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How Des Moines Stepped Up For KXNO

“We have plenty of national shows and you can get those anywhere. But there’s just this connection with local sports, and those are the ones who care about it the most.”

Tyler McComas

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In the middle of such a dark week in sports radio, a silver lining emerged in an unlikely place. By now you know that many radio hosts across the country were laid off last week due to cutbacks from iHeartMedia. It was sudden, unfortunate and eye-opening, but also a stiff reminder of how brutal the business can be. 

KXNO in Des Moines was among the stations that were affected, as six on-air employees, Heather Burnside, Travis Justice and Sean Roberts of Morning Rush as well as Chris Williams and Ross Peterson of Sports Fanatics and program director Andrew Downs all lost their job. It looked as though a small city in a ‘flyover state’ was going to be one of the many to lose the local content it craves. But at that moment, the people of Des Moines made a decision. They weren’t going down without a fight. 

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Local sports radio, especially in Iowa, is one of the most genuine you’re going to find. Whereas most national radio shows would never talk Iowa, Iowa State, and certainly not the smaller colleges in the states such as Drake or Northern Iowa, KXNO is a pillar in the community that people rely on for information and entertainment on a daily basis. Iowans live and die by their local sports and crave the outlets that give it to them on a daily basis. In many ways, it’s a lifeblood for the natives. 

So when news spread that KXNO was among the major layoffs that were taking place, Iowans took to social media, almost in unison, and voiced their displeasure. 

“I wasn’t surprised at the outrage, because I know what KXNO means to Iowans,” said former KXNO host Matt Perrault, currently with SB Nation Radio. “It’s built its brand on talking directly to people on what’s happening in their lives. That station has been so ingrained in the community for so long, that I knew there would be massive outreach. I just didn’t know exactly how folks would go about voicing it. They took to social media, and if this happened 10 years ago, I don’t know if the same outcry would’ve happened, because it’s difficult to pick up the phone and do that. It’s a lot easier to send text messages, emails, tweets and Facebook posts about it. Social media played a major role in the overall outreach.”

Daily life for many Iowans was about to be seriously altered. That didn’t sit well with the locals. Angry reactions came quickly from every direction to those in charge. Des Moines wasn’t going to sit back and let a corporate company take away what meant so much to them. 

The backlash became so widespread that KXNO general manager Joel McCrea knew he had to do something. With the approval of iHeartMedia, all six on-air talents were re-hired and the station was restructured to be heard on an additional 25,000 watt signal, 106.3 FM. Not only had Iowans fought and won, but the product that was so essential to their daily lives, was now even better. 

“People spoke up and I think there were two reasons,” said Andy Fales, co-host of the Murph and Andy Show. “First, they were mad about the idea of losing this connection and that Iowa was just going to get passed over again. But also, and this makes us feel the best of all, we hear from people that we are appointment entertainment for them. Their day, in many ways, is scheduled around our show. That feels amazing. Social media is great and it’s terrible at the same time, but at a time like this it’s really a useful tool that you just can’t do without. There was such a reaction from our listeners that reached the higher ups at iHeartMedia and they noticed.”

What program director wouldn’t kill to have an audience like that? Des Moines may not be a Top 50 market but you’d be hard-pressed to find very many across the country that are as loyal as that. There’s a lot of awards that are given annually in sports radio, heck, we at Barrett Sports Media, give out a couple ourselves. But if there’s an award that’s given out to the best audience in any market across the country, I sure know where my vote is going. 

Fales and co-host Keith Murphy were the two on-air hosts the station, initially, decided to keep. But with six co-workers being laid off, the duo just didn’t feel it was right to carry on a show like nothing had happened. 

“I’m happy that it’s over with,” said Fales. “I think we all want to sound tough and cool and like we’re this tough negotiator that goes in and draws a line in the sand, but when we were doing what we did last week, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We really kind of figured that we would be fired.

“We’ve had a lot of people come up to us and congratulate us for taking this big stand. I don’t think I’ve ever heard back from more listeners, whether they organically came up to me or just reached out. They don’t understand that last week we were kind of taking a shot in the dark. It was on principle, we knew what we believed in and what we wanted to do. But we did not think we had some great upper hand that was going to ultimately work out.”

On Tuesday, KXNO was back on the air after its short hiatus. What’s welcomed them, has been more outpouring on social media from listeners, such as compliments on how good the new FM signal sounds. In an odd way, McCrea’s decision to terminate six employees, bring them back within a week and add an FM signal might be the best thing that could have happened for the station, ratings wise, especially now that football season for the local teams is over. Regardless, the on-air staff is thankful for the change of direction by McCrea. 

