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Carl Dukes Has His Face On A Beer Can

Demetri Ravanos

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There are a long list of people that helped Carl Dukes get where he is today. He doesn’t want you to forget that. But he also knows he isn’t one of Atlanta’s most successful sports radio hosts by accident either.

Carl and his partner Mike Bell go way back. Their relationship began the way most radio guys from different markets strike up a friendship. They each found themselves showing up at the same events as the other and going out to dinner. They made each other laugh. That turned into texting about stories and ideas, and that finally turned into Mike asking Carl in 2009 if he thought they could have as much fun on air as they do off air.

At the time, Carl was working in Houston. Mike was at the now defunct 790 the Zone in Atlanta and partnered with former Georgia linebacker David Pollack, who obviously turned out just fine.

Carl told Mike they could absolutely make it work on air, but he wasn’t ready to move quite then. He wouldn’t be ready to leave his native Texas for another three years.

It was in 2012 that Carl Dukes’s agent told him about another opportunity in Atlanta. This one was with CBS Radio. The company was flipping Triple-A outlet 92.9 Dave FM to a sports station, and the station already had the Falcons’ play-by-play rights, so they wouldn’t necessarily be completely starting from scratch.

Carl met with all the relevant people and was sold on their vision. He and his family were ready to move halfway across the country, but first he had to make a phone call. He had to tell Mike Bell that he was coming to Atlanta after all, just not how Bell had planned it.

Years later, after a number of lineup changes at what became 92.9 the Game and the eventual dissolve of 790 the Zone, there was an opening for the two friends to FINALLY work together. Carl is thankful it happened the way it did and says that professionally, he has never been happier.

When I was in Atlanta earlier this month, I told Carl to meet me for breakfast at a place called Michael’s Cafe. It’s a truly unremarkable breakfast counter right around the corner from State Farm Arena, where he needed to be for the Hawks’ media day festivities.

We shared so-so eggs and truly awful hash browns while he told me the detailed story of how he came to town, why he now devotes multiple segments a week to soccer, and how he and Bell came to have their faces on a beer can.

DEMETRI: So when did you come to Atlanta?

CARL: 2012. My agent contacted me and said “CBS is looking to do an all-sports station in Atlanta. Are you interested?” And I laughed and said “Come on!” because things were going really good for me in Houston. We had built a really good brand there, so I said “I don’t know,” but he told me to just talk to them.

So, Rick Caffey, who is our market manager here, he runs probably the most prominent urban station in the country, V103. And Terry Foxx, who is our program director now. 

Image result for terry foxx rick caffey

D: He was the original PD too, right?

C: Right. The original PD. He had come down from Pittsburgh. He had done a start up for them in Pittsburgh and that was successful, so they were bringing him to Atlanta now. 

I’ve done two start ups. This would be my second one. I can guarantee I won’t do another one. For those that don’t understand it or don’t get how tough it is, it is such an uphill battle, especially when you have established stations in the market. 

So it’s summer of 2012. I’m talking with Rick. I am talking with Terry. I am talking with Chris Olivero at the time. They were convinced that what the plan was was going to work, but they needed the right people. 

I think I came out here two separate times to meet between the time we actually started the station, which was October 24.

D: 92.9 was a Triple A station right? But it had the Falcons as I recall.

C: Correct. And you know the thing there was that they just couldn’t recycle the audience, which is something I think a lot of music stations run into. You have rights to a particular team, it doesn’t matter what team, but particularly with football. You see these huge numbers on a Sunday where people are listening and paying attention. Monday through Friday they couldn’t come anywhere close to the same thing.

Rick was here. I think he is the one that did that deal. That was part of the process. We want to be able to create the number one sports station, not just in Atlanta, but in the South. So when you hear that is the plan, and I met the people I would be working for, it made the decision a lot easier than I thought it would be.

D: Was it just the idea of leaving Texas or was it coming to Atlanta that was your initial hold up?

C: Well, the hardest thing to do in our business is give up brand equity in a market you’ve been in for a long time. When you move to another market, and I say this with all due respect to my friends that have had success and stayed in one market for a long time, but that is the hardest thing is to pick up and leave somewhere you’ve been successful.

So, knowing that, you really have to weigh “do I really want to give up all of that” and knowing you can probably stay forever versus “do I want a new challenge?” For me, it was being ready for a new challenge. I wanted to accomplish something most people thought was unattainable at the time.

You have to remember when we started our radio station, 790 the Zone still existed. There was 680 the Fan, which is still here. Two stations had a nice place in the market at the time. You’re not only coming into a market where they have established talent, but for a guy like myself, you come in to a place where you’re going to be hosting afternoon drive and people are going “Who is this guy? What is he all about?”

The process of the audience becoming familiar with you and liking you, that takes time. We’ve gone from 0 ratings to this month, which I’m very proud of, we’re number one with a ten share. That’s never happened at the radio station. You’re talking about sports. I know you look around the country, Demetri. Go find me a lot of ten shares in sports radio.

I’m very proud of where we are right now and where we’re going to continue to go. Plus, my wife was very behind it. She had a great gig in Texas as well. It was just a family decision, but once we made the decision to come it was all about winning.

D: When you say you’ve got a 10 share right now, what is driving that in Atlanta? Is it the Braves in the postseason, is it the Falcons, or in Atlanta is it still everything taking a backseat to SEC football?

(Carl pauses as he tries to find the right answer)

D: Sorry, I don’t mean for that to sound like I am completely dismissing the possibility that people just like you. 

C:No, not at all, but you know, that is part of it. I think we have created a show people want to be a part of and we connect with our audience in a completely different way with our beer, which I guess we’ll talk about in a second. 

I think that the Falcons and certainly Georgia’s success, and then throw in what happened this year with the Braves, which is unexpected. It is almost a perfect storm. But I also think the elements of what we do everyday matter. You know, this audience has been building. We’ve seen consistent 6’s and 7’s in the ratings. That’s where we were living, so to see a 10 it’s shocking. I think we were always going to get there, but we never thought we were going to get there this soon.

