Part Two of a Special Feature
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — As sure as 2013 has arrived, personal resolutions have been made, and a plethora of prognostications will bombard us.
Here, however, is something that could actually be a trend this year: Don’t be surprised if clusters with multiple talk stations jettison one of those signals to sports.
Associated with that, we very well might witness a spate of under-performing (primarily talk) outlets transition to sports.
Executives at CBS Radio, Cumulus, Dial Global, and NBC have more than a passing interest in whether sports radio will fully blossom in 2013.
Our special feature series on this subject detailed yesterday’s debut of the CBS Sports Radio Network and its ambitious collaboration on that project with Cumulus.
Altering the radio landscape in the very same context is the Dial Global programmed/distributed NBC Sports Radio Network, which will introduce full weekend programming this Saturday (1-5) and Sunday (1-6); the entire network will bow in its entirety on April 1.
This is how that offering hopes to separate itself from an increasingly competitive environment.
New wave of talent
During an approximately 12-year span commencing in 1997, the programming reins of CBS Radio-owned KLSX, Los Angeles (“The FM Talk Station,” now contemporary hit radio KAMP) were in the hands of Jack Silver, who later became program director of cross-town talk KABC and classic rock KLOS. His exit from those two Cumulus-owned properties this past June (2012) came just as Dial Global was looking for someone to program NBC Sports Radio. “The timing was right, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place,” he remarks. “Talk radio is my specialty and passion. I have done a lot of sports programming throughout my career. Back in the day in Chicago, we had the Bulls and Blackhawks on ‘The Loop’ [WLUP].”
Later in Southern California, Silver carried the Oakland Raiders and USC Trojans on KLSX, and the Dodgers on KABC, so he rightfully proclaims, “I am very familiar with sports programming. This sports talk network works well for me because it combines the two things I like – spoken-word radio, and sports talk.”
Instantly upon beginning his new assignment on August 4, Silver was informed that, in essence, he had four weeks to put on a sports talk station. As far as he was concerned, that was more than sufficient time. “Usually, in the format flips I have done in my career, I get told on Friday that things are being blown up and a new format has to be in-place the following Monday. My boss, [Dial Global executive vice president/general manager] Chris Corcoran, had already gotten the ball rolling in many ways.”
Three sports talk shows – at 7:00 pm, 10:00 pm, and 1:00 am – debuted on September 4. “We also have ‘The Safety Blitz with Rodney Harrison’ on weekends, and 24/7 sports updates,” Silver points out. “That was really Phase One.”
The second segment of the network’s introduction is 48 hours of weekend programming, which will be unveiled this Saturday (January 5), and Sunday (January 6). “The weekday and weekend lineups mirror the network’s mission statement, which is to be a new wave of sports talk,” explains Silver, who is energized about his on-air staff of up-and-comers. “We did not hire the more traditional names. The developmental mindset we have is to find new sports talk talent. CBS Sports Radio has veterans like Jim Rome and Scott Ferrall. We are looking for the next versions of people like that, as well as Dan Patrick and [ESPN Radio morning personalities] ‘Mike [Greenberg] & Mike [Golic].’ We are producing this sports network like a rock station, with in-your-face production. To my ear, it feels like an FM talk station – which is my specialty. It is based on opinions and talk show topics.”
Currently operating NBC Sports Radio under a not yet, caller-driven model, Silver nonetheless remarks with tongue-in-cheek, “We definitely do have a call-in number. Everyone [else in network sports radio] is doing a good job, so I will not disparage them, but Fox Sports Radio is basically a Los Angeles station that is being syndicated. NBC Sports Radio is national – not East Coast-centric or West Coast-centric. We play the hits by finding and doing the big stories of the day.”
Cross-pollination will come from NBC sports contributors such as Rodney Harrison, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya, Hines Ward, Michelle Beadle, and Stan Van Gundy. “We have locked up several others who will appear on the talk shows and on local affiliates,” Silver states. “For example, Rodney can call into the midday guy on our affiliate in Boston, and that will be a home run. Rodney had never done a sports talk show before, but he is big on [NBC-TV's] ‘Football Night in America.’ The DNA that passes between the television side of NBC Sports and the radio side has been really exciting.”
Perhaps NBC Sports Radio’s most well-known current personality is a name familiar to Golf Channel viewers – former ESPN Radio staffer and Mensa International member Erik Kuselias, who is heard 7:00-10:00 pm (Eastern).
