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Don’t Waste The Sports Radio Dead Period

“There’s really two ways to look at the “Dead Time” in sports radio — either as a problem or an opportunity.”

Matt Fishman

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sports radio stations

A year ago I wrote a column talking about Sports Radio dealing with its “dead time” in February and early March–typically from the end of the Super Bowl until the start of March Madness. It has been fun to watch some stations across the country make some strong programming decisions throughout this period.

Score House 

In Chicago, 670 The Score is the Cubs’ Flagship station. So broadcasting from Cubs Spring Training in Arizona is nothing out of the ordinary. But instead of just focusing on the team and interviews, they decided to rent a house and turn the entire time into what can be best described as a reality show meets a sports radio remote.

You can see the house at this video intro here, brilliantly shot and edited by Score video guy Brian Gertsch:

I found it to be a great way to bring the personality on the road with the shows and to give fans more than just the normal coach and player-speak you get during spring training broadcasts. This included a great discussion about what is in Pringles, Afternoon Show host Dan McNeil sauteing scallops for the group, and Midday hosts Dan Bernstein and Connor McKnight playing catch outside. 

It was a brilliant idea and a great use of video and the website to supplement what would normally be fairly standard remote radio broadcasts. 

The NFL Scouting Combine

Here in Washington, DC 106.7 The Fan sent their Redskins beat reporter Craig Hoffman to Indianapolis to cover the scouting combine. Craig is not only a good reporter, but he is excellent on the radio. So throughout the day he’d check in with the various show and talk about the latest news from the combine. A lot of the talk I heard was about Kyler Murray of Oklahoma and the potential of the Redskins pursuing Arizona QB Josh Rosen. 

Image result for craig hoffman 106.7

It was an excellent way to make sports fans feel like the radio station was everywhere as there were shows at Nationals Spring Training as well during the combine. It really made the station sound BIG!

Douche Madness

Just when you thought every variation of “March Madness” had been created, WFNZ in Charlotte is once again doing “Douche Madness” headed up by afternoon show host Kyle Bailey. Bailey has listeners nominate the 32 worst people on the earth via twitter in order to create a bracket and create matchups like the NCAA Tournament.

Image result for kyle bailey wfnz

They just started asking for nominations today. The fan nominations include: Coffee snob guy,  front runner guy, finds a problem for every solution guy, too much cologne guy, stands up immediately after the plane lands guy, blowing nose at the dinner table guy. There are already a ton of fun suggestions. Check out the hashtag #DoucheMadness on twitter and you’ll see some clever thinking on a great Feb/March topic. 

Conclusion

There’s really two ways to look at the “Dead Time” in sports radio — either as a problem or an opportunity. The stations above clearly saw an opportunity to do something during this period that would engage listeners on-air, online, and on social media. Hopefully your listeners will appreciate what you’ve done for them during this period. 

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The NFL Draft on ESPN Just Makes Sense

The draft has become such a quintessentially ESPN experience that it’s hard to fathom the two not being paired.

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A photo of ESPN broadcasting from the NFL Draft
Courtesy: ESPN

Unlike almost every major pro sports executive you can name, Pete Rozelle didn’t come from a law background. He was a public relations guy. And during his three-decade run as commissioner of the NFL beginning in 1960, Rozelle’s P.R. instincts served him beautifully time and again. He remade the league into an absolute powerhouse.

But Rozelle, whose watch included the AFL-NFL merger, the creation of the Super Bowl and the creation of Monday Night Football, missed one mark: He didn’t think anyone could be made to care enough about the NFL Draft to watch it on television.

That seems almost impossible now, as we sprint headlong into another edition of the three-day traveling extravaganza the draft has become. It’s the Super Bowl for franchises that aren’t close to a Super Bowl, and most of all for their fans.

It is also something that the executives at then-fledgling ESPN foresaw — or, more accurately, something in which they saw the promise. It was ESPN back in 1980 that decided to broadcast the thing, try to make it into something an advertiser would pay for. Their execs basically talked Rozelle into it — and full credit to Rozelle for agreeing, even when his NFL owners unanimously disapproved, fearing that agents would run the show.

ESPN, with its ability to market, its dearth of other programming and its deference to the NFL, was the perfect partner. It was willing to do the legwork needed to make the event something worth paying attention to.

And why not? The little network needed the draft.

Still does, as it turns out.

There’s been some chatter that ESPN might lose its rights to the draft once they expire after the 2025 edition. Among other things, it’s possible that one of the league’s traditional network partners will go crazy with a bid designed to take the rights completely, or that a streaming service will outright buy the draft in order to gain wider entree to the sports audience.

If there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s that today’s NFL never leaves a buck on the table, so we wouldn’t bet against those possibilities. But the draft has become such a quintessentially ESPN experience that it’s hard to fathom the two not being paired.

It’d be a mistake for both sides if they weren’t.

ESPN’s painful contractions as a pawn in the Disney empire no longer constitute breaking news. Depending upon your personal taste, you’ve probably seen one or more of your preferred on-air talents let go over the past few years, and especially the last year or so.

But the NFL Draft — that’s still an ESPN thing. We all know where to find it, because it’s been in the same place for more than 40 years. This year, you’ll also find it on ABC, the NFL Network and ESPN Deportes, but c’mon, you’ll head to ESPN first. That’s what you always do.

The network didn’t create the draft, but there’s no question it elevated it to a position that even the marketing-savvy Rozelle didn’t imagine. We now have broadcast/streaming access to all three days of the event, and since 2015 the whole production has been on wheels. Last year, the draft was in Kansas City; this year it’s Detroit. Green Bay gets its shot at hosting in 2025.

Occasionally, ESPN does something dumb related to the draft that reminds you the network is a money business, not a public trust. Laying off Todd McShay, an almost perfect foil to Mel Kiper Jr., was one such move, even if it was part of the larger firing pattern the network initiated last year at Disney’s order.

Still, the draft production has endured plenty of turnover through the decades without losing its ESPN-ness. It’s a little bit about the stage look, a little about ESPN’s statistical deep dives on players. It’s a little about Kiper. Whatever it is, the draft on ESPN is about as close to a tradition as anything in the entertainment world ever gets.

It’d be shocking if ESPN doesn’t come heavy during the bidding for future rights to the draft. Among other things, it is already part of a planned consortium sports streaming service — and nothing screams sports app like a round-by-round, team-by-team selection of future talent.

But this is also a moment for both the network and the league to reflect on what makes the thing work. ESPN remains an easy home for the draft, totally accommodating and, as ever, deferential to the league, and for its effort the network gets an anchor tenant for a full weekend of programming every year, plus a seemingly unending run-up of coverage.

The NFL? They get a little hint of the image they constantly try to export, one of tradition and history. That goes back to Public Relations 101. The late, great Pete Rozelle would approve.

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Industry Guest Column: Connor Onion Gets Called Up to the Show

It was a day “10-year-old Connor” couldn’t believe.

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Graphic for an Industry Guest Column
Photo Courtesy: Connor Onion X Account

Connor Onion is a play-by-play broadcaster who has worked for the Big 10 Network since 2021 and has called college football, basketball, baseball and volleyball for the network. He has also done college football, basketball and baseball for ESPN. You can follow Connor on X at @ConnorOnion. Connor recently called his first Major League Baseball game on FS1 and shared his story for today’s guest column:

“¿Cómo estás, papi?”

When I unlocked the passenger door of my 2004 Chevy Suburban, those were the first words I heard from the stranger, a towering man, who climbed in next to me. It was May 15, 2017. I was a broadcasting intern for the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros in Davenport, Iowa.

This was the “other duties as assigned” part of the job. Yes, I called games. But I also was responsible for dropping off and picking up the players at the airport when they were promoted or demoted from our team. The man sitting shotgun was, at the time, a little-known prospect. His name is Yordan Alvarez.

When Alvarez met me with that warm greeting that sunny Midwest morning, I had no idea we were in for a month-long joyride.  Alvarez socked nine homers in the only month he needed at that level of Minor League Baseball. One of his homers landed in the river beyond the right field wall.

Almost two years to the day of our car ride from the airport, Alvarez debuted in the big leagues for the Astros. He’s become American League Rookie of the Year, a World Series champion & a perennial All Star. I watched Alvarez in awe from minor league cities like Clinton, Iowa, Beloit, Wisconsin & Florence, Kentucky, working & hoping to one day join him in “The Show.”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Connor, you’re getting called up to the big leagues.”

It’s late at night in the Spring of 2024. It’s my agent on the phone, doing his best impression of a Triple-A Manager promoting a prospect.

A cheek-to-cheek smile filled my face as I shared the news with my girlfriend, Danielle. She cried, maybe subconsciously knowing her sacrifice – five years of long distance, weekends away and holidays apart – made this opportunity possible.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Let 10-year-old Connor soak it all in for a couple seconds.”

It’s Saturday, April 13, 2024. I’m in the car on the way to Minute Maid Park as those words come across my phone, a text from one of my best friends. It was a great reminder as I prepared to make my Major League Baseball Broadcasting debut, calling Rangers vs. Astros on FS1 with A.J. Pierzynski and Ken Rosenthal. 

But, before I could “soak it all in”, there was work to do. A closed-door meeting with Astros Manager Joe Espada, where Alex Bregman unknowingly interrupted by banging on the door, begging to be put in the lineup that day.

A breezy 20 minutes spent with Rangers skipper Bruce Bochy, where the game’s best bullpen manager shared with us his day-to-day stresses handling an increasingly injured pitching staff.

A quick exchange with Jose Altuve, who welcomed me to the Astros clubhouse with a handshake that felt like it came from a person twice his height.  

As the clock ticked toward first pitch, there was adrenaline, but I was at ease. Why? The people who believed in me.

Jake Levy gave me my first job in Quad Cities. Joe Brand — a Major League announcer in his own right — made me better every day during our time calling games together in Kane County. Terry Bonadonna – a caring, creative boss – allowed me to be a “lead voice” for the first time in professional baseball.

Those three, and the hundreds more, who helped me were the reason I could “soak it all in” as my producer said, “30 seconds to air.”

For the next three hours, we did what we came to do. We debated intentionally walking Corey Seager and applauded Jose Altuve’s superior strength when breaking the game open with a double. We busted each other’s chops on whether we read or watched Harry Potter.

It was a day “10-year-old Connor” couldn’t believe.

It was a day “2017 Intern Connor” could only dream possible when “2024 Connor” said on the FOX broadcast, “batting second and playing left field for the Astros, Yordan Alvarez.”

“Estoy agradecida, papi. Estoy agradecida.”

I am grateful.

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Ryan Hurley is Ready to Lead WFAN, Infinity Sports Network

“This is a team that already has a really good culture and has had some success. I’m being sarcastic with the word ‘some’ success.”

Derek Futterman

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Ryan Hurley
(Illustration) WFAN, Infinity Sports Network – Courtesy: Audacy

During the last fiscal year, The Walt Disney Company engaged in layoffs of 7,000 employees in an effort to slash $5.5 billion in operating costs under chief executive officer Bob Iger, impacting brands and departments across the media conglomerate. Four percent of the company’s global workforce was affected by these changes, which included local program directors Amanda Brown with ESPN LA 710 and Ryan Hurley with ESPN New York. Tough outcomes for both media professionals who had been with the company in various capacities for a combined four decades.

Over the preceding years, several changes had taken place at ESPN Radio that raised questions regarding the viability and future of the outlet. Good Karma Brands reached an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to acquire several of its local radio stations across the country in a transaction that closed during the first quarter of 2022. All three radio stations – ESPN 1050 New York, ESPN LA 710 and ESPN 1000 Chicago – remained network affiliates and continued broadcasting both local and national network content. Moreover, the company entered into a local marketing agreement for ESPN New York 98.7. This occurred just months after station general manager Tim McCarthy announced his exit.

Hurley remained program director of the outlet through it all, a position he had worked his way to earn from starting as a producer out of college. Being bereft of employment at his longtime radio home was a difficult reality for him to face after helping build the outlet over the years.

“The position or the job becomes part of your identity after almost two decades, so yeah, it was obviously tough [and] not an easy thing to cope with,” Hurley said. “But listen, if you stay negative about something too long, it’s not going to get any better.”

While he was the program director of ESPN New York, the station underwent several changes to its lineup but always had a consistent presence in afternoon drive with The Michael Kay Show. Afternoon drive ratings battles between ESPN New York and WFAN drew public interest and cultivated on-air discussion about the metrics. Being within the No. 1 media market in the United States, Hurley felt that he and his management team maintained a strong culture that held despite several alterations.

“You know you’re going to get your sports,” Hurley said. “It’s ESPN – we have that backing there over the years of course from a great sports brand, and you know you’re going to get there, but we really did a good job with the entertainment value as well I thought, and that’s throughout the building – production-wise; imaging-wise – and I just think the biggest part of that is the way the culture is building the team.”

Although Hurley was no longer in a media building on a daily basis for the first time since college, he did not sit on the sidelines. As he spent more time with his family that he had not had over the prior years, he remained vigilant and monitored the business for potential openings in content creation, production or management. Whether or not an opportunity came in radio was not a deciding factor; rather, he wanted to assimilate back into the media business.

At the same time, Hurley also reflected on his career, thinking about decisions and subsequent outcomes during his time with ESPN New York. Over those two decades though, he had built several relationships with professionals in the media industry and received several offers of assistance and guidance.

“I’m not even over-exaggerating – the people that were just there and supportive [of] me – it’s humbling to be honest with you, and to see that, it was actually pretty awesome,” Hurley said. “The people and the support I got to try and make sure everything was going okay on my end, trying to help me out looking to get back in somewhere – all that stuff is positive stuff I took from a huge negative.”

While Hurley was preferential towards the business and greatly values the craft, he did not want to limit his options. Aside from wanting to work in the New York metropolitan area, there existed a point where he was going to consider other industries if it was necessary in order to support and take care of his family. Despite being proud of what he and his colleagues were able to effectuate at ESPN New York, which included sports talk programming, play-by-play broadcasts and team-building, he was ultimately not going to be restrained by the business.

“There weren’t a lot of opportunities, I’d say, in the beginning, and that goes for everybody in different industries,” Hurley said. “I just think it was a tough climate for openings and job availability, so eventually if I had to go do something else, I would have, and I don’t care what that is to be honest with you.”

When Jon Marks made the decision to decline a contract extension and depart SportsRadio 94WIP after six years with the outlet, it began a chain reaction of events within Audacy that led to a drastic internal shakeup – at least it appeared that way superficially. In reality, then-Audacy vice president of programming Spike Eskin had informed Audacy New York market president Chris Oliviero that he was going to be leaving the station in October, roughly three months ahead of the public announcement.

With Marks being out of afternoon drive, SportsRadio 94WIP crafted a new program with Eskin joining co-host Ike Reese and producer Jack Fritz. The vacancy for a role with oversight over WFAN and Infinity Sports Network intrigued many candidates to inquire about the position and resulted in a three-month selection process.

“This is a legendary station I grew up listening to, and even though I was with ESPN – the competition – for the last 20 years, being out of work and laid off and the climate for jobs being what it was, No. 1, I was looking feverishly to get back in and applying for a lot of positions,” Hurley said. “So, when this one came about and I saw that it was posted, I was very interested in [it and] basically through my hat in the ring right away.”

In his youth, Hurley would accompany his father to sporting events as he worked as a cameraperson for several marquee matchups, including various Mike Tyson fights on HBO. Yet he always found time to listen to the station from his days in elementary school, often setting a 60-minute sleep timer on his alarm clock as he listened to shows at dusk.

When Hurley woke up in the morning to prepare for classes, he remembers hearing Imus in the Morning and Mike Breen delivering sports updates. Even though he ended up programming against WFAN at ESPN New York for the majority of his career, he always remained cognizant and respected the station’s standing as a pioneer in the sports radio format dating back to its launch in the summer of 1987.

“The appeal is that it is the station in the genre and iconic [and] historic,” Hurley said, “and just to be able to be considered and then throw my hat in the ring to possibly be the one who’s going to be a PD and basically the third person in the station’s history, it was very appealing.”

Going into his meeting with Oliviero about the position, Hurley had heard from other people in the business that he was a consummate professional, a sentiment that he concurs as being accurate. Being in his office and seeing the radio memorabilia that Oliviero has collected over the years, Hurley could evince the passion that he had for radio. The discussions centered around various facets of the station and also included time to speak with Spike Eskin and Sean Argaman about the role as well.

“You want other people that you trust in your building and to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you meet with them as well?,’ and we did that as well at 98.7 – I thought that was important,” Hurley explained. “It’s just good to get other people involved in the process to bounce stuff off of, but the process was excellent and the people here are great, and it was great to sit with them.”

Hurley and Oliviero had several conversations about the role and ultimately ended up landing the position as brand manager of WFAN and Infinity Sports Network. Before he was offered the job though, he had discovered that Jon “Stugotz” Weiner was in the running for the position. A longtime WFAN enthusiast, Weiner reached out to express his interest in the position. As time progressed, Weiner was in conversations for the job but ultimately did not take on the position.

“I know him well and he’s a good dude, and it would have been a definite interesting hire, but the way it shook out and the way they talk about it, I don’t know how everything really ended up working out as far as the conversations he had because I just wasn’t privy to it, and I wasn’t 100% sure if I was the guy afterwards,” Hurley said. “I felt I was the guy to do it – I’ll tell you that, and that’s not to be cocky – but just my confidence and I thought I’d be a great fit here and just thrilled that it worked out that way.”

Once the news circulated pertaining to Weiner, speculation and noise surrounding the decision continued to amplify, especially when Eskin shared that Audacy was on the precipice of making a decision in what was his final morning show appearance leading the station. Hurley was offered the role late the following week, an outcome to which he responded with exhilaration and euphoria. Galvanized by the possibility from the beginning, he arrived in the office for his first day the next week and has been interacting with personnel around the station.

