Man, it’s not often that I feel the need to take time out of my week to write a second opinion column. Usually I do my opinion piece on Monday and let others in the industry have the floor the rest of the week. Then again, it isn’t often that Bill Simmons, a millionaire who made a fortune writing NBA fan fiction, is disappointed that Jim Nantz isn’t more racist.
I am largely neither here nor there on Simmons. He is not one of my favorite writers, but I think his site The Ringer does some really great stuff. 60 Songs That Explain the 90s has quickly become one of my favorite podcasts. The Cam Chronicles was one of the best sports media products of 2020 period. I could go on, but the point is that I am not someone that sees no value in Simmons or anything associated with him. I appreciate his practice of finding cool people to write and talk about cool shit.
What I don’t get is how someone so in love with the spotlight and someone that has been branded everything from an “SJW” to a “liberal douche” on social media can be so obtuse when it comes to issues of race. Just last year he sounded like someone’s 60 year old uncle in responding to his own staff’s complaints about the lack of diversity in The Ringer‘s podcasting ranks. Now, he is voicing disappointment that Jim Nantz’s call of Hideki Matsuyama’s putt to win The Masters wasn’t more subtly racist? Forgive my bluntness, but Bill Simmons is a moron.
“I think he was scared off,” Simmons said of Nantz on his Monday podcast. “He felt nervous to me the last twenty minutes, um, cancel culture, I don’t think Nantz wanted to go near anything. He kept kind of throwing it to Faldo and then when Matsuyama hit the… first of all, he missed the par putt, he had the little two-footer coming back, he made it. He wins. And Nantz basically said, ‘Hideki Matsuyama, the first Japanese golfer to win The Masters.'”
Could Nantz have been a little nervous? Maybe, but then again, maybe he just didn’t see the need to get cute and try to dance up to the line. Rebellion, even the corporate-approved version of it that Simmons seems to delight in, isn’t really in Nantz’s wheelhouse.
He advocated for Nantz to use a line about Matsuyama coming through in “The Heat of the Moment”. Get it? Like the song by Asia! Get it? Because Hideki Matsuyama is Asian! LOLOLOLOLOLOL!
Look, the idea itself isn’t egregious. It isn’t Bill Simmons advocating for CBS to cut to a close up of Nantz doing the racist trope of using his fingers to slant his eyes and shout “Godziiiiiiiiraaaaaah!”. But it is an idea that is insanely tone deaf and really doesn’t seem to make the broadcast any better.
Now, you want egregious? I give you Bill Simmons’s explanation of why “the heat of the moment” would have been a great thing for Jim Nantz to say.
“I think Nantz could have gone stealth and done, ‘It was the heat of the moment, Hideki Matsui is our Masters champion,'” Simmons suggested, confusing The Masters champ Matsuyama with the former Yankees slugger Matsui. “Something like that and then it just would have been really underground. Nobody really would have gotten it.”
Nobody would have gotten it! Simmons’s focus seems to be how can a broadcaster say something racist rather than come up with a line that would have made the moment bigger and more fun.
Are you friggin’ kidding me? Bill Simmons cannot really be this stupid. I refuse to believe the guy that built “The Sports Guy” empire by covering and writing about sports like a fan can really see any value in sneaking in a little covert joke about a champion golfer being Asian. You know, a little something for the white people to enjoy! Bill, my guy, you gotta make more of an effort to walk your talk.
There is a difference between the clumsy racism that comes from ignorance and the vitriolic racism that comes from unabashed hate for others. I don’t think Bill Simmons is guilty of the latter. The former is no less of a problem though if it doesn’t come with a meaningful acknowledgement that you need to learn more and do better. I’m not sure Bill Simmons has that in him.
Think about the way he responded to staffers saying that not enough Black voices had the opportunity to host podcasts for The Ringer. A hollow statement about diversity being important to the company and addressing these concerns would have been better than what Bill Simmons did, which was to say “It’s a business. This isn’t Open Mic Night“.
Come on, Bill. You’re not a dumb guy. You know a statement like that is a problem, particularly when your site houses a podcast that features your daughter.
