When you think of the biggest names in sports radio, Colin Cowherd, Dan Patrick, Mike and Mike, Jim Rome, and Mike Francesa are names that come to mind. There’s a good reason for that, they’ve all been successful, and have performed on brands that are well known to listeners and industry professionals.
While many of these personalities are outstanding, and have received their due for the great work they’ve produced during the course of their careers, there are many others who fly under the radar. Identifying great talent on familiar brands isn’t exactly rocket science, but discovering authentic, unique and entertaining personalities across the country, in unfamiliar territory can be quite the challenge.
For a programmer, the job is similar to that of a professional scout. Anyone can recognize LeBron James in high school and determine that he’ll make an impact on the next level. If you don’t, you should probably stop scouting. But not every scout travels to Baxter Springs, Kansas and discovers Mickey Mantle while initially looking at one of his teammates.
I thought it’d be fun to to shine the light on some deserving personalities who I’ve had a chance to listen to and are worthy of some praise. Some of these hosts are well established in their existing markets, but not necessarily familiar beyond their local regions.
To make sure we’re on the same page, let me state that this is not a Top 15 list. It’s a piece that offers insight into the styles and attributes of fifteen different radio hosts across the country.
Also, if a personality I chose to highlight is involved in a program that includes one or multiple partners, this doesn’t mean that the others on the show aren’t good or don’t play a critical role. This is a subjective analysis based on my own personal tastes, and the objective is to make them and their work more familiar to anyone who enjoys listening to sports radio.
I hope you enjoy the column, and if you follow me on Twitter and wouldn’t mind retweeting it, I’d greatly appreciate it.
Cory “Sludge” Cove – KFAN Minneapolis – Few brands have delivered better than KFAN in Minneapolis. Paul Allen, Dan Barreiro and The Common Man receive most of the credit for it, however discounting Cory and the morning show’s contributions would be a big mistake. Afterall, the program just hit #1 in the market last week!
“Sludge” as he’s affectionately known to Minneapolis listeners, has a great sound, and is a big part of the popular morning show “The Power Trip“. For listeners who prefer a heavy sports focus, and deep level of discussion and analysis, this show won’t likely meet your expectations. In my opinion, it’s a program that wanders through the desert without a compass, and embraces every part of the journey.
The ingredients that make it special, are a heavy dose of guy-talk, laughter, unscripted conversations, and a little bit of sports. The show skews younger, incorporates a lot of funny audio clips, and offers a similar production value to what you’ll hear on top performing FM music morning shows.
Case in point, last week during the span of one hour, the show discussed the Minnesota Wild’s home opener, Madonna and Lady Gaga, Fantasy Football, the new Steve Jobs movie, the upcoming Vikings game, and the different styles of Republicans and Democrats.
You may read that last paragraph and ask “where is this show going“, and if you’re a person who’s used to listening to heavily formatted talk shows, this one may take some time to warm up to. I’m a big believer though in creating content that feels loose, and showcases what personalities do best, and the formula this show uses has registered with the audience, while putting the talent in position to showcase their best attributes.
From an individual standpoint, you can hear how much fun Cory has guiding the morning show. He interacts well with his crew, enjoys discussing all aspects of pop culture, politics, music, sports, and everyday issues, and has a strong ability to shift gears and keep the audience on their toes. He also has no problem presenting an opinion or generating a reaction.
A natural entertainer who’s been a big part of KFAN’s success, Cory earns my praise for the way he conducts the show, and for helping it establish its own identity in the Minneapolis market. To hear Cory’s show click here.
AJ Hoffman – 97.5 ESPN Houston – One of the first things I noticed when listening to AJ’s show with Fred Faour was the production value. It’s excellent. Tons of sound, actualities, current and high energy rock music beds, and it all compliments AJ’s style perfectly. With the show on FM (ESPN 97.5) and competing against two familiar AM brands, there’s a big commitment to the presentation and it works. You often hear the term “Old School Meets New School” in the sports radio format, and Fred and AJ are a great example of that dynamic working well.
