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Carmen DeFalco is Committed to ESPN Chicago

“There’s such a great demand and appetite for sports talk because people are so passionate in a place like this about their teams.”

Derek Futterman

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Carmen DeFalco
Courtesy: Good Karma Brands

As Carmen DeFalco received the news that his midday show was going to be extended by another hour, he was exalted to continue his work in the daypart. After all, he believes most midday programs should last for at least three hours in order to consummate an effective and comprehensive program. Both DeFalco and co-host John Jurkovic were hoping that the show would be extended to three hours, and while they received their desired outcome, it came with a unique twist.

A growing number of radio outlets utilize transitional segments in which hosts of the concluding program combine with those in the forthcoming show to have a discussion and seamlessly retain the flow of content. DeFalco and Jurkovic will be joined by Marc Silverman and Tom Waddle, hosts of the afternoon program, but rather than their appearance being more transient, they will be on the air for a longer stretch. The new paradigm for this crosstalk segment from middays to afternoon drive will be a half-hour long, granting hosts and listeners time to delve into topics that penetrate beyond superficial exchanges and mere previews.

“I think our fans love crosstalk as much, if not more than anything,” DeFalco said. “It always seems to generate the most interest. I think it’s the most fun – we hear from fans constantly about how much they enjoy crosstalk amongst the shows – so I think it’s another added bonus [that] we get to add a little bit more crosstalk between the shows.”

Fans have been clamoring for DeFalco and Jurkovic to return to a three-hour show after their program was reduced to two hours in a preceding lineup change. Although the format is changing because of the expanded crosstalk, they will still be present to offer their compelling opinions and entertaining banter to the audience. Leading up to a typical show, the hosts focus on reacting to the news of the day, reminiscing on the prior night’s slate of sports games and looking at what is ahead.

The midday slot in particular has proved to be an ideal place for this multifaceted structure since it takes place at a time of day when both topics remain especially relevant for listeners. As a radio veteran who has had some level of tangible experience in virtually every daypart, DeFalco understands how unique it is to be in this segment of weekday prime hour programming. Nonetheless, he does not want to define his role as being solely reactionary or prognosticative, instead embracing the totality of the responsibility.

“You’re still trying to get an emotion or a reaction out of people [and] you’re still providing content, so I don’t think it’s too much different,” DeFalco said. “Sometimes maybe just a little bit in the immediacy of what’s happening. You might be sort of talking about different things or talking about different angles, but ultimately whatever daypart you’re in, your objective and your goal is pretty much the same.”

While studying at Columbia College, DeFalco knew that he wanted to work in sports media, but he had not had experience since his high school did not have its own outlet. During his junior year in school, he landed an internship at WLS-AM as an associate producer for the Don Wade and Roma Show. While there, he learned about the importance of adaptability and ingenuity fostered through quantitative and qualitative means.

“It was my first real hands-on experience in the business, and I did soak up as much as I could from those two, especially from Don, who was a really, really [interesting] and talented talk show host,” DeFalco said. “While the format was pretty different and it was much more serious and it was hard news, I still kind of learned the ins and outs of how to do a talk show.”

From there, he earned a part-time weekend overnight shift in the incipient days of ESPN Chicago delivering SportsCenter updates. At the time, the station had three updates per hour, and DeFalco focused on cultivating his voice and refining his craft. Conversations with personalities at the radio station and around the industry proved to be helpful for him, and he appreciated how accommodating everyone was throughout his targeted self-actualization.

“I think just by going back and listening and taking advice from older people and more experienced people in the business, [I learned] about how to – I wouldn’t say sound more professional – but just how to streamline things; how to find the right information to give to people [and] how to set up stories,” DeFalco said. “….I worked pretty hard at that.”

As he continued to accrue experience, DeFalco began covering the Chicago Bulls and hosting the outlet’s pregame, halftime and postgame shows on gamedays. It was during that time where he met former Bulls guard Norman Van Lier, whom he worked alongside on several Bulls and basketball-focused shows. Through these varied endeavors, he was selected to work alongside Marc Silverman on a weekend program. Silverman had been paired with a variety of co-hosts in the slot before DeFalco was added on a permanent basis, and they were quickly able to cultivate synergy.

“Silvy and I always, from the day we really met and started working together, we just kind of hit it off as friends,” DeFalco said. “Yeah, there’s a little bit of an age gap between us, but not crazy; we’re about five years apart. He just was always very willing to sort of take me under his wing and teach me some things, and I appreciated that. A working, professional relationship very quickly just turned into a personal friendship.”

