When I was younger, I never thought about life after sports for a professional athlete. Athletes were celebrities who had money and fame regardless of how long their playing careers lasted, post-retirement wasn’t as important to me.
Now that I’ve crossed into my thirties, nearing the age many professional athletes retire, I can’t imagine being told I’m no longer able to do what I’ve worked my entire life for. I can’t imagine being “retired” at the age of 31 and the void that it can create for a person.
Former New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro falls into the category of having his playing career cut short and needing to figure out what’s next. Someone that was forced to retire at the age of 31, DiPietro dealt with finding a second career and attempting to fill the void of no longer being a professional athlete.
Concussions, hip, knee and ankle injuries led to a steep decline and ultimately his release, but DiPietro is grateful he found a job he’s excited to wake up for every morning. He experienced nearly everything as an athlete and now the 37-year old is able to take those experiences on-air, mixing them with his off the cuff, comedic personality to make great radio every day on ESPN NY. If it were up to Rick, he’d still be in net for the Islanders, but he’s adjusted well to his new career on the radio, one that he’s passionate about.
For DiPietro, co-hosting a daily radio show on ESPN NY from 10am – 1pm with Dave Rothenberg and former NFL defensive end Chris Canty, is a pretty good life after hockey.
Brandon Contes: How did you get started in radio? Was it something you inquired about, or did ESPN and Alan Hahn come to you first?
Rick DiPietro: It’s actually a great story. I was down in Charlotte, attempting to make a comeback and play hockey again, but it didn’t end up working out and at a certain point I had to face reality that it wasn’t going to happen. I’ll never forget, I was actually sitting in the car with my father-in-law and we were listening to Alan on the radio, who I did have a previous relationship with, and my father-in-law asked me, ‘What’s next? What are you gonna do?’
I had no idea, we went back and forth and I said I love sports, I watch everything, it would be cool to be on the radio. I happened to text Alan about a hockey stat while I was listening to his show and he told me, ‘since I know you, you can’t keep your mouth shut and all you like to do is talk, you should try this radio thing, I think you’d like it.’
Alan had me in studio one night and we were actually filling in for Rothenberg, oddly enough. We did one show, we had a ton of fun and he tagged it, ‘we’ll keep doing this until they tell us to stop’ and it just kept going from there. We went from filling in, to getting our own nightly show, 7 to 10 and then we moved from nights to afternoons, then middays and it just continued from there. So with the help of Alan, I just kinda fell into radio.
BC: When you were younger, did you have a passion for radio at all or is it something that developed later?
RD: I always had a passion for sports, but I never really listened to sports talk radio much. Maybe it was because they were saying negative things about me. [Laughs]
I tried to avoid consuming media while playing, but once I was done, I started listening a little bit and then I did some TV work, but I really fell in love with radio.
BC: Have you listened to other talk radio shows at all, especially now that you’ve gotten into it more?
RD: I listen to everything, I try to consume as much as possible, between radio, TV and everything else.
BC: Mostly sports-related?
RD: Mostly sports. I listen to a lot, like Colin Cowherd and I listen to The Kay Show, I listen to all the shows on our station and I’ll go through the dial just to see what other people are doing and talking about.
BC: What was the hardest part in your transition to radio?
RD: The fact that I was a hockey player, because we don’t talk much hockey, I think people initially questioned my ability to talk about other sports and I remember talking about that with our program director. The question of, how would I do with all sports, and that was probably the biggest hurdle. Because I played in the NHL, everyone thinks that’s all I know, but once you get past that, they see I have knowledge of all sports.
It also goes beyond just basic sports knowledge. The biggest thing for radio and doing this five days a week is it changes the way you watch sports, because as you’re watching the game, you’re trying to create an interesting conversation out of what you’re seeing.
BC: I get that it’s difficult from a credibility standpoint to convince the listeners you have well-rounded sports knowledge, but you can’t talk a lot of Islander hockey on the radio, you don’t talk much hockey in general, so that crutch isn’t there. You were thrown into it and had no choice but to talk other sports. I would think it was harder for Chris Canty to prove himself because he was brought in to talk only football at first and then he was added to the full show later on, so he really had to prove that he could talk other sports.
RD: The best way to describe it is if you look at sports radio or you look at sports talk shows on television, because the NFL is king, these shows talk mostly football.
Radio talks so much football, so if you played football you can always talk about that, all other sports play a lesser role so it’s more naturally assumed a former football player can just learn them as we go. I obviously do know quite a bit of hockey, but what good is that?
BC: Did you ever find yourself trying to come up with any sort of unique angle or go all in on a point just to prove that you know other sports or did you just let it happen organically and let the audience realize it on their own that you can talk Mets, Knicks and Jets?
RD: I know I played hockey, but my passion is baseball. My favorite sport growing up was baseball. I still play men’s league baseball, but proving myself as a radio host to people is just a daily thing. Having the credibility that I watch and pay attention to everything is a daily thing. I don’t think I go out of my way, the audience would notice that. You want to be interesting, you want people to look forward to your opinion and that has to do with credibility, but it also has to do with being entertaining.
BC: Do you like developing show topics? Obviously you’re here early, are you somebody that is trying to come up with different ideas, or is it more let me know what the topics are and let’s get on-air and talk about it?
RD: It’s not even necessarily the topic, I think that every good radio show and everyone on that radio show has a specific role. What I try to do on our show is bring the personal experiences from being an athlete – tell the audience what’s going on behind the scenes and give the mindset of Odell Beckham Jr. or whoever we’re talking about, and then on top of that, just trying to be funny. I think that’s part of my role on the station is to be funny and people not knowing what’s going to come out of my mouth, be unpredictable.
