Have you watched Season 3 of Last Chance U yet? If not, go ahead and plan a binge night of watching every episode on Netflix, you won’t be disappointed.
In the newly released series, cameras follow around the Independence Community College football program in southeast Kansas during the 2017 season, showcasing just what junior college is all about on the gridiron.
If head coach Jason Brown’s eccentric behavior doesn’t draw you in, then guys like linebacker Bobby Bruce and his rough childhood in Florida certainly will. If even that doesn’t do it for you, then the compassion and care that English professor LaTonya Pinkard shows her students, will undoubtedly will. Truly, Last Chance U has outdone itself with the latest season.
However, there is an element of sports radio that makes its way into the new season, via play-by-play voice Jeff Carpenter. A long-time resident of southeast Kansas, Carpenter plays a large role in the series and makes several on camera appearances. Throughout each game, his play-by-play calls set the scene for the highest and lowest moments of the season for the Pirates. If you’ve seen the series, you more than likely came away impressed with Carpenter’s high energy style that came across as smooth and informative. But as skilled as he may be now, his career calling football games all started by a dare from his friends.
In the year 2003, Carpenter had no play-by-play experience, but that didn’t stop his friends from thinking he was capable at the craft. One night, while sitting around with his buddies and listening to an Independence High School football game on the radio, Carpenter’s friends made it clear they didn’t like what was coming through the speakers. In fact, they were positive their friend could do a much better job and urged him to give to a try. Carpenter chalked it up as an off night for that particular play-by-play guy, but still took his friends’ advice and made his way to the local radio station to try his luck.
After meeting with general manager Patty McCormick, he was honest about his lack of any experience in the business. Though most people would probably be turned away at that instant, McCormick instead told Carpenter to record his call of that night’s basketball game between the Kansas Jayhawks and Missouri Tigers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Soon after, Carpenter was in the booth and calling games for the first time in his career. Though it meant doing play-by-play for local high school football games, he didn’t care. Even though it was more of something he stumbled into it, rather than something he sought out, the experience and enjoyment alone was worth every second.
After proving his worth calling both football and basketball games for Independence High School, Carpenter was asked to be the voice of the Independence Pirates, a title he’s kept for the last 14 years. Through his years with the ICC football program, Carpenter can honestly say he’s seen both sides of the equation. During the lowest of times with the program, he was a witness to a 21-game losing streak with the Pirates. At the same time, he was also calling high school football games, where his team had a 38-game losing streak. So, not to ruin the entire season of the latest Last Chance U, but you’ll now have a better idea why Carpenter was so happy in several scenes after finally being able to call games for a winning football team.
Though a bit of fame and recognition has now come his way after the recent season of Last Chance U, it’s never been the reason why Carpenter wanted to call games. Like most JUCO play-by-play guys, it’s just a hobby on the side that will probably never pay all the bills. Along with working at a hospital, Carpenter’s source of income comes from being a personal fitness trainer at a gym he runs in southeast Kansas.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the ICC Pirates than Carpenter. That’s evident many times throughout the series. What essentially started as a dare, Carpenter’s name and voice is now recognizable by millions after the Netflix documentary. But that new fame isn’t going to his head. No, instead, it’s all about the upcoming 2018 season and the new ventures that ICC football radio will explore.
TM: Until I watched season 3 of Last Chance U, I didn’t realize how much ICC football meant to the town of Independence. As the play-by-play guy of the team, do you feel like you need to be a big part of the small community?
JC: A lot of people come up to me and they’re like, well you’re the backbone of what’s Independence in this season of Last Chance U. If they feel that way, that’s great, I mean I don’t really feel I need to be so pro-biased for the Pirates or that I have to be the ‘rah rah guy.’ I don’t look at it like that.
What I do on the radio when I call play-by-play is high energy and high emotion. Anybody will see it that’s watched the show, but that’s just how I call the game. Of course you’re going to be leaning towards the team you’re representing, but at the same time, in terms of the town of Independence, I mean, born and raised here, I know a lot of the history and naturally it’s going to be something that’s held close to my heart.
TM: Other that the actual game itself, what are your other duties with the team during the week?
