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This Fire Is Out of Control and ESPN Can’t Put It Out

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ESPN SC6

I fully intended to avoid writing about this topic because I’ve grown increasingly tired of the whole political-sports media dance. But then a whole new chain of events unfolded, and now here I am, using a line from a Franz Ferdinand song to describe the mess ESPN finds itself in – “This fire is out of control.”

By now you’re probably aware that Jemele Hill of ESPN’s SC6 went off on Twitter about President Donald Trump. If you haven’t seen her tweets, it’s your lucky day. See below.


Hill’s tweets created a stir on social media, leading ESPN to issue a statement. The network said they had talked to Jemele about her actions and she realized they were inappropriate.

But that didn’t satisfy the masses. The pressure increased when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about Hill’s comments during a briefing with the press, and said Hill’s remarks were “one of the more outrageous comments anyone could make” and added that she thought Hill deserved to be fired.

Media outlets latched on to the story, but it picked up even more steam when Clay Travis spoke to a number of ESPN employees off the record, and broke the news that Linda Cohn had previously been suspended after making public comments about the company turning off their core viewers by moving away from covering just sports and allowing politics to enter the equation during a radio interview in April on WABC radio in New York.

Travis questioned why Curt Schilling was fired for his actions, yet Hill was given a pass. The former MLB pitcher was terminated after sharing a post on social media about the North Carolina law which barred transgender people from using the bathroom and locker rooms that don’t correspond with their birth genders. Schilling also made comments previously about Hillary Clinton deserving to be buried under a jail somewhere, and comparing extremist muslims to Nazi’s which also didn’t sit well with network executives.

After Schilling was fired, respected author James Andrew Miller said, “If you’re taking a paycheck from ESPN, you have to be extra careful about how you communicate publicly and always err on the side of caution and responsibility. It’s not an unfair or impractical position for ESPN to hold. If you want to express your own opinions in a provocative way on social media, then ESPN and a lot of other media organizations are probably not where you should be working.”

Those comments sound reasonable but where things become complex is when you compare how Schilling, Cohn and Doug Adler were dealt with versus the way Hill was handled. ESPN has been labeled as a network which carries a left leaning agenda, and their handling of this situation hasn’t done anything to change that perception.

During an appearance on FOX News, former analyst and NFL defensive back Jason Sehorn confirmed that he had been asked to avoid any discussion about politics while working at the network. Expecting a television analyst to steer clear of political conversations seems like a valid request, except Sehorn was known for being an avid supporter of the Republican party. In fact, he even spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Former sideline reporter Britt McHenry then chimed in, adding that while working at ESPN she was reprimanded for supporting tweets that were conservative leaning.

By now you’re thinking, this must be the worst of it right? Well, not exactly.

On Thursday, Think Progress reported that ESPN tried to take Jemele Hill off the air on Wednesday night, but the plan backfired when her partner, Michael Smith, refused to host SC6 without her. Network executives allegedly reached out to two other black personalities, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, to see if they would step in. When those inquiries were rejected, and the company couldn’t find anyone to step in, they reversed their position and had Hill return to work with Smith.

ESPN denied the report, telling Think Progress they never asked anyone to replace Hill on the show, period. Senior Vice President of news and information Rob King said, “Wednesday was a hard and unusual day, with a number of people interpreting the day without a full picture of what happened. In the end, ultimately, Michael and Jemele appearing on the show last night and doing the show the way they did is the outcome we always desired.”

Think Progress has since updated their story with additional details, painting a picture that suggests ESPN hasn’t been completely truthful about the situation. In every story there are three sides – yours, mine and the truth. Each party has much to lose therefore keeping the specifics behind closed doors is important. Leaks do happen when high profile brands and people are involved and at this point, ESPN is trying to do damage control.

After making her inflammatory comments about Trump, Hill received support from the National Association of Black Journalists. She also received social media support from a few of her fellow colleagues.

There are likely detractors of Hill’s inside ESPN as well, but going public with those opinions would only create unnecessary attention. Given how the network has dealt with previous situations involving employees who see the world differently, the reality of being hurt professionally makes it a wiser decision to stay silent.

Hill has since taken to Twitter to apologize for her personal beliefs putting ESPN in a difficult position. But she didn’t apologize for what she said. In fact, her original tweets remain up on her Twitter account.

If you thought that was the end of this story, guess again. It became an even bigger topic of conversation on Friday when the President of the United States, Donald Trump, posted this tweet.

Whether you’re a Trump supporter or a Trump critic, it’s undeniable that his message reaches a large volume of Americans. Over 38 million people follow him on Twitter, and his tweets are picked up by media outlets across the nation. For a network looking to decrease the noise, and return to business as usual, that becomes impossible when every local and national news outlet is advancing the conversation and painting ESPN in a negative light.

