By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Aside from an admittedly significant asterisk, the Boston Red Sox from 1939 to 1988 (and about one-third of 1989) utilized just three leftfielders – Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice. The fine print, of course, would exclude several years of Williams’ military service in both the second World War and the Korean War.
Trades have always been omnipresent in sports with the biggest superstars not exempt. Consider the long-circulated rumor, for instance, that the Red Sox and Yankees contemplated a Ted Williams-Joe DiMaggio deal. Years earlier, the two rival organizations were involved with the historic transaction that moved the contract of “The Bambino” himself, Babe Ruth, from Beantown.
Owing to free agency though, it is increasingly rare to see ballplayers such as “The Splendid Splinter” Williams, “Yaz,” and Rice (all Hall of Famers) spend their entire career with the same team.
On the flipside, broadcasting is notorious for having talent bounce around from place to place with non-compete clauses, if applicable, the lone – albeit temporary – barrier.
With several more fulltime national sports radio networks on the scene, we have recently witnessed monumental free agent shifts on that level, including Jim Rome and Dan Patrick exiting ESPN to CBS Sports Radio and FOX Sports Radio, respectively.
No Herd feelings
Another major name was added to that list in September 2015 when Colin Cowherd bolted ESPN for FOX Sports Radio. “It has been a fun and easy transition,” the Eastern Washington University alum remarks. “This is just moving from one great company to another. I am doing the exact same thing with a much larger staff, more support, and more promotion. My wife [Ann] and I made a decision a year before I left ESPN that we were going to live somewhere else – preferably California.”
Neither Cowherd nor his wife had roots in New England. Both wanted a warmer climate than that found in ESPN-headquartered Bristol, Connecticut and as Cowherd acknowledges they wanted “to be closer to a big city. I felt as though we had ‘been there/done that’ with central Connecticut.”
Six months before departing ESPN, Cowherd was transparent about the possibility that he would be cutting ties with his Bristol University cohorts. “They treated me very well,” he recounts. “[ESPN senior vice president/production business units] Traug Keller and I kept in constant communication. We were never disingenuous with each other at all. He was very honest and fair with me. So many people had supported me there. I told him from the very beginning because I didn’t want to leave a bad taste in the mouth of management. They had been very nice to me and I consider Traug to be a good friend. I didn’t want to burn bridges and be like [the Baltimore Colts who left for Indianapolis] in the middle of the night.”
Employed by ESPN for well over 10 years, Cowherd fostered numerous friendships there. “I have a great deal of respect for their brand and their mission, but it was just time to move,” he comments. “It got a little political with that company in my last year there and I felt it was time to do something. Many times when you leave a company, there are hard feelings but I don’t have any; hopefully, they don’t, either.”
Culture at the two entities is different with Cowherd opining that ESPN is a bit like the NFL, “It’s all about the shield and the brand. FOX is a leaner company and more like the NBA. They elevate the name on the back of the jersey as much as the front of the jersey.”
Some of that might be attributable to geography as FOX Radio Sports is 3,000 miles away from Bristol in show business mecca Los Angeles. “ESPN is the world’s best factory and everyone is on a conveyor belt,” Cowherd analogizes. On the other hand, “FOX feels a little like a movie set. It’s okay with FOX if you are a big, strong personality. I’ve never once talked about ‘brand’ over here. When I started doing radio at ESPN, my bosses would say that it’s mostly about information. I would push back and say if I am boring but informative, I’m fired. If I am extremely entertaining and pretty informative, you’re giving me a seven-figure contract. The reality is that radio should be more dangerous. It is unedited, ad-libbed, and free-form. There’s a little stand-up, a little ranting, a little painting and you are going to spill a little on the canvas. I think my personality fits the FOX ecosystem a little better than the current ESPN ecosystem, which has gotten much more politically correct in the last several years. ESPN was getting a little too ‘safe’ for my taste. I thought FOX would be the perfect landing spot for me.”
Built for sports radio
From the time he was eight years old, Grayland, Washington native Cowherd envisioned a broadcasting career. “I’m often told that I’m lucky I get to do what I love for a living,” he muses. “I don’t know if it’s luck – this is what I always wanted to do and I aggressively pursued it. I was a very opinionated local sportscaster but I felt I was pigeonholed doing local television. I wanted to do more opinion-based material. I did many commentaries on local television. Thankfully, the sports talk radio industry has grown and there are opportunities for people with strong opinions. I think I was built to do sports talk radio.”
As much as he liked the people in his small hometown, Cowherd always recognized that he’d never stay, since the sportaholic knew there was something else out there for him. “Some people have tough times and can’t dig their way out of them, but they’ve made me better,” he contends. “Every obstacle I had in my life to this point has made me what I am.”
After graduating from college in 1985, Cowherd aspired to become the next Vin Scully. Without a penny in his pocket, he paged himself at a San Diego baseball confab just to get his name out there, lamenting, “I was a nobody from nowhereville.”
Notwithstanding that the odds heavily stacked against him, Cowherd – among a field of 300 applicants – managed to land one of two available opportunities, an all-encompassing position with the Las Vegas Stars, the then AA affiliate of the San Diego Padres. “I was this young kid who went from rural America to showgirls and gambling. I gained a lot of confidence and just kind of found myself.”
Initially placed in sales, Cowherd was also promised that he could do an inning of radio play-by-play. Over the next three years, he talked his way into getting a weekend job at KVBC-TV, Las Vegas, eventually becoming the station’s sports director.
A morning drive spot in 1996 on Paxson Communications’ WZTM, Tampa “820 The Team” gave Cowherd radio exposure and he scored a local Emmy for WTVT-TV, Tampa’s “Buc Sunday.” From there, it was on to Portland. “The argument could be made that I’ve had nothing but breaks,” the five-time Nevada Sportscaster of the Year concedes. “I got my television footing in Las Vegas; radio footing in Tampa; and felt I really grew in Portland. I had success in Portland and was well received by management, the press, and the public.”
Through sheer grit, ambition, and some good fortune, Cowherd – who hosted “The Herd” on Portland sports outlet KFXX-AM “The Fan” and anchored weeknight sports in that Oregon market for KGW-TV – landed at ESPN Radio in late-March 2004. His weekday (10:00 am – 1:00 pm, ET) offering, “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” replaced “The Tony Kornheiser Show.”
Topic selection holds the key
Passion for the industry was easy to detect whenever Cowherd had job interviews, although he declares his “breaks” have come as a result of “meeting quality people.”
Specifically in that context, he cites FOX Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz, who chose Cowherd as the original co-host of ‘SportsNation’ in July 2009, as well as former ESPN president George Bodenheimer. “In addition, I am better served in my life to have Nick Khan as my agent,” he enthuses. “I have had a great opportunity to work with very stellar people. I cannot distill it to one moment, one tape, or one interview. It is an accumulation of working with talented people and that’s the biggest break that anyone can get.”
Produced/distributed under a long-term agreement between FOX Sports and iHeartMedia’s Premiere Networks, FOX Sports Radio has several of its shows – including the daily one Cowherd oversees from 12:00 noon – 3:00 pm (ET) – simulcast on FS1. “If you don’t have a television component with your radio show, you are at a severe disadvantage,” he insists. “[ESPN’s Mike Greenberg & Mike Golic] can attribute television to a great deal of their success. I try to be aware of both audiences, but I know there are times I’ll do something that might not serve those listening on radio as well as it serves the television audience.”
Mondays during the football season constitute the only broadcasts where Cowherd ever feels “boxed-in,” as that is when he senses a requirement to stay on a limited number of topics. “Anyone in political talk radio is interesting the day of – and the day after – the election but I always enjoy the challenge of doing a Tuesday show in August or a Wednesday one in July because those are hard ones to do,” he maintains. “When I walk in, there’s no lead story. My strength as a broadcaster is finding nuggets on a slow day.”
Enjoying the theories of sports, he’s not only fascinated by what happened but why something occurred. “I don’t mind projecting on that and saying this is what’s going to happen or this is what I propose might happen, Cowherd proclaims. “My audience demands that I give football picks on Friday, even though I only hit about 57%. Listeners don’t punish me for being wrong – they punish me by choosing the wrong topics or for not being interesting. I have always thought the keys to this business are topic selection and being interesting, not opinions or being right or wrong.”
Much like singer/songwriters are reluctant in choosing a favorite among their portfolio, Cowherd tries not to place one sport above another, preferring that the audience drive the bus in that area. “They tell me what they love and it is my job to make it compelling,” he assesses. “If I lived in Canada, I would talk more about hockey. If I lived in London, I would talk more about soccer. Here in the United States though, betting elevates passion and we ‘bet football.’”
For that reason, Cowherd does primarily pigskin-geared broadcasts for roughly six solid months, August 15 through February 15. “I never let football get too far away from my talking points,” he explains. “I watch ratings, my downloads, and I read all the articles on what people watch. The audience is telling me what they want. People who go to a fast-food place don’t want a salad – they want [burgers]. I don’t have anything against tennis and I’ll attack a compelling story that happens at Wimbledon, but you are missing the point by talking about the French Open the day of the Michigan-Ohio State game. It’s my job to deliver what the audience tells me it wants. There’s a reason a grocery store has more milk, bread, and eggs than anchovies. Someone else can have a store filled with anchovies – mine has the freshest milk and the best bread and eggs.”
How sports radio should sound
When Cowherd lived in the east, he’d listen to CBS Radio-owned WFAN, New York’s Mike Francesa for his take on a big Yankees story because, “I felt that was his field of expertise. There is a lot of talent out there and I think many hosts have what I consider ‘specialties.’ I am not an expert or sometimes not even that intuitive on what works. I [often] like some people others don’t.
Local sports personalities Mark Madden (3:00 pm – 6:00 pm on iHeartMedia Pittsburgh alternative “105.9 The X”); Dan Dakich (12:00 noon – 3:00 pm on Emmis Indianapolis’ WFNI “Indy’s Sportscenter”); and Jim Traber (“The Afternoon Sports Beat” on Cumulus Media Oklahoma City’s WWLS “98.1 The Sports Animal”) are “staggeringly talented” in Cowherd’s opinion and he suggests, “There are some syndicated hosts who are not as talented. When I seek information, I prefer a very dry delivery on nuts, bolts, and data. Sports radio to me is like music: It’s just the mood I happen to be in at the time. If I really want to get the insight on certain things, I move to certain people.”
Not to minimize teams, but those who can sit behind a microphone and talk by themselves gain Cowherd’s highest admiration. “I don’t need a partner, or to chuckle with my producers all day,” he emphasizes. “Talking to the audience for three or four hours a day is a skill that I’ve tried to hone my entire life. It is significantly harder than tandem radio, which can be really effective. Many people do it very well but I am very happy with the choice I made and I do not want a partner.”
Even so, he is quick to praise “Herdline News” host Kristine Leahy. “I went out of my way to hire her so I could have someone to [offer] a different perspective at times,” he beams of Boston University grad Leahy, whose impressive burgeoning vitae includes NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior”; Entercom Boston sports powerhouse WEEI; two years as a host and in-house team reporter for the Boston Celtics; lead sports anchor for Boston’s WFXT-TV (channel 25); and anchor/reporter duties at Los Angeles’ KCBS-TV (channel 2) and co-owned KCAL-TV (channel 9). “I wanted to have a female voice on the show. When I left ESPN, I had more time than usual to listen to radio and what I heard was a steady stream of male voices. I finally was in a position of power and I thought I might never have this much leverage again. Instead of limping into it, I defiantly said, ‘This is what sports radio should sound like.’ Kristine has an opinion, is well connected, and tremendously resourceful. She adds something real and tangible to the show – I’m very proud of that.”
Although Cowherd does not believe in doing a guest-driven program, he wants guests in his show; he’s not partial to a caller-intensive sports broadcast either. “I have tried to build a show and a brand based on my beliefs, my theories, and certain methodologies,” he states. “I have a certain belief system on why things are and a lot of the things that I talk about in sports have a ‘business’ feel to them. Whenever I speak to young broadcasters, I [urge them] to develop topics without rambling and taking the audience somewhere. There’s a difference between two people talking about sports and [a host] who takes the audience someplace by stating a belief or theory. I am well prepared; come with great enthusiasm; am thoughtful, and I do my homework. If those qualities are important, I think the audience can hear them in my craft.”
Having never bought into the “guy-talk” approach to sports talk radio and calling it “juvenile,” Cowherd succinctly notes, “It never interested me. There is a special skill called ‘restraint.’ No one is ever as funny as they think they are. I try to stay in the meat and potatoes lane.”
Once or twice a day, however, he will have a 60-90-second diversion on a particular personal thought. Mostly though, Cowherd, whose daily FOX program airs on just over 120 radio affiliates including iHeartMedia-owned Los Angeles flagship KLAC “AM 570 LA Sports,” tries to remain “in the fairway without getting in the weeds.”
Extremely contented to own content
Politics is something Cowherd would delve into from time to time during his first few years at ESPN, but nowadays has greatly curtailed that sort of on-air discussion. “Over the last eight to 10 years, I have noticed there is very little room for moderate discourse, he cautions. “No one is in the middle. If I talk about politics, I immediately turn off 50% of the audience. It used to be that someone would listen to the other side, but they won’t now. The country has become more divided, so I don’t think there is any ‘win’ for me to talk about politics.”
Ratings for the AM radio station he was on would be the only thing Cowherd would see 20 years ago. Now, however, he is privy to stats for radio; television; SiriusXM (FOX Sports on SiriusXM channel 83 launched January 20); Facebook; podcasts; digital; and Twitter responses. There were 26.7 million total downloads for Herd podcasts in 2016, while the 24/7 iHeartRadio channel The Herd gets an estimated one million listening hours each month. “Radio is a unique business because I can be fortified in seven or eight different ways for the same, exact content,” he points out. “If you have some business aptitude and you can line up all of this, it can be greatly beneficial.”
Perseverance and a strong work ethic helped in enabling Cowherd to own a certain percentage of his show and website, as well as having a financial say in his podcasts. A partnership between Cowherd, Premiere Networks, and Red Seat Ventures – TheHerdNow.com – debuted last August. “I wanted to own my content the same way Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, and Glenn Beck do with theirs,” he candidly admits. “I didn’t want to be just an employee – I wanted to be an employer with a production company. The difference between what I’m doing and what the people at ESPN are doing is that I have a contract that allows me to own my content. Overwhelmingly, the goal for me has always been to do that. More than anything, that was really the primary reason for the move [from ESPN to FOX].”
Social media is something Cowherd – who considers himself an “opinion” person and not a newsman – is aware of, although he stresses, “I won’t be paralyzed by it because [a large percentage] of my audience is not on it. I try to put out polished, edited pieces on Twitter to make my audience aware of work that has already been done but I don’t use a sledgehammer. I don’t spend a lot of time on it and I almost see it as a utility. You can get yourself in trouble on Twitter, so I use it minimally.”
By the same token though, he places tremendous value on another social media platform. “If there is anything in our business that is undervalued by on-air people – it’s Facebook,” Cowherd strongly underscores. “We are big believers in it and I think Facebook is an elephant compared to the mosquito that is Twitter. My audience is on my podcast; the television simulcast; and iHeartRadio. Out of respect to my audience, I pay attention to what interests them.”
