2020 has been one of the worst years for many of us, and to lose a legend like John Thompson hurts immensely in a year already full of hurt.
There are a few men who walk into a room, and are just larger than life before they say a single word. John Thompson was one of those men. His mere presence was enough to garner respect from everyone, and his death has brought about an outpouring of support from former colleagues and players alike.
John Thompson, the basketball coach, would have been enough to write a massive book about, but when you add his career outside of coaching, you realize very quickly that John Thompson is one of the great people to walk the earth.
Thompson took over a little known program, Georgetown, in the early 70s and transformed them into a national power. This is a story that never should have happened at a place like Georgetown, but it took a once in a lifetime coach like Thompson to elevate the Hoyas to national prominence. From 1972 to 1999 Thompson would amass a .714 winning percentage, make three Final 4s and become the 1st African American head coach to win a National Championship in 1984. Georgetown was the “it” school in college basketball for a long time, and helped usher in the Big East Conference as must watch hoops.
Bomani Jones said it best on his podcast, “Georgetown was the first Mid Major to be great.” When you stop and process those words, he’s right. Georgetown was never supposed to be a basketball power. Georgetown was never supposed to be in Final 4s and Georgetown was never supposed to be a household name, but John Thompson made them all of that.
The Thompson story is much bigger than the on court acumen though. What Coach did for kids in the DC area, and kids at that school can not be undersold.
I read an excerpt from Alonzo Mourning’s book Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph. In it, Mourning writes that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd his freshman year of college, meaning one of the biggest dealers in the DC area. Thompson would go to the dealer’s house and basically tell him to stay away from Zo, that he wasn’t that type of kid. How many coaches would have the stones to make that visit, or two, have the respect of the community to get the results he was looking for. Coach Thompson never has to worry about Alonzo Mourning being at the wrong house again after that.
Allen Iverson is another well told story. Iverson was the super prodigy who could’ve gone to any school in the country until he was involved in a fight a bowling alley. Basically every school in the country except Georgetown turned the other way. Iverson would go to Georgetown and have a brilliant career ultimately going to an Elite 8 and becoming the first overall pick in the NBA draft.
Go back and watch Iverson’s HOF speech, watch the tears roll down his face thanking John Thompson and know what an impact Coach had on AI’s life. “Thank You for saving my life” Iverson took to Twitter and said it again on Monday.
Thompson was more than just a basketball coach, and after retirement he decided to get into broadcasting. His voice shook the airwaves, he spoke with such power and intelligence that you got smarter every time you listened to him.
What was then Sportstalk 980 in DC gave him a chance just a few months after he retired from coaching and the original idea was to have him as a weekly guest. He was known to be rough with the media, but once he hit the airwaves it was like he had studied all his life to be in radio.
On Monday, the station, now called The Team 980, was filled with tributes both on air and online including morning man Kevin Sheehan sharing this clip.
Thirteen years later Thompson signed off for a final time but not before bringing in the biggest guests and a barbershop like sound to the airwaves. Rev Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, Bill Russell, Coach K and many others were always welcome on the show, and what made the show great was he connected with audience members young and old. Thompson was just as successful on the air as he was on the bench.
He would also spend time on the radio row circuit, which is where I got to meet one of my heros. Growing up in South Florida, Miami didn’t have the Heat, and the Canes didn’t play basketball for almost 25 years. Georgetown became my adopted team, because they reminded me of the Miami Hurricanes football team. Tough, rugged and in your face.
Thompson was on radio row in Dallas in 2014, and we got the scheduled interview. For anyone that’s been to any radio row, you know that it’s a cattle call of sorts. You get 10 minutes or so with a big name guest, then they move to the next station. When Coach Thompson came over, his handler brought a taller chair for him to sit on, which was different than anyone else who sat on the normal chair that was provided. John Thompson is the type of guest who you just allowed to talk, and don’t rush his answers. As I sat literally feet from my favorite college hoops coach ever, that one bead of sweat was pouring down my back. Honestly I don’t know what I asked, but for ten minutes it was me and a legend. His voice overpowered my headphones and I was mesmerized by every word he spoke. After the interview I thanked him, we shook hands, took a picture and he moved to the next table.
