One of the rewarding parts of being a sports radio strategist and consultant, is having the time to observe different brands, markets and individuals. Finding the next diamond in the rough or highlighting the work of a talent who makes an impact in their region yet may not earn national attention based on their geographic location is something I enjoy doing.
Last year I scoured the nation listening to numerous sports radio brands and profiled 15 on-air talents who I thought were worthy of some additional exposure. There are hundreds of stations and on-air hosts occupying air time each day who I could easily draw attention to, but the goal with this annual column is to identify a few personalities who you might not be familiar with and explain what they do well, and why they are worthy of your time.
One thing I’ve learned since leaving the day to day grind inside of a radio station is how subjective this business is. Program directors, corporate executives, and on-air hosts have very different beliefs in what qualifies as “good radio”, and what may be appealing to me, may not be as interesting to someone else. The one difference is that I have this online forum to present my views, whereas many conversations of this magnitude are often discussed privately inside the walls of each radio station.
When it comes to the sports format, audiences know who the heavy hitters are. That’s due either to reputation, press coverage, market size or national platforms. Many of these hosts, whether it’s Colin Cowherd, Jim Rome, Mike and Mike, or Mike Francesa, deserve the attention because they not only perform on major outlets, but they bring a unique style and tremendous skill to the airwaves, which is essential in delivering positive results for their employers.
As you familiarize yourself with some of the individuals I profiled, I remind you that this column isn’t designed to suggest that they are better or stronger performers than those they compete against. These selections also aren’t influenced by any broadcast company. It’s simply a subjective exercise in recognizing a few people who I feel bring different qualities to the airwaves each day, and use those skills to connect with their listeners. Some of them I have previous familiarity with, others I’ve grown to enjoy and appreciate after listening to them perform in recent weeks and months.
When you tune into a sports radio station, it’s usually because you want to be entertained, informed, and emotionally moved. Some shows build their presentation around strong opinions and uncomfortable positions. Others use self-deprecation and humor. The rest may rely on smart analysis, relatable storytelling or a unique attribute that can’t be duplicated by anyone else. In each case, authenticity, relatability, content selection and a willingness to share one’s life on the air comes into play. Those are common threads in the success of most sports talk shows.
In listening to the 10 on-air personalities I’ve highlighted in this column, they possess many of those qualities. I encourage you to give them a listen when time allows to see if they suit your listening tastes too. Most of them provide fifteen to twenty hours of on-air content each week, and their ability to be the sports fan’s companion and tug on their emotions each day are a big reason why they’re enjoying success.
Mike Babchik – SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio – He may not be the headline act on Mad Dog Sports Radio, but make no mistake about it, Mike Babchik is one of the most interesting and important personalities on the channel. He’s the train that’s gone off the track, lost it’s brakes, and you can’t help but watch to see where it ends up.
On a daily basis, you’ll discover that Babchik is a combination of funny, crazy, unafraid, and unfiltered. Everything in his life is fair game for the radio show. What I especially enjoy is how well the show connects to things that are topical and buzzworthy.
For example, the day after Draymond Green kicked Steven Adams in the groin during the Western Conference Finals, Babchik took a kick to the jewels on-air from update anchor Maria Marino. The morning after Laremy Tunsil and Ken Bone became the talk of the nation, the show was not only discussing it, but viral tweets were going out showing Babchik in a red sweater and the Tunsil gas mask.
During other shows, Babchik has been spanked by his personal trainer, shown off his underwhelming physique for attractive in-studio female guests, and shared the embarrassment of being crapped on by a bird. The best praise I can give the show is that it doesn’t matter if you listen in February, the dog days of summer, or on a Monday after the first NFL weekend, when the light goes on, Mike and his partner Evan Cohen are going to have fun and entertain you.
If you’re tuning into “The Morning Men” on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio, and expecting a hardcore sports conversation though, prepare to be disappointed. That’s not what they do. This is a morning show that blends sports, lifestyle, and real life events, while making their callers feel like they’re part of the family. They’ve even branded their hardcore fans as “FALS”, a term they adopted after Chris Russo uttered the word accidentally when attempting to refer to a caller as a pal.