D: You’re like the Braves, a year ahead of schedule.

Image result for braves division champs

C: Correct!

D: This probably goes to the elements on the show and also what you are doing off the show. Sure the Braves are good again and the Falcons are good again, but listeners aren’t coming because they want to hear about that. They are coming to your show because they want to hear what Carl has to say about that. 

C: Right. I think that’s the essence of all great shows. When you meet your listeners and they say “I had to tune in Monday to hear what you were going to say about that” or “I can’t believe we lost that way and I couldn’t wait to hear what you were going to say,” that’s really what it is all about. That’s the connection!

And the thing is, it’s not about if they agree with you or not. They want to hear you. I think that is a big part of what has been going on for us lately. 

D: Do you think you and Mike Bell could have had this same success together if you had come to join him when he first asked you back when he was on 790? The reason I ask is what the situation was. You would have been replacing a Georgia football legend, and I wonder if there might have been some pushback from listeners along the lines of “Hang on, Pollock is our guy. Who is this guy? He’s not a Bulldog. He’s not from the market.” 

Is finally getting together at The Game kind of a leg up? Now you’re just two guys talking sports. 

C: Absolutely. This is something people may or may not think about, but when you talk about timing, to me that’s the stuff they’re talking about. I don’t know if we would have had this kind of success. I can tell you the chemistry and the way we work together now, that would have been there, but the success we’re having now? I don’t know if we could have done that at 790.

That gets back to understanding “is this the right time for me to make this move?”.

D: Right.

C: Right? Sometimes you want something so much that you want to continue to push forward. It’s why guys in our business take jobs where the timing may not be right. For me, in 2012, the timing was right. 

I was ready for something new. I felt confident in Chris Olivera, Rick Caffey, and Terry Foxx, who knew the plan, both what we were going to do and how we were going to accomplish it. And on top of that, they had the commitment. That is a big deal. I’m not coming in and then 18 months later I have to worry about them changing the radio station. 

Ultimately, it’s just God’s plan. I come in and here I am working with the guy that we wanted to work with each other for a very long time.

Image result for dukes and bell

D: Was there ever a concern when 92.9 was going through so many lineup changes, not that you made the wrong decision, but that CBS was going to feel like they made the wrong decision even trying this format?

C: Well, you know, you are never going to know what corporate is thinking, right? So, of course I knew there were going to be struggles. A lot of people told me not to take this job, and every conversation was built on a misnomer. 

Atlanta is a great sports market. People here are passionate, and all of the ownership groups are dedicated. You look at Liberty Media. I know they have caught a lot of heat with the Braves, but you go to Sun Trust Park and look at the Battery in Cobb County. It’s really amazing. 

A lot of people were telling me “Dukes, don’t take this job. You’re gonna be out of a job in a year.” It was all based on this idea that Atlanta is a bad sports city. 

The ironic thing for me is that my mom is from Opelika (Alabama). My dad was born in Griffin, Georgia. We used to visit my grandmother in Griffin, Georgia. I remember going to Fulton County Stadium as a kid when we’d go see Grandma. 

It’s ironic, I guess for me to now be in this city having the success that I am, but I am defending this city because being here, being in it, and seeing how people respond to these teams, it’s a great sports city. 

So back to people saying “Dukes, don’t take the job,” the argument was they have two sports stations already and they don’t even have the passion.

D: Were either of them, 680 or 790, seen as the unbeatable monster?

C: I would tell you that 790 was more recognized. 680 has been around longer, but 790 was the one with the buzz about it.

They had the 2 Live Stews on at the time. For the size of that station, they weren’t a big station, they were known around the country.

Image result for 2 live stews

D: So no one was saying “Don’t go to Atlanta because the Zone is there” or “You can’t compete with the Fan”?

C: Well, no, they were, because the idea was that there is no way Atlanta can support three sports stations. Everyone was looking at who is going to be the odd man out. 

As far as what corporate was thinking, I don’t know if they were ever looking at us and going “We’re three years in. We need to pull the plug.” That is what I was saying in these conversations. We need three years fo this to work. That’s the time frame. If you have a show you really think can be a winner three years, that is when you’ll start to see a turn. 

For a radio station, especially a start up, for me I knew I needed to be out in the community. For Atlanta especially, that is big. They want to see you. They need to love on you. That’s real. That is where their passion comes from.

If you’re a Falcons fan, you’re a Falcons fan through and through. If you’re a Hawks fan, yeah, they’re down, but the passionate fans are there waiting for them to turn it around. Bulldog fans have been waiting forever to see this, to see where they are now and wondering if they can compete for championships year after year. 

I’ll tell you this though, one of the weirdest, but greatest things to ever happen to the city is Atlanta United. This has been unbelievable. To see the fandom is nuts.

D: You’re the flagship for the team right?

C: Yes.

D: And the flagship for the Falcons too.

C: Right.

D: Okay, so with a vested interest in both, what are you thinking when you hear Arthur Blank go on a radio broadcast and say “Yeah, this is probably a more fun environment than a Falcons game”?

C: (laughing) Well, it is.

D: What kind of topic is that the next day?

C: If you’ve gone to a United game, and I would tell this to anyone around the country, we have the most passionate environment in soccer. I’m not just saying that for MLS. Look around the world. The attendance numbers Atlanta United is putting up compares with Arsenal and Man U. I mean, it’s bananas! If you’ve gone to one of these games, you’ll see it. The supporter groups are incredible.

Big shout out to the supporter groups that have been a part of Dukes & Bell, because we supported this from the jump. A lot of people, like with anything, were “Soccer? Nah nah nah.” It’s been huge!

D: The first time, before I started looking at shots of the crowd for United games, that I realized this was a thing was that episode of Atlanta where Paper Boy goes to the barber shop. There’s an Atlanta United flag hanging on the wall. 

