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A Toast To Thirty Years of Sports Talk Radio

Jason Barrett

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Thirty years is a long time. During the span of three decades much can change. That’s never been more evident than when we analyze the current state of the sports talk radio format.

But before we peak under the hood of where sports radio has been and is heading, let’s have fun first by turning back the clock to 1987.

If you’re middle aged or a seasoned veteran then you should remember that thirty years ago Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers knocked off Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics to win the NBA title. Gas at that time cost just .96 cents per gallon, the nation’s top film was Dragnet, and the #1 song on the Billboard music charts was Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

It was a year when President Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, Vanna White showed us more than just a few vowels in Playboy Magazine, and Eddie Murphy dominated the world of comedy. We played witness to Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant, teenage boys obsessed over knocking out Mike Tyson on Nintendo, the Bangles walked like Egyptians, Gangsta Rap opened our eyes to the harsh realities of life in the inner cities, and wearing denim jackets and acid jeans were universally accepted.

But wait there’s more.

1987 also marked the year that The Simpsons, Married with Children and Full House debuted on television, MTV actually played music, the internet, cell phones and social media didn’t exist, and people relied on newspapers, television and radio for information and opinion.

What a difference three decades makes.

When you think about history, it’s common to place a greater value on what you experienced in your younger years and reject the present. The emotions we feel from our youth remind us of a simpler time, and as we struggle to keep up with the fast paced world we now live and operate in, it can become difficult to survive, let alone thrive.

But as much as things change, there’s one thing which has remained the same – WFAN has been and continues to be the top rated sports radio brand in the nation’s #1 media market, New York City.

It was on Saturday July 1, 1987 that America was introduced to full-time sports talk radio. There had been stations previously that aired programs dedicated to sports, but none that had given a 24/7 commitment to featuring sports talk.

WFAN was the brainchild of Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan. It was his willingness to take a giant risk that enabled the format to become part of our American culture. When WFAN launched on 1050AM in 1987, it didn’t get off to a hot start. In fact, the brand underperformed for quite some time. Ratings were stagnant, revenues were down, and patience was wearing thin.

“It was a huge failure the first year,” former WFAN General Manager Joel Hollander told Grantland in 2012. “Nine months in, everybody was ready to throw in the towel.”

It wasn’t until Emmis purchased a group of stations from NBC in 1988 that things started to change. It began with WFAN being moved to 660AM at 5:30pm on October 9th. The New York Mets were playing a playoff game that night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. That forced local fans to switch the dial to hear the game.

The next morning, Don Imus would debut in morning drive on the station. Imus had been hosting mornings on NBC and as a result of the sale, Emmis inherited all of the NBC talent contracts.

That move alone allowed Emmis to add a huge personality to the radio station in a key daypart. Imus brought immediate credibility and familiarity, and gave the brand an entry point for conversations with advertisers and listeners. By solidifying mornings with a big name who had established himself as a top performer in the city, it gave the station an opportunity to focus on solidifying the rest of the lineup and create a powerful brand.

Next came the creation of the most dominant sports talk show in the format’s history, Mike and the Mad Dog.

Pete Franklin was hosting afternoons on WFAN, but a heart attack delayed his start, and his aggressive style and lack of connection to the big apple, made him a tough pill to swallow for local fans. Executives weren’t thrilled with him either. But if a big name like Franklin wasn’t the solution, who was?

Depending on who you ask, many claim to be responsible for two lesser known commodities, Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, being given serious consideration for afternoons. New York Post media critic Phil Mushnick kept their names alive in print, program director Mark Mason raised the possibility behind closed doors, and Imus himself gave a glowing endorsement to Smulyan.

“We liked Mike Francesa, I thought he was great, and I liked Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, I thought he was fabulous,” Imus told Grantland.”

“Imus said, you’ve got to listen to this guy Russo, he sounds like Donald Duck on steroids,” added Smulyan.

Soon thereafter management was ready to shake things up and the wheels were set in motion for Mike and the Mad Dog to take the reigns in afternoon drive.

