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Jay Williams Learned To Be Himself By Watching Mike Golic

“My parents always made sure that it resonated with me that I was way more than the sports I played. I think that went to even another stratosphere when I went to Duke.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has a saying. “You never are. You’re always becoming.” I’ve heard him say it in the one time I’ve ever had the chance to interview him. JJ Reddick, who played for Coach K at Duke, has talked about what that quote means to him on an episode of his podcast. 

It’s a quote I couldn’t help but think about last week as I logged on to Zoom to chat with Jay Williams. This is a guy that went from promising NBA rookie to wasted talent to budding broadcaster to perhaps ESPN’s marquee name for basketball coverage. 

Starting August 17, he becomes something else – morning radio host. 

Jay Williams Inks Multiyear Extension With ESPN/ABC | Hollywood Reporter

“My parents always made sure that it resonated with me that I was way more than the sports I played. I think that went to even another stratosphere when I went to Duke,” he tells me. “You wouldn’t think that would occur. You would think basketball would be such a primary focus, but when I got there, one of the things that really lured me to the program was Coach K saying ‘I promise you, by the time you leave here, you’re going to be a better man.’”

Being a better man has served Jay Williams well. This is a guy that would have been the top pick of the 2002 NBA Draft if not for the availability of a freak of nature and unrivaled marketing opportunity named Yao Ming. He was immediately put on the US National Team for the 2002 FIBA World Championships. Jay Williams was supposed to be the guy the Chicago Bulls built their future around.

That was all before his motorcycle accident.

Enough has been written about the 2003 crash that derailed Jay Williams’s playing career. There isn’t anything new I can add to the story here. Williams points out that when his life plan changed so drastically, he had to lean into to Coach K’s wisdom. It didn’t matter what his shooting percentage was or that he was a prolific scorer for the Blue Devils. The only ability he needed was the ability to evolve.

“I almost died. I have a limp when I walk. I separated my pubic symphysis by 13 and a half inches. I didn’t have the proper functionality in that area for a long time. So, for me, people go through things in life. Life happens if you’re lucky enough to experience life.”

It wasn’t a quick path, but to go from where he was the morning after his accident to where he his today should answer any question about whether or not he is ready to meet the challenges that come along with a daily radio show.

The new morning show will also feature Keyshawn Johnson, who comes to the East Coast from ESPN 710 Los Angeles, and SportsCenter anchor Zubin Mehenti. 

Whatever it is Williams is in the process of becoming, he knows there will be a hill to climb. It’s hard to find someone that will tell you they don’t like Jay. It’s even harder to find someone that doesn’t sing the praises of Mike Golic, the ESPN Radio icon who’s 22 year run in mornings on the network had to come to an end for Williams to get his shot. 

After a month of tributes, Golic finally said goodbye to the ESPN Radio audience on Friday morning. It was an emotional affair, born of a decades long relationship with his audience. Williams says he had a similar connection to Golic. It was Mike Golic’s influence that Williams says was a turning point in his media career.

“I’ve been with ESPN for a long time. Mike Golic was the first person I saw on there for an extended period of time doing that show. I remember sitting there thinking to myself ‘Wow, that is really cool. Mike Golic Sr. is Mike Golic Sr.’ He’s very comfortable with who he is and he is very comfortable being that person on camera.

“It was the first time in my career that I ever thought ‘I’ve gotta figure out who I am, so I can be who I want to be on air.’ I never thought about who I was. I was too busy running. I was too busy giving my opinions about other things to ever have an opinion about myself.”

Williams is quick to tell me this isn’t a role he campaigned for. He described hearing that Golic would no long be a part of ESPN Radio everyday like going through the death of a loved one and experiencing the stages of grief.

“I called him and I said ‘look Mike, I don’t know how this all happened, but I am in this position right now and I want to be great at this. I want to be a different version of you. And all your fans, I want them to listen to us. I don’t want to alienate anybody.’ Mike is so great. He said ‘Look, I have had an incredible run. Just be who you are, Jay. I’ve always had incredible times talking to you and relating to you. Just be the person that is relatable.’”

Aside from having to replace the name most associated with the network, Keyshawn, Jay, and Zubin are launching their show during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Now look, we have written plenty here about how a lack of live sports is no excuse to produce bad content, and these three certainly have more sports to work with than anyone that was on air in March.

Things do look a little less like a sure thing now though than they did even just two weeks ago. The Miami Marlins and Major League Baseball are serving as a cautionary tale for what can happen when you rush a season to fruition with no bubble and no real plan in place for what happens in the event of a breakout.

