Paul Finebaum is a force in college football and the national media. His daily show airs via ESPN Radio and the SEC Network from 3-7pm Eastern. He recently signed a three-year contract extension to remain with ESPN. This is part one of my three-part Q&A with him.
Matt: With everything that’s going on with Urban Meyer at Ohio State right now, I wanted to get your take on where he went wrong and what’s going to happen.
Paul: It’s fascinating to watch these stories unfold. For some context, I was in a room at the Sheraton in Hartford at ESPN’s college football seminar when the story broke. At the time I was listening to a conversation about rules and I kept showing the story to people around me and they didn’t really react. I went outside and ran into a former Ohio State player and said “What do you think?” and he said, “Well don’t forget Urban Meyer won a national championship three years ago.”
I thought “is that gonna matter in today’s world?” By the end of the hour the dynamic had changed. We all did our typical rush to judgement but I think in the world that we live in, that’s what we do. We’re influenced by the first couple of opinions we see. As a person who was brought up in journalism, I always want to be careful not to jump to a conclusion. I left there (Connecticut) to come to LA and after flight delays and ten hours of flying I found myself live at 130am Eastern Time doing SportsCenter from LA being asked the question I had been avoiding all day.
I was glad that I had 12 hours to think about it. Unfortunately nowadays we don’t have 12 hours to think about it. We just immediately give the first opinion that comes to our mind. If you’re on a radio show, television or on Twitter that opinion is going to influence people. It’s a dynamic that I think creates a lot of issues—very negative issues—but it’s the reality that we live in. You can be king of the hill at 10am and a disgraced bum by dinner time.
Matt: Isn’t it the case that people are encouraged to have “hot takes” on the story of the day and it becomes a firestorm that feeds itself and is the Urban Meyer firestorm lessoned by the fact that Brett McMurphy reported it?
Paul: I found that (McMurphy reporting it on his Facebook page) to be the most interesting part of the story. A lot of people waited on the story because he did not have to go through a normal vetting channel (if he had worked for a news organization). Urban Meyer calls this guy (McMurphy) out last week and he has time and ability. He researches, reports and writes the story because he really had nothing to lose.
That’s one of the problems in our industry today is that we all have so much to lose that we are more careful than we have ever been on the one hand and more reckless than we have ever been on another. It is an utterly bizarre time to be alive in the media industry.
I have a lawyer friend of mine who likes to critique my ESPN appearances. He says, “You really need to be more careful. You need to say there’s two sides of the story.” I’m thinking when you’re on with Stephen A. Smith do you really have time to say “Hold on a second Stephen A., there’s two sides to the story”?
One of the criticisms I get from my own staff is “We want more hot takes!” Well, I’ve done the “hot takes”. I’m more trying to just moderate the conversation now than just come out of the shoot trying to see how outrageous my take can be and you’ll react to it. That’s the world we live in. I feel like I sit in a pretty good seat having done it all—and not very well at times—I can very easily see through almost anyone when they’re just saying something to say it because I’ve already done it before. I’ve already made outrageous statements. I admit it; I’m a recovering “Hot Taker”!
Matt: Something you mentioned there cuts to the core of how you do radio which is extremely unique. You called yourself a “moderator.” How would you describe how your style developed?
Paul: I think I learned more about myself reading a story about myself. It was a pretty famous story in The New Yorker magazine. They were quoting a guy in there and I think it was Chris Vernon. Chris Vernon is just an amazingly talented guy. I could listen to him every day, all day.
He said “I hear about this Finebaum guy and I get to Birmingham a couple of times a year and I put the show on and I’m wondering what’s the deal? The guy’s not saying anything. He sounds like a drowsy Rush Limbaugh. I’m waiting and waiting and finally a caller says ‘What do you think about what Bill Curry said about Nick Saban?’ then Finebaum says ‘Who cares about what Bill Curry thinks? He’s just a lowlife scumbag!’ Then Finebaum threw to break. I finally got it. I can’t believe it. This guy just called Bill Curry, who everyone in the world loves and respects, a pathetic, lowlife scumbag. Then he goes to a break. I finally got it!”
I’m not sure I got it until I read that. It’s about subtlety. I feel like I’ve got an arsenal of knives on me at all times but I choose not to use them–especially if someone is looking. I’ve done the “hot take” routine. I used to come on and bloviate, script it out. I found that I really wasn’t very good at it.
I mentioned Colin Cowherd before who I think is the best I’ve ever heard at just tackling a subject and doing it in an intellectual way, where there’s a sound argument. I’m a little too lawyerly. It’s not interesting radio—I’ve been to the Supreme Court—it’s not very good radio.
What I’m best at, if I’m good at anything, is being a symphony conductor. Start out the music and then find a way to change it. Then know where to go whether it’s the strings, percussion or horns.
I listen to callers, I listen to interviewees intensely and intently and I’m always just looking for that moment. I take great pride in knowing where to go. If I go to the wrong call or the wrong question to a guest, that drives me crazy. That’s what I obsess over. It’s not something you can prepare eight hours a day for.
Join us Tuesday August 7th for Part Two as Paul Finebaum talks about his show’s transition to ESPN
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.