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How 101 ESPN Created a Decade of Dominance

“There was some thought in the past that someone would step up and try to take the station on. I think that speaks to the power of this brand.”

Demetri Ravanos

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There aren’t a lot of stations quite like 101 ESPN. From the on air product to the station’s digital offerings, to management’s willingness to embrace emerging trends like covering gambling and hosting eSports events, Hubbard Broadcasting has never been afraid to let its St. Louis sports talker innovate. Listeners are on board too.

The reason for that is probably best explained in a simple sentence from mid day host Anthony Stalter. “St. Louis is a sports city through and through.”

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101 ESPN is a station anchored in both the morning and afternoon by a definitive local sports voice. The station’s PD is a lifelong resident of the city. It’s strange that the best explanation for 101’s success comes from a guy that hasn’t lived his whole life in St. Louis, but then again, Stalter’s explanation is dead on, because it isn’t overthought. In a town full of sports fans, the sports radio brand that has been dominant is the one giving listeners the most local sports conversations surrounded by the least bullshit.

“Nobody was doing it on FM with a big signal,” Hubbard St. Louis’ VP and Market Manager John Kijowski told me when I asked why he thought there was an opening to launch the station ten years ago. The city had two sports stations, both on smaller AM signals, and according to Kijowski, neither of them catered to the city’s hardcore sports fans.

“They were doing a lot of – how do I clean this up? ’T&A’? Guy humor? And then some serious sports talk. I just didn’t think it had to be that way. I thought it can be fun and entertaining. Certainly there are parts that should make you mad and make you laugh. Sports is all about emotion, right? I felt like what I was hearing over there was more T&A and political than good sports talk.”

Bonneville, who owned the cluster at the time, had a struggling Rhythmic AC station on the 101.1 frequency. That is where Kijowski was going to put his new sports station.

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“When Bonneville decided to go down that path, they thought that from a company standpoint, they had a stronger ability to sustain some of the early battles if it took some time to get the thing going,” Jason Barrett told me. Before he was the president of Barrett Sports Media, Jason was the program director that launched 101 ESPN.

Barrett had been unemployed for nearly six months when Kijowski reached out to him. Prior to that he had programmed another sports station in town, 590 The Fan. The environment at 590 according to Barrett wasn’t great due in part to financial pressures facing the station.

“The two years of market turmoil at 590 wasn’t exactly what everybody wanted,” said Barrett. “The ownership group had big plans and a successful model in Atlanta but it just didn’t translate the same in St. Louis.”

It made Kijowski’s choice of a guy that had been trashed in local papers and blamed for the station’s failures as his very first sports PD curious to say the least. Barrett says if you were sitting in the room for his and Kijowski’s first meeting, it wouldn’t seem so strange that they ended up working together.

“Having some market experience helped,” Barrett told me. “I had learned firsthand what not to do at 590 and gained a few relationships in the process. Then, on top of it, John and I, the first time we met we just clicked. Our philosophies on radio and vision for the brand was an instant match. I think he liked that I had something to prove and my arrival would create some instant chatter. That just drove me more to make sure I rewarded his faith in me. To this day he’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.”

To make the station a serious ratings contender Barrett felt a major play-by-play partner (which 101 ESPN landed when it acquired the St. Louis Rams broadcasts prior to launch) was important. So too was adding regular contributors that could break news about the local teams. To help set the tone he hired the city’s top three newsmakers, Joe Strauss, Jim Thomas and Derrick Goold from The St. Louis Post Dispatch and added Brian Stull and Brian Feldman as station reporters.

The key to success though would come from featuring live and local programming throughout most of the day. The long-term goal was to be local M-F 6a-7p but Barrett knew 101 ESPN would have to carry at least one show from ESPN Radio at launch. He planned on it being The Herd with Collin Cowherd, but that wasn’t the national show that ended up on air.

“It’s about two months to launch and we were in a big meeting,” Barrett says. “Keep in mind I had just been out of work for six months after a rough two-year run. If there were things that they wanted to do, I was willing to go along with it because I didn’t feel I had earned the right yet to influence any key decisions. I was just happy to have a chance to build the brand.”

Kijowski was passionate about launching with a local morning show. Barrett made plans to put Cowherd in the middle of 101 ESPN’s lineup, and that was what was pitched to Bonneville executives during a fall meeting. But Greg Solk, who was the company’s Senior VP of Programming and Operations at the time, called Barrett’s bluff.

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“He said ‘so that’s the plan, right?’ and I said ‘Yeah, local in the morning with Cowherd in the mid days,'” Barrett told me. “‘And you believe in that plan?’ he asked. I said I did, but he saw it on my face and said ‘I don’t think you believe that.’ I was uncomfortable for a moment but so glad he said that because it gave me the confidence to turn to John and say ‘He’s right. It should be Mike & Mike in the morning and then we start with local at 10am. I loved Colin’s show but Greeny and Golic just fit the market better.”

That was how the initial lineup was built. Mike and Mike wound up producing good results for the station until August 2015 when Bernie Miklasz announced he was leaving the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to take over 101 ESPN’s morning show. Since then 101 has featured local hosts on the air from 7 am to 7 pm.

“They trusted us and we’ve served them well with our output. If we were going to make this move it was going to strengthen what we had,” program director Hoss Neupert said of ESPN.

