Ramie Makhlouf is a multi-faceted entertainer. The former SKOR North and 105.7 the Fan host is also a stand-up comedian. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Ramie about comedy and how he has used being on stage to help him behind the mic.
We shared thoughts on our favorite comedians. Both of us like Dave Chappelle. Both of us like Patton Oswalt. We talked about what makes good radio. It was an easy conversation with someone that definitely knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.
I asked Ramie to take a look at Dave Chappelle’s new special from a different perspective and write about his experience with comedy. What can a sports radio host learn from watching a great comedian? Enjoy!
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and ensuing protests, Dave Chappelle released 8:46 on YouTube; a set largely focused on the Floyd murder and on the movement for social justice we’ve since seen. It’s powerful and if you haven’t seen it, you should. Not only because it’s just great and poignant and timely but also, as Bomani Jones points out, there is plenty you could pick up from Chappelle that will make you better at what you do.
I’m a sports talk radio host by day and stand-up comedian by night and I can tell you, they’re very different animals. In my time doing both (about 10 years as a host, 7 as a comedian), in fact, I’ve only met one or two radio hosts who I thought should try stand-up comedy, and only one or two comics who I thought could cut it in radio. Only because the element of working with or without a live audience is such a game changer for most performers in both lines of work.
Bomani is right though, and there are plenty of things a radio host could pick up from watching a great stand-up comic, or vice versa, to make them more effective, more entertaining, and more engaging communicators.
You may have heard the “laughs per minute” rule of stand-up comedy. It’s one of the principles that many stand-ups live by that states that you need to draw 4-6 laughs per minute. There’s some science behind it that indicates that’s what you need to do just to hold the attention of an audience. Even if your 5th minute of a five minute set is your strongest material, it doesn’t matter if you’ve lost the audience in minute two.
The same holds true in radio. Obviously it’s not always a laugh that you’re going for, but there better be a handful of attention grabbers of some sort packed into every minute of your show. Whether it is a laugh, a bold or outlandish take, a change in inflection or the volume of your voice, a funny drop, or the use of a highlight or other audio, there has to be something that keeps the audience hooked the whole trip before you do get to the payoff. Speaking of the payoff, don’t waste any time in getting there.
An understanding of word economy is an important tool to have in both the world of radio and stand-up comedy. In other words, use your words sparingly. Obviously you have to talk enough to fill your time on the air or on the stage, but in both radio and comedy you better get to the payoff as quickly as possible. If you watch Chris Rock, he’ll often start a bit with a statement; sometimes it’s unclear what exactly he means, sometimes it seems controversial or something with which you might not agree, but he’s hooked you because you’re asking “what does he mean by that?” or “how could he possibly say that?”. Then the joke is explaining what he just said, and often the punchline is repeating the very statement with which he started!
As a host your payoff may be a punchline, or it could be a “hot take”, or a set-up for your co-host, or a question to draw callers and interaction with the audience. Whatever it is, get there with as few words as possible. Maybe even use the Chris Rock method and start with your statement or question! It’s okay if you leave something unsaid on your way to the payoff, especially in radio. Assumedly, a discussion or debate will ensue, and you’ll get the chance to circle around and still get off other points that you may have initially left unsaid. So how do you get to your payoff quickly, but also effectively?
I’ve spent a lot of time watching and listening to Jerry Seinfeld talk about writing comedy. Like…A LOT! Probably too much! It’s just so fascinating! It’s like watching a musician’s creative process, and trying to find just the right note. He talks about the rhythm of words and sentences, and how some words just sound funnier than others, searching for the funniest sounding word to perfectly make his point, using the fewest words possible to say it, and get the maximum effect from those words.
Stephen A. Smith is probably the best at this in the sports talk world. Yes, he does it by having a vocabulary that would make Webster’s jealous, but also with word selection. It’s not an accident that he has a few go to words or phrases (That’s preposterous! That’s blasphemous! The gall! The utter temerity!). Stephen A. knows there’s something about those words and the way he says them that gets people to react and stay tuned in to what he’s saying.
