In case there’s even a mild bit of confusion, 97.1 The Freak in Dallas is not a sports talk radio station. Look no further than the station and show names. The morning show is named The Speakeasy and the afternoon show is named The Downbeat. Heck, the station itself is called The Freak. All of it was intentional to distinguish what the station actually is. Do they talk sports? Yes, but when it’s warranted, not required.
The Freak is a station that prioritizes fun and entertaining content, regardless of the genre. They’ll talk whatever they want, when they want. It’s an exciting and unique concept that’s backed by an incredible list of hosts, from DFW legend Mike Rhyner, to Ben and Skin, Jeff Cavanaugh and many other long-time local personalities.
“It’s absolutely not a sports station,” said Ben Rogers, co-host of Ben and Skin. “When the early reports were, hey I got the scoop. There’s a third sports talk station in Dallas Fort-Worth, we all just laughed. It’s not the third sports talk station, It’s the only Freak. There’s an important distinction there. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want.”
“This is rejuvenating,” said Jeff Cavanaugh, co-host of The Speakeasy.” This is fun.”
The Freak is in its inaugural week after hitting the DFW airwaves on Monday. It was undoubtedly a special moment for Rogers, who had a very heavy hand in the overall concept of the station with Rhyner and Skin Wade. What was once just a fun thought, had finally come true. Rogers and Wade had convinced a legend to return and a talented core of hosts to believe in the idea of helping build the coolest radio station in the country.
“Basically, what happens is many of these corporations that own radio stations are based on the east coast,” said Rogers. “Many times they have a playbook that they want the radio station to run. On the east coast, there’s a lot of 100 percent sports. In Dallas-Fort Worth, I think there are unique sensibilities and there’s distinctive things about each individual market that make each one special.
“If you forced a Philadelphia style playbook on Dallas-Fort Worth, I think that’s misguided. What city in Dallas-Fort Worth do people dislike the most? It’s probably Philadelphia. What happens is, this playbook is implemented by program directors and they end up being the fun police and they have to micromanage creative people that are trying to do content and they have to say, hey, get back to sports. You need more sports.
“Those hardcore sports mandates make it where a person that has many different interests is stifled and suffocates their creativity. It’s kinda disingenuous to say, this is like hanging out with your friends, but you can only talk about sports. We’ve hired a creative radio station, where it’s like going to a bar with your friends and hanging out. We just talk about whatever we want, whenever we want.
“We don’t have to talk about sports. If it’s the baseball All-Star Break we don’t have to come up with five hours of fake sports talk. This is about sharing experiences, talking about pop culture, laughing and having fun. Because we don’t have those sports mandates, this is the only station I’ve ever heard of that is going to give both hosts and listeners exactly what they want.”
This is a rejuvenating new venture for many of the hosts, including Cavanaugh. His last radio job was at 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, where he did five hours of sports talk each day. Having to do the same segment on the Cowboys every day wore on him. So much so, that it was a contributing factor to leaving The Fan earlier this year.
Cavanaugh realizes he’s built a career on analyzing the Cowboys, but he still wanted the freedom to do more than just constant hardcore sports talk each day. The Freak was the exact thing he was looking for to rejuvenate his love for the business.
“Just like every human in the world, even people that do sports radio, the vast majority have other interests and things that would be entertaining or interesting to talk about that can appeal to a larger listenership, than people who are just tuned in for sports radio,” said Cavanaugh. “I think specifically the people we got — and this is more a credit to the management we have — are people who can talk sports but are also very likable, entertaining, fun people. Hopefully, that is able to turn into something that brings in a lot of listeners.”
This broad based approach probably doesn’t work if you don’t have an incredible lineup of hosts that can bring an audience to each show. Luckily, 97.1 The Freak has just that. The Speakeasy from 7:00-11:00 AM features Cavanaugh, along with Kevin “KT” Turner, Julie Dobbs and Matt Cather. Ben and Skin host middays from 11:00 AM- 3:00 PM and The Downbeat from 3:00-7:00 PM features Rhyner, Mike Sirois, and Michael “Grubes” Gruber.
“It just so happened there was a legend out there,” Rogers said. “Mike Rhyner started The Ticket and he filled in for Skin when he was battling cancer and I said ‘oh my God, he’s the same guy I always loved and respected. He’s still got it. It would be like catching a bullpen session from Nolan Ryan and your hand hurts from a fastball in his 40’s. Damn, he’s still got it’.
“He pointed out there’s a lot of people disenchanted with sports talk. People that had left the business entirely to do other things. Mike Sirois had been at The Ticket for 16 years and didn’t have a full-time host job. Julie Dobbs just left because she couldn’t make enough money to make it make sense. Jeff Cavanaugh left The Fan because he just didn’t have fun doing five hours of hardcore sports talk everyday.
“You look around and say, Grubes would come back for the right opportunity and that KT is ready for a bigger role and Christina is ready for a bigger role. We were able to look at the landscape and say, there’s a lot of people disenchanted with our business and they left it and are just sitting on the beach. We could put together a really good cast. The stars could really be aligned for this. I’ll be damned if it didn’t all come together. I honestly think we have an opportunity to have the coolest radio station in the country.”
How about the show names, which include The Speakeasy and The Downbeat? Again, those names were intentional to show they’re not a traditional station. But how did they come up with such unique show names?
“We found out our afternoon drive show came up with the name The Downbeat for their show,” said Cavanaugh. “I was like, dammit, they came up with a freaking awesome show name. We’ve got a group text going and I threw it out to the other shows, just saying if anybody has suggestions for the name of the show, and Julie Dobbs, who’s on the show, I think she had been drinking, she just typed the words The Speakeasy and I did the thing on the iPhone where you hold down on the message and you hit a reaction with the exclamation point.
“Because when I saw it I said, that’s it. It’s the same thing with the station name. If you’re a sports station, you’re The Ticket, The Fan, The Hub. We initially didn’t do that. There’s no other station, I don’t believe, in all of iHeart, called The Freak. We wanted to do something different and unique. Having that reflected in both the station name and the show names is pretty cool.”
Just about everyone in every working job across the country wants the freedom to be as creative as possible without any micromanagement from bosses. If the point hasn’t already gotten across about what The Freak is, it’s the radio equivalent. A group of people using their creative talent to create the best content and be as DFW as possible.
“I love it,” said Cavanaugh. “KT and I worked together eight or nine years ago and we were actually told at one point we couldn’t do a Saturday show together because it was too loose and not structured enough. So now it’s like, hey guys, remember that show you couldn’t do? Let people who are creative and talented, like KT is, like Julie is, you just let those people go. If something goes terribly wrong and it doesn’t work, then sure, you have to make adjustments. I love that it’s just hire people that you believe in and let them do what they do.”
The concept of the format is the biggest story, but a legendary DFW signal flipping is equally as important. Ben and Skin realizes the significance of The Eagle flipping to The Freak.
“This is an iconic radio signal and switching formats is a major deal,” said Rogers. “It’s a big thing. It’s one of the biggest things that’s happened in DFW radio. When we went over to The Eagle, we found that creative freedom and we loved it. We basked in it. There was a time, where — when we first got to The Eagle — our ratings were better than all of our competitors combined. It was nuts. We were like ‘Oh my God, this format works’.”
So what’s going to be the core audience of The Freak? Sports fans? Non-sports fans in the DFW metroplex? Rock music listeners? The hopeful answer is yes to all of the above
“The stations in town that we’ve brought people in from are coming from sports stations,” said Cavanaugh think all of the people we have, have their own following, where, sure, people like to hear them talk about sports, but if you really connected with people and they really connect with you, they enjoy listening to you. We’ll do our very best to retain as much of that as we can.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.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.