Many people believe that FOX Sports Radio has the best lineup in sports talk today. Don Martin and Scott Shapiro are two of these people. Both men have played key roles in positioning FSR to have major success. The network reaches 11 million monthly listeners on more than 400 radio stations. That doesn’t happen with weak leadership. It takes strong management and a vision to achieve this level of success.
I sat down with Don and Scott a few years ago for lunch. They offered to provide their feedback, coaching, and support. They’ve always followed through by taking the time to share their knowledge. The funny thing is that I was literally eating salmon during that lunch. Don coincidentally mentions why broadcasters need to act like salmon in this industry. It’s a tremendous comparison that appears below.
The two kingpins continued the trend of offering their time — this recent occasion was to take part in a roundtable discussion. Both men have assessed a lot of talent over the years. They discuss the qualities of show hosts that they value most. It’s also fascinating to hear about the doubts they had early in their distinguished careers — something that many people can relate to. There are some great stories and tremendous viewpoints in this piece. I hope you enjoy it.
Noe: What initially got you interested in the radio business?
Don: I went to college originally to be a computer programmer because that’s what everybody was doing back in the days in which a computer was the size of a building. I was an athlete all my life. I blew my knee out, so I knew I couldn’t play. I said to my mother, “I need to get in the sports business.” I got into the game in Denver as an intern on the TV side. Then I was dubbing Christmas music from album to cart.
While I was doing that for a two-week period, the sports guy on that morning show got sick. Jerry Castro asked me if I would do the sports. I was still in school. I said absolutely. He then hired me two weeks later after I did the sports for a couple of weeks in morning drive. I was doing sports there. I was interning on television. I was doing metro traffic.
Then Irv Brown started one of the first sports stations in the country KMVP 1600. He put a midday show together with me, Dave Logan, Rich Goins, and a guy named John Marvel. Later on in life I worked with Billy Van Heusen, a former Bronco, from 9 to noon. A consultant took us off the air after two years saying we were too much like the afternoon show. I thought my career was over.
I became Irv and Joe’s producer. I found out that, “Wow, I liked that role,” and I did it well. While I was doing that, I was the TV play-by-play voice of the then Colorado Athletic Conference. Then a guy named Sam Pagano — a legendary high school coach in Denver out of Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado — we bought our own time and we were doing high school games on television on Prime Ticket.
We did anywhere from three to four games a week between football and basketball while I was doing the college stuff on the CAC and doing the talk with Irv. I had to balance a lot at one time. Sam Pagano’s boys you know — Chuck Pagano was the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts. John was the other son and he was my analyst. It just kept growing and growing and growing. Then one day I got a call from KOA and I became the sports guy on KOA as far as producing everything — Rockies, Broncos, Buffs. Then they asked me to program the station. That’s how I came off of the air and got into management.
Noe: What about radio initially appealed to you, Scott?
Scott: There’s something about radio that’s truly special and unique. Hosts on the radio build such an intimate relationship with the audience. Ultimately, it’s that storytelling ability where in other platforms you really don’t get that luxury to expand, to show personality, and to truly tell stories. That’s a lot of the connective fiber that drives a very unique connection with hosts and their audience because it’s long form. It’s your true personality coming out over the radio. You can’t fake it. You have to be your genuine self and the audience usually are tough critics.
This day and age, so much of the audience has ADD. They only want to listen to somebody who’s very compelling and that has something special to offer. In radio, like I said you can’t fake it. It’s your true self and people are deciding whether to spend their very valuable time with you. It’s an investment that the audience makes. When they do make that investment, it’s an emotional connection that’s made.
There’s really something special on the radio where the goal is to make people think. You want to make people react. It brings out a lot of emotions in people and when you’re doing it right you really build that relationship with your audience. Yeah, at times it can be a one-way relationship, but it’s truly a special relationship. I feel like I know the folks that I listen to on the radio. I feel like I know them well. Really it’s just me typically listening to their product. It’s such a special medium where you have the ability to truly connect with your audience and be genuine at the same time.
Noe: What would you say was your first major breakthrough in radio?
Don: Irv Brown putting me in middays on one of the first all sports stations in the country. I was able to work with — then brand new into the game — Dave Logan who is now the voice of the Broncos for three Super Bowl championships. A guy named Rich Goins who’s got a huge name in Denver as the guy that sat on the billboard for all those days and Bob Costas kept using him. Rich has got a big name in Denver. And John Marvel, when we were doing that midday show, it launched all of this. The key was I was doing TV and radio and everything all at the same time, so when you say what launched it, being platform-agnostic and trying to do everything. I was young and hungry so I tried doing everything. Then it kind of just settled into its own space.
