Sports Media Stories to Watch in 2019: Podcasting

Sports Media Stories to Watch in 2019: Podcasting

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail


Good morning sports media fans. Try not to freeze out there today. Over the next few posts I’ll be discussing some stories to watch in 2019. This is Part Two. Part One, on Toronto sports media’s top free agent, can be read here.


I’d like to extend a special thanks to those of you who take the time to contribute to the discussion in the comments section. The best part about writing for TSM is being able to dig into sports media topics with likeminded folks. Thanks as well to the people in the industry who reach out via email, DM, and text to provide feedback and background. I am very grateful to those who maintain professional working standards with me despite differences of opinion, occasional disagreements, and the odd error on my part.


Podcasting Goes Mainstream


One of the biggest stories of 2018 in local sports media was the continued investment in podcasting by the major networks. Sportsnet made news with three high profile additions:


  • The Lede featuring Stephen Brunt and Jeff Blair
  • A Swing and a Belt featuring Dan Shulman
  • 31 Thoughts with Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman


All three are welcome additions and each brings distinct elements to the media marketplace. 31 Thoughts converts Elliotte’s popular column into an hourlong (or more) listening experience with the professional and likeable Marek doing a good job as host. The Lede allows two old journalists to trade stories and discuss current events without the constraints of commercial breaks. Interestingly, both Brunt and Blair have radio shows so this is a case where the podcast is directly competing with the established legacy product. More on that in a moment. Finally, AS&AB gives the popular Shulman a vehicle to speak in his own voice on topics of interest. This is a way to expand his reach beyond merely being a guest on Sportsnet radio and TV shows.


These podcasts join a suite of existing specialty podcasts and on-demand versions of TV and radio shows. This continues efforts from previous years, as SN has tried and then abandoned various podcasting concepts, most recently Point Taken with radio’s Greg Brady and TV’s Caroline Cameron.


The strategic question to ask is why Rogers saw fit to branch out into these areas at this time. All of these media personalities have other roles at the network and so this is not a case of anyone being hired into a new role. Rather, Sportsnet clearly sees podcasting as one of the platforms on which they want their multi-platform guys to be active. And in each of these cases the network is investing time and money into creating new content rather than repackaging existing content. (You might recall that Sportsnet Magazine chose to publish a Bob McCown interview that was just a transcript of something from PTS. Not the best way to establish the credibility of your publication.) 


One possible answer to the “why now?” question could be revenue. 31 Thoughts has a sponsor, though there are no actual commercial breaks. A source tells me that even niche podcasts can generate significant income from advertising, so it’s possible that the sponsorship deal is lucrative. But the other two new podcasts don’t have sponsors (as far as I can tell) so this explanation isn’t terribly satisfying. 


Another possible answer is that all of these people are collecting big league salaries and working jobs with significant downtime. Radio hosts are only on-air for 3-4 hours a day, hockey reporters don’t work full-time from June to September. Of course the truth is more complicated than that but one can imagine that executives would look for ways to squeeze more out of existing human resources, especially if money is tight.


A related possible explanation is that TSN took the lead with McKenzie, Dreger, Ferraro, and Jay & Dan all publishing regular podcasts. As the battle for #1 specialty brand goes back and forth, Sportsnet might not want to cede any ground in this space, even though they have a healthy lead when it comes to the much more valuable radio space. Interestingly, neither network boasts about their podcasts in their end of year press releases.


Disrupting Radio


As someone who grew up on radio I am thrilled that more resources are being devoted to media made for listening. Functionally, I can listen while cooking or biking to work or on the treadmill. I can’t do that with TV or reading, so the more options there are the better.


That said, podcasts like these new offerings from SN exemplify the growing quality chasm between conventional radio and podcasts. For example, this end of year episode of The Lede has tons of clips and other production elements that greatly enhance the storytelling, and consequently the listening experience. There is no producer listed on the show page but I believe this is the fine work of ex-PTS producer Ryan Walsh. (He spoke to me a few years ago before transitioning to his new role on the Tim & Sid TV show. It’s a great read that holds up well.)


Obviously this is just one example — there are plenty of podcasts that are just as forgettable as your run of the mill call-in show — but once you get a taste for quality conversation it’s very hard to go back to the other format. This same difference was immediately noticeable when Tim & Sid switched from their Score podcast to a 15 hour a week radio show on the FAN.


