There are many similarities between newspaper columnists and sports radio hosts. They constantly search for interesting angles to accentuate their opinions. Both look for captivating stories to tell. The occasional, “Man, I really stepped in it,” is also a possibility. Geoff Calkins is a man who wears both hats as a writer and radio host. He has chronicled Memphis sports for more than two decades — formerly at The Commercial Appeal and currently for The Daily Memphian. He also hosts The Geoff Calkins Show weekdays on 92.9 ESPN.
Geoff tells entertaining stories about Hubie Brown, Jason Williams the pen thief, and a tuba playing bet payoff in our discussion below. He also shares an intelligent view about chasing dreams.
As a writer with decades of experience, Geoff is obsessed with word choice. I’m not as magniloquent as Mr. Calkins, but his presence in Memphis certainly hasn’t been fugacious. Unfortunately, photosynthesis doesn’t fit here, so it looks like this is my intro stopping point. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Brian Noe: Is there more pressure writing words that don’t go away, or speaking words without having the ability to go back and edit yourself?
Geoff Calkins: I feel more pressure writing words that don’t go away. I’m always struck by how the things in print for whatever reason are held to a higher standard. Honestly I’m looser with what I say on the radio. In some ways that can get you in trouble. I’ll say things that I would not write. That’s just true; that I’m not as well reported, there are more theories, and more bouncing things off.
I would say there’s more pressure to write words that will not go away. When I’m writing a column, I think about every word. I’m obsessed with words. Word choice matters to me deeply when I write a column. When I talk on the air, I do my best. I try to find the right word, but there are so many words that you can’t sit there and sweat over every single one. It’s a very different enterprise.
BN: Does it feel liberating to be on the air compared to stressing over each word of a column?
GC: Talking is easier than writing. Writing is hard. It just is. It’s like putting bricks together in a way. They all have to fit together just right in that line, but then the whole structure has to work too. You have to think ‘Okay, how am I going to start this? What comes next? What’s the perfect word here? Oh, that’s not quite working, let me try another.’ When you’re talking on the air, you’re just being yourself, or a stylized version of yourself. The labor is not close.
When you work for a newspaper — now I’m with an online newspaper — the job is just a wonderful job of going out and talking to people. It’s just the best job in the world because you have this freedom to go talk to anyone you want about anything you want. The reporting is fun. Being at events is fun. Getting to people’s stories and life stories is a great pleasure. But then there always comes this moment where you sit down at the computer and have to write. That is work in the way that nothing that I do on the radio feels like work. The next two hours of writing, that is hard work of the sort like writing a paper in college. That process is more difficult than anything we do on the radio.
BN: What is your 60-second resume that led to where you are now?
GC: I’m someone who always wanted to be a sports writer who took a detour into the law because he thought it was more respectable, and subsequently realized it was a mistake. I was a tremendous law student, but I was not a great lawyer. I was a very unhappy lawyer. At age 30, I said I’m going to try this again. I did journalism before; I had worked for the Miami Herald one summer, and I had worked for People magazine one summer in college. Those were college jobs.
After I had been at the law firm for a couple of years I said you know I’m going to try it one more time. I’m not going to pretend I’m a news writer. I’m going to be a sports writer because that’s what I wanted to do when I was 12. I was a kid who was one of nine. I grew up outside of Buffalo. If my parents punished me, they would take away my sports page reading privileges. They’d take away The Buffalo News and the Buffalo Courier-Express. That’s what I wanted to do when I was 12 and I just lost track of that because of money and prestige and all of that. I ended up unhappy and so I tried again and it worked.
BN: What other stops did you have before getting to Memphis?
GC: I wrote 300 newspapers and the only one who hired me was The Anniston Star down in Alabama. A guy named Joe Distelheim had been the sports editor in Detroit and was now the managing editor at Anniston. He hired me to do a 10-week internship covering high school sports for 225 a week. At the time I was making six figures as a young lawyer. Back then six figures met something, but I did it. I did two years there.
A guy named Fred Turner in Fort Lauderdale hired me to be the Marlins beat writer. He took a ridiculous chance on me to do that. I was not cut out to be a baseball beat writer, but I was having fun in a way that I never was as a lawyer. In Anniston I was having fun. I loved covering high school football games on a Friday night and Auburn on a Saturday. I was having a blast in a way that I just never was as a lawyer.
Fort Lauderdale was fun and then they took a chance on me here. I had only been a sports writer for four years when they gave me the column job in Memphis, which is a big chance that The Commercial Appeal took on me.