JC: We have a one-hour show on Thursday nights at a sports bar in downtown Independence called Turbo’s. Coach Jason Brown and some of his assistants will come in, we’ll have a one-on-one interview with each of them. We’re operating primarily off three headsets. Netflix and Last Chance U are there and filming it. Basically, the show is me re-capping what went on from the game before, bringing the fans up to speed on how the coach felt everything went and then what’s coming up for the next game on Saturday. It also gives the staff an opportunity to bring in players that were a big part of the previous game so people can find out more about them as well.
TM: Coach Brown’s antics certainly drew a lot of response from the series. Is it difficult working with someone that’s as tough as he is?
JC: It’s really not. I’m actually pretty good friends with Coach Brown. What we have is a working relationship on the mic and that’s just an added bonus to us. It’s a real natural conversation that we have. It’s not forced, there’s nothing that’s jaded or a tough thing for either one of us to be able to hold a conversation.
What he does on the field, to some people, maybe it’s something they have a hard time understanding and accepting. Let’s face it, in the Midwest as we are, the plains states, we’re still in the Bible Belt. It’s kind of tough for people to really resonate with that sometimes.
To be real honest with you, it’s a results oriented business and that’s what all coaching is. In the Jayhawk Conference, which is arguably the toughest in the nation, it’s an extremely cutthroat business. You have to recruit the best players, you have to bring the best players in any way you can and need to. A lot of these players are coming in from really tough family backgrounds. Coach Brown’s language may be tough and gruff to some people, but the reality is that for some of these kids, that’s all they know and that’s how they respond. I think the folks that come into it open minded and not with their arms crossed and mind already made up, they’re probably going to understand it a little better. Some people you’re just not going to win over.
TM: How do you handle it if he slips up and cusses on air? It seems like that happened a couple of times in the series?
JC: (Laughs) I try to beep it with my voice but sometimes I’m not quick enough. We really only had a couple of incidents where that’s happened. Quite honestly, it happened both times on the Thursday night show at Turbo’s. It was a minor slip up but I quickly gave him the look with my eyes along with a head nod. He kind of rolled his eyes, it was that kind of thing.
He’s just such a compassionate guy and really passionate when it comes to football, his eyes just glare with fire. I think sometimes even when he’s just talking about, he ends up going over the edge and doesn’t realize it.
I think most coaches that are real passionate and fiery guys, it’s just going to come out sometimes. He certainly doesn’t do it on purpose or to put me in a bad spot, but I think it’s a situation that presents itself in the conversation sometimes.
TM: How much do you think the exposure of Last Chance U is going to positively affect the radio broadcast this year?
JC: I think it’s going to be pretty big. Already, we’re receiving a lot of online sales in merchandise and even a huge number of people all around the globe that want to buy tickets for this year’s home games. It’s going to be big, I think all the way around, including the ICC Coaches Show at Turbo’s.
I foresee us having a greater number of people, not only coming to the games, but listening to it as well. This year, thankfully, one of our local radio stations is going to provide the coverage here in Independence. They’re going to make sure the games are streamed live with audio and video, so it’s going to be a big upgrade for us. I do think that will help the popularity and it’s certainly going to help the exposure.
As you know, we’re a nationwide recruiting conference now. These kids live all over the country and we have to have that exposure online. That’s going to be provided this year and we’re excited about that.
TM: This gig isn’t your full-time job but you’re still around the program a ton. Do you get attached to certain players like so many of us watching did with guys like Bobby Bruce during the series?
JC: Oh yeah, I certainly do. I mean, there’s no way, as a human being, you’re going to get attached to these guys. Let’s face it, they’re young men anywhere from 18-21 years old that are a ways away from home. Some of them even for the first time and trying to find their way.
You live their life with them while they’re here in Independence. It’s a tough transition and sometimes even a culture shock. You see the trials and tribulations that these guys go through on a daily basis and you can’t help but have compassion for them. Obviously, I watched the series on Netflix and there’s certain episodes that are favorites of mine. There’s also certain guys that are favorites of mine. I definitely resonated with several of them and there’s some that we’ll be friends for the rest of our lives.
TM: You’re doing play-by-play for a 2-year school, which means a ton of new faces are coming into the program every year. How are you getting to know each guy, understanding their background story and everything else before the first game?
