There’s no confusion about where their allegiances lie. And when it comes to being relatable to the audience, there’s few things Ben and Woods do better than buying season tickets at Petco Park, wearing Padres hats and cheering for the lone professional team in San Diego.
Some hosts choose to never openly root for the teams they talk about on an everyday basis. Steven Woods and Ben Higgins strive to never hide who they are on the air. They’re Padres fans and they’re not afraid to show it.
“I was in music radio before and sometimes it was hard to hide my disdain for some of the music that I played, so I just decided not to,” said Woods. “I just let it out there. People I think appreciate authenticity and if I didn’t like a song I’d tell you. But I still had to play it, right? With the Padres, it’s why I never sit in the press box, because I can’t cheer in there. I bought season tickets so that I can go and scream at the players like I want to. I think it resonates, because there’s fans listening in the car that want to see them do well too.”
“I do believe in journalistic integrity,” said Ben. “But to me that means you have to be honest. You have to be honest in your opinions and you can’t be afraid to be critical. No one is more critical of a team than their own fans. They are the most critical people of all. I don’t wanna be the fan that constantly criticizes, but at the same time, why would you listen to a show that is just relentlessly positive and gives you a white wash version of what’s not really reality? Every team has problems and it’s our job to point them out or nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
When you think of baseball towns, New York, Chicago and St. Louis are probably the three cities that immediately come to mind. But in a football world, San Diego has emerged as a new baseball town with the Chargers recently leaving for Los Angeles.
If you have any doubt that San Diego is now a baseball city, just listen to Ben and Woods on 97.3 The Fan from 5-9 am every weekday morning. The duo has no issues with doing three-plus hours of Padres talk, even during the offseason.
That’s not a new thing. Ben and Woods have always conducted the show the way it is now. They want to talk baseball, but they also want to hit off-topic content that will give the listener a chance to laugh on their way to work.
That’s been the case since the show was at Mighty 1090. Ben and Woods were at the station as the morning show when it folded in 2019. That was an incredibly trying time for both talents.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I had a brand new baby and the show was going great. We were on the rise and then it went away. It was shocking. It was also scary. I think uncertain is the best word. We believed in our product and we knew there was a market for it and there was a station that just so happened to need a morning show. The timing was pretty serendipitous.”
“I had been a listener for 15 years before I ever worked at that station for the first time,” Ben said. “And then you get there and you feel like, wow, we’re here and then all the sudden it’s gone. It wasn’t overnight, at some point we lost the signal transmission then we went streaming and it was kind of a slow death over the last few weeks. Ultimately it just ended one day. It was a very strange thing. The fact we got picked up at 97.3 The Fan, got back on the air so quickly was really great.”
Things are going extremely well for Ben and Woods at 97.3 The Fan. They’re thriving in morning drive with a unique show that’s different from any other in the market. Sure, they’ll talk about sports, but their focus is more on the overall entertainment of the show.
“It’s morning drive, you’re there to entertain,” said Woods. “You do have to get really creative. We get very creative, because we have to. We take a lot of risks, more so than people would like. The way I look at it as no one remembers us talking about the NFL Playoffs. But they do remember the time we played a 17-minute Bob Dylan song in its entirety on the radio and sat through it. I remember that and always will. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘man, nobody breaks down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like you guys’. But they’ll remember, ‘holy crap, you guys literally played a 17 minute Bob Dylan song it’s entirety’.”
“When we started it was 95 percent sports and I was afraid to do anything else,” Ben said. ”We started doing segments like Ben reads raps, there was a really good response and I started to warm up on OK we can branch out a little bit. Now, if there was a day we didn’t have a non-sports topic I would say that was a weird show.”
“Rest assured, Opening Day comes, we’re blowing out every bit we have, period,” Woods said ”We’re one of the few shows in town that has no problem doing 3 1/2 hours of just Padres talk. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself a little bit. I always call it punting. It’s an easy thing to say, hey, the playoffs are this week let’s get the local beat writer on from every single team and we’ll interview them. Like anyone here gives a rats ass what the Packers beat writer has to say. There may be one guy, but I’m not doing a show for one guy.”
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show,” laughed Ben.
One of the reasons the show has the identity that it does, is because of Woods’ background in multiple formats of radio. No, he’s not a sports radio lifer, and in a way, it’s probably greatly benefitted the show. He’s taken his creativity from the music side and perfectly blended it with his love for sports.
“I like sports radio more because there’s a lot more creativity,“ said Woods. “ I didn’t get to pick the music I got to play at all. Not even a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk so for me, as a creative person, this is tremendous. We can do whatever we want and our bosses are pretty cool about giving us a lot of leeway. I’ve learned how audiences react. I’ve learned how to keep an audience. It’s energy, it’s being compelling, breaking balls, having fun. Guy’s driving to work in the mornings, he wants to get a snicker or a laugh, he’s not looking for breakdowns of defenses and things like that.”
Ben and Woods is much more than just the two hosts in the chair every weekday. The cool thing is that anyone that listens to the show knows that. Paul Reindl is the executive producer of the show and has a talent and relationship with the hosts that anyone would dream of.
“He’s the worst,” laughed both Ben and Woods. “Paulie is great. We were able to get away this weekend and after we drank like 40 beers and whiskeys, I was like bro, I’m so proud of you and you’re so valuable to the show. But he’s an unsung hero behind the scenes. He has an uncanny ability to bring sound drops almost intuitively. He’s got pages and pages of drops we’ve collected over the years. He’s just an awesome producer.”
If Howard Stern Really Doesn’t Know Who Al Dukes Is, He Should
A big part of Dukes’ success is the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, just like some broadcasting giants like Stern and David Letterman.
Al Dukes wasn’t quite sure why WFAN afternoon drive co-host Evan Roberts had sent him an email last week with audio from The Howard Stern Show on Sirius XM, but he was certainly all smiles when he took a listen.
In response to Carton and Roberts talking-up longtime Howard Stern producer Gary Dell’Abate for the Radio Hall of Fame the week before, the “King Of All Media” suggested last Monday that Dukes, the Executive Producer of the Boomer and Gio morning show on WFAN, should be in the Hall of Fame before Dell’Abate.
“It was a big thrill for me just because I loved Howard Stern in the late 80s up through 2010s and a little bit further,” said Dukes. “I’ve kind of lost touch with him lately but he was the reason I got into radio.”
Dukes also had a chuckle when Stern followed up the nomination by saying…
“I don’t know Mr. Dukes. Who is Al Dukes?”
“I know he has no idea who I am,” said Dukes. “He was listening to Carton and Roberts and was busting Gary’s balls. That was just cool to hear him say my name like that. It was very funny. It was just fun to hear on the radio.”
Even though it may only have been a joke, it certainly meant a lot to Dukes to hear Stern mention his name because of the impact that the broadcasting giant had on his life and career.
When Dukes was a student at Kean University in New Jersey from 1988 to 1992, he would always listen to Howard Stern during his commute to and from home. But when Dukes moved on to graduate school at Indiana State, there was a problem…Howard Stern was not on in that market. Since that was before being able to listen to radio shows online or before the advent of satellite radio, Dukes was not going to be able to listen.
That was until his mother Carole came up with an idea to send her son cassette tapes of the Howard Stern Show.
“My mother just started recording on a cassette deck when she would get ready to go to work,” said Dukes. “When he went to commercial, she would hit pause. She would do the same thing the next day and when she had a full tape, she would send it off.”
Dukes’ mom did this throughout his time in Indiana and continued to record the tapes when her son took his first radio job in Tampa in 1994.
She had to because Stern wasn’t on in that market either.
“It was a really neat bonding experience for me and my mom because she got to really like Howard Stern and she thought it was great,” said Dukes. “She would do self-editing and when they had strippers or porn stars, she would not record that and say oh that’s so boring.”
Even without the explicit material, those Stern tapes played a vital role as Dukes ascended to have the storied career he has enjoyed. From being a sports radio producer and reporter in Tampa to where he is now at WFAN, Dukes has had a very successful career.
Thanks, of course, in part from those Howard Stern tapes that his mom sent him.
“It definitely shaped who I was and who I am,” said Dukes. “I did all of my (graduate school) projects centered around something to do with talk radio and Howard Stern.”
Not lost on Dukes’ mind is the reason why Stern ultimately mentioned his name last week and that was Craig Carton and Evan Roberts talking about Dell’Abate during their WFAN show. So, the question had to be posed to Dukes…
Is “Bababooey” a hall of famer?
“Absolutely,” said Dukes. “The guy was with Howard Stern for all of these years, been fired on the air many times…he’s really had his life exposed. He’s evolved over the years to booking A-level guests and getting people to come in and that is not an easy thing to do. So, absolutely first-ballot hall of famer.”
For as much as Stern served as inspiration for him, Dukes also learned a lot about producing from Dell’Abate. Dukes appreciated to type of radio that Stern was doing and the fact that Dell’Abate had the ability to get on the air a lot. That was certainly something that resonated with Dukes as his career progressed.
“(Dell’Abate) didn’t have the responsibility of being the lead guy but did a lot of things behind the scenes,” said Dukes. “Then he was a great foil for Howard, Robin (Quivers) and Fred (Norris). I always looked at Gary early on and said I’m sure I can’t do what Howard does but I think I can do what Gary does.”
A big part of Dukes’ success is the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, just like some broadcasting giants like Stern and David Letterman. Dukes has always recognized that the hosts are the cool guys, but over time he has certainly let his unique personality come through during those moments when he gets some air time.
“I’ll be not the cool guy,” said Dukes. “I’ll be that foil because it works. It lets the hosts be this alpha male type guy and then you get to be the everyday guy.”
And Dukes, that everyday guy, has built up a resume full of hall of fame credentials.
Dukes has produced some iconic radio shows in his career including Ron and Fez at WNEW Radio in New York before taking on the Executive Producer role for Boomer and Carton on WFAN in 2007. He continued in that role when the show became Boomer and Gio and has also co-hosted The Warm Up Show and The Postgame Podcast with Jerry Recco.
Dukes has been blessed to be around some amazing radio talent during his career including Ron Bennington, Fez Whatley, Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton and Gregg Giannotti.
“I’ve been fortunate to be put in those positions,” said Dukes. “Judging a producer’s success is kind of judging a head coach or a manager. If you give them a terrible team all of sudden, they’re a terrible manager but if you give them a good team, they’re a good manager.”
Now, let’s circle back to Howard Stern’s assertion that Dukes should be in the Radio Hall of Fame…
Wouldn’t “Hall of Famer” Al Dukes would have a nice ring to it?
“Yeah,” said Dukes. “But to quote Mike (Francesa) and Chris (Russo), I’m a compiler at this point. You can’t be a one-man band in this business. You do have to be surrounded with the right people and right chemistry.”
And that group of “right people” includes his mother for sending him those Howard Stern tapes!
Radio Can’t Sit Back And Wait On Marijuana Money
“Attitudes on marijuana have changed tremendously in the last 15 years. It went from an illicit substance we had to ask around to score to something we put in candy.”
I had a great conversation last week with Mark Glynn of iHeartMedia Seattle. He was the focus of the latest column in our Meet the Market Managers partnership with Point-to-Point Marketing.
One of the subjects Mark and I discussed was advertising marijuana in markets like Seattle, where the drug can be purchased legally.
No broadcasting company is ready to take money for advertising legal weed yet. Despite state and local laws decriminalizing it in some places, a federal ban on marijuana still remains in place.
But Glynn knows there is money in it. iHeartMedia isn’t just sitting back and waiting for the green light.
“I know that the company itself is working with legislators to figure out how to make that work,” he told me. “It’s obviously a federal situation right now. The Washington State Broadcasters Association I know is very heavily involved with lobbying for that because it is an opportunity, just like gambling is in other states across the country.”
This got me thinking about a column I wrote late last year about the political force sports radio can be in states where sports gambling is not yet legal. The same can and should be true for marijuana.
Think of all of the categories we are allowed to advertise. Ever heard of passive investment firms? The entire business model is built on convincing customers to bet on people’s homes being foreclosed on. That is ghoulish and yet, there is nothing stopping those firms from buying time on air.
How about gambling? It is considerably more addictive. That is why so many states require any ads for sportsbooks to include information about a gambling helpline. Also, we have clients, in states where sports gambling is not legal, who take money from offshore books. No one says boo.
So why is weed different and what can we do about it?
Well, as Mark Glynn points out, the Washington State Association of Broadcasters is making sure lawmakers are aware of what is at stake financially for the broadcast industry. That is a very good start.
Second, hosts can be casual when discussing marijuana. Eliminating the stigma our older, more socially conservative listeners have around cannabis is really important. The last thing radio needs is a segment of its most dedicated listeners pushing back on this effort.
There is no reason to force marijuana into your programming, but when it comes up, you should be treating it as casually as you do alcohol. After all, it is well-documented how absurd it is that marijuana use was ever a crime.
Go look at the comment section on any ESPN social media post about Brittney Griner. You will see literally dozens of people insinuating that the WNBA star got what she deserved by bringing marijuana into Russia. That sort of reaction to Griner’s story, and ones like it, are the last things we need if we are trying to turn marijuana into the next hot advertising category.
Finally, I think it is important for individual stations to engage lawmakers. Local business leaders, particularly market managers and CEOs of locally-owned stations and clusters need to be out front on this effort. They are the job creators that politicians are always praising. Their voices are the ones that politicians need to hear saying that it is time to eliminate legal restrictions on advertising marijuana.
Invite them into the building. Give them tours. Talk to them about what is at stake.
The most important thing we can do is remind them that local broadcasting’s goal is to reflect and serve its community. If the community has no problem with the weed business, why should there be a problem with the broadcasters taking advertising money?
Attitudes toward marijuana have changed tremendously in the last 15 years. It went from an illicit substance we had to ask around to score to something we put in candy. That means who is using marijuana has changed too.
Listen to any sports talk station over the course of an hour and just count how many ads there are for various Viagra alternatives. The same guys getting those medications through online pharmacies are buying weed gummies for exhaustion and stress relief. Getting high isn’t the exclusive use for marijuana anymore.
Our industry could benefit so much from dispensaries being allowed to advertise. Many of those businesses have the money too and need to find ways to reinvest it. We have to be vocal and we have to make sure the right people hear us. The best way to create a new revenue stream is a united front telling the people in charge why it has to happen.
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.
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.