“I’ve known Joel McCrea for 25 years,” said Burnside via her personal Twitter page. “He’s a straight shooter who owns his mistakes, and he just turned a big one into a huge win for our company, our staff and listeners and the community we built our station on. I’m very thankful to have him as a boss, mentor and friend.”

Others echoed those comments. 

“Joel McCrea really did come through,” said Fales. “He did what needed to be done and worked to get this turned around. He’s owed a lot of the credit here. He’s fallen on the grenade for iHeartMedia and he wanted to keep us all along.”

Unfortunately, Burnside, Justice, Roberts and Peterson were unreachable for direct comments through email and social media. Williams declined comment via email saying, “It’s been such a hectic week. I’d really just like to stay out of the news for at least a couple of weeks until things settle down.”

I can’t say I blame any of them for not wanting to comment. With the emotional roller coaster each has been through in the past week, I may have done the same thing. 

Though McCrea and the listeners deserve a lot of credit for putting KXNO back to full strength, advertisers of the station played a major role, too. Local businesses streamed out in support of the station and even threatened to put their ad money elsewhere. 

By Wednesday of last week, that’s who Fales was thinking of when his show declined to go on the air. He felt he owed it to them, especially the ones who had been there since the beginning, to give the local businesses what they paid for. But after talking with Murphy, who unknowingly scheduled a vacation at an unfortunate time and was in Mexico during the whole process, the two decided to remain off the air. Instead, Fales found another way to reach out to his clients. 

“Instead of doing the show, I sat down and wrote to every single client that I could think of,” said Fales. “I got in the car and stopped by a number of businesses and told them everything that was going on. I apologized for not representing their business the way that we said we would when they signed on. I said that we would make it up to them and then I thanked them profusely for being with us. The reaction that I got from them was every bit as impressive as the reaction we got from the listeners. Nearly every one of them said if you go, we go. That felt great.

“They weren’t sold on some greater principle, they listen to our show and wanted to buy into it. It really felt great and even empowered us. I knew if things didn’t work out we could leave and take almost all of our advertisers with us immediately.”

So what’s the lessoned to be learned here? What should the takeaway be from a situation where an audience and advertisers willed its way to make a station change its entire course? 

“To me, the lesson is mid-size markets with established brands, folks yearn for people who understand what’s happening in their lives,” said Perrault. “They want to know what’s happening with their teams. They don’t want to know what’s going on Chicago, but what’s going on in Des Moines. I think KXNO has always built itself on being the voice of the fan and being a place where you can go and talk. I mean, it’s Iowa and we’ve been told for years it’s just flyover country. Well, that radio station has changed everything over the course of 15 years by saying we’re going to pay attention to you and we’re going to give you the news that no one else is going to give you.”

“If you have a show that you love listening to and you’re told it’s going to be replaced by some national programming, you know that national programming isn’t going to cover what’s in your community,” said Fales. “That’s going to be lost. That connection to the community is going to be separate. We have plenty of national shows and you can get those anywhere. But there’s just this connection with local sports, and those are the ones who care about it the most.”

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Stories such as this show why local sports radio in mid to lower size markets are special and will never die. Not enough praise can be given to the loyal listeners and adversities of KXNO, but the real winner is the station, itself. It’s likely the added attention and FM signal will give the station a boost in ratings it’s never seen before at this point in the calendar year. 

Amidst what was a dark week of layoffs for sports radio, KXNO still found a way to emerge a winner. 

BSM Writers

Marty Smith Loves The ‘Pinch Me’ Moments

“I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have.”

Demetri Ravanos

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I tell this story all the time. It is told for laughs, but it is absolutely true. Marty Smith once gave me a giant box of beef jerky.

I was in Charlotte visiting him and Ryan McGee on the set of Marty & McGee as part of a larger feature I was doing on the SEC Network. We spent probably 3 hours together that day. It was a lot of fun. The last thing I watched the duo shoot was a promo for Old Trapper Beef Jerky, the presenting sponsor of their show.

As they finished, I shook their hands and told them I had to get on the road. That is when Smith presented me with a box of twelve bags of Old Trapper and told me, in as sincere a voice as you can imagine, that he wanted me to have it.

“I mean, listen, if you give a man beef jerky, by God, you like him,” Smith said to me when I reminded him of that story earlier this week. “That’s redneck currency right there, bud.”

There just aren’t a lot of people in this business like Marty Smith. ESPN definitely knows it too. That is why the network finds every opportunity it can to use him to tell the stories of the events and people it covers.

Last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday with the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He got a day back home in Charlotte before he headed to Atlanta for the SEC Network’s coverage of the SEC Championship Game on Thursday. Saturday, after his duties for SEC Nation and College GameDay were done, he hit the road for Tuscaloosa to interview Nick Saban and be ready for ESPN’s coverage of the reveal of the final College Football Playoff rankings.

As if that isn’t enough, this week he heads to New York. It will be the second time ESPN will use him to conduct interviews and tell stories during the telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation. It’s an assignment that Marty Smith still cannot believe is his.

“I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments, but in the last five, six years, seven years, there are two that kind of stand out above the rest. One was when Mike McQuaid asked me to be part of his team to cover The Masters. The other was last year when my dear longtime friend Kate Jackson, who is the coordinating producer over the Heisman broadcast, asked me to be a part of her Heisman broadcast team and interview the coaches, players and families of the finalists,” Smith says. “You know, brother, I’ve been watching the Heisman Trophy my whole life.”

We talk about what the broadcast around the Heisman Trophy presentation is and how it differs from being on the sideline for a game. He is quick to point out that on a game day, the old adage “brevity is king” is a reality. In New York though, he will have more time to work with. He plans not to just fill it, but to use it.

Marty’s interest in his subjects’ backgrounds and their emotions is sincere. It is part of a larger philosophy. He respects that everyone has a story to tell and appreciates the opportunity to be the one that gets to tell it, so he is going to do all he can to make sure the people he is talking to know it and know that they matter to him. That means putting in the time to be respectful of his subject’s time.

“When I’m interviewing these players or coaches before a game, I want to interview them, and I’m saying not on camera, but when I’m doing the record. I want to get as thorough as I can get. Then you take all of that and you try to pare it down into a very small window. It’s not easy. I mean, look, most of the time you come home with reams of notes that never even sniff air.”

Marty Smith has always been a unique presence. As his profile has grown and he shows up on TV more often and in more places, more people question who this guy really is.

That is par for the course though, right? Someone with a unique presence sees their star rise and out come the naysayers ready to question how authentic the new object of our affections really is.

For me, there is a moment that defines Marty Smith, at least in this aspect. I cannot remember the year or the situation, but he was on The Dan Le Batard Show, back when it was on ESPN Radio. Smith was telling Dan about friends of his that are stars in the country music world and Dan asked what it is like when they are hanging out backstage before one of these guys goes out to perform.

I cannot remember Smith’s exact answer, but a word he used stood out to me. He said it was just buddies having a cold beer and “fellowshippin'”.

I told Marty about this memory of him and said that I am not accusing him of being inauthentic or his persona on television being an act, but I was curious if he was concious of the words he chooses. Even if the version we get of Marty Smith on TV is the same one we would get if we were part of the fellowshippin’, does he think about how he wants people to think about him?

He is quick to note that is isn’t an act at all. What you see when you see Marty Smith isn’t a persona he cooked up when he decided he was going into television. That is just his personality.

“It is a lifelong field from where I’m from to where I am,” he says of what we see on TV. “It is relationships made that pinched my clay and remolded who I was to who I am and reshaped me as a person.”

Anyone from The South can tell you that there is no one monolithic “South”. The gregarious, larger-than-life personalities in Louisiana may not always feel real to people from the more reserved and anglo-influenced South Carolina. The Southern accent I got from growing up in Alabama sounds nothing like the Southern accents I live near now in North Carolina.

If Marty Smith doesn’t seem authentic to you, maybe it is because his version of “Southern” isn’t one you’re familiar with. Maybe it is a version of “Southern” that only exists in one dude on the entire planet.

Smith is from Pearisburg, Virginia just outside of Blacksburg. Surely that informs who he is, but he is also shaped by the wealth of conversations he has had and the characters he has met from his professional life.

“At our company, you have to work really hard to not only make it, but to sustain it. I try hard to do that every day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve said it before, man. I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have. You piece all of those different things together, and along with opportunity you can do something special, and I’m trying to do that every day.”

The Marty Smith you see on TV is the guy that will hand you a box of beef jerky just because you had a great conversation. He is the guy you see in that viral video from a few years back giving a young reporter advice and encouragement.

You can be confused by Marty Smith. You can have your questions about him and his motivations. They aren’t going to change him though. It took too long for him to become who he is to start second-guessing it now.

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BSM Writers

Another World Cup Run Ends And There’s Still No Soccer Fever In The USA

“We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.”

Brian Noe

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Soccer fever? Hardly. Not in the United States at least. The US Men’s National Team lost in the round of 16 against the Netherlands 3-1 last Saturday. The ratings are in. And the ratings are revealing.

An average of 12.97 million viewers tuned in to see the Netherlands-United States World Cup match on FOX. Before you say, “Hey, not bad,” consider the fact that the ratings are down from eight years ago when 13.44 million viewers watched the USMNT lose to Belgium in the knockout stage on ESPN.