Noe: When you were dubbing Christmas music did you have a favorite and a least favorite song?
Don: (laughs) I’ll tell you what. It was one of the most boring, mundane things I’d ever done in my life. I said, “Did you make the right decision saying you’re going to go from computer programming to do this because that was boring?”
I mean I’m dubbing down Nat King Cole. It was the oldies too because it was an oldies station. I was a young guy. I was going, “What the heck am I doing?”
By the grace of God, the sports guy got sick and then he quit. It was awesome. You never know when and where you’re going to get your break. That’s what I always tell young people — I say be a salmon. Just get in the stream. Be where it’s going to take you. I still believe a lot of this business is 90 percent what beats in your chest and 10 percent what’s in your head. You’ve got to have passion, man.
Noe: What has your career path been like, Scott, that’s led to you being the Vice President of FOX Sports Radio?
Scott: My first job in radio was producing morning radio in Atlanta. At the time it was a FOX Sports Radio affiliate. That’s where I really learned radio. I was a 23-year-old kid with zero radio experience and I was producing three guys who all had 15 years more experience than me and they were all 15 years older. I had no idea what I was doing. There were many times where I wondered, “My goodness, is this for me? Am I going to be able to add value to the show and to these personalities who are all pros?”
I busted my butt. I basically dove head first into the product really to try to prove myself more than anything else. Let’s try to make the show better. I’m competitive and I put my heart into everything I do. It was really just producing content and trying to produce the best possible show in the country. I did that in Atlanta for two and a half years.
Then I was hired to produce Mike & Mike up in Bristol in 2006. With that it was the same mentality — come in and just make that show the best show in the country. We had a great team in place, obviously very talented people on and off the air. We set all sorts of records on Mike & Mike on multiple platforms. I produced that show for three years and then moved up into the managerial ranks at ESPN Radio where I was up until four years ago when I came here.
Noe: What are a couple of the qualities that show hosts possess that either cause you to tune in or tune out?
Scott: Hosts that are compelling — that’s the difference. You have to be such a great storyteller and you have to be compelling. Like I said earlier people have so many options for their entertainment value. Hell, in a car they can make phone calls to their family and friends. That’s competition. We are trying to garner people’s attention. Ultimately you have to be so interesting on the radio to keep people’s attention. That’s a very hard thing to do.
It’s rare when someone devotes more than five or 10 minutes to listening to one or two people speak uninterrupted. Somebody who is able to capture people’s attention, keep them interested, it’s a very difficult skill. You have to be thought-provoking on the air. You need to be well-researched, but obviously present in a style that’s entertaining, and you need to keep people’s attention while making them think and making them react.
The things that I think are tune outs are somebody who is dry, somebody who lacks credibility on a topic, and somebody who’s not presenting a unique perspective on a topic. Another thing is talking about something that I’m not interested in. That’s why playing the hits is very important to appeal to the broadest set of the audience possible. You need to bring a unique presentation to the table that’s different from what everyone else is offering. There is a wilderness of people out there offering opinions whether it’s live shows or podcasts. What we look for are hosts who present something entirely different and can do so in an entertaining fashion.
Noe: What qualities of a sports radio host appeal to you the most?
Don: When you do this long enough there’s an “it” factor that you can’t coach. There is an “it” factor that you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t. Everybody gets into this game because they want to be on the air. I know you’ve got the anomaly that says, “No, I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes.” God bless you, I love those people too. But everybody gets in because they want to do this because this is fun. There’s a special few that can. But when they can, they are dynamite.
It’s an ingredient only given by God. It’s a wiring. You have to have a certain somethin’ somethin’ to get it done. As a host — I don’t care if you’re talking sports or if you’re talking news — you work your tail off to get to the top.
You’re hustling 4-5 jobs. Then when you make it, all you can do is fail. On the way up that ladder, you’ve got to be a little arrogant, you’ve got to be a little cocky and have a little somethin’ somethin’ in you because it’s what drives you to be that performer every day.
Then when you get there all you can do is fall so you become insecure. Those aren’t traits that live naturally together — cocky, arrogant, insecure, what? So we had to give them a name — we called them talent. It’s a special somebody though. There are a lot of people that try to do this and they work their tail off for a long time and they’re good, but they’re never great. You know great from the beginning. You don’t teach great. You don’t grow into great. You know it from the beginning.
Noe: Can you put your finger on what “it” is — what separates good from great?
Don: Yeah, what “it” is — it’s a magic that draws people to you. You’re a magnet for people. You give them an escape from reality. People work hard. People are beat up over politics. They’re beat up over their bills. They’re beat up over traffic and oh my God the stresses of raising your kids and your boss yelling at you. Our guys give them and escape.
