ESPN's new ombudsman delves deep; Finebaum discusses jump
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
At 57, Finebaum is going national after three decades in Birmingham hosting the South's most famous sports-talk radio show. ESPN announced last week that it had signed Finebaum to host a daily radio show (which will debut on Aug. 1) and make television appearances (around 100 a year) across various ESPN platforms. There is also the possibility of a writing component. Then, beginning on August 1, 2014, upon the launch of the SEC Network, a television simulcast of Finebaum's radio show based out of ESPN's Charlotte, N.C. studios will anchor the new network's afternoon lineup. Justin Connolly, an ESPN senior vice president for programming who will oversee the SEC Network, told the Wall Street Journal that Finebaum's radio show at first will air primarily in the Southeast. Finebaum told SI.com on Saturday that he's not sure as of now which markets will air his radio show at the start of his ESPN tenure. His ESPN deal will run for five years.
How did Finebaum end up with Worldwide Leader in press releases? Last August the radio host hired a broadcasting agent, Nick Khan, who embarked on general conversations with both ESPN and the SEC Network. (Khan represents a number of ESPN broadcasters.) Finebaum's contract with the Birmingham-based WJOX 94.5 FM expired last Jan. 21 and he waited the required 90 days by WJOX owner Cumulus Media until he could negotiate freely with other entities. When that period ended, ESPN approached Khan, whose goal was to get Finebaum appearance work on ESPN in 2013 with an eye toward a major gig with the SEC Network in 2014. Finebaum said SiriusXM also approached him last summer about an exclusive relationship, a deal he was interested in before he and his agent started moving toward ESPN.
Finebaum said he missed being on the radio -- his last show was Jan. 21 -- but appreciated the break. He filled the time working on a memoir that he is writing with ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, who was a classmate of Finebaum's at Tennessee and a longtime friend. Finebaum said that the $650,000 (according to the Wall Street Journal) book deal he received from HarperCollins came as a result of a lengthy profile in the New Yorker magazine that was published last December. The day after the piece ran, Finebaum's radio producer got a call from David Vigliano, a high-profile Manhattan literary agent. "I'd have as much a chance to write a book about myself without that as I would being the closer of the Yankees," Finebaum said. "That piece helped change my life. It brought me to a narrow but very influential audience. I am sure it helped me with ESPN too."
Writing recently for Sports on Earth, Tommy Tomlinson said what made Finebaum's show compelling was the Alabama-ness of it. He, like many others, are now wondering whether the Alabama-ness of the show can be duplicated from Charlotte?
"I think it is a fair question and I heard that from friends and executives in Bristol," Finebaum said. "I think our show has become unique because we are not like everyone else and it is my hope we can continue going down that path. The show has to be a little broader but I don't think it is a bad thing to be in Charlotte. The studios are only four miles from South Carolina so not too far from SEC country (laughs).
"I want it to be a better show than it was but still have the flavor and character of what has made it what I think was the most unique caller-driven show in the country. It's not the best show in the country -- we have never had the best guests because we have not had the clout to get the kind of guests that Mike and Mike or Scott Van Pelt or Dan Patrick get. But no one has ever been able to top us for the craziness and for the callers. We don't want to change that."
Finebaum's wife of 23 years, Dr. Linda Hudson, plans to move to Charlotte with him. (The couple was in the city over the weekend looking at homes.) Hudson works in private practice and is also the chairperson of the department of medicine for a Birmingham hospital, but she's going along for the ride. "She said let's go for it and made the commitment to move in due time," Finebaum said. "She is making a tremendous sacrifice. It's going to be an adventure and one I didn't expect at this point in my life."
"What am I looking for from Lipsyte? Only this: To be Lipsyte, because beyond that he doesn't need advice from me. He was an inspired choice -- and kudos to ESPN for having the guts to choose him -- because after more than a half-century of healthy skepticism about sports and sports journalism he should have no trouble seeing past ESPN's shiny veneer when needed to do his job as the network's self-described "window washer." He also has been around long enough not to sweat the less-important stuff. For example, his take on "First Take" in a recent interview with The Nation: "If you hate it, shut it off!"
I really just want one thing: something fun to read. This is what Dan Okrent was so good at when he was the Times' ombudsman and something Lipsyte is almost guaranteed to deliver. The Margaret Sullivan model -- fast and frequent -- is a good one for how to do it in 2013. So long as the column isn't as slow and boring as Poynter's Review Project, everything should be fine.
One of the reasons I'm excited at the prospect of the Lipsyte column is he can put ESPN in context. There is no analogue to it in any other industry. I hope he reminds us (repeatedly!) how significant ESPN's influence is. ESPN isn't just a window into the national conversation in sports; it is the national conversation. And it's that very influence that makes ESPN's occasional journalistic problems so frustrating. ESPN has done a good job on aggressively covering the sports it broadcasts, but Bristol has a culture that rewards stupidity. John Skipper likes to say ESPN is given a harsh standard: CBS News isn't judged for its reality programming, so why should a show like First Take command so much attention? When the dumb bleeds into its treasured platforms (the Chris Broussard debacle on OTL, Tebow-mania on SportsCenter, Skip Bayless on the home page of espn.com), it suggests there's an institutional issue at play: ESPN is indifferent to journalistic good. Sports fans are smarter than that, and I hope that's explored in the column.
It's hard to argue with the selection of Lipsyte as ombudsman. He's the varsity. But Lipsyte faces two key challenges in the next 18 months: Making sure the Lipsyte agenda is worthy of Lipsyte, and bringing new meaning and urgency to the ombudsman role itself. Lipsyte has suggested his focus will be on journalistic conflicts at ESPN, but to Bristol's credit, those have actually declined in number. Perhaps it's because ESPN executives, burned by such issues in the past, have done a better job of policing themselves. At any rate, making them Lipsyte's major preoccupation would be a little like driving a Porsche at 40 mph, a waste of resources. No, Lipsyte should look beyond the conflicts arena, perhaps tracking such things as ESPN's use or misuse of talent and how that can harm its brand, programming decisions, or maybe even monitoring ESPN's behavior in a new and increasingly competitive hyper-tech environment.
But there should also be an opportunity for the new man to redefine what an ombudsman can be to ESPN. In this age of rampant twittering, viewers have ample opportunities to comment or carp about every aspect of everything; the value of the traditional mailbag is diminished. There is, however, a huge untapped and highly provocative destination to which Lipsyte could take the company: I'd like to see an ESPN Employee Mailbag -- contributors could even remain anonymous -- that lets employees tell management, through the ombudsman, what they are honestly thinking. Virtually every week, I hear from an ESPN employee with a good idea for the company or a conscientious, valid criticism; these people deserve an outlet, an avenue, for their views. In the past few years alone, there have been many instances -- from The Decision to the Manti Te'o investigation -- when smart ESPN employees were advocating passionately for alternative approaches, perspectives that were largely kept hidden from the public and sometimes even from top company leaders. After 33 years of quantum growth, ESPN can afford at least this modicum of positive transparency; even the most jittery of executives should have little to fear. Giving those inside the company an open forum to be heard, through the ombudsman, would be win-win for all.
"Almost every ESPN ombudsman, at the end of his or her tenure, has marveled at the size of the company. How did ESPN cover Tim Tebow? Well, It depends. "Mike & Mike" handled it differently than "First Take," which handled it differently than "Outside the Lines." ESPN has different shows, different producers and different analysts. The sooner Lipstye recognizes that he can't paint them all with the same journalistic brush, the more effective he will be. A consistent gripe I've had with every ESPN ombudsman comes down to timeliness. I would like to see the ombudsman weigh in on topics much quicker than they have in the past. Lipstye does not need to put forth knee-jerk opinions. But he should try to conduct his interviews and write his columns soon after something flares up. And something will flare up. It always does. I have my own pet peeves about ESPN's news programs that I hope he addresses. I have always hated how advertising has encroached on ESPN's main news program, "SportsCenter." Could you imagine NBC's Brian Williams interviewing a head of state from the Budweiser Hot Seat? Or CBS's Bob Schieffer offering the Coors Light Cold Hard Facts on the Middle East?
Overall, I applaud ESPN's commitment to the ombudsman position. Many news outlets, like my hometown Washington Post, have scrapped the position, and I think ESPN is better for having an ombudsman.
"What I'm hoping for from the next ESPN ombudsman are two things - relevancy and accountability. Given Mr. Lipsyte's reputation from his decades of work in the media, I'm optimistic he can provide the proper weight to the position. The ESPN ombudsman is a significant role in the industry and should be a leading voice to relevant issues in the relationship between ESPN and all who digest its content. An entity with the power and profitability of ESPN needs more than just lip service to be held accountable. In the past, the ESPN ombudsman hasn't always answered to the most relevant, poignant critiques of ESPN and most recently, hasn't followed through on promises surrounding important issues. If Mr. Lipsyte promises a column on Craig James and an investigation on the real controversy therein, it's my hope that he keeps that promise to his readers.
Johnson is still slow on name recognition -- you saw that on the goal by Bayern striker Mario Mandzukic -- but I think that will improve with more reps and more familiarity with world soccer. The one thing I hope Fox Sports executives learned from Johnson's debut season is he needs a consistent partner. Of all the broadcasters the network floated his way, I thought Barton was the best fit. He complements Johnson stylistically, and allows the game to breath.
? Isobel Markham, writing for
? Some genius from ?former SI.com staffer and
? Sensational reporting by Craig Wolff of the
? One non-sports piece of note:
If he changes his mind, Urlacher has a believer in Eric Weinberger, the executive producer of the NFL Network. "Brian has the required camera presence, passion, and energy to have a future in sports television should he choose to pursue that path," Weinberger said.