A year later in Atlanta, once again I got to speak with Coach Thompson and much like the year previous I enjoyed every second of getting a chance to speak with an icon. Very rarely in 16 years of radio have I been intimidated by a guest, but two times Coach JT did that too me.
Some people are larger than life. Some people have a purpose on earth to do better for others. For John Thompson, whether it was Allen Iverson, Dikembe Moutombo, Alonzo Mourning or countless other Hoyas, he helped make them better men. Some people are successful at whatever they do, and for Coach Thompson everything he did, he did with a gravitas, style and class that was unmatched. I’m truly humbled to have had the opportunity to spend 20 minutes of my life talking to him, and he will be forever loved and missed. RIP to a legend who will never be forgotten.
John Michaels is a weekly columnist for BSM and a veteran sports radio host. Presently he can be heard on Saturday & Sunday 9a-1p on SB Nation Radio. Previously he has hosted for 92.9 The Game and 790 The Zone in Atlanta, and WFNZ in Charlotte. He also hosts a podcast for StateoftheU.com. You can reach him on Twitter @JohnMichaelsU or by email at [email protected].
Meet the Podcasters: Pablo Torre, Meadowlark Media
“Building a docu-style YouTube channel, that’s the next challenge. I don’t think anyone else is trying that because it’s insane.”
What kind of podcast is Pablo Torre doing exactly? It is how I began our conversation this week for Meet the Podcasters presented by Point to Point Marketing.
The show is really three shows. I’ll leave it to Torre to explain it further a little later.
What is important to me is not just what the show is, but how it gets to the people that want to hear it. What matters in marketing a show that is trying to fill a niche that is still kind of undefined? Does video matter? How?
There are a lot of questions and Pablo Torre will be the first to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers yet. So, let’s find out together what is going on with Pablo Torre Finds Out.
Demetri Ravanos: How would you describe what you’re trying to accomplish with Pablo Torre Finds Out? It is a lot of shows in one depending on the day of the week.
Pablo Torre: Yeah. This is what my mom asks me. “What are you trying to do here? You’re working for Dan Le Batard? The guy who publicly complained about how your wedding had a black tie dress code?” And what I try to tell her is that I finally get to do the show that I have been wanting to do, even if I didn’t know it while at ESPN, full time, which is to say that I get to do all of the shows; three types of shows in one. You sort of summarized it pretty well there.
I get to do, once a week, a reported deep dive, an investigative journey through some topic that I guarantee no one else in the media is doing it that week in that way. It’s sort of like just an off-the-board entirely my personal curiosity-driven journalistic odyssey.
Then I get to do the sort of roundtable talk show with friends of mine like Dan Le Batard, Mina Kimes, Katie Nolan and so forth. I love doing that sort of a show I did that with Highly Questionable for years and years with Debatable; with PTI, Around the Horn. It’s sort of from that spirit.
Then the third type of show we do every week – we come out on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday – is more of a one-on-one conversation. I’m not saying that I’m trying to channel Marc Maron or whomever else, but it’s a chat show. It’s a one-on-one conversation with someone of interest, and I get to dig in on their life. For me, it’s a way to cover sports in a way that feels deliberately and sort of joyously different. The only unifying characteristic in all of it being my own curiosity, which is incredibly liberating and also admittedly kind of scary.
DR: I want to dig in on the investigative journalism episodes for a second because I do wonder what the difference is between doing a newsmagazine for Meadowlark and doing something like that with the resources of Disney behind you.
PT: Yeah, I mean. I got to call upon a newsroom – the biggest newsroom in sports media in the world – while I was doing ESPN Daily, and now I call upon a newsroom that I am building by hand, which is only tongue in cheek a newsroom. I am getting to do journalism in a first-person way without resources. And I say “getting to do that” because as much as it’s been a stress to try and do journalism without those resources, it’s also been really f***ing fun, you know?
What I’ve gotten to return to my roots on is the idea of like, “Go report this yourself.” So I have been tasked with like, “Hey, you used to be a guy who did long-form journalism for ESPN and Sports Illustrated and all these places. Do that again.” And for me, the solution is be mildly terrified, but then figure it out. I need to prove that I am not a function of the machine. I’m not a product of the empire. I can do this without those resources. I can do it because I have contacts and instincts and skills that I’ve developed over years.