It’s not just the words themselves either, but the punctuation around the words. Great communicators of all kinds speak with punctuation. When Chappelle or Rock or Stephen A. emphasize something, you can almost see the words come flying out of their mouth in all caps with three exclamation points. If a comedian writes a comma or an ellipses in their material, it means to take a beat or a pause. There has to be an end, or a stop, to your thoughts and sentences.
Run-on sentences don’t work any better in spoken word than they do in writing. They lose audiences. You probably aren’t writing your rants or monologues, and you definitely don’t want to sound like you are, but you should definitely consider the punctuation. Where is a pause required? Where and how does a thought end? Does it end with a period, or is it an exclamation point, or a question mark, and can I tell that just by hearing you speak?
The trick to doing all this, whether in radio or comedy, is to make it seem effortless and like you’re not really trying to do any of this at all. Chappelle is the best example of that in comedy. Dan Le Batard is probably the best example in sports talk. Howard Stern may be the best example in the media, period. All are very meticulous and plotted in what they do, what they say, and how they say it, but you would never know it.
The great ones effortlessly speak the language of comedy or radio, rather than coming off as “performing”. That type of mastery is something we all can learn from, whether you perform on a stage or in a studio.
Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson
“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”
Last week, our partners in the news media department posted a story about Tucker Carlson. It was about a recent interview the FOX News host did with some guy on YouTube. In the interview, Carlson admits that there are times he blatantly lies on his show – the most popular show that is broadcast by what is ostensibly a news channel.
“I guess I would ask myself, like, I mean I lie if I’m really cornered or something. I lie,” Carlson told Dave Rubin. “I really try not to. I try never to lie on TV. I just don’t – I don’t like lying. I certainly do it, you know, out of weakness or whatever.”
When I first read this story, I just dismissed it. Of course this jackass lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies. There is just no way he is actually as stupid as he pretends to be when he makes that “I am shocked by what I just heard” face. You know the one. It looks like he just discovered there’s a Batman movie where the suit has nipples.
I tried to dismiss it, but then later in the week came his impassioned plea to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to come on TV to discuss his balls after the rapper tweeted a story about how the Covid vaccine made this guy’s testicles swell and thus ruined his potential wedding.
It is a clip that was passed around Twitter thousands of times. It showed up in my feed over and over with comments like “This is THE NEWS in 2021” and “I never want this man to stop talking about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls.”
Can you imagine if Carlson’s bullshit was acceptable in sports media? I could write the same thing about FOX News in general, but let’s keep this focused on Tucker, because this past week he crossed the rubicon into a special category of absurd.
There are plenty of people in sports media that will go on TV and explain to you why a loss is actually good for a team or why undeniable greatness is actually unimpressive. This is someone going on TV and telling you that it doesn’t matter what you saw with your own two eyes on Thursday night, the Giants actually beat Washington or that the Brooklyn Nets can be dismissed as title contenders because there is no proof that anyone on their roster has even been to the All-Star Game.
I have written in the past that news commenters, be they on radio or television, do not impress me. Those people are not original or interesting at all. They aren’t even talented. I’m only bringing up that opinion to be completely transparent.
Sports Tucker Carlson would be a totally different animal. In fact, such a thing would be unacceptable.
Now, I am sure some of you are out there shouting that sports media does have a Tucker Carlson. In fact, the sports Tucker Carlson works for the same company that the real Tucker Carlson does. His name is Skip Bayless.
Look, I hear you. Skip brings no sincerity to anything, but I also don’t think Skip has any values he is trying to push. His takes are ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. ALL HAIL THEM CLICKS!
Besides, the great thing about sports broadcasting in general is that the stakes of what we are talking about are pretty low. Creativity and absurdity are welcome. None of this is important, nor is there any illusion that it may be. No one is showing up at the Capital with zip ties and bear mace demanding the Chiefs be re-instated as Super Bowl champions or screaming at doctors that the Covid vaccine is a scheme to return Miami to relevance in the college football world.
Putting on my programmer hat for a second, I just cannot imagine how to justify a Tucker Carlson. Then again, my programmer hat was not made and fitted by people trying to pass performance art off as news. So, maybe me not getting it is the strategy.
