I’ve been fortunate over the past six years to work with a lot of sports radio stations across the country. I haven’t publicized most of those partnerships on BSM or my social media pages because I don’t seek validation for my work. Those who work with me know what I add to their organization, and as long as they’re pleased with my contributions, that’s all that matters. Any additional publicity they’ve received on this site has been earned by performance, not because they agreed to work with yours truly.
But today I am going to recognize a client because Steven Griffin and his team at 1010XL, 92.5 FM do radio the right way. Chances are you know little about Steven, even if you’re aware of his radio station. That’s by design. He’d rather his team earn the credit for their efforts, and focus his energies on serving the audience and his advertisers, instead of seeking the spotlight for his own contributions. Fortunately I was able to twist his arm and convince him to be a part of this series.
The first time I arrived in Jacksonville to work with Steven’s team, I walked in the front door to find a custom graphic on their front lobby television screen with my name on it welcoming me to town. As small as that gesture may have been to whoever created it, it made an immediate positive impression. It told me ‘we’re glad you’re here, thanks for making the time to come work with us.’ Those little touches can make a big impact when you do business with people. Having spent more time working with Steven’s crew since, I’ve learned that it wasn’t just a small trick used to impress people who walk thru the door. This is how they operate every day. It’s why I enjoy working with them.
What’s truly astounding is how 1010XL has managed to keep a successful air staff together for 15 years and continue thriving. Sports as a format features many talented, driven personalities seeking big stages and larger paychecks. Being able to retain top personalities in market 46 long-term can be difficult unless people love where they live, where they work, and who they’re working for. That becomes even more important when you consider that many of the talent at 1010XL have shared responsibilities in sales as well as programming. Yet as the station prepares to celebrate fifteen years of excellence, many of the faces and voices familiar to Jacksonville sports radio listeners are as excited and thankful today as they were when the station arrived.
Some corporate groups may have advantages such as more signals, more resources, more audio platforms, and larger facilities, but 1010XL is more than comfortable with the position they’ve earned – being Jacksonville’s best live and local sports radio station. Steven and his team believe in the power of radio, they’ve used their airwaves to help clients grow their businesses, and while others may run from the R word in search of other emerging opportunities, the Seven Bridges Radio group sees plenty of value in being identified as Jacksonville’s destination for sports talk radio.
As a standalone operator, I thought it’d be interesting to share some of Steven’s experiences, and pick his brain on the challenges that come with being locally owned and operated. Having built a business myself, I have a ton of respect and admiration for anyone who can create a vision, put it into action, and turn it into a success for a lengthy period of time. Consistent excellence depends on many factors such as producing results, treating people right, knowing when to take a risk or pass on an opportunity, building and maintaining healthy relationships, creating a culture that others want to be part of, and giving listeners and advertisers reasons to continue supporting you. That may sound simple and easy to execute, and for 1010XL it is because it’s part of their DNA. But rather than hear that from me, learn about it yourself from the Market Manager of Jacksonville sports radio station 1010XL, 92.5 FM, Steven Griffin. Enjoy!
JB: I know your first GM jobs were in Scranton and Jacksonville, but I want to start this conversation by going back in time to your initial entry into the radio business. Where did it begin and what were you doing?
SG: Out of college, I was a journalism major. I had thought about going to law school but after looking at the big LSAT catalog and thought ‘maybe not’. So there was a posting on the board about a new radio station being started in Morgantown, West Virginia where I was at. They were looking for people who could wear many hats, sell, be on the air, write copy, etc.. So I met with them and took that gig right out of school.
From there, I was in copywriting for a while in Charleston where I got more into the sales side. I saw there was more money and prestige in that side of the business. After that I left radio for about six or seven years because I got married and wanted to stay in Morgantown. Eventually though I got a call from the West Virginia radio corporation. The timing was right so I went back into radio and was fortunate enough to be with a good company as the sales manager of a country station. I was there for a while and then went to Greenville-Spartanburg for a while. After that I had a cup of coffee in Raleigh before going to Memphis as a Sales Manager for Entercom. Then came the call from a head hunter about the GM job in Scranton.
JB: When that call came and you were asked to lead an entire operation, how did you know you were ready to oversee everything not just the sales department?
SG: In West Virginia, Greenville, and Memphis I was one of those people who people would come to for help. When the folks in Scranton called I thought it was a good next step for me and I thought ‘I’ll see if I can do it.’ It was a big cluster, eleven stations, and they were spread out all over god’s creation. I saw it as a good opportunity to see what could happen if I gave it a shot. We were facing some healthy Entercom stations in the market, they had won for something like twenty years in a row. Fortunately for us, a year and a half in our AC station beat them and we had four or five of our stations in the Top 5. I made my share of mistakes but also learned a lot and next got a call from another head hunter about coming to Jacksonville to work for Salem. My family and I wanted to move back south. We loved the weather. So I took the job here. Spent some time with Salem. Things didn’t last with them, but it got me to the right place because now I’m here and have been for fifteen years and love what I’m doing.
