Most of us spent the past two weeks looking at the new ESPN Radio lineup that will take over on August 17th, thinking about what was not there. Tributes to Mike Golic Sr., who has been in morning drive for the network for the last 22 years, poured in from every imaginable outlet, this one included.
There were a number of folks outside of Bristol that either didn’t have time to mourn Senior’s looming departure, or did and had to move on very quickly. Leaders of local ESPN affiliates around the country had to look at the new lineup and figure out what it would mean for their stations.
I wanted honest answers when I asked folks “how do you feel about the new lineup,” so I offered everyone anonymity. Hooray for not having to (in the words of Herm Edwards) “put ya name on it!”.
Everyone on the programming side took me up on the offer. On the business side, the people I spoke with either wanted their name attached to their comments or they simply didn’t want to participate.
So much has been made of the new morning show, which will feature Keyshawn Johnson and Jay Williams with SportsCenter anchor Zubin Mehenti steering the ship. The departure of a known quantity like Golic Sr, who has hosted in that slot with three different partners, has raised concerns for so many.
“From a listener’s standpoint, it’s always interesting when you have a long time show and then one part of the duo leaves and one part stays,” one PD in the Southeast told me, addressing the rumors that Trey Wingo had expressed a desire to leave radio in the fall. “I always thought it was a tough ask to try and re-create what he and Mike Greenberg had before with a whole new crew. How could the network ask him to do it again so quickly?”
A PD in the Midwest says he sees the good and the bad in the new trio. He praised the injection of diversity into a prime day part, but did have questions about the readiness of the individuals chosen.
“Two of the three hosts have never really done the daily morning radio grind. I will say Keyshawn and Jay can be highly entertaining when teed up the right way, so the pressure will be on Zubin to navigate topics and push the right emotional buttons.”
One person that was willing to go on the record was Brian Maloney, the Vice President of Radio at Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, NC. The cluster’s sports talker, 99.9 The Fan, saw major success in morning drive with Mike & Mike and still did fairly well with Golic & Wingo. Maloney says that he is less nervous now than he was the last time ESPN Radio made a major change in morning drive.
“We were nervous with the Golic-Wingo change – it worked out great. They ended up dominating our core audience,” Maloney told me in an email. “So, I’m very optimistic about the launch of the new morning show with the new cast members – and we’re partial to Jay Williams given his ties to Duke and the market. Timing is perfect. Sports are back, launching a new show – let’s go. I’m sure people will over analyze this move – as with any – history has shown us. I’m more than confident the show will perform quite well for us!”
Joe O’Neill is another station leader that expressed optimism about the morning show. Being in Albuquerque though, his station, 101.7 The Team, will run the new morning show on a two hour delay. He is very excited about what follows though.
“The remaining schedule that runs in ‘prime’ is loaded with heavyweights and it is particularly nice to see the return of Greeny.”
O’Neill’s excitement about the mid-day lineup was echoed by every single person I spoke with. One PD out West shared O’Neill’s excitement to see Mike Greenberg back on ESPN Radio. He added that Max Kellerman, who hasn’t done a lot of national radio, is still the kind of well-known quantity that will give his station “good star power” to matchup with the local FOX Sports Radio affiliate.
A host on the East Coast, who has the entire national lineup leading into his local show agrees that the star power matters.
“I actually think the Greenberg and Kellerman additions help the middle of the day. They’re both experienced, and good to really good radio guys.”
Beyond the individual talent in mid days, what drew everyone’s attention was three two-hour long shows. The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz is cut down to run from 10a-noon on the East Coast. Mike Greenberg’s show will follow and air until 2 pm when Kellerman takes over from 2p-4p.
For so long, the practice in national radio has been to have mid-days filled by two three hour shows. On the local level it is usually one four how show. A PD in the Southeast told me it is beyond time to shake those models up.
“I think it’s an interesting approach actually, and I’m very interested to see how it does. That is an idea that has piqued my curiosity for some time, just given how the audience behaves now.”
“Honestly, the only reason radio stations run 3- and 4-hour shows is because of budget,” said a PD in the Midwest. He expects that three shorter shows can deliver more compelling content than two longer shows. “Hosts cannot possibly throw fastballs for 4 hours. It’s not a realistic expectation.”