I thought “oh, well that’s an Atlanta barber shop with something for every team in town on the walls.” Then, in back-to-back episodes after that, there is someone in the background – clearly a crowd shot – wearing Atlanta United gear. That’s when it kinda hit me that Atlanta is buying into the MLS. It must be a big deal here.

C: It is a cultural phenomenon. The reason is that Atlanta has a lot of transplants. The United is all of ours. It’s not a team moving from another city. It’s not a sport where everyone that moves here is bringing their own allegiance, so they take on United as a second team. 

We saw this from the foundation. It’s for everyone. It’s such a kid friendly and family friendly thing, that you’ve got fans in every county. You’ve got people in the ‘burbs, people from Outside the Perimeter. And maybe you know this, but when you have people coming from Outside the Perimeter, that’s huge.

Maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with the question, but it gets back to what Atlanta is and what it has become as a sports city. So, getting back to an earlier question, I never worried about “will the station pull the plug?” or “was this the right decision” as we went through personality changes and lineup changes. You’re always working to get the right mix. Once you find it, you’ll see the spike. I think that is what has happened with sports in this city and as a result what has happened at 92.9.

D: So with United’s success and its place in the Atlanta sports pantheon, is there hard-core soccer talk? How do Dukes & Bell talk about soccer?

C: That’s an interesting question. At first, we were very cautious, because there are going to be a lot of novices that don’t know the sport’s culture and don’t know the lingo. So we started very general and broad, but as we started to see these crowds and the investment in the team, you start realize there are a lot of hardcore soccer fans. It’s not just guys saying “I’ll pop in to see what’s going on.” So, you have to approach it like football, the NBA or college football.

There are topics people want to discuss. They know the players now. It is as much of a conversation as anything else. We have soccer segments throughout the week on the show that people are interested in. 

We get a lot of clicks from things we put on the website. We get a lot of reaction from anything soccer-related, which is something that if you had told me two years ago when we were with Arthur Blank for the kickoff party and we were trying to sell “Hey, we’re getting a soccer team,” if you had said then “in two and a half years you’ll be doing soccer segments,” I’d have said “yeah, whatever!”.

D: You would have assumed if that was the case, the team is paying for those segments.

C: Right, but that is what has happened. It has helped us so much. It’s from the standpoint of those fans are a younger demo. They spend money and traditionally they may not have come to the radio station.

They weren’t going to hear us, but now they’re coming to the station and Dukes & Bell are talking about their favorite thing. So it’s “Oh, I’m going to stay here and see what these guys have to say!”.

D: I hate to do the “how long have you been a black quarterback” question, but I do want to ask you about being a Black guy on the air in Atlanta and working for a Black PD. 

C: (Laughing). Oh, it matters!

D: Not only does it matter, but was there an appeal of the chance to work for a Black program director? 

Image result for terry foxx

C: Yeah, absolutely there was. 

D: It seems like for Atlanta, that was a very wise move on CBS’s part, because like you said, V103 is this monster station, the make up of Atlantans is very different from the people that move here because they got a job with CNN.

C: Oh sure. There was a certain appeal to come work for a black program director, and for that matter, a black market manager. First of all, those things are rare in our business. That’s just a fact. 

We’re all pushing, those of us that are in the positions we’re in, to create this opportunities. I feel like part of our success is to open more doors.

D: Even yourself, it’s amazing that you are in a rare position. You’re a black man on in a major market, behind the lead mic everyday. You’re not a former player. You’re not a former coach. You’re just a really good host. There aren’t a lot of people like that in sports radio.

C: Yeah, that’s correct. That’s the thing. There are a lot of former ballplayers that get jobs and they turn into really good hosts, but you’re absolutely right. This is a rarity. 

There was an appeal, but I’ll say this. If Terry wasn’t qualified, he wouldn’t be here. He did the startup in Pittsburgh and took it to number one. He did this startup. Now we’re number one. He does a phenomenal job. The appeal to me was always about working for the right people. 

I’ve worked for some great people in this business. Ken Charles put me on The Sports Animal in Houston when it launched. He recognized my talent and wasn’t afraid to take a chance on me. Brian Purdy gave me a shot years ago, and he’s now the market manager and one of the top guys in Dallas. John McGainey, who’s an all-star, Dave Tepper, who just took a job in Denver, Eddie Martini in Houston, and none of those guys are African-American, but they believe in me and believed in what I could do. There’s a uniqueness in that.

Some of those guys were told I wouldn’t work. Some of those people were told “well, Dukes can be on a show, but he can’t be the lead guy on a show,” and so the credit is with the people that understand the broad picture. So, coming to work with Terry and coming to work with Rick is cool. I’ve only ever had the chance to work with Caucasian PDs or Caucasian market managers.

D: It also has to feel good that when you’re trying to fight for what you want the show to be, or explain what the show is, it has to be more comfortable not to be the only Black guy in the room for a change. 

C: Sure.

D: That’s not to disparage any of your past program directors.

C: Of course not. Not at all, but you’re right. There’s something to be said for that. The other side of that too is, as I’ve said, diversity is good in everything. It’s no different in our business. If you’re sitting in a room and everyone looks like you and they have all had the same experiences as you, you probably are not going to broaden your horizons. 

Even with my partner, he’s from New York. I’m from Texas. We talk politics. We talk about all kinds of things. We are so different, but at the core, we are similar and that is why we work so well together.

I say that to say that being around different types of people helped me grow. So the first time I walked into that room and looked around, I did go “Oh, okay!” but that doesn’t make the day-to-day any easier. I think sometimes that is a misnomer.

It’s not any easier. In fact, that puts more pressure to deliver, because what we’ve got here isn’t going on anywhere else around the country.

D: It’s weird to hear you say that people told your PDs that you could be on a show, but you couldn’t lead a show in Houston, of all places.

C: Well, here’s the deal. I started in sports radio in the 90s. I wasn’t even doing sports radio. I was doing news. I was doing music. I didn’t make my transition to sports radio until the late 90s, somewhere around 97 or so. 