It’s a pattern. Bill Simmons keeps stepping in it when it comes to race, and again, I don’t think he that he is a card-carrying member of the Klan. I think his racism is the kind born out of living in a city or part of the country where it is possible to be isolated around other people that look like you and grew up the same way as you. Bill Simmons isn’t malicious. He has a blind spot and he has to own up to it.
One of the best things that ever happened to me happened when I was a senior in college. My roommate was a Black guy named Terry Siggers. To this day, he is one of the kindest and most patient guys I have ever met. It’s not a surprise to me that he is now a faculty advisor to all of student media at the University of Alabama.
I made a comment about a mixed race friend of ours and referred to him as a “mullato”. Terry stopped our conversation. He didn’t get mad. He just calmly told me that that word is more loaded than I know. I told him that I only knew it from the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Terry replied “Right. It is easy not to know what that word’s history is and never meet anyone that can tell you when you live in Seattle. That’s why it made it into a Nirvana song.”
That moment and Terry’s desire to teach instead of shame really shaped my vision of what racism is. A lack of intent doesn’t mean that there is a lack of impact. It is okay to acknowledge you were wrong even if you had no ill-intent.
Aside from making a corny joke, I don’t know what Bill Simmons’s intent is in suggesting Jim Nantz work in the title of a song no one under the age of 45 knows just because the name of the band that performed it is Asia. I have a feeling just challenging himself to explain what his intent in the joke was, Bill Simmons would quickly realize there is no real way to justify it or deny that his argument boils down to “I wish Jim Nantz would have been a little more racist.”
No one needs to be cancelled here, but no one needs to pretend this doesn’t matter either. Bill Simmons fancies himself an enlightened guy on the right side of issues like this. If that is true, he has to start with an acknowledgement that he was wrong and follow it with an apology. Then, to paraphrase Bill Burr, he has shut up, sit down, and take his talking to.
Is Bama Beating The Sports Talk Audience?
“Hosting shows is about more than just being right.”
College football tapped me on the shoulder this past weekend and told me I needed an attitude adjustment. I’ve been guilty this year — as many other hosts have — of focusing too much of my attention on Alabama’s dominance. Highly ranked teams were slow out of the gate to start the season while Bama looked more like Usain Bolt sprinting down the track. After the Tide dusted Miami 44-13, I turned into a “can’t-beat-Bama” broken record. I now see how that’s the wrong message to harp on.
It wasn’t the Florida Gators that made me realize this as they made Bama sweat out a tough 31-29 win. It was actually the great atmospheres at various colleges Saturday that caused me to rethink my stance. Penn State was a madhouse as it hosted and beat No. 22 Auburn. Indiana’s home crowd was so hyped to face No. 8 Cincinnati that fans in the student section ripped out an entire bleacher. Why? Because they were fired up beyond the point of making rational decisions.
The thought finally popped into my head; it’d be really sad if fans around the country said, “We can’t beat Bama so what’s the use?” Think about that. Picture half empty stadiums as fans refused to show up until their odds of dethroning Nick Saban improved. No energy. No excitement. Just blah. No jumping around at Camp Randall. No tomahawk chop at Tallahassee. No white outs in Happy Valley. Nothing.
Passion is what makes college football so great. You can even feel the electricity in the crowd while watching at home. It would be depressing if great fan bases shrugged their shoulders and weakly accepted that Alabama is better.
If all of that would be lame, then why would harping on Bama’s dominance work in sports radio?
Look, there are certainly times for hosts to stir the pot and be the bearers of bad news, but it shouldn’t be all of the time. Nobody wants a nonstop reality check. Imagine if you grabbed the mic from the PA announcer and said, “Hey, all of you Penn State homers, don’t forget that Bama would smoke you by three touchdowns.” Think that would go over well? Nope. So why would it be much different on the air?
Hosting shows is about more than just being right. Rosie Perez once said in White Men Can’t Jump, “Sometimes when you win, you really lose.” Sometimes in sports radio when you’re right, you’re actually wrong. Instead of predicting the winning team on ESPN’s College GameDay each Saturday, picture Lee Corso saying, “Neither one of these teams is beating Bama so the heck with it.” Although Corso would probably be correct, he wouldn’t benefit from the wrong approach.
