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Through Several Changes, Dan Bernstein Remains Chicago Radio Royalty

“I think there are artistic merits about whether or not a show is good. that is different [from] whether or not a show is making money.”

Derek Futterman

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From the moment Dan Bernstein arrived at Duke University in the fall of 1987, his intent was to become a lawyer. By the spring of 1987, he recognized that his goal had changed, aligning with his nascent love for sports and media. Hardly negligent in exploring opportunities on campus, Bernstein inquired about joining Cable 13, which was the first student-run and student-owned college television station in the United States. Once he was added to the talent roster, he formed a group of friends and was eager to have opportunities to cover events on and around campus as a journalist.

With its robust basketball program, Duke University attracted the attention of more than just college media outlets though, as there were, and remain, plenty of local and national writers and broadcasters on-site to cover Blue Devils basketball, lead at the time by its famed head coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”). Bernstein was quickly enamored with sports media and decided to dismiss his case of becoming a lawyer to build a career in it, preferably as a play-by-play announcer.

When he was young, Bernstein grew up as a sports fan and was familiar with sports broadcasting. However, sports talk radio as a format had not yet evolved into what it is today.

As a result, he never seriously considered it as a viable career profession, instead intending to study law. Yet once Bernstein discovered play-by-play, he began investing his time into improving his craft as an announcer and served in that role for both the basketball and football team during his time at the school.

Moreover, he had his first chance to participate in studio coverage as the Duke University Sports Center host, filling in for then-host and Duke basketball player Billy King (who would go on to be an NBA assistant coach and general manager). Working alongside the show’s producer, Bernstein honed his skills by contributing to the broadcast wherever he could in roles varying from voicing highlights to booking interviews.

“We had so much fun and so much access – starting to get press passes for the first time and being in and around professionals doing it – that it made me think about pursuing it more and pursuing some internships in the ensuing years and building out my work in the summers,” Bernstein said. “….[I] eventually [decided] that I would give it a shot when all was said and done with college because it seemed a hell of a lot more fun than being a lawyer.”

Throughout his time as an undergraduate student majoring in English, Bernstein looked for external opportunities to enhance his involvement with the on-campus television station and eventual foray into sports media. The first of those roles was public address announcing for the Madison Muskies, the then-Class A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, giving him access to the press box and the ability to make observations about working in professional sports.

The next summer though, Bernstein shifted his focus when he accepted an internship at WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago: his first time working in a major market.

Working in news media rather than sports media differs in the subject matter being covered. However, many of the roles within that sector of the industry are quite analogous to those in the other. While he ultimately ended up in sports media, Bernstein always tried to stay informed on what was going on in the world and still does to this day, possessing a cognizance of its profound importance.

Having experience in both news and sports makes him a well-rounded and versatile broadcaster who, when the moment calls for it, is able to seamlessly make the transition from talking about sports to delivering and analyzing breaking news.

“There’s no such thing as sports writing; there’s no such thing as sports broadcasting,” Bernstein said. “There’s writing [and] there is broadcasting. The same skills one would use to cover a local school board meeting and ask questions to the people involved [are] the same skills one would use to have opinions or do analysis of government for the very same skills…. The idea of coverage in media and all of what we do – anybody who is good at it should be able to cover any aspect of it no matter what it is.”

Bernstein occasionally makes guest appearances on national news networks such as CNN and MSNBC to offer his opinion on topics unrelated to sports. Although he has not worked in news media since his internship with WBBM-TV, the experience it provided him was invaluable in shaping him into a multi-faceted broadcaster and commentator.

“In polarized times, the danger of segmenting the audience is always present,” expressed Bernstein, “but I still think that smart people can have discussions where larger contexts are understood if not necessarily addressed directly.”

Over his remaining years in school, Bernstein landed a sports internship at WTVD-TV, an ABC affiliate in Durham, N.C. where he had the opportunity to work behind the scenes for much of its sports coverage, such as broadcast-style writing, gathering and editing highlights and sometimes being able to conduct interviews. The station covered various college sports in the area, along with the Durham Bulls.

Prior to interning with WTVD-TV, Bernstein had taken it upon himself to find a way to get experience in a broadcast booth, whether that be as a play-by-play announcer or color commentator. Working alongside Craig Wallin, the radio voice of the then-Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox known as the South Bend White Sox, Bernstein was able to go behind the microphone and be on the radio call.

As an aspiring broadcaster, he looked up to former Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully and used him as inspiration to attempt to develop an on-air style, but doing that was more difficult than he originally surmised.

Once he was able to establish a distinctive style and continued to get more opportunities to practice calling games, Bernstein worked with multiple sports franchises over the ensuing years. His initial play-by-play career began as a baseball broadcaster for both minor league affiliates of the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs.

Additionally, he served as the play-by-play voice of the Raleigh Bullfrogs of the Global Basketball Association, along with the Rockford Lightning in the Continental Basketball Association. These experiences calling different sports allowed Bernstein to get a broader view of play-by-play announcing and enhanced his ability to be a storyteller, especially within the parameters of aural mediums such as radio. Later in his career, he served as the voice of DePaul Blue Demons men’s basketball and the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League.

“Play-by-play is the ultimate form of journalism in that you are describing what you see as you see it and then providing context,” Bernstein said. “It depends if you are working with a partner or working with a two-person booth if the job is different. There is an immediacy to an encapsulated event that is different [from] showing up and talking about anything and everything.”

In 1995, Bernstein joined WSCR (“670 The Score”) as a reporter and anchor, but he had noticed the station long before that when it first launched on the 820 AM signal. At the time, Bernstein was working in nearby Rockford, Ill. and recognized the launch of a radio station broadcasting in the sports talk format akin to WFAN in New York – both of which were owned by the Infinity Broadcasting Corporation.

Once he joined the station, he was immediately thrust into action covering the Chicago Bulls’ three consecutive league championships from 1996 to 1998, the second time the franchise achieved this feat in the decade. Today, he still writes about sports as 670 The Score’s senior columnist

“I just thought ‘Wow, how cool is this? They talk [about] Chicago sports all day, every day,’ and it was just kind of a novelty,” Bernstein said. “Falling in there to that reporters’ opportunity having a foot in the door and being able to move back to my hometown – I would like to say that there was some grand plan to want to be a sports talk host but I never really had the opportunity to want to do it until I was doing it.”

Four years after joining 670 The Score, Bernstein became a full-time on-air host and was paired with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Terry Boers on the eponymous radio program Boers and Bernstein. The show was centered around various recurring segments, some of which involved callers, and the frequent disagreements the hosts would have both internally and externally.

Additionally, the hosts did impersonations of figures in Chicago sports, including broadcasters Steve Stone and Len Kasper.

The show lasted for nearly 17 years before Boers’ departure from the station and was the longest-running sports talk radio show in the city of Chicago, achieving success in the ratings over the years across multiple dayparts. Both hosts closely followed Chicago sports teams and came to the studio each day with topics they believed would be entertaining and engaging for the listening audience to hear about.

“I think if anything we tried to balance the inherent absurdity of sports talk with, at times, the seriousness of sports talk on its merits,” Bernstein said. “It’s something that I think our partnership was forged in a way that we both felt strongly on where that line was and when it was time to be serious and when it was time to be ridiculous, understanding the very nature of the enterprise could in and of itself be ridiculous.”

Bernstein was aware of his role as a host to focus on the on-air content and what would keep people coming back to listen to the show again as regular consumers. His hosting style, as he puts it, is something he is not able to accurately delineate; instead, he simply speaks when the on-air light turns red and stops when it turns off.

Instead, it is ultimately the role of producers and programmers to closely follow the ratings to ensure the profitability of the show and the listeners to define his hosting style.

“I think there are artistic merits about whether or not a show is good. that is different [from] whether or not a show is making money,” Bernstein explained. “Ultimately our success or failure, especially at a publicly-traded company, is going to be judged by that. Whether or not I think a show was entertaining or good or funny or important or clever will often be entirely independent of any of the objective metrics that would measure it.”

Authenticity is an essential trait for radio broadcasters to have in today’s era and it is something Bernstein unequivocally demonstrates as a sports talk radio show host. Part of that comes in his preparation for shows, nearly all of which are done without writing down notes or key points beforehand, and reacting in the moment to dialogue being had or relevant and topical events.

“The only notes I’ve ever started a show with would be a general one-word or two-word phrase for a segment just so I know what to tease going into the segment,” Bernstein revealed. “Everything else just comes right out.”

Mitch Rosen has been a consistent presence, colleague and friend of Bernstein’s who was central in making programming decisions as program director of 670 The Score. Rosen remains with the station as its PD but has since added director of operations duties for the BetQL Network.

Having known each other for an extended period of time, there are several factors that remain critical in Rosen and Bernstein maintaining a productive and professional relationship.

“Communication – I think on a friendship level – and on a professional level of being able to speak frankly and being able to be aware of everything that’s going on and never having too much of an ego, being able to take criticism and always knowing that our dialogue can go in both directions,” Bernstein said. “That’s not just for me, I think that’s for all the hosts. I can’t individually speak for everybody, but I know that his style is one that is very talent-friendly and is aware of some of the unique idiosyncrasies that the people who do what we do can tend to have.”

Boers’ departure from 670 The Score in late 2016 resulted in Bernstein having to pair with a new co-host for the first time during his tenure at the station. Jason Goff, who was the longtime producer of Boers and Bernstein, took over as the co-host of the program, resulting in a change in the dynamic of the show. After all, the goal of the new program was not to replicate Boers and Bernstein; rather it was to craft its own sound and type of coaction that would generate informative and entertaining sports talk radio.

“Every show has its own feel [and] its own characteristic, and I don’t think any partnership should ever try to chase what any other show did – especially because all of these creative endeavors are so specific to a time and a place,” Bernstein said. “You couldn’t do the Boers and Bernstein show now; it would be canceled after the first segment. Any individual show that we did would be a scandal because the rules are different now.”

In November 2017, 670 The Score – which was under ownership by CBS Radio – along with several other stations under that umbrella were purchased by Entercom (renamed “Audacy”) in a merger deal worth approximately $1.7 billion. Experienced radio executive Jimmy de Castro was subsequently announced as the new market manager and senior vice president of Entercom Chicago, meaning that he would oversee the company’s seven Chicago-based radio stations.

De Castro sought to consolidate operations by making more efficient use of office space and the advertising workforce, along with revamping programming on 670 The Score to ensure it would continue to both innovate and sustain its success. Part of that decision involved overhauling Bernstein’s program by terminating Goff and having Bernstein briefly host shows solo until Goff’s replacement was found.

Connor McKnight, a sports broadcaster who also received his undergraduate degree majoring in English, albeit at the University of Wisconsin, was chosen to be Bernstein’s new co-host, officially forming Bernstein and McKnight. McKnight had a previous stint working at 670 The Score after he won a talent search competition but left to work with WLS-AM as the host of Chicago White Sox pregame and postgame coverage. The duo worked together for just over two years before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in layoffs of several Entercom employees including McKnight.

During the nine months in which Bernstein was without a co-host, the world grappled with the reality of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic and did everything possible to try to quickly cease its spread. Sports leagues initially came to a halt as basketball and hockey were on the cusp of their playoffs and baseball was nearly set to break spring training and begin the season. For nearly a month beginning in mid-April 2020, Michael Jordan reemerged into the spotlight with the premiere of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Last Dance.” During the summer months, many sports leagues finally returned to finish their respective seasons in bubble formats without fans in attendance.

Sports talk radio had changed as well, superficially in terms of topic selection but also regarding how it would reach listeners, many of whom were not traveling nearly as much as before. As the industry innovated and redoubled its efforts to prioritize the evolution of digital platforms, 670 The Score announced the addition of Leila Rahimi, the first time the station named a woman as a weekday daytime host.

Rahimi, who joined the station in January 2021 after being laid off by NBC Sports Chicago, worked with Bernstein on the Bernstein and Rahimi show. Rahimi was known on the program due to her previous weekly appearances on Wednesdays and the new duo experienced success in the ratings, achieving a 5.9 share among the men aged 25-54 listener demographic in the Nielsen summer 2021 ratings book.

Despite the success, though, she always had a desire to return to working in television. In April 2022, Rahimi broke another boundary by becoming the lead sports anchor on NBC5 Chicago, the first time a woman would hold that role. While she no longer hosts on the station full-time, she does make weekly appearances on the new Bernstein and Holmes show for “Leila Wednesdays.”

“Her contribution to the show remains very, very strong and her importance to the brand of the Bernstein and Holmes show is still tremendously important,” Bernstein expressed. “….I want what is absolutely best for her and it turns out that we were able to have our cake and eat it too to be able to continue doing a dynamic radio show with her involved in it.”

Over their careers, both Dan Bernstein and Laurence Holmes have experienced sustained levels of success as sports talk radio hosts. His fourth partner in seven years since the departure of Boers, Holmes was hosting nighttime shows solo on 670 The Score before being added to middays, initially a source of stress for him.

Since they began working together in June, the show has been well-received by listeners, being voted as the best daytime sports radio show in a recent survey by The Athletic. The fit has been “natural from the very start,” according to Bernstein, who described the dynamic of two hosts with vast experience hosting programs solo akin to the sport he covered on the hardwood early in his reporting days

“It’s the equivalent of having a backcourt with two guards who can play on-the-ball or off-the-ball and are equally comfortable understanding when someone else is better off with the ball or when you’re better off with the ball and initiating the offense,” he said. “I’ve worked with Laurence for years in so many different capacities and we have such a long and shared history that it has come naturally in a way that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Being able to gauge the interest level regarding certain topics among Chicago sports fans has changed in the sense that there is more synergy between people taking place on social media platforms. Even though social media was not yet developed when Bernstein began hosting in 1999, he has been able to adapt and use the platform to his advantage; in fact, he was voted in the aforementioned survey by The Athletic as the top sports-related Twitter user to follow regarding Chicago sports. Not everything on one’s social media feed, though, should be solely related to sports as it fails to put larger events into context.

“Follow accounts that are funny, informative and interesting,” Bernstein suggested, “and I think importantly – and I think this has been a significant thread to all the shows that we’ve done – where we may not be talking about the world outside of sports [but] it is critical to be aware of everything else that matters so much more. Without a larger context regarding everything that’s happening in the world, the sports become elevated to a level of significance it doesn’t really deserve.”

For aspiring broadcasters looking to work within sports media, Bernstein reminds them not to limit their options to just that; instead, it is better to be versatile and have the ability to work in different areas of media altogether. From the moment you begin in the industry at any level though, it is essential one holds themself to a standard by recognizing their own ability and areas in which they can make improvements by emulating strong broadcasters and frequently critiquing oneself. Aside from the craft though, there is a piece of advice Bernstein gives to those beginning in an industry where it can be difficult to build and maintain a steady career.

“Take care of your parents, especially in the early stages of this business,” he said. “Without supportive, loving parents – and sometimes without supportive, loving parents with enough disposable income to get you through some of the lean times – you’re already at a major disadvantage. The best thing you can have are people who are helping you and rooting for you as well.”

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If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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