We used to do quite a bit with songs and parodies, but myself, Dave and Chris, we’ll communicate with each other what was going on the night before, what we want to talk about and what interesting ideas we each have. You want to try and draw up as much passion from the listener, whether that’s good or bad passion. You don’t want to be down the middle, people either have to agree or strongly disagree to get them to take the time to pick up the phone and call in.
BC: Alan was obviously working in media a long time before you guys started on the radio together, is that how you developed a relationship with him?
RD: Yeah, I’ll never forget, I get drafted by the Islanders up in Calgary and Alan was there covering it. I went through all of the different requirements after getting drafted and then they told me, okay now you’re going to sit down with the New York media.
So I’m thinking it’s New York, I have this idea of what the New York media is and then I get there and it’s just me and Alan sitting at a table [Laughs]. That’s when we first met then and we always had a pretty good relationship after that. We would always go back and forth with our opinions and we developed a friendship.
BC: What year did you start radio?
RD: It was about five years ago.
BC: And Alan wasn’t even doing radio for that long when he recruited you?
RD: No, he was just filling in, but because he was doing such a good job on MSG with the Knicks, he was looking for more media opportunities and started doing shows here at ESPN. I think he had a weekend show initially and then he would fill-in over the summer.
BC: Which is a little different because usually with a former pro athlete looking to break into radio, they’ll pair them with an industry veteran, but here you were with someone that was still learning just like you were.
RD: Yea, for the both of us, it was here you go, here’s your own radio show, go run with it. And between me and him we were like…what are we supposed to do? So we just decided to have as much fun as possible and hoped it would translate on the radio.
BC: Was there anyone that was helpful to you guys in developing? Or you just built your own thing?
RD: You know this, you listen to a lot of radio and it starts with chemistry, if you have natural chemistry, everything else comes easier. Our Program Director at the time, Justin Craig and [Vice President] Tim McCarthy were great. Justin took a chance on me when he thought I was just a hockey guy.
I remember when I was starting out, I gave an Islander update. It was just a 10-second score update and he walks in the studio to ask what I was doing, and I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he said no one wants to hear about the NHL right now [Laughs].
But Justin Craig, Tim McCarthy, Ryan Hurley, we have a great team here, our producers Ray Deenihan and Ray Santiago, we had RJ Santillo who works on The Kay Show now, everyone was really helpful, everyone really pays attention to what’s going on, so if you ask them to take a quick listen to see what you can work on, they’re all very helpful.
BC: Did you know Dave Rothenberg before he replaced Alan?
BC: Was that a difficult transition? More so than adjusting to Dave, was it difficult to have the forced breakup with Alan, like you said, you guys had that line, “we’re going to keep doing this until they make us stop”, and then they made you stop.
RD: It was tough. We got into a situation where, with the time of the show being moved around and Alan’s covering the Knicks for MSG and their West Coast trips and the times he needs to be on TV, it just became impossible. It got to the point where we couldn’t do the radio show anymore and by then, I listened to a lot of Dave’s shows to know what to expect and he’s a pro’s pro. He was able to step right in and drive the show. We’ve created a chemistry and it’s been a pretty smooth transition.
BC: Has all the tinkering been difficult? You haven’t been in radio that long and you’ve worked with Alan part-time, Alan at night, Alan in the midday, 1 – 3 then 10 – 1. Chris Canty being added to the show, then Alan’s out and Rothenberg is in. For someone trying to break into the business, to have all of those changes in five years, that’s a lot.
RD: [Laughs] It’s like my Islanders career.
I think it’s helped me to be more well-rounded. Especially with three voices and trying to keep with the formatics of a sports talk radio show where it’s – have an opinion, take some calls, stick to the clock. I think you come to the realization that you don’t have to make a point about everything. So sometimes you sit back, listen and then as Chris or Dave are talking, you come up with a unique take. I think it’s helped and it’s made me better, having the ability to work with different people and work in different situations. Even when I call in to The Kay Show, it’s helped to be able to adapt on the fly to whoever you’re working with.
BC: How about The Kay Show being the only other local show on the weekday lineup? Is it a strange dynamic that you’re the midday show, but you don’t have a local lead-in, so you come to the studio and it’s quiet, and then you leave and there’s still no local show right after you, so it’s almost kind of hard to develop any sort of flow between your show and the afternoon show.
RD: I did really like when we were 1-3 because even during breaks, I thought it was great to come out and have Kay and Don there. They were all sitting in the office and even having them coming in for the crosstalk, I enjoyed that. I like having that comradery, I like when I can text Kay and say something about Peter Rosenberg and we’ll go back and forth, but it was even better when we were on 1 – 3 because it gave us the opportunity to bring Pete in or for me to jump on their show. It’s definitely different.
BC: Has radio helped with the adjustment of not being a professional athlete anymore and to fill that void?
RD: Yeah, I think to a certain degree. I’m very lucky because there are a lot of guys that once they’re done playing their sport, they have nothing to do. I don’t think I’ll ever find anything that I can be as passionate about as when I was playing in the NHL.
I think the hardest part for most professional athletes when we’re done is that we’re so regimented. Everything’s on a schedule, so you wake up and know you have something to do and I think the fact that I wake up and have something to do, it’s definitely helped my transition out of the sport – absolutely.
BC: Especially because you weren’t even viewed as an older player, but even athletes that are viewed as older players, they’re 35, 40 years old. They still have so much energy and passion, but it’s forced away, so you’re not at a point where you’re ready to just settle into retirement and do nothing.