JC: That’s the difficult thing about anyone that does play-by-play. Especially when you’re talking about the junior college level. You have these guys, most of them for one year. They’re here roughly from 8 months to 18 months, depending on what their status is academically. It’s really difficult to try to figure out where they went to high school, what they accomplished and what they bring to the table. Pronunciations of names can even be difficult to figure out. But I think that’s one of the challenges that I really like about it. That’s what separates high school football from the junior college game.
It’s by far and large a big step up and a faster game. In my opinion, we’re in the Jayhawk Conference and that’s the SEC of junior college football. We have guys that are not only going to play D1 football, but they’re going to be playing on Sunday. It is a great challenge, but the best way to answer is that you do the best you can and every week is a learning experience. You learn more and more about each of these players.
TM: With that being said, I’m guessing you have to rely on other play-by-play guys to help out with name pronunciations, stats, info and more since it’s not as readily available at the JUCO level?
JC: Oh yeah, no doubt. You really hope you can have a good relationship with each of them and be able to talk to them. Even though there’s going to be rivalries to where you’re really pulling for you team, you want to have a working relationship.
One of my really good friends is the play-by-play guy for Dodge City, his name is Damon Post. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s been calling games for Dodge City since I started at Independence. You do rely on the other sportscasters, I think it’s really an unspoken rule that guys help out each other. There’s always going to be those names and pronunciations that you’re going to need help with.
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at [email protected].
Which Network Has the Best NFL Pregame Show?
I watched for chemistry on the panel, the personality of the group as a whole and the value of the information the show provided to get me ready for the game.
It’s far too early to start handing out awards in the NFL, with a few weeks left in the season. But it’s never too early to rank the various NFL pregame shows on the main and cable networks.
Talented people coming together to get the viewer ready for that week’s slate of games. Human interest stories, fantasy football news, and reports from the “insiders” make for standard Thursday/Sunday/Monday viewing.
Who does it all best on Sunday specifically? Last Sunday, I was able to get a good look at the shows. I watched for chemistry on the panel, the personality of the group as a whole, and the value of the information the show provided to get me ready for the game.
The shows are listed in ranked order from the best to the sixth best.
#1 – FOX NFL Sunday
The current crew is led by Curt Menefee, who is the host and moderator. Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy Johnson, Howie Long, and Michael Strahan make up the main ensemble. Rob Gronkowski has made a few appearances this season. The FOX NFL Sunday insider is Jay Glazer.
This show is celebrating 30 years on the air this season and while there are only a few of the original members still on the show, it remains the cream of the crop. I just like the personality of the collective group. Johnson, Long, and Bradshaw have been there from the beginning and the seamless addition of Strahan makes it work even better. The show comes across as so natural. The conversations seem to flow like they are just football fans sitting around talking about the game they all love and either played or coached at the highest level.
Menefee is the perfect, “referee/moderator/traffic cop” for the show. He is really smooth making transitions from topic to topic and keeping things rolling. A ringmaster is needed from time to time when Bradshaw starts playing with his panel mates. He is the ultimate teammate, and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself or join in on a “bit”.
Glazer is a polarizing figure, coming off as “brash” at times, but there’s no arguing his sources and information. Usually, Glazer breaks his news on the show, as opposed to social media. Most of the time the info he provides is first seen on the show. It’s top-notch.
Each panelist is strong in opinion without shouting it and getting into heated arguments about the point. As I mentioned these are all guys that have major personalities, but they seem to understand the dynamic. They look at their show as something greater than the sum of their parts. It really works and is the gold standard amongst the national studio shows.
FOX NFL Sunday is a clear choice for the top spot.
#2 The NFL Today (CBS)
Today’s cast includes James Brown, Nate Burleson, Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason, and Phil Simms. JJ Watt will make a few appearances this season. The “insider” is Jonathan Jones.
Back in the day, this was my go-to show. My brother and I would mimic the music all the time. We couldn’t wait for a “You are looking live” from Brent Musburger. But the show has changed since its time in the mid-1970s.
The NFL Today returned to CBS after the network acquired the broadcast rights to AFC games in 1998. The current format of this pregame show began in 1975 with Musburger hosting, with Phyllis George, and Irv Cross. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder joined in 1976. The NFL Today was, for 18 years, the highest-rated program in its time slot.