DeFalco and Silverman proved to be a compelling draw and eventually had their show moved to weeknights, airing regularly towards the back half of programming. Upon Dan McNeil’s departure from the station and the end of the popular Mac, Jurko and Harry program, it was added to middays.

Since DeFalco had filled in for McNeil several times in the past, he was granted the position as the new co-host of the show. Through these invaluable experiences hosting sports talk radio on a daily basis, DeFalco began to genuinely find his voice and develop how he views a given program.

“I kind of have a measured approach to the things I say, which maybe is not always the best thing when you’re doing talk radio, but I don’t find myself ever really getting too hot-takey,” DeFalco said. “I don’t mean to disrespect that pejorative term. It’s just not the way I’ve sort of done things and the way I see, I guess, sports.”

DeFalco’s on-air style is rooted in passion and blends subjectivity and objectivity utilizing analytics and internal perceptions. Since he has never left the metropolis, he is ingrained in the teams themselves and feels the triumphs and tribulations. These teams have been part of his life from his childhood, and he aims to bring that knowledge and fervor to the air every time he steps into the studio.

“I’ve got a lot of passion and sometimes a fair amount of fire and anger about some of the things that happen with our sports franchises,” DeFalco said, “but I kind of have a measured, analytic approach to the way I view things most of the time.”

From working with Jurkovic since 2009, the hosts have been able to build chemistry and cognizance of their proclivities on the air. It is evident to DeFalco that Jurkovic takes revelry in repartee and brings a contrarian disposition to the show, something that ultimately broadens the horizons of its range. Despite their contrasting personas, sports serve as a common thread and quickly engendered genuine compatibility and affability.

“I think because we’re a little bit different, we’ve always made a good duo and a good tandem,” DeFalco said. “That’s probably the thing that makes us thrive more than anything else. I know when to kind of rein him in a little if I have to or take the opposite side of things.”

In growing up in the Chicago media marketplace, DeFalco is aware of the rich history and dedication garnered by its sports teams. Fans of the local teams often make their voices heard on a variety of platforms, including as callers on the radio station and users on social media. There are numerous ways in which the Carmen and Jurko show seek to implement listeners and elicit their reactions, such as through phone calls and the live chatrooms online.

Although there have been some questions about the effectiveness of callers over the years, DeFalco finds that there is still palpable interest in this mode of engagement. ESPN Chicago introduced a halftime show during Chicago Bears games hosted by Silverman that is largely caller-driven. The station as a whole has focused on bolstering its digital offerings, effectuated through its app and external outlets.

“We still have what we do on the air, but it’s not like we’re just a talk show or a radio show or a group of radio shows anymore or a radio station,” DeFalco explained. “We’re an audio company; we’re a content company [and] we’re an entertainment company. That’s the business which we’re in at this point.”

With this evolving outlook on the place of ESPN Chicago in the sports media industry as a whole, its competition spans beyond other sports radio outlets such as 670 The Score. The station is working to add more video content to its portfolio, driving people to its YouTube page to see other creative forms of content to appeal to the audience. Thinking about the scope of the sports media ecosystem as a whole though, DeFalco tries to remain focused on what is in he and the station’s control.

“We’re our competition,” DeFalco said. “We can’t get too wrapped up or involved in what anybody else [or] what any other audio company is doing. I think we have to care about what we’re doing; we have to care about the content we create.”

The Good Karma Brands-owned radio station came to terms on a multi-year contract to become the new flagship home of the Chicago Bears. By moving to a sports talk-formatted outlet after more than two decades affiliated with WBBM NewsRadio 780 and 105.9 FM, the team is aware of the purview hosts have over their content.

DeFalco affirms that those at the station are not coerced to appease to rightsholders – which also includes the Chicago White Sox – and have autonomy to remain candid and forthright with their audience. Even so, he has to face criticism from a deluge of other sources, perpetuated through the augmentation of social media.

“When things get really nasty and personal, it probably affected me more when I was younger and it just doesn’t now,” DeFalco said. “Why should I be affected or triggered by someone who may or may not like me – but certainly doesn’t know me?…. I’ve just learned to mostly block it out.”

The key for DeFalco on his show is to make sure it is appealing to fans and partners, and he cherishes the conversations he has with both entities. There are times when the show engages in remote broadcasts, giving them an opportunity to meet the listening audeince. Most of the time, there are people who approach him and Jurkovic to thank them for their contributions to the media landscape and acknowledge how much they enjoy listening.

These interactions, while they may be fleeting, leave a lasting impact on DeFalco and reminds him of who they are serving. Moreover, he finds it humbling to receive these plaudits, and it is something he considers indicative of a successful show.

“There’s such a great demand and appetite for sports talk because people are so passionate in a place like this about their teams,” DeFalco said. “I think that’s what makes it special. Our sports teams are so much ingrained and incorporated in the way we live our lives and the way our social calendars are structured sometimes.”

Although there has been discourse surrounding the demise of traditional radio and audio as a whole, DeFalco underscores the sustained growth and popularity of talk shows as evidence towards the contrary. In fact, he hosts a podcast at the station about sports betting and an external podcast related to bourbon. Radio stations continue to evaluate their standing in the media domain, remaining ready and willing to make changes should it be necessitated.

“It’s not going anywhere,” DeFalco said of the sports talk format. “There’s no threat to it. There’s a lot of content out there [and] there’s a lot for people to consume, but we can adjust. We can provide the things that other content creators are giving to fans and to consumers – we can do those things [and] we are doing those things.”

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WWE’s Paul Heyman Joins the 2024 BSM Summit

“I am thrilled to share that on Wednesday March 13th in New York City, we will welcome a man who has experienced every part of the wrestling and entertainment business both on-air and behind the scenes.”

Jason Barrett

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The final few weeks leading up to the BSM Summit are my least favorite time of the entire process. Between last-minute preparations, unexpected changes, laying out a schedule that fits everyone’s schedule, giving speakers direction, and handling the creative for the banners, programs and what appears on the screen, it can be overwhelming. This event isn’t created and produced by a large organization. It’s done by BSM’s small team and a few volunteers. There is no production team. That’s me. There is no sales team. That’s Stephanie. The creative squad that brainstorms ahead of the show? That’s me peppering Dave Greene, Demetri Ravanos and Stephanie Eads with every single thing that pops into my head.

I share this because on Monday I’ll be releasing our full schedule for the 2024 BSM Summit. You’ll find it on BarrettSportsMedia.com/Summit. If you type in BSMSummit.com it will take you to that page. I’m also hoping to announce our final collection of speakers. You guys will like some of the folks coming to speak who we’ve yet to announce.

Booking this event month’s in advance could be easily done. I could execute a radio conference in my sleep. But I’m not interested in easy. I’m focused on delivering a two-day event that unites professionals across the entire media universe, many who you may never share space with again. I believe in this concept because it helps you learn, stay sharp, discover what others do to create success that you may not have thought about, and in the process, you build new connections.

Creating an event that dives into radio, podcasting, social media, newsletters, television, video execution, sales and promotions, the economic climate, and programming strategy, requires thinking outside the box and swinging for the fences. Think about it. Where else are you going to hear the CEO of a radio company one minute, two local sports talk show hosts the next, four digital executives after that, four social media superstars once they’re done, and cap it all off with discussions about business, entertainment, and the future? It may not be perfect or rolled out the way a few would prefer but it works for us. By the time we hit the stage on March 13-14, that’s when the six months of hard work pay off and the fun begins.

Speaking of fun, if you’ve been to a Summit before, you’ve heard me connect the world of sports media to professional wrestling. The battle for audience attention, understanding how to leverage social media, incorporate advertising, create interest in on-air talent, and design programming to capture ratings are something the two world’s have in common. We’ve been fortunate to have Shawn Michaels and Eric Bischoff speak at prior shows but never have we had a speaker involved who’d be part of the upcoming main event for WrestleMania.

I am thrilled to share that on Wednesday March 13th in New York City, we will welcome a man who has experienced every part of the wrestling and entertainment business both on-air and behind the scenes. It is an honor to have the great Paul Heyman joining us at this year’s Summit.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Heyman, here’s the cliff notes version of what you need to know. Currently, Paul serves as the special counsel for WWE Universal Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns. Reigns has been world champion for 1269 days, and the storyline he’s involved in (The Bloodline) has been a massive hit on television and digital for the WWE. Roman will be competing in the main event at the WWE’s largest show of the year, WrestleMania with Heyman in his corner. The event has become so big that The Rock has returned to become part of the story.

As an on-air character, Heyman is gifted in his ability to command the audience’s attention. His promos are always well thought out, well executed, and interesting. Learning about his process as a talent and what goes into creating a compelling monologue is going to be a real treat for on-air folks in the room.

In addition, Paul is an accomplished writer, executive, promoter and booker. He’s served as the lead writer for both WWE RAW and Smackdown, leading both to the top of the ratings charts. He’s also been on the other side as the leader of an underdog promotion (ECW) tasked with building a brand and competing against the top dog, WWE. Paul is also well versed in advertising having co-founded the Looking4Larry Agency, which is known for its wildly imaginative campaigns for 2K Sports, NASCAR, Smart Cups, Monster Trucks, EA Sports and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Las Vegas.