At that time, all sports radio at that point was on all-news stations. There were very few independent, all-sports stations. So, if you wanted to do sports, you had to do it on an all-news station at night.

When I first got into the business I thought I wanted to be on television. It’s like that for many of us, right? You look at the local sports guy and say “Oh, I want to do what he’s doing.” 

But anyway, talk radio was all-news or political talk and all white. So, that was the element. It may sound weird that those things were said, but I’ve been told in my career that I “don’t sound like the station,” if you pick up what I’m getting to. That’s kinda covert racism.

D: (laughing) Well, is it really all that covert?

C: (laughing) Here’s the deal, when you hear “Well, you’re good. You just don’t sound like the station,” and they pat you on the back and don’t give you that opportunity, it tells you that you are less than the other talent that is there. 

Image result for carl dukes the game

The reality is what they mean is “you sound black, and we can’t have you sounding black on the air.” Well, what is “sounding black”?

That environment, it was difficult for me, because you’re always trying to do the best you can. But I had people at times telling me they didn’t think that was the right idea.

(At this point a man interrupts our conversation to shake Carl’s hand and tell him how much he loves the show. The man’s name is Duane Johnson. I point out that Dwayne Johnson is the Rock’s name and jokingly ask if the guy was a plant for my benefit. “Hell no,” Carl says. “I’ve never met that brother in my life!”)

D: It had to be frustrating too at that time. You’re striving to get better and there’s always going to be a ceiling when it is a sports show on a news station.

C: Oh sure, and I talk about this all the time when I talk to kids or address folks wherever. They ask me “Hey man, how do I get into the business?” or “How do you get to this point?”. I always point out that there are so many more opportunities than there was. 

Now, the biggest difference is you can just put your stuff out there. If you really want to start a show, just start it. There are so many ways to put it out there. If you’re good and you’re interesting, people are going to find you.

My whole thing was, through this process, I have to give credit to my wife. She always reminded me that intellect and dialect are not exclusive. I guess this goes back to sounding a certain way. 

I used to meet people all the time that would come up and say “Oh my God, YOU’RE Carl Dukes?”. And you know what they are saying is “Oh my God, you’re black!”. So, our joke always was “Yes, and you’re still going to listen, right?”. So, we had fun with it, but it was part of the process and the growth.

But anyway, what I tell young broadcasters is the key is getting to the point where you can help someone else. This success that I am having, now I am looking and want to know “where’s the next Carl Dukes?”. Where’s that next non-athlete radio guy that can do this job and not be pigeon-held back by the market or whatever the challenges are?

For a lot of folks you’ve gotta see it to believe it. Growing up there were no mes. There were maybe a handful of black guys on sports talk radio. You think about the explosion of sports radio in the 2000s, not just in major markets, but in small markets. When it happened, it allowed the opportunity for people to have a lot more opportunity. 

The problem is for a lot of African-Americans that were in music radio that wanted to make the transition, we didn’t know how. I am very fortunate that I had great mentors and great people looking out for me. They saw me and said “not only can he do this, but he can do a lot of stuff”. It is really a testament to those individuals that helped me along the way.

D: Let’s talk about the beer. 

C: Hey Man Blonde Ale

D: You know, it really isn’t that long ago that just to have a t-shirt with your name on it in this business you had to be at like Howard Stern-level popularity. Now, correct me if I am wrong. I think Entercom’s rock station in Seattle, their afternoon show has a beer.

C: I know there’s one other. Either Rock or CHR, but no other sports show.

D: I am pretty sure it’s the rock station up there, but either way, it is so perfectly marketed towards who you are talking to everyday. How did it come about?

C: So, our PD came to us and said “I am talking to some people about an opportunity and I need to know if you are interested.” Mike and I were both just like “What is it?” in a very sarcastic way, because you know, so often ideas like this never come to life.

So, he says “I’d like you to meet with these guys from Oconee Brewing Company.” So we come into the conference room, and tell them about the show and how we get to know our audience. They’re like “What do you think about us making a Dukes & Bell beer?” and we’re like “Okay, sure.”

All the right people are in the room at this point. Our marketing director, his name is Dutch, and the sales director, Dave Deemer, are in there. We’re all saying “Okay, now how do we grow this?” So, it went from something I don’t think anyone in the room thought was possible to now we’re going to visit the brewery. It’s in Greensboro, Georgia.

Image result for oconee brewery

So, Taylor, who is our brewmaster, we see his passion. We see the passion of everyone there. They listen to the show. They love the show and want to be a part of it, and they thought that not only for them, but for us would be an awesome opportunity. 

That is when I bought in. We came up with the campaign to say “Hey, we’re gonna do a beer, so what is going to be the name?”

The show begins everyday with us going “Hey Man…” Everything on the show is very…

D: Organic?

C: Yes! Very much so. There are some planned things, but a lot of what is happening on the show is just happening. So when we address each other, we don’t say “What’s up?” It’s always “Hey man.” 

“Dukes, what’s up?”

“Hey man.”

It was just one of those in the office things. That’s how it started. So, when Mike and I got together on the show and told the listeners “When you see us on the streets or you see us out it’s ‘hey man!’. That’s how we address each other.”

So that’s where “Hey Man” comes from, but we didn’t know that was going to be the name of the beer. We told the listeners that we have this beer coming, but we need your help. We probably got between 1500 and 2000 names. Many of them were already copywritten, but we got some really creative names. 

A lot of it was phrases from the show. It was really cool. You could see the connection between the show and what was going on. “These guys are gonna get a beer and I can name their beer! I want to be a part of this!”

D: Right, so then for the listeners it becomes “we’re getting a beer!”.

C: Exactly! You can see the response starting to ramp up. So, you fast forward from spring to summer. We go out to Oconee and film ourselves tasting seven or eight types of beer. Our goal was to make something that worked for everybody. We wanted the taste for people that really liked beer but nothing so strong that turned away a casual drinker, and of course, you want women to drink it as well. 

