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.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Meet The Podcasters – John Middlekauff, The Volume
“I worked in college football and I worked in the NFL, and the reality is you talk about it in those buildings like a fan would talk. ‘Is this player better than the other player?’ ‘This coach sucks.’ I mean, you have the same conversations.”
John Middlekauff is in the right business at the right time. America has never wanted more football talk and what stands out are educated people with unique points of view.
Before his media career began, John was a scout, first in the college football world and then for the Philadelphia Eagles. His insight on the game is informed by experiences on multiple levels. It is no surprise that Colin Cowherd saw Middlekauff as the perfect addition to his podcast network.
Our conversation focuses on the value of authenticity, why it’s good not to be beholden to a team or business and what conversations he has learned his audience wants to participate in. He even answers my question about what is wrong with the Carolina Panthers in the bleakest, most disheartening way possible.
Demetri Ravanos: Can there ever be too much NFL content out there?
John Middlekauff: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s obviously as big as it’s ever been. I think the key is to not just regurgitate. Everyone’s watching the games. Clearly, there are a lot of different NFL podcasts. Everyone talks about the NFL. Every show talks about the NFL because clearly, there is a demand for it. It’s somewhat supply and demand.
I’m 38 years old. When I was a kid, baseball was still huge in the early mid-’90s – Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, [Ken] Griffey Jr. That kind of dipped through Michael Jordan taking the NBA, which was as big as any league, right at his peak. They’ve ebbed and flowed, and obviously, the NFL’s passed them. Now, the NFL was big in the ’90s, but it’s gone to a different stratosphere the last, I’d say 20 years, the [Tom] Brady and Peyton Manning kind of era.
For the foreseeable future, I think, who knows? I mean you can never predict 20 years ahead, but for the next this next decade it feels like it’s going to maintain pretty consistently. So, I would say as of right now, probably not.
DR: As you know, podcasts in general have opened up the door for all kinds of different content. You come at it with an experience that not a lot of people talking about the NFL have with the league. You think about something like the ManningCast, the fact that Pro Football Focus is able to sustain itself with subscriptions. It seems like the appetite for the type of NFL content that the average person wants has certainly changed.
JM: Well, my whole thing is just to try to talk about it like a fan would. I worked in college football and I worked in the NFL, and the reality is you talk about it in those buildings like a fan would talk. “Is this player better than the other player?” “This coach sucks.” I mean, you have the same conversations. You just might be having him with a guy that could fire the offensive coordinator or has the potential to trade the player you’re talking about, but you have the same conversation as the five guys that watch their favorite team at the bar or in their home have. You just have closer access to the people who make the decisions.
I actually kind of pride myself. I don’t get that nerdy on stuff. There are a lot of podcasts that get much more nerdy and analytical on football. I just kind of talk about it like I’ve always talked about it, like I did in the NFL and like I did when I worked with Jason [Barrett] on radio.
You’ve got to make it entertaining, but I just try to talk about it like the fan would. Luckily, that’s just how I talk about it, so it’s been pretty easy for me so far.
DR: What kind of conversations do people want to have with you on social media? Is it just more fan talk or do you find that people do want to figure out, “What is the life of the scout like? What was that experience like for you?”
JM: We have talked about that from time to time, but I think it’s much more specific on, “What the f*** is up with this coach?,” right? “What’s what’s going on with our team?” Or maybe something bigger picture, like, “What should our general manager do? Should our coach get fired? Is this guy really a top player? Who should we draft?” Stuff like that; it’s more on that angle.
No one gives a shit on a daily basis how many players you write up on the road or when you write those reports. I don’t spend any time talking about that really at all unless I get asked and then we will talk about it.
DR: Well, since you since you brought up that that’s the way you talk, I told you I’m here in North Carolina. What the f*** is up with Frank Reich, man? He can’t be this bad at the job, right?
JM: That’s a good example, you know? I mean, working with Colin [Cowherd], it’s such a big, national audience that you get people from all over. Really, the Internet has made it so you’ll get, “Hey, I’m stationed over in Germany and I’m a big Panther fan” or, “Hey, I’m in Australia. I’m a diehard Seahawks fan,” which is cool. It shows you the power. Listen, social media and all this stuff can drive us all nuts and you wish it didn’t exist, but then there are also the positives of it, especially in the business we’re in.
