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Welcome to Radio Row, Site of the Super Bowl’s Cutthroat Celebrity Hierarchy

Sunday’s Chiefs-49ers game is Miami’s main attraction, but don’t miss the weeklong carnival of promoters and product placement. You can call it the sports world’s greatest native ad.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the Super Bowl, Kyle Turley is a Wednesday guy. Wednesday is the day when Turley can visit radio row and maximize his commercial possibilities. It’s when he can become part of the Super Bowl’s great native ad. Turley’s fate isn’t to be a Monday guy (don’t insult him) or a Thursday guy (whoa, let’s not get carried away here). He is a Wednesday guy.

So on Wednesday, Turley walked among sports radio shows in a cavernous room at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“Do you know the Big Show?” the PR man Jimmy Shapiro asked him, nodding at the former WWE champ.

“No, I don’t,” said Turley.

Still, you couldn’t blame Turley if he felt a sense of kinship. He and the Big Show had been sized up by the gods of sports radio and had been found to have more or less equal appeal. They were Wednesday guys.

Turley’s appeal to radio listeners is obvious. He is a former All-Pro offensive tackle, an eloquent chronicler of football’s brutality, and—as they say in the biz—a “great talker.” (“You will not have a better guest all week,” Shapiro wrote in a press release.) Shapiro booked Turley on a few dozen shows in a period of five hours, allowing him to banter with the hosts and—most importantly on radio row—plug his CBD company, Neuro XPF.

Turley used to be the only former player talking about cannabis-related products on radio row. Now, the world has come to him. “Every place I go,” he said, “it’s like, ‘You’re talking about CBD, too?’”

As soon as Shapiro delivered Turley to a show called The Main Event, he faced a small crisis. Turley’s next interview was canceled. The station had apparently found what they thought was a superior Wednesday guy. To be on radio row, but not be plugging something, is like not existing. Shapiro dashed across the room to find Turley a replacement.

Even if you like sports radio, radio row seems a little nuts. It’s what PR man David Schull calls an orgy of “quid pro quo-type marketing.” A famous or semi-famous or not-at-all famous athlete offers to appear on a show. In exchange, the show agrees to plug whatever product—cannabis, Gatorade, boner pills—the athlete is speaking “on behalf” of.

After cruising radio row for a few days, I now understand it has an underlying order and a seedy intelligence that has gone largely unappreciated. If you want to see a brutal hierarchy of American celebrity, there’s no better place than radio row.

To fill the hole in Turley’s schedule, Shapiro first approached the host of something called The Roman Gabriel Show. “Would you want Kyle Turley at 9:30?” he asked. Alas, Sold Out was booked up.

Shapiro raced past former University of Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis, a Wednesday guy who was on his own radio-row tour, to the table housing San Francisco’s 95.7 The Game. No dice there, either. Now, Shapiro doubled back across the room, passing Wednesday guys Brian Dawkins and Anthony Muñoz, to the table of ESPN 99.1 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“Shit, we’ve got Vinny Testaverde,” the host said sympathetically.

“I guess I’ll have him eat,” Shapiro said of Turley.

A few minutes later, Shapiro returned with a triumphant look on his face. “I got one!” he said.

What’d you get? I asked.

“It’s some podcast,” he said.

Shapiro herded Turley past Fox announcer Chris Myers and ESPN’s Mina Kimes, fellow tourists of the row, to a table where two guys were sitting. They were Josh and Alex of The Charity Stripe podcast. Shapiro didn’t know much about it or them, but the pod offered a chance to let Turley keep talking and plugging.

Turley slipped on a pair of headphones. “It’s the biggest stage in the world for entertainment right now,” he told Josh and Alex. It was the soothing sound of another radio-row transaction.

Every guest on radio row has an assigned place in the commercial universe. “You have a power ranking,” said CBS Radio’s Damon Amendolara.

The guests get bigger as the week progresses. So a Monday guy is a former Bills deep snapper who played on a couple of Super Bowl losers. A Tuesday guy is a current NFL player who has no relevance to the Super Bowl at all. A Wednesday guy is, well, Kyle Turley.

When this year’s radio-row guests are arranged in ascending order of importance, you glimpse a true hierarchy of American celebrity:

Monday: Retired fullback Ovie Mughelli
Tuesday: Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs
Wednesday: Busy Philipps
Thursday: Russell Wilson
Friday: Dana White

Bring a Monday guy to radio row on his rightful day and he’ll speak to the whole nation. Bring him on, say, Thursday and he’ll get stiffed. “He wouldn’t get any interviews,” said PR agent Sonia Robaina Maschmeier, who was shepherding eight clients around radio row. “He’d get trampled.”

