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.
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.
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?”.
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.
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.
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?
D: And the flagship for the Falcons too.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?”
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.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Why Do NFL Fans Want More Greg Olsen and Less Tony Romo?
Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down film of offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast.
Five years ago, Tony Romo retired as an active NFL player, jumped into the CBS broadcast booth, and immediately became the darling of fans and media for the excitement he brought to his telecasts. Romo’s enthusiasm for the game and understanding of modern offense allowed him to predict plays successfully, making him an instant sensation.
Greg Olsen will finish his second season as a full-time broadcaster on Feb. 12 from the NFL’s biggest stage, calling Super Bowl LVI for Fox with play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt. Olsen hasn’t drawn the must-see buzz that Romo did early in his TV career. No fan likely tuned into Fox’s top NFL telecast, “America’s Game of the Week,” to listen to Olsen’s analysis. His work doesn’t draw nearly the same amount of acclaim.
But the shine has worn off Romo with viewers during the past couple of NFL seasons. Watching a game with Romo in the booth previously felt like sitting alongside a fellow fan, jubilant at fantastic plays or clever strategy, and disappointed at performances that fell short. His energy also elevated Jim Nantz as a play-by-play announcer, bringing him back to life after 13 seasons alongside Phil Simms.
Now, however, Romo’s outbursts — noises in place of words, or outright yelling — seem like a crutch when coherent thoughts can’t be articulated. Where there was once fascinating insight from the analyst position, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback often resorts to clichés and platitudes that don’t add to a fan’s understanding of what’s happening on the field.
Worst of all, Romo sometimes talks merely to talk, filling a quiet space when a broadcast needs to breathe or the images are saying enough on their own. That’s especially awkward when paired with a veteran like Nantz, who’s a master at letting the moment speak for itself rather than trying to punctuate it with unnecessary narration.
On Fox’s telecast of the 49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, Olsen explained how play-calling changes when an offense intends to go for it on fourth down. He showed an awareness of the strategies that each coach employed to gain an advantage or neutralize what the opponent was doing well.
Early on, he highlighted San Francisco defensive end Joey Bosa holding back on his natural impulse to pursue the quarterback at all costs. Instead, he maintained a position that prevented Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts from running to gain yardage when pass plays weren’t available.
With analysis like this, Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down the film of their respective offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast. He doesn’t appear to be surprised by what he sees because that prep work — watching film, talking to coaches and players — informs him of the eventualities and possibilities that could arise during a game.
The hardcore football fan, those who repeatedly watch highlights and replays, loves that kind of analysis. Such attention to detail feels gratifying because it demonstrates that the person calling the broadcast is as serious about this stuff as the viewer who’s waited all week for the big game.
Yet a more casual fan is also drawn in because of Olsen’s amiable personality and ability to explain things simply and clearly. It’s similar to what viewers enjoy about ESPN’s “ManningCast” for Monday Night Football. Yes, there are jokes and funny moments. But Peyton and Eli Manning both explain strategy and preparation very well.
By comparison, Romo comes off like a broadcaster who’s winging it, letting his personality and enthusiasm fill gaps created by a lack of preparation. That might be a completely unfair criticism. We don’t know what kind of work Romo puts in leading up to a telecast. Maybe he watches as much film as Olsen. Perhaps he talks to everyone available to the broadcast crew in production meetings.
If so, however, that doesn’t show itself on the CBS telecast. Romo’s work on Sunday’s Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game telecast was an improvement over his call of the Bengals-Bills divisional playoff clash. During the previous week, Romo acted as if he didn’t have to provide any insight because this was the match-up fans had anticipated all season and already knew everything about the two teams.
Perhaps in response to that criticism, Romo made a point of highlighting the importance of each team’s defensive coordinator — Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo and Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo, respectively — in disrupting the performance of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. But rather than demonstrate an actual strategy during a replay, he stated that each defense would come after the opposing QB and create pressure.
Ultimately, the difference between Romo and Olsen seems to be schtick versus knowledge. But it’s also a product of how each analyst reached their position. Romo joined CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team without previously calling any games. (As BSM’s Garrett Searight points out, that immediacy and recent connection to the game fueled what felt like fresh analysis.)
Meanwhile, Olsen called games during bye weeks while he was still an active player and was on Fox’s No. 2 crew with Burkhardt before being elevated to top status following the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN. He’s had to get better out of necessity. Even now, as Olsen establishes himself as his network’s top analyst, he faces the possibility of being bumped from that position when Tom Brady retires and cashes in on the massive contract Fox offered him.
