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Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson Are a Privilege to Watch

In truth, this TNT crew stands in rarified broadcasting air with the likes of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Don Meredith on Monday Night Football.

John Molori

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Screengrab from Inside the NBA
Screengrab: Inside the NBA on TNT

Rumors and reports are swirling about the impending disintegration of the quintessential NBA pregame show, Inside the NBA on TNT. This program has set a standard for basketball discourse with the illustrious crew of Ernie Johnson, Jr., Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley.

Their essence is more than just decades of basketball knowledge and accomplishments. In truth, this TNT crew stands in rarified broadcasting air with the likes of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Don Meredith on Monday Night Football.

With NBC poised to make a run at pilfering the NBA from TNT, we may be looking at the end of an era. So, let’s play along and assume that next season is the last hurrah for this roundball wrecking crew. In television, when the end is near, two results can occur. A broadcast team can engage in self-pity and mail in their final shows, or they can make the most of their moments and deliver sterling performances.

Clearly, the TNT crew has embraced the latter. This was no more evident than on May 28 with Game 4 of the Western Conference Final series between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks. On this night, the TNT pregame show foursome, joined by Draymond Green, delivered a positively beautiful performance.

Like an operatic aria or a Shakespearean soliloquy, Johnson, O’Neal, Smith, and Barkley took the stage and created epic moments. As always, it is Johnson who sets the tenor and tone of the discussion. He is a broadcasting icon, but also an anomaly.

Johnson is not blessed with the vivacity, voice, or volume of the prototypical sportscaster. In fact, in his early bespectacled days, Ernie Johnson looked more like Ernie Douglas from the old My Three Sons sitcom, but Johnson’s talent has never been about the surface. He is just really good at what he does. Johnson brings a depth of emotion and understanding to every show – competent and committed, prepared and passionate, solid and sensitive.

Similarly, Kenny Smith takes a singularly unique approach to his role on the show. In commenting on the Timberwolves, he offered a global view of the team saying that it is about more than just this series vs. Dallas. For them, Smith said, it is a mandate as to whether the Wolves are going to be true championship contenders for years to come or one year wonders.

The always awesome TNT production crew showed a telling graphic of how Dallas closed games one through three by erasing late game Minnesota’s leads. The NBA on TNT consistently has a smooth rhythm between the on-air talent and the behind-the-scenes production team. Each episode is synchronized, seamless, and statistically satisfying.

Early in the broadcast, Johnson threw to Allie LaForce, a courtside reporter of the highest caliber. LaForce is one of those vital sideline reporters who bring substance and important details to a broadcast. Her standups are not just a break from the set or booth. She is thorough, prepared, and proactive. LaForce is one of my favorite reporters along with Lisa Salters, Melissa Stark, and the fast-rising Meghan McKeown.

With Minnesota facing a deep deficit in the series, Smith again rose above cliched commentary when he opined that to be an NBA player, you have to be delusional. Smith expounded on that premise saying that you have to be delusional to think you can make it as an NBA player and that Minnesota has to be delusional and truly believe that they can come back in the series. The Wolves obviously did just that, winning Game 4.

Smith brings these delicious morsels to the broadcast table every night. The dude has depth and is so captivating to listen to and watch. I see a lot of Kenny Smith in FS1’s Emmanuel Acho and CBS’ Nate Burleson. These chaps seek out original angles and articulate them perfectly.

At different times in their NBA playing careers O’Neal, Smith, and Barkley took important leadership roles on their respective teams. Barkley talked about how important it is for playoff teams to set the tone at home games – getting the crowd into the game and being aggressive from the opening jump. Of course, fearless aggression has been Barkley’s calling card both as a player and a personality.

While the first 20 minutes of this edition of the show showcased the immense strengths of its talent, the show rose to a completely different level when Johnson introduced a tribute to NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who passed away on May 27 at the age of 71.

TNT’s Reggie Miller joined the crew on set and began what I believe was the best all-around segment of the entire NBA media season. Miller talked about his personal connection to Walton, as both men were sublime players at UCLA. He explained that Walton would often return to UCLA to mentor young players not only on basketball, but on life.

Barkley then chimed in talking about Walton’s bigger than life personality. He said that he never met a person who was more of a joy to be around than Bill Walton and told us that one of his most prized possessions is a photo of him with Walton and Bill Russell.

You could tell that Barkley was truly touched and moved by Walton’s passing and his legacy. “Our basketball hearts are heavy,” said Barkley. “The world is not as good a place as it was yesterday because we lost Bill Walton.”

Johnson talked personally about the strong connection between Walton and legendary UCLA Head Coach John Wooden while Green recalled Bill Walton visiting the Warriors often when his son Luke Walton was on Steve Kerr’s coaching staff.

Perhaps the most candid discussion about Walton came from O’Neal. Walton was a part of O’Neal’s personal Big Man Alliance along with Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell. He frankly revealed that he and Walton had many difficulties in their relationship and that Walton was quite critical of him early in his career.