The latest iteration of The NFL Today is hosted by James Brown. He’s been in the lead chair since leaving Fox after the 2005 season. Brown has a smoothness about his delivery that really works. He never tries to be the center of attention, deferring to his esteemed colleagues on the set. Brown really sets the tone for the show, infusing a little humor into the situation when needed.
Esiason has been with the show since 2002 and is the longest-tenured current member of the panel. Esiason and Simms, the two former quarterbacks, like to get after each other once in a while, but sometimes it seems a bit forced. Esiason exudes personality, Simms does not.
Bill Cowher adds credibility having been a highly successful NFL coach with the Steelers. His opinions are usually strong and from time to time, that scowl he was famous for on the field, comes across on the set. Burleson has become somewhat of a rising star at CBS, bursting on the scene in 2017. In addition to his NFL Today duties, he co-hosts CBS Mornings and appears on Nickelodeon as well.
While this show is certainly a good watch, it doesn’t feel as “unrehearsed” to me as the show on FOX. Some of the commentary and subsequent arguments feel staged and not as organic as I’d like to see. The panel looks like they’re having fun, with Esiason usually driving the boat. Simms gives off a different type of vibe, almost like he’s still angry at not being in a booth calling games. I get it, I would be too, but you have to steer into the skid and join in on the fun or you stand out for the wrong reasons. Cowher is solid and gives great insight and I like Burleson too.
The NFL Today is a solid show, but solid only gets you second place in these rankings.
#3 – NFL GameDay Morning (NFL Network)
This show includes Rich Eisen as host, with panelists Steve Mariucci, Kurt Warner, and Michael Irvin. Ian Rapaport is the “insider” and we get info on analytics from Cynthia Frelund.
Eisen is such a great host. His demeanor is perfect for sports and this show as well. It’s a perfect blend of substance and sarcasm that keeps NFL GameDay Morning entertaining and informative.
Eisen works very well with his assembled cast on the set. Mariucci provides a nice blend of comedic timing with quality information and analysis. He’s always seemed at home in front of the camera and is an easy view. Warner also seems like a natural on the air. His story of course is a great one. He played at a very high level, and I like how he comes across as an everyday guy and isn’t pompous about analyzing today’s NFL. Irvin is good in doses for me. I find him yelling at me more than providing me with excellent information.
Rapaport is very good as an insider, but most of what he ‘breaks’ on the show has already been posted on social media. Still great information.
NFL GameDay Morning is a good show, I feel like sometimes it loses out because it’s on cable and isn’t a regular home for NFL games. You have to hunt for it, but the effort is worth it.
#4 – Sunday NFL Countdown (ESPN)
Now hosted by Sam Ponder, along with panelists Tedy Bruschi, Randy Moss, Rex Ryan, and newcomer Alex Smith. The “Insider” is Adam Schefter.
ESPN’s pregame show used to be appointment watching when a then-funny Chris Berman and Tom Jackson anchored the show. It once featured Mike Ditka and Ron Jaworski and was a very fun and insightful show. Sam Ponder does a nice job as the host of the latest iteration of the show. She runs the broadcast well, and tries to keep the panelists in check. Moss and Ryan provide the personality of the show, with each possessing larger-than-life personas. Bruschi provides good information, but kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Smith is learning the ropes as a first-year guy.
Schefter is one of the best “insiders” in the business, but as previously stated, most of what we see has already been reported, several times on social media.
This show has lost some of its previous luster but still has a good amount of value in the pregame show mix. It’s a tradition for some who remember the glory days and have become used to watching it every Sunday.
#5 – Football Night in America (NBC)
There have been a few changes over the last couple of years at FNIA since Mike Tirico took over as the main play-by-play guy of Sunday Night Football. Maria Taylor has stepped in as the host, with panelists, Tony Dungy, Jason Garrett, Rodney Harrison, Devin McCourty, and Chris Simms. Jac Collinsworth is a contributor. Mike Florio serves as the “insider” and Matthew Berry is the Fantasy Football guy.
Taylor is a very good host, she’s knowledgeable and asks insightful questions of her panelists. That’s where the show takes a turn for me. Dungy’s soft-spoken takes don’t really hit the mark much anymore. Garrett is still growing into his role and I’m still trying to decide whether or not I am a fan. He’s loud, but green in the game of broadcasting. The jury is still out.