Compare that to Romo, who’s the highest-paid NFL analyst on television. His $18 million annual salary set the bar other top broadcasters are trying to reach. And he has seven years remaining on the 10-year contract he signed with CBS. That is significant job security. Even if network executives (or Nantz) lean on Romo to improve his flaws, how much motivation is there when he’s already been anointed a broadcasting king?
However, NFL fans and sports media are making it clear what they prefer from their football broadcasters. They want insight and substance. They want to learn something from the commentary, rather than just be told what they can see for themselves.
Olsen is providing that and is being rightly lauded as a broadcaster living up to his status. Romo is suffering a fall from acclaim and has become a weekly punching bag. If he and CBS want to change that, he’ll have to bring more to the booth each week. In the meantime, Fox should consider appreciating what it already has, rather than welcome a glitzy name.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Fowler Knows You Know He Isn’t In Australia
“I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know.”
I can tell you my exact whereabouts when 2015 became 2016 in the Central Time Zone. I was in a media shuttle outside of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas awaiting my transport to the Omni Hotel in Dallas. It was kind of a sad scene, not just because Alabama had picked Michigan State’s bones 36-0. Nope, it was sad when the clock struck midnight and a tired, cracking voice from the back of the bus said, “Happy New Year” with all the excitement of a man facing execution.
I, too, was tired. I had just spent a week doing shows in Dallas and was headed back to Birmingham for a pit stop before flying to Phoenix for what would be an epic Alabama v. Clemson National Championship Game. I am not complaining, mind you, but the thought of the end of the football season being near was very comforting. It’s a bittersweet thought, I love college football, but I also love being home with my family.
ESPN’s Chris Fowler was at Jerry World that night, as well. He had been on my show earlier in the week and we had joked with him about how good he had it; two College Football Playoff games then a flight halfway around the world for the Australian Open. I had bumped into him leaving the stadium that night and we laughed, again, at his good fortune.
As I sat on the bus for the saddest of New Year’s celebrations, I reflected on the conversation with Fowler and thought about how overwhelming that travel seemed. I could never have imagined then that type of travel assignment would one day become a luxury rather than a necessity.
There are numerous things COVID ended. Many of them were more important than announcing crews actually at the events, but that was one casualty. It has even continued to impact the top level crews like Fowler and John McEnroe who did their 2023 Australian Open work a world away in Bristol, Connecticut.
The fact that the majority of ESPN talent was actually stateside had already been painfully obvious to anyone watching. The studio show had made no effort to hide that fact but the actual match announcers were part of a little more of an attempt to appear they were Down Under. It was abundantly clear, though, that the match announcers were simply standing in front of images of the Melbourne stadiums superimposed behind them.
It was Chris Fowler who finally revealed the man behind the curtain when he removed the mystery and made it clear they were not in Australia. After Darren Cahill, who was actually on site, relayed the weather conditions to Fowler and McEnroe, Fowler commented that the Bristol weather was in the 30’s.
I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know. I also think most viewers have seen enough of the low-energy, disjointed remote announcing that they can spot it without being informed. Thankfully, Fowler and McEnroe are pros enough (and in the same room) that they can still do their job well from 10,000 miles away.
I just can’t believe we are still playing this game in 2023. I think history will show that, in many cases, remote broadcasts were unnecessary in 2020 but that was a complete unknown at the time. One has to assume the desire to save on travel expenses is a large motivation in 2023. I can only imagine how much is saved by ESPN in airfare and lodging by keeping announcers in Bristol rather than sending them to Melbourne. Tennis is also one of the sports in which the difference isn’t as noticeable.
The feedback I get from the fans in other sports, where remote announcers are far more noticeable, is that the network clearly doesn’t value my team or me as a fan. While that may not be true, if that perception is held by a large enough group of fans, it becomes true. What the networks know is this: we are addicted to our teams. They can have bad announcers from their living rooms but what am I going to do about it? I get a limited number of times to watch my team each season. I’m not missing that chance because a network wants to squeeze dimes.
As most people have learned more about COVID, most unnecessary precautions have faded away. Remote announcers have been tougher to extinguish and may never go away entirely.
In the meantime, I’m rested now and I’ll take that trip to Australia anytime someone is ready to send me.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.
ESPN Ready To Go Back To The NHL All-Star Game
“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about.”
The NHL is approaching a break leading up to the festivities at the All-Star Weekend taking place from FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida: the home of the Florida Panthers. Saturday’s 2023 NHL All-Star Game will be broadcast on ABC and simulcast on ESPN+ for the second consecutive year under the seven-year media rights deal which brought live game broadcasts back to The Walt Disney Company’s platforms for the first time since 2005.