So, Taylor has us tasing beers. On a blind taste test Mike and I are saying “I like number 3, but can we mix in a little bit of 4 and then add number 9?” and literally, that is what they did. 

He tells us he’ll get to work on it right away. “Go home. The process takes a little while.” So I go back out maybe a month later, and he let’s me taste it. It was warm. It wasn’t quite ready but he told me he’d let me taste it warm. I’ll be honest. I was blown away.

Now it’s back to building it up, telling the audience that we have a beer coming. So, we finally tell the listeners that the response to naming the beer has been awesome, but you know “Hey Man” is our slogan, so the name of the beer is going to be Hey Man.

And to be fair, there were a lot of people telling us it should be called “Dukes & Bell Hey Man.” It’s an easy name to remember. People know it, and it made the most sense. So now, the next question is what is the can going to look like.

They came to us and said “we want to put your faces on the can” and we were like “our two fat faces are going to take up the entire can!”. But they were adamant about having our faces on it, so they sent us five different design ideas for the can.

What we ended up with was “Dukes and Bell Hey Man” with our faces on it, opposite the station name, so you know the 92.9 the Game connection. Then there is a backdrop featuring Midtown Atlanta, where the station is located, and it came out great!

We tell listeners the beer is ready and then people are like “when is it coming out?”. I am telling you, they can’t keep it. Stores cannot keep it in stock. 

D: Is it on tap anywhere?

C: It is. It’s in about 50 different restaurants in town, but once they canned it and put it in Total Wine and every package store, that was huge. We’re at the resort on St. Simon Island on tap! 

I love that they can’t keep it in stores. To me that is the coolest thing. That tells me there is a real connection. It’s people saying “I like these guys. Not only does their show kick ass, but I am going to go drink their beer.”

And now we have another level of connection to our audience. When we’re at tailgates, we’re drinking our own beer. We’re checking on fans. “You got a Hey Man?”

It is a situation that I have never been a part of in my career, and I have done some cool events and trips and things. This for me…again, if you had told me how this would help the show and help the connection to our audience, and help grow the audience, I don’t know that I would have believed it.

D: It’s weird man. I know there is the Marconi for radio stations and broadcasters, but your own beer, that’s your Oscar. That’s your gold medal.

C: It is, man. A few weeks back, I was driving home and that was when the first big order was out and it was selling out everywhere. The beer came out around labor day and not just fans, but stores were asking for the next batch, so Oconee is producing more and more. 

So, I said “You know what, I am going into this store by my house to see if they have some Hey Man.” I am in the car and I am filming. I walk into the store. The guy doesn’t know who I am. I walk to the back and there is a huge stack of Hey Man cases! 

I grab two six packs and I walk up to the counter filming. I am like “I’m about to go up to the counter and I want to see if I can get a discount for my face being on this beer.” So I get up there, and it’s this young guy working. 

I put the beer on the counter and I know this guy is like “why the hell is this guy filming me ring the beer up?”. So I ask how much and he says “twenty bucks.” 

So I go “I get a discount right?”. The guy looks at me like I’m nuts and says “For what?”.

So I take the camera, point it at my face. Then I point it at the can, then back on him and I’m like “because my face is on this can! Don’t I get a discount?”.

And the guy freaks out! He says “Oh sir, I’m new here. I’ve only been working here three weeks!”. Everyone behind me is laughing their asses off. Some random lady behind me goes “that must be great beer!”

For me, I don’t care what other sports shows do moving forward, we were the first! And also, is there another black man on a beer can anywhere? I have been asking my friends who drink a lot of brew “have you ever seen another black guy on one of these cans?”.

D: Since the “wasssssup guys“ I don’t know that I can name many others that are even featured in commercials.

C: Yeah, so from a personal stand point it has been beyond cool.

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Jason Barrett Podcast – Dave LaGreca

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Evan Roberts, Self-Professed Sports Maniac, Thrives at WFAN

From an early age, Roberts knew that radio was the medium through which he wanted to express his fandom, especially WFAN.

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Evan Roberts made his first appearance on WFAN at just 10 years old, filling in for NBA play-by-play announcer Mike Breen delivering sports updates on Imus in the Morning. The opportunity came after he sent a letter on a whim to the station asking for a job since he enjoyed listening to the station with his father. Desiring to become a radio host was the result of dynamic career aspirations that transitioned from wanting to work as an architect to trying to become the play-by-play announcer for his favorite baseball team, the New York Mets.

“Listening to Mike and Chris, and Benigno in the overnights and Somers – I was like ‘That’s what I want to do’,” Roberts recalled. “….It couldn’t be any more specific when I’m listening to the Fan saying ‘I want to be on the Fan.’ About a decade and a half later, I was able to get it done and I’ve been there ever since.”

From an early age, Roberts knew that radio was the medium through which he wanted to express his fandom, especially WFAN. As a native New Yorker, Roberts connected with the teams in the area and sought the chance to talk about them for a living on a sports radio station with a storied history in the area.

Since 1989, WFAN has been one of the pillars of New York sports coverage and a place that helped pioneer the sports talk radio format. Getting there, though, required that Roberts had deft knowledge of sports, an ability to connect with fans, and experience that ensured he was ready for an opportunity in the number one media market in the world.

While attending school, Roberts was hosting a radio show called Kidsports on WGBB, a radio station based in Freeport, N.Y. serving Nassau County on Long Island. He then moved to Radio AAHS to host What’s Up With Evan Roberts and Nets Slammin’ Planet, the latter with famed high school basketball player Albert King and NBA insider Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson. Aside from being able to refine his hosting skills, Roberts made valuable connections in these roles including one that would help him land his first job out of high school: Danny Turner.

Before he was named the senior vice president of programming operations at XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C., Turner served as the engineer for Roberts’ shows on Radio AAHS. He helped to coordinate the technology associated with broadcasting since the shows were done remotely rather than from out of a studio.

