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Molly Qerim Is The Driver That First Take Needs

“Qerim is more than a talk show host, she is a listening show host.”

John Molori

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Molly Qerim
Courtesy: @MollyQerim on Twitter

The host of ESPN’s First Take has a captivating television magnetism, offering opinions, emotions, and media savvy in a manner that is direct, honest, and breakthrough cool. Molly Qerim has planted her flag as the voice of reason and conscience on the wildly popular sports debate show. 

Like Spud Webb driving to the hoop amidst his comparatively giant counterparts, Qerim uses tact, intelligence, and honesty in making her presence felt among some of television’s most vociferous and vibrant personalities. 

But let’s keep it real. Qerim is not the star of First Take. That moniker belongs to Stephen A. Smith, who along with Mike Greenberg, Laura Rutledge, and Malika Andrews, comprise the ESPN’s latest quartet of foundational superstars. 

With the recent layoffs of some big name talent, this foursome is indeed the rock on which ESPN’s present and near future are built. Smith stands out from the pack. His salary is in the $12-$15 million a year range, and it is a bargain. He is the face of the network and with good reason. 

Smith has done for sports debate shows what Arsenio Hall did for late night talk shows. With his gritty print journalism chops, he detonated the old format bringing realism, attitude, power, and just plain candor to multiple platforms. 

Like Hall, Smith also opened the door for a plethora of guests heretofore ignored in mainstream television. However, while Smith is clearly ESPN’s Johnny Carson, Qerim is no Ed McMahon. 

She hosts First Take with a graceful intensity, cutting off banter that has run its course, interjecting her opinions, bringing a needed women’s perspective to often male dominated discussions, and fearlessly putting the maniacal Smith in his place when necessary. 

Qerim’s ultimate strength and the reason for her emergence is her courage. Over the past few years, as First Take has tackled social justice and equality issues, Qerim has, at times, been moved to tears in her statements. This is no sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is about strength. 

Her raw emotion, graceful yet powerful style, and unmatched on camera presence have lifted her to a new level of performance. She is not only supremely watchable, but also uniquely indomitable.

In a recent episode during the NBA playoffs, Qerim proposed the question of whether Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray were the best duo in the NBA. Guest panelist Kendrick Perkins attempted to sidestep the question basically saying that they were the best duo still playing in the playoffs. 

Qerim would have none of it. She pushed Perkins, driving him back to the question and challenging him to give an answer. The usually unflappable and stone-strong Perkins was flummoxed. He really did not know how to counter Qerim’s persistence.

Qerim does not merely stick to the script. Like a great point guard, she is focused on the subject at hand, but always looking ahead to the next topic. To use hoops lexicon, she sees the entire floor. 

Qerim is more than a talk show host, she is a listening show host. She pays attention to what is being said by all sides and interjects her thoughts and opinions at the ideal moments. 

It has been fun watching her develop from essentially a moderator and referee to a full-fledged participant in the debate, one whose opinion we look forward to hearing each day. 

Qerim is also unafraid to make fun of herself. This was no more evident than on an episode when Smith actually brought Qerim’s lunchbox on the air, humorously going through each item. Qerim took it in stride and brought the audience in on the joke. 

From a production standpoint, First Take often features multiple guests remotely. This, of course, stems from what television programs were forced to do during the height of the Covid pandemic. 

But while remote guests were required during Covid, these days they have become routine. On any given First Take episode, there are usually two guest panelists plus Smith and Qerim. 

To a person, these guests drive the show with candor. From JJ Redick to Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to Booger McFarland and others, the screen is literally filled with pointed pontificators. 

You would think that Smith plus any two of these talkers would be enough, but because of Qerim’s timely interjections, the show often has to go to a quad box screen. 

The woman won’t be ignored.

There is no denying that Qerim is as photogenic as they come, which historically, has often been a hindrance to women in sports media. This dates back to Phyllis George whose 1971 Miss America good looks often overshadowed her incredible development as an interviewer and commentator on CBS’s now legendary NFL Today show. 