One of Babchik’s other strong skills is the way he uses social media. He shares his most vulnerable moments with the audience and does a great job of being interactive, including retweeting their feedback. The show also films a number of funny short videos, most of them revolving around Babchik or something topical. For example, the day after David Ross homered for the Cubs in the World Series and celebrated by giving his teammates a cup bump, Babchik produced a quick video of what the post-show celebration would be like if the Morning Men adopted the same strategy.
In a nutshell, Mike Babchik is an entertainer. Nothing on-air or on social is off limits or too serious for him. But when he and Evan Cohen team up to host their show, the audience is going to be treated to a whole lot of laughter and disorganized chaos. That’s the secret sauce that makes “The Morning Men” a great listen and the type of show you want to start your day with. To hear the show click here.
Brad Thompson – 101 ESPN, St. Louis, MO – When athletes make the initial conversion to the broadcast business, they’re often utilized in a reactors role. They’re encouraged to share clubhouse stories, on the field experiences, and focus on the sport they’ve played. Many avoid venturing into discussions on other sports due to a lack of depth in those other areas.
In Brad’s case, he’s an exception. When you listen to him weekday afternoons on 101 ESPN, you hear a ton of energy, smart informed analysis, an ability to laugh and bust balls with his partner Randy Karraker, and it doesn’t matter if the conversation revolves around the St. Louis Cardinals (his former team) or the NFL, NHL or a mainstream national story. Regardless of the conversation, he’s invested in it. In many cases, he becomes an even better listen when the topic is not built around St. Louis baseball.
What impresses me even more is that Brad has also learned how to drive a show. Randy has been one of the market’s best drivers of a talk show for the past few decades. His clock management, interviewing, teasing, and topic setting are strong, and Brad has paid close attention because when Randy misses a day or takes a vacation, the show doesn’t miss a beat with Brad in the driver’s chair. That’s rare. In many cases, station’s have a glaring hole when a lead host is out and the number two guy has to move up to the number one position.
When I first heard Brad drive the show I thought it might impact his ability to provide analysis and opinion, the traits which he’s best known for. But to his credit, he’s learned how to use his positions to spark conversation and given his credibility as a former player, and his comfortability with sharing an opinion and providing evidence to support it, he’s become a destination listen for St. Louis sports fans during the afternoon commute home from work.
As of last check, the Fast Lane (101 ESPN’s afternoon show), was the highest rated spoken word program in the market. Listeners have responded favorably to Brad and Randy, and program director Chris “Hoss” Neupert has done an excellent job by surrounding them with a good cast, and giving them the freedom to explore new territory and challenge themselves as on-air personalities. To hear the show click here.
Steve “Sparky” Fifer – 105.7 The Fan, Milwaukee, WI – He’s been described as an igniter, and in observing “The Big Show” on 105.7 The Fan in Milwaukee, that description perfectly suits him. “Sparky” as listeners know him, is outspoken and firm in his beliefs, and his connection to the local market, combined with his energy, opinions, and willingness to tackle all subjects is what helps drive a lot of the conversation between himself, former Packer and Badger Gary Ellerson, and Ramie Makhlouf. Former Packer Leroy Butler also joins the mix a few times per week.
What I enjoy most about Steve’s presentation is his ability to deliver strong informed opinions. He doesn’t say things just to make the audience react. He thinks out his positions, explains them concisely and uses examples to validate his stances. Ellerson and Makhlouf aren’t afraid to challenge him, and their on-air show position of “keeping it 100” means that regardless of how they feel, they’re committed to being real, honest, and open to tackle any topic, regardless of its comfort level.
Most of the conversations on the show revolve around local or national subjects that are of importance to Milwaukee sports fans. While football dominates much of the fall discussion, Steve’s passion for the Milwaukee Bucks also is on display from time to time. As of last check, the ratings for Steve’s show were a full point higher year to year, and ahead of other spoken word stations in the market, including both sports stations and the powerful news talker WTMJ.
Collectively, The Big Show has a full sound. But what makes it work is the chemistry, comfortability and passionate discussions that take place between the group. In many instances, the spark that ignites the room comes from Steve, and when a host has an ability to cut through the clutter and penetrate the mind of a listener with strong provoking commentaries, that’s a quality you can’t teach. To get a feel for Sparky and his contributions to The Big Show on The Fan in Milwaukee, click here to listen.
Peter Rosenberg – 98.7 ESPN NY, New York, NY – When I first learned that Peter would be joining the Michael Kay Show on 98.7FM ESPN NY I applauded the station for taking a risk. I enjoyed listening to Michael Kay and Don LaGreca but recognized that a younger perspective with some bite and personality could add a new dimension to the program.
Not many on-air personalities with a track record of success on a hip-hop station make a successful transition to a sports talk show, especially one which includes a talent like Kay who was already established and well respected. It’s also difficult to develop chemistry when you’re joining a show that’s been in existence for over a decade, and offers a strong two-man nucleus.
To Rosenberg’s credit, he found his niche, and has become an attraction to the show. I compare it to a new character joining an already successful TV show (EX: Negan joining the Walking Dead). His success on the show is also a testament to Kay and LaGreca, who kept an open mind, welcomed his arrival, and worked hard to find a new energy for their program.
What I enjoy about Peter is that he’s a natural ball buster. His energy, snarkiness, cockiness, and comfortability with sharing his opinions, often generate good reactions out of Kay and LaGreca. If he flubs on the air, it gets addressed and often becomes funny. If he delivers a strong take, Kay and LaGreca pounce on it. He’s also not afraid to call them out either. As a trio they share different styles and views, but they present themselves as a family that you want to be part of.
One particular quality that helps Rosenberg stand out, especially with younger listeners, is that he’s relatable, funny, and sees the world through their eyes. His ENN (Evening Nightly News) segment has become a staple of the show, and because of his passion for professional wrestling (Rosenberg also hosts a popular podcast called “Cheap Heat”) it’s gotten the program to explore new territory that it may not have in year’s past. One specific example that jumps to mind is when Shane McMahon of the WWE appeared on the Kay show the day after he returned to Monday Night Raw after a seven year hiatus.
It’s no coincidence that since Rosenberg arrived on the show, the response among Men 18-34 has spiked significantly. The show has even beaten Mike Francesa head to head in that demographic, something that didn’t happen in the past. That’s a credit to all three hosts working together to find their collective voice, develop their timing, forming chemistry, and presenting a fun and informative program that’s different in approach from what New Yorkers are treated to elsewhere on the dial. To hear Peter’s contributions to the Michael Kay Show click here.
Chris Childers – SiriusXM College Sports Nation – When I think of the term “smile with your voice”, I can’t help but think of Chris. Although he can certainly have his moments on the air when he’s being analytical or offering a strong opinion, he also has a natural enthusiasm and genuine love for hosting a sports talk show. His charisma, energy, and joy for talking about sports topics is hard to ignore.
Paired daily with former college football head coach Rick Neuhiesel, Chris does a great job running point on SiriusXM College Sports Nation’s “The Full Ride”. He speaks from a fan’s point of view and understands and embraces his role on the show. He knows that he represents the voice of the fan when sharing opinions and talking to newsmakers from the world of college sports, but also has the responsibility of pulling out quality information, analysis and opinion from Coach Neuheisel, which is important given the experience he’s gained from years of leading multiple college sports programs.
Equally as impressive is Chris’ commitment to the craft of hosting. He tries to frame his topics and make them easy to play along with. He puts work into his teasing and interviewing, listens and follows up off of audio cuts and production, and dives into topics with a serious purpose but also recognizes when a moment has entertainment value and is willing to let it happen.
As an example, two weeks ago after the show bumped in with a song about the Bayou, which was being used to set up a discussion on whether or not Ed Orgeron deserved strong consideration to become the permanent head coach for LSU, Childers said that if Gumbo had a voice, it would sound like the guy singing the song. It was not only a fitting comment but it lightened the mood for a minute before the conversation turned serious about LSU’s future leadership.
Chris and Coach Neuheisel offer different life experience and perspectives, and their contrasting styles naturally make their conversations more interesting. If you haven’t had an opportunity to hear their show and enjoy listening to sports talk built around college sports, I recommend checking them out. You can hear a sample of their program by clicking here.
Jared Stillman – 102.5 The Game, Nashville, TN – When you draw the ire of many of the market’s local talents, it’s usually because you’ve tapped into something. In Jared Stillman’s case, he has a ton to say, and it isn’t often comfortable or popular, but it’s what makes him unique to Nashville sports listeners.
Every market has a villain, but not every talent is comfortable in that position. In listening from afar, Stillman seems at peace with his presentation and style, and it’s served him well, helping him make the transition from hosting middays solo on 102.5 The Game, to now teaming up with former Titans GM Floyd Reese in afternoon drive.
Some local folks who I’ve talked to have compared Stillman’s style to a Nashville version of Colin Cowherd. He uses analogies to shape some of his opinions. He welcomes conflict and doesn’t mind being the most unpopular man in the room. And despite being a homegrown talent, he speaks his mind and doesn’t drink the local Kool-Aid even if it might help him generate a few more fans.
As a broadcaster I can appreciate that skillset. Sports radio is a business that’s driven largely by strong opinion, supported evidence, and an ability to strike an emotional chord with an audience. Stillman checks many of those boxes. He may not be invited over to every local host and listener’s home for a Christmas party, but when the group gets together, it won’t be a surprise if the first words uttered are “can you believe what Stillman said today”. To hear Jared’s show click here.
Rich Ohrnberger – XTRA Sports 1360, San Diego, CA – Six years of NFL experience prepares most players to speak from an expert point of view on the sport they played professionally, but in Rich’s case there’s so much more to his daily performance. After being added to middays alongside radio veteran Mark Willard, the two men have not only formed immediate chemistry, but Ohrnberger’s natural personality has come to life. The show has been in existence for only 4+ months but it sounds like it’s been together for a lot longer.
On most days, you’re likely to be served a heavy dose of self-deprecation and laughter. The former Offensive Lineman and Willard strike the right balance in knowing when to extend the content and when to pull it back. I’ve listened to recent examples of Ohrnberger ad libbing his way into proclaiming himself as the “host with the most”, which then turned into a great back and forth good natured ribbing between the morning and midday shows. I’ve also heard Willard and Ohrnberger spontaneously roleplay as members of the Joey Bosa mob family, which was also great on-air content. That’s in addition to the serious conversations the two men have about the San Diego Chargers and other topical sports subjects which are also excellent.
Considering his playing experience, you’d expect Ohrnberger to speak intelligently and passionately on the NFL. He’s a good storyteller, who is open with his personal and professional life, and isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers with his opinions. But while all of those traits are part of his presentation, it’s his large personality and sense of humor that makes him a required daily listen.
At just thirty years old, Rich is relatively new to the sports radio world. He has a ton of upside and has already hit the ground running, but also has plenty of room to grow. What I noticed immediately is how comfortable he is on the air, regardless of the subject. He’s got great energy, an infectious attitude, and quick wit. Those are natural skills that most personalities need to be successful. I also like how he shapes and supports his positions and delivers them in a confident and precise manner. That tells me that he’s putting time into his preparation. But rather than take my word for it, click here and take a listen for yourself.
Drew Hoffar – KNBR 1050, San Francisco, CA – There are some voices you listen to that you instantly gravitate to or wish you could duplicate. For example, when sports radio fans hear Paul Turner on CBS Sports stations, his sound instantly grabs you. Well in Drew Hoffar’s case, he’s been blessed with a set of pipes that most personalities in their early thirties would kill for.
Although his voice jumps through the speakers, it’s the personality that goes with it that makes Hoffar a rising star in this format. He delivers his opinions with conviction and passion. He busts balls in a way that instantly gets your attention, and he utilizes descriptive and colorful vocabulary that sticks in the head of an audience (one of his old classic lines was “They’re going loco for Coco at Oco).
But while those are natural traits that he’s always possessed, it’s his maturation of growing into his the position as lead host of “The Audible” on KNBR 1050 that is making the biggest difference. His chemistry with on-air partners Kevin Frandsen (former MLB player) and Rudy Ortiz (Bay Area comedian) has been instant. I also hear a growing confidence in trusting his content decision making, and he’s searching for ways to get the group involved, rather than worrying about his own strengths and insecurities. That growth should not only give Hoffar reason to feel encouraged, but it should have folks at Cumulus San Francisco very optimistic about his future potential.
One area that I’ve especially been impressed with since Hoffar made the conversion from being a FT update anchor and PT host to the leader of KNBR 1050’s morning show is how he’s introduced lifestyle discussion into the daily plan. The show has the ability to debate and discuss sports topics, but it’s their ability to talk about movies, relationship issues, and real life experiences that makes them relatable to local listeners. To get familiar with Drew and his show The Audible, click here to listen.
Danny O’Neill – 710 ESPN, Seattle, WA – Running point on a three man show can be challenging but Danny makes it sound easy each day on the Seattle airwaves. He has a great sense of what’s relevant to the local audience, which is reflected in the show’s heavy focus on NFL and College Football conversation, and is an exceptional listener who’s focused on setting up his teammates and putting the group in position to succeed, rather than satisfying his own ego.
Another strength of Danny’s is his timing. He keeps the pace of the show moving and has a knack for knowing when to advance a conversation or stick with a subject that has deeper content potential. His positive and engaging demeanor is well received by his partners, and there’s a sense from listening that the boys in the room trust his decision making, and know that they’ll be consistently put in position to inform and entertain the audience.
If you tune into “Danny, Dave and Moore” on 710 ESPN Seattle, one thing that probably goes unnoticed by the audience, but is necessary for any good show to enjoy success, is solid execution of the show’s formatics, which Danny does well. He resets, teases, keeps the show’s benchmarks on track, and while those little things may not stand out as much as a brain jarring opinion, they often make a big difference on a talk show’s results.
If a Seattle sports radio listener driving home from work puts on Danny’s afternoon show, they’re likely to hear a good blend of laughs, information, opinion and locally focused content. That combination is a solid formula for success. To hear Danny, Dave and Moore, click here.
Lance Zierlein – SportsTalk 790, Houston, TX – I’ve long admired Lance’s work because he has an ability to make you think, react and laugh. Each day on his morning show “The Proper Gentlemen of Sports” where he works opposite Matt Thomas, Houston sports fans are treated to a blend of local sports topics, real life discussions, strong informed opinions, and spontaneous laughter.
From a content standpoint, the show places a strong emphasis on NFL conversation. Lance comes from a football family so it’s a sport he has natural interest in. He presents himself in an authoritative manner, and his preparation outside of the show and connections inside the game contribute to his ability to be seen as an informed source and opinion leader. One thing Lance is notorious for is watching a ton of football film. He shares his findings with his audience regularly, and the extra time he invests in studying players has earned him additional exposure on NFL.com and the NFL Network.
In addition to the serious side of his presentation, Lance is also gifted at creating characters. His Phillip Rivers, Stephen A. Smith and Jon Gruden, and original characters Bernie “The Wolf” Wolfson and SEC Guy Karol Kenton Kogslotter are laugh out loud funny. When introduced into a show, they’re impossible to turn off. He nails the cadence and personality of each person he imitates, yet brings a new dimension to each character which leaves you scratching your head and contemplating “is that really him”?
Although he’s been a mainstay on the Houston airwaves for the past two decades, Lance’s profile isn’t as familiar to industry folks outside of his market. However, it’s certainly not due to a lack of talent. He’s well rounded, opinionated, funny, and spontaneous, and those are the type of qualities most stations look for in a morning drive personality.
OTHER HOSTS WORTH CHECKING OUT:
- Mike Taylor – The Ticket 760, San Antonio, TX
- Andrew Walker – 590 The Fan, Toronto, ON
- Brett Kane – 93.7 The Ticket, Lincoln, NE
- Mike Evans – 104.3 The Fan, Denver, CO
- Joe Raineri – 640 Sports, Miami, FL
- Andi Petrillo – TSN 1050, Toronto, ON
- Zach Gelb – 920 The Jersey, Trenton, NJ
- Beanie Wells – 97.1 The Fan, Columbus, OH
- Josh Cohen – ESPN 106.3, West Palm Beach, FL
- Nick Cattles – ESPN Radio 94.1, Virginia Beach, VA