Williams has plenty to say about Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball. He’ll be able to say everything he wants about the NBA during ESPN’s TV broadcasts. As it relates to the start of his new radio show, he has his eyes squarely on football.

He sees the mountains that had to be moved just to get the NFL to workout testing and reporting protocols and it worries Williams. Just how prepared is the NFL?

“The fact that the league has these stiff reprimands for players that don’t show up to training camp, and yet these things aren’t in place, it puts them in a weird situation as well,” he says of NFL players. “So, with travel and with playing in frigid conditions, and seeing this whole thing, it’s not trending in the right direction.”

ESPN Analyst And Businessman Jay Williams Adapts During Coronavirus,  Discusses NBA Cruise Ship Plan

Williams is even more steadfast in his thoughts on college football in the fall. He says that the coaches and the schools have so much responsibility to get this right. They owe it to their players to make smart decisions about when to play and when to shut things down.

“I think that the responsibility for the collegiate universe is so imperative, and it is so challenging, because we all now recognize that this is about money,” he says of college sports. “This is about sustaining schools and issues of what these schools’ overhead is.”

Of course Covid-19 will be a major topic of conversation, particularly in the early days of Keyshawn, Jay & Zubin. We’ll all be counting down while simultaneously praying, bargaining with the universe, or simply crossing our fingers and hoping that football happens.

Jay Williams says he doesn’t want to be debating morals and ethics every morning, but he is clear in where he stands on this. He wants to understand how people with opposing views justify where they stand.

“I’m not a politician. I’m not a scientist. But for anyone that says ‘well, the cases are so slim’ I would say ‘I don’t know what the long term effects of Covid are. I don’t know what those data points or what those metrics are.’ It would be hard for me to tell somebody to go out and perform when I don’t know if it will have long term effects on you, or maybe it won’t. I don’t know.”

As my time with Jay began to wind down, and I sensed we were becoming friends, I asked him to be honest. Yes, the morning drive slot on ESPN Radio is one of the most valuable positions in all of nationally syndicated sports radio. I know he is excited, but how about put out? Is there anything at all he is dreading about August 17?

“I wake up early all the time anyway,” Williams says. He then acknowledges that waking up early and waking up and being ready to have involved conversations by 6 AM are two very different things. “Mike Greenberg told me what you’re doing is not your job. It’s your lifestyle. It will become your lifestyle.”

When morning radio becomes his lifestyle, Williams acknowledges that one of his favorite morning routines will have to change.

“My daughter comes in my bed every morning and we read and we play and that will be no longer. I’ll have to find other ways to do that.”

Jay Williams Talks 'Serendipitous' Life as a Working Dad After Almost Dying  in an Accident at 21 - World Medicine Report

Positivity is the name of the game for Jay Williams though. You can still have the same kind of quality time with family at a different time of day. Morning radio, he says, is an opportunity to professionally grow in a way that he is prepared and excited for.

“In the big scheme of things, this is my job. I love my job. This platform is going to allow me to build connective tissue to people. That ultimately is my purpose.”

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Greg Hill is Turning the Tables in Morning Drive on WEEI

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen.”

Derek Futterman

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Greg Hill
Courtesy: Audacy

Earlier in the week, the Boston Celtics secured their 18th NBA championship. Across a variety of sports radio stations, especially those in the Boston-Manchester designated market area, the triumph was a subject of discussion on Tuesday morning. Within morning drive on WEEI, host Greg Hill provided his thoughts on the team and its achievement.

Akin to the Celtics, Hill aims to position his weekday program to thrive and sustain success. After working in the industry for many years, some professionals can exhibit a sense of apathy, but for Hill, it is quite the opposite, exhibiting congeniality and authenticity to the audience as a whole amid this quest.

Although Hill broadcasts on a sports talk station, the morning show spans beyond comprehensive sports discussion while implementing a variety of other topics into its daily discussion. In fact, Hill defines the breadth of topics into two distinctive categories, one of which is sports while the other covers an assortment of miscellaneous subjects mentioned on the show.

“I think it’s more beneficial if you are a radio person and you know what you think works when it comes to doing radio,” Hill said. “If you can find a way to keep the audience entertained and engaged and try, if you can, to present content that’s different than [what] they might find somewhere else, then that’s more important than necessarily a vast X’s and O’s knowledge when it comes to sports from my perspective.”

Sports teams in the city of Boston have established a tradition of grandeur and excellence, making a habit of remaining in contention for championships every year. In fact, the Celtics championship ended the city’s title drought that spanned just over five years. During that time, the media ecosystem has changed with a prioritization on digital distribution in addition to more niche content offerings. As a long-tenured radio host, Hill has been able to successfully adapt by optimizing the idiosyncrasies of the medium while also being open to innovation.