Great for us is no different than — I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody — the lead guy in a band. You’ve got that magnetic thing that draws people to you so that when you’re performing whether you’re singing, you’re talking, you’re giving your opinion, they need to listen because you’re entertaining them. You’re teaching them, but you’re giving them some sort of solace and some sort of entertainment along the way that allows them to escape reality.
Noe: When you think about sports radio in general what could the industry use more of?
Scott: I would say the biggest thing in the industry is just creating great content no matter where it airs. Whether it’s live on the radio, whether it’s streaming, whether it’s podcasts, we’re in the content business and all we’re trying to do is create wonderful content.
I think people overthink it at times in terms of whether this is going to play to certain people, whether it’s going to play on certain platforms or not. Really it just gets in the way of creating great content.
I believe if you’re creating great content it really doesn’t matter what type of platform it’s on. It’s going to be unique. It’s going to be thought-provoking. It’s going to be fascinating for an audience.
Audio consumption is growing like crazy. There’s never been a time where audio consumption is really being utilized like the current day. Whether it’s live, terrestrial, streaming, or on-demand, there are more people creating audio than ever before. The ones that create excellent content are going to be the ones that are going to win and survive. I think at times people need to stop overthinking whether, “Oh boy, terrestrial radio is not going to work,” because every bit of evidence is showing that it is. Audio consumption as a whole no matter where you’re doing it is growing rapidly.
Noe: The BSM Summit is right around the corner February 21-22. What does the industry gain from having an annual event that focuses on issues related to the actual job?
Scott: I think when you put all of these brilliant minds together, not only are there new ideas created, but I think everyone at a summit like this really should lean on each other to help grow the platform.
It’s not just competing in a local market station X versus station Y. When you put all of these minds together you’re going to learn key things that are going to help your individual station or network. But I really think when we’re able to think bigger picture about growing the industry and growing what sports talk radio is and figure out ways to really capitalize on that no matter what market you’re in, I think that’s the biggest thing.
Everyone’s in their silos working on their own objectives in each of their local markets, but when you put all of these brains together I think there’s so much to gain for the industry as a whole to really become that much more of an urgent product for the audience all over the country.
Noe: Why do you think it’s important for programmers to get outside of their radio stations and attend events like the BSM Summit?
Don: I think the biggest part about it is just camaraderie. If we’re going to win as a platform, we’ve got to quit taking shots at each other. We’ve got to go and get our audience from our sister stations, the news talk stations, the music stations. We’ve got to aim our guns out there and bring in a new cume that allows all of our sports radio boats to float higher.
It’s more of a camaraderie thing for me. We all talk anyway. There’s not a new thing that all of a sudden pops up that teaches you to do this with talent, or that with a podcast. We’re all talking all the time anyway within our companies. Everybody has their secret sauce. Summits like this are more for camaraderie. The Super Bowl is what we’ve been using lately. You go to the Super Bowl and everybody gets to see everybody for the one time all year — whether it’s talent or other programmers.
I think it’s a come together, join arms as a platform, and raise the sports platform together. That’s the most important part of this. And then you know what, if you can gain a nugget here or there because of podcasting being able to drive this, or streaming being able to drive that, or helping change what Nielsen is doing on the ratings, God bless us all. But the main thing is so that we all join hands together, no different than an NFL or an NBA, and say, “Okay, how do we keep growing this platform?”
Noe: Speaking of camaraderie, who are some of the people in the business that have helped you the most during your career?
Don: Irv Brown basically gave me my start in this business. He just died by the way last week at 86 years old. He’s legendary in Denver. Greg Ashlock and Julie Talbott have been incredibly important in my career. Bob Martin got me in to cut my first tape. Bob Martin was the voice of the Broncos back then. I’ll never forget it. I said, “Bob, how can I repay you?” He said, “The only thing I want from you, Don, when you make it, the first young guy that comes to you and asks you for help, you help them.” I’ve done that my entire career because of what Bob did for me.
There’s one other person I need to bring up, Lee Larson in Denver at KOA. I’ll never forget it. The greatest thing anybody has ever done for me in this business or said for me outside of Irv Brown getting me started — Lee Larson calls me into his office and says, “I want to mentor you.” I was the PD of the station at the time. I said, “Wow.” That was one of the coolest things anybody had ever said to me. It just blew my mind.
I never forgot that because I was a 38-year-old guy at the time. When we went looking for somebody to help me on the network side, I always kept that in mind. I said I need a young 30 something that’s going to keep me cool. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when Scott Shapiro walked in the door. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing today. All I’m trying to show you is everything that we do and our lives, is because of something somebody did for you in a nice way in yours back in your day.