Now I was older because I didn’t start until I was 30, so I was 34. I don’t think I thought I’d stay here forever. In many ways Memphis is like Buffalo in that they’re sort of underdog places but a real strong sense of place and self. I fit here. I was happy. When you’re happy, I always figured why roll the dice on greater happiness somewhere else. I was happy here and so here I’ve stayed for now 25 years.
BN: Did you ever have a moment in journalism school or when you went from six figures to 225 where you were like, “What am I doing?” Did that ever pop in your head?
GC: Yes. What I made for The Anniston Star was not sustainable. I would not have stayed in journalism if I was going to make 225 a week working in a small town in Alabama. As much as I liked Anniston, if that was where I was going to end up, I would have gone back to being a lawyer and said I’ll watch sports in my spare time and I’ll buy season tickets with my money.
I do think that one of the keys with people who want to do this for a living is to take a shot at it, but there is a certain amount of luck and a certain amount of ability that you have to have to make it to a level where this is both satisfying and where you can pay your bills. I’m not an idiot. I would not have stayed as a sports writer for 225 a week forever. I just wouldn’t have.
I tell people whether they want to do radio or print journalism, I tell them to give it a shot because you’re going to kick yourself if you don’t. If that’s what you really, really, really want to do. But be self-aware enough that after you’ve done it for a few years, to figure out if you have what it takes to get to a place in the industry where you’ll be happy because it’s really hard. Not everyone will make it. To me it’s not unlike someone who wants to move to L.A. and try to be a star. I’m not saying we’re stars but I think it’s become kind of a crapshoot like that.
You move to L.A., you give it a shot, and if you make it, great, if not, go be an accountant. Give yourself five years or 10 years, but you don’t have to work washing dishes for 30 years chasing your dream. Maybe I’m too much of a pragmatist. I’m enough of a dreamer to think you have to give it a shot, but I’m enough of a pragmatist to think that at some point you have to realize that sports journalism in whatever form may not be how you’re going to find your greater satisfaction or happiness.
BN: What’s the best advice you got as a journalist and what’s the best advice you got as a sports radio host?
GC: The best I got as a journalist, there’s no substitute for making the next call or for being there. Just always make the next call. When you’re reporting a story and you can make three calls instead of two, make the third call. It’s stunning how often the third call is when you get the exact quote or the exact tip or whatever else that you need. And be there; actually a young journalist was asking me recently how to develop contacts and sources. The first thing I said was to show up. Be at everything. Be at every practice. Be at every Zoom call. Make sure they know that you’re serious and that you take your craft seriously. You’re covering people who take their craft very seriously, so you should take it as seriously. To me that’s the most important thing in journalism.
In terms of sports radio, Brad Carson, who’s our program director, is always urging us to get to the point quickly. I can meander a little bit. I think that was useful. There was someone early on who told me that a radio show is like staging a Broadway production every single day, that it’s not just yammering away about the events of the day. From the beginning to end, it is a production and we can’t craft it with the care and the months of preparation each day that they do in putting on a Broadway show, but in the end we are presenting something to people. Whatever it is — entertainment, opinion, interviews, laughter — to think hard about what exactly you want to present to people every day.
BN: We all know how much Ja Morant means to the Grizzlies, but beyond that, what does he mean for your jobs?
GC: There’s not much more fun in either print or on radio than celebrating wins, celebrating your town, your team, celebrating together. I grew up listening to the Buffalo Sabres. The Bills didn’t win much so I thought more of the Sabres at the time. They had a show called the Fourth Period. Ted Darling was the voice of the expansion Sabers at the time. After a win, I was the 11-year-old kid in bed listening to the Fourth Period because you just want to relive it. Ja Morant is going to give this city and all of us who covers sports a lot of moments that people are going to want to relive. He already has. We’ll see where it goes.
Things can go badly for Rookies of the Year. Anthony Davis, he wasn’t Rookie of the Year actually, but he didn’t work out and in the end he forced his way out of New Orleans. There are no guarantees, but it appears that he’s going to give us the kind of superstar that certainly at the professional level this town has never had. At the college level we had it, but it’s fleeting.
We had a year of Derrick Rose. We had two years of Penny Hardaway. We’ve had fleeting tastes of a superstar. We haven’t had a decade of a superstar ever in Memphis. Ja could be that. When you can just come in and celebrate with the city, be an outlet for that celebration, radio doesn’t really get more fun than that.
BN: It probably means you don’t have to play your tuba outside of the arena though, right?
GC: [Laughs] Where did you hear that story?
BN: [Laughs] I was doing crack research on you before this interview. Can you tell that story? It’s a great story, man.
GC: In the early days of the Grizzlies, they were starting another season. They were 0-9 or whatever they were. The previous year they had started — I’m making up these numbers — something like 0-13. So you run out of things to say about losing teams. I said if this team gets to 0-13, I’ll play Christmas carols on my tuba outside of the Pyramid. This was back when they were in the Pyramid.
Sure enough, they lose, they lose, they lose and we get to the fateful game. I referred to them in my column again. At this point the pressure is building. They were playing the Golden State Warriors and the head coach, I forgot who it was, printed out my column and put it on the seats of the Warriors’ bench before the game to further inspire their team to victory.
I remember Antawn Jamison hit a 3 and said start warming up that tuba. I had to play Christmas carols on my tuba outside of the Pyramid. But what I did was, I called the tuba player for the Memphis Symphony and I got another two dozen tuba playing friends and we had a little tuba Christmas outside of the Pyramid. It was fun.
BN: What’s a memorable story of a player or coach that either ripped you or complimented you for your work?
GC: Okay, well on the bad side was when Jason Williams stole my pen in the locker room. Jason Williams came after me after a playoff game. Mike Miller had to peel him off of me. The audio of Jason is, “You ain’t writing nothing, homeboy.” Actually we use that clip of Jason saying that to start my radio show every day, as if by taking my pen he could stop me from writing something. He later returned to the Grizzlies and they had a little press conference. I put 20 pens in my pocket, so when I walked up the first thing he saw was me with 20 pens. He got fined $20,000 for that though, so it was an expensive pen. Then Calipari I would say. John Calipari hated me. Those are the two.
You know who was great was Hubie Brown. Hubie Brown came here at a time when his career as a coach was supposed to be over. People mocked Jerry West a little bit for the hire. It seemed very unusual for a young team to bring Hubie out of mothballs, but it was really fun. It was a fun few years and Hubie won Coach of the Year. Here’s a guy, every single press conference of his was a tutorial. It was just wonderful. Memphis kind of fell in love with him and his sort of grandfatherly ways.
Hubie, probably more than anyone else, went out of his way to thank me for the way I covered him. Given that he is such a pro, I think that’s why that one sticks in my mind. For Hubie, who knows more about basketball than I would ever think of knowing, for him to thank me for the way I covered him was particularly meaningful.
BN: Is there anything that you would like to accomplish or experience before you retire?
GC: Not really. I’ve covered great events. I think the most fun was the Olympics. I’ve covered eight Olympics and that’s plenty. They’re just a total blast to cover. Super Bowls and Masters and all of that stuff, but to me the fun part was always to be connected to a community, to be one of the voices in a community.
I wanted to be Larry Felser. Larry Felser was the columnist in Buffalo for The Buffalo News that I grew up reading. When I was a 12-year-old kid, I wanted to be Larry Felser. In a way I’ve become that in Memphis. Because of the state of newspapering, there won’t ever be another sports columnist that can have the reach that sports columnists of the past had in Memphis. I don’t just mean me; I just mean everyone who preceded me. The job has changed, but I got to be that for the better part of two decades.
Now I’ve gotten to transition and to be part of doing it differently on a radio show where the conversation is more intimate and there’s more dialogue. You actually are talking to the community. The fun part is being a part of a community and I’ve been able to do that. I just want to keep doing that for a while.
It would be nice for Memphis to win a championship. Memphis has come close. To get back to the Final Four and to have no Mario Chalmers shot or to have Ja carry this team to an NBA championship. But I don’t need that for me to feel like I’ve had fun with this. It’s been a blast.
Sam Mayes Got A Raw Deal But Tyler Media Made The Right Call
“You are being naive if you think a company should stand behind an employee that has put themselves in this situation.”
I do not envy whoever at Tyler Media had to make a decision about Sam Mayes’s future with the company after audio of a private conversation in 2016 was leaked to the media. Mayes and now-former co-worker Cara Rice made a few racist jokes at the expense of Native Americans.
The recording, according to Mayes, was made without his knowledge and leaked illegally. He says in a recorded statement that he should have been given the opportunity to address the recording on air and make amends.
Maybe that is true, maybe it isn’t. I hate for Sam to lose his job as the result of an illegal recording of a private conversation, but the fact is, that conversation isn’t private anymore. Tyler Media didn’t really have an option here. Sam Mayes had to go.
