To say Chris Kinard (“CK” to most people) is a DC radio-lifer would be an understatement. He started working on “The Sports Junkies” at the age of 18, while a student at American University. Fast forward 20 years and he’s the Program Director of 106.7 The Fan, Washington, DC’s dominant sports radio station.
(For a look at the Washington, DC and other major market fall ratings click here: https://barrettsportsmedia.com/sports-radios-2018-fall-book-report/ )
Unlike many of his contemporaries who have traveled the country working their way from smaller markets to larger markets, CK has been in DC all this time. Wednesday I sat down with him in his office in Southeast DC.
Matt Fishman: Let’s start off with your fall book. You guys had a gigantic fall book despite the Nationals being out of it and the Redskins having an up and down season..
Chris Kinard: I was very happy with our performance. I think it does show we have a really strong brand–a consistent brand. That’s one of the things I preach to my guys. Our audience has an expectation that they’re going to get a certain level of programming every day. We’ve had the same lineup now for nearly five years. They want their shows–They want the Junkies in the morning, Grant and Danny in the middle of the day and Chad (Dukes) in the afternoon.
My guys come to work everyday with that commitment that they’re going to provide a very consistent product and be entertaining. This is a unique market. It’s a transient market. We do talk sports but we talk sports from a perspective of trying to be entertaining no matter what’s going on. Win or lose.
The Redskins had an up and down year. They were 6-and-3 at one point and then you saw a collapse and I think that became an interesting story that helped propel us through the December book and even the Holiday book. The Capitals have a ton of interest because they’re coming off the Cup. The Wizards–that’s gonna be a tough one down the road.
I think the Nationals fan base has changed a lot in the last four years. It has matured to a point where we can really have great baseball discussion and really engage with the audience at a level we couldn’t nine years ago when we launched or even seven years ago. I think something really changed within the last three to four years. I think we just hit a tipping point–a big enough audience that is passionate and knowledgeable enough to be able to debate what the team’s doing. What moves the Manager is making. What moves the General Manager is making, what ownership is doing. That wasn’t necessarily the case five, six, or seven years ago. That really helped propel us in September and even into October.
So it’s a good time to be in DC sports even though none of the teams are doing all that well right now, it’s still interesting.
MF: To your point, if you can do well even when the teams are up and down, you’ve done something.
CK: This is a TSL format and we’re a high TSL station. It’s all about listener passion and loyalty to our personalities. No matter what’s going good or bad, they want to hear what our guys have to say about it. That makes us a little bit stronger in bad times than we would be otherwise.
MF: Speaking of personalities, you re-signed the Sports Junkies (Morning Show) recently. What was it like getting them re-signed and what does that mean to The Fan?
CK: They are the backbone of the radio station. Entercom made a great commitment to them and to the radio station to keep them here for years to come. What makes me really proud of them and of the company is that after 23 years they are still growing. That is almost unheard of.
I think we see a lot of great shows that have incredible staying power but very few have been on the air in one market for 23 years and are still growing. Their ratings have never been higher. Their digital metrics are off the charts–a million podcast downloads a month. Now for us to be able to expand the show into other markets regionally is a really great opportunity. Our TV deal (NBC Sports Washington) has been mutually beneficial. I think it put them on another playing field.
For me, someone who started working on their show when I was 18 years old, it is incredible to see that not only are they still going strong, but the show has never been better, never been more relevant to the city. I think it has never been tighter and those guys haven’t changed. They’re still great guys who are great in the building. Great to their co-workers. It’s awesome to see this happen to great people.
MF: I love your radio story because it’s the opposite of the typical radio story. You’ve been in DC your entire life and career.