RD: No, I would go crazy. I’m lucky to have an unbelievable wife and two great kids and obviously a lot of my time and energy goes into that, but there are only so many athletes like Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis that have the exact career you hope for. Win a championship, get into the hall-of-fame and go off into the sunset completely satisfied. That wasn’t how my NHL career ended, so I always felt there had to be something else I wanted to do and luckily for me I found this.
BC: You signed the 15-year contract, you’re one of the top players in the sport, a fan favorite, representing your country in the Olympics. You’re probably feeling invincible, that this is something that will last forever, but it ended quickly for you, and the way it ends with the fans turning on you while you’re trying to get healthy and get back makes it more difficult. But when you first got released, you made the suicide comments about driving off the Throgs Neck Bridge, and then you said you were kidding.
RD: Yea, it was a joke.
BC: It was completely a joke?
BC: You might not have been thinking about driving off a bridge, but was depression setting in at the end of your career?
RD: Oh yea, absolutely. You’re talking about me having my life planned out, a 15-year contract where if things go the right way after dealing with what we dealt with, being bad and having a high draft picks for a lot of years, eventually we’d get to the point during that 15-year deal where the team would be really good and potentially win the Stanley Cup. I’d be close to 40 at the end of the contract, so in my mind it was – go through the process, win the Stanley Cup, retire, have my number retired and then keep working for the organization. That’s how it would go. I wouldn’t be looking for a job, because I would’ve naturally progressed into being an Islander for life.
It went from the perfect plan, to being put on waivers, sent down, commuting from Long Island to Bridgeport every morning at 5am and yea it was tough. It was tough especially because in my mind, being a young guy, I felt like I could still do it, but to have my body betray me the way it did, it wasn’t easy to deal with. And you’re right, the fact is, 32, 33 years old – I mean what am I doing for the next 50 years of my life?
BC: Right, you’re not thinking about moving to Florida and retiring.
RD: Not at all. It’s a scary thought to just all of a sudden wake up one day and be like “Okay, that career is over. Now what?”.
BC: At what point did you come to the realization that hockey was no longer an option?
RD: In Charlotte. I was with my wife. That’s the hardest conversation to have, to finally admit it to yourself that you just can’t do it anymore. But we were in Charlotte, staying at an extended stay hotel and it was me, my wife, and my mother-in-law sharing a king size bed, trying to make this comeback. And if it wasn’t one thing, it was the hips, the knees and everything else, all of a sudden my ankle started blowing up, I was getting it drained before practice, it was just a mess.
My wife was at one of my games and she saw me limping up onto the ice trying to play and finally said ‘what are you doing?’ And I was still like what do you mean? She said, ‘you can’t even walk and you’re trying to play goalie’ and it was then that I said you’re right, I can’t play at the level that I want to play at. And that was it.
BC: How many concussions did you have?
RD: On record? I think eight.
BC: And you think you had more than that?
RD: Oh, yeah…yeah…definitely.
BC: Have you seen any long-term effects from that at all or is CTE a concern?
RD: Yea, it’s a concern. I don’t think I’m at that point yet, but I struggled a lot with post-concussions.
I knew I didn’t feel right, but it’s one of those things that you just try to battle through it. And again, thank God for my wife because she would say, ‘let me talk to the doctor, I’ll give them the updates because you won’t tell them the truth.’ It’s definitely a concern of mine, but nothing I can do for it now.
BC: Was there ever any animosity towards the fans at the end of your career?
RD: I was never upset with the fans because I understood it, but I don’t think people really understood the long-term deal. They just saw it was 15-years, but the whole point of the deal was sitting down with Charles Wang and trying to get around the salary cap. Throughout the 15-years, my contract would always be reasonable, so we went with a long-term deal to keep the annual number from ever being an albatross of a contract. We wanted to be able to build around my number.
We’ll get calls about Greg Bird and I’ll always argue with fans because it is the worst thing in the world for a professional athlete to be hurt. No professional athlete wants to be hurt.
Fans don’t understand how bad it is, the team makes it uncomfortable because you can’t be around your teammates. It becomes a job, it’s not fun and because I’ve dealt with so many injuries, it seemed like people thought I liked being hurt. I’m not addicted to surgery, playing games is a lot easier than rehabbing injuries. It wasn’t easy, but it was less about the fans and more about the fact that I don’t feel like I achieved what I set out to achieve. There’s still a lot of regret and it’s something that still bothers me every day to be completely honest.
BC: Do you ever find yourself falling back into what you categorized as a dark place?
RD: No. Having my wife and kids helps, although it is a little scary that my son wants to be a goalie – we’ll see how that turns out. It’s not easy to sit here and watch playoff hockey knowing that if I didn’t get hurt, I could still be playing. It’s not easy, but I guess that’s why radio has been a blessing. Having a job where I leave my house at 7am to talk about other sports for the day helps keep my mind off it.
BC: But you’re still able to root for the Islanders?
RD: Oh yea. I’ll always root for the Islanders. I couldn’t be happier for their success. That was the biggest thing that bothered me when I was an Islander. There was a separation from the great Islander teams of the 80’s and us. People don’t realize how passionate Islander fans are, but people are getting a chance to see that now.
BC: Did your experience playing and the way it ended affect the way you can talk about players on the radio?
RD: I feel like I’ve been through pretty much everything, so I know if there’s something that someone’s going through, I feel like I’ve been through it no matter what it is.
Obviously, except for – and that’s why we have Canty [Laughs] because I haven’t won a championship, so it’s tough for me to speak on that. But yea, I think I’ve been exposed to a lot and have personal first-hand experience dealing with everything that comes with being a high draft pick, having disappointment, being in the Olympics and anything that an athlete can go through, I’ve been through it.