Which brings me to the point of the column where I’ve got to interject a few opinions of my own.

Why are we in this situation in the first place? We’re having a conversation about sports media personalities and the ramifications of their public political positions because ESPN’s leadership has permitted it and wavered in how they handle different situations. For well over thirty years, ESPN has been the gold standard in sports media, but the past few years have included a large number of self-inflicted wounds, which begs the question, why are these things continuing to happen?

It pains me to see this unfold from afar because I grew up loving ESPN. My affinity for the company and its people moved me enough to want to go to work for them, a dream I was able to realize in 2004. But as I look at where things stand now, I don’t see the same amazing brand I once did. There are many great people still there, and I’m sure they hate this as much as I do because they’d prefer to get back to talking sports, having fun, and representing the ideals for which ESPN became special the past thirty eight years.

I want to pose a few questions that I hope will make you think.

Which direction does Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic, Scott Van Pelt, Freddie Coleman, Louis Riddick, Jon Gruden, Chris Berman, Trey Wingo, Kirk Herbstreit, Karl Ravech and Suzy Kolber lean politically? Maybe you know. Or like most people, you’d have to know them personally, talk to them at a public function, or dig thru pages of content online to find out.

Why does that matter? Because they go to their job, focus on satisfying the sports fan and don’t make the mistake of allowing their personal views on other issues in life to drive a wedge between them and their audience.

If you listened recently to my BSM Podcast episode with Jim Rome, he made an excellent point. The CBS Sports Radio host said that if you asked his audience which way he leans politically they’d have a hard time figuring it out. Keep in mind, Rome has been on the air for over 25 years, and he’s pretty opinionated. He understands his lane, stays in it, and respects his audience enough to avoid giving them a reason to tune out.

Whether they accept it or not, every ESPN personality is a representative of the brand. The second they speak out on a political, racial, religious or social issue, whether intended or not, they are placing their employer in an unenviable position. The public is smart enough to understand that the individual’s views don’t represent the views of the entire company, but that doesn’t mean the attention doesn’t harm the brand’s reputation or business. If a person is going to occupy a public position and use a company’s platform to reach an audience and earn a living, they’ve got to understand that there are a certain set of responsibilities that come with it.

I’ve heard people the past few days say “Jemele isn’t speaking on behalf of ESPN, she’s talking about her own views.” Hogwash. Without ESPN, Jemele Hill the citizen can speak however she wants, but she’d be reaching a much smaller audience.

Anytime an on-air personality enters this territory my first thought is what exactly are you gaining from this? Is the validation of a few thousand fans and colleagues on social media worth it? Is getting under the skin of the political establishment worth the potential damage you could be doing to your career?

ESPN has built a stellar reputation over the past three and a half decades, and when employees of the company take these political positions, they put their employer in a position to be publicly damaged, and lose audience and advertising dollars. The four letter network is in the business of creating content for its fans and using it to sell advertising to existing and prospective clients. Regardless of intent, this conversation does little to help them increase viewership or gain additional business.

Ask yourself this question. What do you tell an ad buyer who’s white, spends a bunch of money on ESPN and voted for Donald Trump? Do you think they’re going to feel good about continuing to invest in a person/show which spit in the face of their personal beliefs? Do you think they’re simply going to make a ‘business decision’ with their ad buys rather than allow their personal feelings to enter the equation?

What about if you’re a white sports fan who enjoys ESPN, specifically SC6, and you voted for Donald Trump. Maybe you liked Michael and Jemele’s style, but when the social media commentary offered by Jemele suggests that Trump’s rise to power is the result of white supremacy, are you OK being labeled that way?

Consider this, Donald Trump, whether you love or loathe him, did receive nearly 63 million votes. He also won 2,728 of 3,113 counties across the country. Political beliefs aside, are we really going to suggest that MOST of those people who voted for him fit the description of which Hill was talking about? Maybe I’m giving people too much of the benefit of the doubt but I don’t believe that to be the case.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, a sports media personality represents their brand at all times. If you don’t like it and prefer not to be branded as Person X of ESPN, Person Y of FOX Sports or Person Z of CBS, then you might want to reconsider whether or not a public life is the right fit.

And it carries over beyond sports media too.

If Aaron Judge made the remarks that Jemele Hill did, they would do damage to the New York Yankees brand. If Mark Zuckerberg made them, they’d hurt Facebook. If Taylor Swift made them, they’d hurt her record sales, merchandise sales, and concert attendance. You get the point.

