If FALCon and the relationship Morning Men has with its listeners can be summed up in 3,000 words, this would be it.
Every weekday, from 6 – 10am ET on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio, Evan Cohen and Mike Babchik provide listeners with a sports talk radio show growing in popularity and an entertainment value that goes beyond sports. Morning Men is nothing like the show Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo creates in the afternoon, it’s probably nothing like a show Russo would have picked to listen to.
When Steve Phillips left the channel’s morning show for MLB Radio five years ago, the decision could have been made to fill the void with someone who can continue the classic sports talk model. Instead, producer, Mike Babchik went from being a third voice and sidekick, to the star of the show.
While many incumbent radio hosts wouldn’t be comfortable allowing a drastic change to the scope of their show, Evan Cohen became part of the transition and let Morning Men take on a life of its own. In doing so, the show also took on the personality of Babchik, even drawing out a side of Evan he didn’t know he had.
That’s what Morning Men is. It uses sports talk as an avenue for people to be open, to share vulnerabilities and laugh at the things maybe you’re not supposed to laugh at. The show will test limits, even during their live broadcast. Playing beer pong in a speedo, the “Babkini” and a beer chugging contest all while “Larry Long Balls” and “The Sheriff” are in town, isn’t something most radio stations push in the year 2019.
The fans and listeners embrace everything about Morning Men in a way that few national shows achieve. If you’re a first time listener, you want to learn the inside lingo and what it means to be a “FAL.” If you’re a longtime listener, you want to hear every minute so you don’t miss out on something that could be discussed at FALCon 5 next year.
So much emphasis in radio is put on ratings, subscribers and streaming numbers, but maybe witnessing a raucously supportive crowd travel the country to attend a party should also be considered a measurement of success.
FALCon 4 was my first Morning Men event, but it wasn’t my first time watching a radio show conduct a remote broadcast. My expectations were that of watching a normal two-hour live broadcast, but FALCon is less about seeing the show and more about the fans and listeners celebrating being part of the show.
At the end of their two-hour broadcast during FALCon, I was able to speak to Evan, Babchik and Steve Torre about the event. First up was Mad Dog Radio’s longest tenured morning host, Evan Cohen.
BC: It’s really amazing that you have this feeling that surrounds a national show, that you’ve built this community that wants to get together, travels to get here. Everyone knows the inside jokes and they gather to talk about it and create friendships over it.
Evan Cohen: Yeah and we appreciate it. Give credit to our bosses, Steve Cohen and Steve Torre for allowing us to do this because we knew we couldn’t be the regular sports show and really stand out. We had to be different and our way of being different is trying to be even more inclusive of the fans and making them the show. One of the sales people from Sirius came to this last year and said it feels like you’ve done national, local and I thought that was a great way of putting it.
BC: You were on this show doing more traditional sports talk when it was you and Steve Phillips. How has the transition been in getting to where the show is now?
Evan Cohen: This show is all of our shows, but it reflects Babchik’s personality more than anything and maybe a side of mine and Andrew’s personality that we didn’t know we had until Babchik brought it out of us.
BC: Was there any concern about Bachik going from producer to full-time co-host, knowing how different he was going to make the show?
Evan Cohen: No, this is what we wanted because he’s the kind of guy that will say and do anything that others won’t, but also will say the things you’re thinking and he actually says them out loud and it’s not a shtick, it’s who he really is. The internal support is amazing, the fact that everyone from SiriusXM is here is great.
BC: Having management here to play beer pong with Babchik and watch him dancing around in a speedo is definitely a different kind of support.
Evan Cohen: It’s something I didn’t initially expect, but winning over our own team was so important and understanding that this is different from what a national sports show is supposed to be, but that’s what we needed it to be. The best part about this, if I’m going to say one single thing about this event, is all of the people you just saw, come here to see each other. This show has created a family for our listeners to be together with each other which is a wonderful thing for us.
BC: Does this event fire you up and motivate you when you see the turnout and feel this energy?
Evan Cohen: It’s unbelievable, honestly. Every year I can confidently say we have more people and I think that will continue next year. Hopefully they give us another one, but we will have more people again. I also give Dog a lot of credit for this because we’ve discussed it and he doesn’t want to come here and steal our thunder. But we’ve been saying, number five he has to come. Our fans, FALs and us, we’ve made it and now we can bring him into it.