BC: Have you ever talked to, or helped players with the transition of going from professional athlete into finding your next career? Because you mentioned being in a dark place and there’s no way you could go through everything you did and not deal with any sort of depression, a lot of athletes go through that and finding the second career isn’t easy.
RD: They always say athletes die twice. I actually had a good conversation with Steve Webb who was my first roommate with the Islanders and that’s something that he and the NHL are now really focusing on – life for hockey players or professional athletes in general after their careers are over. He’s working with the NHLPA, but I think all unions are trying to really step up and give these players opportunities once they’re done playing. But I was fortunate, not only for this job, but I met the perfect woman that really bought into me as a player and then moving forward it didn’t matter that I wasn’t in the NHL anymore and I think a lot of guys don’t have that, which makes the transition harder.
I try to tell the younger athletes to just take advantage of the time you’re playing because it doesn’t last forever. One day it’s going to be gone and you have to be selfish and really focus on taking advantage of your talents and getting the most out of them. That’s why what LeBron, KD and some of today’s stars have done with getting involved in other businesses away from sports is so smart because when you’re playing, all the doors are open and all of those relationships are available. Make sure you take care of those relationships while you’re playing because once you’re done, it’s a lot harder to get those doors to open.
BC: Does radio fulfill any sort of competitive void? Obviously you see the Kay and Francesa radio wars up close, but does radio help fulfill your competitive nature you had when you were an athlete?
RD: I’m always competitive in anything I do, but the one thing I miss most about playing in the NHL, is you always know how you did. There’s always a winner and a loser, there’s a scoreboard. In here, you may think you had one good show, a month or three months of good shows, but you just don’t know. You can kind of judge with social media and phone calls to get an idea if people like what you’re doing, but that’s what I miss the most. Every time I left the rink, I knew if I did my job or not.
BC: Do you pay attention to ratings? And it’s tough because as we were talking before, you guys are on a bit of an island. You’re sandwiched by national shows, whereas the midday show on FAN follows and precedes other local content.
RD: We pay attention to it. In this business, you have to pay attention to it because the point is to get a rating to sell your show and that’s the bottom line. I think we’ve done a good job of selling the show, but our ratings could definitely be better. That’s definitely something that we’re working on.
BC: Were you surprised a couple years ago when you got into a back and forth with Francesa over an Islanders take and calling him “fatso.”
RD: I was surprised Mike went back and forth because he’s pretty hell bent on not acknowledging anyone else’s show, but I just reacted to what I was told. I take offense to the fact that once the Islanders or Rangers are in the playoffs, that’s when everyone wants to talk about hockey, but when I want to talk about hockey, no one else does.
The playoffs roll around and all of a sudden everyone’s an expert. Someone either tweeted it to me or called Alan and I, but someone told us Mike was killing the Islanders because the coach wouldn’t go on his show when they were in the playoffs, but he never wanted the coach on before they were in the playoffs, so why should he have to go on Mike’s show now?! I was just standing up for the Islanders.
BC: It brought a lot of attention to the show, so is that type of back and forth something you enjoy and think is good for radio?
RD: Yea, I think the back and forth is interesting in radio. I love the Kay – Francesa stuff. I’d like to have more of that here where we go back and forth with shows about different things. The three hours we do here, the four hours that Kay does, it’s a show and we’ll do whatever we can to be as entertaining as possible, if that means having beef with a different show or station, I have no problem with that.
BC: You have a relationship with Boomer and Carton, were you surprised Craig went on with Kay after all the negative comments he made about them over the years?
RD: I wasn’t surprised. I know originally he wanted to go on WFAN, but I think Boomer made the right decision in understanding it would be uncomfortable for Gio to have Craigy come back, and then Francesa didn’t want to do it, but how could Kay pass that interview up?
I was interested. I listened and watched the entire thing. He’s talented, he’s an entertaining guy. I was much more shocked by the whole thing going down initially than I was about him going on The Kay Show.
BC: Are you still in touch with him?
RD: I am. I’ve talked to him a couple times. He’s getting through it…
BC: Do you listen back to old shows?
RD: Yea, that’s something I always used to do as a player, go back to look at the good and bad. I don’t know if it’s just my personality, but I never think I did a good job. Sometimes you have to listen back to hear if you really didn’t do a good job or if it’s better than you thought it was, but that’s all part of improving.
BC: How far back will you go? Do you go back years, or just listen back to today’s show?
RD: A little bit of both, but more recent shows. I don’t really like hearing my own voice on the radio. It makes me cringe a little bit, but I try to make sure I know how the show sounds, what works, what was good, what was bad. I want to make sure we’re growing, I never want to be stagnant.
BC: Is incorporating three voices a difficult dynamic? You started out with you and Alan, and Chris Canty was brought along slowly, right? He was only on with you guys on Fridays at first?
RD: Yea, Chris was joining us from Baltimore, but we also had Bill Daughtry on at that time. It’s definitely different having three people vs. two, but also hosting daytime compared to when we were on 7 – 10pm is so different. I could get away with so much more 7 – 10 than I can get away with now.
To stick to the clock, which we try to do, and then take calls and incorporate everything with everyone having an opinion, it’s not easy. Whether it’s me, Dave or Chris, sometimes you have to be willing to take a backseat.
BC: Right, you have an understanding that if you have a lesser take and stay back on one topic, you’ll still get your opportunity to be the dominant voice on something else.
RD: We all have strong opinions and we all watch everything, but we’ll still take some calls and answer questions and we’ll get to a topic where one of us hasn’t seen it so that person lays low for a bit, but it’s almost like a competition between the three of us as to who’s consumed the most from the night before.
We’ll be asked a question about a game that we’ve all seen, so we all have an opinion and now it comes down to who has the strongest opinion and which one of us will sit back a bit. It takes time, but I think we’re still getting better at it.
BC: Do you like radio better than TV?
BC: You did TV first?
RD: Yea, I did some pre and post stuff with the Islanders. I was even doing stuff on Cold Pizza way back. I’ll do SportsCenter, Get Up and those shows. I like it, but to take three hours and have a conversation on the radio, you can get in-depth with those conversations and it’s more fun.
BC: Did you do national radio at all?
RD: I have. I did some Sunday shows in the past, I’ve also filled in on the morning shows, Mike and Mike and Golic and Wingo.
BC: How was that compared to local radio?
RD: I honestly like all of it. There isn’t much I don’t like about radio. I like the interaction with co-hosts, I love when passionate fans call in, I love the disagreements. I love people that love sports and are passionate about sports and I’m just really happy to be on-air.
BC: You mentioned you could get away with more when you’re hosting 7 – 10pm and the goal is obviously to be part of a station’s weekday lineup like you are, but did you like it better when you were on at night?
RD: The demographic of the audience that we’re looking for, age-wise, is in mine and your wheelhouse. So what I think is funny and what I enjoy talking about, I think the people we’re targeting would also find funny. Trying to tiptoe that line without crossing it, because we are Disney and there are things I want to say, innuendoes that are funny, and trying to get those out while tiptoeing that line can be a challenge, but at night I could go off the rails and say some crazier things without getting in trouble.
BC: Did you ever say anything you did get in trouble for?
RD: Not really, but I’ve certainly been dumped quite a bit. [Laughs]
I don’t even have the record. Ron Hainsey, one of my good friends, plays for the Maple Leafs, filled in and did some shows with me over the summer. He has the record. We lost 21 seconds of radio, back to back to back dumps, he thought he had the best comment and little did he know we were dumping the whole thing.
BC: So what’s your goal in radio or the media? You’re on in the midday on ESPN New York, that’s a great gig, but you’re still young and I’m sure driven and competitive – what’s the next step?
RD: I obviously can’t control the time-slots or anything, so the only thing for us is to continue getting better and hopefully us getting better translates into better ratings. That, for us is the next step. We have to find a way to consistently be a top 10 show. It starts there for us and once we get to that point, we’ll continue to build.
For anyone that does this job, you have to make your show appointment listening. You have to have people at home watching a game and the first thing that comes to their mind is, ‘I can’t wait to hear what Canty, DiPietro and Rothenberg have to say about this tomorrow.’
Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.
Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?
How many times have you heard this sentence uttered at conferences or in one of the trades; radio has to do a better job of telling its story. Sounds reasonable enough right? After all, your brands and companies stand a better chance of being more consumed and invested in the more that others know about them.
But what specifically about your brand’s story matters to those listening or spending money on it? Which outlets are you supposed to share that news with to grow your listenership and advertising? And who is telling the story? Is it someone who works for your company and has a motive to advance a professional agenda, or someone who’s independent and may point out a few holes in your strategy, execution, and results?
As professionals working in the media business, we’re supposed to be experts in the field of communications. But are we? We’re good at relaying news when it makes us look good or highlights a competitor coming up short. How do we respond though when the story isn’t told the we want it to? Better yet, how many times do sports/news talk brands relay information that isn’t tied to quarterly ratings, revenue or a new contract being signed? We like to celebrate the numbers that matter to us and our teams, but we don’t spend much time thinking about if those numbers matter to the right groups – the audience and the advertisers.
Having covered the sports and news media business for the past seven years, and published nearly eighteen thousand pieces of content, you’d be stunned if you saw how many nuggets of information get sent to us from industry folks looking for publicity vs. having to chase people down for details or read things on social media or listen to or watch shows to promote relevant material. Spoiler alert, most of what we produce comes from digging. There are a handful of outlets and PR folks who are great, and five or six PD’s who do an excellent job consistently promoting news or cool things associated with their brands and people. Some talent are good too at sharing content or tips that our website may have an interest in.
Whether I give the green light to publish the material or not, I appreciate that folks look for ways to keep their brands and shows on everyone’s radar. Brand leaders and marketing directors should be battling daily in my opinion for recognition anywhere and everywhere it’s available. If nobody is talking about your brand then you have to give them a reason to.
I’m writing this column today because I just spent a day in New York City at the Disney Upfront, which was attended by a few thousand advertising professionals. Though I’d have preferred a greater focus on ESPN than what was offered, I understand that a company the size of Disney with so many rich content offerings is going to have to condense things or they’d literally need a full week of Upfronts to cover it all. They’re also trying to reach buyers and advertising professionals who have interests in more than just sports.
What stood out to me while I was in attendance was how much detail went into putting on a show to inform, entertain, and engage advertising professionals. Disney understands the value of telling its story to the right crowd, and they rolled out the heavy hitters for it. There was a strong mix of stars, executives, promotion of upcoming shows, breaking news about network deals, access to the people responsible for bringing advertising to life, and of course, free drinks. It was easy for everyone in the room to gain an understanding of the company’s culture, vision, success, and plans to capture more market share.
As I sat in my seat, I wondered ‘why doesn’t radio do this on a local level‘? I’m not talking about entertaining clients in a suite, having a business dinner for a small group of clients or inviting business owners and agency reps to the office for a rollout of forthcoming plans. I’m talking about creating an annual event that showcases the power of a cluster, the stars who are connected to the company’s various brands, unveiling new shows, promotions and deals, and using the event as a driver to attract more business.
