The temperature read minus 11 degrees as Sean Pendergast turned into the driveway of his Chicago home. Only a couple of hours before, he had been informed his job as VP of Sales would no longer be available to him. The company he had been with for over 10 years no longer needed his services. He was unemployed while trying to raise three children. Along with that tough news, he was also going through a divorce that had turned his personal life upside down. It was a cold, dark night on February 23rd, 2007 and Pendergast felt he had hit rock bottom.
But one simple email may have changed his life forever, and it just so happened to have come earlier that day. A co-worker in Houston, who also lost his job that day, asked that Pendergast reach out to his contacts at Sports Radio 610 in hopes of landing a gig on the sales staff. After being crowned as a 5-time Smack-Off winner on the Jim Rome Show, Sean “The Cablinasian” had gained notoriety over the radio, as well as contacts at the biggest sports station in Houston. As he sent the email to someone in production that would get the resume in the right hands, Pendergast, as a joke ended with:
“PS. Carve out a couple of hours on the weekend for me. I may be coming, too.”
What was intended as a harmless joke, ended up as a twist of fate, as Pendergast soon received a call regarding the message at the bottom of the email. Chance McClain, the recipient, called Pendergast with the news that he and a group of others from Sports Radio 610 were starting a new sports radio station in Houston named 1560 The Game. Not only did McClain want Pendergast to be a part of it, he wanted to capitalize off his notoriety from the Jim Rome Show and host the afternoon drive.
That was Pendergast’s first conversation over the phone regarding a career in sports radio. The next, he was told, would come in the next few days. It would actually come five minutes later, as John Granato, the man in charge of putting the daily lineup together, called for the interview that would ultimately decide if Pendergast would get his first job in radio. Much to his surprise, the interview wasn’t much of an interview at all. Instead, the phone call consisted of Granato asking, “So, are you coming?”
Pendergast was the kid who grew up in the northeast, calling into radio stations as a 12-year-old, disguising his voice as someone who was over 18, so he wouldn’t get kicked off the air. He was the college student with the radio show that loved the craft and dreamed of becoming a host. He was the adult that just got let go from a job he hated while going through the most challenging tribulation of his life. And now, in his late 30’s he was a first-time sports radio host in Houston.
John Harris, now the sideline reporter for the Houston Texans, would serve as Pendergast’s first co-host at 1560 The Game. The two shared a lot of similarities, as Harris was also doing a show for the first time after leaving a regular job that he hated. For the next four years, Pendergast and Harris would cut their radio chops on the afternoon show of the fourth-highest rated sports station in Houston.
After showing early talent and experiencing success in his new sports radio role, Pendergast came to the conclusion around year three at The Game that he needed to find a way to Sports Radio 610. Sure, he was thankful for the opportunity given, but now it was time to make his way to the biggest and best station in town. The one he always listened to while living in Houston and calling the Jim Rome Show. The one that was the home of the Houston Texans. Pendergast started by networking in any and every way he could.
That started with Pendergast making it a point to introduce himself and talk to the Sports Radio 610 PD at every Texans game in the press box. He also became friendly with the other radio hosts at 610, just in case they’d have something nice to say if his name was floated around for a position at the station.
Eventually, in 2012, he would get an interview with 610 for a host position on the morning show. However, he would come up short as the station decided to hire current Fox Sports host Nick Wright. Though he didn’t get the gig he was striving for, he left with pieces of advice that would help him down the road with 610. Through the interview process, PD Gavin Spittle taught Pendergast how to structure his contract, as well as other things he could do to help improve his craft and become more hirable.
After taking those suggestions to heart, a host position on the afternoon show at 610 would open a year later. On January 1st, 2014, Pendergast conquered his goal of making it to the best station in Houston. Though he took an abnormal journey to the host seat, Pendergast’s story is one of how well networking can work. Whether it’s an email or simply engaging with important decision makers, the slightest things can alter someone’s career path in the sports radio industry. Luck is always needed, but working hard and making the right connections will never go out of style.
Today, you can hear Pendergast on The Triple Threat weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Radio 610 in Houston.
TM: I think a lot of people may be in this situation. You lived it, so you’re perfect to ask. If you’re a host at the smaller station in town and want to get to the bigger one, would you do so by sacrificing pay and title? Such as becoming a producer or reporter?
SP: I don’t think I would have taken a backward step professionally, because the guy you want to be is the host. I had three kids at the time I was making that career decision, they were all around their high school years, so I had a line that I had to draw that said, okay, you can’t go below this. Now I did take a pay cut to go over to 610. I was making decent money at 1560, I had been there a while, I had some good sponsors and even though our ratings and signal weren’t great, our sponsors and listeners were very loyal. But I did take a pay cut to move stations. It was almost a ‘prove it to me’ kind of thing and so I busted my ass the first three years there and we had really good ratings.
I always made it a point to be very involved with sponsors and the sales, which I don’t know that everyone in this business does, but the one thing I’ve benefited from is my background for 15 years in the business world. It’s really helped me in terms of being a radio businessman. After the pay cut to move to 610, I crunched the numbers and knew where I had to be in order to make ends meet and provide for my kids, child support, things like that. But it was worth it. I always feel like if you work hard at it, if you’re good at it, you may take a couple of steps backwards but be five steps forward. That’s how it’s worked out for me and it’s really gratifying.