CK: It’s insane to me. I feel incredibly fortunate. I grew up listening to the station when it was a guy-talk station with Howard Stern and Don & Mike. I heard the Junkies first show because I was so obsessed with the station growing up that when they started this “Sports Weekend” thing and they had three shows, the Junkies were the third show 5-9pm Saturdays and Sundays–I was listening to it. I remember their first show and their first several shows. I was very fortunate that I got in on the ground floor when they were starting out. They were looking for help. I started “interning” no one ever asked me for any paperwork. I couldn’t have gotten college credit if they had asked me. So thank God for that or I probably wouldn’t be here at all today. I was kind of in the right place at the right time. Two and a half months or so after starting as an intern, their call-screener left and I got that awesome $7 an hour job screening calls for them and they haven’t shown me the door yet.
I think one of the things that’s special about this place is that it is kind of a family atmosphere because so many of us have grown up together. From 18 and I’ll be 40 in June I’ve seen those guys get married and have kids. I’ve had interns who have been with us for a long time. I hired an intern in 2002 who’s Chad Dukes, our afternoon host. Most of our producers if not all of them started out as interns. We’ve all grown together. One thing that’s important for our company and certainly for the station is to foster that kind of personal growth for our people. That’s really important.
MF: Over the years, what has evolved or changed about your programming philosophy or has it mostly stayed the same?
CK: I hope it has matured in terms of content. I think our world has changed, too. There are a lot of pitfalls you can fall into. For me the biggest sea change was from diary to PPM–huge. From a host’s standpoint or a programmer’s standpoint, you had to completely change your way of thinking twice. We were told all these things when PPM was starting about shorter production and programming to the meters. We made all those mistakes but then you had to get back to having a strong brand or none of that really matters. You really had to relearn it twice because of the PPM.
One of the challenges for personalities who started in diaries is to always remind them–there are certain things we can do that can impact listener behavior and there are certain things that can’t. There are certain things we have to do for our brand regardless of how we are being measured. A lot of people on the air had to re-train themselves as to “what is the show?”
People (listeners) are coming and going every second. It really has to be reinforced to talent that you have incredible competition even more so today than there has ever been in terms of other things they can do to listen, watch, or click at all times. That your show is not a movie that someone is listening to from beginning to end. The beginning of your show is whatever time that person happened to start listening.
That’s when one of the key things people have to always be thinking about when making content decisions is the reality of the environment that people are listening in. We are a component of their day and they (listeners) are living their life.
MF: Building on what you just said, you’re going to be part of a forum at the upcoming BSM Summit about Inside vs. Outside radio thinking–What goes into how you think about reaching listeners and whatever habits need to be broken?
CK: In addition to people thinking about their shows having a beginning and an end, what has stood out to me in terms of talent conversations is that when they talk to listeners they are often surprised what listeners latch onto. What we find is that listeners latch on to the personalities. It’s a great thing for our hosts to know that their power is not necessarily just their sports opinions but that their P1s especially love to hear the personal stuff and that’s what they remember about them. The little quirks, the little things that make them special. The things that make them in some ways irreplaceable–or at least very difficult to replace.
When you have a show that’s hitting it’s because of the people on it. That’s what makes the difference. Yeah we’re a sports station but there could be three or four stations in a market the things that differentiate them is the people. For the talent to understand that they have to let people in and they’ve gotta find that part about them that makes them unique and makes them special. I think that’s one of the big things.
One thing I think a lot of hosts are maybe not aware of, or take for granted, is that they think people listen everyday. Our P1s don’t even listen four days a week, maybe three and a half. For us it’s about how can I do great, compelling content and also make a connection in terms of benchmarks for people to come back to certain content every day or later in the day and how can I translate that to the next day. Building occasions throughout the day and throughout the week. That’s for us the name of the game as far as building TSL: having the realization that people are living their lives and that we’re just a part of it. Our path to success is to get people to listen just an extra time that day or to remember that on Thursdays we do a great benchmark that they won’t want to miss. If we can get that extra day out of those couple of meters again you’re building a strong brand while also programming to the meters. That’s a huge, huge focus for us!
MF: Speaking of the BSM Summit, how import is it for a PD like yourself to get out of the building to hear what else is going on out there?
