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Dan McNeil Q&A Part 2: It Was Going To Be Uncomfortable

“I didn’t want to be around people. I was not feeling anything. There was a joylessness in almost everything.”

Matt Fishman

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In part two of my Q&A with Chicago Sports Radio veteran Dan McNeil, Dan talks about his second stint at The Score, dealing with mental health issues and his eight year run at ESPN 1000. You’ll read about the intriguing maneuvering it took to get his show at ESPN. Plus, you’ll hear inside details of the building of “Mac, Jurko, and Harry” and the show’s early growing pains. It’s all here in Part 2 of my three-part Q&A with Dan McNeil. 

The Danny Mac Show on the Score (June 2009-June 2014)

Fishman: You return to the Score after more than eight years away at ESPN 1000…how did it feel? 

McNeil: It was a very awkward return. I had decent relationships with some of the guys there, still, but I think they were very casual relationships. I think there was a mutual feeling with a few people that if we didn’t work together again that would be ok with everybody. There was a lot of tension already at the station.

Before Matt (Spiegel) and I jumped back in, there was a long period of dissention among the ranks. I can’t give an opinion on it because I wasn’t there to absorb all the toxicity, but the combination of North, Murphy, Mulligan and Boers made for a very volatile cocktail. As there always is, there’s some petty jealousies and we’re all insecure to varying degrees, but based on the descriptions of those who experienced it, I came back at a time when the morale was probably as low as it ever had been in station history.

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Matt (Spiegel) was not warmly received. The fact that Mitch (Score Ops Manager/PD Mitch Rosen) gave me a voice in Spiegel’s hiring didn’t help the situation. Mitch also gave me a voice in one of the producers. That didn’t agree with several people. I get that. People who are in-house have every reason to expect that they will be examined, but I also had a track record of making some pretty good recommendations both for co-hosts and producers. I’d submit Jurko as one of those, and god damn, look at the guys who have produced my shows over the years who I’ve hand picked–there’s some pretty talented mother f**kers on that list. If the fact that I was given that freedom was disruptive for some people, I really don’t give a shit, Colonel Jessup. I earned that. I f**king earned that!

They just didn’t give me that. Had Terry Boers flopped in ‘92 and John Jurkovic flopped I wouldn’t have been given a voice, but I did get a voice. I was proven right with Matt (Spiegel) but he was not well received. So it was an awkward return.

Leaving the house at 7 o’clock in the morning to go to work didn’t agree with me. I felt we had a pretty good vibe on the show. Matt and I pretty much right out of the shoot I felt pretty comfortable with and after awhile as a unit we gelled. I told Matt at the beginning I typically look at these things as “let’s do five years together!” I think after five years is a lot of times a good time to reinvent yourself. And that’s what I decided to do. 

The first two and half years were very good. The last (with Spiegel) was a struggle. I made it more of a struggle than I needed it to be, because I was not taking very good care of myself. I was not participating in a mental health program that somebody with as many issues as I have needs to.

Fish: I think you have to include the talent on the major decisions of co-host and producer when you’re putting that team together. Otherwise I think you’re asking for failure. 

Mac: When I took some time off, Fish, I thought a lot about this– and I had a lot of time off in the last five or six years. I enjoyed civilian life way more than most of us would. It’s incredible how among any form of entertainment that you can imagine–the movies, music, whatever–radio people and sports talk radio performers have less control of their product than any motherf**ker trying to sell a f**kin’ act. I had shows blown up that none of us wanted blown up. Many others have had shows blown up. 

Howard (Stern) is a hero to me because he’s the only motherf**ker who went out there and won. A lot of us have been paid well and it’s a rush and you do a lot of cool things. If you’re lucky you see a lot of the country and someone else pays for it–and that’s all great, but when you examine the absence of power for people who have achieved a high level of competency in their craft it’s remarkable how we’re all just f**king pawns on a chess board. Howard has been able to go out there and pick his own crew and say “f**k you!” to management for 25 years. 

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Fish: At what point did you realize that you weren’t taking care of your mental health? Was it while you were working with Spiegel? Was there a seminal moment? 

