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Mark Chernoff Reflects On Career, Looks Forward to the BSM Summit and Sports Radio’s Future

“It’s not important to speak. It’s important to listen. You get so much out of listening. You find out so much about people.”

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Newsday/Alan Raia

WFAN Program Director Mark Chernoff retired last summer, completing a legendary career spanning over three decades at the forefront of the sports media world.

Throughout his time in the industry, Chernoff worked with prominent on-air talents, including Howard Stern, Steve Somers, Don Imus, Mike Francesca and Christopher Russo, and helped develop the sound of sports radio in New York City and across the country.

Additionally, he played an integral part in helping WFAN find his successor and new program director Spike Eskin, who has brought new voices to the station such as Keith McPherson, Tiki Barber and Brandon Tierney. Despite being retired, Chernoff still follows the industry closely and looks for the next generation of talent set to take the airwaves.

In fact, Chernoff will be attending the 2022 Barrett Sports Media Summit in New York City at the start of next month (March 2-3) in order to continue to keep up with the pulse of radio as a communication medium and as a business, along with reconnecting with friends and colleagues.

At the 2020 Barrett Sports Media Summit, Chernoff was honored by Barrett Media founder and president Jason Barrett with the introduction of a new award, eponymously named the “Mark Chernoff Award,” to commemorate his career in sports radio. The award, given annually at each BSM Summit, is bestowed upon sports radio programmers possessing strong leadership, vision, creativity, success in ratings and multi-platform excellence. Mitch Rosen, program director of Chicago’s 670 The Score, was recognized as its first recipient. BSM president Jason Barrett is expected to announce this year’s recipient in the next week or two.

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media landscape was beginning to lean towards cross-platform integration, specifically within the digital space. The future of radio as a viable communications medium, concurrent with alterations in consumption trends, had indeed been questioned and remains as such to an extent today.

With early March right around the corner amid an unprecedented global pandemic and paradigm shift towards convergence, we felt there was no better time than the present moment to catch up with Mark Chernoff to discuss his career, gather his thoughts on the future of sports radio, and discuss the value of the forthcoming BSM Summit.

PART I: How it all started

Q1: How did you get your start in radio?

Chernoff: I started by working at my college radio station, which was WRSU in New Brunswick – I went to Rutgers. As a little kid, [I] would listen to radio all the time [on] a little transistor radio, if that world still exists, under my pillow. I just loved the idea of getting involved with radio. The first week of school at Rutgers, I went up to the radio station to a meeting and never looked back, basically.

Q2: What led to your transition from being a jock to being a program director?

Chernoff: My first real full-time job was at a little radio station in Sussex County in the Northwest corridor of New Jersey – WNNJ – and the FM station, WIXL. After doing about a year in a part-time role while I was going to graduate school, I took a job with an accounting firm, but that’s not what I wanted to do, so I took a full-time job at the radio station.

I loved being a jock, but people come and go so quickly [at these small radio stations] that within about a year-and-a-half, two different program directors got better jobs and it was kind of like, ‘Okay, you’re next, Mark Chernoff.’ I volunteered; I wanted to be the program director. Lo and behold, I was the program director of an AM/FM combo up in Newton, New Jersey, still on the air – doing a shift every day.

 After Chernoff left WIXL, he took a part-time job at WDHA in Dover, New Jersey, something he called “a step up,” in terms of market size. Once he was hired full time at the station, he became the new program director and went on to serve as morning show host and music director with the PD role simultaneously. After seven-and-a-half years at WDHA, Chernoff got a job at WNEW in New York City, where he made the decision to focus his career towards management in the radio industry.

“I was a decent jock, and I liked being a jock,” said Chernoff, “but I really thought at that point, that was the turning point where I said, ‘I think management’s a better idea.’ I got the job as the music director. I still continued to do fill-in air shifts at WNEW, which was a big deal being in New York radio. When Charlie Kendall, the program director, left, I became the program director. That’s kind of how it evolved from being a jock to at least the programming end of the business.”

PART II: All things sports radio

Q3: How do you evaluate talent on sports radio?

Chernoff: [Sirius XM Vice President of Sports Programming] Eric Spitz and I worked together for many years. He kind of encapsulated the idea [of] the P.O.K.E. theory: Passion, Opinion, Knowledge, and Entertainment. Those were always the things we were looking for in our air talent, and those that had all four of those qualities really wound up being the best people on the air.

I just think that passion was really important because on sports radio, you need to be opinionated. If you’re not opinionated, I don’t believe you’re going to go far, nor have people gone far… It was important that talent had those qualities and that they knew how to entertain people, and particularly were very passionate and opinionated about what they were speaking about, and of course you wanted them to know the facts to go with whatever their opinions were, and how they spoke about topics and stuff like that.

Q4: How do you manage talent on sports radio?

Chernoff: I was pretty lucky at WFAN; I had Mike and the Mad Dog, who were the most unbelievable sports duo that has come about in sports radio. What I was able to discern from them and Don Imus, was how good they were and that my role as the program director was to do what they felt they needed. If they wanted me to help, I would be there to help.

I learned, especially from Howard Stern [at K-Rock], that those talents that are great talents don’t really need to be managed. These people knew what to do, so you didn’t have to fight and argue. We would discuss promotions and things like that because I wanted things done to help the radio station in general. But to me, I wanted to have good relationships with the air staff. I wanted them to know that I was there to be helpful and to work with them on an as-needed basis, but I didn’t want to sit in with hosts at every one of their meetings.

Q5: Was there a difference in your management style for those who are more difficult to work with?

Chernoff: I tried not to look at anybody as being difficult. You just have to manage people to what their style is, not what my style is. I hope most people – if you spoke to them – would say that I was a good manager in that I didn’t want to sit and get into arguments and fights. I didn’t think that was a good thing to do. I didn’t want to be managed like that when I was a jock or a host. I didn’t want to manage like that. If there were issues, then we spoke about them. I was lucky in that most people that worked with the radio station really got it [and] understood what the station was all about.

Q6: How important was it to you to stick to a specific format while on the air?

Chernoff: WFAN was a mature radio station when I got there. Whether it was Steve Somers, Don Imus, Mike and the Mad Dog. I just wanted to make sure that they knew that I was there to support them. There are all these rules – we break at such and such a time, the breaks are this long, make sure you promote things, make sure you give the call letters and so-on and so-forth.

What I also learned [is that] great talent can break the rules. Rule-breakers work. It’s not that I wanted everybody to be like that because sometimes you did want to teach people the rudiments of radio so that they knew how to tease and do some of that other stuff. If they had the innate talent, that was the most important thing to me. You could just hear it when people started.

Q7: What are your thoughts on sports radio hosts talking about topics not pertaining to sports?

Chernoff: At WFAN, we ran through a number of midday shows. We finally really, really clicked when Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts [were put] together and they did middays. [It was the] same thing with Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton doing the morning show – they clicked. With the morning show, and then even now with Evan and Craig, who we put together before I left this past summer, it was ‘Just make sure that everything emanates from the world of sports.

You can move along and talk about other things. But if sports isn’t your ‘bread and butter,’ then I think the expectation of a listener will be, ‘I’m not sure that’s what I want to listen to.’ You’re allowed to go off on tangents, you’re allowed to talk about other stuff, you’re allowed to do lifestyle, but if you don’t heavy up on knowing what’s going on in the world of sports and what ‘Topic A’ is, I think that’s a problem.

Q8: What impact did including regular callers on programming have on the station?

Chernoff: Whether people were right or wrong in what they said, our listeners wanted to be involved with the radio station. We had so many loyal listeners – and I never said [not to] take calls from the regulars – [instead], do take calls from the regulars because they are part of what’s making WFAN WFAN.

We’ve lost some through the years, but people knew who the listeners were. They knew Bruce from Bayside and Bruce from Flushing, and they knew Al from White Plains – so many of these people – Short Al, Doris – I can go through dozens of them – that meant a lot to them.

Q9: How was WFAN involved with the New York-Metropolitan area community?

Chernoff: The station was always involved in the community. Imus got behind the Tomorrow’s Children’s Fund [to help] kids with cancer. He literally, not with his bare hands because he didn’t get out and do the physical work, but the money he raised, and adding to that with Mike and the Mad Dog and their help in the afternoon, they built that whole wing over at… Hackensack University Medical Center… We’ve always been community-minded, which I think is so important for a radio station. There are many causes; we ran public service announcements just about every hour for charities.

Q10: Why do you feel WFAN has such a special connection to New York sports?

Chernoff: For so many years, we had the Mets on the radio station, then it became the Yankees. We had the Jets early on when I was there, and then we had the Jets and Giants, and then just the Giants. We had the Knicks and Rangers, and eventually we had the Devils and the Nets, and even the Islanders for a short while.

So we’ve been very much involved with the teams; we’ve always taken all of those teams to talk about and let our hosts [and callers] talk about them. I think just being wrapped up in New York sports, and again, being 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the station was able to grow and become part of the essence of New York, and those call letters – W-F-A-N – meant an awful lot. In the sports world, people know E-S-P-N; important in TV, and they’ve had radio and still have some radio. I believe that the voice of sports in New York has always been W-F-A-N, [and] that when people think of us, they think of us as the preeminent, predominant sports station as it continues to be after all these years.

PART III: Looking to the future

Q11: What would you like to see happen in the future for all brands to gain a stronger and more accurate measure of their performance?

Chernoff: We’re always going to do surveys. We’re never going to do a census – you can’t measure every single person out there. I know people dispute the accuracy of the numbers, but it’s what’s there. I’m not sure I know how to make it better. You can only survey so many people. I would hope that they would get better results.

I know the complaint always is one or two meters in a week that go awry negatively or even positively, you sometimes say ‘Oh, look at that. We got a 10-share, great! We sound wonderful,’ or ‘Oh, no — we had a two-share this week. We’re awful.’ I never wanted to look at it like that. It was more important about the consistency. Are we doing the right things? You’re at the mercy of the ratings, and I’m not sure that anybody is going to be able to make it better.

Q12: How does the Nielsen portable people meter (PPM) ratings method compare to the diary ratings method?

Chernoff: The [PPM method is] a better way [to measure ratings] than the old diary method because at least it’s people listening to radio whatever their device is at the moment – whether it’s a mobile phone, a smart speaker, computer, laptop, or the actual radio…. In the old diary world, people would get a diary, and then once a week they would try to remember what they listened to over the last week. To me, that was completely inaccurate. I know this system is not perfect; it will never be perfect.

Q13: Do you believe there can be a competitive ratings service to Nielsen?

Chernoff: People have come and gone — whether it was Accuratings way back when; there was Pulse and other things. They all went by the wayside, and Arbitron, now being Nielsen, is what we’ve got, and I think we’re going to have to keep using it.

One of the important things about spoken word and particularly sports is that it was a concept to people. We’ve liked that, and always done what is working for the client. If you get a 10-share or a two-share, but a client says ‘X amount of people came into my place of business, and they love your radio station and they’re buying my cars, buying my product, buying my service,’ then you know you’ve been successful.

Q14: Did WFAN ever consider selling advertising spots to clients based on the ratings alone?

Chernoff: We’ve never really done ‘Let’s just sell the ratings.’ I know many of the media buyers, that’s what they deal with. At WFAN in particular, we’ve had great salespeople who go directly to the clients and discuss with the talent. They endorse products, they get to know the service and the product. We’ve had all these great people who have done that through the years.

When that works for the client, that’s more important than what the ratings are at the moment because the ratings are going to go up and down. You’re at the mercy of a survey; it’s not a census. If there are 10 people in the room, and you get an opinion from one or two of them, but you tell people they’re representing all 10, it may be accurate or it may not be accurate.

Q15: What is the future of cross-platform integration in sports radio?

Chernoff: I think it’s important and I think so many are doing it now. At WFAN obviously, the morning show is being simulcast on CBS Sports Network. For many years, the afternoon show was on the YES Network; we worked with Fox for a while. Carton and Roberts right now are on SNY.

‘I think the TV integration is great; the streaming is extremely important. Some of the shows — Moose and Maggie, for example the last few years — the show was being video-streamed so people had the opportunity to watch it as well as listen. I think all of the elements are really important. It’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, Alexa. Play WFAN,’ so it’s easy to stream on a smart speaker. On your phone, you have your apps and you go right to the app of what you want to listen to. I think the integration is just extremely important. Those that don’t integrate are going to be left behind.

Q16: How does cross-platform integration impact the Nielsen Audio ratings?

Chernoff: Last spring, I did a call with the sales department with the Audacy people. There must have been 45-50 people on the call. I could see all of them and I said, ‘How many of you have radios at home?’ Maybe three or four people raised their hand… It’s not like they didn’t listen, but they had other ways of listening. As long as the measurement can pick up all of those ways, I think that’s important too so people get a real idea.

When Audacy worked with Triton Digital, we were able to see in real time how many people were streaming the radio station. Sometimes you look and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot higher than what we actually see when Nielsen gives us a number.’ Those numbers are important because a client could know that 23,000 people were listening at 2:22 p.m. in the afternoon, or 180,000 people; whatever the number is listening. You can target people. I think that’s what all of the platforms are able to provide. More platforms for stations to show off their products, whether it’s just on the audio side or adding video as well, plus podcasting of shows, nevermind the original ones which is something separate.

PART IV: The return of the BSM Summit

Q17: What do you enjoy most about the Barrett Sports Media Summit?

Chernoff: I’ve missed it. I think it’s a good experience, for one — getting together with other programmers, and trading ideas, trading different thoughts, trading ideas about talents, trading ideas about programming; who’s doing what. People have good ideas. If there’s a good idea out there, it’s not a matter of stealing it, but it’s a matter of ‘Hey, let’s share. I have an idea; you have an idea.’ It’s a good way and a good place to meet people, and also just to find out what’s going on with everybody.

The panels were great. Sometimes you learn stuff, and sometimes you got to see people you haven’t seen and hear what they have to say; how they’re running their stations, what their thoughts are about sports, how they program locally, or mix-in national with local, and there’s a case that can be made in some ways for that as well.

I’m really looking forward to being able to see everybody in-person again. We all hope that the virus doesn’t take a bad turn in the next month so that we can all be together and just hang out, listen to what people have to say, get some new ideas and work on some old ideas and see old friends and make new acquaintances as well, and find out about up-and-coming talent.

Q18: What does it mean to you to be annually recognized with an award in your name at the BSM Summit?

Chernoff: I’m more than flattered. I know when Jason [Barrett] brought it up, I was sort of embarrassed like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ I thought it was very nice. I know I’ve been in radio a long time, but I’m just truly honored and humbled by doing that. Even if there was an award that wasn’t in my name, but it was to honor somebody special every year, I think that’s great. But again, honored and humbled by him wanting to do that. I was just very flattered and it’s truly a nice honor. Sometimes, I scratch my head and I’m like ‘Really, somebody’s naming an award in my name?’ Again, I’m humbled, honored, flattered by it.

PART V: Chernoff’s future and advice to others

Q19: How have you adjusted to life not being inside a radio building each day?

Chernoff: It’s very different. I do hear from people. I’ve had a wonderful time being with family and kids and grandkids, but I can see myself wanting to get back and doing stuff again at some point. I do miss the action of being there, and I certainly miss the people.

To me, working at a radio station is all about the people, and that goes for not just the on-air people, but all of the support staff, all of management, sales, engineering. I just love the action of being there. Kind of retiring from that — it seemed like a good thing, but I think at some point, I would like to be back doing stuff — whether it’s full-time, part-time, project work.

I do get calls from people who ask for my opinion or my advice. I do that and I feel good about being able to help where I can. It’s not paid work; it’s just sometimes — all the acquaintances and friends I’ve made — it’s like ‘Hey, I don’t mind your opinion,’ or ‘I’d like to have your opinion’ I should say. When asked, I’m happy to give.

Q20: What is one piece of advice you have for upcoming programmers?

Chernoff: I say it’s to be a good listener. In life, I think that’s one of the most important things you can do as a human being. It’s not important to speak. It’s important to listen. You get so much out of listening. You find out so much about people.

When I listened to the radio station or radio stations, I tried to listen in two ways. I tried to listen as the program director, and I also tried to listen as a listener. I’d put on a different hat, and I’d be driving around, and if I put on, whether it’s my radio station or another radio station. If I’m listening as a listener, when something sucked or that I didn’t like, I would make a mental note of why and I would go turn to something else. If I’m sitting there trying to critique, that’s different. I want to listen and I want to say what’s good and what’s bad about that.

I think a lot of program directors don’t take the time to listen. They may sit in their office and calculate this and ‘When should we do the break?’ and topics to talk about and stuff like that. Listening to your radio station, and talking to your people every day, just even being friendly. Just talk to them.

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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