As excited as many were internally to rid themselves of Franklin and feature two New York voices in afternoons, the friction Francesa and Russo provided off the air was a problem. The two men were very different from one another, and had different visions for their careers. While it made for a great on-air mixture, it also created tension behind the scenes. Trust was lacking, respect wasn’t shared, and an inability to co-exist at times made many wonder if the combination would last.

“It was like being a kid and just knowing that your mom and dad hated each other,” WFAN producer Ed Scozzare told Grantland.

Despite the internal chaos, the duo were onto something special. When the spring ratings came out in 1989, less than a year of being on the air together, Mike and the Mad Dog had soared to #1 with Men 25-54.

For those of us who currently work in sports media or have done so previously or hope to in the future, Mike and Chris’ place in history is well documented. I could go deeper into their story but I’m sure ESPN’s 30 for 30 on July 13th will supply a much deeper look than I can supply in this piece.

However, what I do want to draw attention to is the impact WFAN has had on our entire industry and what it means for the next few decades. One piece I highly recommend reading if you want to know more about the early days of The FAN is the article Grantland produced in 2012. I used a few quotes from it earlier in this column and it’s a very thorough piece which includes feedback from many of the key players who were involved in the early days of the radio station.

Ratings success aside, when you turn on a local CBS sports radio station today it’s common to hear many similarities in the way they operate to how The FAN presents their programming in New York. Whether it’s WIP, WQAM, 92.3 The Fan or Sports Radio 610 or the CBS Sports Radio Network, you’ll find many use jingle packages instead of individually voiced liners over music. Those liners often feature the same powerhouse voice, Paul Turner, and the music which leads shows back into segments often has a rock vibe. Additionally, the stations rely on live or produced liners to promote station games, events and benefits instead of featuring produced :30-:60 promos.

You’ll also discover that most CBS sports stations implement updates from local anchors two to three times per hour. The stations also feature a plethora of play by play partnerships, which has been critical for generating large local cume, ratings and revenue.

Perhaps the biggest similarity though is the heavy influx of callers each station takes in its local market. WFAN was built on giving local fans a voice, and that’s instantly detectable when you hear how frequently CBS radio hosts engage with local listeners. They’re also a lot looser with their content flow than other operators.

When you add up all of those elements, they’re a part of WFAN’s secret sauce. They’ve gone on to shared that successful recipe with many of the company’s brands in various local  markets, and while the formula has certainly produced great results, we’ve also learned over the past three decades that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

It was initially considered sacrilegious to operate a sports radio brand differently. But now many have blazed their own trails. Some brands prefer to steer clear of callers and interact through texts and tweets. Others have either decreased or permanently eliminated sports updates, emphasized stronger production values, and built programs around as many as five on-air personalities.

What I find fascinating is that everything we’ve learned and been introduced to over the past three decades, which has influenced the expansion of the format, isn’t guaranteed to make us successful over the next three decades. We’ve been fortunate to have amazing talent occupy our airwaves and build strong relationships with local audiences and advertisers for lengthy periods of time. However, many of those hall of fame personalities are now riding off into the sunset. That requires a new wave of hosts to emerge and tackle the challenge of sustaining and advancing the sports talk format into the future.

In pro sports, we’ve become accustomed to watching players fulfill a career and then sign off while a new crop of stars comes along to carry on the tradition. But in sports radio, we haven’t had to worry about those situations too often. A large number of successful sports stations have enjoyed the benefit of featuring the same lineup or personalities for the better part of two decades. As those hosts continue to exit, it leaves listeners, advertisers and colleagues wondering if the brand will remain as important and successful in the future.

Fortunately there have been many instances of shows continuing on without missing a beat. Kirk and Callahan in Boston, Bernstein and Goff in Chicago, and Boomer and Carton in New York are a few that immediately come to mind. You can probably add Mike Francesa going solo after Chris Russo and Tom Tolbert continuing on after Ralph “The Razor” Barbieri to that list as well.

But as we sit here celebrating three decades of excellence for WFAN and the rise of the sports talk radio format, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the next thirty years offers no guarantees.

What happens when the people our audiences have become accustomed to hearing aren’t there anymore? Will they accept new voices? Will those voices be given a long enough leash by their companies to enjoy success? Will we still feature 3-4 hour shows or shorter programs aimed at a public which has more options, increased distractions and less availability?

Then there are the connection questions. If people are using the phone less in life to talk to one another, how does that affect the way they interact with our programs? Does social media continue to rise and become the preferred method of communication? Does texting? Or does something else come along that isn’t presently available?

Next we have measurement and business issues to address. Does sports radio continue to tout its success by using its performance under the Men 25-54 umbrella? Or do we modify the format’s demo? Do ratings continue to matter to advertisers or does the existing model get put out to pasture? How do we combat the challenge of shrinking our commercial inventory yet remain profitable? Will the public pay for great content or continue to listen to whatever is free and easy to locate?

I also wonder about the growth of our population, and how that will impact the way we present our lineups. Given the way the world is changing, I think it’s a safer bet that we’ll see more individuals from different races and genders appear on our brands in the future. I also think we’ll see similar progress behind the scenes in station management.

Maybe the biggest question to answer though is how does the inside of a vehicle and the emergence of voice activated and on-demand technology change the way we reach audiences and satisfy advertisers? In years past we competed primarily against local radio stations, but as the dashboard evolves and devices like Alexa, Google Home and Apple Air Play catch on, how will that affect our recall, relevance and ratings? Will podcasting become a platform that generates significant revenue or is it a great benefit for consumers that shrinks the demand for our on-air product?

And that leads me to my final point.

How do those changes register long-term with professional sports teams? Sports radio depends heavily on local play by play for cume, ratings, and advertising solutions. If the dashboard though didn’t feature the AM/FM band and drivers began to install their favorite apps or use voice technology to listen to anything they wanted, couldn’t teams eliminate the middle-man (the radio station) and offer the broadcast themselves?

The downside to that move is that teams would immediately lose substantial rights fees. The other challenge is that radio provides a free broadcast. But, if there was enough of an appetite from the public to purchase a play by play audio package from the team through its app or website, that could change the conversation.

Some of these challenges aren’t on our radar right now, and may never become problems for us to solve over the next thirty years. But I think it’s fair to expect that a few will become a part of our reality. Some maybe even sooner rather than later.

Before we start worrying though and game planning for the next set of difficulties, let’s take a minute to celebrate where we’ve been and appreciate the progress that’s been made.

The sports radio format now features hundreds of stations across the nation, and gives thousands of people an opportunity to make a living doing something they truly love. We owe a debt of gratitude to WFAN, its executives and employees, and every single listener who spent time listening because they helped pave the way and validate the belief that full-time sports talk radio could be successful.

The future will require us to evolve. Some will embrace change, others will reject it and long for the past. But regardless of what transpires, we should all welcome those conversations. If a group of executives in New York didn’t roll the dice and stay the course on an idea that produced no immediate return on investment, we wouldn’t be in a position to face these issues and debate the best path forward for the format. And now that’s something I can raise a glass and drink to.

Barrett Blogs

BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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Barrett Blogs

Mina Kimes, Bruce Gilbert, Mitch Rosen, and Stacey Kauffman Join the 2023 BSM Summit

“By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference.”

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit is returning to Los Angeles on March 21-22, 2023, live from the Founders Club at the Galen Center at the campus of the University of Southern California. Information on tickets and hotel rooms can be found at BSMSummit.com.

We’ve previously announced sixteen participants for our upcoming show, and I’m excited today to confirm the additions of four more more smart, successful professionals to be part of the event. Before I do that, I’d like to thank The Volume for signing on as our Badge sponsor, the Motor Racing Network for securing the gift bag sponsorship, and Bonneville International for coming on board as a Session sponsor. We do have some opportunities available but things are moving fast this year, so if you’re interested in being involved, email Stephanie Eads at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

Now let’s talk about a few of the speaker additions for the show.