Talent have praised his creative ideas and ability to design and structure compelling television. Audiences have emotionally connected to his on-air commentaries, and on Wednesday March 13th, BSM Summit attendees will learn what it takes to create, cut through, and command the room’s attention when I sit down with Paul Heyman for an in-depth conversation.

A reminder, tickets for the 2024 BSM Summit are on-sale through BSMSummit.com and the BSM Store. Prices will increase on March 4th so act now and save money before it’s too late. I hope to see you in NYC in three weeks.

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Sports Broadcasts Should Remain Political-Free Zones

There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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A cartoon depicting political candidates talking sports
Credit: Maia Lathrop / Clarion

Political thoughts and ads are everywhere. It seems like everything these days is politicized. Sports hasn’t escaped either. Athletes take stands, some commentators have made their political positions well known too.

In this case, politics is more of a catch-all term. It doesn’t just mean Democrat or Republican, it can mean making a comment on any hot button issue in America or anywhere else. Controversies that create a public stir. We’ve had a few over the course of the last few weeks that drummed up lots of emotion and certainly could have been avoided.

The most recent example took place last weekend at the NBA All-Star Saturday on TNT. As I’m sure you know by now, Kenny Smith had some things to say about the Steph Curry/Sabrina Ionescu 3-point shootout. Such choice things as, “She should have shot it from the women’s line, that would have been a fair contest.” Ionescu more than held her own, with 26 points which would have qualified her for the men’s finals in the event. Smith’s partner Reggie Miller didn’t make things much better, when he chimed in, “According to you, you want her to be playing with dolls.” Smith’s response: “Playing with dolls is good, too.” The fallout was swift thanks to social media.

Smith went on to Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN show earlier in the week to defend his commentary. “I think it’s much ado about nothing, honestly,” Smith said, when asked about the controversy. “Most people who know basketball understood what I was talking about. Actually, I was advocating for her, more than anything else, because basketball is muscle memory. So, he practices from one range, she practices from another.” Smith further explained, “Most people just don’t check the tape, they want to just check the bait. My history and track record speaks for itself,” Smith said. “I was clueless why people thought I didn’t want equality.”

Can. Worms. Opened. I get it, social media can make things appear one way when they are intended in another. My question to Smith and Miller, why make the commentary at all in that moment? Ionescu is a terrific basketball player and shooter. Everybody knew the rules going into the exhibition, so why make a stink about it? Or, if the need outweighs the caution, how about putting some notes down on paper so that you aren’t taken out of context? There are ways to make the commentary smoother. It’s not like the event was a surprise.

Talk shows fall into a different light. That’s all about opinion and it is likely up to each individual to understand how far to push it. Hosts should know their markets and from there can figure out what may or may not work. Topics like these generally lead to more fan engagement, because everyone has an opinion. It’s up to the host or hosts to keep the topic ‘on the rails’ or it becomes a free for all.

When it comes to announcers, hosts and reporters in the industry, mistakes can happen. I get that. It’s live and sometimes thoughts can go awry. We’ve seen it countless times. My question is this, why even go there? What is the benefit? Some like to try and make a name for themselves, to be controversial just for the sake of “look at me” or “listen to me” and trying to make headlines. That’s kind of sad to me. There is more to lose than to gain in these cases.

We’ve seen cases of misspeaking and/or controversial ‘hot button’ statements made on air that have proven costly to livelihoods. One of the more recent moments took place in May 2023. Glen Kuiper and the A’s were in Kansas City and had visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum earlier in the day. He was discussing the visit on air when he dropped the n-word. His claim was that his pronunciation of “negro” was misheard. After an investigation, he was fired. Kuiper was one of the best local television announcers.

Before that Reds announcer Thom Brennaman was caught on a hot mic, making a homophobic remark. Brennaman was pulled from the broadcast mid-game and suspended. The Reds later told Brennaman that he would not be returning, which prompted his resignation. To his credit Brennaman owned it and is trying to improve himself as a person. He’s been forgiven by the LGBTQ+ community in Cincinnati, after he attended several meetings with leaders. They weren’t easy as he told me a couple of years ago, but he made the extreme effort.

If there’s one entity in sports broadcasting that needs to stay out of the fray, and be ‘politic proof’ it’s the sports broadcast and telecast. The booth needs to remain pure. It needs to be a sanctuary for fans and broadcasters alike. There aren’t many fans that are tuning into a baseball, basketball, football or hockey broadcast to learn about your opinions about anything else but the game. Fans look to escape that when listening to or watching a game. Sports is the place we go to forget about the real world for 3-4 hours at a time.