I would say that the one thing I have definitely taken away from Colin is, “You’re going to be wrong on stuff. Just move on.” Colin’s big thing was like, “I’m not in the credit business. You’re right and wrong. Who cares? Just be entertaining.”
I love Bryce Young; I watched him at Alabama. Like most people over the last ten years, I end up watching a lot of Alabama games. I’m a California guy; he’s from California. It took about two preseason snaps to go, “Holy shit, he’s tiny.” Now, he’s always been the same size. But you watch him in the pros and he looks extra small, especially when his team is not good. And you go, “I don’t know if it’s going to work.”
Clearly, the other two quarterbacks, C.J. Stroud, he’s got a really good coach in DeMeco [Ryans], but he just looks like a normal NFL quarterback. Anthony Richardson is like Cam Newton 2.0. So you compare him to little Bryce Young and you go “God, they might want a re-do on that one.”
DR: So not only am I in North Carolina, I’m an Alabama graduate. So like, this is particularly personal and painful to me.
JM: Do you agree? I mean, doesn’t he look really, really tiny?
DR: He does look really small, but I also look at the play-calling, and it seems pretty obvious to me that like, “Oh, this is not the dude Frank Reich wanted.” And I don’t think that Frank Reich is acting out or trying to sabotage Bryce. I just don’t think he has a lot of confidence in Bryce, and I don’t know that that’s necessarily fair, but I also think it’s pretty clear he never really had a plan for the guy.
JM: Well, if that’s true, then it’s all destined to blow up, and that’s the type of stuff we talk about, like when people aren’t aligned – you know, the head coach, the GM, the owner forces stuff, because that happens in a lot of industries. When the owner of the car dealership is mad at the guy who runs the day-to-day business no one outside cares, right? But in this business, those dynamics sink or swim whether you win or lose.
Now Carolina doesn’t have their picks. They trade away D.J. Moore. They’ve got no talent on offense. I don’t see how it gets better for a couple of years, right?
DR: I’m 100% with you on that. Alright, you mentioned Colin [Cowherd], so I do want to ask about what Colin has done with his podcast, and I don’t just mean at The Volume, I mean like his podcast feed for his radio show too. He’s slipping The Volume shows in there all the time. How much has that affected your own audience? Are you seeing real growth from week-to-week whenever you pop up in Colin’s feed?
JM: What makes my show unique is I’ve been doing it well before The Volume started with Colin. I don’t remember the exact date; maybe late 2018 we were going full-time. So I’ve been doing the show and connected to that feed. Obviously it ramped up, I think, with the promotion through The Volume as he built the team around so many different elements. Before I would just do a podcast with no video element.
Obviously, YouTube is big. I go on with him right now during football season every Sunday and we get 150,000; 175,000 people watching a 40-minute show. So there are a lot of different elements that help there, but from the feed specifically? I mean, I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been going on it now five years probably. It always helped. People would hit me up and say [they] “discovered [me] through him,” so that’s pretty awesome.
It’s like anything in life. You get an opportunity to get a new person listening. Most people in podcasts don’t have to the distribution and the power of being with one of the most powerful guys in the industry in sports, specifically football. It’s been freaking awesome. I take a lot of pride and put a lot of effort into every show I do, because I know that every show, more than likely is going to get new people for the for the first time.
DR: You just threw it out as an example, the amount of people listening when you and Colin do your Sunday show. How much are you paying attention to those numbers? How much are you seeking out the metrics versus how much are you making your decisions based off what is presented to you from the folks at The Volume?
JM: Yeah, we don’t really have those conversations, to be honest. Now, I’m a big market guy, I’m a 49er guy; Bay Area guy. I worked for the Eagles. We will talk all day about anything that’s interesting, right? If something crazy happens – someone gets fired – Matt Rhule gets fired. But I mean, the Cowboys and Niners play Sunday night. I’ve been in this business long enough. I was a consumer of radio. Back when I was in junior high, I used to listen to Jim Rome. I mean, I’ve been a sports talk radio guy since I was really young and KNBR was in its heyday. I know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve learned it over time but have a pretty good idea of what to attack and what not to attack.