First, I am thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Mina Kimes to the Summit for her first appearance. Mina and I had the pleasure recently of connecting on a podcast (go listen to it) and I’ve been a fan of her work for years. Her intellect, wit, football acumen, and likeability have served her well on television, podcasts, and in print. She’s excelled as an analyst on NFL Live and Rams preseason football games, as a former host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and her appearances on Around The Horn and previously on Highly Questionable and the Dan Le Batard Show were always entertaining. I’m looking forward to having Mina join FS1’s Joy Taylor and ESPN LA 710 PD Amanda Brown for an insightful conversation about the industry.

Next is another newcomer. I’m looking forward to having Audacy San Francisco and Sacramento Regional Vice President Stacey Kauffman in the building for our 2023 show. In addition to overseeing a number of music brands, Stacey also oversees a dominant news/talk outlet, and two sports radio brands. Among them are my former station 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and ESPN 1320 in Sacramento. I’m looking forward to having her participate in our GM panel with Good Karma’s Sam Pines, iHeart’s Don Martin, and led by Bonneville’s Executive Vice President Scott Sutherland.

From there, it’s time to welcome back two of the sharpest sports radio minds in the business. Bruce Gilbert is the SVP of Sports for Westwood One and Cumulus Media. He’s seen and done it all on the local and national level and anytime he’s in the room to share his programming knowledge with attendees, everyone leaves the room smarter. I’m anticipating another great conversation on the state of sports radio, which FOX Sports Radio VP of programming Scott Shapiro will be a part of.

Another student of the game and one of the top programmers in the format today is 670 The Score in Chicago PD, Mitch Rosen. The former Mark Chernoff Award recipient and recently appointed VP of the BetQL Network juggles managing a top 3 market sports brand while being charged with moving an emerging sports betting network forward. Count on Mr. Rosen to offer his insights and opinions during another of our branding and programming discussions.

By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference. My focus now is on finalizing our business and digital sessions, research, tech and sports betting panels, securing our locations and sponsorships for the After Party and Kickoff Party, plus working out the details for a few high-profile executive appearances and a couple of surprises.

For those looking to attend and save a few dollars on tickets, we’ll be holding a special Black Friday Sale this Friday November 25th. Just log on to BSMSummit.com that day to save $50 on individual tickets. In addition, thanks to the generosity of voice talent extraordinaire Steve Kamer, we’ll be giving away 10 tickets leading up to the conference. Stay tuned for details on the giveaway in the months ahead.

Still to come is an announcement about our special ticket rate for college students looking to attend the show and learn. We also do an annual contest for college kids to attend the event for free which I’m hoping to have ready in the next few weeks. It’s also likely we’ll give away a few tickets to industry professionals leading up to Christmas, so keep an eye out.

If you work in the sports media industry and value making connections, celebrating those who create an impact, and learning about the business from folks who have experienced success, failure, and everything in between, the Summit is worth your time. I’m excited to have Mina, Bruce, Mitch and Stacey join us for the show, and look forward to spending a few days with the industry’s best and brightest this March! Hope to see you there.

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Barrett Blogs

Barrett Media is Making Changes To Better Serve Our Sports and News Media Readers

“We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future.”

Jason Barrett

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When I launched this website all I wanted to do was share news, insight and stories about broadcasters and brands. My love, passion and respect for this business is strong, and I know many of you reading this feel similar. I spent two great decades in radio watching how little attention was paid to those who played a big part in their audiences lives. The occasional clickbait story and contract drama would find their way into the newspapers but rarely did you learn about the twists and turns of a broadcaster’s career, their approach to content or the tactics and strategies needed to succeed in the industry. When personal reasons led me home to NY in 2015, I decided I was going to try my best to change that.

Since launching this brand, we’ve done a good job informing and entertaining media industry professionals, while also helping consulting clients and advertising partners improve their businesses. We’ve earned respect from the industry’s top stars, programming minds and mainstream media outlets, growing traffic from 50K per month to 500K and monthly social impressions from a few thousand to a few million. Along the way we’ve added conferences, rankings, podcasts, a member directory, and as I’ve said before, this is the best and most important work I’ve ever done, and I’m not interested in doing anything else.