Mac: It was very specific. It was in the summer of 2011. The two years of foolishly letting the behaviors and attitudes of others affect my disposition–which is absolutely hideous to let others rent that space for free. I went off my psych med, Lamictal, without consulting my doctor. I had a lot of success with that product. It’s not an antidepressant it’s kind of a mood stabilizer. It’s prescribed to people who are depressive, some people with anxiety–and I’m both of those.

I went off of it and within a month my world got black and white. I was playing free golf with three lifelong friends and I birdied the first hole. While walking back to the cart on a gorgeous summer day I remember saying to myself, “Thank God there are only 17 more of these f**king holes so I can go home, be alone, and watch Goodfellas.” I withdrew from even the things I enjoyed the most. Except for my sons and a few very close friends and my wife, I didn’t want to be around people. I was not feeling anything. There was a joylessness in almost everything. 

The climate at the station I let get to me more than I should have. I should have focused on what was good and what was good was the vibe on the show–with Spiegs and Jay and Shep and Miska. Then Ben Finfer rejoined me which has always been some of the best radio I have done. 

So that was a rough time. I grinded it out without going back on my med and continuing to eat pain meds which dulled me. I like to stay active and I have a lot of pain and I used those things as an excuse to keep eating Narco. It was a pretty dark last couple of years. I didn’t want to be there (at The Score). I wanted to try something different anyway but the climate there and how little I was respecting my conditions wasn’t a good time.

But we did some killer stuff. I remember a lot of it with fondness. I mean the stuff we did with the Blackhawks–Spiegs and I went to Philly and Boston.

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In ‘13 when the Hawks were getting to the final against Boston I felt we were being a little too “hockey-ish” on the show. I learned from my mistakes in the 90s that hockey is not as center stage as other things in Chicago, but I said to myself I’m probably walking very soon. This is my way to thank the Hawks fans who loved me all the years. F**k the ratings. If I want to talk to Mike Emrick for an hour, I will and we did. We ended up out of the money (ratings bonuses) that book and I didn’t give a shit. 

I ended up leaving in the summer of ‘14 after the Hawks got popped by the Kings in the Western Conference Finals.  If they had made it to the Final, I was going to work without a contract and finish the Hawks run but I wasn’t gonna come back. I was pretty specific with Mitch (Rosen) about that. People remember it as my summer of discontent. Spiegel calls it “The Summer of Uncertainty.” I corrected him on that and said “remember when I walked in that June and gave anyone parting gifts?” 

Mitch called me right before I crossed the border (into Canada) and lost cell service. He said, “We gotta work this out.” I said, “Mitch, it has been a month and I want to try something different. What’s there to work out?”

So when I got back from Canada in mid August I met with him and Rod (Zimmermann, CBS Radio Market Manager for Chicago at the time) as a courtesy. They offered me a lot of money–more than they had offered me in the middle of June. It was a fair-enough deal. There was no indecisiveness that summer. Without another job offer I said thank you, politely, but I’m going to try something different. 

Mac, Jurko and Harry (May 2001-Jan 2009)

Fish: It seemed to me like an interesting mix–you, Jurko and Harry. Can you talk about the grouping, how it all came together, and the early days of the show?  

Mac: Mitch and I started talking about it right before I resigned from The Score. Bob Snyder was the GM of ESPN 1000 at the time. He was pretty committed to Bill Simonson and Lou Canellis, but Mitch told me he would work him (Snyder) and I decided I would roll dice in October of ‘00. I resigned from The Score with a “maybe” that Mitch would have a spot for me once Simonson and Canellis continued to struggle against The Score.

So I leave The Score and finally Bob Snyder warms up. I had to use (Mike) Greenberg to get to Len Weiner (ESPN Network PD at the time) in Bristol to backdoor my way into Chicago. I needed an ally in Bristol. Greenberg set up a meeting with Len Weiner and me at Super Bowl 35 in Tampa. (Dan remembers the game like it was yesterday saying, “SB 35 Ravens over the Giants, Ray Lewis the Super Bowl MVP. Only Super Bowl with back to back kick returns for touchdowns–Dixon and Lewis. You can look it up!”)

