The unexpected news nearly brought Al Eshbach to tears. In fact, it rocked the longtime Oklahoma City sports radio personality, because it was so sudden. Chris Baker, his program director at WWLS The Sports Animal, had just revealed he was retiring at the end of the year.
While the news came across as a complete shock to Eschbach, it was a date Baker had been circling on his calendar for years. After five decades in radio, he’s ready to hang it up at the end of December.
“It’s just like graduating high school,” said Baker. “I’m ready to graduate from work.”
Oklahoma City is home for Baker, but his roots were planted in the far southeast corner of Texas in the town of Beaumont. His first program director job came about an hour away in Lake Charles, LA at KBIU Bayou 104 in 1986, where the morning show host was a guy named Bruce Gilbert.
“The greatest thing about Cumulus is Bruce Gilbert,” Baker said. “The opportunity to work with him was kind of surreal for me. He’s a savant.”
After a stint in Lake Charles, Baker moved back to Beaumont to be the PD of KZZB, where he had previously spent five years as the promotions director. He was in his hometown for a couple of years, before being hired at KCPX in Salt Lake City. After a year, he found himself in Colorado Springs at KKFM and KKMG, which happened to be America’s first local marketing agreement.
“A lot of people in the media said it was illegal and would never happen,” laughed Baker. “It was really interesting.”
Finally, after moving all over the country, he settled in Oklahoma City as the program director of Rock 100.5 The KATT in 1993. Maybe he thought it was just another short stop in his career, but for the next 19 years, he programmed one of the most popular radio stations in the city. Baker also grew into a role as a general operations manager and oversaw programming on eight radio stations under the Cumulus umbrella. One of those being The Sports Animal.
“I’ve been involved with The Sports Animal since the merger of the 640 AM signal and Craig Humphreys’ station he had in Oklahoma City,” Baker said. “We were able to merge two great talents, where we had Jim Traber on one station and Al Eschbach on another. They were competing against one another so they came together at The Sports Animal in August of 1997.”
Baker left Cumulus at the end of 2011, but even while he was away, he was still listening to The Sports Animal every day. Then, a few years later, as it always does, fate stepped in. Changes were happening at The Sports Animal and Jay Davis was now the general manager. One of his first orders of business was to hire a new program director. He didn’t think very long before he realized who he needed to hire.
“When my predecessor left, Chris was the first person I thought of and it worked out timing wise for him to come back,” said Davis. “Chris has been with us for nearly the past 30 years. He was very instrumental in how The Sports Animal grew and how we presented it to the public. His stewardship and forward-thinking have played a huge role in the success of The Sports Animal. Chris has been a very big part of our success.”
He was welcomed into the role by the talent at The Sports Animal with open arms. Most of them already had a strong relationship with him, so the entire building was pumped that Baker was back to be their program director. So much so that Humphreys makes it bluntly clear the only reason he came back to the station was because Davis and Baker would be managing it. If someone from out of the market would have been promoted to the role, he never would have taken over Sports Morning after the late, great Bob Barry Jr.
Baker’s familiarity and experience are just two of the many reasons why he’s so beloved by the many talents he’s coached over the years. But the biggest reason is obvious. He truly cares about everyone in the building. That was best on display when Jim Traber had a serious health scare in 2019 that sidelined him from the show for weeks. During that time, Baker was as supportive as anyone in his role could have been. It’s something Traber hasn’t forgotten, nor will he, for the rest of his life.
“I mean, he was the best,” Traber said. “Obviously, everyone was scared of the situation and he made sure he was in touch with my wife Julie the whole time and he was very understanding of when I could come back. He’s literally the best boss that I’ve ever had, of any coaches or anything like that, he’s the absolute best. He’s going to be missed. He’s a great man, he’s a great man of God and he’s a great man in radio.”
It’s examples such as this that make him the program director he is. It’s about success, sure, but it’s also about having fun and caring about his talent. If you talk to enough people in Oklahoma City sports radio, you’ll quickly learn that Baker is truly one of the good guys in this business.
“He’s the perfect programmer,” said Phil Inzinga, co-host of The Morning Animals. “He’s always understood talent and the audience. Chris is not just a great programmer, but more importantly, he’s a great human being and friend. He gave my son his first dog. True story!”
“The only times he’s ever had to get on to me are issues with the clock,” laughed Humphreys. “The guy is so experienced and he’s so great with people. He knows how to treat people and he doesn’t try to over manage. Doing a talk show, you appreciate that. Never once have I been told what to say or what not to say by Chris Baker. He lets us do our own show. The guy is a joy to work for.”
“He’s a great person,” said Eschbach. “When he told me he was retiring Saturday night after the OU-Texas game I almost felt like crying. But I knew it was the best thing for him. He’s just a really special person and a great program director. He’s just a tremendous friend of mine.”
“Chris Baker knows radio and has spent his lifetime in broadcasting perfecting the art and science of programming across multiple formats,” said Bruce Gilbert, SVP Sports, Content and Audience at Cumulus and Westwood One. “His radio stations always sound big, bright, tight, and positive with a focused appeal to its target audience. Many don’t know that Chris was one of the first Program Director’s I ever worked for and Chris – by his MANY actions – showed me what leadership looks like. His ability to be empathetic as well as authoritative was a lesson I will never forget. Chris leads by example and the examples he sets are deeply rooted in honesty, integrity, and collaboration. He is an ego-less leader that cares much more about his team and their success than any personal accolades. We are so fortunate to have had such a pro lead our incredibly talented team at The Sports Animal for the last several years. His steady hand and understanding of the Sports Animal brand and all its many moving parts will be greatly missed, however, no one deserves to go out on their terms more than Chris Baker. He earned this and he should know that he is loved by many and that his legacy in our industry is forever secure.”
Baker has always strived to put the best product possible on the air. If you look at his track record, that’s exactly what he’s done. But what’s most impressive is that he’s been able to win ratings battles as well as the hallway. He hasn’t won by ruling with an iron fist. He’s done it by befriending his staff and reminding each of them how important family is.
“One, he’s always available to talk,” said Mark Rodgers, host of The Middle of the Day Show. “Two, I think he did a really good job of letting small things slide. He never made a mountain of a molehill. Not very often did things ever escalate. He’s just the best.”
“He’s a people person and he’s able to keep a proper balance between a lot of disparate personalities,” said Berry Tramel, part of The Total Dominance Hour. “He can keep people rolling in the same direction when it’s not always easy to. It’s a fairly high ego business and Chris doesn’t have much of an ego, he’s able to cushion a lot of that stuff and make it all work. When Jay Davis took over as general manager he had to bring in a program director and brought in Chris back and everyone was just thrilled. Everybody was fired up about that. He’s a conduit of people. He just gets people rallying around in the same direction.”
The appreciation for Baker extends far past the walls of The Sports Animal. Former co-workers still light up when they talk about their experience of working with him. Maybe they’re competing against his signal now, but you won’t find a competitor that will say a negative word about him.
“He’s the best program director I’ve ever worked for, hands down, and that’s saying a lot,” said Erik Gee of Sports Animal Tulsa. “I’ve worked for several in my career, but none were as sharp as Chris and none cared more about their staff than Chris. He’s truly one of my best friends.”
“He was the PD of The KATT and we all called him Big Tex, because he’s so tall,” said Mike Steely of The Ref. “It was 2001 during OU-Texas weekend and we were all at The Crowne Plaza in Dallas and he said, hey guys, we have a radio rep that’s going to buy dinner. Employees came out like rats at a picnic. We went over to Pappadeaux and there was the radio rep that was trying to schmooze Baker. There must have been 15 people that showed up. I remember Lump ordered The Admiral’s Feast, which was about $59.99. They brought him like eight dishes. I just remember that radio rep looking like, oh my God. Baker was kind of like, ‘you guys, I can’t believe you did that.’ But he was good-natured about it.”
“He was the guy you could always go into this office and chat with,” continued Steely.”He had that aura that he was your boss, but you were relaxed enough to say, hey man, what did you think about the game this weekend? It’s kind of rare with some bosses that you can do that. He’s just a great dude. Now, again. If you did something wrong and it was a pretty egregious error, Chris would let you know about it. But it was always done in a professional way. He’s just one of those guys you like to see in the office every day.”
Few, if any, in this business deserve the love and appreciation I hope this article brings to Baker. To echo everything else that’s been said, he’s an incredible human being and one that more in this business should strive to be like.
Not many are fortunate enough to leave the business on their own accord. It’s really cool that Baker is doing just that. The lesson here is simple: work hard, treat your co-workers with incredible respect and always leave your door open to chat.
If you do that, you could be the next Chris Baker. And you should want to be.
“I could not ask for a better way to end my career, to be able to program The Sports Animal,” Baker said. “I laugh and tell my radio friends, as a kid I always wanted to program WLS. I just ended up programming WWLS.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.