Here’s another question that many are wondering but not comfortable discussing because it stokes the flames of race. If this situation involved Scott Van Pelt or Mike Greenberg blasting Barack Obama while he was in office, in the same manner that Jemele Hill crushed Trump, what do you think happens? If you’re going to suggest the company would have done the exact same thing, wake me when you return to reality so we can have a real conversation.

I love that ESPN has embraced a diverse culture. They’ve not been afraid to take chances whether it’s launching The Undefeated, five thirty eight or rolling out SC6. Heck, even trotting out Sergio Dipp on the sidelines for Monday Night Football was a risk, one which unfortunately didn’t work out due to a rough night of execution. I’ll never rip a company for taking chances because I think that’s essential to growing a business, but in this particular situation, unnecessary tensions have been created, and people have been forced to take sides, all because the conversation shifted into areas that were not in line with the audience’s expectations.

Looking ahead, there are a few elephants in the room that ESPN needs to get out of the way of. The first one involves the issue of political bias. Whenever it’s mentioned, the network quickly rejects it and in many cases, becomes incredibly sensitive over it. Trust me, I know. When BSM conducted a survey in March, it didn’t sit well with many inside ESPN. Some even took me to task publicly for it.

Rather than absorb the information and recognize the very real problem on its hands, the company instead tried to wage a PR war by dismissing the data and criticizing the individuals reporting it. But how else do you explain the double standards in this situation involving Hill? Or the ridiculous controversy that ESPN created with Robert Lee? Or the Caitlyn Jenner decision at the ESPYS? Each of those situations were created by the company or their people, not media critics, FOX Sports employees or viewers who can’t let go of the glory days of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick hosting SportsCenter.

The second challenge, which I think is much harder to change, is to improve diversity of thought inside the company, and that includes at the highest levels. Bob Ley acknowledged last December that this was an area where the network needed to improve, and that may be easier to fix on the air, but what about up top? It’s been well documented that John Skipper and Bob Iger prefer the democratic party, and Connor Schell, who became Skipper’s right hand man in June, shares similar views. It’s wishful thinking to expect things to be approached differently when the top decision makers lean in the same direction.

Clay Travis wrote in his latest Outkick The Coverage column, that ESPN has two choices in front of them for how to handle these situations going forward. Option #1 would be to announce that they will not police speech that takes place off their airwaves or outside of their websites or print publications. The second option would be to take the position that no employee at ESPN is allowed to publicly discuss politics on their social media feeds.

Guess which one I’m going to pick – Option #2!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVM-c2t6KVA

If a company wants to maintain standards and avoid having to read between blurry lines to address these type of issues, they’ve got to be consistent in how they handle each situation. If an employee violates the rules, they face the consequences. If individuals don’t like or agree with the policy, there are other places to work.

By choosing the first option, you’re dismissing the influence that social media has on people, and you’re leaving it open for company employees to operate without consequence. I can only imagine the disasters that would follow if Bristol Inc. operated that way. We’re not talking about some small operation here folks. We’re talking about a company that is publicly traded, features thousands of employees and business partners, and generates billions of dollars in revenue.

ESPN finds itself at a crossroads. They’re faced with different economic realities than they’re used to and they’re operating in a new media world where the lights are always on and microphones are present. Whether it’s on their airwaves, their websites, their personalities social media pages or in public conversation, when an employee speaks out on issues that are removed from what ESPN does best, they create a divide. That helps nobody.

With the network trying to hang on to every customer it can and avoid future mass layoffs, there’s never been a more important time for John Skipper and Bob Iger to fix these issues. The first step is to accept responsibility and acknowledge that the issue was bigger than they had imagined. The second is to install a policy which leaves no wiggle room, and is fair to people on both sides of the aisle. The final part of the puzzle is to invite different points of view on the air and inside of conference rooms to present a more level playing field inside the company. The goal should be to make fans of both political parties feel good about spending a few hours enjoying the network’s content and supporting its business partners. That’s especially important with disconnected fans/viewers ages 35 and up.

Sports isn’t supposed to be a right or left choice. But when on-air talent wander into areas that the audience doesn’t tune into them for, the relationship between host and viewer/listener can suffer. It’s critical to know what your brand is, what the audience expects, and then satisfy those expectations. It may sound silly but sometimes it pays to stick to sports!

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Takeaways From The NAB Show and Six Days in Las Vegas

“I’m certainly not afraid to be critical but my enthusiasm for the NAB Show was elevated this year.”

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Six days on the road can sometimes be exhausting. Six days in Las Vegas, and it’s guaranteed. That was my world last week, as I along with more than fifty thousand people headed to sin city to take in the 2022 NAB Show.

