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There’s Nobody Else Out There That’s Keyshawn Johnson

“For the people who question my experience, what are you talking about? This is what I do.”

Brandon Contes

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For the first time in more than two decades, Mike Golic won’t be part of ESPN Radio’s lineup as the network launches a new morning show featuring Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti.

Set to debut Monday, Aug. 17, the new show announcement was met with some surprise and little outside support. But if ESPN chose to replace Golic with hosts who were more familiar with their radio brand, the response would’ve included “same recycled talent.” And when ESPN instead announced hosts who are new to their national radio brand, it’s still greeted with skepticism.

While Keyshawn Johnson might be new to a national morning radio show, he’s not new to radio, media or the grind. After an eleven-year pro football career, nearly a decade on NFL Countdown, and spending the last four years as a morning radio host on 710 ESPN LA, Johnson’s resume backs his new opportunity.

Keyshawn Johnson - ESPN Press Room U.S.

Brandon Contes: You already had a successful radio show in Los Angeles, a major market and your home city. Was it difficult to move across the country to launch a new show with new co-hosts?

Keyshawn Johnson: Not extremely difficult, I felt like this is what was meant to be. Our show in Los Angeles was different, but I believe we had the best morning show in the country. We weren’t a national show, but we had plenty of people listening on the podcast and the app.

When this opportunity with the network presented itself, I talked it over with my family and was met with some resistance, but we all agreed this was the best move. I get to do the morning show, but it also became more than just that because I’ll be contributing on television to ESPN and NFL Live, so it was a package deal.

BC: How did you feel the new show announcement was received publicly?

KJ: As far as I know it was received fine. Everybody has their own opinions. If you’ve been listening to Mike and Mike or Golic and Wingo for years, you’re going to form your own opinions about what’s next. A lot of people are misinformed, I think they thought ESPN was just putting together a group of guys that never did radio or media.

BC: That was interesting because there were some people questioning the new show and I saw Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo was even critical. You fired back on Twitter a bit, but it did seem like people just didn’t realize you were doing a radio show for years – you’re not new to this industry.

KJ: People are misinformed and they speak that misinformation, that’s what’s wrong with sports journalism. They just say things. For the people who question my experience, what are you talking about? This is what I do. [Mad Dog] made a mistake. He’s entitled to his own opinion, but whatever. I didn’t listen to him when I was here and I don’t listen to him now.

BC: Maybe not Mike and the Mad Dog, but did you follow local media, pay attention to headlines and talk radio at all when you were playing?

KJ: I did, I listened because I thought it was important to be aware of what’s going on in your surroundings.

BC: Did you always know media was going to be your second career?

KJ: Yea, I think so. I went straight from the field to Countdown. It happened immediately and I knew then that this is what I was going to wind up doing.

BC: I’m curious about when you interviewed Dwayne Jarrett at the ’07 Draft. Because you were still under contract with the Panthers. They draft a receiver out of USC, did you have any concern during that interview that you might get cut?

KJ: I wasn’t worried about that. I could have kept playing. I had offers, but I didn’t want to play football anymore. I even told our GM in Carolina, Marty Hurney that it was probably going to be my last year and you might want to draft somebody, so I wasn’t stunned. The rest of the sports media world might have been, they were all yelling about it, but I already told the team I had one foot in and one foot out. ESPN already offered me a deal to do Countdown on Mondays because the Panthers didn’t have a Monday Night Football game on the schedule that year, so I was going to fly in for that every week even if I played another year.

BC: Is there a competitive aspect to radio and media that you can tap into as a former athlete?

KJ: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s competitive because there’s nobody else out there that’s me, there’s nobody that’s any of my co-hosts. Everybody has their own opinion on how to do something, how to host a show. You’ll hear people say, ‘they’re not that good,’ and you’ll also hear people say ‘they’re really good.’ Everyone has a different opinion, so I don’t get caught up in the hype. But as far as I’m concerned, nobody can touch me because I’m going to give you the real stuff, the real facts. I’m not just talking from the hip.

BC: How much do you pay attention to your radio competition, do you know much about FOX Sports Radio and Clay Travis who you’ll go up against nationally every morning?

KJ: I really don’t. I’m sorry to say, I honestly don’t and I really don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Somebody can be loud, but just because you’re screaming doesn’t mean you’re right. You can scream and be condescending, I learned about Trey, what did you say his name was?

