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Insincerity Finally Caught Up To Stephen A. Smith and ESPN

“Essentially, ESPN has no problem inciting an angry social media mob, no matter who gets offended, as long as it offends a minority but increases viewership from the majority. “

Barrett News Media



Mark Rebilas/USA Today

It’s a weird feeling to write about someone who I don’t watch or listen to. I do, however, know the reach that Stephen A. Smith has and after his comments about Angels All-Star Shohei Otani, I asked a longtime colleague and frequent critic of Smith whether his antics are good or bad for broadcasting.

Etan Thomas played 10 years in the NBA after a successful college career at Syracuse. Now he is an accomplished author, commentator, and activist on many social issues. We connected on this after having hosted many radio and twitch shows together.

Why Former NBA Player Etan Thomas Believes Athlete Activism Matters - The  Aspen Institute
Courtesy: Aspen Institute

“Disrespectful, inappropriate, I mean, I don’t know how many different adjectives I can use,” Thomas said exclusively to Barrett Sports Media when asked about Smith’s comments regarding Shohei Ohtani’s use of an interpreter. “It was uncalled for, but when people see him making comments like that, they always got to think about who backed him, who funds him. Who has made him the face of their network, who puts them on every single hour, every show, every commercial you see. They’re rewarding him for doing exactly what he’s doing. And that point can’t, can’t be lost at all because he wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Smith has questioned Ohtani’s star potential since he does not speak English. After social media backlash drew the attention of ESPN, Smith offered an apology.

“I am a Black man. I religiously go off on minorities being marginalized in this nation,” Smith said on ESPN. “The reality of the situation is that you have Asians and Asian Americans out there that obviously were very, very offended by what I had to say yesterday, and I just want to look into the camera and extend my sincere apologies.”

“So they apologized,” Thomas retorted. “Then they have the other writer (Max Kellerman) do a whole segment. Why was he doing more? He (Kellerman) went on and on saying it was offensive. ESPN just looked at their ratings.”

This is not a new phenomenon. My questions that stemmed from Etan’s comments were about Jemele Hill, who made inflammatory statements about politics that ESPN seemed to have issues with. How do they have issues with Hill but not Smith?  Why the double standard?

“I think that’s why they told him to apologize,” Thomas retorted. “But I think the thing was with Jemele is there’s a correlation to my playing days and NBA Commissioner David Stern. When he was the commissioner of the NBA, they wanted athletes to stay completely away from politics? Because in David Stern’s mind, if you voiced a different opinion, that’s going to make people stop viewing.”

Essentially, ESPN has no problem inciting an angry social media mob, no matter who gets offended, as long as it offends a minority but increases viewership from the majority.  

Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman took to Twitter after Smith had apologized with a snarky shot at ESPN.

Brennaman is referring to his son Thom who was caught on a live mic saying homophobic epithets. Thom was dismissed both by FOX Sports and the Reds.  Brennaman is inferring that Smith gets away with saying such bad things that other employers would not stand for.

This is not to say Thom Brennaman should not have been punished. His words were just as hurtful. 

This is also not a biased reference to ESPN either. It’s just a request for people to make sure that if someone is suspended for something they said, then there should not be different rules for different announcers.

“I think that they market him to be like a train wreck that you can’t take your eyes off of,” Thomas said. “That’s the reason why they paid him what they paid him. He (Smith) gets paid more than 75% of the players in the NBA. They wouldn’t pay him all that money if it wasn’t successful.

“If it wasn’t providing dividends or things of that nature,” Thomas added.  “But they know it’s working. You can not watch ESPN for 15, 20 minutes without seeing him. Then you go on their page and he’s everywhere on it. You go on their Twitter, he’s everywhere. They made him the face of ESPN.”

Finally, a reference to the initial paragraph of this column. I have never seen a full broadcast that Stephen A. Smith (or Skip Bayless for that matter) was on.