JB: So being in the market for a bit gave you a chance to see how the market was being served from a sports radio standpoint. Given that you jumped on board to help build 1010XL, I assume you felt there was opportunity to grab a leadership position in the sports radio space.
SG: I did. I knew it was underserved locally. There was way too much syndication. Jacksonville is a great market for sports. There are super passionate fans here. They love the Jaguars, the Gators, the SEC schools, Florida State and there’s even interest in Triple A baseball and some of the other minor league sports. That’s not including High School sports which is a big deal here. So a signal became available, we looked at the opportunity, rounded up some local investors and one out of Chicago and decided to give this a shot.
JB: Do you remember what your original lineup was?
SG: That’s 15 years ago so I may be off on something but I’ll give it a shot. Dan Hicken and Jeff Prosser were still in morning drive. Rick Ballou and Tom McManus were together in the middays. I think Sean Woodland was involved in the middle of the day too. He was a TV sports guy. Frank Frangie and Mike Dempsey worked together in afternoons. And we also had an evening sports talk show, and Joe Block, who’s now a play by play guy for the Pittsburgh Pirates was part of it along with Terry Norvell.
JB: What’s impressive is that many of those names you just mentioned are still on the station and remain very strong. Knowing how this format constantly tinkers with things and loses good personalities to other situations, how have you managed to keep the band together?
SG: I think it’s a combination of not dictating, and trusting them to do what’s right on the shows, and continue looking at what’s best for sports in this market. I knew I had to get the best talent and it had to be local. To me, radio is a local companion medium. If you don’t have that person at the mall, restaurant or church who’s saying ‘hey I love listening to you, I like your radio station’, you’re missing the mark. That to me is what radio is and that’s who we’ve been. I wanted people here who people knew and who I thought had talent. And they do.
I also wanted to make sure we had a team that was dependable and proven. When we were fortunate to land the Jaguars seven years ago, I knew we had someone like Mike Dempsey who could host a show like Jaguars Today and do it justice. Jeff and Dan in the mornings have always done their own thing and it’s connected with our audience. We talk over the important things and they know the parameters and they all work well within them. When I’ve felt we needed a different perspective I’ve been able to call someone like you to come in and help and they still care about what they do and want to get better. Another thing that makes this a little unique too is our guys all generate revenue. They do great radio but also help create 25% of our sales. They’re accustomed to going out and selling themselves and the brand and it’s helped them make a better living financially while also helping the radio station.
JB: I’m glad you mentioned that because as you know, that’s not common everywhere. Your guys don’t seem like they’re bothered by having to do sales, they really seem to enjoy it and excel at it. How have you been able to keep them productive and interested in doing both at a high level?
SG: Honestly, I don’t have some magic answer for it. They all had it to begin with. They have a good grasp on the business. They’ll look at things and say ‘my show might be worth X in market 46 but if I can generate additional revenue on the sales end, it can bring my number higher’. They know the importance of it and what it means to the radio station’s sustainability. I’m lucky to have a bunch of guys who are self driven. We’re also far enough along now as a station with these hosts that there’s a certain level of credibility that’s been earned and that’s made it easier than it used to be.
When we started out though it wasn’t easy. The recession hit in 2008, a year or two after we started, so we took our lumps. But having gone thru that, I can tell you that when the pandemic hit last year, the station did better than most in the market and some other sports stations who we talked to during the past year. Our hosts lost almost nothing. They kept most of their business intact. Maybe a month off here or there, but by the time football season arrived it was all there. It was kind of amazing and tells me that if the station didn’t get results, clients wouldn’t stay. But they do get results, and our guys are really good at building and maintaining relationships. Sales will never be their #1 focus though – it will always be the on-air show. That’s what they love to do. But they’ll never miss an opportunity to prospect a new client or make a call to keep a client happy. That was ingrained in them so I can’t take credit for it.
JB: If you were in another market, would you try to replicate this same strategy?
SG: Absolutely. I don’t think enough talent understand their influence. These guys take it seriously and they earn talent fees for doing it. They connect with their advertisers and make sure that when they’re doing live reads for them that they give it a personal touch. A big reason why we’re a #1-#2 local biller in this market is because of our talent selling. If I were in some other town and had enough local talent, I’d absolutely do the same thing because it works.
JB: In your market, you have to compete against others for ad dollars as a standalone. Unlike some of the other corporate groups, you can’t go in with a pitch involving 5-6 stations. How are you able to create that feeling that advertisers need to be on your radio station?
