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Will Cain has Opinions Not Hot Takes

Brandon Contes

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Will Cain is more than a conservative voice for ESPN. While watching Cain on First Take and listening to him weekdays from 3 – 6pm ET on ESPN radio, you’ll quickly learn political ideals do not define Will Cain as a sports personality.

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At a time when many media platforms attempt to talk politics hoping to generate a buzz, Cain, a former political analyst, wants to focus on sports and enjoys doing so.  Cain is passionate about sports, but more than that, he’s passionate about being inventive, offering opinions, debate, and learning from others.

Cain’s time as a political analyst fueled his desire to find mediums which would allow him to offer honest opinions through debate and helped groom him as an entertaining media personality in any format.  After joining ESPN in 2015, his rapid rise at the network now sees him as a regular contributor to First Take, one of ESPN’s most successful television shows, and hosting his own daily national radio show, which launched earlier this year.

Cain’s goal is to make the listener think by engaging in unique, entertaining conversations.  I was able to sit down with Will and have an interesting conversation of our own about his growing role at ESPN.

Brandon Contes: The radio show is about 10 months young now, is it going how you would like it to go?

Will Cain: A radio show is a living breathing thing, every day is different and I can’t hope to achieve perfection every time.  I have lessons to take home at the end of a three hour show and we’re always thinking of ways to get better, but the core of who we are and what we want to do on this show has largely been established.

First and foremost, I want to talk about sports and we do that every day.  We, meaning me and all the guys who work on this show…we love football, basketball, baseball, we love sports and our goal every day is to have conversations that the audience is in on, but in interesting and unique ways.

Second, I do think I have a perspective, maybe a worldview or a way of thinking that’s different than most people in this business, so I hope that I can bring unique angles, frames and thoughts to the radio show.  Essentially, our identity has been established, day in and day out we’re true to ourselves, but have we achieved perfection and do I walk home every night saying another one over the fence?  No.

BC: You said your plan every day is to talk sports, so did you find that transition difficult at all going from your political background to talking sports…not only from your perspective, but the audience’s perspective from a credibility standpoint?

WC: From my perspective, I didn’t find it difficult at all.  I found it refreshing.  One of the interesting things that we’ve experienced is a lot of people in sports, and not just in this company, but the sports industry in general…seem to have a desire to talk politics.  I came from the other direction, I came with a desire to talk sports.

Maybe I got it out of my system, maybe I know what I signed up for, but I don’t find it difficult at all. I find it fun, exciting and refreshing when I wake up every day to think, why is that quarterback doing awesome and that one over there sucking.  I never want to talk about the latest tie-in to the political news cycle that I can find.

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Is it difficult for the audience? Maybe on the surface… I don’t know…honestly, I don’t concern myself with other people’s opinions too often.  I know that sounds like an easy, popular, cool thing to say, but I certainly can’t go about my days worrying what others might think about me because…I would just be a weather vane.

BC: I’ve asked that question to athletes before, because someone like Jalen Rose, the audience knows him because he played basketball.  So if they see him talking football or baseball, a lot of fans look at it and say…what does he know about those sports, he played basketball.  It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but he still needs to earn the trust of listeners. Did you ever find yourself trying to come up with a unique angle or hot take…just to prove you’re all-in on sports?

WC: No, I just don’t do things to try and prove it to other people.  I don’t.

But, you asked about a unique angle. I certainly want to come every day with that, I don’t believe in hot takes.  By the way…will you define hot takes for me?  What does that mean?

BC: An opinion you’re not necessarily all-in on yourself, but know it’s going to generate a reaction from the audience.

WC: Okay, I’ve never done that, not one time.  Not one time, three hours a day, five days a week, I’ve never done that.

BC: I think you do get it a lot in radio, not you personally, but I think plenty of hosts do it.  Probably less often with solo hosts, you’ll hear it more with co-hosts because they feel the need to have a different opinion and argument for the same topic.

WC: I think you’re right by the way, that’s the popular definition of a hot take.  It requires you to know someone else’s motivation and intention.  When you accuse someone of a hot take, you’re not just saying what I am saying on its face is a hot take, you’re saying that I’m doing it to get attention, that I don’t believe it.  I can look you deep in the eye and tell you that I have never once done that on First Take or this radio show…that doesn’t mean I’m not accused of it.  I’m accused of it all the time.

I think what a lot of people yell hot take at are opinions that they’ve never even considered.  If it’s outside of their traditional line of thought or constricted world view, and I’m talking about the person that’s yelling hot take, if it’s outside of those things, then they think it must come from a bad place of motivation.  So I generally hate the term hot take because I think people use it to yell at thoughts that they’ve never even considered.

BC: When you were in the media as a political analyst, did you have a desire to get into sports?  Or did you think you would be doing political shows for the rest of your career.

