If a song was needed to accurately describe Kevin Graham’s radio career, Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam would be a good place to start. The guy has been all over the place. As the new program director at KNBR in San Francisco, Graham has also held radio gigs in Boston, New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Columbus.
That’s some serious mileage. Suffice to say, Graham loves moving about as much as he loves watching his New York Jets losing.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If his career were a cereal, it wouldn’t be something simple like Frosted Flakes. It would be much more eclectic like Frosted Flakes mixed with Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Kevin Graham is a former on-air guy who hosted three different stints of sports talk shows in Salt Lake City. He was a Utah Jazz pre and postgame host. Graham was a football and basketball play-by-play guy who also broadcasted parades and beauty pageants when he was starting out. Add in the fact he programmed news talk station WBAP in Dallas for five years and you can see why his career is like an epic cereal medley. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Graham provides details about the major lineup change in afternoon drive that was recently made at KNBR. One of the most interesting things Graham reveals is what clicked for him as a programmer that changed his mindset and entire approach to the job. We also chat about what has caused him the most pain in his radio career, involving your star player in big decisions, and living life beyond radio. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?
Kevin Graham: West Virginia is where I was born and raised till about 14. Then right before my freshman year of high school, my parents got transferred to Detroit. I ended up going to high school in the Detroit area, then went to college at Central Michigan University. That’s when the radio world took off from there in all the different markets everywhere I’ve been.
I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be in sports broadcasting just because I played all the sports and was average to below average. Usually, when you’re the smallest and slowest kid on a team, you realize you’re not going to be a pro athlete. [Laughs] That’s when I decided you know what, maybe I can be in broadcasting. The best move that ever happened was my dad getting transferred to Detroit. The school I went to had a radio station, so as a freshman in high school I was in radio. I ended up doing some baseball play-by-play that year and just got hooked on it right then and there. It just took off from there.
BN: What’s been the best and worst part about being all over the country with all the stops you’ve made?
KG: [Laughs] The best part is just the fun of going to new markets. The fun of being a PD for me is working with the talent, the content, the branding, the imaging, the core of what a PD does. To me that’s a blast. All the various markets I’ve done it in.
Most stations that I’ve had to go in, there was a reason they were bringing me in because they weren’t doing as well as they were hoping. Fortunately, I would say all except one, they were in a better spot when I left than they were when I got there, which is cool.
A lot of that goes to the credit of just a lot of talented people. That’s been the fun. Having the impact that you can have on various talents and see what they’ve been able to do and grow.
I look at Detroit, I hired Mike Valenti — who’s number one in that market now for years — straight out of college at Michigan State and paid him not a lot and put him on middays with Terry Foster. Now, 20 years later or whatever it’s been, the guy is dominant. To see that type of stuff, to see the impact you have on people, that’s the best stuff.
The hardest part is just every move — as you’ve probably been around — sucks. It’s just hard to move. It’s taxing for a marriage when you’re moving that much. It’s hard when you have kids. It’s just hard when you move that much. My hope is this will be my last one, but that’s been my hope in a lot of places too. [Laughs]
BN: [Laughs] Hopefully this one comes true, man. The lineup change in afternoon drive, what was that process like for you just getting on board at KNBR and then this mammoth change takes place?
KG: It was a couple of things. First, it was ratings-driven. The ratings of the show had not been up to par with the other shows. We were taking a look at that. A lot of it was just listening and my gut. In the end, I trust my gut.
You hate it. That’s the worst part of the job — and that’s nothing towards Larry [Krueger] and Rod [Brooks], the two guys that we had to replace because they’re both very talented. But for whatever reason when that show was put together, the three-man show which can work in some places, it just wasn’t clicking the way we hoped.
In the meantime, Adam Copeland, who I was listening to regularly on our morning show as kind of a third person there, did a 5 a.m. show, also did fill-ins, Bay Area native, lots of energy, passionate. Talking it over with my general manager and Bruce Gilbert and just going through what we could do, we kept going back to him. Obviously, in that situation it’s hard, you’ve got to get buy-in from a lot of people and you’ve got to figure it out, but in the end we felt, and ultimately my gut felt that it would be a better show. So far, so good.
We’ve only been on I think about a month. Some of it is they just had to get to know each other. You know how it is when you get new shows and new co-hosts and all that. At least they’ve been aware of each other, just never really worked together. One month in, we’re really excited at where we’re headed and how the show is sounding right now, so I’m very hopeful that we’ve got ourselves a pretty good hit there.
Plus, Tom Tolbert’s a star in this market. Again, it’s nothing towards Larry and Rod, but when you have three people, here you’ve got your lightning rod, a guy that’s been in the market for years, a guy that’s been number one multiple times for years including before they made the change. I just felt like you needed to hear more of him.
When you have three people, it’s just harder to do that. Tom being the laid-back personality that he is, wasn’t commanding that he needed more air time. He was a team player, which is exactly what he should be doing. It was a big decision that moving forward we need to hear more of Tom. So far, so good on that.
BN: What’s your approach when involving a star, or not, in a process like that? It’s like NFL teams where some choose to involve their star quarterback with certain decisions, some don’t; what did you prefer to do with Tom Tolbert in your situation?
KG: That goes back to me being an on-air talent, I try to manage how I would like to be treated. I’m very direct and honest, and that’s how I manage people. I try not to be a jerk about it, but hey, here’s what I’m thinking we need to do. What ideas do you have? So in this approach, yeah, I did talk to Tom obviously before pulling the trigger. I felt like he needed to be aware.
To Tom’s credit, he didn’t really want to be aware. [Laughs] He was kind of put in a bad spot and I completely understand that. It’s a tough spot, but there was no way I was going to take our number one star, one of our top lightning rods on the station, and not get his feedback on it because that would be the worst thing, trying to force-feed someone if you don’t have their buy-in in my opinion.
BN: Especially when you’re new. Imagine if you didn’t involve him, made this change and he hated your guts for it.
KG: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt. I was just trying to be transparent and open. Those situations, they suck. I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks leading into it. It’s awful. But I’m paid to do what I feel is best for the brand. The company is trusting me to try to put the best product on the air and I felt like at that time, and with others in our building felt like it was the best time to make that change. I felt like Tom needed to be in the loop on it. If there were any red flags I needed to know that because I wasn’t going to make a change and put somebody in there he wasn’t going to like. That would not work.
BN: One of the challenges during the pandemic was that a lot of your hosts were working remotely. What was that like to start in a brand new market when that was part of the equation?
KG: It was hard. My morning guys were coming in. They had gotten approval and got all the necessary vaxxing and all of that. They were in. I was seeing them often. But everybody else was working remotely.
For me, it was good because John Lund is doing middays with Greg Papa. I’ve worked with John in the past. John was my first producer in Salt Lake City. I’ve actually hired him at other spots. That was easy because he’s somebody I’ve known for years. I was able to connect with him.
The others I just called and tried to get to know them. I just talked to them and made sure I tried to communicate as much as I could. At one point I get here and by the way within a couple of weeks of being here I end up with COVID even though being vaxxed and all that. That was hard because now I’m working remotely from a new city and a new place. So I was dealing with all that as well.
Just tried to communicate as much as possible and tried to adapt. When you’re at a station like this too, it’s not just the on-air you have to deal with, when you’ve got the Giants, the Niners, we have 1050 that carries games like crazy. There’s a lot of moving parts to this thing. Not only did I have to try to learn the market, get to know my hosts, but also try to learn the systems and everything that needed to be done to make sure everything was running smoothly.
BN: I hear this from a lot of on-air guys where maybe they figured something out, it clicked and then it just really changed their whole approach on air. Was there anything like that from a PD standpoint where you finally learned something and then it was just like oh wow, I kind of get it now?
KG: It’s weird to say this, but I think COVID changed a lot of things from my standpoint. For me, I was always a workaholic. I always felt like I had to work harder than everybody else to succeed. I think COVID just kind of slowed things down in a weird way because we were all in different spots and I think you saw how different people reacted to it. Some reacted very favorably to it and other people had a lot of issues with it. I was probably in the middle.
I was kind of trying to figure out how to manage a staff from a distance and had some personal stuff because at the time my dad was not in good health, so COVID allowed me to go work remotely from where they are to help him. I think after all of that and when I was wrapping up BAP and then coming here, for me it just cemented that okay you know what, there’s more to life than just your job 24/7.
Unfortunately — and fortunately — I don’t think I probably would have had the success if I didn’t work as hard as I did and learned as much as I did. Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal. Don’t overreact to that. Calm, figure it out, work it out, try to keep everybody else calm.
It’s weird, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and probably everything finally clicked for me in a comfort zone where I finally said okay, you know what, quit being nervous about the next ratings book, quit being nervous about this and that. Just chill it out, enjoy yourself, be in the moment, take advantage of the perks and fun like going to games and all of that.
I used to skip some of that stuff because I felt like I had to get the imaging written up. I had to do this. I had to do that. Now it’s like you know what, I’ve got enough time in a day to get that type of stuff done and I’ve got a great support staff of people that help. I empower people more than I ever used to. I was more of a control freak, now I feel like I empower people because I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want it to be that if I do end up leaving here whether it’s by my choice or not, I would love to have people here who can step up into my role and take over. That’s how I kind of look at it now.
BN: As a New York Jets fan you’ve felt a good amount of pain over the years. I’m curious what has caused you the most pain in sports radio over the years?
KG: The most pain in sports radio over the years — Nielsen by far. Freaking Nielsen still to this day. We’ve got some blips going on now with meters and — just trying to watch my language — it’s very frustrating to have a system that you’re judged by — and all of us have to live by it, programming, sales, everything — that’s based on such a limited sample.
How you can go one month and be dominant and the next month you lose a couple of people. That happened to me in Dallas. It’s happened to me here. It’s happened to me in Boston. No matter what size market, two people can affect your livelihood in such a negative way. I don’t know the answer. It is what it is as they keep saying, but it’s really frustrating when you’re completely judged on this system.
Now we get real data about our stream, and just recently see that Nielsen is giving us 17,000 cume on our stream but yet Triton is giving us 300,000 cume on our stream. It’s like the 300,000 is real, where Nielsen is still based on the PPM technology. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s the biggest frustration and most likely will be the reason I get the hell out of this industry eventually. [Laughs] Whether I want to or not.
BN: Hey man, I totally get it. As far as your professional future goes, if you were able to write out what the next 10 years of your career look like, what would you want it to be?
KG: If you would’ve asked me that 10 years ago, I could have a map. Right now I don’t know. Right now all the moves I’ve made and all of the things I’ve gone through — and a lot of people have gone through particularly through COVID and everything else — I’m just trying to enjoy myself right now. I’m in such a great spot.
I have a great general manager in Larry Blumhagen who’s a brand new general manager and I was his first PD hire. Bruce Gilbert, Brian Philips, everybody in the Cumulus family, Mary Berner obviously lets us manage on a local basis, which I think is a little rarer than a lot of places these days with the way companies are. I’m just in a really good spot. I’m just going to enjoy this ride.
If I ever choose to move along, I don’t think it’ll be another PD job. If I stay in radio per se, I’d like to think all the various experiences I’ve had, could move up into a more senior-level job where I can impact multiple brands for a company. But if that doesn’t work out there are so many places now that create content. Everybody’s a media company now.
The thing about you and me and a lot of us in radio, we think the only thing we know is radio. Well, we know how to do content. If you can get on a mic and entertain people for four hours, you know what you’re doing. You can do the same thing as a programmer, so I do think we as a radio industry, I think we have the ability to get outside of radio if we want to now with audio being as hot as it is. I do believe that there could be other things that we can do if the time closes. As of now, man, I’m just settling in, enjoying myself, trying to figure out how to afford food here in San Francisco and be okay. [Laughs]
Barrett Media is Making Changes To Better Serve Our Sports and News Media Readers
“We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future.”
When I launched this website all I wanted to do was share news, insight and stories about broadcasters and brands. My love, passion and respect for this business is strong, and I know many of you reading this feel similar. I spent two great decades in radio watching how little attention was paid to those who played a big part in their audiences lives. The occasional clickbait story and contract drama would find their way into the newspapers but rarely did you learn about the twists and turns of a broadcaster’s career, their approach to content or the tactics and strategies needed to succeed in the industry. When personal reasons led me home to NY in 2015, I decided I was going to try my best to change that.
Since launching this brand, we’ve done a good job informing and entertaining media industry professionals, while also helping consulting clients and advertising partners improve their businesses. We’ve earned respect from the industry’s top stars, programming minds and mainstream media outlets, growing traffic from 50K per month to 500K and monthly social impressions from a few thousand to a few million. Along the way we’ve added conferences, rankings, podcasts, a member directory, and as I’ve said before, this is the best and most important work I’ve ever done, and I’m not interested in doing anything else.
If I’ve learned anything over seven years of operating a digital content company it’s that you need skill, strategy, passion, differentiating content, and good people to create impact. You also need luck, support, curiosity and an understanding of when to double down, cut bait or pivot. It’s why I added Stephanie Eads as our Director of Sales and hired additional editors, columnists and features reporters earlier this year. To run a brand like ours properly, time and investment are needed. We’ve consistently grown and continue to invest in our future, and it’s my hope that more groups will recognize the value we provide, and give greater consideration to marketing with us in the future.
But with growth comes challenges. Sometimes you can have the right idea but bad timing. I learned that when we launched Barrett News Media.
We introduced BNM in September 2020, two months before the election when emotions were high and COVID was a daily discussion. I wasn’t comfortable then of blending BNM and BSM content because I knew we’d built a trusted sports media resource, and I didn’t want to shrink one audience while trying to grow another. Given how personal the election and COVID became for folks, I knew the content mix would look and feel awkward on our site.
So we made the decision to start BNM with its own website. We ran the two brands independently and had the right plan of attack, but discovered that our timing wasn’t great.
The first nine months readership was light, which I expected since we were new and trying to build an audience from scratch. I believed in the long-term mission, which was why I stuck with it through all of the growing pains, but I also felt a responsibility to make sure our BNM writing team and the advertising partners we forged relationships with were being seen by as many people as possible. We continued with the original plan until May 2021 when after a number of back and forth debates, I finally agreed to merge the two sites. I figured if WFAN could thrive with Imus in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog in the afternoon, and the NY Times, LA Times, KOA, KMOX and numerous other newspaper and radio brands could find a way to blend sports and news/talk, then so could we.
And it worked.
We dove in and started to showcase both formats, building social channels and groups for each, growing newsletter databases, and with the addition of a few top notch writers, BNM began making bigger strides. Now featured under the BSM roof, the site looked bigger, the supply of daily content became massive, and our people were enjoying the increased attention.
Except now we had other issues. Too many stories meant many weren’t being read and more mistakes were slipping through the cracks. None of our crew strive to misspell a word or write a sloppy headline but when the staff and workload doubles and you’re trying to focus on two different formats, things can get missed. Hey, we’re all human.
Then a few other things happened that forced a larger discussion with my editors.
First, I thought about how much original material we were creating for BSM from our podcast network, Summit, Countdown to Coverage series, Meet the Market Managers, BSM Top 20, and began to ask myself ‘if we’re doing all of this for sports readers, what does that tell folks who read us for news?’ We then ran a survey to learn what people valued about our brand and though most of the feedback was excellent, I saw how strong the response was to our sports content, and how news had grown but felt second fiddle to those offering feedback.
Then, Andy Bloom wrote an interesting column explaining why radio hosts would be wise to stop talking about Donald Trump. It was the type of piece that should’ve been front and center on a news site all day but with 3 featured slots on the site and 7 original columns coming in that day, they couldn’t all be highlighted the way they sometimes should be. We’re actually going through that again today. That said, Andy’s column cut through. A few sports media folks didn’t like seeing it on the site, which wasn’t a surprise since Trump is a polarizing personality, but the content resonated well with the news/talk crowd.
National talk radio host Mike Gallagher was among the folks to see Andy’s piece, and he spent time on his show talking about the column. Mike’s segment was excellent, and when he referenced the article, he did the professional thing and credited our website – Barrett SPORTS Media. I was appreciative of Mike spending time on his program discussing our content but it was a reminder that we had news living under a sports roof and it deserved better than that.
I then read some of Pete Mundo, Doug Pucci and Rick Schultz’s columns and Jim Cryns’ features on Chris Ruddy, Phil Boyce, and David Santrella, and knew we were doing a lot of quality work but each time we produced stories, folks were reminded that it lived on a SPORTS site. I met a few folks who valued the site, recognized the increased focus we put on our news/talk coverage, and hoped we had plans to do more. Jim also received feedback along the lines of “good to see you guys finally in the news space, hope there’s more to come.”
Wanting to better understand our opportunities and challenges, I reviewed our workflow, looked at which content was hitting and missing the mark, thought about the increased relationships we’d worked hard to develop, and the short-term and long-term goals for BNM. I knew it was time to choose a path. Did I want to think short-term and keep everything under one roof to protect our current traffic and avoid disrupting people or was it smarter to look at the big picture and create a destination where news/talk media content could be prioritized rather than treated as BSM’s step-child?
Though I spent most of my career in sports media and established BSM first, it’s important to me to serve the news/talk media industry our very best. I want every news/talk executive, host, programmer, market manager, agent, producer, seller and advertiser to know this format matters to us. Hopefully you’ve seen that in the content we’ve created over the past two years. My goal is to deliver for news media professionals what we have for sports media folks and though that may be a tall order, we’re going to bust our asses to make it happen. To prove that this isn’t just lip service, here’s what we’re going to do.
Starting next Monday November 28th, we are relaunching BarrettNewsMedia.com. ALL new content produced by the BNM writing team will be available daily under that URL. For the first 70-days we will display news media columns from our BNM writers on both sites and support them with promotion across both of our brands social channels. The goal is to have the two sites running independent of each other by February 6, 2023.
Also starting on Monday November 28th, we will begin distributing the BNM Rundown newsletter 5 days per week. We’ve been sending out the Rundown every M-W-F since October 2021, but the time has come for us to send it out daily. With increased distribution comes two small adjustments. We will reduce our daily story count from 10 to 8 and make it a goal to deliver it to your inbox each day by 3pm ET. If you haven’t signed up to receive the Rundown, please do. You can click here to register. Be sure to scroll down past the 8@8 area.
Additionally, Barrett News Media is going to release its first edition of the BNM Top 20 of 2022. This will come out December 12-16 and 19-20. The category winners will be decided by more than 50 news/talk radio program directors and executives. Among the categories to be featured will be best Major/Mid Market Local morning, midday, and afternoon show, best Local News/Talk PD, best Local News/Talk Station, best National Talk Radio Show, and best Original Digital Show. The voting process with format decision makers begins today and will continue for two weeks. I’ve already got a number of people involved but if you work in an executive or programming role in the news/talk format and wish to be part of it, send an email to me at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
We have one other big thing coming to Barrett News Media in 2023, which I will announce right after the BNM Top 20 on Wednesday December 21st. I’m sure news/talk professionals will like what we have planned but for now, it’ll have to be a month long tease. I promise though to pay it off.
Additionally, I’m always looking for industry folks who know and love the business and enjoy writing about it. If you’ve programmed, hosted, sold or reported in the news/talk world and have something to offer, email me. Also, if you’re a host, producer, programmer, executive, promotions or PR person and think something from your brand warrants coverage on our site, send it along. Most of what we write comes from listening to stations and digging across the web and social media. Receiving your press releases and getting a heads up on things you’re doing always helps.
If you’re a fan of BSM, this won’t affect you much. The only difference you’ll notice in the coming months is a gradual reduction of news media content on the BSM website and our social accounts sharing a little about both formats over the next two months until we’re officially split in February. We are also going to dabble a little more in marketing, research and tech content that serves both formats. If you’re a reader who enjoys both forms of our content, you’ll soon have BarrettSportsMedia.com for sports, and BarrettNewsMedia.com for news.
Our first two years in the news/talk space have been very productive but we’ve only scratched the surface. Starting November 28th, news takes center stage on BarrettNewsMedia.com and sports gets less crowded on BarrettSportsMedia.com. We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future. If we can count on you to remember two URL’s (add them to your bookmarks) and sign up for our newsletters, then you can count on us to continue delivering exceptional coverage of the industry you love. As always, thanks for the continued support. It makes everything we do worthwhile.
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 JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
Steve Levy Has Asked The Right Questions During Nearly 30 Year ESPN Career
“Whatever sport it is, I’m sitting next to experts on the subject. I think better than me giving my explanation of why something might have happened, why not ask the Hall of Famer who’s lived it?”
In the summer of 1993, the price of a movie ticket was a mere $6. Over the preceding half a decade, Steve Levy lived in a high-rise apartment in New York, working in television and radio, launching his career in sports media.
In the “city that doesn’t sleep,” seeing a movie at 11 p.m. and grabbing a meal afterwards was not uncommon; it was the distinct culture of the area, and still is today. Native New Yorkers, while they are characterized by some outsiders as insolent, combative and egocentric, have their own unique ways of demonstrating the innate affability and tenderness.
It was a Tuesday night and Levy had just been honored with a goodbye party held by his family, friends and colleagues. He had recently left New York, something unimaginable for many young 27-year-old broadcasters looking to move up in the business, and relocated to Bristol, Conn.
Six months earlier, Levy’s agent Steve Lefkowitz received a call from the “Kingmaker” and then-soon to be ESPN Vice President of Talent Al Jaffe looking to recruit Levy to join ESPN, located nearly two-and-a-half hours north. While the network had made Levy a substantial offer, he declined, opting to remain at home working with WCBS-TV as a sports reporter and WFAN doing updates on Mike and the Mad Dog and hosting its Sunday NFL whiparound coverage. Today, Levy is on the verge of celebrating his third decade working at ESPN.
The second time around, ESPN had significantly increased their offer to Levy, and he was told by his agent that the network would not likely give him a third opportunity to join. Feeling an attachment to the New York marketplace, Levy pleaded with television executives at WCBS-TV to promote him to the lead sports anchor; however, he was told that having a 27-year-old in that role would never work in the marketplace.
As he weighed his future and what would be a prudential decision for his career, Levy decided to officially put pen to paper and became a national broadcaster with ESPN, ending his time in New York, N.Y.
During his first week in Bristol, Levy was living in long-term housing provided by the network as he sought to become acclimated with the area and adopt a new lifestyle. On that particular Tuesday night, Levy was feeling apprehensive and lonely and decided to go out to see a movie at 9 p.m. Much to his surprise, he was the only one in the entire theater and thought the show would be canceled because of the meager turnout.
Instead, an employee of the theater knocked on the projection glass behind Levy and asked him if he was ready for the movie, to which Levy replied ‘“Yeah, alright, game on.’” Although he cannot remember the title of the movie he saw, that kind gesture began his assimilation to covering sports nationally, a role that has substantially expanded since his debut on Saturday, Aug. 7, 1993.
Merrick, N.Y. is just a short train ride away from “The Big Apple,” the number one media market in the world, and is where Levy was raised. From the time he was young, he was conscious of the sports landscape of the area, closely following the NFL and NHL with hopes of one day playing professionally.
Just as many aspiring athletes eventually discover, Levy recognized he was “remarkably average” at everything, and while he was enamored with playing the game, knew it was not a viable career path for him. By instead pursuing a career in sports media, he could remain around the games with which he was enamored while significantly diminishing the risk of suffering formidable physical injuries.
“I had a chance for a long career without getting beaten up on a regular basis and it’s really worked out,” Levy said. “Honestly, I still sort of can’t believe it. I know my parents can’t believe it.”
From the time he was 17 years old and approaching his graduation from John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y., Levy aimed to position himself to attain a sustainable career in sports media. When he was applying for college, he desired to attend Syracuse University, as it was known for its excellence in media studies and vast alumni network.
However, his parents only had enough money to send one of their two children to a private college. Since his sister was a better student than he, the State University of New York Oswego was where he would earn his degree in communications, concentrated in broadcasting. It ended up being the second-best professional decision he ever made, coming after joining ESPN; yet the latter may not have been as feasible without the former.
“Because they have all this great equipment and all these things for broadcasters to do, it was my understanding that freshmen, sophomores [and] sometimes even juniors don’t get to do any of that because they’re in such demand for all their great opportunities at Syracuse; you had to be maybe a senior even to be able to get near any of that stuff,” Levy recalled. “At Oswego with lesser studios and lesser equipment, there were more opportunities to do it right away.”
Indeed in his freshman year, Levy became a member of various student-run media outlets, including WTOP-TV, WOCR Radio, and The Oswegonian newspaper (where he began writing his own weekly column called “Levy’s Lines”). By the time he was a junior, he was named the sports director of the television station and became sports editor of the newspaper in his senior year. Simultaneously, Levy worked with WABC-AM as a part-time reporter while in college, giving him early professional experience and exposure in the industry.
Once he graduated, Levy went to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. – not as a student, but to work in his first professional job compiling the “Jets Report” for WNBC-AM. Beginning in 1968, Levy’s childhood team, the New York Jets, practiced on the school’s north campus – sometimes in front of fans – until 2008. In this role, he worked at the radio station behind current Seattle Mariners play-by-play announcer Dave Sims and New York Knicks and NBA on ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen, primarily assembling the “Jets Report” and filling in for them on the SportsNight program.
A couple of years later, Levy joined WFAN during its first year on the air as the host of The NFL in Action and a contributor on some of the station’s radio shows, including Imus in the Morning and the aforementioned Mike and the Mad Dog. Rather than solely working in radio, Levy also joined the Madison Square Garden Network as a host of MSG SportsDesk and intermission updates for both the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers.
Being on the air professionally in New York City is no easy task for most broadcasters, especially recent college graduates; therefore it helps to have a keen awareness of industry trends and a wide array of connections to effectively get started. Luckily for Levy, his father was friends with a prominent broadcast agent who agreed to look at Levy’s demo reel coming out of college. It was through this connection that Levy was introduced to Lefkowitz, and ultimately how he landed his first professional job with WNBC-AM.
Starting in 1992, Levy joined WCBS-TV, the local New York station, as a sports anchor and reporter, giving him the chance to cover the sports teams he grew up watching. Levy primarily worked on weekends, doing sports on Friday and Saturday nights alongside lead news anchor Brian Williams. At the same time, Levy remained at WFAN working four days a week on radio and was satisfied with his career. In short, ESPN was never the goal.
“I was not one of those people watching ESPN growing up and in college,” Levy said. “I was strictly a local guy; I wanted nothing more than New York City.”
Nonetheless, Levy signed a deal with the national network and found himself anchoring the 2 a.m. edition of SportsCenter with now-Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech – which was subsequently replayed 12 times through the morning hours. The half-hour program brought fans all of the scores and news around sports both at the professional and collegiate levels, covering every game despite there being commercial breaks.
“I recognize the power of that show and being national,” Levy said. “I still love to go to games and I found myself still going to games as a fan. I’d go around and I’d see Charles Barkley at a game and he knew my name. Ken Griffey Jr. knew my name – and that was really weird to me…. That really made me think about the power of the show [and] the real responsibility of the show to get [it] right.”
Levy, along with all of the network’s young anchors, came in trying to emulate the styles of Keith Olbermann or Dan Patrick, the two lead hosts of SportsCenter at the time. That is, all but one.
“We all came in trying to be Dan or Keith and then you realize you can’t be either of them because that’s how great they are and then you eventually settle into who you are,” Levy said. “Stuart Scott was special. He immediately knew who he was [and] he wasn’t trying to be anybody else.”
Over the years, Levy has gained a deep understanding of what players go through on a daily basis through his research and interactions with them. He is cognizant of the reach of the platform and how it has shifted, requiring the flagship show of the network to do more than just read scores to attract and enthrall audiences on a daily basis.
“It’s real easy at 2 in the morning [when] you’re wearing makeup sitting in Bristol to do bloopers [and] to make wise cracks,” Levy said. “‘Look at this guy. He can’t catch that! Come on, man.’ That kind of thing and then you go into the locker room and you see these guys the next day and all of a sudden, [it’s] ‘Wait a second, this is real.’ If I make that same joke in New York about Ken Griffey Jr., there’s no way he’s seeing it but if I say that on ESPN; he, his family, the manager, the coaches, the general manager [and] all the fans [are] seeing it.”
Beginning in 1994, Levy started his foray into national play-by-play announcing across many different sports. At the time, ESPN held national broadcast rights for the National Hockey League and found himself working with Bill Clement at a sold-out Madison Square Garden for a Wednesday night matchup between the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames.
Once the Rangers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks, he worked with former NHL defenseman and head coach Barry Melrose bringing fans unparalleled coverage of the action.
Once ESPN reacquired part of the NHL’s national broadcast rights in a seven-year agreement, the iconic theme song was re-recorded and the coverage was revamped in an effort to grow the game of hockey and reimagine the ways in which it is covered.
Before the start of last season, ESPN named Levy as the lead studio host for its NHL coverage and was tabbed to work with new analysts and members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Mark Messier and Chris Chelios.
“I knew both of them personally prior to working with them,” Levy said of his new colleagues. “I’ve really enjoyed the relationship we’ve had; I just wish we were able to do it on a regular basis…. In the second half, we’ll get into a regular rhythm. I thought we were really clicking on all cylinders last year in the postseason and in the Stanley Cup Finals when I got to work with those guys on a regular basis.”
Messier and Chelios had some previous experience entering their new roles as studio analysts, working with local and national sports networks and occasionally appearing as guest commentators.
In spite of that, Levy treated them like rookies last season, as it was their first substantial experience working regularly with a national platform, and is excited to continue their partnership and enhance the coverage of the sport.
“I can’t throw them a curveball; they know everything,” Levy expressed. “It’s just [if you] can say it in 20 seconds and make it informative and be entertaining at the same time. That’s kind of the trick. They’ve made great strides and I think come this postseason, we’ll be really excellent, entertaining and a fun show to watch.”
Levy continues to work as a play-by-play announcer on NHL coverage, and holds the distinction of calling two of the three longest overtime games in Stanley Cup Playoffs history – both of which took five extra periods to decide.
Additionally, he has been behind the microphone for the network’s football coverage working with Brian Griese and Todd McShay calling weekly college football games on ESPN and ABC beginning in 2016. It is a role he worked earlier in his career on Friday nights from 1999 until 2002, and something that prepared him when he was named as the new voice of Monday Night Football in 2019.
As both a host and a play-by-play announcer, Levy describes his style as minimalistic, trying to make sure to read sponsorships and set his analyst up to effectively translate esoteric knowledge into concise, comprehensible points.
“I really feel that I know what I don’t know and I’m never trying to fool anyone with all of my knowledge,” Levy said. “I think that’s a strength of mine because in whatever sport it is, I’m sitting next to experts on the subject. I think better than me giving my explanation of why something might have happened, why not ask the Hall of Famer who’s lived it?”
Levy worked on Monday nights with Griese and Louis Riddick before the network reassigned him in a multiplatform role prior to this season, coinciding with the additions of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to the lead television broadcast booth.
Throughout this NFL season, Levy called a Week 2 matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills and a Week 8 international game from Wembley Stadium in London, England between the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars. Additionally, he has called multiple NFL games on ESPN Radio, a challenge that has elevated his skills as an all-around broadcaster.
“All this stuff that I don’t have to say on television where most of my career has been spent – I have to say all of that so that’s really hard on the radio analyst,” Levy said. “….The radio analyst has very, very little time to get in a story, an anecdote and be funny – all those kinds of things – and analyze the play. I really find radio difficult, [but it] it is really enjoyable.”
Calling NFL games nationally requires a shift in preparation, as the broadcasters are not usually around the teams every week and, once on the air, are speaking to a broader audience. It demands extensive research, notetaking and interviewing in advance of each matchup to bring consumers a product they use to effectively follow the game and return to later for future matchups.
“You spend the majority of that week really drilling down – it’s a ton of reading; it’s a ton of talking to people; it’s a lot of meetings but it’s really enjoyable,” Levy said. “I enjoy the process of preparing for an NFL game the way the week breaks down.”
From the start of his career, Levy’s talent as a broadcaster, combined with knowing the right people and taking chances on new opportunities, has propelled him into a stellar national television personality. Over the years, he has made cameos in various movies, including Million Dollar Arm, Tooth Fairy and Fever Pitch, and also hosts the annual U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Celebration.
At his alma mater, Levy was the recipient of the inaugural G.O.L.D. Award honoring distinguished graduates who have achieved success in their careers and also had the press box at the Marano Campus Center Arena named in his honor. He also maintains the Steve Levy ‘87 Broadcasting Summer Internship Fund which is given to a broadcasting student looking to gain professional experience and compensates their cost of tuition and housing expenses that may otherwise prevent them from doing so.
As he gives back to his community and makes time for aspiring professionals looking to enter the field, he compels them to seize any opportunity given to them and build relationships.
When he was working with WABC-AM, the station provided him a chance to cover the PGA Tour Westchester Classic in Rye, N.Y., and although he was not interested in golf, he learned about it and served as a stringer from the tournament. It helped him broaden his skill set and move up in the industry, as he knew that if he turned it down, somebody else would be ready to take the chance and therefore have a leg up on him.
Opportunities to stand out extend far beyond what one may see media professionals doing on the silver screen – and in such a competitive industry, they have the power to rapidly determine a career trajectory and overall potential.
“When you’re coming out of college, nothing is beneath you in the business within reason,” Levy expressed. “What I mean by that is if you’re interning someplace and somebody asks you, ‘Hey, can you get me a cup of coffee?,’ go get the cup of coffee for that person…. Don’t come in with an attitude. Don’t come in with, ‘I have a degree. This is beyond me; this is beneath me. I didn’t go to Syracuse to go get people coffee.’ Just go get the cup of coffee; I promise you it will work out.”
Without doing the small things to advance his career, it would have been much more difficult, if not near impossible, for Steve Levy to establish himself as a versatile broadcaster at ESPN. By staying ready to take on anything thrown in his direction and carrying himself with alacrity and enthusiasm for the profession, he has become a venerable staple of sports coverage who has had the chance to cover many enduring moments over the last three decades.
“It’s a relationship business, and all those things of ‘Have your eyes open’; ‘Have your ears open’; ‘Listen more than you talk’; all those things you’ve heard; all the clichés,” Levy said. “They’re all very true and have all been very successful and really helped me out to achieve whatever success I have to this point.”
(Photo: ESPN Images)
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
How Stephen A. Smith Used Sports Radio to Continue His Pay-Raise Crusade
Stephen A. knows how to stay relevant, and migrating his influence to radio hits on several stations keeps him relevant, it keeps First Take relevant, and more importantly, it keeps ESPN relevant.
There’s a saying in the entertainment industry: “The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder”. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith is the sports world’s embodiment of Kris Jenner’s “always find a spot in the limelight” approach.
Smith has been adamant for a few weeks now that he is underpaid at ESPN, going as far to claim he takes less money so others can get paid more than they should. There have been many who have taken stances against that insinuation from the First Take panelist, but that’s not what this column is going to be about.
Stephen A. is the king of staying relevant and constantly being in the conversation. ESPN is the king of creating an echo chamber to amplify outlandish opinions. It’s truly a match made in heaven.
And yet, I couldn’t help but notice Stephen A. broadening his hot-take horizons this week by poking the bear of local sports radio hosts. Honestly, it was a brilliant play.
Smith picked a fight with 105.3 The Fan morning hosts Shan Shariff and RJ Choppy this week during his comments centered on the Dallas Cowboys. Shan and RJ played right into Smith’s hands by spending significant portions of their show discussing his comments, and then welcoming him onto their program for more than 20 minutes.
Later in the same day, Smith created headlines by being in a slight contentious interview with Steiny & Guru on 95.7 The Game in San Francisco where he called the hosts “ridiculously clueless” for their opinions that the Warriors dynasty is over.
Give the man credit, he’s not dumb. He knows what does and doesn’t work, what does and doesn’t create content, and what does and doesn’t create ratings. I’ve seen many decry the ratings of First Take as the reason Stephen A. Smith isn’t underpaid. My rebuttal would be what would the show’s ratings be without him. I think we all get into the mindset that ESPN pulls a couple million viewers for each show simply because we turn the TV on, we flip it to ESPN, and it stays there while you scroll through — apparently dying — Twitter. ESPN is constantly on at sports bars and doctors offices, therefore Stephen A. Smith’s influence is exaggerated, is generally the consensus by many.
But Stephen A. knows how to stay relevant, and migrating his influence to radio hits on several stations keeps him relevant, it keeps First Take relevant, and more importantly, it keeps ESPN relevant. It seems to be a sort of sports network playbook to have someone that can go on radio shows and spit a little hot-takery.
Think about it. ESPN has Stephen A. Smith, coupled with Dan Orlovsky for the NFL and Paul Finebaum for college football. FOX has Nick Wright, and NBC has Chris Simms and Mike Florio. These guests appearances all come back around to “listen to my (network produced) podcast” or “watch my (network produced) television show” where they say those same things. It’s promotion plain and simple, but it rarely turns into “because I’m on your show, think about me and how much money I should be paid”, but credit to Stephen A., the man is pulling it off.
Sports radio offers an expanded reach that First Take alone doesn’t provide. I don’t know that that’s an opinion as much as it is a fact. On a recent episode of The Sports Talkers Podcast, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio told Stephen Strom he has never spent one dollar on advertising his website. He did, however, accept any and every opportunity to appear on sports radio shows to serve as a quasi-insider for the show, and push people to his website.
Now, why would Florio do that? Because sports radio works. It’s a great promotion tool. And Stephen A. would know that as well as anyone.
In a crusade to point out you should be paid more, spouting it from the rooftops of your mid-morning television program alone isn’t going to get it done. You have to take your message to the people. And that’s exactly what Stephen A. Smith has done.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio.