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Terry Francona Gave the Media Everything it Wanted in a Manager

“He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations.”

John Molori

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Terry Francona
Courtesy:AP Photo

He lacks Tony LaRussa’s hair, Tommy Lasorda’s wit, and Joe Torre’s Kleenex bill, but Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona deserves some props for what he is, quite simply one of the best managers in baseball history and perhaps the best at handling the media. Francona is retiring from managing after this, his 23rd season as an MLB skipper.

After a star-crossed playing career, Francona’s first managerial stint was in Philadelphia from 1997 to 2000. His Phillies clubs never finished higher than third place, but the experience with a tough media even tougher fans prepared him for his next challenge, one that will eventually lead him to Cooperstown. 

With all due respect to Francona’s last 11 seasons at the helm in Cleveland, his claim to fame and ticket to immortality was purchased in his 8 seasons as manager of the Red Sox. In that time span, Francona withstood the pressure and pain of a curse, clubhouse malaises, personal life rumors, and the general pain and suffering akin to being a high profile sports personality in Boston.

Remember that Francona arrived in the Hub in 2004 at the apex of the misery and anger over the team’s 86 year World Series title drought. In truth, it wasn’t a drought, it was a desert speckled with bad decisions, racist claims, and kick-in-the-gut defeats.

In fact, the team had just endured one of those boots to the mid-section just weeks before Francona was hired when they lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the hated Yankees on Aaron Boone’s extra innings walk off home run. That game, and his decision to leave Pedro Martinez in the ballgame with a high pitch count, resulted in manager Grady Little’s exit.

The truth is that the Red Sox fired Little because he simply wasn’t their kind of guy. GM Theo Epstein and the organization were waist deep in the Billy Beane analytics barrel having hired stat guru Bill James as a senior advisor. Little made decisions based more on people than printouts. 

After his four-year losing stint in Philly, Francona was about as respected by the Boston media as Vanilla Ice at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was covering the team then and dismissed Francona merely as the bait that boated Curt Schilling in free agency. Schilling had played for Francona with the Phillies.

We were all wrong. Just a few months after his hiring, Francona ended an eternal curse, tamed the brutal Boston media, shrewdly combined youth and experience on the field, created chemistry with a $100 million roster, and kept some of the most unique personalities in the game happy and healthy. He won 1296 games and two World Series in Boston and is deemed by many to be the team’s best manager ever.

Francona’s greatest strength was his handling of the media. Make no mistake. Boston is the toughest place to manage in all of sports. With a media horde that prefers hangings to harmony and a fan base that can be as lethal as they are loyal, every day is a season unto itself. In Boston, one loss is Armageddon.

Francona was nothing short of exemplary in his weekly radio stints on then kingpin station Sportsradio WEEI and other Boston media outlets. He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations. He protected his players, took the blame, and effortlessly sidestepped the many silly questions he was posed. 

Francona also did a great job in the national spotlight. When he managed the American League in the 2005 All-Star Game, his in-game interview was sparkling, unlike National League skipper Tony LaRussa who was about as animated as yogurt.  

In Boston, Francona developed into a media master, adeptly handling tough postgame questions and setting the tempo for his radio weekly calls.  He deserves credit for being the anti-Bill Belichick, completely accessible but not overly ingratiating to the media.

At the heart of Francona’s handling of the media was his utter regard and protection of his players. In Boston, he did postgame interviews with NESN in a segment called “Terry’s Take.” While the team’s home network reporters seldom threw hardball queries at Francona, when they did, he never threw any player, coach, or team executive under the proverbial bus.

WEEI’s popular afternoon program at the time, the Dale and Holley Show with Dale Arnold and Michael Holley, became must-hear radio because they actually did consistently ask tough questions to Francona about roster moves, player issues, and strategy. 

While they did so without becoming insulting or distasteful, Francona was, at times, audibly upset at the questions and shot back with his own vim and vigor making for fascinating radio.

Francona always maintained a level of class and dignity even when the media did not. He never let insulting insinuations or idiotic innuendo define him.