DR: I know you were on sports radio in the Bay Area for a while. I know you’ve done some TV as well. Coming up in a more traditional media setting, are there things that you had to either unlearn or learn differently to become an effective podcaster?
JM: It’s definitely different. On radio, there are breaks, right? This is a much different medium.
Also, there’s no rules of what I can say and not say. Now, I tend to probably swear on the higher end of people and I’ve learned that while I’m going to have a lot of people in their 20s, I’m also going to have people in their early 40s with young children listening in the car. I try to be cognizant of just being careful, but authenticity, I think, has been a big reason the show works and has had a lot of success. A reason we’re able to make money is because I’m not faking anything. Actually, a lot of our stuff is anti-fakes and frauds and phonies. That really works in 2023.
What people are seeking out is kind of people who aren’t afraid to say whatever they think. Because like I said, back to what we were talking about, about the fans, that’s just how people talk, right? There’s a way people talk about sports, and then you turn on TV and they’re just talking completely different because they’re afraid to offend someone or whatever. It’s not what my show kind of stands for.
DR: I know this is this is not football. This is baseball. But like you have the experience of working at a radio station [95.7 The Game in San Francisco] with a very sensitive play-by-play partner who wasn’t always putting the best product on the field. Certainly, that is a very different element of how you talk about something that people can see with their own arms.
JM: Well, you know, we had the A’s, but we also had the Raiders, and I did the Raiders postgame show and I pissed them off a lot. After Jason had left, they wanted me gone. That was ultimately the best thing that ever happened to me. It led me here, and I pride myself on not being in business with teams. I’m not the type guy that can be a business with teams. I mean, it’s one thing if your team’s like the freakin’ Brady/Belichick Patriots in their prime. That’s pretty easy. But when you’re a lot like the Raiders, what do you say?
It’s really difficult and I think I’m a pretty good voice for people when things are going wrong because I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to play, right? It’s really hard. So I’m hesitant on just missed tackles and stuff like that. I don’t waste my time talking a bunch of shit about every single player, but I think coaching is something where I feel very, very comfortable letting it rip. You know, they’re making a ton of money and a lot of guys, I think, are kind of stealing.
Luckily for the sport of football, the power of the coaches and the power of the coordinators is a thing that a lot of people talk about, which I love talking about, which makes for great just conversation, right? Especially during the season and after games – reacting to what should have happened and what didn’t – we talk a lot about that.
To learn more about Point-To-Point Marketing’s Podcast and Broadcast Audience Development Marketing strategies, contact Tim Bronsil at [email protected] or 513-702-5072.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Taylor Swift Coverage Should Be a Reminder to Sports Radio
The conversation around Swift at NFL games goes back to radio 101.
Taylor Swift has set the sports media world ablaze — for better or worse — with her appearances at a pair of NFL games in the last two weeks.
Make no mistake about it: complaining about the amount of coverage she is getting reeks of an inferiority complex.
We love sports. It’s why we do what we do, and why we chose the career field we did. And in our narrow view, no one should be able to come into our stratosphere and take the limelight away from the thing we love, right?
The coverage of Taylor Swift, whether it be from CBS, NBC, or your local sports radio stations, embodies Radio 101: Play. The. Hits.
You know what everyone outside of sports radio spent the summer talking about? Taylor Swift. You know what drives traffic on every single platform? Taylor Swift. You know who the most famous woman — maybe the most famous person — on the face of the planet is? Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift content is the “Is Joe Flacco elite?”, “Is LeBron better than Michael?”, and “Give me your Mount Rushmore for (insert franchise here)” topics rolled into one. She drives traffic, reaction, engagement, and ratings. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?
We’re all after notoriety, publicity, and attention. To say you aren’t is disingenuous. Taylor Swift just happens to embody those things, and for the time being, is spending her free Sundays watching someone she may or may not actually be dating.
Many pundits have been preoccupied with the amount of coverage she has received. Of course the NFL is going to attach itself to her. Quite literally, she’s more famous than the league is. And the ever-hungry corporate beast that is the NFL is always looking for new ways to make fans. Do you know why the NFL let ESPN+ and Disney+ air an alternate broadcast featuring Toy Story characters? It wasn’t because they were bored! They’re (for lack of a better term) indoctrinating your kids to like football!
Of course sports radio hosts and stations are going to talk about her. She’s the most famous person in the world, and she’s dropped her legions of fans and followers at your doorstep. Now, is it likely that you’re going to end up growing a passionate Swifty following for your brand? Hell no.
But what does Radio 101 entail? Play the hits. Capture the moment. Talk about what everyone is talking about.
What is everyone talking about? Taylor Swift. What has a history of driving traffic, engagement, and reaction? Taylor Swift.
I understand if you’re sick of the content. Driving things into the ground until it’s pulverized into dust is what we do, like it or not. I also understand if you don’t want to talk about her, Travis Kelce, seeing her on the broadcasts, or anything to do with her. I totally get it.
But don’t stand in the way or bitch and moan about the people that do. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio. Reach him at [email protected].
Matt McClearin is Not Just Filling a Void at The Ticket
“As much as I dreamt about this opportunity, it’s even more so than I probably could ever have dreamt.”
Norm Hitzges is considered an industry pioneer, helping establish morning sports talk radio in the Dallas area. Spending a total of 48 years in the format, he made an immense contribution to the field. When Hitzges officially retired in June, there were questions surrounding who would move into the midday slot on Sportsradio 96.7 and 1310 The Ticket to work alongside host Donovan Lewis. The station eventually made the decision to bring one of its own home in Matt McClearin, and he has excelled in the assignment since officially taking over in August.
McClearin, a Texas native who grew up listening to Hitzges and other programs on the outlet, is living his dream with the medium he set his sights on from the time he was young. Over the years, he had a chance to be around Hitzges and saw his elite level of preparation and congeniality firsthand.
“One of the kindest humans I think that I’ve ever met,” McClearin said of Hitzges, “especially in this business, and that says a lot, I think, about how to carry yourself. Even when you have success and get to a certain level, [knowing] the right way to treat people and the right way to go about your daily business.”
It is safe to say that Hitzges had an impact on everyone at The Ticket, and it is a legacy that McClearin hopes to further perpetuate. Every time he walks into the studios, it is not lost on him the magnitude of the assignment he has been entrusted with, and he remains focused and driven on realizing his full potential.
Reaching this point took endurance and patience, but the timing ultimately ended up working out in his best interest. Growing up in the metroplex, The Ticket was a fundamental part of the sports sound and represented McClearin’s innate ambition.
McClearin was selected by station management to work in paid positions for two years while attending Texas State University – production director and program director – which entailed 20 to 25 hours per week within the offices and studio. In addition to working on job-specific functions, he also used the time to perfect his editing skills and board operating procedures and gain on-air repetitions. By the time he graduated and sought to apply for a job, he surmised that possessing versatility would engender a larger swath of chances to become immersed in the craft.
“Originally, [I was] kind of practicing the craft as much as [I] could and learning as much as I could,” McClearin said. “I could increase [my] value, I think, of being able to walk into a radio station in Dallas in a Top 5 market and say, ‘I can run the board; I can do production [and] I can do on-air stuff,’ but not just talk.”
By happenstance, he learned that The Ticket was looking for a part-time sports anchor to fill in for various shows, leading him to send his demo reel to the outlet. After some conversations with station management, McClearin officially joined the team and became immersed in refining his on-air skillset with guidance from program director Jeff Catlin.
“He’s very hands-on [by], early on, giving you a lot of constructive criticism and helping you to learn the ins and outs and proper formatics and how to set up each segment correctly,” McClearin said of Catlin. “Doing things like that and having those opportunities [are things] I always enjoyed.”
McClearin eventually began working as a pregame and postgame studio host for Dallas Stars broadcasts. Moreover, he would attend Dallas Cowboys games and collect audio from the players and coaches to edit and send back to the radio station to be used across its programming.
Working hard and going the extra mile helped separate McClearin from his competition both inside and outside of the radio station, ultimately earning him a weekend show with Scot Harrison. His candid assessments of the local teams and ability to delegate on the show, indifferent towards whether or not he is the center of attention, have rendered his hosting abilities conducive to success.
“I’m just a big believer in being who you are and being real and presenting that on the air,” McClearin said, “so no matter what you’re going through or what’s different about you, there are listeners out there that can connect with that and understand that you’re being real.”
The program remained a fixture on the weekends before both hosts were offered the chance to become part of the weekday programming lineup, following sports radio luminary Paul Finebaum. This opening, however, would require McClearin and Harrison to pick up and move to Birmingham so they could broadcast from the studios of Jox 94.5.
Both hosts eventually agreed and spent the next three-and-a-half years on the outlet, growing a new audience and becoming an indispensable part of the evenings in the area. There are certain instances in any business that are fugacious and unexpected in nature though, and the show cancellation in 2016 was an example of such.
McClearin returned to Dallas to work as a part-time radio host on ESPN Radio 103.3 FM, an extraordinary circumstance in that he was in the same building he used to work in with The Ticket. The station was operating under a local marketing agreement (LMA) with Cumulus Media and competing with the very outlet they were sharing the building with, cultivating a professional atmosphere mired by the ratings. The onset of the global pandemic caused the station to shutter.
“It was one of those things where you’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing and believe that there’s an appeal to what you’re doing,” McClearin said. “You get hired for a reason, and you continue to perform and try to grow what we were doing at the time.”
Catlin continued to serve as a mentor for McClearin during his years away from The Ticket, a venerable radio professional who has helped further build the outlet into a local powerhouse. The station frequently posts stellar ratings each quarter, representing a place where McClearin feels he can grow his brand and show to unrealized heights.
“The goal is to be No. 1 in the ratings in our [demographic] and to continue that,” McClearin said. “That’s something that I think drives me every day. When you’re not No. 1, you want to know, ‘Okay, well why aren’t we No. 1?,’ and when you get to that point, the question then becomes, ‘Okay, well how do we maintain this and continue to go and be better and bigger than what we were the previous month?’”
Before he ultimately returned to The Ticket to work with Lewis in the midday time slot, there was a bit of irony in that he, once again, called Birmingham home. When McClearin’s original program was canceled, he felt as if he had assimilated into the city and found his niche. He was disappointed in the outcome and always thought of the area in a favorable light, which then led to his phone ringing with a call from program director Ryan Haney.
As fortune would have it, Haney asked McClearin if he would be interested in returning to the station to host a solo program as part of a refreshed local lineup. Without hesitation, he conveyed that he would be interested in making a comeback in the locale, a full-circle moment filled with feelings of both satisfaction and gratitude.
“I never thought that I would go back to Alabama, much less work for the same station that, five years prior, had made the decision to let, at the time, Scot Harrison and I go,” McClearin said. “….I never wanted to leave in the first place, [so] I was really, really happy and I’m very fortunate that Ryan believed in me and gave me that opportunity to come back.”
The dynamic of the show differed the second time around in that he was the primary host, yet he also had help from John Saber and Conrad Van Order. Being around the Birmingham audience for a second time gave him more chances to talk about college football, basketball and other sports topics dominating the local and national scene.
Moving from one marketplace more focused on professional teams to one that was dominated by college sports, he furthered his abilities and worked to finish at the top of the ratings.
“I say the things that I actually believe in and I talk about the things that I really do to where, yes, sometimes I think I probably do some weird things and I’m a different type of person, but that’s just my personality and I have my quirks and my eccentricities,” McClearin said. “Again, I think if I present that and that is me, then the audience understands that and I think it comes across that way.”
Just as he thought during his initial stint in Birmingham, McClearin was prepared to stay in the marketplace for the long haul and try to further cement his name in the radio airwaves. Being able to reconnect with the audience and discuss meaningful, impactful topics was validating and worthwhile for him, and he was especially steadfast to the outlet. After all, he never had a particular interest in voyaging to television and still, to this day, concentrates his efforts on growing and maintaining the sports radio format.
