Most of us have been there.
We’re sitting behind a desk as a young, fresh faced, aspiring sportscaster stares blankly across back at us.
You speak, providing insight, advice, and words of encouragement. Sometimes they internalize it. Sometimes they hear you.
Most times though, the person staring back at you has no inclination of listening. Their goal is to get a job with an immediate payoff. They want the easy answer – the one they’ve already reached – and are simply looking for you to reinforce.
What’s the secret? They’re always looking for the secret. The secret is a surrogate for the easy answer. The reason this person has found you, the reason they are sitting across from you at this exact moment is that you can tell them the easy answer.
Never mind the reality that there are more people looking to work in sports radio with less jobs available. Never mind that the industry has never been tougher, and more unforgiving to more qualified applicants.
We want to reach across the desk and shake that ignorance by the collar. Hard work and determination are merely just factors for success; if you’re looking for the easy answer you’ve got no shot.
Inevitably, the person staring back at you across the desk wonders how you ended up on that side. The funny truth is it’s a facade, because I’m not entirely sure how I ended up on this side. If I trace my steps back, I’m not even sure I could end up in the same spot.
Each unique path we’ve all taken to get to where we are today was filled with many factors…luck perhaps the most common of all.
There are two questions people always ask me when I tell them what I do. They always wonder how to get a job in sports radio, and they always wonder if the end goal is television.
The first question is somewhat puzzling. It’s almost as if they expect my answer to be that I just showed up at a station telling the programmers I could talk sports. Getting a job in sports talk is similar to other highly competitive fields. You have to work really hard, make as many contacts as possible, take jobs in small markets, move cities, and make significantly less than you’d care to make. And if you are lucky and catch a break, you might end up in a top 50 market.
The television question is insulting, even condescending. Radio, and specifically the spoken word format, is art. It’s an open forum. Its hours of conversation, debate, compelling story lines, and perhaps the only true medium to capture the breadth necessary to discuss in depth topics. There’s no pretense, no window dressing, just personality and a microphone.
The future of radio is inevitable death, but the spoken word sports format will always remain. The question that needs to be asked, whether by inquiring minds or the aspiring sportscaster is not how, but what?
What is needed for the future of sports talk?
Sports talk as a whole lacks nuance. Time is the greatest asset for a sports talk host and yet we do not utilize it to the best of our ability. Every story line devolves into surface level discussions. The spoken word format affords time to lay out varying factors with multiple levels of payoffs, and yet we still lack perspective. Disagreements are germane to the format, but life does not exist on polar ends of the spectrum.
The Cam Newton discussion has been very surface level. When unraveled it’s about race, expectations, overcoming adversity, and success. In all of the screaming and bellyaching over arrogance and race baiting, there were very few hosts that mentioned the context needed for the entire story like where he came from or his intentions and motivations or what he does in the community.
We would never want any one single act to define our entire lives, but we are constantly defining athletes by one, perhaps false, move. Tony Romo has been one of the most productive passers in the league over the last decade and yet his entire career has been defined by a botched snap in his first season as a starter.
With hours of content at our disposal we choose to peel only a few layers of the onion, which sets in motion an echo chamber of moral outrage and fast judgement. The best and most productive commentaries do not reinforce conventional wisdom, or widely held beliefs. Rather, they challenge them.
The most powerful tool of spoken word sports is the captive audience. Political radio placates to the right wing, music galvanizes specific cultures, but sports radio invites all kinds of people to the discussion.
Challenging someone’s beliefs has become taboo; people view it as an affront on their intelligence, but it’s the most profound way to learn and evolve. We are afraid to disagree because people condescend and belittle. Social media was established as a means of exchanging ideas, but instead it serves to reinforce our ideas and silence dissenting opinions. Sports radio is a reflection of that phenomenon.
Access to information has changed. Professional athletes are not engaging in more illicit behavior than in the past, we just have more means to gather that information. Sports, morality, politics and life are in constant cohesion and we should not be scared to address these complex issues. Life is not easy. It’s problematic, and it’s filled with conflict and adversity. This is not new today; it’s become a major focal point of the sports discourse, and the issue is we’ve been caught unprepared.
We are ill-equipped to handle these complex issues so we either avoid them, or deal with them on a surface level.
The most important factor for the future of the format is depth of voice.
Invite disagreement. Exchange ideas. Involve varying perspectives.
When the Ray Rice video was released outrage was packaged and sold a dime a dozen. How could you not be absolutely outraged by the unadulterated violence? And when the outrage subsided questions arose. Why would Janay stay with Ray and even worse get married to him? Was it a money grab?
Throw them out of the league we all said clutching our pitchforks. But we never acknowledged the unintended consequences.
Sexual assault is even worse. Victims of sexual assault rarely come forward when it’s in the case of high profile athletes, and when they do their entire existence is analyzed and often destroyed.
We were all outraged when a Cleveland radio host recently opined on why women do not belong in football, and yet we’ve all made similar deliberations in questioning motives in highly physiological crimes when having the above discussions.
We are ill-prepared for these complex issues because we have no depth of voice.
We need to be talking issues of race and sex in sports radio because they are commonplace. We need more female voices and African-American voices to help add varying perspectives absent from the current sports radio landscape.
Diversity in hiring practices is a major issue in sports as a whole. There is one African-American majority owner in all of professional sports. There are only a handful of high level executives and coaches and there are even fewer women.
Over the last few weeks, Jason Barrett did a tremendous job breaking down the top sports radio hosts, shows and stations…but it was lilywhite. That is not an indictment on Jason; it’s an indictment on the industry. Does a morning show with three white hosts think the Cam Newton criticism is steeped in racism? Does the afternoon drive show with two males think that girl who was “all over” Patrick Kane at a bar was sexually assaulted? “Well, why was she going back to his place,” an actual sports talk host said.
We need diversity because we lack the proper perspective to have these conversations. It’s not as much about accepting the need for diversity and perspective as much as it is understanding the need for it.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be as close to sports as I could possibly get. But the closer I got the further away I realized I wanted to be. It’s easy to become jaded. Working in sports radio is a grind, and it never stops. There’s never a market size big enough, never an audience as wide reaching and never a perfect job. The most ambitious chase the mirage of perfection.
The business of sport is booming and one byproduct is the continued growth of our industry. There are more sports radio stations sprouting up across the country and with the proliferation of podcasts the landscape is changing. Because access to information is so easy, sports fans aren’t listening to you on the radio because you are on the radio; they are listening to you because you have something meaningful and compelling to say. The more saturated it becomes the more important the latter.
It’s funny, without fail that kid staring back at you across the desk will tell you how they’re glued to ESPN, how they follow stats and know everything about sports.
I can’t help but think of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, which is based upon the idea from Isiah Thomas that the secret to basketball has nothing to do with basketball.
Well, the same is true for sports talk. What’s the secret the kid staring back at you across the desk desperately wants to know?
The secret has nothing to do with sports.