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Q&A with Mike Rutherford

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Mike Rutherford is a busy dude. He runs SB Nation’s Louisville blog Card Chronicle. He is also the college basketball editor for all of SB Nation. He’s one of my favorite college basketball guests and a guy that I send a lot of texts and interview requests to every February through April.

Since 2015 Mike has also been one half of Ramsey and Rutherford, an afternoon drive show in Louisville. Until earlier this year the show aired on Union Broadcasting’s 93.9 the Ville. In April, the pair temporarily said farewell before resurfacing last month on iHeartRadio’s 790 KRD.

Mike has had a front row seat to one of the strangest periods any college basketball program has ever experienced. Who would ever have guessed that the Katina Powell prostitution scandal would become “the other one” in Louisville basketball lore? On Halloween morning, I called him to talk about changing stations, how he balances all of his roles, and what it has been like to cover sports in Louisville over the past three years.

DR: In doing research for this interview I came across the open letter you penned for Card Chronicle when your show left 93.9 the Ville. Take me through the thought process that enabled you guys to press the pause button on Ramsey & Rutherford.

MR: It was a tough call. I like a lot of people at The Ville and ESPN Louisville. It was the first place I got to be on the radio and have it be a full-time gig. John Ramsey, my co-host, fought really hard to get me that job in 2014 and I think I became full-time in 2015. Anyway, he was unhappy with some of the stuff that was going on there. I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of his complaints, but I respect him. He saw an opportunity to make a move to another station and it all happened very quickly. I didn’t really know what to do, because it was kind of “you gotta make this decision now and what it came down to was the guy that got me a job, wanted me to go with him to a new station, and so I owed him at least that much.

DR: It is a whole new world going from a place that is purely locally owned like The Ville and ESPN Louisville to iHeartRadio. What sort of changes have you had to get used to?

MR: It’s certainly way more corporate. You actually have to log if you want to take off. At the old station you just kinda didn’t show up. There was no one keeping count of your vacation days. Our new studio is much bigger. We meet people from different branches. They’re keeping track of our remotes and we’re getting paid for that, which is really nice. I really liked the “we’re doing this on the fly” nature of ESPN Louisville, where there wasn’t a hub of “this is where this gets done” and “that is where that happens.” But, it is really nice to be with a company that has been doing this at a really high level for a very long time.

DR: How much did you and John Ramsey talk between signing off on The Ville and signing back on on 790 KRD?

MR: We talked a decent amount. John always wants to hang out with me, which I love. We went to a couple of concerts together. Our wives get along great, so they like hanging out together too. Everything we did was social stuff. It wasn’t a whole lot of “are you paying attention to this?” or “have you called that person?”.

DR: So the day the Hoopocalypse (the pay-for-play college basketball scandal that has turned into an FBI investigation) breaks, you guys were still a week or so away from coming back on air, right?

MR: It was just perfect timing. We were supposed to do a reintroduction party for advertisers and Tom Jurich (Louisville’s recently fired athletic director) and Rick Pitino (Louisville’s recently fired head basketball coach) were going to be there. John was really excited about it and then the story breaks and I was like “so, I guess party’s off, right?” And John was like “yeah, party’s off.”

DR: So let’s talk about that, because over the last three years, has there been any time to come up for breath between scandals at Louisville?

MR: No. Just when you start to think you’re getting back to some normalcy of talking about wins and losses, something else insane happens and throws everything into turmoil again. That week when the FBI stuff broke, I was starting to think Pitino’s got the five-game suspension. There’s the NCAA appeal, but you can guess how that was going to go. At least we know how the whole thing was going to shake out and we can now get back to focusing on basketball. Then that happens and you’re back in total turmoil.

People forget that this whole thing – not this FBI thing, but Louisville’s string of scandals, kind of got started with the Chris Jones deal, where he was accused of sexual assault. He was ultimately vindicated, but ended up getting kicked off the team for missing a meeting or something like that. Then a few months later there was the Katina Powell stuff, which had a new lead every other week. Now there’s this.

With this investigation and the fall out, it has been exhausting. Tom Jurich is out. Rick Pitino is out. It’s been something every single day. It’s amazing how normal it felt last night just sitting and watching an exhibition game and I’m not listening to board meetings and taking minutes, waiting for someone to call someone else an a-hole.

