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Q&A with 3HL of 104.5 The Zone

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Some sports talk shows act like you stepped inside the octagon with them as they seek surrender via hot-take submission. Other shows like “3HL” on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville, Tennessee take a different approach. One of the goals Brent Dougherty, Mickey Ryan, and Dawn Davenport have is to talk with the people, not at them. It’s a refreshing approach that helps the show continuously thrive.

Southern hospitality is a phrase that isn’t always applied correctly. The expression is absolutely valid though when describing “3HL.” I could feel it when I sat down with the cast. You can hear it when listening to their show. It doesn’t mean the trio has a shortage of strong opinions. They just present their views in a way that invites a conversation while keeping the vibe positive and welcoming.

It wouldn’t make sense to root against this approach. It’s nice when the good guys (and girl) win, and when a show that “gets it” happens to be cranking out monster ratings in the process. Check out more on their philosophies and unique career paths below. Find out which host interned for another, the early days of speeding in a Ford Escort station wagon, and doing a show with a meat salesman.

Brian Noe: How long have you had this new trio?

Dawn: August 15th, I think. So not very long. It’s been like six months.

Brent: We broke ground on this version of “3HL” in August.

Dawn: It is just at our six-month mark. We should’ve partied. We made it. We haven’t killed each other.

Noe: What do you think has been the biggest improvement during those six months?

Brent: I don’t know? Have we gotten better?

Dawn: Oh, from day one of me joining? Oh yeah!

Brent: Better?

Dawn: I hope so.

Mickey: I think it’s just more learning each other’s personalities. Brent and I have known each other for over 20 years. He was my intern when I was a television anchor in the ‘90’s in Kentucky. He knows there are certain things he can say and exactly how I’ll react. We’re kind of learning what’s a hot-button topic for Dawn that you can say something and you know what kind of reaction — and she’s learning the same thing about us. To me that’s the biggest thing is just getting to know each other’s personalities.

Brent: But like a week ago, we finished each other’s sentences a couple of times.

Dawn: And it was completely random to where during the break at one point I looked at him and I go, “How the hell did you know I was going to say that?” You like pulled it out of nowhere.

Brent: It’s been fun and Dawn brings a lot to the table too from a female perspective. That’s rare in this country. It’s awesome because we’ve known her for a long time and she’s got that TV background. We watched her on television [WKRN]. We already knew each other when we hit the ground and Dawn joined “3HL.” I feel like we hit the ground running because of that and because I watched everyday, so I already knew kind of what your mannerisms were. I think that helped.

Noe: How would you explain the differences between having a guy and a girl in that chair?

Brent: Man, that’s a good question. I don’t even view it that way. Honestly, she was a collegiate athlete and her entire background in this business is in sports outside of — well, you did the one show.

Dawn: Outside of slummin’ it in morning show news.

Brent: But even the way that y’all did that morning show — it was kind of the way that we do this show. Even though that was news and this was sports. In terms of entertainment, to me it was basically the same.

Dawn: It was less scripted and personality-driven.

Brent: But in terms of having a different vibe of having a woman in the chair in the room — there really isn’t one to me because she’s such a big sports fan and entertainment fan. She’s a really good communicator — that’s what you need — and a good entertainer. That’s the other thing to me.

Mickey: It does give our show perspective though if there’s a case where there’s a sexual assault. If there’s something that involves a female point of view. Instead of us saying, “Well, here’s what we think” or “This is what I read that somebody said,” you actually can get the female point of view, which to me is huge for us because she can break down any sport, but at the same time she can also say, “Hey, as a woman” — like we were talking about the US Olympic hockey team. They had no benefits, were making no money, and when we talked about them winning a gold medal for the first time in 20 years you said, “No no, they’re champions for women’s rights.” You went through all the things that they had done to make things better for the future generation of women’s hockey players. I think that gives us really an opportunity to offer a viewpoint on things that how many shows in the country even have? Very few.

Noe: Dawn, sometimes I’ll hear a female host, and it’s like they’re just trying so hard to prove they know their stuff. Others feel very comfortable and you come across that way — not going over the top. Where does that come from?

Dawn: I think it comes from being around sports for so long. The minute I graduated college I was doing local TV sports. In local TV sports, you do everything on your own. There’s nobody there to help you or hold your hand so you have to know your stuff because you are your producer. You’re your writer. You’re your shooter.

I’ve been around sports doing it for so long. I think that’s where that comfort comes from. Also, because I’ve been in this town for so long, and I started as a weekend sports anchor, so I’m fortunate that I know the history of the teams here. I can pull from, “Oh, hey do you remember back in 2008 this team did that,” so I think from that standpoint I’m comfortable because I do know what we’re talking about so well. Then, when I work with SEC Network I’m very knowledgeable about it because that’s what I do.

I’m also fortunate that the people in this town from the minute I got here welcomed me in and accepted me. I’ve never felt the need to prove that, “Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I can talk sports. I promise.” I feel like this town was very open to having a female in the sports world and that’s helped me because I haven’t had to go overboard to try and prove myself because people have accepted it.

Noe: What type of role does Program Director, Brad Willis play in your show’s maturation? Is he very hands on or does he let you guys work things out?

Brent: His goal with us always has been — ‘cause we’ve made changes with this show before — he’s more into letting things grow and develop. With the three of us, have it grow organically, and that’s kind of where we are with it.

Dawn: Which I think has been great. Instead of him pushing, “Hey, you need to talk more, you need to do this.”

Brent: Yeah, he treats us like professionals. I’ve been doing this for 21 years. We’ve all been doing this so long that you just take some time to know and learn and understand where he can go, where she can go, where I can go. It just kind of organically happens. He’s been completely hands off. Now, if we have questions about something that we’re doing or trying, he’s always available.

Mickey: I think the key for him is he’s there for a resource, but he wants the show to happen organically. It’s like, “Look, if you have something unique, come to me and let’s work it out,” but on a day-to-day basis it’s, “You guys are all three professionals. I hired you to be professionals. Do what you do.”

That was when I joined the show, which is a little over three years ago, after a couple of weeks he pulled me in an said, “I brought you in to talk. So talk. Just give your opinion on things. You don’t have to work your way in.” It was the same thing with Dawn. We told her, “Hey, just give your opinion. You don’t have to be tentative or anything like that. You just jump in. We’re all here to be equal. To have equal time to have equal opinions, so you just jump right in. Don’t feel like you have to warm up to us. Just jump in.”

Noe: How much have you had to deal with comparisons to previous hosts like Clay Travis and Blaine Bishop? Does that happen a lot?

Mickey: When you follow a personality like Clay, obviously there are going to be people who compare things. I’ve gotten to know Clay since I’ve moved to town and we get along great. Anytime I see him we always catch up and kind of talk about how things are going. He’s been great to get to know and it’s been a lot of fun to see all the stuff that he’s accomplishing on a national level.

There were some people who were really unkind in the beginning especially. There’s still a handful of people out there who are hanging onto it. My thing was I just had to be myself. If you like that, you like it. Maybe the nicest thing that people have said to me over the last 3+ years is, “I wanted to hate you, but once I listened to you, I realized I liked you. I thought when the show changed I would hate the show, and hey, I don’t hate you. Matter of fact I kinda like you.”

Literally people have said things like that to me, so I’m winning that way. But I know the dynamic of the show changed. It did. I think it’s okay to like him and like what he does. I think it’s okay to like me and like the current version of the show. That’s all I would ask anybody for the chance to.

Noe: Has there been anything that gets under your skin or you just go home and are like, “Man, I would’ve been better off not receiving that message”?