Neupert never had second thoughts about the move. St. Louis is a town that loves sports, but its devotion is to the local teams.

“During football season Mike & Mike did really well because they talked a lot about the NFL, but sometimes a big baseball game would be missed or there was no talk about a Blues game that ended in controversy,” he told me. “Mike & Mike may have mentioned that or Golic & Wingo may mention it, but St. Louis sports fans now know it will be there.”

Miklasz had a previous relationship with the station. He joined the station a few months after it launched, hosting a mid day show, and was at the station until 2014. When he agreed to return in 2015, it was in part because he saw 101 ESPN as a multi-platform brand where he could write, broadcast, and do a podcast under the same umbrella.

“I always wondered in my mind wondered what it would be like if I went all in on radio,” Bernie told me. “I never had the guts to take the plunge, because all over I see radio stations changing formats and people coming and going.”

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For Miklasz, it came down to the people he would be working with and for that made him comfortable enough to commit to leaving the newspaper and making radio his primary focus.

“Kijowski had the vision. I appreciated and respected Jason Barrett’s aggressive attitude and desire to always go for it. Then, Hoss Neupert had that same type of attitude. It just got to the point where it was like I like these people. I respect them and what they’ve done.

“Look, I wanted to be a part of this team, so it was time for me to take this leap. It’s like any other job. There are good days and bad, but I took the jump and haven’t looked back once.”

Michelle Smallmon produced Bernie Miklasz’s show when she was at 101 ESPN the first time around. After that she left for Bristol to work on ESPN Radio’s Jorge and Jen and the Ryen Russillo Show. She returned to St. Louis in January of 2018 to become Bernie’s co-host on the morning show.

“The primary difference now is that I am talking on the air for three hours, and not sitting in a producers booth monitoring the show!” Smallmon told me in an email. Still, she says she approaches each show with that same producer’s mindset.

“As I approach each show and topic, I still look at it from a producer’s perspective. What’s the story? What are the secondary angles? Why does this matter to our audience? How can we find an informative and entertaining way to discuss the story? I had to shift from worrying about booking guests and finding sound to compliment a topic, to developing my opinion, anticipating Bernie’s take on it, and thinking about how we want to structure our conversations.”

Does the switch to a local morning show mean 101 ESPN listeners will never hear Bernie and Michelle talking about the kind of national topics covered on Mike & Mike or now Golic & Wingo?

“It depends on the time of year,” Miklasz says noting that the day we spoke the St. Louis Blues were still in the NHL’s Western Conference Finals. He calls the Cardinals “absolutely a foundation” of his shows in the Summer.

There is one area where Miklasz treads lightly and still hasn’t figured out a definitive strategy for national sports talk. “Sometimes I wonder whether people, because there was so much animosity about the way the Rams left and the way the league allowed it to happen, whether we’re turning people off when we talk too much NFL.”

One of the constants through every iteration of the 101 ESPN lineup has been the afternoon show The Fast Lane and the man steering that ship, Randy Karraker. Even as his partners have changed throughout the years, Randy has continued to be viewed as the voice of the St. Louis sports fan. With Karraker at the helm the afternoon show has been a consistent ratings success for the past decade.

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“It’s interesting. I didn’t feel pressure,” Karraker told me of his hire in August of 2009. Despite casting a long shadow with fans in the city, he knew that his first partners on The Fast Lane, former Ram D’Marco Farr and long time St. Louis Bilikins play-by-play man Bob Ramsey, were the right people to build a three man collaborative effort with.

“JB had the vision,” Ramsey told me in an email. “He hired the best talent in the market in Randy Karraker (the best I’ve ever worked with), found an ex jock who could handle himself in the very capable D’Marco Farr and found a decent third man in me who would morph to fit a given situation: analytic when needed, a foil to challenge partners and guests, and quite frankly a real smart ass who could make you laugh. “Ramsey said the show’s strength was in Barrett’s demand for “formatics excellence and detail.”

Karraker and Farr had a relationship before the show began, and each said they knew they could rely on the other for great content. Farr took it a step further, saying that if Karraker was involved, he knew the majority of St. Louis’s sports fans would be tuning in.

“If you could boil down St. Louis, and I mean everything about St. Louis, into one person, you would get Randy,” Farr told me. “I mean, he defends St. Louis fiercely and he’ll also call out the warts at the same time.”

The Fast Lane has gone through multiple lineup changes since 101 ESPN launched in 2009. The current crew includes former Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson and Chris Rongey alongside Karraker. Rongey, the latest addition came in the wake of Farr heading back to the West Coast.

That move may have coincided with the Rams leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles, but Farr insists that he didn’t leave St. Louis intending to follow the Rams.

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“Regardless of what happened, my family decided it was time to go back West,” he said. “We had some aging and ill family members, so our presence was needed (in California). I think I said this on my last show. If the Rams had stayed in St. Louis forever, we would still be going back west. That is just where our lives took us at the time.”

Ramsey credits the foundation Barrett and Neupert built for some of the afternoon show’s success despite lineup changes, but he is blunt about where the real credit should go. “The key for relevance and continuity is Randy Karraker, period.”

Former PD Kent Sterling told me in an email that the writing was on the wall for the Rams as soon as rumblings of a move to LA began. In his estimation, those started in 2011. “The combination of bad football and distrust for owner Stan Kroenke drove interest south. The staff did a great job of covering the team, but St. Louis will always be a Cardinals town. In a research project, we found that St. Louisans were more likely to be NFL fans than Rams-specific fans.”