We all have opinions about things in the sport and out of it. Opinions about the game you are broadcasting is what you’re there for, right? For example, I can’t stand the ‘ghost runner’ at 2nd base in extra innings in Major League Baseball. It’s gimmicky and takes away from the way the game was meant to be played. Me expressing that opinion as the game heads to extras is appropriate, as long as you don’t lose track of the game. My thoughts on the Presidential race or a Senate race is inconsequential in the scope of my baseball broadcast. Be engaging to your audience about things they care about in the moment, the game.

I hate when people tell us in the industry to “stick to sports”. Nothing grates on me more. I keep thinking, oh, because I talk about sports, that’s all I know? So, all that doctors know about is medicine then, right? It’s a simple-minded criticism, but I have to say, in these cases, in a booth, we should stick to the sports aspect of things.  There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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Jeff Rickard Understands The Benefits of Attending the BSM Summit

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Jeff Rickard is one of the truly familiar faces of the BSM Summit. He’s not involved in the planning or with the company, but it’s an event he never misses.

“It went from a small group in Chicago the first year to recognition from everyone in our industry, and there’s a lot to be gained when we all get together from different markets and cities,” said Rickard of the event’s growth. “We’re not competing against each other. Instead, we’re there to bring each other ideas, lift each other up, and give each other not just support necessarily, but different ways of looking at and doing things. It allows you to kind of take some energy from another building and bring it back to your own.”

Since the BSM Summit first launched as an invite-only event, Rickard has held jobs in Indianapolis, Boston and Charlotte. In fact, it was at the 2022 Summit in New York where he had his first meeting that would lead to him taking the reins at WFNZ.

Different jobs have come with different situations. Rickard has been able to talk with fellow attendees about translators, transitions to FM, and building digital strategies. He appreciates the networking opportunities that exist at the Summit, but the access to new points of view have helped him grow as a programmer.

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot,” he says. “In the last, I don’t know, three to four years, I think BSM has helped that along the way.”

The “radio is dying” narrative is a popular one. We can pretend that it only exists outside of our industry, but how many of us know someone very much inside the industry that exclusively speaks the language of doom and gloom when asked about future goals and plans? 

Rickard says that coming to the Summit is a necessity for anyone stuck in or around that mindset. Radio may not be as popular as ubiquitous as it used to be, but there is still enthusiasm for sports radio. That is something to feed off of!

“Local sports radio, if done right, will always attract an audience, because [listeners] can go to Sirius XM and they can go to ESPN and they can get the main stories of the day, and they can talk about the Chiefs winning another Super Bowl, and they can talk about if the Golden State Warriors being past their prime,” he says. “That’s all great, but if you’re in Indianapolis or Charlotte and you want to hear about respectively the Pacers or the Hornets, you know that we’re going to be talking about them. I think we’ve learned about the things that our local audience is going to want.”

Lessons Rickard has learned at past BSM Summits have had a major impact in Charlotte. WFNZ’s cume isn’t just up since he arrived. It has nearly quadrupled. 

According to Rickard, that is the result of valuing all perspectives. He’s a programmer, but that doesn’t mean he is only paying attention to sessions featuring other programmers. He also isn’t focused only on executives that could offer him the next opportunity. Rickard encourages any programmer that attends the BSM Summit to come and take notes when talent from other markets are on stage. 

“You have to realize that they’re not on a level below you. They are in large part you’re partners,” he says. “I always enjoy listening to guys that are highly successful, at those summits, talk about what motivates them, what they’re thinking about, how they go ahead and put a show together. There’s a reason we hire those talented people because they’re really good at what they do. They’re really good at attracting an audience, and they’re better at holding that audience. That’s why they’re speaking at a conference like BSM.”

Day-to-day operations are always on the minds of the people that attend the BSM Summit. When Jeff Rickard comes to New York next month though, he wants to hear conversations about the bigger picture. Whether it is from the stage or at networking events, he wants to be part of the conversations that are fundamental to the future of radio as a medium and broadcasting as a business. The one at the forefront of his mind? Audience measurement.

“We’ve been dealing with Nielsen for a long time,” he says. “There’s good, there’s bad. We all understand the system and how it works. But with so many of our listeners coming to us now through an app or coming to us by downloading what we’re doing online, they’re coming to us straight to the website. We’re starting to be able to kind of pick and choose our own numbers. We can see with certain day parts and certain guests or certain topics that, ‘wow, a lot of people checked into the app at that particular time.’ 

“So I think moving forward, the biggest thing for our industry is how do we continue to more accurately assess who our audience is and what’s really happening there on a moment to moment basis. I think we’re getting better every year, but I’m curious to see what the industry believes is the future for the next ten years, because I don’t think we’re using it now.” 

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