I like Harrison for his edge and realism. McCourty has been a nice addition as well, adding another player perspective to things. Simms is all about the hot take and it gets annoying at times.
Collinsworth’s role is kind of weird to me. It seems like the network just put him in there, to, well, put him in there. Not much added by him. Florio provides good inside information and Berry might be the most important guy since basically the whole world plays Fantasy Football.
The NBC show seems the most sterile of the bunch and highly scripted. Many have said they do a good job of creating hype for the Sunday Night game, but I don’t see it. Just my humble opinion.
#6 – TNF Tonight (Amazon Prime Video)
The new kid on the block is Amazon Prime Video and its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. Charissa Thompson, who’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, is the host. She’s joined by a veteran and some relative newcomers. Tony Gonzalez has the most experience of the bunch, which also includes, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Richard Sherman, and Andrew Whitworth.
Thompson has always been a more than capable host, despite her recent revelation that she made up sideline reports. She has a good sense of each of her co-host’s strengths and weaknesses and tries to put each in the best light.
Gonzalez has deep knowledge of the game and a good presence in front of the camera, but he’s a little on the bland side. Fitzpatrick and Sherman are the flamboyant ones. Fitz-magic is trying to find his niche in the broadcasting game. The beard and humor are working for him, but he still has to learn about timing.
Sherman isn’t afraid to voice an opinion which is great and offers some levity to the show as well. Whitworth’s grade is incomplete. He’s very new to the studio show world and is trying to find his way.
The group will eventually create chemistry, but it’s lacking a bit now.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at [email protected].
Meet the Podcasters: Mina Kimes, ESPN
“I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis.”
As 2023 inches towards the finish line, so too does our Meet the Podcasters series. We have spoken with people that found success in the space after so many different journeys. Greg McElroy and Chris Jericho were championship-winning athletes. Mike Francesa and Adam the Bull dominated local radio. Bomani Jones made his name in the digital space. We end on a bonafide sports television superstar in Mina Kimes.
If you don’t believe that, just look at the deal she signed earlier this year. She gets to stay at ESPN and carve out time to work with Meadowlark Media. Those aren’t concessions given to someone their network thinks is easy to replace.
It can be tough to find time to chat as the holidays approach, so the conversation was short, but it covered a lot of ground. Why have analytics caught on with fans? Is it more fun to dissect success or to re-think failure? How do you watch a game when you have to not only understand what is happening, but figure out the best way to turn that explanation into analysis?
Obviously, I want to thank Mina and everyone else that made time to chat with me for this series. A big thank you goes to Point-to-Point Marketing as well for making these features possible. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to all of you that took the time to read even just one of these. I hope you learned a little something that you can take with you into 2024 to make your digital content more successful!
Demetri Ravanos: There is a big audience for what you do best and I sometimes wonder how much that surprises those of us that grew up in the media. Do you think the appetite for analytics and in-depth analysis is relatively new, or was the appetite always there without the right platform before the rise of digital media?
Mina Kimes: I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis, but on the whole it really does seem to me that viewers and listeners are better informed than ever, which I’d attribute to the rise of fantasy football and the proliferation of websites and podcasts that talk about film, cap management, analytics, etc.
We see this trend playing out at NFL Live, where our nerdiest segments often capture a good deal of interest.
DR: What for you is more interesting – explaining why things aren’t as bleak as the performance may suggest (i.e., Bryce Young not having time or protection to really see what he is as a QB) or highlighting what makes the greats so great (Mahomes’ best throws, how Micah Parsons sheds blocks, etc.)?
MK: I love digging into great performances, but the first category is really compelling to me because it forces us to look beyond basic numbers and highlights (or lowlights!). That’s where I think the intersection of film and statistics is so useful – it allows us to dig deeper into tendencies and trends to explain why things are happening.
DR: When you are doing your weekend previews, what information do you prioritize? Is it storylines or is there a number or category that you try to make a staple of your analysis for everything?
MK: Once I’ve settled on which games I want to discuss, there are two things I try to zero in on: The strengths and weaknesses of each team, and how they match up.