Active, annoying, and unexciting
Following the release of “You HERD Me” in 2013, “Author” was added to Cowherd’s resume; Raw: My 100% Grade-A, Unfiltered, Inside Look at Sports (Gallery Books 2015) was released two years later in October 2015. “Radio is storytelling; television is dynamic; and books are smart,” he reasons. “They are all different and they all have meaning. My books were meant to show another side of me and that I can go far deeper into topics. My books are very much like my radio show [although] sometimes in radio, we just skim the surface a mile wide and an inch deep.”
In addition to working out, and attending sporting events and concerts, Cowherd finds time to travel extensively with his wife; he and Ann spent Christmas in Hawaii. In the next three months, they will be headed to Seattle; Mexico; Jackson Hole (Wyoming); Park City (Utah); and Santa Fe. “I have a pretty robust life and I go on many two- and three-day trips,” the father of two divulges. “As I have gotten older, I have pruned my tree: I have a small core group of friends and family who mean a ton to me. I love my profession and I love my job but I don’t waste a lot of time now.”
Binge movie-watcher/binge book-reader Cowherd will read two books or see three movies in a vacation day. “I just watched M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ and thought it was very well-acted, interesting, and pretty creepy,” he reviews. “I like to be active and don’t enjoy just sitting around. It’s good for me to be busy. I like to reenergize but I’ve never been a ‘week-long vacation’ guy. I can take off from my show on Friday, but by Sunday afternoon, I’m ready to come home. On Monday, I’m ready to talk on the radio again. I really enjoy combing over sports data and the process of prepping for a show. I get great joy not just from the outcome but the process. Everyone loves to win the game but I think managers and coaches love the process of developing the game plan.”
An offspring of whom Cowherd fondly describes as “no-nonsense, commonsense” parents (“I was so lucky to have them – I wouldn’t change my life and my parents for anything”), he downplays himself as being unexciting. “A reality show about my life would be so boring that it would be called ‘Cancelled.’”
Several people have tried to have him change it, but “Colin Cowherd” is indeed his real name and it was the first thing he addressed on his ESPN Radio show nearly 13 years ago. “I’m not a guy who fakes his name or wears a hairpiece. That’s just not my thing. For better or worse, my strength is my honesty. If I’m angry, I sound like it; if I’m giggly, I sound like that, too. I’m that annoying guy who sits next to you on the plane and wants to talk.”
Not on Marconi’s radar
All this week, leading up to Sunday’s New England Patriots-Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl contest, Cowherd is in the host city – Houston – emanating his show from just outside the George R. Brown Convention Center. “Generally, if you give me the better defense, the more experienced roster, and the better coach, I like that,” Cowherd asserts, seemingly leaning toward the Patriots, but he adds, there’s “a certain dynamic” to Atlanta’s offense. “It is so diverse and so fast. I think it’s going to be an all-timer and not a blowout. We will probably head to the fourth quarter with two world-class quarterbacks [New England’s Tom Brady and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan] in a shootout. These two teams will be exchanging blows six minutes into the game – it will be that type of an affair.”
Just one-third (16 months) into his four-year FOX contract, Cowherd quips, “It feels as if I have been here for years. Goals I’ve set for myself are very attainable and the growth is not slowing. George Bodenheimer once told me that he works on having a 10-year plan. I thought that was just remarkable and it sort of changed the way I think. Since that conversation, I have always tried not to be a prisoner of the moment but watch the business and market develop. The natural DNA of a broadcaster is to live in the moment but I am going to keep an open mind and try to be very nimble emotionally – whatever comes, comes.”
Keenly aware of the changing times, a philosophical Cowherd reflects, “I am in a really good place right now, working with remarkable people and that cannot be understated. I think I do thought-provoking sports radio. The greatest strength any of us could have is to continue building relationships and let some things develop. I doubt that when Marconi started this business, he would have predicted Facebook and podcasts. If you love your job and work with people who share your passion, that may not last. I am in that space right now and I feel like the luckiest damn sports broadcaster in the country.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.