WC: I probably thought I would be doing political shows.

The true line for what I do in the media, and this sounds generic, but I don’t care…I want to have interesting conversations.  When I first got into this, I was an entrepreneur and created a television pilot that I thought I’d try to sell to CNN or somewhere.  I hadn’t really sent out a resume and tried to get a job in media. The pilot I created had nothing to do with politics, it had to do with ideas. Deeper ideas like what is taxation, or where are we with race in America.  Those are interesting conversations for me.  Politics became the vehicle for a lot of those conversations.

I cared less about who would win the Nevada senatorial race, I cared more about the ideas that dictated those outcomes.  Being naïve drove me to think I could have these honest, deep conversations, but as time went on it became clear there are very few mainstream outlets where that happens.  I think it’s happening more now with podcasts and YouTube shows.

When it came to sports, which I was a fan of since I’ve been six years old, it just became the next vehicle for me to have interesting conversations, and ones that I was already having with my friends.

BC: So how did you get from those political shows to ESPN and what led to the quick rise?  You got here in 2015 and here you are on First Take, one of the most successful TV shows they have and then you’re hosting a daily three hour radio show.

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WC: How did I get here…it’s actually not a very interesting answer because the way I got to ESPN is through relationships, agents and talent evaluators.  I don’t mean that’s not cool, but Rob Savinelli is head of the talent department here and saw me on CNN, he saw something in me he thought would translate across different topics, he’s the main reason I’m at ESPN, but agents also played a big role.

A long time ago, I was brought in to shoot a radio pilot with Tony Reali, which now that I think about it, was probably in this studio.  That was my first relationship with ESPN.

BC: How long ago?

WC: Maybe 12 or 13 years ago?  Then time passed, we both moved on, but in 2014 and 15 the communication started again and still a lot of that is driven by agents and Rob. I met with the president, John Skipper. During that whole time period, I’m proving if I know sports, it’s a pretty mechanical process…

Why the rise?  Because I’m really good at what I do…

And earlier you asked about credibility, the most common feedback I get from this radio show, which I love, is ‘I hated you, but now you’re my favorite at ESPN.’  I think that has to do with the credibility question, because they think of me one way…they think of me as political or conservative, argumentative or just the guy on First Take that’s always debating Stephen A.

The audience comes with these ideas, but if they take some time to listen, maybe it’s the unique way I look at sports or the fact that I can laugh at myself. I take what I say seriously, but not myself seriously…whatever it may be, after they spend some time and I become a human being to them, the credibility comes in what I say.

You also mentioned Jalen and talking about football, I understand somebody at first saying…wait he’s a basketball player talking about football…but if you give him a minute and listen to him, you judge him on what is actually coming out of his mouth.  I get a lot of people to judge me and if they spend a little time, I’m comfortable with where they come down on my credibility and quality of what I do.

BC: You said you’re really good at what you do…what are your goals going forward?  Stephen A. is a superstar on TV and the radio, but he still talks about wanting to move First Take into primetime and possibly trying a late night talk show again, so what would be the next step for you?

WC: First of all, I want to be doing what I’m doing now, I want to have a daily, solo radio show.  I want to build an audience that understands who I am and comes here knowing what this is…it’s a place where your thoughts and ideas will be challenged.  I think that’s really lacking in society.  I think we’re in the process of building walls around our opinions and identities and protecting ourselves from anything that might threaten in anyway.  That’s not what this show is, this show is where you come to have everything you are and everything you believe challenged, including me…and I love radio because that’s where you can do that.

But I do want more.  I think that place in the media is wide open.  I want to create more platforms, I’m not sure what yet, but maybe it’s debate, maybe it’s on TV, but I want to be entrepreneurial in finding ways to have challenging, entertaining, fun, provocative conversations.  I know those are a bunch of generic buzzwords, but I can’t emphasize enough that I feel like everything the media has moved toward is just giving people what they already believe.

BC: Does First Take help fill that wide open space in media for debate and honest conversation where the audience is aware of any preconceived views?

WC: First Take is the best debate show in traditional television. It’s honest, it’s real, and it’s competitive. And it’ll make all the usual suspects insane to hear it, but news media would do well to learn from it.

BC: Is First Take a valuable form of promoting your radio show?

WC: First Take is one of the highest rated shows, and importantly, most relevant shows in all of sports. Athletes, owners, other media members and fans all watch First Take. It sets the agenda for much of sports talk. It’s an incredibly valuable promotional vehicle for my show. But I love First Take and did so before I had the radio show. I like the format, the people, and the concept. I love debate.

BC: Did you ever have a radio show before joining ESPN?

WC: I did a Saturday morning radio show co-hosted with S.E. Cupp for about a year.

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BC: So still very new to the radio industry?

WC: Absolutely.