Dawn: Well, if you work in broadcasting, especially sports broadcasting, you’re always going to get a message where you’re like, “Yeah, well.” (sarcastic laugh)

Mickey: Well, and you [Dawn] were on TV — and women to other women who were on TV — you wouldn’t believe the things about your dress or your hair.

Dawn: Let me tell you, morning news viewer complaints are the worst thing I’ve ever endured in my life. Nothing that any sports person can ever say to me will ever upset me as much as some of the females and Facebook messages I got during morning news.

Brent: Social media is a wild place.

Dawn: It’s a different world nowadays — even from when I first started in the business. If somebody didn’t like you, you got a phone call or a hand-written letter. Now, it’s different because people immediately can facelessly tell you that they don’t like you, but this town is pretty good honestly. You’re always going to have people that don’t agree with what you say.

Mickey: But the feedback is overwhelmingly more positive than negative. But you can say, “I like donuts,” and you have some overwhelmingly negative responses to that. That’s just the world that we live in.

Brent: We live in a world where people just love to hate things. You see that on social media, but doing what we do as she said, we all have a thick skin. You have to or you won’t have success in this business anyway aside from some hater on social media. We don’t pay attention to it necessarily. To get to where we are, you’ve got to be confident in yourself. Sure, we try new things and sometimes we make mistakes and we’re harder on ourselves than anybody could be that listens. I think some mean guy on Twitter or whatever, I think that’s more about him than it is me.

Noe: How much does your role differ from a three-person to a two-person show just in terms of driving it? Not repeating one of their takes or sacrificing your own opinion to just move it forward. Does it differ greatly between the two?

Brent: I look at my job as a facilitator — almost like a scoring point guard. I’m trying to set him up with stuff and her up with stuff, but also trying to take my shot. The way I kind of visualize it in the moment — because I’m watching break time and how long is the break coming up? When do we need to hit that break? Who’s got a live spot coming? What caller needs to go next? I’m trying to balance all of those things while also throwing topics and throwing opinions. To me it’s a fun challenge. The way I visualize that is I’m going down a river with currents and I’m just trying to keep the boat as straight as possible. That doesn’t change whether it’s two or three people.

Noe: Is there anything specific to Nashville regarding topics that surprisingly work? Where you feel like, “Really? That’s what you guys are interested in?”

Brent: It’s kind of meat and potatoes honestly.

Dawn: Daily, there’s something that I’m like, “Wow, people really want to talk about that.”

Brent: Has it been a surprise to you? So, we get out of football and now it’s crazy topics that you can bring up. The response to some of those crazy topics I think surprises you sometimes.

Dawn: Yeah, it really surprises me and when we first started to go on kind of like tangents that had to do with sports but weren’t maybe necessarily specific SEC football talk, I would get nervous over there in the chair. I’m like, “Why are we not talking sports? We gotta go back to talking sports.” They’re like, “Relax. We’ve got a long show. It’s okay. It’s how it works.”

I think what surprised me the most — and I had been on the show with you guys before a couple of times, just sat in for an hour or two hours — what surprised me is some of the random topics that people want to talk about that maybe aren’t necessarily completely sports.

Brent: Here’s an example — yesterday we were talking about the Olympics and the US women had won the gold medal. I watched it. I stayed up and I thought it was the moment of the Olympics. I thought it was awesome. I thought that would get a little bit of traction. These guys started talking about the cross country race, which I didn’t even see. The next thing we know, Mickey finds the audio. We play the play-by-play and it’s one of the best sports calls ever. We go 45 minutes with people calling in about how awesome that was.

Mickey: The one guy said they were three wide like NASCAR and he was in the middle of the night watching it at his house. He felt like he raced the race with them. He felt like he sent them enough America to push them through. People get so emotionally invested in the Olympics ‘cause that’s your flag. That’s your country. They’re representing all of us. Your college football team represents your state or your region, but this is everybody. That was one of the most passionate phone calls we’ve ever had from anybody about anything.

Dawn: Talking about women’s cross country skiing. Like who cares, you know?

Brent: ‘Cause the basics are you’ve got to talk about the Titans every day in this market. You have to. When they suck, they get a 20 share on television. Over the last year and a half the Predators have risen to one of the better teams in the NHL so you need to spend a little time on them. Even though, as good as they are, their regular-season TV numbers are like a tenth of what the Titans are. We pay attention to those things. So it’s Titans, NFL, SEC, college football, and then whatever crazy stories you can find.

Noe: How do you guys balance the local stuff that you know is going to hit, with something that might go beyond Nashville that you know is still going to matter to people?

Mickey: Honestly, you can just look and see at what people are talking about on social media. To me that’s a huge metric because we all certainly follow people in this market and we have people that give us feedback — “Hey, did you guys see this? Do you guys know about that?”

Brent: That helps with what we do. Social media, that changed the game because now you can talk about things immediately as they happen. When I got into the business it was the mid-‘90’s. You didn’t have any of this. We weren’t monitoring these things.

You can get a tweet that pops up — I remember one show we were doing, and we were going to do some Preds guest or something and the Manti Te’o story came out on Deadspin. We sent one of our guys out of the studio to read it because it was so long. One segment went by and he was back in there and we were talking about it. That’s how fast things go and we bailed on the guest. We try to be as current as possible and talk about what people are talking about.

Noe: In terms of things being current — topics move so fast and have a short shelf life — a Vols football game on Saturday, of course you’re going to talk about it on Monday, but how do you have that sense of, “This is a little old. It’s not what people are talking about now”?

Brent: 100% you think about that. You’ve got to figure out a different way to present it. Ask questions because people definitely still want to talk about that. SEC football season? You want to talk about that every day. Like every day.

Dawn: I feel like football transcends that thought. You can talk about a game that happened two weeks ago and people are still interested.

Brent: But you would present it differently in the afternoon than you would on Sunday morning where Jamal Lewis ran for 225 yards. Stuff like that. You’re thinking about different ways to present it.

Mickey: By that time you’ll have different ways where you may analyze it and look at it or maybe what it means more for what’s going to happen ahead of time. This market is just so funny. It’s such a football-centric market. Let’s say we came on today and we talked about Ole Miss football. Vols fan – he’s interested in that. Mississippi State fan — she’s okay with that.

SEC fans, you can talk about any other school or program and they’re okay with that ‘cause they want to know what they’re doing too, right? To me that’s the most interesting thing maybe about living in an SEC-centric market is it doesn’t matter what team or what program or what coach you talk about, there’s just an unbelievable level of interest by every team and every program’s fans about another team’s fans and program.

Dawn: We also have so many alums from all of those schools.

Mickey: It used to be they all moved to Atlanta and Brent says they’re coming here now.

Brent: This is the SEC melting pot. Just downtown condos — this is where the young people that are graduating college in this area are coming. They’re not going to Atlanta. They’re coming to Nashville. This city is growing and the vibe is different and awesome. It’s really exciting.

Noe: When you have high ratings and Brad Willis comes to you with a major lineup change, how do you react to that?

Brent: The first question is who is going to be on the show with us, right? Then when you find out it’s Dawn Davenport, I have zero concern whatsoever. I know that we’re going to keep rockin’ because I know how competitive she is and that’s what I want. I want somebody that’s going to win every day. She’s got that track record. From my perspective I wasn’t concerned at all. I was excited.

Noe: How about you, Dawn? When you’re going into the mix and they’re getting monstrous ratings, do you feel any extra pressure? 

Mickey: No pressure.

Dawn: Yeah, no pressure at all.

