It’s certainly the call no one ever wants to get. An employee of yours, the co-host of your afternoon show was in a fatal car accident. The staff at your station and frankly your cluster all know each other and it’s shocking. This isn’t fiction. This is real life.
Last week, Iowa sports radio host, Gantry “Wolfgang” Miller was killed after being struck by a semi trailer. Miller co-hosted The Drive with Wolfgang and Steen on 1700 The Champ in Des Moines. According to state police, Miller was stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 80 and was fatally hit by the passing semi-truck after exiting his 1996 Ford Explorer. Miller died at the scene of the accident which is still under investigation.
First, I want to tell you about Gantry “Wolfgang” Miller. He worked very hard to get to where he was. Cumulus/Des Moines Operations Manager Chad Taylor elaborates:
“He (Wolfgang) worked extremely hard to finally get his shot at his own show. He was always a guest on other sports talk radio shows, podcasts etc. He did a Saturday show first and then in December 2018 he got his shot to host his own show with Gary (Steen) Steenblock. Wolfgang was one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. He was in love with sports talk radio and really worked hard to separate himself from the pack. He was funny, self-deprecating, original, loud, outspoken, real…all the things programmers dream of in a talent.”
Anyone who has been in radio knows someone like Wolfgang. Someone who works, works, works, including nights, weekends, holidays, whatever it takes to get a shot. In December of last year he finally got it – co-host of The Drive with Wolfgang and Steen on 1700 The Champ in Des Moines, Iowa.
I reached out to Cumulus/Des Moines Operations Manager Chad Taylor to gain some insight on how he handled the tragedy with his employees. I hope you never find yourself dealing with this type of situation, but if it were to happen inside your building, his management tips could be helpful.
Matt: As operations manager of the entire cluster, what did you see as your responsibilities when you heard the news?
Chad: To make sure the staff and most importantly his co-host heard the news from me (and not social media). It was also very important that we were respectful to his family and made sure to include them in any press releases/messaging on-air. I’m fiercely protective of the team here and wanted to ensure they had a safe outlet to grieve and honor Wolfgang in the way he deserved.
Matt: At what point do you focus on the difficult task of replacing him on your afternoon show?
Chad: We will start the search immediately and of course include the family every step of the way. Most importantly it will be Steen who will give us the best feedback on who should join the show in the future.
It’s crucial that we find somebody that has chemistry with Steen and understands the mission of the show. What made Wolfgang and Steen successful was they were polar opposites who weren’t afraid to live their lives on the air. They gave their opinions and held their ground with each other.
Matt: What advice would you give another PD/OM when dealing with a death in their radio family?
Chad: To make sure and be sensitive to the entire team. Not everybody deals with tragedy in the same way. Be open, transparent, honest, respectful and caring. This was so unexpected and it still doesn’t feel real to a lot of people in the building. Wolfgang was a bigger than life personality. It’s hard to lose somebody like that.
After talking with Chad, I had a few questions for Wolfgang’s 1700 The Champ co-host Steen about the loss of his partner.
Matt: Where were you when you heard the news?
Steen: I was in the Dominican on spring break with my senior son and my wife when my wife received the phone call. She called me over to hear the news. It was devastating losing someone so young who I was enjoying working with so much.
Matt: Were you the one who had to tell the audience?
Steen: Luckily I was not the one who had to announce to the audience what had happened. It was probably a blessing I had a few days to grieve privately before I had to come back and figure out what to do next.
Matt: How are you holding up?
Steen: I’m doing much better. It was nice to get back and receiving the support that was coming from the community, my radio family, and my own family.
The most at ease that I had felt was when I finally got to see Wolfgang’s family and talk with them. We had the services yesterday and got to see all the love for him and listen to everyone tell stories about him.
Matt: At what point do you have to start looking for a new on-air partner and what challenges does that present?
Steen: We have to start looking for someone to come in and work ‘The Drive’ with me but I find it hard to believe we can ever duplicate or match what Wolfgang and I had. We hit it off the first day we met and never looked back. We had fun, fought like brothers on issues, had major disagreements but always brought it right back to the love and respect we had for each other.
He would want this show to go on and his family has made that clear to the station as well. I look forward to whoever we find knowing I will always have Wolfgang in my heart and on my mind. Local sports and Iowa teams will always be our main concern as well as talking music, movies, and the stories around us.
I appreciate Chad and Steen talking with me during this very difficult time for the station and the entire Des Moines cluster. It’s something you never want to have to deal with, but if you are faced with a death in your radio family, you have some strong advice here on how to handle it.
Meet The Market Managers: Dan Bennett, Cumulus Dallas
“If you want a big job, you better be able to handle the big responsibility. And it’s not just me. It’s all of my department heads. A ton is expected of us. That’s just the way it is.”
I think most people in radio wish their career could look at least a little bit like Dan Bennett’s. The man has worked in the same city and same cluster, working his way up for the past 37 years.
Since 1999, he has served as the vice president and market manager for Cumulus Dallas. His cluster includes some of the company’s most valuable brands including three music stations, two news talkers, and the well known Sports Radio 1310/96.7 The Ticket, a sports radio station every bit as important to the history of the sports talk format as WFAN, WIP or any other station in the Northeast.
The well respected Dallas leader cleared some time from his schedule to connect with me to discuss the challenges of building a bench behind legendary talent, the pressures that come with being a company’s top revenue generator, and why you’ll never hear a host on The Ticket talk about a third string running back at SMU. With nearly four decades of success under his belt, when this man speaks, industry people are wise to listen.
Demetri Ravanos: You’ve been involved with The Ticket for a long time and I’ll get into the specifics of that brand, your talent, and lineup later, but I want to start by focusing on program directors. Not just at The Ticket, but all of your stations. You have six brands to look after. When it comes to filling a key role and determining who to place your faith in to lead a brand forward, what do you look for? Does the desire to be in Dallas for the long haul factor into your decision making?
Dan Bennett: I think that’s really important, and I realize sometimes that people have other opportunities they may want to go and pursue. I think one of the advantages we have is that this is a top five market. Just the other day, they released new market sizes. We’re now number four. Once you get to a top 10 market, you don’t run into the same issues with people wanting to move up and up the way you might in some other places.
