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Streamer Dreamers Beware: Great Content Is Still King

Sports leagues and media companies act as if streaming is a magic potion for the NHL and other properties when, in fact, basic challenges haven’t changed: Create quality programming that attracts the multitudes.

Jay Mariotti

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Have you heard? Streaming is the salvation of all sports and media. The NHL, forever a cult, will ride a new ESPN streaming deal to world domination. Fox Sports, searching for reasons to justify Skip Bayless’ $32 million contract, says streaming will propel his otherwise indistinct show above all competitive noise. Even the NFL kings are reserving Thursday nights for streaming.

I stream, you stream, we all stream for ice cream.

Sports channels on Roku | Roku

Here’s what they aren’t telling you: Until further notice, streaming remains a flim-flam hope balloon. Whether it’s called streaming or cable or virtual reality or rabbit ears, the end-game objective of the sports and entertainment racket is to create prime programming that attracts copious eyeballs. It’s exceedingly creative of Disney Co., the leader in the streaming craze, to make a landmark technological pivot upon recognizing that only 60 percent of U.S. households still pay for cable. What the Streamer Dreamers are missing, of course, is why tens of millions of cord-cutters are canceling subscriptions in the first place.

The content isn’t worth the monthly bill.

And that consumer gut punch won’t stop coming just because platforms have changed. The programming has to be watchable — see: Quibi — or the attention spans won’t follow regardless of demographic or innovation.

The NHL and ESPN needed each other, just as Fox and a lightning-rod talker needed each other. They’re partners in life rafts, trying to survive uncertain media seas, and they’ve chosen to serve as guinea pigs into the future. To hear NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, his league will ascend into the established pantheon of American sports — NFL and college football, NBA, Major League Baseball — with a deal that includes 1,000 streamed games per season on ESPN+, four Stanley Cup finals on ABC and increased prominent coverage on ESPN’s studio programs and news sites. Said Bettman, proudly: “Not only will this groundbreaking, seven-year deal enable the NHL to benefit from the incomparable power, reach and influence of Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN, it sets a new standard in delivering our game to the most passionate and tech-savvy fans in sports in the ways they now demand and on the platforms they use.”

Not so fast. For this $2.8 billion deal to benefit the NHL beyond its coffers, ESPN must figure out how to transfer the in-arena hockey experience — the most exciting in sports, I say — to streaming devices and cable homes alike. No network has figured that out yet. If I haven’t watched hockey regularly on my big-screen TVs throughout my adult life, why would I start on a hand-held phone where it’s difficult to see plays developing or goals being scored? I don’t care if Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman debate whether Connor McDavid is the world’s greatest player. The product still has to be appealing to create appointment-watching dates. Hockey lags so far behind the bigger sports in relevance, value and buzz, it will take more than seven years — maybe seven decades — to escape its niche status. The NHL’s national profile will grow on ESPN, no doubt, but it’s still hockey and still a sport where serious American sports fans don’t know Leon Draisaitl or how to pronounce his name. Give me more reasons to regularly watch, Mr. Bettman, streaming or otherwise.

Same goes for Fox and Bayless’ FS1 show, “Undisputed.” Despite ho-hum ratings of roughly 140,000 viewers on morning cable, Fox decided to shower the say-anything-provocative host with a monster contract because of … his YouTube profile? I trust Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, more than I trust YouTube analytics. But with Bayless and partner Shannon Sharpe purportedly attracting 42 million monthly views — note: views can be five-second chops from a 2 1/2-hour program — he’s somehow worth the $32 million in the purview of Fox Sports honcho Eric Shanks — if only to counteract ESPN’s odd interest in poaching Bayless and streaming him on a program with Smith. If I’m an advertiser and Fox tries charging premium prices based on supposed YouTube traffic, I’m taking my dollars to ESPN, which has bigger shows with wider established audiences — and now has a potent streamer, too, in ESPN+.

