One element that is paramount to the sports talk format is the interview. As much as we want to be experts on everything, that’s just not feasible. So, we bring on guests to fill the holes, to fill some time, and to give our audience a different voice on occasion. Guests are a staple of just about every talk show there is, but, not every guest is created equal.
Some guests are brought on for the purpose of learning more information, some are ‘friend of the show’ types, cross-promotions, big names, niche experts, play-by-play partners, and so on. Each guest brings their own flavor and that means the host’s style has to change with each guest. If your radio station is the home of the Charlotte Hornets and you bring on their coach, you may ask some direct poignant questions, but there’s a limit to how much you’re going to press a guest like that. You still have to keep the partners happy. With friends of the show, those that may be more of a weekly feature, that become ingrained in the culture of your particular program, you’re going to give them more of the ‘buddy at the bar’ treatment than you would if you had a chance to get on a high profile guest that’s promoting a book for 10 minutes. Different interviewees call for different interview skills. A good host should be able to recognize how to change their style without compromising their principles or sounding like a completely different person. Consistency and adaptation are key.
With that said, while styles and approaches may change, your principles should remain the same.
I was able to chat with Mike Tuck, the Course Director for Advanced Interviewing at the Dan Patrick School of Broadcasting at Full Sail and he shared some of his course material with me, the same items he uses to teach the basics to aspiring broadcasters. This information is invaluable whether you’ve been doing this for 1 year or 40.
“Good interviewing starts with asking smart questions,” Mike says. “Open-ended questions (the six W’s) get the most complete answers and avoids the yes/no shutdown. Neutral questions allow you to get honest answers. Lean questions help focus your questions (one at a time please!) and in turn, focus their answers. Remember, colorless questions get colorful answers. We are in the business of getting good answers, good stories, and good soundbites. Never forget that.”
The “one at a time please” really struck me. We have so much that we want to get out of a particular guest or are so insecure that our first question was poor, so we just load a second one on top of it.
Here’s a generic example: “What did you make of the game last night? Is this quarterback the right guy for the job?” What exactly are you wanting your guest to respond to? What if they answer one question and not the other? It’s word soup, meant to fill time, not to get the best answer.
One of my biggest takeaways early on in talking to Mike Tuck was if we don’t direct the guest towards responding to the question we want to be answered, the interview quickly loses its purpose.
“The next thing to remember is we are storytellers! And our role in an interview is that of a facilitator,” Mike says. “We’re a good point guard or quarterback looking to set up our guests to be successful! And in doing so we need to lay out a plan, or a path for the interview. Connecting ideas chronologically and logically helps our guests and our audience understand the story better and allows us to build towards the climax. (The story could be a literal story from someone’s life experience, or something like who is going to win the game, or what a team should do in free agency.)
“There are many keys to being good at interviewing, but the three most valuable tools are:
- Being a good listener- follow-ups are how we BUILD story and get COMPLETE and fulfilling answers.
- Do your homework- research your story and your guest. The more you know the better questions you’ll ask and your interactions will be more conversational.
- Be curious- Being curious will mean you listen more intently and care more about getting good answers and research with more depth and set yourself up to ask better, more focused questions.”
If you stop for a moment and look at number 1. That can be one of the trickiest components to a solid interview, being prepared to ask the questions you have, while also tuning in to the interview as if you are on the outside looking in. If you hyper-focus on getting your next prepared question into the conversation, following the response to the last question, you might miss a golden opportunity to follow up.
That’s what makes number 2 so important and tricky as well. You want to be well prepared but you also want to be flexible in your approach. I’ve found that if I have 10 questions prepared I’m in a good spot. However, I always allow myself the grace to ditch 50% of those questions if the interview goes in a better, more interesting direction. We must remember who this interview is for in the first place, it’s not for us, it’s for our listeners.
Number 3 is often overlooked as well. Curiosity is key and it’s something that I now use as a filter before scheduling an interview. If I don’t care, if I’m not intrigued by the guest, topic, or story, I’m setting myself up for failure. I think part of the curiosity factor that is often lost is when we’re interviewing someone on a topic or story that we’re already very familiar with ourselves, sometimes we as interviewers can come off like experts on the topic. Why have a guest on in the first place?
The balancing act of being well-prepped enough to ask the right questions, but not so ‘all-knowing’ that the guest is no longer necessary is the key to the best possible interview segment for your listeners.
As I mentioned at the top, not every guest is going to fit in the same little box, different guests call for different styles and skills. But if you have these principles in mind as a backdrop to every guest you book and every interview you conduct, your content should be better for it.
Back To Basics: Strive To Be Great
If you don’t want to be great, what are you doing?
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.
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?
Back To Basics: Context
“It’s imperative that topics, guests, sound bites, and personal stories are shared with a backdrop of context so that the listeners can better understand what you are talking about. Let them into the conversation.”
Have you ever heard a song that seems as though it’s about absolutely nothing or at least absolutely nothing you understand? Perhaps the beat and hook are catchy, you might bob your head, but the song will never truly connect unless you can relate to the lyrics.
Sports talk radio operates a similar way with its audience, you can have a smooth voice and a nice delivery, but if you are not relaying the proper context to back up the discussion you’re having on air, you miss an opportunity to maximize its potential and you risk losing your listener in the moment.
One of the reasons I find the audio/talk industry so fascinating is that it forces you to master the art of telling a story, setting up a topic, replaying the image of a game the night before without the accessibility of showing your listener what it is you are talking about. You are painting a picture and there is nuance to it that can be very hard to appreciate if you don’t have the ability to add a visual.
I hear it all the time now with these simulcast TV/radio sports talk shows, where there’s a host explaining a highlight on the screen that you clearly can’t get a clear picture of without seeing it. There is something lost in translation for an individual that has to create the image in their mind without your assistance.
It’s imperative that topics, guests, sound bites, and personal stories are shared with a backdrop of context so that the listeners can better understand what you are talking about. Let them into the conversation.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the 4 areas of talk radio that require context:
I think a lot of hosts fall into this trap where they think everyone listening already knows the backstory of what they are going to discuss. We have more access than ever. Listeners tend to be more knowledgeable on the latest news, but assuming that those who are listening already understand the crux of the topic at hand is a mistake.
If you are debating a penalty from the game the night before, you shouldn’t assume everyone listening watched the game or saw the play. People are busy. Many listeners will rely on you not just for the discussion of what happened, but actually the detail of what happened in the first place. And think about the negative impact of someone sitting in their car listening to you and your co-host debate a call in a game with no context as to what happened, when it happened, and the impact before or after.
It’s confusing and a good reason to change the channel.
This is where hitting reset later in the show can be so important. Just because you talked about something an hour ago, doesn’t mean the people listening now heard it. Just simply saying “as I said before” doesn’t add context. In fact, that can be a deterrentl. Listeners want to feel like they are the first ones to hear this out of your mouth, so become an artist at regurgitation. Your listeners will appreciate it.
Every guest you book should check one of 3 boxes:
- Regular weekly feature.
- Interesting story to tell or insight to share.
- Helping a partner/client get their message out.
While all 3 might lead to different styles of interviews, they all need context. Why are they taking place? Why are you breaking away from natural conversation for this guest? Who are they and what benefit do they serve?
The best interviews in my opinion are ones that add to a conversation already taking place on the show that day. With that said, a reminder to your audience as you welcome the guest on is a helpful trick to tie it all together. Also, the more backstory as you can provide and credibility you can sew into your guests introduction, the better. You might know who they are and follow their work closely, but don’t just assume your audience does the same.
Chalk this up as one of my top 5 radio pet peeves: Sound bites without any setup.
I can’t tell you how many times as a producer a host would ask me to play a clip coming back from commercial break, no setup, no explanation, just sports sounds on the radio. Now I know a lot of shows still do this, perhaps its even still the trendy thing to do, I’m not entirely sure, but I absolutely hate it.
A clip, whether that’s play by play, post game, etc. needs a setup. If you aren’t telling your audience what they’re about to listen to, the clip loses all meaning, its becomes a time filler. Now a lot of hosts will air a clip first and then discuss why they aired it after the fact, but I think that’s a mistake as well. Sound bites are add-ons to your product, you wouldn’t bring dessert out before the meal. Or if you prefer a baseball analogy, you wouldn’t bring the closer in before the starter. It’s a host’s job to let listeners know what they are about to listen to more than allowing them to piece together what they just heard.
Adding a slice of life to your show can be (when done right) the differentiator between you and the million other options that are out there to be consumed. It’s a pretty simple formula; if a listener feels connected to you on a deeper level than just your sports analysis you have a much better chance of hooking a long-time loyal fan.
Deeper connections, better understanding of who and what you are all about, there’s some real upside to all of that. Also, if you are on top of your game enough, creating a little tribe of loyal listeners along the way, adding a little sub-culture to your broadcasts adds another layer of bonding to your most passionate “P1’s”. However, getting too far into the weeds with personal stories, inside jokes, or things that only the most passionate listener would understand can alienate your larger audience.
The fact is, most people who listen to you probably don’t follow you on social and they’re not part of your super-secret fan club. So, if you speak on the radio as if you are only talking to a select group, you might only be entertaining that select group.
Back to Basics: Topic Development
“Your number one goal when setting up a topic should be to get somebody later in the day to regurgitate something that you said, either at the water cooler, sitting at the bar with a buddy, or at the kitchen table with his/her family.”
One of the most simple and important tasks for any sports talk radio hosts is topic development. Understand that when I say simple, I don’t mean easy. Topic development is simple in its nature because it’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel here. See the story, think of your angle, share it with your audience, and do so in a way that you think they’ll be intrigued. The formula is the simple part, and some days, finding the topics and angles you want to take is as easy as breathing air.
It’s amazing how sometimes when you get up in the morning to prepare for your show, topics can come right to you, yet on other days you just sit there and stare at your computer as if there’s not one good thing to talk about no good angle to take. In those moments I revert to something that my producer and co-host (Stefan Gilliam) always says: join the conversation that’s already in progress.
Sports fans never stop talking about the teams, players, and stories that they care about and that was evident last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when you would think a sports talk radio audience would disappear completely. But as many in the industry learned, while some did go away, there was still a healthy/active audience that remained.
What did that teach us? If sports fans are having sports conversations with no sports going on, that means we never have an excuse ever again to sit ‘topic-less’, as if there’s nothing to talk about.
This is long been one of my biggest pet peeves in the sports talk radio industry, I’m sure you all have heard it, some have even said it. I know I have: “Damn, there’s nothing to talk about today”.
That comment is the equivalent of waving the white flag in our industry. Saying there is nothing to talk about means that you are not an active participant in the ongoing conversation among sports fans, a conversation that for the most avid, never stops year-round. Of course, there are some days that are easier than others. The month of October is a good example of that. Not every day of the year is going to yield the low hanging fruit, but it’s our job as hosts and producers to create or continue a conversation among sports fans. It is our job in every single day to add to the water cooler conversation, and that’s what makes topic development so key.
Your number one goal when setting up a topic should be to get somebody later in the day to regurgitate something that you said, either at the water cooler, sitting at the bar with a buddy, or at the kitchen table with his/her family. Then, the ultimate goal is to get to a point where somebody sees a story or watches a moment in a game and they think to themselves, “man, I can’t wait to hear what (insert your name here) has to say about it!” That is a win in our profession, that’s when you know you’ve hooked your audience.
So how do we get to that point where we’re doing this with consistency?
Here are so simple tricks and tips I’ve picked up when I feel stuck without what I consider to be a compelling topic:
- Go to Twitter and look at what’s trending. There’s a sports tab on Twitter under the trending section.
- Look at the comments section on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter of a local team you cover.
- Create a Facebook group for your show, even if the member # is small, the interaction from that focus group can give you a good gauge of what fires people up, without having to put in any extra work.
- Always keep a running notepad on your phone, even the most irrelevant/random topics can come in handy when you are in a pinch.
For the topics that come easy, here are questions I ask myself to get the most out of every topic/angle:
- Is my take any different than most? Is there a uniqueness to my opinion?
- What are other hosts or sports fans missing in this story?
- Is my take on this consistent in nature with other opinions I share on a daily basis?
- How can I get the audience to participate?
- Can I spin this local without forcing it?
Occasionally, you’ll have a topic that is so provocative, you’re creating the conversation but more times than not, the conversation you’re having on the air is one that sports fans are already having with each other. Its on us each day to find the balance between putting the work in to find the right topics, while not overthinking it. Keep the active conversation alive but do it in a way that’s unique to you.