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Dan McNeil Q&A Part 3: An Immediate Buzz

“I think living with regrets is kinda like inviting cancer. I regret the result of the decision to go to The Drive, but I don’t regret my decision.”

Matt Fishman

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In the final and third part of my Q&A with Dan McNeil, he talks about getting fired by ESPN, building The Score, the late, great Doug Buffone and how much longer Dan plans to be on the air.

Getting fired by ESPN 1000

Fishman: When ESPN tells you in January 2009 that they no longer need your services, how did that make you feel?

McNeil: I was crushed! It changed the way I would look at the business for the rest of my life. From that day on it would be nothing more than a job. I never again could commit myself emotionally 100% to a radio project. That place (ESPN 1000) was a dump when we walked in. It was billing $5 Million a year. We peaked, I think, at $26 Million/year in billing and it was because of “Mac, Jurko and Harry” it wasn’t anything else. 

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For them to, after a couple of bad fiscal quarters and disagreement with somebody coming in from the corporate nipple (ESPN) to kick me to the curb, I can’t say it was innocence lost, because that happened a long time ago. But it was a reminder of innocence lost.

What did Gordon Gekko tell Bud Fox (in the movie Wall Street)? “Never get emotional about a stock!” Never get emotional about a radio show. As counterintuitive as it seems, it might not be bad advice.

The Building of the Score in 1991

Fish: I’m not sure everyone is aware of your role in the building of The Score in Chicago even before it went on the air. Can you share that story?

Mac:  I’m producing “Coppock on Sports” and Seth Mason calls me in the Summer of ‘91 and says he wants to meet at some clandestine location and talk about a project. He was with ‘XRT and I had always respected him. I meet with him and he tells me about this daytime only opportunity where I would do afternoons and I was ready to try my own thing, I thought.

I was just turning 30 that summer so I didn’t have a whole lot of life experience, yet, but I said “Shit, yeah!” I’ll take a chance on a daytime operation run by Diamond Broadcasting. I had a high regard for what they had done. I started working there in August of ‘91 about five months before we actually fired it up. My job was building a sound library and interviewing would-be producers.

Fish: So you go on the air and at the start of your show you had Terry Boers as a co-host some days and Brian Hanley some days, right?  

Mac: Right. Terry didn’t commit full-time until August. So he and Brian Hanley were on utility duty with The Chicago Sun-Times covering college basketball, covering the Bulls. I was the most polygamous guy on the stations. There were days where neither of them was available and we’d roll in Kent McDill from The Daily Herald, Paul Ladewski from The Daily Southtown, or Tom Dore. I was given a lot of different faces those first six or seven months.

Fish: What was that first year like? You’re on a daytime only, brand new station in Chicago. What was that like in the initial stages?

Mac:  We felt an immediate buzz in the community but the newspaper industry rallied hard against us. There was an old guard of sports writers, a lot of them who tried to dismiss what the project was, because it seemed bombastic for them. It wasn’t “The Sportswriters” on WGN. It wasn’t journalism. Here’s (Mike) North, a guy making cracks about point-spreads and gangster movies. It offended a lot of sensibilities among those who covered media.

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Advertising dollars were scarce. The early sign-off…we all had bad feelings about some of the hurdles over which we had to leap. But I think because of that, there grew an authentic “us against the world” mentality. And despite of our occasional differences, there was a lot of pulling at the same end of the rope. There was a lot of team (effort) because we had a lot of things going against us. 

We were running the most grass-roots level Ma and Pa operation in town. This wasn’t CBS. This wasn’t ESPN. This was Diamond Broadcasting. They had ‘XRT and a station in Oklahoma City. The owner is down the hall. We’re on the Northwest side of Chicago in a low-slung bunker across the street from Foreman High School. It really was a shoestring budget. 

Fish: It seemed to me that the tight quarters helped create some of the great radio because everyone was right on top of each other. What do you think? 