BC: Clay Travis

KJ: Trey Travis?

BC: Clay Travis

KJ: Clay – Travis

BC: Yea, there ya go. [Laughs]

KJ: I kept thinking his name was Trey or Travis, I really only just heard of him when I took the job. Apparently, he said something on social media? And one of the guys I worked with in L.A. told me about it. I asked who he was and they explained he’s some dude on FOX that wants attention. That’s fine, good for him.

BC: How about local radio competition, like Boomer and Gio on WFAN in New York. Will you pay attention to what other shows and markets are doing?

KJ: I do what I do. They’re going to pay attention to us. I don’t need to pay attention to them because I don’t have problems telling the truth, telling facts, getting guests and not being one-sided. We’re going to be different, we’re going to be real.

BC: What about going from local radio to national. Before it was just L.A., now you have so many markets you’re trying to appeal to. How do you filter through all of the different topics? 

KJ: It’s going to be challenging, but we’re going to talk about the big picture and in doing that we’ll also hit on the local stuff. We’ll talk about all the New York teams, Jets, Giants, Yankees, Nets, Knicks, Mets, Rangers. We’re going to follow L.A., Chicago, Dallas, Cleveland, Florida, and we’ll hit on what the big topics are. We’re not talking about a guy who gets a traffic ticket in Nebraska, we know what’s in the news and what we need to talk about.

BC: A lot of the early success of your show will be dependent on football. If there’s a season, it naturally generates more fan interest in sports media, do you expect there to be a season?

KJ: All sports will impact our show, but if the pandemic takes it away, we can still talk sports. There’s still plenty to give insight and information on. Just because there isn’t a game being played, doesn’t mean we can’t have a sports conversation. And I think the NFL is going to play.

BC: Would you be comfortable playing under the circumstances?

KJ: Yea, I think I would be.

BC: Are you comfortable hosting a sports radio show without sports? How were the last few months on ESPN LA?

KJ: It was great, we had a blast. We created things to talk about around sports. Whether it was something to do with the pandemic, the teams in the bubble, whether players would venture out.

I took the side that players wouldn’t leave the bubble to go look for extracurricular activities. I had the other guys and Stephen A. Smith coming on the show to say I was crazy. But we made it a fun discussion. We talked about players versus the owners in Major League Baseball and their money issues. We had a conversation about Roger Goodell’s apology, but not really an apology to Kaepernick. There’s always something to have an opinion about.

BC: Is national radio more or less conducive to venturing away from sports?

KJ: It’s all about who the hosts are. Typically, I don’t think a lot of hosts are comfortable talking about social issues. Because the majority of them haven’t had to go through social issues and they shy away from having those conversations.

BC: That’s an interesting point, especially in an industry that is largely white male dominated.

KJ: It has been largely dominated by white males, but hats off to Norby Williamson and Dave Roberts and their willingness to go in a different direction.

BC: Dan Le Batard, as talented and entertaining as he is, there are people who think he might be better suited for the digital space because he doesn’t stick to sports as much as the ESPN and Disney brand might like. Has ESPN conveyed that to you and had conversations about sticking to sports?

ESPN's Dan Le Batard offers details on return to air, other news | Miami  Herald

KJ: No, and for what it’s worth I don’t know enough about what Dan does to have a conversation about it. But I know I’m not here to talk about major political issues because that’s out of my wheelhouse, but I will certainly talk about social justice, police brutality and Black Lives Matter. I will certainly discuss those things as they continue to be involved in my community. No one’s going to muzzle me from that.

BC: How should a sports radio show sound to you?

KJ: It should sound authentic. It should sound real. Fans and listeners should be able to know who you are, get to know you personally. When they roll up on me, I want them to feel good about who I am.

BC: How do you take over for someone like Mike Golic who was in this spot for 22 years?

KJ: Just do our part to be ourselves. That’s all we can really focus on.

BC: Did you know your new co-hosts Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti at all before this?

KJ: I didn’t know them at all, but I’ve worked with a lot of people. I didn’t work with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson who were together for decades when I got to Countdown, but we didn’t miss a beat. I don’t know why the decision makers decided to blow up that show when they did, but it definitely wasn’t me. Same with LZ, Travis and Jorge Sedano at ESPN LA, I didn’t work with them until we started the show, but I think we did just fine.

BC: Tony Romo was on the Cowboys during your two years in Dallas right?