These tiny status distinctions can’t be overstated. This year, when Jerome Bettis showed up on Tuesday, a murmur went up. No way he’s a Tuesday guy! Sure enough, Bettis reappeared Thursday in a car rental company’s polo shirt, and order was restored.

Some guests have so much bandwidth for interviews, or such a bottomless lust for attention, that they become multiday players. This year, Darren Rovell of the Action Network is a Wednesday-Thursday-Friday guy. You get the feeling that if radio row extended past the Super Bowl, Rovell would continue his eternal pilgrimage till Flag Day.

Don’t shed a tear for the early-week guest. Circumstance can improve his lot in life. In a normal year, former San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia is probably a Tuesday guy. Maybe Wednesday, tops. But since the Niners are in the Super Bowl, this year Garcia was rolled out on Thursday.

A guest’s stock can plummet, too. One former NFL player used to be a solid Thursday guy. The player showed up at radio row year after year, doing more than 100 interviews. Everyone got tired of talking to him. Now, he’s a Wednesday guy.

On radio row, you can observe the kind of favor-trading glossy magazines indulged in back in the ’80s. If a station agrees to book a PR agent’s Monday guy, the agent will be more inclined to deliver a high-wattage Thursday guy. “Anyone who says they’re not doing that is lying to you,” said PR agent Ashley Smith Becker, who was escorting former wide receiver Greg Jennings.

Thursday guys tend to plug big, national brands like sports drinks or deodorants. Early-week guests cut a more noble figure. Mughelli, who played nine seasons and made a Pro Bowl, was talking up a “a STEM-focused graphic novel and app.” I met a man named Joe Lafferty, who was paying his own expenses in Miami. Lafferty had a kidney transplant, and had lost an eye as a result of a staph infection—“one-eyed guy has seen it all,” read the press release he was handing out. By Tuesday morning, Lafferty had booked himself on 10 shows.

As I was cruising the row, a Dallas station asked me to sit down for a segment. Though I had nothing to plug other than my own existence, I agreed immediately, as I’m no more impervious to flattery than a former All-Pro. But as I put on the headphones, I began to consider my place in the media universe like I never had before. There was no hiding it anymore. I was a Monday guy.

In Washington, D.C., a quid pro quo is an impeachable offense. On radio row, it’s the standard form of human interaction. “It’s a lot of tit for tat,” said John Mamola, the program director of Tampa’s WDAE. “I’ll give you 30 seconds for the plug, you give me seven minutes on the game.”

On sports radio—where every hotline is sponsored by a low-testosterone center—plug-sanity is hardly new. Even so, the sheer scope of the branding on radio row is startling. This year, Jason Witten spoke on behalf of a hotel chain. Mark Schlereth for kinesiology tape. Lawrence Taylor for some kind of 3D pictures that look like those old Sportflics cards.

“Myself, I’m a brand ambassador,” said former Rams receiver Stedman Bailey (a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday guy), who was plugging another CBD company.

Even the journalists are branded. Last year, a pitch email noted that the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport was “prepared to discuss thoughts on Sunday’s big game, players to watch, and predictions, as well as talk about his obsession with Don Francisco’s family-crafted coffee …” Rapoport, by the way, was a Wednesday guy.

Radio row wasn’t always so branded. The first proper radio row appeared at the 1993 Super Bowl, according to the host Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. By the end of the decade, the place turned into what Russo called a “clientele sort of thing.” PR agents used to bring donuts to convince hosts to find a spot for their athletes. These days, no such enticement is necessary.

Radio stations are happy to eat a plug in exchange for a brush with greatness. “Dan Marino’s coming by, he’s promoting the new slippers,” Steve Cohen, a SiriusXM executive, told me this week. “We’re not going to say no to Dan Marino. We’re in Miami, for God’s sakes.”

The plug itself requires a certain delicacy. This week, Dan Patrick had Saquon Barkley read some of his old negative scouting profiles. Barkley got kind of annoyed reading them, so Patrick asked whether he needed some Old Spice—the product Barkley had been sent out to plug.

Ideally for host and guest, the plug shouldn’t bring the segment to a screeching halt. “Rod Woodson tackles his osteoarthritis”—to quote a press release being handed out on the row—is at least semi-organic. Barry Sanders talking about your mortgage—something that also happened—isn’t.

Greg Jennings (a Tuesday guy) told me he has a clock in the back of his head, like a quarterback who’s feeling out the pass rush, so he knows when the football talk should end and the plugging should begin. “If you’re seasoned enough, you know how to sprinkle it in when you need to,” Jennings said.

Not content with mere plugs, the brands began building their own radio row temples. This year’s version featured a Potemkin barber shop from Old Spice and a faux bar from Twitter. At the 2008 Super Bowl, PR man Brad Burke was asked to clear a branded space so Peyton and Archie Manning could give an interview. Burke shooed away a loitering old man. The man turned out to be Andy Rooney.

One morning, I was ushered into Sleep Number’s radio-row shrine to interview Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (a Wednesday guy). In the eight seasons he has played in the NFL, Cousins has visited radio row six times. He told me: “You say it every year: ‘Hey, next year we gotta be here playing. We don’t want to be on radio row.’”

Why would a player spend a day of his offseason indulging nosy journalists? The answer is money. “No offense, but this is not who these guys want to talk to,” said Smith Becker. “You want to talk to people about how your offense sucked?” Your average Tuesday guy can get five figures to appear on radio row and plug a product. A Thursday guy can get six figures.

Before his racist meltdown, “Papa” John Schnatter passed out pizza to get himself booked on radio row. One year, Jason Barrett, who was a program director in St. Louis, wouldn’t let Schnatter on his station’s air because Domino’s was a sponsor. Sometime later, Barrett got a call saying Papa John’s wanted to buy a bunch of ads. Radio row was working just as it was intended.

Do not think sports radio stations sit idly by while big brands fill their air with plugs. The stations, too, have their own form of commercial jiu-jitsu. “It really raises the Q rating of the show that week when you have all these kind of random people on,” said Bob Fescoe, a morning host from Kansas City.

If forced to accommodate an athlete’s plug, radio stations will insist on a few of their own. This week, when Turley dropped by WDAE’s table for an interview, the station snapped a pic on him, slapped their logo on it, and posted the picture on their Instagram feed. Some stations handed Turley their sponsors’ products—a bottle of barbecue sauce, say—and snapped another picture. Call it the reverse plug.

For a high-follower guest like Rovell, the trade-off can be even starker. Shapiro told me: “I won’t say the name, but even a guy from CBS says to me, ‘Do you think Rovell will tweet out that we’re talking together?’ He maybe has 60,000 or 70,000 Twitter followers, Rovell has 2 million.” Thus, the host gets a plug from the guest.

Radio row offers journalists a rare power over famous athletes, simply because there are so many to choose from. “We had Gronk on a couple of years ago,” said Al Dukes, the producer of WFAN’s Boomer and Gio. “We thought, Oh, he’s going to be awesome. We got nothing out of him. It was a shock to me that Gronk was boring and dull.”

And yet PR agents must keep the hosts happy or the whole conceit falls apart. As one PR agent told me, “It’s a group of nerds, but they got memories.”

National shows—like Jim Rome’s—can book big guests any day of the year. Their presence is about something different. Don Martin, an executive at Premiere Networks, which distributes Fox Sports Radio, gestured at the tables full of local stations. “All those people over there and all those people over there? Those are our customers.”

Thanks to budget cuts, stations are slowly replacing their local programming with syndicated shows. “When they have to downsize a little, I want them to think, Oh, shit, those Fox guys know what the hell they’re doing …” said Martin. “Our job is to make sure that we have people better than they can afford.”

Beyond its obvious properties, radio row is a beautiful commercial ballet. “If you watch, around the quarter of the hour everybody moves,” said Ivan Sokalsky, who had three clients on the row.

Radio row has regenerative properties. Players that may have slipped through the cracks of memory, like Warren Moon or the old Packer Jerry Kramer, were alive and well on the row this year. In November, Cris Carter left FS1 under mysterious circumstances. This week, Carter reinvented himself as a Wednesday guy.

After five hours humoring the Josh and Alexes of the world, Kyle Turley was nearing the end of his own tour as a Wednesday guy. Shapiro pointed Turley toward the Twitter bar, where his final commercial act would be to look into a camera and answer questions like, “What’s your favorite account to follow?”

I asked Turley, “What’s the trick to surviving radio row?”

“Weed,” he said.

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