It’s a story that seems like it must be fiction. How is it possible, someone could be gambling millions of dollars without the people closest to him knowing? How is it possible, that same person could own their dream job of talking to thousands of people on the radio each day and manage to throw it all away?
The story of former WFAN host Craig Carton is all too real, and as details of his life trickled out in the last three years, his persona extended beyond the polarizing figure we heard behind the mic. Childhood trauma, gambling addiction, fame, fraud, prison, Carton’s story snowballed with unfortunate realities. Directed by Martin Dunn and Marie McGovern of Street Smart Video, the HBO documentary Wild Card: The Downfall Of A Radio Loudmouth details Carton’s rise and fall.
Dunn and McGovern met Craig Carton for the first time in 2015, believing the popular shock jock would be a good fit for a sports-chat TV show they were building. The pilot didn’t go anywhere, but it set the grassroots for a relationship that would later see them tell Carton’s most important story.
When Carton was arrested in Sept. 2017, Dunn and McGovern knew some of the challenges ahead for him. Both veterans of The Daily News, they understood how difficult it could be for a celebrity to be arrested in New York. “We reached out to him and said ‘we’re still your friends, if you need any help or a place to crash for the day, you’re welcome to come to our office’” McGovern remembered.
Carton texted back, ‘thanks,’ and that was it.
After Carton was convicted of fraud, but before he received his sentence, Dunn and McGovern earned press for a Tom Seaver documentary they were working on. Growing up a Mets fan, and having an affinity for Seaver, Carton decided if Dunn and McGovern can tell the story of arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history, he can trust the directors with his story too.
In general, the topic of a regional sports radio host wouldn’t seem to have national appeal. But viewers don’t need to own any background knowledge of Carton to have an interest in a film about his life.
“We don’t view it as just a sports story, this is a human-interest story,” Dunn said. “It’s a story about someone who got to the very, very top of his profession and through a series of bad decisions, completely blew it.”
Carton was interviewed by Dunn and McGovern before he went to prison in June 2019, and all of the other participants provided their accounts long before anyone knew the radio host would earn an early release one year later. Carton’s former co-host Boomer Esiason and producer Al Dukes acknowledged they were interviewed for the documentary as early as January.
The original plan was to debut the film on HBO in the beginning of June 2020. In fact, it was supposed to close with Carton going to jail, leaving the story somewhat open-ended. But according to Dunn and McGovern, the COVID-19 lockdown delayed the film’s production and release. Around the time the documentary was supposed to premiere, Carton received an early release from prison, not because of COVID, but because of the efforts he made to earn it.
“HBO viewed the delay as an opportunity to put a bow on the story and tie everything together,” McGovern said. “We’re grateful they allowed us to extend the time and get a final interview with Craig because it really does sew up the story and it gives fans of the show closure.”
Carton was a famous person in New York, living a life of what seemed like a fiction movie character and one who the viewer would probably root for. But in watching the non-fiction film, it seemed like Carton bought into that narrative. He didn’t sound bothered by being handed a six-figure bag of cash, he didn’t sound ashamed of losing $2 million in 24 hours or hopping on a helicopter in the middle of the night to play Blackjack hours before work.
“You can see in the very beginning, he’s almost bragging when he says ‘I once won $25,000 in less than five minutes and walked out to go to work,’” McGovern said. “He stopped that story, and we purposely let that shot linger, because there was a smugness about him. And even we thought, ‘You just don’t get it do you? This is not something to be bragging about.’”
But Carton was noticeably different in his final interview with Dunn and McGovern, which occurred after he was released from prison. This time, there was more empathy and less bragging. So much so, that it would have completely changed the scope of the film if all the interviews were conducted after Carton completed his prison sentence.
“When he got out of prison, it was like the lightbulb went on,” said McGovern. “He had a completely different look on his face and I think had we done these interviews after he was released, it wouldn’t be nearly as emotional. He wouldn’t have the anger, the swagger that he had before he was in prison. It would have been a very different Craig.”
Dunn and McGovern were able to witness the transformation as it took place during their multiple visits with Carton at a Lewisburg, PA penitentiary. Although they weren’t able to record those meetings, the filmmakers took a few trips to Lewisburg throughout Carton’s 12 months there, to better understand the living conditions and what he was going through, calling it a sobering experience.