O’Neal got emotional as he talked about how he first resented Walton, but over time, realize that Walton was just trying to make him a better player and person. It was a deeply personal confession. Smith added to the tribute reminiscing about taking NBA sponsored trips with Walton and listening to his many stories over the years. He also said that if Walton played today, he would be on a par with two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokić.

Johnson got deeply personal in his recollections. He read an actual email that Walton sent to him when Johnson’s mother passed away. It was a truly touching moment as the show went to break to which Barkley responded, “That’s a mic drop, Ernie.”

The Walton tribute was sports television in its highest art form. One by one, these men took off their jovial veneers and bared their souls. If Inside the NBA as we know it is nearly done, this should be the Hall of Fame and time capsule episode. It had absolutely everything – debate, basketball analysis, humor, and the heartfelt, in-depth ideals of a basketball genius collective.

Johnson, O’Neal, Smith, and Barkley form a quintessential quartet of quality quipsters. They are a group of ex-players led by a seasoned TV pro who came together to talk hoops and ended up changing studio sports television forever.

If next season is indeed their swan song, let’s just realize what we have been privileged to watch. This foursome ranks with the best far beyond basketball – like Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr making music; Grier, Olsen, Jones, and Lundy making tackles; Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion making their way down the Yellow Brick Road; or Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer making nothing. They are quite simply the very best.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jason Jones

    May 31, 2024 at 12:01 pm

    It delighted me to read this article regarding TNT’s broadcast crew. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Molori’s takes therein. Just wanted to add how much I admire Shaq’s contributions to the program, and perhaps more importantly, how he makes them in his own unique style. He takes his time, he is unhurried, adds his own brand of humor, and like a fine wine has become better with age. Far more than Barkley or Smith, Shaq is a living legend, yes his subdued presnence never boasts or brags, just shares what he sees and has seen.

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Barrett Media Hires Jeff Lynn to Spearhead Music Radio Coverage

“Adding Jeff to our editorial team to spearhead our music radio coverage is important for building brand identity and trust across the industry.”

Jason Barrett

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Barrett Media is expanding its content focus starting on Monday July 15, 2024. I announced these plans on May 6, 2024. Since then, I’ve had many conversations to identify the right person to bring our vision to life. Music radio will be our first addition. Coverage of tech and podcasting will come next.

Making sure we’ve got our finger on the pulse of the music radio business is the first step. With over 11,000 stations nationwide playing music, and entertaining listeners, there’s no shortage of stories to tell. I maintain that coverage of the music radio industry isn’t sufficient. We’re not going to solve every problem and nail every story but we’re going to work our tails off to try and make things better.

So, how can you help us? Email [email protected] so we’re aware of your success, career related news, and how to reach you for future feature stories. Sharing our content on social media and telling folks about the website once it’s live is another easy way to offer support.

To avoid any confusion, we will not be writing daily news on artists and record label activity. It’s why I’ve continued to mention ‘music radio’ each time I promote this expansion. We’re looking to focus our coverage on broadcasters, brands, companies, ratings, content, etc.. Artists and music labels may become part of our coverage down the road, but that’s not our immediate focus.

Which leads me to today’s announcement regarding our Editor. I spoke with a lot of smart, talented people for this role. Adding someone with management experience, who has a passion to write, a can-do attitude, a love for the industry, and relationships across formats is very important. I’ve found that person, and hope you’ll join me in welcoming Jeff Lynn as Barrett Media’s first ever Music Radio Editor.

Jeff’s experience in the music radio business spans nearly 25 years. He’s been a program director for iHeart, Townsquare Media, NRG Media, and Rubber City Radio Group. Those opportunities led him to Milwaukee/Madison, WI, Cleveland/Akron, OH, Des Moines/Quad Cities, IA and Omaha, NE. All Access then hired him in 2022 to leave the programing world and serve as a Country Format Editor, and manager of the outlet’s Nashville Record promotions. He remained in that role until August 2023 when the outlet shut down.

“I am honored to join the team at Barrett Media to guide the brand’s Music Radio coverage”, said Jeff Lynn. “Radio has been a lifelong passion and pursuit of mine. To be able to tell stories of the great work being done by radio pros and broadcast groups is very exciting. They are stories that need to be told. I can’t wait to get started.”

Jeff Lynn with Jelly Roll

I added Ron Harrell, Robby Bridges, and Kevin Robinson as columnists two weeks ago. Bob Lawrence and Keith Berman then joined us this past Monday. We’re quickly assembling a talented stable of writers, and with Jeff on board as our Editor, we’re almost ready for prime time. The only thing left to do is hire a few features reporters. I’m planning to finalize those decisions next week.

Building this brand and making it a daily destination for music radio professionals will take time. It starts with adding talented people, covering the news, and creating interesting content consistently. If we do things right, I’m confident the industry’s support will follow. Time will tell if my instincts are right or wrong.

Jeff begins his new role with Barrett Media on July 1st. Adding him to our editorial team to spearhead our music radio coverage is important for both building brand identity and trust across the industry. I’m eager to work with him, and hope you’ll take a moment to say hello and offer your congratulations. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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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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