BC: Being that Max Kellerman and Stephen A. have been so successful in radio and you’re on First Take regularly, do you ever pick their brain about radio?

WC: Max and I are friendly, we enjoy each other’s debate, we haven’t talked a lot about radio.  Stephen A. is someone who has been a sounding board for pretty much everything I do, meaning radio, TV, behind the scenes career stuff, I’m not going to pretend he is necessarily my mentor, but if I have on-air things that I am worried about, he would be the first person I will call.

BC: How involved are you in developing topics for the radio show?

WC: I don’t want to say I’m 100% responsible because it’s a team effort, but it’s definitely all driven around my opinion about whatever is going on.  The night before, we start emailing each other about stories we want to do or think we’re going to do tomorrow.  We have our meeting before the show where we narrow in on the four or five big topics we’re going to do on the show and frame them.

I used to talk to Ryen Russillo about this in terms of radio conversations.  You know the difference between a Jackson Pollock painting and wallpaper?  A frame…one is put into a frame and called art, the other is put on a wall and called wallpaper.  I don’t mean to diminish Jackson Pollock as an artist, but the frame becomes very important.

Think about what your eyes take in on a daily basis vs. a photograph. The difference is the photograph has a frame around it.  Every conversation we have has to be put into a frame. You can’t just take a game from the night before and say let’s talk about the game.  What frame are you putting it in? That’s how you create conversations on the radio.

BC: How about the First Take topics you contribute to? Being that it’s a debate format, the show needs to offer the audience different opinions. If a topic is presented and everyone agrees with it, does it just get thrown out?  Or do you need to take an argumentative stance regardless?

WC: I have a ton of input in developing the topics I contribute to on First Take. I want to say something and be clear about it. A lot of people believe First Take debates are manufactured, fake or we are acting. 100% false…We either have disagreement, or it doesn’t go in the show.  Now, sometimes it takes work to find angles of disagreement, while other times it’s obvious and there is very little discussion ahead of time. In those cases, someone will give their opinion and his opposition will just say, “Put it on the board”. As for me, I send in thoughts and takes by email the night before so they can see what I think and where I’ll fit.

BC: Did you have radio hosts that you listened to that you looked up to?

WC: Well obviously Howard Stern is the greatest of all time.  I was a massive fan of The Ticket in Dallas when growing up and I still listen to them.  The Morning Musers, George Dunham, Craig Miller and Gordon Keith, who I think is a genius at radio.  Later in my life, I’ve started to listen to LeBatard and I think he is really good at what he does.  I take lessons from him even though we’re not doing the same kind of show.

BC: One of the things Howard Stern does better than anyone else, is making the audience feel like they’re part of the show, like a fraternity…do you feel a connection to your audience 10 months in?

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WC: I do, and that’s part of the unfinished process.  You asked me where I am 10 months in and what I want going forward…I want to have an audience that knows why they’re coming to where they are and what they’re going to get.  First of all, we’re talking about the greatest of all time, and second, we’re talking about a guy who has been doing it for decades, but it’s enviable, that should be all of our goals to create something like that.

The callers that call in to tell me I’m wrong and say ‘I disagree with everything you say, but I love hearing you say it…you make me think’…that’s important.  Also Howard’s, and this is harder for me sometimes, but the exposure of his personal life, his vulnerability as a human being.  The incorporation of the people around him and their personal dynamics…that’s all important as well.

BC: Is it ever difficult being in Connecticut?  You’re near the New York and Boston markets where there are great local stations.  The public is talking about Yankees, Red Sox, Jets, Giants, Patriots, but then you’re not on terrestrial radio here, so you might need to be talking about college football.

WC: No, I don’t feel like everyone around here is interested in something that I’m not.

BC: So you’re able to completely separate the community you’re building in radio vs the community you live in.

WC: Yeah, definitely.  My personal life and career have been modeled on being in places where I’m different.  Texas kid who wanted to go to school in California, small town Texas conservative Christian that moved to the upper west side of New York.  You can’t make me be in a more different place and I like that.

BC: Do you have a preference, TV or radio?

WC: I don’t think I should have to choose.

BC: Is one more pressure than the other?

WC: I don’t think so, but I also don’t have my own TV show.  First Take is very near and dear to my heart, and I feel a part of that family, but it’s not my own.

BC: But you’re still on it regularly, you have specific segments you need to debate, it’s more scheduled.  Whereas radio, certainly still has pressure to be successful, but you have more freedom, more of a creative release.

WC: Yep, and more responsibility.  This is my thing.  It’s my name on this, I will ultimately be the person responsible for the success or failure of the radio show.

BC: You would not consider your show a conservative sports show, it is just a sports show, right?

WC: Absolutely! (Will said emphatically)

BC: Is it relevant that some refer to you as a conservative host?

