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The Journey of Bill Riley Becoming the Voice of Utah Involves A Strat-O-Matic and a Jockstrap

“I’m like, ok, I need a job, it was a really good one and there was a lot of opportunity,” Riley said. “So I accepted. I go to the airport, call the family and they say, ok, time for an adventure.”

Tyler McComas

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Bill Riley

There’s a really good chance Bill Riley is doing some reflecting this week. With that reflecting, there’s undoubtedly a lot of smiling as he thinks about the 21-year anniversary of arriving in Salt Lake City.

As the voice of the Utah Utes, Real Salt Lake and the host of The Bill Riley Show on ESPN 700, Riley feels like a native Utahan, which is maybe the nicest compliment you can give to a host that’s not native to the market they work in. The truth is Riley has a midwestern background with career stops that sound like someone closed their eyes, threw darts at a map and moved to wherever each one landed. 

Salt Lake City was never in the plans when he graduated from The University of Kansas in 1992, but neither was sports radio. The goal in the beginning was play-by-play and he chased that dream all across the Midwest in the early 90s. After sending out cassette tapes to anyone and everyone in the region, his first gig out of college was in Topeka, KS as an intern at WIBW. He found one of his mentors there in Greg Sharpe, who’s now the voice of Nebraska Football. 

“I was just going to take what I got,” said Riley. 

In 1992, the sports talk radio format wasn’t exactly in every city across the country and it certainly wasn’t present in the small midwestern towns Riley was finding himself in. So when he left Topeka for Hastings, a small town in Nebraska, it was mostly for the opportunity to do play-by-play at KHAS Radio. 

“I did everything there,” Riley said. “Production, sales, DJ shifts, play-by-play, all of it. It was a small AM station and I got up there and realized they hired another guy for the same job. The station fired their longtime sports and play-by-play guy and hired two of us for the price of one. I was making just under 12,000 dollars a year.”

After six months, Riley was off to his next stop in Moberly, Missouri which is located just north of Columbia. KWIX and KRES were a full-service AM and FM station that did everything from farm reports to country music to play-by-play broadcasting for high school and junior college games. Riley didn’t necessarily want or see a future for himself as a music DJ or a guy giving farm reports on the air, but he knew he had to be versatile and do different things if he wanted to call games at night. It was a labor of love. 

“I didn’t get paid any extra to do games,” Riley said. “But I moved up from making 12,000 a year to 15,000 a year.”

Riley was in Moberly for around two years and was about ready to move on to another stop. It was March of 1994 and he was in Kansas City for the Big 8 Basketball Tournament. He ran into an old friend that told him he was leaving his radio job in Wichita and mentioned he’d pass Riley’s name along to fill his position. Three months later, Riley was at KNSS Radio in Wichita, the flagship of Wichita State. 

That summer was the same year as the MLB strike. At that time, there was nothing going on in Wichita in August. So he teamed with a legendary voice in town to create a unique bit that exploded in popularity. 

“Mike Kennedy, who’s still there, he’s the voice of Shockers, was working with me at KNSS,” Riley said. “So we created a play-by-play series with Strat-O-Matic between the Expos and Yankees. We did a mock play-by-play and won a bunch of awards for it.”

Bill Riley
Strat O Matic

The stop in Wichita allowed Riley to call women’s basketball games for Wichita State. But it also introduced him to sports talk radio. KNSS had an hour-long evening sports talk show and he was a part of it. It was new to him, but he loved it. 

Six months had gone by and the PD who hired him, Mary Beal, was off to Jacksonville to a news talk station that had just received the rights to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Beal called Riley and said she needed a sports director who could host a show, give sports updates and host pre and post game shows for the Jaguars. At just 25 years old, Riley was leaving the Midwest for an NFL market in Florida. He was now the sports director at WOKV Radio. 

“I did it for a year and a half and then the ownership was sold,” Riley said. “The new boss called me in and said, how would you like to start a sports talk radio station? I said, what are you talking about? There was already a sports station in town, but he wanted to start a competitor station.”

WBWL The Ball was born soon after in 1996. 600 AM was the frequency and the group began the new venture into sports talk with advertising that struck a chord with people in town. 

“We put up billboards all over town with a giant jockstrap,” laughed Riley. “That got people’s attention. Some people got pissed off.”

The station was seemingly an instant success. Ratings were strong and the locals loved them. Riley was hosting morning drive and also serving as the play-by-play voice for Jacksonville University. Life was good. He was realizing both a dream in calling games, plus his newfound passion for sports talk radio.

But in 2000, Cox Communications bought the radio group. At the time, ratings were great and the station had around 14 full-time employees. But a man by the name of Dick Williams was the new GM and his initial meeting with the employees at the sports radio station was eye-opening. 

“He said, Cox Communications doesn’t like sports stations,’ Riley recalled. “We’re looking at each other saying, huh? Then he told us we’d have a chance to prove ourselves.”

Over the course of the next year, the ratings at The Ball continued to be great. But what was once a sales staff of five full-time employees, seemingly dwindled down by the month. It seemed a different sales person was being reassigned to another station in the cluster every month.

The ratings were great, sure, but there was no tangible revenue because there was sometimes just one person selling the station. It gave Cox Communications the excuse to pull the plug. Thirteen employees, including Riley, were out of a job. Suddenly, just like the kid fresh out of KU, he was sending tapes across the country trying to find his next job. 

A father of a one-year-old, Riley was scrambling to find his next job. Luckily he knew a man by the name of Dennis Kelly, who was consulting KSO in Salt Lake City. The station was looking for an afternoon sports guy, as well someone who could host coaches shows and pre and post game shows for BYU. Riley found himself in contact with the station about the opening. But at the same time, he was also talking to KMOX in St. Louis, who was looking for a pre and post game host for the Cardinals, as well as other responsibilities. 

St Louis made a lot of sense, seeing as he grew up in Kansas City. Plus, KMOX was a big deal. Riley listened to the station growing up and idolized both Jack Buck and Mike Shannon as a kid growing up. Needless to say, St. Louis had a special draw to him. But he couldn’t afford to be picky. He needed his next job in the worst way. 

“You know how things work in our business, it was a snail’s pace,” Riley said. “Then KSL offered to fly me out. I had never been to Salt Lake City in my life.”

Riley was given the full-treatment by KSL. By the end of the trip, he had a job offer in hand. 

“I’m like, ok, I need a job, it was a really good one and there was a lot of opportunity,” Riley said. “So I accepted. I go to the airport, call the family and they say, ok, time for an adventure.”

But before his flight back home arrives, he gets a call. It’s none other than KMOX in St. Louis.

“They called me and said we’d like to bring you in for an interview,” Riley said. “I said I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m sitting in Salt Lake International Airport and I just accepted a job at KSL. He said, “Wow, we like you a lot but our corporate policy is we have to do in-person interviews.”

“I said I literally just accepted the job an hour and a half ago. If you can offer me the job over the phone I’ll call them back and tell them no. He said, I’d love to do that but I can’t. We’re not allowed to do that. I said, “I never thought I’d have to say this, but I have to turn down KMOX.”

So off to Salt Lake City he went. Little did he know, but 21 years later he’d still be in the mountain town he now calls home. That long and winding journey is probably what he’s reflecting on now. There’s no thoughts on what could have been with St. Louis. It’s more thankful that Salt Lake City happened. 

Salt Lake City has been great to him and his family, even during the times where there’s been drama. In 2004, he was hosting BYU pre and post game shows, coaches shows and doing sideline reporting. But Utah was rolling under Urban Meyer, while BYU was faltering under Gary Crowton. It was during that time Riley got a call from the GM of the Clear Channel Group that owned the Utah flagship.

The GM listened to Riley’s show every night on his drive home to Park City and loved his talent. He wanted to hire Riley as the afternoon drive host at a station that was flipping to all sports. There was even a chance this gig could land him the play-by-play voice of Utah, which is what he really wanted. He accepted the job offer that came with a significant pay raise.

“That year, in early October, one week I was doing BYU pre and post game shows and sideline reporting, the very next, I was doing Utah pre and post game, coaches show with Urban Meyer and afternoon drive on their flagship,” said Riley. “If the rivalry wasn’t intense enough, BYU fans, for a long time, had a special kind of disdain for me.”

Salt Lake City has adopted the midwestern transplant as one of their own. They love him as the voice of the Utes for the 14th year, the first and only play-by-play voice of Real Salt Lake and the host of The Bill Riley Show, doing sports radio for the 18th year at what is now ESPN 700.

“I am living my dream as the voice of the Utes, voice of Real Salt Lake and show host at ESPN 700,” Riley said. 

Tyler McComas: You’re the longtime voice of Real Salt Lake, but how was the transition to calling that sport, learning the lingo and everything else?

Bill Riley: I watched soccer, U.S. men’s national team, but it’s 2004 and the MLS was only like eight years old. If you didn’t have an MLS team in your market, and they didn’t have a TV deal at the time, I didn’t know the league or the players. I knew terminology because I had played when I was younger but I didn’t know the league.

I was really lucky, because I had a guy named Mike Voss, he’s with ESPN, and he was our director and a guy named Ken Neal was our producer. Ken is probably the best producer in America when it comes to soccer. Those two guys basically held my hand the first year and educated me on the league. They were incredible.

TM: You’ve got so much going on. You call Utah games, Real Salt Lake, have a three-hour show and then on top of all that, you’re a PD. A PD job is full-time all in itself. How do you balance that?

BR: Ideally, in a perfect world, there’s a separate PD. But everything is cost prohibitive and you cut corners where you can and save money where you can. I was named de facto PD of this radio station because they really didn’t have anyone else seventeen years ago. I never had any aspirations of being in management that just means more meetings. But they needed me to do it, so I’ve done it. I’ve got help.

I’ve got a guy that handles the operational side of things, which is nice. One of my producers is one of our ops guys, too. He handles a lot of the nuts and bolts of logs and schedules, I handle most of the meetings, creative and sales staff and promotions. It’s still a lot.

I divvy my day up by getting in at 7:30 in the morning and lay out my ideas, even though you’re always preparing for your show and thinking of guests, as well as production stuff. I do that until 11 when I go on the air. My show is 11-2 and after that’s over I try to fit my PD stuff in. 

TM: As the voice of two teams, how do you manage keeping your talk show audience entertained and informed, but also keeping the relationships strong with both Utah and Real Salt Lake?

BR: It’s a walk that you have to learn over time. I’m not going to say there hasn’t been a time I’ve gotten a phone call from a coach or an AD saying, hey, this or that. The good news is, the folks I’ve worked with at Utah, they get it. They love having their play-by-play guy on for three hours a day, because I talk a lot about Utah. You learn to walk the line with what you can and can’t say.

Because as a play-by-play guy you’re privy to a lot of information that normal people aren’t. My listeners know and understand there’s things I won’t touch. Not that I won’t talk about it, but the thing I’ve always said is, you can be critical, just don’t be personal. Especially when dealing with collegiate athletes.

I’m not a hot take guy. I try to come up with creative talking points and discussion points and go from there. But I’m not a hot take guy. Sports talk radio listeners are a lot smarter than they’ve ever been before. Back in the day, we could say, hey, phone lines are open, let’s talk.

You can be lazy that way, but today, you have to give the listener a reason to want to engage. I don’t take as many phone calls, because I don’t think people like to call as much. I use my text line. And the good part about it, even if you have a really good producer screening calls, dummies still get through. On the text line, you can pick and choose. People will engage if you throw the right line in the water.

BSM Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how did NBC get here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

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

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

Demetri Ravanos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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