“[He] ended up working at XM Radio and heard one of my tapes as it went on and said ‘I remember him. I like him,’ and then sent it to the right person and they ultimately hired me,” said Roberts. “It was my first real, real job working out of high school, and that was about meeting someone earlier on and remembering who that person was and sending as many tapes as I could.”

As a graduate of Lawrence High School, Roberts quickly made the move from Cedarhurst, N.Y. to Washington, D.C. to begin working at XM Satellite Radio, a place he would stay for the next two years. Then, he made the move down I-295 from D.C. to Baltimore, Md. where he worked at 105.7 The Fan WJFK-AM and had to adjust his sports consumption to align with the interests of those listeners. It taught him the importance of research and preparation, important aspects of working in sports media that he still utilizes to this day.

“When I was in Baltimore, I had to be Baltimore,” said Roberts. “I had to understand what makes the Orioles fan tick; what makes the Ravens fan tick. I didn’t grow up as an Orioles fan or a Ravens fan. The Ravens had won the Super Bowl years earlier. I know nothing about winning Super Bowls; I’m a Jets fan.”

At 21 years old, Roberts made the move back to “The Big Apple” when he was hired by WFAN as an overnight host, a role he stayed in for the next two-and-a-half years. Simultaneously, Roberts was working on Maxim Radio doing a night show on the Sirius Satellite Radio channel. Balancing those two roles, while it may have seemed daunting, gave Roberts the chance to broadcast in his home market and talk about the teams he grew up rooting for; the aforementioned Mets and Jets, along with the then-New Jersey Nets and New York Islanders.

Then in 2007, Roberts got his big break when he was named the midday co-host with Joe Benigno on the program Benigno & Roberts in the Midday. Benigno, who got his start on WFAN as a regular caller, had grown a rapport with listeners since joining the station in 1995, making the task for Roberts, a 23-year-old at the time, more difficult in terms of fitting in. Roberts is grateful that Benigno, a host he grew up listening to on WFAN, was accommodating and amicable towards him – plus it helped that they aligned in their rooting interests as Mets and Jets fans.

“He was very welcoming, and he didn’t have to be because I was a lot younger; he had no idea who the hell I was,” said Roberts. “….Right out of the gate, I think he saw my passion [and] my knowledge; he saw a little bit of himself in me, and we were able to bond right away.”

To make a name for himself in the new midday time slot, Roberts stuck to the principles that had been given to him from his early days of radio; that is, to be himself. From the start of his foray into sports media, Roberts and most people around him knew that he was, in his own words, “a sports maniac”, and he needed to maintain that genuine identity on the air. His relatability and passion for the teams as a fan made him an ideal fit for the station synonymous with New York City bearing those iconic call letters and an unbeatable afternoon duo.

“I think as time [went] on and Joe and I developed even more and more chemistry, the audience knew who we were,” said Roberts. “They certainly knew who he was, but they learned ‘Evan’s a die-hard Mets fan. He doesn’t miss a game.’”

While it was important for Roberts to emulate his fandom for the teams he roots for, he quickly developed a cognizance for trying to talk about other teams impartially while on the air. It is a challenge, to a degree, to maintain objectivity daily with intrinsic fandom for certain teams, but being able to understand how other fan bases feel after monumental victories or crushing defeats renders the art of appealing to the listening audience easier. It also upholds WFAN’s commitment to serve as an outlet for all New York sports fans rather than just certain cohorts of them.

“We’re trying to appeal to everybody,” said Roberts. “We want everybody listening. Not just Yankees fans; not just Mets fans; not just die-hard sports fans; not just casual fans. How do you keep every single person wanting to listen to the radio?”

When Roberts first joined the station in 2004, most New York sports teams were rebuilding aside from the Yankees. Today, the preponderance of professional teams in the New York Metropolitan area are contending or at least have the chance to appear in their league’s playoffs, something that is exciting for fans like Roberts but presents a challenge in doing effective sports radio that accurately depicts the emotions of listeners.

“I think what’s going to be a real challenge… is [when] the Mets are in the playoffs, the Yankees are in the playoffs, the Jets look competent, and the Giants look competent, and it’s a Monday,” Roberts expressed. “You’ve got four monstrous fan bases that care about their team. How the hell do you find a way to keep them all entertained?”

To express the true extent of his fandom for niche sectors of the audience, Roberts turns to another form of aural consumption: podcasts. There has been much discussion over the ability of traditional radio and podcasts to coexist in this digital age of media; however, Roberts believes that the two mediums provide a unique combination that was previously nonexistent.

In his opinion, podcasts are a method to delve deeper into topics or teams that do not garner as much time on the radio, specifically those that do not generate as large of a market share or which are not as representative of the interests of the majority of listeners.

“I do a Mets podcast specifically – I called it Rico Brogna because I loved Rico Brogna as a kid and I figured ‘Why the hell not?’”, Roberts said. “…I do an hour breaking down the Mets in a hard-core way that I’m not going to do on WFAN for an hour. I may do it for a couple of minutes. I think those two things work perfectly side-by-side.”

Still, most listeners, according to Roberts, will likely turn to terrestrial radio to get their sports fix, especially if they do not express allegiance to solely one team. 

“The majority of people are still going to turn on WFAN and say ‘Okay, entertain me. I don’t know what I want to hear. You just entertain me’,” said Roberts. “I think those two forms of entertainment can work side-by-side. That’s why we do it.”

When Mike Francesa signed off WFAN in December 2017, the station had to make changes in the afternoon drive-time slot which it did with the debut of Carlin, Maggie & Bart. The show was eventually disbanded though when Francesa ended his retirement just over four months later, returning to afternoons. His return to WFAN did not last long though, departing the station again in December 2019. Again, WFAN had to make a change in afternoons, this time moving Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts to do a 2 to 6:30 p.m. show renamed Joe & Evan.