Following Kuselias on the startup network’s schedule is “Amani & Eytan” (10:00 pm-1:00 am, Eastern). Those two principals are former NFL wide receiver Amani Toomer from the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, and Eytan Shander, whose sports talk credentials the past seven years include working on Sirius XM’s “Mad Dog” channel. “Pairing those two gives us a youthful vibe,” Silver maintains.
Geography not an issue
Self-described “seasoned veteran” Silver is getting his first taste of network radio programming and he observes that it is a “different pace” from what he has been accustomed to day-to-day at a radio station. For one thing, he has never been in a programming situation where the talent is 3,000 miles away. “We have a New York-based production director as well,” he remarks. “These days with technology though, all of that is fine.”
Master control for NBC Sports Radio is in the former Westwood One – now Dial Global – building in Los Angeles (Culver City). “Erik is out of Stamford, Connecticut and the other two weekday shows originate from New York City,” Silver explains. “The weekend shows will come from Los Angeles, New York City, Dallas, and Nashville.”
A producer by trade, Silver worked with legendary contemporary hit radio morning talent Rick Dees and he has produced, developed, and consulted other morning shows. “In 2013, the role of the program director – as it relates to talk show hosts – can be handled in several different ways,” he comments. “I’ll be flying from Los Angeles to New York four or five times a year, and I have already spent time with our New York and Connecticut crews. I try working with producers and talk show hosts to develop the best shows we can. Make no mistake though, the key to programming a talk station is that you must let the thoroughbreds run. In the case of Erik Kuselias, for example, he is very well-schooled and he does a damn good talk show. He establishes his guests; teases forward; [knows what to do] in a PPM world; and plays the hits.”
Roughly 205 affiliates will take some portion of NBC Sports Radio programming. Configurations include sports updates only; sports updates plus the talk shows; or sports updates, the talk shows, and the weekend programming.
Bloomberg Communications-owned financial news WBBR, New York City – for instance – runs NBC Sports Radio Network updates in morning drive, while Clear Channel outlet KJR-AM in Seattle airs them throughout the day. The network’s Orlando (WHOO) and Tampa (WHBO) affiliates carry the weeknight shows; Boston’s WUFC (formerly WWZN) is taking everything. “My role is to get the best programming on someone’s radio station,” Silver succinctly states. “The cool thing about Dial Global is its strength in affiliate relations. It has many tent pole events for sports talk stations, such as the broadcast rights to the NFL, March Madness, and The Masters.”
The pitch that Silver likes to make is the muscle behind the NBC brand. “I know programmers like using names like ‘The Fan,’ ‘The Score,’ and ‘The Ticket,’ but I think it is stronger when you refer to your station as ‘NBC Sports Radio,’” he emphasizes. “Our affiliates are allowed to use the NBC peacock and the audio chimes signature. Many stations run NFL programming and NBC Sports Radio. Sometimes that causes preemptions, but it is a very good way for us to get these stations to look at our long-form programs and updates.”
Elevated noise level
Whether or not the marketplace can sustain existing entities such as ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio, as well as startups CBS Sports Radio, and NBC Sports Radio will be answered in time. “It seems to me that, eventually, we might see one or two of the networks evolve out or merge,” Silver hypothesizes. “You can only do the best shows you can though in the network radio business. The affiliates then have to take the ball and run with it. NBC sees the value of extending its brand to the radio platform. When NBC Sports Radio can promote ‘Sunday Night Football,’ and ‘The Voice,’ it really is a pretty valuable tool. ESPN runs a clinic on how to intertwine all of its various properties. It helps when everyone is pushing in the same direction.”
An advertiser-friendly environment is one reason that Silver, who has been staffing the network since September, attributes to sports radio’s current surge. “It is very exciting to hire people, rather than to fire them for a change,” he remarks. “This is a great thing for our business because the people who are getting jobs are talk show hosts, producers, screeners, and board operators. It is quite exciting.”
Qualitative data for sports stations is generally impressive with Silver remarking that the format is healthy and saleable because, “With or without big ratings, sports talk and play-by-play attract many big national advertisers. In 2012, advertisers had some problems placing their business in the talk environment. There was a groundswell when Rush Limbaugh had difficulty [surrounding his comments about Sandra Fluke], and there were some additional ‘No Buy Dictates.’”
If offered a preference, Silver would rather see FM facilities affiliate with the NBC Sports Radio network, since there is “obviously more foot traffic” on that band than on AM, but he states, “Sports talk pulls in many people to AM – especially when affiliates have packages such as ‘Sunday Night Football.’ Our clearance people are working on closing stations; AM stations will do just fine.”