CK: It’s very important for me since I’ve been in the same market for 21 years. It’s incredibly important to get different perspectives and different views on things and meet people with different ideas. I thought last year was incredible in that respect.
A lot of these great programmers have been all over the country and in all sorts of different formats and different companies. I think you can really learn a lot and pick up on a lot of things from each other. You’re going to get ideas on how to do things differently or how to look at something a little differently. Some of the things I learned last year on how our industry is handling diversity and how much of a focus that needs to be is completely valid because I think it’s a struggle for us in this format every year. I’m very much looking forward to it and looking forward to seeing it’s growth as well.
Matt Fishman is a former columnist for BSM. The current PD of ESPN Cleveland has a lengthy resume in sports radio programming. His career stops include SiriusXM, 670 The Score in Chicago, and 610 Sports in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter @FatMishman20 or you can email him at [email protected].
Evan Cohen Wants to Be as Relatable as Possible
“If you stay true to kind of what got you here and stay true to what you believe is right in terms of radio, then I think that you’re going to be good.”
Evan Cohen had an advantage when deciding how to introduce himself to the audience thanks to a dual role as both a host and an executive. Ushering in a new era of ESPN Radio, he prompted Michelle Smallmon to talk about why she came in the show’s premiere episode with a black eye.
Viewers of the program could see it for themselves on ESPN2 as she regaled the tale of what happened in her New York City apartment, instantly invested and intrigued by the story and everything thereafter. Even though the circumstance timed itself perfectly, Cohen took a risk in starting a show this way and learned the details behind the incident with the audience live on the air.
Whether it is about sports or not, Cohen is always prepared. Watching games is just as important as the viewing experience, trying to find the metadramatics in each situation to present consumers with parlance and conversation that goes beyond expounding statistics. Sports radio has an inherent element of entertainment that forges a strong connection with its listener base, and these narratives tend to have more value than meretricious greetings.
“If I’m doing the show and we’re doing the show that we think is right, our life is work and our work is life,” Cohen said. “….If you just make up in your mind, or at least I have made up in my mind, ‘My entire life could be show fodder,’ then it’s always enjoyable.”
Good Karma Brands and ESPN have been business partners for more than two decades. In the first quarter of 2022, Good Karma Brands acquired ownership of ESPN New York 1050, ESPN 710 Los Angeles and ESPN 1000 in Chicago. As part of that agreement, Good Karma Brands continued its digital sales obligations for ESPN as its official operating partner and inked a local marketing arrangement (LMA) to take on select responsibilities pertaining to ESPN New York 98.7.
When ESPN began layoffs mandated by The Walt Disney Company in order to slash $5.5 billion in costs, the audio division of the outlet took a significant hit. Program directors Ryan Hurley and Amanda Brown were relieved of their duties, as were executives Scott McCarthy, Louise Cornetta and Pete Gianesini. Additionally, those within the ESPN Radio Network sales staff lost their jobs as the company finalized a renewed deal with Good Karma Brands to execute sales responsibilities within the company’s radio and podcast networks.
Cohen is part of this transition as the vice president of content for Good Karma Brands, but he has no jurisdiction over what happens at the outlets in New York and Los Angeles from a managerial standpoint. As it relates to other ESPN affiliates owned by the company, he works directly with market managers and content directors to ensure that they produce content that best satisfies three key performance groups: fans, teammates and partners. The partnership is one factor that Cohen affirms proves ESPN’s commitment to content crafted for the ear.
“[ESPN has] decided that [it] would like to find partners to go out and find a way to market the content to great advertising partners that they can put [its] message on, and [it wants] to bring in best-in-class operators who do that on a daily basis to help raise the profile of [its] audio,” Cohen said. “I think people have had this twisted for so long.”
ESPN Radio announced a revamped national weekday lineup in late August with experienced hosts up and down the board. From Freddie Coleman and Harry Douglas to Amber Wilson and Ian Fitzsimmons, new and unique pairings are keeping listeners interested and entertained with the latest sports talk.
Starting off the day is a three-person composition with Chris Canty, Michelle Smallmon and Cohen on Unsportsmanlike, and early reviews of the show have been favorable. For Cohen, reaching this point of his career required taking calculated risks and seizing any opportunity that could help him grow – even if it was outside his direct interests.
When Cohen was 9 years old, he heard Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo on WFAN for the first time and remembers distinctly thinking that he wanted to work in sports media.
In addition to working on the student radio station and newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, he had professional experiences over every summer. An internship with the Madison Square Garden Radio Network marked his first external radio endeavor, and subsequent experiences at WFAN and various network public relations departments bolstered his acumen and comprehension.
During Cohen’s junior year at the university, he interned for the Wisconsin Badgers broadcast team, consisting of Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas. For football and basketball home games, along with television and radio shows, he observed the way they went about their jobs and helped out where he could. Learning both through osmosis and involvement assisted in his erudition, but there was no viable substitute for bonafide repetitions.
“Matt Lepay taught me a lesson early on [by saying], ‘If you want to be on the air, you’ve got to get on the air,’” Cohen recalled. “He was specific in the way he said that because he didn’t say, ‘If you wanted to be a sports talk radio host, you’ve got to do sports talk radio.’”
Good Karma Brands had found its niche in the sports talk format and was starting an ESPN Radio affiliate from scratch in West Palm Beach, Fla., leading Cohen to relocate and host a show produced by John Martin. Originally on 760 AM, the station implanted itself in the country’s largest market without a sports radio station at the time and included programming hosted by company executives Craig Karmazin and Steve Politziner themselves. Today, ESPN West Palm is in the midst of celebrating its 20th year on the air and has established itself as one of the outlet’s trusted and respected sports media outlets.
Cohen, however, quickly found out that he was going to be much more than just a host. As he was discussing the job offer with management, he remembers being told that no money would be invested in advertising the station and that no full-time producer would be hired. Furthermore, working as a salesperson would be a condition of his employment as a host, requiring that he execute the role during the day to catalyze remunerative growth.
“It was the single greatest experience I could have because it allowed me to appreciate being on the air,” Cohen affirmed. “It allowed me to work to be on the air, and we started something from scratch that the only way we could make it work was grassroots efforts of being there, meeting people and learning the market.”
Upon being informed of the offer though, Cohen expressed some ambivalence regarding whether or not he should take the chance and called his father to ask his opinion. He was met with a resounding plea to take the job, with his father emitting shock that he would even consider turning it down in the first place. Today, Cohen is often asked how media professionals can exit their comfort zone, to which he frequently replies, “You have to determine what your comfort zone is in order to know how to get out of it.”
Despite West Palm Beach’s status as a top 50 market, the area at the time consisted of many transplant sports fans with allegiances to various teams. Evidently, personalities had to be able to talk about non-local topics. Hosting shows in this marketplace helped him relate to different types of listeners and foster connections with strategic corporate partners, preparing him to continue broadening his horizons.
“You’re appealing to a fanbase that is not solely focused on one team, so how do you connect with them?,” Cohen expressed. “I think it’s [by] being as relatable as possible.”
Cohen connected to the local marketplace by working on Florida Atlantic University broadcasts of football and basketball games in various roles, including as a play-by-play announcer, analyst and sideline reporter. He could also be heard on the Miami Hurricanes Radio Network as the host of its postgame show, coinciding with opportunities to serve as a fill-in host on FOX Sports Radio. Former vice president and general manager Andrew Ashwood afforded him the chance to contribute to the outlet, a place where he ended up meeting colleagues Jorge Sedano, Greg Bergman and Chris Morales.
“It’s crazy in this industry how many people you meet early on,” Cohen said. “Then later in life, you work on different projects with [them] and now I’m interacting with all of them [at] ESPN LA.”