When asked to point out anything specifically they were worried about with the new lineup, most PD’s said it was too early to panic. Outside of the morning show, there is enough tested star power to satisfy local leaders’ minds. Plus, most stations that will carry the full day time line up do a local show in afternoon drive.
That isn’t true for everyone though. That PD I spoke with out West was nervous about the new afternoon show with Chiney Ogwumike and Mike Golic Jr., and the revival of Spain and Fitz in the early evening.
“I would’ve flipped Chiney & Mike Golic Jr. into the slot which will be occupied by the Spain and Fitz reboot, he said in an email. “GoJo has a good energy that I think can play off well for an audience listening later in the day/night. And it provides a great starting slot for Chiney Ogwumike, who is spun right into a valuable radio time slot with very little experience.
“Jason Fitz deserved an opportunity to continue to lead a show, and he’ll lose that taking somewhat of a back seat to Sarah Spain. Plus, as it currently sits, Spain and Company has been inconsistent in creating content that relates to the sports radio listener, exposed a bit more by the current pandemic.”
The big question everyone has, no matter their position in the industry is “will this new lineup make me money?”. Boy, is it a strange time to ask that question about anything.
Both Maloney and O’Neill were optimistic though. It may not be easy to get people to spend money right now, but O’Neill says having something new to show advertisers gives his sales staff a reason to pick up the phone and chat with established clients and maybe even introduce themselves to a few new ones.
“I’ve always felt that the best definition of sales is the ‘transfer of enthusiasm,'” he said. “Having the new lineup will be beneficial regarding sales because it’s gives us a reason to communicate the latest changes at ESPN Radio and explain the philosophy of why they went with the changes they did.”
Maloney thinks there is reason to think his station’s clients will be very receptive to the changes, because the Covid-19 Pandemic have forced them to go through changes too.
“Every business has had time to reflect, regroup, and reorganize, and sports radio is no different. Business owners and those that run a business know more than ever that reinventing is essential. If a business hasn’t adjusted or run a different play yet, I’d be very concerned about that business.”
He says the two things he would tell clients about the new morning show are that 99.9 The Fan has a history of performing in morning drive with ESPN Radio’s nationally syndicated morning show, and the new hosts were handpicked by ESPN, which he understandably refers to as “the biggest brand of sports in the world.”
“Combine those two elements with insane, pent up demand for sports and we have an explosive fresh, new start in a format that we know delivers the most passionate and responsive listeners,” Maloney told me. “Along with the new ESPN morning show on our station, we have added new imaging pieces, digital pieces and re-adjusted our line-up. This is a perfect time to change and begin anew in a very new climate. I hope our industry takes advantage of this pause in sports to reinvent their stations.”
Although no one came right out and said “we’re screwed,” I definitely received opinions that ran the gamut from pure optimism to genuine concern for morning drive. Overall, there does seem to be something of a “wait and see approach.”
The real pressure here is on ESPN. Local station partners are not just looking for big names. The network has seen SO MUCH change over the last five years. It has to prove to local stations that not only has it built its new lineup to perform, but that it has also been built to last for an extended period of time.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Barrett Media is Making Changes To Better Serve Our Sports and News Media Readers
“We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future.”
When I launched this website all I wanted to do was share news, insight and stories about broadcasters and brands. My love, passion and respect for this business is strong, and I know many of you reading this feel similar. I spent two great decades in radio watching how little attention was paid to those who played a big part in their audiences lives. The occasional clickbait story and contract drama would find their way into the newspapers but rarely did you learn about the twists and turns of a broadcaster’s career, their approach to content or the tactics and strategies needed to succeed in the industry. When personal reasons led me home to NY in 2015, I decided I was going to try my best to change that.
Since launching this brand, we’ve done a good job informing and entertaining media industry professionals, while also helping consulting clients and advertising partners improve their businesses. We’ve earned respect from the industry’s top stars, programming minds and mainstream media outlets, growing traffic from 50K per month to 500K and monthly social impressions from a few thousand to a few million. Along the way we’ve added conferences, rankings, podcasts, a member directory, and as I’ve said before, this is the best and most important work I’ve ever done, and I’m not interested in doing anything else.