Francona’s time in Boston ended ingloriously in 2011. His club blew a seemingly insurmountable September lead in the standings and missed the playoffs. At the time, Francona took the heat for the unexpected collapse, but that team featured the indomitable David Ortiz, a young veteran MVP in Dustin Pedroia, and veterans like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Tim Wakefield, and Josh Beckett. 

Adding to the dismal end were reports that Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey were often see drinking beers, playing video games, and snacking on fried chicken in the clubhouse during September games. 

The Boston media huffed, puffed, and damn near blew the Green Monster down, but where were Ortiz, Pedroia, and Wakefield, three players lauded for their leadership, as all this was happening? They got no heat, while Francona got fried. In the end, he left Boston diplomatically saying that perhaps a new managerial voice was needed.

This is the essence of the public Terry Francona – professional in victory and levelheaded in defeat. His postgame chats are models of consistency and his press conferences reveal the game’s nuances without sharing family secrets.

While the aforementioned Belichick treats the media like IRS agents, Francona kills them with cooperation. He massages their needy egos, but in the end, gives them nothing more than what he wants to give them.

NFL coaches Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin tend to tell the media far too much about injuries and prognoses. Francona knows when to clam up or toss in an interview-ending cliché. He is stern and unafraid to justifiably scoff at the often inane queries he faces. 

As he walks away from the dugout for presumably the last time, here is some long overdue credit to Terry Francona, a superb leader and standup guy who truly puts the “man” in manager.

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Greg Hill is Turning the Tables in Morning Drive on WEEI

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen.”

Derek Futterman

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Greg Hill
Courtesy: Audacy

Earlier in the week, the Boston Celtics secured their 18th NBA championship. Across a variety of sports radio stations, especially those in the Boston-Manchester designated market area, the triumph was a subject of discussion on Tuesday morning. Within morning drive on WEEI, host Greg Hill provided his thoughts on the team and its achievement.

Akin to the Celtics, Hill aims to position his weekday program to thrive and sustain success. After working in the industry for many years, some professionals can exhibit a sense of apathy, but for Hill, it is quite the opposite, exhibiting congeniality and authenticity to the audience as a whole amid this quest.

Although Hill broadcasts on a sports talk station, the morning show spans beyond comprehensive sports discussion while implementing a variety of other topics into its daily discussion. In fact, Hill defines the breadth of topics into two distinctive categories, one of which is sports while the other covers an assortment of miscellaneous subjects mentioned on the show.

“I think it’s more beneficial if you are a radio person and you know what you think works when it comes to doing radio,” Hill said. “If you can find a way to keep the audience entertained and engaged and try, if you can, to present content that’s different than [what] they might find somewhere else, then that’s more important than necessarily a vast X’s and O’s knowledge when it comes to sports from my perspective.”

Sports teams in the city of Boston have established a tradition of grandeur and excellence, making a habit of remaining in contention for championships every year. In fact, the Celtics championship ended the city’s title drought that spanned just over five years. During that time, the media ecosystem has changed with a prioritization on digital distribution in addition to more niche content offerings. As a long-tenured radio host, Hill has been able to successfully adapt by optimizing the idiosyncrasies of the medium while also being open to innovation.

“The old adage about, and I think it still remains a unique advantage when it comes to this medium, is that when you wake up in the morning, you want to know, ‘What happened? What happened last night?,’ and you want to hear people give you their slant on it,” Hill said. “My function, I think, is to give everybody the opportunity to share their opinions on stuff.”

While Hill has become a respected sports radio host, he initially started working in another sector of the industry. During his time as a middle school student, he worked a paper route and saved his money to buy two turntables and several 45-rpm records. Hill would then go to the garage of his parents’ house and host a radio show with no audience, working to master the craft in his nascence. As he grew older, he started to bring his records to his high school radio station and take the air.

The passion and verve he possessed for the medium, along with his talent in the craft, helped him land a job at WAAF as a promotion coordinator. As he began to showcase his abilities, he earned chances to go on the air over the weekends and overnight. Morning show host Drew Lane later asked Hill if he wanted to do sports on the program, and he continued to grow from there.

When Hill was named the host of the new Hill-Man Morning Show on WAAF a few years later, he needed to find a way to stand out in the marketplace. After all, he was facing competition from Charles Laquidara on WBCN and a variety of other media outlets, and it took time for the program to eventually break through. Hill took the opposite approach of other stations in the area to render the show distinct from those on other media outlets.

“WBCN at the time was an older-targeted station, so we targeted the station towards Men 18-34 and figured that we could grow as they grew,” Hill said. “So we were just going out attending every single possible event where somebody might be, going out before concerts and shaking hands, and doing all that stuff that I think you have to do in order to try to get people to try your show and try your station.”

Hill’s program catapulted to the top of the marketplace, and he signed a lifetime contract after 26 years on the air to stay at WAAF. In signing the deal, he never thought he would work anywhere else, but things changed three years later when Gerry Callahan hosted his last show in morning drive on WEEI. Then-Entercom announced that it was adding Hill to the daypart to host a new morning drive program and retained co-host Danielle Murr in the process, commencing a new era for the outlet. Shortly thereafter, WAAF was sold to the Educational Media Foundation and re-formatted with contemporary Christian programming.

“I never thought [W]AAF would go away,” Hill said. “It was a legendary rock station, and I still to this day will flip by that station and hear Christian rock music and sit there in silence for a couple of minutes for that great radio station, but being the same company and the same market manager at the time [in] Mark Hannon, when that opportunity came up [to] try something different and to make a change, I was really excited about it.”

In moving formats, Hill and his colleagues evaluated the program and determined how they could grow their audience on WEEI while staying true to the essence of the show. The program, however, was going up against Toucher & Rich, the hit morning show on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and others.

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen,” Hill said. “To me, the most important thing is that we’re doing what we should do to get partners for the radio station on the business side of things and delivering results for them.”

Hill is cognizant of the success of 98.5 The Sports Hub but articulated that the ranking does not matter to those spending money on radio. Instead, he claims that it is about the level of engagement and patronization of the product that facilitates interest in the brand.

“From a differentiator point of view, we’re up against, on the sports side of things, an incredible radio station that has done an amazing job of being #1 in this market for a long time with really compelling personalities,” Hill said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to find ways to be different when it comes to our choice on content and the way in which we present it, and then outwork them when it comes to going out and meeting people who might listen to the show.”

Whereas Hill was originally a solo host during his early days on WAAF, he is now joined by Jermaine Wiggins and Courtney Cox, both of whom bring unique aspects that enhance the program. Wiggins, a former tight end for the New England Patriots, provides his knowledge of football and the perspective of a professional athlete. Cox is the youngest person on the program and has a unique approach from her time covering sports at NESN while embracing the humor and repartee on the show. Show producer Chris Curtis, who worked with Hill at WAAF, also contributes to the conversation as well and has helped maintain synergy.

“Whether it’s the co-hosts on the show or callers, I love when they are having fun at my expense, and I think that self-deprecating humor to me is the best,” shared Hill. “If we have a show in which I end up being the punchline or end up, whether it’s my age or lack of technological skill or my frugality – whatever it is – that to me is my favorite part of what we do and that personality coming through, I guess.”

Hill uses his platform to benefit the community through The Greg Hill Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide families affected by tragedy with immediate needs. He created the foundation in 2010 to celebrate two decades on the air at WAAF before the advent of crowdfunding in a quest to give back. The foundation has donated over $20 million to more than 9,000 beneficiaries during its 14 years.

“We’re lucky in radio because we have this incredible tradition of public service, and I think everybody in radio feels this obligation – this great obligation to use the airwaves to help others,” Hill said. “We’re granted the incredible platform in which we can actually get people to respond when help is needed, and so I wanted to be able to use that microphone and the radio station on those days to be able to help the beneficiaries in our area who needed it.”

Hill recently signed a multiyear contract extension with Audacy-owned WEEI to continue hosting The Greg Hill Show. Part of what compelled him to remain at the station was working with Ken Laird, the brand manager of the outlet who used to be his producer at WAAF. Moreover, he has known Audacy Boston market manager Mike Thomas for over two decades as he leads the cluster of stations in an environment with many entities looking to garner shares of attention.

“To be able to have the opportunity to work with those guys, know what they are, what I need them to do to keep them happy and to have the opportunity for us to, from a team perspective, that we have one clear mission in mind, and that is to be No. 1,” Hill said. “No. 1 in revenue and No. 1 when it comes to ratings, so to be able to sit there and go, ‘Alright, since I came here five years ago, we definitely have some wins, but there’s still a lot that we have to do,’ and to be able to do it with them together was way more interesting to me than any other opportunity.”

Even though Hill has worked in the sports media business for many years, he remains energized by the prospect of achieving goals and having the privilege to host his radio program. In the past, he has stated that he would like to slow down in his career, yet he is unsure what he would do without working in radio.

“That being said, I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn for 30-something years, and I’m definitely feeling it more than I used to,” Hill said. “But sometimes I think it would be fun to go and do one more radio show where I play seven great songs an hour, as long as I get to pick whatever I play and there’s no research and there’s no computer programming the music. I sometimes think about that, but I just love doing this.”

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If Jim Rome is Willing to Innovate, So Can You

Jim Rome is 59 years old and has been at this for 35 years. And if he finds value in embracing new platforms, you, your hosts, and your stations should be able to do it, too.

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Photo of Jim Rome and a logo for the X platform

Jim Rome is 59 years old. He’s been in the sports talk radio game since before I was born. And earlier this year, his show left CBS Sports Network to begin a live simulcast on the Elon Musk-owned X platform.

And it has exposed him and his show to a much wider, and frankly much younger, audience in the short time since the simulcast began.

If you search X, you’ll see either “I didn’t know Jim Rome was still around” or “I’ve never heard of Jim Rome, but I saw his show on here,” posts.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning terrestrial radio. In fact, he recently chastised a caller for talking poorly about “scratchy AM radio”, which elicited a strong defense of the medium from the sports talk legend.

But I can’t help but think that if — at this stage in both his life and his career — Jim Rome is willing to try new things, so can you, your show, or your station.

To be frank, Rome has every reason to coast. Rest on his laurels. Simply collect a paycheck and call it a day until his contract is up. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s innovating. He’s taking chances. I’m sure it’s a much safer feeling — especially for someone about to reach 60 (you look great by the way, Jim) — to stick to a familiar simulcast on cable TV. For damn near 40 years, that’s been the dominant player in the space. But it isn’t 1992 anymore.

Listening to Rome describe the new simulcast makes either one of two things true: Either he doesn’t truly understand what he’s doing, or he believes that his audience is potentially too old to understand streaming. Because he talks about the new venture like he’s trying to explain it to a five-year-old, but at least he’s out here attempting it.

Listening to many shows or stations around the country has at times led me to have a cynical view of the industry. Lipservice is often paid when you hear leaders say “We’re in the content business, not the radio business,” but then only put their content on the radio. Or in podcast form, in three-hour blocks with the live traffic reports still included in the audio to really cement home the fact that the producer couldn’t be bothered to even attempt to edit it before publishing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some stations that have fantastic radio, podcast, digital video, and social media strategies. Others excel at live events.

But many — you could argue too many — are resting on their laurels, taking a “this is good enough,” approach to the format and its content, and hoping that nothing ever changes.

The problem is the world changes every single day. And if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind. If the biggest and best stations in the industry fall behind, the entire format falls behind. And I don’t want to see that happen.

If you don’t have a digital video strategy in 2024, I have one quick question: Why not? I was a Program Director in market #228, and we had a digital video strategy.

If you don’t have a podcast strategy in 2024 that’s better than “just put up the entire show from today”, I have one quick question: Why not?

“Why not?” is likely the question Jim Rome asked when he was presented with the opportunity to move his show from the safe haven that was CBS Sports Network and bring it to a wider, younger, and more accessible audience on social media. Now, was it a risk? Absolutely.

But that’s the point. Be willing to take the chance. Be willing to try something different. Experiment. Learn. I can empathize with those who are frozen by the fear of failing. It’s a completely valid worry. But not growing, not chasing every revenue and content avenue possible, and not learning something new is a bigger risk, in my book.