“The old adage about, and I think it still remains a unique advantage when it comes to this medium, is that when you wake up in the morning, you want to know, ‘What happened? What happened last night?,’ and you want to hear people give you their slant on it,” Hill said. “My function, I think, is to give everybody the opportunity to share their opinions on stuff.”

While Hill has become a respected sports radio host, he initially started working in another sector of the industry. During his time as a middle school student, he worked a paper route and saved his money to buy two turntables and several 45-rpm records. Hill would then go to the garage of his parents’ house and host a radio show with no audience, working to master the craft in his nascence. As he grew older, he started to bring his records to his high school radio station and take the air.

The passion and verve he possessed for the medium, along with his talent in the craft, helped him land a job at WAAF as a promotion coordinator. As he began to showcase his abilities, he earned chances to go on the air over the weekends and overnight. Morning show host Drew Lane later asked Hill if he wanted to do sports on the program, and he continued to grow from there.

When Hill was named the host of the new Hill-Man Morning Show on WAAF a few years later, he needed to find a way to stand out in the marketplace. After all, he was facing competition from Charles Laquidara on WBCN and a variety of other media outlets, and it took time for the program to eventually break through. Hill took the opposite approach of other stations in the area to render the show distinct from those on other media outlets.

“WBCN at the time was an older-targeted station, so we targeted the station towards Men 18-34 and figured that we could grow as they grew,” Hill said. “So we were just going out attending every single possible event where somebody might be, going out before concerts and shaking hands, and doing all that stuff that I think you have to do in order to try to get people to try your show and try your station.”

Hill’s program catapulted to the top of the marketplace, and he signed a lifetime contract after 26 years on the air to stay at WAAF. In signing the deal, he never thought he would work anywhere else, but things changed three years later when Gerry Callahan hosted his last show in morning drive on WEEI. Then-Entercom announced that it was adding Hill to the daypart to host a new morning drive program and retained co-host Danielle Murr in the process, commencing a new era for the outlet. Shortly thereafter, WAAF was sold to the Educational Media Foundation and re-formatted with contemporary Christian programming.

“I never thought [W]AAF would go away,” Hill said. “It was a legendary rock station, and I still to this day will flip by that station and hear Christian rock music and sit there in silence for a couple of minutes for that great radio station, but being the same company and the same market manager at the time [in] Mark Hannon, when that opportunity came up [to] try something different and to make a change, I was really excited about it.”

In moving formats, Hill and his colleagues evaluated the program and determined how they could grow their audience on WEEI while staying true to the essence of the show. The program, however, was going up against Toucher & Rich, the hit morning show on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and others.

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen,” Hill said. “To me, the most important thing is that we’re doing what we should do to get partners for the radio station on the business side of things and delivering results for them.”

Hill is cognizant of the success of 98.5 The Sports Hub but articulated that the ranking does not matter to those spending money on radio. Instead, he claims that it is about the level of engagement and patronization of the product that facilitates interest in the brand.

“From a differentiator point of view, we’re up against, on the sports side of things, an incredible radio station that has done an amazing job of being #1 in this market for a long time with really compelling personalities,” Hill said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to find ways to be different when it comes to our choice on content and the way in which we present it, and then outwork them when it comes to going out and meeting people who might listen to the show.”

Whereas Hill was originally a solo host during his early days on WAAF, he is now joined by Jermaine Wiggins and Courtney Cox, both of whom bring unique aspects that enhance the program. Wiggins, a former tight end for the New England Patriots, provides his knowledge of football and the perspective of a professional athlete. Cox is the youngest person on the program and has a unique approach from her time covering sports at NESN while embracing the humor and repartee on the show. Show producer Chris Curtis, who worked with Hill at WAAF, also contributes to the conversation as well and has helped maintain synergy.

“Whether it’s the co-hosts on the show or callers, I love when they are having fun at my expense, and I think that self-deprecating humor to me is the best,” shared Hill. “If we have a show in which I end up being the punchline or end up, whether it’s my age or lack of technological skill or my frugality – whatever it is – that to me is my favorite part of what we do and that personality coming through, I guess.”

Hill uses his platform to benefit the community through The Greg Hill Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide families affected by tragedy with immediate needs. He created the foundation in 2010 to celebrate two decades on the air at WAAF before the advent of crowdfunding in a quest to give back. The foundation has donated over $20 million to more than 9,000 beneficiaries during its 14 years.