Farr was in an interesting position the day the Rams officially announced their move in 2016. “The day it was announced, I am driving the show. So that means I am the one telling St. Louis that the team is moving to Los Angeles,” he says. It was strange, here’s a former Ram telling St. Louis that the team is moving to Los Angeles. It was hard. It’s still hard when I think about it.”

Bernie Miklasz saw the Rams leaving as a shot to his credibility. He had been on the radio for months saying the team was not leaving. That wasn’t just an opinion. In Bernie’s mind, it was a fact based on a conversation he had had with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“I’ve told this story on the air, and I don’t feel like I’m breaking any confidences now. Frankly, I don’t care if I am. I actually had dinner with Goodell before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. He invited me out during Super Bowl week because he wanted to sort of get the lay of the land in St. Louis.

“He looked me straight in the eye, in fact it sort of hurt my reputation. He looked me straight in the eyes and said ‘We don’t want that team to go anywhere. We don’t want to leave St. Louis,’ and he seemed very passionate about it. 

“I even said ‘Hang on, don’t you want to put a team in LA? Kroenke does have his escape clause and he can probably get a stadium built.” I’ll use his words literally. He looked me in the eye, almost pissed off and said ‘Why the f*** do we need LA?’”.  

Miklasz also received a phone call from Rams owner Stan Kroenke around the same time. Kroenke told Miklasz he didn’t like the coverage he was receiving. He brought the team to St. Louis and was a Missouri native after all. Why would he want to hurt fans and a city that are so important to him?

Despite those conversations, Stan Kroenke revealed plans to build his new stadium in Inglewood, California in 2015 and then on January 20, 2016, NFL owners voted 30-2 to move the Rams back to Los Angeles.

St. Louis took the exit hard. To this day, Randy Karraker’s show during the football season still focuses on hating the Rams, and he has no trouble defending doing the show that way. The way the Rams left was an insult to the city.

“I honestly think that if the league and the team would have been more honest about it, I think we would feel better about it, but for the league to tell the people that wanted to build a stadium ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ and for the Rams’ CEO Kevin Demoff to say ‘we want to be here’ was totally disingenuous,” he says. “They had no intention of being here. If they would have just said that this was a business decision and the team saw a chance to be in the country’s second biggest market, I think St. Louis fans would have felt maybe not good about it, but better about it.”

Stalter actually has a positive view on the Rams leaving. It’s not to say that he is glad the team is gone, but he notes that the idea of St. Louis fans only caring about the Cardinals seems to have changed when the NFL team left town.

“There’s still a large contingent that just wants to hear Cardinals content, but the fact that the Blues have a winner now coupled with the fact that the Rams are no longer here, you have a lot of people that are just St. Louis fans now.”

Smallmon said the love the people of St. Louis have for their city and its teams was never more evident than on June 13 of this year. That was the morning after the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup.

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“Because this team took us on such a wild ride, the main challenge we faced was being able to accurately convey what this meant, not only to us personally but to the city,” she said. “We were all a little delirious that morning, but I think that was the beauty of it. We often use a feature on our show called ‘mic drops’, where listeners can leave us audio messages. That was my favorite part of that show in the hours after the final horn sounded. Hearing St. Louisans expressing pure joy and celebrating their team and their city. It was a really special day, and one I’ll never forget.”

The Blues will call 101 ESPN their radio home next season, and Kijowski and Neupert are exploring all kinds of ways to take advantage of the relationship.

“We’re talking about a side channel for the farm team and a dedicated all Blues channel,” Kijowski tells me. When I ask him about any concerns he has about something special getting lost on the HD spectrum he insists that if it is promoted right, NHL fans have the dedication to their favorite sport to go and find it.

“Sales as you can imagine is crazy excited,” Neupert says. He has been meeting with PD’s of other stations in the Hubbard cluster in St. Louis since the station and the team made an official announcement. “They realize the bigness of having a major play-by-play and the advantages of utilizing it. Each one looks at their shows and thinks about the different things they can do.”

Neupert even says talent from other stations in the building have discussed the affiliation with the team as a way to dip their toes into the sports radio waters.

“KSHE (101’s classic rock sister station) and the Point (101’s alternative sister station) have on-air talent that came to me right after we made the announcement to say ‘Anything we can do?’ and trust me, they will! I know we have untapped talent that can contribute, and the Blues are open to being creative with anything we want to do.”

For as welcoming as the Hubbard staff can be to people moving to St. Louis to work there, it is still a city built on the idea that most folks that were born there will raise their own families and then die there. Barrett and Kijowski were willing to consider outsiders when they were building the station’s first on air staff, but never lost sight of the parochial nature of the city.

“We had the anchors of Randy Karraker and Bernie Miklasz, so the outsiders could filter in,” Kijowski said. He also points out that having guys like D’Marco Farr, Chris Duncan and Brad Thompson on the station have helped hammer home the local identity the station is so proud of. “Having loved, and truly beloved, St. Louis athletes makes this St. Louis! St. Louis! St. Louis! That lets you sprinkle in some new voices and outside guys.”

Two such outsiders that got sprinkled in during the station’s history were Zach McCrite, who came to St. Louis from Louisville, and Bob Stelton, who is from Seattle but just like the Rams, moved to town following a stint in LA.

