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Show Prep Only Works If It Works For You

“An old college professor of mine once told me being prepared is half the victory. I think he was conservative with that number.”

Tyler McComas

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How many times have you had the following exchange: 

Stranger: So what do you do for a living?

You: I do a sports radio show. I’m on every weekday from 2-6 p.m. 

Stranger: Wow! You only work four hours a day? That must be really nice!

Image result for laying in beach chair

Oh, if they only knew, right? 

There’s nothing glamorous about spending three hours a day prepping for a show. Especially during this time of the year when content can be hard to come by. But how much or how well a person, or an entire show, preps can usually dictate how successful a show is going to be. If you don’t believe me, take it from someone like Ben Franklin who once said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Each host has their own unique of how they prep for a show. Jim Costa of 1130 AM WDFN The Fan in Detroit and ESPN 96.1 in Grand Rapids likes to start prepping in studio at least three hours before his show. In Houston, Sean Pendergast of Sports Radio 610 preps in his “Main Street office” which is a Dunkin Donuts near NRG Stadium, where he drinks coffee, eats breakfast and even chats with the staff, as well as the occasional listener since they know he preps there. Then, there’s Marc Ryan who’s the assistant PD and host at ESPNUpstate that prefers to prep inside his office at the station. 

To put it simply, prepping for a show is like most things in sports radio. There’s not necessarily a right or a wrong way to do it, you just have to find the method that works best for you. 

“Everything is prep, right?” said Costa. “If it’s watching games the night before, scanning news on Twitter, like I love to check Twitter during commercial breaks to see what people are saying. I like to look for interesting things said by reporters or even an interesting stat that’s shared to bookmark for the next day. But even the next morning I go to all the major newspapers and websites in Detroit just to make sure I didn’t miss an angle or a hook that we should be talking about on the show.

“In our pre-show, it’s not just, ‘okay, here’s the story.’ We want the hook. Where is the jumping off point that leads to a compelling conversation? I’ll look for anything that can give me that, even if the maintenance guy in the building makes a comment about the Detroit Tigers that I think I can do something with, I don’t care where the idea comes from, I think you have to be wired in the way that everything can be turned into content.”

Great show prep doesn’t start and end with the two hours you do before the opening intro. It means you’re scanning throughout the evening trying to find stories, clips, stats and quotes for the next day. I prefer to screenshot anything I find useful after the show, so that it’s there the next morning for reference. Another popular method is to copy links in the notes app on the iPhone, whereas others use the ‘like’ button on Twitter as bookmarks for tweets they find compelling enough to discuss on their next show. Whatever you do, great prep means you’re constantly searching. 

“Even as you’re calling right now, I’m kind of doing prep,” said Ryan. “I’m watching and listening to different shows, not so I can copy their topics but I’m watching and looking at what they’re doing, because a lot of what I hear spawns ideas about what would work in my own market.”

Where did Ryan learn to prep? Who shaped his attitudes about listening to other shows in a way that benefits his own?

“I was really fortunate to be mentored by the former executive producer of The Herd and the former executive producer of the Dan Patrick Show. Those guys helped me learn how to prep in a better and more effective way, as well as how to better develop topics. They taught me how to come up with clearer and more concise thoughts, rather than just being all over the place like I had been before that mentorship.”

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Costa added to that. 

“You do sports and you do non-sports. You kind of use an open-mind in your life and think, can I use that on the show? Bookmarking something, I put things in my notes on my phone or message our group. You can’t just prep three hours before the show, really, it’s constant. There’s nothing like going into a show knowing I have two or three really good jumping off points. When you get to the summer, we’ve all been there, you’re saying, ‘Oh boy! What are we going to find today?’ That’s why if you always keep yourself in prep mode you can come into each day with something so you’re not scrambling.”