I originally came from the programing side. So I tell all of our PDs up front that I listen to all of our stations a lot. I talk to the PDs all the time about product and content and everything else, because it’s real simple, we’re the company’s biggest market for revenue and the only way we’re going to get there is if we get ratings. You can only do so much with mediocre ratings.
I meet with our PD’s every week. I also oversee Houston, KRBE there. I mean, I’m really in tune. When I hear outdated promos or outdated commercials or whatever, I’m texting them. When PD’s come here they know and understand that they’re working for a guy who came from the programing side. And you know, I’m really lucky because my team embraces it. I’d imagine that maybe some people out there wouldn’t like that situation, because most market managers come from sales. I’m fortunate in my career that I’ve been involved in both.
We’re here to win and I’m here to help them do that. I always tell them that I just have one rule. That is when I hear a mistake or something that isn’t right, I’ll let you know about it and don’t ever say it came from me. I don’t want the PD to call somebody and say, “Hey, Dan heard you mispronounce this guy’s name” or “Dan heard you with the date of the promotion being wrong”. What I try to do with the PD’s is I try to empower them.
DR: So is that the way you feel you need to run the building so that you’re comfortable doing the best job that you can? Or if you had a talented programmer at any station who said, “Dan, this is one of the reasons I’m looking for something different is I need to be able to do this on my own”. Is that something you’re open to pulling back on at all?
DB: Look, every department head, including me, has to be accountable to somebody. What you’re describing is “I don’t want to be accountable to anybody”. And that wouldn’t work.
DR: That’s fair.
DB: Even the best PD’s in the country cannot listen to their station 24/7. What I’m here to do is maybe catch something that you didn’t know about and then you can pick up the phone and deal with it. Again, I’m here to be your wingman, not to play a game of gotcha.
DR: So going back to the idea that people stay with your stations for a long time, let’s talk specifically about The Ticket. I’m sure you saw not just in your city, but across the sports broadcasting landscape the emotional reaction towards Mike Rhyner deciding to call it a career. I believe we’re coming up on two years, right?
DB: Yeah. You know, when Mike told me he wanted to hang it up, it was right around Christmas. I told him to take two weeks and think about it because I didn’t want him to have a knee jerk reaction. Rhyner is such character that he came into my office, and in that gruff voice of his, he started out by saying “Dan, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve lost my fastball.” That was his way of telling me it’s time to hang it up.
I believe we’re fair to the air talent. We’ll pay you a good salary, but you’ve got to show up and put points on the board. You know, there’s a lot of people out there that want to go to a big station and make big money. And that’s fine. But you have to do your part and deliver ratings.
DR: Some of those guys that have delivered ratings for you, The Musers, Norm Hitzges, are going to reach a point sometime down the road where they too knock on your office door and say, “Dan, I think it’s time”. You’ve grown with these guys for so long at the radio station, does that make it harder to think about that day or do you sort of fall back on the old college athletic director stereotype of always having a list of five names available because you never know when you’re going to need to pull it out?
DB: This is why we’re always developing people, whether that be a producer that gets to pop on the air every once in a while and next thing you know, they’re on the air or more and more and more. I mean, Corby Davidson came up that way. Danny Balis came up that way.
Shoot, Donovan Lewis, who does the noon show with Norm, he was a board operator who worked for me on KLIF. I’ll tell you how that happened, how we put him on the air. Donovan is one of the best guys in the world and he’s funny. One day I was in the kitchen in the break room and he had about five people around him. He was telling stories and had everybody laughing hysterically. I just sat there and watched this guy who’s a board op, and I remember going to Bruce Gilbert, who didn’t want to do it at the time, and when Bruce left and Jeff Catlin came in as PD, I said “We ought to try this guy, because I think he’s got something. He does stand up in the company kitchen. Plus, he really knows and loves sports. We ought to start just putting him in”. He’s the greatest guy in the world. Everybody loves him. He’s funny and he’s smart about sports.
So we’re constantly looking, whether it is in the break room or in a producer booth or a part time guy on the weekend. Who are we developing for that day when these long term guys decide they don’t want to do it anymore?
DR: I want to circle back on something you said earlier about being the primary market for revenue generation within the company. Last year, every company, every business went through the challenges of the pandemic. When you have the company’s spotlight on your performance, is there added pressure when the whole industry is facing challenges and everyone is trying to figure this thing out on the fly?
DB: Well, I mean we’re the company’s number one market for revenue and cash flow. Yeah, it becomes a lot of responsibility. I’ve been the market manager since 1999. I have been here since 1984. That’s 37 years. I mean, I’m used to the pressure. If you want a big job, then you better be able to handle the big responsibility. And it’s not just me. It’s all of my department heads. A ton is expected of us. That’s just the way it is.
I think this is a really good recent example. I needed another sales manager and felt that I needed to make a change on the music side for reasons I won’t go into. I hired Dawn Girocco, she was our market manager in Los Angeles. When we sold KLOS to the Meruelo group, they didn’t keep her. My belief is when you hire department heads, do not hire beneath you. Hire at your level or somebody who is good at something that you’re not.
Dawn had been a market manager in Los Angeles and I hired her to be the director of music sales. I think that that’s how you deal with the pressure, by having really incredible department heads all around you. People fail at this when they hire beneath themselves. That’s absolutely a fact.
DR: Do you have a vision or blueprint in your mind of what works for an advertising partner in 2021? Do you have a set of trends you can point to, whether it’s Ticket clients or clients at any of your other stations, that you can say “This is what our most successful advertisers are doing. So I know it works across the board”?
DB: Yeah, I do. It’s the association with our talent who have been there many, many years. I mean, the average person on The Ticket has been there for like 22, 23 years.
Getting an endorsement now is way more than a live spot on the air. Now it’s social media and many times it’s a video. It’s a pre-roll video. It’s all these other things that your business can align itself to thru a personality. It isn’t any different than a GEICO ad. Look at all the different famous people that do GEICO ads. We have really well known local people. I will tell you, our music stations have more endorsements by the talent than any music station in town.
I think our talent is the number one asset that we can offer our clients, whether it be through an endorsement, an appearance, or due to the ratings they generate on the radio station. Even if you don’t have a Norm or Donovan doing your endorsement, the fact that your spot is on during our show gives you a better shot at making sure that the commercial works. I just think our best asset is our on-air talent. I really do.
