People claim that baseball is boring – that there’s no fun in the game and it’s tough to watch. Well, the folks at NBC Sports Chicago dare you to say that now after several “guest analysts” joined Jason Benetti in the White Sox TV booth for a recent series in Anaheim. Steve Stone was off for the series so the network and its play-by-play man put their collective heads together to come up with some outside the box ideas.
It started with a game in Maui. Benetti and Basketball Hall of Famer, Bill Walton were paired together for the Maui Invitational around Christmas time. A few weeks later Benetti thought how cool it would be to have Walton join him on a baseball broadcast and extended an invitation. It was accepted and the rest was history.
Walton, television producer Michael Schur and Saturday Night Live’s Mike O’Brien were tabbed to fill the analyst role during the three game series against the Angels. I recently sat down with Benetti to get his thoughts on the experience and some behind the scenes stories from the broadcasts.
ANDY MASUR: What are your thoughts after the Bill Walton experience?
JASON BENETTI: It was like if the animals could talk. (laughs) I love Bill dearly.
What it was like is everything that you saw, but it was also just the understanding this guy wants to do a great job every night. He was locked in energy wise for three hours. He had loads of stuff he wanted to talk about and loads of things he didn’t know he wanted to talk about and he did both and we did. And by the way what you didn’t see a whole lot of on the air was, he gave a rousing speech to the Sox pregame.
He was in the clubhouse at 4:40 and he gave about a 15-20-minute speech to the Sox that the coaches were still talking about the next day, without prompting. He was that good and that motivating and that interesting. His story, all of the injuries and sadness, and the mental darkness that comes with it and his ability to thrust himself out of that by seeking joy is something we all could use some of. I know he is blindingly crazy sometimes to the naked eye and to the well-trained Bill Walton eye, both.
He is also a wonderful soul, and I’m glad to be around him whenever I get the chance to, but on the air (pauses) buckle up!
AM: Did the broadcast put any extra pressure on you? Some were tuned in for the experience and yet some still were interested in the game. Can’t please everyone I guess, right?
JB: No. People are going to hate stuff. I don’t even like talking about them because if they don’t understand Bill Walton, they kind of just…they don’t really care. They’re never going to care. They’re never going to have joy out of him. They’ll get their joy from somewhere else, and generally the joy will come from getting angry about something.
Some people just derive joy from getting angry so you know what, frankly because Bill made them a little mad, I’m sure they got some joy out of sniping. So cool, have fun. But there’s a level of happy that he reaches that I would hope that everybody who has never been at that level of joy gets to attain at some point.
AM: If you had a blueprint as to how things would go, did it meet what you thought it would be, or did it go beyond your wildest expectations?
JB: The blueprint for Bill Walton is there is no blueprint. I mean if you try and build any specific house on that lot it will be haunted. The doors will swing open and start to creak. The rattling of the China in the cabinet will begin at about one in the morning, when you know, no one is down there (laughs). That’s how it works. That’s the fun of it.
Sports is supposed to be different every time you watch it, he is different every time you encounter him, except for one constant he has a gloriously kind heart. I want that. I want that in the person next to me, following the paces of the game with me, whatever that is. That’s a key component.
AM: What about the two days following Bill Walton night? Any drop off over the weekend? Both guys displayed some great knowledge of the White Sox and baseball in general.
JB: I’ll start with Sunday. Mike O’Brien is a big Sox fan. He’s a really really funny guy. He’s like obliquely funny. His bit about Jay-Z on SNL is so funny, where he’s just like a white guy, who’s generic and he’s posing as Jay-Z and it’s pretty funny.
Michael Schur is such a big baseball fan and such a creative genius. I mean he created Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 and the Good Place out of whole cloth. He just came up with these environments. The shows are so clever and so witty and so full of mirth, that I was thrilled to share a booth with him. I watched a little of it back and I laughed, quite hard, because by inning three he was just doing things that analysts typically do, like he’s watched so much baseball he was gliding from a story to an observation back to that story. I was like man, he is just such a smart dude, I cannot believe that was called a drop off.
Bill Walton is a high wire entertainer, Mike Schur is as creative of a human being as you’re possibly going to find in America right now, and Mike O’Brien is a really funny guy who evidently hates Betty White. Who knew?