The event didn’t draw as many as it had in the past, but after two years of inactivity due to the pandemic, it was good to be back. Judging from some of the vendors I talked to, the sessions I attended, and the feedback I received from folks I met with, though far from perfect, it was a solid return for an important event. Seeing people interact, celebrate others, and talk about ways to improve the business was a positive reminder of the world being closer to the normal of 2019 than the normal of 2020-2021. The only negative from the week, the consistent failure of Uber to appear in the right place at the right time. But that had zero to do with the NAB.

It feels like whenever I attend industry conferences, there are two different type of reviews that follow. Some writers attend the show and see the glass half full. Others see the glass half empty. I’m certainly not afraid to be critical but my enthusiasm was elevated this year. Maybe it was because BSM was a media partner or maybe it was due to the show not happening for years and just being happy to be among friends, peers, and clients and operate like normal. Either way, my glass was definitely half full.

For those who see events this way, it’s likely they’ll remember the numerous opportunities they had to create and reestablish relationships. They’ll also recall the access to different speakers, sessions, products, and the excellent research shared with those in attendance. The great work done by the BFOA to recognize industry difference makers during their Wednesday breakfast was another positive experience, as was the Sunday night industry gathering at The Mayfair Supper Club.

Included in the conference were sessions with a number of industry leaders. Radio CEO’s took the stage to point out the industry’s wins and growth, credit their employees, and call out audio competitors, big tech, and advertisers for not spending more with the industry. When David Field, Bob Pittman, Ginny Morris and Caroline Beasley speak, people listen. Though their companies operate differently, hearing them share their views on the state of the business is important. I always learn something new when they address the room.

But though a lot of ground gets covered during these interviews, there are a few issues that don’t get talked about enough. For instance, ineffective measurement remains a big problem for the radio business. Things like this shouldn’t happen, but they do. NBC and WarnerMedia took bold steps to address problems with TV measurement. Does radio have the courage to take a similar risk? That’s an area I’d like to see addressed more by higher ups.

I can’t help but wonder how much money we lose from this issue. Companies spend millions for a ratings service that delivers subpar results, and the accountability that follows is often maddening. Given the data we have access to digitally, it’s stunning that radio’s report card for over the air listening is determined by outdated technology. And if we’re going to tell folks that wearables are the missing ingredient for addressing this problem, don’t be shocked if the press that follows is largely negative. The industry and its advertising partners deserve better. So too do the reps at Nielsen who have to absorb the hits, and make the most of a tough situation.

Speaking of advertising, this is another one of those critical areas that deserves another point of view. Case in point, I talked to a few ad agency professionals at the show. Similar to what I’ve heard before, they’re tired of hearing radio leaders blame them for the industry’s present position. This has been a hot button topic with executives for years. I often wonder, do we help or hurt ourselves by publicly calling out advertisers and ad agencies? How would you feel if you ran an agency which spent millions on the industry and were told ‘you don’t do enough’? I’m a champion of radio/audio, and am bullish on spoken word’s ability to deliver results for clients, but having attended these shows for nearly seven years, it might be time for a new approach and message. Or maybe it’s time to put one of our CEO’s with one of theirs and have a bigger discussion. Just a thought.

Of the sessions that I attended, I thought Erica Farber’s ‘What Business Are You In?’ was excellent. I especially liked Taja Graham’s presentation on ‘Sharing Your Truth’. I also appreciated Eric Bischoff’s tips on ways to monetize podcasts, and am curious to see how Amazon’s AMP develops moving forward. My favorite session at the show though was “A GPS Session For Your Station’s Car Radio Strategy” led by Fred Jacobs. The insight shared by Joe D’Angelo of Xperi and Steve Newberry & Suzy Schultz of Quu was outstanding. Keeping the car companies on our side is vital to our survival, and how we position ourselves on the dashboard can’t be ignored. Other tech companies and audio operators take it seriously. We must too.

Sessions aside, it was great to check out the VSiN and Blue Wire studios, connect with a bunch of CEO’s, GM’s and Market Manager’s, and visit with Kevin Jones, Joe Fortenbaugh, Jeremiah Crowe, Jon Goulet, Bill Adee, Q Myers, Mike Golic Jr. and Stormy Buonantony. The NFL’s setup for the Draft, and the light show presented at the Bellagio was without a doubt spectacular, plus Stephanie had a chance to say hello to Raiders owner Mark Davis who was inside the back room of a Westgate restaurant where we were having a business lunch meeting. The personal tour we received at the Wynn showed off some of the best suites I’ve seen in Las Vegas, and I was finally able to witness Circa’s Stadium Swim in person, and meet owner Derek Stevens (heck of a suit game). What an outstanding hotel and casino.