Pen and paper is still as effective as ever. I even prefer a notebook to outline the show, just so I can quickly look back at a stat, quote or a note that I’m referring back to from a few days prior. However, more and more hosts are trending towards Google Docs as a way to prep and share their rundown with everyone on the show. Pendergast and Costa use it before every show, but it’s not always a hard script that has to be stuck to at all times. 

“I would liken it to a trip where you have an itinerary,” said Costa. “You’re not going to stick to it like its mandatory, if a topic hits, we’ll stay on it. But we definitely lay out and decide what we’re leading with and when we’re re-cycling it back. I put everything on a Google Doc and I put in teases, audio we have, sponsors reads and when I’m done I email it to everyone on the show.”

Anyone that’s ever had a co-host realizes the fine line you have to walk at times when prepping for the show. For instance, in Costa’s case, he may want to tell his partner that he’s going to bring up how he thinks this Detroit Tigers season can be a success, but he also doesn’t want to spoil the natural reaction he wants to get on the air. So naturally, there becomes a unique balance of keeping your co-host informed without revealing what your main points are going to be. 

“We always say we don’t want to do the show before the show,” said Costa “You build up trust, because if I had never done a show with Drew, I go, I want to do that. Here’s how the Tigers’ season can be a success. He may look at me and say there’s no way we can do 15 minutes on that. But if I tell him I have something really good and I’ll save it for the show, that trust kind of lets it be enough. But if there’s other topics where he goes, hey man, where you at on that? Don’t give me your whole opinion, but if it’s one of those either/or, don’t give me any more than that so I can act surprised on air and act in the moment.”

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The goal of this piece isn’t to try and change your pre-show routine, it’s to show and give a few ideas of how other successful show hosts around the country choose to prep for their shows.

Sometimes, logistics make it hard to sit in a conference room before the show and map everything out. Still, some hosts have that option and prefer not to do it. The key is to find what’s best for all parties and stick with it. If you can only make a 15-minute pre-show phone call happen, so be it. But make sure you and your co-host develop a habit of doing it every single day. 

An old college professor of mine once told me being prepared is half the victory. I think he was conservative with that number.

Being prepared is everything in this business. Show me a great host and I’ll show you one that knows what it takes to successfully prep each and every day. But as important as working hard is, it’s also important to be receptive to other ideas from members of the show. That includes your producers. Trust them, be honest with each other and value their input. 

“We’re kind of spoiled being syndicated, because I have a producer in Detroit,” said Costa. “He sends all of us a morning email of a number of stories to just look over and consider for the show. Our producer in Grand Rapids is wired a little bit different, he’ll see a story and immediately throw it in our group chat. Both styles really work and help. But I do ask my producer if a certain topic is going to work. They know what they’re doing and I value the opinion of everyone on the show.”

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One Question About Stuart Scott’s 30 for 30: What Took So Long?

“Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t miss TV.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stuart Scott

There haven’t been many celebrity deaths that have truly left me in tears. I am a Nirvana super fan, and I remember exactly where I was when I found out about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but I don’t remember breaking down. I can only remember three celebrity deaths that left me feeling true, uncontainable sadness: Robin Williams, Tom Petty and Stuart Scott.

So many documentaries and episodes of television have been made about the life, times, and deaths of Williams and Petty. They are icons. Their respective deaths left millions of fans in mourning. 

Scott’s impact is no less significant, particularly in the sports media world. I am happy to hear that he is finally getting his due with a life and career retrospective as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

I hated school as a kid. Each morning felt like a march from the courthouse to the bus that would take me to prison. I loved sports and loved to laugh. Scott and Rich Eisen felt like my last little bit of joy before I was dragged to Hell each weekday morning. That’s why he meant so much to me.

His impact can be felt everywhere in our business. Countless black men and women who work in sports media will tell you about the impact they felt seeing someone who looked and talked like them. A generation of broadcasters, regardless of race, will tell you about how they connected to someone who embraced the idea that this is fun and unserious. 

Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t-miss TV. The fact that he was, revolutionized sports television.

Because of his influence, we were introduced to new faces. The whole style of highlight shows changed. Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman moved it away from a newscast and closer to a watercolor conversation. Scott pushed the genre closer to a block party.

ESPN has been careful about which broadcasters become the subject of a 30 for 30 documentary. Some of that has to do with drawing the line between sports and sports media. Some of it has to do with ESPN not being keen to turn a critical eye on itself. I mean, what other explanation could there be for why we have never gotten a documentary on the aforementioned Patrick and Olberman years

Scott clears whatever bar there is though. His story is one of social impact and industry dominance. On top of that, the way ESPN and its charity partner, The V Foundation, stood behind Scott during his battle with cancer, allows the company to give the story the Disney Princess treatment and erase any flaws or animosity that may have ever existed. That part isn’t necessary, but since ESPN is owned by Disney, it’s a nice bonus.

For a certain generation, this documentary will be a look back at the glory days of ESPN. The cultural dominance the brand enjoyed in the 90s could have come to an end after Keith Olberman’s exit and the end of Sunday night’s “Big Show,” but Scott’s rivalry with Dan Patrick (real or perceived) was an important part of extending that relevance. I mean, you could find boxer shorts in Disney World with “booyah” and “en fuego” scrawled across the ass at that time. 

Rich Eisen will surely figure prominently in the film. How could he not? He and Scott became the SportsCenter’s new gold standard. Their friendship and chemistry were real. They dealt with each other offscreen with no filter and the onscreen product was better for it. To this day, Eisen gets emotional when talking about his friend.

No one who dies at 49 lived a full life. How could they? There is so much left to do and give. But Stuart Scott packed a lot of life and made a lot of impact in his short time on Earth. 

Maybe you need the benefit of time for a 30 for 30 documentary to make a real impact. Scott died in January 2015. By the time the documentary comes out, a decade will have passed. As someone who was 15 years old when I discovered his voice and remained a fan until his dying day, I have one question. Why did we have to wait so long to get this movie? 

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Seller to Seller: Sandy Cohen, Union Broadcasting

“You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners.”

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Graphic for Seller to Seller with Sandy Cohen

In last week’s Seller to Seller feature I had asked several sellers what the hardest part was of selling sports media right now. One of the replies was, “Prospecting, I feel like the number of categories willing to spend what they need to is dwindling.” That response prompted my old foe, Union Broadcasting partner and vice president of sales Sandy Cohen, to reach out to talk further about the topic.

Sandy and Union Broadcasting have been in the game since 1998 in Kansas City where they have Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Kansas City. They also have ESPN Louisville and ESPN Wichita and Cohen oversees sales for all of the properties. I competed against them in Kansas City as the GSM for 610 Sports and learned how well-respected Sandy and his team are in the advertising and business communities as well as how good of a job they do when it comes to servicing clients and building relationships.

Sandy said when he read last week’s piece, a thought kept running through his mind, which was that as an industry, sports media needs more people on the street and a next generation of sellers. He had some great insights on the topic as well as Union Broadcasting had been in a hiring mode recently in Kansas City and he wound up hiring three people with a year or less of experience in the workforce.

When we spoke, I first asked him if we need more or if we need better. As any good salesman would do, he asked for it all. “Yes! We need more, better,” he replied. “I think there’s benefits all the way around. You can increase your sales with more people, and you can energize your existing sales team by hiring brand new salespeople.”

Cohen said they put a full-court-press on recruitment and ran ads on air, on their stream, on their website and all of their social channels. I wondered if people were still excited to work in sports media sales and if they had a solid response.

“We had lots of choices, I was pleased,” Cohen said. He told me they went through a few rounds before inviting some candidates in to make presentations in their conference room. “We looked at how they prepared, how they dressed, did they make eye contact, and did they use props or anything to stand out. Lastly, did they follow up with a thank you and stay in touch throughout the process.”

We talked about what types of things he looks for when screening candidates and he said, “I think they have to have a passion and an interest in sports, be a go-getter with a lot of good energy. I think they need to be money motivated and a self-starter, detail oriented with solid communications skills…If they’re not going to pay attention to the details, they’re not going to make a very good salesperson.”

We agreed that after you go through the difficult process of recruitment and then eventually hiring the new sales talent, the real work begins as now you have to make sure they get trained as best as possible.

As for the training process Cohen uses, he said, “It’s a combination of two things. We have our own in-house training system. We have everything mapped out, what the first two weeks look like, day by day, and then at the end of each day there is a recap. Then it continues, but not as structured as the first two weeks.

“We also use P1 Learning through the Missouri Broadcasters Association which is several weeks and is done in bite-sized pieces. They have homework and video calls and assignments they do to really learn the basics.” Cohen said a couple of the new hires had finished at the top of their P1 Learning class.

“It’s nice because it’s an outside voice, I like the way it is structured, and they go through everything. Beyond that, it is a lot of hands-on attention with new sellers, ongoing training, goal setting, lead distribution, and following up with them on how they are making their contacts. It’s talking to them and seeing what they are experiencing and how we can work on those and that works hand in hand with the formal training.”

I was also curious about the role the other sellers on the team play in training of new hires. Cohen said he is fortunate as he has a lot of senior sellers who are willing to help when called upon.

“We’ve got several veteran sellers who have been with us for 20-plus years,” he said. “So, while they are very busy with their own stuff, they recognize that at some point in their career somebody did that for them as well. They will let the new hires shadow them on calls or spend time with them one on one answering questions.”

Cohen hopes that as an industry, sports media makes a commitment to network with area colleges to form relationships with the professors in business schools or journalism schools to have a chance at some of the top talent coming out of college. “We need to have a presence in these classes and try and be in line when kids are graduating,” he said. “We can bring up the level of interest…it requires a lot of work. But we have to find a way to train new sellers and spend a lot of time with them.”

Of course, once the training wheels are off, at some point the new hires have to perform. We talked about the benchmarks of time as to when you should expect to know what you need to know about a new hire. “In the case of somebody who is fairly new…in six months, are they making progress? One year is definitely a benchmark. I think based on activity, new business, work ethic and habits you have observed you will know…It’s effort and activity and you can teach the nuances of what it means to be a solid individual in our industry.”

As mentioned previously, Sandy and his team are exceptional when it comes to having strong relationships with their clients, built through a quality product but also from the amount of time they spend with their clients and connecting them to one another.

“I just think at its core, what we do is fun,” Cohen said. “Some of the days are going to be long if you’re working all day and then taking someone to a sporting event or whatever it may be. We have always felt like entertainment is what sets us apart and one of the most important aspects of what we do.

“I just think if you’re doing business with someone, why shouldn’t you go and have some fun with them, too? You can certainly just hand them some tickets, but there’s nothing better than experiencing an event or planning a party for a group of clients so that they can all network together. You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners…it becomes almost a club where they all work together because they met at one of our social events.”

Cohen said they try and have at least one significant quarterly entertainment event where they bring large groups of people together in addition to connecting one on one at a sporting event. A couple of recent examples of the larger events included a movie preview where a partnership with a local theater allowed for pre-show fellowship, followed by interaction with a talent who would host the event and then an opportunity for the group to see a movie before it has come out to the public.

Another example was a bus trip to Lawrence, Kansas for a KU-Oklahoma State basketball game which included a behind-the-scenes tour at Allen Fieldhouse. The team broadcasters showed the group the locker rooms and other areas that are not open to the public, followed by a KU chalk-talk and VIP treatment for the game.

In summing it up, Cohen said, “Whenever we can bring groups together like that and have a good time, that’s what we do.”

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Ian Eagle Will Always Remember His First Final Four

“This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

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Photo of Ian Eagle
Courtesy: For The Win

Over the course of his career, Ian Eagle has called what seems like a million basketball games.  His approach for all of those games, whether it was the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, nationally televised NBA games, or college basketball games, has always been the same.  And when it came to taking over as the new play by play voice for the Final Four last week in Arizona, Eagle remained consistent with that approach.

Eagle subscribes to theory that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it”. 

“I recognized that I didn’t want to make sweeping changes to my approach because it was a bigger stage,” said Eagle.  “I wanted to be myself and do the games the way that I’ve done them for a number of years now and I think that comes with experience and maturity and muscle memory.  I do think that having done so many NCAA Tournaments put me in a very advantageous position of knowing what I was walking into.”

One part of that approach was to have fun.  It’s certainly a job that comes with a big responsibility because of the big stage and the number of eyeballs that are on you, but doing play by play is a lot of fun and a really cool job to have, no matter what sport or what level.

In Eagle’s case, he made sure that he was not only prepared for the job at hand, but he also made sure he was having a good time with his crew that included Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson.

“We had a blast,” said Eagle.  “I made a conscious effort to remind myself to enjoy it.  Sometimes in life, we forget that it’s supposed to be fun, and it’s supposed to be joyous.  I had this sense of calm just before going on air for the Final Four.  I didn’t feel nerves.  I didn’t feel stressed.  I felt in the moment and comfortable and excited.”

This was a moment for Eagle that had been in the works for a few years and something that he certainly had been thinking about.  When it was first reported that legendary play by play announcer Jim Nantz would be winding down his long run as the voice of the Final Four, it had been suggested that Eagle was going to be the heir apparent.

In October of 2022, CBS and Turner Sports announced that the 2023 Final Four would be the final one for Nantz and that Eagle would take over in 2024.

For Eagle, it was big shoes to fill succeeding Nantz, but he knew the transition would be smooth and that his job was not to be Jim Nantz but to simply be Ian Eagle.

“I think because it was being discussed over the course of a few years, I never felt that level of enormity,” said Eagle.  “For me, it was recognizing that Jim was synonymous with this event and respecting the run that he was on.  It was incredible.  No one is ever going to match it so why think of it in those terms?  Just go do your job and be you.”

Perhaps this could be viewed as a “passing the baton moment,” but on the day before the national semifinals, a message came up on Eagle’s phone.

It was from Nantz.

“Yeah, he texted me on Friday,” said Eagle.  “We had a really nice exchange.  I think he was being very respectful with the job that I had to do.  There’s a high level of respect between the two of us.”

Even before the Final Four, Eagle had established himself as one of the great play-by-play voices in sports broadcasting.  From his days as a student at Syracuse University to his early days at WFAN in New York, to being the radio and television voice of the Nets and national NBA and NFL games, Eagle had already accomplished so much in this industry.

A premier event like the Final Four seemed like the appropriate next chapter of his career.

“It felt very much like the next step,” said Eagle.  “I think all of your experiences play a role in some way.  Even while you’re experiencing them, you have no idea how that’s going to affect you down the road.”

It has been quite a ride for Eagle, and it was a road that started as a producer at WFAN before that run morphed into an on-air role hosting and ultimately becoming the radio voice of the New York Jets.

The road to the top has to start somewhere and for Eagle it was at the nation’s first sports radio station.

“My time at ‘FAN…I learned so much,” said Eagle.  “I was around some of the most legendary figures in sports radio history and I benefited greatly from osmosis of being in this really unique situation that helped me when I got the next job and then the next job and then the next job.”

From hosting “Bagels and Baseball” on WFAN to doing play-by-play for the Final Four, it’s been quite a ride for Ian Eagle.

“It’s pretty wild if I take a step back and think about it but when you’re in the moment, you don’t necessarily reflect,” said Eagle. “This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

And who knows where that path is going to take him next.

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