There’s pressure on local outlets to cover teams a particular way at every level of sports, but we’ve often seen that go even further when it comes to college sports. Many college coaches and athletic department officials have often tried to dictate how they’re covered, from press conference rants against individual media members to threatened or actual revocation of credentials to lobbying for changes in who covers them. Sometimes, executives at media companies have also made dramatic moves to alter the tone of their coverage of a local team. And now, long-time local radio host and columnist Brent Axe has lost his job at ESPN Radio Syracuse for being “overly dark and negative” on the Syracuse Orange:
Radio host Brent Axe was fired from ESPN Radio Syracuse for being "overly negative" about SU sports during his drive-time radio program. https://t.co/iAH1AMF6Ji
— chris carlson (@ccarlsononSU) March 13, 2023
It’s not yet completely clear if the Orange athletic department and/or former men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim (a part-owner of Galaxy Media Partners, which owns that station and 12 other upstate New York stations) were involved in this move. So far, Galaxy CEO Ed Levine has only said that was his decision, and has said it was made as someone who “bleeds Orange.” But the timing is at the very least interesting considering Axe’s criticisms of Boeheim, and considering Levine’s recent promotion of how the stations have “much more on tap” with Boeheim, possibly even including a talk show.
Axe‘s primary job is as a columnist for the Syracuse Post-Standard and Syracuse.com. But he had been hosting for ESPN Radio Syracuse since 2014, first with a one-hour On The Block With Brent Axe show and pre-game and post-game shows, then an expansion of his show to two hours in the key 4-6 p.m. drive-time window. Before that, he had done radio work on Sportsradio 620 WHEN and The Score 1260 in addition to his columns. He also works as an adjunct professor in broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse’s famed Newhouse School of Public Communications. Here’s what he told his Post-Standard colleague Chris Carlson, who wrote the story above:
“I had a responsibility to give an honest, fair and thorough opinion to my audience,” Axe said. “I certainly wasn’t perfect, but I don’t regret anything about the approach of the show. We put listeners on the air, and we gave them the opportunity to say what they needed to say. I don’t have any regrets.”
Meanwhile, Levine’s comments to Carlson take a much different tone, and they strangely have him claiming he’s being “fair” while stating he bleeds Orange and the station “calls things right down the line” despite its business relationship with Syracuse (they broadcast football, men’s and women’s basketball and lacrosse games, as well as various coaches’ shows, under a 2019 deal that runs through 2024-25). But he thinks the independent Post-Standard “has an agenda.” Here are some of those comments:
“I had a problem with the content of the show,” Levine said. “I’m an SU fan. I’m sorry, but I bleed Orange. I’m not going to apologize for that, and I think a fair reading of the Orange is appropriate. I understand (Galaxy has) a business relationship (with Syracuse), that Coach (Jim) Boeheim and I are personal friends and he’s an investor in my company.
“I understand and acknowledge all of that. We’ve called it pretty fair, and I would argue we’ve been tough on SU when the on-field or off-field events warrant it. I just think over the past six months it took a different tone and became overly dark and negative. I don’t think that’s what Syracuse fans want to hear.”
…“Brent is a full-time employee of Syracuse.com,” Levine said. “I believe Syracuse.com has an agenda in regards to Syracuse University. I don’t know what that agenda is, but that agenda was manifesting itself on our airwaves. We have no agenda. We’re in business with Syracuse University, but we call it straight down the line. What I said to Brent was I wish he covered Syracuse University with the same affection that he covered the Buffalo Bills.”
As Carlson notes, the Bills have actually been good recently, unlike Syracuse’s football, men’s basketball, and men’s lacrosse teams. So it should be expected that coverage from anyone who’s a little more “fair” than “bleeding Orange” would probably feature a good deal criticism. But that doesn’t appear to work for Levine. And his move here has taken a lot of criticism from a lot of prominent media members.
The timing of this also deserves some discussion. This comes just after Boeheim’s awkward retirement. And according to a 2018 FCC filing, Boeheim was listed in a group of investors who bought a 21 percent stake in Galaxy. And it came after Levine put a post on his personal Facebook page this weekend promoting upcoming Galaxy content from Boeheim, with “much more is on tap,” including perhaps even a Boeheim-hosted talk show:
For what it’s worth, despite his claims about how “much more is on tap” there, Levine told Carlson there’s actually nothing new with the Boeheim deal, which he says was signed last year:
“I put it on Facebook for the timing of it,” Levine said. “That agreement was done a full year ago. They are unrelated. Two completely separate items altogether.”
Levine’s “done a full year ago” and “two completely separate items altogether” comments perhaps raise a lot of questions already answered by his shirt, especially with how he’s billing this as a new thing. Of course, it is possible that it is just the year-old deal with escalators in what Boeheim would do for Galaxy and what he would be paid if he was no longer the Syracuse men’s head basketball coach.
But the timing of that Facebook announcement of more to come from Boeheim on these stations at least raises notable questions. And that’s especially true considering Boeheim’s many flare-ups with the media and his particular complaints about Axe. Here’s how ESPN’s Pete Thamel relayed that in February (in a piece also including “Boeheim told ESPN he would “probably” return for the 2023-24 season and that the decision to do so is up to him,” neither side of which worked out):
Boeheim said the only vocal critic he hears consistently is a local talk show host. Boeheim dismisses the notion that there’s a significant drumbeat for him to retire.
“‘All these people are saying he should retire,'” he said, parroting a line from the talk show host. “Who’s that? Everyone I see comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, don’t retire.’ Where do you get that from?”
And here’s what Boeheim said about radio show callers after what proved to be his final home game last week:
“The fans here, they’re not the ones calling the radio show,” said Boeheim to reporters. “Not one fan that was here tonight calls any radio show. The people that call the radio shows do not come to games. They don’t have season tickets. The only way they come is if someone gives them a ticket.
“[Tonight’s crowd] reflects what our fanbase thinks of our program… 24,500 people. And you think that people are upset with our program? Yeah, they’re upset, the one’s sitting home calling. That’s who’s upset.
“Do I want to do better? Yeah, I want to do better. But the people that show up tell you whether you have support or not. Not who calls on the radio.”
So, in the most innocent explanation imaginable here, Boeheim’s “only vocal critic” lost a job at a radio station where Boeheim is a part owner, has “much more on tap,” and “is threatening to become part of the media,” but that’s all under an existing deal. And the move was only made because the “bleeds Orange” CEO of the media group wants their station to call it “straight down the line” for the school they have a wide-ranging and long-running business relationship with (which raises questions about which line they’ll be calling it down.)
If that’s all true, that only proves exceptionally poor coverage decisions and public commentary defending those decisions from a media CEO. And those just coincidentally overlap with athletic department criticisms of Axe, Boeheim criticisms of Axe, and Boeheim having “much more on tap” with the media group (under what the CEO claims is a pre-existing deal). There’s no smoking gun of outright interference from Boeheim or Syracuse here as of yet, unlike in some previous college/media interactions. But there is a whole lot of smoke around seemingly-related topics. And even if none of that smoke adds to a direct connection, at the very least, a radio group has made a decision specifically to promote more positive coverage of a university it happens to be in business with.