If I’ve learned anything over seven years of operating a digital content company it’s that you need skill, strategy, passion, differentiating content, and good people to create impact. You also need luck, support, curiosity and an understanding of when to double down, cut bait or pivot. It’s why I added Stephanie Eads as our Director of Sales and hired additional editors, columnists and features reporters earlier this year. To run a brand like ours properly, time and investment are needed. We’ve consistently grown and continue to invest in our future, and it’s my hope that more groups will recognize the value we provide, and give greater consideration to marketing with us in the future.

But with growth comes challenges. Sometimes you can have the right idea but bad timing. I learned that when we launched Barrett News Media.

We introduced BNM in September 2020, two months before the election when emotions were high and COVID was a daily discussion. I wasn’t comfortable then of blending BNM and BSM content because I knew we’d built a trusted sports media resource, and I didn’t want to shrink one audience while trying to grow another. Given how personal the election and COVID became for folks, I knew the content mix would look and feel awkward on our site.

So we made the decision to start BNM with its own website. We ran the two brands independently and had the right plan of attack, but discovered that our timing wasn’t great.

The first nine months readership was light, which I expected since we were new and trying to build an audience from scratch. I believed in the long-term mission, which was why I stuck with it through all of the growing pains, but I also felt a responsibility to make sure our BNM writing team and the advertising partners we forged relationships with were being seen by as many people as possible. We continued with the original plan until May 2021 when after a number of back and forth debates, I finally agreed to merge the two sites. I figured if WFAN could thrive with Imus in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog in the afternoon, and the NY Times, LA Times, KOA, KMOX and numerous other newspaper and radio brands could find a way to blend sports and news/talk, then so could we.

And it worked.

We dove in and started to showcase both formats, building social channels and groups for each, growing newsletter databases, and with the addition of a few top notch writers, BNM began making bigger strides. Now featured under the BSM roof, the site looked bigger, the supply of daily content became massive, and our people were enjoying the increased attention.

Except now we had other issues. Too many stories meant many weren’t being read and more mistakes were slipping through the cracks. None of our crew strive to misspell a word or write a sloppy headline but when the staff and workload doubles and you’re trying to focus on two different formats, things can get missed. Hey, we’re all human.

Then a few other things happened that forced a larger discussion with my editors.

First, I thought about how much original material we were creating for BSM from our podcast network, Summit, Countdown to Coverage series, Meet the Market Managers, BSM Top 20, and began to ask myself ‘if we’re doing all of this for sports readers, what does that tell folks who read us for news?’ We then ran a survey to learn what people valued about our brand and though most of the feedback was excellent, I saw how strong the response was to our sports content, and how news had grown but felt second fiddle to those offering feedback.

Then, Andy Bloom wrote an interesting column explaining why radio hosts would be wise to stop talking about Donald Trump. It was the type of piece that should’ve been front and center on a news site all day but with 3 featured slots on the site and 7 original columns coming in that day, they couldn’t all be highlighted the way they sometimes should be. We’re actually going through that again today. That said, Andy’s column cut through. A few sports media folks didn’t like seeing it on the site, which wasn’t a surprise since Trump is a polarizing personality, but the content resonated well with the news/talk crowd.

National talk radio host Mike Gallagher was among the folks to see Andy’s piece, and he spent time on his show talking about the column. Mike’s segment was excellent, and when he referenced the article, he did the professional thing and credited our website – Barrett SPORTS Media. I was appreciative of Mike spending time on his program discussing our content but it was a reminder that we had news living under a sports roof and it deserved better than that.

I then read some of Pete Mundo, Doug Pucci and Rick Schultz’s columns and Jim Cryns’ features on Chris Ruddy, Phil Boyce, and David Santrella, and knew we were doing a lot of quality work but each time we produced stories, folks were reminded that it lived on a SPORTS site. I met a few folks who valued the site, recognized the increased focus we put on our news/talk coverage, and hoped we had plans to do more. Jim also received feedback along the lines of “good to see you guys finally in the news space, hope there’s more to come.”