DR: So you talked in there about the idea of an endorsement not just being the live read anymore. And that sort of dovetails into something that I’ve been thinking about a lot across the board, not just with The Ticket or your cluster. Is there any sort of consistency that has developed in terms of trying to get a new client on air? Before it was very much about the personal approach. But now I wonder how much of it is just selling the idea of radio as opposed to all digital or any sort of other new media that there are always deals and plenty of options to get in on?
DB: Well, we sell the concept of radio, your base buy and why. It really is involved in selling it in combination with digital. We try every time we go out to combine the two. Some people buy it on that. Some people don’t. When you can take two different mediums like digital and radio and even some of the podcasts that our guys do and combine them all together, then you have a consistent message, which is important. Then you can make it all work in concert with one another, and have a better chance of being successful. I think radio is doing a better job of embracing this thing called digital, but not by selling it and abandoning radio, but by making them run in concert with one another.
DR: Let me ask you about the social side for a minute, because part of my job with Barrett Sports Media is studying brands all over the country. I would say, looking at social, The Ticket is a little less active than most major market stations. I wonder, is that something you want to see improve or is that a strategic choice on your part?
DB: Do you mean in terms of the advertiser and being incorporated into our social media?
DR: Not just that. I mean just the amount of content you guys put out on social.
DB: Well, yeah. Quite frankly, Jeff Catlin and I have talked a lot about this. I think we need to do more of it.
We’ve got a guy that we hired on The Wolf, Jason Pulman, to do afternoon drive. It’s a heavy personality show. The guy is just entrenched in social and the amount of ratings he’s been able to generate in four months has been unbelievable. So I think that’s probably an area that we can improve and do more of. I think you’re going to see that elevated over the next three to six months.
We’re always looking at ourselves and asking, “if you were a competitor to us, how would you come at us?”. You know, we can’t get so full of ourselves that we think we can’t get beat. Everybody can get beat somehow.
DR: Honestly, that’s why the question was, is it a strategic choice? Because I’m not even sure that it is incorrect necessarily, because one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year is that not everybody in the industry has had success selling digital products. Maybe they’ve had success selling it as part of a package with on air. But I’ve often found myself wondering if, as an industry radio has put more focus on digital than it is ready to at this point.
DB: You’ve got to be careful. I’ll give you a perfect start. Believe me, we are focused on digital. We’re focused on selling it. However, in the last Miller Kaplan in the market, this is the whole market, 83 percent of all the revenue was still spot revenue. So, the careful thing there is don’t take your eye off 83 percent chasing some other shiny object.
That’s why any sales presentation really needs to incorporate both. Look, social and all that, that’s great. Whatever the air talent do, that’s great, but if the content that comes through the speakers isn’t good, I mean, you can promote on social media crappy content and they’re not going to listen to it. That’s why you’ve got to watch all of it, because it’s not just one thing. It never is.
DR: I’d love your insights on the growth of Dallas as a sports radio market. You guys have remained this behemoth even as challengers have arisen. 105.3 The Fan has tightened the race, but you’re no stranger to local sports radio competition. There’s never been a moment where another sports/talk station could say ‘we’ve firmly put The Ticket in the rearview mirror’. What do you attribute that to?
DB: One of the most important things is to always keep your feet firmly on the ground and not get full of yourself. We’ve all had bad books or books where there was a hiccup or whatever.
I do think one of the things that is dramatically changing, and I think Covid had a big effect on this, is the way people consume radio and sports radio. Many times you are listening through your phone. Most guys nowadays don’t have a clock radio on their nightstand. They get up in the morning and they stream The Ticket. The last book, 50 percent of The Ticket’s ratings were coming from streaming. A contact of mine at Nielsen said that there is no radio station in America that comes close to that.
So many of these men that listen to us had to work from home. And here we are a year later and still 50 percent is being consumed on stream. I mean, that’s changed dramatically. That’s why a station like The Ticket is total line reporting. We did that in October and it’s been a big help.
DR: What’s funny is you talked about most guys not having a clock radio in their house anymore. I’ve got an 11 year old daughter and we have just sort of gone through the fight of you cannot sleep with your iPad and phone in your room anymore. We went out to buy her a clock radio and found very few clocks include a radio anymore. I mean, it’s so crazy that alarm clocks, it seems, are very much embracing the idea that this is not where people listen anymore.
DB: You’re right. That’s why we’ve got to be accessible. Any of the platforms like Alexa that we’re available on, we have to be sure that we’re able to count those ratings. Before we went to total line reporting, we weren’t able to do that.
Here we had a whole bunch of listening sitting over on our stream, but we weren’t able to count any of it. Of course, when you go to do that, you know Nielsen is going to charge more money. But we made that decision and it was the right one for us.
DR: We recently ran this piece on the strategy of selling news stations and sports stations as a combo, and received a lot of feedback from all over the country that it’s now harder than ever before because there are so many advertisers that view news talk radio as the the shining example of the divide in this country. Some feel being associated with it, whether you mean to or not, means that you’re choosing sides. Are you seeing that in Dallas?
DB: Yeah. The thing is when we had Rush Limbaugh, we would have certain, mainly national advertisers that wouldn’t want to run on his show. We have two teams. We have a news, talk and sports team, and we have a music team on our sales staff. However, if a music seller has somebody that wants The Ticket and there’s nobody calling on that account on the news/talk/sports side, they can go over and sell it.
There is a bit of that with conservative talk radio. There’s always going to be, but I think it was more of a national issue and more about Rush Limbaugh than anybody else.
DR: Really? I’ve been critical of of news talk because I think one of the format’s failings is that for so long, programmers were just looking for the next Rush. Even though he’s no longer with us, there are still plenty of clones doing a similar show. It’s interesting to hear that for the most part, what you saw was specifically with Limbaugh.
DB: Most of the pushback that we have gotten is from national accounts. Now, I am not going to tell you who, but we have a car dealer in this town. It’s a big one. They won’t advertise on The Ticket because of the content.
DB: Yeah, they think there’s too much innuendo and guy talk and discussion about the sophomoric things that oftentimes get brought up on a sports station. They just won’t do it, and they’re a big advertiser. So, it can happen on the sports side, too, when somebody doesn’t want to be associated with something that they deem not appropriate.
