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Yes, ESPN Executives Need To Do Better

“After Black employees accused management of systemic racism in a New York Times report, my personal story might lend new perspective about the company’s agendas.”

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My eight years as a regular “Around The Horn’’ panelist weren’t spent in Bristol. The shows were taped inside remote studios in Chicago and Los Angeles, where fiber-optic technology allowed me to peer into a camera and see three other debaters and a host. So it is not my place to comment on systemic racism in ESPN’s executive suites, as some Black employees alleged in a New York Times piece this week.

But I can tell you my story.

Ten years removed from the only courtroom case of my life, I can look back and say this from a legal angle: (1) I never acknowledged guilt; (2) I prevailed in a civil case that clearly was about extracting money from me; and (3) charges were expunged years ago by the state of California. As a strongly opinionated columnist and commentator who always has tweaked powerful people and covered sports as a multi-billion-dollar industry — and not as a fanboy just happy to be in the playpen — I used to tell friends, “It’s a good thing I live a clean life, because if something goes south, they’ll run me out of the business.’’

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Which is what happened, to some degree, starting with ESPN. Only two days after my arrest for domestic abuse, before I’d had a chance to detail my side amid recklessly erroneous and one-sided reporting, “Around The Horn’’ more or less decided I was guilty, allowing panelists to pillory me on the show. Later, one participating panelist told me they were urged to do the segment. Urged? As a public figure who criticizes athletes for personal conduct issues, I certainly should be covered aggressively when I’m in the news. I just assumed — bad idea, assuming — that people from the program or network might contact me in a journalistic capacity before commenting and swaying public perception about the case when, of course, they had no idea what happened.

The call never came, never mind that I’d appeared on more than 1,600 shows, once did a national radio program with Max Kellerman and was on call for “SportsCenter’’ spots. I certainly wasn’t making the megamillions Stephen A. Smith earns now, but even as an independent contractor who did TV as one of three media jobs, the pay was substantial on a show that had grown to nearly a million daily viewers during my tenure. Not only did it seem ESPN was getting rid of me, it seemed the network WANTED to get rid of me. And when a district attorney decided not to pursue the case, well, I wondered exactly how ESPN would welcome me back after my colleagues had hammered me.

My head is still spinning over the politics of the next few weeks. ESPN continued to stonewall me, as did AOL, my sportswriting employer. Though the DA didn’t want the case, a Los Angeles city attorney eventually did and produced seven charges, though immediately removing six and ordering me to accept one low-level misdemeanor. New at this and beyond suspicious, I wondered why there were seven charges to begin with. Answer: The city attorney, known for media grandstanding, wanted a newspaper headline before getting his usual settlement. Aware that my legal bill could run toward $1 million if I pursued this in a trial — in a city where a jury might not like a loudmouth sports guy who’d just arrived from Chicago — I chose to protect my family from the media circus and accept the terms. I also did so because my direct sports boss at AOL told me to prepare a column for the following Monday.

I pled “no contest’’ to one low-level misdemeanor.

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Next day, ESPN officially let me go. So did AOL, with a cold higher-up reading a statement over the phone and saving his company hundreds of thousands of dollars … weeks before dumping the site. Throughout sports, athletes and even some owners have been allowed to continue livelihoods after pleas larger than misdemeanors. I was a dead loudmouth walking. After the conviction and double job loss, I became more vulnerable to additional trumped-up inventions and a civil case, the paperwork of which literally was dropped into my lap in 2011. It was around that time when a sportswriting friend alerted me to a similar story.

Howard Bryant, a talented sportswriter and broadcaster, was arrested in Massachusetts and accused of violently attacking his wife — charged with domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. In a news report in the Boston Herald, where Bryant once worked, witnesses told state police that Bryant “grabbed his wife’s neck, pushed her into a parked vehicle and pinned her against it’’ outside a pizza shop. According to state police, when the couple returned to their sport-utility vehicle, with their 6-year-old son in the back seat, Bryant resisted arrest by elbowing a trooper who was cuffing him, prompting three other officers to slam him “chest-first onto a vehicle hood.’’ His attorney accused police of racism, saying of Bryant, who is Black, “If Howard Bryant was Caucasian and was on the streets having exactly the same conversation with his wife — nobody would have even noticed.’’ Bryant acknowledged, “I did put my hands on her. I did not physically assault her.’’