While most of Cohen’s work took place on the radio, he also gained television experience as the sports anchor for WPTV, the local NBC affiliate. The job emanated from a deal that tabbed ESPN 760 sports radio personalities to appear on the news channel to provide local sports features and contribute to the Braman 5 Sports Live nightly sports wrap-up program. The confluence of exposure and expertise, combined with fortuitous timing, put him on the radar of SiriusXM.
Cohen began hosting a four-hour morning drive program on Mad Dog Sports Radio with former baseball executive Steve Phillips and worked closely with lead producer Mike Babchik. Later in the day, he would host his two-hour show on ESPN West Palm while continuing to serve in a managerial role with Good Karma Brands. Cohen’s days were jam-packed with media obligations, and he split his time between New York City and West Palm Beach each month to effectively perform his roles. Regularly appearing on a national and local outlet each day, he adopted nuanced differences in his style while keeping a consistent approach.
“The platform is the biggest thing that’s different [in] who’s watching and who’s listening and the amount of people,” Cohen expressed. “If you stay true to kind of what got you here and stay true to what you believe is right in terms of radio, then I think that you’re going to be good.”
Cohen and Babchik eventually began hosting the show, renamed The Morning Men, together when Phillips transitioned to work on SiriusXM MLB Network Radio, an idea they had discussed previously and implored station management to cosign. Former New York Jets guard Willie Colon joined the program in 2021, and the show continued to gain traction on the air. After some time passed, Cohen came to end his afternoon program in West Palm Beach after more than 5,000 episodes of his show to focus on his SiriusXM and Good Karma Brands managerial responsibilities.
Continuing the three-person hosting format as he did with SiriusXM and Morning Men made sense to him of the caliber of talent he is working with now on ESPN Radio’s Unsportsmanlike. Michelle Smallmon had been a successful radio producer and found success in multiple morning teams on 101 ESPN in St. Louis. Chris Canty had played in the NFL and appeared both on radio and television with ESPN, taking the preparation of his show as seriously as lining up against Tom Brady. Cohen is cognizant of the fact that this is a show with invaluable levels of radio experience and can appeal to consumers from numerous markets.
“When I get this insane opportunity to be at ESPN and to be a part of this show and to work with two people like that – man oh man,” Cohen said. “You can’t be luckier than I am to work with that level of talent.”
Canty authored the name of the show during a brainstorming session, recognizing that its goal is to find enjoyable and convivial aspects of every story discussed. Deviating from usual sports media structure by focusing on celebrating the game and its players is at the center of their ebullient mindset.
Relatability and connectivity are the keys to success for any sports radio program, effectively transforming casual listeners into devoted fans who can advocate on the show’s behalf and convince more people to listen. There is no host who has done that more effectively in the history of the medium, according to Cohen, than Howard Stern.
“If you think about the Howard fans, they support Howard in a way that is so unbelievable that I think the mark of a great show is, in some ways, getting your fans to contribute to the marketing department,” Cohen said. “The more the fans can promote the show, the better your show is going to have a chance to succeed.”
None of that is possible without some level of vulnerability and divulgence of personal life, continuing to entice listeners and retain their mind share. Growing comfortable in doing that as an executive took time for Cohen, and he now feels he has reached a point where he can relax and fulfill his obligations with aplomb. Having a vested interest in both sides of the partnership centers his focus on how the brands can help one another achieve their collective goal of generating revenue and garnering relevancy.
“I think that I am unbelievably lucky to have both,” Cohen said. “….I get to learn so much from so many people at both companies and then kind of be that messier of ideas so to speak with both spots.”
Good Karma Brands will forsake the 98.7 FM signal in New York City in August 2024, converting ESPN New York’s distribution solely to the AM band and other digital channels. The decision to abdicate its position on the FM dial saves $12.5 million for its annual lease fee, perpetuated by internal data that reveals that 60% of station listenership comes outside of radio.
“I see no time in which Good Karma Brands will not do everything in its power to make sure the fans consume our content in a way that partners can support that will make teammates happy,” Cohen said, who did not have direct involvement in this decision. “I have no idea where and when that lands and how that lands, but I know for 20+ years, the goal of Good Karma is to make sure fans consume our content in a way that partners want to support and makes teammates happy, and I’ve never seen anything otherwise.”