If I’ve learned anything over seven years of operating a digital content company it’s that you need skill, strategy, passion, differentiating content, and good people to create impact. You also need luck, support, curiosity and an understanding of when to double down, cut bait or pivot. It’s why I added Stephanie Eads as our Director of Sales and hired additional editors, columnists and features reporters earlier this year. To run a brand like ours properly, time and investment are needed. We’ve consistently grown and continue to invest in our future, and it’s my hope that more groups will recognize the value we provide, and give greater consideration to marketing with us in the future.
But with growth comes challenges. Sometimes you can have the right idea but bad timing. I learned that when we launched Barrett News Media.
We introduced BNM in September 2020, two months before the election when emotions were high and COVID was a daily discussion. I wasn’t comfortable then of blending BNM and BSM content because I knew we’d built a trusted sports media resource, and I didn’t want to shrink one audience while trying to grow another. Given how personal the election and COVID became for folks, I knew the content mix would look and feel awkward on our site.
So we made the decision to start BNM with its own website. We ran the two brands independently and had the right plan of attack, but discovered that our timing wasn’t great.
The first nine months readership was light, which I expected since we were new and trying to build an audience from scratch. I believed in the long-term mission, which was why I stuck with it through all of the growing pains, but I also felt a responsibility to make sure our BNM writing team and the advertising partners we forged relationships with were being seen by as many people as possible. We continued with the original plan until May 2021 when after a number of back and forth debates, I finally agreed to merge the two sites. I figured if WFAN could thrive with Imus in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog in the afternoon, and the NY Times, LA Times, KOA, KMOX and numerous other newspaper and radio brands could find a way to blend sports and news/talk, then so could we.
And it worked.
We dove in and started to showcase both formats, building social channels and groups for each, growing newsletter databases, and with the addition of a few top notch writers, BNM began making bigger strides. Now featured under the BSM roof, the site looked bigger, the supply of daily content became massive, and our people were enjoying the increased attention.
Except now we had other issues. Too many stories meant many weren’t being read and more mistakes were slipping through the cracks. None of our crew strive to misspell a word or write a sloppy headline but when the staff and workload doubles and you’re trying to focus on two different formats, things can get missed. Hey, we’re all human.
Then a few other things happened that forced a larger discussion with my editors.
First, I thought about how much original material we were creating for BSM from our podcast network, Summit, Countdown to Coverage series, Meet the Market Managers, BSM Top 20, and began to ask myself ‘if we’re doing all of this for sports readers, what does that tell folks who read us for news?’ We then ran a survey to learn what people valued about our brand and though most of the feedback was excellent, I saw how strong the response was to our sports content, and how news had grown but felt second fiddle to those offering feedback.
Then, Andy Bloom wrote an interesting column explaining why radio hosts would be wise to stop talking about Donald Trump. It was the type of piece that should’ve been front and center on a news site all day but with 3 featured slots on the site and 7 original columns coming in that day, they couldn’t all be highlighted the way they sometimes should be. We’re actually going through that again today. That said, Andy’s column cut through. A few sports media folks didn’t like seeing it on the site, which wasn’t a surprise since Trump is a polarizing personality, but the content resonated well with the news/talk crowd.
National talk radio host Mike Gallagher was among the folks to see Andy’s piece, and he spent time on his show talking about the column. Mike’s segment was excellent, and when he referenced the article, he did the professional thing and credited our website – Barrett SPORTS Media. I was appreciative of Mike spending time on his program discussing our content but it was a reminder that we had news living under a sports roof and it deserved better than that.
I then read some of Pete Mundo, Doug Pucci and Rick Schultz’s columns and Jim Cryns’ features on Chris Ruddy, Phil Boyce, and David Santrella, and knew we were doing a lot of quality work but each time we produced stories, folks were reminded that it lived on a SPORTS site. I met a few folks who valued the site, recognized the increased focus we put on our news/talk coverage, and hoped we had plans to do more. Jim also received feedback along the lines of “good to see you guys finally in the news space, hope there’s more to come.”
Wanting to better understand our opportunities and challenges, I reviewed our workflow, looked at which content was hitting and missing the mark, thought about the increased relationships we’d worked hard to develop, and the short-term and long-term goals for BNM. I knew it was time to choose a path. Did I want to think short-term and keep everything under one roof to protect our current traffic and avoid disrupting people or was it smarter to look at the big picture and create a destination where news/talk media content could be prioritized rather than treated as BSM’s step-child?