I tell my staff all of the time, as small as we are, I think of ourselves as a newsroom and think of ourselves as making sort of a new age magazine. Not to belabor this point, but so much of doing stuff at ESPN, for better and for worse, felt like we were reacting to what everybody else wanted to talk about. That’s so much about audience metrics and all of that. It’s a very good business strategy, but when it comes to what I’m doing, Demetri, I’m realizing the bet I’m making is that like a magazine in olden times used to, I can present you with a story that you didn’t know you wanted to read or hear and keep your attention all the way through. And so that’s a fun challenge. It’s the challenge that got me hooked on sports journalism in the first place really.
DR: So that’s interesting because you kind of hit on something that I wonder about, about a lot of Meadowlark’s shows, because there is such an emphasis on the freedom to do the kind of things you want to. Are you hung up on numbers at all? Is any part of you paying attention to what hits or does it matter to what stories you choose to tell?
PT: I want to lead with an editorial judgment. It sounds very naïve. I want to count on the fact that I am leading with our interpretation of news value, which is, and you’re very astute in challenging this premise, because the thing about going it on your own is that, well, now you’ve got to support yourself on your own and metrics are how you support yourself. So if I’m in a corner jacking off –
DR: I’m sorry. Is that the Wednesday podcast?
PT:That’s right. That’s the fourth episode every week. Just me masturbating. Some would say it’s the three episodes we do already, arguably, given how much I talk about myself in them.
But to your point, I want to confess something. I am someone who launched this show with the explicit mandate of, “We’re going to do the stuff we think is good. We’re going to lead with our version of journalism and we’ll see where the chips fall.” Early on, the chips have been falling in sort of encouraging metric ways. I’m a total hypocrite. Now my message is not, “Don’t listen to the metrics.” It’s, “Guys, the metrics are validating our approach and this is amazing and in fact, this is a business,” so that’s really the early returns. What’s so exciting about it is that people are listening; people are watching. We debuted in whatever – the top three; top five, and whatever charts that are ephemeral, admittedly. We’ve been put into Dan’s feed and the audience has really taken to us.
We did an episode about the one transgender athlete in Ohio who was affected by the legislation. I went out there and interviewed her and it got traction, so much broader than what I had expected, well beyond sports. And all of these things, again, are hypocrisies for me, because I would have said to you in August, “I don’t give a f**k about metrics, but now, because the metrics are validating me, I’m saying, “Actually the story is changing a little bit.” I’m not going to be the artist jacking off in the corner. I’m the guy who wants to blare into a megaphone, “I think there’s another way to cover sports!” So that’s the lie that I’ve already confessed to with you.
DR: Let’s talk about the Le Batard connection. You mentioned that your show is now in the Dan Le Batard Show feed. Is that more important or are the appearances you make on that show more important? So much of success in digital media is about connecting with an audience, so exposure is great, but maybe exposure to your personality is more valuable.
PT: Yeah. I don’t know, man. For me, I care so much about Pablo Torre Finds Out, the show right now that I am prioritizing truly above all else. I love being on Dan’s show, and I will absolutely, shamelessly promote it in all those appearances from henceforth, but for me, I just want people to know that we’re making this thing. All the anxiety I had early on about metrics was, “We’re going to work so hard at this thing and we’re going to do this three times a week. I just want to make sure it’s not for nobody.” And so insofar as we get just amplification from Dan, again, appearances like this conversation with you in which I get to indulge like talking about this thing that I care so deeply about – that’s what I care about the most.
Look, it’s also a test, right? Like if an audience wants ‘X,’ if I give them ‘Y,’ do they ask, “Why the f**k are you giving this to me?” or do they get it? Strategically speaking, launching this show as a sibling to The Dan Le Batard Show, which is a Goliath of a podcast, I just wanted to make sure that I captured Dan’s fanbase, which knows me from those appearances you refer to on his show. They know that we’re up to some stuff, and from there we’re going to sort of build outwards. I’ve been gratified again that the building has sort of happened sooner than I anticipated.
DR: So the investigative journalism that you are doing now, I want to sort of go back to some of your history, both at Sports Illustrated and at ESPN. What is it that you can do when you are on your own in this way that’s a little bit tougher to do in more traditional media?
PT: So I did this episode in our first week that I really loved and cared about, which is the story of Bryan Davis, who is the man who bid a bazillion dollars – like $7 billion I believe his total bid was, maybe was nine by the end – but bid billions of dollars to the Washington Commanders. It was this treasure hunt story about, “Did this guy have the money? Where is the money coming from? Why is the Philippines involved? Why are all of these crazy details now filling this rabbit hole?” And to me, part of the difficulty was simply trying to do that in audio, because in a written piece, for instance, when I would do this sort of work for Sports Illustrated or ESPN, I would get to write the details out, and something that I’ve learned in audio is that it’s just harder to keep people’s attention. It’s really about, again, audience retention.
There’s so many details that I want to hit you with. That’s how my brain works. So the challenge is, as a storyteller – a literal storyteller in this case – “How do I tell you the story in a way that it is sensible and that you can retain it while you are like walking your dog and cleaning up after your dog?” You’re sort of like half-distracted. How can I make sure that I remind you about what the story is at recurring points without you losing the thread?
Hosting ESPN Daily was like this revelatory experience because I had never done audio-first storytelling before. I realized the theater of the mind of it. I was like, “Wait a minute. So it’s kind of like writing, but I can’t be as writerly.” It’s kind of like radio, except I’m asking more of the audience in terms of sticking with me as I unfurl something as opposed to lead with whatever the biggest story is that day. No, I’m going to slow play this a little bit. So the challenge is just me getting my feet wet in a medium that has presented me with challenges.
It’s all of the genre of show that I listen to as a fan. So I love like a public radio shows like This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible; these nerd shows that are about audio for storytelling. So the challenge for me is to do that. Then also, I should say, develop a YouTube channel in which those audio-first stories also can play in video. Admittedly, so much of my brain, like a half of it at least, has been about, “Be audio first – use music; use scoring; use editing; use sound effects; use all of that,” but then also have it so that you can see me saying it on camera as well as the guest, as well as our reporting out in the field.
Building a docu-style YouTube channel; that’s the next challenge. I don’t think anyone else is trying that because it’s insane. Like, go to NPR’s YouTube channel of This American Life. They’re not trying to do the YouTube video version, and for better or for worse, we absolutely are.
DR: It’s funny. I was having this conversation with my therapist actually today, because a podcast I do got picked up by a FAST Channel called Origin Sports and I was telling her how cool it was that this thing I am making is on TV now and her hang up was, “So wait, people just want to watch you talk?” I told her, “You know, I don’t get it either, but that’s what I’m told.”
What is interesting, going back to what you said about NPR is that outside of people that are just attuned to audio entertainment – podcasts; radio; whatever – the shows that connect most seem to be true crime investigations. None of those have video elements and they are still tremendously popular, so I don’t know what that says about the importance of video to podcasters.
PT: I think that’s a fair perspective, Demetri. Also, a fair perspective by you would be to tell your therapist, “This is sort of defeating the purpose of why I come to you when you present me with this existential conundrum of, like, ‘Wait a minute, does anybody want this?'” But I feel you acutely.
Again, we’re on the DraftKings Network as well. We’re making a weirdo show that tries to be funny but also smart and low-brow and highbrow and do weird investigations for DraftKings. I don’t know if when they started the DraftKings Network, they were like, “We want this weird genre that no one’s done before,” but they’re trying it out. They seem to like it.
The question your therapist posed is also a question I ask of myself. Are we sure these people want to watch this? And again, early returns are encouraging, but maybe I shouldn’t be too confident in mid-September at this point.
DR: That ties into something that I’ve wondered about a lot of different podcasters, but are you specifically doing something that is newsmagazine-style at least part of the time? What is it you have learned that really matters to a younger sports fan, whether it is about the content or how it is delivered that older generations may have never thought of or just simply do not get?