Rather than having McCrite come to St. Louis, Barrett went to Louisville to meet the man that wanted to work for him. It was one day at an area bar that McCrite learned just how important it would be to know St. Louis if he wanted to thrive in the job.

“So, we go to a local restaurant and he throws a piece of paper in front of me. It’s a ‘how well do you know St. Louis’ test,” McCrite told me in an email. “And it was stuff like ‘What’s Albert Pujols’ jersey number?’ Five. Okay, I got that. Another one was something like ‘St. Louis is called the Gateway To The what?’ West. Okay. Got that. But then there’s this word association part of the test. He throws a St. Louis-derived word or phrase and I write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind. I only remember one of those and it was the one I had no idea on at the time. The word he gave me was Oshie. I knew I had heard the name, but I couldn’t place it.

“So, I’m sweating and I’m thinking ‘what do I write here? I can’t leave it blank, but I also don’t want to guess wrong.’ So, I just put ‘Oh Shit.’ Turns out, TJ Oshie was, at the time, a third-year player for the St. Louis Blues. He certainly found my blind spot.”

Stelton had the parochial nature of St. Louis sports fans impressed upon him the second he got to town. He heard it from Barrett. He heard it from his partner Bryan Burwell. “I had two very clear thoughts: I was going to consume as much as I could as quickly as I could about the local teams. I was going to watch every moment of every game and give my honest take on what was happening. I moved downtown (despite it not being a great area) so that I was in walking distance to all three arenas/stadiums. And I wasn’t going to try and pretend that I knew something that I didn’t.”

According to Stelton, that honesty and openly asking listeners to fill in the gaps in his knowledge is part of what helped him get over with fans. The other part was being paired with a guy listeners viewed as a heel.

“A large majority of the listeners didn’t like Bryan for whatever reason, so, they seemed to automatically gravitate to my opinion or thoughts, even when he and I had the same exact take on something. When Bryan was let go and it became a solo show, that’s when the ratings took off and the listeners seemed to fully accept me despite me being a guy from the West Coast.”

Stalter says it isn’t hard to win over St. Louis fans. “Once you say ‘this is my home,’ people will embrace you,” the Illinois native, who came to 101 ESPN from Detroit told me.

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Stalter is one of those outsiders Kijowski talked about benefiting from being paired with a beloved St. Louis athlete. After being moved from producer of The Fast Lane to hosting The Turn in mid-days, Stalter was paired with Chris Duncan, a member of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals and the son of former Cardinals catcher and pitching coach Dave Duncan.

“When Hoss first paired me and Chris together, he gave me the best piece of advice. He said if you have to play it a little bit slow at first, and be likable as opposed to overly opinionated, that’s okay,” Stalter shared.

Chris Duncan is no longer a member of The Turn. It’s not something anyone is happy about, but Duncan is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. In January of 2019, it was announced that Duncan, who had already been on indefinite leave, would not be returning to the station. Stalter fought back tears as he made the announcement on air.

“Show-wise, it didn’t matter,” Neupert said of trying to figure out the show’s next step while Duncan’s leave was still indefinite. “The poor guy had seizures during the show at times. Stalter was great about being a pro and picking up the slack. It’s easy not to worry about ratings or sales when you’re dealing with real life. So, for us it was always about let’s do things the right way and be supportive. Yeah we gotta take care of the business side, but let’s be human first.”

Now that it is time to figure out what happens next, Neupert says he won’t rush anything. “We’ve been thinking behind the scenes about what we’re going to do. We have to find the right fit and there’s no real timeline on it.”

Stalter says he and Neupert have been grappling with the idea of what the show will be going forward. As Neupert said, they can take the time to find the right person. Stalter just wants to make sure the next iteration of The Turn keeps “the vibe of informing and entertaining.”

101 ESPN has always been local and forward thinking. The approach has earned them strong ratings and a couple of Marconi nominations as the best sports station in the country. For example, they cut back on live phone calls in favor of the more compact mic drops. The website has served as a platform for original video, written, and podcasting content. The promotions and programming departments have taken chances too by creating live events around eSports.

The current approach to new strategies and ideas remains consistent with what Barrett introduced in 2009. He made sure the people he wanted to hire knew he wanted them. He invited Bob Stelton to sit in on a staff meeting the first time he visited St. Louis to get an idea of the working environment. He met with McCrite in Louisville to make sure he knew what he was in for, and he didn’t object to having to win over Bernie Miklasz, who was wary of what he had heard about him following two tough years at 590 the Fan.

Stelton echoed a sentiment about the environment Barrett and Kijowski created that I heard from a number of people. The staff was professional, but also behaved like a family. More importantly, nothing was sugarcoated.

“He’s absolutely my kind of PD. Very invested, very passionate and creative. But most importantly, very honest. I have huge respect for that.”

Barrett left the station in May of 2011 to join Entercom and launch 95.7 the Game in San Francisco. Now, Barrett serves as a consultant for a number of sports radio stations across the country.

“They are the unstoppable machine in the market right now,” Barrett says of 101 ESPN. “There has been talk over the years about someone trying to take them on but it hasn’t happened because it’s a well run brand by an excellent radio company and it’d take a lot to slow them down. John, Hoss and Hubbard’s executive team deserve a lot of credit for taking what we started in 2009 and lifting it to even greater heights.”