AM: I enjoyed the Detwiler references when Mike Schur was with you. How did you discover that the White Sox pitcher’s name was in an episode of Parks and Rec?
JB: So evidently, I found out via email, because I had emailed Mike Schur and I was like “hey Detwiler might pitch” (he ended up not pitching that day) so get your Missouri State anecdotes ready. He wrote me back saying, “well I actually named a place in Parks and Recs after Ross Detwiler.” So, my old college roommates and I scrambled to figure out where that was in the show, and one of them finally came up with it. My buddy David texted me and said “Season 4, Episode 21, The Bus Tour” and so I went back and watched it. Right at the beginning Leslie (one of the main characters in the show) is giving a stump speech and she says “I want to get rid of all the violent geese in Detwiler Square.”
It’s the only mention of the place, I believe, in the series. Ross was so excited about it he and Mike ended up having like an 8-minute conversation in the clubhouse because Mike named a thing, a place after him.
AM: Tell me about the experience as a whole, put it into perspective about how much fun you had and how successful it was?
JB: It’s up to the audience (how successful it was), but I do want people to know that watching baseball through a different prism is a good thing. It’s always a good thing. Let different people comment on the game every once in a while. Let them be experts in observation, because that’s what we got, right?
We got some questions that the average fan never would ask because they’d be too afraid to ask because they’d be seen as dumb. But Bill Walton’s first question to James McCann (White Sox catcher) was “what’s that makeup you’re wearing under your eyes?”. Well it’s eye black. “How long does it take you to wipe it off?”. Well it’s pretty quick actually. If I’m a kid at home, I want to know that! I’m going to school and I’m like guess what I learned from crazy Bill Walton?
NBC Sports Chicago put together a montage of some of Walton’s greatest lines from the game. I’ll share a few of them with you here.
- Walton to Jason Benetti, “I apologize to your family for ruining your career”
- Yolmer Sanchez laid down a squeeze bunt to score Castillo, Walton exclaimed, “What offense! Brilliant,” Walton said. “This is a strategic victory.”
- Mike Trout took Lucas Giolito deep, “That’s Trout? Swimming upstream, avoiding all the flies and sending one ricocheting through the universe.”
- Some of his comments were just a stream of words, “Woodstock. 50 years. ’79. Full moon. Waterfall. Exploding volcanoes. Baseball. White Sox. Angels. Summertime. No rain on the horizon. Greg Gumbel. Sam Smith. David Axelrod. Wow.”
It was a unique approach and seemed to be, with a few exceptions, received very well. It was a win for NBC Sports Chicago and a huge victory for Benetti, showing all who watched what tremendous talent he has. It couldn’t have been this good without him.
OutKick 360 Isn’t Just Talking To The South Anymore
“We came in with an understanding of Nashville, North Alabama, Southern Kentucky, East Tennessee, West Tennessee and then they email us saying, ‘let’s go for everywhere and see how this thing can grow’.”
When Jonathan Hutton, Paul Kuharsky and Chad Withrow announced they were leaving 104.5 The Zone in January of last year, no one doubted where they would end up. The show, formerly known as The Midday 180, was clearly bound for OutKick. After all, the three hosts had been friends with Clay Travis for years.
The only real question was how would it be delivered to the audience? OutKick wouldn’t be the first company to re-launch what was once a radio show on a digital platform. That wasn’t enough for the trio though.
At The Zone, Hutton, Kuharsky, and Withrow had built a loyal following. It showed in the podcast and streaming numbers, something they didn’t think was valued properly, and it showed in the ratings. This show had a future on terrestrial radio. It was just a matter of introducing it to other stations in the geographic footprint that made the most sense.
“The root of the tree for us is Nashville, Tennessee, the southeast, and it kind of spreads from there,” Kuharsky says. “Based on where we did the show for 10 years, where our initial expertise is, where we have the deepest roots and all of that, it just makes sense.”
OutKick isn’t a little mom-and-pop business. Even before FOX bought the site, it had significant backing behind it. It’s not like the crew, now re-branded as OutKick 360, was flying completely solo.
When you are trying to syndicate a sports radio show though, you may as well be on your own if you do not have the backing of ESPN, FOX Sports, or CBS Sports Radio. Hutton said he was going to rely on that regional expertise as the sales pitch. These are guys that know what sports fans in the Southeast want. He was going to make sure Southern programmers knew that.