One looming challenge is that CBS Radio and Cumulus already have marriages between their stations, while ESPN has its own operated stations – as does Fox Sports through Clear Channel. “We will pitch everyone who is looking for sports programming not associated with those other guys,” Silver promises. “The NBC brand will be able to raise the noise level in their market.”
That, of course, makes one contemplate if Dial Global would consider entering the radio ownership game. “I have never been a futurist, but I would think that would be a very natural thing to happen,” Silver opines. “Comcast owns NBC Universal and it would be advantageous for them to consider that. As the program director of the sports network, I would encourage that to happen and would welcome it with open arms.”
Living in fantasyland
Literally only a handful of sports programmers possess the world-class resume and acumen of Len Weiner, who spent a decade (1993-2003) as the director of programming for ESPN Radio, as well as the assistant general manager of the Bristol, Connecticut-based sports web.
For the past 15 months, Weiner has been Genesis Communications’ vice president of programming and he observes that the sports industry, in general, continues to grow as a “multi, multi” billion-dollar enterprise. “Look at the top personalities in the world and they are sports figures,” remarks Weiner, who oversees six Genesis properties in Tampa Bay and Orlando. “Ten to 12 years ago, fantasy football was nowhere close to what it is today. Everybody is playing fantasy football now. The shelf space for sports is growing, and because of that, more people are paying attention to it.”
Radio networks – such as those with the highly-recognizable NBC, CBS, ESPN, and Fox brands attached to them – and radio companies such as Genesis clearly view it as a way to generate revenue. “It is a format which sometimes has angry people in it,” jokes Weiner. “Unlike in talk radio though, the anger is in such topics as whether a pro football or basketball team should be firing its coach. It is not a matter of life and death. There are opinionated people in it, but it is fun – not that heavy talk radio stuff.”
Two of Genesis’ six radio facilities are sports-formatted – Tampa Bay’s WHBO (“1040 The Team”) and Orlando’s WHOO (“1080 The Team”). “We do have a morning show that is heard in both markets, and we are trying to regionalize that to make it work in both places,” explains Weiner, who for nearly four years programmed ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate. “We try to load it up with as much play-by-play as we can. WHBO and WHOO have NFL play-by-play and we carry Florida State University football and basketball.”
Both Genesis sports operations are aligned with the nascent NBC Sports Radio Network, which could be a head-scratcher for some, given Weiner’s longstanding ESPN Radio ties but he comments, “NBC Sports Radio is new and fresh. It has some very good personalities on it and we saw some different kinds of competitive advantages for us. It allowed us to do some more local programming, and we believe that will help us in these two markets.”
Sports radio’s explosive nature
Recounting his days at the network sports radio level, Weiner declares, “It was a real blast because every show was an afternoon drive show. You were able to focus on the issues and the big stories. Since you were at such a big place, you were able to get all kinds of [big-name guests] on the air. It is great to be able to tap into those resources. The same applies with NBC – as an affiliate, we get to use those letters.”
It is hardly an embellishment to declare that Weiner helped pioneer the network sports radio genre, although he humbly downplays that by commenting, “You invented it as you went along. To this day, we are doing the same thing because we are trying to get to the next level of what sports radio is going to be. It is a lot of fun.”
On-staff at WFAN, New York City 10 days before Jeff Smulyan’s Emmis Broadcasting signed it on as the country’s first all-sports station in July 1987, Weiner broke new ground there too, and he admits he did not know what was – and what was not – going to work. “We tried many things, but basically, it is just about doing good radio,” Weiner emphasizes. “As sports grew, so did sports stations and radio and television sports networks. It is hard to imagine that the NBA Finals sometimes were shown on a tape-delay basis. Now, they are live in primetime and, just like the NFL, they have big, halftime shows. It is a growing form of entertainment and, for the most part, anyone can take part in it. It is almost like following a daily soap opera, and there are many more distribution platforms for it.”
The former program director of Tribune-owned talk WGN and ESPN-owned sports WMVP (both in Chicago) has enjoyed tremendous programming success at the network and local levels. Presently getting caught up in Tampa Bay and Orlando teams, Weiner points out, “The Tampa Bay Rays coming on strong at the end of the year and beating the Yankees for a ‘must-win’ on the final day of the season to make the playoffs was a good national story; here, it was a crazy story. It was the beat and rhythm of the area. When something like that happens, it is just a lot of fun.”
Network programmers can get many sides to a national story. “It is just a completely different focus on how you do it,” Weiner explains. “The network does a great job covering the World Series, but when your team is playing in it, the whole city is involved. Everyone in the city wants to take part in it. That is when ‘casual’ fans become ‘bandwagon’ fans and is how sports radio in a local market can explode.”