Sterling, another former PD, also acknowledges that the station is thriving today and isn’t surprised to see Neupert at the helm of a winning product.

“I’m very pleased for Hoss Neupert’s success as the PD. It’s a better station today than the one I left, and it was a pretty damn good station then, so Hoss has done a hell of a job.”

“The one thing I hope you take away from this is that we are a family here. That matters to us,” Neupert told me. “We want to succeed for each other.”

Randy Karraker echoed that sentiment. He told me that between being asked for input, not just on who he wanted to work with, but on what personalities could thrive with the support structure set up by management, he felt valued. He had a personal stake in 101 ESPN’s success.

“It felt like home,” he told me. “I told John Kijowski that early on. I said “I’ve never been at a place where I’m walking down the hall and it feels like home.’ Everybody to work with here is great. The facilities are great. They want you to feel comfortable. I think that is part of the reason for the success. Everybody here feels that way.”

John Kijowski also wants to succeed for St. Louis. He and the higher-ups at Hubbard know the best way to do that is to talk as much about St. Louis as possible.

“This thing has changed everything,” JK says as he picks up my phone. “People don’t go to the 10:20 news on TV in St. Louis to find out the score of the Cardinals game. They have the score right on their phone. The reason you have to have live and local shows between 6a and 7p is because it’s not about the score. It’s about opinion. It’s about perspective. And you have to have strong personalities. That is why people still believe in sports talk radio.”

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Jason Barrett Podcast – Dave LaGreca

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Evan Roberts, Self-Professed Sports Maniac, Thrives at WFAN

From an early age, Roberts knew that radio was the medium through which he wanted to express his fandom, especially WFAN.

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Evan Roberts made his first appearance on WFAN at just 10 years old, filling in for NBA play-by-play announcer Mike Breen delivering sports updates on Imus in the Morning. The opportunity came after he sent a letter on a whim to the station asking for a job since he enjoyed listening to the station with his father. Desiring to become a radio host was the result of dynamic career aspirations that transitioned from wanting to work as an architect to trying to become the play-by-play announcer for his favorite baseball team, the New York Mets.

“Listening to Mike and Chris, and Benigno in the overnights and Somers – I was like ‘That’s what I want to do’,” Roberts recalled. “….It couldn’t be any more specific when I’m listening to the Fan saying ‘I want to be on the Fan.’ About a decade and a half later, I was able to get it done and I’ve been there ever since.”

From an early age, Roberts knew that radio was the medium through which he wanted to express his fandom, especially WFAN. As a native New Yorker, Roberts connected with the teams in the area and sought the chance to talk about them for a living on a sports radio station with a storied history in the area.

Since 1989, WFAN has been one of the pillars of New York sports coverage and a place that helped pioneer the sports talk radio format. Getting there, though, required that Roberts had deft knowledge of sports, an ability to connect with fans, and experience that ensured he was ready for an opportunity in the number one media market in the world.

While attending school, Roberts was hosting a radio show called Kidsports on WGBB, a radio station based in Freeport, N.Y. serving Nassau County on Long Island. He then moved to Radio AAHS to host What’s Up With Evan Roberts and Nets Slammin’ Planet, the latter with famed high school basketball player Albert King and NBA insider Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson. Aside from being able to refine his hosting skills, Roberts made valuable connections in these roles including one that would help him land his first job out of high school: Danny Turner.

Before he was named the senior vice president of programming operations at XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C., Turner served as the engineer for Roberts’ shows on Radio AAHS. He helped to coordinate the technology associated with broadcasting since the shows were done remotely rather than from out of a studio.

“[He] ended up working at XM Radio and heard one of my tapes as it went on and said ‘I remember him. I like him,’ and then sent it to the right person and they ultimately hired me,” said Roberts. “It was my first real, real job working out of high school, and that was about meeting someone earlier on and remembering who that person was and sending as many tapes as I could.”

As a graduate of Lawrence High School, Roberts quickly made the move from Cedarhurst, N.Y. to Washington, D.C. to begin working at XM Satellite Radio, a place he would stay for the next two years. Then, he made the move down I-295 from D.C. to Baltimore, Md. where he worked at 105.7 The Fan WJFK-AM and had to adjust his sports consumption to align with the interests of those listeners. It taught him the importance of research and preparation, important aspects of working in sports media that he still utilizes to this day.

“When I was in Baltimore, I had to be Baltimore,” said Roberts. “I had to understand what makes the Orioles fan tick; what makes the Ravens fan tick. I didn’t grow up as an Orioles fan or a Ravens fan. The Ravens had won the Super Bowl years earlier. I know nothing about winning Super Bowls; I’m a Jets fan.”

At 21 years old, Roberts made the move back to “The Big Apple” when he was hired by WFAN as an overnight host, a role he stayed in for the next two-and-a-half years. Simultaneously, Roberts was working on Maxim Radio doing a night show on the Sirius Satellite Radio channel. Balancing those two roles, while it may have seemed daunting, gave Roberts the chance to broadcast in his home market and talk about the teams he grew up rooting for; the aforementioned Mets and Jets, along with the then-New Jersey Nets and New York Islanders.

Then in 2007, Roberts got his big break when he was named the midday co-host with Joe Benigno on the program Benigno & Roberts in the Midday. Benigno, who got his start on WFAN as a regular caller, had grown a rapport with listeners since joining the station in 1995, making the task for Roberts, a 23-year-old at the time, more difficult in terms of fitting in. Roberts is grateful that Benigno, a host he grew up listening to on WFAN, was accommodating and amicable towards him – plus it helped that they aligned in their rooting interests as Mets and Jets fans.

“He was very welcoming, and he didn’t have to be because I was a lot younger; he had no idea who the hell I was,” said Roberts. “….Right out of the gate, I think he saw my passion [and] my knowledge; he saw a little bit of himself in me, and we were able to bond right away.”

To make a name for himself in the new midday time slot, Roberts stuck to the principles that had been given to him from his early days of radio; that is, to be himself. From the start of his foray into sports media, Roberts and most people around him knew that he was, in his own words, “a sports maniac”, and he needed to maintain that genuine identity on the air. His relatability and passion for the teams as a fan made him an ideal fit for the station synonymous with New York City bearing those iconic call letters and an unbeatable afternoon duo.

“I think as time [went] on and Joe and I developed even more and more chemistry, the audience knew who we were,” said Roberts. “They certainly knew who he was, but they learned ‘Evan’s a die-hard Mets fan. He doesn’t miss a game.’”

While it was important for Roberts to emulate his fandom for the teams he roots for, he quickly developed a cognizance for trying to talk about other teams impartially while on the air. It is a challenge, to a degree, to maintain objectivity daily with intrinsic fandom for certain teams, but being able to understand how other fan bases feel after monumental victories or crushing defeats renders the art of appealing to the listening audience easier. It also upholds WFAN’s commitment to serve as an outlet for all New York sports fans rather than just certain cohorts of them.

“We’re trying to appeal to everybody,” said Roberts. “We want everybody listening. Not just Yankees fans; not just Mets fans; not just die-hard sports fans; not just casual fans. How do you keep every single person wanting to listen to the radio?”

When Roberts first joined the station in 2004, most New York sports teams were rebuilding aside from the Yankees. Today, the preponderance of professional teams in the New York Metropolitan area are contending or at least have the chance to appear in their league’s playoffs, something that is exciting for fans like Roberts but presents a challenge in doing effective sports radio that accurately depicts the emotions of listeners.

“I think what’s going to be a real challenge… is [when] the Mets are in the playoffs, the Yankees are in the playoffs, the Jets look competent, and the Giants look competent, and it’s a Monday,” Roberts expressed. “You’ve got four monstrous fan bases that care about their team. How the hell do you find a way to keep them all entertained?”

To express the true extent of his fandom for niche sectors of the audience, Roberts turns to another form of aural consumption: podcasts. There has been much discussion over the ability of traditional radio and podcasts to coexist in this digital age of media; however, Roberts believes that the two mediums provide a unique combination that was previously nonexistent.

In his opinion, podcasts are a method to delve deeper into topics or teams that do not garner as much time on the radio, specifically those that do not generate as large of a market share or which are not as representative of the interests of the majority of listeners.

“I do a Mets podcast specifically – I called it Rico Brogna because I loved Rico Brogna as a kid and I figured ‘Why the hell not?’”, Roberts said. “…I do an hour breaking down the Mets in a hard-core way that I’m not going to do on WFAN for an hour. I may do it for a couple of minutes. I think those two things work perfectly side-by-side.”

Still, most listeners, according to Roberts, will likely turn to terrestrial radio to get their sports fix, especially if they do not express allegiance to solely one team. 

“The majority of people are still going to turn on WFAN and say ‘Okay, entertain me. I don’t know what I want to hear. You just entertain me’,” said Roberts. “I think those two forms of entertainment can work side-by-side. That’s why we do it.”

When Mike Francesa signed off WFAN in December 2017, the station had to make changes in the afternoon drive-time slot which it did with the debut of Carlin, Maggie & Bart. The show was eventually disbanded though when Francesa ended his retirement just over four months later, returning to afternoons. His return to WFAN did not last long though, departing the station again in December 2019. Again, WFAN had to make a change in afternoons, this time moving Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts to do a 2 to 6:30 p.m. show renamed Joe & Evan.

For Roberts, the opportunity to host in the afternoon slot that he had grown up listening to Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo make famous with their program Mike and the Mad Dog was an opportunity he did not hesitate to accept. Yet the change in time also required a change in approach regarding topic selection; after all, since the show would be starting later in the day, it was more important to preview the forthcoming action than recap that of the previous day.

“Even though you’re doing the same thing because you’re the same person, you’ve got to realize the audience is thinking about things a little bit differently; they’re not always analyzing what happened last night,” said Roberts. “I always find that interesting [trying to] balance the two [and] it’s almost like a game.”

When Benigno retired from the station in November 2020, Craig Carton made his return to the New York City airwaves pairing with Roberts to form the new afternoon duo Carton & Roberts. Carton had previously been with the station hosting mornings with Boomer Esiason on Boomer and Carton from 2007 until his arrest in 2017. He served time in prison for fraud-related charges, and ultimately sought and received help for addiction related to gambling.

Since his return to WFAN, Carton has been vocal about his struggle to overcome addiction and the lessons learned from his time serving in prison, hosting a special weekend program titled Hello, My Name Is Craig to discuss these issues in-depth. On Carton and Roberts, the duo has experienced immense success, recently topping ESPN New York 98.7 FM’s The Michael Kay Show in the spring ratings book. From the onset of Carton and Roberts working together though, there was some trepidation as to whether their personalities would blend well together on sports talk radio.