Altogether, it was a productive trip. As someone who knows all about building and executing a conference, I appreciate the work that goes into pulling it off. This event is massive, and I have no idea how the NAB makes it happen so flawlessly. This was the first time my head of sales, Stephanie Eads, got to attend the show. She loved it. Our only negative, going back and forth between convention halls can get exhausting. Wisely, Stephanie and Guaranty Media CEO Flynn Foster took advantage of the underground Tesla ride to move from the North hall to the West hall. I wasn’t as bright. If that’s the worst part of the experience though, that’s pretty solid. I look forward to returning in 2023, and attending the NAB’s NYC show this fall.

Additional:

You’ve likely seen posts from BSM/BNM on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn promoting a number of open positions. I’m adding crew to help us pump out more content, and that means we need more editors, news writers, features reporter’s and columnists. If you’re currently involved or previously worked in the industry and love to write about it, send a resume and few writing samples by email to JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

With that said, I’m excited to announce the addition of Ryan Brown as a weekly columnist for BSM. Ryan is part of ‘The Next Round’ in Birmingham, Alabama, which previously broadcast on WJOX as JOX Roundtable. The show left the terrestrial world in June 2021 to operate as its own entity. Ryan’s knowledge and opinions should provide a boost to the site, and I’m looking forward to featuring his columns every Tuesday. Keep an eye out for it tomorrow, and if you want to check out the guest piece he previously wrote for us, click here.

Demetri Ravanos and I have talked to a lot of people over the past month. More additions will be revealed soon. As always, thanks for the continued support of BSM and BNM.

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Six New Contributors Join Barrett Media

“These latest additions will make our product better. Now the challenge is finding others to help us continue growing.”

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Building a brand starts with a vision. Once that vision is defined, you identify the people who fit what you’re creating, lay out the game plan, and turn them loose to execute. If the product you’re creating is original, fills a gap in the marketplace, and the work turned in by your team is consistently excellent and promoted in the right locations, more times than not you’ll build an audience.

As you grow, the focus turns to studying what your audience wants, needs, and expects from your brand. Certain things you expect to be big turn out small, and the things you saw limited upside in create opportunities you never saw coming. It’s critical to be open minded and ready to pivot while also examining where and when people consume your product, which pieces of content do and don’t matter, and then use that information to direct your team to give folks more of what they value and less of what they don’t. Team members should want that feedback too. It tells them what is and isn’t worth spending their time on.

As I lay all of that out it may sound like I’m talking about a radio station or television operation. These are the things programmers do frequently to make sure the talent, shows, and brand is satisfying the expectations of an audience. But what I’m actually referring to is the brand you’ve made a choice to click on to read this column, Barrett Media.

I’ve mentioned many times on this website how I started this operation by myself, and didn’t expect to have a team of writers involved in it. I was focused on consulting sports stations, sharing my programming views on this website, and as I cranked out content consistently, I discovered others loved the business like I did and had a desire to share their insights too. Rather than sticking to my original plan, I pivoted and increased our content offerings. In return, the audience grew, clients grew, and it’s led this brand to grow beyond my expectations. Now we cover sports AND news media, we run an annual conference, feature a membership program, create podcasts, deliver a daily 8@8 and three times per week BNM Rundown newsletter, and work with various brands and companies across the broadcasting industry. I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position and don’t take it for granted.

But with growth comes change. We’ve been blessed to have a lot of talented people contribute to this site over the years, and as they produce quality work, and others across the industry recognize it, they earn interest for their services. That then leads to some having to sign off for bigger opportunities. I see that as a great positive for the brand. Would it be nice to have more consistency and keep a crew together for years? Of course. I know it’d make Demetri’s life a lot easier. If we’re losing people for the right reasons though, and they’re landing opportunities that help them advance their careers, I’m going to be happy for their success, and trust that we’ll find others to keep us moving forward. The success of our team helps make what we do more attractive to others because it shows that if you do good consistent work here, you can put yourself in a position to attract attention.

Over the past two months, I have challenged Demetri Ravanos to invest more time talking to people about writing for us. Expanding our Barrett News Media roster is a priority. So too is adding quality people to help us improve Barrett Sports Media. BSM has had just under seven years to earn trust with readers. BNM has had less than two. We’ve put out ads on our website and newsletters, social posts, an ad on Indeed, and we’ve reached out directly to people who we’ve felt may be able to add something interesting to our brand. Most of my time is spent listening to stations and talking with clients, but my eyes are always roaming looking for content, and my mind is always thinking about what we can create next to make an impact.

I don’t judge our brand’s success based on clicks, shares, breaking news before other outlets or showing up in the top three listings on Google. I care more effort accuracy, timeliness, passion, consistency, storytelling, insight, and being fair and non-agenda driven. We’ve found our niche being able to tell stories about broadcasting professionals, relaying news, and offering expert knowledge to serve those involved in the broadcasting industry. If we continue to excel doing those things consistently, I’m confident our audience will reward us by reading and sharing more of our content. It’s why we never stop recruiting to keep things fresh.

