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Where Is The ESPN Radio Flamethrower?

Another change is coming to ESPN Radio’s daytime offerings in the new year. With Bart & Hahn moving back to the local lineup in New York, the network’s 12-3 slot will soon belong to Jason Fitz & Harry Douglas. They are both talented, likable guys. The show could turn into something great. Right now though, it’s a question mark. 

The morning lineup will be Keyshawn, JWill and Max in the mornings followed by Greeny. The afternoons will start with Fitz & Harry followed by Canty & Carlin. Daytime prime hours on the network will be filled with a lot of good, talented guys. It includes one of the elder statesmen of national sports talk radio. What it is missing is a flamethrower. 

Perhaps you hear that term and think I mean that the network needs someone spouting one hot take after another, waiting for one of them to catch the public’s attention. Being provocative is important, but it is only part of the equation. Think of all the hosts you have heard that define themselves by being “fearless”. A lot of them tend to run together. “Hot take” has become something of a four-letter word to sports fans. I actually have no problem with a great hot take artist, so long as they take the artist part seriously.

That is what a flamethrower is. Sure, they say the kind of things that get your attention, but they do it in a creative way and with regularity. They are the kinds of hosts that you flock to for an opinion on the story everyone has an opinion about.

In the past, ESPN Radio has had its fair share of flamethrowers. The two most prominent have been Colin Cowherd and Stephen A. Smith. They rely on a combination of intelligence and bombast to deliver shows that no one else on the planet can.

ESPN Radio is clearly missing that guy in their new daytime lineup. Frankly, they have been missing that guy ever since Smith decided to end his radio show. Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of talent. I just don’t see the show or host that affiliates across the country look at and say “that makes my station stronger!”.

You could argue right now that Mike Greenberg is the centerpiece of the lineup. He is a known commodity. Sports fans can count on a quality broadcast when Greeny is involved, because when it comes to sports knowledge and the Xs and Os of broadcasting, there may be no one on the planet that is better.

Greenberg is right at home on television. He is built to be the star of shows like Get Up and NBA Countdown. He sets the tone and pace for the conversation and then lets Jalen Rose or Rex Ryan hammer it home.

At his core, Mike Greenberg is a point guard, a distributor. That is valuable when you are working with a big cast, but radio shows are supposed to be built around the opinions and personality of their host. Darius Garland is a great basketball player, but the Cavaliers went out and added Donovan Mitchell because they knew that the ceiling was pretty low if they were built around someone who couldn’t take over a game.

Since Colin Cowherd left Bristol to join FOX in 2015, the network has rolled out a lot of different daytime lineups. They’ve been looking for the one that has that juggernaut feel of moving from Mike & Mike to Colin Cowherd to Dan Patrick into Erik Kuselias. One trend that I have noticed in recent years is the guy with the potential to be the network’s flamethrower keeps being put in the spot where he will have the least impact.

Bomani Jones and Will Cain are both incredibly smart guys. They look at topics entirely differently, but both of them are interesting. Jones is as nuanced and quick on his feet as anyone in this business. When Cain thought he was right, he would never back down and stay calm while others tied themselves in knots trying to prove him wrong. Their shows on ESPN Radio were very different products that stirred the emotions of their listeners.

Unfortunatelty, both shows were stuck in the afternoon drive timeslot on the East Coast. In that day part, the majority of the country is turning to local programming. Out West, the markets are smaller and time zones don’t always fit perfectly. The impact of a flamethrower is lessened if his reach is limited to the Casper, Wyoming’s of the world.

I am not confident enough to say that ESPN Radio is doing the same thing again, but as I look at the daytime lineup, I think the guy with the most flamethrower potential is Chris Carlin. And where is his show? In the East Coast afternoon drive slot.

A lot of people in this business choose sides. They are FOX guys or they are ESPN guys. Some of them are gambling guys and loyal to networks like VSiN or BetQL. For me, I just want to be entertained. I will listen to someone that makes me think and react. I want to find a host that I feel like I cannot miss. Right now, FOX Sports Radio has the highest percentage of those guys. CBS Sports Radio has one of those guys. ESPN Radio doesn’t.

The problem extends well beyond Bristol, CT though. FOX’s flamethrowers are Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd. They are 65 and 58 years old respectively. CBS’s is Jim Rome. He is also 58. At some point, the national networks have to stop making room for flamethrowers and start building some new ones.

Maybe that is the plan for ESPN Radio. I certainly hope it is, but there isn’t anyone in the current lineup with the clear, undeniable potential to be that dude. I see a lot of two-for-one deals where guys are asked to make time for both TV and radio in order for the suits to justify paying them something close to what they are worth.

ESPN Radio is the only network in my lifetime that has successfully built its own flamethrower within its structure. It happened in 2004 when Cowherd replaced Tony Kornheiser in the late morning slot. The bosses found a guy that was incredibly smart and talented, put him in a prime position where his show was going to be carried by a lot of affiliates and they let the audience grow with him.

Can that path be copied and pasted into 2023? I don’t know. I do talk to a lot of PDs though, and right now there are plenty of them that would be more excited for the network to try it than they are about yet another new primetime radio lineup from the Worldwide Leader.

Demetri Ravanos
Demetri Ravanos
Demetri Ravanos is a columnist and features writer for Barrett Media. He is also the creator of The Sports Podcast Festival, and a previous host on the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas in addition to hosting Panthers and College Football podcasts. His radio resume includes stops at 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 or reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.

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