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Steve Czaban Will Go Until They Take His Guitar Away

“It’s tough to just be there breaking balls, backslapping, doing what is the normal course of sports radio when the whole world has gone sideways.”

Brian Noe

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Former NBA player Stephen Jackson once said on Howard Beck’s podcast that experience is the best teacher. Amen to that. The next best thing to gaining experience on your own is to pick the brain of someone else who’s experienced. Enter Steve Czaban — a sports radio veteran that has accumulated a few terabytes of knowledge throughout his career.

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Czabe has been featured on Milwaukee radio for nearly 25 years, and has hosted in Washington D.C. for over two decades. His resume also includes stops in Charlotte and Chicago as well as national experience at FOX Sports Radio and SB Nation Radio. The man knows what he’s talking about when he offers opinions on the sports radio industry. Thankfully he doesn’t share his knowledge with the feel of someone who is being fanned while fed grapes. He offers his insight like a guy drinking a beer while watching a ball game at the bar.

Like most great hosts, Steve has the ability to shift gears. He can have you cracking up one minute while describing his water polo broadcasting background; the next minute he can offer a thoughtful view about doing radio during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. His mantra for anyone who wants to get in the business is outstanding. The advice is so excellent that seasoned hosts can all benefit from it as well. Enjoy.

Brian Noe: How difficult is it right now to do a show without actual sports being played due to the pandemic?

Steve Czaban: At first I thought it was going to be about fun months of just going off the grid sports topic wise and just doing guy talk, movies, hanging out and beers to occupy us while this was dealt with. But as the severity ramps up, personally I have a hard time striking the right tone. Even though our job is to provide a diversion, we are real people with families and concerns and we live in the real world. It’s tough to just be there breaking balls, backslapping, doing what is the normal course of sports radio when the whole world has gone sideways.

BN: So how do you find that middle ground? 

SC: I don’t know. It’s a day-by-day, hour-by-hour thing. I don’t have a replacement content problem. I have a tone problem because I’m trying to figure out what is the appropriate tone.

BN: Does the tone that you try to strike differ at all between your shows in Milwaukee and D.C.? 

SC: No, I think the tone is the same in both places. It’s more blue collar in Milwaukee and more white collar, professional, government in D.C. But people are people and the tone I don’t think changes because of it.

BN: This isn’t an easy time to be a radio host. With that in mind what has been your toughest, most challenging gig?

SC: I think the one thing that frustrated me was when I was on nationally with FOX Sports Radio. It didn’t matter if I was doing well in the kind of mid-markets that you want to thrive in like Richmond or Indianapolis. We were losing affiliates even though I was doing great numbers in those markets because they would change their syndicator affiliation. Then they would be required to carry the other company’s product so to speak.

I would get calls from PDs going, man, I am so mad about this. I tried to argue saying but this show works for us, it’s a national show but we get numbers, we can actually sell off of it, and they just tell me sorry the company line is you’ve got to carry this instead. That happened a lot. When you’re up every morning putting everything you’ve got into a show and that’s the case you’re like damn.

BN: Remember those old Army-Navy games where the broadcast would highlight a kid and just go through his daily — at 0700 he wakes up, at 0800 he does this — if you did that based on your radio schedule, what does your day-to-day routine look like?

SC: I get up at 6 Eastern; 7am start time for the Milwaukee show. I do it from my home studio so I don’t have to go anywhere. I do the show from 7 to 10, which is 6 to 9 Milwaukee time. Then there is usually an hour of mopping up and other coordination work, emails, and blah blah blah until about 11 ET. Then if the weather is nice I go out and play nine holes or chip and putt. Get some lunch. Come back home and get back in the cockpit about 3 o’clock in the afternoon to get ready for the show on 980 from 4 to 7pm. Then once that’s over from 7 to 8pm is when I record my podcast, which is a supplemental, additional 35 to 45 minutes called The CzabeCast. I call somebody up and shoot the shit with them and post it. By that time it’s about 9 o’clock and I’m ready to go to bed.

BN: Are you a good golfer?

SC: [Laughs] Depends on who I’m playing. I only negotiate strokes on the first tee. I’m an avid golfer let’s put it that way. I’m a weak 8 handicap, which some people go, oh you’re really good. I’m like yeah not as good as I want to be and not compared to the players I like to play with.

BN: How many years have you been at 980?