Too often I see our industry rely on things that have worked in the past. We assume that if it worked before there’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the client. Sometimes that’s even true. Maybe the advertiser likes to keep things simple and communicate by phone, email or in-person lunch meetings. Maybe a creative powerpoint presentation is all you need to get them to say yes. If it’s working and you feel that’s the best way forward to close business, continue with that approach. There’s more than one way to reach the finish line.
But I believe that most people like being exposed to fresh ideas, and given a peak behind the curtain. The word ‘new’ excites people. Why do you think Apple introduces a new iPhone each year or two. We lose sight sometimes of how important our brands and people are to those not inside the walls of our offices. We forget that whether a client spends ten thousand or ten million dollars per year with our company, they still like to be entertained. When you allow business people to feel the excitement associated with your brand’s upcoming events, see the presentations on a screen, and hear from and interact with the stars involved in it, you make them feel more special. I think you stand a better chance of closing deals and building stronger relationships that way.
Given that many local clusters have relationships with hotels, theaters, teams, restaurants, etc. there’s no reason you can’t find a central location, and put together an advertiser appreciation day that makes partners feel valued. You don’t have to rent out Pier 36 like Disney or secure the field at a baseball stadium to make a strong impression. We show listeners they’re valued regularly by giving away tickets, cash, fan appreciation parties, etc. and guess what, it works! Yes there are expenses involved putting on events, and no manager wants to hear about spending money without feeling confident they’ll generate a return on investment. That said, taking calculated risks is essential to growing a business. Every day that goes by where you operate with a ‘relying on the past’ mindset, and refuse to invest in growth opportunities, is one that leaves open the door for others to make sure your future is less promising.
There are likely a few examples of groups doing a smaller scaled version of what I’m suggesting. If you’re doing this already, I’d love to hear about it. Hit me up through email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com. By and large though, I don’t see a lot of must-see, must-discuss events like this created that lead to a surplus of press, increased relationships, and most importantly, increased sales. Yet it can be done. Judging from some of the feedback I received yesterday talking to people in the room, it makes an impression, and it matters.
I don’t claim to know how many ad agency executives and buyers returned to the office from the Disney Upfront and reached out to sign new advertising deals with the company. What I am confident in is that Disney wouldn’t invest resources in creating this event nor would other national groups like NBC, FOX, CBS, WarnerMedia, etc. if they didn’t feel it was beneficial to their business. Rather than relying on ratings and revenue stories that serve our own interests, maybe we’d help ourselves more by allowing our partners and potential clients to experience what makes our brands special. It works with our listeners, and can work with advertisers too.
Brandon Kiley Doesn’t Pretend To Be Someone He’s Not
“There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it.”
There must have been something about Brandon Kiley that everyone saw as a young aspiring sports radio host. Nick Wright saw enough to bring him to Houston at SportsRadio 610 as an intern for a summer. Will Palaszczuk saw enough to urge him to apply for his old job in Columbia, MO at KTGR. Ben Heisler saw enough to know he’d fit perfectly with Carrington Harrison in afternoon drive at 610 Sports in Kansas City.
Maybe you can chalk it up to Kiley being able to make such great contacts. Or maybe it’s just that he was supremely talented at a young age. Odds are it’s a combination of both. But he was destined to be a sports talk host somewhere, it just turns out he’s having success over the air in a city he never imagined he’d work in.
A Kansas City kid, Kiley knew at 16 years old he wanted to be a sports radio host. He was even more sure of it when he started doing college radio at Mizzou. But it was in Houston where he got his real taste of what sports radio was like.
“I went to 610 in Houston for the morning show with Nick Wright,” Kiley said. “He basically just assigned me as an extra producer. We had known about each other through Twitter and I had a little bit of a relationship with him beforehand. I think he knew I was willing and able to take on more tasks than a typical intern would usually do. Essentially, I became an extra guest booker, cut audio for them, and came up with topics at night. It was like he had an extra producer for the summer and it was my first real experience doing something like that.”
Imagine the confidence he left Houston with as he traveled back to Columbia for another year of college at Mizzou. Few, if any, on campus could have claimed the kind of summer Kiley just had. He parlayed that experience into a once-a-week show at KCOU, the student radio station. The following semester, he pitched the idea of doing a daily show
“I told them I’d take any time slot available,” Kiley said. “The one that I got was the very glamorous 6-7 am time slot. There weren’t a whole lot of college kids that wanted to wake up that early every morning. I ended up having a rotating cast of co-hosts and it ended up being super valuable because I learned how to work with a lot of types of personalities.”
He excelled as a host and found his style behind the mic, and soon after, he got his first big break. In March of 2014, Will Palaszczuk contacted Kiley and told him he was taking another radio job outside the market. The two knew of each other, seeing as both were in Columbia and covering the same games in town. Palacsuk told Kiley he needed to apply for the spot he was leaving at KTGR.
“There was literally one sports station and one sports show in town and it was that one,” Kiley said. “I applied to him the previous semester and said, hey man, if you guys have anything available I would love to come work there. It just so happened he got a job elsewhere and he called me up and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t know what your plans are, I’m about to take another job and they’re going to post my job available. I don’t know if they’re going to make it a producer or co-host gig, but I think you should apply because I think you’d be good at it’. Will’s good work helped a ton in terms of me landing the gig. I graduated and told them I wanted to make it full-time.I was essentially a producer and co-host for the afternoon show. I never even applied anywhere outside of Columbia”
For two years, Kiley stayed at KTGR and covered the Missouri Tigers. He was fresh out of college and living in a college town doing what he loved in his early 20’s. It wasn’t a bad life. But one night in Columbia changed his entire professional career. It just so happened it occurred on the rooftop at Harpo’s, one of the most well-known establishments in town.
“My roommate at the time, we both worked at the radio station in Columbia,” said Kiley. “He worked at the hit music station and I worked at the sports station. We all went out one night at Harpo’s and he said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you guys know I’m getting out of radio and moving to Kansas City.’ I was like, oh shit, what am I going to do? Our lease was up in two months, so the timing worked out well and I was looking at Barrett Sports Media looking where I could go next.”
“My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was from St. Louis and there was a job available there. I had always thought, that’s not a place I want to live, why would I ever want to live in St. Louis? They didn’t have a football team, it just didn’t seem like a great fit for me. But my buddy tells me he’s moving and I’m like, St, Louis it is! That night I ended up applying for the job and got a call back from Chris “Hoss” Neupert, who at the time was the PD here, and asked if I would be interviewed with him and Kevin Wheeler, whose show I would be producing.”
So off to St. Louis he goes. For three and a half years, Kiley embraces his new city and tries to work his way up at 101 ESPN.
But the Kansas City kid felt a pull back to his hometown. Oddly enough, Ben Heisler even reached out to tell him he was leaving the station to pursue another opportunity in sports. It felt like the perfect time to pursue his dream of doing sports radio at the station he grew up listening to.
“I’m from Kansas City and grew up listening to 610 Sports Radio,” Kiley said. “A guy I listened to growing up was Nick Wright. I also listened to a bunch of Carrington Harrison, Danny Parkins and Ben Heisler. Those guys had what I consider one of the best shows in Kansas City sports radio history. I got to know them through Twitter and Heisler sent me a text. He knows I’ve always been interested in moving to KC. He tells me he’s about to get out of radio and into more fantasy football stuff and his job is going to come open.
“I had applied for multiple other jobs in KC over the years and had never gotten any real consideration. When Heisler left, I knew Carrington and thought this might work out. I ended up getting in contact with their PD Steven Spector and it felt like a real opportunity. I got what I considered to be my dream job, producing in the afternoons and hosting a Saturday show at 610 Sports. I thought, what could there be more in life than this? This is the best.”
But life happened and he had to make a decision around three months after moving to Kansas City.
“2-3 months later it became clear, it was going to be difficult for my girlfriend, now wife, to move to Kansas City with all of the family ties she had in St. Louis,” said Kiley. “It was the decision of, do you stay in Kansas City and chase the dream or do we alter the dream, in terms of the job, and see if there’s anything in St. Louis?”
He never thought his best years and most successful years as a sports radio host would come in St. Louis but they have. It’s a city he loves and he’s worked hard in hopes it will love him back. But he’s also not going to pretend to be someone he’s not. Though it can sometimes be hard for St Louisans to accept someone that’s not from there, Kiley doesn’t act like he attended World Series games in 1982, listened to Jack Buck growing up or watched Kurt Warner at the Edward Jones Dome. He’s himself.
“That wasn’t my love and I can’t pretend that it was,” said Kiley. “Have there been times, especially early on where that was a potential issue for me? Yeah it was. There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it. It does in a lot of ways remind me of Kansas City, where if you take the time to know what the soul of the city really is, in terms of sports, I think people can appreciate and respect it.”
Kiley doesn’t hold on to his Kansas City roots on the air, in terms of the topics he talks about. He’s a Chiefs fan and even writes for Arrowhead Pride, but he’s not going to talk a lot about the Chiefs in a city that doesn’t have an NFL team. He’s also a Mizzou grad and talks about the teams on Rock M Nation, but again, he’s rarely, if ever, going to do several segments a day on the Tigers. Instead, he knows the audience wants to hear about the Cardinals. Blues talk is clearly next in line. Everything else falls down the order if not off of it completely.
Kiley grew up watching baseball, so he can easily break down what issues the Cards’ offense may be having in the middle of May, but hockey was different. He didn’t grow up around the game and the transition to having in-depth conversations on the Blues was a more difficult task.
“When I came here the first time it was during the middle of a Blues’ playoff run. At that time I was just plopped into this thing, and I didn’t know shit about hockey. I had probably watched about 10 hockey games in my entire life. I’m looking at Kevin Wheeler like, I’ve got to be honest I don’t have a lot on hockey I’m going to be able to help you with. If you could help bring me along with it, that would be great. Over the years I’ve been able to take it in. I used to host a show with Jamie Rivers, who’s a former Blues player. If you told me five years ago I’d be able to do that, much less enjoy doing that, I would have said you’re out of your damn mind.”
Whereas most sports radio shows in football markets are searching for content to help fill segments, this is one of the sweetest times of the year for Kiley and everyone at 101 ESPN. The Blues are deep in the playoffs and the Major League Baseball season is underway. His show BK and Ferrario covers it all every weekday from 11 am – 2 pm.
Kiley never thought this would be his life, but he loves what he’s built in St.Louis and doesn’t give off the vibe he’s looking to leave anytime soon. He’s a great example of someone who didn’t pigeonhole himself into just one market. He was willing to look outside of his hometown and has found true success.
Will Middlebrooks Has Been The Breakout Star Of The Red Sox Season
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?”
The Boston Red Sox experience in 2022 is just different. In every way.
The team has struggled out of the gate. They certainly aren’t the team that was two wins away from the World Series last year.
Fenway Park doesn’t even accept cash anymore.
But it’s not just that the Red Sox are different on the field or at the ballpark – they are different on television too.
When loveable, longtime Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy died in October 2021 at the age of 68, we knew that consuming the Red Sox on TV would never be the same.
There is no replacing Jerry Remy. One person can’t do it. No way.
And the fans know it.