Brent: You can relate to that too Mickey.

Mickey: Yeah, no pressure.

Dawn: Radio ratings are different obviously than TV ratings. I got them every day on the morning show.

Brent: And we don’t get them that often. She would ask and I’m like, “I don’t know.” (laughs)

Dawn: I’d ask, “How are we doing? Are we doing okay?” Brad would say, “Oh, we’re doing great!” I’m like, “Okay, well can I see? Do you have numbers from last week or whatever?” I had to learn how it actually worked. I was definitely nervous stepping into a successful show and replacing a former athlete [Blaine Bishop] that people really valued his opinion. I was definitely worried about it, but I had listened to the show enough to know that I felt like it would be a good fit and that we would be okay.

Noe: Do you have a TV background at all, Brent?

Brent: No.

Mickey: You were my intern for one semester.

Brent: Yeah, I needed one class to graduate at UT, the University of Tennessee, and I needed to do an internship. Living here and I was hanging out in Bowling Green. I had some friends at Western Kentucky. I was like, “Well, if I’m going to do an internship, I might as well do TV. I might as well go to WBKO,” which is in Bowling Green — the ABC affiliate there. So, I just knocked on the door and he can tell you more about it, but I just knocked on the door and got that internship.

We went all over South Central Kentucky on Friday nights covering high school football and it was awesome. There were a couple of things that happened along the way where I was like, “I don’t want to do TV.” (laughs) “I don’t want to do TV.” Because you work all day — there is a rush during the news when the stuff you’ve been working on all day is going, but things that you can’t control happen.

Mickey: He saw a couple of times where we went out and shot seven games and brought the tapes back and the tapes got out of order and you didn’t know what highlight you were doing. He saw things like that. Or the tape machine would fail or the teleprompter would go out. We don’t have a tape machine or a teleprompter. They just turn on the microphones and we talk.

Dawn didn’t really know the story — it was either a Saturday or a Sunday night. We had a 5 o’clock news — I was the weekend sports anchor at WBKO. The weatherman walks out. He comes back in and he goes, “There’s some kid outside in the parking lot that wants to ask to be your intern.” I go out and it was that kid right there.

So, it’s been over 20 years ago in the fall of 1996. I come out and here’s Brent Dougherty. He says, “Man, I wanna be your intern.” He starts explaining things and I said, “Look, man, that’s fine. You can just be my intern.” We had great chemistry and we drove a Ford Escort station wagon for several thousand miles that fall covering games.

Brent: At 100 miles an hour.

Mickey: Years later, I wind up moving to Nashville to pursue music. I got out of TV. I just came here and wanted to play music.

Dawn: He’s a heck of a bass player by the way.

Mickey: Well, I like to think so. (laughter) I’ve played 12th & Porter, 3rd and Lindsley. I’ve played in Europe and all over the US. I’ve got a couple albums on iTunes, but you know, no big deal. (laughter) I was driving down Interstate 65. This is a true story. I had my radio on scan. I was scanning FM stations after recently moving to town. I went to hit another button and I hit a bump, and I switched my radio to AM and he was on 1510 AM. It was him talking!

I don’t think I even had a cell phone at this point. I drove to my apartment and called the radio station and left him a message. We had lost touch with each other. He was producing a show for a couple of heavy hitters in town. He said, “They’re going to let me do a show on Saturday. You should come and do it with me.” So for years, I managed a real estate office and played music and I would go on Saturday and do a radio show with Brent and another guy named Russ Berrie, who’s a meat salesman. The three of us did a Saturday show for years and years before we both wound up coming over here to The Zone.

Brent: We used to joke about Russ, he was slingin’ his meat all over the southeast. (laughs) He’s a good dude, that guy.

Mickey: He sells ham. Yeah, great guy.

Brent: Man, you went into the long story like Noe’s writing a book or something. The history of us. This is us and no one’s crying.

Noe: Dawn, these two have known each other for 20 years — is it ever weird where two people know each other so well and you’re trying to learn them as you go?

Dawn: I don’t think so. I haven’t felt that at all.

Mickey: And you don’t get our Fletch references though. That’s the one thing.

Brent: The whole key to knowing us is really simple: watch Fletch. It’s the key to life and to understanding making a friend.

Dawn: The good thing, I knew them prior. Especially you [Brent], I’ve known you since I moved here and we’d run into each other at events and I’ve hopped on their radio show a million times. That’s the good thing. We’ve hung out outside of work too. I’m on a daily text with your wife right now [Mickey]. (laughs) So, I feel like I kind of jumped right in. Obviously I haven’t known them for 20 years, but from that standpoint, have really gotten to know them and I know their families.

Noe: Is there anything from the TV world that translates very well to sports radio and things that just don’t fit whatsoever?

Dawn: Well, the don’t fit is I panicked when I first started. In TV, this block is six minutes and 40 seconds, and you’ve got to hit six minutes and 40 seconds so you can hit clicks and do all of that, and everything is scripted. At least for the morning show, for what I did the last five years, everything is in there. It might not all be scripted — there’s a lot of adlib, but for the most part it’s super organized. You know exactly what you’re talking about, and when, and you know exactly what’s coming.

With sports talk radio? When I started I was like, “So, we’re not going to script out every single segment and know exactly when we’re going to talk about what?” And they’re like, “No, because if somebody calls in and some subject gets going, we’ll stick with that.” I was like, “Okay?” It took me awhile to be okay with — not necessarily spontaneity, but kind of — like a lack of specific, everything is timed out.

Brent: And it’s funny, in my course of doing this job I love the freedom to be spontaneous. I love that. It leads you down a creative space that really is unlike anything else that you could do in this business. I love that part of it. I knew from doing this — after having TV people come in and do an hour every so often, they always would say that, like, “Man, that’s so much fun because I’ve got like two and a half minutes to do my sports and that’s what it is. Here’s the script. I never really have time to give my opinion. It’s really not that kind of place to give your opinion.”

Dawn: That’s where I’ve had to grow because I wasn’t allowed to give my opinion at all. Then as a sideline reporter you have 15-20 seconds to do your report. It’s not an opinion-based job. That was something coming in I’ve really had to work on — learning that it’s okay for me to give my opinion now because you can’t in news.

I think the plus of doing news — especially that morning news show that I was part of — there was a lot of adlibbing. There was a lot of personality conversation and that has lent well to stepping into this job because it’s basically what we did, especially in the 4am hour. It’s what I did for five years really. This is just a different level.

Brent: Early on she would ask me during a break, “Did you know you were going to go into Tennessee-Vanderbilt basketball right there?” And I would say, “No, but that microphone is on, and I’m talking, and that’s what came out.” She’s like, “Okay.”

Dawn: In the beginning, it took me awhile to be okay with it.

Brent: Yeah, and I think that’s part of the organic transition and I think we’re there now. But I learned from her to be a little more structured in terms of what we do.

Noe: Did you do anything to try to draw out more opinions because they weren’t used to it?

Brent: I didn’t really have to necessarily, but she has this notebook of stuff that she keeps. She’s got like, I don’t know, eight-nine pages for today. She knows what the topics are because we kind of text during the day. There’s going to be stuff that we all see that we haven’t communicated to each other. It’s almost better that way to me because then you get more into that spontaneous reaction from Mickey about women’s curling or whatever.

There’s a lot of that, but when I do that — I’ve jumped out of an airplane and I’m flying through the air. I’m going from topic to topic in my head and I go into something — I know that she has researched it and has some notes jotted down. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’ll talk long enough to let you flip through your papers to get to that topic. It’s a growth process.

Noe: Do you find it more challenging in the heart of football season to hit on everything you want to get in there, or is it now where it’s a lot slower? Which is more challenging?

Brent: Challenging might not be the word, it’s just different. I have fun in — I love football, it’s my favorite thing — but doing what we do, I actually think I have more fun in the non-football area because of the random things that we can talk about. We’re a Nashville show. We love the city of Nashville. We’re going to talk about things that happen in Nashville. It’s not necessarily going to be sports-related.

If I walk over to the Tin Roof and sit down and talk with people, if there’s 100 people in there, what percentage of people just want to talk about sports? That’s all they’re interested in. Four? We think of it in terms of, hopefully, entertaining people every day. We have no fear at all, in fact we love doing it — going off topic. That infuriates stick-to-sports guy, but I don’t care.

Mickey: Four percent of the guys who want only sports. They get infuriated.

Brent: This time of year is really, really fun to me. For example today, we’ve got this college basketball corruption scandal and that’s going to be a healthy part of the show, but we also have one of the top-20 tennis players in the world coming on. We’ve got one of the best hockey players in the world coming on. Guests kind of dictate topics with us.

Noe: In terms of the goals you have for the show, does anything change that mindset when you’ve gone thru lineup changes?

Brent: For me, no. My job is to help our clients grow their business. From there it’s to entertain the guy that’s at a job that he hates, is having an awful day, and is in his car for 45 minutes and wants to be entertained. He wants an escape from whatever it is he’s dealing with and everybody’s dealing with something. Those are the two things I think about. As long as it’s a room full of creative people that like to have fun, I’m good.

Mickey: When we were driving around 21 years ago in that Escort station wagon, I used to tell him, “Look, here’s my goal; I’m going to put as many people’s kids on TV tonight as I can. We’re going to spray the crowd. We’re going to have the band. We’ll have an establishing shot of the cheerleaders and I want to put as many people’s kids and grandkids and neighbors and friends on TV as I can, to give more people a reason to watch.”

Brent: I’ve always thought about that too. I remember him saying that and that really stuck out to me. I think about that all the time.

Mickey: When you go out and you’re in the grocery store and you’re the TV person and they go, “You had my nephew on the other night,” and I say, “Oh, did he score a touchdown?” And she said, “No, you just said how cool he looked. He was the tuba player,” and I’m like, “Oh, I remember him.” But that meant the same thing to her as the kid who scored the touchdown that won the game. That’s her nephew or friend or son or grandson or whatever. To me that was so powerful to do that.

When we go out and people tell us, “Life is going this way and there’s some bad things happening, but I’ll tell you what, I know when I’m in the car listening to you guys, I can forget about it.” That’s the greatest, to me, thing that anybody can say about what we do is you helped me forget my problems for an hour or for 30 minutes, or gosh there are some people who are going to listen to the whole show I guess on their computer at work.

Brent: God love ‘em.

Mickey: Yeah, those are special people, but for somebody to say, “Man, I’m going through this terrible thing, but I know I’ve got a refuge for X amount of time with you guys every day.” That’s one of the main reasons that we do what we do. We love doing it, but we love the interaction with people and knowing that you can actually help somebody have a better day, forget something bad that’s going on in their life.

Even if we come in and things aren’t great for us, we still think, “Gosh, there’s a whole lot of people listening — they have bigger problems, they have bigger things they’re dealing with than we do, not that we’re immune to dealing with things, but let’s just get together. Let’s entertain them. Let’s enlighten them. Let’s tell them what’s going on in the sports world. Let’s have a few laughs. Let’s give them a little kind of place they can go for four hours a day.”

Noe: Do you think hosts lose track of that where it’s “I want to be a hot-take guy” and it gets too far away from wanting to entertain people?

Dawn: Yes.

Brent: Yeah, but everybody has to be themselves and this is who we are, and I love it. I’m so blessed to have been able to do this on this radio station. 104.5 The Zone is one of the best radio stations in the country. I am so blessed to have been able to work with four of the most talented radio people that I could ever be around. I’m so happy with the team we have here with Mickey and Dawn. I’m looking forward to the next however long y’all want to do this. 50 years? 60?

Dawn: Time to retire. (laughing) Seriously this guy, they were like, “Oh, you guys want Presidents’ Day off?” I’m like, “Oh yeah, let’s take it off.” They’re like, “Oh, well are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want to work?” I’m like, “What is wrong with you? I love my job, but you guys are not normal.”

Brent: I mean there’s flame-thrower guy out there, that’s not me. That’s not what we do. That’s not who we are.

Dawn: We don’t have the hot-take, piss-you-off, be-mean-to-you-kind-of person really. Unless you really push our buttons.

Mickey: The angry Chihuahua. One of the first conversations we ever had was let’s just pretend like we’re in a sports bar talking to our friends. Let’s talk to people. We’ve always tried to talk with people and not at people.

Brent: There are times when everybody gets riled up. It’s an opinionated business. We’re paid to have an opinion. That’s the reality of the situation, but I think we’re more into building people up.

BSM Writers

Reflecting On 30 Years of ESPN Radio

“There is an intimacy in the relationship you develop with your audience in radio that is unlike anything I’ve found in any other medium.”

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The most iconic network on sports radio just turned 30 years old. It was January 1, 1992 when ESPN Radio first debuted. Since then, the network has been the home of legendary voices and games that live in the annals of history. 

ESPN television was already an institution and destination for sports fans in the early 90s when the worldwide leader decided to enter the world of sports radio. The move made logical sense as it provided the company with an opportunity to expand its reach and presence. WFAN in New York had proven that the format could find an audience and stations were starting to pop up everywhere across the country. Even brands that didn’t have a need for 24 hours of sports talk were interested. After all, many news/talk stations aired sports radio programming at night and on weekends back then.

When the network launched, ESPN offered weekend shows and boasted 147 affiliates. Since then, the network has grown into a 24/7/365 operation with over 400 local stations partnering full time with the country’s largest sports brand, and many others picking it evenings, weekends and other select shows.

“That’s a credit to the power of the brand,” says Traug Keller, the former Vice President of ESPN Audio. “The biggest challenge local radio has is ad sales revenue right? It’s how they eat. And if you’re a salesperson in Quad Cities, Iowa or New Orleans or whatever market, it doesn’t matter. You’re coming into a business to sell radio ad time, which is invisible to begin with. You’ve got to get people over the visual part of the value. But as soon as you say those four letters, ‘I represent ESPN radio,’ it takes half the battle off the table.”

Norby Williamson, ESPN’s Executive Vice President of Production, has been with the radio network since the beginning. He said its launch was very different from how ESPN rolled out another one of its iconic brands a little over a decade before. 

“We grew SportsCenter and there was always a demarcation point,” he told me. “Whether it was Berman or Dan and Keith or Robin Roberts, the product was always there and it was about the content. The brand SportsCenter kind of became front and center. 

“I think with radio it was first and foremost, certainly about sports, but when you think of the great radio voices of the past, there was this sense of credibility and connectivity between the talent and the audience, which then gave the talent the opportunity to go in different directions about different topics.”

The lineup has gone through its share of changes over the years. For many, there was a distinct “golden era” of the network’s prime lineup. It was the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. The mornings featured Mike & Mike followed by The Herd with Colin Cowherd, who joined the network in 2004. Cowherd was then followed by one of ESPN’s biggest names on any platform, Dan Patrick. 

Patrick’s star was well-established. The next step for the network was establishing its morning show as a force in the national syndication space.