“My brain just doesn’t think like that in those three-minute little quips that you do,” McClearin said. “TV is just so much more structured and short than radio, where we can have a 15-minute segment and have a real conversation.”
The only way McClearin was going to leave the station was if The Ticket came along, and sure enough, an opening became available concurrent with Hitzges’ retirement. While he enjoyed his time in Birmingham, he doubled down on his commitment to the Dallas-Fort Worth marketplace for the long run in making this move and conceding a solo program for a new co-host.
“When I got the call and went through the process with Jeff Catlin, [it] was a little bit surreal because it truly is a dream coming true,” McClearin said. “I found out that they’re going to put me with Donovan Lewis is kind of when Norm Hitzges decided to retire and I was going to walk in, [and] it’s really such a new show. Donovan and Norm had had such success for a while.”
As soon as McClearin took the air with Lewis for the first time, he felt an instant connection. Just a few months into the program, both hosts know there is plenty of room for growth and consistent improvement to create enthralling and proprietary content that will amplify cume and serve the community.
“We both are just two people, I think, that really care about the listener [and] what we’re putting together each and every day to make it the best that we can,” McClearin said. “So far, it’s been really easy and it’s been just – as much as I dreamt about this opportunity, it’s even more so than I probably could ever have dreamt.”
The Ticket is in competition with 105.3 The Fan in the Dallas-Fort Worth marketplace, along with other media outlets across various platforms. Whereas the Birmingham market releases its ratings through quarterly diaries, Dallas has monthly figures through PPM, but he makes sure the influx of quantitative data does not command his mindset.
“We can all see the ratings that the two main sports stations here have – they’re very healthy ratings and I think there’s a real hunger,” McClearin said. “A lot of that is football-driven – the Cowboys, nationally, are crazy relevant. All the [networks with] NBC and ABC and FOX and everybody; they always want to put them on because the Cowboys drive the needle. Well, they also drive the needle in Dallas very, very much so.”
Understanding and capitalizing on the reach and relevance of the Cowboys helps these local programs gain further traction. Arriving unprepared equates to marketplace malfeasance.
“Prep is very important to me, and I like to try to come into the pre-show meeting that I have with Donovan and our producer Travis every day with my own ideas, but also, ‘Okay, Donnie, what do you think?,’ and then, ‘Travis, what do you think about that?,’” McClearin said. “From that and our own individual prep, we kind of do the show prep together [to present] the in-depth segments that we roll out.”
The majority of content focuses on the Cowboys since they are the team that exhorts the most interest in the area, but there are plenty of other storylines within the landscape. The Texas Rangers are headed to the Major League Baseball postseason for the first time since 2016, while the Dallas Mavericks organization enters its first full season with superstar guard tandem Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Sometimes, sports fans do not want to solely listen to discussions about the teams themselves but rather hear about other pertinent topics in which they may be interested.
“I like to call them, I guess, lifestyle segments because I don’t think anybody, even the most passionate sports fan, only does sports in their life,” McClearin said. “We all have relationships and we have TV shows that we like to watch, and we went to the store and [some] random thing happened. We incorporate that, I think, into the show, and I think that’s The Ticket itself. It’s a very real station that has real conversations with a focus on sports.”
Everything throughout McClearin’s professional journey has centered on reaching this moment, and he wants to maximize the opportunity he has earned by bringing his best to the air on a daily basis.
From the onset, he knew where he wanted to end up and took the necessary steps to get there, even if it meant enduring some difficult setbacks. By taking advantage of every opportunity in his purview, he has made it in front of the microphone, and he has no plans on going anywhere at any time soon.
“I want to continue to grow the audience and have as many people enjoy doing what I love to do as possible,” McClearin said. “I get a lot of motivation from that [and] just the excitement of driving into the station every day and the excitement of when that light comes on and it’s time for the show. It’s like being on stage to me; it’s almost like you just get kind of high off of that feeling, and I love it.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.