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Sports Media’s Present & Future Has The Attention of New York Broadcasters

Derek Futterman

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Sports talk radio has considerably evolved since its inception as a bona fide programming format in the late-1980s. The unique, live, intimate connection the host is able to foster with their listening audience at a dedicated time during each broadcast had been something that no other distribution mediums could initially compete with.

As time progressed, though, the media industry caught up to the once-incipient format – and fast. Thus, the consumer gained, and still holds to this day, freedom over what program they wish to consume; when they want to consume it; and where they wish to do so. With television, radio, print, streaming, podcasting, social media and the plethora of blogs and websites available on the internet, the sports talk format, and all media in general, has had to evolve to meet the demand of the consumer, and stand out among the pack while doing so.

Deep in a potpourri of content within a disquieted marketplace, I asked several personalities across sports media to gather their thoughts on how they see the evolution in the business of sports commentary, and what concerns may lie ahead for the traditional, sports talk format.

Q1: What is the biggest misconception people have about sports radio?

Robin Lundberg (Senior Host, Sports Illustrated): “The biggest misconception people have is that it’s easy and lazy. I think there’s a lot more care and energy put into it than the average person would know. Doing a show of any length, particularly solo, is a challenge in and of itself, as is standing out now-a-days. There are so many different outlets through [which] people can hear things, and distinguishing yourself with a voice or characteristics is a challenge.”

Zach Gelb (Host, CBS Sports Radio): “I would say the biggest misconception is that it’s a dying medium. I just think there’s ways that people need to improve heading into the future, but doing radio locally and nationally, I still think it’s very successful, but there just has to be alterations that are made; you can’t really [hold] an antiquated belief and only do things on the radio. I think you need to have more of a digital presence. The best part about radio is the connection and how personable… it can be from the host to the listener, and also how immediate [it is]. If there is a news story… people [can] voice their opinions right away.”

Jon Rothstein (Host, College Hoops Today): “I think the one thing that a lot of people don’t understand about radio and podcasts is how intimate the connection can be between the host and the audience. It’s a much different medium than television and being a columnist or a reporter and connecting with someone via the written word. It’s just not how it was years ago when the majority of people listening to talk radio were in their cars commuting.”

John Jastremski (Host, The Ringer/SNY): “I think the biggest misconception about sports radio is that your caller [does not] add intellect to a show. I think there are a lot of people out there who honestly believe the callers add nothing. I think that’s so outrageous. Just like anything else… you have good callers and bad callers. By having the [live call] element in there, it shows off their creativity and their wealth of knowledge. No matter how a call may be going, it sets the stage and tone to what you, [as a host], are bringing to the table.”

Alan Hahn (Host, ESPN Radio/MSG Networks): “That it’s all hot takes. I don’t think it’s all that, at least it shouldn’t be. I still think it’s storytelling and interaction with callers.”

Q2: Where do you see sports radio’s biggest opportunity for future growth?

Lundberg: “The media industry right now is the wild west. Everyone is trying to figure out what’s going on, where it’s headed and how to monetize it. When I did an early morning show on ESPN, the one opportunity I saw at the time was to be the first podcast out. As a result, I was second in podcast downloads to the Michael Kay Show — because I was one of the first podcasts of the day. Then, I was told we had to focus on the ‘pizza’ before we made the ‘cannolis.’ I said that’s not a good analogy because [a podcast] is the same product [as a radio show except] with a different delivery method. I would say the biggest opportunity remains expanding [to] other mediums and flexing that presence in that way. In order for a radio show to truly succeed, you’re going to have the base, but if you want to get beyond that, the digital presence has to be there as well.”

Gelb: “I would say in the digital space. I think that there’s a lot of stations that obviously need to make those changes. You still use your content on the air, but once a segment airs or a show ends, there are other ways you can put your content out there, [such as in] certain digital content features that you can put out.”

Rothstein: “You have to always be ready to evolve. We live in a day and age that’s much different than it was many years ago. We’re in a time where people are clicking links off of Twitter if they want to consume written or editorial content; it was not like that 20 years ago. As far as sports radio and podcasts go, constantly being aware of the changing trends are what is going to lead to its long-term growth stability.”

Jastremski: “On-demand content. [The consumer] being able to listen when they want, [and] whenever they want, [along with] the ability of the host to be timely when things are happening. If there’s a trade, you don’t have to wait until your time slot [to talk about it]. It’s the idea of getting your voice out there immediately so that the audience hears from you. Some stories will warrant that more so than others, but I think that’s the biggest change now. When there’s something big going on in your market, you have to be able to react instantaneously.”

Hahn: “The on-demand world. I’ve been all over the place. A lot of people are just looking for your content, so I do think on-demand is going to matter the most. A schedule is still a schedule, but sports radio is also about personalities, and people will find those personalities. Sometimes a podcast isn’t the whole show; you just take bits and pieces. The consumption of a show on-demand needs to be more available in a car just as much as it’s available on a phone.”

Q3: How do you measure your effectiveness as talent and the aggregate success of your show?

Lundberg: “Sometimes it can feel like a popularity contest where you are constantly checking for downloads, views, clicks, listens, etc. I think, in radio in particular, one of the things that’s great about it is that it’s a very intimate medium, so you get that immediate feedback from the audience. The first thing you need is self-belief, and belief within your team that you’re putting out a good product. One person in charge might not like it, and the next person in charge might think it’s the coolest thing ever. The second thing comes from the audience response and the feedback you hear. The third is that you can’t ignore the raw numbers; you have to bring in either revenue or ratings, ideally both. If you’re getting big money, it doesn’t matter what the ratings are; If you’re getting high ratings, the money will eventually come.”

Gelb: “The POKE Scale. Passion; Opinion; Knowledge; Entertainment. For me, if you do a show that’s passionate, that gives opinions, that’s knowledgeable, and that’s entertainment, those are the best shows. Ratings determine that, and being able to make a lot of news. I think it’s establishing that connection with the listening audience and then also behind the scenes, developing good chemistry with co-workers and also just really giving 110% each and every day. There are ways to measure it in terms of ratings, and there’s also ways in terms of a healthy work environment.”

Rothstein: “Consistency, having a plan and sticking to it. The biggest thing I learned from my time at WFAN was the consistency Mark Chernoff had at the station. He wasn’t going to alter the lineup if a big event happened or if there was a big story. He had confidence in the product he was putting on the air and their shows. I think when it comes to my podcast, it’s a certain length each and every week. Over time, that consistency has led to great growth, and I’m proud to say that last year was our best year ever. I’m trying to keep building on that without sacrificing the model that works.”

Jastremski: “The idea of generating reaction. In the radio world, ratings tell the story. I can give you the cliché numbers that we want to have good podcast metrics and we want to have as many listeners as possible — that goes without saying. Getting the interaction; the feedback; the needle moving that way — that’s what I’m looking for more than anything. We recently hopped on a Spotify green room after a Mets game [where] we had 200 people in a room [within] five minutes of starting, and I [took] 15 calls. Generating that reaction within your base is how I’m judging whether or not we are doing what we need to do, whether it’s momentum or traffic. I understand that, from an old-school mentality, it’s all about ratings. Obviously, podcast numbers, downloads and subscribers are gigantic, but I don’t want an inactive listener base; I want an active listener base that’s dialed in, engaged and participating in what I’m looking to do.”

Hahn: “I used to measure it with ratings [when] I was local. That seemed to be the be-all, end-all [and] how you bragged about your success. Feedback has become the more important one. It’s not just feedback from listeners, but also the people at your business and, to be honest with you, I [had] never really considered it before. Being on a national platform, I think what athletes think of the show is [also] important because that also drives the idea [of if you] are talking about what matters. I feel like ratings are so antiquated of a system that there’s no way that’s the [sole] indicator.”

Q4: What do you consider to be sports radio’s biggest area of concern now and moving forward?