“This is a team that already has a really good culture and has had some success. I’m being sarcastic with the word ‘some’ success,” Hurley said. “This is the place, and they do great work here and have for years, and the talent on the air we have here is incredible and the production staff is incredible and management is incredible.”

Concurrent with Hurley’s hiring was the promotion of David Mayurnik to assistant brand manager of WFAN and Infinity Sports Network. Mayurnik got his start in radio as a tape operator with WFAN and moved over to serve as the news operations manager and New York Yankees radio network producer for WCBS. In 2012, he became the executive producer of CBS Sports Radio and assumed program director responsibilities for the national outlet seven years later. Gaining insight on both brands, especially the recently-renamed Infinity Sports Network, is an invaluable resource for Hurley to utilize throughout his formative time at the outlet.

“The first few days here, we’ve already dug in and had a few meetings already and talking some strategy,” Hurley said. “It’s going to be great working with David – he’s an awesome guy – and then everybody here that has worked with David has just the most amazing things to say about him, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Last summer, WFAN instituted a new programming lineup upon the departure of Craig Carton from afternoon drive to work at FOX Sports 1 on a full-time basis.

“I think the lineup is in great shape,” Hurley said. “These guys do great shows and their production crews are incredible, and I’ve already dug in with some of the producers already for a few meetings and I’m just getting to know them as well.”

Through the changes at the station, its morning drive duo of Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti have remained a consistent presence at the top of the ratings. The Boomer & Gio program includes well-versed personalities that Hurley acknowledges collectively operates akin to a machine.

“They know what they’re doing, and they’re doing a great job and they have done a great job for years,” Hurley said. “They put together incredible, entertaining radio and shows, and you’re going to get your sports obviously. You’re going to get your opinions and expert insights, but you’re also going to laugh your ass off, so I think that’s important.”

Infinity Sports Network contains a lineup of several prominent hosts, including Jim Rome, Bill Reiter and Zach Gelb. In fact, Hurley remembers Gelb’s father and WFAN executive Bob Gelb setting him up to do shows on Radio Row when covering the Super Bowl from the time he was in elementary school. Hurley will look to remain ahead of the curve with both outlets and cultivate a long-term strategy for continued prosperity despite fluctuations in radio and incessant discussions surrounding its sustainability.

“Its death has been predicted a million times, but there’s no other kind of platform that creates a type of intimacy and relationship with a listener or who someone consumes,” Hurley said. “Now there’s different modes and maybe some better technology in certain areas, but honestly, that relationship between radio and listener, it’s not going anywhere.”

On the same day Audacy officially announced Hurley as the new brand manager of WFAN and Infinity Sports Network, New York Yankees radio play-by-play broadcaster John Sterling retired from calling games after 36 seasons on the air.

No full-time successor has been named to the position, with Justin Shackil and Emmanuel Berbari currently among the rotation of announcers throughout the regular season. Upon hearing the news, Hurley reflected on the anecdotes he had heard about Sterling from Michael Kay, who worked with him on radio broadcasts for 10 seasons on WABC. During Hurley’s time at ESPN New York, he also produced The Michael Kay Show in afternoon drive and was on hand for its 20th anniversary celebration a year-and-a-half ago.

“The guy’s a legend – he’s going to be missed for sure – and it definitely came as a bit of a shock to hear that, but just some of those calls over the years are just iconic, fun and the creativity that he’s put on it,” Hurley said. “It’s going to be different – it’s going to be very different without him in the booth with Suzyn [Waldman].”

As Hurley begins his tenure with WFAN, his former employer is set to enact a drastic change to its means of dissemination. Good Karma Brands will end its local marketing agreement with ESPN New York 98.7, forsaking the lease of the FM signal from Emmis Communications. As a result, the outlet will be available to hear utilizing the 1050 AM signal or through other digital distribution means, including the ESPN New York app.

“It’s definitely a difference in sound and sometimes quality, but I don’t know that it’s essential to have an FM signal,” Hurley said. “It’s definitely helpful for sure, but you’re looking at a place in 98.7 or ESPN that still had 1050 rolling with either simulcasting or using 1050 for network programming and also as overflow for play-by-play properties and partners, so that’s the same here [with] 101.9 and then having 660 to simulcast but then also help out with overflow play-by-play is huge.”

Hurley intends to maintain the success of WFAN and Infinity Sports Network while also positioning both outlets for future growth under the aegis of Audacy Sports.

“The plan is to do everything we can to [try and] stay ahead on those other platforms and produce good stuff and content there that supplements and supports,” Hurley said. “But content is king, and we’re just going to work as hard as we can and do everything we can to keep churning that out.”

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