Personalities like George, Lesley Visser, Jackie MacMullan, Andrea Kremer, and many others paved the way, but none of these television stalwarts had to sit three feet away from the ceaseless sports talk firestorm that is Stephen A. Smith. 

While much of Qerim’s development involves her ability to add to the conversation with pertinent dialogue and thoughtful comments, it is at times, her silence that is most impressive. 

On the June 23, 2023, First Take featured a post-NBA draft discussion. The show included three bona fide basketball experts. The aforementioned Reddick, former NBA player Tim Legler, and Smith himself, who played college basketball at Winston Salem State University and has covered the sport for over 30 years. 

Qerim knew that she was surrounded by excellence. She knew that these three men would dissect the draft with detail and opinion. So, what did she do? She did what a truly astute host does. Qerim distributed the questions like Tom Brady distributed the football in his overtime drive to beat Atlanta in the Super Bowl LI. 

She led the trio of talent in an out of various topics including the draft itself, the impact of number one pick Victor Wembanyama, the trade that sent Chris Paul to the Golden State Warriors, and the Portland Trailblazers selecting Scoot Henderson, among other subjects. 

Two days earlier, Qerim again stood out during Russo’s “What Are You Mad About” segment. Her facial reactions, eyerolls, and funny reactions to Russo‘s tirades were tremendous. 

At one point, the excitable Russo kicked his leg as he ranted and raved about the U.S. Open golf tournament. Qerim adroitly picked up on this odd maneuver and humorously mocked Russo’s kick after his dissertation was complete.

Qerim has a melodic sense about her job. She feels the rhythm of the conversation and makes the right choice to join in the music or just stand at the podium and conduct the symphony. 

These subtle gestures and choices may seem trivial, but they are part of Qerim’s high television IQ – the ability to feel the moment, know her role, push that role to its limits, and step out of it when appropriate. 

Make no mistake, Stephen A. Smith is the engine that makes First Take the powerful ratings machine that it is, but Molly Qerim has emerged as a skilled driver, steering the program to new levels of high speed sports entertainment.

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Rich Shertenlieb Enters New Era on WZLX: No Fred Toucher, No Music, No Guarantees

“It’s worked for me in the past and there’s no secret sauce. It’s just try to be entertaining every morning and work your ass off to do it right.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Rich Shertenlieb and WZLX logo in Boston
Boston photo: courtesy of Getty Images

It’s a time of change and transition for rock radio listeners in Boston. WZLX rolled out its new morning show last week featuring local icon Rich Shertenlieb. It’s not only a new adventure for the former Sports Hub morning man. It’s also the start of a new era for the station.

Kevin Karlson, the anchor of the station’s previous morning show, died in his sleep in October. It ended a nearly 20-year run on WZLX for Karlson, McKenzie & Heather. Pete McKenzie and Heather Ford carried on, but earlier this month, they were let go.

“I definitely have big shoes to fill,” Shertenlieb says of his new gig. “Kenny Young, who was a member of the previous show, I got to know him pretty well over these last couple of months. He is now our producer, and he couldn’t be more valuable to the show. He has been an awesome bridge between what was and what is now, and I love the guy to death. He is one of the more skilled people in radio when it comes to being a jack of all trades and it’s awesome that he’s there.”

After seventeen years together, Shertenlieb split from his radio partner Fred Toucher in November. They held down morning drive at 98.5 The Sports Hub since the station’s launch in 2009. The duo was an institution in Boston and their ratings proved it over and over again. 

There has to be a juicy story there, right? I mean, who walks away from that kind of success without a concrete reason? 

Speculation will continue to run rampant. After all, each twist and turn during the final days of Toucher & Rich were covered pretty extensively on this site and others. According to Shertenlieb though, no one ever crossed a red line. There is no moment when he realized the partnership could not be saved. He was just ready for something new.

“I mean, listen, it’s kind of boring because it’s not as scandalous as people might think that it is,” he says. “You only get a couple of times in your career to be able to reevaluate what you’re doing. I would sign long term contracts for about five years. And so, you only get about once every five years to sit and say, ‘I got a chance to try to do something else.’ When your contract comes up, you ask yourself a few questions. It’s like, ‘Do I still absolutely love what I’m doing?’ and ‘Do I absolutely love where I’m doing it?’ And finally, ‘Is there another step I’d want to take?’ If any of those questions have any kind of doubt or cloud, then you owe it to yourself to at least explore what’s out there. And that’s what I did.”

Shertenlieb doesn’t hide from reality. It was scary to leave the familiarity behind. Even when apparent tension between he and Fred Toucher was impossible to hide, he never pinned blame for wondering what is next on the state of their relationship.

Listeners and social media followers did a lot of speculating about the show’s future in early 2023. Toucher missed extended time, first to deal with a vocal condition and then to focus on his mental health.  They wanted to know what was going on in the Beasley Media offices after Toucher took to Twitter to say no one from the show’s cast had reached out to check on him during his absence. 

Rich Shertenlieb says that the conversations were never that interesting. He didn’t think it had to be a catalyst for drastic action.

“There was no discussion about the future of the show. I think that there was confusion. The guys on the show, I think, were confused about why he was saying stuff about us that obviously, we’re all looking at each other and going, ‘Well, this isn’t true. Why is he saying that? I don’t know what was going on there.’ That part was definitely strange, but there weren’t any conversations about the future of the show at all.”

When the decision was made to leave Toucher & Rich, Shertenlieb says he knew instantly that it would mean leaving 98.5 The Sports Hub. It wasn’t about hard feelings. It was about on-air real estate.

Shertenlieb didn’t want to join an existing show. He wanted to start something new with him at the center. Maybe it would work. Maybe it wouldn’t. Either way, he was comfortable with the consequences of his name being the only one on the marquee. Without a major overhaul, that wasn’t possible at his current station.

“I don’t think that that would be fair to anybody. I think that to achieve that they’d have to move people around and stuff like that. I don’t think that that would be fair. I do think that in fairness to everybody else that I worked with, I would have to go do that on my own.”

WZLX, Shertenlieb’s new home, is owned by iHeartMedia. The company made it clear to the host that he was a priority. Bosses asked Shertenlieb who he wanted to work with and got those people on board. They presented him with the opportunity to launch a podcast network in the future. 

The company even acquiesced to Shertenlieb’s demand that the classic rock the station is known for disappear in morning drive.

“I’ve just looked around and I’ve seen that there’s really no morning show that is geared mostly towards guys that truly wins while also playing music. That’s the recipe that you have to go with, at least in mornings,” he says.

Music snobs aren’t totally left out of the new morning show. Shertenlieb loves rock music and makes it a part of the show’s regular discussions. He also notes that what is now considered “classic rock” is the music he grew up with and holds most dear, particularly Alice in Chains.

Listeners will hear Michael Hurley, who Shertenlieb calls “truly a gem” every day. Every host needs someone that gets all of his references and that’s what Hurley is for Shertenlieb. Throughout the week, former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, Meadowlark Media host Charlotte Wilder and Mike Giardi of the Boston Sports Journal will all make appearances.

“I like having different personalities, you know, different walks of life and people who are experts in different things to be able to rotate,” Shertenlieb says. “The great thing about everybody that I picked, whether it be Ted Johnson or Mike Girardi or Charlotte Wilder, is that even if they didn’t talk about the one thing they’re known to be an expert on, I would still love talking to these people about everything else in their life, because they’re just that interesting.”

Every new show faces challenges when it launches and The Rich Shertenlieb Show is no exception. His former partner has poked fun, his former competitor has taken shots, but Rich Shertenlieb knows that no show gets to launched as a finished product. That only comes from years of building chemistry amongst the people in studio and the people listening.

He isn’t shy about admitting that there is no guarantee that he is going to leapfrog anyone in the ratings. Sure, he has the know-how given the success he helped propel The Sports Hub to in morning drive. He also has the advantage of joining a station that already performs well.

“It’s hard work and patience,” Shertenlieb says when asked if he has thought about how he will pull ahead of The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Hardy or anyone else. “It’s worked for me in the past and there’s no secret sauce. It’s just try to be entertaining every morning and work your ass off to do it right.”

Shertenlieb knows that, for many Bostonians, he and Fred Toucher will forever be linked. He doesn’t run from that. He says he never considered leaving Boston for a “fresh start” when he decided to strike out on his own.

He doesn’t wish Toucher or The Sports Hub any ill-will. He insists that the titillating scandal everyone wants to hear about doesn’t exist. He isn’t “over sports.” It was just time to do something new.

New adventure comes with risk and uncertainty. Rich Shertenlieb is willing to embrace it and live with whatever it becomes.

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Which Areas of Executive Performance Should Be Known in Media Companies?

“How do we know if a CEO, executive, market manager or PD is outperforming or underperforming?”

Jason Barrett

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I read a great piece on Monday from Front Office Sports, which reflected on the NBA’s financial growth under Commissioner Adam Silver. Since taking control in 2014, Silver has more than doubled the NBA’s annual revenue to $12 billion from $4.8 billion. The league also set an all-time regular-season attendance record this year, and grew NBA franchise values to an average of $3.85 billion, according to Forbes. The worth of an organization alone is up 75% from 2019.

If I asked you to judge the Commissioner of the NBA and whether or not he was doing a good job, would those three categories get your attention? Adam Silver isn’t perfect in other areas, but if you more than double league revenues, increase attendance and fan interest, and elevate the value of the league’s franchises, few are going to want a different voice.

But what about in media circles? How do we know if a CEO, executive, market manager or PD is making a difference? Shouldn’t we know if our markets/companies are growing in revenue and value, and increasing audience?

Radio program directors get judged by their brand’s ratings (quarterly and annually), but that doesn’t tell the complete story. What if the PD shrinks expenses 25% and stays flat? Isn’t that progress? How about if they possess digital skills and quadrupled the brand’s social media following, video viewing, newsletter signups, and podcast downloads but ratings dropped 10%. Is that a win or a loss? What if the company they work for lost the rights to a key property that drove ratings growth. Is that on them or their employer?

GM’s are tasked with boosting local market revenues, controlling expenses, and making smart business decisions. Most people inside of a cluster though have no idea if they’re on top of those things. They judge the GM based on an individual relationship, and trust the company’s judgment. The issue with that, sometimes company’s aren’t plugged in. Other times they know things that folks on the local level don’t. Regardless, little information is available to people in the building to show if the GM’s plan is working.

On the executive level, revenue growth, stock price (if public), investments in technology, continuing key relationships, forming new partnerships, recruitment, and company PR are all part of the company’s progress report. CEO’s earn credit and blame for the overall performance of the company, but wins and losses depend on people. You can blame and change them or the CEO when results are missed, but sometimes that’s a reflection of other factors. For instance, if the economy is weak, the individual and their ability to perform may not be the issue.

Examining company value over a 10-year period should be part of the evaluation process for executive leadership. But whether they’ve crushed it or laid an egg, few inside organizations know those details. Should it be? It’s easy to say yes, but radio isn’t the NBA. To expect similar progress is unrealistic. But to know how a company is growing or stalling beyond its stock price and year-to-year revenue would be helpful.

Aside from corporate leaders, many don’t know if their leaders are outperforming or underperforming expectations. We don’t look at enough areas of a position to determine if the right individual is in charge. For example, if your web traffic grew 10% but your social media audience declined 10% because article posts grew from 10 to 50 posts per day, is that a good or bad strategy? If a salesperson made budget because they got one big order from one client but did nothing else the rest of the month, is that acceptable? There should be multiple boxes to check to determine if someone is or isn’t successful in their position.

We should all be asking these questions, and challenging each other to help raise the bar. The best way to do that is through transparency. If everyone knows the score, the better equipped they are to make adjustments to win the game. That in turn inspires more confidence in those leading the company. Media folks are competitive by nature, and don’t like being tied to negative results. However, that also motivates people to perform better.

I’m not sure we’ll ever have information available the way it is with the Commissioner of the NBA. If we did, we’d know who the Adam Silver’s are in each group, and that would make our organizations stronger. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a boost in revenue, value and audience?

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Remembering Bill Walton

An industry giant was lost yesterday. Bill Walton passed away at the age of 71 following a battle with cancer. He was beloved by the sports media industry, thanks to his infectious personality, and ability to crack a joke, call something out or share a gem that left you smarter. Many have greater stories to share than mine but this was my favorite because I lived it.

It’s a Saturday night just after midnight, and I’m producing GameNight on ESPN Radio. John Seibel is hosting with Michael Kim, and Bill Walton calls in as scheduled. We bump back from break with Higher by Creed because Seibel wants to share the news that the band broke up. We welcome Bill to the show after the quick Creed story and try to transition to NBA talk but Bill wants more details on Credence Clearwater Revival’s breakup. John explains that it’s Creed, but Bill is so focused on CCR, that soon he’s telling 5-minutes worth of CCR stories.

We try to reset a few times to get on track but Bill keeps finding ways to connect CCR to Seibel’s words. The entire studio is crying laughing, and I tell John in his ear ‘don’t even try to talk hoops, just go with this.’ We do 12 minutes of CCR talk, laughing so hard it hurt, and wondering ‘was that radio gold or a train wreck?’ That was the beauty of Bill Walton. He kept you on your toes, went to places few did, but always kept you laughing and wanting to engage. Sports media has lost a larger than life character, great analyst, and gem of a human being.

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KNBR Fallout

I stand by everything I wrote last week and credit Cumulus Media for taking quick action in San Francisco. Yet seeing someone hurt their career is still sad. Larry Blumhagen, Bruce Gilbert and Dave Milner will find a strong, capable leader to move KNBR forward but for Adam Copeland it’s a blown opportunity.

I’m done discussing this issue but I want to make one thing clear. This was about unprofessional PD behavior, and a lack of understanding of how ratings work. I saw tweets raise the issue of race, which was embarrassing, and irresponsible. Some people say and do foolish things when they’re backed into a corner. Going down the diversity lane with me might be the dumbest decision yet.

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Thumbs Up:

Charles Barkley: He hit the nail on the head when he reminded folks that WBD CEO David Zaslav likely pissed off NBA Commissioner Adam Silver when he said that Turner didn’t need the NBA. Those comments in 2022 were likely going to create a stir. Sure enough, TNT is now in jeopardy of losing a near three decade relationship with a popular sports league. Kudos to Barkley for calling out executives for dropping the ball on what should’ve been a layup.

SKOR North: The Timberwolves haven’t answered the bell against Dallas, but SKOR North was more than ready entering the series. After Anthony Edwards told Charles Barkley following a Game 7 win against Denver to ‘bring ya ass’ to Minnesota, the Hubbard Radio brand had digital billboards, merchandise, and a box truck out on the streets promoting its content, featuring the famous Edwards quote. T-Wolves fever and leaning into the moment quickly, helped SKOR’s ‘Flagrant Howls’ crack the top-10 podcast charts last week. Nice job.

Stephen A. Smith: Nice job by Mr. SAS Productions on Up For Debate: The Evolution of Sports Media. Covering decades of the media industry in under two hours is impossible, but I watched all three episodes and enjoyed it. The guest list was beyond impressive. I can nitpick sports radio’s role in elevating debate style discussions not getting enough focus, and Jamie Horowitz and Skip Bayless deserving to be featured heavily given their roles with the shift to debate content, but if you watch a show looking for holes to poke, you’ll find them, and miss out on being entertained. If you watch to learn more than you knew previously, you’ll find it to be pretty good.

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Thumbs Down

Sports Emmys: The on-stage show and social media execution of the event was fantastic. The access given to media covering the show though left little to be desired. BSM covered the show, and was surprised by the lack of organization for pulling people aside for conversations. There was also no press working area or seats to view the show. Instead, press had to watch the show on a small monitor in the very back of the room for almost four hours. Given how awesome the Sports Emmys are, hopefully the media covering the show are taken care of better at the 2025 event.

WFAN: A phone number change? Say it ain’t so! New York sports radio fans know WFAN’s phone number better then their own. They also tend to be resistant to change. But they’ll get over it. The only valid question is why make the change at all?

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Jobs

Barrett Media is interviewing potential writers to contribute to our expanded music radio industry coverage. Our brand relaunch takes place Monday July 15th. If you’ve programmed or hosted on music radio stations, enjoy writing, and have views and insights to share on the industry, email a resume and writing sample to [email protected]. Please do not DM on LinkedIn or social platforms. I won’t be answering messages through there.

1010 XL in Jacksonville has a cool opening for someone with creative social/video skills. The outlet is looking for a Digital Content Producer. Details can be found here.

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Steve Fifer Adds Local Programming Back to 1250 The Fan in Milwaukee

“I don’t think it’s an impossible dream to think we can be right back in this battle again.”

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Photo of Steve Fifer and a logo for 1250 The Fan
Photo Courtesy: Steve Fifer LinkedIn Profile

In August of 2022, local shows at 1250 The Fan in Milwaukee were discontinued in favor of national programming from CBS Sports Radio, now called Infinity Sports Network.  Steve Fifer has been with the station since the launch in January 2005 and while other hosts looked for hosting opportunities elsewhere, he stayed on becoming the station’s Assistant Program Director.  He learned the ropes on how the management side works, hosted local podcasts like “Curd and Long,” “Green and Growing” and “Spare/Time Bowling Show” and also did some fill-in hosting on stations in other markets.

While Fifer missed local shows, he had zero intentions of leaving the radio station.

“There were days along the way when big things would happen locally where it’s like man, I wish I had a talk show today,” said Fifer.  “I was asked before if I would want to leave and I didn’t want to leave.  I love the people who work in this building.  I had no inclination at any point to leave this building or go anywhere.”

That loyalty and patience has paid off for Fifer because a little over two years later, local programming is back.

This past March, Fifer helped turn the clock back just a little when he started hosting Milwaukee Bucks postgame shows on “The Fan” and the reaction was overwhelming.

“It was like the old days,” said Fifer.  “It was huge.  It was absolutely over the top huge. It gave me a lot of hope for the future going forward that a lot of the people who were listening before were right back in it again and a lot of social media right back in it again.” 

And then, the station announced the launch of Wisconsin Sports Daily, a live and local show weekdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. hosted by Fifer.  It didn’t take long for the station’s loyal listeners from the past to return and also offer Fifer some feedback on what the show should sound like.

“Everybody came with their ideas and opinions of what was missing in the market, what this show needs to be about and so forth,” said Fifer.  “It’s been a very positive experience for sure.”

And so has the experience learning the business side over the last 2 ½ years.  Fifer has worked closely with several Audacy executives including Mitch Rosen, Operations Director and Brand Manager of 670 The Score in Chicago and the Vice President of the BetQL Network.  While The Fan continued to carry national programming, Fifer was absorbing the business side of the industry like a sponge.

A lot of that knowledge came from Rosen.

“He’s taught me a lot about the business,” said Fifer.  “I’ve learned a lot from him as far as just more of the professional side of how to be a programmer, how to work with talent, how to work with producers and how to work with people outside of the company.  The last year and a half to two years, even though there hasn’t been local programming, I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot and matured a lot and I’m ready for the next step.”

And now that The Fan has taken those first couple of steps back into the local game with the Bucks postgame shows and now Wisconsin Sports Daily, perhaps it’s time to go “Back to the Future” and bring back some more local programming.

Is it possible?

Not only is it possible, it’s the vision.

“That’s the hope and the plan is to eventually over the course of time is to eventually get this thing back to close to where it was as far as doing more local programming,” said Fifer.  “That’s going to be a process.  It’s going to probably be baby steps here over the course of time to try and work its way back up again.  Hopefully, at some point in the future, we’re able to do that.”

That vision is not just to restore local programming to The Fan, but the vision also includes returning the station to dominance in a crowded Milwaukee sports radio landscape.

The Fan is one of four sports talk stations in town and the goal would eventually be to be on top.

“I don’t think it’s an impossible dream to think we can be right back in this battle again,” said Fifer.  “I think we will be and eventually be back to being number one again in this market.”

Steve Fifer has been a loyal soldier to Audacy and The Fan in Milwaukee.  He could have left when the station went national, but he stayed and now there is excitement over the return of a local show and what could lie ahead down the road.

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