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Mark Chernoff Likes To Work

“Passion about sports is the number one thing. You can teach people formatics.”

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He’s one of the most influential executives in sports radio, having operated the prime real estate that is New York’s WFAN for more than a quarter-century.

Since 1993, Mark Chernoff has been WFAN’s program director, shaping the station while working with superstar personalities such as the late Don Imus, Mike Francesa, Chris Russo, Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton. But just like the majority whose passion for radio drove them, Chernoff has been involved in many facets of the industry. Before joining FAN, he launched his career at music stations, working with Howard Stern, Opie and Anthony, and don’t forget the decade-plus Chernoff spent as a DJ himself.

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Chernoff has built one of the most successful careers in sports radio, playing the hits and allowing star talent to be themselves. It’s all part of the reason Barrett Sports Media introduced The Mark Chernoff Award, which is being presented to Mitch Rosen at this year’s BSM Summit.

Brandon Contes: How did you get to WFAN from K-Rock?

Mark Chernoff: I was asked to program FAN in 1992, but I wasn’t ready to make the move into sports full-time. By ‘93 Mel Karmazin (president Infinity Broadcasting) and Joel Hollander (WFAN general manager) convinced me it was a good idea and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve had side projects, I programmed WNEW a couple of times as a rock station in ‘96 and ‘97. I also programmed K-Rock again, including when we had that jaunt into Free FM (post Howard Stern).

BC: I didn’t realize you went back to K-Rock while still with WFAN.

MC: I did, at one point my days would start in Secaucus (New Jersey) where Imus did his show for FAN and MSNBC, then I would go to K-Rock and then FAN which was still in Queens. So I would go to three places most days and just had to remember where my car was at the end of the day to get home.

BC: When you came to FAN in ‘93, you couldn’t have envisioned how big sports radio would get, but did you look at it as a platform that had the opportunity to make a national impact?

MC: The expectations in the world were – nobody quite knew, even FAN didn’t get off to a great start in 1987. They turned to a lot of national talent. But when Imus came, and then with Mike and Chris together, the station set itself on an entirely different course. Local was important. Phone calls were important, the station was able to bond with its listeners and then we saw it in other cities.

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WIP, The Score – Mike North was in Chicago and he was a big star, Angelo Cataldi is still a big star in Philadelphia! In my case, at FAN what was great about Imus was he did a general market morning show, did he do sports? Some of the time, but it was not a sports show. He was able to incorporate the other shows at the station into his repertoire. So aside from his political and social talk and different bits, he talked about the other hosts and it brought comradery to the station which was a great way to cross promote the shows. And then of course Mike and Chris were killers in the afternoon.

Our team relationships helped us grow, we had the Mets for all those years. We had the Jets, then the Giants, we had the Knicks and the Rangers, we added the Nets and Devils, the Islanders for a while, now we’ve had the Yankees since 2014 and it’s great that the Mets are back with the company at WCBS so we can have a relationship with both teams.

BC: Has the industry changed in that aspect, or do you still value those team partnerships?

MC: I do, you hope it all works out financially, but it sets a great tone, especially in New York having these great franchises. I’ll promote the team, the games and the talent on the teams, but our hosts can still be critical. Sometimes somebody from a team will call because a host was critical. We promote them, we want people to listen to the games, but we also want to be fair and honest. I don’t want our talent to make personal attacks, but they’re entitled to critique teams and the decisions they make. Teams have to understand that’s what we do.

We’re here for all of New York and we’ve done a great job bonding with our listeners, even during crises. People find us and we’ll go off-sports if we need to talk about something else that involves the lifestyle of our listeners.

BC: That’s also one of the benefits to taking as many calls as you do and that’s something a lot of stations have differing opinions about, even in major markets. Is it more of a New York thing? Or are calls valuable to the format?

MC: It depends on the station, but you want listeners to be part of the station and something Mike Francesa always said about callers, if you’re calling, you’re now part of the show. If you’re listening, you’re a listener. Mike said, ‘I need these people to bring something to the table, if they’re a lousy caller, they’re going to hear about it.’ Sometimes I wasn’t thrilled if he was very short with callers, but his point was correct. If you’re going to call in, now you’re subject to going at it with the host.