I think on the news talk side, and boy, we’ve really worked at this, the biggest problem is that so many of the talent want to get on the air and jam their agenda down your throat rather than playing the hits. We had to have some pretty intense meetings with a couple of people on the air on our news talk stations. I said, “you’re jamming your agenda down people’s throats and you’re trying to change their minds”. When people are 40 or 45 or 50 or 55 years old, you’re not going to change their political sway in one way or the other. The best thing you can do to attract a bigger audience is play the hits.
Just like in sports radio, when Dak Prescott blew out his leg, that was the story. If you’re on the air in this town and you aren’t talking about what happened in yesterday’s game to Dak, you’re not playing the hits. I think a lot of these news talk shows just totally quit playing the hits, and they wanted every day to jam a political agenda, that’s part of why I think news talk struggled.
We had to make some real fundamental changes with a few of our talent to start playing the hits or this wasn’t going to work anymore. Fortunately, we’ve made a lot of progress.
DR: You brought up the advertiser that objects to what you called the sophomore nature of The Ticket. I do feel like I need to ask you, you’ve got this great bit on The Musers of the Fake Jerry Jones that sometimes performs better than the real Jerry Jones calling into the competition. You have been with the station through its whole run. There has to be a moment that you can point to and say “that is when I knew our approach to sports radio was perfect for this market”.
DB: I was at Susquehanna. We bought The Ticket in 1996. I’ll just say somebody in the company said, “well, we need to change those guys and talk about real sports”. And I said, “no, no, no, no, no. You don’t understand. They’re on to something, and what we’ve got to do is we have to champion it, encourage it, support it”.
Look, if you’ve ever gone to a game with a group of guys, just think back in your life. One time we took a group of clients to a Mavericks game in San Antonio. And at the time, I was probably in my mid 40s. You know, it’s a bunch of guys and everybody’s married and we’re on this trip and it was just clients. It was everything from a discussion about the game, to who’s going to go get the next beer, to “Oh my God, look at what just walked right outside of the arena!” and they’re pointing at some attractive woman.
Guys don’t sit around and just talk about sports statistics all day. They talk about every aspect of sports, which includes the camaraderie, the game, the crazy people in the stands, the next beer. I think what The Ticket tapped into is the mindset of the ideal listener. They’re not so myopic in their view about sports. The people who fail at this or the people that, get on the air and want to talk about the third team running back for SMU. Well, I’m sorry, but nobody cares. I think what our guys have done is they’ve tapped into what men really talk about.
Kind of an interesting example is my wife. She grew up with four brothers. She was the only girl. She loves The Ticket, is a P1, listens every morning. Okay, so why is that? Well, because she grew up with four brothers and understands brother humor and gets it. You know what’s interesting? When I run into women who don’t like it, many times they are women didn’t grow up with brothers.
The Ticket tapped into how guys think, how guys act, what guys want to talk about, and they’re just really in tune with the demo. That’s why The Ticket has been a success. We aren’t so myopic that all we do is talk about serious sports, but a lot of these sports stations, that’s what they do. They don’t get it.
What they do is they go out and hire a sports writer. Well, I can tell you, I’ve tried that. I’ll tell you, most of the time it doesn’t work. You’d be better off hiring a guy at the end of the bar who holds court every night and and talks sports. Hire somebody like that.
5 Who Get It, 5 Who Don’t
A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives tweets from burner accounts belonging to media people.
THEY GET IT
Kenny Mayne, layoff victim — Unlike Albert Pujols, Mayne still maintained an effective slash line when ESPN designated him for assignment. Rather than take a significant pay cut partly necessitated by Disney’s new rights deals — including the NFL at $2.7 billion a year — Mayne politely told Bristol to take the job and shove it. I’ll say what everyone else is thinking: Just because one is white, male and of a certain age doesn’t mean an all-time character should be insulted and sacrificed. Couldn’t this popular personality have been eased out with, say, a three-year victory tour? Mayne refused to stoop as low as his employer of 27 years, maintaining a deliciously dry wit to the cruel end. “I am leaving ESPN. Salary cap casualty,’’ he tweeted, thanking retired executives who originally gambled on him. “I will miss the people. I will miss the vending machine set up over by the old Van Pelt joint. We had everything.’’ He pulled off the impossible as a “SportsCenter’’ anchor, planting his tongue into his cheek without impeding the daily digest of news. Some younger on-air colleagues look goofy when they wear sneakers with suits, but at 61, “the Mayne Event’’ wore the kicks well. I just wonder who’ll be the next “salary cap casualties.’’
Wayne Gretzky, lucky man — Known as The Great One on the ice, Gretzky is closer to The Grate One behind a microphone. That didn’t stop TNT and ESPN from waging a spirited bidding battle for the hockey legend, who was dangled between the NHL’s newly anointed broadcast partners by his savvy Hollywood reps at Endeavor. TNT is expected to win (lose) his services at a reported $5 million annually, which was too much for ESPN. Isn’t that a steep price for a nice gentleman who never has uttered a cross word about anyone? As Cathal Kelly wrote up North in the Globe and Mail: “As Canadians, we know better. Everybody loves Wayne Gretzky. There’s a very specific clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that addresses this point. But we know that Gretzky is no great talker or raconteur. Whether he is capable of telling an even mildly amusing anecdote is still up for grabs because despite being the most beloved figure in the country for more than 40 years, he has yet to do so. If hockey players are dull … it’s because Gretzky taught them to be that way. Smile and nod. Smile and nod. It’s nearly impossible to criticize someone when they’re smiling and nodding.’’ Analyst Eddie Olczyk will join play-by-play man Kenny Albert in TNT’s booth, while ESPN counters with analysts Ray Ferraro and Brian Boucher. None is remotely in Gretzky’s starpower range, but once the puck is dropped, sharp analysis is vital. The Great/Grate One gets the riches anyway. Maybe the networks should be talking to Paulina Gretzky, his social-media-soaked daughter.
