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How Will Broadcasters Handle The Strangest Baseball Season Ever?

“What is the message that is most important to communicate to fans and sports media audiences?”

Chrissy Paradis

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The return of America’s National Pastime comes on the heels of a period in history marked by uncertainty, fear, frustration and concern. The return of Major League Baseball has been a beacon of hope for sports fans that have been deprived of live sports for months.

ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball Team of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Buster Olney will be calling three national MLB games in four days. 

ESPN moving to two-man announcing booth for Sunday Night Baseball | Newsday

The efforts of embracing technology, combined with the skilled innovative foresight of the sports media industry has paved the way for the truncated 60 game season. Certainly, there will be some adjustments to make along the way, but therein lie the realities of delivering live sports coverage during a global health crisis.

Among the questions, issues and concerns facing broadcasters in the sports media industry regarding the coverage of the 2020 baseball season, the most prominent is what is the role for broadcasters in their coverage of baseball’s return? What is the message that is most important to communicate to fans and sports media audiences? 

The ESPN broadcasting team is prepared for the challenge of adapting to the return of MLB in 2020. Mark Gross, Senior Vice President of Production and Remote Events spoke on the logistics and opportunity to embrace technology, “We have never done games from people’s homes until a few months ago. Technology has been our best friend, and keeping an open mind to everything across the board has also been our best friend.”

Gross discussed the ESPN team’s objective for broadcasting the upcoming games, “For us, the goal is always to make sure there’s no negative impact on the product for people watching at home.” 

In calling the games remotely, Rodriguez expressed his gratitude in having ESPN Senior MLB Insider Buster Olney to lean on as he and Vasgersian call the games from Bristol: “For me, having Buster on location, the possibility of having him there, we’ll have some type of connection to the building, the weather, how people are feeling, kind of the temperature in the building.” 

I spoke with Buster Olney, a staple of MLB coverage in his career as a writer and broadcaster, about the dynamics of the 2020 season. 

“I think it’s extremely important to get the context right. This is a major sports league attempting to pull off a truncated season in the midst of a historic pandemic,” Olney says about the importance of having perspective about the season. “While I think fans would like to separate the troubling conditions from baseball and create some kind of fantasyland, the fact is that you cannot separate them, especially with players and staffers constantly forced off the field by infection and teams subject to the city, state and federal disease mandates.”

ESPN Buster Olney MLB owners vs players 2020 105.7 the fan | 105.7 The Fan

The historical significance is one area that Buster believes will be integral to the history of the sport and overall.

“When I covered the Yankees for the New York Times in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Yankees advanced to Game 7 of the World Series, the games were a brief daily distraction from the horrors of what happened. In this case, the reality is interwoven into the games—the empty stands, players and staffers sidelined, because of the social distancing and masks that affect the interaction. It’s important to tell the fans how baseball in 2020, like the rest of society, has been impacted by COVID-19.”

The ESPN team has not been cavalier in its preparation for the season; positioned with play-by-play/analyst schedules, as well phenomenal teams in place for any audio, programming or production issues that may arise. 

Casey Stern, a veteran broadcaster in his roles with SiriusXM and Turner Broadcasting, took the time to tell me what he feels is most important to communicate to fans and the audience as baseball returns.

“Allow this sport to be the escape it’s always been from the realities we all face off the field both personally and together. It won’t be perfect, and in many ways will not be the same. However, it’s baseball. The crack of the bat, the unbelievable snag to start a double play, and the emotions that go with them, will all help us heal.”

World Series Champion Rob Dibble is no stranger to baseball or broadcasting, currently hosting The Rob Dibble Show weekdays on 97.9 ESPN in Hartford, CT. Dibble’s baseball career coupled with his success within the sports broadcasting industry gives him unique insight and perspective on how to cover MLB’s return.

“The media has to stop promoting fear and spread more hope. These are uncertain times, people need to see athletes setting a good example like a lot of the collegiate baseball leagues are doing, and some of the travel teams I coach.

“Maintain social distancing. Constantly washing hands. Not touching your face. Only touching your own equipment. The most important thing is that the players make sure they follow Medical Advice., limiting where they go before and after games, if they can. MLB has a chance to succeed. We can endure this Pandemic.”

97-9 ESPN's Rob Dibble to Serve as Susan G. Komen Southern New England  Honorary Pink Tie Guy - Hartford Courant

The ‘triumph of the human spirit’ magic that baseball embodies has been demonstrated throughout other pivotal moments in history, as referenced by Buster Olney above. In encouraging hopeful, positive and healing coverage as the live action games return, the path is cleared of resistance fostering camaraderie between America and it’s favorite pastime.

However, the beauty of baseball and it’s universal appeal is it’s inclusive nature. Therefore, the more cynical portion of the audience will undoubtedly have concerns, questions and complaints on any adjustments to the structure and format. One of the main issues that has been dissected among the local and national sports media involves whether a 60 game stretch will be enough. 

“60 games is not normal but it was the only option. MLB players always give one hundred percent and this year will be no different,” said Dibble. 

“If the entire 60 games and playoffs happen, then it will go down in sports history as one of the greatest seasons under the worst circumstances. Some players will become household names. I hope and pray for an amazing few months.”

Brian Noe, veteran host on Fox Sports Radio and NBC Sports Northwest, offered an alternative perspective for hosts.

“Call me crazy, but I really don’t think much changes for a host during this unprecedented MLB season. The job still remains to find interesting angles that gain the most traction. I greatly appreciate the players going out and performing during a global pandemic. Ideally, I hope there will be many compelling stories on the field that will be the main focus. However, you can’t force it. Hosts shouldn’t try to shoehorn conversations about middle relievers into shows as if they’re in a baseball-minded city like Boston when they aren’t.

Some players will wear masks during games this baseball season | Major  League Baseball | madison.com

“It’s a bad approach to create topics out of respect for players that are risking their health. We’re in the ratings business, not the admiration business. We’ve heard it a million times — play the hits. The saying isn’t to talk about a utility outfielder like he’s on a LeBron level out of gratitude for MLB providing entertainment during tough times. The job is to always figure out what listeners are interested in and keep feeding them what they want. Sell what is being bought. Don’t sell what they aren’t buying — even during a pandemic.”

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Chris Broussard Is No Longer Just A ‘Basketball Guy’

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great.”

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After embarking on a career in sports, Chris Broussard made a name for himself as a writer, specifically as it pertains to covering the NBA. Whether it was covering the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal, covering the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets for The New York Times, or doing television hits for ESPN, Broussard had always, whether it was justified or not, been pigeon-holed as a “basketball guy”.

That was the perception then, but today, the reality is different.

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great,” said Broussard, the co-host of First Things First on FS1 and the co-host of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio. 

“But what was good for me was that at ESPN, I had done First Take with Skip Bayless a lot.  There were a few years where it was a rotation and I was in that rotation. That enabled me to at least do the other sports.” 

Broussard has certainly made a seamless transition from print to electronic media.

After joining The New York Times in 1998, Broussard started to get television exposure doing local hits and then appearances on the various ESPN platforms would soon follow. He joined ESPN full-time in 2004 as a writer for ESPN The Magazine, but that also included regular guest appearances and fill-in hosting opportunities on shows like First Take and the opportunity to be a co-host for NBA Countdown for the 2010-11 season.

With that gig came the opportunity to work with Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, and his childhood hero Magic Johnson.

“I think that may be have been the pinnacle because Magic is Magic,” said Broussard. “He was my favorite player until Jordan came along and (with Wilbon and Barry), we just had great chemistry.”

After one season, Broussard and Barry were replaced by Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. A few years later, Broussard would make the move that would bring him to the next chapter of his career.

In 2016, Broussard left what amounted to being just a reporters role at ESPN for a new opportunity at FS1 where he would also be an analyst as well as a regular panelist for shows like Undisputed, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, First Things First and Lock It In.  In 2018, he began co-hosting The Odd Couple radio show with Rob Parker on FOX Sports Radio.

And then in August of 2021, Broussard was named the full-time co-host of First Things First, something that almost had happened when the network first launched.

“When they asked me to come on as a full-time co-host, it was great and maybe a long time coming,” said Broussard. “I know when Jamie Horowitz first brought all the people over from ESPN to be on FS1 in 2016, he was considering doing a show where Nick Wright and I were the co-hosts.”

Broussard now co-hosts the show with Wright and Kevin Wildes.

“I thought that I really just fit right in with the chemistry and it’s just been a great trio,” said Broussard. 

Born in Baton Rouge, Broussard and his family also lived in Cincinnati, Indiana, Syracuse, Iowa, and Cleveland.  He was a star football and basketball player for Holy Name High School in Parma Heights, Ohio and went on to play basketball for Oberlin College, an NCAA Division III school in Ohio.

Believe it or not, his first love was not basketball.

“My favorite sport growing up was football,” said Broussard. “I played football through high school. I played basketball at Oberlin College but they recruited for me football and basketball. I even played baseball up until I was about 16 years old.” 

So much for being just a basketball guy, right?

After college, Broussard had a decision to make. He knew he wanted to be a sports reporter but wasn’t sure if it was going to be print or electronic media. When he was an intern at The Indianapolis Star, he spoke to people in the know about which direction to go.

“I was told that it’s just easier and there are more spots in print journalism than there are in television and radio,” said Broussard. “I chose print because I thought I had more opportunities.”

Broussard’s first taste of covering pro sports was in 1995 at the Akron Beacon Journal when he was a backup writer covering the Cleveland Indians who would go to the World Series for the first time since 1954. He shifted to covering the Cavaliers and then it was off to New York and a bit of culture shock for Broussard.

During his 2 ½ years covering the Cavaliers, Broussard typically wore a rugby shirt, jeans and sneakers at games. But he noticed that when the Knicks and Nets would come to Cleveland or when Broussard travelled to New York and New Jersey when the Cavaliers visited the Knicks and Nets, that the New York writers would typically wear suits and ties when covering the games.

So, when he interviewed for the job with The New York Times, Broussard had an important question for his future editor.

“I asked him when I was being interviewed for the job do they require that your writers dress up,” said Broussard. “He said no but they do generally in New York because they know television opportunities are there. So, when I started working at The New York Times, I started dressing up wearing a suit and tie or sportscoat and tie whenever I would cover games.  Ultimately that led to television.”

And the rest is history.

This coming week, Broussard will be busy co-hosting his shows from the Super Bowl in Arizona. It’s one thing to host a radio show or a television show from a studio but it’s really something special to do it from a live event, especially on the giant stage of the Super Bowl.

And this week, Broussard will be center stage in front of a lot of ears and eyeballs.

“It’s always great,” said Broussard. “FOX Sports Radio always has one of the biggest and best platforms on radio row. It’s always fun when you’re doing these live shows at the big events and you’ve got an audience, it really can kind of bring out the best in you. I’m excited about it both for TV and radio.”

Chris Broussard has certainly come a long way in his career in sports. 

From his days as an athlete in high school in college to getting his start as a write to a transformation into a radio and television personality, Broussard has worked hard to get to where he is today.

“I haven’t written a word since I went to Fox,” said Broussard. “I do feel fortunate that I’ve been able from morph from a writer into TV and radio. What you want to do in this business is stay relevant and you want an audience and a platform. There’s not that many people who get that opportunity to do it.”

He’s no longer just a “basketball guy”. He’s a “sports guy”.

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BSM Writers

Radio Row Is One of The Worst Weeks For Our Listeners

Radio Row is a great opportunity for hosts, PDs, and executives. But it isn’t an inherently great opportunity for your listeners.

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From strictly a listener’s perspective, sports radio the week of Super Bowl’s Radio Row is one of the worst weeks.

Before I was a sports radio programmer, I was a sports radio listener. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, I was listening to sports radio with a programmer’s mindset. And every year, I would spend the entire week listening to shows produced live — or pretending to be live — from Radio Row at the Super Bowl. And each year, I would wonder “What the hell is the point of this?”

And now, as a former sports radio programmer, I will sit this week and listen to shows produced live — or pretending to be live — from Radio Row at the Super Bowl. And each day, I will wonder “What the hell is the point of this?”

Who does it serve? Let’s take an in-depth look at that question.

It serves the NFL. Hundreds of media professionals are stationed at its largest event, talking about it, ensuring it stays at the forefront of the public consciousness and providing millions in value for its sponsors.

It serves NFL players. Both past and present. Dozens of current and former stars will flock to Radio Row to record dozens of interviews. They’ll be paid thousands of dollars to pitch their wares as often as possible while expanding their brands outside the cities in which they currently or formerly played.

It serves the sponsors of NFL players. Radio Row provides a one-stop-shop for sponsors to send their endorsers down a line of interviews to continually get in front of new audiences. Scale, baby!

It serves the hosts, PDs, and executives. You get a working vacation! It’s awesome! I live in the Midwest, and yesterday was one of a handful of days I’ve seen the sun since November. Being in Arizona in early February is phenomenal! Plus, you get to hob knob with celebrities, get your photos taken, go to awesome parties with extravagant hor dourves and open bars, and it’s fantastic. You deserve the little break Radio Row provides; better yet, it’s all on the company dime. You get some bonding with your co-workers, you get to network, and it really is an awesome opportunity.

But you know who isn’t served? Your listeners. At least, the vast majority of them. Because here’s the reality: While it’s really cool that you’re hanging out with other radio folks, and you’ll have a plethora of former and current players swinging by for interviews, your listeners really don’t care. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s the truth. While there’s a subset of listeners who are living vicariously through you — and that can’t be completely shortchanged, it’s a big deal — the overwhelming majority couldn’t be less invested in your Radio Row interviews.

Think of it from a listener’s viewpoint: Outside of the Bay Area, do you think anyone has thought “Man, I wonder who Kyle Juszczyk thinks is gonna win the Super Bowl?” I’ll tell you that, no, they haven’t thought that, and they don’t particularly care what he thinks. Furthermore, they definitely don’t care that he’s sponsored by Old Spice, which gives him the P-P-P-Power!™

And it would be fine if there was one interview here or there, but there are some shows — both local and national — that will completely fill out their rundowns with interviews with people your listeners don’t especially care about, ask questions that your listeners don’t especially care about, and end the interview by asking who they think wins Sunday, why they think that way, and allow them to pitch their boner pills or whatever else they’re schlepping. Every day. For five straight days. For two, three, four, or even five hours.

It stinks.

Self-serving isn’t bad as long as you recognize it’s self-serving. And that could be potentially the biggest issue. Now and then, you’ll get a host that is sanctimonious and pretends they’re doing the listener a favor by spending a week away from their family in a warm weather destination, rubbing elbows with some of the greatest players — both past and present — in the game. You’re not. You’re spending a week eating all the free food you can find, drinking all the free beer you can find, and taking pictures to post on your Instagram. And that’s fine, but don’t pretend like it’s something it isn’t. You can talk yourself into its importance, but it’s important to you.

Radio Row is a great opportunity for hosts, PDs, and executives. But it isn’t an inherently great opportunity for your listeners. You can turn it into one with thoughtful questions, a unique spin on the traditional interview, or avoiding the same boring questions your subject has been asked 1,000 times during the day, but you’ve gotta go the extra mile to accomplish that. And I hope that’s not something you lose sight of this week.

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BSM Writers

What Are The Right Social Media Answers For Sports Radio?

“What are the limits of social media for radio brands? Are there any?”

Demetri Ravanos

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Social media does not stand still. The platforms that matter today can fall out of favor with the general public in the blink of an eye. Conversely, the right feature or attention from the right people can catapult a site’s importance in the social pecking order.

How does a radio company determine what matters? Are all formats received similarly on social media or is sports radio such a unique animal that brands have to be much more deliberate in how resources are allocated? To answer these questions, I turned to some experts. 

Tom Izzo doesn’t exclude any platform when he is plotting WFAN’s social strategy. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter may each attract a different type of sports fan, but they all matter in building and serving the larger audience.

“There is sports radio audience on every social media platform, you just have to talk to them differently depending where you are,” he told me. “The language and audience on Twitter is different than the language and audience on Facebook, but there is audience everywhere.”