Howard Bryant’s employer at the time: ESPN.

Nine years later, he still works for ESPN in a prominent role.

His wife did not press charges, telling the Herald she’d “never been a victim of abuse.’’ Because I was not at the pizza-shop scene, I have no idea what happened and will not be so foolish to assume I know. I also know how witnesses can have fuzzy recollections about the truth. But I’ve always found it curious that Bryant, as authorities still were sorting out his case, said this to the Herald: ESPN was “1,000 percent supportive’’ of him.

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How nice of ESPN to be supportive. But why was ESPN “1,000 percent supportive’’ of Bryant while allowing its own panelists to convict me on an ESPN program before I’d barely contacted an attorney?

I forgot about it, pleased that Bryant and his wife, who had been in a trial separation, were able to move forward. A year later, while meeting with a TV producer interested in hiring me and former ESPN personality Sean Salisbury to host a new show, we saw ESPN executive John Walsh ambling around the bar area of a Beverly Hills hotel and handing his business card to women. I didn’t care so much about that, but I did care when he put his room number on one such card and handed it to a woman at our table.

Next day, I called John Skipper, ESPN’s president at the time, so I could ask why he allowed behavioral double standards. Wasn’t this harassment? I still have Skipper’s quick-reply email from Jan. 12, 2012: “What number can I call you at?’’ Skipper had been in the back bar of the hotel, talking to an agent, while Walsh was blazing in rare form in the front bar.

I told Skipper I had no interest in undermining Walsh or making the story public (though someone else at our table filmed video of Walsh and did go online with it in 2014). But I did want to know why ESPN had discarded me like garbage without a phone call, not bringing up how Skipper had been “supportive’’ of another employee in a similar situation. Months later, Skipper and I shared a dinner table at Nobu in Malibu to talk about my media career. Out of nowhere, in mid-sushi bite, he dropped a bomb.

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“Jay,’’ he said, “we needed diversity on `Around The Horn.’ ’’

What did he just say?

I am a champion of diversity. I didn’t like seeing five white male faces on “Around The Horn,’’ which happened way too often, more than anyone else did. I understand ESPN management was accused of racism then, as well as now, and that creating as much diversity as humanly possible always will be a critical mission in Bristol and everywhere else on Planet Earth. But don’t push a company agenda at my expense without at least granting me a phone call and explanation. And if Skipper pounced on my case as an opportunity and not a punishment, shame on him.

Years later, Skipper was fired by ESPN in a cocaine case. A writer from the stinky Deadspin site, since spun dead, asked me to comment. I refused, not wanting to dance on his grave as he did mine.

BSM Writers

Adam The Bull Is Giving Cleveland Something It’s Never Had Before

“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?”

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After spending 22 years on the radio, Adam “The Bull” Gerstenhaber was ready for a new adventure.  In fact, the former co-host of Bull and Fox on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland did not have a new job lined up when he signed off from his 11-year radio home last month.

“I was already leaving without having a new project,” admitted Gerstenhaber during a recent phone interview with BSM.  “I left before I knew for sure I had a ‘next project’.”

Gerstenhaber was preparing for his final show with co-host Dustin Fox on April 1st when he was contacted by an executive producer for TEGNA, a company that was developing a Cleveland sports television show on YouTube.  The executive producer, who had just found out that Bull was a free agent, made it clear that he wanted Bull to be a part of the new project.

It all came together very quickly. 

“Let’s talk on Monday,” Gerstenhaber told the executive producer. “And within a week they signed me up.”

The Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show on YouTube featuring Gerstenhaber, former ESPN personality Jay Crawford, 92.3 The Fan’s Garrett Bush, and rotating hosts to make up a four-person round-table show, made its debut last Monday.  The show, which airs weekdays from 11am to 1pm, features passionate Cleveland sports talk, live guests, either in-studio or via Zoom, as well as interaction from the audience through social media.

“I’m very excited,” said Gerstenhaber.  “It’s a definite adjustment for me after 22 years on radio doing television.  For the last 11 years, I’ve been doing a radio show with just one other host and I was the lead guy doing most of the talking and now I’m on a show with three other people and it’s such an adjustment.  So far, I’m having a ball.”  

And so far, the reaction to the show has been very positive.

A big reason why is that it’s something that Cleveland didn’t have and really never had, unlike a city like New York, where there are local radio shows that are simulcast on regional sports channels. 

“There’s nothing like that in Cleveland,” said Gerstenhaber.  “And there was certainly nothing like this with a panel.  Cleveland is such a massive sports town and now people that don’t live in Cleveland that are maybe retired in Florida or Arizona, now they actually have a TV show that they can watch that’s Cleveland-centric.”

The new venture certainly represents a big change in what Bull has been used to in his radio career.  He’s enjoying the freedom of not having to follow a hard clock for this show. In fact, there have already been some occasions where the show has been able to go a little longer than scheduled because they have the flexibility to do that on YouTube.

Doing a show on YouTube gives the panel a great opportunity to go deep into topics and spend some quality time with guests.  And while there is no cursing on the show at the moment, there could be the potential for that down the road.

Don’t expect the show is going to become X-rated or anything like that, but the objective is to be able to capture the spirit and emotion of being a sports fan and host.

“It’s something we may do in the future,” said Gerstenhaber.  “Not curse just to curse but it gives us the option if we get fired up.  It is allowed because there’s no restrictions there.  The company doesn’t want us to do it at the moment.”  

There’s also been the shift for Gerstenhaber from being the “point guard” on his old radio show, driving the conversation and doing most of the talking, to now taking a step back and having Crawford distributing the ball on the television show.

For a guy called “The Bull”, that will take some getting used to. 

“Jay is a pro’s pro,” said Gerstenhaber.  “He’s the point guard for this but he’s also part of the conversation.  I’m not used to not being the point guard so I have to adjust to that.  I think it’s gone pretty well and the chemistry is pretty good and with time we’ll get used to the flow of it.”  

Gerstenhaber’s move from sports radio to an internet television show is a perfect example of how the industry is changing.  A good portion of the listening and viewing audience these days, especially those in the younger demographic, are not necessarily watching traditional television or listening to terrestrial radio.  For a lot of sports fans, watching and listening on a mobile device or a computer has become a very important way of life.

The desire to adapt, along with a shorter workday, was very enticing to him.

“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?” wondered Gerstenhaber.  “There were things about my job that I was unhappy about.  I was doing a five-hour radio show.  It’s too long. That’s crazy.  Nobody should be doing a five-hour radio show at this point.” 

Broadcasting on the internet has arrived and it’s not just a couple of sports fans doing a show from their garage anymore.  The business has evolved to the point where the technology has provided more opportunities for those who have already enjoyed success in the industry and are looking for new challenges.

Kind of like Adam The Bull!

“I think years ago, probably like many people in the radio business, we looked at internet and podcasts as like whatever…those guys aren’t professionals…they’re amateurs,” said Gerstenhaber.  “But the game has changed.”

Gerstenhaber, Crawford and everyone associated with the “Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show” should not have much of a problem attracting the younger audience. That demographic is already accustomed to watching shows on YouTube and other streaming platforms.  The challenge now is to get the more mature audience on board. There are certainly some obstacles there.

I know this from experience with trying to explain to my mother in Florida how she can hear me on the radio and watch me on television simply by using her tablet.

Bull can certainly relate to that.

“My mother is still trying to figure out how to watch the show live,” said Gerstenhaber with a chuckle.  “The older fans struggle with that. A lot of my older fans here in Cleveland are like how do I watch it? For people that are under 40 and certainly people that under 30, watching a YouTube show is like okay I watch everything on my phone or device.  It’s such a divide and obviously as the years go by, that group will increase.” 

With the television show off and running, Gerstenhaber still has a passion for his roots and that’s the radio side of the business.  In the next couple of weeks, “The Bull” is set to announce the launch of two podcasts, one daily and one weekly, that will begin next month.  But he also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to terrestrial radio at some point.

“I have not closed the door to radio,” said Gerstenhaber.  “I still love radio.  I would still, in the right set of circumstances, consider going back to radio but it would have to really be the perfect situation.  I’m excited about (the television show) and right now I don’t want to do anything else but I’m certainly going to remain open-minded to radio if a really excellent opportunity came up.”

The landscape of the broadcasting industry, particularly when it comes to sports, has certainly changed over the years and continues to evolve.  Adam Gerstenhaber certainly enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on the radio side, both in New York and in Cleveland, but now he has made the transition to something new with the YouTube television show and he’s committed to making it a success.

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BSM Writers

I Heard A Lot of Boring, Uncreative Sports Radio On Friday

“Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released”

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Maybe this one is on me for expecting better. Maybe I need to take my own advice and accept that there are times the sports radio audience just wants a little comfort food. Still, this is my column and I am going to complain because I listened to probably six different stations on Friday and all of them were doing the exact same thing.

The NFL schedule was released on Thursday night, so on Friday, regardless of daypart, every show seemingly felt obligated to have the same three conversations.

  1. How many games will the home team win?
  2. What does the number of primetime games we got mean for how much respect we have nationally?
  3. Why do the Lions still get to play on Thanksgiving?

Football is king. I get that. Concrete NFL news is always going to take priority. That is understandable. But where was even an ounce of creativity? Where was the desire to do better – not just better than the competition, but better than the other shows in your own building?

I listened to shows in markets from across the league. The conversations were the same regardless of size or history of success. Everyone that picked in the top 5 in last month’s draft is going to go 10-7. Every team that got less than 5 primetime games feels disrespected. It was all so boring.

Those of us in the industry don’t consume content the way listeners do. We all know that. Perhaps I am harping on something that is only a problem to me because I listen to sports talk radio for a living. If you don’t ever want to put more than the bare minimum of effort into your show, decide that is the reason for my reaction and go click on another article here.

Consider this though, maybe the fact that I listen to so much sports radio means I know how much quality there is in this industry. Maybe it means that I can spot someone talented that is phoning it in.

I want to be clear in my point. There is value in giving your record prediction for the home team. Listeners look at the people on the radio as experts. I will bet some futures bets in a lot of markets were made on Friday based on what the gambler heard coming through their speakers. All I want to get across is there is a way to have that conversation that isn’t taking two segments to go through each week one by one. I heard no less than three stations do that on Friday.

Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released. It’s a very familiar rhythm: pick the wins, get a guest on to preview the week 1 opponent, take calls, texts and tweets with the listeners’ predictions.

I didn’t hear anyone ask their listeners to sell them on the over for wins. I didn’t hear anyone give me weeks that you could skip Red Zone because one matchup is just too damn good. I didn’t hear anyone go through the Sunday Night Football schedule and pick out the weeks to schedule dates because the matchup isn’t worth it.

Maybe none of those ideas are winners, and that is fine. They are literally three dumb ideas I pulled out of the air. But they are all ways to review the schedule that could potentially leave a smile on your listener’s face.

Show prep is so important, especially in a group setting. It is your chance to tell your partner, producer, or host that you know you can do better than the idea that has just been thrown out. Quit nodding in agreement and challenge each other! It may mean a little more work for you, but it means more reward for the listeners. And if the listeners know they can rely on you for quality, creative content, that leads to more reward for you.

And lay off the Lions. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re stuck at home. The NFL could give you Lions vs Jaguars and you’d watch.