“I remember the first time I was told ‘Hey, there’s a possibility of you and Craig together.’ I was like ‘What?,’” Roberts said. “My first reaction was ‘Really?’”

Now nearly two years in, Roberts enjoys working alongside Carton and learning more about his perspectives and thoughts on the radio industry. Following advice he was given from both Russo and Esiason on working with Carton, Roberts has let him take the lead and discover how the show can effectively inform and entertain its vast listening audience.

“Let’s take a step back; don’t have an ego,” Roberts recalls thinking when he started the new show. “Watch this magician figure out how this show is going to work and then lean into it. I think that’s what I did and it has worked, and I feel very comfortable, I know he feels very comfortable and we’ve got a successful thing going on now.”

Roberts views Carton as an informed talent in the radio industry, aware of the changing nature of the medium and the potential it has to serve its audience. Roberts indeed experienced success in his previous roles, most notably when working in middays with Benigno; however, he is always willing to try new things and form new approaches towards jaded industry practices and show formats.

“I know that I have a guy who I’m working with who knows the medium as well as anybody,” said Roberts. “If he has a vision on how this could work with his personality and my personality, I’m going to listen; I’m going to follow along.”

WFAN and SportsNet New York (SNY), the flagship network for the New York Mets and New York Jets, agreed last year to simulcast Carton and Roberts from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays. While the move, which has been made with various other WFAN programs over the years including Mike and the Mad Dog and Boomer and Gio puts the radio program on a visual medium, Roberts’ approach to the show did not change.

The thought always was that he would be doing a radio show with the curtain pulled back, giving longtime listeners the chance to see the two co-hosts during their discussions and on-air interactions.

“They’re listening to the radio, and it’s cool sometimes when you get to peek in and say, ‘Oh, look at Craig’s expressions. Look at Evan’s expressions. Look at the way they’re looking at each other. Boy, they hate each other right now,’” Roberts said. “I think it’s people looking in on a radio show, and that’s what I always try to remind myself. It’s on TV – that’s great – but we’re a radio show first, and I think a lot of people kind of like to eavesdrop on that.”

One of the challenges of doing a radio show whether or not it is simulcast is in taking calls, and various hosts and producers have differing opinions when it comes to their value on the air. Still, while the hosts, producers, and caller themselves may enjoy their interactions, it is fundamental awareness is placed on the audience that does not call in and their enjoyment of listening to a caller.

“I think when you’re talking [to] somebody, you’re not just thinking about the conversation you’re having with them,” said Roberts. “You’re thinking about the 98% of the audience that doesn’t call in and if this is entertaining or not; if this is informative or not; what are they getting out of this?…. I love callers – it’s a big part of WFAN – but as I interact with them… I think the thought that I always try to have is ‘How is everyone else listening feeling about this discussion?’”

While Carton and Roberts continues to do well in afternoon drive among the demographic of men 25-54 years old, the way the ratings are interpreted by each person and entity in radio differs. Something the Nielsen ratings do not take into account is the number of people listening to the show on-demand as a podcast or watching its simulcast on SNY. During his time with Benigno, Roberts scrutinized the numbers, looking at copious and exiguous details, similar to how he consumes professional sports.

The difference is that while it may be good to have a complete understanding of show performance, getting caught in the minutiae of ratings and trying to improve in weaker areas can sometimes be, according to Roberts, a means without an end.

“I think I realized as time went on that’s going to give you a headache and it’s not going to really help anything,” said Roberts. “I think I learned a little more that you still look at numbers but maybe with a broader view of things; not as specific. I look at [them] a lot, but sometimes it’s tough. I don’t think you want to alter a show too much based on what you think is a pattern but may not necessarily be a pattern.”

This fall, both Carton and Roberts will be starting new roles in media while continuing to host their afternoon show. Carton is going to begin hosting a new national morning show on Fox Sports 1 with a co-host yet to be determined, a move that will place him primarily on television in mornings against WFAN and CBS Sports Radio’s simulcast of Boomer & Gio. Roberts will continue to stay on WFAN, adding a new Saturday program with his former co-host Joe Benigno beginning on September 10.

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” Roberts said of working with Benigno. “It’s always comfortable…. It’s going to be [like] our old show – just once a week on a Saturday.”

WFAN was the sound of Evan Roberts’ childhood, and a large reason he became as invested in professional sports as he considers himself to be today. Throughout his time at the station, he has worked with various hosts and recently welcomed new program director Spike Eskin to the station. He says the contrast between Eskin and previous program director Mark Chernoff is stark – yet they are similar in where it matters most: being able to effectively lead WFAN.

“I think they both very much understand radio, and that’s the most important thing,” said Roberts. “You’re the program director of WFAN; I think you have an idea of what good radio is… [They are] both very, very intelligent radio guys that I trust, but everything else about them is probably polar opposite.”

For aspiring professionals looking to pursue a career in sports media, Roberts advises them to take advantage of the innovations in media and communications especially when it comes to podcasts. With widespread evolution and progression in technology coupled with altering consumption habits and means thereof, putting in the time allows novices to hone their skills and position themselves well in sports media. That and always being willing to learn and study to be the most prepared and informed host as possible – especially when talking to listeners, many of whom have seen teams in their ebbs and flows.

