Scott Zolak Isn’t Going to Be a National Guy
“I like people, I love the fact that fans are passionate, I’m a guy you can talk to and I pride myself on that. I want people to like me and I want to like people.”
The most popular guy in town is often the backup quarterback, but Scott Zolak managed to build on that fame and reputation during his second career in Boston.
Hosting middays with Marc Bertrand as part of the ratings powerhouse that is 98.5 The Sports Hub, and working Patriots games as their lead radio analyst, Zolak is more entrenched in Boston sports now than he was as a player.
“Just a couple of guys hanging out at the bar,” it’s a tired description of sports radio, but for Zo, it’s authentic and that’s what makes him so relatable. Whether you’re listening on the radio or catching him outside the office, Zo talks to Boston sports fans the same way you hear him at work.
Brandon Contes: Did you always have an interest in media when you were done playing?
Scott Zolak: No, never. In fact Bill Parcells was one of my first coaches and he would say ‘technically the media is your enemy, they’ll try to drive a stake between you and me.’
That was ingrained in the back of your head. But there were guys I liked in the media and guys I didn’t. The open locker room period would let you develop some media relationships, one of my favorites was Will McDonough because he was close with Parcells and could give us information. I thought about communications when I was at the University of Maryland, but my mom said there aren’t many great jobs in it. I wanted to be an architect, but spring ball got in the way of studio, so I ended up studying agricultural physics and now I’m doing sports radio.
BC: Did you listen to sports radio when you were playing?
SZ: Oh yea, I listened to Boston radio, absolutely. There was one station, and it was WEEI. Glenn Ordway and those guys. You always listened to The Big Show and that’s where I got my start.
Glenn brought me on his show, I’m very grateful for him. Dale Arnold, Bob Newmyer and Eddie Andelman, I worked with those guys in the midday. I always knew John and Gerry from the morning show. There was one station to listen to and you always wanted to know what people were saying.
BC: When you and Andy Gresh had your show in Providence, before The Sports Hub was even a thought, were you hoping to get to WEEI? Or were you satisfied with staying in Rhode Island?
SZ: I didn’t know what to think at the time, and I’m grateful for Gresh because he got me in the door down there. But they just threw me on-air by telling me the seven words I couldn’t say and what nationalities I couldn’t offend. I pretty much knocked them all out of the park with apologetic letters and emails the first week I was on-air.
There wasn’t a goal to get to EEI because when I get a job, I like the job I get. But when they blew us up, yea, you’re looking to get anywhere. Thankfully, my old boss Mark Hannon had the vision for 98.5 The Sports Hub to compete with WEEI and the rest is history. Now Hannon is working over there at Entercom and we’re doing our own thing with Beasley.
BC: Were you surprised how quickly The Sports Hub not only made a dent in WEEI as Boston’s heritage sports station, but surpassed them and now just flat out dominates the ratings?
SZ: At first, yes, and then a couple months into it, no – because of the sound. We had that booming FM signal, great production quality, our behind-the-scenes people that were able to create bits, our morning guys who were rock DJs turned into a morning sports show. Toucher and Rich got great ratings, set us up in middays to then throw it over to Felger and Mazz and the rest is history. EEI eventually went to an FM signal in Providence, but by that point it was too late.
BC: Do you still consider WEEI formidable competition?
SZ: Yea man, I have a lot of friends over there. When we first started you would peak into what they’re doing daily to counterprogram. But you get to the point where you don’t pay attention, and that’s not being rude. We’re just so preoccupied with what we’re trying to do to get our shows going and make sure we’re entertaining four hours a day that you can’t worry about what other people are doing.
BC: You mentioned the friends you have at EEI. When Gerry Callahan was let go about a year and a half ago, you tweeted that his departure was handled as an embarrassment.
SZ: I don’t remember the details at the time, but I thought Gerry deserved a lot more. That morning show with him and John set the tone for the whole day in Boston sports. Gerry had that raspy delivery and then Minihane came in. Just the way it was handled, you saw it coming with the Red Sox getting involved and sort of attempting to help program that station, which eventually led to the ratings demise for them.
BC: How was Mike Thomas as a PD and leader, helping to build The Sports Hub into a ratings monster?
SZ: He never let anybody get too big. Mike was good at knocking people down and doing it in a good way. Anytime we got lazy, he was in the room. Mike knew ratings and he knew how to get ratings, his clock management was phenomenal. And he did it going from a rock format to sports. He also built our weekend programming which is something a lot of guys didn’t care about, but Mike did.
BC: How was the adjustment to a new co-host when Gresh left and you were paired with Marc Bertrand?
SZ: I can work with anybody. Stick me in a room, I just like to go. Andy was great, I also enjoyed working with Gary Tanguay. But with Bertrand and also Hardy as that third person gives an extra kick. We never have a boring show. Four hours a day, it’s hard to do the same thing and beat a dead topic, but Hardy’s production ability, Bertrand’s ability to move topics, and I think I inject some fun into it. You can’t do analytics everyday and talk numbers. We don’t do a boring show, we entertain and have fun.
BC: There are two things that you’re probably most well-known for outside of Boston, and the first is “unicorns, show ponies, where’s the beef.” Where did that call come from, was that preplanned, was it a raw reaction?
SZ: All organic. It came out naturally. I don’t preplan anything. Brady’s that mythical unicorn, you’re never going to see that type of guy again. Our morning show had this show pony thing going so it came to mind and I don’t know, I’m a big Wendy’s burger type of guy, it just came together terrifically and beautifully at the same time that night.
BC: You were already a longtime radio host when you joined the Patriots booth, but did you do any color commentary before Patriots radio?
SZ: Yea, I worked for CBS doing college, I did Navy football for six years and that’s a neutral call, you can’t inject the same kind of enthusiasm into it.
BC: Are you interested in national work or is Boston your sweet spot?
SZ: I really enjoy this area, I’m passionate about the Patriots, if I did national work you have to be different. It’s more of a neutral call, there’s less energy, you have to be down the middle for both sides. But I would be interested in any opportunity because I think I’m pretty darn good at what I do.
BC: You’re known as an unfiltered personality, how does that play in today’s media world where there’s a group of people looking to jump on someone that makes a mistake or says something offensive. Does the concept of cancel culture intimidate you at all?
SZ: It doesn’t, but I have to be careful. There are social media punks out there. Everybody’s looking at your Facebook, Instagram, your Twitter. I have a pretty good support group around me with family members that keep an eye on things and good producers that know me and might remind me when I get heated. I’ve made a mistake or two, I’ve learned from them and I won’t do it again.
BC: The second thing you’re well-known for is Deflategate and specifically the rant on NFL Network about it, are you still embarrassed to be part of the NFL over their handling of that issue?
SZ: Yea, it’s ridiculous. I played quarterback in this league for ten years. I doctored footballs to get them ready for Drew Bledsoe, Tom Tupa, myself, and Vinatieri. We never stuck gauges in them, nobody was ever concerned about air pressure in a football.
My dad was my high school coach, I played at Maryland for five years, we never stuck a gauge in a football! You squeeze the football, if you like it, it’s a good ball, if not you let more air out. The Colts started all this crap and the league runs with it. Look at how Tom Brady’s doing now with properly inflated footballs, it shows you what a hoax that was.
BC: Were you surprised to see the NFL could operate a sham big enough to indict one of its most important figures in Tom Brady?
SZ: Absolutely. During my twenty years doing this, it’s Tom Brady and Peyton Manning at the top, why would you want to take that type of guy down? They’ve done and said everything the right way and here’s Tom at 43, continuing to do the same thing he did 21 years ago.
BC: Is New England rooting for Brady right now? Or would that be like rooting for your ex-girlfriend to bounce right back and get married?
SZ: But the ex-girlfriend has to piss you off or do something to scorn you. Tom made it evident, he wants to play into his mid 40’s and the Patriots really didn’t want to back him on that. So he found another place to go. Tom won here, how do you not root for him? Initially, everybody was rooting for Brady, then when they added Gronkowski and Antonio Brown it soured some fans, but I think they’ve swung back to root for Tom and it should get the Patriots off the mat and going in the offseason.
BC: Does Brady winning in Tampa create any animosity towards Belichick from the fans?
SZ: Yea, because you want him winning here. But there’s no animosity from me, I love working with Bill. Bill’s the best and he’s going to fix this problem, they’ve just really had issues mismanaging this position and preparing for it.
BC: Belichick is often known for his curt interview responses and press conference answers. Is there a secret to interviewing Bill? Because you’re someone who is actually able to engage in a conversation with him.
SZ: I get to deal with him on different platforms, we do the Belichick Breakdown weekly and I had Bill as a coach. When you have a history with a guy, it helps. You need to know how to break into the interview by asking him football questions. Ask him about special teams, ask about the return game, left-footed punters, the decision to defer. Don’t ask him ‘who are you starting next week?’ Don’t ask him the question you know he’s not going to answer, that’s the key.
BC: How was it navigating the bombshell story of Robert Kraft and the massage parlor a couple years ago, especially considering your relationship with the Patriots and the radio station’s relationship with them.
SZ: I think we did fairly. When you have an issue like that, it needs to be talked about. But you still want to get the story straight. Was it a setup? Who drove him there? Was it handled properly? Robert has handled it phenomenally since then by not actually talking about it, but having the right people to talk to it. It’s pretty much a dead story at this point and only gets brought up here and there if litigation pops up.
BC: Have you ever been asked to tone down your opinion of something?
SZ: Not from radio, but maybe from a team or two. You get the ‘be careful’ email or text. It’s a tough thing because they also need to realize I have a job to do. This pays my benefits, these four hours a day are my livelihood. And then when I come into your building, I do another job. It’s a delicate balance to call games for the team and also to go out and do a radio show and be critical when they’re bad.