“The truth is that was just the timing of the situation, it wasn’t necessarily a strategic decision,” Bruce Gilbert told me. He served as the network’s GM until 2007. “Dan Patrick was hugely successful, and really didn’t need any more focus. Meanwhile the network was uncertain about whether Mike & Mike would work together or if they would be better off on separate shows.”

Clearly, Greenberg and Golic belonged together. Gilbert credits not just the hosts, but the entire behind the scenes crew with building what he calls “the show of record for sports fans centered on the newsmakers.”

Calling it “the show of record” implies that Mike & Mike was a stuffy affair, the kind of thing that you respect and learn from more than you actually enjoy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mike & Mike were funny. They had great on-air chemistry. They took the games and the outcomes seriously without losing sight of the fact that their audience, for the most part, will never be invested like the people they interviewed each morning. 

“My thought process in the morning because people are driving to work, was maybe I can take you where you can’t go,” Golic told BSM’s Brian Noe last year. “I can take you into a pro athletes’ head, I can take you into their locker room. I can take you onto the field of any sport because as pro athletes you have that mentality, and can I make you laugh a little bit? If I can make you smile and chuckle a little bit on your way to work, I feel like I did my job. So to me the best part of radio is when you went off course and that turned out to be the most fun.”

That is a very particular needle to thread, but the duo and their crew did it. That is why the show became more than just a sports show. It became a huge part of the national sports conversation. 

What was the exact moment that happened? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Maybe it started with the show going to television as well as radio. That wasn’t a landmark moment though in Williamson’s eyes. He told me putting Mike & Mike on TV was almost a necessity for ESPN to meet the needs of its audience.

“You’ve got to realize that not that long ago SportsCenter wasn’t even alive in the morning. You know, at one point I said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re doing the show at 1am on the West Coast that re-airs until one o’clock in the afternoon? We’re giving away the entire morning!’”.

For others, it was specific events that proved Mike & Mike was something more than just a sports radio show.

“When we were first invited on Letterman,” Greenberg insisted when I asked about it. “He was someone both Mike and I admired a great deal. That first appearance was among the most exciting nights of my life.”

That appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman happened in October of 2006. 

For Williamson, it wasn’t so much about the invitations. He liked the physical proof that Mike & Mike had become a big deal.

“I remember going to a remote, I think in Philadelphia. I can’t remember exactly where. At four o’clock in the morning, people were lined up around the block to get in to see the show. And that’s kind of when it registered for me that these guys had broken through. They’re resonating, and we’ve got something special.”

ESPN Radio wasn’t just a collection of strong talent behind the microphones at that time. Plenty of people in behind the scenes roles went on to successful programming careers in markets of all sizes. 

Bruce Gilbert isn’t surprised when he looks back at the members of his former staff that went on to spread their wings and leave their stamp on the sports radio industry. He says that the network was in something of a luxury position: every sports fan wanted to be there, and that meant the talent was stacked from floor to ceiling. 

You couldn’t even get in the door without a degree and high scores on one of the hardest sports trivia exams ever developed. This created a competitive environment and a workforce of people that were hungry, passionate and driven to succeed and grow. The other great thing about ESPN were the different paths it offered to professionals. The company was always evaluating talent and working to help them find the right growth trajectory. At ESPN you could grow in audio, move into television, the magazine or digital/web. The opportunities were endless and equally rewarding.”

One of the people that passed that test and earned an opportunity is Freddie Coleman. The longtime host joined the network as part of Game Night in 2005. Coleman is still heard nightly on Freddie and Fitzsimmons

The network doesn’t currently have a lot of people with Coleman’s kind of hosting tenure. Greenberg would be the other. ESPN Radio went through two major lineup overhauls as recently as last year. That position, a sort of “dean of hosts,” is one Coleman takes a lot of pride in.

“I know how blessed I am to have been a part of the Worldwide Leader for 17 plus years. It’s hard to be ANYWHERE now for 17 minutes. With that pride comes accountability and I never take that for granted,” he told me.”

Some of the most successful talent in the radio industry have come and gone over the years. Each has left his or her mark on a network which has been a key part of millions of listener’s lives. Though change is a part of every business, there’s no doubt that some departures have created larger voids than others. 

Tony Kornheiser’s exit from the network’s weekday lineup in March of 2004 fits in that conversation. Replacing a host with his stature was not easy. In fact, Bruce Gilbert says he recoiled a bit at the idea of having to find “the next Tony Kornheiser.”

“My boss and I really wanted a TRUE radio person,” shared Gilbert. “Most of the people on the radio network at that time had come up through SportsCenter or ESPNews. We made a pact to find someone that really understood the intricacies and subtleties of audio and how to connect emotionally and passionately with the ESPN radio audience.”

Remember, this was before radio stations across the country were focused on streaming. Gilbert’s search wasn’t easy. He was calling affiliates and asking how he could listen to their best talents over the phone. 

There was one name that Gilbert heard from two trusted advisors. Scott Mastellar and Rick Scott told him to check out this guy in the Pacific Northwest named Colin Cowherd.

“I was a local radio guy, and Tony Kornheiser was amazing,” Cowherd said, reminiscing about the process during a show in 2015. “He’s a brilliant man, brilliant writer, media icon, and he was leaving. And they could have picked a million guys out of New York, or L.A. Chicago, Dallas, many applied, it was a good job.”

“After hearing his show we flew him to Bristol and when Colin came into my office, he never even gave me a chance to ask a question, he basically started doing a show,” Remembers Gilbert of his first meeting with Colin Cowherd. “For 45 minutes straight he entertained the hell out of me and I don’t believe he ever took a breath. I remember telling my bosses he was the guy and they couldn’t understand how I was so sure and I said I just wish you could have been in my office the day he was here and you wouldn’t even ask me that question. There was one executive who said to me, and I quote, ‘What the hell is a Colin Cowherd, and is that even a real name?’”.

Plenty of sports radio fans across the country are happy Gilbert got his way on that one. 

A few years later, the network had to replace another icon. Traug Keller remembers Dan Patrick’s decision to leave ESPN as “bittersweet.” He jokes that it worked out just fine for the recently inducted Radio Hall of Famer and ESPN Radio “kept on trucking”. 

“We had this collection of 300-plus affiliates that were trusting us. As big of a name as Dan was and him going probably made some of them nervous, they were confident we would figure it out.”

The initial plan was Mike Tirico. Keller says that just as that show was finding its rhythm, the host was tapped for another assignment by the network. He describes the call for Tirico to take over as the voice of Monday Night Football coming just as “you could see the ratings start to pop.”

From there, Scott Van Pelt was given a shot. He and Ryen Russillo established a strong presence in the noon to 3 pm time slot. Van Pelt was well-known thanks to SportsCenter. Russillo wasn’t a national name quite yet, but had established some credibility for himself in Boston, working on 1510 The Zone and WBCN. 

The move to ESPN Radio wasn’t exactly easy for Rusillo. Last year, he told Bryan Curtis, his colleague at The Ringer, that his prep process and scope had to change in order to be successful on the national level.

“I always had to know a little about a lot of things, where in local I had to know everything, but only about one thing,” he said in October on The Press Box podcast. “The math is easier on the local side of things.”

Cowherd would leave the network in 2015, but not before calling his time there “the best ten years of my life.” In 2017, it was Greenberg who said goodbye to radio. 

That gave ESPN Radio the chance to give its morning show the first overhaul it would receive in nearly two decades. Mike Golic was given two new co-hosts, NFL Live’s Trey Wingo and his son, Mike Golic Jr, who had been working overnights on the network.