“We’re lucky in radio because we have this incredible tradition of public service, and I think everybody in radio feels this obligation – this great obligation to use the airwaves to help others,” Hill said. “We’re granted the incredible platform in which we can actually get people to respond when help is needed, and so I wanted to be able to use that microphone and the radio station on those days to be able to help the beneficiaries in our area who needed it.”

Hill recently signed a multiyear contract extension with Audacy-owned WEEI to continue hosting The Greg Hill Show. Part of what compelled him to remain at the station was working with Ken Laird, the brand manager of the outlet who used to be his producer at WAAF. Moreover, he has known Audacy Boston market manager Mike Thomas for over two decades as he leads the cluster of stations in an environment with many entities looking to garner shares of attention.

“To be able to have the opportunity to work with those guys, know what they are, what I need them to do to keep them happy and to have the opportunity for us to, from a team perspective, that we have one clear mission in mind, and that is to be No. 1,” Hill said. “No. 1 in revenue and No. 1 when it comes to ratings, so to be able to sit there and go, ‘Alright, since I came here five years ago, we definitely have some wins, but there’s still a lot that we have to do,’ and to be able to do it with them together was way more interesting to me than any other opportunity.”

Even though Hill has worked in the sports media business for many years, he remains energized by the prospect of achieving goals and having the privilege to host his radio program. In the past, he has stated that he would like to slow down in his career, yet he is unsure what he would do without working in radio.

“That being said, I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn for 30-something years, and I’m definitely feeling it more than I used to,” Hill said. “But sometimes I think it would be fun to go and do one more radio show where I play seven great songs an hour, as long as I get to pick whatever I play and there’s no research and there’s no computer programming the music. I sometimes think about that, but I just love doing this.”

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If Jim Rome is Willing to Innovate, So Can You

Jim Rome is 59 years old and has been at this for 35 years. And if he finds value in embracing new platforms, you, your hosts, and your stations should be able to do it, too.

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Photo of Jim Rome and a logo for the X platform

Jim Rome is 59 years old. He’s been in the sports talk radio game since before I was born. And earlier this year, his show left CBS Sports Network to begin a live simulcast on the Elon Musk-owned X platform.

And it has exposed him and his show to a much wider, and frankly much younger, audience in the short time since the simulcast began.

If you search X, you’ll see either “I didn’t know Jim Rome was still around” or “I’ve never heard of Jim Rome, but I saw his show on here,” posts.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning terrestrial radio. In fact, he recently chastised a caller for talking poorly about “scratchy AM radio”, which elicited a strong defense of the medium from the sports talk legend.

But I can’t help but think that if — at this stage in both his life and his career — Jim Rome is willing to try new things, so can you, your show, or your station.

To be frank, Rome has every reason to coast. Rest on his laurels. Simply collect a paycheck and call it a day until his contract is up. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s innovating. He’s taking chances. I’m sure it’s a much safer feeling — especially for someone about to reach 60 (you look great by the way, Jim) — to stick to a familiar simulcast on cable TV. For damn near 40 years, that’s been the dominant player in the space. But it isn’t 1992 anymore.

Listening to Rome describe the new simulcast makes either one of two things true: Either he doesn’t truly understand what he’s doing, or he believes that his audience is potentially too old to understand streaming. Because he talks about the new venture like he’s trying to explain it to a five-year-old, but at least he’s out here attempting it.

Listening to many shows or stations around the country has at times led me to have a cynical view of the industry. Lipservice is often paid when you hear leaders say “We’re in the content business, not the radio business,” but then only put their content on the radio. Or in podcast form, in three-hour blocks with the live traffic reports still included in the audio to really cement home the fact that the producer couldn’t be bothered to even attempt to edit it before publishing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some stations that have fantastic radio, podcast, digital video, and social media strategies. Others excel at live events.

But many — you could argue too many — are resting on their laurels, taking a “this is good enough,” approach to the format and its content, and hoping that nothing ever changes.

The problem is the world changes every single day. And if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind. If the biggest and best stations in the industry fall behind, the entire format falls behind. And I don’t want to see that happen.

If you don’t have a digital video strategy in 2024, I have one quick question: Why not? I was a Program Director in market #228, and we had a digital video strategy.

If you don’t have a podcast strategy in 2024 that’s better than “just put up the entire show from today”, I have one quick question: Why not?

“Why not?” is likely the question Jim Rome asked when he was presented with the opportunity to move his show from the safe haven that was CBS Sports Network and bring it to a wider, younger, and more accessible audience on social media. Now, was it a risk? Absolutely.

