One of the best scenes in the movie This Is Spinal Tap is when Nigel Tufnel explains that his guitar amps go to 11. “If we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? 11. Exactly.”
There are many sports radio hosts that only go to six or seven in terms of passion, work ethic, and entertainment value. Dave “Softy” Mahler is not one of those hosts. He could coast by based on a long history of success. Instead Softy attacks each show as if he still has something to prove. That’s refreshing.
Softy has been a kingpin in Seattle dating back to 1997 when he got his first show on 950 KJR. The Bellevue native currently hosts afternoon drive from 3-7pm alongside Dick Fain. Softy talks about his East Coast delivery and unique sound in the market. It’s kind of like putting Slayer or Cannibal Corpse among the Seattle grunge scene, but it works. Softy also touches on what he regrets most in his career, the area as a host he isn’t good in, and what would be a dream come true before his career ends. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: How did you get your nickname?
Dave “Softy” Mahler: Basically I had erectile dysfunction when I was a teenager, which — no I’m kidding.
DM: I used to weigh 270 pounds. When I was hired at KJR back in the early ‘90s I worked with a producer named Pat Haller. For some reason he just started calling me Softy. He started poking me one day and just said “Man you’re kind of soft. You’re like the Pillsbury Doughboy.” It was back in the day when it was still acceptable to poke fun at people for their weight. I just took it all in stride and figured hell nobody else is nicknamed Softy so I guess I could be the first one. I’m either going to be a genius or a complete idiot. That’s how I got the nickname back in my fatter days.
DM: It’s been a while since you’ve been that big, right?
DM: Yeah almost five years. I ended the 30/10 program in November of 2015 and was down 70 pounds. That was four and a half years ago. I went from a double D cup to an A cup. I just got tired of waking up and being exhausted. I saw the pictures of myself and just said, man, I look disgusting. I just got tired of it. Ian Furness did 30/10. He lost a bunch of weight. I said hell if that bastard can do it then I can do it too. I lost 70 pounds and I’ve kept the weight off ever since so it’s pretty cool.
BN: You’re back in the studio now?
DM: Yeah back in the studio now, man. I had a chance to do the show from home. I basically turned it down. Dick Fain, who does the show with me, he’s doing the show from his house. He’s got kids. He’s got a wife at home as well. He felt more comfortable doing the show from home. Despite what people think in this business, we don’t have an endless supply of equipment for everybody. When you’ve got eight radio stations in the same cluster, you’ve got to share a lot. We just didn’t have enough equipment to go around for everyone to do their show from home.
Plus I think it’s good for one of us to be in the main studio. They set it up so nobody uses the same mic throughout the day. The chair that I sit in, the mic that I use is my mic and my chair. Nobody else uses it. They’ve done a great job of spreading everybody out and making sure everybody is staying healthy and safe and happy. I think I’d go freaking crazy if I was staying home all day long. Doing the show from home would drive me nuts. Just getting in the car and doing the drive to work is kind of giving me a sense of normalcy.
BN: What has it been like doing a show in general with the pandemic going on?
DM: It’s been fine. Honestly dude, with all the shit going on in the world right now and people out of work and struggling to get by, it just seems a little bit ridiculous for me to be complaining about putting together a radio show. Radio in the end is about entertainment. There are a million ways to keep people interested. There are a million things to talk about.
There’s never been an easier time to get guests on because guys are sitting around doing nothing. Guys that you’d normally have a hard time getting on are like, “Oh yeah, I’ll jump on. Sure, no problem.” We’ve had no problem putting together a show. We’ve had no problem putting together content.
I don’t know if anybody’s listening for God’s sake. It’s a double whammy; there are no sports and there’s nobody in their car. It’s been tough in that regard, but actually putting together a show and having content and creating good radio that you feel like is actually something that people want to listen to, it’s been the least of our concerns.
BN: You’ve been at KRJ for over 25 years. What did you do before that?
DM: Before KJR I worked as a producer on an alcohol recovery talk show. It was wild taking calls from alcoholics, running the board for Neil Scott, who hosted the radio show, who now works for us. I did play-by-play for Seattle Prep for two years. I basically was in school. I got hired at KJR when I was 21 years old as an intern in March of ‘94. I got hired full time in November of ‘94.
I was at a community college in Bellevue and got hired at KJR and just figured the hell with it. I already got the job I’m looking for. I can go to a four-year school somewhere else and just get in debt, but I’m going to end up looking for the same job I have now. I just left school early, did two years at JC, and went to KJR in November of ‘94 full time. I’ve never had a penny of school debt, which has been great obviously. I got lucky, man. I got that job right out of the gate and I’ve been there ever since.
BN: Has there been anything from those early days when you were just learning radio that you still incorporate in the show you’re doing now?
DM: Oh yeah, all the time. Working hard is working hard, right? Busting your ass is busting your ass whether it’s as a producer in the ‘90s or a guy that’s on the air right now in 2020. In the end I think all of us have certain philosophies about what’s kept us going and what’s kept us employed. I’ve always thought for me really before what we do on the air it’s about the clients. It’s about making money for the radio station. It’s about proving your worth financially. I think people tend to forget that sometimes in this business — that in the end are we in the ratings business? Yeah. Are we in the great content business? Yeah. But you know what? In the end honestly we’re all in the f***in’ making money business. That’s what we’re doing this for. That’s why we’ve been hired.
We’ve been hired to go on the air and make money for the company that we work for. If I’m not making money for iHeartMedia, then I’m worthless. If I’m not making money for KJR, then what’s the point of having me on the radio station? I’ve seen a lot of great shows that do great radio but can’t make money because their sales staff can’t sell makeup to a clown. I’ve heard some boring radio shows that put me to sleep but they make money because they work for a great sales staff and they have great relationship with their clients and they also have tremendous play-by-play partners that bring in big numbers for the radio station. Really when it’s all said and done, dude, doing great radio is awesome and having funny, entertaining content is awesome, but if you’re not making money for the station, if you’re not bringing in cash for the company you work for, then what good are you?
BN: I like your style; you sound Philly. You sound New York. You’ve got some edge. If you were brand new to the Seattle market, do you think that style would play?
DM: It’s a great question. I honestly have no idea, man. My father is from New York. My mother is from Michigan so I do have a little bit of East Coast blood in me for sure. Do people want maybe a little bit of a less abrasive guy now than they did 25, 30 years ago? I’ve got no idea. I really don’t. I just know one speed and one way. I kind of pride myself in believing that I’m the same guy on the air as I am off the air. People have told me that before and I really take that as a compliment.
Nothing drives me more crazy when I flip on a radio station or listen to a game on radio and I hear mister radio guy or mister broadcaster. All these cookie cutters out there that just do the same damn thing over and over again and have the same tired guests and the same tired ideas and the same tired segments and the same tired approach.
I want something unique. I want something that I can’t get on the other station. I want something that I can’t get in a different city. I want something that’s memorable. I want personality. Hopefully we give that to people. If we ever get to a point where they’re not getting it, then I’m probably doing something else to be honest with you.
BN: Who are some of the other hosts that you think are good?
DM: I love Cowherd. I think Cowherd is great at what he does. I think he’s full of shit half the time, but aren’t we all? So what. Who cares that I disagree with his takes? Who cares that I think his takes are out there? He’s entertaining. He entertains me. I think he’s funny as hell. I think his takes are strong as hell. I think his takes are intelligent. I may disagree with him half the time but they’re intelligent. They’re well thought out. He does a great job of basically presenting his arguments so everybody can understand it. I think he’s great at what he does.
I’m a big fan of Tony Bruno. I’ve known Tony for a long, long time going back to his days on ESPN Radio when it was him, Chuck Wilson, and Peter Brown. They were doing a three-man show on the weekends and it was the greatest sports talk radio I’ve ever heard. It was like 25 years ago.
T-Man Rob Tepper when he was doing a show for Sports Fan and then eventually working for us doing nine to midnight. I thought Rob was one of the best sports talk radio hosts I’ve ever heard in my life. It was great to get a chance to work with him for that short time.
Locally Mike Gastineau and Dave Grosby are the godfathers of sports talk radio in Seattle. Gas has been retired for a while and Groz is doing his gig on 710. Those two guys for me were one of the biggest reasons why I got in to radio. Hell I used to call both of those guys when I was just Dave in Bellevue calling KJR when Groz and Gas were doing shows together. Separately I would call Gas and I would call Groz and talk to both those guys as a caller. I’ve still got tapes of me calling Groz back when I was probably 19, 20 years old. Those guys inspired me. They were local heroes to me growing up and the fact that I was even able to remotely follow in their footsteps is pretty freaking crazy. It’s like a dream come true today even 25 years later.
BN: When you evaluate yourself as a host, what area do you look at and say, ‘I’m not the greatest at this?’
DM: I think most of the shows I do suck to be honest with you. I can’t stand listening to myself. I hate hearing myself. It drives me nuts when I’m in the car and I hear one of my spots come on the air, or I hear somebody replay an interview of mine. I just cringe. I just can’t stand listening to my own voice. It’s a miracle the audience doesn’t feel the same way to be totally honest with you. I’m always uber-critical. We could have a phenomenal show for 99 out of 100 minutes and that one minute that sucks is the one minute I’m going to dwell on for the rest of the evening.
I’m way too hard on myself when it comes to little things. Things that people that aren’t in this business probably for the most part wouldn’t even notice, I freakin’ hammer myself for. I wish I enjoyed it more because in the end as Kevin Calabro once told me we are all lucky enough to work in the toys and games department. We’re not curing polio. We’re not saving lives over here. We’re not putting our lives on the line like cops and firemen are every single day. We’re not fighting the pandemic the way nurses and doctors are. We are talking sports for f***’s sake. We should be enjoying this.
My biggest problem that I’ve had is that I get way too stressed out and I don’t enjoy it as much as I should. I would really, before it’s all said and done no matter when that is, I would like to find a way to slow down and actually enjoy this because we’re lucky as hell, both of us, to do what we do.
BN: No doubt about that. How about your biggest strength — what do you think it is?
DM: I think my biggest strength is I just maybe — first of all I just feel terrible talking about myself like this. It actually embarrasses me. To sit here and actually jump on the phone with you and have me talk about what I do well, it just makes me want to throw up. Guys that are self-congratulatory, guys that go out of their way to tell people how great they are, it makes me want to puke.
It’s not your job to decide what you’re good at. It’s your audience’s job. It’s your boss’s job. It’s your client’s job to decide what you’re good at. I could tell you I do a million things great. I think I do a great interview. I think I get to the damn point when it comes to interviews unlike some people who beat around the bush. I pride myself on being able to have a take on really any topic you can throw at me. If I don’t have a take I can bullshit my way through it. I just feel that it’s not our job to decide what we’re good at.
BN: As far as the future goes, man, what would you like to do before it’s over and you retire?
DM: Great question. I thought about that maybe 10, 15 years ago getting into play-by-play. I would have loved to have tried my hand at play-by-play. My dream job growing up as a kid was to be the voice of Husky football, to be the next Bob Rondeau and just for whatever reason didn’t put in the work to go down that road. I believe if I did put the work in there’s a chance I may have been pretty good at it. I just never got a chance to prove to myself whether I was right or wrong. I kind of regret that. That’s one regret that I have that I wish I would have put a little more effort into trying to get in to play-by-play.
Not that I don’t enjoy and love what I do as a talk radio host but I think I would have also enjoyed doing play-by-play. I wonder every now and then how things would have gone. Is it too late for me to get in to that side of the business? I’m 46. I’ll be 47 years old in August. Maybe that ship has sailed. Maybe I’m too abrasive to be in that role for certain people. Maybe they want more of a neutral type guy, a guy that’s not going to ruffle feathers. I’ve actually talked to folks in the industry before who say that maybe I would be way too opinionated on the air to be in that role. I don’t know. That’s one regret that I’ve got.
You know what I would love to do honestly? I would love to go on the air one day and tell my audience that the f***ing Sonics are coming back to Seattle. That’s a goal. That’s the kind of shit I dream about. Doing play-by-play one day would be great, but going on the air and telling people the Sonics are coming back to Seattle and the NBA has approved a relocation or an expansion team for Seattle, that’s the stuff that drives me. I hope I last long enough to be able to do something like that.
The Craig Carton/FanDuel Deal Is Undeniably A Good Thing
“Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better.”
Craig Carton is destined to forever be a polarizing figure in the world of sports media. Long before he was arrested, he had plenty of detractors that considered him less of a talk show host and more of a shock jock. Add to it a conviction for his role in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors in order to pay back gambling debts, and it is clear that the guy’s approval rating will never hit 100.
There are understandable reasons not to like a guy and then there are grudges. Grudges don’t have to be personal. They don’t have to spring from some sort of affront. They can easily be born out of feeling like someone has figured out a way to live a life above the rules and free of consequence for their awful actions.
Grudges can (and often do) blind us to reality. I think that is a big part of what is happening when people point to Craig Carton’s new deal with FanDuel and say that there is something wrong with it.
If you missed the announcement last week, Carton is joining FanDuel as the company’s first “responsible gaming ambassador.” He will create content about gambling responsibly and also work with FanDuel engineers to create AI to spot problem gambling patterns. The deal gives Craig Carton a seat at the table with one of the biggest mobile sportsbooks in shaping their responsible gaming policy. Isn’t that a good thing?
I probably cannot convince you to view the guy in any particular light. When it comes to former inmates being rehabilitated and getting a second chance, we tend to be very dug in with our opinions, whatever may influence them.
Undeniably, Carton did a bad thing. Swindling people out of huge chunks of money is always bad. In America, it somehow seems worse. As costs of living increase and wages remain flat, every dollar is accounted for and allotted to something for most of us. The guy should be ashamed of himself. And here’s the thing: he clearly is.
Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better. Hell, what other station in America dedicates any time at all, even just a half hour on the weekend, to issues of addiction and recognizing problem habits? This deal with FanDuel seems perfectly in line with his previous attempts to atone.
You don’t have to like Craig Carton, but you do need to acknowledge that everything he has done in terms of highlighting his problem with gambling and offering help to those that he sees a little bit of his own struggles in has been sincere. There is no reason to believe it isn’t.
Under the terms of the deal, not only will Carton advise and create content for FanDuel, but the company will also make sure Hello, My Name is Craig finds a bigger platform. You can be cynical and say that this is just part of a bigger deal between FanDuel and WFAN parent company Audacy, but FanDuel’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mike Raffensperger explained that it is good for the gaming industry to promote betting responsibly.
“I think what we recognize we needed is to add some humanity as to how we get this message across,” he said when explaining why Carton was the perfect face for this campaign.
We see it every time we post a story about sports betting. Someone will comment that it is an evil practice and that the advertising has made sports radio disgusting. The reality is that it is no different from alcohol. For most people, it is harmless. Plenty though, cannot handle it. Still, you tell me the first time you hear an ad break on sports radio or see a commercial break during a game without a beer commercial.
If you really believe sports gambling is evil and want people to stay away from mobile or physical sportsbooks, who do you think the ideal person to be delivering that message is?
You can go with the puritan approach of tisk-tisking strangers and telling them they are flawed people that are going to Hell or you can have a guy that has literally lost it all because of his addiction out front telling you “I know I cannot place a bet and here is why. If that sounds familiar, maybe it is time for you to seek help.” It seems pretty obvious to me that the latter approach is exactly what Raffensperger is talking about – using humanity to reach the people they need to.
Craig Carton committed a crime. A court of law said he had to pay for that both with restitution to his victims and with jail time. He served his time. Deals like this one with FanDuel make it possible for him to stay on schedule with the restitution payments. Even if you think he is unforgivable, that should make you happy, right?
It is admittedly strange to see a mobile sportsbook hire a “responsible gaming ambassador.” I would argue though that it is only strange because it isn’t something we have seen before. Be skeptical if you are the “I’ll believe it when I see it” type, but I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to congratulate and celebrate both Craig Carton and FanDuel.
Sports Radio America: The Starting Point When There Is No College Radio
“If we want to replace talent with talent, we have to develop talent at the lowest levels much more than asking for requirements at the highest levels. Every industry needs their farm-system.”
It is a laboratory. A place to make mistakes. A spot to make friends. The hub of many communications schools. College radio stations are the pipeline by which young, aspiring broadcasters, engineers and producers carve their path to the pros. Broadcasters from around the United States credit college radio for helping them get to where they are today, and view it as a conduit for the next generation of talent.
“I can’t speak highly enough about my college experience doing radio,” said Evan Wilner, senior radio producer at ESPN and former member of WRHU-FM at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “I realized in college that I am much better at fixing things rather than talking while other people tried doing something about it. Every place I’ve been, I feel like I’ve been ahead of the game because of the experience I got in college.”
Wilner’s story is far from unique among professionals in broadcasting today, and proves valuable in ascertaining the role college radio plays in preparing broadcasters in their journey. Travis Demers, the radio play-by-play voice of the N.B.A.’s Portland Trail Blazers, shares a similar sentiment regarding the opportunities college radio afforded him, and how it helped him work in the industry he had a nascent passion for.
“In sixth grade, I was listening to WFAN, and when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player, I started [radio] right away as a college freshman.”
Demers attended LIU Post in Brookville, N.Y. beginning in 1999, and eventually served as the sports director of WCWP-FM. In his time at the station, Demers was given numerous opportunities to broadcast football, basketball and lacrosse games on campus, eventually leading to an internship, and corresponding full-time job, at ABC Radio in New York City.
