Cooperstown, New York is the home of baseball’s immortal legends of the game. A place in which the greats from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth; Tom Seaver to Pedro Martinez; Ted Williams to Jackie Robinson – and more are enshrined. Approximately 1% of all players who have taken the field at the major-league level have been granted membership into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
This is more than just a building; it is a pinnacle of achievement in the game of baseball – and it recognizes more than just former players. Throughout the museum, commissioners, front office staff, coaches and other team and league personnel are honored for the contributions they have made to America’s Pastime, and artifacts from all facets of the game are on display. That, of course, includes within media, and as the means of distribution and content demands have shifted over the years, those working in the profession have adapted to find new and innovative ways to cover the game both on and off of the diamond.
One of those members of the media – Tim Kurkjian – was honored this weekend by receiving the highest honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA): its career excellence award. Kurkjian has worked in the game of baseball for over four decades, developing an affinity for the sport from the time he was a child. But at that time, he never thought he would be reporting about the game across multiple platforms despite having ambitions in journalism.
Kurkjian attended Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, the eponymous education locale named in honor of former Washington Senators starting pitcher Walter Johnson. Fittingly so, the school newspaper was named The Pitch, and Kurkjian contributed to the publication throughout his time there, serving as both a writer and the sports editor. At the time, Kurkjian was a novice in journalism but possessed a deft knowledge about baseball, empowering him to continue to pursue his dream of working within the walls of a ballpark even when times became difficult.
“I was a terrible writer in high school,” Kurkjian said. “After one especially bad story, one of my gym teachers told me: ‘Tim, that might be the worst story I ever read in the school paper. I hope you’re not planning on making this your life’s work.’”
Baseball was the vernacular for Kurkjian as a child, especially with his dad and brothers having played the sport. While he played both baseball and basketball at points in his childhood, he knew that it was unlikely he would ever make it professionally – not because of not possessing enough passion for sports. Instead, he felt he was simply too small, graduating high school at 5-foot-2 and weighing 110 lbs.
Through repetition, persistence and a determination to succeed, Kurkjian eventually made it to the big leagues as a writer – but not after several different stops along the way. Just as basketball legend Michael Jordan was left off of his high school varsity team and Orel Hershiser was cut from both his high school and college baseball teams, Tim Kurkjian experienced plenty of rejection early in his career. In his freshman year at the University of Maryland, he applied to write for the college’s newspaper The Diamondback, and was rejected. The next year, he re-applied and was rejected again. That pattern held for both his junior and senior years of college, leaving Kurkjian no choice but to find an opportunity off of the school campus.
“Instead of showing up every day to say ‘I need to work here,’ I just kind of said, ‘Alright, if you don’t want me, I’ll go and work somewhere else,’” Kurkjian said. “I went to The Montgomery Journal [and] it was critical that I got to write as much as I did.”
“It’s like anything else,” Kurkjian affirmed. “If you want to be a great free throw shooter, you have to shoot a lot of free throws. If you want to be a great shortstop, you’ve got to take a lot of ground balls. If you want to learn how to write, you’ve got to write as much as possible. That’s what The Montgomery Journal gave me was a chance to write, and I took it.”
After graduating college in 1978 with a journalism degree, Kurkjian was resolute in his pursuit of a job in journalism, so much so that he pleaded with management at The Washington Star to be hired by following up with the publication eight times. His final attempt was successful. He was hired to cover high school sports as a freelancer; however, he also answered phones, ran errands late at night and documented game statistics, scores and sports news. Kurkjian did whatever it took to succeed in sports journalism, learning mostly through observation and recurrence.
In January 1981, Kurkjian was brought on as a full-time staff member reporting on sports, an exciting and rewarding moment in his career. By August of that year though, the newspaper had gone out of business and Kurkjian was unemployed. While he was quickly able to pick up another job writing at The Baltimore News-American, that newspaper also folded a mere two months later because of financial shortcomings.
Thankfully for Kurkjian, his former boss at The Washington Star had landed a new job as the sports editor at The Dallas Morning News, and he was able to offer Kurkjian a sports reporting job that eventually transitioned into being the publication’s beat reporter for the Texas Rangers beginning in the 1982 season. In this role, he was replacing Skip Bayless, who had recently switched publications, and began the daily routine of following a team, interviewing its personnel and spending long days at Arlington Stadium and on the road.
Before the 1986 season, Kurkjian moved back to Baltimore, to cover the Baltimore Orioles as a beat writer for The Baltimore Sun, a role he would keep through the 1989 season. Even though the team was not always the most exciting to cover in terms of its success on the field, Kurkjian began evolving into even more of a sought-after talent and continued to enhance his career as a journalist. In fact, from the 1982 season-on, Kurkjian has had the opportunity to cover every World Series game for the outlets by which he was employed.
“It was the greatest job I’ve ever had; it was the hardest job I’ve ever had, and it prepared me for every other job I’ve ever had since then,” Kurkjian said of working as a beat writer. “It was so difficult because you’re away from home all the time, and even when you are home, you’re at the ballpark every night. You’re writing four stories a day; you’re writing on deadline; the pressure is enormous especially with the competition of the other newspapers. Once you do that, I think you can do anything else in this business.”
Following the conclusion of the 1989 Orioles season, Kurkjian was hired by Sports Illustrated (SI) as a baseball writer, continuing to cover the players, coaches and other personalities associated with the game. By 1997, Sports Illustrated and CNN had merged to create a sports news network called “CNN/SI,” and Kurkjian and his colleagues were delivered a message straight from upper management.
“The SI people told the writers, including me: ‘All you guys are on TV now,’” Kurkjian said. “I said: ‘I don’t want to do TV.’ They said: ‘You don’t have a choice – we’re doing TV now.’”
And thus, Kurkjian’s career as a television analyst and reporter began, requiring him to learn on the job how to transition his sports reporting, generally written and edited, into transferable, multi-platform content. One year later, Kurkjian made the move to ESPN to serve as a senior writer and a reporter for Baseball Tonight and expected to finally receive the assistance he was anticipating to learn how to work in television.
“I just assumed when I got to ESPN that they would tell me: ‘Okay, we’re going to teach you how to do television,’” Kurkjian said. “[Instead,] they said: ‘Look, there’s no time. You’re a reporter; you’re a writer; you know how to do this,’ and bang, I was on TV every day.”
Kurkjian credits his time working as a baseball beat writer for allowing him to seamlessly make the transition to television, notably his ability to write on deadline. In that instance, the ability to disclose information in a clear and concise manner, while also continuing to remain precise, accurate and fair, was a challenge he was acutely aware of and ready to take on.
“Get to the point and get out of there,” said Kurkjian. “That’s what TV teaches you – efficiency. But I’ve learned to love TV because it’s so spontaneous. For a newspaper, I’d have to wait until the next morning to see my work; at SI, I’d have to wait a whole week to see my work. Now on television, I can weigh in on a World Series game right now, and there’s something really cool about that.”
Journalists who have risen through the industry prior to significant development in the digital age are almost always finding ways to build their own brand and disseminate their content across multiple platforms, regardless if it is written or spoken. Peter Gammons, who began his career at The Boston Globe before moving to Sports Illustrated and ESPN, was, according to Kurkjian, the first writer to appear as a contributor on television while still writing, a practice that has become common.
“To me, Peter is the greatest baseball writer of all-time, and I can’t even begin to tell you the influence he had on me,” Kurkjian said. “….I’ve kind of followed Peter around – and my thinking there is: ‘There’s no better person to follow around than Peter Gammons.’”
As his time at ESPN continued, Kurkjian hosted a special edition of SportsCenter featuring two other baseball writers, Buster Olney and Jayson Stark, to report the news from the perspective of those who work in the press box. Working with both Olney and Stark, Kurkjian learned how to better dissect box scores and be more deft in searching for interesting statistics or notes about the game. From there, he had the opportunity to work on both Wednesday Night Baseball and Monday Night Baseball, and has contributed to Little League World Series coverage across the network, taking his talents into the broadcast booth and, sometimes, adjacent to the dugout.