Either way, this, to me, feels like very good information to take to advertisers next time they question the desirability of a sports radio audience versus a news audience. Our listeners are passionate, intelligent people looking to be entertained and engaged by conversations about their favorite teams and they’re willing to support the people that do that for them. The most popular name in news talk admits that he lies when the facts don’t match up to the story he wants to tell. The reaction from the public is “well of course he does.” Which one would you rather have your brand associated with?
Back To Basics: Teases
“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”
I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands.
I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether. To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.
If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break?
Example 1: “More football talk, next!”
Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”
We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.
The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for.
Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host.
I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle.
Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?”
Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?”
Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about.
The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you.
Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice.
Athletes Are Making Their Money In Content
“Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.”
In many ways, the voice of athletes started its exponential growth with the introduction of social media, where every human being has access to a personal broadcast channel to express themselves, their passions, stories, and ideas. The athlete as an artist immediately expanded from highlight reel to Hollywood film and television reel as a content producer. However, it was The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter in 2014, that jumpstarted the athlete-driven voice of content, first in writing, and later in video, polls, and podcasts.
Michael Jordan was the first international athlete that made millions in sponsorship money—selling his name or attaching his name to products for the purpose of endorsing them for a profit. He also starred in the Warner Bros. live-action/animated film Space Jam. Jordan turned those partnerships into ownership of an NBA basketball team and a partner and focus of one of the most iconic athletic brands in the world, Jordan/Jumpman (Nike). More recently, Jordan was the focus of the Emmy award-winning The Last Dance docuseries about the NBA Chicago Bulls six championships and more specifically the sixth and final trophy for Air Jordan his Bulls team. He also co-owns a NASCAR team with Joe Gibbs.
Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished. However, that is the point—the mentee should always outperform the mentor with proper, training, guidance, and a little luck too. Where many athletes have pursued broadcasting work as color analysts during and after their professional careers in sports, Jordan did not pursue these avenues or seek to open a television or film production studio to develop entertainment, media, and sports content.
The direct-to-consumer approach of Hollywood and sports networks through streaming platforms, combined with the introduction of athlete voices through social media and podcasts has led to more opportunities. Los Angeles Laker LeBron James launched his SpringHill Company in 2020 not long after joining showtime in Tinseltown. SpringHill is a content studio that develops and looks to other studios for major production and distribution. LeBron has the sponsorship advertising prowess, but can also add documentaries and feature film content to his resume.
Kevin Durant launched a podcast titled “The Boardroom” through his company, Thirty-Five Ventures. With YouTube on par with Netflix in revenue (minus the paywall), it provides another direct-to-consumer platform for everyone and more opportunities. Steph Curry launched Unanimous Media in 2018 as a content and production studio, originally in partnership with Sony Entertainment, now the studio is partnered with Comcast owned NBCUniversal in the $10 million dollar range.
The media has deemed the Curry deal a first, which is noteworthy, but so is the faith and family focus of Curry’s programming that will span many brands in the NBCUniversal entertainment family. Curry will join the NBC broadcast for the Ryder Cup as an analyst and host and interview guests for an educational series, which does not include film projects and the second $200 million dollar basketball contract Curry signed in 2021. Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Dwayne Wade have been involved with film projects of their own. Tim Tebow is a nationwide celebrity and motivational speaker, not to mention a world-renown athlete and person with a big heart towards faith and philanthropy.
Peyton and Eli Manning also have their own broadcast for Monday Night Football. Peyton also starred in the very successful “Peyton’s Places” that will have season two launched soon on ESPN+. Both are produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions.
Speaking of Disney brands, the company’s 30 for 30 is still one of the main catalysts for highlighting the struggles and triumphs of athletes. Hard Knocks, Ballers, and Jerry Maguire also gave insight into the world of sports beyond the field, statistics, and championships.
The growth of entertainment, media, and sports has been and continues to be exponential. Some additional areas to watch include development of series and docuseries in baseball, hockey, soccer, and in other popular, but not the big five sports in America (e.g., lacrosse, cricket, etc.). With women’s sports receiving more attention on television, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in entertainment production particularly in women’s soccer.
To date, NBA players have dominated the entertainment, media, and sports landscape for Hollywood production. However, to each their own, because some stars love developing content, others love speaking about content, and still others love to own content (particularly in the form of brands and franchises) (see Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter). Indeed, the era of athlete as Hollywood producer is upon us.
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