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Rush Limbaugh’s Style of News Talk Opened The Door For Sports Talk

“If you are building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, it is brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format.”

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I don’t like Rush Limbaugh, both from a political standpoint and from an entertainment standpoint. I don’t understand what the appeal of that show and living with that constant level of ire towards everything around you is. But that is not what this column is about. Reveling in a human being’s death is gross, even if it is the death of a human being you think is gross.

Image result for rush limbaugh studio

Let’s instead examine the good that Rush Limbaugh did for sports talk radio. You read that right. Not news talk, but sports talk.

This won’t be a rehashing of his Donovan McNabb take from his three hilariously awkward weeks on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. That is a moment forever catalogued in history alongside the fact that after Limbaugh said that the media only thought Donovan McNabb was good because he was black, McNabb and the Eagles went on to win 13 of their next 15 and secure an NFC title.

Instead, let’s rewind all the way back to 1987 when Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Radio stations no longer had to provide free air time for the community to respond to a host’s controversial opinions and Rush Limbaugh bloomed into his final form: shameless, unencumbered provocateur.

So this is an important part to add. Rush Limbaugh, despite having some abhorrent opinions on women and anyone with skin browner than an albino alligator, was really really good at broadcasting. He knew how to command the airwaves and entertain his audience. They didn’t know what they wanted until Rush gave it to them, and they responded with blind loyalty that translated into book sales, sold out speaking tours, and most importantly, monster ratings for the stations that carried his show. Monster ratings usually lead to revenue, and if you can reliably generate significant revenue, everyone is going to try and figure out how to do more of whatever it is you do.

But again, Rush Limbaugh was unusually good at talk radio. Programmers around the country could try their damndest to find someone that could copy what it is Rush did, but the result was usually some local politician or newspaper columnist that, at best, could deliver a single compelling segment.

Talk radio programmers have been stuck in this space for decades. Before I put my head down and focused on sports, I gave talk radio a whirl. I thought it would be a natural transition from a rock radio morning show and when I looked at Raleigh, North Carolina’s landscape of clones of Rush Limbaugh clones, I thought there might be an opportunity to succeed doing the exact opposite. I wasn’t going to be a liberal version of those kinds of shows. I was going to come in everyday and just laugh at the absurdity of politics and daily life. Me and my crew would operate from a place of “none of us know anything so let’s not take any of this seriously” instead of “I’m the only one you can trust to get you through this horrible moment in our nation’s history”.

I lasted six months before I became depressed and frustrated and decided I’d rather be unemployed than try to work with a program director who’s advice for me was “use Rush Limbaugh as show prep” or bookers that didn’t understand why I didn’t want to talk to the author of a book called Barack Hussein Obama, The Unauthorized Diary of a Muslim President (a real book by the way).

By relying on nothing but copycats of a single show to occupy every single prime day part, news talk program directors created a format that was exclusively for the angriest, oldest audience in the country. It was profitable. That can’t be denied. But realistically, how smart is it to build your empire on people that are ten years from death?

So, let’s backup a bit, because like I said, “who sounds like a local Rush?” has been the blueprint for hiring news talk hosts for more than 30 years at this point. All of that anger, that total void of variety created an opportunity. Sure, WFAN signed on as the nation’s first full-time sports talk station while Rush Limbaugh was still a local afternoon drive host in Sacramento. As the format was spreading around the country though, finding frequencies not only in Major League cities but also in the Albuquerques and Zanesvilles, the Rushification of news talk radio was in its heyday. And when the company that was then known as Clear Channel started flipping underperforming rock, AC, and CHR stations to talk and branding them all “Rush Radio,” the company then called CBS Radio was busy flipping rock and alternative stations to FM sports talk outlets.

Every time angry old white guy radio made advances, there was sports talk to build its own audience by picking up the guys that were left behind. The people that wanted to be stimulated with stories and conversation on their drives to and from work had their alternative. The format that appealed to the population that wasn’t operating from a place of constant fear had the audience it needed to thrive and grow.

Okay, let’s bring it back to the 2020s. Look at the national sports talk landscape. There is a diversity of backgrounds, a diversity of styles, and a diversity of content. Seriously, put on Colin Cowherd and then put on Pat McAfee. Those guys have the same job title, but their deliveries and styles couldn’t be more different. Put on Clay Travis and then flip over to Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin. Those shows aren’t even talking to the same person, yet they exist in the same format.

Now let’s do the same thing with news talk radio. Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Dan Bongino, and Dennis Prager are all doing the same show, talking to the same guy about the same topics. Did you miss something Glenn Beck said this morning? Don’t worry. Sean Hannity will say the same thing later this afternoon.

On the local level, if you hear audio from a national show in the sports format it is because local hosts want to rip the national host that said something about the home town team that proves he is out of touch. If you hear audio from a national show during a local show in the news talk format, it is because the local host is worshiping his idol.