Audience is everywhere. That’s what is at the heart of the conundrum. How do you best utilize your assets in a landscape that isn’t just constantly changing? It’s also constantly growing!

Lori Lewis has overseen social media strategy at an executive level for Cumulus, Westwood One, Jacobs Media and iHeart among others. Now she coaches companies on creating great content with her own company, Lori Lewis Media

She told me that the key for not just sports stations, but for any brand, is understanding what their audience prioritizes. That doesn’t mean it should be the brand’s only focus though.

“Obviously, for sports radio, it’s Twitter. But don’t sleep on short-form vertical video,” she said in an email. “When done right, you’ll see success (meaning converting views into new fans) with YouTube Shorts and/or Instagram Reels as well as playback videos on Facebook (those are visual replays from the audio show).”

Converting views into new fans was taken to a bit of an extreme in Nashville. 104.5 The Zone launched Zone TV in 2021. Will Boling took the lead in creating the product. He says that launching a proprietary video stream was never about moving away from other social platforms. It was about giving listeners more access to better content in more places.

“Our video platform affects a lot of our social strategy,” he said. “On Twitter, we don’t want to just be seen as a radio station, but as a media company. Our Twitter stream allows us to react to breaking news while also sharing our broadcast at the same time. And with Twitch’s video producer, we can create featured clips from shows whenever we want. That allows us to push video out of featured guests, funny callers and anything in between to promote our podcasts from each show too.”

Video matters so much more than ever before. It does not matter who you talk to or what platform it is you are talking about. The answer always comes back to using video to attract more eyeballs.

TikTok, our most controversial social video platform, is trying to figure out what its reach could be without the visuals. Last month the company announced that it would experiment with its version of podcasts – a mode on the app that would allow users to experience TikTok content as audio-only entertainment.

I asked all three of my experts what their initial impression of the story is. Only Izzo expressed reservations.

“Probably no need for us to be first anywhere if there isn’t any particular benefit to doing that,” he said. “We’ll watch and see what happens and if it turns out that people like consuming podcasts on TikTok we will certainly address that.”

That doesn’t mean WFAN hosts and bosses won’t keep a keen eye on the feature. I would anticipate that there may be some experimental posts that either don’t receive much of a push or perhaps never see the light of day at all.

Boling is adamant that any use of TikTok is a wise one for stations. He says anything set up with an algorithm that rewards creators for posting content the audience connects with is an asset that cannot be ignored.

“We use social media to push listeners to our YouTube channel because it’s an algorithm based platform. If we get someone to click on our page once, then our channel will get recommended to them the next time they get on YouTube. TikTok helps radio companies accomplish that and own every space in the digital market right now.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s Lori Lewis that approaches the feature in the most scientific way. Do TikTok podcasts represent a sort of new frontier for audio brands? Sure, but just like Grogu and the Mandalorian, you have to go there and poke around before you can figure out how it will work best for you.

“If TikTok expands to audio, how might you complement the mothership (The FM/AM stick) and build on the trust you’ve earned from your show? What’s a unique way to tap into new features? As social media evolves, so should our approach.”

What are the limits of social media for radio brands? Are there any? Since the onset of the pandemic, so much listening has shifted from terrestrial signals to digital streams. We have totally rethought what we are. Why should it stop with how our audience consumes our content? 

I asked Lewis if we are too narrow in thinking about how social media can serve us. Are we so focused on what is that we have not considered what could be? Can a brand have one identity on air and use social media to create something that does not mirror it, but instead compliments it?

“Depends on why you’re using social media,” she answered. “If you’re leveraging social media for increased awareness and building trust to drive more engagement during your show, it might not make sense to be different on social than on-air. But, if you’re a vanilla brand limited to creativity on-air, why not? Throw yourself out there. Show your real, relatable self (assuming it’s legal and appropriate, ha-ha). Relatability wins every time.”

Do we have to be deliberate in sports radio with how we allocate our social media resources? Yes, but that doesn’t mean there is a single correct answer. 

Strategy matters on air. It’s no different on social media. But in order to figure out the best strategy, you have to be open-minded and eager to play around with new offerings to determine what works.

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