PT: I am staggered perpetually by how young people are doing it. Like, I mean, in every way, just like you guys. Okay, so beyond just like, the salaciousness of, like, ‘Okay, social media is what? Now we’re at school and you guys are sending photos of what? To whom?’ Like, this is all dystopian, like genuinely terrifying. I have a 3-year-old daughter. All of it is very scary to me.
DR: Hey, I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter.
PT: Okay, so I am scared because I will one day, hopefully, God willing, have a 14-year-old daughter. I will have to reckon with what you have reckoned with.
Fourteen-year-olds, generally speaking, don’t really give a shit about teams in the way that like their forefathers did. That’s the research that I get that I’m fascinated by. Sports used to be this ancestral sort of heirloom. You inherited your allegiance. You watch games through the lens of, “Laundry is more important.” The team; the jersey is more important than the individual.
Now we’re in an era of clearly the tide turning. Again, it’s the fragmentation of media, the fracturing of audience. We’re just watching the individual’s feeds that we like.
This is like the conundrum existentially for the NBA, right? “People don’t want to watch our games, but they love consuming us on social media. Is this monetizable in the same way? Is this something that’s bad for us? Is it good for us that we’re like, over-indexed on it?”
For me, again as a newsmagazine guy, my instincts are twofold. No. 1, I should probably do a story that engages explicitly with the conversation we’re having from that more meta-perspective of like, “Pablo Torre Finds Out if I’m just too f**king old to really get how kids are now.” That’s like the actual story that I should engage with on some level, but the second thing is to sort of be a little more humble than I probably have been in the past about how little I know.
I don’t want to assume that kids are out, for instance, on narrative storytelling, if in fact, and this is just a hypothesis, they seem to begin to like individual human interest brands. I’m like, “Okay, if you’re into the characters, if I give you a character you don’t know, will you stick around for it?” I’m not trying to tempt you with, “Here’s your favorite team. Here’s what you should know about it.” It’s just not what I’m best at also, I should say.
So for me, if I can tell a story that crosses that age gap, I will be incredibly relieved. But I don’t know, man. The answer so far is that, like, I need to do more reporting. I would be a liar and I would be betraying my very premise if I told you I already found out the answer to that. God knows I haven’t.
To learn more about Point-To-Point Marketing’s Podcast and Broadcast Audience Development Marketing strategies, contact Tim Bronsil at [email protected] or 513-702-5072.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Tiki Barber, WFAN Prove Sometimes It’s Okay to Make Yourself the Story
I know we were all told to never be the story. That ship has sailed.
Even if WFAN wasn’t fantastic at social media videos, the interaction between current WFAN afternoon host Tiki Barber and former host Joe Benigno was likely to go viral.
The conversation — which I think could be fairly labeled as “accidentally contentious” — featured the passion of Benigno and the even-keeled analysis of Barber. It made for good radio, but it made for even better television.
Unfortunately for Barber — and fortunately for viewers — the interaction was captured on video, where it’s clear Barber thought Benigno’s comments were “bullshit”. The video became white hot on social media, and for good reason.
I know we were all told to never be the story. That ship has sailed.
Whether we like it or not, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Barber doesn’t like it, what goes on off-the-air is no longer strictly behind-the-scenes content.
Call it the Barstool-ization of traditional media if you’d like, but your P1s absolutely want to see the drama that goes on between hosts, producers, or whoever. Barstool Sports has created a media empire by showcasing the reality TV show behind the scenes at the company. People pay attention to the brand because of the storylines created by feuds, companionship, and gambling wins and losses by the digital media behemoth. They’ve made it ok to be self-centered, and sports radio shouldn’t be afraid to capitalize on it.
It is no longer taboo to be the story. If anything, we should embrace the opportunity to create more content from everything that goes on in your station. And it makes sense. The reason you have listeners dedicated to your brand is that they’re interested in what your hosts have to say. So are they going to be interested if one host is pissed off at a station legend? 100%.
One of the worst pieces of advice I was ever given about radio was “no one listening cares about your personal life”. Why the hell else would they be listening? Why would they be a dedicated social media follower? That doesn’t make any sense.
