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.
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Instead, let’s rewind all the way back to 1987 when Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine.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.
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.
Broadcast Partnerships Can’t Get In The Way Of Reporting
“The practice of broadcast partners not contradicting information directly from the team has been going on for years.”
Morning sports anchors count on alarm clocks and, 99 times out of 100, that no sports news actually happens during a typical shift. Recap yesterday’s action, find 3 or 4 ways to say that Team X edged Team Y in overtime or some facsimile of that.
The two and a half weeks of Olympics every couple of years could change things for morning sports anchors. Tuesday morning’s bombshell with US Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles was just the exception that proves many broadcasting rules. Rightsholders have been beholden to the teams they are in business with, so the narrative is dictated by the team and not the network.
At 7 am eastern time on Tuesday, July 27th, I was anchoring morning sports when I saw on Twitter that Biles was pulling out of the overall team event. Immediately, I went to NBC, the rightsholder for the Games, to see what the story was. The Today Show was just starting. Meanwhile, Peacock was airing the event live.
USA gymnastics immediately issued a statement that NBC followed diligently. They said that Biles “has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue.” Meanwhile, Peacock was interviewing Biles’ coach who said accurately that Biles had withdrawn due to a mental health situation.
Twitter jumped on the report that it was a mental health issue. Still, NBC was sticking to the medical issue. And they did what any rightsholder would do.
Could NBC have paid closer attention to their sister broadcast on Peacock? Perhaps, but anyone who has worked on a high-stakes broadcast knows that control rooms and anchors focus on their own product. Also, if any official outlet of the Olympics gives them data, why wouldn’t they believe it.
I spoke off the record to two members of NFL broadcast crews. Both said, that if a star on a team left the game and the team gave the announcers an official statement, even if that statement is false, they wouldn’t contradict it on air. “Team X has just given us this information,” is how they would often phrase it.
Before NBC was corrected, they covered the story as if Biles had suffered some physical injury. They even spoke to Biles’ former teammates Laurie Hernandez, who was commentating for NBC, and Aly Raisman, who joined via Zoom.
My role for iHeartMedia that morning was to do sports reports in Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, and a national report. I usually feed my casts in the morning and head on my way. When the Biles news broke, I needed to get the facts right. Many news outlets were reporting (accurately) what Peacock had revealed. Good Morning America accurately reported on the story.
The difference between ABC and NBC is the billions that NBC pays for the rights. The real question is, what is NBC paying for?
The practice of broadcast partners not contradicting information directly from the team has been going on for years. It is probably why there are so many attempts at hiding information.
Over my 27 year career, there have been plenty of occasions where an athlete couldn’t play for a personal reason. In one instance I saw a player find out his wife was cheating on him. Another situation was a player was dealing with a sick parent. In both cases, the team issued statements with some vague injury. The team statement has a lot of weight with the media, but to the rightsholder, it might as well be etched in stone.
That instinct to cover up is particularly disturbing. The coach had told the live Peacock broadcast the simple truth – that Biles was not mentally up to competing after she faulted on her previous attempt.
Perhaps the initial statement was not a cover-up, but rather a miscommunication. That simply cannot happen at this level.
The idea of a media cover-up has been used too often because institutions believe that they cannot sully the brand with less than positive information. Memories of Penn State University and THE Ohio State University, come to mind. What is the mindset to cover up anything negative, whether it’s as big as an assault or as small as skipping a game or match? The truth always comes out.
This brings up Simone Biles. She does not owe the public an explanation, and her mental health is more important than any competition.
However, if the media scrutiny bothers her, it helps me understand those other players in wanting their truths to be hidden. Her withdrawal is a complicated issue, and while some of the takes I’ve heard this week have been outright disgusting, others have been rather profound.
The toxicity that surrounds social media in 2021 is perhaps unavoidable. It’s just sad that this debate got so ugly when the Olympics are designed to unite.
The Tokyo Olympics have been tough to watch already, because of the time zone issues. Losing star power like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka has made it even harder.
It’s only the first full week.
Barrett Sports Media’s Next Big Thing Draft
“I asked 30 established stars in the sports media world to join me in determining who is next.”
There was a time when draft night, no matter the sport, meant that we were gathering the sports media for a similar exercise here at Barrett Sports Media. Between the pandemic, a changing focus, and more work than we could have anticipated when this business was launched, that tradition fell unfortunately by the wayside.
Today though, I am bringing it back. I asked 30 established stars in the sports media world to join me in determining who is next. This is the Barrett Sports Media Next Big Thing Draft. Just like the NBA, we have an age limit. The difference is theirs is at the low end and ours is at the high end.
We have long discussed the 40s being the decade where most people in this business are established and make the bulk of their money. So, I set 40 as the top end.
Now, sure, there are plenty of names under 40 that are already established stars. They are fair game. They are already their networks’ franchise players. They can be the same for the theoretical teams we are forming.
So, in order of their picks (which were drawn at random), here are the TV, radio, and digital stars that agreed to be a part of the draft.
- Steve Levy (ESPN)
- Paul Finebaum (ESPN/SEC Network)
- Doug Gottlieb (FOX Sports)
- Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN)
- Gregg Giannotti (WFAN)
- Tim Brando (FOX Sports)
- Wes Durham (ACC Network)
- Bomani Jones (ESPN/HBO)
- Gary Parrish (CBS Sports)
- Linda Cohn (ESPN)
- Stugotz (Meadowlark Media)
- Damon Bruce (95.7 The Game)
- Chris Broussard (FOX Sports)
- Freddie Coleman (ESPN Radio)
- Ric Bucher (FOX Sports)
- Petros Papadakis (FOX Sports)
- Michael Eaves (ESPN)
- Jason Smith (FOX Sports)
- John Kincade (97.5 The Fanatic)
- Rob Parker (FOX Sports)
- Adnan Virk (DAZN/Meadowlark Media)
- Damon Amendolara (CBS Sports Radio)
- Danny Parkins (670 The Score)
- Mike Florio (Pro Football Talk)
- Chris Carlin (ESPN New York)
- Carl Dukes (92.9 The Game)
- Jason Fitz (ESPN)
- Adam Schein (SiriusXM/CBS Sports)
- Dave Dameshek (Extra Points)
- Arash Markazi (WWENXT)
This took a lot of time and effort to put together, but we got it done. Here is how the draft went.
Here are a few observations from the 2021 Next Big Thing Draft.
THE FUTURE IS FEMALE – The first three picks were all women. Half of the top ten were women. Whether it is TV or podcasting, some of the brightest up and coming stars in our industry are women and that is a good thing.
BRAND LOYALTY – It probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but look at how many people chose up-and-coming stars at their own networks. Is that about job security and being a company man? Maybe, but look at Paul Finebaum choosing Laura Rutledge or Kirk Herbstreit choosing Pat McAfee or even Stugotz choosing Billy Gill. These people get to see their choices face to face with some regularity. I think it speaks to being able to recognize talent when you see it.
DAMON BRUCE KNOWS THE GAME – Bruce asked me to call him so he could make his pick over the phone. He wanted it to be clear. It was a crime that Shams Charania and his 1.2 million social media followers were still on the board at number eleven. “I want everyone to know how much they f***ed things up,” he told me.
A BIG IMPRESSION – I loved the story Jason Smith told me about why he took the versatile Morosi with the 18th pick. “When he comes on my show he likes to use Italian phrases (you know, him being Italian and all), so one time I challenged him that some time in the next week he had to do a media interview entirely in Italian and not explain why he was speaking Italian to the hosts. And he had to post it. Three days later he puts the interview on Twitter, and @’s me on it: It was a baseball interview he did with a TV station…wait for it…wait for it…in Italy. 3,000 miles and an early call time to win a dare. Well played, Jon-Paul.”
THE FREE AGENT MARKET – These people all went undrafted: Jason Bennetti, Big Cat, Domonique Foxworth, Mike Golic Jr, Cassidy Hubbarth, Mina Kimes, Joel Klatt, Katie Nolan, Danny Parkins, PFT Commenter, Brady Quinn, Taylor Rooks, Marcus Spears, and Joy Taylor. Some network or digital platform could build a hell of a roster with this draft’s leftovers. You could really see this playing out with the final picks. “I had 4 or 5 can’t miss picks that are already off the board,” Jason Fitz told me before he proceeded to waffle between three potential candidates for the 27th pick.
Media Noise – Episode 37
Demetri Ravanos is back to look at an interesting week in the sports media. He welcomes Seth Everett and Brian Noe to a show that touches on women in sports media, the Big 12’s impending demise, the way NBC covered Simone Biles, and where tape delay stands in 2021.
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