Having said that, I am excited today to reveal six new additions to the Barrett Media staff. Peter Schwartz is a name and voice many in New York sports radio circles are familiar with. Peter has spent three decades working with various outlets and I’m thrilled to have him writing weekly feature stories for us. Brady Farkas is a talented host and former programmer who now works for WDEV in Burlington, VT. Karl Schoening is a play by play broadcaster who has worked in San Antonio sports radio and has had the added benefit of learning the industry from his talented father Bill who calls Spurs games. Each of them will produce bi-weekly feature stories for the brand. Jason Ence is in Louisville and has written about sports betting for Twin Spires while also working for ESPN 680. He’ll be writing sports betting content for us on a weekly basis. Jasper Jones will help us by adding news stories on Friday’s. He’s presently in Philadelphia learning the business working for Audacy. Last but not least, veteran author, Brewers writer, and former radio professional Jim Cryns comes on board to help us with features on news media professionals.

These six additions make us stronger, and I’m excited to have them join the team to help us add more quality content to the website. That said, we’re not done yet. Demetri and I are still talking with others and I expect to make a few more additions in the weeks ahead. As I said earlier, we want to improve the news media side of our operation and continue adding people to help us make a bigger dent in the sports media space. Broadcast companies invest in us to help them, and I believe it’s important to invest back.

If you’ve programmed, hosted a top rated show, worked in measurement, led a cluster as a GM, sold advertising, represented talent or have worked in digital and feel you have knowledge to share, reach out. I can’t promise we’ll have room but we’re always willing to listen. I’m not worried about whether or not you’ve written for professional publications. Passion, experience and unique insights matter much more than a resume or journalism degree.

I appreciate everyone who takes time to read our content, like and share it on social, and all involved with this brand who help bring it to life each day. The latest additions of Schwartz, Farkas, Schoening, Ence, Jones and Cryns will make our product better. Now the challenge is finding others to help us continue growing.

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Programming In Fear Is a Recipe For Failure

“The best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong.”

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If you haven’t read Demetri Ravanos’ column this week, which included feedback from five programmers on whether or not they’d hire sports radio’s equivalent of Deshaun Watson, you should. It’s interesting, enlightening and sparked my interest to write a follow up column.

When it comes to decision making in the media industry subjectivity is at the center of everything. It’s not as simple as the NFL where wins and losses are often decided by talent and coaching. Instead, our business is judged by a small amount of meters and their activity using our products as determined by Nielsen, and personal relationships formed with advertisers and media industry professionals. All three of these areas may be less than perfect in determining if something is going to work or not, but it’s the way it is.

Let’s start with something I think most of us can agree on – listeners spend time with brands and individuals that cut through the noise. Most will also agree that advertisers value that too. If a talent can attract an audience and convert them into customers on a consistent basis, a company will employ them. Advertisers will ask to be included in their program too. If issues with a host’s track record or character exist it may turn off a few sponsors, but when there’s money to be made, the bottom line usually wins.

It’s similar in some ways to the NFL, which is why players like Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown, Michael Vick, Aldon Smith, Kareem Hunt, Joe Mixon and others are given second, and in some instances third and fourth chances to play. In a league where wins and talent impact the bottom line, executives care more about success than their morale standing. I know some folks would prefer that to be different but competition and business success drives many to look past certain situations.

In every business, there are people who are dirt bags. You may not want to associate with them or see them receive second or third chances, but if they can help a team win, make the franchise money, and excite a fanbase by helping to deliver a championship, owners are going to turn a blind eye to outside issues. They’ll even pay these players insane amounts of money despite their problems. Just look at the recent deals inked by Watson and Hill.

I know radio and television isn’t exactly the NFL, but as I read Demetri’s column I couldn’t help but think about the dilemma radio programmers face; to hire the best talent and run the risk of dealing with increased attention by inviting baggage into the building or play it safe and hire people with less problems even if their talent level is lower.

We work in the media industry. The job is to deliver audience, and ad revenue. If someone possesses the ability to help you do that, you owe it to your bosses to look into it. If you are going to pass up hiring someone with special talent because you value character more, I applaud you. It’s commendable and speaks volumes about who you are. But producing high ratings and revenue isn’t determined by who’s a better person. If your competitor loses to you in the morale department but wins consistently in those two areas, you may one day be calling me for advice on saving your job or finding the next one.