KJ: Yea, he was on the team, but he didn’t play.

BC: Did you have any idea back then that he had the personality to become the media star he is now?

KJ: I never thought about it. He was just on the practice squad, but I used to hang out with him a bit and take care of him. I had floor seats to the Mavericks and I would give him tickets sometimes. But he’s really good at doing games, and that success is great for him.

BC: Did you have interest in Monday Night Football or being a game analyst somewhere?

Keyshawn Johnson believes Teddy Bridgewater should start Week 1

KJ: No, no. On television, I like the studio. I got a pretty face. 

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Give Me Less College GameDay, More Game

“If you cut out all of Desmond Howard’s and Kirk Herbstreit’s fake laughter, you probably only have 90 minutes of content stretched out to twice that length.”

Demetri Ravanos

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The fate of Pat McAfee, as it relates to College GameDay, is uncertain. McAfee has his pride and almost certainly didn’t enjoy being nitpicked by fans for every little thing last season. The show does not absolutely have to have him, but I do think he is more of a net positive than negative for the show. Plus, as I have written before, the network put an awful lot of effort into building rapport between him and Nick Saban last year. It’s hard to imagine ESPN doesn’t find a way to ensure they are working together this season.

McAfee’s drama is what has fans and industry types speculating on the future of College GameDay right now, but there’s something else I have been thinking about lately. Let’s give McAfee a break. Lord knows he has spent enough time as the focus of everyone’s College GameDay criticisms for the last two years.

I want to know how much longer the show intends to stay at three hours. That’s too much pregame show. If you cut out all of Desmond Howard’s and Kirk Herbstreit’s fake laughter, you probably only have 90 minutes of content stretched out to twice that length.

College football is one of my favorite things in the world. It’s an easy thing to say when Bama is your alma matter, but I don’t just watch the Crimson Tide. I watch EVERYTHING on a Saturday and I still don’t think I get enough.

So I have a radical two-part proposal. In the morning, I need less GameDay and more games. I think the average fan would be just fine with a one-hour pregame show, but I don’t expect ESPN to cut a valuable property down that severely. Instead, let’s settle on a two-hour show. The party can still start at 9 am, just stop at 11 instead of noon.

For that last hour? Start an East Coast game an hour earlier. It shouldn’t be hard for the network that controls all of the SEC and ACC inventory. Just be fair about it. Make sure all of the home teams are in the Eastern time zone and none of the visitors are from the West Coast or Rocky Mountains.

Think of the list of teams that gives you access to: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee from the SEC, the entire ACC outside of the three new additions, and Cincinnati, West Virginia and UCF in the Big 12. 

Even if ESPN wanted to accommodate playoff contenders like Georgia and Tennessee, there’s still a rich inventory of games they could offer at 11 am. Syracuse vs. Georgia Tech will probably be a top 25 matchup, but it is Power Four conference football. Plus, those are schools that should be happy to be on TV at all, so if you are offering them a spotlight time slot on ESPN, who are they to complain? You can swap those names for just about anyone in the ACC or Big 12 and it still works.

There’s a big difference between star power and mass appeal. McAfee and Saban have star power. Football has mass appeal. GameDay cannot deliver the numbers live football can.

On top of that reality, there’s the fact that it’s a decided advantage ESPN has over it’s top competitor. FOX may have the most valuable league in college sports, but they have spent years branding their coverage around the noon hour. Big Noon Kickoff, Big Noon Saturday. That network could not make the same move to 11 am kickoffs without spending huge money on a new marketing campaign. 

Now, let’s talk about part two of this idea. Take Rece Davis, Saban and Howard and give me a meaningful, insightful recap show after the final game of the night on ESPN comes to an end. That, I think, would have even more value to fans than GameDay.

The NFL is and always will be king, but there is a very large population that isn’t ready to jump into fantasy advice the second we wake up on Sunday. Pro games don’t kick off until 1 pm on the East Coast. Why can’t we keep the college conversation going until like 10 am?

College Football Final is fine, but it isn’t at all dynamic. Think of it this way, that replay that’s looped on ESPNU Sunday mornings, if you’re just flipping around, are you more likely to stop if you see Dan Mullen offering an opinion or Nick Saban?

Ultimately, I don’t expect the decision makers at ESPN will consider my idea. Maybe they will, but they’ll dismiss it. It’s always easier to stick with business as usual, and to be fair, the current way of doing things has been very profitable for them, so who the hell am I, right?

However, this is sort of a continuation of the piece I wrote last week about how the network is approaching negotiations with Stephen A. Smith. If you’re building a media company for the future, you have to focus on getting more meaningful games on TV more often. They are the only things that truly move the needle. Football will always be more valuable than football talk.

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Seller to Seller: Sales Meeting

That passion can get you meetings, it can get you sales, it can get you referrals and it can make you rich.

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Graphic for a Seller to Seller feature

C’mon in everyone. Hope your week is off to a great start and you are excited for this week’s sales meeting. Chances are, you’ve already taken advantage of our topic today, which is technology. Some of you probably took out your phone today, looked at the weather forecast to figure out what to wear, or maybe you pulled up the Starbucks app and ordered your morning coffee, which you then paid for with Apple pay.

I still marvel every time I am watching my home cable system, through my phone, with a beautifully clear picture. I am old enough to remember my family having a small television in our kitchen with rabbit ears and sometimes you would have to smack the side of it to hope the picture got better. Now, I can whip out my phone, pull up anything I want in the universe to watch and see it clearly, even on an airplane.

Technology is great. Except for when it comes to sales.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are things about technology that have helped those of us in sales greatly. No more recording the ad on a reel and driving it over to the other station or ad agency that needs it. Just get it in your email and send it on over, or you can even text it over.

The problem is, like a lot of things when it comes to electronic forms of communication, too much gets lost when you are not face-to-face, and the worst part is the person on the other end can’t tell at all if you are passionate about what it is that you are selling. And that has been a huge negative when it comes to trying to communicate with people through email and text or by sliding into their DMs.

The biggest challenge most sellers face is setting appointments with new prospects. We used to call it cold calling but somehow a lot of places let the ‘calling’ part slip away and it became a game of how many emails and LinkedIn messages you could send in a day. And as we all know, the chance you have of someone getting back to you about a first-time meeting through one of those channels is slim. So, why waste the time?

Some would argue that people do not want to be cold called any longer and they would prefer you reach out to them electronically. Of course, that is because it’s easier for them to ignore you or say no to the meeting without actually talking to you. Which, when you think about it, is the exact opposite of what we as sellers want. We want to be in front of them.

So, this is where it gets challenging, but also where we separate the good sellers and the great sellers, or more importantly, the ones who make ok money and the ones who make big money. It is clearly much, much harder today to get that yes to that first meeting. So, we have to work that much harder to get it. And if you want to be successful in this industry, you have to be putting yourself in positions to be in front of people as often as possible.

Whether it is a networking group, Chamber of Commerce event, stopping into businesses, going to games and events or any other way you can be in front of a group of people, if you aren’t doing these sorts of things on a regular basis, you are missing out on a ton of new relationship opportunities.

If you have determined that you are going to meet your financial goals by emailing and sending LinkedIn messages all day, it is going to be a short career for you, and you might want to start looking up new ways to season your Ramen noodles. This is a people business and not many people stop by the studio or office to say hello and ask if anyone is in that can sell them some advertising.

The biggest part of this is the passion with which you sell your product. I believe that you have to have that passion to really make it big in the sports media sales business, and let’s face it, that is why most of us are in the business in the first place. We love it. Many of us eat, sleep and breathe sports. That passion comes out when you talk about what you do and how you can help a local business with the tools and resources you have at your disposal using sports radio as the catalyst. That passion can get you meetings, it can get you sales, it can get you referrals and it can make you rich.

Let people see it. Make a promise to yourself that you’re going to do x number of things every month to increase your time in front of the business community in your area. That is where you will make new connections.

Sales managers, I would encourage you to ask your team weekly in one-on-ones about this time and figure out who is putting in the work to really go out and make new relationships and who is doing the equivalent of ‘sitting by the fax machine waiting for orders.’

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Suzyn Waldman and WFAN Had a Lot to Prove 37 Years Ago

When Suzyn Waldman became the first voice ever heard on WFAN on July 1st, 1987, there weren’t too many people who thought that the radio station would have sustainability.

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Photo of New York Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman
Screengrab: Newsday TV on YouTube

On July 1st, 1987, Suzyn Waldman was about to be the first voice heard on WFAN in New York, the first all-sports radio station ever.  As she settled in to do her first update, a moment that is played back every year when WFAN celebrates its birthday, Waldman could not help but look over on the other side of the glass into another studio and see people holding hands and crying.