For Roberts, the opportunity to host in the afternoon slot that he had grown up listening to Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo make famous with their program Mike and the Mad Dog was an opportunity he did not hesitate to accept. Yet the change in time also required a change in approach regarding topic selection; after all, since the show would be starting later in the day, it was more important to preview the forthcoming action than recap that of the previous day.

“Even though you’re doing the same thing because you’re the same person, you’ve got to realize the audience is thinking about things a little bit differently; they’re not always analyzing what happened last night,” said Roberts. “I always find that interesting [trying to] balance the two [and] it’s almost like a game.”

When Benigno retired from the station in November 2020, Craig Carton made his return to the New York City airwaves pairing with Roberts to form the new afternoon duo Carton & Roberts. Carton had previously been with the station hosting mornings with Boomer Esiason on Boomer and Carton from 2007 until his arrest in 2017. He served time in prison for fraud-related charges, and ultimately sought and received help for addiction related to gambling.

Since his return to WFAN, Carton has been vocal about his struggle to overcome addiction and the lessons learned from his time serving in prison, hosting a special weekend program titled Hello, My Name Is Craig to discuss these issues in-depth. On Carton and Roberts, the duo has experienced immense success, recently topping ESPN New York 98.7 FM’s The Michael Kay Show in the spring ratings book. From the onset of Carton and Roberts working together though, there was some trepidation as to whether their personalities would blend well together on sports talk radio.

“I remember the first time I was told ‘Hey, there’s a possibility of you and Craig together.’ I was like ‘What?,’” Roberts said. “My first reaction was ‘Really?’”

Now nearly two years in, Roberts enjoys working alongside Carton and learning more about his perspectives and thoughts on the radio industry. Following advice he was given from both Russo and Esiason on working with Carton, Roberts has let him take the lead and discover how the show can effectively inform and entertain its vast listening audience.

“Let’s take a step back; don’t have an ego,” Roberts recalls thinking when he started the new show. “Watch this magician figure out how this show is going to work and then lean into it. I think that’s what I did and it has worked, and I feel very comfortable, I know he feels very comfortable and we’ve got a successful thing going on now.”

Roberts views Carton as an informed talent in the radio industry, aware of the changing nature of the medium and the potential it has to serve its audience. Roberts indeed experienced success in his previous roles, most notably when working in middays with Benigno; however, he is always willing to try new things and form new approaches towards jaded industry practices and show formats.

“I know that I have a guy who I’m working with who knows the medium as well as anybody,” said Roberts. “If he has a vision on how this could work with his personality and my personality, I’m going to listen; I’m going to follow along.”

WFAN and SportsNet New York (SNY), the flagship network for the New York Mets and New York Jets, agreed last year to simulcast Carton and Roberts from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays. While the move, which has been made with various other WFAN programs over the years including Mike and the Mad Dog and Boomer and Gio puts the radio program on a visual medium, Roberts’ approach to the show did not change.

The thought always was that he would be doing a radio show with the curtain pulled back, giving longtime listeners the chance to see the two co-hosts during their discussions and on-air interactions.

“They’re listening to the radio, and it’s cool sometimes when you get to peek in and say, ‘Oh, look at Craig’s expressions. Look at Evan’s expressions. Look at the way they’re looking at each other. Boy, they hate each other right now,’” Roberts said. “I think it’s people looking in on a radio show, and that’s what I always try to remind myself. It’s on TV – that’s great – but we’re a radio show first, and I think a lot of people kind of like to eavesdrop on that.”

One of the challenges of doing a radio show whether or not it is simulcast is in taking calls, and various hosts and producers have differing opinions when it comes to their value on the air. Still, while the hosts, producers, and caller themselves may enjoy their interactions, it is fundamental awareness is placed on the audience that does not call in and their enjoyment of listening to a caller.

“I think when you’re talking [to] somebody, you’re not just thinking about the conversation you’re having with them,” said Roberts. “You’re thinking about the 98% of the audience that doesn’t call in and if this is entertaining or not; if this is informative or not; what are they getting out of this?…. I love callers – it’s a big part of WFAN – but as I interact with them… I think the thought that I always try to have is ‘How is everyone else listening feeling about this discussion?’”

While Carton and Roberts continues to do well in afternoon drive among the demographic of men 25-54 years old, the way the ratings are interpreted by each person and entity in radio differs. Something the Nielsen ratings do not take into account is the number of people listening to the show on-demand as a podcast or watching its simulcast on SNY. During his time with Benigno, Roberts scrutinized the numbers, looking at copious and exiguous details, similar to how he consumes professional sports.

The difference is that while it may be good to have a complete understanding of show performance, getting caught in the minutiae of ratings and trying to improve in weaker areas can sometimes be, according to Roberts, a means without an end.

“I think I realized as time went on that’s going to give you a headache and it’s not going to really help anything,” said Roberts. “I think I learned a little more that you still look at numbers but maybe with a broader view of things; not as specific. I look at [them] a lot, but sometimes it’s tough. I don’t think you want to alter a show too much based on what you think is a pattern but may not necessarily be a pattern.”

This fall, both Carton and Roberts will be starting new roles in media while continuing to host their afternoon show. Carton is going to begin hosting a new national morning show on Fox Sports 1 with a co-host yet to be determined, a move that will place him primarily on television in mornings against WFAN and CBS Sports Radio’s simulcast of Boomer & Gio. Roberts will continue to stay on WFAN, adding a new Saturday program with his former co-host Joe Benigno beginning on September 10.

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” Roberts said of working with Benigno. “It’s always comfortable…. It’s going to be [like] our old show – just once a week on a Saturday.”

WFAN was the sound of Evan Roberts’ childhood, and a large reason he became as invested in professional sports as he considers himself to be today. Throughout his time at the station, he has worked with various hosts and recently welcomed new program director Spike Eskin to the station. He says the contrast between Eskin and previous program director Mark Chernoff is stark – yet they are similar in where it matters most: being able to effectively lead WFAN.