The younger Golic told me that he knew from growing up around broadcasting that it was the career he wanted. That didn’t mean he was ready for the spotlight on day 1.

“That’s kind of like being in shape vs being in football shape,” he told me via email. “Growing up around it certainly made me familiar with the names and the environment, but I was still so green when it came to doing the actual job. Everyone gives you the same advice coming in: reps reps reps. And they’re all right. It worked a lot like my football career though, where Dad was able to help me by being an extra set of eyes and ears. I got to watch my high school football tape with a guy who played 9 years in the NFL, and now I was getting feedback from a hall of fame radio host.”

Golic and Wingo lasted for four years on the network. Then it was Mike Golic Sr.’s turn to say goodbye. 

His final show has become one of the truly iconic moments in ESPN Radio history. Originating from his home, with his entire family around him, Golic shared stories and insight about how the job had changed his life. 

It was Golic Jr. that stole the spotlight though. His farewell to his father was raw. Everyone on the set, and presumably most people on the other side of the screen or speaker, were in tears

“To get to do this with you for the last three years will be the highlight of my professional life and my personal life,” Junior said. “To get to do the thing you always wanted to do with the person you always wanted to be is just surreal.”

Mike Golic had his entire family as guests during his final ESPN Radio show  to conclude his 20+ year run on the air

I asked Junior about that moment and if he recognized immediately the weight that it had.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think as long as I live and am with ESPN that and dipping Oreos in mayonnaise will be my legacy.”

Mike Golic Sr. looks back on his ESPN Radio years mostly with fondness. He did tell Brian Noe that there is one thing he would never miss though.

“Getting up sucked, but once you start going and getting to the studio and everybody is there, I loved it. There wasn’t much I haven’t missed outside of that 4:15 alarm, which I swore at every single morning. Every time 4:15 hit, I had a bad word come out of my mouth.”

Changes don’t happen without grumbling at ESPN Radio. Norby Williamson says he is used to that. “Radio and audio is a very personal connectivity,” he says. Sometimes, there isn’t much you can do to change people’s minds. The public will just have to wait and form their own opinions. 

Affiliates though are a different story. Williamson says that they tend to offer the people making the decisions a certain level of trust. That is what comes with long relationships and a history of performance.

I think the ESPN brand stands for something, you know? For a lot of years we’ve worked hard to create this brand affinity with our customers to serve sports fans and to gain some credibility with them,” he says. “So I think when you put the ESPN logo on certain things, whether it’s audio, ESPN Plus, etc., there is a very particular expectation by the customer. There’s also a sense of  ‘Alright, I trust this group. So maybe I may not like it initially and boy, I really like that old show better, but I understand I’m going to give it a chance and hope.’ We do a great job. I think a lot of our partners approach any new product we offer thinking ‘I’m going to learn it, accept it, and possibly like it maybe more than the old offering.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t looking to super serve our partners,” says Justin Craig, ESPN’s Senior Director of Network Audio Content. “From paying attention to storylines in key markets to doing our best to have a two way conversation to understand what matters to them, it’s a non-stop focus. We try to be as representative of the largest set of the audience as possible.”

Keeping affiliates happy means giving them help when they want it and giving them an audience when they want that instead.

The network has held regular calls with its affiliates over the years to discuss key issues and ideas that could benefit both sides. Local program directors and executives often join network managers on those calls, which keeps the relationship between both parties in a healthy state. The network has also welcomed representatives from local stations to Bristol to explore ways to work better together, providing tours of ESPN’s studios and making introductions to ESPN Radio talent during those visits to further remind partners of their appreciation for the partnership.

“We work very hard at making sure our talent is accessible to supplement what’s being done with our partners, whether it’s regular appearances, liners or anything else that might be of interest,” Craig adds. “We also operate the other way. If there is a story that matters in one of our markets, we aim to have a host or talent from that market on the network to enhance our coverage. We also continue to provide production elements to everyone through a web based system, so what you hear on the network is easier to duplicate locally. The most important thing is the open flow of communication.”

The older Golic’s exit was the first step towards ESPN Radio’s current lineup, one that features a plethora of voices that weren’t on the radio in Bristol just a few years ago. Keyshawn Johnson and Jay Williams are not new faces by any stretch. ESPN had already created major profiles for each in the past to go along with what they had established in their playing days. 

Tapping them for morning drive radio on a national network though? That was going to be a new venue for both of them. 

In August of 2020, I had the chance to speak with Williams and he told me that a big part of the reason he felt up to the challenge was that he had the chance to watch, learn from, and get to know Mike Golic.

“I’ve been with ESPN for a long time. Mike Golic was the first person I saw on there for an extended period of time doing that show. I remember sitting there thinking to myself ‘Wow, that is really cool. Mike Golic Sr. is Mike Golic Sr.’ He’s very comfortable with who he is and he is very comfortable being that person on camera.

“It was the first time in my career that I ever thought ‘I’ve gotta figure out who I am, so I can be who I want to be on air.’ I never thought about who I was. I was too busy running. I was too busy giving my opinions about other things to ever have an opinion about myself.”

Johnson told BSM in 2020 that he was ready for the challenge of establishing a new identity for the network in morning drive, because he was not worried about the old identity. The audience was going to have preconceived notions and set feelings no matter what he said on the first show, so he was just going to focus on Keyshawn, JWill and Zubin instead of worrying about how he compared to Mike Golic.

“There’s nobody else out there that’s me, there’s nobody that’s any of my co-hosts. Everybody has their own opinion on how to do something, how to host a show. You’ll hear people say, ‘they’re not that good,’ and you’ll also hear people say ‘they’re really good.’ Everyone has a different opinion, so I don’t get caught up in the hype.”

ESPN Los Angeles on Twitter: ".@keyshawn's morning show now has  @maxkellerman! Listen to the new @KeyJayandMax now on 710 ESPN 📻  https://t.co/Wda75IMccI https://t.co/BhevGGlA8D" / Twitter

When the radio lineup received its first post-Golic overhaul, Zubin Mehenti was part of morning drive. Eventually, health concerns forced him to step away from the grind of morning radio. Max Kellerman, who had been added to the radio lineup in early afternoons would move into Mehenti’s seat in mornings.

Good things that go away have a way of not staying gone forever in the media business. That’s why it shouldn’t be a surprise that another part of ESPN Radio’s new identity was Mike Greenberg. 

He was no longer in morning drive and he wasn’t grinding away for four hours everyday anymore, but Greeny was back on the radio three years after leaving to launch Get Up on television. 

His new show #Greeny is heard for two hours every weekday. Now it is on from 10 am until noon, but it started out from noon until 2 pm. 

Greenberg told me that he didn’t sit around pining for the chance to be back on the radio during the time he was solely focused on TV, but it is a medium he loves. So when the opportunity to sit behind a microphone again presented itself, he was interested.

“I didn’t actively think about it much because my time was fully consumed with launching Get Up, but I always knew I’d eventually go back in some form,” he said. “There is an intimacy in the relationship you develop with your audience in radio that is unlike anything I’ve found in any other medium.”

Say the words “ESPN Radio” too many times or to the wrong person these days and you are bound to be corrected. It’s ESPN Audio now. The network is creating shows and content with different identities across different platforms. 

“Nobody makes decisions in a vacuum,” says Dave Roberts, ESPN’s Senior Vice President for NBA and Studio Production. “It’s a matter of understanding the markets, analyzing the research, reviewing the ratings, and placing a focus on the importance of cross platform content creators. The days of being just a radio focused brand are long gone. You have to be focused on audio, video, digital. Those are the parameters you have to operate in.”