The politics that Rush Limbaugh embraced demanded sycophancy within the format. He wasn’t just conservative. He wasn’t just a Republican. Rush Limbaugh dared his detractors to disagree with him and then weaponized their disagreement with terms like “feminazis” and “liberal media”.

If you are capable of building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, that’s brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format though.

Image result for rush limbaugh in memory
from RushLimbaugh.com

As a programmer, the job is to get the very most out of your talent. It is to help them get to a place where their show sounds exactly like the version that exists in their head. You throw out the ideas of being a “local Cowherd” and instead find and nurture the thing that makes a host distinctly themselves. Coach your hosts into personalities that listeners are invested in. That is how you create interesting radio.

White guys turn 55 and decide to get really involved with their HOA everyday, so there will always be an audience for news talk…at least I think there will be. As long as that format stays as angry as it has been for more than 30 years, as long as every program director just rolls out Rush fanboy after Rush fanboy during drive times, the format won’t have personalities that listeners are invested in. They will have to rely on those listeners staying mad and bitter constantly. And sports talk radio will be there serving more interesting and fun content and finding an audience loyal to its hosts and advertisers in the millions of people that news talk left behind.

BSM Writers

Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards

“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”

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I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.

While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.

Ohio State football broadcasts go remote amid COVID-19 restrictions
Courtesy: WBNS Radio

Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.

This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.

I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.

Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.

I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.

A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.

Highly Questionable 4/12/21 - Changing History? - YouTube
Courtesy: ESPN

There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.

It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.

It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.

Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.

Anxiety and Depression From COVID-19 – San Diego – Sharp Health News
Courtesy: Nuthawut Somsuk

More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.

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BSM Writers

If Netflix Wants Live Sports, F1 May Be Just The Beginning

“Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.”

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In the past, Hollywood dealmakers and stockbrokers wondered whether another studio or streamer would catch Netflix.  Its dominance stemmed from being a first-mover and not having a serious competitor until Amazon and Disney ten or more years after their launch.  However, Netflix would eventually have to compete for content, original and licensed, other platforms that offered less expansive ad-based options, and additional content like live sports or a very popular series or movie premiere.  

Arguably, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital and it allowed competitors to gain subscribers because people were spending more time at home.  More subscribers and additional streaming options for consumers has not caused Netflix to faulter, but it has caused Netflix to rethink its sports strategy.  For years, Netflix was dead set again streaming live sports because of their cost and commercials—Netflix does not have advertisements on its platform currently.  

A sports fan's guide to Netflix, Hulu, YouTube & more after coronavirus  cancels live games | Sporting News
Courtesy: Sporting News/Getty

Netflix’s popular Drive to Survive docuseries about the Formula 1 (or “F1”) racing circuit, which was renewed for a fourth season, and the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls The Last Dance represents a golden era and renaissance of sports documentaries.  As much as fans of feature films and television series enjoy learning about actors during and off camera they similarly want to know about sports stars, their coaches, and franchises.  In other words, the business of sports is booming in valuation and behind-the-scenes content.  

Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated that the popularity of Drive to Survive has caused the company to rethink its stance on purchasing live sports content.  The broadcast and streaming rights to Formula 1 will become available via ESPN and Sky Sports in 2022 and 2024.  Netflix, will have some competition to secure F1 rights, which will drive up the cost.  It was also reported by Front Office Sports that the Netflix CEO would require a level of exclusivity for sports rights that other platforms do not normally require.  The exclusivity is likely required because Netflix will want to justify the purchase price and to keep-in-line with what Netflix customers expect—exclusive content on the platform.  

With Premier League club Manchester United looking to secure a broadcast deal for selling its rights outside of the traditional league format, it might be the perfect acquisition for Netflix.  An exclusive team vs. an entire league would also be less expensive and more targeted.  One aspect of uncertainty for all streamers is their subscribers overseas, particularly in untapped China.  The international market is far from settled or established.  Netflix also has a large operation in India so possibly cricket via the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) could be a rights purchase to consider.

In 2018, the original content on Netflix only accounted for 8%.  This means that 92% of the content on the platform just a few years ago was all owned (at least partially) by someone else.  That statistic has changed because Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple+, and many others have since been created and stocked or restocked with content.  Controlling interest in Hulu was even purchased from FOX by Disney.  Disney and Amazon now both rival Netflix in terms of subscribers.  Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.  

As Comcast-owned NBCUniversal CEO Brian Roberts recently said, purchasing sports rights can be difficult.  Sports rights are expensive.  Exclusive sports rights are even more expensive.  Sports rights only become available every five to ten years.  Networks and streamers are highly competitive to secure those rights with the hope of landing viewers, subscribers, and advertising dollars.  

Will Netflix get into sports rights bidding?  In the past, the digital entertainment giant has been steadfast is its non-sports approach.  However, the market has changed and is flooded with more competitors now.  Netflix has to change to meet its customer and the market needs.  

