Bryan Curtis is The Ringer’s Super Bowl radio row bureau chief. He spent six days there reporting on smooth-talking hosts, the all-important “Wednesday Guys,” and Carrot Top’s Super Bowl prediction. He self-combusted shortly after filing this diary.
I love radio row at the Super Bowl so much I have to get there early. Turns out I’m one of the few. When I walk into a room on the bottom floor of the Phoenix Convention Center today, I find only the odd take giver, the lonely engineer, the stray program director. The room is a collection of empty tables with black bunting, the kind of place where you take a standardized test.
A few years ago, I wrote an ode to radio row, the dark heart of Super Bowl media. This is the place where interviews with famous people are bartered for product plugs, the place that turns Columbia J-school professors into flesh-eating zombies if they get close.
I came back because I love one particularly grimy aspect of radio row. I have never, ever seen a more ruthless power ranking of celebrity in my life.
Every year, during the week before the Super Bowl, PR agents want to lead their clients down the row to talk to one radio host after another and plug sports drinks or fast-food franchises. But the PR agent must find the right day of the week to maximize the plugging. They have to decide whether their client is a Monday Guy or a Friday Guy or something in between.
The best interview slots are late in the week, when the hype for the Super Bowl is building. But let’s say you’re Raheem Mostert. Mostert’s 891 rushing yards for the Dolphins this season were nothing to sneeze at. But if Mostert had arrived at radio row on Thursday, he’d have found bolder-faced names like Justin Fields and Rob Gronkowski occupying all the interview slots. So Mostert, quite sensibly, became a Wednesday Guy.
Once you understand that every guest has been put into an order, a kind of giant trade value column, radio row becomes the most interesting place on earth! Here’s a sample lineup from this year:
- Monday Guy: Solomon Wilcots
- Tuesday Guy: Chiefs owner Clark Hunt
- Wednesday Guy: CeeDee Lamb
- Thursday Guy: Stephen A. Smith
- Friday Guy: Brock Purdy
Did you spot that small but noticeable dip in prestige from Thursday to Friday? “Friday’s the big secret,” says John Tournour, a host whose nom de radio is JT the Brick. “That’s the getaway day.” By Friday, the megastars have flown home. A Friday Guy is bigger than a Wednesday Guy but not as big as a Thursday Guy.
As I walk radio row, I feel like a Sunday Guy. And I find that people are staring at me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m darting around an empty room writing down thoughts in a big cherry-red spiral notebook. Maybe people are worried that I’m going to poach their Thursday Guys. “Who are you?” these residents of radio row seem to be thinking. “And why are you here?”
I’m Bryan, I want to answer, and I’m here because radio row is my Super Bowl.
It’s 6 a.m. I wake up at a Best Western in downtown Phoenix and walk downstairs for coffee. Before I can put the paper cup under the spout, I hear a voice. An unforgettably scratchy voice. It’s the voice of SportsGrid radio host Scott Ferrall, who has beaten me downstairs and is holding forth just like he does every weekday from 3 to 6 p.m. Love the show, Scotty. Thanks for having me in the breakfast bar.
Monday is the day radio row yawns and stretches its arms. So it’s a good day to study the row’s geography, as there’s a bit of a Monday Guy–Friday Guy dynamic going on between hosts.
If you work for a local station named The Ticket or The Score or The Zone, your bosses probably rented you a tiny table in the middle of the room. If you’re a big national host, your bosses have erected a massive set—a monument to you and your takes—at the room’s perimeter. These sets make radio row feel like EPCOT Center, complete with your favorite characters. I see Jim Rome, having a take and not sucking on the CBS Sports stage. I see ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio walking by, punching the buttons of his phone and no doubt polishing off a piece of aggregation with just the right edge. I see Fox’s Doug Gottlieb pulling a roller suitcase.
There’s a kind of subtle geographic hierarchy among the national hosts, too. Last year, in Los Angeles, Pat McAfee’s set was placed right at the entrance of radio row. Every host had to walk by it. One day, Wiz Khalifa did a mini-concert on McAfee’s stage, which other hosts saw as a massive breach of decorum because they couldn’t hear their own takes.
This year, an employee of a local station whose table was near McAfee’s stage put up a banner for his show. An employee of another station told him, “You’re blocking the McAfee show.” Sometimes, apparently, you come to radio row just to watch.
Monday Guys: Ross Tucker, Jared Goff, Cardinals linebacker Victor Dimukeje, Arizona State head coach Kenny Dillingham
Carrot Top is here. Perfect Tuesday Guy, no? On Thursday, Carrot Top would be laughed off the row. Today, he’s mobbed like he’s Tom Brady. Jake Kemp, an afternoon host in Dallas, tells me his show’s lowest-ever moment was getting passed over by Carrot Top.
Fortunately, after Carrot Top finishes a hit with Fox Sports Radio, he has time to give me a “tight five.” We sit at an empty table not far from Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz. Carrot Top’s famous hair is matted, and he looks sleepy. But he is nothing if not game. At the Las Vegas hotel where he performs his comedy act, there’s a sign backstage that says, “Be a pro. Put on a show.”
“Yeah, I listen to sports radio,” says Carrot Top, adding, “Every night, I watch ESPN or NFL Network, and then I go to bed.”
Let’s say I put you on a sports radio show right now, I ask him. How would you handle it?
“I was just on it!” Carrot Top protests, motioning to the Fox guys.
No, I mean host a sports radio show, I say. How would you handle that?
“I could probably hold my own for a little bit,” he says thoughtfully.
Take a couple of calls?
“First-time caller …’ Yeah.”
Carrot Top is here—and this plug is purely for the purposes of journalistic scrutiny—on behalf of Las Vegas. The host city of the following year’s Super Bowl always sets up a booth near Radio Row. This year, that booth has been giving out free coffee and candy bars. The whole practice is kind of odd. Which of the hundreds of media members who traveled here to cover the Super Bowl is going to think, “Wait, next year it’s in Vegas? Hell, I guess I’ll go to that one, too!”
Like a good radio host, I ask Carrot Top for his Super Bowl prediction. “I should get one ready, probably,” he says.
You definitely should, I say. The most generic radio row question—the “button” to every interview—is asking the guest who will win the big game.
“It’s going to be tight,” says Carrot Top, workshopping his take. “It might come down to the last play in the Super Bowl. And it might be Mahomes to Kelce.” Good enough. I release Carrot Top to continue being a Tuesday Guy.
Later that afternoon, I meet Chris “Mad Dog” Russo in the SiriusXM compound. Russo is the unelected mayor of radio row. He and his former WFAN cohost Mike Francesa were present at the first proper radio row, at the Super Bowl in 1993.
I put a hypothetical question to Russo: Say a program director from a station in Dallas asks you to host an hour right now. No prep, no notes. Walk in and put on a headset. Could you do it?
Mad Dog says he could. He worries the hockey talk required by Canadian sports stations could be tricky. Should he be sent to talk to Portland, he might be a tad fuzzy on the Trail Blazers. But with those caveats, Russo says he could do an hour on any show in America before telling the audience, “We’re up against it” and hanging up the headset. Radio hosts share a motto with prop comics: Be a pro. Put on a show.
Tuesday Guys: Dana White, the hosts of the Bussin’ With the Boys podcast, Chris Simms, LeGarrette Blount
Quick story from Tuesday. I’m waiting for coffee (at the Las Vegas booth). I see a man who stands (I’m just throwing out a number) 6-foot-5 and looks to have weighed (another guess) 215 pounds in his prime. The man, I notice, has a really nice haircut and stylish glasses. In a 1990s Cameron Crowe movie, he would have played the Campbell Scott role.
The man has to be a podcaster. I’m trying to figure out which one when Greg Papa, the 49ers play-by-play announcer, approaches and tells the man how well his son Christian played against the Eagles. I realize the man is Ed McCaffrey, the former NFL wide receiver and three-time Super Bowl champ.
I stand by my first impressions, though. Next time I get a haircut, I’ll show the stylist a photo of McCaffrey and say, “Give me the Tuesday Guy.”
It’s only Wednesday, and even a devoted ethnographer like me needs a break. I feel I’m in danger of becoming part of the permanent host class of radio row—the swamp, you might say—who do their own shows and then spend the rest of the day doing other people’s. Also, I heard Ferrall’s voice as he walked past my hotel-room door last night.
I wait to return to the row until a quiet period around 4 p.m., when the afternoon-drive shows are petering out on the East Coast. I take a lap and hear a light trickle of content. In the SiriusXM compound, Danny Kanell is leaning back in his chair and talking football. Walking clockwise around the room, I come to the iHeartRadio set, which has light-brown leather chairs and a faux-marble desk. I have no earthly idea what goes on here, but the set looks like it was built for Dick Cavett.
Next, I see Shawne Merriman, the former NFL linebacker, bumping fists with two Fox hosts called Covino and Rich. Merriman has been around a lot this week, which made TMZ labeling one of his interviews an “exclusive” pretty funny. A few feet away from Merriman, someone who’s being filmed with a video camera is saying, “Another great episode of the pod.” In both sports radio and podding, the hosts will tell you every episode is “loaded,” fantastic, one of the best we’ve ever done.
As I walk on, I hear more snatches of radio row happy talk. “Check out the activation space,” someone says. I walk faster. Kyle Turley, a hulking former offensive lineman and frequent visitor to the row, passes me near the TikTok booth.
Just as I complete my circuit of the room, I see Jim McMahon talking to 104.5 The Zone in Nashville. McMahon—the headband-sporting quarterback of the ’85 Bears and one of the coolest people of the ’80s, full stop—is wearing dark glasses and sitting in a wheelchair. According to his PR man, McMahon has been giving interviews on radio row for six and a half straight hours.
Last year, when McMahon was on another slog through the row, he told me he has a ready answer whenever a host asks him for a Super Bowl prediction. “I think it’s going to be a hell of a game,” McMahon will say. I should have told that to Carrot Top.
Wednesday Guys: Christian McCaffrey, CeeDee Lamb, UFC light heavyweight champ Jamahal Hill, Ron Rivera
A couple of days after I first spotted him, I’m talking to dapper Ed McCaffrey. Great guy. Not a podcaster. His wife, Lisa, is a podcaster. He’s here to support her and do a few hours of radio for SiriusXM.
Ed is thrilled by the intergenerational quality of radio row. In 1991, when he and Phil Simms were playing for the Giants, Chris Simms was a preteen throwing footballs around in the parking lot. Now, Chris is doing radio with Florio on one of the big stages. Phil stopped by the row, too. Wednesday Guy. “It’s like a football family reunion out here,” says McCaffrey.
McCaffrey called Broncos games on the radio for a few years and was the head coach at Northern Colorado from 2020 to 2022. Now that he and Lisa are empty nesters, he’s thinking about trying another media gig. Maybe something with podcasting.
“I don’t know, I guess I was always really conservative and guarded and would just give everyone the go-to staple answers as a player,” he says. “Not looking to stir the pot or throw shade at anyone. I was very introverted. I guess once you hit 50, it’s like, I just want to live my life and have fun.”
You know, I say, I thought you were a podcaster already. The haircut, the cool glasses.
“Well, thank you!” says McCaffrey, genuinely touched. “Most people don’t recognize me with the glasses. I had 20/15 vision right up until I got to 50. And then my vision completely went.” He’d bought the glasses off the shelf at Walgreens. He makes them look like designer lenses. Ed McCaffrey is a Thursday Guy for me.
Thursday Guys: Deion Sanders, Joe Montana, Mike Pereira (and Dean Blandino), Earl Campbell
I arrive early to radio row. Everyone has a lightness to them, a view of the commercial finish line. Friday Guys are sliding into their last available content windows. Sean Payton is on with Adam Schein, Tua Tagovailoa with Kay Adams, superagent Leigh Steinberg is, uh, working the room.
I think Radio Row will be glorious again next year. I think its celebrity power rankings will be intact. I think I’ll come again with my cherry-red spiral notebook. What’s your prediction?
Friday Guys: Sean Payton, Adam Thielen, Nate Burleson, Peter Schrager