Hard to believe we are already done with Week 3 of the NFL season, but here we are. By this time next week, the first quarter of the strangest, most uncertain season any of us have ever experienced will be in the books.
Sports radio in plenty of markets, whether they have a team or not, is dominated by NFL talk. I thought it might be interesting though to talk about how the NFL was discussed during the spring and summer in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The perennially underachieving Bengals had the first pick of the 2020 Draft and used it to take Joe Burrow, a can’t-miss quarterback prospect that happened to be a native Ohioan. There would be so much hype around him and this team locally, no-matter the situation. Throw in a pandemic and the challenges that come with it though, and now you’re talking about a preseason that is more about what we weren’t seeing than what we were.
To get a first-hand perspective of this, we turned to our friend Mo Egger, the host of the afternoon drive show on ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati.
In this guest column, Mo writes that the pandemic forced him to problem solve and get creative. He had to talk about a player that, for the most part, he didn’t get to see. He had to tap into the energy of his audience, some of whom let Burrow redefine the team for them without knowing what to say.
It turns out that mystery ended up being an ally in creating great radio. Enjoy!
The unknown is a blank canvas.
That statement reads like something really profound that came from some sort of really wise philosopher or literary figure, or maybe whoever it is that’s in charge of those motivational Successories posters that seemingly every radio sales manager used to have in their offices, right?
Actually, I came up with it, and until I was asked to write this free guest column, it’s not something I’d ever thought I’d be sharing with anyone or elaborating on, but here we are.
When it became abundantly clear that the Cincinnati Bengals were going to own the first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft and that LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was the obvious choice for a franchise in desperate need of both a fresh start on the field and a figure for fans to rally around, I was more than ready to embrace months’ worth of unknowns for both me and my audience.
Talking about the Bengals in recent seasons hasn’t been fun. With the ashes from their most recent playoff collapse in January 2016 still smoldering, the last part of the decade were filled with boring, often non-competitive teams that played its games against the backdrop of growing fan discontent and the results seeming almost pointless to bigger-picture questions about who would be its next coach and quarterback.
Zac Taylor replaced Marvin Lewis, who left after 16 seasons, in February 2019, but with the same crummy roster in place for year one of his regime, a long, losing season was inevitable long before it began. Before most people around the country even knew who Joe Burrow was, it was obvious early in Taylor’s first year that he would be coaching a different quarterback in year two.
While it’s hard to argue that the Bengals’ franchise itself didn’t deserve a player like Burrow landing on its doorstep, its fans sure did. So did those of us who’ve spent a lot of airtime trying to say different things about the same old football team.
In the initial months of the offseason, the amount and variety of Burrow/Bengals storylines were a host’s dream, from national figures wondering whether or not Burrow would refuse to come to Cincinnati a la Eli Manning, to the debate about whether a team bereft of talent would be wise to trade the top pick in exchange for more draft capital. There were skeptics of Burrow’s lack of arm strength, and suggestions that his transcendent senior season was merely a product of the offense he was playing in. The fact that Burrow hails from Ohio, originally attended Ohio State, and briefly flirted with playing at the University of Cincinnati added unique layers to the story, as did the fact that the quarterback the Bengals had from 2011 through 2019 was still under contract to the team.
Mainly, the mere prospect of the staid, stale Bengals landing a player oozing Burrow’s confidence and charisma seemed to reinvigorate a fan base that’s been beaten down by years of losing and letdowns, to the point that I had listeners, who’ve made bashing the Bengals a habit in the past, rush to the team’s defense when the narratives like “Cincinnati is a place where quarterbacks go to rot” or “Burrow should pull an Eli” would enter the conversation.
I had a blast talking about Joe Burrow in January and February. And in the early weeks of the pandemic-induced sports shutdown in early March, the struggles of not having the NCAA Tournament nor the opening of the Reds’ season to talk about were eased by being able to tap into Burrow topics for weeks leading up to the draft.
The challenge though, was after the draft since it was clear even by then that the run-up to Burrow’s rookie season would be unlike any other. NFL teams would be forced to conduct offseason training virtually. Training camp would not begin on time, and when it finally did begin, access to practice was limited. Reporters would not be allowed in the locker room, which means not nearly as many quotes about Burrow’s progress from his teammates.
And perhaps worst of all, there would be no preseason games.
I spent the late spring wondering how we would continue to talk about Joe Burrow if there weren’t concrete things like preseason games to measure his progress. I thought about how we’d continue to make him a part of our show on a daily basis if there weren’t tangible ways of charting his first NFL season. Weirdly, although it would have been more ideal to actually watch Burrow prepare for his rookie campaign, I found that the lack of anything to actually visualize from Burrow actually made it more fun to talk about him.
The unknown added intrigue, which built right up until he played his first regular season game, which was easily the most highly-anticipated debut of any Cincinnati rookie athlete ever. It also kept alive the overwhelming sense that Joe Burrow is the heaven-sent savior of pro football in Cincinnati. He’s the one who is going to lift the city out of the malaise that becomes a part of every day life when the teams never win.
For those who haven’t been keeping score, it’s been 30 years since the Bengals have won a playoff game, and 25 seasons – as of this writing – since the Reds advanced at all in the postseason.
We didn’t have a shaky Burrow rookie performance in a preseason game to douse expectations, and with not as many people at training camp workouts as usual, there wasn’t much footage of poor practice throws or tough rookie moments.
As a host, I had fun playing off of the unknown and I found it easier than I’d believed to be able to talk about Burrow. The lack of anything tangible added layers of unknown that oddly expanded the range of ways we could talk about the player and the team. Even if there would have been tremendous interest in Burrow’s first real game regardless, the weeks leading up to the season opener were, I believe, easier to talk about because of how little we actually knew.
I know this seems odd. As hosts, we like having as much information as possible. Game results, statistics, replays and quotes are at the heart of what we need to formulate topics and engage our listeners, and for a million different reasons, I hope we never again have an NFL offseason like 2020’s, but I did enjoy the challenge of having to talk about a player and team that’s important to my audience while not having nearly as much info to go on.
It made me a more creative host. And frankly, as one who at times wrestles with the most effective and modern ways of incorporating my audience into our show, I enjoyed putting larger focus on listeners and their expectations for Burrow and the Bengals rather than the long list of experts we normally would have had on to break down preseason games or training camp practices. And it gave us an abundance of fresh things to discuss and react to that we hadn’t already beaten to death once Burrow and his teammates were finally able to take the field to play games that count.
Navigating unknowns has always been a major part of being live on air, every single day. While I spent a lot of time during the sports shutdown questioning whether or not I was up to the task of executing broadcasts amid the insanity that’s defined 2020, I’ve at least tried to use the summer of Joe Burrow’s first NFL season to learn how to effectively use uncertainty as an asset instead of a hinderance. While I’m still nowhere close to as good of an on-air performer as I’d like to be, I think I am a better radio host because of it.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.