“Everything I could do specifically with sports is what I was trying to do right from the start,” reminisced Demers, “and I was fortunate enough to do that.”
Dan Zangrilli, who serves as a play-by-play announcer at West Virginia University and host of the M.L.B.’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ pre- and post-game shows on 93.7 The Fan, got his start in college radio at Clarion University in Clarion, P.A. The 4,000-watt WCUC 91.1 FM was Zangrilli’s place to get practice broadcasting live basketball games, and hosting a morning talk show.
“I had free reign; it was basically like my easel,” elucidated Zangrilli. “I started out as a freshman and became the sports director, and ascended to the general manager position by my junior year. That’s just such invaluable experience to be immersed in every aspect of the radio industry, and I wouldn’t trade that place for anything.”
In a media landscape full of changes accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifespan of college radio as a subset of the industry is at greater risk of being classified as ephemeral than ever before, a harrowing realization that one former operations manager for a mortgage company had in Memphis, Tenn. had just over a decade ago.
Ayokunle Spencer, a graduate of the University of Memphis and former paralegal, was working for the Rawlings Company in Louisville, Ky., when he happened to overhear a conversation that forever changed his life. One of his co-workers was apprehensive about how his daughter, set to graduate from the University of Louisville, would leave as the school’s radio station would be shut down due to a lack of funding. At the onset of the 2008 economic recession, college radio stations were slashed from budgets around the country, stymying the development of prospective talent and rendering vagabonds heavily involved, and invested, students. Forsaken from the ability to develop the skill set and collect the air checks needed to land a job in the industry, Spencer decided it was time to make a concerted effort to resuscitate an ostensibly-dying concentration of the evolving medium.
“When the need presented itself… we [tried to] put something together [to give] people opportunities to sharpen the skills, and develop the next broadcast talent,” said Spencer. “We posted on the message boards at the colleges and, in about a year’s time, there was an influx of different students we were getting a chance to work with.”
Sports Radio America was founded by Ayokunle Spencer in 2008 as a digital broadcasting network intended to give college students attending universities without a campus radio station the chance to polish their on-air skills and perfect their craft. A member of the jazz-format WUMR while attending the University of Memphis, Spencer had previous experience in pitching up-and-coming hip-hop and R&B artists to local radio stations, including the likes of All-Star and Yo Gotti, through his promotional company and record label, Dynasty Digital Entertainment. Progressive in his thinking, Spencer was one of the first to stream radio broadcasts on the Internet, assisting Bishop G.E. Patterson in the dissemination of a small, A.M. religious station to the masses.
“Radio was always a passion for me as a kid,” said Spencer, “but I always took steps towards that passion before the University of Memphis. I felt, at that time, I was more at the forefront of what was going to come next. I wrote a paper that the Internet would be the place for media in thirty years, and twenty-five years later, I think I was dead on with that one.”
Conceived by means of necessity, Sports Radio America is a haven for young talent, broadcasting live games and talk radio shows on the Internet. The outlet, though, became more of a potpourri of commentators and journalists alike in order to help them evolve to the dynamic world of mediated communication.
“What it started out to be isn’t necessarily what it is now, although I want to get back to those roots of working with highly-talented students and getting them prepared for the next stage of their careers,” said Spencer. “Other journalists that were leaving FOX or ESPN, or older guys that had gotten kicked out of their radio stations because they didn’t know anything about digital, they ended up here. It kind of became a collage of different broadcasters and media personalities from around the U.S.”
As Sports Radio America celebrates its 10-year anniversary, Spencer remains focused on positioning the media venture ahead of the pack, cogently aware of industry changes and best practices to help its broadcasters land jobs and the company prosper after unforeseen circumstances over the previous year-and-a-half.
“We just came through COVID, and in terms of advertising, all that stuff was crushed,” explained Spencer. “We are kind of almost in a rebuild mode now. We give people the opportunity to create something new, build up your audience and see if something works.”
Once Sports Radio America’s popularity began to grow around the country, the broadcasting outlet, to avoid being overwhelmed with participants, began interviewing and selecting talent to join them. Throughout his professional career, Spencer has had an innate ability to evaluate talent across all industries, something he calls “a God-given gift.” In his current role, which he compares to a professional football scout, one of Spencer’s jobs is to find the best people to join Sports Radio America, and help them get to where they want to go.
“The way my brain processes information, I can just tell certain people in certain things are creative enough to meet industry standards and excel,” said Spencer. “In sports radio, I evaluate voice, how interesting they are in being able to hold a conversation, the topics they pick out, etc. It’s really the only gift I think I actually have.”
Spencer has been successful in helping aspiring collegiate-level industry talent get the experience they need, with his organization serving as the pipeline many colleges have come to eliminate from their campuses. His method of evaluating talent aligns with principles employed by current hiring managers and industry professionals, such as Nick Cattles, host of The Nick Cattles Show on ESPN Radio 94.1 in Virginia Beach. Cattles highly values relatability and uniqueness in his evaluations of talent, along with if they are able to keep a listener actively engaged in their program.
“I think hosts around the country are better off when they allow themselves to be an open book,” said Cattles. “I always listen, probably more intently, to somebody who is willing to give the ‘secrets’ so to speak as opposed to somebody who is more guarded. The cool thing about radio is that there are so many talented people, and there is no one way to do it right. You try to find people who can do it their own way with the passion and the work-ethic that you can invest and believe in.”
Hardly esoteric in understanding, radio, and media altogether, is changing, and seismically in that matter. With today’s reliance on digital platforms for distribution, programs are, evidently, being adapted to fit the proclivities of the listening audience, including a shortening total attention span.
In a recent study by Microsoft, the average human being has an attention span of eight seconds, down a whopping four seconds over the last twenty years. This figure, which is shorter than that of a goldfish, is a direct byproduct of the principle of instant gratification, and the evolution of technology to enable its propagation. The inability to sustain focus has become an endemic in today’s society, and mediums of communication have had to adjust to fit this dynamic psychological paradigm.
Furthermore, consumers of mass media are more apt than ever before to selectively filter information; that is, specifically choosing what to concentrate on. As a result, media, in all of its forms, is less concentrated in scope, being narrowed to appeal to the target audience. The conflation of methodologies, simultaneously existing within a preponderance of content and a widening definition as to just who is considered to be a journalist, challenges the fundamental precept of what media is entirely. So how is radio adapting in this new landscape? By expanding its means of dissemination.
“It’s much more multi-faceted, social media-oriented and digital as opposed to [it being] siloed, [as it was] when I got into it,” said Brad Carson, operations and brand manager of 92.9 FM ESPN and Audacy Memphis Sports. “It used to be that you were a radio guy. Now in 2021, you are getting people that are entertainers. The latest joke is, ‘Hey, here’s our latest talent with one million TikTok followers.’ I think you can get people on a radio station or on our Audacy platforms from all walks of life. It’s a much more inexact science than [ever before].”
Spencer, whose progressive thoughts on the media landscape are openly conveyed in conversation, believes the introduction of streaming to be a considerable advancement that can play across multiple platforms. Unsurprisingly, he was ahead of the game at Sports Radio America, basing the online platform on this technology.
“The market for audio is always going to be there. The question is what medium we are going to use to deliver it,” said Spencer. “Everything will probably be streaming by 2030. I think that there will still be the public channels on the airwaves, but the majority of media will be consumed [via] streaming because [it is] a more accurate [platform] to measure who is listening. Whatever the next area of audio is, we will probably start it here first.”
Based on my conversations with these industry professionals, it is safe to say that Ayokunle Spencer, Brad Carson, Travis Demers, Evan Wilner, Dan Zangrilli and Nick Cattles attribute their college radio experience as one of the reasons they possess the skills to succed in their current jobs. Being able to have the flexibility to make mistakes, try new things and establish long-lasting professional relationships are invaluable to ambitious young broadcasters, and all evolving broadcasters for that matter. Belonging to a college media outlet is undoubtedly something many students savor, with many largely basing their choice of college on the quality of the media outlets if they are so fortunate. However, not all ambitious young broadcasters are equally privy to the same resources.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters are able to provide sufficient previous experience when trying to secure an internship or a job.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters are privy to changing industry trends, nor do they have the resources to render them an understanding as to how to achieve their goals.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters have a place to be mentored, and mentors willing to leverage valuable industry connections that could lead them to an internship or a job.
For Ayokunle Spencer and his team at Sports Radio America, lessening the discrepancies between those with the ability to easily make connections and expend resources, and those looking to establish or collect them, has always been at the forefront of their mission — and they intend to keep shrinking the gap.
“I am surprised there aren’t more places like this where people can develop their skills before they reach the big-time,” expressed Spencer. “If we want to replace talent with talent, we have to develop talent at the lowest levels much more than asking for requirements at the highest levels. Every industry needs their farm-system.”
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
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