SG: The first thing is that we are unique to the market because we’re live and local so much. If nothing else, we’re a local radio station and we’ve never changed that. We’ve never dropped in Dan Patrick or Colin Cowherd when they’ve been available just to save a little money. Pretty much M-F 6a-10p we are live and local. We can do a lot of things during that time whether it’s endorsing, tailoring a special piece of content, all because we have that flexibility.
The second thing is, we don’t swim in the same pools that some of the corporate folks do. Our strategy has always been to focus on local accounts for local radio. We have some agency business but it’s mostly local agency. We don’t get a lot of regional, and absolutely no national business. We don’t accept a lot of those national deals because the rates just don’t make sense for us.
When you’re dealing 1 on 1 with our company and the owner or client is meeting me, the sales manager, the hosts who are delivering his endorsements, that goes a long way. Sometimes it might be a husband and wife duo and they come in with their son or daughter to watch the show for a bit. It’s very much a relationship where both sides want to help each other. Radio is still entertaining, fun, and informative, and it has value for local businesses. We go after accounts and are very strict telling our sales team ‘don’t waste your time here or there, this is who we are so let’s do what we’re good at.’ Because we get results, they stick with us. When we go visit somebody we’re not meeting with the manager of a chain. We’re visiting the owner himself. That helps.
JB: You mentioned the word unique and that’s probably the best way I’ll describe this next item because what you’ve done in Jacksonville to elevate the perception of women as on-air talent is unique. Jessica Blaylock, Amanda Bourges, Mackenzie Thirkill, Lauren Brooks and others, have all earned opportunities on the radio station, but what especially stands out is how you’ve put them together for a Tuesday night show titled ‘Helmets & Heels’. Given that this is such a heavily dominated male format, why was it important to you to put women together on the air and give them a chance to host shows, and what have you learned from doing it that might be helpful to others in the format who are reading this and might consider doing something similar in their own markets?
SG: I never looked at gender. It’s about the voice and what it has to say. I would listen back in the day to Jessica, Donna, Lauren and others and their perspectives stood out and added something to the conversation that we didn’t have available on the radio station. It wasn’t rocket science. We had a lot of time available as a local station so we took these different voices and put them together. I’ve been fortunate to see many of them move on to bigger and better things and now when they come back and think about us it’s usually positive.
What I have learned is that it’s a never ending process. You have to continually look. When I started the show I thought it had potential one day to be a daily show. I’ve got a good team on the air now and even then we’re talking to someone else about doing some shows with them. That’s just what you do to keep something working. Our best shows tend to be when we have 4 of them together, but it also depends on the mix. The bottom line, you have to be open to different ways of presenting content to your audience.
JB: You recently did a business deal with the University of Florida to bring Gators Athletics on to 1010XL-92.5 FM. How important was that move for your brand?
SG: We’re very excited about it. It only took us 14 years to get it (laughs). After the Jaguars, which is and will always be our #1 priority, on our station they’re undefeated, the next biggest sports entity in town is the Florida Gators. 15-18 years ago when I got here, the Gators were extremely popular. That was when Steve Spurrier just left. I think there are somewhere between thirty and forty thousand Gators football season ticket holders in Jacksonville or the First Coast area, and I know Tampa and Orlando are bigger but Jacksonville has a lot invested in the Gators.
When the deal became available previously, we went after it pretty hard. I knew that we would mostly get inventory in game. There were no rights fees or anything like that. I thought it was a relationship worth pursuing and we’d have a chance to monetize it while simultaneously helping them tap into more of their fan base here. We didn’t get the deal. They chose to stay with iHeart because they had been with them for twenty years or so and had great relationships there. We were disappointed, but I understood the situation.
But then their station in Jacksonville flipped to Gospel, and we started getting calls because I think they missed airing a couple of games. I told them ‘if you need help, just let me know, no obligation.’ I made sure they knew we wanted them. Then one day out of nowhere, I was meeting with Dan Hicken from the morning show, and he asked ‘have you heard anything about the Gators?’ All of a sudden the phone rang and it was Learfield IMG telling me they wanted to go with us. We were obviously excited. So they sent over the deal and we’re now working with them for the next 4 years. All we did on our end was make sure we were prepared in case the opportunity came up.
JB: You brought up before how important the Jaguars are to your station. They’re the lone professional franchise in the market so they have massive appeal to your listeners and advertisers, not to mention a strong influence. How do you navigate the relationship when the on the field results aren’t good? Everyone in your building would prefer they win so it keeps people excited, tuning in, and clients wanting to spend more money to be associated with them, but if they’re not delivering wins, critical opinions have to be shared by your talent because the audience expects honesty from them. How do you essentially serve the audience without ticking off a value business partner?
SG: When Jaguars president Mark Lamping got here, one of the first things he said was ‘we don’t want you guys to change a thing….if we’re not good on the field, you can say that. Be who you are.’ He understood. I have never told anyone to tone it down or don’t say that or laid out guidelines for what can and can’t be said about the team. I think everyone on our staff understands the value of the partnership, but we also respect and value our listeners, and are truthful with them.
