A Conversation with Christopher Gabriel
It’s 4:00 a.m. inside a smoky bar somewhere in Queens, New York. The year is 1986 and just like a scene straight out of a Martin Scorsese film, a crowd of rough and downright scary individuals with unorthodox ways of making money, have flooded into the after-hours establishment. The bartender, 28-year-old Christopher Gabriel, knew he didn’t need to be mixing it up or getting involved with the type of people he’s serving scotch to. However, the struggling actor needed money way more than he needed a lecture on who to be hanging around.
The former Chicago sports nut never saw his life taking this drastic of a turn. Just a decade earlier, Gabriel was majoring in broadcast journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, with the vision of being an anchor for the evening news. Far removed from the life of getting paid “under the table” to serve drinks in a shady bar. Trips to Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park filled his childhood, but Gabriel’s desired career path didn’t begin with the intent on covering the athletes he grew up watching. In Gabriel’s eyes, the sports business just didn’t seem have the same draw as being a news anchor.
Fate seems to work in mysterious ways. Gabriel would learn that early on at Temple. While hosting his college radio show, a loud commotion came from the theatre office next door, totally throwing off what he had planned to deliver over the air waves that day. In a rage to see what had derailed his show, Gabriel stormed into the theatre office to confront whoever was responsible. What he found, was a woman behind the desk suggesting he would be perfect for the one of the roles in an upcoming show. After initially being caught by surprise, Gabriel agreed to an audition where he showed instant talent. The rest was history.
Gabriel’s change of fate would land him from Philadelphia all the way to Los Angeles to chase his newly found passion of being a theatre major at USC. By the summer of his last semester, he was back on the east coast in New York City where his acting career took flight. From there, Gabriel began to get casted in commercials as well as receiving Under-5 work, meaning he was given five lines or less on soap operas, including a recurring role on the hit show All My Children. A project known as the 1983 Commercial Olympics became Gabriel’s big break as he and the four other actors involved all signed with agents. Soon after, he would be performing in places such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and working on stage with esteemed talent such as James Earl Jones and Julie Harris.
Though he experienced the highs of working as both an actor and in theatre, he also suffered the lows. Trying constantly to make ends meet during his 20-year stint in New York City, Gabriel took jobs as a cook, caterer, bartender or anything else he could to make money. Every day was a grind and it was starting to take its toll.
His escape wasn’t different than most males during the 90’s in New York City. While always keeping his passion for sports, Gabriel became enamored with Mike and The Mad Dog on WFAN. So much so, that the thought of doing sports radio crept into his mind for the first time in his life. A trip to Montreal for a Candiens playoff game would end with Gabriel stopping on the side of the road at 1:00 in the morning to call WFAN overnight host Steve Summers just to hear himself over the radio and to enjoy a few moments of sports talk. Sports on the radio had always been a big part of Gabriel’s life, but WFAN along with Mike and The Mad Dog would fuel a passion for the business that he never had before.
In Gabriel’s words, trying to make a living off being in theatre is truly a grind. The process of getting an audition in New York City would start as early as 5:30 in the morning without the guarantee of even getting an opportunity. After over 100 plays across the country, complete with thousands of hours of auditioning and rehearsing, Gabriel found himself burnt out and needing a fresh, new creative challenge. After a role in Tuesdays with Morrie, he met Mitch Albom, who later invited him to work on a production called “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel” at Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre Company in Detroit. Over a cup of coffee, Gabriel voiced his frustrations about the grind of the theatre business with Albom. It’s then, when Gabriel found fate again. Albom suggested talk radio to Gabriel as a potential avenue to explore and even became a mentor to his success in the business. At the age of 47, Gabriel’s career in radio was finally about to begin.
January 6th, 2006 became Gabriel’s first day as an intern at the formerly 100.3 KTLK in Minneapolis. At the time, the running joke across the station was that he was the oldest intern in radio. That may have been true. However, Gabriel immediately fell into a good situation by serving as a producer for the Pat Kessler Show. Pat opened up the whole world to Gabriel by letting him do a number of things within the show. His big break would come almost two months later on March 5th, as Minnesota mourned the passing of Twins legend Kirby Puckett. As the news broke, nobody was available at KTLK or its sister station KFAN to do a live hit from the Metrodome. That’s when KFAN program director Doug Westerman gave Gabriel his big chance by giving him the assignment on arguably the biggest sports figure in Minneapolis’ history. Not sure if he was ready or even capable, Gabriel was sweating nervously all the way to the Metrodome as he delivered an 8-minute report that turned out to be excellent. From there, more opportunities came along such as being selected by Andrew Zimmern, host of the TV show Bizarre Foods, to produce and contribute on-air for his show.
Zimmern quickly took a liking to Gabriel’s work ethic and on-air talent. When it came time to travel the world to shoot new episodes of Bizarre Foods, the station wanted hosts such as Bobby Flay, Alton Brown or even Rachel Ray to host the show in Zimmern’s absence. But Zimmern fought for Gabiel to host while he was overseas. Management soon agreed and Gabriel now had the opportunity he was waiting on. There was just one problem.
The on-air light flashed in front of Gabriel in studio as he set to host for the first time. The intro came to an end and…nothing. All was dead quiet. It was his time to shine, but Gabriel didn’t know what to say. He completely froze. That’s when his producer came over his ear and reminded Gabriel he now had to talk. Though he was 47 years old, he quickly experienced his ‘welcome to the business moment.’
