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Meet the Market Managers: Todd Farquharson, Gow Media Houston

“I can walk into a meeting and say, ‘Well, we’re just like you. We’re a local business born and raised right here in Houston, Texas. So we’re very similar to you.’ I think owners of businesses appreciate that.”

Demetri Ravanos

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MTMM Farquhrson

It isn’t easy to be in the sports radio game in Houston. Todd Farquharson and his team at ESPN Houston know that. Three locally staffed stations and two stations that run national programming give fans in the area a lot of options.

Farquharson talks about how Houston became home to so many sports stations in the latest column in our Meet the Market Managers series presented by Point-to-Point Marketing. He also talks about the things our industry thinks too inwardly on, like dial position and the value of ESPN Radio.

ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 in Houston is built largely on the strength of local sales. For Todd, his sales staff, and his programming staff, that means everyone is important to the clients.

Demetri Ravanos: Let’s talk about the Houston market. There are a lot of sports stations there, and it’s a lot of sports stations fighting for what usually are not big numbers. So what makes it worth it to be in a crowded, small space? 

Todd Farquharson: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been in the sports radio business, I started in ’94 with a local, independent group that would be bought by Clear Channel. It was before there was an all-sports station in town, which became Sports Radio 610.               

Then I guess in 2003, SportsTalk 790 popped up. That’s iHeart’s sports radio station. Our group now was born out of some guys that were at 610. It’s a weird circumstance where you got two competitors were probably enough for this market, but then a third was born out of, “Hey, we want to leave and do our own thing.”            

You’re right. I mean, the Houston sports radio share is probably six or seven when we’re doing well and we’re all fighting for that. What makes it worthwhile is it’s what we know best and it’s where our talent is, and I feel really good about our talent.                      

Ultimately, I’d love to see us grow the market, not just ourselves but the other stations too. Now, I don’t see us working together side-by-side, but what can we do as a sports platform to grow the share? I go to an Astros game and it’s packed with 43,000 people during the playoffs and there’s a lot of fervor and excitement. There’s so many of those people, I guarantee you, that just don’t listen to sports radio. Maybe if they’re exposed to it or give it a shot, they might go, “Wow, I had no idea!” So I hope to not just fight for the sixth share forever. 

DR: Let’s sort of keep it in the realm of what’s going on now. Again, there’s a lot of stations fighting for not a lot of share, but you guys are the only ones on FM. How are you talking about that — whether it is with clients, maybe even prospective hires for you guys? How much are you putting that front and center? 

TF: We certainly make that a big part of our pitch when we’re talking to advertisers. It depends though. The advertisers who know the sports radio space recognize that. Other times, you have to be Captain Obvious and tell the buyer that “this matters because the sound is better.”        

One interesting thing that they wouldn’t know is that we don’t duplicate with the stations very much. There’s very little audience duplication, actually. So you’re reaching totally different people. We crossover mostly with the rock station, with the AC stations, with the urban stations. So we’re going to help you reach a whole different audience.                 

I don’t sell against my competition because if a strategy is working for you on those radio stations, it should work for you on our station. We share the same qualitative demographics in terms of who the listeners are, but ours are totally different set within the demo that happen to be on the FM dial. 

DR: You don’t want to sell against your competition. You want to sell what it is you guys do, but within the industry, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about what exactly the future is for AM radio. So I wonder, does the fact that there are eight car manufacturers that aren’t even putting access to the AM band on the dashboard anymore come up at all in conversations with clients? 

TF: I don’t think it has a lot unless they’re really dialed into the business. It’s not something I want to bring out because, usually, we’re selling schedules for the next three, six, or twelve months. For a lot of people, it’s not a reality yet. So, I think it may come across as negative selling when it’s just not even a factor right now. 

DR: I do want to talk about the way we look at audience now, because I can sit here and say exactly what I said, right? “It’s a small share that everybody’s fighting for.” But that’s not the only way to measure an audience. That might not even be the accurate way to measure it all. So what is it you guys are looking at to understand not just how big the audience is, but what kind of impact you’re content is having on your listeners? 

TF: We certainly want to give the advertisers an ROI. They need the return. So that’s measured often by their experience.             

