I’ve been fortunate over the past six years to work with a lot of sports radio stations across the country. I haven’t publicized most of those partnerships on BSM or my social media pages because I don’t seek validation for my work. Those who work with me know what I add to their organization, and as long as they’re pleased with my contributions, that’s all that matters. Any additional publicity they’ve received on this site has been earned by performance, not because they agreed to work with yours truly.
But today I am going to recognize a client because Steven Griffin and his team at 1010XL, 92.5 FM do radio the right way. Chances are you know little about Steven, even if you’re aware of his radio station. That’s by design. He’d rather his team earn the credit for their efforts, and focus his energies on serving the audience and his advertisers, instead of seeking the spotlight for his own contributions. Fortunately I was able to twist his arm and convince him to be a part of this series.
The first time I arrived in Jacksonville to work with Steven’s team, I walked in the front door to find a custom graphic on their front lobby television screen with my name on it welcoming me to town. As small as that gesture may have been to whoever created it, it made an immediate positive impression. It told me ‘we’re glad you’re here, thanks for making the time to come work with us.’ Those little touches can make a big impact when you do business with people. Having spent more time working with Steven’s crew since, I’ve learned that it wasn’t just a small trick used to impress people who walk thru the door. This is how they operate every day. It’s why I enjoy working with them.
What’s truly astounding is how 1010XL has managed to keep a successful air staff together for 15 years and continue thriving. Sports as a format features many talented, driven personalities seeking big stages and larger paychecks. Being able to retain top personalities in market 46 long-term can be difficult unless people love where they live, where they work, and who they’re working for. That becomes even more important when you consider that many of the talent at 1010XL have shared responsibilities in sales as well as programming. Yet as the station prepares to celebrate fifteen years of excellence, many of the faces and voices familiar to Jacksonville sports radio listeners are as excited and thankful today as they were when the station arrived.
Some corporate groups may have advantages such as more signals, more resources, more audio platforms, and larger facilities, but 1010XL is more than comfortable with the position they’ve earned – being Jacksonville’s best live and local sports radio station. Steven and his team believe in the power of radio, they’ve used their airwaves to help clients grow their businesses, and while others may run from the R word in search of other emerging opportunities, the Seven Bridges Radio group sees plenty of value in being identified as Jacksonville’s destination for sports talk radio.
As a standalone operator, I thought it’d be interesting to share some of Steven’s experiences, and pick his brain on the challenges that come with being locally owned and operated. Having built a business myself, I have a ton of respect and admiration for anyone who can create a vision, put it into action, and turn it into a success for a lengthy period of time. Consistent excellence depends on many factors such as producing results, treating people right, knowing when to take a risk or pass on an opportunity, building and maintaining healthy relationships, creating a culture that others want to be part of, and giving listeners and advertisers reasons to continue supporting you. That may sound simple and easy to execute, and for 1010XL it is because it’s part of their DNA. But rather than hear that from me, learn about it yourself from the Market Manager of Jacksonville sports radio station 1010XL, 92.5 FM, Steven Griffin. Enjoy!
JB: I know your first GM jobs were in Scranton and Jacksonville, but I want to start this conversation by going back in time to your initial entry into the radio business. Where did it begin and what were you doing?
SG: Out of college, I was a journalism major. I had thought about going to law school but after looking at the big LSAT catalog and thought ‘maybe not’. So there was a posting on the board about a new radio station being started in Morgantown, West Virginia where I was at. They were looking for people who could wear many hats, sell, be on the air, write copy, etc.. So I met with them and took that gig right out of school.
From there, I was in copywriting for a while in Charleston where I got more into the sales side. I saw there was more money and prestige in that side of the business. After that I left radio for about six or seven years because I got married and wanted to stay in Morgantown. Eventually though I got a call from the West Virginia radio corporation. The timing was right so I went back into radio and was fortunate enough to be with a good company as the sales manager of a country station. I was there for a while and then went to Greenville-Spartanburg for a while. After that I had a cup of coffee in Raleigh before going to Memphis as a Sales Manager for Entercom. Then came the call from a head hunter about the GM job in Scranton.
JB: When that call came and you were asked to lead an entire operation, how did you know you were ready to oversee everything not just the sales department?
SG: In West Virginia, Greenville, and Memphis I was one of those people who people would come to for help. When the folks in Scranton called I thought it was a good next step for me and I thought ‘I’ll see if I can do it.’ It was a big cluster, eleven stations, and they were spread out all over god’s creation. I saw it as a good opportunity to see what could happen if I gave it a shot. We were facing some healthy Entercom stations in the market, they had won for something like twenty years in a row. Fortunately for us, a year and a half in our AC station beat them and we had four or five of our stations in the Top 5. I made my share of mistakes but also learned a lot and next got a call from another head hunter about coming to Jacksonville to work for Salem. My family and I wanted to move back south. We loved the weather. So I took the job here. Spent some time with Salem. Things didn’t last with them, but it got me to the right place because now I’m here and have been for fifteen years and love what I’m doing.