Disney has adapted quickly to cord-cutting, wisely consolidating Disney+ — and its 100 million-plus subscribers — with ESPN+ and Hulu for a formidable bundling. By selling new technology to Streamer Dreamers such as Bettman and UFC’s Dana White, ESPN can more easily move past cable subscription losses and maintain its place atop the sports media mountain. Who else has deals with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, college football, college basketball, golf and tennis — and can place them all on ESPN+? The NHL deal, through 2028, precedes Disney’s impending whopper deal with the NFL, which will require at least a $25 billion payout for a slot in the Super Bowl rotation and continuing “Monday Night Football” rights. All of which allows Disney, via ESPN+, a better chance of protecting ESPN’s future against cable operators.

Given the massive scope and ambition of ESPN+, it’s silly to suggest an actual competition exists between that paywall and other subscription-based sports sites. The Athletic breaks important news, but if traffic is the metric, this is the digital version of Super Bowl LV. Spiked by its bundling placement, ESPN+ could have 14 million subscribers by summer with live games and a constant churn of new programming — such as “Eli’s Places,” Eli Manning’s college football companion series with his brother’s “Peyton’s Places.” The Athletic has zero chance against the corporate monster, finally cracking 1 million with no streaming component to challenge ESPN’s offerings of live games, regular shows and documentaries. A diehard reader appreciates The Athletic and Sports Illustrated, yet Bristol played chess by moving two dozen well-known writers and analysts to its paywall.

See ESPN+ As A Time (Well-Invested) Machine: Fans Are Streaming Hours Of  Air Jordan In Action - ESPN Front Row

With ESPN+ at $5.99 monthly, SI at $5.99 and The Athletic at $4.99, the choice is obvious for any shopper who wants only one subscription. As for The Athletic’s goal to control local sports coverage, the site has yet to deliver the knockout punch as predicted four years ago by its cheeky co-founder, Alex Mather, who told the New York Times, “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment.” Almost all local “papers” continue to wheeze, but is The Athletic faring any better in those markets? ESPN+ still is challenged to perform well in its own bubble, but it catches a huge break with its next programming colossus: a nine-part Tom Brady docuseries, “Man In The Arena,” as he rides his new wave of middle-aged wonderment. With ESPN+ also getting help from “Nomadland,” “The Mandalorian” and other Hulu and Disney+ offerings, this is not a fair fight.

That said, whatever the platform, the content better be special enough to attract and keep subscribers. A lot of sports media people are making a lot of ice cream these days, and, truth be told, not everyone is screaming for it.

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Jermaine Wiggins is Loving Life at WEEI

“As I played through my career, I always loved just talking about sports and always having an opinion on something regardless of what it is.”

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Jermaine Wiggins
Courtesy: Audacy

Some athletes loved talking to the media during their playing days and even had their sights set on getting into broadcasting.  There are also some athletes who were never really comfortable with speaking to reporters and go on to other things when their careers were over.

In the case of former NFL tight end Jermaine Wiggins, he subscribes to the former.

Wiggins is doing great on the airwaves as part of The Greg Hill Show mornings on WEEI in Boston.

“I’ve been having an absolute blast,” said the 49-year-old Wiggins who enjoyed an 8-year NFL career and was part of the Patriots Super Bowl XXXVI team. 

“For me, as a former player, I’ve always been a fan of sports.  I’ve always been a guy that, as a kid growing up in Boston, was always having conversations about who was better…Magic/Bird…Yankees/Red Sox.”

Wiggins credits a lot of his success at the microphone to the trash talking environment that he grew up in.  If he could dish it out with family or on the streets with friends, then he could do it on the radio.  But as he transitioned into broadcasting, he just had to refine the way that he presented his thoughts.

“As I played through my career, I always loved just talking about sports and always having an opinion on something regardless of what it is,” said Wiggins.  “Making the transition was relatively smooth.  It was more of learning some of the do’s and don’ts and how to get better as you get more into the business.  It’s just really about being who you are and being authentic.”

And being authentic was how he handled talking to the media during his playing career.  If he did something well, he was there to talk to the media.  If he made a mistake, he didn’t hide from the media.

Wiggins always wanted to talk and now he talks for a living.

“I was always the type of player who would stand there and say I could have done this better or I could have done that better and taking accountability,” said Wiggins.  “I always enjoyed that element of it.  I’ve been fortunate.”