One of the things that makes the NFL so great is hope. Many fan bases have realistic hope of winning a championship. That isn’t the case in college football. Imagine if the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers got the first pick in each round of the NFL draft. They’d be even more dominant. Well, that’s basically what happens with Alabama as the defending champs reload with the best recruiting class each year.
Constantly reminding people of that reality is like your smartwatch saying, “You’re overweight. You’re overweight. You’re overweight.” Nobody wants that. You’d chuck that thing into the closest body of water if that were the case.
It’s not just about what hosts are saying, it’s about what they’re selling. If a host keeps saying Alabama can’t be beaten, that host is selling a reality check that most people don’t want. Instead of a vendor at a baseball game saying, “Get your popcorn here,” the host is actually saying, “Get your harsh dose of reality that you really don’t want here.” Who’s buying that?
Hosts should be mindful of how things land. Colin Cowherd once alluded to this thought on his show. I can’t remember what he was specifically talking about, but he referred to a topic and said something in the neighborhood of, “It’ll probably be clunky. It’s not going to land well.” The last part always stuck with me.
It’s a great advantage to be aware of how your comments will land with others. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, wanna take a trip somewhere? It’d be fun.” It’s completely different to yell at your partner, “I refuse to be in a relationship where we don’t go out and do things.” The goal is the same; let’s go do something. But the approach and outcome is much different. If you’re aware of how things will land, you can arrange your comments to be beneficial.
I understand that one of the core ingredients of sports radio is stirring the pot, but not all stirring works. Saying the Dallas Cowboys stink or the Los Angeles Lakers are overrated largely works because most people want that to be the case. Who wants Bama to be unstoppable? Bama fans. Anybody else? No, that’s pretty much the entire list.
By touting Bama, you are selling Bama. Hosts might not even realize they’re doing it. Heck, I didn’t until this past weekend. I was focused on being right instead how things would land. It’s always wise for hosts to ask themselves, “What am I selling?” It’s so simple yet so easy to overlook. You start thinking, “What can I talk about today? I can mention this. I can bring up that.” You forget that your stance on any topic is basically a sales pitch.
Why would you sell despair? Especially relating to college football! One of the greatest strengths of college football is the enthusiasm. Don’t throw a bucket of ice water on that excitement; tap into it. At the very least don’t beat a dead horse. If you’re going to talk about college ball, bring more to the table than, “Can’t beat ‘Bama.” All it will earn is a collective eye roll. That basic take won’t land well.
There are certainly times for hosts to go against the grain, to argue against what listeners think or want. But it’s hard to make a career out of that approach. You’re selling what they aren’t buying. Like Jalen Rose quoting The O’Jays; you got to give the people what they want. There is an excellent line from Proximo in the movie Gladiator; “I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.” You can’t win the crowd in sports radio by selling what listeners don’t want.
Do Your Promos Make People Want To Listen To Your Show?
“We can be blinded by whether or not something is entertaining in a 15-30 second burst when the memory is that it made for a great 10 minute segment.”
Every football season I am reminded just how awful network television is. I’m sure I’m not alone. It doesn’t matter if you prefer college football or the NFL. Tune into CBS and you learn that there is a show named after some government agency that stars some smoking hot 30-something you’ve never heard of and a dude that was on 30 Something. Tune into NBC and you’re inundated with ads for something called Ordinary Joe starring the white supremacist congressman from Watchmen. On FOX it’s that dancing show that looks like someone said “Hey, you know that cartoon Sing? Let’s do that but with people!”.
The result is always the same (for me anyway). I have never once found myself saying “that looks awesome!” I am always left wondering “who the f*** is that show for?”.
Do your show promos do the same? It may be a tough question to answer, particularly if you produce the promos for your own show. We can be blinded by whether or not something is entertaining in a 15-30 second burst when the memory is that it made for a great 10 minute segment.
Matt Fishman, who now programs ESPN 850 in Cleveland, was a BSM writer in 2018. During that time, he wrote a piece describing the state of show promos as “grim” across the format.