Though I spent most of my career in sports media and established BSM first, it’s important to me to serve the news/talk media industry our very best. I want every news/talk executive, host, programmer, market manager, agent, producer, seller and advertiser to know this format matters to us. Hopefully you’ve seen that in the content we’ve created over the past two years. My goal is to deliver for news media professionals what we have for sports media folks and though that may be a tall order, we’re going to bust our asses to make it happen. To prove that this isn’t just lip service, here’s what we’re going to do.
Starting next Monday November 28th, we are relaunching BarrettNewsMedia.com. ALL new content produced by the BNM writing team will be available daily under that URL. For the first 70-days we will display news media columns from our BNM writers on both sites and support them with promotion across both of our brands social channels. The goal is to have the two sites running independent of each other by February 6, 2023.
Also starting on Monday November 28th, we will begin distributing the BNM Rundown newsletter 5 days per week. We’ve been sending out the Rundown every M-W-F since October 2021, but the time has come for us to send it out daily. With increased distribution comes two small adjustments. We will reduce our daily story count from 10 to 8 and make it a goal to deliver it to your inbox each day by 3pm ET. If you haven’t signed up to receive the Rundown, please do. You can click here to register. Be sure to scroll down past the 8@8 area.
Additionally, Barrett News Media is going to release its first edition of the BNM Top 20 of 2022. This will come out December 12-16 and 19-20. The category winners will be decided by more than 50 news/talk radio program directors and executives. Among the categories to be featured will be best Major/Mid Market Local morning, midday, and afternoon show, best Local News/Talk PD, best Local News/Talk Station, best National Talk Radio Show, and best Original Digital Show. The voting process with format decision makers begins today and will continue for two weeks. I’ve already got a number of people involved but if you work in an executive or programming role in the news/talk format and wish to be part of it, send an email to me at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
We have one other big thing coming to Barrett News Media in 2023, which I will announce right after the BNM Top 20 on Wednesday December 21st. I’m sure news/talk professionals will like what we have planned but for now, it’ll have to be a month long tease. I promise though to pay it off.
Additionally, I’m always looking for industry folks who know and love the business and enjoy writing about it. If you’ve programmed, hosted, sold or reported in the news/talk world and have something to offer, email me. Also, if you’re a host, producer, programmer, executive, promotions or PR person and think something from your brand warrants coverage on our site, send it along. Most of what we write comes from listening to stations and digging across the web and social media. Receiving your press releases and getting a heads up on things you’re doing always helps.
If you’re a fan of BSM, this won’t affect you much. The only difference you’ll notice in the coming months is a gradual reduction of news media content on the BSM website and our social accounts sharing a little about both formats over the next two months until we’re officially split in February. We are also going to dabble a little more in marketing, research and tech content that serves both formats. If you’re a reader who enjoys both forms of our content, you’ll soon have BarrettSportsMedia.com for sports, and BarrettNewsMedia.com for news.
Our first two years in the news/talk space have been very productive but we’ve only scratched the surface. Starting November 28th, news takes center stage on BarrettNewsMedia.com and sports gets less crowded on BarrettSportsMedia.com. We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future. If we can count on you to remember two URL’s (add them to your bookmarks) and sign up for our newsletters, then you can count on us to continue delivering exceptional coverage of the industry you love. As always, thanks for the continued support. It makes everything we do worthwhile.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
Steve Levy Has Asked The Right Questions During Nearly 30 Year ESPN Career
“Whatever sport it is, I’m sitting next to experts on the subject. I think better than me giving my explanation of why something might have happened, why not ask the Hall of Famer who’s lived it?”
In the summer of 1993, the price of a movie ticket was a mere $6. Over the preceding half a decade, Steve Levy lived in a high-rise apartment in New York, working in television and radio, launching his career in sports media.
In the “city that doesn’t sleep,” seeing a movie at 11 p.m. and grabbing a meal afterwards was not uncommon; it was the distinct culture of the area, and still is today. Native New Yorkers, while they are characterized by some outsiders as insolent, combative and egocentric, have their own unique ways of demonstrating the innate affability and tenderness.
It was a Tuesday night and Levy had just been honored with a goodbye party held by his family, friends and colleagues. He had recently left New York, something unimaginable for many young 27-year-old broadcasters looking to move up in the business, and relocated to Bristol, Conn.