JB: So being in the market for a bit gave you a chance to see how the market was being served from a sports radio standpoint. Given that you jumped on board to help build 1010XL, I assume you felt there was opportunity to grab a leadership position in the sports radio space.
SG: I did. I knew it was underserved locally. There was way too much syndication. Jacksonville is a great market for sports. There are super passionate fans here. They love the Jaguars, the Gators, the SEC schools, Florida State and there’s even interest in Triple A baseball and some of the other minor league sports. That’s not including High School sports which is a big deal here. So a signal became available, we looked at the opportunity, rounded up some local investors and one out of Chicago and decided to give this a shot.
JB: Do you remember what your original lineup was?
SG: That’s 15 years ago so I may be off on something but I’ll give it a shot. Dan Hicken and Jeff Prosser were still in morning drive. Rick Ballou and Tom McManus were together in the middays. I think Sean Woodland was involved in the middle of the day too. He was a TV sports guy. Frank Frangie and Mike Dempsey worked together in afternoons. And we also had an evening sports talk show, and Joe Block, who’s now a play by play guy for the Pittsburgh Pirates was part of it along with Terry Norvell.
JB: What’s impressive is that many of those names you just mentioned are still on the station and remain very strong. Knowing how this format constantly tinkers with things and loses good personalities to other situations, how have you managed to keep the band together?
SG: I think it’s a combination of not dictating, and trusting them to do what’s right on the shows, and continue looking at what’s best for sports in this market. I knew I had to get the best talent and it had to be local. To me, radio is a local companion medium. If you don’t have that person at the mall, restaurant or church who’s saying ‘hey I love listening to you, I like your radio station’, you’re missing the mark. That to me is what radio is and that’s who we’ve been. I wanted people here who people knew and who I thought had talent. And they do.
I also wanted to make sure we had a team that was dependable and proven. When we were fortunate to land the Jaguars seven years ago, I knew we had someone like Mike Dempsey who could host a show like Jaguars Today and do it justice. Jeff and Dan in the mornings have always done their own thing and it’s connected with our audience. We talk over the important things and they know the parameters and they all work well within them. When I’ve felt we needed a different perspective I’ve been able to call someone like you to come in and help and they still care about what they do and want to get better. Another thing that makes this a little unique too is our guys all generate revenue. They do great radio but also help create 25% of our sales. They’re accustomed to going out and selling themselves and the brand and it’s helped them make a better living financially while also helping the radio station.
JB: I’m glad you mentioned that because as you know, that’s not common everywhere. Your guys don’t seem like they’re bothered by having to do sales, they really seem to enjoy it and excel at it. How have you been able to keep them productive and interested in doing both at a high level?
SG: Honestly, I don’t have some magic answer for it. They all had it to begin with. They have a good grasp on the business. They’ll look at things and say ‘my show might be worth X in market 46 but if I can generate additional revenue on the sales end, it can bring my number higher’. They know the importance of it and what it means to the radio station’s sustainability. I’m lucky to have a bunch of guys who are self driven. We’re also far enough along now as a station with these hosts that there’s a certain level of credibility that’s been earned and that’s made it easier than it used to be.
When we started out though it wasn’t easy. The recession hit in 2008, a year or two after we started, so we took our lumps. But having gone thru that, I can tell you that when the pandemic hit last year, the station did better than most in the market and some other sports stations who we talked to during the past year. Our hosts lost almost nothing. They kept most of their business intact. Maybe a month off here or there, but by the time football season arrived it was all there. It was kind of amazing and tells me that if the station didn’t get results, clients wouldn’t stay. But they do get results, and our guys are really good at building and maintaining relationships. Sales will never be their #1 focus though – it will always be the on-air show. That’s what they love to do. But they’ll never miss an opportunity to prospect a new client or make a call to keep a client happy. That was ingrained in them so I can’t take credit for it.
JB: If you were in another market, would you try to replicate this same strategy?
SG: Absolutely. I don’t think enough talent understand their influence. These guys take it seriously and they earn talent fees for doing it. They connect with their advertisers and make sure that when they’re doing live reads for them that they give it a personal touch. A big reason why we’re a #1-#2 local biller in this market is because of our talent selling. If I were in some other town and had enough local talent, I’d absolutely do the same thing because it works.