Someone had an illegal recording of the conversation and created an anonymous email account to send it to people in the Oklahoma City media. I was shown a copy of the email. The author states clearly that their goal is to see Mayes and Rice out of a job. There is nothing fair or just about that person getting exactly what they want. It feels slimy. I can’t say that it feels like it wasn’t the right call though.
We have debated whether or not someone should lose their job over comments made in a private conversation many times before. It happens in every field. It wasn’t long ago at all that we were having this same debate about Jon Gruden. His emails to Bruce Allen and others were sent in private. Is it fair he had to go when they were made public? No matter what horrible things were in there, they were said with the understanding that it would stay between friends.
I am going to say the same thing about Sam Mayes that I did about Gruden when that story first broke. You are being naive if you think a company should stand behind an employee that has put themselves in this situation.
You read that right. The circumstances of how the conversations in these examples came to light are absolutely unfair, but the conversations came to light. How it happened is irrelevant. Any sponsor or boss that stands behind Sam Mayes or Jon Gruden would be endorsing the language they used, either inadvertently or very much on purpose. Try explaining that to a sponsor.
People at Tyler Media may know Sam Mayes’s heart. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy. The fact of the matter is, once the audio became public, their hands were tied. There is no mistaking what was said or who said it.
How can any seller or manager take Mayes to advertisers now? How can they put him in front of the Lucky Star Casino, one of the station’s biggest advertisers? They can ask for an audience to let Sam explain himself and try to make amends. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes, who own the casino, are under no obligation to forgive or even listen.
Maybe the day will come where Sam Mayes bounces back. I hope it does. I hope he gets the chance to address his comments with members of Oklahoma’s Native American community and listen to what they have to say in response. I do think it sucks that this is how his time at The Franchise comes to an end, but I get it.
If I have to explain to you why not to say dumb, racist shit, then I don’t think we have much to talk about. But, it is worth noting that the recording of Mayes and Rice’s conversation is proof that privacy is always an assumption, not always a fact.
In his audio statement, Mayes admits it is his voice on the recording. He also says that he was uncomfortable with Rice’s comments and he tried to end their conversation. I’ll take him at his word, but I will also point out that before he tried to end the conversation, he joined in on the jokes. Maybe when someone says that Native Americans are “too drunk to organize” it isn’t a great idea to respond. All it leads to is proof of you saying something dumb and racist.
Again, I’ll reiterate that how these comments came to light is unfair, but they did come to light. That is Sam Mayes’s voice on the recording. He is joining in on the jokes about Native Americans being drunks and addicts. At the end of the day, the only thing that was done to him was the audio being released. He fully and willingly committed the firable offense.
What is the response to a client or potential client when they bring that up? All Tyler Media can do is try to recover and move forward. The company cannot do that with Mayes on the payroll.
Stop Prospecting, Start Strategizing!
“You cannot put a price tag on authenticity. It’s very rare and hard to find these days.”
Struggling to get new business appointments? Dreading making prospecting calls? Having trouble writing creative emails that seemingly never get a response?
Generating responses to new business outreach is easier than you think. Just make sure you do your homework first and keep it “Simple Stupid”.
To do that, start with asking yourself these (3) simple questions:
#1: Did I do my home work on the business itself, their competition and those I plan on reaching out to?
#2: If I were on the other end of the phone and/or email with myself would I want to engage in conversation and/or reply to that email?
#3: Am I prepared to make a one call close given the opportunity to?
If the answer to any of these is “No”… do NOT pick up the phone and by all means do NOT hit the send button on that initial outreach email! Doing so will all but ensure you fall flat on your face. On the off chance you do happen to get the decision maker on the phone you won’t make that great first impression that sometimes can be so crucial. First impressions are always important… ALWAYS!
Skipping over these critical steps is a sure-fire way to ensure your email is completely ignored and will not generate the engagement from the prospect you’d hope for. Successful prospecting is all about the front end digging and research. Do your homework first then strategize a plan of attack for your call and/or email. Taking these extra measures on the front end is absolutely “Mission Critical” and will set you up for much more success with your prospecting endeavors.
Now once you’ve answered “Yes” to all of the above, you’re ready to attack with the knowledge and confidence that should set you a part from your competition. It’s all about the Game Plan, and if you don’t have one, you’re destined for failure time and time again. Incorporate these (5) things into your prospecting Game Plan for your next call/email and watch your results dramatically improve:
#1: MAKE IT PERSONAL & CASUAL – Be informal, find out something interesting about them.
