The future for both Pablo Torre and ESPN Daily is brighter than ever.
The Harvard grad turned sports writer won viewers over following his on-air debut with ESPN. Championed by none other than the great Tony Reali, Pablo was an instant fan favorite of the Around The Horn rotation. In a press release from ESPN, the network cited that Torre’s regular presence on both Around The Horn and Highly Questionable will continue as he assumes the host position of the ESPN Daily Podcast, which launched in October.
The multi-platform success combined with the raw talent, ambition and insight that Pablo brings to the table as the new host of ESPN Daily have excited fans and talent in the industry.
In his eight years with ESPN, the audience and the sports media world are in for a treat as Torre’s arsenal is caked with weapons that highlight the key ingredients necessary for success in the podcast platform: journalism, skilled content selection, calculated research, thoughtful analysis, unbridled ambition and passion.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Pablo about his career and what to expect out of ESPN Daily with him at the helm.
Chrissy Paradis: So I’m going to start off by congratulating you on the news about ESPN Daily. How excited are you about this opportunity?
Pablo Torre: I’m wildly excited, and I’m in general a pretty picky person when it comes to what I take on in terms of projects, and this was one that as soon as I even vaguely heard a rumor about it, I was already super interested. It just makes a lot of sense for me and my skill set and my passions, and I’m a fan of the show and it’s coming out of a good bit of news for my friend Mina Kimes obviously, so it’s one of those rare sort of media transactions that is kind of celebratory all the way around. It’s actually been a really rewarding couple of days so far.
CP: Absolutely. And I know that you mentioned Mina Kimes and her work on the show thus far. I know there’s been mention of Mina continuing to join you on ESPN Daily from time to time, as well.
PT: Yes, so she’ll be one of our go-to football correspondents, and then she has kindly volunteered when I have to take some vacation to be a fill in host. So, she will still absolutely be part of the family.
This was something that she was obviously with from the ground floor, so I want to make sure that she feels both welcome and an active part of what we’re going to keep on building and developing.
CP: And in terms of the development, are there any changes or additions you plan to to implement as host of ESPN Daily?
PT: Yeah, definitely. I mean one of the obvious things that’s gonna happen for us is that the personality of the host will kind of shape, I think, a lot about the sensibility of it.
One of the great things about this show and why I was so excited about taking it over is that Mina has a sort of managing editor role when it comes to picking and choosing what she wants to cover and how to cover it. And we have an amazing team of people that ESPN built and gathered and hired that is obviously essential to the doing of the show– but the host’s ability to shape that coverage, is I think the obvious way it’ll change.
But beyond that…I love the show as it is, I want to keep growing it. I want to keep increasing the audience that’s sort of implicit in the task at hand but for me, I’m excited about pushing the limits of what they’ve done. So, for instance, we’re a five day a week, daily show and they have done such a great job of curating and elevating voices within the company–journalist’s voices, based on the stories they do. We absolutely want to continue to be the place to get those voices to sports fans everywhere, but for me, I also think it’d be cool to sort of play with the form and format a little bit. So, we can do shows like that, but I’d like to sort of sprinkle in a little bit more newsmaking and even news breaking. I think the podcast format in the daily context that we do it in can actually be a real venue that’s worth investing in, when it comes to breaking some news; so I want to do a little bit more of that.
I want to continue to establish go-to correspondents, people who I can return to over and over again, that listeners of the podcast can expect to hear from because I think curating a sort of rotation like that would be really cool. And I also want to spotlight new voices.
So for me, I think there is the interviewing of journalists, there’s the interviewing of newsmakers, and then I think there is also the possibility to do a little fun theater of the mind stuff, sort of play with narrative a bit more.
Obviously, this is all very abstract but I think with a five day a week show, the ability to be multiple, as an NFL coach might say, in our approach, in our scheme is actually one of the advantages of this format and one that we actually have the staff to do.
CP: That kind of leads into my next question. You worked with Bomani Jones for a number of years. He’s such an innovative, forward thinker who broke the fourth wall in sports television by having conversations directly and honestly. What have you learned from him and what are some of your more memorable High Noon moments?
PT: Yeah, I mean what I enjoyed so much doing High Noon that I will use to inform this podcast is the value of a deep conversation. And having the space to explore digressions having the space to engage as you said with the audience about topics that maybe they don’t hear about all the time on sports talk shows or sports radio shows or podcasts. That’s exactly the sensibility that I want to bring, and the standard I want to uphold when it comes to having discussions on this podcast. I want to have not just the conversations that are smart for sports, but smart for any medium, any format, any type or genre of podcasts; whether that’s news in general or politics or culture.
I think what we’re aspiring to build with ESPN Daily is something that can hang with the best of the best when it comes to conversation. And so that sensibility of having a very wide aperture of interest and curiosity; that’s something that I enjoyed so much with Bo and why High Noon, I felt was a special show.
CP: I’m curious about the role The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz (or as I say, the ‘Le Batardian’) influence has played in expanding the format, but specifically, for you in your experience working with him?
PT: I mean look, I come from Dan’s coaching tree, I’m a Le Batardian piece of fruit that has grown from that tree. What I’ve always enjoyed about Dan is that he’s not only a serious voice on serious matters, but he’s also one of the funniest people at the network. And so for me, it’s that mix of high and low. It’s highbrow and lowbrow. It’s serious and comedic. It’s understanding that the job fundamentally is to entertain.
