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WEEI is Focused on Evolving Under the Direction of Mike Thomas

“I want to continue on the road of ‘Hey have you listened to WEEI lately?’ If you consume the station now compared to pre-COVID and before, it’s a different product and I think people would enjoy it.”

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A photo of Audacy Boston Market Manager Mike Thomas and the WEEI logo
(Photo: Audacy)

Evolution is part of life. That can include both the growth of a person, and a business. In the case of WEEI, the legendary Boston sports radio station has been on a different path and trajectory under the direction of long-time radio executive Mike Thomas.

Last week, Thomas celebrated his two-year anniversary as Market Manager of Audacy Boston and the changes — both inside the walls of the WEEI and what the radio station’s listeners are hearing — have altered dramatically.

“Internally, we’re all working together now and we all support each other and it’s to everybody’s benefit,” said Thomas. “The culture is much different inside the building and much more positive and supportive.”

While Thomas has worked hard to improve the culture inside WEEI, that has translated to what is going out over the airwaves.

From the listener’s standpoint, the radio station sounds completely different than it did under the previous regime.

“There used to be a time when you listened to EEI and it was somewhat hard to listen to because it just was constant fighting,” said Thomas. “Now, you can listen to it and you can agree or disagree and you don’t feel worn out after you listen.”

One of the great topics of discussion on a sports radio station is the great rivalries in sports, but those rivalries can also extend to those markets that have multiple sports radio stations. In the case of Boston, there is WEEI and 98.5 The Sports Hub, and for Thomas, the rivalry is personal.

Thomas helped launch The Sports Hub and brought it to great heights. And now, he’s charged with the continued growth of WEEI and ultimately competing with 98.5 The Sports Hub for listeners in the market.

“I feel like I’ve been through this before,” said Thomas. “Back in the CBS days when we signed on The Sports Hub, nobody thought that we were ever going to be successful and that we could never beat EEI. I feel like there’s some similarities there that we’re the underdog and we have room to grow and I feel like we’re starting to make some progress.” 

For Thomas, the goal is for his new home at WEEI to be competitive and continue to attract new listeners while also not losing sight of what his former home has accomplished in the market.

From his perspective, both radio stations can be successful just like in other markets that have multiple sports radio stations.

“I have a big place in my heart for The Sports Hub and what that meant to my career,” said Thomas. “I’m not disillusioned that we’re going to beat The Sports Hub but I think that EEI can be competitive and there’s a lot of markets with two or three sports stations and Boston is certainly one of those markets where you can have two very successful sports stations. That’s our goal. We want to be in the race and I think that we’re getting there.”

Thomas brings a unique skill set to his role as Market Manager at Audacy Boston because much of his career has been on the programming side. In transitioning from being Vice President of Sports Programming for CBS Radio to being the Brand Manager at The Sports Hub to where he was before WEEI as Market Manager for Good Karma Brands in Chicago, Thomas is all about bringing people together and having the entire staff on the same page.

And there are pages involved in the job that Thomas never dreamed he would have to worry about.

“My life involves a lot more spreadsheets,” chuckled Thomas. “I never expected that. I didn’t get into radio to do math. It used to be programming and sales never saw eye-to-eye. It just was a constant kind of battle between both sides of the building and now I think we all realize that in order to be successful, we all have to work together and help each other.”

Thomas has looked on as the entire sports radio industry has evolved over the years. There was a time when a host or hosts would take phone calls and have a civil conversation about what was going on in the world of sports. Today, there seems to be an increase in the passion level of both the callers and the hosts and sometimes that can lead to some testy moments.

But that is not something that happens all of the time leading to a misconception of what sports radio has become, especially in the Boston area.

“The overall perception of sports radio, in my opinion, everywhere is that it’s all just so negative and it’s a cesspool of people that are just pissed off,” said Thomas. “I think that there’s that element to it and that’s what sports radio and just being a fan is about. We all yell at our radios or yell at our TVs during games because we’re passionate and that’s what makes the format is that passion. I think sports radio, like all of us in life, we’ve all kind of evolved and I don’t think you have to go on the radio and scream to get your point across. Sports radio has kind of changed in that way too.”

For Thomas, the radio industry has been his blood, and that includes working for and learning from his brother Bruce Gilbert, a long-time radio executive and currently the Senior Vice President of Sports Content and Audience for Cumulus. During the late 80s, Gilbert was working mornings at a radio station and hired his brother to do the overnights giving Thomas his first full-time radio job.

