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Chris Baker Is Going Out With Nothing But Love

“The appreciation for Baker extends far past the walls of The Sports Animal.”

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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.”

BSM Writers

Dallas Cowboys: Proof That Marketing Works

“Good marketers can convince you their products are anything they want you to believe those products are.”

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Why do people still hate the Dallas Cowboys? Give me a good football reason that the Cowboys are worth your time. I get that there was an era where if the NFL was Mortal Kombat, the Cowboys were Shang Tsung, but those days ended three decades ago.

It’s 2022. There are adults in their late 20s that have never seen a Cowboys’ championship. Since 2000, the franchise has been to the playoffs fewer times than the Falcons. They have won as many playoff games in that time as the Jaguars. At this point, hating the Cowboys is about as useless as hating Luxembourg.

So why do people still have such a deep-seated disdain for the star and the players that wear it? Why was a national celebration set of on Sunday when the Cowboys lost in the stupidest way imaginable?

The answer is pretty simple really: marketing.

Good marketers can convince you their products are anything they want you to believe those products are. Great marketers can get you to behave like those products are what they say they are even when you know that isn’t true.

Jerry Jones is a great marketer.

People tune in when the Cowboys play. Maybe a good chunk of those people are hate-watching, but they’re watching. That is why the team was on in primetime six times this season. Of those other eleven games, seven of them were called by either FOX’s or CBS’s top broadcast team.

ESPN completely rebuild and rebranded First Take around the idea that Stephen A. Smith doesn’t like the Dallas Cowboys. That is it. The whole promo package for the show was just Smith wearing a cowboy hat and chomping on a cigar and laughing.

Shouldn’t we be doing this to the Patriots? Afterall, in the time since the Cowboy’s last Super Bowl appearance, New England has gone to the game an astounding ten times and won six titles.

It’s easy to read that sentence and say “Well, Tom Brady isn’t there anymore. The Patriots aren’t what they used to be. It isn’t as much fun to hate them.”

Uh, dawg, who in Dallas has been worth hating since Troy Aikman retired? You know, like 22 years ago!

Jerry Jones isn’t the man that coined the phrase “America’s Team, ” so he didn’t set its initial meaning. What it became, by virtue of him leaning into the branding is something that forces you to react. Either you buy into the blue and the silver and the star and you’re with America’s team or you recoil at the branding and the goofiness of the whole aesthetic and want to watch it burn.

Notre Dame football could be doing this too. The problem is they do not have the great markerter out front pushing that slogan over and over again.

Even “how bout them Cowboys?” is a solid positioning statement. It’s easily repeatable in good times or bad. The genius of Jerry Jones embracing that statement and that clip of Jimmy Johnson shouting those four now-iconic words is that it is a question that always has an answer.

Fans can celebrate with “how bout them cowboys” when the team wins. Haters can say it facetiously when they are on a losing streak. Either way, you are saying it and the Dallas Cowboys are occupying a part of your brain.

Positioning statements work. That is why so many stations tag their imaging with the same phrase or sentence every single time. That is why so many stations are called The Fan or The Game or The Ticket.

Admittedly, sometimes we need to rethink how our listeners are receiving the message. If we are all going for homogeny, nothing can stand out. Maybe that is a reason to rethink what I jokingly call “sports radio’s magic hat of five acceptable station names”, but the larger point is that you want every message you put out to point to the brand image you are trying to portray.

Jerry Jones’s message to the NFL and the media is no matter who they root for, fans care about my team. His positioning statements reflect that. Whether you think they are great marketing or goofy corporate branding, they work. The proof is everywhere.

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BSM Writers

Three Sports Marketing Trends You Need To Know

“Sports marketing is evolving at an extremely rapid pace and you’d best know where your competition lies or where opportunity exists.”

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#1 OTT’s RAPID EXPANSION  

Pay TV lost more than 5 million customers in 2020 and that trend is going to continue and the number is going to increase. With nearly 30% more Americans cutting the cord in 2021 and almost 87% of adults 18-24 preferring the OTT option, you’d better dive in and understand just how fast video consumption is changing; especially in sports. Platforms like ESPN+, Amazon, Peacock, Paramount+ and Facebook are diving head first into the sports rights market so that they can deliver LIVE sports where Americans are consuming video.  OTT provides that sniper riffle approach advertisers are looking for as they try to increase ROI and minimize waste. 

#2 AI … DATA-DATA-DATA

Without a doubt artificial intelligence is changing the way marketers are deciding how to go to market with their messaging and their products and/or services.  More data is available now than ever before and you’d better understand how your client is using it to help them make their buying decisions.  Most large advertisers are not only using one, but multiple vendors and are trying to obtain as much data as they possibly can so they can better recognize trends and understand their consumers behaviors and buying patterns

#3 eSports is BOOMING

Video games aren’t just for fun and entertainment at home anymore.  Gamers are now creating leagues, generating 6-figure endorsements and have multiple contests where they compete for HUGE cash and prizes.  Marketers are actively looking for ways to take advantage of this meteoric rise in popularity of eSports and that includes product placement, team sponsorships, individual gamer(s) sponsorships and tournament sponsorships.  If your station isn’t trying to create a sellable feature around eSports then you’re missing out on a huge and very sellable feature.  There are over 234 million eSports enthusiasts world wide and that number is only going to continue to climb. 

OTT, AI and eSports are rapidly changing the sports marketing landscape and these are trends that will only continue and grow over the next 5 years.  Digitalization of just about everything is changing how, where, when and on what kind of devices sports fans are consuming content.  Sports marketing is evolving at an extremely rapid pace and you’d best know where your competition lies or where opportunity exists. 

Be the expert in the room when meeting with agencies and/or clients, it will set you apart from the pack.  Understanding these rapidly evolving trends will help you have better and deeper dialog with your advertisers. 

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BSM Writers

What Should Radio Be Thinking About On Martin Luther King Day?

“Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?”

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Monday, January 17 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A lot of you will get the day off of work. Some of you will attend prayer services or civic events to honor the civil rights leader and his legacy.

Dr. King, like all humans, had his flaws but is undeniably a man worth celebrating. In a world where the divide between the powerful and the rest of us seems to be growing out of control, it is good to take a day to celebrate and think about a man that made a career out of speaking up for the little guy – whether that means black and brown people during the Civil Rights Era or it means workers in times of labor unrest.

Across the media landscape, we will see stations and networks running promos touting their “commitment to Dr. King’s dream!”. The sentiment is great, but I do wonder what it means to the people making those promos and the stations and networks airing them.

Look at the archives of this site. Think about the BSM Summits you have attended. How often have we been willing to shine a spotlight on the amount sports radio talks about embracing diversity versus actually putting plans into action? Jason has written and talked about it a lot. Every time, the message seems to circle back to him saying “I am giving you the data. You are telling me you recognize that this is a problem. Now do something about it.”

It’s something I found myself starting to think about a lot last year when Juneteenth became recognized as a federal holiday. Suddenly every brand was airing ads telling me how they have known how special this day is all along. And look, I hope that is true. It seems like if it was though, I would have been seeing those ads in plenty of Junes before 2021.

I am going to put my focus on the media because that is what we do here, but this can be said about a lot of companies. So many brands have done a great job of rolling out the yellow, black, red, and green promo package to acknowledge that it is Martin Luther King Jr Day or Black History Month or Juneteenth. I worry though that for so many, especially on the local level, that is where the acknowledgment ends.

That isn’t to say that those stations or brands actively do not want more minority representation inside their company. It just isn’t a subject for which they can say they have taken a lot of action.

Look, I am not here to debate the merits of affirmative action. I am saying in an industry like sports radio, where we thrive on fans being able to relate to the voices coming through their speakers, shouldn’t we be doing a better job of making sure minority personalities know that there is a place for them in this industry? Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?

WFAN went out and found Keith McPherson in the podcasting world to fill its opening at night after Steve Somers’s retirement. FOX Sports added RJ Young, who first made a name for himself on YouTube and writing books, to its college football coverage. 95.7 The Game found Daryle “Guru” Johnson in a contest. JR Jackson got on CBS Sports Radio’s radar thanks to his YouTube videos and when it came time for the network to find a late-night host, it plucked him from Atlanta’s V103, one of the best-known urban stations in America.

That’s two guys in major markets, another on national radio, and a third on national television. In all four cases, the companies that hired them didn’t just sit back and wait for a resume to come in.

Some of you will read this and dismiss me. After all, I am a fat, white Southern man. If I were a hacky comedian, I would say “the only four groups you are allowed to make fun of” and then yell “Gitterdone!”.

In reality, I point those things out because I know there is a large chunk of you that will call this whole column “white guilt” or “woke” or whatever your talking point is now.

Whether or not we are about the be a majority minority nation is up for debate, but here is a fact. America is getting darker. I look at the radio industry, one that is constantly worried about how it will be affected by new innovations in digital audio, and wonder how anyone can think doing things like we always have is going to work forever.

I’m not damning anyone or saying anybody should be losing their jobs. I don’t know most of you reading this well enough to make that judgment. What I am saying is that our industry has lived on the idea that this business is always changing and we have to be adaptable. I think it is time we do that, not just with the content we present on air, but in how we go about finding the right people to present it.

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