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BSM Writers

Why You Should Be Making Great TikTok Content

“We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds.”

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It feels like there’s a new social media platform to pay attention to every other week. That makes it easy to overlook when one of them actually presents value to your brand. It wasn’t long ago that TikTok was primarily used by teenagers with the focus being silly dance trends filmed for video consumption with their friends and followers alike. Now, as the general public has become in tune with how this complicated app works, it’s grown far beyond that.

TikTok is now an app used by all types of demographics and unlike TikTok’s closely related cousins Instagram and Facebook, this app provides a certain type of nuance that I think people in our line of work can really excel in. 

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how you can use TikTok to your advantage and how to make your videos catch on, I think it’s important to first mention why this matters for you. Now, if I’m being realistic, I’m sure there are some that have already stopped reading this or those that could scroll away fast enough when they saw the words TikTok. You might be thinking that this doesn’t fit your demo, or maybe that it’s a waste of time because productivity here won’t directly lead to an uptick in Nielsen ratings. But I’m not sure any social network directly leads to what we ultimately get judged on, and we aren’t always pumping out content directly to our core audience.

TikTok, like any other app you may use, is marketing. This is another free tool to let people out there know who you are and what you offer in this endless sea of content. And the beauty of TikTok is that it directly caters its algorithm to content creators just like us. Bottom line, if you are a personality in sports talk, there’s no reason you can’t be crushing it on TikTok right now. All it takes is a little direction, focus, consistency, and a plan. 

Unlike Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where you can throw a photo up with a caption and be done for the day, TikTok’s whole model is built on creative videos that keep users engaged for longer periods of time. This approach works. According to Oberlo, a social media stat tracking site, people spend more time per day on TikTok than any other popular social media application. 38 minutes per day!

This is where this is good news for us in talk radio. We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds. TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t care how many followers you have, your level of credibility, or the production on your video. All ir cares about is 1) Is your content good. and 2) Are people watching it. 3) How long are they watching it. The more people watch and the longer they watch creates a snowball effect. Your videos views will skyrocket, sometimes within hours. 

So, how do you create content that will catch on? It’s really not all that different than what you do every day. Create thought-provoking commentary that makes people think, argue, or stay till the end to get the info you teased up for them. I’ve found through my own trial and error that it’s best if you stay away from time-sensitive material, I’ve had more success the more evergreen my content is. That way, the shelf life expands beyond just that day or week. This is different for everyone and there’s no one-size-fits-all, but this is where I’ve seen the most success. 

Also, put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to say something that people are going to vehemently disagree with. Again, it’s not unlike what we do every day. It’s one thing to get someone to listen, it’s another to get them to engage. Once they hit you in the comment section, you’ve got them hooked. Comments breed more views and on and on. But don’t just let those sit there, even the smallest interaction back like a shoulder shrug emoji can go a long way in creating more play for your video. 

If you want to grow quickly, create a niche for yourself. The best content creators that I follow on TikTok all put out very similar content for most of their videos. This means, unlike Instagram where it’s great to show what a wildly interesting and eclectic person you are, TikTok users want to know what they’re getting the second your face pops up on that screen. So if you are the sports history guy, be the sports history guy all the time. If you are the top 5 list guy, be the top 5 list guy all the time, and on and on, you get the point. 

Other simple tricks

  • Splice small videos together. Don’t shoot one long video. 
  • 90 seconds to 2 minutes is a sweet spot amount of time. 
  • Add a soft layer of background instrumental music (this feature is found in the app when you are putting the finishing touches on your video) 
  • Label your video across the screen at the start and time it out so that it disappears seconds later. This way a user gets an idea of what the content is immediately and then can focus on you delivering your message thereafter.  
  • Research trending hashtags, they are far more important than whatever you caption your video. 
  • Use closed captions so that people can follow your video without sound. 

Finally, don’t be intimidated by it or snub your nose at it. Anything that helps your brand is worth doing and anything worth doing is worth doing well. 

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