Thomas has received a lot of quality advice from his brother going all the back to their younger days.

One piece of advice came when they were younger.

“Get out of my room!” said Thomas when asked what his brother has taught him.

And when the laughter stopped, Thomas was serious about what his brother has meant to him.

“Bruce has been an incredible influence on my radio career,” said Thomas. “He’s helped me all along the way and Bruce has always been a great sounding board. But also he’s like ‘Man, you just have to be yourself and trust your gut’. And that’s probably the best radio career advice that he’s ever given me because he’s right.”

Mike Thomas has used all of that advice to become a huge success in the radio industry. And now as he begins his third year as Market Manager for Audacy Boston, his goals are to continue to help WEEI evolve and become a success in the market while it goes head-to-head with his old station The Sports Hub.

“I just want us to continue on the path that we’re on which is internally this is now a fun place to work which is so important in my opinion and the culture is so important,” said Thomas.  “Externally, I want to continue on the road of ‘Hey have you listened to WEEI lately?’ If you consume the station now compared to pre-COVID and before, it’s a different product and I think people would enjoy it.”

And so far, with Thomas at the helm for the last two years, more and more people have been listening to what WEEI has to offer.

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Jen Lada Has Built a Multiplatform Presence at ESPN

“I always say my job is to make the viewer care about somebody and root for somebody that they might ordinarily not root for or care about.”

Derek Futterman

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Jen Lada
Courtesy: Phil Ellsworth, ESPN Images

When Jen Lada appeared on Around the Horn earlier in the month, she became the 58th panelist to be part of the program since its launch in 2002. Facing off against three other panelists from around the country, she garnered a victory in her on-air debut and elicited plaudits from her colleagues. Throughout the program, Lada demonstrated her deft sports knowledge and nuanced opinions that have crafted her into a venerated, skilled reporter at the network.

Although she had appeared on many ESPN programs previously, Around the Horn represented a show to which she wanted to contribute for many years. In fact, she has memories of watching the show just out of Marquette University and remarking about its brilliance and ingenuity.

Utilizing reporters with comprehensive knowledge of various sports who have chronicled several events, the show provides them an opportunity to give their opinions on issues and engage in debate with their contemporaries. Lada earned a spot on the show by being persistent, continuing to express her proficiency in commentary and sports discussion. The journey to arrive at this stage of her career, through which she has realized high-level assignments and a presence both at the local and national level, required adaptability and fortitude, and she continues to never take opportunities for granted.

“It’s great that I won, but it just sets the bar really high for the next time I go out there, which is not something I’m afraid of,” Lada said. “I love a challenge, and I love proving to myself that I can keep trying new things and doing new things well, and I hope that if people see me as some sort of example in the industry, that that’s what they walk away with.”

The approach adopted by Lada within her multifarious career ventures is to develop and maintain versatility, always innovating within her approach to content. As she looks to build off her initial victory on Around the Horn, she aims to be more compendious in her discourse and applying a more succinct approach. Making the adjustment in order to deliver compelling, distinctive points quickly differs from her other work, but it is all ultimately centered on sports.

While studying at Marquette University, she observed her classmates having a conversation about the men’s basketball team and what had happened in a recent game. Lada, who at the time was dating a player on the team and cheerleading at games, began to give her thoughts and was subsequently asked if she had ever considered sportscasting.

“I didn’t know that women could be sportscasters,” Lada said. “It wasn’t on my radar as a real career that women held because there were so few of them at the time doing it, and so once I realized that that was something I could do, then I kind of turned all my attention to, ‘Well, how do I make this happen?’”

As Lada began to complete internships and navigate through the media industry, she learned to develop a thick skin and refined her conduct. Out of school, she had completed a year of a non-paid sports internship and was waitressing on the side to pay the bills. The first interview she took for a job at a television station in a top-10 market ended with her being sexually harassed. It was a jarring experience that disappointed Lada because of her propensity to give people the benefit of the doubt, and it also forced her to evaluate her own disposition.

“I think it’s only natural that you wonder how you contributed to the circumstance or what you could have done differently to maybe not put yourself in that space,” Lada said, “but I was very lucky that when I told my family about what had occurred, they very quickly knocked any notion of that out of my head.”

In navigating the industry with good intentions, Lada recognized that it is not her fault if other people fail at treating others professionally and create a misogynistic work environment. Receiving the lesson early in her career has made her more aware of the people to avoid, and she remains wary of advice given to women in the industry that they should just be nice. Lada was recently on a panel where someone advised a broadcast class that being nice would result in things working out for them in the future.

“I felt myself cringing internally because I don’t think that that is a luxury women are afforded,” Lada said. “I don’t think – maybe now is different, but when I was coming up, and I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, there were people who preyed on niceness. And so the way that I would tweak that is to be professional; to carry yourself in a professional manner and recognize that sometimes being ‘traditionally nice’ puts a target on your back to be mistreated, and the best thing you can do is alert those people who would see you as a target that you’re not going to fall victim to that or you refuse to be victim to that.”

Lada joined ESPN in 2015 where she was hired to contribute to Colin Cowherd’s radio program. When Cowherd left the network and joined FOX Sports on a full-time basis, she started co-hosting a new, national program alongside Jorge Sedano. The show, however, had an evanescent run and left her feeling as if she had failed.

It took her a full year to recognize that she had been involved in a series of circumstances and decided to enact the necessary change, asking producers for advice and attending seminars. One of these was an interviewing course hosted by journalist John Sawatsky where he synthesized the art of the craft. Akin to when she was in college, she overheard in passing that the network needed more women in the features space.

“I was fortunate enough to have done a lot of features during my time in Milwaukee because we had a 9 p.m. newscast that required a local sports feature every night of the week, so between our three-person department, we had to fill that timeslot,” Lada said. “I had done a lot of lengthy sports features in Milwaukee [and] had a good foundation of what that job required.”

The meeting led to Lada doing features on an interim basis at the network and later granted her a spot on College GameDay, where she works as its features reporter. Lada presents stories every week to the audience that go beyond the gameplay and divulge a bigger picture.

“I always say my job is to make the viewer care about somebody and root for somebody that they might ordinarily not root for or care about,” Lada said. “One of the things that has occurred to me over the last few years is just what a skill is required to do that job well because not only are you preparing questions to ensure that you have all of the details and information, you’re also gathering perspective on what they’ve been through – the adversity and the situation that has led them to where they are now.”

Lada recently found herself in a high school classroom at 8 a.m. sitting with other students taking the ACT standardized test. She had to complete the exam as punishment for finishing last in fantasy football at ESPN Milwaukee this past season. After four hours, Lada emerged from the school and revealed her score this past week on the Jen, Gabe, and Chewy morning show. Hosting the local program alongside Gabe Neitzel and Mark Chmura, she has established chemistry over almost four years in the three-person format discussing hyperlocal topics.

“I try to be conversational,” Lada said. “We don’t lean on stats – obviously, we want to be accurate, and we want to be, again, fair to the subjects we’re talking about, but we try to also just be friends who are talking about what’s going on on any given day on the Milwaukee [and] Wisconsin sports scene.”

In balancing a variety of different roles, Lada has tried to master everything that she is doing, refraining from being content with her abilities. Although working in local radio regularly has been a newer role for her, she has grown into the job and has co-hosts who understand the subject matter and allow her to utilize her strengths.

“I just want to keep learning,” Lada said. “I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done, [and] I’m not complacent about the skills I have. I’m always interested in adding more jobs to the résumé, and I think that in this industry, you’re rewarded for versatility.”

Once College GameDay commences, Lada adds the responsibility of feature reporting on that program to her schedule and continues making appearances across additional ESPN programming. Lada hosted the Friday edition of College Football Live last season and has also filled in as a host on shows such as First Take and SportsCenter. Moreover, she continues to complete projects for SC Featured and is working on a documentary for E:60 scheduled to premiere later in the summer. 

Lada aims to keep showcasing her indefatigable work ethic and passion for the craft without slowing down. Whether it is hosting a podcast, taking part in more panels or writing essays, she is open to exploring new forms of disseminating stories.

“I have a lot of knowledge and experience rattling around my brain, [and] I think the next iteration is figuring out a way to continue passing those experiences on to the next generation.” Lada said. “I don’t ever want to gatekeep the secrets of success – I think that’s selfish – so as I continue to do the media work, I think the next phase for me is figuring out how to pass a lot of these lessons on to future broadcasting generations.”

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Local Radio Advertisers Can Become Experts with Hosted Shows and Interviews

Overall, local radio interviews and talk shows can be a strategic and effective way for a local expert to enhance their business, build their reputation, and connect with the community.

Jeff Caves

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Photo of people talking on the radio

When looking for that extra edge for local radio advertisers, packaging radio commercials with an “expert” client-hosted talk show or interviews on your local shows or newscasts can be a game-changer. This strategy can build long-term business relationships with suitable clients, such as lawyers, business accountants, agents, psychologists, or sports handicappers. These professionals can provide valuable editorial contributions to sports and news stations. Of course, the expert must have good communication skills, be comfortable speaking their mind, and be ready to be the face of the business.

The radio commercials can tout the expertise the person has and give a call to action for listeners to move on. You can often find these experts on social media writing blogs or doing a series of vignettes about their business. For these types of clients, engaging in local radio news interviews or hosting a 1-2 hour talk show can enjoy several advantages:

Visibility and Brand Recognition

Visibility and Brand Recognition: Regular appearances on local radio help the expert become a well-known figure in the community. This visibility can lead to increased recognition and brand awareness and is a much faster track than just blogging on social media. Attorney Bill Handel and his ” Handel on the Law” show have created a directory business for Handel.

Public Trust and Credibility

By sharing their expertise and providing timely insights, the expert can build trust and establish credibility with the audience. Being perceived as an expert can enhance any client’s reputation and create top-of-mind awareness needed to lead business categories.

Client Acquisition

Listeners impressed by the expert’s knowledge and demeanor may seek their services. This exposure can lead to new clients who might not have been reached through other forms of advertising and give credibility to the expert who uses social media.

Community Engagement

Engaging with the local community through radio shows helps experts connect with potential clients more personally. This can foster a sense of community and loyalty. Question and answer segments can lead to deeper connections.

Educational Outreach

The expert can educate the audience on various issues, which can empower the audience. An informed audience is more likely to recognize when they need the expert’s assistance and whom to contact.

Stand Out in a Crowd

Stand out in a crowd: Being active on local radio can set the expert apart from competitors who may not use local radio. Often, the local shows or interview segments are exclusive to the expert.

Immediate Audience Feedback

Interacting with the audience through call-ins or live questions provides immediate feedback and allows the expert to address common concerns directly in real-time. The expert can be of service NOW.

Professional Development

Regularly discussing current topics can keep the expert sharp on trends and issues, contributing to their ongoing professional development.

Networking

Local radio stations often have a vast network of listeners and other professionals. This can open doors to new professional relationships and opportunities for collaboration. The station also provides a loyal audience who typically don’t follow the expert on social media. But they may start to after hearing the expert.

Overall, local radio interviews and talk shows can be a strategic and effective way for a local expert to enhance their business, build their reputation, and connect with the community.

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‘We Need To Talk’ is Insightful, Intelligent Conversation on CBS Sports Network

The show is not going to be a ratings giant like ESPN’s First Take or offer the decibel level of commentary on FS1’s First Things First, but it is a necessary and unique slice of sports television.

John Molori

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A photo of the women who host We Need to Talk on CBS Sports Network
Photo Courtesy: CBS Sports Network

CBS Sports Network’s ‘We Need To Talk‘ features a rotating roundtable of female sportscasters offering their views on a variety of topics in sports. The premise is important. Female voices in sports need to be heard. They bring perspective, weighty conversation, and thoughtfulness to each discussion.

Over the past few years, women have made major strides in being heard and seen in sports media whether it is hosting, commentary, reporting or play-by-play. This is a good trend, but We Need To Talk is about more than just female talking heads. It’s about insight, depth, and needed attention to athletes and sports that do not bask in the mainstream limelight.

This particular episode featured host AJ Ross joined by Summer Sanders, Katrina Adams, and Renee Montgomery. It was an eclectic and accomplished group with Ross, an experienced and versatile reporter, Sanders, the erstwhile U.S. Swimming star and a broadcast veteran, Montgomery, the former WNBA star, activist, and co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, and Adams, former tennis player, CEO of the United States Tennis Association, and chair of the US Open.

Montgomery got the conversation going looking back on the Celtics winning the NBA Championship. She also made a telling comparison between the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, renewed in the 1980s with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and compared it to the current WNBA rivalry between the Indiana Fever and Chicago Sky with Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. It’s a valid comparison, and Montgomery brought it to life effectively.