“My wife knows that I’m going to watch every pitch of the Yankees and Mets game,” said Roberts. “I may do it on DVR, and I may do it at 2 in the morning because we need to have a life; I don’t want to get divorced, and I want my kids to love me, but she also knows that I want to be as informed as anybody on the radio and that’s not going to stop.”

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Jake Paul, Betr Pair Micro-Betting With Media

There are plenty of hurdles, though, that still need to be overcome before this takes over the betting landscape.

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I’ll be completely honest: I can’t get into TikTok. I’m closing in on 40 years spent on this planet, and it’s simply not my thing. It’s not meant to be, though. The current generation is one with shorter attention spans, the kind that wants a quick highlight of a sporting event so they can shift their focus to something else. When I tell folks a decade younger than me stories about how I–and others of my age group–would sit around and watch an entire SportsCenter, they look at me like I’m crazy. Not sure how they’d look at me if I told them we used to often watch the rerun an hour later, but that’s another discussion.

It’s a big reason why micro-betting is considered the “next big thing” in sports betting. Similar to in-game betting, micro betting goes a step further and focuses on individual events within a sporting event, such as the outcome of a drive, whether a baseball player will get a hit in his upcoming at-bat, or even something such as a coin toss at the Super Bowl. A perfect example of micro-betting is the rise in popularity of betting on whether or not a run will be scored in the first inning of a baseball game. For a generation that wants a quick resolution to their bets, it makes total sense. You place a bet, you find out how it did, and then you move on–whether that’s to another bit of action or something else entirely.

Something else I can’t get into is the whole hoopla surrounding the Paul brothers. Logan and Jake Paul have built an empire for themselves on the back of YouTube, with Jake Paul having more than 70 million followers on social media. For various reasons, I’m not a fan of either individual. Again, though, they aren’t coming after my demographic. Like them or hate them, you have to respect their grind –and you have to admire their business acumen — as they parlay their notoriety and success into sports entertainment by way of boxing and the WWE, as well as a new sports drink company that has already partnered with Premier League side Arsenal. 

Monday’s announcement by Jake Paul of a new micro-betting site simply furthers the narrative and does so in a manner that can’t be ignored by those in the sports betting space. Betr, a joint venture between Paul, sports betting entrepreneur Joey Levy, and the sports betting company Simplebet, was announced yesterday morning. Backed by a $50 million investment from multiple venture capital firms, the new company is backed by ownership groups of franchises such as the Boston Celtics and San Francisco 49ers, and also has financial backing from current and former NFL players including Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, and Richard Sherman. Musician Travis Scott has also put his financial backing behind the product.

The other very interesting tidbit from the press release was the announcement of a media company that would feature, among other shows, “BS w/ Jake Paul”. Their new YouTube channel, which already has over two million subscribers despite not a single video being posted as of Monday afternoon, will feature sports-betting content from Paul and other content creators and will focus on micro betting. In an interview with Axios, Levy said that consumers can “expect 10+ videos a day from emerging content creators we’ve brought into the company,” but that things would begin with a focus on “premium content natives, starting with Jake’s show.”

Sports radio and television have long been focused on making their products more appealing to younger generations. Just take a look at ESPN, where they’ve long been doing “SportsCenter” episodes on Snapchat. This could be a game-changer, provided they can help drive micro-betting into a wider market. 

There is plenty of potential in the space, a big reason Paul was able to acquire such high amounts of funding. Just last year, JP Morgan estimated that more than $7 billion per year would be wagered on micro bets by the year 2025. And earlier this year, the CEO of Oddisum stated in an interview that micro-betting would account for the majority of wagers placed on sporting events within the next three years. Even DraftKings CEO Jason Robins has talked about plans on how his company expects to embrace the trend.

There are plenty of hurdles, though, that still need to be overcome before this takes over the betting landscape. The biggest one is the delivery of data. As we move more towards a society that streams sporting events and other digital content, the delay between real life and what shows up on your mobile phone can be the difference between placing a wager or not. For some services (I’m looking at you, Peacock) there’s often a delay of more than 90 seconds, which means the play I want to bet on is still two or three plays away from being seen with my own eyes. That makes it difficult to place a bet with any sort of confidence.

The other major obstacle will be getting their gambling service legalized. In their press release, Betr stated they will start as a “free-to-play” app in all 50 states, and eventually they will add real money gambling services as they become licensed to operate within individual states. That’s not going to be so simple, though, as gambling addiction concerns continue to rise and multiple state legislatures are already having discussions regarding the matter. 

As addictive as betting on sporting events can be, micro-betting is often exponentially more. A study last year from CQ University in Sydney, Australia indicated that micro bettors are more likely to be younger players and that they usually “have high trait impulsivity”. An author of the report also stated, “there’s a very strong link between micro betting and gambling problems”, and pointed out that the short amount of time between placing a bet and having it resolved leaves little time to evaluate performance or track one’s bankroll. 

Whether or not those things are overcome in every state possible is a discussion for another day. The fact is, micro-betting is more likely than not to become a huge growth market for sports betting companies over the next two to three years, and Paul and Levy have become the first big players to jump into the media space. It’s not a question of if, but when, others will follow them into the realm of micro betting sports content, but their announcement on Monday raises the stakes. It also reminds those of us in business, especially sports media, that while we may not fully understand the allure of what the younger generation enjoys, we ignore it at our peril. 

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