TM: Is that a PD and an owners dream? To have a host that’s good, but is also willing and has experience in the sales world?
SP: It would be for me. Let’s face it, the most important thing is revenue. Ratings are obviously important, but we know how flawed that system is. At the end of the day, it’s all about making money.
I’ve been in a position of management and leadership in the corporate world, never in radio, but If I were a PD or a manager of a cluster, and I was looking at hosts where all things were equal in terms of on the air talent, but one had a background of being cognizant of the business side and understood what the sales staff had to go through, I would think that would be nirvana.
TM: With social media being such a big part of our daily lives, could a host contribute by developing and keeping a relationship with a client with Twitter, Facebook, etc.?
SP: No question about it. It’s big for me, and I know the sales staff at the station uses my social media following as a selling point. Not because it’s just a decent size, it’s decent in terms of a local host, it’s not in the hundreds of thousands, but it’s 28 thousand or so of a lot of Houstonians. I engage a lot on there, and I think it’s important that they know I’m very active with it.
It’s not just me tweeting something out because you ask me to, I feel strongly about the products I endorse and I try to present them in a humorous and creative way. I know the clients I have think social media is important. That’s half the thing. The perception of the client, whether it truly winds up being important or not, I don’t know if we can truly measure that yet. I think it’s still this animal we’re trying to wrap our arms around. But I do think it’s a measure of relevance.
I do think you can use it creatively and I have clients that even pay me just for the social media following. They don’t have the budget for radio, but they know I have a social media following. They pay me for my engagement on social media to talk about their business. There’s not many, just a couple, but I think it’s crucially important and evolving. I think as more things go online it becomes more important. I know that was the reason I got hired at 610, because I had a big social media following.
TM: Changing gears a bit since you’ve been at a low moment where you’ve lost a job. Is it tough working at a station where things are changing and people are getting replaced?
SP: Emotionally, it’s hard. We just had that happen last week, our HR director, who’s been super helpful for me, I mean if you have kids and you have benefits, your best friend is the HR director. Ours just got let go, because Entercom is consolidating some of those positions. It’s really hard to watch. But from the position I’m in, there’s very little I can do about it.
You feel for those people, you wish them the best, and offer whatever help you can, but for me, as a host, I just want to make myself as valuable as possible. I think the way you do that, is twofold. One is the revenue side, taking care of sponsors and making sure you’re engaged with them, whether it’s taking them to lunch, inviting them to the studio, or even inviting them to Texans practice. You also need to have conversations with them and understand where their challenges are to see where we’re falling short. Also finding out what we can do to tweak our approach to make radio work for them. You can have the greatest relationship in the world, but eventually you’re going to reach a breaking point where the client looks at it and realizes they can’t spend money on something that’s not working.
The other way to do it, and something I set out to do, is to show versatility. My personal goal was to host a two-man show as No. 1 chair, host a two-man show as a No.2 chair and host a solo show on a pretty regular basis. Just so I can show versatility and show my station that whatever needed to be done, I could do it.
TM: You drive a three-man afternoon show, along with Ted Johnson and Rich Lord, with Ted being the ex-athlete and football guy. How do you balance each day, when some days need to be driven more towards certain hosts on the show?
SP: It’s my job to make sure that I’m self-aware enough to know that I have topics from the rundown that are Ted friendly or Rich friendly, or something that I know we’ll get a real healthy debate on. Not to the point where everyone is going to end up hating each other behind the scenes, but something that’s a healthy debate that we’ll have a difference of opinion on. We’ve been together long enough for me to know what that stuff is.
The best advice I got when I moved to a three-man show was from Jim “JR” Ross. His advice was to be the point guard. He did a three-man booth back in the day for Monday Night Raw and he told me to be aware of what everyone’s strengths are and that they’re getting their touches. That’s kind of what I’ve abided by, is just accessing as the show goes along that everyone is getting their stuff in.
TM: Here’s something else that’s a little off topic but I’ve been pondering on it. Why it may not be that big of a leap, I have a theory that I always try to find radio people when I need a guest for a show. Reason being, is that I believe being entertaining with a good flow is just as important as information. Radio hosts understand that and not all newspaper and internet writers do. Do you take that thinking into account with your show? Or just look for solid information that someone on the beat can provide?
SP: To me, the best interviews are the ones where they leave some nuggets. The ones where you look at the text page after they’re done and people are texting in to react what they said. Reporters aren’t always the best for that, because their strength is supposed to be just reporting the truth and getting the facts.
I tend to like radio guys or people whose platform is either internet based or podcast based. I think there are TV guys or reporters who like to get on the radio and deliver their opinions, because maybe their medium doesn’t allow them to do so. I just want make sure that someone, at the end of the day, is interesting and that the audience is learning something.
That’s the biggest thing. I want to feel like they’re coming away with something that’s either a fact they didn’t already know or some point of view they hadn’t previously thought of. I just want to make sure they’re interesting and give interesting answers.
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.