The unexpected news nearly brought Al Eshbach to tears. In fact, it rocked the longtime Oklahoma City sports radio personality, because it was so sudden. Chris Baker, his program director at WWLS The Sports Animal, had just revealed he was retiring at the end of the year.
While the news came across as a complete shock to Eschbach, it was a date Baker had been circling on his calendar for years. After five decades in radio, he’s ready to hang it up at the end of December.
“It’s just like graduating high school,” said Baker. “I’m ready to graduate from work.”
Oklahoma City is home for Baker, but his roots were planted in the far southeast corner of Texas in the town of Beaumont. His first program director job came about an hour away in Lake Charles, LA at KBIU Bayou 104 in 1986, where the morning show host was a guy named Bruce Gilbert.
“The greatest thing about Cumulus is Bruce Gilbert,” Baker said. “The opportunity to work with him was kind of surreal for me. He’s a savant.”
After a stint in Lake Charles, Baker moved back to Beaumont to be the PD of KZZB, where he had previously spent five years as the promotions director. He was in his hometown for a couple of years, before being hired at KCPX in Salt Lake City. After a year, he found himself in Colorado Springs at KKFM and KKMG, which happened to be America’s first local marketing agreement.
“A lot of people in the media said it was illegal and would never happen,” laughed Baker. “It was really interesting.”
Finally, after moving all over the country, he settled in Oklahoma City as the program director of Rock 100.5 The KATT in 1993. Maybe he thought it was just another short stop in his career, but for the next 19 years, he programmed one of the most popular radio stations in the city. Baker also grew into a role as a general operations manager and oversaw programming on eight radio stations under the Cumulus umbrella. One of those being The Sports Animal.
“I’ve been involved with The Sports Animal since the merger of the 640 AM signal and Craig Humphreys’ station he had in Oklahoma City,” Baker said. “We were able to merge two great talents, where we had Jim Traber on one station and Al Eschbach on another. They were competing against one another so they came together at The Sports Animal in August of 1997.”
Baker left Cumulus at the end of 2011, but even while he was away, he was still listening to The Sports Animal every day. Then, a few years later, as it always does, fate stepped in. Changes were happening at The Sports Animal and Jay Davis was now the general manager. One of his first orders of business was to hire a new program director. He didn’t think very long before he realized who he needed to hire.
“When my predecessor left, Chris was the first person I thought of and it worked out timing wise for him to come back,” said Davis. “Chris has been with us for nearly the past 30 years. He was very instrumental in how The Sports Animal grew and how we presented it to the public. His stewardship and forward-thinking have played a huge role in the success of The Sports Animal. Chris has been a very big part of our success.”
He was welcomed into the role by the talent at The Sports Animal with open arms. Most of them already had a strong relationship with him, so the entire building was pumped that Baker was back to be their program director. So much so that Humphreys makes it bluntly clear the only reason he came back to the station was because Davis and Baker would be managing it. If someone from out of the market would have been promoted to the role, he never would have taken over Sports Morning after the late, great Bob Barry Jr.
Baker’s familiarity and experience are just two of the many reasons why he’s so beloved by the many talents he’s coached over the years. But the biggest reason is obvious. He truly cares about everyone in the building. That was best on display when Jim Traber had a serious health scare in 2019 that sidelined him from the show for weeks. During that time, Baker was as supportive as anyone in his role could have been. It’s something Traber hasn’t forgotten, nor will he, for the rest of his life.
“I mean, he was the best,” Traber said. “Obviously, everyone was scared of the situation and he made sure he was in touch with my wife Julie the whole time and he was very understanding of when I could come back. He’s literally the best boss that I’ve ever had, of any coaches or anything like that, he’s the absolute best. He’s going to be missed. He’s a great man, he’s a great man of God and he’s a great man in radio.”
It’s examples such as this that make him the program director he is. It’s about success, sure, but it’s also about having fun and caring about his talent. If you talk to enough people in Oklahoma City sports radio, you’ll quickly learn that Baker is truly one of the good guys in this business.
“He’s the perfect programmer,” said Phil Inzinga, co-host of The Morning Animals. “He’s always understood talent and the audience. Chris is not just a great programmer, but more importantly, he’s a great human being and friend. He gave my son his first dog. True story!”
“The only times he’s ever had to get on to me are issues with the clock,” laughed Humphreys. “The guy is so experienced and he’s so great with people. He knows how to treat people and he doesn’t try to over manage. Doing a talk show, you appreciate that. Never once have I been told what to say or what not to say by Chris Baker. He lets us do our own show. The guy is a joy to work for.”