Noe: When you’re the one doing the mentoring and showing hosts a formula for success, what are the key things that you point toward?
Scott: I would say for any host — they have to be incredibly passionate about the subject matter on the air. If somebody’s not a big sports fan, there’s no way they’re going to be able to fake it. You need to be so deeply and inherently interested in the topics you’re talking about. You need to be so curious about it that you’re reading stories that come up during the day. It’s not something where you can just come in before a show, cram, and be able to deliver it right.
You need to have so many different areas of knowledge that’s based off of the curiosity. When you’re curious, you follow people on social media who provide depth to these stories. You read articles to be able to provide different insights. In order to come up with unique talking points, you have to generally be curious in the topics and read as much as you can get your hands on and seek viewpoints from as many people as you can in order to craft your own unique argument. To me it’s that curiosity.
The prep work shouldn’t be considered prep work. It should be what you’re already doing because you’re so engulfed and impassioned in the subject matter of what you’re discussing. To me that’s a very important thing.
Another thing too, clearly without question anybody who does this well, they need a lot of reps. It’s very difficult to be able to talk on the radio for that long. Even somebody, if you go to a bar, somebody talking to you for seven minutes. It’s a very difficult thing for them to be interesting and compelling for that long. Then you throw in that you need to be interesting to thousands of people and you’re measured by ratings.
You have to be well researched and well prepped. You have to nail the PPM formatics and make sure there’s a takeaway for everything you’re doing. You’re never wasting time on the air. It’s basically valuing the audience’s time. I think that’s a very important thing.
The delivery is very important as well. You can’t be somebody who is monotone and sleepwalking through a segment. You’ve got to deliver a sense of urgency on the air. You need to have a certain energy level and strong pacing to take all of your great insight and make it presentable to the audience where they think they’re listening along to a buddy or eavesdropping on a conversation and not being lectured to the whole time.
Noe: I think that’s really interesting when you say have a takeaway for everything. There’s so much digressing that goes on in sports radio these days. Some discussions outside of sports are valuable, others not so much.
How do you gauge what is wasting time and what is valuable if the conversation goes beyond sports?
Scott: Listen there’s always room, but I think the biggest thing is when you do veer off you know how to get back. You’re not going too far down a path where you’ve taken so many left turns and then the audience is lost as well. You have to know what your mission is each segment. Yes, clearly you’re allowed to veer off. This is radio and we want people to be free without handcuffs because sometimes the best stuff is created that way.
I think also you are guiding the ship when you’re hosting a show. Sometimes that off-sports humor or story, there can be takeaways in that. But you’ve got to know if you’ve delivered on that, won people’s attention, and created something memorable, you do need to know how to steer the ship back and then get back to the meat and potatoes as well.
Noe: What’s your best advice for broadcasters that want to improve?
Don: What you do is you pick 20 minutes of a show. That’s all. What I suggest you do for yourself once a week — and you’ve got to be honest with yourself — sit down with your producer and you’ve got to take an arbitrary 20 minutes and just listen to it. When you listen to it, be honest. There are five questions you’re asking yourself.
Do they know my name because I said it?
Do they know the call letters of the station that I’m on?
In that 20 minutes now, did the topic — if I were a listener — grab me and hold me?
Did I promote something forward coming up?
Did I reset if I had a guest?
Those are the only five things you need to know. If there’s any given 20 minutes within your show and you can’t answer those five, it lets you know what you need to work on.
Our average listener comes in for 10 minutes. That’s where you can help yourself too. You’re in a popularity game because of Nielsen. They can always go across the street. Don’t get confused — I can’t tell you how many times someone says to me, “Yeah, I listen to Petros [Papadakis] on ESPN.” What? Petros has never been on ESPN. Make damn sure they know where they get you.
Meet the Podcasters: Mina Kimes, ESPN
“I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis.”
As 2023 inches towards the finish line, so too does our Meet the Podcasters series. We have spoken with people that found success in the space after so many different journeys. Greg McElroy and Chris Jericho were championship-winning athletes. Mike Francesa and Adam the Bull dominated local radio. Bomani Jones made his name in the digital space. We end on a bonafide sports television superstar in Mina Kimes.
If you don’t believe that, just look at the deal she signed earlier this year. She gets to stay at ESPN and carve out time to work with Meadowlark Media. Those aren’t concessions given to someone their network thinks is easy to replace.
It can be tough to find time to chat as the holidays approach, so the conversation was short, but it covered a lot of ground. Why have analytics caught on with fans? Is it more fun to dissect success or to re-think failure? How do you watch a game when you have to not only understand what is happening, but figure out the best way to turn that explanation into analysis?