But that’s the point. Be willing to take the chance. Be willing to try something different. Experiment. Learn. I can empathize with those who are frozen by the fear of failing. It’s a completely valid worry. But not growing, not chasing every revenue and content avenue possible, and not learning something new is a bigger risk, in my book.

I’m not here to suggest you take an ax to everything you’ve done on your show, your station, or your cluster, but I will strongly advocate for expanding your horizons and attempting to meet your audience wherever they may be. And even if that audience might be in places you’re unfamiliar with, familiarize yourself. Do I get the impression Jim Rome was super familiar with live video streams on X before taking his show there? No. But he was willing to take a chance, knowing that it might benefit in the long run.

I hope you operate in the same spirit.

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Do HBO and Hard Knocks Determine Part of the NFL Schedule?

Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

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Graphics for NFL Films and HBO's Hard Knocks

We could debate the merits of HBO’s decision to feature the entire AFC North in its end-of-season version of Hard Knocks, but we won’t. Say this much: It hasn’t been done before.

That’s because HBO and the NFL never before decided to do it, nothing more. The network and the league set the parameters for Hard Knocks, after all, and you can tell by this year’s lineup (Hard Knocks: Offseason, Hard Knocks: Training Camp and Hard Knocks: In Season) that they’re running out of ways to keep things fresh.

Featuring an entire division, especially one that includes longtime rivals, does help accomplish that. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens, Browns, Steelers and Bengals all finished with winning records in 2023.

But let’s skip the rest of the gloss and get to the nubs of it: Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

And should a network get to call that big of a shot?

The league hasn’t said anything about Pittsburgh’s schedule, and HBO certainly won’t. But Steelers fans – and anyone interested in the AFC playoff picture – immediately took notice when the NFL’s 2024 slate was announced on May 15.

The Steelers’ schedule was never going to be cake; six games within the AFC North takes care of that. But the NFL placed all six of those games within the final eight weeks of the season. Pittsburgh’s other two games in that stretch? At Philadelphia, and home to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Christmas Day.

A schedule like that could build some drama into a series about four teams trying to outlast each other and make it into the post-season, wouldn’t it? And while we can’t outright say the NFL planned this into the mix, we can think it.

The Steelers have never appeared on the HBO series, as you probably know. There’s been a bit too much made of head coach Mike Tomlin’s reluctance to open up either himself or the locker room to the network’s cameras and boom mikes, but it’s true that Pittsburgh dodged the bullet for more than two decades – until now.

Tomlin isn’t the only coach who’d rather skip the intrusion. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on The Adam Jones Podcast recently that he doesn’t watch the show, in part because it’s so obviously forced. “Everything’s put on,” Harbaugh said. “You got to put a microphone, and a camera in your face – people aren’t the same.” But he said he’ll tell his team to conduct business as usual, assuming that’s possible.

Tomlin and crew got a weird schedule in general, not only at the finish. The Steelers open with two straight on the road, which hasn’t happened to them in 25 years. I guess you could say they were due.

Week 2 happens to place them in Denver, the site of Steelers quarterback Russ Wilson’s bad breakup with Sean Peyton and the Broncos last offseason. They don’t get a divisional opponent until Week 11, two weeks beyond their bye. After that, it’s a broken-glass crawl to the finish.

“It’s probably not exactly how I would have drawn it up, but we’ve got to do the best we can,” team president Art Rooney II said. “A lot of the division games are at the end of the schedule, so it will be an interesting stretch there toward the end.”

That’s one way to put it. The Steelers went 5-1 versus the North last season, but they grabbed two of those wins within the season’s first five weeks. This year, not so much.

Tomlin hasn’t discussed any of this publicly, and nobody needs to feel sorry for either him or the franchise. They’ll get by. Close watchers of the Steelers noted that in the club’s announcement of the Hard Knocks news, not a single member of the organization was quoted, but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess other than the obvious, which is that –  like lots of teams – Pittsburgh probably views HBO as one of those things the NFL makes the franchise live with. Not everybody craves that stage.

The league always tries to build suspense into the season’s final several weeks, and TV ratings are the tail that wags the dog. No argument there. It’s common for divisional opponents to square off down the stretch, with a team often playing each of its division foes one more time over the final four or five weeks.

But that’s after they’ve already played their rivals once, usually much earlier in the year. Viewed in that light, meeting again toward the finish becomes a great way to gauge how much teams have changed through the season, and who’s left standing.

That is good drama, the kind we all want to see. This season’s Steelers schedule, on the other hand, smells like forced theater – weird, because it isn’t really necessary. But there we go again, overcomplicating things. It’s show business, kids.

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