Getting to sit down with Steve Mason was no hard feat, as he was happy to share his story with me. Our text exchange was simple. The Los Angeles Dodgers were a few hours away from a pivotal wild card match-up against the St. Louis Cardinals. Naturally, his mind was there, on whether the 106-game winning, reigning World Series champion would have its season cut short. Alas, the Dodgers won and we jumped onto a Zoom call the next day.
We got to speak about his journey, Mason & Ireland, podcasts, and more.
Mason is a bit of an expert on LA sports and their fans. He sang high praises for the Angelenos, who tend to be knocked for their laid-back demeanors.
“The attitude is a little different. Maybe the attitude’s a little bit more laid back. But, man, the fans here are hardcore and really smart. You take a call from the average Laker fan, man, they know what’s going on. Dodger fans know what’s going on.” It’s hard to not be on the pulse of a sports town with two teams, the Dodgers and Lakers, winning their respective league championships in 2020.
Just last year Mason & Ireland landed at #2 in BSM’s Major Market Midday Shows. The show has spanned for nearly two decades at its current home and first came to be in the 1990’s. Mason has seen it all in a career that’s gone over four decades.
Did Mason know his calling would be sports broadcasting? Absolutely. Unbeknownst to his parents, he would secretly listen to his transistor radio when he was supposed to be sleeping.
“I was listening to that when I was seven or eight years old, I just knew I knew I wanted to be on the radio from a very early age.” He would spend his evenings listening and learning from the greats, Larry King on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and Tom Snyder on NBC. Among those names, his other inspirations were the likes of David Letterman, who he got his comedy from, and Howard Stern.
Before becoming a prominent voice of LA sports, he had a five minute sportscast the Toledo Sports Whirl on WGOR, a Christian station in Ohio. “It was $150 was the total for each show, so I needed three $50 dollar spots in order to be able to pay for it.” Mind you, Mason was 15 years old at this point.
As his eagerness and growth towards working in sports progressed, music radio propelled his career. Rather than taking the step towards college radio at Bowling Green, Mason found his opportunity at WRQN in Toledo. After jumping on board to do overnights, management moved him over to morning drive, where he blew the competition away for a whopping seven years.
“I was programming the station. I was running all the promotions, and all the marketing, it was really my baby and we ended up doing, I think the morning show ended up doing like a 20 share in Toledo. It was just a dominant, dominant show and I’m really proud of that part of my career.”
The ratings were the catalyst to the next step. Noble Broadcasting Group, later acquired by what is now iHeartMedia, owned a station in Toledo and wanted Mason out. Can’t beat him? Make an offer he can’t refuse. Morning drive at The Mighty 690 in San Diego became the new home for Mason, where the show subsequently became a ratings failure after six months and he was moved to nights. On a station that featured Jim Rome and Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, both very successful in the San Diego market, Mason’s lack of early success put a dent in his aspirations.
He wanted out.
“I was demanding that my contract be terminated. I wanted out of my deal. I did not want to do nights they would not leave me. They held me to my contract.” He was pissed. However, the night shift in America’s Finest City is where he obtained his edge.
“I just had this ‘F it’ attitude. I was just like you banished me to nights, so I’m going to do whatever the hell I want.” It worked. Mason’s ‘I don’t give a fu–’ approach put him in a much different cut of radio personalities. It opened doors such as getting to work alongside Snyder, one of the personalities he’d listen to on his little transistor radio, as his co-host on The Late Late Radio Show on CBS Radio. He lasted there from 1996 to 1998.
After a leave of absence, The Mighty 690 allowed Mason to slide back into the morning drive slot, where he got to sit alongside his night-shift fill-in, John Ireland. After a five year stint in the 90’s together in San Diego, the duo that is Mason and Ireland got back together in 2003 to do the show in their current home, ESPN LA.
The show lasting as long as it has makes it a unicorn in the media world. What’s the recipe? Evolution. “The one thing that we’ve done over the years that I think has kept us where we are is that we’ve evolved. We’ve constantly evolved. If you listen to a show that we did in 2006 and a show that we did last week it’s a completely different show.”
Mason’s vast career has seen much success in what has been an ever-changing field. His firm belief is “that radio is the single most intimate form of broadcasting” and he, too, acknowledges the new ways the medium hits people’s ears.
Podcasts, Mason mentions, have “helped to drive the business.” Mason & Ireland, for example, is available via people’s favorite podcast providers for on-demand listening. He also does his own podcast, Culture Pop, where he talks about popular culture with Emmy-nominated producer Sue Kolinsky, whom he co-hosted a show on WNEW in New York in the 90’s. The avenues in which audio content is consumed have changed but the approach generally stays the same.
Culture and chemistry is always important at a workplace. Program directors set the tone of how they want their station to sound. “Our last program director moved us to afternoon drive, which is a slot that I never really wanted to do, never really liked. I was unhappy with that move. I love mid-days, but we did it for a year.” Amanda Brown, who took on the role of program director at ESPN LA in late 2019, turned the station into a live and local powerhouse.
“You don’t see a lot of women as program directors of sports radio station, so she’s kind of a landmark person.” Her understanding of chemistry and identity has allowed Mason & Ireland, as well as the rest of the local slate of Travis & Sliwa and Sedano & Kap, to play off of one-another. “We goof on each other, we pop up on each other’s shows,” said Mason.
How does one balance serving local fans and working for a major brand powerhouse like ESPN? “Well, ESPN has been great to work for,” Mason says. “They’ve also been very hands off. They’ve allowed us to invent a show that is organically the right one for Los Angeles.”
The current climate around sports has been supercharged by the divisive nature of American politics. It has become increasingly difficult not to touch upon difficult subjects. However, Mason abides by this simple rule. “It is a hard and fast rule that we do not talk about politics at all.” He understands what his role is, which he explains lands in the “fun and games department.” His goal is to welcome and have fun with the listener rather than remind them of the everyday difficulties they try to escape from.
How can this evolving industry move in the right direction? Radio has seen a massive shift away from localization and towards network programming, killing off local jobs, content and connection to a community. “I think a focus on personality is stronger than a focus on play-by-play.” As important as carrying play-by-play and being a team’s flagship is, listeners keep coming back in for the personality-driven local content that focuses on the home teams.
“There’s really good network shows but local is always king, and the more local you can be the better. That’s why I’m happy with the station right now. We’ve got more local than we’ve ever had.”
You can listen to Steve Mason on Mason & Ireland on weekdays from 1:00pm to 4:00pm PST on 710 KSPN. Also check out Mason’s podcast, Culture Pop, wherever you get your podcasts. Feel free to give him a follow on Twitter @VeniceMase.
Alex Zatarian writes features for Barrett Sports Media. He currently works for ESPN LA 710, and began his radio career in Palm Springs, CA with Alpha Media. In addition, Alex serves as an Adjunct Professor at The College of the Desert, teaching students advanced radio production. You can find him on Twitter @TheRealZatarian or email him at AlexandroZatarian@gmail.com.
NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs
Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?
Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.
Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.
The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.
Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.
Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.
So how did NBC get here?
Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.
Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.
Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.
But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.
As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.
Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.
NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.
Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.
But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?
Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)
The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.
Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice
“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”
I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.
Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.
On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.
All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.
It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.
Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.
How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.
On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night.
Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night.
To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.
Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.
Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.
Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore
“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”
One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.
The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.
Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.
But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.
I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.
Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.
How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.
Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.
This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.
Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.
On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.
At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.
Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.
Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?
I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.