What I like about AJ as a talent is that he’s very authoritative, energetic, and unfiltered. His background as an MMA fighter probably factors into that. Last week for example he questioned whether or not Texans Head Coach Bill O’Brien was good at his job, and if he deserved the same type of venom from Texas sports fans that Charlie Strong was receiving.
I’ve also heard AJ call out other media personalities who he believes mail in their performance. He’s gone on record and stated that he feels Jim Rome relies on the same tired shtick and needs to modify his material, and whether you agree with him or not, there’s no disputing where he stands, and he doesn’t back down.
AJ also brings a good sense of humor to the airwaves, and looks for opportunities to create laughter on the show. His chemistry with his partner is very strong too. I find myself immersed in the content when he’s delivering his opinions because they’re easy to follow, and delivered with conviction. To hear some of AJ’s work on ESPN 97.5 click here.
Anthony Stalter – 101 ESPN St. Louis – When you’re working for a successful brand that features Bernie Miklasz, Chris Duncan, Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr, and Kevin Wheeler, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Make no mistake about it though, Anthony is an intracle part of the station’s success.
Having started with the station as a Producer of the afternoon show, Program Director Chris “Hoss” Neupert saw on-air ability in Anthony early on. When the station lost midday host Bernie Miklasz in 2013 (he’s since returned to host morning drive), filling his void was no easy task. Neupert took a gamble, and moved Duncan off of the afternoon show, and gave Stalter his on-air shot as his partner, and two years later the pairing has paid off.
When you listen to Anthony, you take away a number of things. First, he has an excellent voice, and sets the tone for the program. Second, he has a great sense of what the local audience is interested in, and he leads Chris into good situations.
You’ll also hear someone who takes his preparation seriously. That serves him well when discussing baseball topics with Chris. Sometimes it can be difficult for a radio guy to feel confident when they’re sitting across from a partner who’s played the game at the highest level, but Chris values Anthony’s assessments, and that helps build his credibility with the audience.
Anthony understands when to start the content with his own opinion, and push Dunc to respond, but also when to sit back, and let Chris take over. The energy on the show is high, and there’s no shortage of self-deprecation when they screw something up. Because they share a mutual love and interest talking about sports, and their ages aren’t far apart, they connect as a team, and have a lot of fun on the air. To hear Anthony’s show click here.
Chris Kroeger – 610 The Fan Charlotte – When you listen to Chris, you may come away with the opinion that he’s a homer for his local teams, and that’s ok because he admits that he is. The word “we” comes up often when he’s discussing his local teams, and quite frankly, I like that. If you listen to him, you’ll recognize quickly how invested he is in the market’s local teams.
At only 28 years old, Chris is still coming into his own as a personality, but what he’s put together so far is extremely impressive. His energy, enthusiasm, and relatability are easy to detect, and with the show’s format featuring different contributors, he shows he can be a chameleon and adapt to any situation.
In listening to the banter last week between Chris and Mushin Muhammad, you can tell he appreciates the position he’s in, and works hard to pull out great material from those who contribute to the program.
If you’re looking for a talk show host fueled by negativity, Chris won’t be your cup of tea. He looks to present an informative conversation built around finding solutions, and a show that highlights the connection between the host, its guests, and the audience. The pace is fast, his command of the program is strong and easy to follow, and his discussions with his guests are extended and provide great engaged listening.
I also hear a lot of sound utilized during the show. One particular skill Chris possesses is an ability to react well off of it. He uses audio to set up his points and create emotional responses, and when executed that way, it can pay great dividends. To hear Chris’ show click here.
Jonathan Zaslow – 790 The Ticket Miami – If I could only use one word to describe Jonathan, it would be entertaining! His pairing with Joy Taylor on 790 The Ticket makes for a great listen, and one of the best parts of their show is how willing and comfortable each of them are with putting their lives on display for the audience.
Zaslow will attempt voices when the moment calls for it, he’s been hypnotized on the air, and one of the show’s staples, “The wheel of humiliation” puts members of the show in a position to pay the price if they pick NFL games poorly. A few weeks ago Dan Le Batard and Stugotz asked for permission to steal the bit and use it with their national audience, and Jonathan demonstrated in that moment that he can deliver some bite too.