Formula 1 presents an interesting scenario for Netflix as a buyer and partner.  F1 is a popular league internationally and growing in the United States.  Two new F1 races in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, in addition to season four of the Drive to Survive Netflix series are sure to drive traffic, pun intended, and interest in the racing sport.  

Formula 1: Drive to Survive Season 3 Netflix Docuseries
Courtesy: Netflix

Formula 1 is a sports league that will cost less to purchase streaming rights than a traditional American “Big 4” like the NBA, NFL, or MLB.  Formula 1’s structure is also centered at the top so it would be easier to make an exclusive deal that Netflix seeks.  The remaining questions being, will Netflix pursue Formula 1 sports rights to increase its streaming platform subscribers and compete with others?  Second, will Netflix be the first to offer commercial free live sports programming—for a premium price—or offer in-screen ads and additional during-break inside looks, content, and analysis?  Or will Netflix act more like a traditional broadcaster and offer advertisements to pay down its purchase price?  One will know more after a few laps around the sun.

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BSM Writers

Manningcast Is Best Experienced As A Fan, Not As A Broadcaster

“I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat.”

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ESPN

Much has been written on this site already about the ESPN alternative to a traditional Monday Night Football broadcast, the Manningcast. Andy Masur asked if it worked and questioned the network pulling its audience in two different directions. Mark Madden said the concept undoubtedly works, but the content is poor.

Both articles are good reads. Both provide another level of insight from those in the industry and how they view this unique/high-profile concept. Industry views provide solid insight to the success and quality of the show itself, what works – what doesn’t. But if we can’t sit back and take our industry glasses off, and just look at this broadcast as sports fans, I feel we’ll never see it in clear view. 

NFL Week 1 Monday Night Football, Peyton Manning ratings - Sports  Illustrated
Courtesy: ESPN

I’ll admit, for me, it took me no more than 5 minutes of watching week 1’s Ravens vs Raiders game to say “yeah, this isn’t meant for me”. I didn’t like the non-traditional approach of the broadcast, it felt like it lacked the energy of a traditional sportscast. The stadium volume was turned way down, the excitement was more in the conversation they were having with each other, rather than the game itself. It took me out of the moment of the game, rather than allowing me to get sucked in.

Now, in fairness, I kind of went into it with a narrow mind, thinking that would be the case. I am not someone who has the desire to flip around during the College Football Playoff broadcasts and catch the coaches corner or studio chatter, I want the game. 

Bottom line is, I hated the Manningcast when I watched it in Week 1. I even went on the air the next day and trolled members of my audience that were effusive in their praise of it. In the limited sample I provided for myself, I had come to the conclusion that this broadcast wasn’t made for REAL football fans (insert caveman sound effect here) and that only the most casual viewer would want to watch this SNL wanna be of a football broadcast. 

However, week 2, I decided I was going to be more open minded to it. I made it a point to break away from the traditional Packers vs Lions broadcast and watch the Manningcast, no matter how painful. I was completely wrong in my initial opinion.

Was Peyton Manning wearing a helmet and acting a little too zany for my taste in week 1? Yes. Is the guest connection quality well below what we should find acceptable in broadcasting? Yes. But that’s where I made the mistake. I was looking at this broadcast through the eyes of a broadcaster and not as a sports fan. 

Peyton Manning’s charisma jumps off the screen, he is elite at describing what he sees on the field in a way that no one else can. Eli can be a little dry, but he’s low key funny. And they have real chemistry together, as they should. They are family after all.

The thing that hooked me the most was just how invested Peyton was in the plays on the field, he really gets into the game, truly invested in the success and failure of the quarterbacks. There was a moment in week 2 when Jared Goff threw the ball to an empty patch of grass 15 yards down the field and was subsequently called for intentional grounding. You could see Goff yelling at the referee, pleading his case. Peyton surmised, probably accurately, that Goff was telling the ref that the ball was thrown to the right place and that its not his fault the receiver didn’t run the correct route. Peyton then carried on and told stories of when this type of thing would happen to him when he played for Indianapolis and Denver. I was hooked. 

I realized that I was far more invested in week 1 as a stand alone football game, I’m from Baltimore, I have a lot of love for the Ravens. Being invested in the game itself doesn’t lend as much flexibility. As a fan, you to want to hear about anything else but the action on the field. However, when watching two teams that I have no personal interest in, the Manning broadcast took on this new life. It created a level of interest for me as a REAL football fan that I otherwise would not have had. I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat. I felt like I had a front row view to a football clinic, held by two of the most accomplished players in league history. 

Best of former NFL punter Pat McAfee with Manning bros on 'MNF' | Week 2
Courtesy: ESPN

Personally, I could live without the guests. I am not as entertained by the back and forth with Rob Gronksowski or Pat McAfee as it seems the majority of social media is, but the Manningcast does a brilliant job of bridging the gap between the hardcore football fan and the casual observer. It’s an absolute hit and I’ll be locked in for the next one.   

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