The bosses at the NESN know it too. They haven’t tried to replace Remy on the broadcasts with just one person.
In fact, they’ve brought in several new people to the broadcast team. A group of people just rotating in, giving viewers a different experience and a different perspective every night.
They’ve added former Red Sox players Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar to the broadcast booth roster. They’ve added Tony Massarotti of 98.5 The Sports Hub as well.
And in the pre- and post-game studio, they’ve taken a similar approach, which is an extension of previous years, mixing and matching host Tom Caron with a slew of former Red Sox players including Jim Rice, Tim Wakefield, Ellis Burks, Lenny DiNardo, and former Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks, who will be in the studio for about 40 games this season.
I think that NESN has found a formula that works. It’s been fun and informative – and different. In a year that serves as a constant reminder of what’s been lost as a viewer, it’s refreshing to realize that these broadcast teams are giving you something gained.
A star is born.
When I mentioned to Caron that I wanted to write a piece on Middlebrooks, he said: “He’s a rising star.”
And it’s easy to see why he feels that way.
Will Middlebrooks is young (33), accessible, opinionated, active on social media, and he has the playing resume to legitimize his point of view.
But it took some real coaxing to get into the business in the first place. After a devastating leg injury ended his playing career in 2019, Middlebrooks was unhappy.
“I sat around and sulked and was angry about it for about three months,” he said. “And my wife, Jenny (Dell), finally said, ‘You need to get off your butt and do something, find not just, work, but find something you’re passionate about again.’”
He didn’t know at that time that he was passionate about media work, but Dell, who works for CBS Sports, volunteered him to do a show at CBS Sports HQ in Ft. Lauderdale, near where their family resides.
“She said, like it or not, you have a show in three days. You’re going to try it out, and if you’re good at it, they’re going to hire you,” he recounts of their conversation. “I was like, I don’t want to do it. I’m not ready to talk about baseball. I hate baseball right now. I just have such a bad taste in my mouth from everything that happened over the past year.”
But that didn’t deter Dell from pushing her husband to take the chance.
“She said, well, I don’t care. I already told them that said you would do it,” he says. “So she kind of threw me to the wolves, but for the best. And I went in and I gritted my teeth and just got it done and then talked baseball. I did it a couple of more times and they said, ‘Hey, you’re decent at this. We’re going to hire you on for a year!” “And here we are, I’m four years into it,” he joked.
And over those four years, Middlebrooks has ballooned into one of the most recognizable follows for baseball fans. In addition to working at NESN and CBS Sports, he’s also one-half of the Wake and Rake podcast, has appeared on ESPN Radio, has done color commentary for college baseball, and has more than 155,000 Twitter followers.
Resonating with Boston
When I ask Middlebrooks about landing the NESN gig for 2022, he beams through the phone. He says he wanted the challenge of working in Boston and he welcomed the opportunity to expand his media footprint.
It’s evident that he loves the Red Sox – and the city of Boston. How couldn’t he? He made his Major League debut with the organization, played parts of three seasons with the team, won a World Series with the Sox, and met his wife in the city.
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?” he said.
While it’s clear that Will loves Boston, and it’s clear why NESN loves him, what needs more unpacking is the attachment that the Red Sox fans have to him considering he spent just those three seasons there and doesn’t live in New England full-time.
Middlebrooks can’t quite figure out why the people of the region hold him so close, but he does have a good hypothesis.
“I think that if I left anything, it was people saying, ‘well, he played hard. He gave everything he had,’ he said. “And I know that’s really important in Boston, just the blue-collar mentality of ‘keep your head down, work, play as hard as you can, even if things aren’t going well, just bust your butt and be a good teammate and all that.’”
But there just may be something else at play.
“I think a lot maybe had to do with when the marathon bombings (2013) happened…I’m pretty outspoken on social media about that stuff and with my teammates, we all rallied around each other,” he said. “I think I was just lucky enough to be a part of a team that was really special to everybody in Boston. So they embraced me after that.”
The Family Dynamic
Dell has been in sports media for more than a decade as a host and sideline reporter for CBS and NESN before that. She knows the business and its nuances. She understands when and how to look at the camera and when and how to ask questions of athletes. She knows the expectations of her husband’s current employers. She’s undoubtedly a great resource to have.
But as Middlebrooks finds his own footing in the business, and as his star grows, what is that dynamic like? She has the answers to the tests already, but how does he balance using that resource versus figuring things out on his own?
“I’m very open to anything she has to say,” he said. “I’ll come out of my office, like, ‘Hey, that was pretty good!’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it was good…but…”
“She always has something, and at first it used to really annoy me, because I’m like, man, I thought I was doing really good,” he said. “And she’s like, ‘No, you are doing good. I’m just trying to help you get to that next level. There are just little things here and there that you don’t know.’ And as a competitor, it’s really frustrating. But you know, after a couple of minutes I walk away, I’m like, you know what? I’m really appreciative to have that access to someone that can help.”
At such a young age with such already vast experiences, it seems plausible that even bigger media steps could be in play for the former infielder. I asked him if he has a goal he’s working towards. Sunday Night Baseball? The MLB Network? Something else?
“One thing I’ve really learned is to not look too far down the road and kind of just live in the moment and enjoy the moment,” he said. “I’m really happy with being with with CBS and with NESN, and within that umbrella, of course, I would like to grow. Does that mean in the booth? Does that mean more games pre and post? Sure I’m up for anything where they want me, because what I’m doing right now, I feel like is a dream job outside of playing and I’m so happy with it.”
Middlebrooks has been on the NESN broadcasts all week and will continue through this weekend as the Red Sox host the Mariners in a four-game series.