I will say this, everybody likes to preach hope even sometimes when it’s not there. I think on your website Mike Dempsey said ‘it’s almost better when they’re not doing well because everyone wants a shoulder to cry on’. I don’t agree with that 100%. When you’re a few games below .500 and there’s no hope for landing a playoff spot, that to me is the worst spot to be in but I can tell you that in 2017 when the Jags advanced to the AFC title game this place was on fire. There are passionate fans here. They want to support the Jags. With Urban here now and Trevor expected tomorrow night, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. We’re glad to be partners with the Jaguars, but if the results aren’t there on the field, we have the flexibility to address what’s going on.
JB: I want to ask you about working without numbers. Your brand has been very successful without subscribing to Nielsen, generating consistent revenues year after year. You’ve demonstrated you don’t need the data to operate a productive and profitable business. But how do you evaluate the progress of your brand without that information?
SG: Two words – Jason Barrett.
SG: No seriously. I know I don’t know everything and everyone in here doesn’t know everything. I try to read and learn things all the time but having people around who can bring things to the table to help us improve is important. I try to get consensus when we’re looking at things. Some managers will say that’s not a good move but for us in our family atmosphere, it is. I never make a big decision without asking for input. It doesn’t mean I still won’t go with what my gut tells me but I’ll always listen to what sales, the air staff and engineering have to say. I guess if there’s a downfall to not having the ratings it’s not being able to go in and see how each show looks with Men 25-54 and other demographics but we hold our own.
JB: Having a talented, professional lineup though that’s been part of the community for 15 years and possesses good content judgment and sales relationships probably makes that something easier for you to live without.
SG: It does. I read Jeff Tyler’s comments last week where he talked about KFAN and how they brought in the talent, gave it time to grow, and now it’s become its own little entity. We may not be KFAN but maybe in Jacksonville we’re similar to that to our audience and advertisers. He made the point about people listening and not being able to get it at first and I can relate to that. We have some of that here. We’ve been blessed that our investor base has been patient with us and allowed us to go thru some ups and downs and a few mistakes I made along the way but we never knee jerked anything and we’ve always stayed committed to being live and local. Fortunately we’ve had people want to stay here, work here, and succeed here.
JB: I’ll wrap up with you on this. You’ve gotten more involved with original podcast content, video, the focus on social has grown, and you’ve also added Action Updates from VSiN. The sports media landscape is rapidly changing so all of these things are important. When you look at the future of sports talk, what are you keeping your eyes and ears on that you think are going to be important for the growth of your brand?
SG: Well, it depends. As a standalone, we’re never going to have the resources that an iHeart, Cox or Audacy have. I can’t go out and buy every audio platform that’s out there. One of the advantages we have is being able to turn on a dime when we need to. When sports betting becomes legal in Florida, and I think it will, we’re going to be able to take advantage of that. Video we have found to be advantageous, at least so far in the first quarter, and it’s helped us not only sharpen our tools as a sales organization, but it’s allowed us to sponsor some new things using the talent we have that have TV skills. We haven’t even touched the high school or local realm of some of the things we’re going to do.
And then as far as podcasting is concerned, we’ve taken valuable advice from someone who may or may not be part of this conversation and have focused our efforts on doing fewer things really well and sponsoring them instead of trying to do twenty or thirty or forty and have most of them miss the mark. Some of these things may move a little slowly and we’ll gravitate and work quicker towards the ones that we can monetize and deliver the most value for our fans. I can tell you, we’ve done a good job creating quality programming and selling our inventory but there’s always room for improvement. We’re always looking to get better. We can be a little more patient and selective because we’re not dictated to by some corporate place that’s thousands of miles from us and doesn’t know us very well. We have investors who know this market, they support our vision, and I want to please the market that’s here because they’re a big reason why we’ve made it this far.
Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?
How many times have you heard this sentence uttered at conferences or in one of the trades; radio has to do a better job of telling its story. Sounds reasonable enough right? After all, your brands and companies stand a better chance of being more consumed and invested in the more that others know about them.
But what specifically about your brand’s story matters to those listening or spending money on it? Which outlets are you supposed to share that news with to grow your listenership and advertising? And who is telling the story? Is it someone who works for your company and has a motive to advance a professional agenda, or someone who’s independent and may point out a few holes in your strategy, execution, and results?
As professionals working in the media business, we’re supposed to be experts in the field of communications. But are we? We’re good at relaying news when it makes us look good or highlights a competitor coming up short. How do we respond though when the story isn’t told the we want it to? Better yet, how many times do sports/news talk brands relay information that isn’t tied to quarterly ratings, revenue or a new contract being signed? We like to celebrate the numbers that matter to us and our teams, but we don’t spend much time thinking about if those numbers matter to the right groups – the audience and the advertisers.