BC: Do you have a preference of working in the booth on gameday, vs doing talk radio Monday through Friday?
SZ: I love them both. I have fun during the week, but the game stuff brings my juices as a former player back up. It keeps you around the sport of football and there’s nothing better than the NFL. Nothing.
BC: Would you encourage other analysts to try and do what you do on gameday? Because I think it goes against most of what gets taught in broadcasting schools.
SZ: I’d tell them, just be your own personality. Don’t try to be someone specific because you end up being a robot and there’s nothing worse than listening to a dry broadcast. Bob Socci does a fantastic job, Gil Santos was legendary before him, but most play-by-play voices are a little dry. They need to set the scene, it’s up to you to bring the personality of the day, what do you feel like, what do the fans feel like and provide that. Being a fan of the team, when it’s great, I’m over the top. When it’s bad, I tend to hammer them. There’s a delicate balance.
BC: You can be funny and brash, but still provide real solid analysis. Is finding that balance between goofy and schooling difficult?
SZ: When you have big leads or dead time, you can have those fun moments where I’ll joke about something that’s happening with the fans or some beer that I just saw a guy grab and chug. But I’m pretty damn good when talking about coverage and seeing plays happening, you get a feel for what the coordinator is calling, and I think that’s when I’m at my best.
BC: The backup quarterback is often considered the most popular guy in town, but you’ve become like a local folk-hero with Boston fans and I think part of it is your relatability.
SZ: When I go out, if you see me at a gas station, store, or a game, I’m the guy you can come up and talk to. I like people, I love the fact that fans are passionate, I’m a guy you can talk to and I pride myself on that. I want people to like me and I want to like people.
BC: Because you sound like a fan, the audience can relate to you. I love Boomer Esiason, he’s great on radio and TV, but I don’t find him to be relatable.
SZ: [Laughs] Boomer’s the big CBS guy. Boomer grabbed me and said, ‘man you gotta calm down, you’re never gonna get the national gig.’ And I’d have to say, ‘Boomer I don’t think I’m gonna be a national guy, you’re the national guy, you and Phil Simms.’ Or Tony Romo, $17 million a year, and Drew Brees is the next one. I don’t want to be Rich Gannon, Trent Green or Dan Fouts. Dan Fouts is awful. Dan Fouts was the number two guy on CBS and he’s terrible, it’s like he did no homework.
BC: After the Patriots, what’s the next most popular team in Boston right now?
SZ: Celtics. The Red Sox, and I’m not the biggest baseball guy, but it’s a boring sport. You look at the way it’s played, the issues they’ve had trying to ramp it up, it’s a sport that has to fix some things. Hockey might even be third, I think baseball might be fourth here right now.
BC: Is that very recent? The Red Sox dropping to fourth?
SZ: The sad part for them is when they’re good and winning championships they’re great and ratings are strong. They were down about 58% this year because the team was an unwatchable product. Fans in Boston aren’t stupid and that’s part of why I love doing radio here because you can’t fool them. You can’t fool a fanbase by trying to bring an ESPN radio product to Boston. ESPN Radio will never work in Boston. You’ll see some stations try to dabble with bringing in guys from outside the market, but it never works. You can’t fool people here.
BC: This was the first time you were doing radio while the Patriots were having a bad season, are you surprised it didn’t take away from your audience or ratings at all?
SZ: Not to say negativity drives sports radio, but when people are sitting on their laurels and everything’s kosher and happy – when you’re 14-2, there’s not a lot to talk about. There’s a lot to talk about when you’re approaching 6-10. It gets the fanbase riled up and our ratings even went up since the team’s down.
BC: Are the Patriots heading for a lengthy lull?
SZ: No, even at 7-9, they had Buffalo on the ropes, Kansas City on the ropes. Both those teams were in the AFC title game. That’s two more wins if you figure those games out and now you’re 9-7. You have $65 million to spend, go get Jimmy Garoppolo and let’s fix this sucker.
BC: Does Brady winning a seventh Super Bowl even matter? At some point he has to reach a point where no matter what happens, it’s already been cemented, he’s the best.
SZ: But if he wins it this year it might be his greatest. You couldn’t gel with the team, he’s implementing things through Zoom, you can’t come together as a team, no fans, it’s a weird year. To be able to have success, win three road playoff games and beat Brees, Rodgers and Mahomes and you didn’t do it as a Patriot? This might be his most important championship ever.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@gmail.com.
As Media Changes, Bob Costas Hopes Standards Remain
“Some people are cynics, and they confuse cynicism alone with insight. That’s not me.”
Growing up in New York, Bob Costas frequently listened to broadcasters such as Red Barber, Mel Allen and Marv Albert call games on the radio. To him, their voices were inseparable from the players. Although he idolized Mickey Mantle, Costas knew the only way he would pass through the Yankee Stadium gates without charge would be by working in the press box. Recognizing that many national broadcasters began their careers by working in radio, he searched for an esteemed college program to accentuate his pursuit of a media career. Once Costas picked up a New York Knicks yearbook and learned that Glickman and Albert had both attended Syracuse University, his mind was, somewhat consequentially, made up.
“When I got there, I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to be a writer or a broadcaster,” Costas said. “Almost as soon as I got there as a freshman, I started getting airshifts doing sports reports and whatnot on the campus radio station. I felt like this was something that I enjoyed and I might have a knack for.”
Costas on the Air
Costas was fond of a specific type of sports broadcasting early in his career, one promulgated by Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker wherein an announcer is more than just someone who documents the game. It led Costas to espouse a multifaceted approach with shades of humor, journalistic elements and some historical references.
“[They] were essayists and at times journalists,” Costas said. “Not just announcers, but journalists with a respect for and a command of language with the occasional literate touch [and] I admired those people. I think I was influenced by them in that they showed me that was an avenue [and] that not every good broadcaster had to be generic.”
When Costas graduated from college, he was hired at KMOX radio by general manager Rob Hyland. He was assigned to be the new play-by-play announcer for the American Basketball Association’s (ABA) Spirit of St. Louis, and later called Missouri Tigers college basketball.
In 1976, Al Michaels was slated to be a regional football play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports, but ended up signing a contract with ABC less than one week before the regular season. It left the network with no one to call an opening week game between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers from historic Lambeau Field, resulting in CBS Sports calling Hyland to inquire about a potential replacement.
“Mr. Hyland said, ‘We’ve got a young guy here. We think he’s pretty good. He’s 24 and looks like he’s 15,’” Costas recalled. “They said, ‘Send him to Green Bay,’ and I signed a one-game contract for $500 to go to Green Bay.”
Costas continued calling regional games for CBS Sports while working at KMOX, being used every so often on football and basketball coverage. It gave him additional exposure in various marketplaces around the United States, and ultimately prepared him to join NBC Sports. By the end of 1981 though, Bryant Gumbel departed the sports division to join Jane Pauley and Chris Wallace as a co-host on TODAY. As a result, Costas was elevated to become a more visible part of NBC’s football coverage. He eventually started hosting the pregame show for the NFL on NBC, and had to learn the mechanics of the studio and how to read from a teleprompter.
“For the first several years that I did it, I didn’t use a teleprompter at all,” Costas said. “I just had notes and ad-libbed around those notes, but then as the production became more sophisticated, they’d want a specific cue to roll in B-roll or whatever, and I began using the prompter for that. I still ad-libbed in and around it because I felt more comfortable doing that.”
Costas on America’s Pastime
Costas continued hosting studio coverage for football, but had also impressed network executives when hosting NBC’s coverage of the 1983 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Earlier that season, he had started broadcasting games with Tony Kubek on Game of the Week, a partner to which he credits accentuating his development. Kubek introduced Costas to key figures around the sport, such as players, general managers and scouts, implicitly communicating the trust he garnered in his abilities.
Throughout his career, the composition and expectations of the audience have altered, requiring Costas to adapt the way in which he calls a game. Research departments compile tedious amounts of information for broadcasters to consider, and it is in their purview to determine what deserves emphasis. When sabermetrics first began to pervade into the everyday vernacular of the sport, Costas had Bill James on KMOX to discuss his theories and baseball abstract, and he considers himself an early adopter of the metrics.
Costas is familiar with postseason baseball as a fan and broadcaster, appearing on World Series broadcasts five different times either as a host or play-by-play announcer. Through his lifetime, he has seen and embraced the evolution of the sport. Yet he is frequently labeled as a “traditionalist.” That led to extensive criticism regarding how he called last year’s American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians on TBS.
“If it ever gets to the point in a broadcast where the statistician eclipses the storyteller, then some of the elements of romance and legend that are part of baseball are lost,” Costas expressed. “What you’re looking to do is strike a balance between those two things. They all have their purpose, but it’s a matter of balance.”
In addition to baseball, Costas also covered basketball with NBC, helping further cement the Association into the collective awareness of the viewing public. He was elevated to lead play-by-play announcer for the 1997-98 season and called three NBA Finals, including one of the most consequential shots in the history of the game. Costas, who announced games locally for the Bulls on WGN-TV during the 1979-80 season, punctuated Michael Jordan’s championship-winning basket in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Although he no longer calls basketball, Costas is a fan of the game and regularly tunes into the NBA Finals while staying aware of ratings.
“A good portion of it is on cable,” Costas said of league broadcasts. “There are very large rights fees paid, so that explains the league’s willingness to go in that direction, and the quality of the broadcasts are generally very, very high. There’s no criticism of the way the games are presented, but it’s less present in the minds of the casual fan than it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s.”
Costas on Reporting
When Costas was at NBC, he was presented with a proposal from producer Dick Ebersol about starting his own late-night talk show, entering a space where sportscasters had not often frequented. While he looks back at that stage of his career with a sense of appreciation, he turned down the program multiple times. Once he reluctantly agreed to host the show, Costas welcomed guests including Paul McCartney, Don Rickles and Mel Brooks among others for longform, insightful interviews.
“It wasn’t confined to five minutes or a quick soundbite,” Costas said. “I think I was well-suited to that format, and once I got my footing after the first few months of doing it, I realized that even though I hadn’t planned anything in that area, it was something that I was suited to do.”
As a journalist, Costas affirms that it is his responsibility to address uncomfortable subjects with his audience in an objective manner. Through this approach, people feel empowered to formulate their own opinions and contribute to the discourse, especially since they do not have to start the entire conversation. In working as the prime-time host of the Olympic Games on NBC for 24 years, Costas had to balance highlighting the competition with bringing light to international affairs and global issues.
“Some people are cynics, and they confuse cynicism alone with insight. That’s not me,” Costas said. “But I hope that I’ve had a healthy skepticism, and I’ve never thought there was any contradiction between embracing the drama; the theater; the human interest [and] the occasionally and genuinely moving and touching things that can happen in sports… and then turning a journalistic eye towards what’s happening within those same events or those same sports.”
Before Costas took over the hosting role from Jim McKay in 1992, they had a lengthy conversation about the duty of the host and how integral the person is in the network’s coverage. It requires being familiar with notable athletes while also having the dexterity to seamlessly pivot, take a briefing and discuss unexpected occurrences. For example, during Costas’ second Summer Olympics in 1996, he had to cover the Centennial Park bombing. At the same time, he needed to know about the competitions and the significance of certain milestones the athletes achieved.
When Costas inked his final contract with NBC in 2012, he insisted that a stipulation be placed that the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be the final time he would host the games on the network. At the time, Costas was also hosting Football Night in America on NBC, which led into Sunday Night Football broadcasts with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. The network suggested he take on an emeritus role similar to what Tom Brokaw did as a newscaster, a proposal to which Costas obliged.
Costas has hosted two different nationally syndicated radio programs during his career – Costas Coast to Coast (1986-1996) and Costas on the Radio (2006-2009) it’s a parallel path to the ones takes by some of the biggest names to follow in his footsteps in sports media.
Stephen A. Smith, for example, is a featured commentator on ESPN’s First Take, broadcasts an alternate telecast for select NBA matchups, appears on NBA Countdown and hosts his own podcast titled The Stephen A. Smith Show. He does all of this while building his own production company, occasionally guest starring on television shows and ensuring he is well-positioned for the future. Smith has not been shy about his desire to expand beyond sports, pondering trying to host a late-night talk show of his own. Costas, it should be noted, is the only person to ever win Emmy awards in news, sports and entertainment. He has amassed a total of 28 throughout his illustrious career, the most wins in the history of sports media. Nonetheless, he believes discussing more than sports takes a specific archetype and is not a route all personalities are inclined to forge.
“You could name a lot of people that do one thing, but they do it extraordinarily well,” Costas said. “They don’t have to check every box…. I just had varied interests, and I guess people identified that I had varying abilities, and so I was able to do that.”
Costas has been on MLB Network since its launch in 2009. This followed an eight-year run with HBO as the host of On the Record, which was later revamped into Costas NOW, but he departed the premium television network when they insisted he grant them “cable exclusivity.” He desperately wanted to join MLB Network because of his passion and interest in the game – and ultimately ended up doing so – but not before making a monumental decision about his future.
“It was a really difficult choice because HBO was the gold standard when it came to sports journalism,” Costas said. “But given my love of baseball and given the fact that NBC hadn’t had it since 2000, I went with the baseball network.”
Costas on the Gridiron
Costas’ infatuation with baseball was contrasted with a perceived indignation towards football, although Costas affirms that was not the case. He had generally been allowed to express his opinions about different topics on radio programs or television shows, but there was a point where it became too much.
After he went on CNN to discuss the topic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) following remarks he made at the University of Maryland about football having adverse mental effects, Costas was removed from the NBC’s Super Bowl LII broadcast. The decision did not bother him, as he had been assigned to host the Super Bowl without any prior knowledge before it was publicly announced. In fact, he was somewhat apathetic towards the proceedings.
“What I did suggest was I could make a more significant contribution if, during the course of a six-hour Super Bowl pregame show, you carved out 15 to 20 minutes for a real journalistic interview with Roger Goodell,” Costas shared. “That would be good programming, and it would be solid journalistically, but Goodell declined. So then that left me with no role that I was interested in for the Super Bowl.”
The ambivalent feelings Costas had towards the sport precipitated his exit from the network, officially parting ways in January 2019 and moving to the next stage of his career. Upon his exit though, Costas knew his previous roles were in good hands with Mike Tirico at the helm. The plan from the beginning was to have Tirico assume the host role of both prime-time Olympics coverage and Football Night in America. Once Al Michaels left NBC Sports to join the incipient Thursday Night Football property at Amazon Prime Video, Tirico was duly named the new play-by-play announcer on Sunday Night Football. It was one transaction in a deluge of broadcast movement in the final offseason before the start of the NFL’s new national media rights deal, reportedly worth over $110 billion over 11 years.
“The NFL doesn’t just rein over sports TV; it reins over all of television and over all of American entertainment,” Costas said. “It’s the only thing that consistently aggregates audiences of that size, and therefore it isn’t just valuable to the networks; it’s indispensable to the networks.”
With these sizable media rights agreements comes substantial compensation for on-air talent. ESPN is reportedly paying Joe Buck and Troy Aikman a combined $33 million to serve as the Monday Night Football broadcast tandem, a figure some people would consider overpaying. Costas does not view it that way, instead perceiving broadcasters as harbingers of credibility.
“When you think about a company spending billions and billions of dollars for a property like they do with football, and then add on all the production costs, why should it surprise anybody that they’re willing to pay a very high premium to get Joe Buck or to retain Jim Nantz or to retain Tony Romo?,” Costas articulated. “Not doing so would be the equivalent of, ‘You spend $5,000 on a suit, but know you’re not going to splurge for the tie or the belt.’ These are accessories to a larger investment, and they’re important accessories.”
ESPN announced it was signing Pat McAfee to a multiyear, multi-million dollar contract to bring his eponymous show to its linear and digital platforms. McAfee conducted the negotiations independently and will still retain full creative control over the show in its new phase. The move, however, received considerable backlash from those inside and outside of ESPN since it occurred amid Disney CEO Bob Iger’s directive to lay off 7,000 employees across all divisions of the company. On several occasions, sports media pundits and personalities alike have expressed that ESPN concentrates its attention on a small sector of talent while neglecting everyone else. While FOX Corporation, Paramount Global and various other companies have engaged in layoffs this year, none made a hire with the star appeal, gravitas, and price tag of McAfee.
“Someone like McAfee; he moves the needle,” Costas said. “He moves it, I guess, [on] various platforms – YouTube, as well as ESPN now, so he can make a difference so that’s what they’re paying for.”
Costas on Modern Media
An existential question those in the media industry are grappling with is how to offset the effects felt by cord-cutting. In the first quarter of 2023, cable, satellite and internet providers experienced a loss of 2.3 million customers, and the latest Nielsen Media Research Total Audience Report says 34% of consumption derives from streaming services. With digital forms of media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms taking precedence in the marketplace, companies must establish alternate revenue streams while continuing to innovate.
CNN laid off employees last year, and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, will reportedly be laying off additional employees during the summer months. Costas joined the company in 2020 as a correspondent for CNN. Earlier this week, Costas appeared on the network to talk about the merger between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf, which marked a seminal moment in the history of the game.
Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive Officer David Zaslav recently relieved CNN chief executive officer Chris Licht of his duties as CEO following a pernicious feature in The Atlantic. It only worsened a dwindling company morale predicated by several controversial decisions regarding coverage, casting and the network’s commitment to journalistic integrity.
While Costas expressed that he had a “cordial, but not deep relationship” with Licht and did not have shrewd insight into the decision to part ways with the embattled CEO, he does understand the shifts in news viewership and how its subject matter can penetrate into sports media.
For years, consumers regarded MSNBC as being biased to left-leaning politics, FOX News having bias towards right-leaning politics and CNN as nonpartisan, although that sentiment has somewhat changed.
“There’s a battle for viewership, and there’s some thought that people only want to go to the places that reinforce what they already believe,” Costas said. “‘Feed me the same meal every time over and over,’ and now CNN is trying to chart a different course more down the middle. Maybe you have to be more partisan in order to attract a larger cable audience; I underline ‘maybe’ because my insight into this is not as valuable as a lot of other people who are closer to it.”
The fractionalized media landscape, whether it be pertaining to news coverage, morning sports debate shows or afternoon drive programs, has, perhaps, engendered more disparate audiences than ever before. People tend to stick with outlets they know will provide them with information and coverage more favorable to their own points of view, and there is somewhat of an implicit chilling effect associated with channel surfing in certain scenarios. Viewers are obstinate towards programs that reinforce their points of view and hesitant to change, sometimes creating misinformation or, worse, disinformation.
“I think one of the most important courses that should be taught beginning fairly early – probably at the junior high school level and certainly continuing through college – is media literacy,” Costas opined, “which is not telling you what to think, but helping you to navigate this crazy jigsaw puzzle that’s out there.”
There are many people following the business of sports media, but a smaller group of people who tend to break news and report on the beat itself. While there are reporters specialized in different niches of the industry, there are others who indolently parse stories and/or spin aspects of it to render it compatible with their platform.
Established reporters and outlets certainly engage in some level of repurposing; however, these entities safeguard what they are disseminating is true and take accountability for their mistakes. Conversely, there are perpetrators who transmogrify things into engrossing headlines designed to attract traffic. It is disheartening for journalists such as Costas.
“Many sites now, and this is true in sports perhaps especially, [are] just aggregators,” Costas said. “They do no reporting; there doesn’t appear to be any editor overseeing any of it. They just look for stuff wherever it might appear, and then they repurpose it, and almost always, the context, the tone [and] the nuance is lost. At best, it’s reduced to primary colors. At worst, it’s totally misrepresented for clicks.”
In the past, Costas remembers genuine local programming which was exclusive to certain geographical areas. Because of the advent of the internet and social media though, nothing is truly local since people from around the world can consume content live or on demand. While this has brought many people together and improved cultural perceptions, ethnocentrism persists and has hindered accurate comprehension.
“If what you say is inevitably going to some extent be distorted where ‘A’ won’t just become ‘B,’ but it might become ‘X,’ ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ by the time it’s gone through all of its iterations, you sort of say to yourself, ‘What’s the point?,’” Costas elucidated. “Sports is not brain surgery – but you can make a more or less thoughtful point when asked a question, but if it’s then going to be seen, heard or read by more people than heard it initially, and if it’s going to be mangled in the process, it’s almost like a fool’s game to be part of that.”
Costas on the Future
The term ‘pretentious’ is wholly inaccurate in describing Costas. He does not view himself as a visionary and knows that he will not be an “active participant” in the industry that much longer, but is reassured regarding the direction of sports broadcasting. He looks at revered announcers such as Jim Nantz and is able to effectively identify similarities with Curt Gowdy. Although the degree of information available to people has certainly shifted, play-by-play announcing, at its core, remains similar to the on-air product people first heard in 1929, although the lexicon and flow of a broadcast are somewhat different.
“The essentials of the craft remain the same,” Costas said. “If you’re talking about sports talk radio; if you’re talking about the internet’s coverage of sports, that in some cases bears no resemblance to the notions that people of my generation had about credibility and quality of presentation. No one’s saying that sports coverage is masterpiece theater or something that should be taught at a Ph.D. class at Princeton [University], but it can be done more or less thoughtfully. It can be done more or less credibly, and we see wide variations now in how it’s done.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
There is Nothing Old School About a Human Touch in Radio Sales
“Digital buyers are different, and that’s okay. They may not be the right buyer for you to sell to anyway.”
We are not dumb or dumber when it comes to buying radio advertising. Being a radio ad sales rep is old school to some advertising buyers. To others, we write the book on how to get advertising done. Find those clients!
The digital automated ad buying platform AudioGo described selling radio ads as old school and wrote that automated buying is smarter. I am sure that is true for some buyers who have grown up with tech and automation, namely programmatic buying, and have changed their view of a radio salesperson. They don’t see the unique value radio sales reps bring to the process.
Digital buyers are different, and that’s okay. They may not be the right buyer for you to sell to anyway. Plenty of other local direct clients are not ready for algorithms to automate ad buys. They want a human touch, a helping hand, and the kind of expertise that no algorithm can replace. YOU. Radio salespeople add value to these types of clients. Here is why we do and how we are not the “dumb and dumber” of media of buying.
ONE-ON-ONE PERSONALIZED CONSULT
A radio salesperson offers specific solutions to meet a client’s goals with the right target audience and within their budget. We allow real-time interaction to understand the client’s business better, so we can match up the perfect advertising strategy. We are the ultimate live FAQs page. Building strong client relationships is critical. How can trust, collaboration, and a long-term partnership be created based on algorithms?
EXPERTISE AND INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE
Most successful Radio salespeople have invaluable expertise and industry knowledge they picked up through years of experience. Twenty percent of the reps do eighty percent of the business. The vets know all about 6a-8a, 4p-6p, and live endorsement spots.
We get the nuances of radio advertising, like shifting audience demographics, programming trends, and effective messaging strategies. We can advise a client to make a much more informed (and time-saving) decision that can maximize the impact of their ad campaigns. No algorithm can see that.
Automated programmatic buying may offer convenience, but it isn’t too custom of a solution. We tailor advertising campaigns to meet the unique needs of each client. We take in specific target audience preferences, locations, and competitive market trends to produce effective strategies. We listen to real-time feedback and get results. Algorithms rely on predefined parameters and can’t customize.
Buying advertising can be complex, with regulations, industry standards, and market trends constantly changing. Radio salespeople have the experience to anticipate roadblocks and offer proactive solutions. Additionally, we can provide insight into budgeting, negotiation, and buying other media. Algorithms lack intuition and can’t maneuver fast enough to handle the unknown.
While automation and algorithms have their place with certain buyers, remind yourself of the value you offer clients. You provide personalized consultation, industry expertise, customized solutions, and the ability to navigate. You are indispensable to the right buyers. Now find them!
Jeff Caves is a sales columnist for BSM working in radio, digital, hyper-local magazine, and sports sponsorship sales in DFW. He is credited with helping launch, build, and develop SPORTS RADIO The Ticket in Boise, Idaho, into the market’s top sports radio station. During his 26 year stay at KTIK, Caves hosted drive time, programmed the station, and excelled as a top seller. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @jeffcaves.
Vic Lombardi Turns Nuggets Disrespect into Great Content
“I keep telling people they’re going to go where the money is. The money is the Lakers and the big city teams. The Nuggets don’t sell.”
There was a feeling of Denver vs. Everyone during the 10 days that separated the end of the Western Conference Finals and Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The word “boring” was being used to describe what it was going to be like watching the Nuggets play for an NBA title. It didn’t sit well with Denver media and sports fans, as the unfair tag was being consistently referenced by certain members of the national sports media.
Vic Lombardi of Altitude Sports Radio in Denver, along with several of his co-workers, decided to fight against a narrative they found uneducated and unfair. In their eyes, all you had to do this season was to actually watch the Nuggets to find them interesting.
“We assume everyone else knows what we know,” said Lombardi. “We assume that the rest of the country is watching. And all this has done, to be honest with you, has proven that a lot of national folks don’t watch as carefully as they say they do. Because if they watched they wouldn’t be as surprised as they are right now.”
There was even an on-air spat with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated on the Altitude Sports Radio airwaves. During an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show, Mannix said there weren’t any compelling or interesting storylines surrounding the Nuggets first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
Lombardi, along with other hosts at Altitude Sports Radio took exception to the comment and fired back with their thoughts. A few days later, Mannix appeared on the station to defend his position and stick up for what he thought was accurate. Though the tensions were high during the back-and-forth it was incredible content for the station.
But Lombardi says he doesn’t take the spats, whether they’re public or private, all that seriously when other fellow media members.
“The arguments, if they’re anything, they’re all in fun,” said Lombardi. “I don’t take this stuff personally. We had a little back and forth with Chris Mannix. That was fun. I actually saw him in Denver when he came out for media. I respect anyone who’s willing to make their point on the air. It’s not the media’s job, it’s not your job as a host or a writer to tell me what I find compelling or interesting. We’re all from different parts with different needs and you can’t tell me what I desire. Let me pick that. Chase a story because the public may learn something. We’re curious by nature, that’s why we got into this business. All I ask is be more curious.”
The entire team at Altitude Sports Radio did an incredible job of sticking up for their own market and creating memorable content out of it. That should be celebrated inside the station’s walls. None of the outrage was forced; it was all genuine. But what’s the lesson to learn here from media folks, both local and national with this story?
“I think the takeaway is number one, it’s a business,” said Lombardi. “I keep telling people they’re going to go where the money is. The money is the Lakers and the big city teams. The Nuggets don’t sell.
“Well, you start selling when you start winning. They’ve got to sort of earn their way into that club. I think with what the Nuggets have done recently, and hopefully with what they’re about to do, they’re at the adult table. The media business is not unlike anything else. The biggest common denominator is what sells. I get that. I just don’t understand why a team like this, with the most unique player most people have ever seen, why wouldn’t that sell?”
Maybe it’s still not selling nationally, but locally in Denver, Nuggets talk is on fire. For years, the Denver market has been seen as one where the Broncos and NFL rule. The Nuggets have not been close to the top of Denver sports fans’ interests and have probably fallen routinely behind the Avalanche.
But there’s been a real craving for Nuggets talk during this historic run. Granted, it didn’t just start two weeks ago, there’s been momentum building for the team ever since Nikola Jokic started asserting himself as one of the best players in the NBA. But there’s more than just an appetite for the Broncos in the city and the past few years have shown it.
“I think it’s just proven to people in the city that the town is much different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Lombardi. “The Broncos continue to rule this town and will do so because the NFL is the NFL. But I can tell you this. There are sports fans outside the NFL. I’m born and raised in Denver and I always believed, what’s so wrong about being an ardent fan of every sport? If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. There’s nothing I hate more than territorializing sports. Like, ‘oh I’m just a football fan’. Or, ‘oh I’m just a hockey fan’. Why? Sports crosses all borders and boundaries.”
Lombardi and Altitude Sports Radio have settled into local coverage of the NBA Finals, rather than fighting with a national narrative. The payoff for the entire ride has been very rewarding for the station. It included what Lombardi called the “highest of highs” when the Nuggets beat the Lakers on their own floor. It even included one of the biggest events the city has seen in the last five years, when the Nuggets hosted its first-ever NBA Finals game last week.
The last few weeks could even be considered one of the most rewarding times in station history for Altitude Sports Radio.
“Our ratings have never been higher,” said Lombardi. “It’s a great display of, sometimes in the media, we think we know what the listener wants. We think we do and we try to force feed them. I think the national folks do that, but so do the local folks. You think they know, but if you give them a nice diet, they’ll choose what they want. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.