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Justin Spears Started From The Bottom Now He’s Here

“They always told me I was the best intern they have had,” said Spears. “I always thought they were just blowing smoke up my shorts but they really meant it.”

Tyler McComas

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There’s few things more intimidating in the radio business than walking into a station as an intern on your first day. Its borderline terrifying and I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this has been in those shoes.

Most likely, you were a wide-eyed kid with no experience that prayed you didn’t screw something up on your first day in a studio. Then, as time went along, you grew more and more comfortable with your surroundings and began to adjust to life in sports radio. But during your time as an intern, between working all the long and odd hours that found you doing grunt work for no pay while balancing school or even a full-time job, there was a moment where you decided if this was really the profession you wanted to pursue. 

Justin Spears had that exact same moment in the summer of 2015. After finishing his sophomore year at the University of Arizona, he needed an internship for school. Though he was already the sports editor at the student newspaper, Spears’ passion had always been in sports radio. Plus, he loved listening to Zach Clark in the afternoons. So, in late May of that year, he began interning at ESPN Tucson. 

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Call him old-fashioned, but Spears made a decision when he started his internship. He was going to do everything in his power to make a great impression on everyone in the building. To accomplish this, he was going to make sure everyone came away impressed with his work ethic and hustle. 

“That was a goal of mine,” said Spears. “If you’re going to be an intern somewhere you want to leave a great impression. I would come in an hour earlier than my normal time and get some audio for the show, have it prepared and then tell the hosts it was ready to go if needed. I’d do anything. I was always doing something to help improve the show.”

Little did he know at the time, but that became one of the main reasons why Spears would find himself in the host seat at ESPN Tucson by the age of 23. After his three-month internship with the station, Spears returned to U of A where he would soon graduate. Upon doing so, he was hired at the Arizona Daily Republic in Tucson as a digital journalist. He did everything from writing, to video work to even having a major hand in starting a podcast that was centered on U of A sports, where he eventually became the main host. He would even occasionally fill in as a host on the competitor station in town, Wildcats Radio 1290. 

Though he didn’t have any working affiliation with ESPN Tucson at the time, Spears did something any young broadcaster should learn from. Yes, his job now was with the local newspaper, but he always made it a point to keep a great relationship with everyone he worked with at the radio station. You know, just in case. 

“Oh yeah, of course I always stayed in touch with Zach (Clark),” said Spears. “He was one of my mentors. Whenever I saw him, at a game or in public, or there were even times I drove by the studio and had time, so I went in and said hello. I always kept that good connection with them. Mainly Zach, but also Stacey Wampler, who’s the PD, he was the producer of a show and a really good friend of mine. But yeah, I always kept in touch with them.”

Maybe Spears was just being genuinely nice, regardless, it was such a smart move on his part. So much so, that when Zach Clark decided to leave ESPN Tucson last June, management quickly considered Spears as his potential replacement. 

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“When the spot opened, they realized, there’s Justin, he’s in town and interned for us, he hosts a podcasts and he has live radio experience,” said Spears. “It just seemed like a fit so they reached out to me and I’m really glad that they did.”

Though ESPN Tucson was interested in adding Spears to the team, they didn’t personally contact him. Instead, Spears found out from another source that an opportunity in radio was available to him. 

“It’s funny, because it was third party,” said Spears. “It wasn’t them reaching out to me or me reaching out to them. It was a Saturday afternoon at the Arizona Daily Star. My editor, Ryan Finley, comes up to my desk and says ‘hey, I’m going to walk across the street to the Circle K and get a soda. You want to go?’ I kind of got the message that I really needed to walk with him because he has something he needs to say or tell me. At first I thought I was in trouble, but I couldn’t remember anything I did that was wrong.

“We started walking and he told me ESPN Tucson was looking for a temporary host and wanted to know if I was interested in the position. I thought about it and for a second, I thought, well, is he telling me I have to choose this job or the other? I asked him what this would do for my current job if I did accept it. Ryan and everyone at the Daily Star were cool enough to allow me to have both jobs. I’m literally living the dream as a kid from Tucson. I’m hosting a radio show and I get to write for the newspaper that I grew up reading. I’m just so thankful for the people I’m surrounded with.”

At the young age of 23, Spears is now in the host seat at ESPN Tucson. Sure, mostly because he’s talented, but also because he made a serious of excellent decisions, that involved working hard and successfully networking that kept him in mind for the position. 

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“They always told me I was the best intern they have had,” said Spears. “I always thought they were just blowing smoke up my shorts but they really meant it. They said, you always came in and did your job and you were always looking for something to do.”

Though Spears is happy where his work ethic has taken him, he’s still working as hard as ever as both a radio host and a writer for the Arizona Daily Republic. Though being a host at 23 years old is great, that doesn’t mean it comes without challenges. Most notably, you have to constantly fight with sounding young to an audience that’s almost always going to be older than you. 

“Since I grew up in Tucson I feel like I know what my audience is thinking,” said Spears. “I try not to sound young, I don’t want to seem like the young and arrogant kid who’s a know-it-all, because I’m not that. I’m not a guy that’s really going to scream or yell. I like to keep it fun and light. That’s been the biggest struggle for me, is not showing my age and showing how young I am. But I’m working on that.”

Working at a newspaper and doing a radio show can be a tough grind that makes for a time consuming schedule. But when it comes to on-air content, it can have its advantages. Writers and radio hosts are always looking for fresh content to give their readers and listeners. Seeing as Spears does both sides on a daily basis, it’s made for better ideas. 

“We’re always looking for creative content in the dog days of summer,” said Spears. “We have to be more creative in the ways we present our stories. You know engagement pieces, like away teams or who the Top 10 Arizona running backs of all-time are. Stuff like that, I think it really does help me with content for the radio show. We like to be as creative and as listener engaging as possible. I think being a writer really helps me be a radio host.”

Though it goes without saying, it can’t be stated enough that hard work is the main ingredient to excel in this industry. That will never change. Spears is living proof that you can accomplish big things at a young age by rolling up your sleeves and being the hardest working person in the building. And that’s exactly the advice he would give to any intern.

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“Be the first one in and the last one out,” said Spears. “Always ask questions and don’t be afraid to share your ideas. That’s something I had to overcome, like I said before, I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all, because I don’t.  But if you have ideas that you think are great and can benefit, bring it up. You never know the response you’re going to get.

“You can enjoy the moment because you’re working in sports, but just be a hustler. In college, I was a part-time waiter at IHOP on the weekends. I balanced five classes, writing for the student paper and working at the student radio station and TV station, as well as being the student correspondent for Sports Illustrated. There were times when I left Arizona Stadium at 2 a.m. then had to get up the next morning, a few hours after, to wait tables. That was a weekly thing for me. It may suck at times, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and I kept telling myself that. Trust me, people recognize that and appreciate it. Plus, you have a ton to put on your resume. Just work and it’s going to pay off.”

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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BSM Writers

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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