SC: Shoot, 20 years now. I came back in the late fall of ‘99. It’s been 20 years in D.C.

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BN: How many years in Milwaukee?

SC: Well I was on a morning show on another station from ‘94 until a year and a half ago. So that was 24 years. Then this new station started up and they wanted me to be the centerpiece and to be the morning show. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up and so I said okay let’s do this.

BN: It’s really unique, man. When they first approached you to do two shows in two different markets what were your thoughts about it?

SC: I was all about it. Milwaukee has lagged behind the rest of the country when it comes to sports radio. They didn’t really have a full-time sports radio station I don’t think in town until like maybe 2000. So now obviously they’ve caught up and there are three stations, which I think is a bit excessive, but we’re really not trying to be a sports station. We’re trying to be a station for men who know sports, like sports, but they’re not going to get in knock-down, drag-out arguments with you about reliever numbers unless it’s something appropriate. We want it to be a lifestyle, guy station as much as it is a sports station. 

BN: Sometimes bands forget which city they’re performing in. Have you ever forgotten which audience you’re doing a show for?

SC: [Laughs] That hasn’t happened yet. As I get older I forget more and more things but that is one that I’ve yet to encounter. My biggest check swing nowadays is — because I’ll use occasional profanity on my podcast I have to sometimes really check swing when I’m on the air because I’m talking into the same microphone for both the podcast and my shows.

BN: [Laughs] Oh, man. You haven’t slipped up yet?

SC: Nothing really bad has happened yet. It’s probably just a matter of time.

BN: Is it liberating to cuss compared to being buttoned up on terrestrial radio?

SC: It’s liberating but I’m always mindful of being gratuitous about it. It’s like the kid whose parents are gone and he can eat ice cream for breakfast. You don’t want to go hog-wild with it because it doesn’t add to the content. The content still has to be interesting and something people are going to want to come back for. You can’t just get on there and cuss.

BN: If you could choose the Packers or the Redskins to win a Super Bowl, who would you pick?

SC: Oh, the Redskins. It’s easy because my people have suffered the longest. My people have suffered greatly. The whole thing with fandom is interesting. When I started this new show I said for years when I was on this other FM morning show I was a friend of the Packers. I rooted for you guys on the side but I never considered myself a true fan. But now that I am doing a show every day that’s my own show, I feel like I have earned the right to apply for “probationary dual citizenship” I call it. I am not going to have to renounce my fandom of the Redskins while also being a Packer fan because it’s special circumstances.

People’s opinions on this vary greatly. Some say that’s impossible, you can’t do that. Others are like of course you can and that it’s okay to have two different teams depending on your circumstance. Maybe you grew up and your dad was a Cowboy fan and he raised you as a Cowboy fan. But now you live in Denver and so you go to Broncos games and you’re a huge Broncos fan. I don’t think that’s in conflict. I only think that you can’t be a fan of two teams that are traditional bitter rivals, and you certainly can’t be a fan of two teams that are in the same division.

BN: What is it about being a sports radio host that gets you up in the morning and fires you up to do more shows? 

SC: Well it beats working for a living that’s for sure.

BN: [Laughs]

SC: No, the world of sports is fascinating and interesting. There are more great, dumb, hilarious, fascinating stories all the time. When they started sports radio in ‘87 at WFAN, the common reply was, ‘Sports all day? What are they going to talk about?’ Now look at the landscape and you say to yourself I don’t have enough hours in the day for the stories that are coming across my desk.

BN: Going back to the very beginning of your sports radio career, how did it start for you?

SC: I went to UC Santa Barbara, the Harvard of the West as I like to call it. I just started going to the student radio station. They had a little set of equipment where you could take two headsets, a mixer and literally a handheld radio antenna — sort of like you broke it off somebody’s roof. Then you would set it up at the baseball diamond, you’d point it back at the tower in the middle of campus, you’d get the connection, and then you would call a baseball game that absolutely nobody listened to. We did that for just about any sport. Me and the guys in college — we called water polo games. Do you know how hard it is to call water polo where all you see are their heads? Do you know how little anyone cares about water polo? But we did it. We did it because why not?

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BN: Sports radio hosts are sometimes urged to appeal to a younger audience. Are you mindful of that, or is it like here’s my show, take it or leave it?

SC: I don’t think like ooh, what do the kids want today? It’s like OK, boomer. My one mantra always for anyone who wants to get in the business is simple; to be interesting — and that’s the goal — you have to be interested. You have to always keep an open mind. If you turn your nose up at certain sports whether it’s MMA or hockey or baseball or boxing, you’re not opening yourself up to the possibility of oh hey, this is really interesting. You know? You can’t be a picky eater. Some guys are. You get to a certain stage in your career and a lot of guys are like I just don’t talk hockey. I don’t know it. I don’t care about it. But I always try to stay interested in as many things as I can. I try to skew young even though I know I’m not young because in my mind I feel like I am.

Even if I don’t know anything about Instagram, I will still look at it and be curious about it and ask questions about it to people that might know whatever it is. It took me awhile to get my head around “Okay, Instagram. Why is this different than Twitter?” Then someone put it to me very succinctly; they said millennials don’t like to read. I said holy shit, that’s perfect. 280 characters is too long for them. Just give me a picture.

BN: [Laughs] Oh man, that’s funny. What would you say is your biggest weakness as a sports radio host? 

SC: What is this a job interview? I have no weaknesses. I’m impervious. I’m a 24/7 content machine. I’m indestructible. I’ll be doing this until I’m 90.

BN: Just cranking out the hits. I like it.

SC: The biggest weakness, I don’t know. The more laps you take around the sports radio track so to speak, the easier it is to get jaded and cynical — if not jaded, just to be sort of bored. The sports world has a routine and I like that routine. It helps guide me and other sports fans through the seasons. But it’s easy at some point to be like okay here we go again. I’ve watched 41 NFL seasons that I can remember or whatever the number is. I have to constantly remind myself hey for someone who’s 22 years old, they’re in the prime up their sports fanatic life. They are like so into this. They love this shit. I think that’s something that I constantly have to guard against.

BN: I love what you said about being interested. That’s awesome advice. When you break it down to what is most important to you to be a good sports radio host, what else would you have at the top of the list?

SC: When you tell a story, have a point. It makes it so much more interesting to the listener. Everything you say has to have some kind of a point no matter what that is. It can be a big, small point, you always have to think okay so what is the reason for me talking about this? What’s my endpoint of the segment? Whatever you’re talking about, think about it critically and understand okay here’s the point I would like to make about it.

My personal philosophy is I don’t try to force a point if I don’t believe it. I can’t fake it. I’m not a take artist. I know people will say that’s not true, everyone likes to criticize all of us as take artists, but I believe what I say. Unless I’m saying something while doing it with a wink of my eye, like you know I’m kidding you on this.

BN: When you compare the very beginning of your career to later once you gained experience, what was something important you learned about doing good radio? 

SC: Preparation is key. Learning how to write even if you’re not going to read your scripts. I don’t read scripts but I do write. I’ll write notes. I’ll write outlines. I’ll write certain riffs maybe. I’ll write bullet points to help guide me through what I’m going to talk about. Writing for your own blog is another good way to sort of focus your content. If you write a well-written blog about something, you’ve really sharpened the points that you want to make and the phrases that you’re using. By the time you go to “read” your own take on your own radio show, you’re not reading it, it’s just coming out of you naturally because you’ve already spent some time writing it.

BN: How important do you think it is to do a podcast in this day and age?

SC: I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do one. The cost to do it is virtually nothing. Especially for people that want to get into the business it’s something that I would do because then you can go show somebody — look at my product. I have product. I think it frees you up to do other things and it gives you another area to sort of hone your craft. It’s another boutique product that you as the host can own entirely. That’s valuable. It may be a little gift shop in terms of whatever revenue or free stuff you can get out of it compared to your regular employer, but you own the gift shop, which I think is a nice thing.

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BN: When you look at your future over the next 5-10 years, how do you think it’ll look and what do you want it to look like?  

SC: [Laughs] Glorious, employed, healthy, all those things. I can’t predict the future. I love what I’m doing right now. I’d like to keep doing it. I’d like to grow the Milwaukee show and give the Milwaukee market a really good, interesting, compelling show to come to every day. That’s the way I’ve been here in D.C. as well for the last 20 years too. Keep going, keep going until it becomes unbearable or I’ve got enough money and nobody ever has enough money. I guess you go until they take your guitar away.

BSM Writers

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.

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WRONG BAD

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.

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BSM Writers

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.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

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.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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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.

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