Having covered the sports and news media business for the past seven years, and published nearly eighteen thousand pieces of content, you’d be stunned if you saw how many nuggets of information get sent to us from industry folks looking for publicity vs. having to chase people down for details or read things on social media or listen to or watch shows to promote relevant material. Spoiler alert, most of what we produce comes from digging. There are a handful of outlets and PR folks who are great, and five or six PD’s who do an excellent job consistently promoting news or cool things associated with their brands and people. Some talent are good too at sharing content or tips that our website may have an interest in.
Whether I give the green light to publish the material or not, I appreciate that folks look for ways to keep their brands and shows on everyone’s radar. Brand leaders and marketing directors should be battling daily in my opinion for recognition anywhere and everywhere it’s available. If nobody is talking about your brand then you have to give them a reason to.
I’m writing this column today because I just spent a day in New York City at the Disney Upfront, which was attended by a few thousand advertising professionals. Though I’d have preferred a greater focus on ESPN than what was offered, I understand that a company the size of Disney with so many rich content offerings is going to have to condense things or they’d literally need a full week of Upfronts to cover it all. They’re also trying to reach buyers and advertising professionals who have interests in more than just sports.
What stood out to me while I was in attendance was how much detail went into putting on a show to inform, entertain, and engage advertising professionals. Disney understands the value of telling its story to the right crowd, and they rolled out the heavy hitters for it. There was a strong mix of stars, executives, promotion of upcoming shows, breaking news about network deals, access to the people responsible for bringing advertising to life, and of course, free drinks. It was easy for everyone in the room to gain an understanding of the company’s culture, vision, success, and plans to capture more market share.
As I sat in my seat, I wondered ‘why doesn’t radio do this on a local level‘? I’m not talking about entertaining clients in a suite, having a business dinner for a small group of clients or inviting business owners and agency reps to the office for a rollout of forthcoming plans. I’m talking about creating an annual event that showcases the power of a cluster, the stars who are connected to the company’s various brands, unveiling new shows, promotions and deals, and using the event as a driver to attract more business.
Too often I see our industry rely on things that have worked in the past. We assume that if it worked before there’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the client. Sometimes that’s even true. Maybe the advertiser likes to keep things simple and communicate by phone, email or in-person lunch meetings. Maybe a creative powerpoint presentation is all you need to get them to say yes. If it’s working and you feel that’s the best way forward to close business, continue with that approach. There’s more than one way to reach the finish line.
But I believe that most people like being exposed to fresh ideas, and given a peak behind the curtain. The word ‘new’ excites people. Why do you think Apple introduces a new iPhone each year or two. We lose sight sometimes of how important our brands and people are to those not inside the walls of our offices. We forget that whether a client spends ten thousand or ten million dollars per year with our company, they still like to be entertained. When you allow business people to feel the excitement associated with your brand’s upcoming events, see the presentations on a screen, and hear from and interact with the stars involved in it, you make them feel more special. I think you stand a better chance of closing deals and building stronger relationships that way.
Given that many local clusters have relationships with hotels, theaters, teams, restaurants, etc. there’s no reason you can’t find a central location, and put together an advertiser appreciation day that makes partners feel valued. You don’t have to rent out Pier 36 like Disney or secure the field at a baseball stadium to make a strong impression. We show listeners they’re valued regularly by giving away tickets, cash, fan appreciation parties, etc. and guess what, it works! Yes there are expenses involved putting on events, and no manager wants to hear about spending money without feeling confident they’ll generate a return on investment. That said, taking calculated risks is essential to growing a business. Every day that goes by where you operate with a ‘relying on the past’ mindset, and refuse to invest in growth opportunities, is one that leaves open the door for others to make sure your future is less promising.
There are likely a few examples of groups doing a smaller scaled version of what I’m suggesting. If you’re doing this already, I’d love to hear about it. Hit me up through email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com. By and large though, I don’t see a lot of must-see, must-discuss events like this created that lead to a surplus of press, increased relationships, and most importantly, increased sales. Yet it can be done. Judging from some of the feedback I received yesterday talking to people in the room, it makes an impression, and it matters.
I don’t claim to know how many ad agency executives and buyers returned to the office from the Disney Upfront and reached out to sign new advertising deals with the company. What I am confident in is that Disney wouldn’t invest resources in creating this event nor would other national groups like NBC, FOX, CBS, WarnerMedia, etc. if they didn’t feel it was beneficial to their business. Rather than relying on ratings and revenue stories that serve our own interests, maybe we’d help ourselves more by allowing our partners and potential clients to experience what makes our brands special. It works with our listeners, and can work with advertisers too.
Brandon Kiley Doesn’t Pretend To Be Someone He’s Not
“There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it.”
There must have been something about Brandon Kiley that everyone saw as a young aspiring sports radio host. Nick Wright saw enough to bring him to Houston at SportsRadio 610 as an intern for a summer. Will Palaszczuk saw enough to urge him to apply for his old job in Columbia, MO at KTGR. Ben Heisler saw enough to know he’d fit perfectly with Carrington Harrison in afternoon drive at 610 Sports in Kansas City.
Maybe you can chalk it up to Kiley being able to make such great contacts. Or maybe it’s just that he was supremely talented at a young age. Odds are it’s a combination of both. But he was destined to be a sports talk host somewhere, it just turns out he’s having success over the air in a city he never imagined he’d work in.
A Kansas City kid, Kiley knew at 16 years old he wanted to be a sports radio host. He was even more sure of it when he started doing college radio at Mizzou. But it was in Houston where he got his real taste of what sports radio was like.
“I went to 610 in Houston for the morning show with Nick Wright,” Kiley said. “He basically just assigned me as an extra producer. We had known about each other through Twitter and I had a little bit of a relationship with him beforehand. I think he knew I was willing and able to take on more tasks than a typical intern would usually do. Essentially, I became an extra guest booker, cut audio for them, and came up with topics at night. It was like he had an extra producer for the summer and it was my first real experience doing something like that.”
Imagine the confidence he left Houston with as he traveled back to Columbia for another year of college at Mizzou. Few, if any, on campus could have claimed the kind of summer Kiley just had. He parlayed that experience into a once-a-week show at KCOU, the student radio station. The following semester, he pitched the idea of doing a daily show
“I told them I’d take any time slot available,” Kiley said. “The one that I got was the very glamorous 6-7 am time slot. There weren’t a whole lot of college kids that wanted to wake up that early every morning. I ended up having a rotating cast of co-hosts and it ended up being super valuable because I learned how to work with a lot of types of personalities.”
He excelled as a host and found his style behind the mic, and soon after, he got his first big break. In March of 2014, Will Palaszczuk contacted Kiley and told him he was taking another radio job outside the market. The two knew of each other, seeing as both were in Columbia and covering the same games in town. Palacsuk told Kiley he needed to apply for the spot he was leaving at KTGR.
“There was literally one sports station and one sports show in town and it was that one,” Kiley said. “I applied to him the previous semester and said, hey man, if you guys have anything available I would love to come work there. It just so happened he got a job elsewhere and he called me up and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t know what your plans are, I’m about to take another job and they’re going to post my job available. I don’t know if they’re going to make it a producer or co-host gig, but I think you should apply because I think you’d be good at it’. Will’s good work helped a ton in terms of me landing the gig. I graduated and told them I wanted to make it full-time.I was essentially a producer and co-host for the afternoon show. I never even applied anywhere outside of Columbia”
For two years, Kiley stayed at KTGR and covered the Missouri Tigers. He was fresh out of college and living in a college town doing what he loved in his early 20’s. It wasn’t a bad life. But one night in Columbia changed his entire professional career. It just so happened it occurred on the rooftop at Harpo’s, one of the most well-known establishments in town.
“My roommate at the time, we both worked at the radio station in Columbia,” said Kiley. “He worked at the hit music station and I worked at the sports station. We all went out one night at Harpo’s and he said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you guys know I’m getting out of radio and moving to Kansas City.’ I was like, oh shit, what am I going to do? Our lease was up in two months, so the timing worked out well and I was looking at Barrett Sports Media looking where I could go next.”
“My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was from St. Louis and there was a job available there. I had always thought, that’s not a place I want to live, why would I ever want to live in St. Louis? They didn’t have a football team, it just didn’t seem like a great fit for me. But my buddy tells me he’s moving and I’m like, St, Louis it is! That night I ended up applying for the job and got a call back from Chris “Hoss” Neupert, who at the time was the PD here, and asked if I would be interviewed with him and Kevin Wheeler, whose show I would be producing.”
So off to St. Louis he goes. For three and a half years, Kiley embraces his new city and tries to work his way up at 101 ESPN.
But the Kansas City kid felt a pull back to his hometown. Oddly enough, Ben Heisler even reached out to tell him he was leaving the station to pursue another opportunity in sports. It felt like the perfect time to pursue his dream of doing sports radio at the station he grew up listening to.
“I’m from Kansas City and grew up listening to 610 Sports Radio,” Kiley said. “A guy I listened to growing up was Nick Wright. I also listened to a bunch of Carrington Harrison, Danny Parkins and Ben Heisler. Those guys had what I consider one of the best shows in Kansas City sports radio history. I got to know them through Twitter and Heisler sent me a text. He knows I’ve always been interested in moving to KC. He tells me he’s about to get out of radio and into more fantasy football stuff and his job is going to come open.