On hand to call the action and provide fans with exclusive access will be the NHL on ESPN lineup of experienced commentators, versatile journalists, and knowledgeable analysts, including the studio team of Steve Levy, Mark Messier, Chris Chelios, and P.K. Subban. The group is looking forward to making the trip to South Florida to catch up with former teammates and colleagues, as well as finding reprieve from the colder temperatures outside their regular Bristol studios.
“You just look at the graphics of the commercials out there with the surfboards and the beach and the warm weather and [see that] hockey can thrive anywhere,” Messier expressed. “…It’s a great time to pause and break and celebrate what’s happened in the first 40 games of the season until everybody starts to buckle down for the stretch drive.”
Messier signed on with the NHL on ESPN team before the 2021-2022 season as a studio analyst, utilizing his vast experience and championship pedigree to intuitively decipher the game of hockey and provide cogent reasoning about the action. He is a six-time Stanley Cup champion – five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the New York Rangers – and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Furthermore, Messier is third all-time in points and ninth in goals, and he was the captain of both of his championship teams – making him the only player in league history to garner that accolade. His presence on its hockey coverage gives ESPN added ethos and someone who remains a student of the game, closely following the league to craft informed opinions.
“Seeing the amount of talent in the game now and the emergence of these players is just incredible,” Messier said. “Of course, it’s what it’s all about – just trying to get yourself. Once you’ve established yourself as an NHL player, the next step is to figure out how to win.”
Chris Chelios joined Messier on the studio panel from the launch of the NHL on ESPN last season and is also a Hockey Hall of Fame member who played professionally for 26 years, retiring at the age of 48. He recognizes the changes in the game of hockey, especially since his 1983-84 rookie campaign, and tries to accentuate them while promulgating classic aspects of the sport demonstrated through its young talent.
“Just when you think you’ve seen everything, they come up with something else; some new move,” Chelios said. “….There have been some unbelievable highlights and every night, especially working with ESPN, [we have been] able to see all that. We’re in an entertainment business and these guys aren’t letting anybody down. It’s great; it’s a great product.”
Steve Levy has worked with ESPN since 1993 where he has broadcast countless different sports and hosted various types of studio programming. Whether it is calling football games, sitting behind the desk on SportsCenter, or making movie cameos, he is an anomaly within the industry in that he has had a long and storied career primarily with one company. Through his versatility, he can continue seamlessly assimilating into a wide foray of roles and, in the process, enhance the broadcast skills of his colleagues.
Last season, Levy, Messier, and Chelios broadcast coverage of NHL All-Star Weekend from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The trio was situated in a suite at “The Fortress”. It contrasts the regular-season mindset of gathering two points per night; contrarily, this weekend is, in essence, a celebration of the game and its people.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase besides their skills, I think their personalities,” Levy said. “I really look forward to that.”
Levy has worked with Messier and Chelios for the last year on ESPN’s studio coverage and is now joined by P.K. Subban, who played in the NHL as recently as this past April as a member of the New Jersey Devils. A three-time All-Star selection and 2014 Olympic gold medalist, Subban inked a multi-year contract with ESPN this past November to regularly serve as a studio analyst and also work as a live game broadcast analyst for select regular season matchups.
Implementing a player who is closely removed from playing professional hockey brings fresh perspectives to the show, offering different perspectives, and appealing to a wider segment of viewers.
“We were sitting next to him on the set the other night and he’s talking about Jack Hughes and it’s like, ‘Who’s going to have a more educated opinion than a guy who was lockering next to him the last three seasons?,’” Levy said of Subban. “It’s easy to forget he was in the league in April; he’s fresh out of it.”
Subban grew up watching Messier and Chelios in the NHL and now works alongside them, holding them in high regard. Aside from their play on the ice, Subban remembers Messier in Lay’s commercials in the late-1990s and early-2000s advertising its products. Although he brings more contemporary perspectives by being removed from the league for less than a year, Subban embraces the traditional style of the game and delivers analysis based on multiple eras.
“I think keeping it fresh is also being able to educate some of these young players and the audience about guys like Mess and Chelios,” Subban said. “I think that’s also very important because we have a luxury [in] having these two on the broadcast…. It’s just really cool for me this year. I’m super excited to do this for the first time; to sit next to these guys.”
All three NHL on ESPN studio analysts participated in at least one aspect of the skills competition during their playing careers, with Messier winning the shooting accuracy challenge in both 1991 and 1996 and Subban winning the breakaway challenge in 2016. Watching the players compete from a new vantage point and evincing their ethereal abilities on the ice underscores what the weekend is genuinely about.
According to Levy, the 2023 All-Star Skills would be the event he would attend if he had to choose between it and the game. This sentiment has permeated itself in the linear television ratings, as the 2022 All-Star Game was the least-watched (1.15 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2009, while the corresponding skills competition was the most-watched (1.09 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2012.
It is important to note, however, that last year’s all-star game aired just before the first night of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, broadcast in the United States by NBC, USA, and CNBC. Despite last year’s Olympic Games drawing the lowest U.S. ratings in the history of the international sporting event and cultural phenomenon, the first night still drew 13.2 million total viewers across the three networks, accounting for a 6.8 share.
The format of the NHL All-Star Game was changed starting in 2016 to contain four teams (one per division) playing three-on-three games split into 10-minute halves in a single-elimination tournament. The winning of the tournament’s championship game splits a prize pool of $1 million, ostensibly incentivizing more realistic play as the allure of the windfall profit is aggrandized.
Nonetheless, the weekend is all about appealing to the fans and demonstrating the star power of the league through the depiction of vivid imagery, as well as chronicling stories to engross viewers in the product.
“You highlight fun and entertainment through the skills, and the three-on-three was a great concept because it’s exciting to the fans,” Messier said. “….I think the NHL, the NHLPA and ESPN and everybody involved has worked diligently to make this weekend really fun and to highlight the great talent we have on the ice and the great people we have off the ice.”
“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about,” Subban added. “For these players, a lot of times, they’re buttoned into the game and focused on the ice. This is an opportunity for [the] fans to get to know the players in a fun way; get to know them through their skill set and what they’re able to do on the ice.”
The All-Star Skills will feature the return of events including the Breakaway Challenge, Fastest Skater, Accuracy Shooting, and Hardest Shot. In addition to these classics, there will be the debut of the Tendy Tandem where goalies will face off in a shootout, along with two new geo-focused events – the Splash Shot (pre-taped from Fort Lauderdale Beach Park); and the Pitch ‘n Puck (from a par-4 golf hole).
“I know each market tries to do something specific to the local area,” Levy said. “I do know ESPN has worked really hard with the NHL to try to enhance the best events and make them even better… and better for television.”
The league continues to adapt and find new ways to engage fans with the launch of the 2023 NHL Fan Skills at Home, a social media-based competition urging fans to submit videos performing their hockey abilities focused in different areas. Various hockey content creators, including Pavel Barber and Kane Van Gate, will make the trip to Sunrise, Fla. to promote the contest and implore fans to participate.
Additionally, the NHL will host the All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, a free fan fest-style event featuring appearances from NHL all-stars and alumni, a photo opportunity with the Stanley Cup, and interactive games for the whole family.
Surrounding it all on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ will be a concentrated effort to emphasize the dispositions of regular all-star selections – such as Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid; Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin; and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar – while contextualizing what is going on through experience and astute foresight.
At the same time, the broadcast will aim to espouse awareness towards younger stars, many of whom are first-time selections such as 20-year-old Seattle Kraken forward Matty Beniers; 24-year-old New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox; and 25-year-old Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Logan Thompson.
“Our job is to really highlight these players and make it a fun telecast,” Messier said, “and really talk about the players as people and what great, incredible talent they possess.”
“You have to be able to tell stories about the players,” Subban said. “They’re the product on the ice and there’s no better way to tell stories about players than getting ESPN. They are the best at it, so it should make for a fun couple of days.”
The NHL on ESPN studio team thoroughly enjoyed their time at last year’s All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, as it led them to become accustomed to working together and set them up to put on quality broadcasts through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the Stanley Cup Finals are set to be broadcast by Turner Sports this year (as part of its seven-year media rights agreement) with its regular studio crew of Liam McHugh, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, and Wayne Gretzky.
Messier and Gretzky, each serving as studio analysts on ESPN and TNT, respectively, starred in an NHL on FOX commercial together back when they were teammates on the New York Rangers in 1996.
This season, the NHL on ESPN studio crew has not worked together regularly because of the network’s obligations to the NFL and NBA. The group will soon be on the air regularly though to break down the top plays, interview stars before they hit the ice and foster a congenial atmosphere for sports fans everywhere.
“I look forward to working with these three guys together,” Levy said. “We haven’t had a lot of run together [because] it’s just the way the schedule works [during] the first half of the season.”
“I’m looking forward to kicking this off,” Chelios added. “It’s like a playoff run [for us] now; this All-Star Game is the start of working and grinding and doing a couple of games a week and getting into a rhythm here.”
The 2023 NHL All-Star Skills will be broadcast on Friday, Feb. 3 on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. EST and is available to stream live on ESPN+. Then on Saturday, Feb. 4, the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, featuring teams representing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, and Pacific divisions, commences at 3 p.m. EST on ABC and can be streamed live on ESPN+.
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.