It was the staff of WHN, the radio station that WFAN was replacing at 1050 on the AM dial.

“I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” said Waldman who has been in the Yankees radio booth since 2005. 

“I looked through the glass and all of a sudden it dawned on me that when I opened my mouth, they would cease to exist and it really hit me just by doing that.  People were crying and that picture is something that has stayed with me forever.”

Next Monday, WFAN turns 37 years old, and it all started with these words that resonated with Waldman as she drove by Yankee Stadium on her way to work that day.  The old Yankee Stadium had a message board on both sides of “The House That Ruth Built” and that day the message would become part of WFAN history.

“The sign on the message board says, ‘Vintage Guidry’”, said Waldman as she delivered the first words ever heard on WFAN.   “I think I remember what I was wearing…a white blouse with a black skirt.”

But, unfortunately, that’s not all that Waldman remembers about that day.  Her broadcasting career featured some rocky moments early on and it started with what she heard seconds after that first update.

“What I heard through the other side of the glass was get that smart-ass bitch with the Boston accent off my air in afternoon drive,” recalls Waldman.

That first horrible experience did not deter Waldman who would go on to become a pioneer for women in sports broadcasting and a resume that would land her in the Radio Hall of Fame.  There were those at WFAN who tried to move Waldman to overnights with the hope that she would quit.

She wasn’t about to quit.  Instead, she built a career doing things that many of the male employees didn’t want to do.  She covered teams like the Yankees, Knicks and Devils and with that she made a little history.

“What I had to do for that was create my own job which was the beat reporter,” said Waldman. “I was the one who did that.  I took assignments that the guys didn’t want to do.  I did not have an easy time.  I was not going to be defeated because some man thought I was stupid because I was female.”

While there were those who tried to take down Waldman and ruin her career, she did have people in her corner including her family and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

“The Boss” was initially tough on Waldman when she covered the Yankees but quickly grew into a big fan of hers.

Waldman isn’t so sure she would have enjoyed the career that she’s had without the support from Steinbrenner.

“My brother says I would have because I would have found a way,” said Waldman.  “I believed in what I was doing, and I was the one that was going to maybe make it safer for young girls to believe that they could do this or have some kind of career in sports.  George, except for my family, is the most important person in my life.”

In their early days, WFAN went through some growing pains.

They brought in a lot of on-air people from outside of New York and it really wasn’t until WFAN took over the 660 signal from WNBC on the AM dial that the station became a success.  By transforming from Sports Radio 1050 WFAN into Sports Radio 66 WFAN, the all-sports station assumed the iconic “Imus in the Morning” show from WNBC.  The station also created “Mike and the Mad Dog”, the most successful sports radio show in history, in afternoon drive and the rest, as they say, is history.

Waldman knew that WFAN could be a success before it started, but it had to be done the right way.

“Being the sports nut that I am and knowing that there were so many teams in New York,” said Waldman.  “What I did know was it was not going to work if they had national people.  Nobody in New York gives a damn about Nebraska football.”

It was during those early days doing updates at WFAN when Waldman would meet her longtime Yankees radio partner John Sterling.  One of the original hosts that WFAN had hired was legendary Cleveland sports talk host Pete Franklin to do afternoon drive.  But, Franklin’s arrival in New York was delayed because he had suffered a heart attack.

A number of people were brought into fill-in while Franklin recovered and one of them was Sterling, who retired from the Yankees radio booth earlier this season.

“I was John’s update person when he did a week at WFAN in 1987,” said Waldman.  “That’s how I met him.  We hit it off immediately.  I talk to him all the time and he’s very happy.”  

And now, as WFAN is set to turn 37 years old, Waldman is happy that the radio station continues to thrive even though the sports talk format may sound a bit different than it did in the early years.

“I’m not the demographic anymore,” said Waldman.  “It should change.  The times are very different.  I’m really glad I got to be at FAN when we were building something and I’m really proud of that.  Things change and the world changes and I have no problem with that.  It’s somebody else’s turn.”

When Suzyn Waldman became the first voice ever heard on WFAN on July 1st, 1987, there weren’t too many people who thought that the radio station would have sustainability.  There were also people who didn’t think that Suzyn Waldman should be on the air.

WFAN and Suzyn proved a lot of people wrong.

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