Roberts played a major role in the overhaul of ESPN Radio’s talent lineup and overall philosophy. Two years ago, he spoke with Jason Barrett and explained that he has faith that diverse voices and diverse technology would be a key to ESPN’s long term success in the audio space.

“I have the utmost respect for our competition. There are some very talented personalities and brands out there. But I’m not focused on what they’re doing. I’m looking at how we can improve ESPN Radio. A key part of our strategy is making sure our platforms are connecting with one another. It’s why you see many of the people on our product today. That underscores the commitment we have to maximizing the strength of the ESPN brand to the depth of talent. That’s integral to our strategy and growth. Any decisions we make are going to be made with that being a key focus.”

Like every other radio venture, ESPN functioned for so long following the rules of what entertainment on the platform was supposed to be. Norby Williamson says that isn’t good enough in 2022. Audiences want options when it comes to entertainment. If you want to stay on their radar, you have to play by the new rules.

“Ultimately the consumer wins,” he says. “I think sometimes, whatever product that you’re making, whether it’s in the media or other things, sometimes we think we know more than we actually know. The consumer will always win.”

Every ESPN Radio show is also a podcast. It has a video feed on ESPN+. Keyshawn, JWill and Max, is on ESPN2 in the morning. On top of that, clips from everyone’s content make their way to ESPN’s and ESPN Radio’s various social media channels. 

A multi-platform approach is nothing new really. Remember, going back to the days of Mike & Mike, ESPN Radio was sharing shows with television. Traug Keller says he feels lucky to have been in the business during a time when the options for audio entertainment were blowing up. 

When ESPN Radio launched in 1992, there were no podcasts. There was no satellite radio. There was no streaming audio or smart speakers. 

It wasn’t just executives. Talent had to earn to work and succeed in the new media environment too. Not every old school radio guy is cut out to start playing “anywhere there’s ears” as Keller puts it. That is why he gives credit to Dan Le Batard.

“Dan was incredibly creative with how he did both the radio show and a TV show. The show works so well as a podcast too without even without a lot of tinkering, just kind of the way Le Batard and his crew down there in South Beach presented it. So, you know, a lot of ESPN’s strategies depended on the different personalities and different shows. But as a general theme we wanted to be what we called ‘Uber Audio,’ right? We just wanted to be everywhere that there was the opportunity for more listening.”

The other piece of the puzzle that makes ESPN Radio what it is are play-by-play rights. Sure, the four letters are valuable to sellers in local markets, but what makes those letters valuable? It is that ESPN is synonymous with the biggest events in sports.

A local ESPN Radio affiliate instantly gets play-by-play rights to Major League Baseball’s Sunday night showcase game and its entire postseason, the biggest college football games each week including the College Football Playoff, and the NBA Finals. 

To look at that collection today, one would be forgiven for thinking that ESPN Radio put a premium on accumulating those rights from day one. Bruce Gilbert says that isn’t true and he credits one man for helping change that.

“ESPN Radio was actually behind the curve when it came to the number of live events. We had John Martin – “The Chief” – who was an experienced and extremely talented producer of live audio play-by-play and John was always looking to do more and add more to the ESPN Radio offerings.”

Even if others in Bristol didn’t think it was imperative that the radio network carry actual games, Gilbert says “Chief” kept it at the front of everyone’s mind. This was sports radio after all! Games have been airing on the radio long before they were on TV and even longer before the word “talk” became synonymous with “sports radio.” 

Besides, this is ESPN! It’s the biggest name in sports. How could the radio network live up to that standard without the biggest games?

“John understood the drama of live events and the storytelling that brought those events to an even higher level,” Gilbert said. “Like many successful business ventures, the addition of play-by-play was a natural and organic process that elevated ESPN Radio.”

Thirty years is a long time. Plenty of radio networks have come and gone since January 1, 1992 when Tony Bruno, Keith Olbermann, Chuck Wilson appeared on the network’s airwaves. Plenty of media formats have come and gone too. Remember mini discs?

ESPN’s audio offerings keep expanding and adapting. The executives get the importance of that. Dave Roberts says the key to continued success is finding and investing in talent that gets that too.

When ESPN Radio launched in 1992, it found success by leveraging the ESPN brand in a new space. Success in 2022 in beyond is about getting both listeners and affiliates to view audio offerings as part of the entire ESPN portfolio. 

“If you think otherwise you’re not being realistic,” Roberts told Barrett. “Today, you have to connect in multiple ways. That’s how you build a bigger brand.”

ESPN Headquarters Campus Embraces Green Technologies | 2013-10-23 |  Building Enclosure

Success in the future will certainly depend on understanding new trends and appealing to the modern listener. But the foundation for success was laid long ago. 

“I think there are a few reasons for the sustainability,” says Amanda Gifford, the Senior Coordinating Producer/VP, ESPN Audio and Content Strategy. “One – the ESPN Brand. Nothing says sports like “ESPN,” so when people tune in to ESPN Radio, they know they’ll get high-quality sports talk to keep them informed and entertained about everything going on in the sports landscape. Two – the people. We’ve had such talented people both in front of and behind the microphone over the past 30 years, and because of the aptitude of hundreds of folks who have made an impact on ESPN Radio, we’ve been able to uphold the standards of the World Wide Leader.”

ESPN is the biggest name in sports media. The company has access to some of the biggest events and most unique voices. As long as that is true, no one will worry about whether or not the radio network can survive another 30 years. It absolutely will. The questions are more along the lines of what will it sound like and how will we hear it. 

After thirty years of success, it is probably fair to trust that ESPN will figure all of it out.

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Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Strive To Be Great

If you don’t want to be great, what are you doing?

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I began the “Back to Basics” series a couple months back in an effort to highlight some of the strategies, practices, and techniques that have helped me sound like a professional early on in my radio career. I don’t write this because I think I know better; I write this because I rely on the basics to be good at my job. I don’t believe I was blessed with the voice of God, I’m not a former pro athlete, or anything out of the norm intellectually.

For me to stand out in this business, I have to nail the basics at the core of everything I do. Part of that concept and drive for me is the desire to be great.

Striving to be great is the most basic concept you can take hold to and it takes zero talent or experience. I heard Turner Sports NBA analyst Greg Anthony once say “No one ever got worse at something they wanted to be great at.” It resonates with me every day and it’s the perfect launch point to today’s “basic” concept.

Ask yourself this: If you are not striving to be great, what are you doing?

I see so much complacency in this business. I see so many guys coming up that turn down opportunities because they are either scared or lazy. Simple things, too. If you are a producer and a host asks you to come up with a segment, you should be finding a way to knock it out of the park and then ask for two segments. If you roll your eyes at a request like that and think “great, more work,” you are already behind the 8-ball.

That attitude is pervasive in this business and I will never understand it. This isn’t an industry you get into because the money is so great that you just have to pursue this lifestyle. No parent wishes their child grows up to become a sports talk radio personality. We’re not doctors, lawyers, or pilots. We talk and cover sports for a living.

This is a dream job, but I see so many treat it like it’s just any other job. It confuses me to my core, because if you are still at the bottom of the ranks and you aren’t shooting for the moon, so to speak, that means you’re comfortable making the incredibly low rate radio companies pay for anything less than top-tier “talent.”

It’s not lucrative. I can’t speak to every market in the country, but right here in the heart of Florida, you’d make a good amount more bagging groceries or working a drive-thru than you would board-operating a talk radio show. That’s just the reality of it. Is it pretty? No. But this is what we’ve signed up for, isn’t it? No one is forcing you into this industry; you chose this.

So, I ask again — If you don’t want to be great, what are you doing?

After you answer that very personal question, the next one to come to mind should be: How do I become great? Lucky for us, that one’s simple: Effort and focus.

We all want to be great at different things, so I don’t want to hyper-focus on one element of broadcasting. Whatever your avenue — talk radio, production, or play-by-play — I think the methods are the same. Listen to yourself, listen to others, find people you respect in your field of choice and talk to them, ask for advice, and push the limits of your comfort zone.

feet of unrecognizable person standing on street with chalk text on asphalt – leaving comfort zone concept

My general rule of thumb is if it makes me nervous, I must be doing something right. Rarely do we get nervous in our comfort zone, but rarely do we do any growing in our comfort zone either.

Remember that feeling the first time you cracked a mic? Find new ways to feel like that again. It usually means you’re learning something and those uncomfortable experiences will soon take up residence in your comfort zone, making you better in the long term. Convince yourself to try new things. Even if it’s crap, at least it’s new crap that you can learn and grow from.

The bottom line is, there are going to be a lot of things between now and the end of the road that hold you back from accomplishing whatever your ultimate goal is in this business. But you can’t allow one of those hurdles to be your own effort and approach.

If you truly want to be great, there’s nothing stopping you. This is not coming from someone who is great, but rather someone who is striving to be. And if that’s not your bag and you don’t care about the fact that you’ve completely plateaued, might I suggest another line of work?

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BSM Writers

The Best Defense Against An Ornery Subject Is A Good Question

With the right question, a reporter never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role.

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Screen cap from @timandfriends on Twitter

A question should be constructed to get the best answer possible.

This was the guideline I learned as a newspaper reporter, which makes sense. You don’t hear the questions in a story. You don’t usually read them. The questions operate off-stage, the unseen lever that pries out the good stuff from the subject.

The dynamic changes when the interview is conducted in public, though. I learned this first-hand when I transitioned from reporter to radio host in 2013. Suddenly, my questions were part of the content being consumed. This is increasingly becoming the reality for anyone covering pro sports now. Not only have the press conferences themselves become a part of actual sports programming, but those press conferences are increasingly the only access to professional athletes, given post-pandemic locker-room restrictions.

But any time I start to think that it’s important to consider how a question sounds to the audience, instead of focusing on the answer it gets from the subject, I will inevitably be reminded of where that thinking leads. This week, it was Jim Matheson, a veteran Canadian hockey reporter in Canada, confronting the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl over being non-cooperative. 

On the one hand, this kind of tension has existed for decades in pro sports. It’s inevitable, really, that the people paid to play the games will at times be at odds with the people paid to critique their performance. The difference now, as Ian Casselberry pointed out here at BSM yesterday, is that the tension is increasingly visible. 

Personally, I love these moments. Seeing someone get sensitive in public is catnip to my shallow sensibilities. But professionally, there is something to be learned here by going back to the question that started each impasse. Let’s start with Matheson.

“Lots of reasons for why the Oilers are playing the way they are, in terms of winning and losing,” Matheson said. “What do you think is the number one reason for the losses now? Is there one thing, in your own mind, that you’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get better at that’?”

It’s a bad question for two reasons, the first being that it is actually two questions. “Double-barreled” is the term used by John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist, an absolute prince of a man, and an unrivaled expert in improving interview skills. In two days, John taught me more about good interview tactics than I’ve learned in 20 years of weekend workshops and workday brownbags. This won’t be the last time I mention him in my posts here at BSM.

The best piece of advice John offers is also the easiest to institute and provides the most immediate results: Ask one question. Just one. If you add a second question — either out of nervousness or because you try to phrase it better — it will confuse even a cooperative subject. If you have an uncooperative subject, it provides an out. An opportunity to answer the less difficult question and then stare right back at you to indicate it’s your turn.

That is exactly what happened to Matheson. Here was Draisaitl’s response: “Yeah, we have to get better at everything.”

Matheson asked if Draisaitl was willing to expand; Draisaitl was not, adding a sarcastic aside that Matheson could add to it because he knew everything. Jameson then asked Draisaitl why he was so “pissy.”

“Hmmmm,” Draisaitl said, raising his eyebrows as if he hadn’t heard.

“Why are you so pissy?”

“I’m not,” Draisaitl said. “I’m just answering your–” at which point he was cut off by Matheson.

“Yeah, you are,” Matheson said. “Every time I ask a question.”

Now, it’s likely that Draisaitl’s issue has nothing to do with the question Matheson asked. It’s possible that no question Matheson asked was going to get a good answer. But because that question was poorly constructed, it left Matheson cornered into the choice of accepting Draisaitl’s terrible answer to his poor question or creating a confrontation. He chose the latter, and while I don’t think it was wrong, per se, or crossed any lines, Matheson looked like the aggressor. And I suspect that will be the last piece of useful content he ever receives from Draisaitl.

This is the point where my column was initially going to end. Then I saw Ian’s post, which included an exchange between Gary Washburn, a reporter at the Boston Globe, and Celtics guard Dennis Schroder, who was every bit as uncooperative as Draisaitl. It provides the perfect example to see how a better question changed the nature of the impasse.

Let’s go to Washburn’s first question: “Dennis, in Philly, you had one point, but the game before in Indiana, you had 23. It seems like you’ve been up-and-down a little bit. Are you starting to feel comfortable? You had the COVID protocol, you had a lot of things happen this week, are you starting to feel a little bit of comfort in the offense?”

Washburn’s question wasn’t perfect. There are technically two queries, though I’d argue he really just restated his question about being comfortable. It was also a yes-no question, which doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a question that seeks an answer about how or why something has occurred. I’m nitpicking, though. The strength of this question was revealed when Schroeder bristled.

Schroeder: You with us or you with Philly?

Washburn: No, I’m just asking.

Schroeder: You with Boston? You work for us?

Washburn: I cover the Celtics. I’m just asking if you’re feeling any more comfortable over the last couple games.

Schroeder: It’s just a stupid question.

Washburn: My fault. Are you feeling any more comfortable? How did you feel like you played today?

Schroeder: Not good enough for you, huh?

Washburn: No. I’m asking about the bounce back.

Schroeder: We won, so that’s all that matters. I’m a team player, so end of the day if I’ve got 40 points or one point and win the game, I’m going to be happy with it. So end of the day, I’m a team player, trying to win some games. And in Philly, we didn’t come out right, we played right, and that’s it.

Washburn: Thank you.

At no point in that back-and-forth does Washburn have to do anything other than restate his question: Are you feeling more comfortable? Schroeder has the choice whether to answer it, and ultimately talks around the quesrion without addressing it.

Washburn never has to say he was dissatisfied with the answer or call out Schroeder for being uncooperative. He never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role. He’s courteous and even accepts responsibility for a question Schroeder doesn’t like. In the end, Schroeder’s defensiveness speaks for itself. And that is important given how many people are now watching not just the answers that athletes provide, but the hearing and in some cases seeing the questions that provoke them

When Ian wrote about these situations on Thursday, he concluded with a very poignant observation: “Tensions are now out in the open, when they might have previously happened in a corner, away from everyone’s attention. And when these dialogues become public, people feel the need to take sides with the reporter or the athlete. Which side you’re on as a fan likely depends on your perception of the media.”

He’s absolutely right, but I would provide one addition to that. A well-constructed question is your best defense against not only an ornery subject, but also those audience members predisposed to blaming you for antagonizing the athlete. 

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