Wanting to better understand our opportunities and challenges, I reviewed our workflow, looked at which content was hitting and missing the mark, thought about the increased relationships we’d worked hard to develop, and the short-term and long-term goals for BNM. I knew it was time to choose a path. Did I want to think short-term and keep everything under one roof to protect our current traffic and avoid disrupting people or was it smarter to look at the big picture and create a destination where news/talk media content could be prioritized rather than treated as BSM’s step-child?

Though I spent most of my career in sports media and established BSM first, it’s important to me to serve the news/talk media industry our very best. I want every news/talk executive, host, programmer, market manager, agent, producer, seller and advertiser to know this format matters to us. Hopefully you’ve seen that in the content we’ve created over the past two years. My goal is to deliver for news media professionals what we have for sports media folks and though that may be a tall order, we’re going to bust our asses to make it happen. To prove that this isn’t just lip service, here’s what we’re going to do.

Starting next Monday November 28th, we are relaunching BarrettNewsMedia.com. ALL new content produced by the BNM writing team will be available daily under that URL. For the first 70-days we will display news media columns from our BNM writers on both sites and support them with promotion across both of our brands social channels. The goal is to have the two sites running independent of each other by February 6, 2023.

Also starting on Monday November 28th, we will begin distributing the BNM Rundown newsletter 5 days per week. We’ve been sending out the Rundown every M-W-F since October 2021, but the time has come for us to send it out daily. With increased distribution comes two small adjustments. We will reduce our daily story count from 10 to 8 and make it a goal to deliver it to your inbox each day by 3pm ET. If you haven’t signed up to receive the Rundown, please do. You can click here to register. Be sure to scroll down past the 8@8 area.

Additionally, Barrett News Media is going to release its first edition of the BNM Top 20 of 2022. This will come out December 12-16 and 19-20. The category winners will be decided by more than 50 news/talk radio program directors and executives. Among the categories to be featured will be best Major/Mid Market Local morning, midday, and afternoon show, best Local News/Talk PD, best Local News/Talk Station, best National Talk Radio Show, and best Original Digital Show. The voting process with format decision makers begins today and will continue for two weeks. I’ve already got a number of people involved but if you work in an executive or programming role in the news/talk format and wish to be part of it, send an email to me at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

We have one other big thing coming to Barrett News Media in 2023, which I will announce right after the BNM Top 20 on Wednesday December 21st. I’m sure news/talk professionals will like what we have planned but for now, it’ll have to be a month long tease. I promise though to pay it off.

Additionally, I’m always looking for industry folks who know and love the business and enjoy writing about it. If you’ve programmed, hosted, sold or reported in the news/talk world and have something to offer, email me. Also, if you’re a host, producer, programmer, executive, promotions or PR person and think something from your brand warrants coverage on our site, send it along. Most of what we write comes from listening to stations and digging across the web and social media. Receiving your press releases and getting a heads up on things you’re doing always helps.

If you’re a fan of BSM, this won’t affect you much. The only difference you’ll notice in the coming months is a gradual reduction of news media content on the BSM website and our social accounts sharing a little about both formats over the next two months until we’re officially split in February. We are also going to dabble a little more in marketing, research and tech content that serves both formats. If you’re a reader who enjoys both forms of our content, you’ll soon have BarrettSportsMedia.com for sports, and BarrettNewsMedia.com for news.

Our first two years in the news/talk space have been very productive but we’ve only scratched the surface. Starting November 28th, news takes center stage on BarrettNewsMedia.com and sports gets less crowded on BarrettSportsMedia.com. We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future. If we can count on you to remember two URL’s (add them to your bookmarks) and sign up for our newsletters, then you can count on us to continue delivering exceptional coverage of the industry you love. As always, thanks for the continued support. It makes everything we do worthwhile.

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