The fine print at the bottom of a casino house ad? The rambling voice at the end of a public service announcement? Craig Carton was too far gone to heed the warnings, or the concerns of family members and close friends wondering why he was helicoptering directly from Atlantic City to his morning radio shift at WFAN, a sideways commute of the worst kind.
A disease had swallowed him. And before he could come up for air, a man in his early 50s who had everything in life but hair — a wife and kids, big-city success, riches, a Tribeca palace — was headed to a prison cell in central Pennsylvania.
Gambling made him do bad things.
But that doesn’t mean Craig Carton is a bad human being for life.
I am comfortable in expressing that because, unlike knee-jerk media executives who can’t blacklist an “unhireable rogue’’ quickly enough, I contacted him days before he left for Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Hooked on documentaries and involved in creating them, I saw Carton as a compelling subject and wanted to know why prosperity and fame weren’t enough for him, why he needed to gamble like a fiend and pay off debts by duping victims in a $7 million ticket-brokering scam. Having been in sports radio myself, I knew how gambling could ravage certain colleagues, once lecturing a car full of young producers — two have become leaders in the industry — about the personal wreckage awaiting them if they kept calling bookies every day. I waited years for my one-time program director to pay back a $3,000 loan.
When we spoke by phone, Carton was resigned to his fate — a 3 1/2-year sentence — but also inferred he was a media victim of sorts. This was understandable, given his treatment in a Manhattan courtroom by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, who mocked how a caller might greet him on the air: “Good afternoon, Mr. Carton, Colleen from New York. First time, long time.’’ Really? Did he even have a chance after that stunt? Once a high-profile public figure is caught in the hooks of a sensational tabloid story, all innocent-until-proven-guilty expectations are gone, regardless of the facts. I would know, having been through a lower-level media circus myself, and it was important for me to hear Carton’s side, knowing how news sites never completed a story that ended favorably for me, with my triumph in a civil case and a complete expungement of all charges.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting in the slightest that Carton didn’t deserve his sentence. But when he was released from prison this week after serving barely a year of his term, I did not yelp in protest. He has paid $5 million in restitution to his victims and will keep paying. He lost his family, his livelihood, and he’ll be branded a Ponzi scheme embezzler for life. With good behavior, he completed all requirements and programs demanded of him inside the prison walls. And he isn’t finished yet, with his next step a halfway house or home confinement, according to the New York Post. A year in prison — and three years of hell since his arrest — does constitute a firm measure of punishment for a non-violent crime.
“He paid his debt to society,’’ said Boomer Esiason, his former co-host, who received a call from Carton within hours of his release. “What I heard was a happy and relieved Craig Carton. He did everything he possibly could in jail to mitigate his sentence and try to get out as early as he possibly could.’’
So lash out if you must. Call Carton a privileged white male getting a break in a summer of racial unrest, sprung early — surely by his pal, Chris Christie — so he can resume radio stardom. Accuse me of conveniently forgetting his victims and his mountain of gambling losses. Sorry, I will not join close-minded, holier-than-thou wall builders who think Carton should be banished to a homeless encampment and never work again in a media industry that, candidly, has character issues on every level.
Yes, we must determine if he has still has a gambling sickness, which must be purged from his life for a corporation such as Entercom to grant him a second chance. But if he’s clean, Carton deserves the same shot that other media people receive upon overcoming illness — such as John Skipper, who was summoned to run the DAZN streaming service after a cocaine-extortion case (or so he said) ended his ESPN reign. Why not give Carton an afternoon slot and a new slate? He’s talented. He has generated monster ratings. He is raw, unabashed New York. And WFAN needs him, as Mike Francesa fades away and ESPN’s Michael Kay commands the afternoon-drive sports lead in the nation’s top radio market.
“I do believe he deserves a second chance, whether it be here at our station or another station,’’ said Esiason, who has settled in comfortably with Carton’s morning-drive successor, Gregg Giannotti. “He’s too talented not to be on the air somewhere.’’
If anything, I cast aspersions on media executives who have no equilibrium in handling such cases and have shown no such mercy toward equally talented media people. Networks are cowardly in not caring when athletes who carry substantial legal baggage — Ray Lewis, for one — are routinely hired as analysts. Yet they are quick to make examples of those who haven’t played professional sports, the very definition of a corporate double standard that strains the legal definition of tortious interference. As for Carton, let’s be honest: He and others in his situation need a sugar daddy to push them through the politics.
In which alternative universe would someone grant redemption to a host convicted in a Ponzi scheme? Don’t be shocked if it’s the universe of Carton’s former producer, Chris Oliviero, who runs the show at WFAN and has made no secret of reunion possibilities. I think we already know how this will go. Oliviero will place Carton in afternoons opposite Kay. HBO will move forward with the Carton documentary, timed with his return to radio, and it likely will involve his good friend, “Entourage’’ star Kevin Connolly. He will apologize, resume his extensive charity work and record his own PSAs about gambling’s evils. Christie will give him a bro hug — I doubt Chris Christie socially distances — and New York will embrace Carton’s second act as only New York can.
I cringe when thinking about young people getting into the business. Imagine being 21 and an independent thinker and dreaming of covering sports for a living, only to realize quickly how internal politics overwhelm idealism. Stuff happens. People screw up. Short of a heinous crime, you should not lose your career over it.