Wiggins, along with Courtney Cox, contribute to the show which airs weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and the trio enjoys tremendous chemistry on the air.  Hill is the point guard setting things up and distributing the basketball to his teammates.

But Wiggins prefers a football reference.

“(Greg is) basically our Tom Brady and Bill Belichick all rolled into one,” said Wiggins.  “He puts us in the right spots.  He allows us to be great at what we do.  He’s an unbelievable leader. Courtney with her coming in and the things she does and Greg allowing her to be who she is has been spectacular.”

While Wiggins is flourishing in his on-air role and learning a lot from Greg Hill, he has also been fortunate to receive guidance and advice from management at WEEI.  Wiggins credits Senior Vice-President Mike Thomas and Brand Manager Ken Laird for being great resources to learn the little things that will allow him to grow as a talk show host.

“When you have guys who have been in the business for so long who are great people and understand what it takes to be successful, all you do is keep your mouth shut and take in the information that they give you,” said Wiggins.  “I think that’s what Mike has allowed me to do.  Whether it’s him or Ken, I like the constructive criticism.  Mike has seen so much in the radio business that when he starts to talk about things, you just sit there and listen.”

And Wiggins also has to listen to his critics.

As a former player, he is well aware of what it’s like to read or hear negative comments made by a member of the media.  And now that he’s on the other side of the microphone as a sports talk show host, he is now subject to commentary from reporters who cover sports media.  Just based on his playing days, Wiggins is well-equipped to handle any criticism that comes his way, but he also has something else to lean on.

He learned how to have thick skin from the environment that he was raised in.

“I grew up in East Boston in a single-parent household and my mother was an Italian woman raising a black kid,” said Wiggins. 

His mother taught him how to handle anything negative said to him.

“Her biggest thing was people are going to say things but they don’t put food on our table, they don’t put a roof over our head and they don’t put clothes on your back,” said Wiggins.  “She used to say it doesn’t matter what anybody says about you and if they’re not saying anything about you, then you’re probably not doing nothing”. 

In other words, haters are going to hate because they can’t handle that you are having success and living the good life.

“When people are criticizing you or they’re jealous or they’re saying things about you, then that means you’re doing something right,” said Wiggins.  “Never let that bother you.  If you’re good enough, that means you’re doing something right and people generally don’t want to see you soar.”

For Wiggins, as well as all of the hosts at WEEI, these are certainly interesting times when it comes to talking about the Patriots.  The Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, and the six Super Bowl championships that came with it, is now over and the team is in transition with new head coach Jerod Mayo.

That has led to taking phone calls from fans that they have not been used to taking in recent years.

“When they’re not winning, the sky is falling but the sky hasn’t been falling for a long time,” said Wiggins.  “The sports fan here is when your team is doing great, you’re willing to die for them and as soon as they make one simple mistake, you’re ready to ship everyone out of there and blow it up.  It’s been a while since the team has been bad so we kind of are in unchartered waters for some of the younger fans.”

But at the end of the day, Boston sports fans are some of the best in the country and they’re going to be there win, lose or draw.

“We’re going to stay loyal to our teams even if they are shi**y at times,” said Wiggins.

From growing up in East Boston, to an NFL career that included hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, to having a successful career now in broadcasting, Jermaine Wiggins is well-equipped to taking calls from both ends of the sports radio spectrum.

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Major League Baseball Needs to Find More Exclusive Windows for Broadcasts

Like every industry in the world, baseball is trying to find a way to adjust to the habits of a country that has everything at their fingertips.

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Major League Baseball
Courtesy: Major League Baseball

The last few weeks, I’ve written about the media storylines for Major League Baseball entering Spring Training, and last week I looked at how MLB’s relationship with ESPN can evolve. This week, I will tackle how baseball’s relationship with their national television rightsholders, in general, can evolve.

Most of the networks/streamers lean more towards exclusivity with their packages. In the next deal they sign with the NBA, I’d imagine ESPN will likely not sign up for the Wednesday and Friday games, which can also be shown in the home markets. With Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney’s deals with the NHL, games shown on their platforms are exclusive to their platforms.