“On a Monday morning in April, if you wake up, chances are, if you’re listening to the coast to coast radio, they’re leading off with something New York Knicks or Lakers or they’re going to talk Yankees or they’re going to be discussing the New York Giants or whatever it might be,” Hutton pointed out. “But you can talk now, SEC football, coast to coast and people will tune in as well. NFL sells. Ratings prove that. And that’s what we were going to bring. We’re going to play the hits and speak to an audience in the heartland of America that wants to talk football 365!”
Hutton, Kuharsky, and Withrow have adopted a tag line for their show that makes their priority clear: “bringing sports back to sports talk.” Sure, there may be distractions. FOX Sports suits really got a kick out of Kuharsky talking about how much he spends on Christmas decorations for instance. At their hearts though, these three are sports fans.
That is assumed of all sports radio hosts. When you put the OutKick brand on a show though, people make other kinds of assumptions. After all, the site’s founder Clay Travis has made a hard swerve into the political realm and has made it clear that when he sold the site to FOX, his vision was that it could be “a bridge between FOX Sports and FOX News.”
Hutton says he has a simple message for people that approach the show with preconceived notions: just listen first.
“I would hope they would listen to the show and judge us based on the product. We are the sports branch wherever we have been or will go. And, you know, being agenda-free can be what our show is about when it comes to sports. I don’t care what channel you turn on, there is an agenda there. So our goal is to be agenda-free, and to be authentic in what we’re doing instead of laying down a preconceived line of thinking one way or the other.”
It doesn’t mean that the show is nothing but Xs and Os. Withrow admits that sometimes, the conversation may make you uncomfortable, but just because it might go that direction doesn’t mean it is a political statement.
“If we were to come on and say, you know, ‘this race-baiting episode by ESPN is pathetic,’ well, 95% of sports fans feel that way, but 95% of sports media won’t say it. So when we say it, someone’s going to say, ‘Oh, well, they’re just being political, they’re falling in line’ and I don’t see it that way. I see it as no, this is how sports fans who want sports think.”
Withrow continued, “They think it in black and white, not race. They think in wins and losses, and who’s the better quarterback? So stop infesting everything with some political leaning or just whichever way the wind is blowing. To me, that’s what OutKick was founded on, being fearless and saying what you think, regardless, if it’s going to be popular or not. Certainly what Clay has done has gone into the world of politics, but what we’re doing, if you listen to our show, we really don’t get into politics at all.”
When FOX completed its purchase of OutKick, plenty in the industry wondered what it meant for Hutton, Kuharsky and Withrow. Would FOX want to be in the broadcast radio network business?
Not only was the answer yes, but Withrow says one of the first notes the company had for the OutKick 360 hosts was “think bigger”.
“As Hutton said, we started with a very localized plan with radio stations and we told FOX that’s what we’re going to do. They looked at us like, ‘why the hell not Ohio? Why not Joplin, Missouri? Why not everywhere? You guys are thinking too small’. We came in with an understanding of Nashville, North Alabama, Southern Kentucky, East Tennessee, West Tennessee and they’d email us saying, ‘let’s go for everywhere and see how this thing can grow’.”
So there was the growth plan. OutKick 360 was going to live and die with football, the country’s most popular sport, it was going to be agenda-free in how it talked about the storylines on and off the field, and the hosts were going to be authentic in how they presented themselves to the audience.
There was actually one more ingredient that Hutton wanted to stress. The show was going to sound good.
Back when Covid began and radio shows everywhere had to learn to broadcast from home, it stood out to Hutton just how bad everything on his station sounded. The three asked around and got recommendations for what the right microphone to have was. A friend told them it was the Blue Yeti microphone, so they each went out and got one.
Now, OutKick 360 is broadcast from a state of the art studio and the equipment is upgraded from a $75 podcast microphone. In fact, BSM President Jason Barrett paid a visit to the trio’s 6th & Peabody location during a November business trip, and raved about the setup. He said it was private enough to allow the crew to focus on what was needed for the airwaves, yet also accessible for the hosts to interact with fans and host client events on-site.
Withrow says the location has been a hit and the upgraded technology is important, but in a time when even the biggest shows and networks are getting away with terrible audio quality, the real asset is the people dedicated to upholding a particular standard.
“The advantage that we have is David Reed, our producer, who’s great with audio quality and is a stickler for it. Hutton and David Reed came up in the same school with Titans Radio on audio and quality of the broadcast being paramount to everything. He really carries that with this show.”
OutKick 360 is distributed by Skyview Networks. Just because FOX owns their platform doesn’t mean the show can only do business with FOX Sports Radio affiliates. In fact, Hutton says Skyview has helped “take the show to a completely different level and scope.”
“They provide the horsepower for the OutKick 360 engine, and that allows us to bring advertisers and listeners together with our sports brand. We had several partners and stations already on board, and they were thrilled to learn Skyview was handling the daily distribution for us.”
The trio may have a little more muscle behind them now and the bosses may want them thinking bigger, but Kuharsky says they still have the same attitude when it comes to growing their network.
“It’s certainly open to whatever may come our way or wherever we can get our foot in the door.”
Radio stations interested in adding OutKick 360 can learn more by reaching out to Skyview Networks by clicking here.
Is There A Right Answer To The Olympic PR Problem At NBC?
“NBC is in a no win situation right now.”
Some businesses allow you to operate with a moral compass. You can look at people, companies, or situations and do some quick math on what the blowback would be if you are associated with them and steer clear. Sports media, particularly when it comes to live game rights, isn’t one of those businesses.
NBC is in a no win situation right now. They have to get as many eyeballs as possible on the Beijing Olympics. The network is asking advertisers to spend upwards of $600,000 on a thirty second ad and have made promises about the size of the audience that will see those advertisers’ messages.
At the same time, the network is the focus of public scrutiny for even being in China to begin with. That criticism will be amplified if there is no mention of the many human rights violations the Chinese government has been accused of for decades.
What do you do? You don’t want to give people a reason not to watch. At the same time, you don’t want to give critics ammunition to discredit you as a news organization.
This isn’t just an NBC problem by the way. FOX faced similar scrutiny when it carried the 2018 World Cup, which was played in Russia. It will likely face a lot of the same scrutiny this fall when it carries the 2022 World Cup, which is being played in Qatar. That event in particular has been the subject of some truly horrific stories about the way the people building the new stadiums have been treated.
So what is the path forward? Fans always do some moral calculus when it comes to the ugly side of sports. How much are we willing to tolerate the exploitation of unpaid college athletes? At what point can we no longer tolerate the NFL looking the other way on head injuries?
International sports is a conundrum all its own because you are dealing with laws and customs that may not jive with our culture. Add truly deplorable organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee to the mix and NBC, FOX, and other networks don’t have time for moral calculus. They are checking any concept of right and wrong at the door.
NBC dropped $7.75 billion in 2014 on broadcast rights to every Olympics, both summer and winter, until 2032. The financial terms between FOX and FIFA remain a mystery, but the network will carry both the men’s and women’s World Cup through 2026. The price tag may be very similar to what NBC paid the IOC.
Organizations like FIFA and the IOC want that big pay day. That is why long-term deals are negotiated. Between contractual obligations and the need to turn a profit on a huge investment, networks’ hands are tied.
Given all of the backlash, whether it is because the games are in China, skepticism over how necessary it is we do this in a pandemic (remember, NBC isn’t even sending live broadcast teams to the games), or just a general sense of fatigue given this once-every-two-years event just happened eight months go, NBC might like the option to tag out of the 2022 games. And honestly, who could blame the network for feeling that way?
But NBC and the IOC have a deal. FIFA and FOX have a deal. These American networks are pinned in a corner by having to lock in a significant financial commitment to an organization that has no qualms about doing business with international bad actors.
Truthfully, I don’t know what the right answer is for these networks. It is easy to say “Well, China is bad and Russia is bad and Qatar is bad, so don’t do business with FIFA or the IOC as long as they keep going to those places.”
Reality dictates that isn’t going to be the path NBC, FOX, or any other network takes going forward. These multi-week sporting events provide a lot of inventory and bring with them the chance to rack up huge ad buys.
Events like the World Cup and the Olympics also are more than just sporting events to these networks. They are a chance to generate content for news divisions and a free commercial for their upcoming slate of shows. There is a reason networks see the billions of dollars of value in them that they do.