We have discussed the problems of commercial radio for years on this site. You need to break for advertiser spots. You need to wedge in traffic and news. Depending on the timeslot there will likely be no budget for guests so you have to recycle in-house experts or take calls from the folks who have nothing better to do than to sit on hold for a chance at 30 seconds on air. None of these things apply to non-radio podcasts. You only need to record one if you have something to say, and you can end it when you’ve run out of things to talk about. No filler required. Further, podcasts don’t have the same problem of being content that goes stale very quickly. 


As I wrote recently, if your life doesn’t involve a car commute then it’s very hard to justify spending your listening time on commercial radio or its on-demand derivatives. The recent investment in produced podcasts by both networks has exacerbated the issue. Why would I listen to Brunt on PTS, with all the risks that this entails, when I can listen to The Lede instead? The choice becomes increasingly easy once you factor in the amount of weekly sports content one can acquire. Richard Deitsch has a nice list of podcasts here. Sure, you might not get the chance to listen to up-to-the-minute discussion of last night’s games but unless you’re stuck in the car then there are plenty of articles, tweets, message boards, and GIFs that will give you the engagement you want.


Where is all this headed? Right now podcasting is a minor revenue stream for places like TSN and SN. If my habits are any indication of a larger trend, this minor revenue stream is a potential threat to their major revenue stream in radio. I don’t have room in my life for both. It’s important to note that radio is a tiny revenue stream relative to TV. So it’s possible that this is just moving a small bump in the rug around without threatening the major cash cow. However, cord-cutting continues to grow and sports networks are especially vulnerable to these losses due to the high fees that each subscriber brings in. Perhaps investing in podcasting is an instance of skating to where the puck is going, if this is a place where more revenue will eventually end up. 


Missed Opportunities


Notably absent from the podcasting game are the legacy media outlets. The Star tried a podcast with Laura Armstrong and Doug Smith but didn’t stick with it.  Globesports is … Globesports. The Sun/Post tried a pivot to video that is continually cringeworthy.



It’s worth pointing out that all of the papers employ people who appear on TSN and SN. This is a healthy secondary salary for some, and pocket money for others. Good for those people, but it seems like a missed opportunity for the legacies.


For example, I would love to listen to a twice a week podcast on baseball featuring Richard Griffin. (TSN ditched their baseball podcast on which he was a regular guest a few years back). I would probably subscribe to a weekly roundtable with Bruce Arthur, Feschuk, and Cox on the Leafs and Raps. I would also listen to a Sun sports podcast featuring Steve Simmons and some of his colleagues This could be a version of his popular Sunday column, like what SN did with 31 Thoughts. I might even listen to Cathal’s Corner (TM), where we can really dig into why there is no such thing as a light-hearted reference to cannibalism. (never forget)


It seems odd to me that all of these outlets just let their full-time employees moonlight at other places when they could be producing similar content in-house. Sportsnet has shown that you can hire people to write for you and still ask them to do a podcast. If there is enough time in the week for regular spots on a TV network, or time to write a book on the side, then maybe writing for a newspaper isn’t a full-time job anymore, especially if you’re covering the games from your couch or the bar.


Final Thoughts


Toronto sports radio started to lose me in 2017 for reasons that I have explained elsewhere. 2018 made it easier than ever to cut the cord with conventional radio. Surprisingly, the off-ramps and alternatives are coming from inside the house.


Currently local consumers don’t have to pay anything for all this premium content, and the ad intrusions are minimal to non-existent. Will that change in 2019? I could easily see The Bobcast, for example, becoming a flagship show on a premium subscription service for TSN, or a bonus for Bell cable customers only.  Neither would be a good thing for consumers but there are highly paid people at both networks whose job involves developing new revenue streams.


More generally, just as cable (HBO) and streaming (Netflix) have become homes for great original content that couldn’t be produced on conventional TV, we are seeing a similar revolution in the aural area. The technology on the consumer side has been available for a long time now, with portable MP3 players and rss-feeds. As supply has increased, so has demand. It is unclear which side is driving the current boom in podcasts but there is no indication it has reached an equilibrium yet. 


Over to you: have podcasts killed the radio stars?


thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

photo credit: Jeff Marek’s Twitter


  • comment-avatar
    Chris 4 days ago

    All of these outlets were hilariously late to get into podcasting. It’s laughable to read “Podcasting goes mainstream” because that happened many years ago. Tim and Sid got in early enough that I respect their foresight, but the rest of the mainstream Canadian sports media were laggards compared to the entire sports media industry.

    As a former sports blogger I was appearing on podcasts in 2005-06, and then producing podcasts for years thereafter. I gave up on radio around the time of Napster and it wasn’t long after when podcasts came along.
    Welcome to the party, we’ve been expecting you.

  • comment-avatar
    Josh 4 days ago

    There actually was a Globe Sports podcast hosted by the sports editor of the time, whose name I forget. Mostly it was just him and Mirtle, but they’d also do spots with Matt Sekeres, Allan Maki, Eric Duhatschek, Roy MacGregor and Sean Gordon, back when they actually had sports reporters out in the non-Toronto wilds. It’s kinda surprising that the Athletic hasn’t really gotten into the podcast game.
    You’re absolutely right, Mike, it is strange that the newspapers have totally ceded that space to the telecoms. I see no reason that all of the Postmedia papers across the country couldn’t do the same.

  • comment-avatar

    Jeff Marek needs to go mainstream. He’s still a relatively undiscovered gem.

  • comment-avatar

    Totally agree that the Star is missing the boat here – they could totally have a really good roundtable. I might even pay for it. They’d have to have a good moderator though, esp to deal with Cox. Interesting side note is because Arthur and Feschuk are also paid (presumably) by TSN does that impair their objectivity?

    I don’t think I’d pay for PTS or Overdrive as currently constituted in podcast form. I’d pay for Ferraro only on Overdrive. I’d likely be more interested if they packaged what they currently had and put a subscriber only podcast on top of it.

    Maybe I’m in the minority but I’m not generally a fan of podcasts “enhanced” by music and outside audio… I like the drone of the participants plus maybe a few key sparse clips added for context.

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    Justin 3 days ago

    Sports media in Canada is finally catching up to the US with podcasting. The US media was FAR ahead of the Canadian media with utilizing their main talent for podcasting. ESPN was on this as far back as 10 years ago. I remember being happy to discover somewhere around 2011/2012 that they re-released PTI daily in podcast form, allowing me to listen on-demand later that night in only 21 minutes with no commercials.

    That said, Sportsnet has a small but very well-done suite of podcasts that were a very welcomed addition to the marketplace in 2018 (I especially enjoy Shulman’s podcast). As was alluded to in the above article, they’re very well-edited and sound sublimely professional, even in comparison to podcasts from other MSM outlets.

    And yeah, my consumption of sports radio is at an all-time low due to the introduction of podcasts. I only listen to PTS/Overdrive now, and even that is via podcast. There is definitely an argument to be made that the introduction of podcasts is eating their own, but I’d bet the MSM sees the podcast audience as dissimilar from their radio audience: skewing a lot younger, more tech-savvy, and looking for audio to occupy them while they’re not in the car. For the radio audience, they’re targeting an older demographic and competing to make sure their station is first on the car radio dial.

  • comment-avatar

    I think Sportsnet has done a good job with podcasts. I like the strategy to make just a few high quality options rather than overload with average stuff (Personally, I think The Lede, Swing and a Belt, and At The Letters are all great).

    It is interesting to me, that as The Fan/Sportsnet seems to be investing more in high profile podcasts, the quality of the less important parts of The Fan’s on air schedule seems to have dropped a bit? (afternoons, CBS radio more often on evenings/weekends). I wonder if that was a conscious decision to invest more in podcasts and less in the less important parts of the week. I guess it if came down to it I’d rather a really good weekly hour from Brunt/Blair or Dan Shulman or Marek/Friedman than an upgraded Good Show, so maybe that makes sense.

  • comment-avatar

    Interesting that PTS is no longer publishing the Friday call-in hour for their podcast

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    Gary M 2 days ago

    I suspect the reason they’re getting into podcasts is they don’t know what else to do. Media has collapsed and people are listening to podcasts so…podcasts. But that doesn’t mean they can make money off podcasts because these do not require the one edge these companies had before: they owned the media.

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    The Lede was good. Surprised me. Blair isn’t forced to speak while at he same time surfing the internet and listening to his Producer peck in his ear. 95% less ‘er-er-n-n-ns’. Liked the addition of old audio clips to add to the nostalgic flavour of some of their stories.  

    And with all the Pods out there, not sure why HNIC again decides to bore viewers to death with CBA talk. Saturday night is about families and kids watching hockey. Kids don’t know and don’t care about the damn CBA and parents on Saturday night just want their kids to have fun. Have a segment with Matthews or Marner teaching hockey skills to kids which creates family moments where different generations discuss and play the game that night in a rec room, bonding the next generation to HNIC. This is what Pelley and Nadir promised Bettman. 

    Kids want to grab a mini-stick and shoot a tennis ball around pretending they’re Marner or Matthews, not put on a suit and bark about escrow. 

    Note to 590 and 1050 PDs: please parse out your traffic updates into separate Pods. The information they disseminate is so critical to my well being I wouldn’t want to miss it when mixed up inside a show’s Pod. Thanks. 

  • comment-avatar

    Anyone tried Millard ‘the chirp’? Or blundells? I’m hooked on spitting chiclets right now.. all those mainstream podcasts from Sportsnet and tsn are a bit dry for me, too corporate.

  • comment-avatar
    Gary M 1 day ago

    Yaz makes a great point about HNIC. When I was a kid they had Showdown and Peter Puck and that’s the kind of stuff they ought to be doing. Of course, full credit to Alan Eagleson back then for making sure there was no CBA to talk about.

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    Brad 1 day ago

    I must say that I’m really disappointed in everyone involved with Overdrive and their decision to invite Ray Lewis on this past Friday. Though not convicted, there is nothing that suggests innocence regarding his involvement in that murder case. I’ve always been a big booster of Overdrive, but can no longer, in good conscience, do so.

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    Libery Village Bob 22 hours ago

    Talk radio is dead. My new car can tell when I get in and starts playing whatever I was listening to on my phone. No need to turn on the radio. Not even for traffic since google mapps adjusts based on traffic conditions. Only reamining reason to turn on 590/1050 is for Jays or Leafs games but I’m almost never in the car when those are on. Also I don;t care for the current Jays radio team.

  • comment-avatar
    Liberty Village Bob 22 hours ago

    Jp 20 hours ago

    Anyone tried Millard ‘the chirp’? Or blundells? I’m hooked on spitting chiclets right now.. all those mainstream podcasts from Sportsnet and tsn are a bit dry for me, too corporate.

    couldn’t pay me to listen to anything affilated with Dean Blundell. No interest in his opinions on sports.

  • comment-avatar
    WestdaleRocks 21 hours ago

    Part of the reason for the success of podcasts is the abject failure of radio to grab listeners.  There is a gulf between what is good and what is bad on radio right now.  Compare the very best shows, to what is the worst you’ll hear….late night and overnight on weekends.  The guy who swallowed a bucket of stones overnight is awful.  Ya, that’s US filer programming, but TSN and The Fan have a lot of unlistenable shows featuring their own “talent” as well. One of the worst things I’ve ever heard was a bit last night on a US syndicated show on The Fan.  Some guy somehow reached the conclusion that Nick Foles is a marginal quarterback because of the late interception he threw.  First, judging a guy on one play and making it the basis for his whole career, is stupid.  Second, it was a good pass!!!  It went right through the receiver’s hands!!!  This is but one example in a sea of weekend garbage on sports radio.  Yes, podcasts are doing good things and have dented the marketplace.  But sports radio has contributed to their success by completely dropping the ball and throwing on any product it can, no matter how unlistenable it is.  

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    mark coale 21 hours ago

    Random thoughts:

    Don’t forget Marek was doing MVSW for a few years before that stopped.

    And since he now in Toronto and on the Gan you could include Deitsch ‘s  pod too.

    I really like the Lede but don’t care for the SFX and clips. 

    I rarely listen to live streams anymore, so prefer to listen to radio shows via pod. That also allows me to skip topics/guests of no 8ntetest (for me, football and basketball, chiefly).

    (Disclosure: all those guys and TSM himself have all been on my pod, so I might be prejudiced. 😀) 

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    Original Mitch 19 hours ago

    Great topic!

    Podcasting is definitely an area where both Bell and Rogers can vastly improve but are definitely trying to make strides. They may be late getting there compared to the States, but at least there is a mandate. I think SN has done the better job in create original content that floats outside the lines of traditional radio. Simply have a regular radio host do extra talking via podcast after his radio show isn’t good enough. Needs to be like the Lede or 31 thoughts. Great, original content. I think Bob’s Monday long form interview would make a great podcast.

    There are issues though for certain. As much as we’d like to think of podcast as the opportunity for a host to be more candid, they are still way too corporate and fall in line with the usual Rogers/Bell jargon. That’s a hurdle they will never be able to jump of course so its very limiting. 31 thoughts is great but its just nicely speculating and things and making sure the NHL and clubs are positively represented at all times. Any Fan blue jays podcast will do the same. Both networks have a lot of work to do, but they are trying and that’s what matters