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How ESPN Radio Has Evolved

Jason Barrett



Summer is in full swing, but the season of #HotTakes is quickly cooling off.

Colin Cowherd — already with one foot in the Fox Sports life-raft — fell into steaming, shark-infested waters following the type of xenophobic, bigoted comments about Dominicans that were only a couple doors down from Trump-ian levels of boorishness.

Not surprisingly, ESPN brass ensured those words would be Cowherd’s unceremonious swan song at the network, relieving the lightning rod from storm duty in Bristol. The man who carried mid-mornings by himself on ESPN for a dozen years — no small task, it should be noted — vanished in a cumulonimbus of his own neoconservative foolishness.

While the 10–1 a.m. Eastern block will never be the same, and many would argue that’s a good thing, a rich arsenal of talent is waiting in the wings to pounce on the coveted time-slot. More importantly, however, Cowherd’s unceremonious departure is but another in a series a surprising shifts from sports talk’s blustery past to its brilliant future. In fact, the afternoon, evening and weekend cruise directors aboard the Dread Pirate ESPN Radio are more intelligent, nuanced and cultured than ever — a gradual movement that dates back over half a decade.

Which begs the question: Has any of this been by design?

When the Scott Van Pelt Show debuted in 2009, it represented a gentle breeze that stemmed the hot air bloviating from sports radio for over a generation. With silly segments like “Seven Seconds” and “Pulse of the Nation” interspersed between heartfelt interviews and always, always “One Big Thing,” Scott Van Pelt and — after cycling through a couple capable co-pilots before meeting his match — Ryen Russillo perfectly balanced an inclusive, enlightening dialogue with a snarky tone. It helped that in Scott and Ryen, ESPN had the two backward-hat jokesters shooting spitballs in the back of class who also just happened to be secret bookworms who aced every test.

As that show grew in popularity — particularly among the coveted 18–34 demographic that appreciated sabermetrics and Aqua Teen Hunger Force with equal fervor — SVP & Russillo (as the show was renamed) stood in stark contrast to the “rack ‘em” mongols that elevated Jim Rome into the Kublai Khan of the afternoon sports talk “Jungle.”

With the Duke rapping Wu-Tang and Stanford Steve asking “Who’s the Nerd?”, the two developed a din that was effortlessly brilliant and casually profound. Since SVP left the show earlier this year, the chocolate-baritone Russillo, a veteran late-night radio voice, College Gameday air-traffic controller and NBA salary cap-savant, has carried the torch with a deft touch and a workhorse mentality.

And Russillo isn’t the only friendly voice that cut his teeth soundtracking sleepless nights whose star is rapidly rising.

Freddie Coleman has graduated into quite the mainstay at the Four-Letter, a sturdy pundit with a yeoman’s soul and an everyman’s heart who has carved out a sub-genre somewhere approaching “Quiet Storm Sports Talk.” Coleman may be a warm, welcoming overnight host, but he’s no overnight success. He’s spent a dozen years at ESPN refining his hypnotic voice, understated opinions, subtle enthusiasm, and whip-smart takes.

It’s tough to imagine a polar opposite of Coleman being equally likable, but if anyone pulls off the trick, it’s Highly Questionable Dan Le Batard — the converted Miami columnist, DLHQ O.G., and part-time PTI carpet-bomber who is among the most creative, zany and intelligent minds in sports. Le Batard has never written a check with his hurricane-force loudmouth that his mind couldn’t cash or hasn’t been cosigned by damn near every respected mind in the industry. He combines Caddyshack-era Rodney Dangerfield with Moneyball-era Michael Lewis, hosting the wildest, smartest frat party on radio.

And yet, Le Batard’s Highly Questionable co-host and recent Miami transplant Bomani Jones may be the single most emblematic embodiment of the ESPN Radio paradigm shift. Jones, who’s “The Right Time” sizzles from 9–11 p.m. Eastern, famously admits he’s been fired from almost every job he’s ever had. It sure as hell wasn’t for a lack of talent or hard work.

The son of two college professors, with a degree from Clark-Atlanta and two Masters in economics from Claremont and UNC, Jones seems like an unlikely sports radio star … until you listen to him. He’s unflinchingly smart and you get the sense he’d be just as capable of winning a Nobel Prize as an Emmy. A new media savant who tweets with metronomic precision and frequency, Jones lights up the airways with some of the most reasoned, nuanced positions the sports world has to offer. His most profound segments — including some of the most electric commentary on race this side of Ta-Nehisi Coates — hum like an extended EDM buildup before he drops the beat and the mic and the hammer, often leading to viral notoriety for all the right reasons.

And for as bright as Jones’ evening star shines, the recently knighted beacons of ESPN’s Saturday and Sunday sports talk also radiate with Ivy League brilliance.

Alums (and recovering athletes) of Cornell and Duke, respectively, Sarah Spain and Prim Siripipat spit some of the most feverish game the industry. Spain & Prim made its maiden voyage this year and feels like the kind of polished, comfortable conversation that’s always existed and always will. It’s two women — yes, Fellas, women! — dominating the intersection of sports and pop culture with a wine-drinker’s sophistication and a beer-guzzler’s passion.

Following in the footsteps of the criminally under-appreciated Amy Lawrence, ESPN’s move to finally bring two strong female voices to radio together, where they can be judged by the caliber and charisma of their opinions, is a gift from the programming gods. It’s also a giant leap forward from the longstanding tradition of chauvinist executives typecasting women as sideline lawn ornaments. One can only expect (and cheer for) this show being the beginning of an unprecedented run.

Aside from the (perhaps intentionally) vanilla Mike and Mike morning monolith — which generates huge ratings and even larger profit margins — the ESPN Radio empire has been taken over seamlessly, smartly and soulfully by a new generation of on-air talent.

Someday, we might even look back and realize that the Golden Era of Sports Talk began auspiciously with a snarky Sportscenter anchor named Van Pelt, who kicked down the sports radio door and made it safe for smart people — particularly Millennials — without forcing them to turn the dial to NPR.

And with any luck, we will also look back at Colin Cowherd’s ousting as the final nail in the coffin of the who-wants-it-more “Embrace Debate” era — the end of predictable and lazy commentary tropes like “Count the Rings” and exhaustive explorations of the “Character Issues” that only African-American quarterbacks seem to develop.

With Russillo, Coleman, Le Batard, Jones, Spain and Siripipat, the voices of the Mothership’s next generation are reasoned, analytical, inclusive, hip, brilliant and diverse. (Indeed, only Russillo comes out of “White Male” radio host central casting, and even he comes across as atypical in the industry’s formulaic construct.) ESPN Radio is now stocked with fully-formed, eclectic, diverse people, with passions beyond X’s and O’s, and talents beyond seeing who can yell the loudest to prove their point.

Miraculously, what we may be hearing is a complete overhaul of over-the-air sports as we know it. The prophecies foretold may well have been right, after all. The revolution will not be televised. It’ll air on ESPN Radio.

Listen up.

Credit to who originally published this article

Sports Radio News

16.9% of All Sports Radio Listeners Are Streaming

The news comes as Nielsen reported that 11.3% of all radio listenership comes thru a stream, up from 6.9% in May of 2020.



Streaming Radio

According to Nielsen, sports radio stations are the third-most streamed spoken word format, just behind Talk/Personality and News/Talk/Info. The trend is continuing to show that streaming is on the uptick.

The survey found that in May 2022, 16.9% of sports talk radio’s audience tunes in via the station’s online stream. That news comes as Nielson reported that 11.3% of all radio listenership comes thru a stream, up from 6.9% in May of 2020.

Nielsen notes that in the 45 PPM markets they are grabbing data from and the 4,800+ stations that stream in those markets, just 30% of them are encoded. That encoding allows for Nielsen to accurately measure the streams. They used the listener data from 1,500 stations across the U.S., in their latest report, AM/FM Radio Streaming Growth in PPM Markets

The survey also showed that streaming levels differ widely by radio format. Spoken word formats display strong streaming listenership (Talk/Personality: 31.2%, News/Talk/Info: 19.1%, All Sports: 16.9%). In fact, Nielsen found that 1/3 of all AM/FM streaming in PPM markets is to spoken word formats.

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Sports Radio News

New Study Finds Listeners to MLB on Radio Are Willing to Spend

More than one third (34%) of the respondents recently purchased clothing/apparel that features their favorite team… 27% have visited a ballpark in the past year. That compares to only 19% of the average MLB fan base has made an apparel purchase to support their team while just 11% have gone to a game in person in that same time span.



MLB Radio

When it comes to advertiser’s attempting to reach an affluent and engaged audience, sports talk radio might have a whale on their hands. Major League Baseball play-by-play features an audience that has money and has no problems spending it.

In a recent MRI-Simmons study, data shows that consumers who listen to MLB broadcasts on the radio are the perfect audience for sports marketers. According to the analysis, done by Katz Radio Group, nearly two thirds (62%) of those surveyed consider themselves “super fans” of baseball. That number is 58% higher than the average.

Radio Listeners to MLB

Those “super fans” are willing to spend to support their team, as well. More than one third (34%) of the respondents recently purchased clothing/apparel that features their favorite team. Those fans are also far more willing to make the trip to see their team. The study found that 27% have visited a ballpark in the past year. That compares to only 19% of the average MLB fan base has made an apparel purchase to support their team while just 11% have gone to a game in person in that same time span.

The news continues getting better for advertisers. Continued analysis reveals that 66% of listeners are currently employed and have a median household income greater than $106,000.

Listeners to MLB games on the radio are also 34% more likely to place a sports bet and 106% more likely to be a participant in fantasy baseball.

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Sports Radio News

Jeff Dean Signs Off At ESPN Tucson for The Final Time

Dean said on Facebook: “…the years of burning the candle at both ends has taken a dire toll on my health and for the first time in my life, I’m going to put myself and my livelihood first”



Jeff Dean Show

Fans will no longer be able to tune into ESPN Tucson and hear Jeff Dean hosting his show. Friday morning was his last show, according to his Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Jeff Dean Show had been airing from 7-9a MT weekday mornings. Dean took to social media to relay the news and the reason behind him stepping away from the microphone. Dean said on Facebook:

“This morning I signed off from my radio show on ESPN Tucson for the final time. I have been devoting too much of my life and my time to working multiple jobs…the years of burning the candle at both ends has taken a dire toll on my health and for the first time in my life, I’m going to put myself and my livelihood first”

Jeff Dean Facebook

Dean went on to emphasize that he isn’t stepping away from ESPN Tucson, he’s just taking himself off the air. He also added that “gladly, I will be continuing my position as PA announcer of University of Arizona Football and Men’s basketball.”

Dean would also go onto Twitter to add even further context for his self-removal from the ESPN Tucson airwaves. He added, “It’s not a decision I arrived at hastily, as it’s been a 6 month mental grind to make the ultimate decision that had to be made, and I’m not particularly happy about it, but I have to put my health first, we all do, and make sure we’re around long enough to enjoy life”.

Dean had been ESPN Tucson’s morning host since November 2019.

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