“I think they both very much understand radio, and that’s the most important thing,” said Roberts. “You’re the program director of WFAN; I think you have an idea of what good radio is… [They are] both very, very intelligent radio guys that I trust, but everything else about them is probably polar opposite.”

For aspiring professionals looking to pursue a career in sports media, Roberts advises them to take advantage of the innovations in media and communications especially when it comes to podcasts. With widespread evolution and progression in technology coupled with altering consumption habits and means thereof, putting in the time allows novices to hone their skills and position themselves well in sports media. That and always being willing to learn and study to be the most prepared and informed host as possible – especially when talking to listeners, many of whom have seen teams in their ebbs and flows.

“My wife knows that I’m going to watch every pitch of the Yankees and Mets game,” said Roberts. “I may do it on DVR, and I may do it at 2 in the morning because we need to have a life; I don’t want to get divorced, and I want my kids to love me, but she also knows that I want to be as informed as anybody on the radio and that’s not going to stop.”

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Jake Paul, Betr Pair Micro-Betting With Media

There are plenty of hurdles, though, that still need to be overcome before this takes over the betting landscape.

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I’ll be completely honest: I can’t get into TikTok. I’m closing in on 40 years spent on this planet, and it’s simply not my thing. It’s not meant to be, though. The current generation is one with shorter attention spans, the kind that wants a quick highlight of a sporting event so they can shift their focus to something else. When I tell folks a decade younger than me stories about how I–and others of my age group–would sit around and watch an entire SportsCenter, they look at me like I’m crazy. Not sure how they’d look at me if I told them we used to often watch the rerun an hour later, but that’s another discussion.

It’s a big reason why micro-betting is considered the “next big thing” in sports betting. Similar to in-game betting, micro betting goes a step further and focuses on individual events within a sporting event, such as the outcome of a drive, whether a baseball player will get a hit in his upcoming at-bat, or even something such as a coin toss at the Super Bowl. A perfect example of micro-betting is the rise in popularity of betting on whether or not a run will be scored in the first inning of a baseball game. For a generation that wants a quick resolution to their bets, it makes total sense. You place a bet, you find out how it did, and then you move on–whether that’s to another bit of action or something else entirely.

Something else I can’t get into is the whole hoopla surrounding the Paul brothers. Logan and Jake Paul have built an empire for themselves on the back of YouTube, with Jake Paul having more than 70 million followers on social media. For various reasons, I’m not a fan of either individual. Again, though, they aren’t coming after my demographic. Like them or hate them, you have to respect their grind –and you have to admire their business acumen — as they parlay their notoriety and success into sports entertainment by way of boxing and the WWE, as well as a new sports drink company that has already partnered with Premier League side Arsenal. 

Monday’s announcement by Jake Paul of a new micro-betting site simply furthers the narrative and does so in a manner that can’t be ignored by those in the sports betting space. Betr, a joint venture between Paul, sports betting entrepreneur Joey Levy, and the sports betting company Simplebet, was announced yesterday morning. Backed by a $50 million investment from multiple venture capital firms, the new company is backed by ownership groups of franchises such as the Boston Celtics and San Francisco 49ers, and also has financial backing from current and former NFL players including Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, and Richard Sherman. Musician Travis Scott has also put his financial backing behind the product.

The other very interesting tidbit from the press release was the announcement of a media company that would feature, among other shows, “BS w/ Jake Paul”. Their new YouTube channel, which already has over two million subscribers despite not a single video being posted as of Monday afternoon, will feature sports-betting content from Paul and other content creators and will focus on micro betting. In an interview with Axios, Levy said that consumers can “expect 10+ videos a day from emerging content creators we’ve brought into the company,” but that things would begin with a focus on “premium content natives, starting with Jake’s show.”

Sports radio and television have long been focused on making their products more appealing to younger generations. Just take a look at ESPN, where they’ve long been doing “SportsCenter” episodes on Snapchat. This could be a game-changer, provided they can help drive micro-betting into a wider market. 

There is plenty of potential in the space, a big reason Paul was able to acquire such high amounts of funding. Just last year, JP Morgan estimated that more than $7 billion per year would be wagered on micro bets by the year 2025. And earlier this year, the CEO of Oddisum stated in an interview that micro-betting would account for the majority of wagers placed on sporting events within the next three years. Even DraftKings CEO Jason Robins has talked about plans on how his company expects to embrace the trend.

There are plenty of hurdles, though, that still need to be overcome before this takes over the betting landscape. The biggest one is the delivery of data. As we move more towards a society that streams sporting events and other digital content, the delay between real life and what shows up on your mobile phone can be the difference between placing a wager or not. For some services (I’m looking at you, Peacock) there’s often a delay of more than 90 seconds, which means the play I want to bet on is still two or three plays away from being seen with my own eyes. That makes it difficult to place a bet with any sort of confidence.

The other major obstacle will be getting their gambling service legalized. In their press release, Betr stated they will start as a “free-to-play” app in all 50 states, and eventually they will add real money gambling services as they become licensed to operate within individual states. That’s not going to be so simple, though, as gambling addiction concerns continue to rise and multiple state legislatures are already having discussions regarding the matter. 

As addictive as betting on sporting events can be, micro-betting is often exponentially more. A study last year from CQ University in Sydney, Australia indicated that micro bettors are more likely to be younger players and that they usually “have high trait impulsivity”. An author of the report also stated, “there’s a very strong link between micro betting and gambling problems”, and pointed out that the short amount of time between placing a bet and having it resolved leaves little time to evaluate performance or track one’s bankroll. 

Whether or not those things are overcome in every state possible is a discussion for another day. The fact is, micro-betting is more likely than not to become a huge growth market for sports betting companies over the next two to three years, and Paul and Levy have become the first big players to jump into the media space. It’s not a question of if, but when, others will follow them into the realm of micro betting sports content, but their announcement on Monday raises the stakes. It also reminds those of us in business, especially sports media, that while we may not fully understand the allure of what the younger generation enjoys, we ignore it at our peril. 

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