Radio relaxes Rodney
World championship “repeats” are rare these days and a “three-peat” is practically an unheard of feat. Tremendous restraint, therefore, should be exercised when hurling around the word “dynasty” in professional sports.
Over the course of a seven-year Super Bowl span (2002 – 2008) though, the New England Patriots represented the American Football Conference in the Big Game four times, emerging with the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2002, 2004, and 2005. Although the team suffered losses in 2008, as well as this past year (2012), it nonetheless made it yet again to Super Sunday.
Without fail, nearly 70,000 rabid fans cram into Gillette Stadium for every Patriots’ home game to support this tremendously successful NFL franchise, and whether in the Super Bowl glory years of the early-2000s or today, anyone entering that Foxboro, Massachusetts facility encounters a sea of jerseys with the number 12, a tribute to future Hall of Fame Quarterback Tom Brady.
Also right up there in visibility is the number 37, proudly/gracefully worn by one of the most wildly-popular Patriots ever, safety Rodney Harrison, who years ago participated in weekly interview segments with Chris Myers of Fox Sports Radio.
Unbeknownst to “#37″ at the time, those appearances would serve to prepare him for his current career. “If you start getting longwinded in radio, there are some dead spots and it just doesn’t feel right,” remarks Harrison, who is part of NBC Sports Radio’s weekend lineup, hosting “Safety Blitz.”
Those 10-minute radio blocks in his playing days allowed him to get across his message. “Jack Silver has been very patient with me as I have transitioned from football to television and now to the radio side,” Harrison comments. “They have been doing many positive things over there, and it has been a lot of fun for me. I am happy to be a part of it.”
After leaving professional football in 2009, Harrison found a home on NBC-TV’s “Football Night in America,” where he and his six other cast members deliver a program packed with interviews and features.
Ironically, a past “Football Night in America” co-host, Tiki Barber,” is part of the newly-launched CBS Sports Radio Network, where he is part of a three-person morning show. “We are trying to cover the entire National Football League in 80 minutes – which is very difficult to do,” states Harrison, who divided his NFL playing career between the Patriots and San Diego Chargers. “I might talk in 20-30 second spurts, whereas in radio, we could have a 10-minute segment to really get into something. We can hash out opinions, break things down, and set it up for the audience. It allows you to become more colorful and express your opinion. Obviously, the biggest difference between television and radio is that radio is much more relaxed. You can be yourself, and have fun with it.”
At the top of the list of those helping to guide Harrison through the conversion to media personality is one of the industry’s authentic shining superstars. “Dan Patrick is terrific because he tells me to think that our conversations are just two guys talking to each other,” Harrison states. “He has taught me about how to be succinct, and straight to the point. You do not have to act like the audience is dumb. He keeps reminding me that I have the experience because I have been on that field.”
It is Harrison’s responsibility to take the audience through what players are feeling and he emphasizes, “Dan has taught me so much over the last few years. The beautiful thing is that we have such a healthy respect for one another. He does not take it personally if I bust his chops every once in a while.”
Often called outspoken for voicing honest opinions, Harrison would frequently be surrounded by many reporters at his Patriots locker.
Injured during his final year with the AFC East team, he received a call from the person who is now his agent. “He said I should be doing television,” Harrison recalls. “Originally, I wondered who this person was and how he got my number, but he eventually hooked me up with NBC-TV for the Super Bowl pre-game coverage. I guess I must have done a decent job, but all of this [media] stuff just kind of happened.”
Part of what Harrison frequently does on radio and television is predicated on a requirement to disagree. “It is sort of like ‘good cop-bad cop,’ and people view me as the ‘bad cop,’” he observes. “It is never what I say is good – it is always, ‘Okay, Rodney said this one negative thing,’ but they will discount anything [positive] I say.”
Several weeks ago, Harrison mentioned that he would not be afraid to have his team go into Atlanta to play the Falcons. “Right after that, everyone in Atlanta is killing me for making that statement,” he chuckles. “No one will ever remember that I am the same person who will say to watch out for a particular team. It is all part of it though, and it does not discourage me. If you are next to someone who is considered to be practically a saint [such as his 'Football Night in America' cohort Tony Dungy], people are going to look at you as being the bad guy.”