Greg Gumbel, CBS — I remember being asked to do stupid stuff on TV, such as dressing up like Steve Bartman, Ozzie Guillen and Kate Hudson (don’t ask) for Halloween shows. To his everlasting credit, Gumbel refused to jump into the silly fray when asked by network producers during March Madness. While studio mates Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis and Wally Szczerbiak lost all dignity while dancing with six animated characters, Gumbel just stared in shock and embarrassment. Appearing on a WCKG podcast in his native Chicago, a city made proud by Greg and brother Bryant, he said of his mortified reaction that day, “I have tried really hard throughout my career not to look like an idiot on TV. I have tried very hard not to embarrass my loved ones, my friends and myself. And I’m not going to (dance). But at the same time, I wasn’t going to let them get away without being poked about it. So that’s why I did what I did. … It was fun. I will only go so far.” Not enough is made in the sports world of the Gumbel dynasty. Outlasting critics who’ve chided Bryant as bombastic and Greg as rigid, they’ll be remembered as the most successful set of brothers in sportscasting history.
Todd Frazier, social media retaliator — If his major-league career is over, at least the baseball vagabond reminded a media member of his amateur-hour lot in life. When Frazier was cut by the Pittsburgh Pirates, a glorified Triple-A club these days, local radio host Mark Madden harpooned him directly on social media, which defies every rule of professionalism. “Hey, @FlavaFraz21 …happy f—ing trails, you scrub. DFA’d. Now GFY,” tweeted Madden, telling Frazier to go f— himself. He can tend to the rest of his life later, but first, Frazier had a retort for Madden: “Funny that this slob, I mean absolute slob is talking shit. Go grab another hot dog. Please look yourself in the mirror my goodness. You wouldn’t dare say this to my face FLOUNDER. This picture tells it all. And to think people take you serious. GTFOH.’’ Which is short for get the f— outta here, which I’m going to do before giving these two people any more attention.
Barry Svrluga, Washington Post — It can be painful reading tributes to retiring sportswriters from other sportswriters, but Svrluga’s admiration for Thomas Boswell came through in a masterpiece testimonial. “If my 14-year-old self believed he could share one press box for one night with Boz, that would have been enough, a dream fulfilled,’’ he wrote. “To have shared … how many, Boz? Hundreds, right? RFK and Nationals Park, Congressional Country Club and Augusta National, FedEx Field and Capital One Arena, the Stanley Cup and the World Series. Shoot, we even climbed the Great Wall of China together. Tell my 14-year-old self that was the career ahead — riding shotgun to Boz for close to 18 years, watching how the best to ever do it got it done — and he wouldn’t have made it to 15, what with the ensuing heart attack and all. It is the great honor and privilege of my career to have shared those spaces and had those conversations with Boz. He was and is who I want to be when I grow up.’’ Boswell, the consummate baseball wordsmith of his generation, is leaving his hometown paper after 52 years. What I liked about him: While Post mates Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser became TV stars, Boswell stayed true to the press box, once telling Svrluga to buy a 300-foot tape measure when they suspected incorrect outfield measurements at old RFK Stadium. “I ran past (Boswell) to measure the distance to the wall, the quickest way to work before we got caught and kicked out. Which we did — but not before we had enough data for a front-page story,’’ he wrote. Much as Svrluga will try, there never will be another Thomas Boswell.
Ben Strauss, Washington Post — In a recent column, I asked why major publications hadn’t profiled the oddball coupling of John Skipper and Dan Le Batard, the deposed ESPN power losers. Strauss delivered, pointing out how the ex-journalists have sold out to the legal gambling craze — their company, Meadowlark Media, is receiving $50 million from DraftKings for Le Batard’s podcast — while portraying Skipper as an eccentric. Wrote Strauss: “Skipper was wearing a maroon sweater, circle-rimmed glasses and khakis rolled up to reveal blue suede shoes, his apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view of the Hudson River. He was sprawled in front of a coffee table designed, Skipper pointed out, by French painter Yves Klein. The tabletop was a clear acrylic box filled with mounds of raw pigment.’’ Skipper almost went off the rails when speaking of his competition with Barstool Sports and its raunchy front man, Dave Portnoy. “Barstool is driving value. I don’t think it means you have to do reprehensible, misogynist content,’’ Skipper said. “If somebody came to me and said: `I’ll give you a really high margin; you’ve got to do a show on the sexiest pictures of cheerleaders you can find. Can you find pictures of cheerleaders where they jump up and down and their panties are up in their butts? Can you find that for me? I’ll pay you a bunch of money.’ The answer’s no, I won’t do that.” Um, their panties are up in their butts? Sounds like Skipper was channeling Portnoy. I know, Strauss is the sixth who gets it. A friend said I should change the title to “Those Who Get It.’’ I’m considering it.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Tim Tebow, ESPN — Who doesn’t love his heart and propensity to dream? But at some point, going on 34, Tebow risks becoming a multi-sport freak show. After failing as an NFL quarterback and crashing as a baseball minor-leaguer, he wants to sign a one-year deal with his college coach, Urban Meyer, and his hometown NFL team, the DUVVALLL!!! (Jacksonville) Jaguars. It’s a whim opposed by many in the front office, which is understandable. Tebow would give tight end a try as a way of generating more interest in the Jags, but he never has played the position and hasn’t been in football pads in six years. ESPN has been patient with his whims, yet at some point, Tebow must decide if he wants to work full-time as an SEC Network analyst or move on to politics or even Sunday morning evangelism. Meyer may have purchased a house on Tebow’s street, but knowing the coach’s thirst for the competitive jugular, he’ll cut Tebow quicker than a Florida Gator chomp. Why must I be the one to tell him that this is another publicity stunt?
Alex Rodriguez, loser — As ex-squeeze Jennifer Lopez frolics in Montana with Ben Affleck, A-Rod and partner Marc Lore have let a deadline pass to purchase the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Seems team owner Glen Taylor doesn’t trust Rodriguez’s possible motives — would you? — in possibly moving the Wolves to Seattle, where A-Rod once played as a young shortstop before his steroids days. With his life is disarray, he might want to laser-focus on his broadcast duties on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,’’ where, if you close your eyes, you might wonder about the thin, Captain Obvious insight if the analyst wasn’t a famous ex-player.