But the metaphor that I have been thinking about when it comes to how I want to be is both delicious and nutritious. How do I want to make people laugh, as well as think and even cry sometimes? I think about it in terms of: I’m cooking a meal and I want to make sure the ingredients are balanced. I want to make sure that if I’m going to give a kid vegetables. I want to give my daughter broccoli, for instance, she’s not old enough yet to eat food but soon she will be. I like broccoli and cheese, let’s melt some cheese on top of this. Let’s make sure that the person that is listening doesn’t feel like they’re being force fed something that they don’t enjoy.
Dan, and how he does his show, has always been a Northstar for me, in that, he’s aware that if the listener isn’t laughing and if the listener isn’t learning, then we’re falling short of the goal we’re setting out to achieve.
CP: Given the challenges of 2020, what have you learned or taken away from the sports-free shows you’ve worked on? You definitely have been quick to adapt with Highly Quarantined. Do you feel that in exploring alternative content, when there aren’t any live sports to cover, you learned more about what resonated with the audience?
PT: Absolutely. strangely, even though a sports media job without sports seems like a nightmare, in some ways it’s actually been able to showcase some of our strengths, and some of my most creative, kind of weird, ambitions. I love being offbeat. I love giving people something they’re not getting anywhere else, and so in a world without browser games because there are no games, the question of “well, what would a viewer of video or what would a listener of audio find interesting” is a question that I think can expose who actually can create content most creatively. And so for me, I find that the ability to have that out of the box sensibility is kind of perfectly suited for this time.
Growing up and coming up through journalism, I came up through magazines, so I wasn’t the daily beat guy. I always read those guys and I always paid attention because I was, and remain, a sports fan to my bones. But, I came up at Sports Illustrated and then ESPN The Magazine, so my sensibility has always been to be more open minded and curious and enterprise driven, as opposed to ‘here’s the number one story of the day, let’s make sure that we hit it in the way that people may have already expected to have seen this be hit.’
That magazine sensibility of ‘we’re gonna sprinkle in a long form story about someone that you may not know, but we think it’s worth your time’ I think that plays into a podcast like the one we’re building and developing. That’s something that I think ESPN Daily is particularly uniquely suited to pursue.
CP: You’ve been with ESPN for years, and with Sports Illustrated, as well in different capacities. In your time working with ESPN, short of taking the reigns at ESPN Daily, what has been your favorite moment in your time with the company.
PT: And that’s a great question because I’ve done a lot of absurd things I never would have dreamed. Yeah, I mean obviously launching High Noon with Bomani was a culmination of a career. It was something that I am still so proud of doing because it was different. It sounded and looked like nothing else, and I’m proud of what we did.
But beyond that, I would say, I’ve been so grateful to work on shows with people that I admire. So, on PTI, getting to know Tony Kornheiser to the point where he attended my wedding…and if you know anything about Tony Kornheiser, the guy doesn’t like going to or doing anything not directly inside of his comfort zone. But that’s a guy that I look up to, not only as one of the legends of sports broadcasting but as a writer.
We just talked about Dan. Doing Highly Questionable, still today, with Dan is one of the most fun things I do in my life. It’s just hanging out with a guy, who again, I look up to, but has since become my friend.
I mean, I married Dan Le Batard. I was the guy who married him and his wife in Miami, when they got married two months ago.
CP: So, you’re still ordained?
PT: Yes, I am an ordained minister of The Universal Life Church, so ESPN Daily can also do weddings.
I’ve basically got to work with people that I’ve legitimately gotten to love and know, as real close friends. that’s the best part about this job; my heroes in this business are now people that I continue to work with, talk about and talk to. And that’s a dream.
CP: Speaking of working alongside great talent, if you could choose any sports figure (coach, player past, present) to be your co-host, who would you choose and why?
PT: Well, the easy answer, for me, is Bill Walton, okay. And there are other voices out there that I respect and love and I know there are bigger names even, but I just find Bill Walton to be the most entertaining and disruptive and subversive voice, maybe in all of sports broadcasting. I just love his whole sensibility. So for me, I say that immediately just because that was the guest we wanted on High Noon that never got to happen. I just want to hang out with Bill Walton inside of his teepee, and I don’t want to hurt the feelings of my friends I love working with like Mina Kimes, I work with her. I love working with her, but unless Mina gets a teepee, it’s going to be really hard for her to compete.
CP: To wrap things up, I just wanted to do some word association– first thing that comes to your mind.
CP: Bomani Jones?
CP: Dan Le Batard?
CP: Tony Reali?
PT: Vital. I would like to credit Tony as he was key to me being on Around The Horn. Like Kornheiser, Tony Reali attended my wedding.
CP: Mina Kimes?
CP: Izzy Guiterrez?
PT: Let’s go with shirtless.
CP: That is fantastic.
PT: You’ve got to look up the photos of Izzy on a train track, I mean he is the most beautiful person at ESPN, and possibly, in sports media. He’s intimidatingly shirtless.
CP: Last but not least, how about Mike Golic Jr?
PT: Ooh, thick, with several C’s. T-H-I-C-C-C-C.
CP: Who got to fulfill his lifelong dream of hosting The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest this weekend..
PT: First off, Gojo is the perfect person to be doing that.
And I have so much respect for that whole enterprise because weirdly, and randomly the first story I ever did for Sports Illustrated was covering The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. It’s always been one of my favorite events for that reason. And one of my friends is now involved in the broadcast.
CP: How full circle is that? I am so, so excited about the show. I know the transition is fast approaching.
PT: I’m going to be actually substituting in throughout July. I’ll be doing an episode Thursday, July 9th. I’ll be doing some episodes later on when Mina goes on vacation. And then August 1st is the official change over date.
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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