Obviously, I want to thank Mina and everyone else that made time to chat with me for this series. A big thank you goes to Point-to-Point Marketing as well for making these features possible. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to all of you that took the time to read even just one of these. I hope you learned a little something that you can take with you into 2024 to make your digital content more successful!
Demetri Ravanos: There is a big audience for what you do best and I sometimes wonder how much that surprises those of us that grew up in the media. Do you think the appetite for analytics and in-depth analysis is relatively new, or was the appetite always there without the right platform before the rise of digital media?
Mina Kimes: I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis, but on the whole it really does seem to me that viewers and listeners are better informed than ever, which I’d attribute to the rise of fantasy football and the proliferation of websites and podcasts that talk about film, cap management, analytics, etc.
We see this trend playing out at NFL Live, where our nerdiest segments often capture a good deal of interest.
DR: What for you is more interesting – explaining why things aren’t as bleak as the performance may suggest (i.e., Bryce Young not having time or protection to really see what he is as a QB) or highlighting what makes the greats so great (Mahomes’ best throws, how Micah Parsons sheds blocks, etc.)?
MK: I love digging into great performances, but the first category is really compelling to me because it forces us to look beyond basic numbers and highlights (or lowlights!). That’s where I think the intersection of film and statistics is so useful – it allows us to dig deeper into tendencies and trends to explain why things are happening.
DR: When you are doing your weekend previews, what information do you prioritize? Is it storylines or is there a number or category that you try to make a staple of your analysis for everything?
MK: Once I’ve settled on which games I want to discuss, there are two things I try to zero in on: The strengths and weaknesses of each team, and how they match up.
I also make note of things I’ve observed recently (for example, if a team is leaning on a certain personnel group or formation) and then consider how it might impact the game.
DR: What about in setting those topics and discussions up? How do you watch and re-watch games, plays and moments to best understand what it is you are seeing and find the point you want to bring to the audience?
MK: When I’m watching the weekend’s games on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I’m looking for interesting (good or bad!) plays, tendencies, and trends. For example, if I notice a QB is having success targeting a specific area of the field, I’ll make note of a few plays, grab the numbers later, and then, when I’m podcasting, consider how that might play out next week.
DR: One of the big differences between podcasts and legacy media is that people listening to podcasts are actively choosing you and the topic you are talking about. Does that change the way you can discuss a game or a player versus on TV?
MK: I’d say the biggest difference isn’t topic selection, but time. On TV we only have a segment or less to hit on a matchup, whereas on my podcast, I’m often talking about the same games and players, but I have 15 minutes instead of five (and I’m one of two people chatting instead of four or five).
I will add that the topic selection process at NFL Live is very collaborative, though. We know which games we need to focus on, but the way we approach discussion is driven by our interests and observations.
DR: I am always interested in the different views on this. Podcast listeners overwhelmingly say they like video now. Is that a preference you understand or does it not make sense to you?
MK: It makes sense! Because the production quality has improved so much (the kind folks at Omaha Productions have been working with me to improve the look of my show for YouTube), many podcasts really don’t look very different from sports television.
If you’re already a listener, why wouldn’t you want to watch as well, especially since you have a convenient viewing device in your hand all day? I do think there will always be people who just listen, though, because their free time for consumption is relegated to commuting (or in my case, walking a dog!).
To learn more about Point-To-Point Marketing’s Podcast and Broadcast Audience Development Marketing strategies, contact Tim Bronsil at [email protected] or 513-702-5072.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Michelle Smallmon Didn’t Stumble Into Mornings on ESPN Radio
“The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
It all started with an accident. While vacuuming her apartment just two days before the first episode of her new national ESPN Radio program, Michelle Smallmon tripped over an air purifier cord. As a result of the maladroit blunder, she fell face first into her coffee table and hit the inside of her eye on a drinking glass.
When Smallmon looked into the mirror, she immediately saw that her eye was bleeding and swelling up and was in a state of disbelief, although she was not surprised that this happened to her because of her inherent clumsiness. The black eye that came out of all of this turned out to be an advantageous opportunity for the program, which opened its first hour on the air with this circumstance.
Smallmon works alongside Evan Cohen and Chris Canty weekday mornings on UnSportsmanLike, the new ESPN Radio morning show that leads off a refreshed national programming lineup. Since the program is also simulcast on ESPN2, there are cameras on inside the radio studio at the Seaport District-based radio studio, granting viewers of the premiere episode an opportunity to see Smallmon’s black eye for themselves. The incident, however, provided a means for the new hosting trio to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities in an atypical fashion by recalling a calamitous occurrence from the onset.
