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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]

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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. 

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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