John Facenda, the legendary voice of NFL Films, helped shape the soundtrack of the National Football League as the sport burgeoned in popularity. His voice is known by most fans of the game and synonymous with the gridiron. The dulcet tones of Facenda compelled a producer for the Kansas City Chiefs pregame radio show on KCMO to send a note requesting that he voice the intro to the Sunday morning program. That was Kevin Harlan, a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, working in the role after being asked to produce the show by Chiefs radio voice Wayne Laramie.
Harlan fondly remembers being presented with the idea to compile a three-hour radio pregame show followed by a two-hour postgame program, all utilizing the powerful, ostensibly boundless radio signal that reached about eight Midwestern states. As he did, he continued filling in for Kansas Jayhawks broadcaster Tom Hedrick, an opportunity he was promised by the broadcaster himself as he recruited him to attend the university. Initially, Harlan was deliberating between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Notre Dame, the latter of which had alumni Don Criqui whom he also admired. Hedrick, color commentator for the CBS Radio broadcast of Super Bowl I, presented him with an offer that he could simply not refuse though, and it led to more opportunities to hone his craft.
From the age of 7, Harlan had been infatuated by sports and familiar with the inner workings of the press box. His father, Bob, was the director of public relations for the St. Louis Cardinals and allowed his son to perambulate the corridors of the ballpark. Even though he did not realize the magnitude of commentators he would encounter, such as Lindsey Nelson, Vin Scully and Bob Prince, he was cognizant that they were important professionals in the sports media business. In fact, Harlan would frequently sit in the back of Jack Buck and Harry Caray’s broadcast booth with a bag of popcorn and a Coke just to listen to their call of the contest. The voice of Facenda became part of his consciousness a few years later, and work on projects such as “The Autumn Wind” inspired him to discover a career in broadcasting.
“I remember getting back from class and one of my roommates said, ‘Hey, some guy named John Facenda called you from NFL Films; he wants to talk to you,’” Harlan recalled. “I called him back and he was incredibly gracious. He said, ‘Kevin, I want to know if I can change this sentence and add even a couple of more things I’ve got in my mind?’ I said, ‘Yes, you can do anything.’”
While Harlan’s intonation and timbre are heard worldwide today, those within a 10-mile range were the only ones initially privy to his skillset. Notre Dame Academy, his high school, allowed him to be on the air from the age of 14 to call football games.
On top of that, his father had accepted a role to serve as the assistant general manager of the Green Bay Packers and worked his way to become the president and chief executive officer over an 18-year stretch. By the time he was in Kansas City working with the Chiefs, Harlan was aware of the power of the NFL and the extraordinary job with which he was being entrusted.
“[Facenda] sent me this reel-to-reel tape, and I could hear his different takes of the copy that I had sent him,” Harlan said. “At the end of the reel-to-reel tape, he finished [by] saying, ‘You’re listening to Chiefs Sunday on the Chiefs Radio Network,’ and we had this music bed, and there was a pause and he goes, ‘Now that’s a horse that I can ride,’ which meant he liked the copy; he liked the way that it sounded that he just read.”
By Harlan’s senior year of college, he was hosting Chiefs studio coverage, calling high school games around the state for WIBW and hosting a three-hour talk show on Sunday nights. Combined with his broadcasting and coursework at Kansas, Harlan’s schedule was jam-packed with broadcasting responsibilities, and his ability to seamlessly balance all of it is part of the reason he called Kansas City Kings basketball games at 21 years old.
While it was an obvious decision for Harlan to seize the opportunity, there was some pressure on him in being so young compared to veteran commentators. Bill King, Jim Durham and Joe Tait, voices of his childhood, were now among his broadcasting colleagues, and he was working alongside Hall of Fame center and former NBA champion Ed Macauley. When the team decided to move to Sacramento, Harlan had to choose whether or not he wanted to relocate or remain in Kansas City.
“I really had fallen in love with the area, and I really didn’t want to go to Sacramento, although I had a chance to tour the city with the team at the time, but [I] really wanted to stay in Kansas City,” Harlan said. “I started thinking, ‘Well, I better start looking around, and if all else fails, I can go and be a part of the Kings broadcast in some form or fashion.’”
By stroke of serendipity, Harlan was able to stay in the locale to call Chiefs games, a decision that was sealed following a trial broadcast with analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson. After the experiment, which was in the form of a Missouri spring football game, Dawson gave his unequivocal approval of Harlan as his new on-air partner, and one week later, he received word from team president Lamar Hunt that he had landed the job.
One October day in 1991, Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg led his team to a massive 33-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills during a prime-time Monday Night Football matchup on ABC. Harlan called the game on radio and remembers the stadium being filled with a vociferous crowd captivated by the action. After one sequence, Harlan members spontaneously saying, “Oh baby, what a play!,” simply reacting to the atmosphere and thinking nothing of it.
Throughout his career, he has never been one to adopt a catchphrase, but on that day, feedback on his exclamation was validated by fans in the parking lot celebrating the win. Calling into the postgame show he used to produce, the fans shouted, “Oh baby, what a play!” in unison, and unbeknownst to them, Harlan and his wife were listening as they tried to escape traffic.
“From that point on, that phrase caught and kind of rode the success that they had,” Harlan explained, “which eventually led to getting Joe Montana and Marcus Allen, and that was it.”
In 1989, the National Basketball Association was expanding to include the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom would need commentators to call the games. Harlan was being courted by the Timberwolves. He and other members of the broadcast team would be tasked with growing the popularity of the league in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
While the opportunity to move back into calling NBA games was appealing, Harlan was not entirely sure that he wanted to take the job because he was content with his lifestyle and growing a family. As a result, he called NBA broadcasters Bob Costas and Marv Albert, both of whom emphasized the importance of taking the chance to move into calling games on television. At their behest, he decided to accept the offer, which meant flying back-and-forth between Minneapolis and Kansas City to retain his family life.
One day, Harlan received a call from NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol asking if he could fill in on a Sunday NFL game, giving him his first opportunity to be looked at by a national network. NBC Sports was impressed with his performance, granting him more network opportunities – including a two-year run with ESPN calling college football – before his first chance to call the NFL nationally on a regular basis.
Transitioning to predominantly focus on national work in the NFL was not on Harlan’s mind until he ran into Chiefs team president Carl Peterson and NFL Films president Steve Sabol before a game in Buffalo. As fortune would have it, they had just been talking about Harlan, which led Sabol to tell him that he had been asked by FOX Sports to give them who he thought were the top three NFL radio announcers. George Krieger, executive vice president at FOX Sports, had asked Albert a similar question, a query that prompted the broadcaster to recommend Harlan.
“On that roster was me, Kenny Albert, Joe Buck and Thom Brennaman,” Harlan said. “We were the four younger broadcasters in back of [Pat] Summerall and [Dick] Stockton; they wanted to build for the future…. I know the four of us took great pride after this big search because there was a lot of speculation at the time as to who FOX was going to hire to fill out their roster.”
The company launched the NFL on FOX in August 1994, shortly after Major League Baseball players officially went on a 232-day strike. Harlan was one of the first broadcasters to take the air and commenced a property currently in the midst of celebrating its 30th season.
Four years later, he moved to The NFL on CBS. It would not have been possible without the sacrifices his wife made for him and the lengths she went to in order to raise a family and establish a comfortable and healthy atmosphere at home.
“What she did on those many nights that I was gone so I could do something that I loved was an act of unselfishness that is beyond words and measure,” Harlan said. “I guarantee you that if things were not good at home and unhappy at home, it would affect the way I had navigated my career.”
Harlan has been calling two NFL games per week since 2009 when he took the job as the lead voice of Monday Night Football broadcasts on Westwood One. A key factor in being able to maintain such a lifestyle is in the contrasting means of dissemination, rendering variation in the way he prepares. In becoming more comfortable on CBS over the years, he realized that there is not as much time to contextualize and explain detailed stories behind every play and athlete.
Conversely, Harlan’s role on the radio is to inform listeners about what is transpiring on the field and subsequently set his analyst up for success. Harlan has worked with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner on the broadcast since 2018, which followed a 10-year run with Boomer Esiason, and he knows the challenges they face on a solely aural medium.
“My job is very edited,” Harlan said. “I come in loaded with all the appropriate stuff I need to have, but it’s skeletal compared to what my TV boards look like.”
After his games each week, Harlan reviews his outing and thinks about ways he can continue to improve going forward. Despite wanting to scrutinize over hundreds of minutiae within each broadcast and impugn certain decisions, he ultimately focuses on what is most essential.
“We all love the challenge of being the best that we can be, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple tweaks here and there along the way,” Harlan said. “If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Once October comes around, Harlan juggles the addition of the NBA on TNT, where he has worked on a full-time basis since the 1997-98 season. The move into television that Costas and Albert cosigned was beginning to pay dividends for Harlan, who entered rarified air by serving as a national voice of two professional sports entities. He has enjoyed stability in his jobs for nearly three decades, something seldom attained within a media career, and considers himself fortunate to be in this position.
“TV is something I really never thought of,” Harlan expressed. “I loved radio – I grew up wanting to be in radio and was, and TV just kind of evolved very organically out of all my radio stuff, as it does for a lot of broadcasters.”
Albert retired from the NBA on TNT after the 2021 NBA playoffs, forcing TNT to have to make a decision as to who would serve as the new primary voice of the property. Harlan began to have chances to work with the lead broadcast team of Reggie Miller, Stan Van Gundy and Allie La Force, and today largely announces games on Tuesdays during the regular season. Last year, he called the Western Conference Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers to conclude the network’s broadcast slate.
Yet Harlan did not genuinely listen to Albert until he became a colleague at TNT, although he was aware of his status as a revered broadcaster. Understanding that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace an announcer of his stature, Harlan seeks to bring his own approach to the role while honoring the history it garners.
Most professionals can control how to position themselves for success, whether that be through their talent, work ethic or demeanor, but Harlan also knows that much of it comes down to timing. He made sure to forewarn his kids about the challenges that come with working in sports media before any of them pursued a career in the field.
“‘What you’ve been able to be around is the luckiest of the lucky,’” Harlan said to his children. “This is a business which, more or less, is pretty hard to navigate and gets harder and harder by the day with a myriad of things you’re constantly going against.”
Three of Harlan’s children heeded his advice, but the fourth decided to chase her dreams anyway. Much like her father, Olivia Harlan Dekker found a mentor at the University of Georgia and worked to earn broadcast opportunities. The two made history last January when they became the first father-daughter duo to call an NFL playoff game, doing so together on Westwood One.
With the NBA’s television contracts set to expire following the 2024-25 season, there has been much conjecture as to which companies will garner portions of a new deal. The league is reportedly interested in adding digital and streaming elements to the package, perhaps an impetus for Warner Bros. Discovery launching a Bleacher Report-branded sports tier on Max and ESPN preparing a direct-to-consumer (DTC) interface.
“I think all of us are kind of excited, maybe a little bit nervous [in] knowing that we’ve got two more years to go doing our jobs,” Harlan said. “As someone very smart told me one time – my dad – [he] said, ‘If you’re looking ahead too much or you’re looking behind too much, you’re going to miss what matters most right now.’ What matters right now is the present and doing the best job you can do right now, and then let everything play out how it’s going to play out.”
While having chances to call marquee events is what most broadcasters desire, Harlan does not want to be avaricious in his pursuits. After all, he has called the NCAA Division I men’s basketball Final Four on numerous occasions for both television and radio amid other significant games. Moreover, he is preparing to work his 14th consecutive Super Bowl for Westwood One, the most consecutive of all time, and is eagerly anticipating the moment he steps into the broadcast booth at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“We know how many millions of cars are on the roads at any given time at any given part of any day, and some people are just, for whatever reason, [unable to] get the game on their phone or tablet, and so they’ve got to listen to it,” Harlan said. “We’ve had soldiers overseas that have listened in outposts in pretty, pretty remote parts of the world, and the only way they know the Super Bowl is to listen to our broadcast.”
As the pregame countdown approaches 0:00, Harlan will feel a gust of “The Autumn Wind” and begin delivering the call for the most prominent game of the season. Until then though, he is enjoying the journey each week calling games for CBS Sports and Westwood One, along with the NBA on TNT. When Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024 arrives, he will be prepared and enthusiastic to serve as an invaluable emissary tasked with translating the game masterfully composed on the gridiron.
“[Westwood One has] got the history and the know-how and the leadership to navigate those new ways of broadcasting and delivering,” Harlan said, “and for them to select me and put me in that role is an honor which I can’t even describe…. I go back to what I wanted to do when I first got in the business and how lucky I am to be in that chair with that headset on.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Which Network Has the Best NFL Pregame Show?
I watched for chemistry on the panel, the personality of the group as a whole and the value of the information the show provided to get me ready for the game.
It’s far too early to start handing out awards in the NFL, with a few weeks left in the season. But it’s never too early to rank the various NFL pregame shows on the main and cable networks.
Talented people coming together to get the viewer ready for that week’s slate of games. Human interest stories, fantasy football news, and reports from the “insiders” make for standard Thursday/Sunday/Monday viewing.
Who does it all best on Sunday specifically? Last Sunday, I was able to get a good look at the shows. I watched for chemistry on the panel, the personality of the group as a whole, and the value of the information the show provided to get me ready for the game.
The shows are listed in ranked order from the best to the sixth best.
#1 – FOX NFL Sunday
The current crew is led by Curt Menefee, who is the host and moderator. Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy Johnson, Howie Long, and Michael Strahan make up the main ensemble. Rob Gronkowski has made a few appearances this season. The FOX NFL Sunday insider is Jay Glazer.
This show is celebrating 30 years on the air this season and while there are only a few of the original members still on the show, it remains the cream of the crop. I just like the personality of the collective group. Johnson, Long, and Bradshaw have been there from the beginning and the seamless addition of Strahan makes it work even better. The show comes across as so natural. The conversations seem to flow like they are just football fans sitting around talking about the game they all love and either played or coached at the highest level.
Menefee is the perfect, “referee/moderator/traffic cop” for the show. He is really smooth making transitions from topic to topic and keeping things rolling. A ringmaster is needed from time to time when Bradshaw starts playing with his panel mates. He is the ultimate teammate, and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself or join in on a “bit”.
Glazer is a polarizing figure, coming off as “brash” at times, but there’s no arguing his sources and information. Usually, Glazer breaks his news on the show, as opposed to social media. Most of the time the info he provides is first seen on the show. It’s top-notch.
Each panelist is strong in opinion without shouting it and getting into heated arguments about the point. As I mentioned these are all guys that have major personalities, but they seem to understand the dynamic. They look at their show as something greater than the sum of their parts. It really works and is the gold standard amongst the national studio shows.
FOX NFL Sunday is a clear choice for the top spot.
#2 The NFL Today (CBS)
Today’s cast includes James Brown, Nate Burleson, Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason, and Phil Simms. JJ Watt will make a few appearances this season. The “insider” is Jonathan Jones.
Back in the day, this was my go-to show. My brother and I would mimic the music all the time. We couldn’t wait for a “You are looking live” from Brent Musburger. But the show has changed since its time in the mid-1970s.
The NFL Today returned to CBS after the network acquired the broadcast rights to AFC games in 1998. The current format of this pregame show began in 1975 with Musburger hosting, with Phyllis George, and Irv Cross. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder joined in 1976. The NFL Today was, for 18 years, the highest-rated program in its time slot.
The latest iteration of The NFL Today is hosted by James Brown. He’s been in the lead chair since leaving Fox after the 2005 season. Brown has a smoothness about his delivery that really works. He never tries to be the center of attention, deferring to his esteemed colleagues on the set. Brown really sets the tone for the show, infusing a little humor into the situation when needed.
Esiason has been with the show since 2002 and is the longest-tenured current member of the panel. Esiason and Simms, the two former quarterbacks, like to get after each other once in a while, but sometimes it seems a bit forced. Esiason exudes personality, Simms does not.
Bill Cowher adds credibility having been a highly successful NFL coach with the Steelers. His opinions are usually strong and from time to time, that scowl he was famous for on the field, comes across on the set. Burleson has become somewhat of a rising star at CBS, bursting on the scene in 2017. In addition to his NFL Today duties, he co-hosts CBS Mornings and appears on Nickelodeon as well.
While this show is certainly a good watch, it doesn’t feel as “unrehearsed” to me as the show on FOX. Some of the commentary and subsequent arguments feel staged and not as organic as I’d like to see. The panel looks like they’re having fun, with Esiason usually driving the boat. Simms gives off a different type of vibe, almost like he’s still angry at not being in a booth calling games. I get it, I would be too, but you have to steer into the skid and join in on the fun or you stand out for the wrong reasons. Cowher is solid and gives great insight and I like Burleson too.
The NFL Today is a solid show, but solid only gets you second place in these rankings.
#3 – NFL GameDay Morning (NFL Network)
This show includes Rich Eisen as host, with panelists Steve Mariucci, Kurt Warner, and Michael Irvin. Ian Rapaport is the “insider” and we get info on analytics from Cynthia Frelund.
Eisen is such a great host. His demeanor is perfect for sports and this show as well. It’s a perfect blend of substance and sarcasm that keeps NFL GameDay Morning entertaining and informative.
Eisen works very well with his assembled cast on the set. Mariucci provides a nice blend of comedic timing with quality information and analysis. He’s always seemed at home in front of the camera and is an easy view. Warner also seems like a natural on the air. His story of course is a great one. He played at a very high level, and I like how he comes across as an everyday guy and isn’t pompous about analyzing today’s NFL. Irvin is good in doses for me. I find him yelling at me more than providing me with excellent information.
Rapaport is very good as an insider, but most of what he ‘breaks’ on the show has already been posted on social media. Still great information.
NFL GameDay Morning is a good show, I feel like sometimes it loses out because it’s on cable and isn’t a regular home for NFL games. You have to hunt for it, but the effort is worth it.
#4 – Sunday NFL Countdown (ESPN)
Now hosted by Sam Ponder, along with panelists Tedy Bruschi, Randy Moss, Rex Ryan, and newcomer Alex Smith. The “Insider” is Adam Schefter.
ESPN’s pregame show used to be appointment watching when a then-funny Chris Berman and Tom Jackson anchored the show. It once featured Mike Ditka and Ron Jaworski and was a very fun and insightful show. Sam Ponder does a nice job as the host of the latest iteration of the show. She runs the broadcast well, and tries to keep the panelists in check. Moss and Ryan provide the personality of the show, with each possessing larger-than-life personas. Bruschi provides good information, but kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Smith is learning the ropes as a first-year guy.
Schefter is one of the best “insiders” in the business, but as previously stated, most of what we see has already been reported, several times on social media.
This show has lost some of its previous luster but still has a good amount of value in the pregame show mix. It’s a tradition for some who remember the glory days and have become used to watching it every Sunday.
#5 – Football Night in America (NBC)
There have been a few changes over the last couple of years at FNIA since Mike Tirico took over as the main play-by-play guy of Sunday Night Football. Maria Taylor has stepped in as the host, with panelists, Tony Dungy, Jason Garrett, Rodney Harrison, Devin McCourty, and Chris Simms. Jac Collinsworth is a contributor. Mike Florio serves as the “insider” and Matthew Berry is the Fantasy Football guy.
Taylor is a very good host, she’s knowledgeable and asks insightful questions of her panelists. That’s where the show takes a turn for me. Dungy’s soft-spoken takes don’t really hit the mark much anymore. Garrett is still growing into his role and I’m still trying to decide whether or not I am a fan. He’s loud, but green in the game of broadcasting. The jury is still out.
I like Harrison for his edge and realism. McCourty has been a nice addition as well, adding another player perspective to things. Simms is all about the hot take and it gets annoying at times.
Collinsworth’s role is kind of weird to me. It seems like the network just put him in there, to, well, put him in there. Not much added by him. Florio provides good inside information and Berry might be the most important guy since basically the whole world plays Fantasy Football.
The NBC show seems the most sterile of the bunch and highly scripted. Many have said they do a good job of creating hype for the Sunday Night game, but I don’t see it. Just my humble opinion.
#6 – TNF Tonight (Amazon Prime Video)
The new kid on the block is Amazon Prime Video and its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. Charissa Thompson, who’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, is the host. She’s joined by a veteran and some relative newcomers. Tony Gonzalez has the most experience of the bunch, which also includes, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Richard Sherman, and Andrew Whitworth.
Thompson has always been a more than capable host, despite her recent revelation that she made up sideline reports. She has a good sense of each of her co-host’s strengths and weaknesses and tries to put each in the best light.
Gonzalez has deep knowledge of the game and a good presence in front of the camera, but he’s a little on the bland side. Fitzpatrick and Sherman are the flamboyant ones. Fitz-magic is trying to find his niche in the broadcasting game. The beard and humor are working for him, but he still has to learn about timing.
Sherman isn’t afraid to voice an opinion which is great and offers some levity to the show as well. Whitworth’s grade is incomplete. He’s very new to the studio show world and is trying to find his way.
The group will eventually create chemistry, but it’s lacking a bit now.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at [email protected].
Meet the Podcasters: Mina Kimes, ESPN
“I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis.”
As 2023 inches towards the finish line, so too does our Meet the Podcasters series. We have spoken with people that found success in the space after so many different journeys. Greg McElroy and Chris Jericho were championship-winning athletes. Mike Francesa and Adam the Bull dominated local radio. Bomani Jones made his name in the digital space. We end on a bonafide sports television superstar in Mina Kimes.
If you don’t believe that, just look at the deal she signed earlier this year. She gets to stay at ESPN and carve out time to work with Meadowlark Media. Those aren’t concessions given to someone their network thinks is easy to replace.
It can be tough to find time to chat as the holidays approach, so the conversation was short, but it covered a lot of ground. Why have analytics caught on with fans? Is it more fun to dissect success or to re-think failure? How do you watch a game when you have to not only understand what is happening, but figure out the best way to turn that explanation into analysis?
Obviously, I want to thank Mina and everyone else that made time to chat with me for this series. A big thank you goes to Point-to-Point Marketing as well for making these features possible. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to all of you that took the time to read even just one of these. I hope you learned a little something that you can take with you into 2024 to make your digital content more successful!
Demetri Ravanos: There is a big audience for what you do best and I sometimes wonder how much that surprises those of us that grew up in the media. Do you think the appetite for analytics and in-depth analysis is relatively new, or was the appetite always there without the right platform before the rise of digital media?
Mina Kimes: I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis, but on the whole it really does seem to me that viewers and listeners are better informed than ever, which I’d attribute to the rise of fantasy football and the proliferation of websites and podcasts that talk about film, cap management, analytics, etc.
We see this trend playing out at NFL Live, where our nerdiest segments often capture a good deal of interest.
DR: What for you is more interesting – explaining why things aren’t as bleak as the performance may suggest (i.e., Bryce Young not having time or protection to really see what he is as a QB) or highlighting what makes the greats so great (Mahomes’ best throws, how Micah Parsons sheds blocks, etc.)?
MK: I love digging into great performances, but the first category is really compelling to me because it forces us to look beyond basic numbers and highlights (or lowlights!). That’s where I think the intersection of film and statistics is so useful – it allows us to dig deeper into tendencies and trends to explain why things are happening.
DR: When you are doing your weekend previews, what information do you prioritize? Is it storylines or is there a number or category that you try to make a staple of your analysis for everything?
MK: Once I’ve settled on which games I want to discuss, there are two things I try to zero in on: The strengths and weaknesses of each team, and how they match up.
I also make note of things I’ve observed recently (for example, if a team is leaning on a certain personnel group or formation) and then consider how it might impact the game.
DR: What about in setting those topics and discussions up? How do you watch and re-watch games, plays and moments to best understand what it is you are seeing and find the point you want to bring to the audience?
MK: When I’m watching the weekend’s games on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I’m looking for interesting (good or bad!) plays, tendencies, and trends. For example, if I notice a QB is having success targeting a specific area of the field, I’ll make note of a few plays, grab the numbers later, and then, when I’m podcasting, consider how that might play out next week.
DR: One of the big differences between podcasts and legacy media is that people listening to podcasts are actively choosing you and the topic you are talking about. Does that change the way you can discuss a game or a player versus on TV?
MK: I’d say the biggest difference isn’t topic selection, but time. On TV we only have a segment or less to hit on a matchup, whereas on my podcast, I’m often talking about the same games and players, but I have 15 minutes instead of five (and I’m one of two people chatting instead of four or five).
I will add that the topic selection process at NFL Live is very collaborative, though. We know which games we need to focus on, but the way we approach discussion is driven by our interests and observations.
DR: I am always interested in the different views on this. Podcast listeners overwhelmingly say they like video now. Is that a preference you understand or does it not make sense to you?
MK: It makes sense! Because the production quality has improved so much (the kind folks at Omaha Productions have been working with me to improve the look of my show for YouTube), many podcasts really don’t look very different from sports television.
If you’re already a listener, why wouldn’t you want to watch as well, especially since you have a convenient viewing device in your hand all day? I do think there will always be people who just listen, though, because their free time for consumption is relegated to commuting (or in my case, walking a dog!).
To learn more about Point-To-Point Marketing’s Podcast and Broadcast Audience Development Marketing strategies, contact Tim Bronsil at [email protected] or 513-702-5072.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Michelle Smallmon Didn’t Stumble Into Mornings on ESPN Radio
“The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
It all started with an accident. While vacuuming her apartment just two days before the first episode of her new national ESPN Radio program, Michelle Smallmon tripped over an air purifier cord. As a result of the maladroit blunder, she fell face first into her coffee table and hit the inside of her eye on a drinking glass.
When Smallmon looked into the mirror, she immediately saw that her eye was bleeding and swelling up and was in a state of disbelief, although she was not surprised that this happened to her because of her inherent clumsiness. The black eye that came out of all of this turned out to be an advantageous opportunity for the program, which opened its first hour on the air with this circumstance.
Smallmon works alongside Evan Cohen and Chris Canty weekday mornings on UnSportsmanLike, the new ESPN Radio morning show that leads off a refreshed national programming lineup. Since the program is also simulcast on ESPN2, there are cameras on inside the radio studio at the Seaport District-based radio studio, granting viewers of the premiere episode an opportunity to see Smallmon’s black eye for themselves. The incident, however, provided a means for the new hosting trio to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities in an atypical fashion by recalling a calamitous occurrence from the onset.
“We have to be ourselves,” Smallmon said. “People are coming for the sports, and hopefully with our opinions and our information and the knowledge that we provide, they’ll stick around, but they’re going to remember us for who we are. The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
Once the hosts of UnSportsmanLike were finalized, Smallmon met with Canty and Cohen to determine their collective philosophy for the program. At the crux of their conversation was how sports is supposed to be an enjoyable part of people’s days, making it important to be genuine with the audience and celebrate the festivities.
“I just think that audio provides a really great way for people to weave us throughout their day and it’s something that they can come back to, and I just feel like the audio space continues to grow,” Smallmon said. “So that is really exciting to me that there are so many different avenues for us to explore in the audio space.”