And I’ve pounded the table with this argument time and time again in this space, but I’ll do it again: listeners value authenticity. If an average person was accused of lying — which is essentially what Benigno charged Barber with — how well would that person respond? Probably much worse than Tiki did! Some have called Tiki “a big baby” for his reaction, but I thought it was fair and warranted. He had every right to be pissed off. And he showed it. Ultimately, he, the show, and the station are better for it.
Tiki Barber’s reaction to Joe Benigno should be viewed as a positive for WFAN. If nearly 200,000 views on a short video clip — which drew extensive reaction from listeners and commentators alike — doesn’t prove that the brand still has a strong hold over the nation’s largest market, I don’t know what will.
It’s ok to be the story. It’s ok to be the center of attention. After all, isn’t that the whole point of your shows? To generate as much attention, publicity, notoriety, recognition, and listenership as possible?
If that’s your goal — and it should be — it was mission accomplished by Tiki Barber, Joe Benigno, Evan Roberts, and the WFAN social media team. Kudos to all, even if they don’t want them.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio. Reach him at [email protected].
Evan Cohen Wants to Be as Relatable as Possible
“If you stay true to kind of what got you here and stay true to what you believe is right in terms of radio, then I think that you’re going to be good.”
Evan Cohen had an advantage when deciding how to introduce himself to the audience thanks to a dual role as both a host and an executive. Ushering in a new era of ESPN Radio, he prompted Michelle Smallmon to talk about why she came in the show’s premiere episode with a black eye.
Viewers of the program could see it for themselves on ESPN2 as she regaled the tale of what happened in her New York City apartment, instantly invested and intrigued by the story and everything thereafter. Even though the circumstance timed itself perfectly, Cohen took a risk in starting a show this way and learned the details behind the incident with the audience live on the air.
Whether it is about sports or not, Cohen is always prepared. Watching games is just as important as the viewing experience, trying to find the metadramatics in each situation to present consumers with parlance and conversation that goes beyond expounding statistics. Sports radio has an inherent element of entertainment that forges a strong connection with its listener base, and these narratives tend to have more value than meretricious greetings.
“If I’m doing the show and we’re doing the show that we think is right, our life is work and our work is life,” Cohen said. “….If you just make up in your mind, or at least I have made up in my mind, ‘My entire life could be show fodder,’ then it’s always enjoyable.”
Good Karma Brands and ESPN have been business partners for more than two decades. In the first quarter of 2022, Good Karma Brands acquired ownership of ESPN New York 1050, ESPN 710 Los Angeles and ESPN 1000 in Chicago. As part of that agreement, Good Karma Brands continued its digital sales obligations for ESPN as its official operating partner and inked a local marketing arrangement (LMA) to take on select responsibilities pertaining to ESPN New York 98.7.
When ESPN began layoffs mandated by The Walt Disney Company in order to slash $5.5 billion in costs, the audio division of the outlet took a significant hit. Program directors Ryan Hurley and Amanda Brown were relieved of their duties, as were executives Scott McCarthy, Louise Cornetta and Pete Gianesini. Additionally, those within the ESPN Radio Network sales staff lost their jobs as the company finalized a renewed deal with Good Karma Brands to execute sales responsibilities within the company’s radio and podcast networks.
Cohen is part of this transition as the vice president of content for Good Karma Brands, but he has no jurisdiction over what happens at the outlets in New York and Los Angeles from a managerial standpoint. As it relates to other ESPN affiliates owned by the company, he works directly with market managers and content directors to ensure that they produce content that best satisfies three key performance groups: fans, teammates and partners. The partnership is one factor that Cohen affirms proves ESPN’s commitment to content crafted for the ear.
“[ESPN has] decided that [it] would like to find partners to go out and find a way to market the content to great advertising partners that they can put [its] message on, and [it wants] to bring in best-in-class operators who do that on a daily basis to help raise the profile of [its] audio,” Cohen said. “I think people have had this twisted for so long.”
ESPN Radio announced a revamped national weekday lineup in late August with experienced hosts up and down the board. From Freddie Coleman and Harry Douglas to Amber Wilson and Ian Fitzsimmons, new and unique pairings are keeping listeners interested and entertained with the latest sports talk.
Starting off the day is a three-person composition with Chris Canty, Michelle Smallmon and Cohen on Unsportsmanlike, and early reviews of the show have been favorable. For Cohen, reaching this point of his career required taking calculated risks and seizing any opportunity that could help him grow – even if it was outside his direct interests.
When Cohen was 9 years old, he heard Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo on WFAN for the first time and remembers distinctly thinking that he wanted to work in sports media.
In addition to working on the student radio station and newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, he had professional experiences over every summer. An internship with the Madison Square Garden Radio Network marked his first external radio endeavor, and subsequent experiences at WFAN and various network public relations departments bolstered his acumen and comprehension.
During Cohen’s junior year at the university, he interned for the Wisconsin Badgers broadcast team, consisting of Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas. For football and basketball home games, along with television and radio shows, he observed the way they went about their jobs and helped out where he could. Learning both through osmosis and involvement assisted in his erudition, but there was no viable substitute for bonafide repetitions.
“Matt Lepay taught me a lesson early on [by saying], ‘If you want to be on the air, you’ve got to get on the air,’” Cohen recalled. “He was specific in the way he said that because he didn’t say, ‘If you wanted to be a sports talk radio host, you’ve got to do sports talk radio.’”
Good Karma Brands had found its niche in the sports talk format and was starting an ESPN Radio affiliate from scratch in West Palm Beach, Fla., leading Cohen to relocate and host a show produced by John Martin. Originally on 760 AM, the station implanted itself in the country’s largest market without a sports radio station at the time and included programming hosted by company executives Craig Karmazin and Steve Politziner themselves. Today, ESPN West Palm is in the midst of celebrating its 20th year on the air and has established itself as one of the outlet’s trusted and respected sports media outlets.
Cohen, however, quickly found out that he was going to be much more than just a host. As he was discussing the job offer with management, he remembers being told that no money would be invested in advertising the station and that no full-time producer would be hired. Furthermore, working as a salesperson would be a condition of his employment as a host, requiring that he execute the role during the day to catalyze remunerative growth.
“It was the single greatest experience I could have because it allowed me to appreciate being on the air,” Cohen affirmed. “It allowed me to work to be on the air, and we started something from scratch that the only way we could make it work was grassroots efforts of being there, meeting people and learning the market.”
Upon being informed of the offer though, Cohen expressed some ambivalence regarding whether or not he should take the chance and called his father to ask his opinion. He was met with a resounding plea to take the job, with his father emitting shock that he would even consider turning it down in the first place. Today, Cohen is often asked how media professionals can exit their comfort zone, to which he frequently replies, “You have to determine what your comfort zone is in order to know how to get out of it.”
Despite West Palm Beach’s status as a top 50 market, the area at the time consisted of many transplant sports fans with allegiances to various teams. Evidently, personalities had to be able to talk about non-local topics. Hosting shows in this marketplace helped him relate to different types of listeners and foster connections with strategic corporate partners, preparing him to continue broadening his horizons.
“You’re appealing to a fanbase that is not solely focused on one team, so how do you connect with them?,” Cohen expressed. “I think it’s [by] being as relatable as possible.”
Cohen connected to the local marketplace by working on Florida Atlantic University broadcasts of football and basketball games in various roles, including as a play-by-play announcer, analyst and sideline reporter. He could also be heard on the Miami Hurricanes Radio Network as the host of its postgame show, coinciding with opportunities to serve as a fill-in host on FOX Sports Radio. Former vice president and general manager Andrew Ashwood afforded him the chance to contribute to the outlet, a place where he ended up meeting colleagues Jorge Sedano, Greg Bergman and Chris Morales.
“It’s crazy in this industry how many people you meet early on,” Cohen said. “Then later in life, you work on different projects with [them] and now I’m interacting with all of them [at] ESPN LA.”
While most of Cohen’s work took place on the radio, he also gained television experience as the sports anchor for WPTV, the local NBC affiliate. The job emanated from a deal that tabbed ESPN 760 sports radio personalities to appear on the news channel to provide local sports features and contribute to the Braman 5 Sports Live nightly sports wrap-up program. The confluence of exposure and expertise, combined with fortuitous timing, put him on the radar of SiriusXM.
Cohen began hosting a four-hour morning drive program on Mad Dog Sports Radio with former baseball executive Steve Phillips and worked closely with lead producer Mike Babchik. Later in the day, he would host his two-hour show on ESPN West Palm while continuing to serve in a managerial role with Good Karma Brands. Cohen’s days were jam-packed with media obligations, and he split his time between New York City and West Palm Beach each month to effectively perform his roles. Regularly appearing on a national and local outlet each day, he adopted nuanced differences in his style while keeping a consistent approach.
“The platform is the biggest thing that’s different [in] who’s watching and who’s listening and the amount of people,” Cohen expressed. “If you stay true to kind of what got you here and stay true to what you believe is right in terms of radio, then I think that you’re going to be good.”
Cohen and Babchik eventually began hosting the show, renamed The Morning Men, together when Phillips transitioned to work on SiriusXM MLB Network Radio, an idea they had discussed previously and implored station management to cosign. Former New York Jets guard Willie Colon joined the program in 2021, and the show continued to gain traction on the air. After some time passed, Cohen came to end his afternoon program in West Palm Beach after more than 5,000 episodes of his show to focus on his SiriusXM and Good Karma Brands managerial responsibilities.
Continuing the three-person hosting format as he did with SiriusXM and Morning Men made sense to him of the caliber of talent he is working with now on ESPN Radio’s Unsportsmanlike. Michelle Smallmon had been a successful radio producer and found success in multiple morning teams on 101 ESPN in St. Louis. Chris Canty had played in the NFL and appeared both on radio and television with ESPN, taking the preparation of his show as seriously as lining up against Tom Brady. Cohen is cognizant of the fact that this is a show with invaluable levels of radio experience and can appeal to consumers from numerous markets.
“When I get this insane opportunity to be at ESPN and to be a part of this show and to work with two people like that – man oh man,” Cohen said. “You can’t be luckier than I am to work with that level of talent.”
Canty authored the name of the show during a brainstorming session, recognizing that its goal is to find enjoyable and convivial aspects of every story discussed. Deviating from usual sports media structure by focusing on celebrating the game and its players is at the center of their ebullient mindset.
Relatability and connectivity are the keys to success for any sports radio program, effectively transforming casual listeners into devoted fans who can advocate on the show’s behalf and convince more people to listen. There is no host who has done that more effectively in the history of the medium, according to Cohen, than Howard Stern.
“If you think about the Howard fans, they support Howard in a way that is so unbelievable that I think the mark of a great show is, in some ways, getting your fans to contribute to the marketing department,” Cohen said. “The more the fans can promote the show, the better your show is going to have a chance to succeed.”
None of that is possible without some level of vulnerability and divulgence of personal life, continuing to entice listeners and retain their mind share. Growing comfortable in doing that as an executive took time for Cohen, and he now feels he has reached a point where he can relax and fulfill his obligations with aplomb. Having a vested interest in both sides of the partnership centers his focus on how the brands can help one another achieve their collective goal of generating revenue and garnering relevancy.
“I think that I am unbelievably lucky to have both,” Cohen said. “….I get to learn so much from so many people at both companies and then kind of be that messier of ideas so to speak with both spots.”
Good Karma Brands will forsake the 98.7 FM signal in New York City in August 2024, converting ESPN New York’s distribution solely to the AM band and other digital channels. The decision to abdicate its position on the FM dial saves $12.5 million for its annual lease fee, perpetuated by internal data that reveals that 60% of station listenership comes outside of radio.
“I see no time in which Good Karma Brands will not do everything in its power to make sure the fans consume our content in a way that partners can support that will make teammates happy,” Cohen said, who did not have direct involvement in this decision. “I have no idea where and when that lands and how that lands, but I know for 20+ years, the goal of Good Karma is to make sure fans consume our content in a way that partners want to support and makes teammates happy, and I’ve never seen anything otherwise.”
Cohen references New England Patriots head coach and general manager Bill Belichick in what he looks for from himself and his colleagues on a day-to-day basis. Whenever he is asked what encompasses a successful effort on the field, Belichick will usually reference all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams.
“I look at it in the same way [with] all three phases,” Cohen said. “The three phases are sales, marketing and content – but in essence, it is fans, teammates and partners. If we hit all three of those phases, we will be successful.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.