Jared Stillman didn’t blink when he was asked to host solo in November. In fact, neither did anyone at ESPN 102.5 The Game in Nashville, even though the station knew it would have to undergo a search to find his next co-host. Floyd Reese, a former GM of the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans, announced his intentions late last year to resign as the co-host of Jared & The GM. Stillman had hosted solo before and it was an incredible luxury for the station, because there wasn’t a mass panic to hurry and fill the spot. Instead, The Game took its time and carefully vetted each candidate to find the best partner for Stillman in afternoon drive.
“I’ve done solo shows before so doing them in November, December and at the beginning of the year wasn’t that hard for me,” said Stillman. “By being able to do a solo show it gave us the opportunity to take our time.”
102.5 The Game being able to take its time with the search, meant the station discovered Caroline Fenton, a social media producer at ESPN in Bristol. Amidst tons of other applicants, the fit seemed natural from the beginning.
“They interviewed a lot of people,” Stillman said. “A lot of people wanted to be on an afternoon drive show in Nashville. I was able to get on a Zoom with her and I thought she was great. She came to Nashville and we got to really know her.”
Things move fast in this industry. After spending a week behind the scenes learning all of the digital elements the station had to offer, she was soon making her debut as the new co-host on Stillman and Company. April 5th was her first full day on the show, just in time for the stretch run for the NFL Draft and smack dab in the middle of the Predators’ regular season.
“I thought it was really well played out,” Stillman said. “I definitely think it’s probably better right now since we’re in the middle of a hockey season and it looks like the Predators are going to make the playoffs. That’s a big deal around here, because we’re the flagship station for the Predators. We had a plan and because of that it’s made the first week a lot easier. What we were doing, it wasn’t like, hey, here’s the mic, go. It was like, hey, here’s the segment you’re going to be a little bit more active and here’s the segment where you’re going to be a little less active. Or even, here’s what we’re going to want digitally. Caroline is really smart and she’s really talented so those things weren’t very difficult at all.”
Stillman has every club in the bag you need as a sports radio host. He can host solo, he can host with the former player or coach and he can even host with someone who wants to share as many strong opinions as him. No matter the situation in the studio, not only can he handle it, but he has the confidence and the talent to turn it into really compelling radio. He’s done different types of shows but this one will signal a very important step for the development of his career.
“It’s kind of like different genres of movies,” Stillman said. “Some guys are comedy actors, some guys are drama guys and some guys are action guys. Then you have someone like Ryan Reynolds who can do all of them. For me, this is a really important step for my development as a host. I try not to make it about me, or think that it’s about me, but it’s a really important step in my development. Floyd was a management guy, but it’s all the same with the ex-coach, ex-GM, ex-player, it’s kind of the same concept. I’ve done those shows and this is a little different.. This is like a Colin Cowherd show or a Bobby Bones show. It’s not just one guy, there’s a crew.
“When we decided to make the show more of a company, I didn’t think we would get someone as talented as Caroline, but our producer Ian, he does a fantastic job on the air and off the air. For me it’s a different experience, because it’s a different kind of show, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think we’re not able to get listeners what they want every day and entertain them, which is really what the whole point is anyway.”
Nashville still has one of the newer franchises in the NHL, but it takes a backseat to nobody when it comes to passion within its fanbase. The state of Tennessee has long been labeled a football state, and that’s still probably true, but you better know hockey if you’re going to talk sports in the Nashville area. Fenton has quickly transitioned herself into daily hockey talk, but knowing exactly what’s happening on the ice can be intimidating for someone that didn’t grow up in a hockey market.
“Hockey is important because that’s what the people here care about,” said Stillman. “It’s like when I worked in Louisville and it was all about college sports. It was all about Louisville and Kentucky. I think Caroline is like any new host when they go into a different city, where they have to feel it out. It doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re not knowledgeable but even I had to learn some things when I got here and I grew up here. I do think Caroline has worked really hard off the air to master it.
“I think too much in radio, and I think this is a much larger issue than Caroline, but we just put a microphone in someone’s face and say go. There’s not an education process. I’ve been in situations where someone stuck a microphone in my face and said go. I just don’t think that’s the best way to do this. Ryan Porth has been our program director for five years and he has the experience on how to bring somebody up.”
Football always rates in every single market in the country, but when it comes to basketball, baseball, hockey or any other sport, it’s pretty much a case-by-case basis. Nashville loves hockey but is it an easy sport to talk about? Is it difficult to make the game sound interesting on radio with so many regular season games?
“You may wear jeans and khakis every day but if you work at Lululemon, you better figure out how to sell yoga pants,” Stillman said. “People care about the Predators, so, you’ve got to watch. Some of our strongest periods were when we did four hours on the Predators during their Stanley Cup run in 2017 and their Presidents Cup season in 2018. I would laugh because here’s Floyd Reese, a 36-year NFL veteran and here he is talking about the power play. And the people loved it. I don’t think it’s any different from any other sport. The one thing you cannot do in sports talk radio right now, no matter the sport, if your audience cares, you can’t look at the game and say, oh, today’s game doesn’t matter so forget about it. Every game matters. How much it matters is how much you think it matters.
“I use Felger and Mazz in Boston as an example. When I used their model, you listen to those guys and every Celtics game matters. Every time they lose they want to talk about blaming the coach. Those guys will go on rants about somebody’s three at bats in a May 13th game with the Red Sox and they will literally drive an hour on someone going 0-3 with a walk and it’s like ‘what are we paying this guy for!’. It moves the needle and I think everyone in sports talk radio needs to adopt that with their own team. Local sports talk radio is not going away, because it’s in live time. Podcasts aren’t. Hosts have to look at what matters to the audience and if it matters to the audience for them to invest three hours of their life watching that game, then it should matter enough to you to watch it and it should matter enough to you to find ways to make discussing that game interesting.”
Give a ton of kudos to 102.5 The Game and how they’ve made the transition as easy as possible for Fenton in the afternoons. Also, give the same amount of kudos to Fenton for buying into what she was being sold and working tirelessly to perfect it. Really, how the station handled this hiring should be a learning tool for others across the country.
But though Stillman and Company seems to have hit the ground running and are hitting their stride, has the identity of the show already been completely formed?
“I try not to predict things like that too far in advance,” Stillman said. “The show is pretty much what this show was built on way back in 2016, which was strong opinions with the Titans and the Predators and whatever else people in Nashville are talking about. I don’t think that’s going to change. We are an opinion show and I don’t ever foresee that changing. I think Caroline is ready to bring her opinions.”
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.