Six months earlier, Levy’s agent Steve Lefkowitz received a call from the “Kingmaker” and then-soon to be ESPN Vice President of Talent Al Jaffe looking to recruit Levy to join ESPN, located nearly two-and-a-half hours north. While the network had made Levy a substantial offer, he declined, opting to remain at home working with WCBS-TV as a sports reporter and WFAN doing updates on Mike and the Mad Dog and hosting its Sunday NFL whiparound coverage. Today, Levy is on the verge of celebrating his third decade working at ESPN.
The second time around, ESPN had significantly increased their offer to Levy, and he was told by his agent that the network would not likely give him a third opportunity to join. Feeling an attachment to the New York marketplace, Levy pleaded with television executives at WCBS-TV to promote him to the lead sports anchor; however, he was told that having a 27-year-old in that role would never work in the marketplace.
As he weighed his future and what would be a prudential decision for his career, Levy decided to officially put pen to paper and became a national broadcaster with ESPN, ending his time in New York, N.Y.
During his first week in Bristol, Levy was living in long-term housing provided by the network as he sought to become acclimated with the area and adopt a new lifestyle. On that particular Tuesday night, Levy was feeling apprehensive and lonely and decided to go out to see a movie at 9 p.m. Much to his surprise, he was the only one in the entire theater and thought the show would be canceled because of the meager turnout.
Instead, an employee of the theater knocked on the projection glass behind Levy and asked him if he was ready for the movie, to which Levy replied ‘“Yeah, alright, game on.’” Although he cannot remember the title of the movie he saw, that kind gesture began his assimilation to covering sports nationally, a role that has substantially expanded since his debut on Saturday, Aug. 7, 1993.
Merrick, N.Y. is just a short train ride away from “The Big Apple,” the number one media market in the world, and is where Levy was raised. From the time he was young, he was conscious of the sports landscape of the area, closely following the NFL and NHL with hopes of one day playing professionally.
Just as many aspiring athletes eventually discover, Levy recognized he was “remarkably average” at everything, and while he was enamored with playing the game, knew it was not a viable career path for him. By instead pursuing a career in sports media, he could remain around the games with which he was enamored while significantly diminishing the risk of suffering formidable physical injuries.
“I had a chance for a long career without getting beaten up on a regular basis and it’s really worked out,” Levy said. “Honestly, I still sort of can’t believe it. I know my parents can’t believe it.”
From the time he was 17 years old and approaching his graduation from John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y., Levy aimed to position himself to attain a sustainable career in sports media. When he was applying for college, he desired to attend Syracuse University, as it was known for its excellence in media studies and vast alumni network.
However, his parents only had enough money to send one of their two children to a private college. Since his sister was a better student than he, the State University of New York Oswego was where he would earn his degree in communications, concentrated in broadcasting. It ended up being the second-best professional decision he ever made, coming after joining ESPN; yet the latter may not have been as feasible without the former.
“Because they have all this great equipment and all these things for broadcasters to do, it was my understanding that freshmen, sophomores [and] sometimes even juniors don’t get to do any of that because they’re in such demand for all their great opportunities at Syracuse; you had to be maybe a senior even to be able to get near any of that stuff,” Levy recalled. “At Oswego with lesser studios and lesser equipment, there were more opportunities to do it right away.”
Indeed in his freshman year, Levy became a member of various student-run media outlets, including WTOP-TV, WOCR Radio, and The Oswegonian newspaper (where he began writing his own weekly column called “Levy’s Lines”). By the time he was a junior, he was named the sports director of the television station and became sports editor of the newspaper in his senior year. Simultaneously, Levy worked with WABC-AM as a part-time reporter while in college, giving him early professional experience and exposure in the industry.
Once he graduated, Levy went to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. – not as a student, but to work in his first professional job compiling the “Jets Report” for WNBC-AM. Beginning in 1968, Levy’s childhood team, the New York Jets, practiced on the school’s north campus – sometimes in front of fans – until 2008. In this role, he worked at the radio station behind current Seattle Mariners play-by-play announcer Dave Sims and New York Knicks and NBA on ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen, primarily assembling the “Jets Report” and filling in for them on the SportsNight program.
A couple of years later, Levy joined WFAN during its first year on the air as the host of The NFL in Action and a contributor on some of the station’s radio shows, including Imus in the Morning and the aforementioned Mike and the Mad Dog. Rather than solely working in radio, Levy also joined the Madison Square Garden Network as a host of MSG SportsDesk and intermission updates for both the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers.
Being on the air professionally in New York City is no easy task for most broadcasters, especially recent college graduates; therefore it helps to have a keen awareness of industry trends and a wide array of connections to effectively get started. Luckily for Levy, his father was friends with a prominent broadcast agent who agreed to look at Levy’s demo reel coming out of college. It was through this connection that Levy was introduced to Lefkowitz, and ultimately how he landed his first professional job with WNBC-AM.
Starting in 1992, Levy joined WCBS-TV, the local New York station, as a sports anchor and reporter, giving him the chance to cover the sports teams he grew up watching. Levy primarily worked on weekends, doing sports on Friday and Saturday nights alongside lead news anchor Brian Williams. At the same time, Levy remained at WFAN working four days a week on radio and was satisfied with his career. In short, ESPN was never the goal.
“I was not one of those people watching ESPN growing up and in college,” Levy said. “I was strictly a local guy; I wanted nothing more than New York City.”
Nonetheless, Levy signed a deal with the national network and found himself anchoring the 2 a.m. edition of SportsCenter with now-Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech – which was subsequently replayed 12 times through the morning hours. The half-hour program brought fans all of the scores and news around sports both at the professional and collegiate levels, covering every game despite there being commercial breaks.
“I recognize the power of that show and being national,” Levy said. “I still love to go to games and I found myself still going to games as a fan. I’d go around and I’d see Charles Barkley at a game and he knew my name. Ken Griffey Jr. knew my name – and that was really weird to me…. That really made me think about the power of the show [and] the real responsibility of the show to get [it] right.”
Levy, along with all of the network’s young anchors, came in trying to emulate the styles of Keith Olbermann or Dan Patrick, the two lead hosts of SportsCenter at the time. That is, all but one.
“We all came in trying to be Dan or Keith and then you realize you can’t be either of them because that’s how great they are and then you eventually settle into who you are,” Levy said. “Stuart Scott was special. He immediately knew who he was [and] he wasn’t trying to be anybody else.”
Over the years, Levy has gained a deep understanding of what players go through on a daily basis through his research and interactions with them. He is cognizant of the reach of the platform and how it has shifted, requiring the flagship show of the network to do more than just read scores to attract and enthrall audiences on a daily basis.
“It’s real easy at 2 in the morning [when] you’re wearing makeup sitting in Bristol to do bloopers [and] to make wise cracks,” Levy said. “‘Look at this guy. He can’t catch that! Come on, man.’ That kind of thing and then you go into the locker room and you see these guys the next day and all of a sudden, [it’s] ‘Wait a second, this is real.’ If I make that same joke in New York about Ken Griffey Jr., there’s no way he’s seeing it but if I say that on ESPN; he, his family, the manager, the coaches, the general manager [and] all the fans [are] seeing it.”
Beginning in 1994, Levy started his foray into national play-by-play announcing across many different sports. At the time, ESPN held national broadcast rights for the National Hockey League and found himself working with Bill Clement at a sold-out Madison Square Garden for a Wednesday night matchup between the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames.
Once the Rangers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks, he worked with former NHL defenseman and head coach Barry Melrose bringing fans unparalleled coverage of the action.
Once ESPN reacquired part of the NHL’s national broadcast rights in a seven-year agreement, the iconic theme song was re-recorded and the coverage was revamped in an effort to grow the game of hockey and reimagine the ways in which it is covered.
Before the start of last season, ESPN named Levy as the lead studio host for its NHL coverage and was tabbed to work with new analysts and members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Mark Messier and Chris Chelios.
“I knew both of them personally prior to working with them,” Levy said of his new colleagues. “I’ve really enjoyed the relationship we’ve had; I just wish we were able to do it on a regular basis…. In the second half, we’ll get into a regular rhythm. I thought we were really clicking on all cylinders last year in the postseason and in the Stanley Cup Finals when I got to work with those guys on a regular basis.”
Messier and Chelios had some previous experience entering their new roles as studio analysts, working with local and national sports networks and occasionally appearing as guest commentators.