BC: How about the support the show gets from Chris Russo specifically? There’s a lot of back and forth between the shows – you guys make fun of him a lot – it’s something maybe not every super star radio host would be okay with.
Evan Cohen: Amazing. This morning, he calls me to wish me luck, sends me motivational texts and then records all the ins and outs for the show. We want him to be a part of our show. The biggest thing that ever happened to us was him realizing he actually enjoys us making fun of him. His wife, who is wonderful, she loves it too and she’s even given us material for it, but that’s just the kind of guy he is.
BC: Did Russo’s motivational texts inspire you to want to talk about baseball for two hours today?
Evan Cohen: No, they made me want to read them on-air and make fun of him, [Laughs] because that’s what he would want, but it means something when you have this person that I grew up idolizing and still do, cares as much as he does.
BC: And he cares about this show and event which is so far and away different from anything he’s done, but he recognizes it’s working and creating its own following and sees that as something beneficial to the channel.
Evan Cohen: Absolutely, and that’s important for us because without his support, I don’t know that we could do this. It’s also Steve Torre, Steve Cohen, Danny Kanell, the support is amazing and everyone in this room is friends with each other now, which is crazy because how could they even know each other? This show brings people together and they’re friends for life. It’s amazing.
It wasn’t hard for me to spot Babchik in the middle of the room, standing on a table, donning a speedo still 30 minutes after the show ended, but getting him away from the crowd to ask him a few questions was the more difficult task.
BC: You’re obviously a shy person, were you nervous in front of everyone today?
Mike Babchik: No, you get this strange calmness that takes over you. [Laughs] Maybe it’s being in a room full of people that love you. When you have all these people that fly in and love the show, they love Evan and Babs, you feel like you can do anything. I don’t know if I would get naked and wear a speedo in front of people that weren’t fans.
BC: You lost the beer chugging contest to Kanell today, but you did beat Joey Chestnut in a matzah eating contest not too long ago, which was more important to you?
Mike Babchik: The win! Forget the loss! I drank too much last night so it tainted this beer chugging thing, but Joey Chestnut legitimately lost to me. Without a doubt, I won. I crushed him! I picked the right thing and ate more matzah than he could. It’s one of the greatest achievements of my life.
BC: How awesome is it to have this crowd, as a national show to bring all these people together from all over the country into this bar and have them as fired up to be part of the show and talk about the show as they are?
Mike Babchik: That’s what it’s all about. It really is a community of fans and listeners, it’s more about their friendships. They want to get together and they do it through this show. Now people have friends all over the country, it’s crazy to think that someone from New York can now have a friend in Wyoming, but because of this show we’re able to bring a lot of people together.
BC: There are people that actually met here today for the first time, but they share inside jokes and their favorite segments and that’s the beauty of radio, that it can bring people together like this and fans become not only a consumer of the show, but they’re actually part of the show.
Mike Babchik: It’s incredible, the show just took over. It was organic and people felt comfortable enough with their own vulnerabilities to make it work. They get together and communicate with each other through the show and on social media and to have an event so they can all meet is just a great thing.
BC: You started out as a producer on a normal sports talk show, now, not only are you the co-host, but the show has taken on your personality and transitioned from a traditional sports talk show to what it is now.
Mike Babchik: The evolution is amazing. I got lucky, but give so much credit to Steve Cohen, to Steve Torre and to Evan who really had a vision for this. It’s a different type of show. Not a lot of people thought it would take off, but the bosses had faith, Evan had faith. That’s what it’s all about and here we are a couple years later, filling places up in New York City.
Lastly, the program director, midday host and Mad Dog Radio originator, Steve Torre gave a few thoughts on the channel’s morning show and FALCon 4
BC: For a national show to have this type of turnout at an event like this on a random Saturday, people have traveled from all over the country – Syracuse, Maryland, Texas, California even Canada – fans are flying in to turn this two hour broadcast into a vacation, it’s unprecedented.
Steve Torre: I’m 55 years old, I’ve been in radio for a long time, NY radio for 20 years and I attended various events for the station and the parent company and we would have big numbers, people would have a connection to the talent – but it’s mind-boggling to me that we have the amount of people that we do here, traveling on their own dime and flying in from various parts of the country.
I was talking to someone who flew in from Wyoming and took two flights to get here and it kind of hits home that we have that type of connection with the audience. That they’re putting in that much time and effort to get here for a two hour event – it blows my mind, but it’s a sense of satisfaction that we’ve achieved something that’s rare, where it’s a national show, but it has a local feel.
BC: Three hundred people at a bar in New York isn’t that crazy, but no one is here by accident, every single person here knows the inside jokes and can share their favorite segments with the person next to them and that’s what Stern was so great at building with a national show. Building a community of listeners that couldn’t afford to miss a show because they didn’t want to lose out on an inside joke. And if they didn’t know about something, it’s even more important to listen so they can figure out what they’re not in on.
Steve Torre: Sometimes from a national perspective for programming, if you’re listening to the show for the first time and you’re not really aware of the inside jokes, you’re wondering how you can draw in another audience.
If somebody is listening for the first time at 7:30 on a Thursday morning and they’re wondering, ‘what’s a FAL?’ you’re hoping through the strength of the content that they’ll stick around to learn. They’ve developed ‘Morning Men tell a friend’ which has grown the audience, but you worry that there are too many inside things for a new audience. But with the numbers today and the connections you see they have with people, it makes you realize that’s not the case because this event keeps growing.
BC: How about Babchik stepping in a few years ago from being the producer, and give Evan credit, because the show is totally different from when he started, but he allowed it to take on the personality of Babchik.
Steve Torre: When Chris Russo and I first started developing this channel, we had a blueprint of what works for talk radio and not that it was horrendous, but we had to make mistakes to really figure out what works. With this show particularly, it took us a longer time to find our groove and establish ourselves. When you’re doing something nationally, where your parent company already has ESPN, Fox Sports and several sports entities, you want to do something different to catch the listeners ear, and Evan had the wherewithal to understand how important Mike’s contribution was.
Just talking to Mike off the air, I could tell he had an ear for what was relatable to people. He’s the everyday guy and he follows sports, but why does he need to be an expert? He’s like your buddy you’re talking to at the bar or on the phone. We realized Mike’s just a regular guy, he might not be an expert X’s and O’s wise, but he knows sports and can relate to people.
BC: It’s more about entertainment than knowing baseball analytics.
Steve Torre: Entertainment, personality and there is room for X’s and O’s and following an important story. Not to bring anything negative into this, but we served a purpose during the Jerry Sandusky scandal and we were able to have some levity. I would describe this show as entertaining and being relatable to people. You can see the connection these people have with the show and it’s satisfying to see the type of impact it’s made.
BC: How about Russo supporting the show and his willingness to allow Mike and Evan to make fun of him as much as they do, but still seeing it as a benefit for the show and station?
Steve Torre: It’s a great point and it speaks to him about how comfortable he is that he can just sit back and take a beating because he does. Probably 50, 60 percent of what they play back for entertainment value is a result of what we call ‘Dog-isms’ – some of his faux pas, mispronunciations and botching of the English language. They’re exposing him and making him look like what some people would perceive as a complete fool, but he embraces it because he knows he’s Doggie.
He’s reached a certain status. I don’t know if he would’ve done this 20 years ago, but trust me when I tell you, on and off the air, he supports them. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t know that. They know he supports what they do and it makes them comfortable that he’s not going to get defensive or be offended. There are times that they come to me with a bit and ask if I think Russo’s going to be okay with it. We’ll run it by him and every time he says, ‘of course, what are you kidding?’ That’s a very important part of it.
BC: And it’s great to have that cross-promotion between shows on the channel.
Steve Torre: I’ve been trying to go around and talk to a lot of people here to show appreciation and most of them tell me what they love so much is the fact that we have a great connection and the shows all crossover. My partner Danny Kanell is here today, Dog isn’t here, but it’s because he doesn’t want to take away from their day. Even though Mike and Evan are immensely popular and people are here for them, if Dog walks in, it steers some attention away and he genuinely doesn’t want to do that to them.
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.