WC: Other people think my politics are more important to me than I do.  They’re just part of who I am, but they’re below my world view.  I do have a world view, so does every radio host and every human being, but my world view isn’t also my political view.  If you put a bunch of conservatives in a room together, they’re still going to disagree on things like parenting, cheating and sports.

This idea that conservative is at the top of the definitions of who I am…other people feel that way, I don’t feel that way. Now…is it a slice of the pie for me? Yeah, I’m a traditionalist to some extent, but I’m also a risk taker. I’ve started companies and all of these things go into the opinions I have on whether or not Odell Beckham Jr. is embodying good leadership…not my politics.

BC: If you were the same person, the same show, same opinions, but you were never on CNN or on shows as a political analyst, I don’t think the conservative narrative would be discussed much.

WC: They would start thinking about things like, where are you from, what’s your family like, how did you grow up, what are your values, and those are all big parts of me.

And by the way, I’m not running from this idea that I’m conservative, because I feel like media fails right out of the gates with this.  What’s our job?  To tell the truth is our number one job and I think 95% of the media stumbles on that by lying to the audience and trying to tell them you don’t have an opinion or bias, that you’re objective in telling it the way it is.  BS…you’re not.  So I try to be honest, this is who I am and this is what I believe.

I’m not running from the idea that I might have some conservative political beliefs, but I want the audience to know that and then if they disagree with me, they can discount that bias by having the full knowledge that it’s there.  I’m not going to stumble out of the gates by lying to them.  Here’s who I am, now you can do with it what you want.

BC: Before joining ESPN, could you have envisioned sports and politics getting intertwined as much as it is now?

WC: I certainly didn’t see any of that coming. I didn’t see politics becoming such an important part of every piece of entertainment.  Would I have thought in 2015 that my world view might have been unique? Yeah, I might have thought that. And that could contribute to some interesting conversations, specifically in places like First Take that’s centered around debate. Stephen A. and I might see something differently.  Not even a big important issue, but little issues – again, is this good leadership by Odell Beckham Jr..  We might see it differently because of our worldviews, but I never thought about that as like… Well, my politics will come in handy here.

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BC: How does a sports host balance politics and sports, knowing that you can be at risk for alienating an audience?

WC: What you’re asking is a judgement call and it’s a judgement call made every day on every topic by every host and my judgement is this: am I doing this for me or am I doing it for the audience?  Is this a topic of interest to the audience that put ESPN on that day for a reason, or am I doing it because I have some things near and dear to my heart that I need to get off my chest? If I’m doing it for those reasons, then I’m not making the right judgment call.  Now if it’s why the audience is here, or maybe even around it in some way, then now we’re talking about something we should entertain.

I think our job is to be able to try and have those conversations in the least partisan way that we can.  I don’t want to do any partisan talk. I do want to talk about issues – I will talk about that when they’re connected to sports and I think the audience is interested in it, but stay away from left, right, Republican, Democrat.

BC: That’s not a question just for your show, I think that’s a question for anybody talking sports right now just because it is intertwined, at times, with social issues.  That balance of how do you navigate talking about those issues and still making sure that your show is giving the audience what they’re tuning into ESPN for is important.

WC: 100% correct…and I would add one more thing to that.  If we do get into areas where we’re talking about those kinds of topics, I think it’s important, and this goes back to the identity of this show, it’s important that it is an open conversation. Here is my point of view – I’ve talked to you about my bias, you’re aware of who I am. I will tell you that I think you’re wrong on this, but I’m not closing you out, I’m not demeaning what you believe.  There’s the phone number, here’s the Twitter feed, you can join the conversation and I will entertain the idea that I’m wrong and I will hear your point of view out. So many shows, channels, mediums, close out and dismiss from the conversation, people who disagree with them, or things they didn’t consider. That’s not what this show is.

BC: I think that’s the beauty of radio.  Even if one listener with a different opinion doesn’t call, someone else will call or you’ll have a guest on that has a different idea, so multiple viewpoints are always represented.

WC: We go out of our way to find people who disagree with us, especially on these kinds of topics.

BC: Which brings it back to being entertaining and prevents a show from alienating an audience – If the opposing point is represented, they’re not going to change the channel, even if it’s not the host’s point.

WC: I think that’s one of the reasons…and maybe this takes us full circle, why I will hear that biggest compliment, ‘I disagree with so much what you say, I used to hate you, but now you’re my favorite.’

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

BSM Writers

Jac Collinsworth Has Learned From The Best

“The way he would take all of the young people, myself included, under his wings. You couldn’t get this anywhere else.”

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Jac Collinsworth got his first taste of Notre Dame football while watching his brother Austin play for the Fighting Irish. There was his brother playing on special teams and getting a chance to return kicks.

