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Can A Sports Talk Host Be Too Smart?

“You can be very cerebral, but it doesn’t mean that you’re too smart for the audience.”

Demetri Ravanos

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What are audiences looking for in sports content? Certainly they want to know what happened in a game and what it means for the story going forward, but they want to be entertained too. It is why ESPN has brought in talent from outside of the sports world like Will Cain and Mina Kimes. It’s why local stations look at former rock and hip hop DJs to spice up their lineups.

When we talk about the most entertaining and sharpest minds in sports radio names like Colin Cowherd and Brandon Tierney are sure to pop up. Those guys are always looking for smart and unique ways to present their arguments.

Image result for brandon tierney cbs sports

Is it possible to think too much? Can a talent be too smart to succeed on sports radio?

“Yes,” says Jeff Rickard, program director of The Fan in Indianapolis, “but only if that host at his core isn’t entertaining and fun to listen to.”

That comment really emphasizes something I have believed for years. There is this old adage about radio content that every segment should either entertain, enlighten or educate. The reality is that those last two don’t really matter. You can be the smartest person in any room you walk into. No one will care if they don’t also find you engaging.

Joe O’Neill, president of 101.7 the Team in Albuquerque, isn’t afraid of hiring a guy that is too smart for sports radio.”I actually think it is an asset much more than a detriment, particularly when the talent can utilize that intellect and also be self-depricating,” he says. “I think the listener finds that quite endearing.”

Joe says he already has a high intellect host in afternoon drive. Jim Villanucci graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in engineering. He spent time in the political talk format before making the switch to sports. O’Neill says that the fact that Villanucci is smart and funny is something that has helped him when telling advertisers why they should spend their money on his station.

“I go to all of the characteristics that make him who he is along with the high intellect: the sense of humor, the charisma, his understanding of pop culture. I think it blends well.”

Mike Thomas oversees ESPN 1000 as Good Karma Brands’ market manager in Chicago. He flat out refuses to believe there is any talent that is too smart for sports radio.

“You can be very cerebral, but it doesn’t mean that you’re too smart for the audience.”

In fact, during his time as program director of 98.5 the Sports Hub in Boston, Thomas says he was very rarely interested in the sports knowledge of applicants. If you wanted to be on the air, Thomas needed to hear you make him laugh and do something creative. Being smart is something he only views as an asset.

So we can agree being smart is good, and if a PD or a listener thinks the host is “too smart” what they really mean is the host is boring. What can the format do then to keep its brightest engaged and motivated? I asked Rickard, O’Neill, and Thomas if they worried that a traditional sports show would bore a host that is smart and inquisitive.

Thomas said you have to let hosts be themselves. If straight Xs and Os bore them, bring on guests and surround the host with a supporting cast versed in Xs and Os.

“Well, I think in that case, you have to look at what their interests are. If it’s not just talking straight sports, what are they into? Does this guy think a meteor is going to hit the world and end things at some point? Find out what his interests are and exploit those,” he said.

Rickard was a little less worried about strategizing around a host to keep him engaged. Being from Indianapolis, he said that the question reminded him of the way Andrew Luck walked away from the NFL.

“You have to let people have their own journey. I can’t worry about not being able to keep people if this is not what they want to be doing,” Rickard said. “All I can do is put as many tools around them as I can, make them as comfortable as I can, push them as hard as I can, and give them a really good place to work. Outside of that, I have to let them follow their heart. I am not going to be the guy that talks them out of that unless I think they are making a mistake.”

The idea that there are hosts that are too smart for sports radio didn’t come out of nowhere. Dennis Miller was supposed to be too smart for Monday Night Football. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith’s take on SportsCenter was supposed to be too smart for ESPN’s audience.

Were both of those statements true? If a sports show goes beyond highlights and dad jokes met with over-the-top fake laughter, is it too smart for the average fan to enjoy? That seems like severely underestimating our audience.

O’Neill doesn’t worry about how an audience perceives his hosts. If they keep tuning in, it means they like what they hear.

“Listeners will come to that conclusion for themselves by simply listening and that’s their choice,” he says. “I don’t think they’re coming just for the high intellect. It’s that in a combination with all of the other traits.”

Joe O'Neill Headshot

Sports radio could take a lesson from professional wrestling. Even the most devoted fans of the WWE and AEW realize the outcomes are scripted and the most bitter enemies in the ring are likely best friends behind the scenes. What keeps guys that fell in love with sport at age 8 tuning in every week now that they’re in their 40s?

It’s the understanding pro wrestling has of its audience. The suspense isn’t in who will win the same way it is in the Super Bowl or the Olympics. It’s in how we will get there. It’s the moves in the ring. It’s the storyline building up to the showdown at the pay-per-view event.

Wrestling can be successful being wrestling. It just needs to embrace the basics of storytelling. Smart hosts can be smart. They just need to embrace the basics of entertaining an audience.

“I think one of the smartest people we have in media today is Bomani Jones. Bomani can sit there and lecture you about economics or any theory he has about how the world works, but he also knows how to entertain, so you take a really smart guy with a really great understanding of the world and of sports and how they interconnect and he has strong opinions about those topics,” says Rickard. “What you can see over the last four to five years is the growth. He has become so entertaining and so comfortable with himself. He’s found that sweet spot of giving people what they want but still saying what he wants to say.”

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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