Audiences care far less about an individual’s behavior or the negative PR you have to absorb. They simply listen and/or watch people they find interesting and entertaining. Did the Chiefs and Bucs sell less tickets after adding Hill, Mixon or Brown? The answer is no. Fans wanted to see their teams win, and as long as those players helped them do that, far less cared about whether or not those guys were good or bad people. I’m sure Browns fans will do the same with Watson if he delivers a title for the city of Cleveland.

This issue is red meat for many in the media because it makes for great discussion, and generates a lot of reaction. However, as nice as it’d be to have good people in every enviable position, this is a business, and what matters most is the final result in generating audience and advertising. Sometimes that means adding people who bring baggage through the door.

Advertisers aren’t much different than fans either. They may voice concerns or reject being connected to someone initially who comes with negative attention, but if people start to listen or watch, they’re going to want to be involved eventually because it presents an opportunity to improve their bottom line. It’s why you don’t see a surge of advertising partners abandon NFL teams after they sign or draft a player with a troubled past. If it’s good for business, exceptions will be made.

Some may not like hearing this, but a brand manager is paid to improve their brand’s business not to manage the media’s morality department. I’d much rather work with good people who provide little drama. It makes work more enjoyable. But this is the entertainment business. Some high profile stars have ego’s, issues, ridiculous demands, and they create a lot of bullshit. Some are worth it, some aren’t. If they can help attract big dollars and a large audience, it’s an executive’s job to find a way to employ them and manage them.

I’m not suggesting that we should hire everyone with a prior track record of problems. I’m also not advocating not to do background checks, ask questions, double check with references, and feel as comfortable as possible with who you’re adding. It’s important to analyze the risks vs. the rewards when hiring someone who may cause some initial blowback. Not everyone is worth a second or third chance. More times than not, the HR department is going to prefer you add people with minimal risk who make the hiring process easier. But if a special talent is available and they come with baggage, you can’t be afraid to make a move that can grow your brand’s performance and bottom line.

For example, you may dislike some of the prior incidents that Howard Stern, Joe Rogan, Craig Carton, Dave Portnoy, and Ryen Russillo were involved in, but they’ve all shown a consistent ability to deliver an audience, revenue, and relevance. I used those 5 personalities as examples because Demetri specifically used Deshaun Watson, a QB who is widely recognized as a Top 5 QB in the NFL as the example. He’s seen as a game changer on the field just as these personalities are recognized as stars behind the microphone. If a programmer had a chance to hire one of those talents and bypassed them because they were worried about the ‘noise’ they’d have to deal with, I hope and pray their competition takes a pass too. If not, they’d be paying for it for a long time.

That said, I would not put my career on the line for a talent who has twenty two counts of sexual misconduct hanging over their head. I’d tell them to handle their legal situation first and then wait and see how the situation plays out. You can tell me how special a talent is, and I’ll tell you I’m all for second chances and I’m not afraid to put my job on the line to hire someone exceptionally gifted, but I’m also not stupid. Most corporate companies are going to want no part of that association and neither are advertisers. It’d be a bad bet.

But in Watson’s case, he was cleared of the criminal charges. That was decided in a court of law. Are we supposed to never hire him even though he was found innocent? This world is littered with examples of people who are talented, have been accused of wrongdoing, have prevailed legally, and have gone on to make the most of second opportunities. Yet social media is often seen as an approval ground where ‘noise’ matters more than facts.

Human beings are flawed and do stupid things sometimes. It doesn’t make them bad people or not worthy of being hired again. We also have a legal system for a reason. If one is accused of a crime, they have their day in the court, and a judge and jury decides if they are guilty or innocent. For some reason, whenever a high profile individual is linked to a situation, we have a tendency to react quickly, often declaring them guilty and permanently damaged. But that’s not right, and it often blows up in our face.

How did that work out with the Duke lacrosse case? Or when Rafael Palmeiro waved his finger at congress and said he never took steroids? Instant reactions were the Duke lacrosse team needed to be put away for life, and the media needed to leave Palmeiro alone. We later learned, both reactions were wrong. The same thing just happened again with Watson. In the court of public opinion, he’s guilty. In a court of law, he’s not. There’s something very wrong with that picture.

The minute you hire a person connected to controversy you have to know people are going to bring it up, and media outlets are going to draw attention to it. So what? If people listen/watch, and clients spend, deal with it. From the movie industry to politics to the world or sports and the media business, there are many examples of highly skilled people with imperfect records that were worth betting on. You have to have thick skin and be able to absorb negativity if you’re going to hire and manage people. You’re responsible for serving the audience, advertising community, and growing a business, not being the most liked inside your office or on social media.

Secondly, speaking of social media, I think we place way too much value on what listeners say on Twitter and/or Facebook. The majority of your audience isn’t living on Twitter. If they’re not happy with your product, they’ll change the dial or avoid pressing the button to stream your content. There is a lot of good that comes from social media, but when you make decisions for a brand that could raise a few eyebrows, your best move is to tune it out. Let people say what they want. If you’ve done your homework and added an individual who’s capable of making an impact, trust your gut that it’ll be proven right over time.

