerns, but what can we control? Well, we can focus on executing the vision that Bonneville has provided. It’s built on passionate people and innovation. It is about creating a culture people want to be a part of.
DR: We’ve heard a lot about burnout when people talk about why they leave a job in any industry. We hear about work-life balance. You’re responsible for the entire building, so what are you telling your managers on the sales and programming side about creating an environment for employees that respects that those are real and valid concerns while still maintaining the level of expectation of quality for Arizona Sports and KTAR.
RH: We’re still committed to the highest standards, and we always will be. And we found that certain parts of the business can work pretty effectively from home, while other parts of the business really can’t. I will tell you, on the content side working from home, we did it when we had to. We did it, I would say fairly effectively for a few extended periods. But overall, in a local news and local sports environment that really is driven by the breaking news, the need to work together in a space is real. You just can’t do things as quickly or as effectively or as creatively if you’re separated. You just can’t.
Now, on the sales side, we want them on the streets. We want them out of the office, but there is a balance. So what are we asking our great sales managers to do? We’re asking them just to make sure that they are up to speed on where the activity is and that we’re doing all the jobs that need to be done. Do I ever see us going back to five days a week in the office? I don’t. I think that ship has sailed and I think that’s just fine. I think there’s some real benefit to that.
The way to make this all work is to empower our department heads to come up with a plan that’s going to work best for them, for their people, and deliver on what our expectations are for the business. And then as leaders, we have to understand that the plan is going to be evolving. It really is. This is not going to be decided on a new policy set. I think that we’re in a new world, probably for the rest of our lives.
Broadcasting Fills The Baseball Void For Keith Moreland
“When I got through… I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”
Sports color analysts are more often than not former players. This has been a consistent norm across sports broadcasting at all levels. The analyst is there to add “color” to the play-by-play broadcaster’s metaphorical and verbal “drawing” of the game. For former MLB slugger and catcher, Keith Moreland, this was the surprise post-playing retirement career that has boosted him to a key figure in Austin media and national media alike.
Moreland played football and baseball at the University of Texas before making his way to the MLB for 12 years with key contributions to the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs in the 1980s.
Moreland reminisced on his decision to play baseball full time: “I thought I was going to be in the NFL, but Earl Campbell changed that. I had just played summer ball. We had won a championship and I missed the first few days of two-a-days. I hadn’t even had a physical yet and I’m in a scrimmage. I stepped up to this freshman running back and as he ducked his shoulder, one of his feet hit my chest and the other hit my face mask and he kept on truckin’. I got up and I thought ‘I could be a pretty good baseball player.’
So I told Coach Royal after practice I was going to focus on baseball and he asked ‘what took you so long? We were surprised you came back because we think you have a really good shot at playing professional baseball.'”
It was a good choice for Moreland. He was part of the 1973 College World Series winning Texas Longhorns baseball team. While at Texas Moreland hit .388 and became the all-time leader in hits for the College World Series. After being drafted by the Phillies in the 7th round of the 1975 draft, Moreland would go-on to play in the majors from 1978 to 1989.
“You go your whole life trying to get to play professionally. When I got through my opportunity to play in the big leagues, I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”
Broadcasting was not the original retirement plan for Moreland. He first tried his luck at coaching with his first stop being his alma mater as an assistant for the Longhorns. At the time, Bill Schoening (a Philadelphia native and Phillies fan), was the radio play-by-play broadcaster. Schoening made Moreland a go-to for a pre-game interview and convinced him to come on talk shows. Schoening even convinced Moreland to practice live broadcasting skills by taking a recorder to games and listening back to them to learn.
“Bill was the guy who brought me onboard and I still have those tapes and I really learned from them, but I don’t want anyone else to ever hear them!” Moreland adds with a chuckle on how far he has come in over 25 years of broadcasting.
Moreland has been a key part of University of Texas radio broadcasts for baseball since the 1990s and has catapulted that broadcast experience to Texas high school football, Longhorn football radio and television broadcasts, ESPN, the Little League World Series, the Chicago Cubs and more since hanging up his cleats and picking up a microphone.
While his playing days are well behind him, Moreland still takes the spirit of his professional athlete background to his broadcasting:
“If you don’t bring energy to your broadcast, somebody’s gonna turn the game on and wonder ‘what’s wrong? Are they losing the game?’”, Moreland remarks, “So you have to come prepared and with energy for the broadcasts.”
Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting
The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.
As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.
For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.
While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements.
While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized.
Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.
People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.
First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.
The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues.
None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.
As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.