“We have to be ourselves,” Smallmon said. “People are coming for the sports, and hopefully with our opinions and our information and the knowledge that we provide, they’ll stick around, but they’re going to remember us for who we are. The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
Once the hosts of UnSportsmanLike were finalized, Smallmon met with Canty and Cohen to determine their collective philosophy for the program. At the crux of their conversation was how sports is supposed to be an enjoyable part of people’s days, making it important to be genuine with the audience and celebrate the festivities.
“I just think that audio provides a really great way for people to weave us throughout their day and it’s something that they can come back to, and I just feel like the audio space continues to grow,” Smallmon said. “So that is really exciting to me that there are so many different avenues for us to explore in the audio space.”
Smallmon and her colleagues understand that their program that was once anchored by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg in the mornings for 18 years, who created a show that proved to be an enduring facet to sports radio as a whole. Today, UnSportsmanLike is competing for mindshare and attention span in a dynamic media ecosystem where people can consume various types of content by equipping myriad methodologies. The mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere requires the hosts engage in deft preparation and fealty towards the audio vertical, never taking their positions for granted and understanding the privilege in being able to communicate en masse on the air.
“Any time anybody elects to listen to you, they are giving you a vote,” Smallmon said. “They’re choosing you [and] they are saying, ‘I want to spend a part of my precious time with you,’ and particularly in the mornings because we’re the first people that get the opportunity to talk about the games from the night before or to give our opinion on certain things.”
While Smallmon may have stumbled into an enthralling storyline to open the program and captivate the audience, she did just the opposite in landing a spot within the coveted morning drive daypart. Through years of indefatigable persistence and calculated risk-taking, she positioned herself to garner such a chance when the network was in the midst of developing a new lineup.
Despite having a successful morning show in St. Louis, Mo. on 101 ESPN that was finishing with high ratings and bolstering streams of revenue, Smallmon found herself yearning to live in a sprawling metropolis. Because of this, she started visiting her friends in New York City once per month and gradually became enamored with the locale, prompting her to meet with co-host Randy Karraker, program director Tommy Mattern and Hubbard Radio market manager John Kijowski to express her intent to leave the station.
“They have always been my biggest champions [and] they encouraged me every step of the way,” Smallmon said. “They were like, ‘This is going to be a tough transition for us because the show’s going so well, but we care about you as a person more than we do an employee, and if this is your dream and something you think you have to do, we’ve got your back.’ I will always and forever be indebted to them for not only finding a way to help me do that, but for supporting me and checking in with me every step of the way.”
When she was young, Smallmon frequently traveled to St. Louis with her father to attend sporting events, cherishing every chance she could to see a live game. Throughout her childhood, she watched football on television and remembers seeing sideline reporter Melissa Stark interview the players, prompting her to think about working in sports. Quotidian tasks were transformed into beacons of flourishing sports knowledge, catalyzed by her father’s creativity with abecedarian activities such as sorting and folding laundry.
Yet Smallmon concentrated in premedical studies at the University of Illinois, matriculating to try and become a dermatologist. Early on, she realized that she was not dedicated enough to pursue a profession in the field, resulting in a meeting with her advisor about her future plans. Upon being asked her ideal career path, Smallmon demonstrated interest in covering the basketball team with the goal of appearing on College GameDay as a features reporter in the future.
Amid an economic crash, Smallmon was able to land a job as a production assistant at KSDK, a local television station with which she had interned as a college student. Smallmon worked on the outlet’s morning show, Today in St. Louis, arriving at the studios around 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare and execute the broadcast.
Although her shift ended at 2 p.m., she would put in extra effort to stay later and interact with sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott, volunteering her time and trying to be productive. In displaying her aspiration to work in sports, she was eventually offered a position in the department, which first started with shooting and editing high school events.
“Most of the work that was done in sports was leading up to the 5 and 6 o’clock newscast until they took a big break before 10 p.m.,” Smallmon said. “I would use that time to just absorb as much as I could, watch the guys at work and try to make myself useful.”
Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stark, Smallmon had seen various women working and thriving in sports television; however, this was not the case in the sports radio format. Despite being familiar with the medium, she had never considered going on the air until Knott asked her to be a co-host of his new weekend show on 101 ESPN.
After some time, she received a note from an executive inquiring if she would be interested in applying for an open producer position available at the outlet. Even though she applied thinking she would not receive the job – a thought compounded when she discovered the producer role was for the program hosted by Bernie Miklasz – Smallmon made it to the final round of interviews. Speaking with Miklasz directly, he articulated that while he thought she was a good fit for the role, the other candidate had more qualifications and previous experience.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, if that person is as great as you say that they are and have this much experience, they will have no problem finding another job when you hire me to be your producer,’” Smallmon averred. “I left there and I was like, ‘Man, I blew that.’”