DR: One of the weird things that has happened in the middle of all of this is the rise of Lamar Jackson (Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback). It’s not a scandal certainly, but he brings a whole new level of attention than Louisville football is used to. That had to add to the madness somewhat, especially for your role at Card Chronicle.

MR: In a weird way, it almost became another negative. Not Lamar himself, but there is this overwhelming sense that here was a generational talent that we just kind of lucked into. He’s the type of kid that doesn’t usually come to play for Louisville football, and he’s been wasted. They aren’t going to win double-digit games with Lamar Jackson. That is remarkable!

We’re going to watch his highlights and be blown away by them. We’ll look at the stats and be blown away by them. Then you’ll look at the record and be blown away by them in a terrible way. In a strange fashion, Lamar’s greatness will add to the frustration of being a Louisville fan during this time period. What did we get out of it? One 43-point win over Florida State is the lone on-field result you take away from the Lamar Jackson era. Fans are furious about that! We hear about it after every loss on the radio show.

DR: So starting with the Chris Jones scandal up to now, do you feel pressure to beat the ESPN’s and USA Today’s of the world to the newest, biggest details of this story given that you live in the town and are part of the Louisville community?

MR: I’m not really trying to beat anybody. I mean, I am rarely reporting stuff at all. People come to the website or my radio show for reaction. John was really well connected to Tom Jurich, the former athletic director. People around here knew that. He never tried to hide it. So, he’d get news, but it could be counterproductive, because people knew exactly where it came from and then assumed the story was being spun. In those cases, being first to a story didn’t really help us.

In terms of competition though, no. If the goal is to get more readers or listeners, being first isn’t the best way to do that. My goal is to be the most informative or most entertaining.

DR: I’m glad you brought up John’s relationship with the athletic department, because it goes to my next question. How much do you feel like you have to balance access with being able to do the show or write the kind of pieces you want?

MR: Oh, a lot! John is a really talented guy, but sometimes he only wanted to tell one side of the story. He was always willing to listen to the other side when people called in or brought it up, but he didn’t want to project it himself, and Tom was his friend. If my best friend worked for AT&T and I hosted a tech radio show, I probably wouldn’t want to come on singing the praises of Google Fiber, right? But I was always really careful with what I did, because I never wanted to cast the show as only giving you half the truth every single day. I wanted to balance him out, because I know people are aware of his relationships. It’s been a daily thing and it still is.

DR: Since teaming up with John, and transitioning from being a writing talent to someone who also hosts a radio show, what have you discovered needs to change in terms of your preparation and the goals of what you’re trying to put out?

MR: The prep is still something I’m trying to get a handle on, because I’ve got Card Chronicle, I’m the college basketball editor for SB Nation, and I’ve got the radio gig. At some point something has to be sacrificed to a certain extent. Typically I go with Card Chronicle, because I get paid full time for the other stuff.

Each is its own thing. One job wants me to kind of be a Louisville homer. One wants me to be an entertaining Louisville guy. And then one demands that I am totally objective. Covering the Powell story especially was really hard. The radio show wants all the details and they want you to talk about what this news means for the program. Card Chronicle is supposed to be a Louisville fan that says “hey we can make fun of it and we’ll get through it,” you know? I mean, how “woe is me” are we supposed to get here? Then there’s the objective side for SB Nation that is all about “this is going on at Louisville, one of the ten most successful programs of all time, so what does it mean for college basketball?”.

It kinda makes you realize that there is room for the same voice to touch all three. Media is changing. People aren’t trying to hide their fandom as much anymore. You’ve got Scott Van Pelt on the 11:00 Sportscenter every night talking about Maryland. So, I don’t think people care so much as long as you’re being fair.

DR: So what is the makeup of fandom in Louisville? Since it is the city’s university, is the town overwhelmingly red and white or is it more evident that it is the biggest city in the state of Kentucky and you more often see Kentucky fans that want to revel in the misfortunes of Louisville?

MR: Yeah, I mean there are more Kentucky fans in Jefferson County than anywhere else in the state, and they’ll tell you that the town is 50/50, but its not. It’s closer to 65/35 or 60/40.

DR: 60/40 Louisville?

MR: Yeah. The only big, comprehensive study done on this was about ten years ago, but it was related to football. Kentucky fans are Alabama fans or Ohio State fans or whatever when it comes to football. The results of that one were 61% Louisville, 28% Kentucky and the remainder just didn’t care. So it’s more than 50/50, but they have a huge influence. You grow up with Kentucky fans. You work with them. You’re around UK fans everyday. It’s why UK fans will tell you the games in Lexington are more contentious – football or basketball, because you’ve got this population of Kentucky fans that have never had to interact with Louisville fans and they’re just going to let you have it while you’re there.

DR: I’ve never thought about it from that angle before. I wonder if Auburn fans would say that about going to Tuscaloosa. Or really any rivalry that is the town against the big state university.

MR: Yeah, there’s a lot at play there. You’ve got Louisville fans vs. Kentucky fans, but there is also the state of Kentucky vs. the city of Louisville or country UK fans vs. city Louisville fans. It opens up a window that can get pretty ugly.

DR: So in learning your audience, what have you discovered their expectation is? How much of the show is going to be about Louisville basketball or football…or hell, baseball. They’ve had a really good baseball team recently.

MR: No doubt. I’d say about 75-80%. I mean it’s supposed to be a Louisville show, but we get off topic a little bit. You have to, unless there is a prostitution scandal or some other national news thing going on, but we take a lot of calls too. They drive the show sometimes and typically they go to football or basketball.

John and I are so different. The people that follow me on Card Chronicle expect me to be funny and make jokes. It’s why they tune in. John’s a long time radio guy. He’s a lot older than me and knows how to talk to that audience.

DR: So given the way the town lines up behind both Louisville and Kentucky, do you think Louisville could ever support pro sports?

MR: Oh yeah. A publication in town named me one of the 20 sports business people to know. So they did this cool round table discussion with all of us and one of the things that came up is getting a pro team here and how that could keep Louisville going and keep pace with cities like Indianapolis and Nashville. These are cities that Louisville would compare itself to about 30 years ago, but it hasn’t really kept up in part because it doesn’t have a pro sports franchise.

But it also came up that a pro team could be a unifying deal for this rivalry. And it’s amazing how much the rivalry came up. J. Bruce Miller is a prominent attorney in town who used to work in government and he said that in the 70’s and 80’s they would go to the capital in Frankfort and they could get whatever they wanted. They could get anything done. Now you can’t go to Frankfort from the city of Louisville and get anything done because no one wants to work with you because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of this rivalry.

He blamed the media, which was great, because I was the only media member. But you blame the rivalry. Hell, if they do bring an NBA team here, there’s a vocal contingent that doesn’t want them to play in the Yum Center because it’s associated with U of L basketball. We have an NBA ready arena and they talk about renovating Freedom Hall if it ever does come here.

I think we’d do well with a pro sports franchise and it would do great for the entire city.

DR: So if a league were to come to Louisville, the best fit would be the NBA?

MR: The NBA or MLS. There is a USL team here. I think it’s their third season and they’re well-supported. Just a couple of nights ago, the city approved a plan for a 10,000 seat stadium for the team in the Butchertown neighborhood and then there will be a big push for an MLS team. It will be tough though because they would be competing with Cincinnati and Columbus, and the MLS would probably go to Austin first, but there’s hope. But in the next decade if anything moves to town it’ll likely be the NBA or MLS.

BSM Writers

Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench

“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”

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As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.

The Power Of Dead Air
Courtesy: Jacobs Media

Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.

Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.

Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.

Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media. 

Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???

One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.

My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”

Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.

Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country. 

Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format. 

There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.

If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.

Drowning

I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort. 

Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.

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BSM Writers

Digital Platforms Should Signal The End Of Niche Linear Networks

“Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.”

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CBS Sports Network just isn’t built to last. It seems obvious, but it was really hammered home for me on Friday when Jim Rome went off on the network for preempting the simulcast of his radio show for coverage of swimming.

“You idiots are going to preempt this show for swimming?” Rome said. “Stupid.”

You don’t even have to watch the video, right? You can just read the quote and his voice is immediately what you hear in your head.

John Skipper went off on a number of topics during Sports Business Journal’s Media Innovators Conference last week. Some dismissed it as sour grapes. Others said his comments were those of a man that is completely unencumbered by rights deals and corporate interests.

One thing the Meadowlark Media leader said that was dead on was that there are only a few properties in sports television that truly matter.

“Until you can get the NFL, or the SEC, or the NBA on a streaming service, it’s going to be marginal in this country,” Skipper said in a conversation with John Ourand.

He was answering a question about the relevance of streaming services, but the fact is, he could have been talking about any outlet in the world of sports television.

With that being said, it isn’t just CBS Sports Network that isn’t built to last. Comcast got this message last year. That is why NBCSN is about to go dark. Sure, every niche sport has its fan base, but can you build a profitable and powerful brand on swimming, lacrosse and 3-on-3 basketball? You probably can’t.

BSM’s Jeremy Evans recently wrote about life in the metaverse and what it means to sports media. So much happens digitally now. Think about the last time you felt like you HAD to have a physical copy of a movie or album. It always made sense that television networks would get to this place.

Peacock, ESPN+, CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+ all have plenty to offer. Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.

CBS Sports Network isn’t the only cable sports network whose existence may be on borrowed time. You know about FS1. Did you know there is an FS2? Did you know beIN Sports still exists? Don’t worry. It seems most major cable operators don’t know it either. The same can be said for networks with names like Eleven Sports, Maverick, and Pursuit.

In fact, when you look at that group of channels, CBS Sports Network is probably in the best shape. It may carry the low end of college football and basketball, but it at least has sports with large, national followings.

Radio simulcasts have always been cheap programming. Once the production costs are recouped, there is a straight-line path to profit. Sports networks on this level will always be interested in carrying radio simulcasts, and that is a good thing. It means better studios and more exposure for the hosts involved. When the suits can have a legitimate debate whether the live sports their network carries will draw as many viewers as the simulcast of a radio show, it may be time to rethink the path forward.

Streaming platforms weren’t built exclusively for niche sports. ESPN+ launched with college football and college basketball at its core. Now that streaming platforms are here to stay though, it should start a conversation and migration.

The cable sports network was never anything more than a prestige play. It was a way to show that a broadcast network was so serious about sports that the few hours it could devote to games would never do. The problem is that ESPN got that memo decades earlier and established a juggernaut.

Even FS1, which has major talent and rights to major college football and basketball and Major League Baseball, is behind the eight ball compared to ESPN. They got a 34 year head start in Bristol! CBS Sports Network is behind FS1 and it has college football, basketball and hockey. It also has the WNBA and the NWSL. Still, it seems like it is on borrowed time. What does that mean for networks that can’t get a league comissioners to take their call?

I like some of the programming on CBS Sports HQ. I think Paramount+ has been a valuable tool this college football season. There would be nothing wrong with CBS shuttering CBS Sports Network. It is just the reality of where we are headed.

CBS aims to grow Sports HQ within its network of streaming channels -  Digiday
Courtesy: CBS

CBS is run by smart people. I have faith they will see the forest thru the trees in sports media and find the right solution before they start losing money. Streaming means consolidation and unfortunately, that means there may not be room for the FS2s, Mavericks, Pursuits, and Eleven Sports of the world. That doesn’t mean the sports those networks carry cannot find a new home. They may even find a home that makes more sense for them and their fans.

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BSM Writers

Can Your Station Create Its Own Holiday?

“Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape.”

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A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!

Disney+ Day: Kareem Daniel Says “Momentum Building” At Streamer After 2  Years – Deadline

Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape. The best part, from a marketing standpoint, is fans were captivated by it. They either didn’t realize it was a commercial or they just didn’t care.

The execution was masterful. Granted, we Star Wars fans were left wanting a bit, but Disney dropped teasers for series and movies we didn’t know were coming and showed the first footage from one we have been anticipating for more than a year now.

I started thinking how a radio station could do this. How could it go out and create its own holiday? How for one day, can we make our fanbase excited and glued to social media eagerly anticipating announcements about what is coming next?