BC: A string of bad calls can trigger someone to change the dial.

MC: Absolutely, but then Joe Benigno was Joe from Saddle River, he was a great caller. He won a contest we did and wanted to get into radio. I suggested the Connecticut School of Broadcasting to learn about the industry and a local radio station to develop. He did, he bought airtime at WJDM 1530 and did shows for several months. When I was ready to move Steve Somers to middays, I needed to hire somebody for overnights and he won the audition.

BC: Is it more valuable, for hosts to have passion for sports or passion for radio?

MC: Passion about sports is the number one thing. You can teach people formatics. And what I learned, especially working with Imus, Howard Stern and Mike is – as a program director you want the host to follow the format, but if they’re really good, the heck with the format.

Howard could do an 18-minute break of commercials and people weren’t going anywhere just in case he came back. People aren’t going away from really good talent. I tell newer talent to follow the format, but if you’re going to get killer ratings, I’m not an idiot, just get people listening. I’m not going to complain if you broke at 12 instead of 11. The format is important, but the talent is more important.

BC: How was working with Howard?

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MC: It was great. He and I got along great and I think he would say the same thing. Loved working together.

BC: You can also see the importance of talent by the number of hosts that are able to do well in other markets. Brandon Tierney was successful in San Francisco without being from there. Chris Carlin wasn’t a Philly guy when he went to WIP. Shan Shariff in Dallas.

MC: It’s harder if you don’t know the market well, but it can happen. Steve Somers came from San Francisco, the advantage he had was he sounded like he’s from New York and of course now he’s been here for 30 years people only think of him as a New Yorker. When I’m looking to hire people, I prefer there’s a New York base. Maybe they grew up here, worked here, have family here, follow a team here. It’s better to have a connection, which I think is the case in most cities.

BC: Do you still oversee all Entercom sports stations?

MC: They call it the sports captain. I’m in touch with a lot of our stations, and it’s not that I’m a passive captain, but I’m not big on conference calls. I check in with a lot of them and if they have an issue or need someone to bounce ideas off, use me. I don’t want to be on a call with 25 radio stations and each one can talk for a few minutes about their station. I’m going to be on the phone for an hour and a half and people will fall asleep. If we need a conference call, we’ll do it, some program directors want my input and I’m happy to provide that. Some prefer to do it themselves, but I enjoy working with other stations.

BC: Were you ever someone that collaborated with hosts and producers about show topics?

MC: Most of the talent is smart, they know the hot topics. If I hear something way off, I’ll attend to it, but most of our talent is on top of it. Mike and Chris knew more than I did. I wanted to be helpful where I could with contests or promotions, but they’re talented and smart so I knew to let them go.

BC: How about selecting producers, is that up to the hosts?

MC: It’s a combination. It depends on the hosts. When we put Ernie with Joe and Evan, we interviewed a lot of people and they had a lot of input. Mike and Chris, it was their call. They could tell if someone wasn’t a fit and if I didn’t like the decision, I would let them know, but that didn’t really happen.

BC: How long does it take to know if a show will be successful.

MC: It varies. After Imus, I tried a lot of different things. Boomer really wanted to do the morning show but wasn’t interested in Craig at first because he ‘heard bad things.’ I told him give it a try, and he did some checking up with New Jersey State Troopers to get comfortable [Laughs]. He was willing to give it a try, so I put them in a room, gave them five topics and said do four or five minutes on each. Chris Oliviero, the EVP of programming was with me listening. After a couple minutes I said, that’s my morning show. He asked, ‘how are you sure?!’ But I just knew, and look how long they lasted.

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It’s sad what happened to Craig, but he was extremely talented. I really wanted him to do the show with Boomer and it blossomed into a terrific show.

BC: Which was your biggest challenge, replacing Imus, Dog, Mike, Carton or Mike again?

MC: Each challenge when it came up was the hardest challenge. When Chris was leaving, I at least knew Mike was staying. When Imus left, that was an ‘oh no’ moment. I had to decide if I wanted to do a show like Imus, a general market morning show or should it be more of a sports show? Carton brought a lot of entertainment value outside of just sports. He knew enough sports to get by, but he brought so much entertainment value to the morning show. Boomer brought his own personality and leadership as an NFL MVP quarterback and it was a great mix.