What I like most about his style is that he has fun, great energy, a strong rapport with his crew, and there are no restrictions on what he’ll discuss. He can get into a detailed conversation about the problems with the Heat, or venture into an area that causes your jaw to drop.
For example, yesterday morning he talked about his preference for candle wax over a tickle feather inside the dungeon at his home. Does he really have one? Is he saying something for effect? Perhaps, but it led to some very funny conversation between himself, Joy, and Brett Romberg, and that ability to keep the audience guessing is a real strength.
If you’re commuting to work in Miami, and looking to laugh and learn a little about sports and the characters involved on the morning show, you’ll love what Jonathan brings to the table. The show cares about the local teams, is comfortable in any setting, lets creative content evolve organically, and each member of the show cares about connecting with the audience. To hear Jonathan’s show click here.
Aaron Goldhammer – ESPN 850 WKNR Cleveland – Aaron has been a fixture of the Cleveland sports scene for close to ten years, and his passion, sense of humor, and sarcasm, serve him well in connecting with his audience on WKNR.
He got his start, and developed his personality by working with one of Cleveland’s best personalities Tony Rizzo, and since leaving Rizzo’s show, he’s more than held his own as host of “The Golden Boyz” with Emmett Golden.
It won’t take you long to notice Aaron taking command of the room when he hosts his program. He’s a high volume, and high energy type of talent, and that’s a great fit in a passionate market such as Cleveland. He’ll intertwine sports and pop culture when opportunities arise, and Aaron won’t hesitate to take the audience behind the curtain and give them a sense of the chaos that unfolds with the staff each day.
The music on the program skews younger, and there’s a heavy content focus on Cleveland sports, which is presented with a “pray for the best, but prepare for the worst” type of mindset. That plays right into the emotional spirit of the local fan base and who he is as a local talent. To hear Aaron’s show click here.
Doug Franz – Arizona Sports 98.7FM – There are few local market shows that have enjoyed the longevity, and success that “Doug and Wolf” have in Phoenix. While Ron Wolfley possesses a big personality, and is one of the most entertaining people I’ve listened to in the format, Doug is an exceptional broadcaster who’s skill can be overlooked if you don’t pay attention.
There’s an art to pulling out the best material from an authentic talent like Wolfley, and Franz does it very well. He’s shown over the years that he’s not afraid to stand up and assert his own voice, but he also realizes that getting Wolf going is critical to the show’s success.
I’ve noticed over the years a growing confidence in Doug to assert himself, and start conversations with his own opinion and put Wolf in the reactor position. Early on in the show’s history, there was a bigger focus in getting Wolf’s opinion first, and reacting off of him. That shows growth, trust and understanding in Doug and Wolf’s relationship.
Another area where I’ve seen Doug improve is with his ability to present himself as the expert. He’s done a great job sharing the insight he gains from working on the sidelines during football games, and there was no better example than this past Monday when the show discussed Steve Sarkisian’s alcohol issues. Hearing Doug offer a firsthand account of what he witnessed during the game while working on the sidelines was must listen radio.
Equally deserving credit are his topic selection, pacing, and preparation. On Monday’s show for example, I listened for a full hour and during that period, three quarters of the content revolved around the Arizona Cardinals. There were plenty of other selections to choose from, but instead they played the hits and provided the content that had the largest audience appeal. When hosts approach their segments with the listener’s best interest in mind, they usually win, and Doug and Wolf have done a lot of it. To hear Doug’s show click here.
Chris Vernon – 92.9 ESPN Memphis – Originally from St. Louis, Chris has been a fixture on the Memphis airwaves since 2004. I became aware of him when I started working in Missouri in 2006. Three years later when I was building 101 ESPN, he was one of the first people I reached out to about possibly joining the radio station.
While that situation didn’t materialize, one of the biggest reasons I was interested is because he always sounds like he’s having fun. Chris has an infectious energy, genuine interest in sports, presents himself as the voice of the local sports fan, and his interviews with high profile guests often sound like conversations between two friends.
A good example of this is when Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace appears on his program. While some shows spend 10-12 minutes with a guest, hit the important stuff and then move on, Chris won’t hesitate to keep a guest for 30-40 minutes if they’re interesting. His chats with Wallace often run longer, and never feel fatiguing.
If there’s another area of his game that stands out, it’s his understanding and willingness to embrace the responsibility of working with clients and helping them earn business. This comes from having worn multiple hats and performed as an on-air talent, and sales person. Personalities who’ve done both jobs develop an appreciation for how difficult it is, and they usually do a better job on the air with helping clients experience success.
I find that Chris is more likely to inform and entertain than divide an audience with his opinions, and he likes to use music throughout the show to add flavor to it. You’ll also hear produced pieces utilized when guests appear, which I think adds a nice touch. To hear Chris’ show on 92.9 ESPN click here.
Grant Paulsen – 106.7 The Fan Washington DC – In sports radio circles outside of Washington DC, Grant is still an unknown commodity, but he might be familiar to you if you were a viewer of the David Letterman Show. As a child, Grant contributed to the late night program, and while that made him familiar to national audiences, it’s the work he’s doing now with Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan that I’m most impressed by.
First, he comes across on the air as a very likeable personality. He’s emotionally invested in the local market’s teams, and his preparation and ability to provide you with something you didn’t know is very strong. As the point guard of the show, he navigates the program smoothly, and keeps a good steady pace. I also enjoy the chemistry that exists between him and Danny.
What I’m even more impressed by is how easy he makes it for the audience to tune in and follow along. His teasing is fantastic, but his ability to pay it off is even stronger. Nothing frustrates audiences more, than sitting through commercials to hear a host provide an answer to something they teased, only to not receive what they were promised.
On Tuesday for example Grant referenced the situation in NY where a caller cried on Mike Francesa’s show. He promised to play the audio, and offer his and Danny’s thoughts on the last time sports made them cry. When the show returned from break, Grant immediately reset the story, played the audio, and discussed the Jeffrey Maier incident during the Yankees-Orioles playoff game in 1996, and how it made them both emotional. They then gave a few more examples, and asked the audience to share their stories, and the result was ten good minutes of radio. The following segment led in with Faith Hill’s “Cry” which demonstrated that the production team is in sync with the hosts, and have a great sense of how to use music, and sound to compliment the content.
While these things may not seem like a big deal to some, it’s that type of execution, and entertainment value that keeps shows winning. When great ability and chemistry are combined with a smart approach to creating good radio, good results follow. To hear Grant’s show click here.
Chris Mueller – 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh – In 2008 Chris won a competition called “Top Fan” on the now defunct “ESPN 1250” which gave him his radio break. 7 years later, he’s taken hold of afternoon drive on 93.7 The Fan with Joe Starkey, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Don’t let the youthful photo fool you. While Chris still has his best years ahead of him, when you tune into his program, he sounds like an experienced pro. He’s got a very strong delivery, and presence, and is well spoken. He lives and breathes Pittsburgh sports, and puts a heavy emphasis on Steelers content which shows he’s in tune with what moves the audience most.
The Starkey and Mueller show comes across as a program which has been together for years, yet has only been in place since February 2013. When you single out Chris, you hear a confident personality who is quick on his feet, brash, unapologetic, and asks the questions that local fans are thinking about. While Starkey may be one of the best and most respected sports figures in the market, Chris doesn’t let that stop him from establishing his own voice.
His opinions often produce the largest response, his energy is excellent, and his emotional connection to the local teams serve him well and are a big reason why The Fan’s future remains very bright. To hear Chris’ show click here.
Brent Dougherty – 104.5 The Zone Nashville – A little known fact is that The Zone in Nashville is one of the highest rated sports stations in the country. The afternoon show 3HL (Three Hour Lunch) which is hosted by Brent Dougherty, Mickey Ryan, and former NFL defensive back Blaine Bishop, is a big reason for it.
What makes it work is the comradery that exists between the three personalities. Ryan joined the mix only thirteen months ago, and prior to his arrival, the multi-talented Clay Travis was part of the program for five years. Regardless of the talent mix, the show has moved along like a freight train and continued to dominate the market.
Although he could pat himself on the back for what the show has accomplished, that’s not how Brent operates. On one of his profiles he states that the daily goal for 3HL is to make sure it is the most fun, fast paced, highly interactive, opinion driven and creative sports talk radio show possible. If you listen to it, you can hear it check those boxes pretty frequently.
Despite the program offering three distinct personalities, Brent does a few specific things to stand out. First, he’s been blessed with an incredible set of pipes. His voice is full and helps him distinguish himself on the show.
Second, he does a really good job of interacting with his partners, and callers, and his warm personality makes him easy to listen to. He presents subjects that suit the audience’s interests, and Blaine and Mickey trust, and follow his lead, especially during interviews.
As it relates to conversations with guests, he asks good questions, and treats those who appear on the show with respect, and makes them feel comfortable. They in turn provide him with good information. I heard three different examples of this working to perfection.
He had Michelle Beadle explain why she wanted to appear on Sharknado. He led Ernest Byner into talking like a pirate, and he got Charissa Thompson to fire a few friendly jabs at former partner Clay Travis, and express her appreciation for Eddie George’s male model looks.
While the show performs well because of the trio, it’s clear that Brent is the engine that moves it along. His influence and ability to direct the show expertly are a big reason for its success. To hear Brent’s show click here.
Danny Parkins – 610 Sports Kansas City – I first became aware of Danny when he was hosting his own program in Syracuse, NY and I describe him as one of those talents who is wise beyond his years. Paired with Carrington “CDot” Harrison on 610 Sports in Kansas City, the duo have an infectious energy and passion that has catapulted their program to the top of the ratings in afternoon drive.
When you listen to him, you can hear a talent who has a great handle on how to run a show. He’s focused with his opinions, and delivers them with confidence, but doesn’t belabor his points. He presents content that has the largest appeal to the local audience, and finds different ways to approach topics and keep himself and his partner engaged. He’ll use additional evidence to help defend his positions, but isn’t afraid to acknowledge when he’s wrong, and make fun of himself.
For example, I caught the opening thirty minutes of the show yesterday to hear how local fans were reacting the day after the Royals knocked off the Astros and advanced to the ALCS. From the opening production piece (which was absolutely brilliant) assembled by producer Ben Heisler, to the opening conversation between Danny and Carrington about how wrong they were about Johnny Cueto, it was some of the best content available in the format, period! If you have fifteen minutes to spare, go take a listen for yourself. Here’s the link.
What I enjoy and appreciate about Danny is how seriously he treats his position. I hear resets inside the content, teases to leave the audience pondering the answer, and a solid understanding of how to get the best out his partner, while still getting his own touches. When you add in the fact that he’s originally from Chicago but has embraced the local market, and made it his own, you can see why he’s had success. To hear Danny’s show click here.
Michael Grady – The Fan Indianapolis – He’s the public-address announcer for the Indiana Pacers, but his soothing tones on Emmis’ Indianapolis sports station “The Fan”, are where he’s making his biggest impact.
What’s impressive about Michael, is that he’s still under thirty years old, yet sounds mature beyond his years. He’s a guy who has paid his dues behind the scenes before getting his on-air shot alongside former NFL player Joe Staysniak, but if you listen to him host his show, you’ll recognize quickly that he was born to be on a microphone.
What I love about Michael is how smooth and upbeat he sounds when hosting his program. He has this certain swagger with his delivery that jumps through the speakers, and he comes across as a likeable and approachable human being. He’s respectful when interacting with his partner and high profile sports figures, but firm when necessary. That approach carries over to the way he interacts with his callers too
One of my favorite segments is when former NFL and College Football Coach Rick Venturi stops by. Rick is a savant when it comes to the subject of football, and Michael does an excellent job of asking good questions, and knowing when to push for more. Their rapport is strong, and I’m sure it leads to an increase in local listening.
When you combine those traits with strong knowledge and a deep passion for Indianapolis sports, you have a winning combination. To hear Michael’s show click here.
Guy Haberman – 95.7 The Game San Francisco – I may be a little biased here because I discovered Guy in Fresno, and hired him at 95.7 The Game, but I believe he’s an incredible talent who’s just starting to hit the prime of his career.
When I scouted him in Fresno I was drawn in by his preparation, maturity, likeability, and polished presentation. My initial reaction was that I was listening to a young Dan Patrick. At that time, Guy was 27, and had only been on the air as a host for a few years, but he sounded as if he’d been doing the job for 10-12 years. I brought him into San Francisco to host evenings, and his skill and work ethic have since led him into middays, pre/post on Sacramento Kings games on Comcast television, play by play for the Pac-12 Network, and play by play duties on Oakland Athletics broadcasts.
What I think makes Guy a special talent on the air, is that he doesn’t talk down to the audience, and his love for sports is genuine and comes across in everything he does. It doesn’t matter what sport is on television and which team’s are playing. If an athletic competition is taking place, he’s likely to watch it and take something away from the experience.
His chemistry and friendship with his on-air partner John Middlekauff also can’t be taught. Their connection off the air is even stronger than the one they share on the air, and that friendship, and understanding of each other is a big reason why the show has gone as high as #1 in the ratings.
Overall you’ll find excellent content selection, good interviews, a smart and informed sports conversation, and a good positive vibe when you listen to him. To hear Guy’s show click here.
Gavin Dawson – 105.3 The Fan – Without a doubt, Gavin is one of the most polished and smooth lead hosts anywhere in the country. He carries the moniker “The General” which perfectly describes his role on the show. You can listen minute by minute and feel the program moving into interesting content areas, and that’s often the result of Gavin’s decision making.
Keep in mind, he drives this show for five hours, and has to control it while working with a large cast. The show includes Chris Arnold, Mike Bacsik, and Jeff Cavanaugh, and Gavin won’t hesitate to pull in other cast members if he feels they can add something of value to the show.
I think the crew do an incredible job of picking their spots, avoiding stepping on each other, and allowing the flow of the conversation to develop. There seems to be a mindset of “we” rather than “me” which is important. I noticed that each host gets their touches, and when they do, the interjections are delivered in short bursts. This keeps the content moving, and prevents the program from becoming fatiguing.
One of Gavin’s best attributes is his ability to decipher when the show needs an in-depth discussion on a serious sports issue, and when a couple of laughs are necessary. As a radio lifer, I respect how committed he is to executing the formatics, and how prepared he is heading in and out of his breaks. For example, I listened on October 1st, and during the final hour of the show, these were his teases:
- Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t want one of “those” when he retires…we’ll explain next!
- It’s been a couple of weeks but next it’s time for letters from prison with Jeff Cavanaugh
- There’s a TMZ story about Dez Bryan’t finances that you’re going to want to hear about
In each situation, he never gave away the answer and kept the audience curious. Then when the program returned from its commercial breaks, they dove into the story within 2-3 seconds. The only time it didn’t occur was during the last segment when Gavin explained that the Dez Bryant story would be covered, but first they needed to call an audible and deal with a breaking news story surrounding a mass shooting at a college in Oregon.
In listening to Gavin’s approach, topic selections, and mixture of proving serious sports talk and light hearted entertainment, it’s no surprise the show has taken the lead in middays in the Dallas market. To hear Gavin’s show click here.
OTHER HOSTS WORTH SAMPLING:
- Ronnie Lane – 620 WDAE, Tampa, FL
- Nick Bahe – 1620 The Zone, Omaha, NE
- Cecil Lammey – 105.5 ESPN, Denver, CO
- Rob Long – 105.7 The Fan, Baltimore, MD
- Brent Axe – ESPN Syracuse, Syracuse, NY
- Mark Zinno – 92.9 The Game, Atlanta, GA
- Cam Cleeland – 1080 The Fan, Portland, OR
- Phil Mackey – 1500 ESPN, Minneapolis, MN
- Matt Moscona – 104.5 ESPN, Baton Rouge, LA
- Anthony Rothman – 97.1 The Fan, Columbus, OH
- Matt Jones – Kentucky Sports Radio, Lexington, KY
- Mike Meltser – Sports Radio 610 KILT, Houston, TX
- Carrington Harrison – 610 Sports, Kansas City, MO
- Gordon Monson – 1280 The Zone, Salt Lake City, UT
- Joe Fortenbaugh – 95.7 The Game, San Francisco, CA