This is going to take some creativity. Disney+ is a platform full of multiple brands with multiple fanbases buying in. A sports talk station is one brand. It has varying levels of fanbases, but largely, your dedicated audience are the people that not only love sports, but also like your programming enough to be called P1s. Is that enough people to build an event like this around?

Who cares if it is or not! Go for it.

One thing that Disney did masterfully on November 12 is it brought partners into the fold and made them a key part of Disney+ Day. Fortnite announced that Boba Fett was coming to its game. TikTok announced Disney character voice changers would be available on the platform. Disney found the kind of partnerships that could spread its holiday to even the Disney+ Day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge.

You can do the same. Surely you have a local brewery as a partner. Can they brew a one day only beer for you? Partner with a restaurant. Can they put your station’s name on the day’s special? Would other partners offer discounts and promotions for celebrating the day? There are a lot of options here.

Now, what are YOU doing on your holiday? Disney has a deep well of franchises. It could squeeze Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, its own studio and more for content and announcements. Again, you are just one brand, but there is still a lot you can do.

Build the day around announcing your special contributors for the football season. Drop new podcasts and play an extended clip on air. Announce new podcasts, the kind of things that will only be available digitally.

Look at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio have created great, multi-episode series that are events for their audience. Like any narrative podcasts, those don’t come together overnight. As long as you have enough audio to build a solid 90 second to 2 minute long preview, you have something worth bringing to the air as part of the celebration.

Do you have a contract you are waiting to expire to make a change in a prime day part? Make your station’s holiday the day that the new talent or show hits the air for the first time. You can do the same for new weekend programs. Whether it is someone new coming to the station or just a new pairing, put them on air for your prime time audience to meet and have your weekday hosts help create some buzz for them.

As for the shows that are on every weekday, you have to make them special that day. Give away a big cash prize. Make the guest list epic – I mean everyone that is on air that day has to be a home run.

The other thing that Disney did so well was work to get all of its divisions involved. Check out this tweet from the Disney Parks account. Every single park around the world lit their iconic building up blue in celebration of the streaming platform’s holiday.

Can you work with other stations in your building? Maybe they won’t give you full on promotion, but between songs, if a DJ brings up a sports topic, would the PD be willing to have them mention that their sister station is celebrating all day? Would a news/talk PD let your talent pop on air to talk sports with their hosts and promote what is happening on your airwaves today?

The answer to these questions could be no. You don’t know if you don’t ask though. Also, if the answer is no, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little backup from your market manager. A station holiday is a major sales initiative after all.

The final piece of this puzzle to take away from Disney is you have to be everywhere. Any local show you air from 6 am until midnight needs to be on location. Fans should have easy access to them. How can they celebrate you if they are not allowed to be where you are?

Use the broadcasts however the sales department sees fit. Take them first to long-established clients to celebrate their loyalty on the station’s holiday. Use them to draw in new clients. Show off what your station can create with its fanbase.

Money has a way of motivating everyone. So, even if your hosts don’t like leaving the studio, these would be remote broadcasts priced at a premium and should have larger-than-usual talent fees attached.

Finally, let’s do something Disney didn’t. I was shocked that a company with this many iconic characters at its disposal and with a CEO that came from the consumer products division, didn’t have a line of merchandise ready to go. Don’t make that same mistake.

Create cool station shirts (not the cheap giveaway crap). Throw the logo on unexpected things like water bottles, bottle openers, facemasks, whatever! Have a merch tent wherever you go. Maybe set up a site to sell it for the day. Make the people come to you to get this stuff.

Twitter is a huge part of promoting what you do. Constantly show off what you are offering and what you have created. That is how Disney sold their event to its most dedicated fans as something not to be missed.

What were we celebrating with Disney+ Day? Nothing. Disney wasn’t even really celebrating anything. It was just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging. Actually, there are a lot of holidays that are just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging.

Valentine Day Digital Ads on Behance

Not every holiday has to celebrate something once in a lifetime. Not every holiday has to even be real. Building your own will take a long lead time, but it is doable. Get sales, promotions and programming in a room and build a plan together. If Disney+ Day taught us anything, it is a valuable way to motivate your fans to spread your message too.

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