“I just love being a part of a baseball broadcast because you’re in on every pitch,” said Kurkjian. “….I just hope I get more and more opportunities to do that. I do games on the radio too, [and] I’ve loved every bit of that because I grew up listening to games on the radio like every other dinky little kid in the ‘60s with a transistor radio to my ear.”
This past Sunday, Kurkjian’s family got to watch him receive the honor of a lifetime when he accepted the 2022 BBWAA Career Excellence Award in Cooperstown, officially cementing his place among the legends of the game. Learning he won the award constituted a moment he would never forget, especially receiving the news from former Cincinnati Reds catcher and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, and the weekend was surely emotional and memorable.
“It’s the greatest achievement of my professional career, and there is not a close second; there will never be a close second,” Kurkjian stated. “This is the greatest honor that a writer can achieve, and to be on the same list with so many great writers over the years from Shirley Povich to Roger Angell to my dear, dear friends Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark, Rick Hummel – all these guys. There are so many days that I just wake up thinking: ‘This can’t be happening to me.’”
As the game of baseball continues to evolve in its presentation and style of play, Kurkjian hopes that fans appreciate the action on the field rather than being distracted by other debates or small details, including sabermetrics and player valuation. The atmosphere of the ballpark and the unpredictability of the action have nurtured Kurkjian’s love of the game for so many years and it has been the catalyst for all of his other endeavors, including authoring three books.
“I think it’s so critical that we never lose sight that the games are all that truly matters,” Kurkjian said. “….Nothing makes me happier than being at the ballpark and watching a game, and now calling a game or writing about a game. It is still why baseball is the greatest – is the games separate themselves.”
For aspiring journalists who look to cement themselves in the sports media industry, showing up and working hard may seem jaded pieces of advice, but their importance truly cannot be overstated enough. The differentiating factor for Kurkjian that comes from his innate proclivity towards baseball is his curiosity to learn more and be scholastic in his reporting. The writing figured itself out in the end and now Kurkjian is immortalized in a village in upstate New York that oozes a passion and love for the game.
“When something happens, ask yourself: ‘What happened there? When’s the last time I saw that? I need to understand that,’” Kurkjian said. “Then, go ask somebody, preferably the manager or a player: ‘What happened on that play? I need to learn about this.’ That’s the most important thing beyond being prepared and working hard – all the clichés – and it’s just [to] be curious. Open up your eyes and open up your ears to what’s going on around you. You’ll learn an awful lot if you keep doing that.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, Derek serves as a production manager, broadcaster, voiceover artist, technical director, audiovisual editor, and media engineer for Hofstra University’s WRHU. He has also worked on New York Islanders radio broadcasts. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @DerekFutterman.
Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different
I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.
Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.
With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?
I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?
Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.
It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.
A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?
Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?
Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.
It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.
Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”
The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.
It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.
Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.
Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.
Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.
One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?
That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide each weekend on FOX Sports Radio. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years
Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.
In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.
It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.
“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”
I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.
The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).
The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.
The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.
I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.
Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.
ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.
The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.
Arky Shea serves as BSM’s evening editor, a daily news writer, and a weekly media columnist. He has previously worked for Outkick, 97.7 The Zone, 740 Sports Radio, and 730 The Ump where he held roles as the station’s program director, afternoon host, and producer. To connect, find Arky on Twitter @ArkyShea.
The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media
Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.
Brady Farkas is a sports radio professional with 5+ years of experience as a Program Director, On-Air Personality, Assistant Program Director and Producer in Burlington, VT and Albany, NY. He’s well versed in content creation, developing ideas to generate ratings and revenue, working in a team environment, and improving and growing digital content thru the use of social media, audio/video, and station websites. His primary goal is to host a daily sports talk program for a company/station that is dedicated to serving sports fans. You can find him on Twitter @WDEVRadioBrady and reach him by email at email@example.com.