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Sports Radio Program Director’s React To ESPN Radio Changes

“Dan is incredibly committed to his way of doing things and he and the network were clearly heading in opposite directions.”

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ESPN Radio

News broke last week that Dan Le Batard would soon be leaving ESPN and the ESPN Radio weekday lineup. As a result, changes were required to ESPN Radio’s programming schedule, the second major change in less than six months. Mike Greenberg will now slide into Le Batard’s old timeslot, and the team of Alan Hahn and Bart Scott will occupy Greenberg’s previous show time of Noon to 2pm ET.

To nobody’s surprise, the changes produced a ton of reaction. I spent much of my weekend swapping emails and texts with more than ten sports radio program directors who partner with ESPN Radio across the country to take their pulse on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz going away, Greeny changing time slots, and 98.7 ESPN NY’s Bart & Hahn, moving into the national lineup in middays. The majority of the feedback I received was a combination of frustration, disappointment, and confusion of how much the worldwide leader values it’s radio affiliate partners.

To assure that we received honest and candid feedback, I offered each program director anonymity. Some readers and industry professionals may have an issue with that, but I’d rather have decision makers offer true sentiments instead of platitudes.

One sports radio insider I spoke with told me that he wasn’t at all surprised by Le Batard and ESPN cutting ties. In fact, he says everyone he spoke to close to the situation said they expected the announcement to come much sooner than it did.

“I was actually surprised that his show was a part of the new lineup when it was announced this summer. By keeping him while also taking away an hour of his show, you knew the end was near and there would be another lineup fairly soon.”

One PD out West told me that he is surprised ESPN didn’t find a way to try and keep Le Batard in the family somehow.

“I think Dan is a great talent that resonates with a younger demographic. Those people are not easy to find, and I am curious which direction ESPN is going in moving forward with their daily television product.”

One PD in the Midwest said he suspects Le Batard has been thinking about his future with ESPN for well over a year now, since he caught heat for criticizing the network’s unwillingness to let talent address social issues.

“I think Dan is incredibly committed to his way of doing things and he and the network were clearly heading in opposite directions. But there is a deeper issue here and it’s really about sports radio trying to come to terms with today’s political climate,” the PD said.

“Dan is not shy with his opinions and is not afraid to share them, a staple of any successful radio program in the past. This is great if you’re a conservative oriented talk station with a clear identity. People are coming to that station specifically to hear that viewpoint. But if you’re a station whose identity is tied up in talking about the local baseball, football or basketball team in interesting and entertaining ways – why should a listener come back tomorrow if they think they’re just going to get a “sports guy” trying to do his Sean Hannity or Jake Tapper bit? This terrifies a sports network who just doesn’t have listeners or margins to lose right now. They are afraid of dividing and losing the somewhat niche audience they are able to attract.”

Another Midwestern PD told me it is that willingness to make people, particularly the bosses, uncomfortable that allowed The Dan Le Batard Show to stand out.

“The other shows seem pretty formulaic, but Le Batard and his crew were original; and not wholly dependent on the ‘news of the day’ in creating memorable and compelling segments. They looked at sports, pop culture, and current events thru a different lens, and I appreciated the originality.”

A PD in the South agreed with the idea that the ESPN Radio lineup is a lot less special without Dan Le Batard in the mix.

“His exit just furthers the homogenization of ESPN’s lineup. For the most part, it’s dull by design. As far as Dan’s replacement? Come on, let’s just say I have very low expectations for it’s longevity on my station. ESPN is still a brand that carries cache locally, but the apple isn’t as shiny as it was. Fortunately for the network, those four letters still open doors.”

That brings up another interesting question. What is the value of the ESPN brand to local affiliates now? Without Le Batard, everything during prime hours originates out of the Northeast and all of the shows in mid days, when stations may elect to air syndicated programming, have a very distinct New York flavor.

One PD I spoke with in the Northeast says the shows don’t add much value to his station, even though he’s not far from the big apple. The lineup may mean less, but the four letters still carry weight.

“I still think the ESPN brand means something. Maybe not what it once meant, but it’s still synonymous with sports and being the top sports brand out there. I still think the power of saying ESPN to clients is more powerful than any other name available.”

“I have no reason for optimism,” a West Coast programmer said when I asked how he felt about airing Bart & Hahn. “It reinforces every negative stereotype about the East Coast centricity of ESPN Radio. You can never be all things to all people (which is the inherent challenge of a network model), but the combination of a longtime New York writer and a player best known for his days with the Jets is an extraordinarily narrow area of interest and expertise. So, I’m sure it will continue to be a good show for 98.7 in NYC.”

I asked several programmers to offer their perspective on the network changing big parts of their weekday lineup twice in the span of a little more than just four months. One PD in the Midwest said that it certainly isn’t ideal, but affiliates likely won’t view it as detrimental as they would if it was local talent being shuffled multiple times within half of a calendar year.