Third, when you’re talking to someone who has gone through a situation that can potentially create headaches for the brand you represent, remember that they’re going to act remorseful and tell you what you want to hear. They’re hoping to land a high profile job and recover from a setback. Talking to others who’ve been around them and have history with them is part of the process, and hearing them out is too. After you’ve gathered your facts and weighed the pros and cons, it ultimately comes down to whether or not you trust them, believe in them, and have the courage to handle the heat that will soon hit you when you enter the kitchen.

You can avoid all of that and hire someone safer. Sometimes that works. But in a business where talent ultimately wins, others eventually find ways to improve. If the brands you compete with have the guts to take the risk that you didn’t, you may pay for it later. Which is why you can’t dismiss star talent with blemishes on their resumes. It’d be great if we could all go through life, do the right thing, and never have to answer questions for controversial decisions, but that’s not realistic.

I’ve shared this story before, back when I was in San Francisco in 2013, I hired Damon Bruce. He had previously generated heat for comments about not wanting women in his sandbox. It was a bad take, one he endured a lot of negative attention for, and despite apologizing and serving a suspension, nothing seemed to satisfy the masses. When we started talking, I entered those conversations knowing if I brought him on board I’d have to deal with the noise. I got to know him, talked to others, and reviewed the facts. One thing that stuck with me, he had never been in serious trouble and he had spent a decade working for the same employer. More times than not, you don’t work somewhere for that long if people don’t value you and enjoy working with you.

Damon would be the first to admit that back then he could be a pain in the ass, and he came to the table with public attention that made him harder to hire. I chose to believe in his talent, trust my eyes and ears, and focus on how he could help us improve our business. There were emails, tweets, and voicemail complaints I had to deal with but typing this now nine years later, after Damon just signed a three year extension to remain in afternoons at 95.7 The Game, I know the right call was made. He had to own his mistake, learn from it, and I had to have the courage to give him a shot and support him. In the end, everyone benefitted.

One story I haven’t shared, took place in 2006. I had just been hired to program Sports Talk 950 in Philadelphia, which has since become 97.5 The Fanatic. Our roster was bare, our lineup had national shows occupying the majority of the weekday schedule, and we needed more top level local talent to get to the next level. As I reviewed local and external options, I put Mike Missanelli and John Kincade high on my list. Ironically, they now both host drive time shows on The Fanatic.

Well, as we were preparing to reach out and talk to people, Missanelli got fired by WIP for ‘violating company policy’. It was alleged that he got into a physical altercation with a part time producer. I wasn’t there so I didn’t know all the facts, but the noise from that situation affected our process. When I raised the idea of meeting with him it was quickly dismissed. I knew he was ready for the next step, would have a chip on his shoulder to beat his former employer, and had a ton of local relationships which could be good for business. I was willing to meet and learn more, and if during that process we felt it made sense to bring him on board, I’d have handled the heat that came from it.

It never even started though. Others worried about the ‘noise’ and decided to pass up the opportunity to add a difference maker to the lineup. The brand struggled to gain traction for the next few years, and when Matt Nahigian arrived in town, he wisely went and hired Missanelli. Almost instantly, the success and perception of the brand changed. Now, The Fanatic consistently competes against WIP, and Missanelli has helped deliver a lot of wins in afternoons over the past 13-14 years.

Each person who makes a decision to hire someone has a lot to consider. If a radio talent is seen in a negative light because of prior history with other professionals or because they delivered an insensitive rant that’s much different than being found guilty of twenty two counts of sexual misconduct. Having said that, I worry that some managers ignore the facts (Watson was found not guilty) and will add a solid talent with less negative attention than a more talented person with extra baggage. As a programmer, would you have had the guts to hire Craig Carton after he served time? Would you have the stomach to handle the heat if Dave Portnoy worked for you and the Business Insider story cast a dark cloud over your brand? Would you stand by Joe Rogan when others attack him for comments made in the past or as artists pull their music because of not agreeing with his views?

I’m not sure if I’m right, wrong, smart or stupid, but I know this, if I believed in them enough to hire them knowing that the noise would increase the second they entered the office, then I’d do my best to have their back. I’d also not think twice about my future or whether or not my corporate boss had a bullseye on my back. I think the best programmers go to work focused on making an impact and thinking about what could go right not what could go wrong. If you program in fear and play it safe to avoid the noise, you run the risk of hearing silence. And sometimes that peace and quiet comes when you’re sitting at home rather than dealing with headaches inside of the office.

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