In spite of that, Levy treated them like rookies last season, as it was their first substantial experience working regularly with a national platform, and is excited to continue their partnership and enhance the coverage of the sport.
“I can’t throw them a curveball; they know everything,” Levy expressed. “It’s just [if you] can say it in 20 seconds and make it informative and be entertaining at the same time. That’s kind of the trick. They’ve made great strides and I think come this postseason, we’ll be really excellent, entertaining and a fun show to watch.”
Levy continues to work as a play-by-play announcer on NHL coverage, and holds the distinction of calling two of the three longest overtime games in Stanley Cup Playoffs history – both of which took five extra periods to decide.
Additionally, he has been behind the microphone for the network’s football coverage working with Brian Griese and Todd McShay calling weekly college football games on ESPN and ABC beginning in 2016. It is a role he worked earlier in his career on Friday nights from 1999 until 2002, and something that prepared him when he was named as the new voice of Monday Night Football in 2019.
As both a host and a play-by-play announcer, Levy describes his style as minimalistic, trying to make sure to read sponsorships and set his analyst up to effectively translate esoteric knowledge into concise, comprehensible points.
“I really feel that I know what I don’t know and I’m never trying to fool anyone with all of my knowledge,” Levy said. “I think that’s a strength of mine because in whatever sport it is, I’m sitting next to experts on the subject. I think better than me giving my explanation of why something might have happened, why not ask the Hall of Famer who’s lived it?”
Levy worked on Monday nights with Griese and Louis Riddick before the network reassigned him in a multiplatform role prior to this season, coinciding with the additions of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to the lead television broadcast booth.
Throughout this NFL season, Levy called a Week 2 matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills and a Week 8 international game from Wembley Stadium in London, England between the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars. Additionally, he has called multiple NFL games on ESPN Radio, a challenge that has elevated his skills as an all-around broadcaster.
“All this stuff that I don’t have to say on television where most of my career has been spent – I have to say all of that so that’s really hard on the radio analyst,” Levy said. “….The radio analyst has very, very little time to get in a story, an anecdote and be funny – all those kinds of things – and analyze the play. I really find radio difficult, [but it] it is really enjoyable.”
Calling NFL games nationally requires a shift in preparation, as the broadcasters are not usually around the teams every week and, once on the air, are speaking to a broader audience. It demands extensive research, notetaking and interviewing in advance of each matchup to bring consumers a product they use to effectively follow the game and return to later for future matchups.
“You spend the majority of that week really drilling down – it’s a ton of reading; it’s a ton of talking to people; it’s a lot of meetings but it’s really enjoyable,” Levy said. “I enjoy the process of preparing for an NFL game the way the week breaks down.”
From the start of his career, Levy’s talent as a broadcaster, combined with knowing the right people and taking chances on new opportunities, has propelled him into a stellar national television personality. Over the years, he has made cameos in various movies, including Million Dollar Arm, Tooth Fairy and Fever Pitch, and also hosts the annual U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Celebration.
At his alma mater, Levy was the recipient of the inaugural G.O.L.D. Award honoring distinguished graduates who have achieved success in their careers and also had the press box at the Marano Campus Center Arena named in his honor. He also maintains the Steve Levy ‘87 Broadcasting Summer Internship Fund which is given to a broadcasting student looking to gain professional experience and compensates their cost of tuition and housing expenses that may otherwise prevent them from doing so.
As he gives back to his community and makes time for aspiring professionals looking to enter the field, he compels them to seize any opportunity given to them and build relationships.
When he was working with WABC-AM, the station provided him a chance to cover the PGA Tour Westchester Classic in Rye, N.Y., and although he was not interested in golf, he learned about it and served as a stringer from the tournament. It helped him broaden his skill set and move up in the industry, as he knew that if he turned it down, somebody else would be ready to take the chance and therefore have a leg up on him.
Opportunities to stand out extend far beyond what one may see media professionals doing on the silver screen – and in such a competitive industry, they have the power to rapidly determine a career trajectory and overall potential.
“When you’re coming out of college, nothing is beneath you in the business within reason,” Levy expressed. “What I mean by that is if you’re interning someplace and somebody asks you, ‘Hey, can you get me a cup of coffee?,’ go get the cup of coffee for that person…. Don’t come in with an attitude. Don’t come in with, ‘I have a degree. This is beyond me; this is beneath me. I didn’t go to Syracuse to go get people coffee.’ Just go get the cup of coffee; I promise you it will work out.”
