If a song was needed to accurately describe Kevin Graham’s radio career, Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam would be a good place to start. The guy has been all over the place. As the new program director at KNBR in San Francisco, Graham has also held radio gigs in Boston, New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Columbus.
That’s some serious mileage. Suffice to say, Graham loves moving about as much as he loves watching his New York Jets losing.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If his career were a cereal, it wouldn’t be something simple like Frosted Flakes. It would be much more eclectic like Frosted Flakes mixed with Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Kevin Graham is a former on-air guy who hosted three different stints of sports talk shows in Salt Lake City. He was a Utah Jazz pre and postgame host. Graham was a football and basketball play-by-play guy who also broadcasted parades and beauty pageants when he was starting out. Add in the fact he programmed news talk station WBAP in Dallas for five years and you can see why his career is like an epic cereal medley. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Graham provides details about the major lineup change in afternoon drive that was recently made at KNBR. One of the most interesting things Graham reveals is what clicked for him as a programmer that changed his mindset and entire approach to the job. We also chat about what has caused him the most pain in his radio career, involving your star player in big decisions, and living life beyond radio. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?
Kevin Graham: West Virginia is where I was born and raised till about 14. Then right before my freshman year of high school, my parents got transferred to Detroit. I ended up going to high school in the Detroit area, then went to college at Central Michigan University. That’s when the radio world took off from there in all the different markets everywhere I’ve been.
I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be in sports broadcasting just because I played all the sports and was average to below average. Usually, when you’re the smallest and slowest kid on a team, you realize you’re not going to be a pro athlete. [Laughs] That’s when I decided you know what, maybe I can be in broadcasting. The best move that ever happened was my dad getting transferred to Detroit. The school I went to had a radio station, so as a freshman in high school I was in radio. I ended up doing some baseball play-by-play that year and just got hooked on it right then and there. It just took off from there.
BN: What’s been the best and worst part about being all over the country with all the stops you’ve made?
KG: [Laughs] The best part is just the fun of going to new markets. The fun of being a PD for me is working with the talent, the content, the branding, the imaging, the core of what a PD does. To me that’s a blast. All the various markets I’ve done it in.
Most stations that I’ve had to go in, there was a reason they were bringing me in because they weren’t doing as well as they were hoping. Fortunately, I would say all except one, they were in a better spot when I left than they were when I got there, which is cool.
A lot of that goes to the credit of just a lot of talented people. That’s been the fun. Having the impact that you can have on various talents and see what they’ve been able to do and grow.
I look at Detroit, I hired Mike Valenti — who’s number one in that market now for years — straight out of college at Michigan State and paid him not a lot and put him on middays with Terry Foster. Now, 20 years later or whatever it’s been, the guy is dominant. To see that type of stuff, to see the impact you have on people, that’s the best stuff.
The hardest part is just every move — as you’ve probably been around — sucks. It’s just hard to move. It’s taxing for a marriage when you’re moving that much. It’s hard when you have kids. It’s just hard when you move that much. My hope is this will be my last one, but that’s been my hope in a lot of places too. [Laughs]
BN: [Laughs] Hopefully this one comes true, man. The lineup change in afternoon drive, what was that process like for you just getting on board at KNBR and then this mammoth change takes place?
KG: It was a couple of things. First, it was ratings-driven. The ratings of the show had not been up to par with the other shows. We were taking a look at that. A lot of it was just listening and my gut. In the end, I trust my gut.
You hate it. That’s the worst part of the job — and that’s nothing towards Larry [Krueger] and Rod [Brooks], the two guys that we had to replace because they’re both very talented. But for whatever reason when that show was put together, the three-man show which can work in some places, it just wasn’t clicking the way we hoped.
In the meantime, Adam Copeland, who I was listening to regularly on our morning show as kind of a third person there, did a 5 a.m. show, also did fill-ins, Bay Area native, lots of energy, passionate. Talking it over with my general manager and Bruce Gilbert and just going through what we could do, we kept going back to him. Obviously, in that situation it’s hard, you’ve got to get buy-in from a lot of people and you’ve got to figure it out, but in the end we felt, and ultimately my gut felt that it would be a better show. So far, so good.
We’ve only been on I think about a month. Some of it is they just had to get to know each other. You know how it is when you get new shows and new co-hosts and all that. At least they’ve been aware of each other, just never really worked together. One month in, we’re really excited at where we’re headed and how the show is sounding right now, so I’m very hopeful that we’ve got ourselves a pretty good hit there.
Plus, Tom Tolbert’s a star in this market. Again, it’s nothing towards Larry and Rod, but when you have three people, here you’ve got your lightning rod, a guy that’s been in the market for years, a guy that’s been number one multiple times for years including before they made the change. I just felt like you needed to hear more of him.
When you have three people, it’s just harder to do that. Tom being the laid-back personality that he is, wasn’t commanding that he needed more air time. He was a team player, which is exactly what he should be doing. It was a big decision that moving forward we need to hear more of Tom. So far, so good on that.
BN: What’s your approach when involving a star, or not, in a process like that? It’s like NFL teams where some choose to involve their star quarterback with certain decisions, some don’t; what did you prefer to do with Tom Tolbert in your situation?
KG: That goes back to me being an on-air talent, I try to manage how I would like to be treated. I’m very direct and honest, and that’s how I manage people. I try not to be a jerk about it, but hey, here’s what I’m thinking we need to do. What ideas do you have? So in this approach, yeah, I did talk to Tom obviously before pulling the trigger. I felt like he needed to be aware.
To Tom’s credit, he didn’t really want to be aware. [Laughs] He was kind of put in a bad spot and I completely understand that. It’s a tough spot, but there was no way I was going to take our number one star, one of our top lightning rods on the station, and not get his feedback on it because that would be the worst thing, trying to force-feed someone if you don’t have their buy-in in my opinion.
BN: Especially when you’re new. Imagine if you didn’t involve him, made this change and he hated your guts for it.
KG: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt. I was just trying to be transparent and open. Those situations, they suck. I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks leading into it. It’s awful. But I’m paid to do what I feel is best for the brand. The company is trusting me to try to put the best product on the air and I felt like at that time, and with others in our building felt like it was the best time to make that change. I felt like Tom needed to be in the loop on it. If there were any red flags I needed to know that because I wasn’t going to make a change and put somebody in there he wasn’t going to like. That would not work.
BN: One of the challenges during the pandemic was that a lot of your hosts were working remotely. What was that like to start in a brand new market when that was part of the equation?
KG: It was hard. My morning guys were coming in. They had gotten approval and got all the necessary vaxxing and all of that. They were in. I was seeing them often. But everybody else was working remotely.
For me, it was good because John Lund is doing middays with Greg Papa. I’ve worked with John in the past. John was my first producer in Salt Lake City. I’ve actually hired him at other spots. That was easy because he’s somebody I’ve known for years. I was able to connect with him.
The others I just called and tried to get to know them. I just talked to them and made sure I tried to communicate as much as I could. At one point I get here and by the way within a couple of weeks of being here I end up with COVID even though being vaxxed and all that. That was hard because now I’m working remotely from a new city and a new place. So I was dealing with all that as well.
Just tried to communicate as much as possible and tried to adapt. When you’re at a station like this too, it’s not just the on-air you have to deal with, when you’ve got the Giants, the Niners, we have 1050 that carries games like crazy. There’s a lot of moving parts to this thing. Not only did I have to try to learn the market, get to know my hosts, but also try to learn the systems and everything that needed to be done to make sure everything was running smoothly.
BN: I hear this from a lot of on-air guys where maybe they figured something out, it clicked and then it just really changed their whole approach on air. Was there anything like that from a PD standpoint where you finally learned something and then it was just like oh wow, I kind of get it now?
KG: It’s weird to say this, but I think COVID changed a lot of things from my standpoint. For me, I was always a workaholic. I always felt like I had to work harder than everybody else to succeed. I think COVID just kind of slowed things down in a weird way because we were all in different spots and I think you saw how different people reacted to it. Some reacted very favorably to it and other people had a lot of issues with it. I was probably in the middle.
I was kind of trying to figure out how to manage a staff from a distance and had some personal stuff because at the time my dad was not in good health, so COVID allowed me to go work remotely from where they are to help him. I think after all of that and when I was wrapping up BAP and then coming here, for me it just cemented that okay you know what, there’s more to life than just your job 24/7.
Unfortunately — and fortunately — I don’t think I probably would have had the success if I didn’t work as hard as I did and learned as much as I did. Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal. Don’t overreact to that. Calm, figure it out, work it out, try to keep everybody else calm.
It’s weird, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and probably everything finally clicked for me in a comfort zone where I finally said okay, you know what, quit being nervous about the next ratings book, quit being nervous about this and that. Just chill it out, enjoy yourself, be in the moment, take advantage of the perks and fun like going to games and all of that.
I used to skip some of that stuff because I felt like I had to get the imaging written up. I had to do this. I had to do that. Now it’s like you know what, I’ve got enough time in a day to get that type of stuff done and I’ve got a great support staff of people that help. I empower people more than I ever used to. I was more of a control freak, now I feel like I empower people because I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want it to be that if I do end up leaving here whether it’s by my choice or not, I would love to have people here who can step up into my role and take over. That’s how I kind of look at it now.
BN: As a New York Jets fan you’ve felt a good amount of pain over the years. I’m curious what has caused you the most pain in sports radio over the years?
KG: The most pain in sports radio over the years — Nielsen by far. Freaking Nielsen still to this day. We’ve got some blips going on now with meters and — just trying to watch my language — it’s very frustrating to have a system that you’re judged by — and all of us have to live by it, programming, sales, everything — that’s based on such a limited sample.
How you can go one month and be dominant and the next month you lose a couple of people. That happened to me in Dallas. It’s happened to me here. It’s happened to me in Boston. No matter what size market, two people can affect your livelihood in such a negative way. I don’t know the answer. It is what it is as they keep saying, but it’s really frustrating when you’re completely judged on this system.
Now we get real data about our stream, and just recently see that Nielsen is giving us 17,000 cume on our stream but yet Triton is giving us 300,000 cume on our stream. It’s like the 300,000 is real, where Nielsen is still based on the PPM technology. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s the biggest frustration and most likely will be the reason I get the hell out of this industry eventually. [Laughs] Whether I want to or not.
BN: Hey man, I totally get it. As far as your professional future goes, if you were able to write out what the next 10 years of your career look like, what would you want it to be?
KG: If you would’ve asked me that 10 years ago, I could have a map. Right now I don’t know. Right now all the moves I’ve made and all of the things I’ve gone through — and a lot of people have gone through particularly through COVID and everything else — I’m just trying to enjoy myself right now. I’m in such a great spot.
I have a great general manager in Larry Blumhagen who’s a brand new general manager and I was his first PD hire. Bruce Gilbert, Brian Philips, everybody in the Cumulus family, Mary Berner obviously lets us manage on a local basis, which I think is a little rarer than a lot of places these days with the way companies are. I’m just in a really good spot. I’m just going to enjoy this ride.
If I ever choose to move along, I don’t think it’ll be another PD job. If I stay in radio per se, I’d like to think all the various experiences I’ve had, could move up into a more senior-level job where I can impact multiple brands for a company. But if that doesn’t work out there are so many places now that create content. Everybody’s a media company now.
The thing about you and me and a lot of us in radio, we think the only thing we know is radio. Well, we know how to do content. If you can get on a mic and entertain people for four hours, you know what you’re doing. You can do the same thing as a programmer, so I do think we as a radio industry, I think we have the ability to get outside of radio if we want to now with audio being as hot as it is. I do believe that there could be other things that we can do if the time closes. As of now, man, I’m just settling in, enjoying myself, trying to figure out how to afford food here in San Francisco and be okay. [Laughs]
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.