“It begs the bigger question—where does ESPN Radio or any national network or show fit with local radio stations? If I want to listen to any ESPN Radio show, I can listen to it on my phone, watch it on ESPN+, listen to it on SiriusXM, TuneIn, or on my smart speaker. Why do we need any of these shows on a local radio station?”

“ESPN has bent over backwards to help localize the relationship as much as possible – namely offering their talent as guests regularly on our local shows, but in reality, LOCAL content is what drives attention and revenue,” another programmer added in agreement. “I don’t know that ESPN Radio’s programming is going to have mass appeal to local markets outside of New York, LA and possibly a handful of other big cities.”

It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a PD down south that said he didn’t see the need to pay the exorbitant rights fees the local college football team was asking for to be an affiliate of their radio network because there are dozens of ways to consume any one game now. Nothing that has multiple broadcast homes can be that special.

Another PD told me that given the value in the ESPN brand name, the network shouldn’t rule out continuing to shuffle the deck until they hit on multiple shows that are truly special.

“The ESPN brand still universally means sports – and the play-by-play rights that the network offers are very valuable. But they should continue exploring and looking for transcendent talent to be a part of their regular lineup. Another run at a Pat McAfee? Try to get Katie Nolan more involved in daily radio? Peyton Manning? Hell, put Brett Favre on a show…something that moves the needle. Use weekends to grow up-and-coming personalities, but think about dynamic ensembles for daily radio that creates more ‘juice’ and interest.”

I asked two major market programmers their thoughts on the lineup and where ESPN stands in the national network landscape. Both acknowledged they were unhappy with where things stood, but they each gave a very different answer in terms of where the network ranks against its competitors.

“If we could get out of our contract today, we would. I think that says a lot about how things have changed,” one told me. When I asked if he felt the network valued his station and any of the feedback they’d provided on how the changes were affecting business, he added “Unfortunately, many of the line-up changes are inferior to previous shows on the network once offered. We have voiced our opinion, especially on the morning show but don’t feel we are being heard. Our complaints are usually met with research on where they say the show “is working.”

Another programmer also felt the network’s lineup had lost its luster but tried to relay the positives. “I think ESPN’s roster – albeit not as good as it was a few years ago with Mike & Mike – is still the best option. Fox Sports Radio has closed the gap but ESPN’s play-by-play pushes their package over the top. If you want your brand to be relevant in the future though, worrying about Bart & Hahn’s ratings should be secondary to building out LOCAL content.”

In trying to diagnose the new ESPN Radio approach, one PD pointed to an issue that drives local programmers crazy and is seen as “a huge problem”. There’s a collective belief that ESPN is insistent on turning their TV stars into radio hosts, a strategic decision which differs from how the network attained its initial success. ESPN Radio became part of the fabric of radio stations across the country because their talent valued the medium and understood how to create great radio content.

“ESPN Radio needs its hosts to be FULLY invested in the radio show,” he said. “TV is full of beautiful people, amazing graphics packages and strong info, but in radio you need to make an authentic connection over time with individual listeners. To be able to do that with large swaths of individual listeners is what will ultimately make a successful radio show. If a host can’t make that connection to its audience it just won’t work and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Also, as a programmer, if it’s obvious to me that the radio show is just another thing they do at the network, why should I invest fully in them on the other side?”

There are going to be mixed responses anytime major changes are made at a national outlet like ESPN Radio. Stations in August adjusted their lineups to feature Le Batard and/or Greenberg in specific timeslots, and now less than five months later they have to explore changing yet again. That’s difficult for not only maintaining audience, but it creates problems for sales departments too who are trying to convince clients to buy commercials inside of a certain show, only to have them not be there less than a half a year later.

The big question that ESPN has to answer moving forward is how important is radio to their business? The network lost well respected executive Traug Keller earlier this year, a huge advocate internally for ESPN Radio and someone who worked hard to keep relationships strong with local stations. Less than a full year into a new regime, and the network already has two talent overhauls on its hands, including a poorly managed situation involving former morning man Mike Golic.

Station programmers are hoping ESPN Radio executives continue to work on improving the network’s talent and lineup. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone in Bristol that the majority of respondents to this story felt the lineup has gotten worse. They cited play by play and the brand name as the key reasons why they continue partnering with the network. But if the shows themselves aren’t exciting station programmers or local audiences, and play by play airs mostly at night thus generating less local revenue, eventually those four letters will matter less to operators who are paying rights fees and giving up large chunks of inventory.

ESPN Radio has been an important part of the national/local sports radio landscape for decades. Stations have valued their relationship and enjoyed a lot of ratings and revenue success with the network. But if those two areas struggle more as a result of frequent lineup shuffling, local partners could be forced to explore new relationships, and give up on four important letters that have been a large part of their identity.

BSM Writers

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.

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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.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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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.

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BSM Writers

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.

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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.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

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.

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