JB: In your market, you have to compete against others for ad dollars as a standalone. Unlike some of the other corporate groups, you can’t go in with a pitch involving 5-6 stations. How are you able to create that feeling that advertisers need to be on your radio station?
SG: The first thing is that we are unique to the market because we’re live and local so much. If nothing else, we’re a local radio station and we’ve never changed that. We’ve never dropped in Dan Patrick or Colin Cowherd when they’ve been available just to save a little money. Pretty much M-F 6a-10p we are live and local. We can do a lot of things during that time whether it’s endorsing, tailoring a special piece of content, all because we have that flexibility.
The second thing is, we don’t swim in the same pools that some of the corporate folks do. Our strategy has always been to focus on local accounts for local radio. We have some agency business but it’s mostly local agency. We don’t get a lot of regional, and absolutely no national business. We don’t accept a lot of those national deals because the rates just don’t make sense for us.
When you’re dealing 1 on 1 with our company and the owner or client is meeting me, the sales manager, the hosts who are delivering his endorsements, that goes a long way. Sometimes it might be a husband and wife duo and they come in with their son or daughter to watch the show for a bit. It’s very much a relationship where both sides want to help each other. Radio is still entertaining, fun, and informative, and it has value for local businesses. We go after accounts and are very strict telling our sales team ‘don’t waste your time here or there, this is who we are so let’s do what we’re good at.’ Because we get results, they stick with us. When we go visit somebody we’re not meeting with the manager of a chain. We’re visiting the owner himself. That helps.
JB: You mentioned the word unique and that’s probably the best way I’ll describe this next item because what you’ve done in Jacksonville to elevate the perception of women as on-air talent is unique. Jessica Blaylock, Amanda Bourges, Mackenzie Thirkill, Lauren Brooks and others, have all earned opportunities on the radio station, but what especially stands out is how you’ve put them together for a Tuesday night show titled ‘Helmets & Heels’. Given that this is such a heavily dominated male format, why was it important to you to put women together on the air and give them a chance to host shows, and what have you learned from doing it that might be helpful to others in the format who are reading this and might consider doing something similar in their own markets?
SG: I never looked at gender. It’s about the voice and what it has to say. I would listen back in the day to Jessica, Donna, Lauren and others and their perspectives stood out and added something to the conversation that we didn’t have available on the radio station. It wasn’t rocket science. We had a lot of time available as a local station so we took these different voices and put them together. I’ve been fortunate to see many of them move on to bigger and better things and now when they come back and think about us it’s usually positive.
What I have learned is that it’s a never ending process. You have to continually look. When I started the show I thought it had potential one day to be a daily show. I’ve got a good team on the air now and even then we’re talking to someone else about doing some shows with them. That’s just what you do to keep something working. Our best shows tend to be when we have 4 of them together, but it also depends on the mix. The bottom line, you have to be open to different ways of presenting content to your audience.
JB: You recently did a business deal with the University of Florida to bring Gators Athletics on to 1010XL-92.5 FM. How important was that move for your brand?
SG: We’re very excited about it. It only took us 14 years to get it (laughs). After the Jaguars, which is and will always be our #1 priority, on our station they’re undefeated, the next biggest sports entity in town is the Florida Gators. 15-18 years ago when I got here, the Gators were extremely popular. That was when Steve Spurrier just left. I think there are somewhere between thirty and forty thousand Gators football season ticket holders in Jacksonville or the First Coast area, and I know Tampa and Orlando are bigger but Jacksonville has a lot invested in the Gators.
When the deal became available previously, we went after it pretty hard. I knew that we would mostly get inventory in game. There were no rights fees or anything like that. I thought it was a relationship worth pursuing and we’d have a chance to monetize it while simultaneously helping them tap into more of their fan base here. We didn’t get the deal. They chose to stay with iHeart because they had been with them for twenty years or so and had great relationships there. We were disappointed, but I understood the situation.
But then their station in Jacksonville flipped to Gospel, and we started getting calls because I think they missed airing a couple of games. I told them ‘if you need help, just let me know, no obligation.’ I made sure they knew we wanted them. Then one day out of nowhere, I was meeting with Dan Hicken from the morning show, and he asked ‘have you heard anything about the Gators?’ All of a sudden the phone rang and it was Learfield IMG telling me they wanted to go with us. We were obviously excited. So they sent over the deal and we’re now working with them for the next 4 years. All we did on our end was make sure we were prepared in case the opportunity came up.
JB: You brought up before how important the Jaguars are to your station. They’re the lone professional franchise in the market so they have massive appeal to your listeners and advertisers, not to mention a strong influence. How do you navigate the relationship when the on the field results aren’t good? Everyone in your building would prefer they win so it keeps people excited, tuning in, and clients wanting to spend more money to be associated with them, but if they’re not delivering wins, critical opinions have to be shared by your talent because the audience expects honesty from them. How do you essentially serve the audience without ticking off a value business partner?