Mac: I’m sure that’s correct. We couldn’t get away from each other. The studio was a phone booth with George Ofman (update anchor) behind us in a closet with a window. We didn’t have a computer. When we got a phone call–Judd or whoever was producing would right it on a note card and hold it up through the glass “Joe is in Arlington Heights. Topic-Sox.” We were given away spots for 35 bucks a throw and we had two-minute commercial breaks. I ran the board the first six months so I would pad the breaks with a 40-second sound byte from Bull Durham so I could get a smoke break. 

Fish: Terry Boers makes the decision to come aboard full time in August of 1992. Can you talk about the difference it made having him with you every day?

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Mac: I had a real good level of comfort with Terry. We had three and a half years together when we would fill-in whenever Coppock was off. We had a head start on our partnership. That made me feel at ease. It’s got nothing to do with how I feel about Brian or anyone else. It’s just that Terry and I had a high level of comfort. 

Then in the fall the station ponied up for “The Mike Ditka Show” and it was fortuitous because Ditka lost his mind in his final season. They went 5-11 and he was at the high end of “Mount Ditka” of his years. He didn’t talk to the media except for his Tuesday show on The Score. So we had these TV stations trying to get video of him outside that dumpy little restaurant he had on Bryn Mawr near the airport. We had exclusivity.

Among the things he went nuts about that year was when he denounced his friendship with Ed O’Bradovich. He said “I don’t know OB!” Ditka told a caller “Neal from Northlake” to meet him at his office and he’d “whip his ass!” I broke a story that (Bears Offensive Coordinator) Greg Landry was so pissed about Ditka berating him on the sideline that he moved up to the booth. Ditka was a nut-job that year and we had exclusivity on the f***er. Mike Ditka had as much to do with making the Score a success in its first year as anybody. Ditka and Mike North.

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Fish: Having grown up listening to Sports in Chicago, what I hear on The Score was completely different than anything people had heard before.

Mac: Sports radio had been just that weekend kind of vanilla sports talk. This was much edgier. This was much more interactive. It was much more willing to hold the feet to the fire of the teams in town. That first summer, Mike North’s fight with Bears President Michael McCaskey over Jay Hilgenberg’s holdout. It was something different.

We gave people a fastball that they hadn’t seen before. It was a pretty solid lineup, too. It made a lot of sense. I thought North and (Dan) Jiggetts were a really, really good, fun midday show. I think Terry and I grew into a pretty damn good show, too. 

Fish: Do you have one or two favorite memories of something that happened on the show? 

Mac: I think our trip to Seattle with the Bulls in 1996. I was going on 35 and I had been wearing headphones for 14 years and I still wasn’t quite sure I belonged. We made the trip to Seattle and (PD Ron) Gleason had been tough on Terry for us not being positive enough about the Bears, Bulls and the Chicago teams. So when the Bulls lost unexpectedly on a Wednesday night, we were scheduled to fly home Thursday morning. They had another game in Seattle Friday at Key Arena. So I called Gleason and told him there’s no reason for us to come home. Let’s stay and do our show until the Larry O’Brien trophy is safely tucked in Jerry Krause’s suitcase. 

We met back at the hotel–Terry, Alzy (Producer Mike Alzamora) and me. That night we were having drinks at the bar with Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick, and Brent Musburger. We’re sitting there at the hotel bar at 6th and Seneca at the Crown hotel. I’ve got these guys I admire with drinks in their hands laughing their asses off as I’m holding court. I remember my head hitting the pillow that night and thinking maybe I made the right choice. It was the first time I felt that I belonged. We had an awesome trip. Bernsy (Dan Bernstein) was out there. We had fun with him and I fell in love with Seattle. 

Fish:  Score Management decides to break up the shows in 1999. What was your reaction to what happened? 

Mac: I was both pissed off and surprised. I felt as a founding father they certainly didn’t need my consent but I was owed a conversation before decisions were made. I was actually on vacation at the gas pump filling up my Expedition when Gleason called me with the news. He said “Starting Monday you’re going to be hosting with either Dan Jiggetts or Dan Bernstein.” I said, “Excuse me, what does that mean? And why are you doing this?”

We went back and forth for a while but I had to delude myself into thinking that it was good for the station. Terry and I opposed it but we went to work the next Monday on our new shows.