I go down there on a recruiting trip and Len Weiner and I chew the fat for three hours talking radio after the “Mike and Mike Show” and fell in love. I started doing weekends out there to prove to the network that I’m not a crazy man for walking away from 200k at The Score with a rep for being a rabble rouser and that I’m worth hiring. 

Eventually when (Ron) Gleason got fired by The Score I used that to pry my way in at ESPN. I said, “The guy who is taking over wants to hire me back.” I told Len that. There was some grains of truth of that because (Jeff) Schwartz was taking over. Schwartz might have taken me back. I saw it as an opportunity to play a card that I may not have had, and I played it and immediately Bristol put the pressure on Snyder to hire me.

So “Mac, Jurko, and Harry” is born and Snyder wants to keep some of the station’s DNA intact. He puts Harry (Teinowitz) on the show with me and Jurko and I had never considered a 3-man weave for a show in my life. Immediately I curled up and thought it was going to be uncomfortable, in particular because I knew Harry was going to be more of a shooting guard than he was hired to be. He was described to me by the suits as a “tip-in” guy. The funny guy. The occasional guy.

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Well we know Harry. Harry grew into a role more like that, but initially, especially when Jurko started slow, Harry pounced on an opportunity to be more or a presence than I was comfortable with. So in those first few years we really suffered a LOT of growing pains as a show.

Fish: So when did it turn the corner from “growing pains” to when the show was really cooking?

Mac: It took Teinowitz several years to let this more of a desire to have a playground than a classroom sink in for me. I think Harry taught me after a number of months to lighten it up a little bit and I agreed that the easiest way to make people feel like they are welcomed warmly is to create a saloon atmosphere–so that’s what we started to call it. And while we had a lot of tension and fights, it was a place where people felt compelled to hang out.

They weren’t going to be lectured to. It wasn’t going to be “The Sermon on the Mount.” We weren’t going to tackle issues that were polarizing for half of a show like steroids or anything that got us too far away from an opportunity to laugh. We’ve decided to plant the flag in the ground that we were going to be the goofball show. 

Fish: So you weren’t going to get into Race issues and you’re not getting into the Steroid issues..

Mac: (Jumping in) No, No, we’re not getting into politics and we’re also going to get into other forms of entertainment and make casual sports fans feel welcomed. And eventually, women even came around to that show.

Fish: So you get cooking on that show and you’re a few months away from the end of a contract and you get pulled off the air? Were you surprised by that move? 

Mac: I wasn’t surprised. When we were told in December that we weren’t going to the Super Bowl I sort of sniffed it out. Advertising dollars were drying up because of the market. Everybody was taking hits. I mean it was a f**king depression in ‘08.

They decide they’re not sending us to the Super Bowl. I was not our literal union steward, that was Bruce (Levine), but when programming  had issues, the one who took those issues to management, Jim Pastor(GM) and Justin Craig(PD), was me. That meant being a dick to Justin. None of it was personal because I truly like him as a guy but he came in replacing (Jeff) Schwartz, shoving ESPN programming down our throats. Mandating things. In essence telling us, “Forget everything you’ve been doing. This is how we’re gonna do it. I’m gonna mold you into another “Mike and Mike.”

Now Justin did a lot of good things, too. He had an interview coach come in and do a seminar with us. My jaw dropped at how much we needed that. I’ve told Mitch how much we need that at the Score. He came in and did a three hour presentation on interviewing and I wish I would have had that seminar in 1992.

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Fish: What were the biggest things you took away from that interviewing seminar?

Mac: In key interviews, not regular contributors you talk to every week, but when you get a guy on you’ll only talk to 1-2 times a year, a key interview–ask short direct questions! People want to hear from him. I got the rest of the f**king show where I can give my opinion. I don’t need to give him my opinion. Get his opinion. Get him talking! It’s what he’s going to say. It’s not going to be some brilliant way I shape a question. It’s what I’m going to get him to talk about. So ask a short, direct question. The biggest offense that most of us make are the double barrel and triple barrel questions-where you give your guest complete control of the interview. He picks one of the questions to answer and talks for three minutes and you’ve lost the time for a good follow up question. 

In part three of my Q&A with Dan McNeil, Mac talks about the start of The Score in 1992, his partnership with Terry Boers and his longtime friendship with the late Doug Buffone. 

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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