Gabriel would host every brokered show that was offered on KTLK. Gardening shows, shows for motivational speakers, he did it all. The drive and work ethic that landed him so many acting and theatre opportunities had carried over into radio. All Gabriel wanted to do was get in front of a mic, learn from his mistakes and get into the business. He was going to do whatever it took to make that happen.
After hosting any and every kind of show imaginable, Gabriel finally had a reel he could send to other stations around the country. In his words, he sent his resume and reel to everyone he could think of, including stations in Guam. He didn’t care where he was sending it, as long as people were listening to it.
One station that was willing to listen was 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. On the air since 1922, WDAY was one of the first 35 stations in the United States. After several days of auditioning in May of 2009, Gabriel was offered a job on his birthday as an on-air host. Though it was a jump to another news talk station, Gabriel spent 6 years in Fargo as he dabbled, amongst many other topics, with North Dakota State athletics and Minneapolis pro sports on his show, which gave him the entry into sports radio.
Gabriel’s time in Fargo came to an end after he was offered a job at a political station in Fresno, Calif., at Power Talk 96.7. However, the fit never matched and the two separated after 53 weeks. Though it was his first set back in the radio business, Gabriel considers it one of the best things that ever happened to him, because it allowed him to fill-in at numerous stations across the country.
If you take anything away from this story, take away what last August proved to be for Gabriel. It’s never too late to chase what you truly love and are passionate about. When 940 ESPN in Fresno came calling, it was a dream realized. From being the kid that listened to every Chicago sports team on the radio to the 30-year-old that escaped his daily problems by listening to WFAN in New York City, Gabriel was now fulfilling a dream. Though it took him 59 years to make his dream possible, the long journey he took to the host seat at 940 ESPN is unlike any other in the business. Not only is Gabriel a success story, he’s an incredible story of perseverance that should be celebrated across the sports radio community.
Today, you can hear Gabriel living out his passion on weekdays from 3-6 p.m. on 940 ESPN in Fresno.
TM: Let’s say you were able to bump into the 28-year-old version of yourself that was bartending in Queens. What do you think he would say to you if you told him in just over 30 years he’d be doing a sports radio show?
CG: He would say, you’re pretty cocky to think you’re ever going to be able to do that. But you better learn some skills on getting in front of a microphone, because it’s not going to be like it is on stage. That’s what he would say. However, I’ve found out there’s not a whole lot of difference. As a sports talk show host, my job is to engage people, to entertain and inform them. My job is to tell stories and that’s essentially what we do in theatre. The only difference, is that I always envision doing it to one person instead of standing in front 1,500 people.
TM: Do you think hosting gardening shows, shows with motivational speakers and other unusual programming helped you out a lot as a show host, in the sense that, if I can do that, I can do anything?
CG: I thought, sure, I can do this. If I can do these kind of shows, then piece of cake. But what I learned is it’s not easy or a piece of cake. I’ve always been big on prep and you have to be prepped for wherever a conversation might take you. When I was doing gardening shows and I was talking to motivational speakers, I thought I was going to get in there and make jokes and entertain…no. This was much more serious than I thought it was. We have a great time and have a lot of fun but it’s much more serious than I thought it was and much more difficult. My respect level for this industry and the people who do it well, it just went through the roof because it requires so much preparation and the ability to think on your feet. Just like on stage, when the other person screws up, you’re the one that has to pick things up and carry it on.
TM: You speak to a lot of groups and classes about your journey. What’s the message you really want to get across?
CG: I really feel strongly that you have to be a person of your own convictions. You have to follow your passions and you cannot let anyone else validate or invalidate what it is you’re doing and where it is you’re trying to go. Only you know the journey you’re on. Only you know the limits you have and how to burst through them. Early in my radio career, I had a person once tell me that I’d never get a daily hosting job, it’ll take at least 10 years. Well, it took 3 years, 5 months and 2 days. That number 352 is inside my head. What I tell young students is that you have to be focused and have a mentality that allows you to get to your desired destination. There’s off ramps but there’s also always on ramps.
Some people don’t, but I look at my age as a bonus. I’ve been able to live in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Fargo and now Fresno. With more age comes more experience and hopefully I’m able to apply that.
TM: What’s the best advice you received during your journey in radio?
CG: It would be from a host that told me, “be selected in your savagery.” What he meant was, you better be careful if you’re the ranting host. If you do that too much, people aren’t going to pay attention. You need to find layers of depth and go further and further. Don’t take the easy way out, find the nuance of the story and really press something out. Ask the questions your guests aren’t expecting. When you feel like going off on every caller – don’t. Be selective on how you handle things. It’s been great advice for me.
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?
“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”
Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career.
Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff.
Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.
Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.
Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country.
Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.
Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.
Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.
Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!
A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.
FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan. MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team. I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”
JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions.
“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).
“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”
MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?
The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.
Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.
But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.
The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.
As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.
Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.
The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.
Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!
But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)
That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?
We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!
The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.
Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.
Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)
Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.
We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.
When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?
If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle
“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”
Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.
The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.
Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark.
It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.
Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.
Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.
One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.
It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.
It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.
One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.
Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”
There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.
We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.
The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.