In describing the promo format that includes a 20 second clip from the show surrounded by imaging, he wrote “It assumes the listener knows what the show is and the promo does nothing to highlight the show.”
What can we do better? What makes for a successful promo? I asked two programmers that have a history of success.
Kevin Graham, who has a history of success in mid and major markets and was recently named the new PD of KNBR in San Francisco, says the best promos are the ones that play into the identity of the show.
“In my opinion the best show promos sell that one listener benefit,” he told me in an email. “It can be funny, a strong opinion or promoting ahead with a tune-in opportunity. Keep it simple, short but most importantly make sure there is a payoff to the listener.”
This is classic marketing advice. What emotion do you want your brand or your content to elicit in your audience? How do you want them to identify you? Whatever your answer is, you have to take every opportunity to create and reinforce the answer you want them to give.
It’s not a surprise that Graham goes to the marketing well. Marketing budgets, if they even still exist, a pretty small nowadays, and who is most likely to listen to your show? The people already listening to other shows on your station. Those factors make promos the most common marketing tool a show uses.
John Mamola has been at WDAE in Tampa for more than a decade. If you’re a sports fan in the city, his station is your only option for local sports talk. That may give the station an advantage over others across the country, but Mamola knows it doesn’t guarantee anything.
He doesn’t want promos that give listeners a sense that they missed something special. His strategy is about giving the audience a reason to come in and check out what is going on.
“Focus on what connects your brand to your audience,” Mamola says. “The more topical, the better. The more creative, the more memorable but always give a reason why someone who doesn’t know you now can be your best friend tomorrow.”
John Mamola looks at promos as another part of the PPM numbers game. That means being memorable matters. If an audience remembers that something you said is coming up sounds interesting or if they remember that you branded a particular show in a way that resonates with them, it is more likely to motivate them to make the effort to find that content.
A lot of show promos use clips of the biggest moments from past shows. The content might be good, but a clip is a good way to hammer home the idea that the listener missed this. If it is spontaneously fun moment, there is no reason to think it will happen again. If it is a big name guest, what is the guarantee he/she or someone of that calibre is on tomorrow?
“Creative writing is better and high production value is necessary. Always try to frame all your shows as the party that everyone wants to be at, and you’ll win more quarter hours than you lose.”
Great promos aren’t great because they are funny or because they capture headline moments. They are great because they do their job and make people want to tune in tomorrow and all the days after that. Otherwise, they are no different from all of those commercials for 9-1-1 that Joe Buck has to read. They are just taking up space and standing in between me and what I turned this on to see in the first place.
Remember that as you are constructing promos. Is something new everyday a necessity? How long can a promo run before the audience burns out on it? The answers to those questions do not matter if the promo doesn’t give the audience a clear and compelling idea of what they will hear when they turn on your show.
How Does Your Show Change When Your Market Grows?
“Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.”
The population of the United States is always shifting. In our history, there have been migrations from the East Coast to the West, from the rural towns of the South to the major cities of the Northeast. Right now, it is from cities where it stays cold and expensive into places where it is warmer and cheaper.
We see it all the time with Nielsen market sizes. What was yesterday’s top 50 market is today’s top 30 market. People come from out of town and their new hometown gets a little bit bigger.
So what exactly does that mean for sports radio hosts? Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.
Matt Chernoff is the co-host of Chuck & Chernoff on 680 The Fan in Atlanta. Not only has he been on the air in the city for 24 years, he also grew up there. He has seen the city go from being the biggest metropolitan area in the college football crazy South to the home of the most consistent team in baseball to hosting an Olympics.
Chernoff says the city is still a hot bed for college football fandom. Not only is it the home of more Georgia fans than anywhere else in the world, it is also a common post-college destination for graduates of college football powers Alabama and Clemson as well as about a dozen other power conference school.
As a city though, none of those teams peak Atlanta’s interest the way the local NFL team does these days.
“When the Falcons are good and entertaining they get biggest tv ratings in town and garner more attention than anything else,” he says.