Much to her surprise, Smallmon was hired and ended up working with Miklasz in the role for three years. In speaking with him and observing how he interacted with other people, she learned industry nuances and esoterica that made her even more adept at the role. Smallmon was eventually moved to The Fast Lane in the afternoons with Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Brad Thompson, possessing a mentality of how to best position the show for sustained growth and success.
Smallmon took her skills to ESPN Radio in 2015 when she moved to Bristol, Conn. to work as a producer. The first stint with the network prepared her to excel on UnSportsmanLike, collaborating with hosts such as Ryen Russillo, Danny Kannel and Jorge Sedano, but she always felt a magnetic pull back towards St. Louis. Once Russillo was officially slated to leave ESPN, Smallmon was in talks with the company about different paths she could take and weighing her options. In the eleventh hour, Smallmon received a fortuitous call from Miklasz, who conveyed that he was thinking about changing up his show and wanted to know if she had any interest in co-hosting the program.
“It just felt like all of the cards were falling into place at the right time for me to make that move, and I’m a person that likes to take chances and challenge myself, and I don’t ever want to live with regrets,” Smallmon said. “I thought, ‘Maybe hosting and being on the air is not going to be for me; maybe it’s always going to be production, but I’d like to know.’”
Once she returned, Miklasz offered to change the name of the program to incorporate Smallmon, an entreaty that she declined because of fear that it would disrupt what was a known entity to listeners in the locale. Upon his exit from the station two years later, Smallmon started hosting with Randy Karraker, who implored her to add her name. Even though she never sought out to find the spotlight, she capitulated to the request once her co-host explained why it was important as not only an identifying factor, but also as the first female to be a full-time host on the station.
“I would hear from so many female sports fans across the area and parents whose daughters listened to the show and whose daughters paid attention to the show because someone who looked like them occupied that seat,” Smallmon said. “I really realized how important it was for me to establish myself in that way.”
As Smallmon made the move from St. Louis to New York City, her parents surmised she was recklessly upending her life. Subletting an apartment from a mutual friend in the city, she was working under a usages deal at ESPN Radio where she would deliver overnight updates and host SportsCenter All Night. Smallmon was grateful for the support of her parents and asked them to give her a year, during which she would work hard to land a full-time job in the city. Three hundred and sixty-six days later, Smallmon took to the air with a black eye to commence UnSportsmanLike, officially meeting her end of the bargain.
“It’s hard to explain to people how strange our job is,” Smallmon said. “The three of us sit in a windowless room and talk to one another for four-plus hours a day, so just by nature of spending that much intimate time with someone, you get to know them really well really fast.”
The workday for the morning episode begins the day prior several hours after the conclusion of the previous broadcast, independently reading articles, following sports news and reviewing games. In the preceding afternoon, the program holds a content call where everyone pitches ideas before an early rundown is sent out and added to throughout the day.
While the game of the night is on, Smallmon is in constant communication with her thoughts before getting sleep and preparing for an early wake-up call. There is a pre-show meeting to review the rundown before the four-hour morning show begins at 6 a.m. As soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the process starts again so the hosts are ready for it to illuminate again in 20 hours.
“It’s really a full-time commitment, especially during football season, to do a job like this,” Smallmon said, “but when you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to host a show of this magnitude, you’ve kind of got to make it your life in a lot of ways.”
When she takes her seat behind the microphone in the morning, Smallmon believes that two of the most talented people she has ever worked with are sitting by her side. In her view, she needs to be at the same level as them on the program and effectuates that through her preparation and by bringing different perspectives to the air.
“I have zigged and zagged and occupied different roles throughout my time,” Smallmon said. “It’s really just been surprising opportunities that I have emerged and that I’ve really been grateful to have and that I want to take advantage of, but I don’t really think about the future and my motivation is not really driven by what’s next; it’s driven by the present.
For now, Smallmon is focused on attaining success in New York City and hopes to participate in the program for as long as possible. Down the road though, she knows that her career will entail a second return to St. Louis when she wants to be back in the community she loves and closer to her family. The gratitude she has in being able to regard the city as home is conspicuous and authentic, and those in the locale continue to listen to her on 101 ESPN for two hours each morning ahead of the station’s local morning program.
“My only goal right now is to make UnSportsmanLike the best show that it possibly can be, and if that is the case, hopefully we have an amazing run with the show,” Smallmon said. “That’s the goal is to make it as amazing as it possibly can be and ride that wave for as long as we possibly can.”