“He’s a great person,” said Eschbach. “When he told me he was retiring Saturday night after the OU-Texas game I almost felt like crying. But I knew it was the best thing for him. He’s just a really special person and a great program director. He’s just a tremendous friend of mine.”
“Chris Baker knows radio and has spent his lifetime in broadcasting perfecting the art and science of programming across multiple formats,” said Bruce Gilbert, SVP Sports, Content and Audience at Cumulus and Westwood One. “His radio stations always sound big, bright, tight, and positive with a focused appeal to its target audience. Many don’t know that Chris was one of the first Program Director’s I ever worked for and Chris – by his MANY actions – showed me what leadership looks like. His ability to be empathetic as well as authoritative was a lesson I will never forget. Chris leads by example and the examples he sets are deeply rooted in honesty, integrity, and collaboration. He is an ego-less leader that cares much more about his team and their success than any personal accolades. We are so fortunate to have had such a pro lead our incredibly talented team at The Sports Animal for the last several years. His steady hand and understanding of the Sports Animal brand and all its many moving parts will be greatly missed, however, no one deserves to go out on their terms more than Chris Baker. He earned this and he should know that he is loved by many and that his legacy in our industry is forever secure.”
Baker has always strived to put the best product possible on the air. If you look at his track record, that’s exactly what he’s done. But what’s most impressive is that he’s been able to win ratings battles as well as the hallway. He hasn’t won by ruling with an iron fist. He’s done it by befriending his staff and reminding each of them how important family is.
“One, he’s always available to talk,” said Mark Rodgers, host of The Middle of the Day Show. “Two, I think he did a really good job of letting small things slide. He never made a mountain of a molehill. Not very often did things ever escalate. He’s just the best.”
“He’s a people person and he’s able to keep a proper balance between a lot of disparate personalities,” said Berry Tramel, part of The Total Dominance Hour. “He can keep people rolling in the same direction when it’s not always easy to. It’s a fairly high ego business and Chris doesn’t have much of an ego, he’s able to cushion a lot of that stuff and make it all work. When Jay Davis took over as general manager he had to bring in a program director and brought in Chris back and everyone was just thrilled. Everybody was fired up about that. He’s a conduit of people. He just gets people rallying around in the same direction.”
The appreciation for Baker extends far past the walls of The Sports Animal. Former co-workers still light up when they talk about their experience of working with him. Maybe they’re competing against his signal now, but you won’t find a competitor that will say a negative word about him.
“He’s the best program director I’ve ever worked for, hands down, and that’s saying a lot,” said Erik Gee of Sports Animal Tulsa. “I’ve worked for several in my career, but none were as sharp as Chris and none cared more about their staff than Chris. He’s truly one of my best friends.”
“He was the PD of The KATT and we all called him Big Tex, because he’s so tall,” said Mike Steely of The Ref. “It was 2001 during OU-Texas weekend and we were all at The Crowne Plaza in Dallas and he said, hey guys, we have a radio rep that’s going to buy dinner. Employees came out like rats at a picnic. We went over to Pappadeaux and there was the radio rep that was trying to schmooze Baker. There must have been 15 people that showed up. I remember Lump ordered The Admiral’s Feast, which was about $59.99. They brought him like eight dishes. I just remember that radio rep looking like, oh my God. Baker was kind of like, ‘you guys, I can’t believe you did that.’ But he was good-natured about it.”
“He was the guy you could always go into this office and chat with,” continued Steely.”He had that aura that he was your boss, but you were relaxed enough to say, hey man, what did you think about the game this weekend? It’s kind of rare with some bosses that you can do that. He’s just a great dude. Now, again. If you did something wrong and it was a pretty egregious error, Chris would let you know about it. But it was always done in a professional way. He’s just one of those guys you like to see in the office every day.”
Few, if any, in this business deserve the love and appreciation I hope this article brings to Baker. To echo everything else that’s been said, he’s an incredible human being and one that more in this business should strive to be like.
Not many are fortunate enough to leave the business on their own accord. It’s really cool that Baker is doing just that. The lesson here is simple: work hard, treat your co-workers with incredible respect and always leave your door open to chat.
If you do that, you could be the next Chris Baker. And you should want to be.
“I could not ask for a better way to end my career, to be able to program The Sports Animal,” Baker said. “I laugh and tell my radio friends, as a kid I always wanted to program WLS. I just ended up programming WWLS.”
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.