One of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country is North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. My wife and I moved to the area in 2005 and it was already exploding in population. In the 15 years we have been here, the population feels like it has almost completely turned over. That will happen when large corporations like SAS, IBM, GlaksoSmoithKline, and Pfizer all have headquarters in an area.
Most of our transplants come from either the New York metropolitan area or from Chicago. Adam Gold came here from Baltimore in the late 90s. He says that local sports talk still wins, but the transplants have made it possible for syndicated shows to succeed in the Triangle.
“The national shows we air do fine, and their resources are unmatched,” Adam told me in an email. “But, they’ll never give our listeners everything they want because they still want to hear at least a little about their own teams. When State loses to Mississippi State the national shows are never going to talk about it. We will. But, the strong brand names still resonate, like Mike Greenberg, or the ESPN morning show.”
Gold, who hosts a show that is syndicated across the state and originates from 99.9 The Fan, says that even though the market is the center of the college basketball universe, he has always been aware that the idea of ACC basketball being topic 1-A year round is a myth.
“When it’s basketball season we can talk hoops. Until then, it’s 90% football. In fact, even during the basketball season, ACC hoops might come second (or third) to the NFL or college football.”
Football still rules the day, and the transient nature of the Triangle means that you need to know a lot of football. Sure the home teams in college are North Carolina and NC State (and to a lesser extent Duke and East Carolina), but plenty of people want to talk about national brands like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State.
That carries over to the NFL too. Raleigh is weird. There are plenty of people here that adopted the Carolina Panthers as their team in the mid-90s. Before Charlotte got a team of its own though, the closest NFL market was Washington, DC. That means we still have plenty of WFT loyalists. There are also the teams that are popular everywhere: The Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers. They all have large followings in the Triangle too.
“I’ve always treated the Triangle as a transient audience. Similar, albeit in a smaller way, to Washington, DC,” Gold says.
Salt Lake City is growing fast. The nation seems to have woken up to the fact that lower taxes and life in the Rocky Mountains is preferable to…well, the opposite of both of those things. Hans Olsen came to the area in 1996 to play football at BYU. After a seven year NFL career, he returned to the area and has been a part of 1280 The Zone for the last 16 years.
I asked him about the growth of the city. As more people came to town, what was that doing to fandom for his BYU Cougars? Outside of Utah, when we think of Utah, we tend to think of every citizen being Mormon. That probably is less likely to be accurate as more businesses start in the state and bring people in from the outside.
Olsen says that it has actually held pretty steady. Most of the businesses that have sprung up in the state are being started by members of the LDS Church. On top of that, the real testament to how powerful BYU’s brand remains even as the Salt Lake City market changes is in the station’s streaming numbers.
“When BYU is good, our listenership is up, our revenue is up, our streaming is up, our podcast downloads are up,” Olsen told me. “And you know, you could attach a pretty nice percentage of increase any time BYU is good. So when they were 11-1 last year, even in the Covid year, we were still doing good in the streaming numbers, downloads, listens, revenue. We were holding strong.“
People outside of the Mountain time zone may not realize that the passion for college football in Utah runs as deep as just about anywhere in the SEC. There’s division though. The rivalry between BYU and the University of Utah isn’t called “The Holy War” for nothing. Add to that a Utah State fanbase that constantly feels disrespected and the love of college football doesn’t bring the market together as much as it divides it.
Hans Olsen says that the unifier, unsurprisingly, is the Utah Jazz. People may come to town with their own fandoms in other sports, but Salt Lake City is has a way of turning new residents into Jazz fans.
“They all come together and they love the Jazz. It’s always the center point here in the state and probably always will be.”
Atlanta is different. Matt Chernoff grew up in a city unified by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and depending on what part of the 90s, either Steve Avery or Greg Maddux. Really, at that time, the entire South and people across the country were unified by the Braves. Chernoff isn’t sure it will be that way forever.
“The Braves have always been the team that unites most fans around here but I think the Hawks are about to enter a really special time with a young, exciting team that has a superstar,” he says.
Population shifts can change so much. We saw that with the 2020 Presidential Election. We see it with where national chains decide to open new locations. It isn’t just about more people. It is about how those people change the personality of their new market.
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