“I remember sitting in the stands for his first football game inside Notre Dame Stadium thinking this is the coolest thing I’ve been a part of,” said Collinsworth. “The history of this building and my brother is out there in a Notre Dame jersey.”

Not only did Jac eventually go to Notre Dame as well, but he just completed his first season as the play-by-play voice for Notre Dame Football on NBC. As a student, Jac was part of the NBC sideline production team during his four-year education at South Bend from 2013 to 2017 and he was the sideline reporter for the NBC broadcast of the Blue/Gold spring game in 2016 and 2017.

“To work on the broadcasts for four years — as an intern really — with Alex Flanagan and then with Kathryn Tappen for three years down there on the sideline and being in all those production meetings, it was such an invaluable piece of the journey for me.”

And now, the 27-year-old is the television voice of the Fighting Irish.

“To see it all come full circle and be up there in the booth, it was really a special experience every single game,” said Collinsworth.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Collinsworth joined ESPN where he was a correspondent for NFL Live and Sunday NFL Countdown while also hosting the ESPN-owned ACC Network’s football show The Huddle.

Jac then returned to NBC in 2020 and was part of the Notre Dame telecasts during the pregame show and halftime show for two seasons. Collinsworth had the opportunity to learn under veteran play-by-play voice Mike Tirico, especially during the production meetings.

Tirico became a mentor to Collinsworth.

“I felt like I was getting a graduate degree watching him handle those meetings,” said Collinsworth. “The way he would take all of the young people, myself included, under his wings. You couldn’t get this anywhere else. To be able to do that for two years and still have him as a close friend and somebody I can text…I text with him before every single game.”

Another huge mentor to Collinsworth has been the legendary Al Michaels, the former play-by-play voice for Sunday Night Football who is now calling the Thursday night package for Amazon.

“I talk to him all the time,” said Collinsworth. “I’ve had dinner with him. He invites me out to play golf. We just get on the phone and spent 45 minutes just breaking down everything.  Every time that phone rings I don’t care what I’m in the middle of, I walk outside and I take that call.”

Collinsworth, the son of former Bengals wide receiver and current NFL Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, first felt the broadcasting itch growing up in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky.  It goes without saying that his father was a huge influence, but Jac remembers when Highlands High School was being renovated when he was in 7th and 8th grade.

The first part of the renovation was a brand-new broadcast facility.

“It was a studio that had these amazing cameras, a desk, lights and two sets,” recalled Collinsworth. “To this day, I’ve never seen a high school setup…I mean this is better than most college setups…a state of-the-art facility.”

The class was called “Introduction to Filmmaking” and Collinsworth started out wanted to be a cameraman. 

“I became obsessed with running around the school and filming all this stuff whatever students were doing,” said Collinsworth. 

From there, Jac gained experience in editing and producing but deep down inside he thought he wanted to be a cameraman…that was until his first taste of on-air experience.

“They started a rotation where everybody in the class had to try hosting the announcements live right before the final period of the day,” said Collinsworth.

And the rest is history.

An important part of Jac’s growth as a play-by-play announcer came last spring working NBC’s coverage of the United States Football League. Paired with Jason Garrett, Collinsworth was able to continue the learning process before taking over the Notre Dame duties. He appreciated the fact that these were really good football players that were among the best players on their college teams and could very well be in the NFL.

And just like for the players, the USFL was an opportunity for Jac to get better at his craft. 

“Just continuing to learn the art form of calling a game,” said Collinsworth. “The timing and getting out of the way sometimes and letting the broadcast breathe and rising for those big moments.” 

An incredibly big moment for Jac would be if the opportunity to work a game with his father ever presented himself. It’s something that he’s thought about and would love to see come to fruition somewhere down the road.

But if that happens, there could be a problem for the viewers.

“Would anybody be able to tell who is talking?” joked Jac.  

Jac and his father sound so much alike it’s scary. In fact, during our twenty-minute phone conversation, I really had to pay attention to listen for any discernable difference between Jac and his dad and it was very hard to find any.

But it would still be fascinating to hear them work together.

“I think it would be a very cool experience,” said Jac. “We would have so much chemistry that it would be a crazy experience. I would love to do it. I’d be getting out of his way and let him make points and I wouldn’t be afraid to take a couple of shots at him. I think it would be damn entertaining.” 

While their on-air roles are different, Jac has been able to learn a lot about broadcasting from his father. While he does — for the most part — give his son some space when it comes to work, Cris leaves Jac a note prior to each broadcast, mainly has it pertains to a specific aspect of a telecast like coming back from a break or the flow of a telecast.

But there’s one valuable lesson that Jac learned from his dad years ago that he has adopted for himself.

“Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from him is, he is a worker man,” said Collinsworth.  “He just works at this stuff.” 