“We first met Craig when he was at the height of his Craig-ness when he was very much Carton-max, this incredibly go-ahead, devil-may-care type guy,” Dunn described. “And to see him in prison as just another one of 300 guys in jail was a very sobering experience for him and us. I don’t think you can go through an experience like that and not come out without change.”
Dunn reiterated how clear the transformation for Carton became during his post-prison interview.
“Even his phraseology, his demeanor, his outlook – we were very taken about how different that was to the pre-prison Craig,” Dunn said. “One of the real interesting things of the film is that at the end he admits it was all nonsense, and that he put everybody at risk by his actions. That was a big admission for Craig to make, and want to make.”
During Carton’s legal proceedings, it was revealed that he became a victim of sexual abuse as an 11-year old child while attending summer camp. It was something he kept private for nearly 40 years, but came close to revealing once before. When writing his 2013 book “Loudmouth,” Carton included a chapter detailing the sexual assault, but his publisher Simon & Schuster omitted the chapter, believing it didn’t fit the memoir’s context. Dunn and McGovern confirmed with the publisher that Carton did write the chapter years before his arrest and they chose to exclude it.
“Rather than asking him about it, we said if you have that chapter, why don’t you just read it? It was very difficult for him, for us, for the entire crew,” Dunn said. “We saw Craig emotionally raw at that time and it was very tough.”
Another admission by Carton came unexpectedly during the film, as he discussed his contemplation of suicide just one month before he was arrested in 2017. In an early meeting about the documentary, Carton told the directors about the mental health effects of gambling addiction, noting that it causes a huge number of people to contemplate suicide. Remembering that when they began filming, McGovern referenced the comment, and asked Carton if he experienced any suicidal thoughts.
“His response was ‘I never saw that question coming.’ He anticipated many of the questions he was going to be asked, but this one sort of caught him off guard,” Dunn remembered. “When he began the story, it sort of caught us off guard too. And talking to his former colleagues, none of them were really aware of the story, except for Charod Williams.”
Charod Williams was one of Carton’s former producers at NJ101.5, and he’s the person Carton called in Aug. 2017, when he felt the urge to jump off a chairlift while vacationing with his wife at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia.
“I lifted the bar up and I’m now inching closer to the edge of the seat. I got very upset and started crying,” Carton says in the film.
“I had this out-loud conversation with myself, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it! You are better than this. You are not jumping.’
“As I’m telling myself not to do it, I’m inching closer and closer to the edge of the seat because I’m going, there is no doubt in my mind that I’m jumping off this chair lift, it is just a matter of when.”
It was Williams who received the call from a panicked Carton, and it was Williams who helped calm his friend and former colleague.
After Carton told the story, Dunn and McGovern reached out to Williams, who matched the recount almost word for word. With Carton’s loyalty and current need to build a new show, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the radio star reconnect with his former producer professionally at some point down the road.
In terms of Carton’s reaction to watching the documentary, both Dunn and McGovern said he found it to be “fair.” It can’t be easy for him to re-watch and relive the details from the lowest point in his life. It also can’t be easy to hear the words of his former colleagues and even FBI agents who were involved in his arrest.
Carton has changed, it would be nearly impossible for him to spend a year away from his family, a year in prison and not find some sort of empathy for the people he hurt. But for someone who made a living being brash, outrageous, polarizing and controversial, it’s reasonable to wonder if some of that will be tamed by his newfound compassion.
“I think Craig will be as amusing, as entertaining, as polarizing and controversial as he always was,” Dunn answered. “As he says in the film, it’s the one thing he can do really well. I do think it will be underpinned by a new style and empathy, and I think that will add to the mix, not detract from it.”
When Carton does return to the airwaves, those first days are going to be must-hear radio. Carton will be provided an instant audience when he begins his comeback trail, but his ability to remain interesting will determine how long those listeners stick with him.
Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable
After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.
Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.
Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.
The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)
OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.
What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY
Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.
This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.
I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.
I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.
What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.
I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.
“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”
Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.
“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “
“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”
OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.
However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.
“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.
“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”
Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.
That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.
Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”
I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.
I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.
I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.
By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”
Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:
Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”
If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.
Media Noise – Episode 75
A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.
Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM
Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.
Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.
I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future.
Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?
Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.
How is advertising on Bleav different?
We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content.
What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see?
The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space.
SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like?
We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?
There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple.
At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram.
If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.