SG: When Jaguars president Mark Lamping got here, one of the first things he said was ‘we don’t want you guys to change a thing….if we’re not good on the field, you can say that. Be who you are.’ He understood. I have never told anyone to tone it down or don’t say that or laid out guidelines for what can and can’t be said about the team. I think everyone on our staff understands the value of the partnership, but we also respect and value our listeners, and are truthful with them.
I will say this, everybody likes to preach hope even sometimes when it’s not there. I think on your website Mike Dempsey said ‘it’s almost better when they’re not doing well because everyone wants a shoulder to cry on’. I don’t agree with that 100%. When you’re a few games below .500 and there’s no hope for landing a playoff spot, that to me is the worst spot to be in but I can tell you that in 2017 when the Jags advanced to the AFC title game this place was on fire. There are passionate fans here. They want to support the Jags. With Urban here now and Trevor expected tomorrow night, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. We’re glad to be partners with the Jaguars, but if the results aren’t there on the field, we have the flexibility to address what’s going on.
JB: I want to ask you about working without numbers. Your brand has been very successful without subscribing to Nielsen, generating consistent revenues year after year. You’ve demonstrated you don’t need the data to operate a productive and profitable business. But how do you evaluate the progress of your brand without that information?
SG: Two words – Jason Barrett.
SG: No seriously. I know I don’t know everything and everyone in here doesn’t know everything. I try to read and learn things all the time but having people around who can bring things to the table to help us improve is important. I try to get consensus when we’re looking at things. Some managers will say that’s not a good move but for us in our family atmosphere, it is. I never make a big decision without asking for input. It doesn’t mean I still won’t go with what my gut tells me but I’ll always listen to what sales, the air staff and engineering have to say. I guess if there’s a downfall to not having the ratings it’s not being able to go in and see how each show looks with Men 25-54 and other demographics but we hold our own.
JB: Having a talented, professional lineup though that’s been part of the community for 15 years and possesses good content judgment and sales relationships probably makes that something easier for you to live without.
SG: It does. I read Jeff Tyler’s comments last week where he talked about KFAN and how they brought in the talent, gave it time to grow, and now it’s become its own little entity. We may not be KFAN but maybe in Jacksonville we’re similar to that to our audience and advertisers. He made the point about people listening and not being able to get it at first and I can relate to that. We have some of that here. We’ve been blessed that our investor base has been patient with us and allowed us to go thru some ups and downs and a few mistakes I made along the way but we never knee jerked anything and we’ve always stayed committed to being live and local. Fortunately we’ve had people want to stay here, work here, and succeed here.
JB: I’ll wrap up with you on this. You’ve gotten more involved with original podcast content, video, the focus on social has grown, and you’ve also added Action Updates from VSiN. The sports media landscape is rapidly changing so all of these things are important. When you look at the future of sports talk, what are you keeping your eyes and ears on that you think are going to be important for the growth of your brand?
SG: Well, it depends. As a standalone, we’re never going to have the resources that an iHeart, Cox or Audacy have. I can’t go out and buy every audio platform that’s out there. One of the advantages we have is being able to turn on a dime when we need to. When sports betting becomes legal in Florida, and I think it will, we’re going to be able to take advantage of that. Video we have found to be advantageous, at least so far in the first quarter, and it’s helped us not only sharpen our tools as a sales organization, but it’s allowed us to sponsor some new things using the talent we have that have TV skills. We haven’t even touched the high school or local realm of some of the things we’re going to do.
And then as far as podcasting is concerned, we’ve taken valuable advice from someone who may or may not be part of this conversation and have focused our efforts on doing fewer things really well and sponsoring them instead of trying to do twenty or thirty or forty and have most of them miss the mark. Some of these things may move a little slowly and we’ll gravitate and work quicker towards the ones that we can monetize and deliver the most value for our fans. I can tell you, we’ve done a good job creating quality programming and selling our inventory but there’s always room for improvement. We’re always looking to get better. We can be a little more patient and selective because we’re not dictated to by some corporate place that’s thousands of miles from us and doesn’t know us very well. We have investors who know this market, they support our vision, and I want to please the market that’s here because they’re a big reason why we’ve made it this far.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at [email protected].
Michelle Smallmon Didn’t Stumble Into Mornings on ESPN Radio
“The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
It all started with an accident. While vacuuming her apartment just two days before the first episode of her new national ESPN Radio program, Michelle Smallmon tripped over an air purifier cord. As a result of the maladroit blunder, she fell face first into her coffee table and hit the inside of her eye on a drinking glass.
