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Jeff Smulyan, Founder of Sports Talk Radio, Speaks at Campus Series

By Andrew Smith

Sports talk radio is often very divisive. Disgruntled fans call into their favorite programs every day expressing their disdain with their favorite team. On Wednesday, April 12, over 100 Adelphi students and faculty got to hear what that’s like as the father of sports talk radio, Jeff Smulyan, was the featured industry professional in the next installment of the Great Minds, Great Conversations series. Throughout the calendar year, Adelphi has invited accomplished individuals from all different backgrounds and fields to speak to the Adelphi community and share their knowledge and experiences. Steve Jones ‘89, a current member of Adelphi Board of Trustees, served as the moderator during this evening’s discussion.

Smulyan was a pioneer in the sports radio industry and wrote about his experiences in his memoir, “Never Ride a Roller Coaster Upside Down.” One of the most important moments in his life was creating WFAN, the first 24/7 sports radio channel.

Smulyan reflected on what sports radio brought to the industry. “Before sports talk radio, sports fans were not given an avenue to call and complain about their favorite teams. Back in the day, the newspaper would have negative comments but all you could do was read it and put it down.”

Jeff Smulyan, founder of WFAN, was welcomed at a recent Adelphi Great Minds Great Conversations series.

The process of building WFAN was very challenging. Smulyan mentioned the concept of creating an all-sports talk radio station came to him in a college class. He said that people are very passionate about sports, especially on the East Coast. When he first launched the program in New York it faced several difficulties. He said the programming was centered around national sports, when it should have just been all local and there was not enough interaction with the fans and listeners. Once Smulyan saw the writing on the wall, he enacted several changes which transformed the outlook of sports radio for decades to come. A key turning point for the station was putting Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo together in the afternoon drive slot. This show became so popular that sports fans all across the country would tune into a New York show just to hear these two hosts yell and argue with each other and the fans. Smulyan said “the process of founding and evolving WFAN was idiot to genius.”

As a result of sports radio, fans can call into their favorite local programs and express their frustration or excitement about their teams. There is nothing more important to New York sports fans than baseball during the hot summer. Every day Yankees and Mets fans will call into their favorite shows demanding that either a player should be cut, or a front office member should be fired after one game out of 162.

Smuylan also played a major role in the creation of the other radio stations that still exist today. Smulyan with the help of his own company, Emmis Communications, launched Hot 97 in New York and Power 106 in Los Angeles, two of the most popular hip hop stations in the country.

Jeff Smulyan retells the lessons that he learned during a professional media career that spanned decades. Front Copy of “Never Ride a Roller Coaster Upside Down”

In addition, Smuylan commented on current issues and topics that are prevalent in the sports media world. He’s not only known as the father of sports talk radio but was also very involved in professional baseball. In fact, Smulyan was the lead of a group that purchased the Seattle Mariners in 1989. He also reflected on the new changes to the rules that were implemented this past offseason by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Union. Some of the highlights of these rule changes were the modifications to the defensive shift, and more importantly the addition of a pitch clock. This is another example of how Major League Baseball understood what was at stake and saw the importance and need to increase the pace of play and increase the offense. “By implementing a pitch clock, and lowering the average run times of games, Major League Baseball has begun to make the game more attractable to the younger generation,” Smulyan argued.

Changes have already begun to greatly affect the state of play throughout the first month of play this season. Batting average and stolen base success rate are up and average time of game are down compared to the past decade. MLB has made positive strides to regain viewership that they have begun to lose due to a slow pace of play.

Lastly, Smulyan addressed the rise in streaming in the sports broadcasting world. Almost every major professional league in the United States has begun to form partnerships with streaming services to begin to showcase their product to a larger audience. The National Football League airs Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime, Major League Soccer has an exclusive broadcasting agreement with Apple, Major League Baseball has an exclusive “Friday Night Baseball” weekly spot on Apple+, and the National Hockey League shows exclusive weekly games on ESPN+. In addition, certain professional teams have begun to offer their entire game catalog on a streaming service. The New York Yankees recently launched a streaming service for their “YES” network. As a result, Yankee fans may not feel the need to not renew their cable bill since they can just pay for access to their Yankee games through a streaming service.

Smuylan reflected that many local sports networks might have to change their programming to keep their audience because if they do not, people will continue to cut their cable bill and just rely on their sports entertainment through streaming.

Moderator Jones, who as a longtime associate invited Smulyan to speak, emphasized the speaker’s candor throughout the evening. “He’s had this fascinating and celebrated career, been a public figure and yet he’s very forthcoming about errors he’s made in business judgment. He could have been a billionaire many times over had he pursued opportunities to own NFL or NBA teams,” Jones said. “When he reflects on those decisions, he’s not bitter. Instead, he emerges with increased self-awareness that guides his judgment going forward.”

Sport management graduate program director Daniel Bedard also shared his thoughts about the event. “It is never a bad idea to sit and listen to a millionaire share his knowledge and wisdom on the road to success.”

Bedard said there was an underlying message throughout the evening’s event. “It was clear about how he cares for his employees like family and surrounds himself with the best people for the task at hand.”

Bedard continued, “Trust, honesty and loyalty are all family traits that he looks for in quality staff and goes on to say `nobody comes to work saying I am going to do the worst job I can.’ People will make mistakes that we all learn from.”

Be sure to keep an eye out for the next installment of Great Minds, Great Conversations. These events are wonderful opportunities for Adelphi students to learn something from very accomplished individuals.

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