Lundberg: “Is hosting a sports radio show enough? As things do change with platforms, we’ve seen podcasts, Sirius XM and digital platforms emerge. The way people get their media has changed rapidly over the last few years. Luckily, sports radio’s steady base has been able to help it survive through it, but if you’re going to be a true crossover star right now, can you do that primarily through radio?”

Gelb: “I would say it would be improvements in the digital space. I think that’s something people really need to focus on. I think companies need to be careful in understanding that Twitter does not reflect [whether you’ve had] a successful show or not. Sure, if you have a host with a bunch of followers, or [put] out a viral video, great — but a lot of the comments on any social media are going to be negative. I think it’s important that radio stations do as much as they can digitally, but I would not let the comments make the program director’s decisions if a show is successful or not.”

Rothstein: “There are so many ways for people to get information. People are not really in the business anymore of consuming things for longer periods of time. People have interest in watching videos on their phone instead of listening to the radio or watching a long-term show. When people are driving, there are so many different options.”

Jastremski: “I think the biggest challenge for any of these sports radio or podcast markets is [determining] how you stand out. There’s so much out there; what makes you unique; what makes you special; what makes you different from a host standpoint, a brand standpoint, a market standpoint. That to me is what I’m kind of looking at down the road as to what might be an obstacle for sports radio; there’s so much out there now. When sports radio started in the late-80s and 90s, they were the only game in town. Now, that’s no longer the case. I think for each talent and or each platform, what makes you different, what makes you unique, what do you bring to the table that somebody else doesn’t. Not just from a program director’s standpoint, I think that has to be the focus for hosts. It’s not that you want to reinvent the wheel and be crazy different, but you want to stand out. If you stick to that, you can have a ton of success.”

Hahn: “Podcasts. Everyone has one now. There’s also a million sports talk radio stations and a lot of shows. Everyone is trying to become the ‘next something’ of this realm. It’s so easy to get lost in that sea; it’s very hard. The oversaturation of sports talk; anyone can do it because the technology is there. That’s a great thing, but the oversaturation just starts to become white noise. There isn’t a delineation of who are the professionals [that] are doing this for a living, who put the time in and who is just regurgitating what they saw on SportsCenter or FirstTake. The saturation of this type of media in the last five years has created a feeling of white noise among content.”

Q5: If there’s one thing upcoming hosts should be prioritizing in order to be successful in the future, what would that be and why?

Lundberg: “I think that comes with knowing what the audience wants. The one thing that doesn’t go away is the instinct of what people care about. The Jordan vs. LeBron debate is the bread-and-butter of what sports talk is: two people arguing about it on barstools. Stories aren’t going anywhere; sports aren’t going anywhere. Knowing how to read what the audience wants and then spin it in a way that is unique to your program is most important.”

Gelb: “You have to have the work ethic. You have to have the reps. And you have to find a way to develop a connection with the audience that makes you stand out differently from the others. Everyone can give an opinion about sports, but can you give an opinion, and can people believe that opinion is authentic, and does it make the person want to come back and stay throughout the show?”

Rothstein: “Authenticity. You hear so much that people want to be the next this person or that person. You have to be the first and version of yourself because there’s only one of us.”

Jastremski: “Watch the damn games — simple as that. I think there’s way too many folks out there who don’t know what they’re talking about. I think it comes across, and it’s easy to point out if you’re a listener. You don’t need to be drooling over the box score of every game that’s played, but in order to formulate the best possible opinions that you can, you have to be dialed in and you have to have a sense of what’s going on around the teams that you covered. That might sound like a real simple answer but in order to have those opinions, you have to watch the games.”

Hahn: “Compelling conversation. You’ve got to be able to not just have a guest, but make it a listenable conversation. I think the most successful people in this business are great at that. Everyone just wants to be the first one to say something or have a crazy reaction to something. To get an athlete or a former player to relax to a point where they can tell you something that can take you into the world that regular people are not privy to makes it a compelling listen. Relaxing the guest and making them feel like they are in a room hanging out is a great conversation. If the guest is boring, it’s your fault [as the host] that they are boring.”

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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