Cohen references New England Patriots head coach and general manager Bill Belichick in what he looks for from himself and his colleagues on a day-to-day basis. Whenever he is asked what encompasses a successful effort on the field, Belichick will usually reference all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams.
“I look at it in the same way [with] all three phases,” Cohen said. “The three phases are sales, marketing and content – but in essence, it is fans, teammates and partners. If we hit all three of those phases, we will be successful.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Where Does the Biggest College Football Story in Years Go From Here?
“Teams battling for bowl eligibility aren’t normally big ratings winners, their games normally relegated to the conference networks rather than the ESPNs and FOXs of the world. But, this is no normal team.”
There is zero doubt what has been the biggest story of the 2023 college football season – Coach Prime and the Colorado Buffaloes. Take me back to the middle of August and I would never have believed I would type that sentence.
What Deion Sanders has accomplished in eight short months on the job is absolutely astounding. Make no mistake; he took over a program that was completely adrift, turned over the majority of the roster and started 3-0 with three of the most viewed games of the college season. Nobody without the last name of Sanders could’ve genuinely expected that to happen.
At some point, every Cinderella meets midnight. The clock seemed to strike twelve for the Buffs in Eugene, Oregon Saturday. Colorado was never in a game that finished in a 42-6 Oregon win. Everything you feared about this Colorado roster appeared in one dreadful afternoon. The best two-way player, Travis Hunter, was sidelined with injury and there is no replacing him. Their lines of scrimmage were overwhelmed resulting in Oregon out gaining Colorado by 323 yards. Running for his life, quarterback Shedeur Sanders had by far his worst passing day. It was an across the board failure for The Buffs.
That raises an important question: What does the media do now with Colorado? The Buffaloes have been television gold to this point of the season. The only game to have better TV ratings in week one was a stand alone Sunday night game featuring Florida State and LSU. In week two, only college football royalty, Texas at Alabama, had more viewers. The biggest ratings test was week three when Colorado didn’t kick off until 10:30 pm ET. That game was the number one game of the week and still had more than 8 million viewers at 2:15 AM ET. Again this past weekend, the initial overnight ratings showed Colorado at Oregon took the top spot. That’s two noon ET, a 3:30 pm ET and a 10:30 pm ET window that Colorado has turned into a massive TV number.
Will it continue if they start losing games? The possibility is there, it all starts Saturday with undefeated USC visiting Boulder for FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, the Trojans are a three touchdown favorite over the Buffs. After that, Colorado gets a bit of breathing room against the dregs of the PAC 12, on the road at Arizona State and at home against Stanford. After those two “breathers” the schedule is mostly unrelenting with UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona, Washington State and Utah. Becoming bowl eligible will be a massive accomplishment for Sanders’ squad.
Teams battling for bowl eligibility aren’t normally big ratings winners, their games normally relegated to the conference networks rather than the ESPNs and FOXs of the world. But, this is no normal team. Everything Colorado has been big ratings, viewership and clicks for the outlets that cover college football.
There is a possibility that the people who have watched in massive numbers hoping Colorado will win will continue watching even if the wheels start to come off. Likewise, those watching in hopes Colorado will lose big will tune in to “hate watch” the rest of the schedule. Either way, I don’t expect the coverage of Colorado to decrease at all. Simply, the demand is still there.
If Colorado starts dropping games, they become injured Tiger Woods. For the better part of a decade, Woods would limp his injured body into majors with what seemed like equal odds of winning and withdrawing due to injury. There were times it was tough to watch…but, we watched every shot. We watched every shot because the networks showed every shot. It did not matter if Tiger was 10-under or 10-over, we saw Tiger do everything.