Jac would constantly see his father going through film at various hours during the day, but Cris would still pay close attention to his son’s studies at school and would let Jac know about it if he saw something wasn’t right.

Like when Jac would be having some difficulty with a math assignment.

“I’m like ‘Dad, this is calculus, I can’t figure out how to do this equation’,” said Jac. “He would put that clicker down and come up and he would be deep in the math book going through the chapters learning all this calculus that he hasn’t done in 40 years.  I’d come down at six in the morning and he’d still be flipping through the math book while I’m eating breakfast and he’s teaching me the lesson to make sure I got it for the quiz.

“That’s how he was…just the work element is the biggest thing that I still use every day and I definitely got it from him.”

Aside from his football duties, Collinsworth has also been a NASCAR studio analyst for NBC and he’s also been the voice of Atlantic Ten Men’s Basketball and the Atlantic Ten Tournament. There’s something to be said for getting experience in multiple sports because each sport has its own pace and its own flow.

Some play-by-play voices specialize in one sport and some can handle multiple assignments.  In Jac’s case, there’s one sport that stand above all the others.

“The rhythm, feel and flow of a football game is my favorite,” said Collinsworth. “Football has always been my first love and grew up around it. Basketball happens fast not to mention you’re on the court and you’re right there in the middle of it. I’ve called baseball games too and that’s a very slow game.” 

Jac Collinsworth is still very early in his broadcasting career but he has great talent and he’s been rewarded with some amazing opportunities like Notre Dame Football and being part of NBC’s NFL coverage.

But he knows that he’s had some help along the way and he’s very grateful for it.

“I feel like I’m living out a dream and I feel like I’m standing on a lot of people’s shoulders that helped me get there,” said Collinsworth. “I think about a lot of people who didn’t need to but chose to help me when I was a kid. I feel like I have a great responsibility to take that advice and take it as far as I can and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

And it all started with a high school television studio and his willingness to try all different aspects of the business.   

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Chris Kinard Has 106.7 The Fan, The Team 980 Primed For Continued Success

“Coming right out of the books and beating our direct competitor in the first month will always be something I’m proud of.”

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When Jim Riggleman resigned as manager of the Washington Nationals in June 2011, it was the first time Chris Kinard thought the fanbase cared about the team.

Riggleman wanted the Nationals to pick up the option on his contract and effectively remove the “interim” tag from his job description, and once they declined to do so, he essentially packed up and left.

From the time he was young, Chris Kinard was interested in media, and he had early exposure in the industry since his uncle Lee worked as a television news anchor in Greensboro, N.C. The elder Kinard was the pioneer of the Good Morning Show on WFMY News 2 and was honored with the dedication of the main studio in his honor from where he worked since 1956.

By the time he was in fifth grade, Chris Kinard began listening to radio and realizing it may be a viable career path for him to pursue. He shadowed his uncle in 1996 to learn about news media and television broadcasting; however, he gravitated towards working in radio in part because of WJFK-FM, and had an affinity towards professional sports.

“A local morning show here in D.C. on a top 40 station was kind of my entry point,” Kinard said. “I listened to that show actually when it moved over to WJFK for years in middle school and high school.”

At the time, WJFK-FM was broadcasting in the talk format and was among the network of stations syndicating The Howard Stern Show and other programming targeted towards the male 25-54 demographic. Kinard was an avid listener of the station, tuning in to its programming for several hours a day over the course of many years.

Today, it is known as 106.7 The Fan and it is managed, along with Audacy’s cluster of radio stations by Kinard himself. He was responsible for flipping the station’s format from talk to sports in 2009 and has helped cement the brand as dominant in the ratings.

“Flipping the station to sports will always be a bittersweet thing for me,” Kinard said. “I grew up with the station [in] the previous format and I took a lot of pride in what we were doing at the time, but I think we launched with great success. Coming right out of the books and beating our direct competitor in the first month will always be something I’m proud of.”

During his freshman year at American University, he got word that The Sports Junkies were making a public appearance a few minutes away from his childhood home. Additionally, he found out the show was looking for people to volunteer to serve as interns, an opportunity he knew was simply too good to pass up.

Inherently shy, Kinard introduced himself with the hopes of landing an internship at WJFK-FM. A few weeks later, he received a phone call informing him that he was selected to work as an intern, a surreal opportunity for him to begin working in sports media. Little did he know he would still be working at the station, albeit in a more substantial role, 25 years later.

“When it started and when I was actually in the building and seeing the behind the scenes, I was kind of in awe,” Kinard said. “….I had no idea what I was doing really except that I really wanted to be there and couldn’t believe that I was and wanted to soak it all in.”

Three months later, one of the show’s producers who largely acted as a call screener left the station to pursue another opportunity in media. As a result, there was a gap to be filled, and since Kinard had been diligent and responsible as an intern, he was hired part-time to take over the role. At the conclusion of his sophomore year in college, he was hired full-time as the producer of The Sports Junkies – a development in his career he calls “fortuitous” initially difficult to foresee balancing with two years remaining to earn his undergraduate degree.

“It was a really kind of interesting conversation with my parents about whether to do it or not and how it would impact my schoolwork and that kind of thing,” Kinard said. “I just was determined to take that opportunity; I knew how scarce they were I guess just by seeing people who had been at the station and working part-time [for] several years who had left because they couldn’t get a full-time position.”

By the time he was in his junior and senior years, Kinard had valuable professional experience from working at WJFK-FM and also interning at the local ABC affiliate station. Although he participated in some of the student-run media outlets at the school, his mindset was to prioritize what he was doing off campus.

“I’m not sure that I actually got a lot out of college to be honest with you because I was doing it outside of school already just by kind of virtue of connections,” Kinard said. “Being in Washington, D.C. and all the opportunities that are available here, [that was] really… my focus more than anything else.”

During his first year as show producer, The Sports Junkies became nationally syndicated on Westwood One Radio and was achieving notoriety and high ratings within the marketplace. The show is hosted by four childhood best friends – John Auville, Eric Bickel, Jason Bishop, and John-Paul Flaim – who began the program on public access television in Bowie, Maryland before joining WJFK-FM as evening hosts in 1996. None of them had any formal broadcast training, instead utilizing their indelible chemistry and local background to auspiciously impact sports media.

“They’re very authentic,” Kinard expressed. “I think when people hear them, they can relate to them. They sound like every guy’s group of friends sound when you get together. I think they sound like our city; they sound like sports fans in Washington over the last 30 years.”

All four co-hosts recently inked four-year contract extensions to keep The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan, officially putting pen to paper together in studio earlier this month.

Since 2016, The Sports Junkies has been simulcast on NBC Sports Washington, and although listeners now have the ability to add a visual component to their experience, it did not change how any of the co-hosts approach the job. From the beginning, there was a mutual understanding that the show would still operate in the same way with the cameras serving the purpose of pulling back the metaphorical curtain.

“It is really a fast-paced show in terms of the camera switching and the direction of it because there’s four guys, so I think this show translates really well,” Kinard said. “There’s a lot going on because there are four hosts, not just two talking heads. There’s also two producers that chime in a lot. There’s a lot of movement, I think, within the show because of just how dynamic of a cast it is.”

Since its official shift to the sports talk format in 2009, 106.7 The Fan had primarily competed with The Team 980 to try to win in the ratings. In November 2020, Audacy, officially agreed to acquire various stations across the United States owned by Urban One, including The Team 980, effectively ending that competition. Part of Kinard’s job is to oversee both sports talk stations, which now compete with ESPN 630 DC.

“We have some really talented staff,” Kinard said. “I’m not sure we’ve ever had more talent under one roof than we have now. Having two stations in my market allows me to groom new people and give people opportunities quicker than I could with just one station.”

Moreover, he helped launch 1580 The Bet, a radio station broadcasting in the growing sports gambling format in partnership with the BetQL Audio Network and CBS Sports Radio. Its creation coincided with a nationwide effort by Audacy to better utilize certain signals to their full potential, and with the proliferation and legalization of sports betting in select states across the country, many of them flipped to this format.

“I think it was important to have the BetQL Network represented in Washington at a high level because of the proximity to the MGM National Harbor, which is just kind of 15 minutes away from the radio station,” Kinard said. “[It is] on a signal that, in the past, had not been a big ratings play, so that was a great opportunity to just kind of own sports in Washington – to have 106.7 The Fan; The Team 980; and 1580 The Bet all under one umbrella.”

A compelling draw to sports radio is live game broadcasts, and as brand manager of Audacy DC, Kinard is responsible for maintaining 106.7 The Fan’s relationship with the Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals. When the teams are doing well, it usually results in better metrics for the station.

“There’s a huge correlation between winning and listenership and also advertiser interest,” Kinard said. “There’s a segment of the fanbase, I think, that thinks that local sports radio roots against the teams. It’s not that we root for the teams necessarily, but if you ask any host probably on any radio station in America whether it’s better for their individual show’s success and their overall station success if the teams are successful, I think everyone’s going to say it’s way better.”

Prior to the start of this NFL season, Audacy DC parted ways with the Washington Commanders due to a disagreement regarding “the value of the broadcasts.” The Team 980 was previously owned by the Washington Commanders franchise itself and had been the flagship station of the team for several years through its sale to Urban One in 2019. The Fan had not had the radio broadcast rights to the Commanders since 2006 before it was broadcasting in the sports talk format, hence why The Sports Junkies co-host Eric Bickel stated that the station had had no relationship with the team for two decades.