BC: You went almost ten years without having to make a lineup change and you want that, but is it still exciting when you get to make those decisions and build new shows?

MC: I’m not one to make change for the sake of making change. You don’t want things to get stale. Mike and Chris had their ups and downs, but they were never stale, and I was sad when they decided not to work together anymore. Same with Joe and Evan, they’ve been together for a long time, but they haven’t gotten stale, they’ve gotten better.

BC: Is it a good thing to have all the press that surrounds the station when going through lineup changes or is that a nuisance?

MC: I don’t like it, because I’m not sure people are fair. Writers, listeners, TV hosts, everybody’s entitled to their opinion. My opinion matters to me and hopefully my company, I’ve never been one who goes for publicity. Somebody in the company once said, ‘nobody died, nothing bad happened, so we got publicity.’ I’m just not big on any negative publicity. The whole world harps on the negative, I wish it wasn’t like that, it’s not just in radio, it’s in life. News stations tried Happy-Talk, but nobody watched.

BC: What do you think about the digital aspect of radio, is podcasting the future?

MC: Podcasting is extremely important. It’s a supplement or complement to radio. You have to balance things, I want people to listen to the radio station, but if you can offer something else, that’s still good. Evan Roberts does a podcast, if he has 45-minutes to talk about something specific, maybe one of those podcast listeners will also tune into his radio show.

I don’t love competing with it, so I like when podcasts can be found at any time rather than having a listener go to this podcast at this hour. I’m more than happy to promote content that’s out there to have the listener go find it casually when they want it, but I don’t want to take them away from the radio.

BC: What about RADIO.COM’s set lineup of weekday shows, is that competition or is it okay because it’s the same company?

MC: There is a fine line, you want people to listen and you try not to make it at the expense of another part of the company. All of these things are important and helpful to the future of the company. They can be a supplement or complement to the radio station. We use Brian Scalabrine and Kendrick Perkins from RADIO.COM

BC: I love hearing both of them as guests.

MC: Yea, they’re very entertaining on our shows. It’s a double advantage, they’re great on the radio and we let them promote their RADIO.COM work, so we support each other and it benefits the company.

BC: Can too many podcasts water themselves down? RADIO.COM has 2500 podcasts, can you have 2500 good podcasts?

MC: Other companies have a similar situation. I can’t speak to all of them, but shows get weeded out and the best way to find gems is to have many. The ones that are gems are long-lasting. The ones that don’t last, you move on from and try something new.

If we don’t do that, if we’re not creative, we won’t grow as an industry. You’re limited with hours on the radio station. We know not every podcast is successful, [Laughs] but you need to be willing to try different things and give people opportunities.

BC: How about the BSM Summit in terms of being good for the industry and getting all these PD’s and different talent in one room to collaborate.

MC: I have a feeling I’ll be buying a lot of lunches this week [Laughs]. But it’s great, we have great talent, I’m so glad a lot of Entercom PD’s will be there, it’s hard to single anyone out, Mitch Rosen, Jim Graci, Gavin Spittle, Chris Kinard, Armen Williams, Spike Eskin…

BC: And Spike’s like you in that he went from being on-air at rock stations, to programming sports talk.

MC: We’ve all done different things, I got an MBA and I was an accountant for three months after graduate school and I hated it. But I benefited from that for two things. I once got a $20 raise because I told my bosses at WDAJ I had an MBA, and I still do my own taxes after all this time.

BC: You’ve been at WFAN since 1993, you’ve been in radio for a very long time.

MC: 400 years now

BC: [Laughs] Do you have an exit plan?

MC: My wife was a schoolteacher for many years, but she retired eight or nine years ago. She’s happy being retired and has projects she works on, we have nine grandchildren, who we love dearly and see as much as we can, but I like to work. I would miss it. I’m not ready to retire and I hope they want to keep me here. I love overseeing FAN, CBS Sports Radio and working with other stations. And if somebody needs help with classic rock, classic hits, I’m always available to put my two cents in.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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