When Smallmon looked into the mirror, she immediately saw that her eye was bleeding and swelling up and was in a state of disbelief, although she was not surprised that this happened to her because of her inherent clumsiness. The black eye that came out of all of this turned out to be an advantageous opportunity for the program, which opened its first hour on the air with this circumstance.
Smallmon works alongside Evan Cohen and Chris Canty weekday mornings on UnSportsmanLike, the new ESPN Radio morning show that leads off a refreshed national programming lineup. Since the program is also simulcast on ESPN2, there are cameras on inside the radio studio at the Seaport District-based radio studio, granting viewers of the premiere episode an opportunity to see Smallmon’s black eye for themselves. The incident, however, provided a means for the new hosting trio to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities in an atypical fashion by recalling a calamitous occurrence from the onset.
“We have to be ourselves,” Smallmon said. “People are coming for the sports, and hopefully with our opinions and our information and the knowledge that we provide, they’ll stick around, but they’re going to remember us for who we are. The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
Once the hosts of UnSportsmanLike were finalized, Smallmon met with Canty and Cohen to determine their collective philosophy for the program. At the crux of their conversation was how sports is supposed to be an enjoyable part of people’s days, making it important to be genuine with the audience and celebrate the festivities.
“I just think that audio provides a really great way for people to weave us throughout their day and it’s something that they can come back to, and I just feel like the audio space continues to grow,” Smallmon said. “So that is really exciting to me that there are so many different avenues for us to explore in the audio space.”
Smallmon and her colleagues understand that their program that was once anchored by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg in the mornings for 18 years, who created a show that proved to be an enduring facet to sports radio as a whole. Today, UnSportsmanLike is competing for mindshare and attention span in a dynamic media ecosystem where people can consume various types of content by equipping myriad methodologies. The mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere requires the hosts engage in deft preparation and fealty towards the audio vertical, never taking their positions for granted and understanding the privilege in being able to communicate en masse on the air.
“Any time anybody elects to listen to you, they are giving you a vote,” Smallmon said. “They’re choosing you [and] they are saying, ‘I want to spend a part of my precious time with you,’ and particularly in the mornings because we’re the first people that get the opportunity to talk about the games from the night before or to give our opinion on certain things.”
While Smallmon may have stumbled into an enthralling storyline to open the program and captivate the audience, she did just the opposite in landing a spot within the coveted morning drive daypart. Through years of indefatigable persistence and calculated risk-taking, she positioned herself to garner such a chance when the network was in the midst of developing a new lineup.
Despite having a successful morning show in St. Louis, Mo. on 101 ESPN that was finishing with high ratings and bolstering streams of revenue, Smallmon found herself yearning to live in a sprawling metropolis. Because of this, she started visiting her friends in New York City once per month and gradually became enamored with the locale, prompting her to meet with co-host Randy Karraker, program director Tommy Mattern and Hubbard Radio market manager John Kijowski to express her intent to leave the station.
“They have always been my biggest champions [and] they encouraged me every step of the way,” Smallmon said. “They were like, ‘This is going to be a tough transition for us because the show’s going so well, but we care about you as a person more than we do an employee, and if this is your dream and something you think you have to do, we’ve got your back.’ I will always and forever be indebted to them for not only finding a way to help me do that, but for supporting me and checking in with me every step of the way.”
When she was young, Smallmon frequently traveled to St. Louis with her father to attend sporting events, cherishing every chance she could to see a live game. Throughout her childhood, she watched football on television and remembers seeing sideline reporter Melissa Stark interview the players, prompting her to think about working in sports. Quotidian tasks were transformed into beacons of flourishing sports knowledge, catalyzed by her father’s creativity with abecedarian activities such as sorting and folding laundry.
Yet Smallmon concentrated in premedical studies at the University of Illinois, matriculating to try and become a dermatologist. Early on, she realized that she was not dedicated enough to pursue a profession in the field, resulting in a meeting with her advisor about her future plans. Upon being asked her ideal career path, Smallmon demonstrated interest in covering the basketball team with the goal of appearing on College GameDay as a features reporter in the future.
Amid an economic crash, Smallmon was able to land a job as a production assistant at KSDK, a local television station with which she had interned as a college student. Smallmon worked on the outlet’s morning show, Today in St. Louis, arriving at the studios around 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare and execute the broadcast.
Although her shift ended at 2 p.m., she would put in extra effort to stay later and interact with sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott, volunteering her time and trying to be productive. In displaying her aspiration to work in sports, she was eventually offered a position in the department, which first started with shooting and editing high school events.