Smallmon and her colleagues understand that their program that was once anchored by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg in the mornings for 18 years, who created a show that proved to be an enduring facet to sports radio as a whole. Today, UnSportsmanLike is competing for mindshare and attention span in a dynamic media ecosystem where people can consume various types of content by equipping myriad methodologies. The mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere requires the hosts engage in deft preparation and fealty towards the audio vertical, never taking their positions for granted and understanding the privilege in being able to communicate en masse on the air.
“Any time anybody elects to listen to you, they are giving you a vote,” Smallmon said. “They’re choosing you [and] they are saying, ‘I want to spend a part of my precious time with you,’ and particularly in the mornings because we’re the first people that get the opportunity to talk about the games from the night before or to give our opinion on certain things.”
While Smallmon may have stumbled into an enthralling storyline to open the program and captivate the audience, she did just the opposite in landing a spot within the coveted morning drive daypart. Through years of indefatigable persistence and calculated risk-taking, she positioned herself to garner such a chance when the network was in the midst of developing a new lineup.
Despite having a successful morning show in St. Louis, Mo. on 101 ESPN that was finishing with high ratings and bolstering streams of revenue, Smallmon found herself yearning to live in a sprawling metropolis. Because of this, she started visiting her friends in New York City once per month and gradually became enamored with the locale, prompting her to meet with co-host Randy Karraker, program director Tommy Mattern and Hubbard Radio market manager John Kijowski to express her intent to leave the station.
“They have always been my biggest champions [and] they encouraged me every step of the way,” Smallmon said. “They were like, ‘This is going to be a tough transition for us because the show’s going so well, but we care about you as a person more than we do an employee, and if this is your dream and something you think you have to do, we’ve got your back.’ I will always and forever be indebted to them for not only finding a way to help me do that, but for supporting me and checking in with me every step of the way.”
When she was young, Smallmon frequently traveled to St. Louis with her father to attend sporting events, cherishing every chance she could to see a live game. Throughout her childhood, she watched football on television and remembers seeing sideline reporter Melissa Stark interview the players, prompting her to think about working in sports. Quotidian tasks were transformed into beacons of flourishing sports knowledge, catalyzed by her father’s creativity with abecedarian activities such as sorting and folding laundry.
Yet Smallmon concentrated in premedical studies at the University of Illinois, matriculating to try and become a dermatologist. Early on, she realized that she was not dedicated enough to pursue a profession in the field, resulting in a meeting with her advisor about her future plans. Upon being asked her ideal career path, Smallmon demonstrated interest in covering the basketball team with the goal of appearing on College GameDay as a features reporter in the future.
Amid an economic crash, Smallmon was able to land a job as a production assistant at KSDK, a local television station with which she had interned as a college student. Smallmon worked on the outlet’s morning show, Today in St. Louis, arriving at the studios around 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare and execute the broadcast.
Although her shift ended at 2 p.m., she would put in extra effort to stay later and interact with sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott, volunteering her time and trying to be productive. In displaying her aspiration to work in sports, she was eventually offered a position in the department, which first started with shooting and editing high school events.
“Most of the work that was done in sports was leading up to the 5 and 6 o’clock newscast until they took a big break before 10 p.m.,” Smallmon said. “I would use that time to just absorb as much as I could, watch the guys at work and try to make myself useful.”
Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stark, Smallmon had seen various women working and thriving in sports television; however, this was not the case in the sports radio format. Despite being familiar with the medium, she had never considered going on the air until Knott asked her to be a co-host of his new weekend show on 101 ESPN.
After some time, she received a note from an executive inquiring if she would be interested in applying for an open producer position available at the outlet. Even though she applied thinking she would not receive the job – a thought compounded when she discovered the producer role was for the program hosted by Bernie Miklasz – Smallmon made it to the final round of interviews. Speaking with Miklasz directly, he articulated that while he thought she was a good fit for the role, the other candidate had more qualifications and previous experience.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, if that person is as great as you say that they are and have this much experience, they will have no problem finding another job when you hire me to be your producer,’” Smallmon averred. “I left there and I was like, ‘Man, I blew that.’”
Much to her surprise, Smallmon was hired and ended up working with Miklasz in the role for three years. In speaking with him and observing how he interacted with other people, she learned industry nuances and esoterica that made her even more adept at the role. Smallmon was eventually moved to The Fast Lane in the afternoons with Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Brad Thompson, possessing a mentality of how to best position the show for sustained growth and success.
Smallmon took her skills to ESPN Radio in 2015 when she moved to Bristol, Conn. to work as a producer. The first stint with the network prepared her to excel on UnSportsmanLike, collaborating with hosts such as Ryen Russillo, Danny Kannel and Jorge Sedano, but she always felt a magnetic pull back towards St. Louis. Once Russillo was officially slated to leave ESPN, Smallmon was in talks with the company about different paths she could take and weighing her options. In the eleventh hour, Smallmon received a fortuitous call from Miklasz, who conveyed that he was thinking about changing up his show and wanted to know if she had any interest in co-hosting the program.
“It just felt like all of the cards were falling into place at the right time for me to make that move, and I’m a person that likes to take chances and challenge myself, and I don’t ever want to live with regrets,” Smallmon said. “I thought, ‘Maybe hosting and being on the air is not going to be for me; maybe it’s always going to be production, but I’d like to know.’”
Once she returned, Miklasz offered to change the name of the program to incorporate Smallmon, an entreaty that she declined because of fear that it would disrupt what was a known entity to listeners in the locale. Upon his exit from the station two years later, Smallmon started hosting with Randy Karraker, who implored her to add her name. Even though she never sought out to find the spotlight, she capitulated to the request once her co-host explained why it was important as not only an identifying factor, but also as the first female to be a full-time host on the station.
“I would hear from so many female sports fans across the area and parents whose daughters listened to the show and whose daughters paid attention to the show because someone who looked like them occupied that seat,” Smallmon said. “I really realized how important it was for me to establish myself in that way.”
As Smallmon made the move from St. Louis to New York City, her parents surmised she was recklessly upending her life. Subletting an apartment from a mutual friend in the city, she was working under a usages deal at ESPN Radio where she would deliver overnight updates and host SportsCenter All Night. Smallmon was grateful for the support of her parents and asked them to give her a year, during which she would work hard to land a full-time job in the city. Three hundred and sixty-six days later, Smallmon took to the air with a black eye to commence UnSportsmanLike, officially meeting her end of the bargain.
“It’s hard to explain to people how strange our job is,” Smallmon said. “The three of us sit in a windowless room and talk to one another for four-plus hours a day, so just by nature of spending that much intimate time with someone, you get to know them really well really fast.”
The workday for the morning episode begins the day prior several hours after the conclusion of the previous broadcast, independently reading articles, following sports news and reviewing games. In the preceding afternoon, the program holds a content call where everyone pitches ideas before an early rundown is sent out and added to throughout the day.
While the game of the night is on, Smallmon is in constant communication with her thoughts before getting sleep and preparing for an early wake-up call. There is a pre-show meeting to review the rundown before the four-hour morning show begins at 6 a.m. As soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the process starts again so the hosts are ready for it to illuminate again in 20 hours.
“It’s really a full-time commitment, especially during football season, to do a job like this,” Smallmon said, “but when you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to host a show of this magnitude, you’ve kind of got to make it your life in a lot of ways.”
When she takes her seat behind the microphone in the morning, Smallmon believes that two of the most talented people she has ever worked with are sitting by her side. In her view, she needs to be at the same level as them on the program and effectuates that through her preparation and by bringing different perspectives to the air.
“I have zigged and zagged and occupied different roles throughout my time,” Smallmon said. “It’s really just been surprising opportunities that I have emerged and that I’ve really been grateful to have and that I want to take advantage of, but I don’t really think about the future and my motivation is not really driven by what’s next; it’s driven by the present.
For now, Smallmon is focused on attaining success in New York City and hopes to participate in the program for as long as possible. Down the road though, she knows that her career will entail a second return to St. Louis when she wants to be back in the community she loves and closer to her family. The gratitude she has in being able to regard the city as home is conspicuous and authentic, and those in the locale continue to listen to her on 101 ESPN for two hours each morning ahead of the station’s local morning program.
“My only goal right now is to make UnSportsmanLike the best show that it possibly can be, and if that is the case, hopefully we have an amazing run with the show,” Smallmon said. “That’s the goal is to make it as amazing as it possibly can be and ride that wave for as long as we possibly can.”
Smallmon never envisioned herself working in radio but now finds herself as a trusted voice in the mornings on a simulcast program within the network’s on-air lineup. Through it all, she has remained true to herself while exhibiting an evident commitment and passion for the craft, valuing every chance she has to go on the air.
“People will always say things to me like, ‘Oh, are you going to be the next Erin Andrews?,’ or things of that nature,” Smallmon explained. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to be the first and only Michelle Smallmon,’ because the edge that I have over everybody else is that I’m me. There’s nobody else that’s me, and so if I can just be myself and be authentic every day and do that, anybody else can.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.