Fish: Terry really seemed to think that North had a lot to do with the lineup changes. What do you think?

Mac: I do, too. I talked to Mike about it on my show on ESPN in the Summer of ‘08 and he denied it. Mike had said something to Terry several months before the changes went down about Terry doing an 8 to Noon shift. Mike’s idea was to break up traditional time-slots you’re doing a 6-8am, 8-Noon, Noon-4 and 4-8pm. What the f**ck is that? And why would anyone decide Mike Murphy was good for the first two hours of morning drive. I was pissed about all of that. I thought they had taken our radio station and made it sick. 

Fish: What was it like working with the late Doug Buffone?

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Mac: I first met Doug when I was writing for The Hammond Times in 1986 or 87 and he was involved with an Arena league team locally–The Chicago Bruisers. One of the many short lived semi-professional football leagues in America that come and go like yogurt shops. I interviewed him about a couple of local athletes who played college ball. We talked football for about 15 minutes and he offers me a job in PR. Suggested I get a job in PR either with the Bruisers or with a team in Denver. 

We became fast friends. He was very easy to approach. He was the real deal. People say that about so many guys, but he was. There wasn’t a pretentious bone in Doug’s body. He smelled like salami, he didn’t wear matching socks, he almost blew up his house by putting the wrong fuel in a lawnmower once. He embarrassed his parents in Pennsylvania by misspelling “apple” in a spelling bee.

More than anybody I’ve ever known, he had the ability to laugh at himself. He was a dear, sweet man who was a monster as a player but a true gentle giant. It was enormously sad for all of us when Doug passed away. 

It was tough on me, too. I was at The Drive at the time. I didn’t really have anybody at The Score to grieve with. I didn’t go to the private dinner that night because I felt there was gonna be tension. I wanted to see Mike (North) and I wanted to see all of my Score teammates who I knew Doug with. It didn’t feel right the way ‘14 ended. So I grieved alone, except I had a nice visit with Doug’s sister. To my surprise, Doug had told her many stories about me. She knew as much about how long Doug and I worked together.

We get rained out and head back and he says pull over to the McDonald’s at the Des Plaines Oasis. Doug orders a double cheeseburger, a large fry, and a Diet Coke. Doug says, “You gotta know when to draw the line!”

Fish: Do you have any regrets looking back at your career? 

Mac: I think living with regrets is kinda like inviting cancer. I regret the result of the decision to go to The Drive, but I don’t regret my decision. I regret anytimes that I’ve been disrespectful to co-workers or listeners or anybody I’ve dealt with in business because I’ve been no angel, that’s for sure. I didn’t want to leave anything unturned. If I get to 75 (years old) I don’t want to wake up one day and think “I wish I would’ve tried that guy-talk thing” but I tried it and it failed conclusively. I’m sure I would do some things different because now I have the benefit of the knowledge of how they turned out. But no, there isn’t a bad decision that I’ve made that has disabled me. Only temporarily.

Fish: Is there something that you have yet to do it your career that you would like to do before you hang it up? 

Mac: Yeah. As a writer, I’ve gotta tell the story of the most important role I’ve had in my life as the father of Patrick, who is severely autistic. I’m halfway done with that book. It’s a tough book to write. I really need to get back to it because I have a message to share with millions of fathers who feel like they got a raw deal and take it out on the wrong people. 

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I’m also going to write the book about my career. On the air, I’m really heartened by the Chicago sports landscape. The Chicago sports teams that matter to me they’re pretty healthy right now. I’m eager to see this golden era of Cubs baseball play itself out even though I’m a Sox enthusiast. I think it’s a remarkable story and I’m on the Cubs flagship and that’s pretty good real estate in sports radio. I’m also looking forward to seeing (Bears Coach) Matt Nagy and (Bears GM) Ryan Pace finish what they started. I’ll be going out right around the time Jonathan Toews is skating his last shift in a Hawks uniform. That may be only 4-5 years from now and that’s all I’ve got left. 

Dan McNeil can be heard weekdays from 2-6pm Central on “McNeil and Parkins” on 670 The Score in Chicago or nationwide on the Radio.com app. 

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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BSM Writers

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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