I also make note of things I’ve observed recently (for example, if a team is leaning on a certain personnel group or formation) and then consider how it might impact the game.
DR: What about in setting those topics and discussions up? How do you watch and re-watch games, plays and moments to best understand what it is you are seeing and find the point you want to bring to the audience?
MK: When I’m watching the weekend’s games on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I’m looking for interesting (good or bad!) plays, tendencies, and trends. For example, if I notice a QB is having success targeting a specific area of the field, I’ll make note of a few plays, grab the numbers later, and then, when I’m podcasting, consider how that might play out next week.
DR: One of the big differences between podcasts and legacy media is that people listening to podcasts are actively choosing you and the topic you are talking about. Does that change the way you can discuss a game or a player versus on TV?
MK: I’d say the biggest difference isn’t topic selection, but time. On TV we only have a segment or less to hit on a matchup, whereas on my podcast, I’m often talking about the same games and players, but I have 15 minutes instead of five (and I’m one of two people chatting instead of four or five).
I will add that the topic selection process at NFL Live is very collaborative, though. We know which games we need to focus on, but the way we approach discussion is driven by our interests and observations.
DR: I am always interested in the different views on this. Podcast listeners overwhelmingly say they like video now. Is that a preference you understand or does it not make sense to you?
MK: It makes sense! Because the production quality has improved so much (the kind folks at Omaha Productions have been working with me to improve the look of my show for YouTube), many podcasts really don’t look very different from sports television.
If you’re already a listener, why wouldn’t you want to watch as well, especially since you have a convenient viewing device in your hand all day? I do think there will always be people who just listen, though, because their free time for consumption is relegated to commuting (or in my case, walking a dog!).
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].
Michelle Smallmon Didn’t Stumble Into Mornings on ESPN Radio
“The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
It all started with an accident. While vacuuming her apartment just two days before the first episode of her new national ESPN Radio program, Michelle Smallmon tripped over an air purifier cord. As a result of the maladroit blunder, she fell face first into her coffee table and hit the inside of her eye on a drinking glass.
When Smallmon looked into the mirror, she immediately saw that her eye was bleeding and swelling up and was in a state of disbelief, although she was not surprised that this happened to her because of her inherent clumsiness. The black eye that came out of all of this turned out to be an advantageous opportunity for the program, which opened its first hour on the air with this circumstance.
Smallmon works alongside Evan Cohen and Chris Canty weekday mornings on UnSportsmanLike, the new ESPN Radio morning show that leads off a refreshed national programming lineup. Since the program is also simulcast on ESPN2, there are cameras on inside the radio studio at the Seaport District-based radio studio, granting viewers of the premiere episode an opportunity to see Smallmon’s black eye for themselves. The incident, however, provided a means for the new hosting trio to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities in an atypical fashion by recalling a calamitous occurrence from the onset.
“We have to be ourselves,” Smallmon said. “People are coming for the sports, and hopefully with our opinions and our information and the knowledge that we provide, they’ll stick around, but they’re going to remember us for who we are. The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
Once the hosts of UnSportsmanLike were finalized, Smallmon met with Canty and Cohen to determine their collective philosophy for the program. At the crux of their conversation was how sports is supposed to be an enjoyable part of people’s days, making it important to be genuine with the audience and celebrate the festivities.
“I just think that audio provides a really great way for people to weave us throughout their day and it’s something that they can come back to, and I just feel like the audio space continues to grow,” Smallmon said. “So that is really exciting to me that there are so many different avenues for us to explore in the audio space.”
Smallmon and her colleagues understand that their program that was once anchored by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg in the mornings for 18 years, who created a show that proved to be an enduring facet to sports radio as a whole. Today, UnSportsmanLike is competing for mindshare and attention span in a dynamic media ecosystem where people can consume various types of content by equipping myriad methodologies. The mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere requires the hosts engage in deft preparation and fealty towards the audio vertical, never taking their positions for granted and understanding the privilege in being able to communicate en masse on the air.
“Any time anybody elects to listen to you, they are giving you a vote,” Smallmon said. “They’re choosing you [and] they are saying, ‘I want to spend a part of my precious time with you,’ and particularly in the mornings because we’re the first people that get the opportunity to talk about the games from the night before or to give our opinion on certain things.”