Adam Schefter, ESPN — Look, his bosses admitted before the NFL Draft that they wanted bigger ratings than the NFL Network, even if the league controls the multi-platform broadcast under one Goodellian umbrella. So when Schefter claims it’s pure coincidence that he waited until Draft day to break the Aaron Rodgers-wants-out-of-Green Bay story, he’s insulting our intelligence. He said the timing of his scoop resulted from “an accumulation’’ of whispers he’d been hearing for weeks. “There was nothing that morning that came in.’’ he told Dan Patrick. “No one said to me, `Yeah, he wants out; you should report this.’ It’s like, it was going on all offseason. You just keep hearing and there’s more and more talk, and now there’s starting to be Aaron Rodgers talk, and I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t gonna wait much longer.’ It just happened to be Draft day.’’ Yeah, he just happened to wait until millions were watching him lead the Draft broadcast with a story that dominated the night, which helped ESPN beat the NFL Network (and sister network ABC). I want to trust Schefter. He and his network keep giving me reasons not to.
Hulu — The danger of docuseries fever is that every subject wants to control the narrative, as Michael Jordan did in “The Last Dance.’’ Which explains why Jeanie Buss, controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, has appointed her own director, esteemed Antoine Fuqua, to spin out a nine-part series that will glorify the banners and legends and ignore, say, the Buss family dramas that derailed the franchise before LeBron James arrived. She could make that request of Hulu, a derivative of Disney, which is in business bed with the NBA. I will be more interested in HBO’s competing series — based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, “Three-Ring Circus’’ — that peels open the Hollywood and sex-romp secrets that were undeniably part of the team’s “Showtime’’ past, much of it involving the late owner Jerry Buss, Jeanie’s father. She says her production will tell “the true story of the Lakers,’’ adding during an “All The Smoke’’ video podcast, “There is a series being developed at HBO — a scripted series we are not involved in — and I really don’t know how they’re going to tell our story if we’re not involved in it.” Simple. HBO will tell the unauthorized version, while Buss and Fuqua craft the scrubbed, Disney-fied version that we already know about. The HBO show, developed by Adam McKay, will draw more attention and bigger ratings.
Lachlan Murdoch, Fox Corporation CEO — Just because a C-Suite honcho says something in an investors’ call doesn’t mean it’s true. In announcing Fox’s acquisition of Outkick, Murdoch described the site as a leader “in sports news, and more critically, sports opinion.’’ As one who has been immersed in sports multimedia for decades, I can state definitively that Outkick is not a leader in sports news or sports opinion — not even close — and that it appeals only to a conservative, woke-averse crowd that fits the leaning agenda of Fox News. It’s a mistake to think the Clay Travis cult mobs know or care about quality sports journalism. Case in point: When veteran football writer Peter King pointed out the number of COVID-related deaths on Twitter, he was mocked by an Outkick blogger, while site founder Travis was delighting in a full house at an Atlanta Braves game. Trumpers can unite on Murdoch’s new site. The rest of America will be looking for credible sports news and commentary elsewhere.
Spectrum SportsNet LA — The Los Angeles Dodgers are worth $3.6 billion. The least they can do is serve their television viewers, the ones they largely blacked out for years, by not scheduling events in Dodger Stadium while the team broadcasters are calling away games remotely from the press box. As the Dodgers — “the greatest team in baseball history,’’ according to the since-backpedaling L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke — were struggling in Chicago, viewers and radio listeners could hear Mayor Eric Garcetti’s speech during the local Fire Department awards banquet. With all due gratitude for fire fighters everywhere, let’s figure out a better way for fans who devote time and money — Spectrum SportsNet isn’t cheap — to follow their team.
Chris Webber, Dead Analyst Walking — Here we thought Webber never would do anything dumber than his fatal time-out signal in 1993, when Michigan had no timeouts remaining late in a national title game. Little did we know. Taking the opposite path of Fab Five teammate Jalen Rose, whose career as an ESPN analyst is thriving, Webber is costing himself a prized gig that could have taken him into old age. He upset his TNT bosses when he left them hanging before opting out of an NCAA tournament assignment, saying he didn’t want to work in the Indianapolis Bubble, according to the New York Post. Not enamored of him as it is, the network is expected to oust Webber from its leading NBA broadcast team and not renew his contact. With play-by-play man Marv Albert officially an octogenarian, TNT must remake a crew that already has fallen far behind the impact and chemistry of ESPN’s Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. Oh, was this a seventh entry in They Don’t Get It?
The Audience Likes And Believes In Mike Bell
“I’m never going to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, I just think I communicate and connect with people in our city.”
An old line from the movie Bull Durham sums up a lot of sports radio hosts these days; “I want to announce my presence with authority.” Many hosts try to stand out by being the loudest, or the smartest, or the most daring. They start to resemble peacocks strutting around while trying to grab the audience’s attention. A huge ingredient of enjoying sports radio success is being able to connect with the audience. Some hosts simply forget to ask themselves, am I someone people want to be around?
Mike Bell is an afternoon drive host on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. He’s also a master at connecting with people. Mike doesn’t want to sit atop his press box perch while looking down upon the unwashed peasants in attendance. The native of Long Island, New York has had Falcons season tickets since 1998. He wants to slap high fives, yell at the top of his lungs, and have enough room to frolic around if Matt Ryan and company have it rolling. In essence, he is his audience.
Mike talks about his relationship on and off the air with tag team partner Carl Dukes. Although Nielsen has a gleam in its eye for Dukes & Bell, Mike mentions having bigger goals than reigning supreme in sports radio. Hey Man beer, being vulnerable on the air, a past mistake with Jessica Mendoza, and his side of a head-scratching radio beef are a few of the other subjects we dive into as well. Enjoy!
BN: When and why did you make your way to the Atlanta area?
MB: I was in Fort Myers, Florida. I was doing morning drive in a top 40 format. I was kind of on hold with my career because of my grandmother; I was taking care of my nana. My dad had passed away and I was kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had her in assisted living. Her money ran out and I had her living with me. It was like a sitcom; a guy in his mid-20s with an 80-year-old lady in his house. [Laughs]
I think you’ll get a kick out of this, it’s very analog, in the old days obviously as the internet was just getting traction, you had Radio & Records. They had like the old blind box ad that said top 10 market seeks comedian with sports knowledge. I was recruited unbeknownst to me by 790 The Zone. I think they had something like 500 tapes and they narrowed it down to five finalists. I was the leader in the clubhouse. They liked me and they brought me in on a Friday. I did my morning show in Fort Myers and flew up and did the interview. I was on afternoon drive as a live audition back in 1998. And it stuck.