Even when I was an ESPN employee (2009-2011), I never had any use for Smith. I instantly saw that he pushed people’s buttons, and while that moves a needle, I want opinions that are less forced and more genuine. There are plenty of TV and radio hosts that bring compelling content that feels honest and sincere. I could listen or watch that.

There is one exception. 

Once, in a dentist’s office, a technician turned on ESPN in the exam room.  My mouth was filled with “stuff” and I had to wait until they finished working on my tooth before I could ask her to shut it off or change it. That is literally the only time I saw three whole minutes of First Take.

As for Skip Bayless, I can attest that I only know what he looks like because of promos for him during NFL broadcasts.

I watch a lot of sports.  Games. Not pre-game shows. Not analysis. No highlights shows. And as a cord-cutter, it is SO easy that way.

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Jason Whitlock is the One Person Who Isn’t on Talk Radio But Should Be

There are many reasons Whitlock would resonate with talk radio listeners. The societal issues Whitlock expresses concern over, such as the “unprecedented cultural shift,” are red meat for talk radio.

Andy Bloom



A photo of Jason Whitlock
(Photo: TheBlaze)

The BNM Summit in Nashville was informational and entertaining. One of the most interesting sessions was “Fixing a Broken Media,” featuring Jason Whitlock, whom Jason Barrett interviewed.

Jason Whitlock may well be the person not currently heard on talk radio but who most should be.

Whitlock has a long resume and has done a little of everything, beginning with playing college football at Ball State University. When I asked him, “Who is Jason Whitlock?”, he replied, “A Christian, accomplished sports journalist, social critic, and pundit. Someone trying to stick to the values I learned in football and church.”

The rest of our conversation reflected his description.

I’ve seen Whitlock’s appearances on several talk shows, heard parts of his raps, and read many of his columns. However, I don’t think I gained a complete appreciation for him until I saw him at the BNM Summit and had the opportunity to interview him about a week later.

What struck me most about Whitlock during his session at the Summit and our conversation was his authenticity. He has guiding principles and does not deviate from them.

Speaking about authenticity, Whitlock isn’t sure it’s a positive virtue anymore. He said, “Being authentic gets you in trouble. Authenticity has less value than 10-15 years ago.” He points out, “We’re in the era of social media and the matrix. It’s about that narrative and what’s possible and popular based on algorithms now.”

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising when Whitlock says longtime Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko inspired him. He adds, “But he could never be a columnist now in this multicultural era.” 

There are many reasons Whitlock would resonate with talk radio listeners. The societal issues Whitlock expresses concern over, such as the “unprecedented cultural shift,” are red meat for talk radio.

He laments the “disappearing of the patriarchy”, explaining further, “We’re becoming a matriarchy. There’s a cost to society for dismantling the patriarchy in movies, sports, TV, and talk radio. Nothing is as good or life-giving anymore,” he states emphatically.

Whitlock takes aim at those rejecting conservative values when he states: “The left and the globalists have priorities like opening the borders. There’s a real cost and loss of freedom and safety. Kids are going to school today where teachers want to impose their sexual values.”

When I ask Whitlock if he could do talk radio today, he says he could with one “but.”

“I don’t know if I could get that kind of corporate support anymore. Remember when sticks and stones could break my bones, but words will never hurt me? Well, words break bones now,” surmised Whitlock. “If (corporate heads) get one tweet, everybody worries, ‘Oh, my God, someone’s feelings are hurt.’ I don’t know if you can do what Stern, Rush, or Mancow did.”

Whitlock summarizes business today, “It doesn’t matter if people like or don’t like my talent and hard work, which used to protect me, but neither matter anymore. Results don’t matter as much anymore.”

He’s right; less than ten years ago, I could calm management down by assuring them that the number of complaints received was directly proportionate to the ratings a new polarizing air personality would receive – a lesson I learned when we put Howard Stern on in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and then repeated on various stations across the country. As recently as 2014, the lesson held true when we put Josh Innes on WIP in Philadelphia until aggravation mattered more than results.

I spoke to a high-level syndicator and a leading talk radio thinker to gather their opinions about why Whitlock isn’t on talk radio. I asked Whitlock about a top concern, the amount of God and spiritual talk in his content.

“You can’t avoid the elephant in the room,” he acknowledged. “The Declaration and Constitution are influenced by Biblical views,” Whitlock continued.

Whitlock explains his position by putting the opposition in context. “The left argues race is inescapable and that it touches everything in America. Faith touches everything in America. You can’t talk about what’s going on in America without talking about it, but the left is certainly trying.”

His beliefs will attract some listeners, particularly social conservatives. How heavily he leans on faith determines how much he risks turning off others. Faith is Whitlock’s core value, but it hasn’t frightened me, at least thus far.

However, Whitlock understands the risk. “I’m aware we live in a secular society, and there are penalties for talking about God. I’m authentic and willing to accept those penalties,” he adds.

Whitlock offered a theory about someone he believes paid the price for talking about God. “Tucker’s (Carlson) show was very popular. He started talking about God, and I think that’s what got him fired.”

There’s no shortage of articles that mention how uncomfortable Rupert Murdoch became over the religious talk by Carlson and others. Although Whitlock may have a point, I tend to believe there are $787.5 million reasons that figured more prominently in the decision to remove Carlson from FNC.

Continuing to talk about Carlson, Whitlock suggested watching his appearances on the show. “Listen to what I said about faith and then Nancy Pelosi’s fake boobs, that’s what I do.”

That’s another reason I think he would be great doing talk radio. You never know what he will say next, one of the key traits of successful radio personalities.

The other question was whether Whitlock was too sports-heavy to succeed on talk radio. Whitlock knocked this one out of the park (excuse the figure of speech). “Sports are reflective of the rest of our culture. My big moment was when I wrote a Kansas City Star column after (Don) Imus’, a bad shock-jock not heard in the market, ‘nappy-headed-ho’ comment. I wrote I’m supposed to be offended when all those rap songs glorify nappy-headed pimps and hos. That column got me on Oprah.”

He continues with, “The number one force is the NFL. The top five network shows are the NFL. You can evaluate America through sports. I’m known for connecting the sports world with everything in the rest of the world. That’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years.”

Whitlock’s views will appeal to talk radio listeners. He’s willing to say things the politically correct bunch doesn’t want to hear and doesn’t care if he offends them. He’s also capable of surprising listeners.

What he says is honest and authentic. He is unabashedly proud of his beliefs and sums it up by saying: “That’s how I talk on the air and off the air. I do what I do and am Fearless (the name of his current show heard through Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media). If that makes people uncomfortable, I will deal with the consequences. The ratings speak for themselves and actually do speak for themselves.”

Somebody, please get this man a radio show!

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Robin Bertolucci Knows KFI’s Place in Talk Radio Isn’t Specifically on the Right

For KFI, I just want to have smart, interesting people, and I am not trying to be in that genre. To me, that genre is news and talk. It’s not conservative talk.

Ryan Hedrick



A photo of Robin Bertolucci and her 3 dogs.
(Photo: Robin Bertolucci)

Considering the many options and genres available to listeners, it’s quite an accomplishment for KFI-AM 640 in Los Angeles to be the top-streamed station on the iHeartRadio app. The station’s Program Director, Robin Bertolucci, has a unique approach to running a news/talk station.

Unlike many other stations that focus on political divisiveness, Robin Bertolucci recognizes and values each host’s distinct skill sets and personalities. She believes that listeners are more interested in hearing life experiences shared than having a particular point of view sold or forced upon them. 

KFI has a unique presence in Southern California. Over two decades ago, when Robin Bertolucci joined the station, she aimed to introduce more live and local content. Her goal was to provide Californians with a reliable platform to stay updated about their community at any time.

Fortunately, she had the advantage of being surrounded by exceptional talent on and off the air. However, the industry has undergone significant changes since she started. Nowadays, running a radio station involves competing against various factors, not just one station with a similar format. 

KFI has a significant advantage in its experienced newsroom and remarkable storytellers. Recently, reporter Steve Gregory traveled to Maui to report on the wildfires. Los Angeles serves as a primary entry point for travelers heading to Maui. Furthermore, the two places share strong economic ties through trade and business connections. Many families from Southern California also have personal connections between the two places.

For Robin Bertolucci, growing KFI is a constant balancing act. She understands that the station needs to work hard to promote itself and reach out to potential listeners. KFI has been broadcasting reports on the FM stations that belong to the iHeartMedia Los Angeles cluster to increase its audience.

In addition, all the shows aired on KFI can be accessed on-demand. The station’s recipe for sustained success involves being present and establishing a strong KFI presence wherever the big stories are. 

In an interview with Barrett News Media, Robin Bertolucci talks about the changes that have taken place in the station since she became the head, the importance of gaining the trust of KFI’s listeners, the individuals who can benefit from her coaching, how ratings influence her programming decisions, the one thing that defines her career, and what sets her news department apart.

Ryan Hedrick: KFI has been a staple in LA media. What changes have occurred during your tenure? 

Robin Bertolucci: The biggest change is that we are all live and local. When I first came here, we did have some syndicated programs; we have more and more just really become the live, local Southern California news and talk station.

RH: When competing for the listener’s attention in LA, what challenges does KFI face? 

RB: There is a lot going on, but everybody would say there’s a lot going on everywhere. Even on your phone, there’s a lot going on. We are just trying to continue to stay relevant and interesting and be the place where people want to know what’s going on in the community so that they can come and have big, larger than life interesting, smart personalities that they can count on to bring them the latest and the greatest. Everybody’s life is busy, and we’re just trying to fit into it.

The key for us is having smart talk show hosts who can analyze, entertain, explain, and make things fun and interesting. Also, having a great news department that can bring the facts and let people know what’s going on.  

RH: John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou (John and Ken) have been popular hosts on KFI radio for decades. What do you attribute their success to? 

RB: Their chemistry is amazing, and they have great instincts for the issues that are going on in Southern California that people really care about. They have a laser-focused vision about what people want to know, and more often than not, they get it right.  

RH: How do you approach coaching talented individuals, and who benefits the most from coaching?

Robin Bertolucci: Everybody benefits by being coached. It’s not because I’m smarter or have anything other than just a different perspective on the landscape. I have often used the analogy that our hosts are pilots, and they are flying the plane, and I don’t know how to fly a plane. I have the greatest respect for what they do, but at the same time, I am the air traffic controller, I am a professional listener, and my perspective is different.

They should listen to me for their sake, and for my sake, I should listen to them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I really learned a lot from them, and I hope together my perspective makes them better.  

RH: Bill Handel is an exceptional personality with a unique talent for connecting with people. Tell me more about his abilities. 

RB: He is just himself. He is smart, weird, and wonderful and has had an interesting life with a lot of experience, and he brings that to the table. Our listeners really connect with him, know him, and feel that they genuinely trust him.

That is a powerful thing. He has lived with them through many big news stories and given his perspective, and there’s a lot of trust and confidence in him. That’s why he’s the number show in the morning drive in Los Angeles.  

RH: What does it take for KFI to get and keep the trust of its listeners? 

RB: To me, we are all bombarded with people who are consistently and constantly trying to sell us something. Whether it’s a way of looking at the world that they want us to have, whether it’s a product or service. When you are constantly sold, you get skeptical of everybody. Even news networks people perceive as peddling a point of view. Trust, for me, is the most important thing.

To me, trust does not mean that you do not have a bias. Trust is knowing that the person you’re listening to will tell you the truth as they see it and explain why they see it that way. That you trust not that you’re going to have the same opinion as them but that you’re going to trust the process by which they arrived at it. 

You’re going to trust their intelligence, their experience, and maybe you’ll walk away and say, ‘Hey, I trust them, but I don’t agree with them at all.’ I like people on the air, whether it’s John and Ken, Handel, Mo Kelly, Gary and Shannon, Tim Conway Jr., or whoever it is.

If you have an opinion, I don’t care what it is. We have people with a variety of opinions on a variety of issues. I hope they will not have a certain perspective because I don’t think, as a station, we should sell anybody anything; we should sell them the truth as we perceive it.  

My goal is that everybody with an opinion about anything can explain to me their opinion and why they have it. To say I’m a conservative, or I’m a liberal, or I’m a blank… is not an answer. I really want to understand why you believe what you believe and how you arrived at that conclusion.

To me, it’s all about showing your math, and when you can explain to someone how you arrived at a conclusion, even if I don’t agree with the conclusion, at least I trust you as a person.  

RH: What state do you think the news/talk format is in two years after the death of Rush Limbaugh? I believe the format may be in more flux than people believe. What are your thoughts?

Robin Bertolucci: I would approach it very differently than you might. My format is not conservative talk radio. I have a lot of respect for what Rush did and what Rush felt over the years. I am trying to super-serve a local community. My goal is not to be a political station with KFI. KEIB is (The Patriot AM 1150).

For KFI, I just want to have smart, interesting people, and I am not trying to be in that genre. To me, that genre is news and talk. It’s not conservative talk. Live, local talk is what matters to me. That’s where our successes lie.  

RH: Do you consider KNX News 97.1 FM to be KFI’s main competitor? 

RB: We compete against damn near everyone and everything. We compete with apps on your phone and anything that draws your attention. We compete with KNX, but we also compete with KISS (102.7 FM), with a call to your mother; we compete with silence. We are competing with everything because we aim to have your attention. If you’re on the radio and you’re not listening to us, your competition. So that could be anything. 

RH: Do you make programming decisions solely based on ratings?  

Robin Bertolucci: No, because ratings are always in the past. I definitely make decisions based on data, and ratings are part of that data, but then again, some things are intangible, and sometimes you can have great ratings or horrible ratings, but you know there is something there, and you’ve got to weather the storm, push through.

Ratings are great, data is great, research is great, and experience and instinct and marketplace and the listeners a great things, too. They are all important; they all play a role.  

RH: Have you had a defining moment or experience in your career that led you to where you are now? 

RB: One thing that has defined me is that I have had the luxury of only working at three call-letter stations for my whole career, which is kind of a funny thing. I started at KGO (San Francisco), then I went to KOA in Denver, and now I’m here at KFI (laughs). That’s a corny fact about me.  

A thing that defines me is that I have been able to have a career and do it the way I want to and find a path that is uniquely my own. When you help craft a station or help build a station that feels perfectly right for a community and would only work there and is unique to that place, that’s one of the things I am most proud of. KFI is a very special station, and I feel honored to work there and work with the people and continue to make it uniquely Southern California.  

RH: How does your news department manage to provide such extensive coverage of such a large city? 

RB: We try and focus on what we feel are the most important things. We have incredibly talented people who work in our news department. Our goal is not to cover everything but to cover the most important things.  

RH: What does KFI Reporter Steve Gregory mean to Los Angeles, and what sets him apart from other reporters in the business? 

RB: I think Steve is one of the best, if not the absolute best in the business. I love what he does. He takes you to a story and makes you feel like you are there with him. He takes you there and makes you feel the story and not just know the facts about the story, which he does exquisitely well, but he also makes you feel what is going on. He is an incredibly talented storyteller.  

(Last month, we wrote about Steve Gregory’s reporting in Maui on the devastating wildfires. We asked Robin about the decision to send him there and why it was important for Southern California

Robin Bertolucci: A lot of people in Southern California go to Maui for vacations or weddings. A lot of [Californians] have been there, it’s not that far away, it’s closer than New York City. I think there was a connection, and we’ve faced horrific and tragic fires. So, Steve said let me go, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I was delighted and grateful that he could get there and tell their story, and he did a remarkable job.  

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What Do Clay Travis, Mark Levin, and NPR Have in Common?

No other format has this issue at this level of magnitude.



A photo of Clay Travis, the NPR logo, and Mark Levin

Among all the positive summit topics at the inaugural BNM Summit in Nashville (and you should make plans to attend next year’s event), there was a small one that lent itself to misleading data. When Jason gave his introduction, he showed some Nielsen data about the news/talk format, including the likes of Clay Travis, Buck Sexton, and other conservative radio hosts. 

Later, Pierre Bouvard gave a strong presentation for more political ad spending in radio that used Scarborough data and showed the political leanings of news/talk listeners. If I didn’t know better, I’d be amazed at how many Democrats listen to news/talk according to Scarborough.

There’s a small fly in that ointment, which is that Nielsen (and Scarborough) does not differentiate between the commercial news/talk format and the non-commercial or NPR version. Long ago, this didn’t matter because the talk component of most NPR affiliates consisted of Morning Edition and All Things Considered

For Nielsen purposes, many classified their stations as “classical” or “variety”. No longer…with talk formats all day long, many NPR affiliates are now news/talk stations based on their self-reports to Nielsen.

Let’s look at it this way: If you work in news/talk and I asked you to give me a list of some major news/talk stations across the country, how many of you would include the following stations:

WNYC, New York

WAMU, Washington, DC

WGBH and WBUR, Boston

KQED, San Francisco

WBEZ, Chicago

KPCC, Los Angeles

WHYY, Philadelphia

KERA, Dallas-Fort Worth

Every station listed is registered with Nielsen as being in the news/talk format. Each is non-commercial and let’s face it, none of them will be running The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show any time soon. 

Given this situation, how do we get a true view of how commercial news/talk is doing? It’s not easy. 

When I worked at Cumulus, I used to do a set of format snapshots twice a year based on Nielsen’s National/Regional database (NRD). I wanted a legitimate commercial news/talk analysis, so this format always took the most time to analyze. 

Thankfully, NRD lets you sort by frequency, so I could eliminate all the stations in the non-commercial band. Then, I’d delete the public news/talk stations that are in the commercial band one by one (a handful). 

Finally, I would take out the public AM stations (there are perhaps 40 or so still operating), again, one by one. At that point, what was left was the commercial news/talk format. And yes, the Canadian news/talk stations and the Spanish news/talk stations were also removed from the analysis.

Even during my time at Arbitron, I requested that we add another format option so that subscribers could easily separate the commercial news/talk stations from the public ones. My question at the time was “How much audience does Rush Limbaugh share with All Things Considered?” The same question persists today with how similar the listener demographic is between Clay Travis, Mark Levin, and NPR listeners.

I brought the issue up again while a member of the NAB’s COLRAM committee. When you consider the number of different format choices available in Nielsen Audio (more than 50), how hard would it be to add one more? Call it “Public News/Talk”, “Noncommercial News/Talk”, or whatever. 

No other format has this issue at this level of magnitude. For example, a number of college radio stations list themselves as “alternative”. Again, it’s pretty easy to eliminate them from an analysis of the alternative music format, and even if you didn’t, the amount of additional audience would be small and the music would be similar.

When some of the NPR affiliates are number one in their markets on a consistent basis (Washington, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, etc.) and many are in the top five, this skews any sort of analysis of the format, including analyses that Nielsen releases. Let’s get it fixed. Let’s stop labelling a conservative news talk audience relying on Clay Travis, Dan Bongino, or whichever host you’d like, with public news/talk from NPR.

There are many things Nielsen Audio could do to improve the product and most will take time and investment. This fix is an easy one.  Nielsen Audio, just get it done.

Let’s meet again next week.

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