#2: MAKE IT SHORT & CONCISE – Be straight forward and to the point, people are busy.
#3: MAKE IT TIMELY & RELEVANT TO THEM AND/OR THEIR BUSINESS – Give them a good Valid Business Reason.
#4: MAKE IT INTERESTING, COMPELLING & INFORMATIVE – Be the expert they’re missing.
#5: MAKE IT FUN – Fun people are easy to do business with and make it less like “work”.
Lastly, and most importantly, Be Yourself! You cannot put a price tag on authenticity. It’s very rare and hard to find these days. When clients do find it trust me, they value it and appreciate it way more than you’ll ever know!
Good Producers Can Teach The World A Lot About Christmas
“A lot has to be accomplished in the lead-up to Christmas. So much of it happens in the background without much recognition.”
Who is Carl Christmas in your house? Who is the one that makes sure everyone that needs to get a card does? Who comes up with the plan for the lights? Who takes the reins on the shopping?
Every home needs one and in my house, that’s me. December (including the last week of November) is my time to shine, baby!
One thing I have tried to impress upon my mom and wife this year is that shipping and supply chain delays are real. So, if you are planning on procrastinating on your online shopping this year (you know, like usual) someone (me) is going to have no presents under the tree.
Veteran producers are used to operate this way. Young producers, listen up. Your job involves the most delicate balance of any in sports radio. You have to help bring your host’s and PD’s visions to life. That means you have to be able to take their direction. But you also have to keep the host on target. That means you cannot be afraid to be forceful and lead when the moment demands it.
There’s no value to being an unrepentant asshole to people, but you do have to hold them accountable. Look at that Christmas shopping example again. If you want to get what you want, you need to keep on task the people you know aren’t paying attention to the potential roadblocks. It isn’t selfish. It is making sure everyone gets the holiday W they are expecting. Sure, you would be disappointed if your gift doesn’t arrive on time, but so will the gift giver.
Being a stickler for the clock or moving a host off of a topic that has no value is the same thing. Of course there is something in it for you, but you are also helping the host do his or her job better. They may get annoyed with you now, but if you save them from an ass-chewing from the bosses or slipping ratings, then they have reaped the benefits.
I guess the unfortunate difference here is that there may be no acknowledgment of what you did or helped them to avoid. Oh well. Every producer has to expect a certain level of thanklessness.
Producers have to take on that Carl Christmas role in dealing with sales too. Remember, just because the producer’s name isn’t on the show doesn’t mean that isn’t every bit his or her show that it is the hosts’.
It’s like decorating your house for the holidays. You may have a certain design in mind. Maybe you have a traditional look you stick to every year. If your spouse or your kid comes home with a giant, inflatable Santa Claus in a military helicopter that they want on the lawn, you have a decision to make. Are you going to say no and suggest an alternative that aligns more with your goal or are you going to let your plan get run over?
Sales has a job to do. It is to make sure their clients’ messages are heard and to make money for the station. Both can be accomplished without sacrificing your show’s quality.
If a seller comes to you and says he wants his client to come in for five minutes and talk about now being the time to book an appointment to have your garage floors redone, you have to speak up. You have an obligation to make sure that the seller knows that even five minutes of that will hurt the show and have listeners diving for the preset buttons on their car stereo. That isn’t good for the station or his client.
Instead, offer to work with the seller and the client to come up with a piece of content that the client can put his name on and a 20-second ad read behind. Will the audience stick around to listen to some dude named Jerry talk about garage floors or will more people listen to you talk about the NFL playoff picture in a creative way and then still be there to hear Jerry’s message about garage floors? The answer seems obvious.
A lot has to be accomplished in the lead-up to Christmas. So much of it happens in the background without much recognition. If the background work wasn’t done though, the problems would be right out on the front lawn for everyone to see.
“Gatekeeper” is a term I really hate. It implies that someone is telling others what they are and are not allowed to enjoy. It is a necessary term though to properly describe what it is that a great producer and a great Carl Christmas do.
We don’t shut people out from being able to enjoy or be a part of what it is we are creating. We set or are handed down expectations and we block anything that can get in the way of achieving them. Sometimes, that is more thankless work than it should be. It is necessary though.
As my home’s self-appointed Carl Christmas and a former producer, let me give my countrymen the thanks others forget. We are the ones that make it possible for everyone else to be mindless. Wear it as a badge of honor. We may not get the kind of recognition we deserve everyday, but when plans go off without a hitch, we are usually the first to be recognized for making it happen.
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