It was really like the last of the mom-and-pop stations. I remember we went to the Palm. Everybody was there. We were doing shots. I remember going out with my boss at the time till like five in the morning at a local bar. I finally turned to him and go hey, by the way did I get the job? [Laughs] And he’s like oh yeah, we need you to give them two weeks notice as soon as you can. It was old school when Atlanta was like the Wild Wild West.
BN: Who were your favorite teams when you were growing up?
MB: Being a New Yorker, a big Mets fan. When I was a kid, the Yankees were winning back-to-back World Series and Shea Stadium was falling apart. It was another typical rainy night. If you were at Shea in the old days, you look out, you’d see the World’s Fair, you could see over the Manhattan skyline. It’s a rain delay and I asked my dad the existential question, why are we Mets fans? Let’s go over by these Yankees fans. Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and the Mets are terrible.
My old man takes a drag off his Marlboro, and he’s literally like, I’ll tell you why buddy boy, anybody can root for the Yankees. It takes character to be a Mets fan. He said being a Yankee fan was like rooting for the IRS; it was like rooting for the sun to come up. He said yes, we’re like the red-haired stepchildren in New York, but we’re the real New York. We’re the minorities. It was kind of fun. He said by the way if we ever win the World Series, it’ll be ten times sweeter for us as it is for a Yankee fan. That kind of mindset always stuck with me about always sticking with your team or your underdog.
BN: How have your team preferences changed over the years with you being in Atlanta for so long?
MB: I lived in South Florida, so I had Dolphin tickets. I love going to live events. I love live music. I love live sports. So I’ve always tried to support the team wherever I lived. When I moved to Atlanta, I got season tickets for the Falcons. And I’ve had season tickets since 1998. Then it’s kind of cool; you’re invested.
It’s funny when we talk to the players or we have a general manager on, it’s like hey I’m paying for this. Carl too, he also has season tickets, so we don’t sit in the press box. The idea is that we’re invested. We’re speaking for the fan. And not to get all high and mighty, but we put our money where our mouth is. We pay for the tickets. But I’m a big Falcons fan.
The Hawks obviously over the years I’ve gone to a lot of Hawks games. I loved the Thrashers when we had hockey. [Laughs] That ship has sailed. It’s difficult when you do afternoons to go to Braves games because you miss the start, but we try to catch at least maybe 10 during the season on the weekends.
BN: What’s the story about you wanting to work with Carl, but him not wanting to leave Houston initially?
MB: I wouldn’t want to leave Houston if they were going to pay me more money either. [Laughs] I’ve known Carl — we traced it back to the Super Bowl in 2002, the one in New Orleans after 9/11. He was doing middays in Houston and I was doing morning drive in Atlanta. We were like the table across from each other. We just kind of hit it off. We were friends and we’d see each other at Final Fours and Super Bowls, boxing matches in Vegas. Then in 2010 or something like that, we hooked up in Vegas and I said man I’d love to get you to Atlanta. My partner at the time was David Pollack. He was about to head to ESPN full-time.
I had reached out to my management and they at least had a conversation, but I don’t think they ever got close with the money. Then ironically when 92.9 The Game launches, my boss is like, who’s this Carl Dukes working opposite you? I’m like that’s the guy I wanted you to hire. We just got along. We always felt the dynamic of our personalities would be great. And our old agent, rest his soul, Norm Schrutt — Carl and I had the same agent — he used to joke around like, ‘just ‘cause you laugh at the same jokes, who knows if the show will be any good?’ But we always knew it would be a hit if we had the opportunity.
BN: How did Hey Man beer originate?
MB: A couple of years ago, our former program director, Terry Foxx, came to us and said hey there’s this local brewery. They’ve got some marketing people and they’ve reached out to us. They’re interested in doing a beer with you guys. To be quite honest we didn’t really think much of it at the time. But it’s a great local brewery called Oconee, which is halfway to Augusta from Atlanta off I-20. It’s a mom-and-pop brewery. If you’re familiar with SweetWater, it kind of reminds you of the early days of SweetWater here in Atlanta.
We had a meeting, hit it off, then we agreed we’d come up with some different flavors, and do a taste test to see what we liked. Then we would start off on draft. We started off on draft and the next thing you know they want to put it in cans. I’ve been in radio since ‘87; it’s arguably the best guerrilla marketing. It’s better than billboards. The listeners will buy the beer. They’ll take photos of them drinking the beer. They’ll take pictures of them at the store buying the beer. It’s a great way to connect and most importantly it’s not a money grab. The product is really good. It’s a great tasting beer so we did a blonde ale with 5% alcohol by volume. We’ve had it in restaurants and we’ve had it in bars all around Georgia.
Before COVID, we were going to do the watermelon lime. We did a small batch of that and we had it at a pregame party for the Braves. We’re not a rights holder so we were at a distant parking lot, but we had our tailgate going. Everybody went bananas. We went through however many gallons of beer we had in like minutes. We knew it’d be a big hit. We just obviously couldn’t launch it last year when COVID hit. It just dropped on April 1. It’s been a huge hit.
BN: What are your thoughts on the All-Star Game moving out of Atlanta?
MB: That’s a hot potato. In Carl and I, because you have an African-American host and you have a white guy, you can tackle some of these issues that maybe other shows might want to shy away from. It’s a difficult discussion because the demographics here in our city, it’s kind of like a blue center of a red donut when you’re speaking to the audience, so you’ve got everything from folks out of the rural parts of our listening audience, to folks right in the heart of the city. The All-Star Game, it came so quickly. There was some talk that the players union was discussing it and then boom, the decision was made.
The problem is like everything else in 2021, people immediately look at the headline but they don’t read the story. People went to their corner and started shouting about it. It’s frustrating because the people who ultimately suffer are the folks who need it the most. The folks that are going to be selling the beer, the folks working at the hotels, working at the restaurants. While I understand the logic behind Major League Baseball doing it, I didn’t think the execution made sense. Especially to pull it out of a city like Atlanta and take it to a city like Denver. Those demographics are completely different.
BN: When topics dip into politics, how do you guys like to handle it on the show?