While Smallmon may have stumbled into an enthralling storyline to open the program and captivate the audience, she did just the opposite in landing a spot within the coveted morning drive daypart. Through years of indefatigable persistence and calculated risk-taking, she positioned herself to garner such a chance when the network was in the midst of developing a new lineup.
Despite having a successful morning show in St. Louis, Mo. on 101 ESPN that was finishing with high ratings and bolstering streams of revenue, Smallmon found herself yearning to live in a sprawling metropolis. Because of this, she started visiting her friends in New York City once per month and gradually became enamored with the locale, prompting her to meet with co-host Randy Karraker, program director Tommy Mattern and Hubbard Radio market manager John Kijowski to express her intent to leave the station.
“They have always been my biggest champions [and] they encouraged me every step of the way,” Smallmon said. “They were like, ‘This is going to be a tough transition for us because the show’s going so well, but we care about you as a person more than we do an employee, and if this is your dream and something you think you have to do, we’ve got your back.’ I will always and forever be indebted to them for not only finding a way to help me do that, but for supporting me and checking in with me every step of the way.”
When she was young, Smallmon frequently traveled to St. Louis with her father to attend sporting events, cherishing every chance she could to see a live game. Throughout her childhood, she watched football on television and remembers seeing sideline reporter Melissa Stark interview the players, prompting her to think about working in sports. Quotidian tasks were transformed into beacons of flourishing sports knowledge, catalyzed by her father’s creativity with abecedarian activities such as sorting and folding laundry.
Yet Smallmon concentrated in premedical studies at the University of Illinois, matriculating to try and become a dermatologist. Early on, she realized that she was not dedicated enough to pursue a profession in the field, resulting in a meeting with her advisor about her future plans. Upon being asked her ideal career path, Smallmon demonstrated interest in covering the basketball team with the goal of appearing on College GameDay as a features reporter in the future.
Amid an economic crash, Smallmon was able to land a job as a production assistant at KSDK, a local television station with which she had interned as a college student. Smallmon worked on the outlet’s morning show, Today in St. Louis, arriving at the studios around 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare and execute the broadcast.
Although her shift ended at 2 p.m., she would put in extra effort to stay later and interact with sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott, volunteering her time and trying to be productive. In displaying her aspiration to work in sports, she was eventually offered a position in the department, which first started with shooting and editing high school events.
“Most of the work that was done in sports was leading up to the 5 and 6 o’clock newscast until they took a big break before 10 p.m.,” Smallmon said. “I would use that time to just absorb as much as I could, watch the guys at work and try to make myself useful.”
Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stark, Smallmon had seen various women working and thriving in sports television; however, this was not the case in the sports radio format. Despite being familiar with the medium, she had never considered going on the air until Knott asked her to be a co-host of his new weekend show on 101 ESPN.
After some time, she received a note from an executive inquiring if she would be interested in applying for an open producer position available at the outlet. Even though she applied thinking she would not receive the job – a thought compounded when she discovered the producer role was for the program hosted by Bernie Miklasz – Smallmon made it to the final round of interviews. Speaking with Miklasz directly, he articulated that while he thought she was a good fit for the role, the other candidate had more qualifications and previous experience.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, if that person is as great as you say that they are and have this much experience, they will have no problem finding another job when you hire me to be your producer,’” Smallmon averred. “I left there and I was like, ‘Man, I blew that.’”
Much to her surprise, Smallmon was hired and ended up working with Miklasz in the role for three years. In speaking with him and observing how he interacted with other people, she learned industry nuances and esoterica that made her even more adept at the role. Smallmon was eventually moved to The Fast Lane in the afternoons with Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Brad Thompson, possessing a mentality of how to best position the show for sustained growth and success.
Smallmon took her skills to ESPN Radio in 2015 when she moved to Bristol, Conn. to work as a producer. The first stint with the network prepared her to excel on UnSportsmanLike, collaborating with hosts such as Ryen Russillo, Danny Kannel and Jorge Sedano, but she always felt a magnetic pull back towards St. Louis. Once Russillo was officially slated to leave ESPN, Smallmon was in talks with the company about different paths she could take and weighing her options. In the eleventh hour, Smallmon received a fortuitous call from Miklasz, who conveyed that he was thinking about changing up his show and wanted to know if she had any interest in co-hosting the program.
