ESPN Radio Faces a New Morning

Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti have a big radio debut on Monday, when they take over ESPN’s national morning slot. But their new jobs started in earnest on Wednesday.

The trio met in their studio at ESPN’s New York production facility for the first time, ready to test out their rapport. “I think if you took out the bumps in the road and you put that in the can, that could have been a show,” says Johnson.

It probably won’t be that easy.

Johnson, Williams and Mehenti are taking over a slot inhabited by only a few voices in the past two decades, with Mike Golic talking to A.M. sports fans between 1998 and 2020, joined by Mike Greenberg for 17 years. ESPN raised eyebrows in July when executives announced they were taking Golic off the program. Greenberg had departed to host ESPN’s morning-TV program “Get Up” in 2018.  On Monday, many ears will be listening to see what the new group brings to the conversation with their program, which will last from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. eastern and will be simulcast on ESPN2 and ESPNEWS.

“People get a little eerie,” says Johnson, who feels the trio will be scrutinized in their first moments on air for chemistry and favorite topics. “I respect the road Mike Golic has paved,” says Williams. “Without Mike Golic, I’m not allowed to be here. But now I’m here. Key and I get to walk in the door because we expect to be in the door.”

These aren’t rookies. Johnson, who enjoyed an NFL career with the  New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hosted a morning program on ESPN’s Los Angeles radio outlet for four years. Williams is a former basketball pro who continues to work on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown.” And Mehenti has been a regular on nighttime editions of “Sports Center.”

Sports-talk radio has long relied on two white guys bickering back and forth over players, stats and more. Now, ESPN – conscious, perhaps, of the nation’s more diversified consumer base – is adding new faces to the mix. “The sports-talk radio demographic has been pretty homogeneous for a really long time and we absolutely, positively need to keep those listeners, because they are the foundation. They are the people who have been listening to this genre since the 80s,’ says Mehenti. “But I think there is definitely room  — if you go to any sport, there is a huge umbrella and tent. There are more of those people who can come into the sports-talk genre. Maybe they will feel comfortable talking to us.”

There will definitely be a lot of talking. “You can stop us in the street, and we can talk to you for ten or fifteen minutes. We can meet you at the bar,” says Williams. “We can have a shot.”

Before you do, the three are likely to spend their first week sussing out what’s ahead for NFL and college football, says Johnson. “It’s going to be about the commissioners, the presidents, the athletic directors and the safety and well-being of the students.” But there’s also room for discussion of student-athletes’ “We Are United” campaign, and other topics.

Mehenti expects the trio to steer listeners through the NBA Playoffs, golf and more – and the more they talk, the better the show will get. “We will stem the learning curve massively just in that amount of repetition.  Even though it might sound counter intuitive, the lack of familiarity with each other might be a positive since the growth of bold, organic, and spontaneous conversation naturally sprouts when you really have no idea what somebody might say,” he says.

You can’t win the game if you do not play. Williams says he just wants to start talking. “I want to be the lighting bolt you wake up to,” he adds.