Tiger got that treatment because he was the best in our generation by a mile. Colorado has not been the best but there are no rules in what the public demands for coverage. They get to dictate what they want to consume and, if ratings is our goal, it is our job to provide them as much of that as they demand. That means Colorado coverage isn’t going anywhere. As Deion Sander loves to say, “We Comin.” The question is “Will you be watching?” Something tells me you’ll be given every opportunity.
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.
Marcus Spears is One of One
“His laugh is infectious. His facial expressions are memorable. He just makes for good TV.”
Paychecks for the likes of Stephen A. Smith and Troy Aikman make headlines. The hiring and promotion of Pat McAfee started an industry-wide conversation. They all matter to ESPN, but none of them are as valuable to the network as Marcus Spears.
If that was something you didn’t know, it should be clear after last week when he took an entertaining moment on First Take, and turned it into the central conversation on social media just by naturally reacting to Chris Russo’s weekend plans.
Sports media is the entertainment business. Knowledge and insight are great, but they are useless if you are not interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention. Even the most successful and seasoned veterans in our industry can lose sight of that reality. Spears never does and more importantly he regularly delivers in both areas.
Marcus Spears’s strength is his emotion. The man has absolutely no pokerface and that’s a good thing for the audience. His laugh is infectious. His facial expressions are memorable. He just makes for good TV.
Coaches and producers are looking for the same thing. They need players and performers that are difference makers. They are stars and they can make stars out of the men and women around them. That is Spears to a tee.
For a man who earned a spot in the NFL Draft and banked millions by making quarterbacks’ lives hell, Spears has been heaven sent to the quarterbacks at ESPN. His partnership with Dan Orlovsky on NFL Live is the heartbeat of the show. Sure, Mina Kimes’s breakdowns are awesome and Adam Schefter’s information is what makes the show essential for so many fans, but it is the interplay between Spears and Orlovsky that makes the show entertaining.
Spears is a Louisiana foodie from Baton Rouge. Orlovsky drinks red win with ice in it and thinks any spice beyond salt and pepper is too much. The fact that they not only get along, but genuinely love one another, makes the frustration Spears can feel for Orlovsky better than anything else in ESPN’s day time lineup.
The first time I met Spears, it was on the set of Thinking Out Loud, the show he did on the SEC Network with Greg McElroy and Alyssa Lang. Within five minutes of his arrival on set (he was dressed like Kiss’s Gene Simmons for the show’s Halloween 2018 episode), it was easy to see that he was the glue.
I’m not the world’s biggest McElroy fan outside of game analysis, but Spears softened him and made the former Crimson Tide quarterback downright likable. That was the emotion shining through. Spears is insanely likable and he is fun to be around. You don’t have to be in the same room with him to know that. It comes through your TV screen when he is on. If he is cool with Greg McElroy, then the audience knows it can be too.
My mom adores Marcus Spears. She wants him to come to her home in Alabama so she can cook Greek food for him and listen to his stories. I told Marcus this when we met in 2018 and he responded “That’s not a surprise. Mamas love me.”
It was maybe the second or third thing we said to each other after “hello” and he already had me laughing and feeling like we were best friends. Not just anybody can do that.
But Spears does so much more than just make people feel good. Look at this clip of him on NFL Live in 2021 talking about the video of Urban Meyer receiving a lap dance from a woman that is not his wife at a restaurant in Ohio.
Spears drew on his experience as a player in the league and on the opinions he had of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who Meyer had coached to an 0-4 record at that point, to deliver a scathing take down of a guy that is rightfully remembered as the worst coach in the history of the NFL.
His thesis was clear. He was careful to note that he took his time to arrive at his conclusion, and his belief could not be shaken. That is then kind of conviction I want from a talking head demanding a coach should be fired.
Few people can communicate the way Marcus Spears can. He is clear with his opinions and finds the right balance between boldness and brevity. He is willing to answer any question you ask, but he answers in a way that is easy for the audience to digest and remember.
I just think the world of Spears as a TV presence. There are some people that are so entertaining as their authentic self that I could listen to them talk about anything and be captivated. Most of them are comedians. In the sports media world, Spears is one of one.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].