“I had applied for multiple other jobs in KC over the years and had never gotten any real consideration. When Heisler left, I knew Carrington and thought this might work out. I ended up getting in contact with their PD Steven Spector and it felt like a real opportunity. I got what I considered to be my dream job, producing in the afternoons and hosting a Saturday show at 610 Sports. I thought, what could there be more in life than this? This is the best.”
But life happened and he had to make a decision around three months after moving to Kansas City.
“2-3 months later it became clear, it was going to be difficult for my girlfriend, now wife, to move to Kansas City with all of the family ties she had in St. Louis,” said Kiley. “It was the decision of, do you stay in Kansas City and chase the dream or do we alter the dream, in terms of the job, and see if there’s anything in St. Louis?”
He never thought his best years and most successful years as a sports radio host would come in St. Louis but they have. It’s a city he loves and he’s worked hard in hopes it will love him back. But he’s also not going to pretend to be someone he’s not. Though it can sometimes be hard for St Louisans to accept someone that’s not from there, Kiley doesn’t act like he attended World Series games in 1982, listened to Jack Buck growing up or watched Kurt Warner at the Edward Jones Dome. He’s himself.
“That wasn’t my love and I can’t pretend that it was,” said Kiley. “Have there been times, especially early on where that was a potential issue for me? Yeah it was. There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it. It does in a lot of ways remind me of Kansas City, where if you take the time to know what the soul of the city really is, in terms of sports, I think people can appreciate and respect it.”
Kiley doesn’t hold on to his Kansas City roots on the air, in terms of the topics he talks about. He’s a Chiefs fan and even writes for Arrowhead Pride, but he’s not going to talk a lot about the Chiefs in a city that doesn’t have an NFL team. He’s also a Mizzou grad and talks about the teams on Rock M Nation, but again, he’s rarely, if ever, going to do several segments a day on the Tigers. Instead, he knows the audience wants to hear about the Cardinals. Blues talk is clearly next in line. Everything else falls down the order if not off of it completely.
Kiley grew up watching baseball, so he can easily break down what issues the Cards’ offense may be having in the middle of May, but hockey was different. He didn’t grow up around the game and the transition to having in-depth conversations on the Blues was a more difficult task.
“When I came here the first time it was during the middle of a Blues’ playoff run. At that time I was just plopped into this thing, and I didn’t know shit about hockey. I had probably watched about 10 hockey games in my entire life. I’m looking at Kevin Wheeler like, I’ve got to be honest I don’t have a lot on hockey I’m going to be able to help you with. If you could help bring me along with it, that would be great. Over the years I’ve been able to take it in. I used to host a show with Jamie Rivers, who’s a former Blues player. If you told me five years ago I’d be able to do that, much less enjoy doing that, I would have said you’re out of your damn mind.”
Whereas most sports radio shows in football markets are searching for content to help fill segments, this is one of the sweetest times of the year for Kiley and everyone at 101 ESPN. The Blues are deep in the playoffs and the Major League Baseball season is underway. His show BK and Ferrario covers it all every weekday from 11 am – 2 pm.
Kiley never thought this would be his life, but he loves what he’s built in St.Louis and doesn’t give off the vibe he’s looking to leave anytime soon. He’s a great example of someone who didn’t pigeonhole himself into just one market. He was willing to look outside of his hometown and has found true success.
Will Middlebrooks Has Been The Breakout Star Of The Red Sox Season
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?”
The Boston Red Sox experience in 2022 is just different. In every way.
The team has struggled out of the gate. They certainly aren’t the team that was two wins away from the World Series last year.
Fenway Park doesn’t even accept cash anymore.
But it’s not just that the Red Sox are different on the field or at the ballpark – they are different on television too.
When loveable, longtime Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy died in October 2021 at the age of 68, we knew that consuming the Red Sox on TV would never be the same.
There is no replacing Jerry Remy. One person can’t do it. No way.
And the fans know it.
The bosses at the NESN know it too. They haven’t tried to replace Remy on the broadcasts with just one person.
In fact, they’ve brought in several new people to the broadcast team. A group of people just rotating in, giving viewers a different experience and a different perspective every night.
They’ve added former Red Sox players Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar to the broadcast booth roster. They’ve added Tony Massarotti of 98.5 The Sports Hub as well.
And in the pre- and post-game studio, they’ve taken a similar approach, which is an extension of previous years, mixing and matching host Tom Caron with a slew of former Red Sox players including Jim Rice, Tim Wakefield, Ellis Burks, Lenny DiNardo, and former Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks, who will be in the studio for about 40 games this season.
I think that NESN has found a formula that works. It’s been fun and informative – and different. In a year that serves as a constant reminder of what’s been lost as a viewer, it’s refreshing to realize that these broadcast teams are giving you something gained.
A star is born.
When I mentioned to Caron that I wanted to write a piece on Middlebrooks, he said: “He’s a rising star.”
And it’s easy to see why he feels that way.
Will Middlebrooks is young (33), accessible, opinionated, active on social media, and he has the playing resume to legitimize his point of view.
But it took some real coaxing to get into the business in the first place. After a devastating leg injury ended his playing career in 2019, Middlebrooks was unhappy.
“I sat around and sulked and was angry about it for about three months,” he said. “And my wife, Jenny (Dell), finally said, ‘You need to get off your butt and do something, find not just, work, but find something you’re passionate about again.’”
He didn’t know at that time that he was passionate about media work, but Dell, who works for CBS Sports, volunteered him to do a show at CBS Sports HQ in Ft. Lauderdale, near where their family resides.
“She said, like it or not, you have a show in three days. You’re going to try it out, and if you’re good at it, they’re going to hire you,” he recounts of their conversation. “I was like, I don’t want to do it. I’m not ready to talk about baseball. I hate baseball right now. I just have such a bad taste in my mouth from everything that happened over the past year.”
But that didn’t deter Dell from pushing her husband to take the chance.
“She said, well, I don’t care. I already told them that said you would do it,” he says. “So she kind of threw me to the wolves, but for the best. And I went in and I gritted my teeth and just got it done and then talked baseball. I did it a couple of more times and they said, ‘Hey, you’re decent at this. We’re going to hire you on for a year!” “And here we are, I’m four years into it,” he joked.
And over those four years, Middlebrooks has ballooned into one of the most recognizable follows for baseball fans. In addition to working at NESN and CBS Sports, he’s also one-half of the Wake and Rake podcast, has appeared on ESPN Radio, has done color commentary for college baseball, and has more than 155,000 Twitter followers.
Resonating with Boston
When I ask Middlebrooks about landing the NESN gig for 2022, he beams through the phone. He says he wanted the challenge of working in Boston and he welcomed the opportunity to expand his media footprint.
It’s evident that he loves the Red Sox – and the city of Boston. How couldn’t he? He made his Major League debut with the organization, played parts of three seasons with the team, won a World Series with the Sox, and met his wife in the city.
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?” he said.
While it’s clear that Will loves Boston, and it’s clear why NESN loves him, what needs more unpacking is the attachment that the Red Sox fans have to him considering he spent just those three seasons there and doesn’t live in New England full-time.
Middlebrooks can’t quite figure out why the people of the region hold him so close, but he does have a good hypothesis.
“I think that if I left anything, it was people saying, ‘well, he played hard. He gave everything he had,’ he said. “And I know that’s really important in Boston, just the blue-collar mentality of ‘keep your head down, work, play as hard as you can, even if things aren’t going well, just bust your butt and be a good teammate and all that.’”
But there just may be something else at play.
“I think a lot maybe had to do with when the marathon bombings (2013) happened…I’m pretty outspoken on social media about that stuff and with my teammates, we all rallied around each other,” he said. “I think I was just lucky enough to be a part of a team that was really special to everybody in Boston. So they embraced me after that.”
The Family Dynamic
Dell has been in sports media for more than a decade as a host and sideline reporter for CBS and NESN before that. She knows the business and its nuances. She understands when and how to look at the camera and when and how to ask questions of athletes. She knows the expectations of her husband’s current employers. She’s undoubtedly a great resource to have.
But as Middlebrooks finds his own footing in the business, and as his star grows, what is that dynamic like? She has the answers to the tests already, but how does he balance using that resource versus figuring things out on his own?
“I’m very open to anything she has to say,” he said. “I’ll come out of my office, like, ‘Hey, that was pretty good!’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it was good…but…”
“She always has something, and at first it used to really annoy me, because I’m like, man, I thought I was doing really good,” he said. “And she’s like, ‘No, you are doing good. I’m just trying to help you get to that next level. There are just little things here and there that you don’t know.’ And as a competitor, it’s really frustrating. But you know, after a couple of minutes I walk away, I’m like, you know what? I’m really appreciative to have that access to someone that can help.”
At such a young age with such already vast experiences, it seems plausible that even bigger media steps could be in play for the former infielder. I asked him if he has a goal he’s working towards. Sunday Night Baseball? The MLB Network? Something else?
“One thing I’ve really learned is to not look too far down the road and kind of just live in the moment and enjoy the moment,” he said. “I’m really happy with being with with CBS and with NESN, and within that umbrella, of course, I would like to grow. Does that mean in the booth? Does that mean more games pre and post? Sure I’m up for anything where they want me, because what I’m doing right now, I feel like is a dream job outside of playing and I’m so happy with it.”
Middlebrooks has been on the NESN broadcasts all week and will continue through this weekend as the Red Sox host the Mariners in a four-game series.