MB: I think in this day and age people turn to sports as a release. It’s my escape from the real world. It’s my escape from everything else that I’m bombarded with. But there are some stories you just can’t ignore. Carl and I have always made it a point to say we’re not going to ignore it. When we had the social justice protests, we weren’t going to not talk about that. We got very emotional talking about that.
We talked about Kaepernick. I said look, I grew up hand over my heart singing the national anthem. I think my phrase was my American journey is a lot different than other people. We use phrases like empathy and try to put yourself in another person’s shoes and then have a discussion about it. Now of course there are people out there, the moment you talk about Kaepernick and you try to rationalize something like that, boom they’re gone. They’re not going to listen to that. I think the ratings reflect that when we do get into these issues, it doesn’t hurt us. It’s definitely something that is too big to ignore.
BN: Why do you think the 2 Live Stews aren’t back on the air in Atlanta right now?
MB: I couldn’t speak to that. I’m out of my depth. I know that they did a fantastic job when we were together at 790. But I can’t speak to that. I know they had the same representation that I had back in the day with Norm, my old agent. But I don’t know what’s going on with those guys.
BN: What’s something you’ve shared about yourself on the air or been vulnerable about over the years?
MB: That’s a good question. It’s kind of what you just talked about; we talk about sports and things that are lifestyle. We just talked about it last week with Mother’s Day. I’m adopted and at times in my life it was difficult. We connected with my biological mom. We talked about that, not that there was a stigma to it, but how you go through your life’s journey and eventually you get closure. That’s probably the most intimate detail I’ve shared.
BN: How difficult was that for you to do?
MB: Once you get rolling it’s pretty easy. It’s conversations I’ve had with Carl in private so we just kind of extended it to on air.
BN: What do you think is the key to connecting with listeners?
MB: I’m never going to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, I just think I communicate and connect with people in our city. And being straight with them. When we talk about something, people know we’re not manufacturing a topic. It’s not you take this side and I’ll take that side. Sometimes when Carl and I get into a real raging argument, it’s almost like the kids are listening to mom and dad, like please guys, don’t fight. We don’t manufacture fake, phony arguments. It’s all coming from the heart. It’s legit.
BN: What was your reaction to what Mark Zinno had to say about you recently?
MB: [Laughs] You know what, I don’t really know where he’s coming from. If he felt that there was a text message back four years ago when we were talking about the show and I used a take of his — I would say this, it’d be the first time I’ve ever agreed with him. No good deed goes unpunished with Zinno. I tried to give him advice about the market when I first met him and he first came to the station. I tried to help him get representation. We look at the world through two different lenses. Honestly I have no idea what he was talking about, but apparently it was a red-letter day for him I guess.
BN: Any regrets about calling Jessica Mendoza “Tits McGhee”?
MB: Yeah, that was dumb. Again it’s a changing landscape of pop culture and radio. Luckily my bosses allowed me to speak from the heart when I made my apology. But more importantly, learning about it. There’s things you just can’t do. Carl and I were having this discussion, I forget how it came up, not specifically about Jessica Mendoza but it was a politician or an athlete who got in trouble. We talked about it; there are things you cannot do in the workplace anymore. It’s a lesson learned.
BN: Dan McNeil in Chicago got fired for tweeting something critical about Maria Taylor. Do you ever see stories like that and think you’re lucky to still have your gig?
MB: It’s definitely when you think of the timing of things. There’s right and wrong in the world and what I did was clearly wrong. I was suspended for it and came back. If the audience likes you or believes in you, and they realize where you’re coming from, and realize you made a mistake — on the flip side, there’s also cancel culture. Would I have survived something like that today? I don’t know.
BN: What’s your favorite sports radio moment that you might flash back to from time to time?
MB: Wow, that’s a great one. The Falcons going to the Super Bowl was surreal. It’s kind of like it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The week in Houston was so awesome. The funny part of it was nobody liked the Patriots. All the Texans fans we met, everywhere we went, people were pulling for Atlanta. We had a big pep rally. CeeLo played the thing. The place was off the chain. It was a perfect buildup just to have your heart broken.
That week we did a bus trip. One of our sponsors Wade Ford — we took a bus with all of our personalities. We drove down to Houston in this bus with a wrap of our logo. It was freaking great. The whole week, the best building up to a moment, you’ve got this big lead and then only to have the rug pulled out from under your feet. It was obviously heartbreaking. Matter of fact, it was so heartbreaking, I think the only time we’ve had a period where there was a dip in the ratings, were people literally so heartbroken that they didn’t even want to talk about it in February that year.
BN: What has it been like to see anything related to 28-3 after that loss?
MB: There are so many angles to it. The Saints are our mortal enemy. I think it’s the greatest rivalry in the NFL. I don’t think people appreciate just how passionate the fan bases are. Two primarily African American fan bases in the South. The trash talking.
We had Saints fans flying banners over us “28-3 never forget”. It’s got so much more juice and so much more heat than something like what the Packers and Bears are supposed to be. Even when we’re bad, it’s the greatest rivalry. Just the fact that they’ve got the ring, and obviously the ring is the thing, it validates you. Unfortunately for Atlanta, we call it Atlanta-itis on the radio, where sometimes you feel like whether it’s Georgia football or the Braves, you just have a sense of fatalism that something’s not going to turn out, which I hate it. I don’t think anything is interconnected, but it’s just part of the psyche now.
BN: When you look to the future, do you have any goals or things in mind you’d like to experience over the next five to 10 years?
MB: Well I’m 52, so I probably missed my window to get syndicated. [Laughs] I’m very happy. I’m truly happy and just blessed. I hope that Carl and I can at least — I don’t know if we can make it to retirement because we might get retired in this business. I would love to be number one overall in the city. That’s big to us. The political world just keeps on churning, so that news cycle doesn’t end. To be number one in the city for us would truly be my goal at this stage.
BN: Interesting. So you look at it not just as number one in sports radio, but you want to be number one in any radio format?
MB: Correct. That’s just it. We’re consistently, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a breakdown of our demographics, but we’re always consistently top three, or top two. In 18-49 we’ve been consistently number one in a number of books over the last couple of years. There are heritage stations in town and we’re still a relative newbie by radio standards, but we have the best station in town. We just have to keep plugging away.