Without doing the small things to advance his career, it would have been much more difficult, if not near impossible, for Steve Levy to establish himself as a versatile broadcaster at ESPN. By staying ready to take on anything thrown in his direction and carrying himself with alacrity and enthusiasm for the profession, he has become a venerable staple of sports coverage who has had the chance to cover many enduring moments over the last three decades.
“It’s a relationship business, and all those things of ‘Have your eyes open’; ‘Have your ears open’; ‘Listen more than you talk’; all those things you’ve heard; all the clichés,” Levy said. “They’re all very true and have all been very successful and really helped me out to achieve whatever success I have to this point.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
How Stephen A. Smith Used Sports Radio to Continue His Pay-Raise Crusade
Stephen A. knows how to stay relevant, and migrating his influence to radio hits on several stations keeps him relevant, it keeps First Take relevant, and more importantly, it keeps ESPN relevant.
There’s a saying in the entertainment industry: “The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder”. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith is the sports world’s embodiment of Kris Jenner’s “always find a spot in the limelight” approach.
Smith has been adamant for a few weeks now that he is underpaid at ESPN, going as far to claim he takes less money so others can get paid more than they should. There have been many who have taken stances against that insinuation from the First Take panelist, but that’s not what this column is going to be about.
Stephen A. is the king of staying relevant and constantly being in the conversation. ESPN is the king of creating an echo chamber to amplify outlandish opinions. It’s truly a match made in heaven.
And yet, I couldn’t help but notice Stephen A. broadening his hot-take horizons this week by poking the bear of local sports radio hosts. Honestly, it was a brilliant play.
Smith picked a fight with 105.3 The Fan morning hosts Shan Shariff and RJ Choppy this week during his comments centered on the Dallas Cowboys. Shan and RJ played right into Smith’s hands by spending significant portions of their show discussing his comments, and then welcoming him onto their program for more than 20 minutes.
Later in the same day, Smith created headlines by being in a slight contentious interview with Steiny & Guru on 95.7 The Game in San Francisco where he called the hosts “ridiculously clueless” for their opinions that the Warriors dynasty is over.
Give the man credit, he’s not dumb. He knows what does and doesn’t work, what does and doesn’t create content, and what does and doesn’t create ratings. I’ve seen many decry the ratings of First Take as the reason Stephen A. Smith isn’t underpaid. My rebuttal would be what would the show’s ratings be without him. I think we all get into the mindset that ESPN pulls a couple million viewers for each show simply because we turn the TV on, we flip it to ESPN, and it stays there while you scroll through — apparently dying — Twitter. ESPN is constantly on at sports bars and doctors offices, therefore Stephen A. Smith’s influence is exaggerated, is generally the consensus by many.
But Stephen A. knows how to stay relevant, and migrating his influence to radio hits on several stations keeps him relevant, it keeps First Take relevant, and more importantly, it keeps ESPN relevant. It seems to be a sort of sports network playbook to have someone that can go on radio shows and spit a little hot-takery.
Think about it. ESPN has Stephen A. Smith, coupled with Dan Orlovsky for the NFL and Paul Finebaum for college football. FOX has Nick Wright, and NBC has Chris Simms and Mike Florio. These guests appearances all come back around to “listen to my (network produced) podcast” or “watch my (network produced) television show” where they say those same things. It’s promotion plain and simple, but it rarely turns into “because I’m on your show, think about me and how much money I should be paid”, but credit to Stephen A., the man is pulling it off.
Sports radio offers an expanded reach that First Take alone doesn’t provide. I don’t know that that’s an opinion as much as it is a fact. On a recent episode of The Sports Talkers Podcast, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio told Stephen Strom he has never spent one dollar on advertising his website. He did, however, accept any and every opportunity to appear on sports radio shows to serve as a quasi-insider for the show, and push people to his website.
Now, why would Florio do that? Because sports radio works. It’s a great promotion tool. And Stephen A. would know that as well as anyone.
In a crusade to point out you should be paid more, spouting it from the rooftops of your mid-morning television program alone isn’t going to get it done. You have to take your message to the people. And that’s exactly what Stephen A. Smith has done.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio.