I admit I was reluctant to read The Handoff, because I know how the story ends – with the untimely death of sports radio’s bigger-than-life ambassador, mentor, friend and programmer Andrew Ashwood. However, I am better for having pushed through.
This is a book about brotherhood, determination, vulnerability, passion, certainty, self-confidence, self-awareness, and one guy’s successful rise from high-octane, motivated, passionate stock broker to high-octane, motivated, passionate sports radio host.
Through his journey of excesses, friendships, and passions, we accompany JT (currently a host on Fox Sports Radio from 1a-6a ET, 10p-3a PT) as he comes-of-age over and over again. The reader witnesses his evolution into a man, a husband, a father, a friend and talk show host. We are there as John transforms into JT and we are cheering with his buddies when he earns the name “Brick.” It’s funny, intense, authentic, emotional and ultimately hopeful.
JT rips his heart open for examination allowing the world to peer into his dreams, doubts, passions, and feelings. From being elected president of his fraternity to moving across country away from his boyhood home and then again when he quits his lucrative stock broker job only to pay his way on the radio – you will be rooting for JT.
Somewhat surprising for a sports host known for his scratchy, bullhorn of a voice and for banging the phones, JT is refreshingly self-deprecating, self-aware, and reflective. Even though I knew how it ended, it was a captivating roller coaster of a journey. The book gives an honest behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to succeed in life and radio. You’ll be motivated by JT’s hustle and moxy, and feel the urge to reconnect with friends from the past.
One of the lessons Andrew passed along was to “make someone’s day.”
Reading this has made mine. Thanks JT.
“I just thought it was sick.”
“First off, I didn’t think it was funny at all. Sometimes you can maybe, maybe in my opinion, get away with some of that stuff if the bit is at least funny — but wrong. But, the thing I thought was it sucked. It was just a terrible, terrible bit. It wasn’t funny. I thought it was just disgraceful.”
He’s talking about the attempt at humor this week on a sports talk radio station in Atlanta. The three morning guys – all fired now – executed a bit about Steve Gleason, the former NFL player suffering from ALS.
Deb Slater and I talked to Shan in Episode 6 of the Radio Stuff Podcast (listen here). We also talked to Bean of Kevin and Bean from the “World Famous” KROQ in Los Angeles, Terry Jaymes of the nationally syndicated Lex & Terry Show and Terry Jaymes Alive podcast, and Fred Jacobs, President of Jacobs Media.
We all agree the bit crossed a line.
Ah, “the line.” Every talent deals with it. What is it? Where is it? How do you find it?
Shan can sense when he’s approaching it, “My show overall definitely flirts with the line a lot.”
“No one knows what the line is. The FCC doesn’t know what the line is.” Gene Bean Baxter has no doubt he’s crossed it –where ever IT is, “Well, of course, I mean I think something on our show crosses someone’s line every day.”
Terry just got off an apology tour, “I didn’t even know what the situation was. We had to go back and listen to it. When I heard it, I said, ‘oh, this is not good.’” It was a fleeting, over-the-line remark from Lex about a murdered transvestite. It was unplanned, unfunny, inappropriate, and, “It sounded very hateful.”
Enter Fred Jacobs, President of Jacobs Media.
“What is offensive is a moving target over time.”
Oh, isn’t that special? Imagine being a blindfolded tight rope walker, but every night as the blindfold is put over your eyes, they move the guide wire.
Even so, Fred believes talent should know where it’s moved to.
“Air personalities need to have a basic understanding of where the lines are, again with the proviso that the lines are often gray or even blurry.”
So, how do personalities deal with this blurry, gray, moving line of what’s acceptable?
“I think the lesson is that if you have a job like mine, or like the guys on the show in Atlanta, you are taking your livelihood in your hands – in my case 22½ hours per week, every time the mic is open – it’s possible that you might say something that will get you fired. That is the hard reality of the truth.”
It’s also a sad reality for a guy like Bean who has been on the air for 24 years. And not a reality that is necessarily fair in his opinion,
“There aren’t a lot of occupations where you get fired for making a mistake. Think about it, a doctor can misdiagnose someone, a mailman can deliver a wrong letter every once-in-a-while, a policeman can shoot someone by accident – they don’t always lose their jobs over it.”
Shan tries to avoid being the edgy comedian, “I don’t make cancer jokes. I don’t make AIDS jokes. I don’t make tornado jokes. I don’t do that stuff.”
On the Lex & Terry Show it boils down to their intentions behind a bit, “We never set out, in our entire 20-years, to hurt anybody, to say anything wrong, or anything like that. We don’t want to be controversial. We never fight with other morning shows. All the regular schticky things they do…we’ve never done that.”
TIMES, THEY ARE A CHANGING.
Terry has seen a sea change over the past 20 years of hosting Lex & Terry, “It used to be you could say whatever you want, got fired and ended up making more money somewhere else. You don’t anymore.”
Fred Jacobs senses a change too.
“I wonder, given the point and time that we’re at societally and culturally, whether this kind of radio – the Howard Stern, Mancow stuff and how that proliferated even into smaller markets – if that hasn’t maybe totally run its course.”
“Maybe people are just getting tired of the anger and tired of the humiliation. You know it even kind of rolls into the whole bullying conversation. You know whether it’s Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or these guys making fun of a former athlete who has ALS, I just kind of wonder if that kind of bullying and humiliation, perhaps, hasn’t just run out of gas. And if that’s the case, maybe that’s a good thing.”
SO, NOW WHAT?
The responsibility for what radio is and how it evolves falls on everyone’s shoulders; talent, programmers, companies AND listeners.
Shan knows as a talent he is responsible, “I did send a warning to my producer, to my co-host, and our call screener. I just said, ‘look, let’s continue to push the envelope, be edgy, but let’s use this as a warning. I think it’s really good to have warnings that scare the hell out of you. And that one should scare the heck out of any single person that works in our industry.”
Bean dreams of a day when companies step up to support talent more in these situations. He doesn’t think the guys in Atlanta should have been fired.
“I was very disappointed a couple years ago when my own company fired Don Imus over his remarks. That remark was consistent with the show they had been paying him to do for years and years and years on that station. But, just because enough people got upset they fired him for that. I think they should have stood by him and said, ‘ look, this is the kind of show Don Imus does. If people stop listening to it then we’ll fire him, because it won’t be profitable for us anymore.’”
Bean also believes listeners play a role.
“If I tune into a show and I’m offended by something that I hear on that station, so what?”
He believes shows can have momentary lapses of judgment and still recover.
“If they have a good relationship with their listeners – they are going to forgive them for a misstep , are going to say, ‘Wow, that was out of line dude, but I know you because I’ve been listening to you for a long time, so come back tomorrow and do something better.’
Fred Jacobs is pointing to talent and PDs. He writes about is passionately and eloquently in his blog post, “Stupid DJ Tricks.”
“I think when you communicate well with talent – they understand you and you understand them – the likelihood of this kind of thing happening lessens a great deal.”
Based on these conversations and my observations, radio is going through some growing pains as it evolves and redefines itself. The line is moving. It’s moving away from sophomoric humor, on-air bullying and sidekicks running around with underwear on their heads. It’s moving towards something that’s enriching, entertaining, enlightening, and empowering. And it’s moving, because listeners expect more, companies expect more and hopefully we expect more from ourselves.
For the better part of 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with big voice guy Jim Cutler (ESPN Radio Network, E!, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The CW, and gobs of radio and TV stations across the country including 97.3 KIRO FM and 710 ESPN Seattle). Jim and his awesome wife Dawn are on vacation and stopped by the Bonneville Seattle studios yesterday. If Jim wasn’t blessed with a big voice and the talent to use it, he’d likely be a professional photographer. He takes his Nikon everywhere he goes. Last night he brought it to the Mariners v. A’s game and has posted photos on his blog…
Here he is taking some of the pictures…
In a previous blog I interviewed Jim about how what he has learned from photography relates to radio. It’s worth a read if you missed it before…
The other thing that struck me after meeting with Jim and Dawn yesterday is a great reminder that the more often you can work with and talk with people in this industry whose opinions and talents you trust, respect and challenge your own complacency – do it.
“I knew when I was 7 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up with all the specificity of I wanted to be the announcer for the Dodgers.” Steiner continues, “The big thing, more than anything else, was hearing this disembodied voice coming out of the speaker and beneath the voice you could hear the crowd cheering, you could hear the guy selling, ‘Peanuts! Popcorn!’ and I’m just sitting there like a dopey little kid listening and listening and listening. I think it was my Mom who said, ‘You know that’s his job.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’”
This season marks Steiner’s seventh in the Los Angeles Dodgers radio booth, which he will share again this season with Vin Scully, who is entering his 62nd season behind the microphone.
Paul Keels grew up in Cincinnati in the late-60’s listening to Jim Mcintyre call Reds games alongside the then-recently retired Reds lefty Joe Nuxhall. He also recalls Dom Valentino describing the action for the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals games and Marv Holman providing play-by-play for Ohio State football.
“Just being able to listen to the games on radio, keep up and learn about the sport, learn about athletes and keep track of what was going on kind of gave me a great feeling of how wonderful it was to have something provided to you almost as if you were at the event. It gave me the feeling: wouldn’t that be nice to be able to be the go-between for other people like others had been for myself and my brothers while we growing up listening?”
Keels is in his 32nd year of broadcasting including stints with the Reds, Bearcats, Bengals, Pistons and he is in his 12th season as the voice of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Spero Dedes was a huge Knicks fan as a kid and used to tune into Mike Breen’s call of the games.
“I recall at some point I stopped paying attention to what was happening in the game and started paying more attention to what the announcers were saying. My passion for play-by-play started there and just grew.”
I talked to Steiner, Keels and Dedes for the Larry Gifford Media “Let’s Talk About It” newsletter to get a better idea of what it takes to be a successful play-by-play announcer. The entire interviews are available as podcast downloads at the conclusion of this story.
GIFFORD: All three men were inspired to be play by play announcers when they were young fans and listeners. So, I asked them what their obligation to the fan is going into each game.
STEINER: Tell the story as truthfully and accurately and photogenically as you can on the radio. You have to paint the picture, because there is someone stuck on the freeway, there’s someone working in a kitchen and (that person) doesn’t have access to television. I have to “A” paint a picture and “B” be as accurate and precise as I can be.
KEELS: When you’re describing a game, it’s about what’s going on, on the field. It’s not about you; it’s about the listeners, players and coaches on the field. Be mindful of those people who are listening. They can’t see what you.re seeing and you need to describe it as best as possible so they can.
DEDES: The obligation is to give as much information as we can and present it in a way that is unique. With the access we have to the coaches and players every day, we can go into the locker room, talk to the guys, we.re on the airplanes with them, we travel with them on the road; I think our obligation is to give them that behind the scenes look and take advantage of the access that we have.
GIFF: All three guys talked about how important preparation is. They all read newspapers, websites, blogs, stat sheets, and media guides. They all talk to players, coaches and other announcers to get information. So, what are they looking for?
DEDES: Just stuff that stands out. I’ve never been a numbers-driven play-by-play guy. I think numbers work better on TV than they do on radio. I try to look for story ideas, little nuggets we can play into the broadcast in a conversational way. Throwing numbers out there on radio…it doesn’t translate as much.
KEELS: It starts with trying to get as much biographical information (on the opposing team) and organize that in a way that’s suitable. Try and, as much as possible, view the opposing team on TV at least once or twice. DVR has been a great thing because you save some of these games and watch them over and over to get more familiar with people. And as much as possible talk with the other team’s radio announcers, sports information directors and pick up what you can and read sports pages and newspapers that cover the teams on the Internet. And have all of that as best you can at your disposal while the game’s going on.
STEINER: (Listen: Charley Steiner No Sh-t Philosophy) I have a “no sh-t” philosophy. Well, what’s that? “A” I don’t want to put any sh-t on the air. And “B” any stuff I put on the air I want to get a reaction from the fans, “no sh-t?” That’s it. You want to be relevant. You don’t want to beat folks over the head with inane statistics and inane chatter; make it interesting, make it entertaining. At the end of the day – especially broadcasting a baseball game – make it fun.
GIFF: What advice do the these three pros have for aspiring play-by-play broadcasters?
KEELS: Be mindful of the people you work with. Try not to burn bridges, but do the best at the job you have. Don’t always be putting more effort into the job you want that’s not there in the moment than the job you have in the present time.
DEDES: Try to figure out what your strength is early and try to develop that talent or skill as best you can. And then, once you establish that, you want to become versatile. Writing is imperative, I think, to anything in this field that you want to do; even as a play-by-play guy. I like to sometimes write something that I’m going to say…one of our game opens. You always have to be able to write. During the course of a game you want to cap a call with one phrase or one line of commentary and those are writing skills. Maybe not pen to paper writing skills, but skills with words. You have to convey through the spoken word during play-by-play.
STEINER: Our business is one of the very few on Earth where it is a prerequisite that you must have fun. If you don’t have fun, sure as hell your audience won’t. Leave your issues at home if you have any. Leave your ego at the door if you have some. Go out and a call a game. If you can go home at the end of the day, look at yourself in the mirror and say I told them the best story I could today and go again tomorrow. Mission accomplished. It’s been a good day.
The podcasts of my interviews with Paul Keels, Charley Steiner and Spero Dedes are available for download and include more details on how they prepare for each game. Plus, Charley talks about eating dinner each night with Vin Scully and what it was like to create an iconic “This is SportsCenter” commercial. Spero discusses the most intimidating moment of his career — taking over the legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn.