There’s a really good chance Bill Riley is doing some reflecting this week. With that reflecting, there’s undoubtedly a lot of smiling as he thinks about the 21-year anniversary of arriving in Salt Lake City.
As the voice of the Utah Utes, Real Salt Lake and the host of The Bill Riley Show on ESPN 700, Riley feels like a native Utahan, which is maybe the nicest compliment you can give to a host that’s not native to the market they work in. The truth is Riley has a midwestern background with career stops that sound like someone closed their eyes, threw darts at a map and moved to wherever each one landed.
Salt Lake City was never in the plans when he graduated from The University of Kansas in 1992, but neither was sports radio. The goal in the beginning was play-by-play and he chased that dream all across the Midwest in the early 90s. After sending out cassette tapes to anyone and everyone in the region, his first gig out of college was in Topeka, KS as an intern at WIBW. He found one of his mentors there in Greg Sharpe, who’s now the voice of Nebraska Football.
“I was just going to take what I got,” said Riley.
In 1992, the sports talk radio format wasn’t exactly in every city across the country and it certainly wasn’t present in the small midwestern towns Riley was finding himself in. So when he left Topeka for Hastings, a small town in Nebraska, it was mostly for the opportunity to do play-by-play at KHAS Radio.
“I did everything there,” Riley said. “Production, sales, DJ shifts, play-by-play, all of it. It was a small AM station and I got up there and realized they hired another guy for the same job. The station fired their longtime sports and play-by-play guy and hired two of us for the price of one. I was making just under 12,000 dollars a year.”
After six months, Riley was off to his next stop in Moberly, Missouri which is located just north of Columbia. KWIX and KRES were a full-service AM and FM station that did everything from farm reports to country music to play-by-play broadcasting for high school and junior college games. Riley didn’t necessarily want or see a future for himself as a music DJ or a guy giving farm reports on the air, but he knew he had to be versatile and do different things if he wanted to call games at night. It was a labor of love.
“I didn’t get paid any extra to do games,” Riley said. “But I moved up from making 12,000 a year to 15,000 a year.”
Riley was in Moberly for around two years and was about ready to move on to another stop. It was March of 1994 and he was in Kansas City for the Big 8 Basketball Tournament. He ran into an old friend that told him he was leaving his radio job in Wichita and mentioned he’d pass Riley’s name along to fill his position. Three months later, Riley was at KNSS Radio in Wichita, the flagship of Wichita State.
That summer was the same year as the MLB strike. At that time, there was nothing going on in Wichita in August. So he teamed with a legendary voice in town to create a unique bit that exploded in popularity.
“Mike Kennedy, who’s still there, he’s the voice of Shockers, was working with me at KNSS,” Riley said. “So we created a play-by-play series with Strat-O-Matic between the Expos and Yankees. We did a mock play-by-play and won a bunch of awards for it.”
The stop in Wichita allowed Riley to call women’s basketball games for Wichita State. But it also introduced him to sports talk radio. KNSS had an hour-long evening sports talk show and he was a part of it. It was new to him, but he loved it.
Six months had gone by and the PD who hired him, Mary Beal, was off to Jacksonville to a news talk station that had just received the rights to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Beal called Riley and said she needed a sports director who could host a show, give sports updates and host pre and post game shows for the Jaguars. At just 25 years old, Riley was leaving the Midwest for an NFL market in Florida. He was now the sports director at WOKV Radio.
“I did it for a year and a half and then the ownership was sold,” Riley said. “The new boss called me in and said, how would you like to start a sports talk radio station? I said, what are you talking about? There was already a sports station in town, but he wanted to start a competitor station.”
WBWL The Ball was born soon after in 1996. 600 AM was the frequency and the group began the new venture into sports talk with advertising that struck a chord with people in town.
“We put up billboards all over town with a giant jockstrap,” laughed Riley. “That got people’s attention. Some people got pissed off.”
The station was seemingly an instant success. Ratings were strong and the locals loved them. Riley was hosting morning drive and also serving as the play-by-play voice for Jacksonville University. Life was good. He was realizing both a dream in calling games, plus his newfound passion for sports talk radio.
But in 2000, Cox Communications bought the radio group. At the time, ratings were great and the station had around 14 full-time employees. But a man by the name of Dick Williams was the new GM and his initial meeting with the employees at the sports radio station was eye-opening.
“He said, Cox Communications doesn’t like sports stations,’ Riley recalled. “We’re looking at each other saying, huh? Then he told us we’d have a chance to prove ourselves.”
Over the course of the next year, the ratings at The Ball continued to be great. But what was once a sales staff of five full-time employees, seemingly dwindled down by the month. It seemed a different sales person was being reassigned to another station in the cluster every month.
The ratings were great, sure, but there was no tangible revenue because there was sometimes just one person selling the station. It gave Cox Communications the excuse to pull the plug. Thirteen employees, including Riley, were out of a job. Suddenly, just like the kid fresh out of KU, he was sending tapes across the country trying to find his next job.
A father of a one-year-old, Riley was scrambling to find his next job. Luckily he knew a man by the name of Dennis Kelly, who was consulting KSO in Salt Lake City. The station was looking for an afternoon sports guy, as well someone who could host coaches shows and pre and post game shows for BYU. Riley found himself in contact with the station about the opening. But at the same time, he was also talking to KMOX in St. Louis, who was looking for a pre and post game host for the Cardinals, as well as other responsibilities.
St Louis made a lot of sense, seeing as he grew up in Kansas City. Plus, KMOX was a big deal. Riley listened to the station growing up and idolized both Jack Buck and Mike Shannon as a kid growing up. Needless to say, St. Louis had a special draw to him. But he couldn’t afford to be picky. He needed his next job in the worst way.
“You know how things work in our business, it was a snail’s pace,” Riley said. “Then KSL offered to fly me out. I had never been to Salt Lake City in my life.”
Riley was given the full-treatment by KSL. By the end of the trip, he had a job offer in hand.
“I’m like, ok, I need a job, it was a really good one and there was a lot of opportunity,” Riley said. “So I accepted. I go to the airport, call the family and they say, ok, time for an adventure.”
But before his flight back home arrives, he gets a call. It’s none other than KMOX in St. Louis.
“They called me and said we’d like to bring you in for an interview,” Riley said. “I said I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m sitting in Salt Lake International Airport and I just accepted a job at KSL. He said, “Wow, we like you a lot but our corporate policy is we have to do in-person interviews.”
“I said I literally just accepted the job an hour and a half ago. If you can offer me the job over the phone I’ll call them back and tell them no. He said, I’d love to do that but I can’t. We’re not allowed to do that. I said, “I never thought I’d have to say this, but I have to turn down KMOX.”
So off to Salt Lake City he went. Little did he know, but 21 years later he’d still be in the mountain town he now calls home. That long and winding journey is probably what he’s reflecting on now. There’s no thoughts on what could have been with St. Louis. It’s more thankful that Salt Lake City happened.
Salt Lake City has been great to him and his family, even during the times where there’s been drama. In 2004, he was hosting BYU pre and post game shows, coaches shows and doing sideline reporting. But Utah was rolling under Urban Meyer, while BYU was faltering under Gary Crowton. It was during that time Riley got a call from the GM of the Clear Channel Group that owned the Utah flagship.
The GM listened to Riley’s show every night on his drive home to Park City and loved his talent. He wanted to hire Riley as the afternoon drive host at a station that was flipping to all sports. There was even a chance this gig could land him the play-by-play voice of Utah, which is what he really wanted. He accepted the job offer that came with a significant pay raise.
“That year, in early October, one week I was doing BYU pre and post game shows and sideline reporting, the very next, I was doing Utah pre and post game, coaches show with Urban Meyer and afternoon drive on their flagship,” said Riley. “If the rivalry wasn’t intense enough, BYU fans, for a long time, had a special kind of disdain for me.”
Salt Lake City has adopted the midwestern transplant as one of their own. They love him as the voice of the Utes for the 14th year, the first and only play-by-play voice of Real Salt Lake and the host of The Bill Riley Show, doing sports radio for the 18th year at what is now ESPN 700.
“I am living my dream as the voice of the Utes, voice of Real Salt Lake and show host at ESPN 700,” Riley said.
Tyler McComas: You’re the longtime voice of Real Salt Lake, but how was the transition to calling that sport, learning the lingo and everything else?
Bill Riley: I watched soccer, U.S. men’s national team, but it’s 2004 and the MLS was only like eight years old. If you didn’t have an MLS team in your market, and they didn’t have a TV deal at the time, I didn’t know the league or the players. I knew terminology because I had played when I was younger but I didn’t know the league.
I was really lucky, because I had a guy named Mike Voss, he’s with ESPN, and he was our director and a guy named Ken Neal was our producer. Ken is probably the best producer in America when it comes to soccer. Those two guys basically held my hand the first year and educated me on the league. They were incredible.
TM: You’ve got so much going on. You call Utah games, Real Salt Lake, have a three-hour show and then on top of all that, you’re a PD. A PD job is full-time all in itself. How do you balance that?
BR: Ideally, in a perfect world, there’s a separate PD. But everything is cost prohibitive and you cut corners where you can and save money where you can. I was named de facto PD of this radio station because they really didn’t have anyone else seventeen years ago. I never had any aspirations of being in management that just means more meetings. But they needed me to do it, so I’ve done it. I’ve got help.
I’ve got a guy that handles the operational side of things, which is nice. One of my producers is one of our ops guys, too. He handles a lot of the nuts and bolts of logs and schedules, I handle most of the meetings, creative and sales staff and promotions. It’s still a lot.
I divvy my day up by getting in at 7:30 in the morning and lay out my ideas, even though you’re always preparing for your show and thinking of guests, as well as production stuff. I do that until 11 when I go on the air. My show is 11-2 and after that’s over I try to fit my PD stuff in.
TM: As the voice of two teams, how do you manage keeping your talk show audience entertained and informed, but also keeping the relationships strong with both Utah and Real Salt Lake?
BR: It’s a walk that you have to learn over time. I’m not going to say there hasn’t been a time I’ve gotten a phone call from a coach or an AD saying, hey, this or that. The good news is, the folks I’ve worked with at Utah, they get it. They love having their play-by-play guy on for three hours a day, because I talk a lot about Utah. You learn to walk the line with what you can and can’t say.
Because as a play-by-play guy you’re privy to a lot of information that normal people aren’t. My listeners know and understand there’s things I won’t touch. Not that I won’t talk about it, but the thing I’ve always said is, you can be critical, just don’t be personal. Especially when dealing with collegiate athletes.
I’m not a hot take guy. I try to come up with creative talking points and discussion points and go from there. But I’m not a hot take guy. Sports talk radio listeners are a lot smarter than they’ve ever been before. Back in the day, we could say, hey, phone lines are open, let’s talk.
You can be lazy that way, but today, you have to give the listener a reason to want to engage. I don’t take as many phone calls, because I don’t think people like to call as much. I use my text line. And the good part about it, even if you have a really good producer screening calls, dummies still get through. On the text line, you can pick and choose. People will engage if you throw the right line in the water.
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.