No one wants to take a PR black eye. Right now, for the most part, at least as far as the American public is concerned, those have been reserved for the governing bodies.
How long does that remain true?
NBC is a major partner of the Olympics that brings a lot of attention and revenue to the table. Forget objectionable host countries. What happens in 2028 when the Games are in LA and then suddenly NBC is the face of silencing Americans raising legitimate concerns about what hosting the Olympics can do to a city?
At some point, every company and private citizen has to do moral calculus. The scariest part for these networks is dealing with broadcast partners like the IOC and FIFA requires having to give an answer before all variables can be revealed to you.
Not every big score requires that kind of risk, but not many events offer what the Olympics and World Cup do. Any network that wants to do business with the IOC and FIFA has to decide if it is willing to swim in the swamp with gators. That usually comes with a few bites.
The moral calculus is pretty simple. How many bites can you take from a gator before the ad buys start to take a hit?
Don’t Let Good Content Disappear, Never To Be Heard Again
There were so many times I’d be frustrated that a good piece of content would be allowed to simply vanish into thin air.
Good content comes out of the speaker daily from the many talented hosts that work in our industry. Unfortunately, the life span of this content is far too short. It happens and then disappears into the ether.
When something good happens on a show, you need to do more than turn it into a promo. You need to repurpose it.
If you work on the content side of the building, here are some key things I feel you should keep in mind to help give your material more staying power.
SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS EVERY DAY, TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT
When I was working as a content director, there were so many times I’d be frustrated that a good piece of content would be allowed to simply vanish into thin air, never to be heard or referenced ever again.
When a host or guest says something that stands out, blast it to EVERY social media channel that you’re on. Do this consistently, not just on the days following a big story. Get everyone in the habit of believing and understanding that good content is put out there EVERY show and they need to keep their ears open for it.
Don’t use audio clips; remember that social media is a VISUAL experience. If you’re videocasting your shows (and you should), put the video up online. If you’re not, create a cool-looking graphic with the quote (or quotes) of what was said. Create a template for every show, so it’s “plug and play” for producers to upload before they leave for the day.
You’ll be surprised how often you can go viral.
MAKE YOUR CONTENT SNACKABLE
People consume content in small portions. No one has the time or the attention span to listen to an entire show or even an entire segment. Yet we deliver content to them in a primarily longform way.
The solution? Make your content snackable.
Take a page out of what every professional sports league does. They realize that few people actually sit and watch an entire game. So they make a point to run well-produced highlight compilations and even condensed games, and upload them to all of their digital platforms.
Radio stations should do the same.
For on-demand consumption, don’t just load your show audio hour-by-hour. Make sure you’re uploading what you felt were the best parts of the program.
Take it a step further and do the same for ALL of your shows. Create a daily “greatest hits” compilation that consists of the best moments from each show, every day. This can not only be loaded onto apps and digital channels, but can also reside comfortably in the smart speaker space. Imagine a consumer coming home from work after a long day and simply saying “Alexa, play today’s greatest hits from 101 The Fan!” They’d get a highlight real of all the good things that they missed.
Naturally, these can be sponsored, which is certainly another plus and always justifies the extra work that goes into making this happen.
OFFER IT AS MATERIAL FOR OTHER SHOWS
I’ve said this before, some of the best content that I’ve heard was hosts talking about what other hosts said on their shows.
It doesn’t happen often enough, and the biggest reason continues to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for virtually every industry: lack of communication.
Every show should have a written recap of what was discussed and when it was discussed, and that should be sent out to everyone who has a hand in content. (Hosts, producers, board ops, production staff, marketing, etc.)
Go the extra mile and have the actual audio of the good content sent out to the other shows so they don’t have to hunt for it on their own. This was something, even during my days managing stations, I would do on the regular. If I heard something great on the morning show, I would find the audio and send a clip of it to the midday and afternoon shows. Even if they didn’t use it, it would get hosts and producers in the habit of paying attention to what was said on our other programs.
If you have a sister spoken-word station in your cluster, get in the habit of sharing material with them when and where it fits.
Sometimes, the back-and-forth that can go on between shows ends up being legendary. It’s an opportunity you don’t want to waste.
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