“Oh man, you know, we are getting some people to walk into the store” or “We’re getting some phone calls” or “The website traffic has gone up 3%.” That’s when we can feel that our ads are working.

But beyond the radio audience itself, we do try to give them exposure to bigger audiences. For example, we have a companion website, SportsMap.com. It’s focused on Astros, Rockets, and Texans. So it’s very much the same content, but a lot of people that land on the website have never listened to the radio station.

As an advertiser, you may reach, let’s say, 100,000 on our radio stations, but there’s another 200,000 a month that will hit this website that you may not be exposed to. We videotape all our live programing. We’ll chop up that video into 30, 60 seconds snippets, put it on Tik Tok, put it on YouTube, put it on Facebook. So we’re exposing other audiences to what we do that, again, probably never listen to sports radio. We get that. We met a few listeners who said, “Man, I discovered you guys on YouTube. I didn’t realize y’all had a radio show.” That happens every day.

DR: That kind of goes exactly to something else I was thinking about as I was putting doing my research and putting this together to chat today. There was a time in this industry when if you said ESPN Houston is on 97.5 and 92.5, that might be deemed by some in the industry as too confusing. But you just hit it on the head, man. People are coming to your content in so many different ways. I would guess that not only is it not even a huge problem anymore, may not even be a consideration for a lot of listeners. 

TF: I think we are so fractured. I mean this morning, I get up early and go walking and I listen to a podcast until our local morning show came on. So I flipped from podcast to stream and I hopped into my car and I’m listening to radio. You know, we all have figured out how to consume multiple mediums, so I would hope somebody can flip a dial from 97.5 to 92.5 easily. 

DR: You guys have been recruiting for a PD in recent months, and I wonder what some of the challenges that came with doing that in 2023 were. What are candidate’s questions and concerns about, not just your business, but the future of radio in general and are they the kinds of questions you had to answer five or ten years ago when you’re doing this? 

TF: Yeah, it’s interesting. Most of the people that were interested in talking to about the job, I don’t think there were a lot of questions to be pointed about where are we going to be in ten years with the industry or where is the media going to be. Maybe I had a few of those, but I guess they were more interested in, “Hey, I’d like to come work there and be a part of the sports radio station.” So we didn’t honestly have that many conversations about the future of it, specifically to our company.

We’re trying to be broader than just radio, as I mentioned. Beyond our digital platform SportsMap.com, we have CultureMap.com. That’s in five cities, the five major cities in Texas. We have an InnovationMap.com. So we have nice digital platforms that expand into different categories and we’re trying to grow that way as well so that we are not siloed into the singularity of sports radio. 

DR: So are you looking for candidates then that can contribute to building the business, in all of those different ways? 

TF: We’re looking for somebody who acknowledges that we are a bigger platform than just sports radio. Maybe sometimes you might be running promos for InnovationMap or CultureMap sponsors an event and we take our sports radio show live from there. Why not be exposed to all these people? So it’s just a matter of working together and realizing that we’re greater together.

DR: In my position, I’ve been studying the changes to ESPN’s business over the last three years. In the industry, we all have opinions about what is the quality of ESPN Radio programming. We all wonder what is the stability of ESPN’s audio product. 

But I want to talk about it with you from the standpoint of people outside of our industry. When you go out on the street, whether it is meeting listeners, meeting potential clients, whatever, do those four letters still carry the weight that they did, say five, ten years ago?

TF: Absolutely. It’s still the biggest brand of sports. You kind of touched on it. We can be hypercritical within the industry, but let’s say I’m talking to a female business owner and she is not really into sports, but she’s open to listening and she wants to reach the right audience. ESPN means something. She’s she knows it. It’s better than, “Hey, it’s Todd’s sports radio,” right? 

DR: I make this joke all the time that in this format, we have a wheel of five words that you’re allowed to name your station – Fan, Ticket, Score. You know the ones. In Hosuton, none of that exists and the branding is clearly laid out with “Sports Radio 610” and “SportsTalk 790”. You guys have gone with a very specific, well-known brand. I mean, that does say something different than “97.5 The Ticket” would. 

TF: Right. We enjoy our partnership with ESPN in terms of even the backstop programing we get. You can never have to apologize because your weekend or evening programing wasn’t great. ESPN does a nice job. So we love that.            

I love when we can carry the Astros. You know, we’re not the flagship, but when ESPN says, “Hey, we’ve got an Astros game and you’re allowed to run it” I just say alright. When the Astros are in the playoffs or in the World Series, we carry all those games, which is fantastic. And we’re able to monetize that in a way in a really nice way. 

DR: The bulk of your business being almost entirely local, tell me a bit about the role that your talent plays in starting and maintaining those client relationships. 

TF: Yeah, you’re right. The national business kind of withers away. As ratings fluctuate, so does national business. But fortunately, we rely on our direct business, the local business.            

I can walk into a meeting and say, “Well, we’re just like you. We’re a local business born and raised right here in Houston, Texas. So we’re very similar to you.” I think owners of businesses appreciate that.                

When it comes to the hosts, they’re very interactive. They’re anxious to create relationships and maintain relationships. A few of our hosts, frankly, are some of our best salespeople, because they meet people out and because they’re on the air. They have engaging personalities and people want to be around them and they get to know them. When those people are like, “Hey, I have a business. How do I start advertising with you guys?” that is who they usually ask. I love and depend on our hosts. They do a terrific job for us. 

DR: So are those hosts that are also going out and doing their own selling? Is it the folks that have been there for a while or when you launched that new afternoon show or bring in Jeremy to be a part of the midday show are you welcoming them to come in and try their hand at selling their own show as well. 

TF: Absolutely, and to be fair, I shouldn’t say that they’re necessarily selling. What they’re doing is setting up a relationship. “Hey, I met this guy.”

If you are instrumental in bringing some business to you, to us, and we get the deal, we’ll give you a little something to incentivize you to do that again. Sometimes a personality can open a door much quicker than a salesperson can. 

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Bruce Gilbert Sees Power in Numbers at the BSM Summit

“There is a feeling of comfort in knowing that you’re not on this road by yourself and that others are trying to accomplish the same thing you’re trying to accomplish.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Bruce Gilbert of Westwood One

The name Bruce Gilbert carries weight in the sports radio world. Great programmers and marquee talent alike credit him with molding their careers. Lucky for attendees of the BSM Summit, Jason Barrett is one of those people and Bruce is a regular at the event every year.

Maybe you heard them directly from Bruce. Maybe they have been relayed to you via any number of retellings or presentations. However you became aware of them, if you work in sports radio, you know Bruce Gilbert’s list of deadly sins. They are rules he developed during his time at ESPN for ensuring both the host and the listener got the most out of every segment.

At last year’s BSM Summit, Gilbert revisited and revised some of those rules. It ran a little long, because how could it not? A contemporary reframing of one of sports radio’s best known how-to manuals is the kind of thing people go to the BSM Summit to hear.

“It was fun to share those common traits of success, the ‘ass-kicking attributes,’ as we called them,” Gilbert says with his trademark modesty. “You know, every business has its best practices, and it was really fun for me to be able to collate those and aggregate all those together and present what you hope, if you do a long enough list, is 1 or 2 that actually can help somebody be a little more effective in their abilities moving forward. That, to me, is what it’s all about. So that’s why I just keep making the list longer and longer. Hopefully at least one of them will be good.”

For Gilbert, the BSM Summit was the ideal place for presenting the next chapter of something so engrained in the way talent and programmers think. The event is something he says sports media needs, particularly as audiences change and new mediums spring up.

“There is a feeling of comfort in knowing that you’re not on this road by yourself and that others are trying to accomplish the same thing you’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “Others are running into similar speed bumps that they need to understand and work through. So, there is this power in gathering that comes out of Jason’s conference that I find to be motivating and reassuring in many ways. There’s strength in numbers and there’s power in information and there’s an unbelievable benefit to sharing it.” 

If he wanted to, Gilbert knows he could be a little more guarded. He could be a little more stingy with his expertise. He works for Cumulus and Westwood One. People from his company will be in the room, but so will people from Audacy, ESPN Radio, iHeartMedia, and more. 

Gilbert echoes one of his most successful protégés, ESPN Radio’s Justin Craig, with how he views the state of the radio industry right now. If something is working, there isn’t much value in keeping the secret sauce a secret.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we put ourselves in this really small bubble with Cumulus and iHeart and Audacy and Townsquare and name all the other radio ownership groups, because we’re not just competing with those people at all. We’re competing with every digital property that does sports across the globe. To think we only compete with other radio stations is myopic and I think ignorant. And nothing makes competition better than talent and success. And it doesn’t matter if it’s coming on a radio or on any platform available for fans to consume. We need to learn from that because it’s what makes us all better.”

There are all kinds of things Bruce Gilbert wants to hear about when he goes to New York in March. It’s not just about how to compete with digital platforms for ever-shrinking ad dollars. 

He’ll want to know how radio can make the most of its own digital platforms. What trends are talent seeing from management that have shaped their opinions, both positive and negative, about the state of the business? Does social media bring the value to brands and individuals that it did a decade ago?

Some of those thoughts and insights will be shared by his old friends and people whose careers he has touched in some way. Some of it though will come from voices he hasn’t heard from before. That is what Bruce Gilbert comes to the Summit for.

“I usually find myself being most blown away by somebody I’ve never met before. I go into their session or I listen to their words with an open mind,” he says.

Modesty may be the name of Gilbert’s game, but he knows there will be plenty of people that want to bend his ear at the BSM Summit. He’s a good friend to have and all of the hosts, producers and programmers with upward aspirations know that. 

His advice for them is to come say hello, but don’t stop at “hello” and don’t stop after meeting him.

“Talk to everybody, meet everyone. Get phone numbers, get emails. That’s what this is all about, because relationships still matter tremendously,” he says. 

“The opportunity to learn from as many people as possible is valuable because what we do is quite subjective. What one person tells you you have to do someone else will tell you ‘you shouldn’t do that.’ In the end, you’re going to learn to form your own views, and you’re going to learn to find your own path. That’s where success comes from. It comes from listening to a lot of different voices, taking in all that information, but then still being true to yourself and formulating that information in a way that you’re comfortable with for your brand and for what you’re trying to achieve.”

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster

Anatomy of a Broadcaster: Kevin Kugler

“I wouldn’t trade the journey for anyone else’s path, but I wasn’t exactly a child prodigy!”

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Kevin Kugler, Anatomy of a Broadcaster

Everywhere a sports fan turns these days, you’re bound to see or hear Kevin Kugler on the call. The versatile broadcaster is knee deep into the college basketball season, which will culminate with him calling the National Championship Game on Westwood One. He’s come a long way from his days as a co-host on 1620 “The Zone” in Nebraska.

Kugler holds a number of high-profile jobs these days, not just with Westwood One where he also calls Sunday Night Football. Kugler calls basketball and football on the Big Ten Network and is a regular voice of the NFL on Fox. It’s a demanding schedule at times, but Kugler manages to handle it just fine.

“This time of year, isn’t really as crazy as the crossover season when I’ve got both football and basketball on my schedule.” Kugler told me.  “There’s a lot of hoops games to call, but when I’m not juggling football and basketball, it’s certainly a little more manageable.”

Kugler has certainly made a name for himself and become one of the best in the business.

Road to Today

Kugler’s career began at 1620, “The Zone” in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I was there for nearly 12 years.  We started the afternoon drive show “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” in September of 2000 and I left the station in July of 2012.” Kugler says.

From that job, he got to do some play-by-play at the College Baseball World Series, which is based in Omaha. It led to him being “discovered” if you will, on the national stage.

“So, the Westwood One opportunity came from the CWS.  Our station, 1620 The Zone, acquired the rights to produce the preliminary games.” Kugler explained. “As part of the deal, Westwood One agreed to use a 1620 The Zone person on the sidelines.  Thanks to my terrific boss, Neil Nelkin, that person was me.”  

That particular assignment helped beyond Kugler’s wildest expectations.

“As it turned out, Howard Deneroff (now the EVP, Executive Producer at WWO) was the producer of those games.” he told me. “So, I met him (Deneroff) through that.  Every year, he asked me to send him my tape.  I was doing Division II football and basketball for the University of Nebraska-Omaha at the time.  Sent him tapes each year after the CWS.” Kugler remembered. 

“Then, prior to the CWS in 2006, he asked to hear stuff again.  Then asked for more stuff.  By this point, I’m digging into some of the clunkiest cassette tapes that I had, but that didn’t seem to faze him.  He called in the summer of 2006, after the CWS, and offered me the chance to do college football and basketball for the network starting that fall.  It was one of the best phone calls I’ve ever received!”

That is an understatement.

National Work, Big Ten, Westwood One, Fox

The Westwood One gig started to open doors for Kugler. But, one that previously opened to allow his success, closed.

“I only do the Championship series (of the CWS) these days for Westwood One.  My good friend John Bishop handles the preliminary games and does a tremendous job.” Kugler told me. “I had the opportunity a few years back to expand my role with Fox and do some MLB and spring football coverage, so I had to give those games up.” 

Kugler is happy to still be a part of the festivities, because that tournament means a lot to him. “The CWS is Omaha’s calling card!” Kugler proudly proclaimed.  “And as someone who still calls Omaha home, it’s always an amazing thrill to walk into the booth at the CWS.  I hope I get the chance to remain involved in that in some way for years to come.”

He now has three national jobs. At WWO, he’s been the voice of the Final Four and Championship Game since 2008. For a time Kugler was the voice of Sunday Night Football on the radio, but had to give that up for a bigger role too. More on that in a second.

In 2011, Kugler added the Big Ten Network to his portfolio, calling college football and basketball, among other sports. Since BTN was owned by Fox, Kugler also called some national games in both sports as well.

Kugler is also a play-by-play announcer for FOX Sports’ NFL broadcasts. He assumed that role in 2020. In addition to the NFL, he calls select college basketball and MLB telecasts.

What Makes Him Good?

Full disclosure, Kugler is one of my favorite people in the industry. I worked with him for a brief time at BTN doing baseball and softball broadcasts.

That being said, in all objectivity, he’s one of the best around right now for a number of reasons.

First off, he’s developed into one of the more versatile broadcasters in the industry. In a given week, he could be calling the NFL, College Football and College Basketball. That’s not as easy as it might sound. I mean how do you prep for a week like that?

“I’ve always been kind of a prep junkie.  I enjoy telling stories, and getting lost down those ridiculous little rabbit holes where you start following a thread and a half hour later, you realize you finally found what you were looking for.” Kugler says.  “To balance that with limited time takes a certain amount of discipline…I can’t chase those as much as I’d like sometimes, but I make sure I work ahead as much as I can, and I’m always grateful for a repeat team here and there!”

Yeah, I’ll bet.

But the amount of prep he does comes shining through in his broadcasts. There’s an ease about him that is a very comfortable listen. By that I don’t mean generic or vanilla. Kugler easily raises his energy to match the action and dials it down when needed as well. He creates anticipation in his voice in the way he builds up to the moment. I find this especially true when he’s calling basketball on the radio. The ability to use his voice to generate that hope for a listener is only something the best of the best can do. 

The more he’s able to call games on the biggest stage, the more Kugler is able to earn that “you know it’s a big game when you hear him” badge. Young broadcasters tend to get too hyped for a championship type game, but Kugler has mastered his pacing, bringing the moment to his viewers and listeners in a manner that is just right.

There is a humbleness about Kugler as well. When I asked him, “what was the ‘ride’ like early in your career to get to this point?” 

“My journey is probably no different than how it starts for so many of us in the business.  I went to a small market, called high school sports, made a ton of mistakes, and tried to find my voice.  I’ve been fortunate to have some terrific advice and opportunities along the way to where I am today.” Kugler said.  “I’ve struggled to make it as a freelance broadcaster.  I wrestled with the idea that it wasn’t going to happen for me, and what in the world would I do for a living if it didn’t?  (I have no real discernable skills beyond talking).”

As for his successes? “I’ve been incredibly fortunate to find a path to doing play-by-play now at the highest level, whether it be the NFL for FOX Sports and Westwood One, college basketball for Fox, BTN and Westwood, the Final Four, etc.  I wouldn’t trade the journey for anyone else’s path, but I wasn’t exactly a child prodigy!” He said. “Ian Eagle told me one time that the more people that can take credit for your career, the better your career has gone.  I feel like a lot of people have played a role in this and I hope that they are happy that they were able to push me forward each step along the road.”

Did You Know?

Kugler hosted the Masters golf tournament for Westwood One in 2009 and 2010. He filed radio reports for the network from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Kugler has been accused, as have most broadcasters that do national games, of hating YOUR team. He’s steering into the skid, so to speak, by putting that in his “X” bio. It’s legendary enough that there has been a parody account created, @KuglerH8sUrTeam.

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Peter King Realized Attention Spans are Getting Shorter

The point is this; we in the media have a very limited time to reach an audience, we must make the most of it.

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Peter King

Peter King, I’m afraid, is among the last of a dying breed. For more than four decades King has been a trusted voice of all things NFL. His most recent effort, the Monday Morning Quarterback, was a must read for any NFL fan. Except, I never read all of it. That’s because my already short attention span has been shortened even more by the media world that is around me.

To be fair to King, I never had a long attention span before. This has nothing to do with his writing, it is superb. I also loved the way the MMQB was broken into segments, it helped me know where I could end my skimming and resume my reading. As I write this, I really hope Peter King isn’t reading it, this reads as a shot at his ability to write things that hold my attention. It isn’t intended as that, it is simply the acknowledgment that the media consumer has changed greatly during the time King has covered the NFL.

If we are to continue reaching younger audiences, we must realize their attention span is rapidly shrinking. In fact, the average attention span of a human is now less than a goldfish. That is not hyperbole, it has actually been tested. I am not certain how one calculates the attention span of a goldfish, I am sure there are articles written about it and I am equally sure I wouldn’t make it to the end of those articles.

Even more alarming is that studies have shown that the average adult attention span has decreased by more than 30% since the year 2000. The most alarming part is that study was conducted in 2015. We’ve had eight full years since that study was completed, at the rate shown in the study, we have lost almost half the adult attention span since the turn of the century.

I can go on and on; the average online video view is less than three minutes, the average website visit is less than a minute. While on webpages, readers consume less than 30% of the information contained in the page. The average radio listener consumes just over an hour per day but that doesn’t mean it is all on the same station. The average podcast listener gives you between 25-30 minutes in listening time.

The point is this; we in the media have a very limited time to reach an audience, we must make the most of it. Hosts can’t afford to throw away segments, writers can’t afford to “mail in” an article, commercial producers must get to the call to action quickly. Our society just isn’t paying close attention anymore. I applaud those of you who have fought through this to read the first 450 words of this column, I’m sure it has been life changing.

I fight this battle all the time. I am constantly skipping songs.  I’ll give a TikTok creator roughly five seconds to hook me. The first thing I do after starting any video is tap the screen to see how far along I am in the status bar. As someone who makes a living, and is part owner of a company that makes money off hooking and keeping an audience, this trend is more than alarming.

I am sure there are long form writers that will try to replace Peter King. Heck, he even suggested four of them (I read that part). I just don’t know that they will be able to build a long-term audience in that space. We all have a shelf life and I think that style of journalism is on life support. What will replace it for some is a podcast, for some it will be a video, for some a simple social media post will do. It is who we’ve become.

I’m sure there was a day when people bemoaned the decreased need for the guy that used to just shout out the news in the town square. He had an important job for a long time but that fancy new printing press put him under. You know why? It took less time to read it in the paper. Attention spans are shorter and options have never been greater. It is a recipe for disaster if you don’t embrace the fact that you have to change to appeal to them, they aren’t changing back for you.

By the way, well done Peter King. There should be some sort of spot for him in Canton. He’s been as much a voice of the NFL as anyone for quite a while. Whatever time I spent reading his work, or even skimming through it, was never time spent in vain. And that is not just something I think I think…if you know, you know.

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