“It just felt like all of the cards were falling into place at the right time for me to make that move, and I’m a person that likes to take chances and challenge myself, and I don’t ever want to live with regrets,” Smallmon said. “I thought, ‘Maybe hosting and being on the air is not going to be for me; maybe it’s always going to be production, but I’d like to know.’”
Once she returned, Miklasz offered to change the name of the program to incorporate Smallmon, an entreaty that she declined because of fear that it would disrupt what was a known entity to listeners in the locale. Upon his exit from the station two years later, Smallmon started hosting with Randy Karraker, who implored her to add her name. Even though she never sought out to find the spotlight, she capitulated to the request once her co-host explained why it was important as not only an identifying factor, but also as the first female to be a full-time host on the station.
“I would hear from so many female sports fans across the area and parents whose daughters listened to the show and whose daughters paid attention to the show because someone who looked like them occupied that seat,” Smallmon said. “I really realized how important it was for me to establish myself in that way.”
As Smallmon made the move from St. Louis to New York City, her parents surmised she was recklessly upending her life. Subletting an apartment from a mutual friend in the city, she was working under a usages deal at ESPN Radio where she would deliver overnight updates and host SportsCenter All Night. Smallmon was grateful for the support of her parents and asked them to give her a year, during which she would work hard to land a full-time job in the city. Three hundred and sixty-six days later, Smallmon took to the air with a black eye to commence UnSportsmanLike, officially meeting her end of the bargain.
“It’s hard to explain to people how strange our job is,” Smallmon said. “The three of us sit in a windowless room and talk to one another for four-plus hours a day, so just by nature of spending that much intimate time with someone, you get to know them really well really fast.”
The workday for the morning episode begins the day prior several hours after the conclusion of the previous broadcast, independently reading articles, following sports news and reviewing games. In the preceding afternoon, the program holds a content call where everyone pitches ideas before an early rundown is sent out and added to throughout the day.
While the game of the night is on, Smallmon is in constant communication with her thoughts before getting sleep and preparing for an early wake-up call. There is a pre-show meeting to review the rundown before the four-hour morning show begins at 6 a.m. As soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the process starts again so the hosts are ready for it to illuminate again in 20 hours.
“It’s really a full-time commitment, especially during football season, to do a job like this,” Smallmon said, “but when you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to host a show of this magnitude, you’ve kind of got to make it your life in a lot of ways.”
When she takes her seat behind the microphone in the morning, Smallmon believes that two of the most talented people she has ever worked with are sitting by her side. In her view, she needs to be at the same level as them on the program and effectuates that through her preparation and by bringing different perspectives to the air.
“I have zigged and zagged and occupied different roles throughout my time,” Smallmon said. “It’s really just been surprising opportunities that I have emerged and that I’ve really been grateful to have and that I want to take advantage of, but I don’t really think about the future and my motivation is not really driven by what’s next; it’s driven by the present.
For now, Smallmon is focused on attaining success in New York City and hopes to participate in the program for as long as possible. Down the road though, she knows that her career will entail a second return to St. Louis when she wants to be back in the community she loves and closer to her family. The gratitude she has in being able to regard the city as home is conspicuous and authentic, and those in the locale continue to listen to her on 101 ESPN for two hours each morning ahead of the station’s local morning program.
“My only goal right now is to make UnSportsmanLike the best show that it possibly can be, and if that is the case, hopefully we have an amazing run with the show,” Smallmon said. “That’s the goal is to make it as amazing as it possibly can be and ride that wave for as long as we possibly can.”
Smallmon never envisioned herself working in radio but now finds herself as a trusted voice in the mornings on a simulcast program within the network’s on-air lineup. Through it all, she has remained true to herself while exhibiting an evident commitment and passion for the craft, valuing every chance she has to go on the air.
“People will always say things to me like, ‘Oh, are you going to be the next Erin Andrews?,’ or things of that nature,” Smallmon explained. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to be the first and only Michelle Smallmon,’ because the edge that I have over everybody else is that I’m me. There’s nobody else that’s me, and so if I can just be myself and be authentic every day and do that, anybody else can.”
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.