So I’m down with Carton returning to the air.
Whereas I’m just down on Bill Simmons, another sports media star in the news this week. I’ve always enjoyed Boston, from long river walks to pastry aromas in the North End, but one contradiction always has baffled me. How can a bastion of higher education also produce people who’ve trashed, if not completely ruined, the once-distinguished craft of sports media? The city produced Dave Portnoy, a piece of work who parlayed a proud moment in his life — publishing a naked penis shot of Tom Brady’s son, then age 2 — into a drunken-frat-boy empire called Barstool Sports. And it produced Simmons, a former bartender who decided to disrupt a town of estimable sportswriters by becoming the original Voice Of The Obnoxious Local Fan, which launched a reckless, overreaching career that finds him in a national firestorm over the scarcity of black employees at his digital site, The Ringer.
Simmons has talent and sports passion. And he helped create ESPN’s seminal documentary series, “30 For 30.’’ His problem: He shouldn’t be in charge of anything but turning on the coffee machine. When success as the “Boston Sports Guy’’ character landed him a column at then-fledgling ESPN.com, his bosses should have thanked the heavens for his large readership and let him flourish in that role. Instead, they created a multi-platform monster — and allowed that monster to devour Bristol. If his pieces were unique, his TV appearances passable and his literary work (“The Book Of Basketball’’) a masterpiece, it was Simmons’ lack of professional savvy that repeatedly sabotaged him.
He referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as “a liar,’’ a red flag in any law shop. As founder of ESPN’s Grantland site, he published a story that outed a transgender woman who committed suicide as the piece was bring prepared, requiring him to write a lengthy, awkward apology. Now, five years since his ouster at ESPN, Simmons is being attacked for his hiring practices amid a powerful racial reckoning in America. And again, it’s a controversy he could have avoided — and kept out of the New York Times, which detailed staff turmoil at The Ringer — by thinking with his brain and not his ass. But then, he used to write for Jimmy Kimmel, who is embroiled in his own racial issues — a blackface controversy and his past imitations of black voices, including a Snoop Dogg bit in which he used the N-word several times.
It’s unfathomable that two white Ringer podcasters, Simmons and Ryen Russillo, would broadcast a June 1 episode on racism and police violence without inviting a few black voices as fellow hosts. They called it, “A Truly Sad Week in America,’’ and they only made it sadder with ignorant commentary. Russillo’s mistake was to applaud Simmons, saying, “Look at you, Bill, look at the people you’ve hired, look at the company that you’ve started, look at the jobs and opportunities that you’ve given a diverse group, which I know you’re always looking to do. I’m not bulls—ting, I’m not kissing up to you here. These are facts.’’
Actually, to use the L-word, these are lies. The podcast angered Ringer staffers, with writer John Gonzalez tweeting, “If you’ve heard someone say The Ringer is a super diverse place, sadly that person does not know what he’s talking about. We have a long way to go, and I hope we get there.” Then the union representing Ringer workers weighed in with numbers: “In 2019, 86 percent of speakers on The Ringer Podcast Network were white. We have zero black editors. We have zero black writers assigned full time to the NBA or NFL beats.’’
Which makes the Man of The People, Bill Simmons, just another Malibu media mogul who doesn’t pay appropriate attention to racial inequality. At Grantland, he cultivated an us-against-the-world mentality among his staff and usually had the support of the bosses who enabled him, Skipper and John Walsh. But all three exited ESPN in a curious span, and suddenly, Simmons has no one to bail him out. He sold The Ringer site and podcast network to Spotify for almost $200 million, and now, he’s pretty lonely by the beach, dragging down the investors who showered him with riches.
I don’t doubt Simmons when he says he has sought diversity, as he did successfully at Grantland. But the union says The Ringer, which employs about 90 people, has only six black editorial staff members. Evidently, he isn’t trying hard enough to outbid competing sites — including ESPN’s “The Undefeated’’ — for the best talent. Wrote the union: “Diversity in the newsroom is essential to covering police brutality and systemic racism, including in the worlds of sports and pop culture. The Ringer has a lot of work to do.’’
By this point in their careers, Simmons and Russillo should know how to approach sensitive subjects with care. Same goes for their former ESPN colleague, Scott Van Pelt, who might want to eliminate this from his self-description at the top of his Twitter feed: “Mr. Whitefolks.’’ It’s a takeoff from a documentary on the lives of pimps and prostitutes, and if Van Pelt isn’t aware, “Mr. Whitefolks’’ is the only white pimp in the show. At one point, the character discusses a “Million Mack March’’ on Washington.
I’m guessing it will be removed from Van Pelt’s feed before you read this. Because, like so much else in our country, it’s just thoughtless and wrong. The least sports media can do, now more than ever, is think and make things right. Admit your mistakes and move on, as Carton has.
“I made mistakes,’’ he said. “Mistakes in my judgments, decisions and how I was living my life. I was wrong. I have, will and should continue to pay a dear price for those mistakes.’’
He deserves no applause when he returns to the air. But he deserves our ears — specifically, 12 million sets of them, or the number of problem gamblers in America.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.