I’m not here to suggest you take an ax to everything you’ve done on your show, your station, or your cluster, but I will strongly advocate for expanding your horizons and attempting to meet your audience wherever they may be. And even if that audience might be in places you’re unfamiliar with, familiarize yourself. Do I get the impression Jim Rome was super familiar with live video streams on X before taking his show there? No. But he was willing to take a chance, knowing that it might benefit in the long run.

I hope you operate in the same spirit.

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Do HBO and Hard Knocks Determine Part of the NFL Schedule?

Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

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Graphics for NFL Films and HBO's Hard Knocks

We could debate the merits of HBO’s decision to feature the entire AFC North in its end-of-season version of Hard Knocks, but we won’t. Say this much: It hasn’t been done before.

That’s because HBO and the NFL never before decided to do it, nothing more. The network and the league set the parameters for Hard Knocks, after all, and you can tell by this year’s lineup (Hard Knocks: Offseason, Hard Knocks: Training Camp and Hard Knocks: In Season) that they’re running out of ways to keep things fresh.

Featuring an entire division, especially one that includes longtime rivals, does help accomplish that. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens, Browns, Steelers and Bengals all finished with winning records in 2023.

But let’s skip the rest of the gloss and get to the nubs of it: Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

And should a network get to call that big of a shot?

The league hasn’t said anything about Pittsburgh’s schedule, and HBO certainly won’t. But Steelers fans – and anyone interested in the AFC playoff picture – immediately took notice when the NFL’s 2024 slate was announced on May 15.

The Steelers’ schedule was never going to be cake; six games within the AFC North takes care of that. But the NFL placed all six of those games within the final eight weeks of the season. Pittsburgh’s other two games in that stretch? At Philadelphia, and home to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Christmas Day.

A schedule like that could build some drama into a series about four teams trying to outlast each other and make it into the post-season, wouldn’t it? And while we can’t outright say the NFL planned this into the mix, we can think it.

The Steelers have never appeared on the HBO series, as you probably know. There’s been a bit too much made of head coach Mike Tomlin’s reluctance to open up either himself or the locker room to the network’s cameras and boom mikes, but it’s true that Pittsburgh dodged the bullet for more than two decades – until now.

Tomlin isn’t the only coach who’d rather skip the intrusion. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on The Adam Jones Podcast recently that he doesn’t watch the show, in part because it’s so obviously forced. “Everything’s put on,” Harbaugh said. “You got to put a microphone, and a camera in your face – people aren’t the same.” But he said he’ll tell his team to conduct business as usual, assuming that’s possible.

Tomlin and crew got a weird schedule in general, not only at the finish. The Steelers open with two straight on the road, which hasn’t happened to them in 25 years. I guess you could say they were due.

Week 2 happens to place them in Denver, the site of Steelers quarterback Russ Wilson’s bad breakup with Sean Peyton and the Broncos last offseason. They don’t get a divisional opponent until Week 11, two weeks beyond their bye. After that, it’s a broken-glass crawl to the finish.

“It’s probably not exactly how I would have drawn it up, but we’ve got to do the best we can,” team president Art Rooney II said. “A lot of the division games are at the end of the schedule, so it will be an interesting stretch there toward the end.”

That’s one way to put it. The Steelers went 5-1 versus the North last season, but they grabbed two of those wins within the season’s first five weeks. This year, not so much.

Tomlin hasn’t discussed any of this publicly, and nobody needs to feel sorry for either him or the franchise. They’ll get by. Close watchers of the Steelers noted that in the club’s announcement of the Hard Knocks news, not a single member of the organization was quoted, but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess other than the obvious, which is that –  like lots of teams – Pittsburgh probably views HBO as one of those things the NFL makes the franchise live with. Not everybody craves that stage.

The league always tries to build suspense into the season’s final several weeks, and TV ratings are the tail that wags the dog. No argument there. It’s common for divisional opponents to square off down the stretch, with a team often playing each of its division foes one more time over the final four or five weeks.

But that’s after they’ve already played their rivals once, usually much earlier in the year. Viewed in that light, meeting again toward the finish becomes a great way to gauge how much teams have changed through the season, and who’s left standing.

That is good drama, the kind we all want to see. This season’s Steelers schedule, on the other hand, smells like forced theater – weird, because it isn’t really necessary. But there we go again, overcomplicating things. It’s show business, kids.

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