Major League Baseball has already done this with most of their packages, only TBS’ Tuesday night games and games on FS1 are non-exclusive packages (excluding games on MLB Network – which is league owned). However, the windows where the exclusive games do exist, have seen less viewership.

Baseball, unlike basketball and football, is very much regionally oriented. Whoever your favorite team is, you will watch a majority of their games and not much more baseball outside of that. Therefore, MLB has to lead the audience to watch other games. The catch-22 with baseball is they have made games so easily accessible with MLB.tv and MLB Network over the last 15 years, if you are a Cubs fan, and Aaron Judge is up with the bases loaded, there could be an alert to your phone to go to MLB.tv and switch over or “MLB’s Big Inning” or MLB Network and they would go to it.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has implemented more special event games during his stewardship, with games held internationally in Australia, Japan, Korea, Mexico and England. The “Field of Dreams” game and the “Little League Classic” have also been played in unique locations on standalone nights. Baseball may need to have more standalone games featuring its star players.

The NBA has made sure almost every LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant or LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry matchup is on national TV, in primetime, with few if any games going against it. There is no reason why every single one of the Dodgers-Yankees games this season can’t be treated the same. The problem is, with that 3-game series, the Friday Night game will be on Apple TV+ when other games are scheduled, the Saturday game on FOX will have most of the audience, while Sunday’s game will be on ESPN.

Creating more exclusive standalone windows that would appeal to the audience would be better served for the league and their networks. Here are some suggestions to change around each of the current packages:

Current RightsholdersTBSApple TV+FOX/FS1PeacockESPN
Total Games2650921930
Exclusive050521930
Day of WeekTuesday NightFriday NightSaturday at 7pm EST on FOX (except 4/27), Weekdays and Saturday on FS1Sunday starting at 11:35am EST or 12 Noon ESTOpening Night (March 28th), 25 Sunday Nights beginning at 7pm EST, 3 additional Week

(*Note – Peacock Schedule Based upon 2023 Season – No Deal Official for 2024 Season)

TBS Tuesdays

Currently, the TBS schedule has announced games through June, and the start times vary from 6:30 p.m., 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. (all times Eastern). The games are also non-exclusive, and air on one of the busiest nights of the MLB slate. Most baseball fans are not trained to tune into TBS until October, and don’t even realize there are regular season Tuesday games on the network.

TBS should move to another night, where they could replicate what TNT does with the NBA and NHL. When there are games on TNT, there is a much smaller slate in basketball and hockey. Moving baseball games to Mondays, when it’s a smaller primetime slate, could give TBS the best chance for a larger audience. Wednesdays and Thursdays are typically travel days, so sometimes the best matchups may not be available because there are more day games. However, on Mondays it’s usually a smaller game schedule, so the network could work with the league to maybe stack some Mondays with a 3-4 game schedule with the best games.

Apple TV+ Friday Night Baseball

Like TBS, the Apple TV+ games are on the busiest night of the week. Additionally, people have complained enough about when the games are on the streamer, that it might not be worth a fan paying the subscription fee for missing 1-3 games of their favorite team in a 162-game season. So, why couldn’t Apple TV+ do something different and buy out a series?

From the day after Memorial Day to the last week of the season, Major League Baseball could make one series the Apple TV+ “Series of the Week.” This would typically be a Tuesday-Thursday series, with special start times for each of the games. Friday nights, especially in the summer, people have other things to do. The weekdays are more routine for baseball fans, and for Apple TV+ to buy out an entire series would give them a better chance to maintain subscribers.

FOX Saturdays

This is almost completely stealing from “Hockey Night in Canada,” but as FOX markets itself “Baseball Night in America” for all their games (except for April 27th this year), why not make it the entire day? MLB’s Saturday schedule is shockingly dormant from 1 p.m.- 4 p.m. EST, then there are a bunch of games between 4-7 p.m. EST, then FOX takes over usually from 7-10 p.m. EST, and then a few west coast games follow. FOX does typically air an additional game at 4 p.m. EST on their cable channel FS1.

For a change, MLB should try to schedule as many games that start between 1-3:30 p.m. EST. FOX could have a doubleheader at 4 p.m. exclusively on FS1 and 7 p.m. EST on FOX, and one of the 10 p.m. games back on FS1. On Saturdays, kids are usually coming back from playing in a baseball game, so they likely want to see more baseball. MLB can load the games earlier in the day and then taper off and make sure FOX has all the action as the day goes on.

Sunday Leadoff on Peacock & Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN

These two packages work because there is nothing going on against either game. As part of Peacock’s Major League Baseball Package no game can start until 1:35 p.m. EST, thus giving Peacock a 90-minute head start. Meanwhile, with the advent of the pitch clock and games going, on average, 2 hours and 45 minutes, all baseball games are done by the time the Sunday Night game comes on.

Like every industry in the world, baseball is trying to find a way to adjust to the habits of a country that has everything at their fingertips. At the same time, baseball is a business which is still trying to get increased revenue from rightsholders, while those same companies are trying to evaluate the costs of live sports. These tricky circumstances for Major League Baseball will be something to follow in the next few years.

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The 2024 BSM Summit Welcomes Stephen A. Smith, Andrew Marchand and 7 More Speakers!

“I am both personally and professionally excited to announce that Stephen A. Smith will join us at the 2024 BSM Summit.”

Jason Barrett

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This week’s column is going to focus a lot on the upcoming 2024 BSM Summit. We released the full schedule today on BSMSummit.com. This is also the final day for event sponsorships to be secured. If interested, email Stephanie at [email protected]. We only have a few remaining opportunities.

If you’re participating at the show, be advised that emails will go out today to all speaker groups with details on date/time of session, content focus, the address of the venue, and who to contact on the day of the event. I have a few names I still have to add to our advertising panel. Getting CMO’s and/or media buyers involved isn’t always easy but I think it’s important. More on that soon.

But let me not bury the lead. We have a major addition to announce. I am both personally and professionally excited to share that Stephen A. Smith will join us at the 2024 BSM Summit.

A month ago I wasn’t sure if this was going to work out. As a longtime fan of Stephen A.’s, this has been a session I’ve wanted to do for six years. Sometimes schedules don’t line up though. But when things do fall into place, it’s pretty cool. This is one of those times.

Stephen A. Smith is a man who needs no introduction or hype. He’s one of the most successful on-air talents in the industry today, helping First Take enjoy nearly 15 years of unmatched success. Aside from his on-air excellence and the impact he’s created at ESPN and during the course of a three decade career, Stephen A. also serves as co-executive producer of First Take, and operates his own production company, Mr. SAS Productions. His book, Straight Shooter; A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes is a New York Times best seller. He’s also created a hit podcast The Stephen A. Smith Show, which continues to attract a wide range of notable guests and thought leaders, and large audience.

On March 13th, Stephen A. and I will close out day 1 with a wide-ranging, in-depth conversation on the state of the sports media business. It’s a discussion that I know our professional audience will want to be present for. Given his rise to stardom, and ability to maintain a high standard while expanding into other areas of business, there’s a ton to tackle. We’ve got thirty five minutes to do it, and I’ll make sure we make the most of it. My thanks to Stephen A. and his team for moving a few things around to be able to join us.

8 More BSM Summit Speakers:

Stephen A. is going to attract a lot of attention, rightfully so but I don’t want to ignore how valuable these next eight speakers are to the Summit too. I am thrilled to welcome sports media’s top news breaker and a man whose recent arrival at The Athletic instantly elevated the brand’s media coverage, Andrew Marchand.

Joining Stephen A. and Andrew as additions to the Summit are Omaha Productions host Kevin Clark, Outkick’s SVP and Managing Editor Gary Schreier, Audacy Chief Digital Officer J.D. Crowley, Executive Editor and SVP of the Cumulus Podcast Network John Wordock, Matthew Berry’s Fantasy Life CEO Eliot Crist, 98.5 The Sports Hub program director Rick Radzik, and KOA 94.1/850 program director Dave Tepper.

I also want to thank SiriusXM, Quu and Bonneville International for signing on as Summit partners. We operate our shows independently and can’t pull them off without industry support. I’m grateful to every group that has pledged support for our 2024 show, and each individual who’s making time to join us in the big apple next month.