The WNBA was up next with Montgomery talking about Cameron Brink, the LA Sparks’ rookie who is making a splash not only on the court, but on the social media and fashion scenes as well.

It should be noted that this episode of We Need To Talk was taped before Brink suffered a season ending torn ACL, but Montgomery’s point was clear. It is not only important to be a great player. Today’s athletes also need to use multimedia platforms to raise their profiles.

Adams segued into a discussion on Wimbledon and No. 2 ranked Coco Gauff. It was good to hear some tennis talk on the airwaves, but this is a hallmark of We Need To Talk. The show makes it a point to move beyond the front-page stories and hit angles and areas that do not get much coverage.

These ladies are not afraid to get in each other’s grills as well. Sanders actually interrupted Adams to start a discussion about the upcoming Paris Olympics, but Adams would not relent and moved forward to an analysis of 2023 Wimbledon men’s singles winner Carlos Alcaraz.

The variety of sports continued with Ross starting a discussion about US track star Sha’Carri Richardson. I’ve been a fan of Ross for a long time. She does an expert job of mixing in her own commentary, while making sure all of the panelists on We Need To Talk get their due time. She’s also multitalented, seamlessly moving from reporter to host to debater.

We Need To Talk takes its roots in diversity with an all-female cast, but there is a deeper variety within the makeup of the cast. Sanders is a longtime veteran of sports, sports broadcasting, and entertainment. Ross is in the prime of her journalistic career. Adams brings perspective as an athlete, administrator, and leader, and Montgomery offers a fresh and contemporary style with her commentary.

Block 2 of the show featured Montgomery and Ross interviewing Naomi Girma of the San Diego Wave women’s professional soccer team. Girma was named 2023 US Soccer Women’s Player of the Year, the first defender to ever win that award. This is what We Need To Talk offers those who watch the show. It is almost like a smaller scale, studio version of the classic Wide World of Sports on ABC, “spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport.”

The interview was managed well with Ross asking meaningful questions and Montgomery enthusiastically following up with her thoughts and input. This edition of the program also featured a wonderfully produced feature story on USC basketball player Aaliyah Gayles.

The talented Trojan hoopster was on the fast track to basketball stardom when, in April 2022, she was shot at a house party in Las Vegas. Gayles required two emergency surgeries to save her life.

The pace, video, and sound bites in the package were equal parts frightening, sobering, and uplifting. Gayles literally had to learn how to walk again as the feature focused on her rehabilitation and eventual return to the USC lineup.

Coming back from a break, the panel engaged in a great discussion on the talent link between collegiate and US Olympic athletes. A graphic showed that 75% of Team USA athletes and 82% of United States medalists played an NCAA sport.

As the discussion expanded, Montgomery talked about the fact that in order to enter the WNBA, players have to complete four years of college or be of the age of someone who has completed four years of college. I actually did not know that. We Need To Talk passes my personal litmus test for important sports television, namely, it tells me something I don’t already know.

Bringing still another sport and recognizable female athlete into the fold, Dara Torres joined the show next for an interview. The 12-time Olympic swimming medalist talked about her new role as head coach of the Boston College men’s and women’s swim and dive teams. Sanders asked a solid question about how, as a world-class athlete, Torres will manage her expectations of the BC athletes.

 As sports continues to meld with social issues, so too does the subject matter on We Need To Talk. Ross introduced a segment on the National Gay Flag Football League. Again, kudos go to the show’s production team for a slick and enlightening feature story. Praise should also go to the program itself for expanding the boundaries of sports and opening up a whole new world of knowledge for viewers.

Following the feature story, Montgomery and Adams made a point that sports unite people and bring diverse groups and personalities together as one. Montgomery is a fast-developing on-air talent. Her wit, energy, and knowledge go far beyond the basketball court making her a rising star in sports media.

The program continued to bring sports and life together by connecting the June celebrations of Pride Month and Father’s Day with an emotional poem written by renowned DJ Zeke Thomas, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. This was part of the We Need to Listen segment of the program.

Let’s keep it real. We Need To Talk is not going to be a ratings giant like ESPN’s First Take or offer the decibel level of commentary on FS1’s First Things First, but it is a necessary and unique slice of sports television.

The show consistently provides uncommon subject matter with an inimitable approach and tenor. Check it out when you get a chance and bring an open mind and a joy of sports. They need to talk, and we all need to hear them talk.

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