Celebrating one year of Gary Bettman charm on XM radio

Sports Business Journal had a preposterous amount of great hockey coverage today, and has temporarily waived the subscription requirement for many of these stories.

You've got Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold talking about the economic downturn and how it affects the NHL. You've got NHLPA executive director Paul Kelley in a bitter behind-the-scenes power struggle with ombudsman Eric Lindros. You have the Washington Capitals capitalizing (yuck, yuck) on their surging popularity with a new local television program to call their own. (Rolling cameras, functioning microphones, Alexander Ovechkin ... we're sold.)

But the most ambitious and interesting of the stories today deals with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is celebrating his first year as a radio talk show host for XM Home Ice. From SBJ's Tripp Mickle:

The show, which celebrates one year on the air this week, offers an auditory window into the man running the NHL and has resulted in dozens of satellite-signal epiphanies. Through the course of 31 hours of programming and answers to questions from close to 350 callers, listeners have discovered a commissioner who not only loves the game but also is helpful, charming, even-keeled and occasionally humorous.

Like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had a radio show from 1994 to 2001, Bettman uses the show to reach fans directly by circumventing newspapers and TV. As a result, he's humanized himself.

"I've always been comfortable communicating, and this is just a reflection of that," Bettman said. "Despite the way I sometimes get portrayed - this isn't a woe is me - but I kind of like the fact that people get to see me in a more natural environment unfiltered. To hear my words, not see my words as they've been reconstructed or reinterpreted."

Charmed, we sure. But let's take a real look at the program, shall we?

If you've never heard The NHL Hour with Gary Bettman, you can download the podcasts on NHL.com. What you'll find is that Bettman is his usual well-informed self, digging his heels in on a myriad of issues and never giving an inch during a discussion. The man has a politician's gift for staying on message, even if he's never had a politician's gift for charisma. 

But you'll also find the program is a Twilight Zone where harsh criticism of Bettman's performance over the last 15 years doesn't seem to exist. The callers are, to a fault, polite and complementary. If they guys behind Gary Bettman Sucks or Fire Bettman are calling in, they might be on lithium. 

One factor behind this is the obvious difference between Internet muscles and human interaction -- something Yahoo! Sports NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski is learning about first-hand -- in which Bettman is blamed and flamed all over the Web but never when he's on the other end of a phone. But another reason for the lack of rapid criticism is that the calls are screened.

Now, Sports Business Journal and other articles about the Bettman radio show have typically included a note like this, denying a screening process for callers:

Bettman takes each call in the order it's received, and none of the calls are screened. Fans comment on everything from expansion to ratings, central scouting to marketing players.

"His motto is, 'Bring it on,'" [co-host Bill] Clement said. "He doesn't live in a world of secrecy and tries to be as honest as he can within the parameters of confidentiality."

This really comes down to what your definition of "screened" is.

There's always been extra care about what goes over the air on the Bettman show. Before the program's debut, XM announced it was going to become the first show on Home Ice with a seven-second delay built into it.

Today, the calls are answered by a screener. Bettman has a computer in front of him that gives details about the caller's name, location, subject matter and the time they've been on hold. It's not as if every call that gets through becomes a red blinking light and Bettman punches them up blindly. There is call screening, even if a large majority of calls do get through no matter the subject or tone.

That extra layer of scrutiny between Bettman and the callers likely keeps some of the raging critics from calling.

All that aside, here's what the Bettman show does: It allows the commissioner to hold a de facto press conference with fans each week. The model for the show was then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's chats on WABC in New York, in which he'd deal with issues large and small on the air.

At his best, what Bettman's able to do is address fan concerns on person-to-person basis, like a mayor dealing with a pothole. From SBJ:

Gunter from Switzerland called in April to ask about when the league would open an international store, and Bettman revealed that the NHL and Reebok were already in discussions about opening a store in Europe.

Other times he used the show to debunk reports by the media, like when he assured Melinda from Houston that the league had no intention of putting ads on goalie jerseys.

"My understanding is there's an agent who began this discussion on his own initiative," Bettman said. "It isn't a direction we're focused on moving in at this point in time, and maybe never."

More than learning about his favorite bands (The Doors, the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, for the record) or anything else, this type of interaction is what might turn a cynic into a supporter for Gary Bettman.

Still, it would be refreshing to hear some calls that sound a bit more like this than the love-fest that usually oozes from the Sat-Rad. Happy anniversary, Gary.

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