In a Super Bowl rematch of four years earlier, the Patriots faced the New York Giants last February (2012), yet not once did media representative Harrison wish he were there as a player in the title contest. “Dan Patrick and I did a segment where we were at Tom Brady’s locker, and I didn’t get butterflies or think about walking through that tunnel,” he emphatically states. “It is very weird because I thought I would feel that way, but I didn’t at all. I was at peace and I knew that I did the right thing by walking away from the game the way that I did. You cannot play this game forever. I knew that after my fifteenth year of being in the NFL, and having been hurt in my last year, I was done with football.”
Although it has been less than four years since Harrison took his leave from the sport, he feels extremely far removed from its workouts and anxiety. “There were concussions, headaches, and aches and pains,” he explains. “I was offered a lot of guaranteed money to play football when I was about to retire, but I still would not consider it. My heart was not in it and I was scared to go back out on the football field. I cringe every week when I watch these games and ask myself how in the heck I played that game for 15 years the way that I did. It is unbelievable that I am still able to walk. I thought I might wind up coaching defensive backs, possibly staying in New England with [Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick, or being the team’s defensive coordinator.”
Fame not the name of the game
Over the course of 15 NFL seasons, Harrison distinguished himself by becoming the first safety ever to register at least 30 interceptions (34) and 30 sacks (30.5) in a career. The Markham, Illinois native boasts two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots (2004 and 2005), and was selected to two Pro Bowls, as well as being named to four All-Pro teams.
Despite those honors and being known as one of the fiercest combatants in the league, such things as gaining entrance to the Hall of Fame do not ever creep into his mind. “I am most proud that I had the chance to speak to a person’s life – I know I made a difference in the locker room,” he states. “A panel of people cannot tell me how good I was – I know what my contributions were outside the field.”
Former teammates have expressed their judgment that Harrison’s value goes much further than his on-field stats. “It is a proud moment for me when I hear them say that I was a class act and that I worked my butt off,” he remarks. “It makes me feel good when they say that I had high expectations, was unselfish, and no one outworked me.”
As proficient as Harrison was at playing football, he was – in his opinion – a better basketball player, and he points out that many of his friends assumed he wound wind up in the NBA. “I was a natural leader and got everyone involved as a point guard,” he explains. “In addition to loving basketball, I am also a huge golf addict. To be honest, I don’t know that much about soccer and I’m still trying to catch onto hockey, but am not quite into it. I enjoy baseball, but more so when it is time for the playoffs and World Series.”
More than 300 children are involved in the youth football program that Harrison has been conducting in Chicago for the past 10 years. “I have four of my own kids [ranging in age from three to 18] and a wife,” points out Harrison, who does many speaking engagements. “I remain positive and stay out of trouble. In the off-season, I work on becoming a better broadcaster and get time to chill with the family. Coaching requires so much of your time, but I want to see my young kids grow.”
Over and above his weekend NBC Sports Radio program that carries his name and “Football Night in America” duties, Harrison is part of “Sports Talk” on NBC-TV’s cable network. “They might have some interest in me doing some other stuff [on the radio network], but with my schedule, I cannot do a full, five-day-a-week radio show,” he stresses. “It requires so much work, especially during the football season. If I try doing a fulltime radio show, much of my energy will be taken away from football.”
NBC Sports Radio Nuggets
• As part of its Phase One debut this past September 4, NBC Sports Radio airs “Updates” at the top and bottom of each hour. Familiar ESPN Radio voice Jon Stashower is handling those duties between 6:00-11:00 am (Eastern) each weekday; Dave Stone and Karen Kay are among other “Update” anchors.
• Approximately 40 affiliates began carrying “The Erik Kuselias Show” (7:00-10:00 pm, Eastern); some 60 stations signed on for “Amani & Eytan” (10:00 pm-1:00 am, Eastern); and about 20 outlets started carrying “The Dan Schwartzman Show” (1:00-5:00 am, Eastern).
• Some 40 affiliates jumped on the network’s initial weekend offering, “Safety Blitz” with former NFL standout safety Rodney Harrison.
• Other NBC Sports Radio weekend programming is being introduced this Saturday and Sunday (January 5 & 6) as the network enters “Phase Two.” In addition to Rodney Harrison, others hosting weekend slots are (the aforementioned) Jon Stashower, Rob Buska, Jim Daniels, Chris Mannix, Anita Marks, Jason Page, Newy Scruggs, Clay Travis, and Brian Webber.
• April 1 will mark the network’s third phase, when it rolls out the complete weekday slate of programming.
Archived at Talkers.com is part one of this special feature, which dealt with CBS Radio’s version of network sports. Read it here. Part three — a full December 2012 sports radio ratings overview — is here.
Reach TALKERS managing editor/west coast bureau chief Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@Talkers.com or (818) 985-0244.