Even more damning are the ratings of the USMNT’s initial match in the 2022 World Cup against Wales, an unhealthy 8.31 million viewers.

Let me get this straight; fans waited, waited, and waited some more to finally see the USMNT in World Cup action, and the first game in eight years drew 8.31 million viewers? Really?

There were 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital that watched the NFL Network’s telecast of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game in London. That was a Week 5 game in the NFL compared to the World freaking Cup. Network television (FOX) compared to cable TV (NFL Network). And the ratings are comparable? Come on, US Soccer. Y’all gotta do better than this.

*Mini rant alert — it drives me crazy when soccer in this country is consistently compared to soccer in this country. The promoters of the sport paint an obnoxiously rosy picture of the growing popularity by comparing US soccer now to US soccer then. It’s a joke.

It would be like comparing Nebraska’s 4-8 record in college football this year, to Nebraska’s 3-9 record last year. “Hey, things are looking up!” Never mind the fact that the Cornhuskers are significantly trailing several teams in its conference and many other teams across the country. That’s US soccer in a nutshell. Don’t compare it to other leagues and sports that are crushing it, just say we’re up 10% from last year. Ridiculous.

*Mini rant continuing alert — the Michigan-Ohio State game drew 17 million viewers last month. The New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving drew 42 million viewers. Those are regular-season matchups compared to the biggest stage soccer has to offer. But go ahead and just compare US soccer to itself.

And no, the edge you might feel in my words isn’t born out of fear that soccer will somehow surpass the popularity of football. That would be like Mike Tyson being scared that the Stanford Tree mascot could beat him up. US soccer isn’t a threat, it’s a light breeze. I just hate a bad argument. And many soccer apologists have been making bad arguments on the behalf of US soccer for years. *Mini rant over

The World Cup didn’t prove that American fans are invested in soccer. It proved that we love a big event. It’s the same recipe every four years with the Olympics.

During the 2016 summer games in Rio, when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the pool for what turned out to be his final outing in an Olympic competition, the ratings peaked at 32.7 million viewers. Phelps helped Team USA win gold in the men’s 100-meter relay and then rode off into the sunset.

We don’t really care about swimming. When’s the last time you asked a friend, “You heading out tonight?” and the response was, “Are you crazy? The Pan Pacific Championships are on.”

Whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, Americans care about the overall event much more than the individual sport. We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.

Ask yourself this, at the height of US swimming’s popularity, would you have paid $14.99 per month to watch non-Olympic events? Me either. US soccer isn’t exactly on fire following its showing in the 2022 World Cup, so the timing isn’t awesome to introduce a paywall for the sport’s top league in this country.

Apple and Major League Soccer have announced that MLS Season Pass will launch soon. I know you’re excited, but try to stay composed. Yes, MLS Season Pass will launch on February 1, 2023. It’s a 10-year partnership between MLS and Apple that features every live MLS regular-season match, the playoffs, and the League’s Cup.

Have I died and gone to heaven?

How much?

It’ll run you $14.99 per month or $99 per season on the Apple TV app. For Apple TV+ subscribers — make sure you’re sitting down for this, you lucky people — it’s $12.99 per month or $79 per season. If you don’t have US soccer fever right now, I doubt you’re running out to throw down cash on a product you aren’t passionate about.

Now if the USMNT won the 2022 World Cup, cha-ching. The popularity of US soccer would definitely grow in a major way. Even if they had a strong showing while reaching the quarterfinals, the momentum would be much greater. But a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the group of 16? Nope. This isn’t it. I don’t expect much more than some tumbleweed rolling by instead of cash registers heating up for MLS Season Pass.

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BSM Writers

Colorado Hiring Deion Sanders Will Be Constant Gift for College Football Media

“If Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers, he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor.”

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Deion Sanders quickly made it clear why the University of Colorado chose him to be its next head football coach.

Coming off a weekend in which the four College Football Playoff teams were announced and all of the other bowl-eligible teams accepted their invitations, Colorado — which went 1-11 this past season — made news for hiring Sanders, the former NFL star who was phenomenally successful at Jackson State.

The media that covers college football and sports as a whole should be thrilled that the Buffaloes program decided to take a big leap for attention and notoriety. Sanders is a bold, risky hire. But he’s also been successful in virtually every venture he’s taken. “Primetime” had a Hall of Fame NFL career and also played Major League Baseball. And he’s a master at drawing attention to himself.

During his first meeting with his new team, Sanders made sure to mention that he has Louis Vuitton luggage to make the point that some of his Jackson State players are coming with him to Boulder — including his son, quarterback Shadeur Sanders. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart probably don’t cite luxury fashion when explaining to their players that they’ll have to compete for starting positions.

Coach Prime will not be boring to cover. (That self-appointed “Coach Prime” title, which was on his name plate at his introductory press conference, is a big clue there.) He never has been. This is a man who said during the 1989 NFL Draft, after being selected No. 5 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, that if the Detroit Lions had selected him at No. 3, he “would’ve asked for so much money, they’d have had to put me on layaway.”

Even if he doesn’t win as much as Colorado hopes, Sanders will pursue top talent — players who want to perform on a larger stage than the FCS-level Jackson State allows — and impact athletes will be attracted to him. He got the No. 1 recruit in the nation, cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, to play for him. (Hunter is following his coach to Boulder.) Now that Sanders is at an FBS school in a Power 5 conference, more stars will surely come.

But if Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers — going 27-5 in three seasons, including a 12-0 campaign in 2022 — he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor. And he’ll get the attention that such figures typically draw from media and fans. According to the Denver Post‘s Sean Keeler, at least 400 people attended what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.

Coach Prime wasn’t going to just win the press conference, which is what any school and fanbase want when a new coach is introduced.

If Colorado wanted someone to sit at a podium, and give platitudes like “We want to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoff,” “We’re going to build a program with young men you’ll be proud of,” or “It’s time to restore Colorado to the football glory we remember,” Sanders isn’t the guy for that.

“Do I look like a man that worries about anything? Did you see the way I walked in here? Did you see the swagger that was with me?” Sanders said during his introductory presser. “Worry? Baby, I am too blessed to be stressed. I have never been one for peer pressure. I put pressure on peers. I never wanted to worry, I make people worry. I don’t get down like that. I am too darn confident. That is my natural odor.”

To no surprise, Sanders announced his presence in Boulder with authority. He had cameras following him as he met with Colorado players for the first time. How many other coaches would have recorded what many would see as a private moment for posterity and post it online?

Sanders caused a stir by putting his players on notice. He warned them he was coming, telling them they’ll be pushed so hard they might quit. He told them to enter the transfer portal and go someplace else if they don’t like what he and his staff are going to do.

That candor, that brutal honesty surprised many fans and media when they saw it Monday morning. For some, that message might have felt too familiar. How many in media — or many other industries — have worried about their job status when a new boss takes over? What may have seemed secure days earlier is now uncertain.

But how do we know other coaches haven’t said something similar when taking over at a new job and addressing their team? We just hadn’t seen it before. But Sanders has been in the media. He knows social media. He understands controlling his own message and telling his story.

Sanders also knows what kind of value he brings to any venture he takes on. How many people would have left an NFL Network gig for Barstool Sports? But Sanders went to where his star would shine, where he was the main show, where he could be Deion Sanders. Maybe he’ll have to turn that down just a bit at Colorado. But athletic director Rick George knows who he hired.

Colorado could have made a safer choice, including previous head coaches Tom Herman, Bronco Mendenhall, or Gary Patterson. A top assistant from one of this year’s Playoff contenders — such as Georgia’s Todd Monken, USC’s Alex Grinch, Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, or Michigan’s Sherrone Moore — could also have been an option.

But what fun would that have been? What kind of tremor would Colorado have created in the college football news cycle? How much attention would a more conventional hire have received? Yes, Sanders has to recruit and win. However, if the objective was to make Colorado football a talking point again, that’s been accomplished.

There could be some friction too. Sanders has already been criticized for being a champion of HBCUs, only to bolt for a mainstream Power 5 program when the opportunity opened. (To be fair, other columnists have defended the move.)

At Jackson State, Sanders tried to control local media when he didn’t like how reporters were addressing him or covering a story. Last year during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Day, he balked at a Clarion-Ledger reporter addressing him as “Deion,” not “Coach,” insisting that Nick Saban would’ve been shown that respect. Earlier this season, Sanders admonished a school broadcaster (and assistant athletic director) for speaking to him more formally on camera than he did off-camera.

Will that fly among Boulder and Denver media, or the national college football press? It’s difficult to imagine. Maybe Sanders will ease back on his efforts to control reporters within a larger university environment, metropolitan area, and media market. But we’re also talking about Deion Sanders here. He doesn’t bend to outside forces. He makes them bend to him.

Sanders’ stint in Boulder — whether it lasts the five years of his contract and beyond, or less than that — will not be dull. There could be no better gift for the media covering Colorado football. Or college football, a sport already full of bold personalities, eccentric to unhinged fanbases, and outsized expectations. Coach Prime will fit right in.

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