One-Day Only Sale:

To celebrate today’s schedule release and the addition of nine speakers, I’ve rolled out a one-day only sale on Summit tickets. We’re taking $50 off of individual tickets. To take advantage of the sale, click here. Prices return to normal on Tuesday February 27th. Ticket prices increase on March 4th to $324.99 so act now to avoid paying more.

Complete The Phrase:

Last week we tried something new in our 8@8. We introduced a full week phrase, which gave our newsletter subscribers a chance to win tickets to the BSM Summit. Congratulations to Heath Cline, Nick Cattles, Karlos Ortiz, Logan Ward and Michelle Rabinovich on being selected as our winners. Thanks to all who participated in the contest.

Thumbs Up:

96.7/1310 The Ticket: What The Ticket has created in Dallas with Ticketstock is pretty damn cool. The free event is well supported with sponsorships, giveaways, merchandise, contests, and live content from the entire on-air staff. In a time where sports radio isn’t active as it should be producing big money making live events, it’s good to see one of sports radio’s originals out there creating an impact.

Rob Parker: In May of 2016 I wrote a column and asked why no station in America featured an all-black sports radio lineup. Corporate groups didn’t rush in but someone finally took the leap eight years later. Congratulations to Rob Parker and his investors on the upcoming arrival of Sports Rap Radio in Detroit.

Battling 97.1 The Ticket for sports radio dominance isn’t going to be the focus for the new local sports radio brand. Creating an alternative for the black community and launching new stars is. Will it work? Only time will tell. But I appreciate folks who take risks to innovate. That’s something sports radio needs more, not less of.

670 The Score: I absolutely loved what The Score did to turn debate and discussion around Caleb Williams and Justin Fields into an event involving their audience. Having the access to an in-house room to invite fans in is a great asset Audacy Chicago has. Mitch Rosen, Ryan Porth and the Parkins and Spiegel team made good use of it with their QB1 Town Hall. The content was crisp, the room was full, and 670 took a normal day of Bears talk and turned it into an opportunity to create a stronger bond with its audience. Nice job by all.

Jonathan Zaslow and Q Myers: I’ll eavesdrop on a show every now and then and if I know the host(s), I’ll send a text to let them know I was listening. Especially if I like what I hear. That was the case last Thursday night. I’m not usually out at 10pm on a weeknight but while I was in the car, I scanned the dial and landed on Q and Zaslow. Their energy and chemistry was great, and the NBA topics and discussions were relatable and easy to process.

Having worked the night schedule before, you sometimes wonder ‘is anyone listening?’ The good ones focus and perform whether they have an audience of one or one million. Twenty to thirty minutes may not be a ton of listening time, but capturing even five minutes at night is difficult. Nice job by Q and Jonathan. They were on target and kept me interested.

Thumbs Down:

JJ Redick: Since bursting on to the scene, I’ve enjoyed JJ’s opinions and willingness to mix it up. It’s clearly worked because ESPN recently added him to their top NBA broadcast team alongside Mike Breen and Doris Burke. What I don’t understand though is his constant complaining about what people enjoy. Insulting the audience and their preferences is a sure fire way to lose fans. Kudos to Nick Wright for calling it out.

Drama and opinion will always outsell education. Nobody is suggesting that JJ shouldn’t try to make fans smarter. I myself appreciate that. But if you expect people to prefer analysis over entertainment, prepare to be disappointed. Furthermore, despising the audience and what they value leads to more people tuning you out instead of in.

ESPN 97.5: Six months ago the station lost a promising afternoon show with Jake Asman, Brad Kellner and Cody Stoots. Fortunately, they had a strong midday show with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank that was ready for the afternoon slot. They then added a new midday show with Joshua Beard and Michael Connor, and all seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Until this week.

The station has once again cut staff, killing the new midday show just six months into its run, and parting ways with the only program director in the building. It’s hard to say you want to compete when your decisions suggest otherwise. Frequent change also gives local clients less incentive to stick with you. Here’s to hoping it works out for John, Lance, Joel, Jeremy, Paul and Joe. Good, talented guys who deserve more help and stability.

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