“Most of the work that was done in sports was leading up to the 5 and 6 o’clock newscast until they took a big break before 10 p.m.,” Smallmon said. “I would use that time to just absorb as much as I could, watch the guys at work and try to make myself useful.”
Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stark, Smallmon had seen various women working and thriving in sports television; however, this was not the case in the sports radio format. Despite being familiar with the medium, she had never considered going on the air until Knott asked her to be a co-host of his new weekend show on 101 ESPN.
After some time, she received a note from an executive inquiring if she would be interested in applying for an open producer position available at the outlet. Even though she applied thinking she would not receive the job – a thought compounded when she discovered the producer role was for the program hosted by Bernie Miklasz – Smallmon made it to the final round of interviews. Speaking with Miklasz directly, he articulated that while he thought she was a good fit for the role, the other candidate had more qualifications and previous experience.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, if that person is as great as you say that they are and have this much experience, they will have no problem finding another job when you hire me to be your producer,’” Smallmon averred. “I left there and I was like, ‘Man, I blew that.’”
Much to her surprise, Smallmon was hired and ended up working with Miklasz in the role for three years. In speaking with him and observing how he interacted with other people, she learned industry nuances and esoterica that made her even more adept at the role. Smallmon was eventually moved to The Fast Lane in the afternoons with Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Brad Thompson, possessing a mentality of how to best position the show for sustained growth and success.
Smallmon took her skills to ESPN Radio in 2015 when she moved to Bristol, Conn. to work as a producer. The first stint with the network prepared her to excel on UnSportsmanLike, collaborating with hosts such as Ryen Russillo, Danny Kannel and Jorge Sedano, but she always felt a magnetic pull back towards St. Louis. Once Russillo was officially slated to leave ESPN, Smallmon was in talks with the company about different paths she could take and weighing her options. In the eleventh hour, Smallmon received a fortuitous call from Miklasz, who conveyed that he was thinking about changing up his show and wanted to know if she had any interest in co-hosting the program.
“It just felt like all of the cards were falling into place at the right time for me to make that move, and I’m a person that likes to take chances and challenge myself, and I don’t ever want to live with regrets,” Smallmon said. “I thought, ‘Maybe hosting and being on the air is not going to be for me; maybe it’s always going to be production, but I’d like to know.’”
Once she returned, Miklasz offered to change the name of the program to incorporate Smallmon, an entreaty that she declined because of fear that it would disrupt what was a known entity to listeners in the locale. Upon his exit from the station two years later, Smallmon started hosting with Randy Karraker, who implored her to add her name. Even though she never sought out to find the spotlight, she capitulated to the request once her co-host explained why it was important as not only an identifying factor, but also as the first female to be a full-time host on the station.
“I would hear from so many female sports fans across the area and parents whose daughters listened to the show and whose daughters paid attention to the show because someone who looked like them occupied that seat,” Smallmon said. “I really realized how important it was for me to establish myself in that way.”
As Smallmon made the move from St. Louis to New York City, her parents surmised she was recklessly upending her life. Subletting an apartment from a mutual friend in the city, she was working under a usages deal at ESPN Radio where she would deliver overnight updates and host SportsCenter All Night. Smallmon was grateful for the support of her parents and asked them to give her a year, during which she would work hard to land a full-time job in the city. Three hundred and sixty-six days later, Smallmon took to the air with a black eye to commence UnSportsmanLike, officially meeting her end of the bargain.
“It’s hard to explain to people how strange our job is,” Smallmon said. “The three of us sit in a windowless room and talk to one another for four-plus hours a day, so just by nature of spending that much intimate time with someone, you get to know them really well really fast.”
The workday for the morning episode begins the day prior several hours after the conclusion of the previous broadcast, independently reading articles, following sports news and reviewing games. In the preceding afternoon, the program holds a content call where everyone pitches ideas before an early rundown is sent out and added to throughout the day.
While the game of the night is on, Smallmon is in constant communication with her thoughts before getting sleep and preparing for an early wake-up call. There is a pre-show meeting to review the rundown before the four-hour morning show begins at 6 a.m. As soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the process starts again so the hosts are ready for it to illuminate again in 20 hours.
“It’s really a full-time commitment, especially during football season, to do a job like this,” Smallmon said, “but when you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to host a show of this magnitude, you’ve kind of got to make it your life in a lot of ways.”
When she takes her seat behind the microphone in the morning, Smallmon believes that two of the most talented people she has ever worked with are sitting by her side. In her view, she needs to be at the same level as them on the program and effectuates that through her preparation and by bringing different perspectives to the air.
“I have zigged and zagged and occupied different roles throughout my time,” Smallmon said. “It’s really just been surprising opportunities that I have emerged and that I’ve really been grateful to have and that I want to take advantage of, but I don’t really think about the future and my motivation is not really driven by what’s next; it’s driven by the present.
For now, Smallmon is focused on attaining success in New York City and hopes to participate in the program for as long as possible. Down the road though, she knows that her career will entail a second return to St. Louis when she wants to be back in the community she loves and closer to her family. The gratitude she has in being able to regard the city as home is conspicuous and authentic, and those in the locale continue to listen to her on 101 ESPN for two hours each morning ahead of the station’s local morning program.
“My only goal right now is to make UnSportsmanLike the best show that it possibly can be, and if that is the case, hopefully we have an amazing run with the show,” Smallmon said. “That’s the goal is to make it as amazing as it possibly can be and ride that wave for as long as we possibly can.”
Smallmon never envisioned herself working in radio but now finds herself as a trusted voice in the mornings on a simulcast program within the network’s on-air lineup. Through it all, she has remained true to herself while exhibiting an evident commitment and passion for the craft, valuing every chance she has to go on the air.
“People will always say things to me like, ‘Oh, are you going to be the next Erin Andrews?,’ or things of that nature,” Smallmon explained. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to be the first and only Michelle Smallmon,’ because the edge that I have over everybody else is that I’m me. There’s nobody else that’s me, and so if I can just be myself and be authentic every day and do that, anybody else can.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Desmond Howard Unnecessarily Threw Pete Thamel Under the Bus on College GameDay
College football fans can be a crazy bunch, most of them are crazy in the sense they are doing stupid things that give you a good laugh but, every fan base has a lunatic fringe. Each fan base is more than willing to point out the lunatic fringe in the fanbase of their rivals but often are slow to acknowledge their own offenders. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist in any program that has any significant fanbase. The lunatic fringe affected College GameDay Saturday, and Desmond Howard didn’t help the situation.
As a fan, you can accept it as true or bury your head and assume you are the one singular program that has somehow avoided having a fringe lunacy.
Michigan is certainly a significant football program with a massive fanbase. Just the sheer number of Michigan fans tells you there is going to be a larger than normal number of fans that might fall into the category of “fringe lunatic”, it is just how the odds work.
That suggestion was made by ESPN during Saturday’s College GameDay which originated from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Just in case you are completely unaware of the biggest story in college football this season, during Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game, Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh was serving the final game of an agreed upon Big Ten Conference suspension. The game also happened to be the biggest game of the season so far, a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff.
The suspension of Harbaugh was the result of allegations that Michigan staffer Connor Stalions was running an “off the books” sign stealing operation and that Stalions was a little too closely connected with Harbaugh for the Big Ten’s comfort.
Stories like these only become mainstream by reporting and ESPN’s Pete Thamel was on the frontlines of that reporting. It should be said that, just because something is reported by ESPN, FOX, or CBS, doesn’t automatically make it true. Likewise, just because something reported about your team may not paint them in the best possible light, it doesn’t make it untrue. That was the gray area ESPN’s College GameDay found themselves in Saturday; one of their top college football reporters in the very midst of the fans that are upset with his reporting.
Thamel joins GameDay on site every week, normally delivering the breaking news on injuries and coaching changes, fairly normal stuff. He delivers his reports, not on stage, but among the actual team fans who are gathered behind the set for all the cameras to see.
Except Saturday when Thamel was not among the masses but inside the more controlled confines of Michigan Stadium.
Honestly, Thamel being inside the stadium, rather than among the crowd, would not have seemed at all odd to me until Michigan’s Heisman Trophy winner and GameDay analyst Desmond Howard made it awkward in this exchange:
Howard: “We’ve been doing this 12, 13 weeks and Pete’s always been in the crowd giving his reports, I’m like, ‘What the Hell’s Pete in the stadium for?’ That kind of just threw me all off, I’m like, ‘Put your big boy pants on and do it in the crowd like you normally do it.’”
Rece Davis: “He’s got some from the lunatic fringe, some ‘friends’. We’re just taking care of him.”
Howard: “We’ve got security. We’ll be ok. These guys are nice out here. These are nice fans. They’re not going to do anything.”
Davis: “It only takes one. That’s all.”
Howard: “He’ll be ok. Put the big boy pants on.”
I have no idea how many credible threats Thamel has received but there was, apparently, enough concern for ESPN to move him into an area that could be more easily secured.
Desmond Howard, though, seemed upset that ESPN doing that painted the fan base of his old school in a very negative light. I would make the case that even the most ardent GameDay viewers wouldn’t think it odd that Thamel was inside the stadium rather than among the crowd. Howard’s insistence on Pete not wearing his “big boy pants” only drew further attention to the fact Thamel was not in his normal spot.
Desmond Howard came off sounding like he was under some sort of pressure, personally created or applied from Michigan interests, to point out there was no reason Thamel should have any concern about Michigan fans. In doing so, Howard came off as something he’s never been accused of being, a poor teammate. The best way to handle the situation for ESPN would be to completely ignore the fact there was a change in Thamel’s location. In the event ESPN thinks anyone would notice, highly unlikely as it may be, just create a simple cover story.
To Thamel’s credit, he seemed content to not be the focus of this addition to the story, it was only Howard’s awkward interaction that brought it to light. It was completely unnecessary and only made everyone involved look a little worse.
In his NFL career, Desmond Howard averaged only one fumble per season, Saturday in Ann Arbor, he added another.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.
Nick Wright, Danny Parkins, Andrew Fillipponi and Omar Raja Join The 2024 BSM Summit Lineup
All four of these men are extremely talented and accomplished, and I’m grateful to each of them for making time to be with us.
The buildup to the 2024 BSM Summit continues with our next speakers announcement. Media professionals looking to attend March’s show can secure seats at BSMSummit.com. We’ve already announced Jeff Smulyan, Mark Chernoff, Don Martin, Bruce Gilbert, Scott Sutherland, Chris Oliviero, Scott Shapiro, Spike Eskin, Mitch Rosen, Paul Mason, Bonnie Bernstein and Damon Amendolara will be part of the event. We’ll have additional big names to reveal in the weeks and months ahead too so stay tuned for more.
Before I get into the latest group of speakers, I want to pass along some Barrett Media news.
First, when you log on to BSM and BNM on Monday December 4th, you’ll notice both sites operating with a new, cleaner look. We pump out a lot of daily content on our websites but finding all of it can be intimidating. We’re hoping the modifications make it easier to find and digest our content and look forward to your feedback on what we roll out next week.
Secondly, I’ve spent months going through a process to identify an Executive Editor for Barrett Media. The type of leader I’ve been looking for different from what exists at some online publications. I’ve spoken to a lot of smart, talented people during this process, many who I know could make us better. However, there is only one job available. Fortunately after going through an extensive search, I’ve identified someone who I’m interested in teaming with to help take Barrett Media to the next level. I hope to announce that hire and the addition of a number of new writers next week. I think our readers, partners and clients will like what’s on the horizon.
Third, we have opened up voting on the Barrett News Media Top 20 of 2023. The deadline to cast votes for News/Talk PD’s is next Monday December 4th. We will present the News/Talk radio format’s collective feedback December 11-15 and December 18 on BarrettNewsMedia.com.
There’s other stuff on the way as well, but I’ll save the rest for next week. Let’s dive now into the latest additions to the Summit.
It is my pleasure to announce the additions of Nick Wright of FS1, Danny Parkins of 670 The Score in Chicago, Andrew Fillipponi of 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, and Omar Raja of ESPN to the 2024 BSM Summit speaker lineup. All four of these men are extremely talented and accomplished, and I’m grateful to each of them for making time to be with us.
Starting with Omar Raja, the work he did building House of Highlights into a powerhouse social brand is well documented. He now serves as a commentator for ESPN’s digital and social content, which includes being the leading voice behind ESPN’s SportsCenter Instagram account, and providing strategic social programming across ESPN’s social platforms. It’s not every day industry professionals gain an opportunity to learn from one of the industry’s top social media minds, so I’m hoping to see a lot of folks present when he shares his wisdom at the Summit.
Shifting from digital to on-air talent, one session I know many will be present for will include three personalities who have been highly successful in each of their careers, and share a lifelong bond through the friendships they formed while attending Syracuse University together. Nick Wright, Andrew Fillipponi, and Danny Parkins are three of the best in the business today, and all three will be on stage together to discuss their individual paths, their differing approaches to content creation, measuring and managing success, and much more. Having Damon Amendolara, another Syracuse graduate who’s been highly successful on the air, guide the session should make it even more interesting and entertaining for all in the room.
With these latest four individuals added to the lineup we’ve now secured sixteen top speakers for March’s show. I’m hoping to reveal the next group of participants in a few weeks. Once we get past the holidays I’ll start revealing the awards winners and a few executives who will be part of the conference.
I want to thank Steve Stone Voiceovers, Good Karma Brands, Bonneville International, Silver Tribe Media, Premiere Networks and the Motor Racing Network for returning as sponsors of the 2024 BSM Summit. If your group would like to explore a sponsorship opportunity for the show or review website or newsletter options for 2024, email Stephanie Eads at [email protected] to receive a copy of our advertising decks.
That’s the latest for now. More to come in December.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at [email protected].