Since the Commanders officially entered into a new partnership with iHeartRadio, its flagship station has been BIG 100, which airs a classic rock format. Consequently, The Team 980 had the opportunity to change its on-air strategy, airing five hours of pregame coverage every week followed by extensive postgame coverage. During the games themselves, the station has broadcast Burgundy & Gold Gameday Live, a show that has had stellar listenership thus far.

“I think play-by-play rights are really important and do have a ton of value, but only if it’s done in a way where there’s partnership on both sides but also an understanding on both sides that the team has a job to do and the radio station has a job to do,” Kinard expressed. “Our focus is just to continue to provide great talk and coverage of the teams.”

As media continues to evolve with changes in technology and consumption habits, Kinard remains optimistic about the future because of the influx of new talent and the leadership at Audacy.

“We have just a wealth of talent and content, and I think that content will cut through no matter what’s going on with technology,” he said. “I think that we will continue to push to make sure that we are on the platforms that we need to be on and that we own that content and can monetize it for the future. I don’t know how anyone could compete with that, so I’m really excited about it.”

Kinard’s vertical movement in the industry might not have been possible without finding a mentor in Michael Hughes, the station’s general manager. Over the years working in the industry, Kinard grasped that managers are often not thinking about the needs and wants of individuals because of the myriad of responsibilities they are juggling related to the entity as a whole over any given period of time.

As a result, it is essential for subordinates to communicate with their superiors, as they are “at the mercy of the communication [they] receive,” according to Kinard.

“I had a conversation with him about… wanting to be a program director,” Kinard said of Hughes. “I think he took that seriously and took that to heart and he said, ‘Well, let me help you be prepared for that when the time might come.’ It just so happened that it came less than a year later.”

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Pete Thamel Was ESPN’s College Football Missing Link

His no-frills approach is refreshing in a time when many “insiders” view being as famous as the athletes they cover as a quasi-goal for their futures.

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For a network often accused of “running” college football, it always seemed odd to me that ESPN never had that true news-breaking reporter it had for other sports. That is, until it hired Pete Thamel in January of this year.

ESPN poured resources into “insiders” like Adam Schefter, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Jeff Passan while it poured rights fees into the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, and the College Football Playoff, but from the outside, it looked as if the network just wasn’t interested in having that same type of reporting for college football, which is truly puzzling.

When the entire postseason of the country’s arguably second favorite sport is centered around what is best for your television channel, you would think supplementing it with high level, national reporting would be a priority.

Maybe the right deals never came to fruition or maybe the value just wasn’t seen by the network until Thamel became available, but his contributions to ESPN’s college football coverage have been immeasurable.

In a day and age where reporters break news on Twitter and get around to eventually writing a story for their outlet’s website, Thamel flexed his reporting chops in a major way on Sunday. While the rest of the college football world was still pondering whether Ohio State should consider firing Ryan Day, Thamel dropped a bomb on the sport’s landscape by revealing Wisconsin had hired Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell to run their program. His initial tweet was accompanied by a link to ESPN’s website with further details about the move.

Pete Thamel was so convinced he was the first and potentially only person working on that ever-changing breaking news story, that he took the time to write the story, submit it through ESPN’s editorial staff, and then release the news before anyone else. In 2022, that’s the equivalent of mailing his story from side of the country to the other in order to break news. And yet, he was so far ahead of the game that he was able to take his time, gather his facts, and report an accurate, succinct story that would be of value to him and his network. What a novel concept.

One of Thamel’s best qualities as an “insider” is he — thus far — hasn’t been plagued by questions that have been a factor in the perception like his ESPN counterparts. Schefter, Wojnarowski, and Passan have each faced their own incidents during their time as the lead reporters for ESPN but Thamel, in my opinion, is unlikely to be pulled into those scenarios. It seems clear Thamel doesn’t release things for the benefit of anyone other than himself and the outlet he works for.

He doesn’t seem to be swayed by agents, athletic directors, coaches, boosters, or anyone else with skin in the game. His no-frills approach is refreshing in a time when many “insiders” view being as famous as the athletes they cover as a quasi-goal for their futures.

Last week, College GameDay host Rece Davis noted on the show’s podcast that Thamel brought “something to GameDay that GameDay’s desperately needed for years”, and he’s right. Not only did ESPN need a news breaker for it’s digital outlets, but it needed that presence on its pregame show.

And when you think about it, nearly ever other pregame show has that role filled. Schefter and Chris Mortensen hold that role for ESPN’s NFL coverage, FOX Sports has Jay Glazer in its NFL pregame show and Bruce Feldman for Big Noon Kickoff. It’s just an area ESPN lacked.

But they made a fantastic hire by bringing Thamel aboard, and his reporting will serve the worldwide leader well over the course of the following weeks as the college coaching carousel heats up.

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