Another crazy day in South Florida sports radio began with The Ticket announcing one lineup, then throwing a curveball six hours later after corporate meetings that focused, among other things, on how to replace ratings giant Dan Le Batard in afternoon drive.
Ethan Skolnick and Israel Gutierrez emerged with that late-afternoon job, at least on a temporary basis, and we’ll get to that later in the column.
But the big media story Thursday was ESPN’s formal announcement that Le Batard will be replacing Colin Cowherd from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays. And so the South Florida radio show that became so popular that ESPN decided to air it nationally now moves six hours earlier in the day beginning Tuesday, quite an adjustment for Le Batard and his loyal listeners.
The first time ESPN pitched Le Batard on the idea of moving to 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to replace Fox-boundColin Cowherd, Le Batard said his reaction was “mixed. Found it interesting but hadn’t given it much to any thought because we have been happy with what we’ve been doing for a long time and I didn’t really want to mess with happy.”
So two years after ESPN began airing his radio show, why did he agree to the time shift?
“Everyone around me wants it,” Le Batard said. “Not just our team. But ESPN,  The Ticket, everyone. I was literally the only one tapping brakes. And it is low risk, high reward. That’s an ideal way to make a decision. Huge support, minimal risk and high reward. ”
“My tiny reluctance isn’t enough to push back against that. It’s not a forever contract. If we try it and fail, me and Stugotz [Jon Weiner] and our team will transition into selling arepas on Calle Ocho before Marlins games.”
Le Batard assures that the program — which will be simulcast live on ESPNU and aired on tape on Fusion at 1 p.m. — won’t be any different, that he won’t do anything to conform to a “traditional” ESPN show.
“It better not [change],” Le Batard said. “I’ve been adamant about that. I don’t want our fun diluted by degrees. I’ve gotten every assurance about that. ESPN says it wants our show, this show. That remains to be seen, right? But everyone at ESPN has promised me they won’t mess with the format one ounce.”
“ESPN has earned my trust there. ESPN hasn’t messed with our show in two years. We have a Miami zoo guy on weekly [Ron Magill], for God’s sake. I’m sure that we will be met with great audience hostility the first six months when people used to the polish of broadcast professionals are met with our careening, reckless Miami mess. Only changes I’d predict are the one that comes with growth. And Stugotz somehow reversing evolution and becoming more like an ape.”
Though afternoon drive is a more prestigious time slot than middays on local radio, that isn’t the case with ESPN’s national programming. More affiliates carry ESPN Radio from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST than 4 to 7 p.m.
Le Batard also agreed to do a local hour from 9 to 10 a.m. on The Ticket because “that was one of my few wants here, even though I’m not a morning person and I certainly would prefer just 10-1 as a lifestyle. I wanted to keep giving South Florida four hours of our show, how ever I could, and 9 a.m. was the only possible time it could actually work.
“We have TV and studio conflicts after the show. Can’t claim we aren’t changing, that we’ll be equally South Florida, and then lose the one hour that is exclusively South Florida.”
The Ticket also will air a fifth hour of Le Batard — essentially a “best of” show with morning content — from 3 to 4 p.m. weekdays.
“I never imagined any of this,” Le Batard said. “I just wanted to do a little show for South Florida and my neighbors. Always. So that’s the little show we are going to keep doing. And ESPN is betting America will find it interesting and contagious, which is somehow an indictment of both ESPN and America.”
Le Batard will continue doing his TV show, Highly Questionable, at 4 p.m. weekdays.
How the station will replace Le Batard has been a story with lots of twists and turns, and it still hasn’t reached conclusion.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, morning co-host Jonathan Zaslow announced on the air that Josh Friedman and Chris Wittyngham will move into the 4 to 7 p.m. slot on The Ticket “for now,” beginning Tuesday. Management had made clear that both were candidates for the job permanently.
But after several hours of corporate meetings, management emerged with plans to use Gutierrez and Skolnick in that 4 to 7 p.m. time slot as soon as Gutierrez becomes available Sept. 16. They are poised to keep the job longterm if they fulfill management’s expectations.
Station general manager Doug Abernathy explained that “Josh and Chris were killing it at night” in the ratings before moving to 10 a.m. last month, and “we want the least amount of disruption as possible. People expect Josh and Chris in the evening.”
As for Skolnick and Gutierrez — who have built sizable followings in this market — Abernathy said he’s eager to hear how they do in a high-profile time slot. Skolnick has appeared regularly on the 1 to 3 p.m. program the past two years, while Gutierrez appears twice a week on the morning show.
“We’re giving [Ethan and Israel] an opportunity to be the quarterback of an afternoon drive show,” Abernathy said. “Here’s a real opportunity for them to prove themselves. They’ve done great shows but doing it in prime time [afternoon drive] is a little different. You’ve got to be perfect every day. We believe they can do it but they’ve got to do it.”
Credit to the Miami Herald who originally published this article