Smallmon never envisioned herself working in radio but now finds herself as a trusted voice in the mornings on a simulcast program within the network’s on-air lineup. Through it all, she has remained true to herself while exhibiting an evident commitment and passion for the craft, valuing every chance she has to go on the air.
“People will always say things to me like, ‘Oh, are you going to be the next Erin Andrews?,’ or things of that nature,” Smallmon explained. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to be the first and only Michelle Smallmon,’ because the edge that I have over everybody else is that I’m me. There’s nobody else that’s me, and so if I can just be myself and be authentic every day and do that, anybody else can.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Desmond Howard Unnecessarily Threw Pete Thamel Under the Bus on College GameDay
College football fans can be a crazy bunch, most of them are crazy in the sense they are doing stupid things that give you a good laugh but, every fan base has a lunatic fringe. Each fan base is more than willing to point out the lunatic fringe in the fanbase of their rivals but often are slow to acknowledge their own offenders. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist in any program that has any significant fanbase. The lunatic fringe affected College GameDay Saturday, and Desmond Howard didn’t help the situation.
As a fan, you can accept it as true or bury your head and assume you are the one singular program that has somehow avoided having a fringe lunacy.
Michigan is certainly a significant football program with a massive fanbase. Just the sheer number of Michigan fans tells you there is going to be a larger than normal number of fans that might fall into the category of “fringe lunatic”, it is just how the odds work.
That suggestion was made by ESPN during Saturday’s College GameDay which originated from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Just in case you are completely unaware of the biggest story in college football this season, during Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game, Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh was serving the final game of an agreed upon Big Ten Conference suspension. The game also happened to be the biggest game of the season so far, a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff.
The suspension of Harbaugh was the result of allegations that Michigan staffer Connor Stalions was running an “off the books” sign stealing operation and that Stalions was a little too closely connected with Harbaugh for the Big Ten’s comfort.
Stories like these only become mainstream by reporting and ESPN’s Pete Thamel was on the frontlines of that reporting. It should be said that, just because something is reported by ESPN, FOX, or CBS, doesn’t automatically make it true. Likewise, just because something reported about your team may not paint them in the best possible light, it doesn’t make it untrue. That was the gray area ESPN’s College GameDay found themselves in Saturday; one of their top college football reporters in the very midst of the fans that are upset with his reporting.
Thamel joins GameDay on site every week, normally delivering the breaking news on injuries and coaching changes, fairly normal stuff. He delivers his reports, not on stage, but among the actual team fans who are gathered behind the set for all the cameras to see.
Except Saturday when Thamel was not among the masses but inside the more controlled confines of Michigan Stadium.
Honestly, Thamel being inside the stadium, rather than among the crowd, would not have seemed at all odd to me until Michigan’s Heisman Trophy winner and GameDay analyst Desmond Howard made it awkward in this exchange:
Howard: “We’ve been doing this 12, 13 weeks and Pete’s always been in the crowd giving his reports, I’m like, ‘What the Hell’s Pete in the stadium for?’ That kind of just threw me all off, I’m like, ‘Put your big boy pants on and do it in the crowd like you normally do it.’”
Rece Davis: “He’s got some from the lunatic fringe, some ‘friends’. We’re just taking care of him.”
Howard: “We’ve got security. We’ll be ok. These guys are nice out here. These are nice fans. They’re not going to do anything.”
Davis: “It only takes one. That’s all.”
Howard: “He’ll be ok. Put the big boy pants on.”
I have no idea how many credible threats Thamel has received but there was, apparently, enough concern for ESPN to move him into an area that could be more easily secured.
Desmond Howard, though, seemed upset that ESPN doing that painted the fan base of his old school in a very negative light. I would make the case that even the most ardent GameDay viewers wouldn’t think it odd that Thamel was inside the stadium rather than among the crowd. Howard’s insistence on Pete not wearing his “big boy pants” only drew further attention to the fact Thamel was not in his normal spot.
Desmond Howard came off sounding like he was under some sort of pressure, personally created or applied from Michigan interests, to point out there was no reason Thamel should have any concern about Michigan fans. In doing so, Howard came off as something he’s never been accused of being, a poor teammate. The best way to handle the situation for ESPN would be to completely ignore the fact there was a change in Thamel’s location. In the event ESPN thinks anyone would notice, highly unlikely as it may be, just create a simple cover story.
To Thamel’s credit, he seemed content to not be the focus of this addition to the story, it was only Howard’s awkward interaction that brought it to light. It was completely unnecessary and only made everyone involved look a little worse.
In his NFL career, Desmond Howard averaged only one fumble per season, Saturday in Ann Arbor, he added another.
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.