Brandon Tierney is a star. Just ask anyone that has worked with him or that has been entertained by him. He has had success in markets large and small. Most recently, he said farewell to his CBS Sports Radio audience after a nine-year run on the national network. Now, it is time to get some professional wins that won’t just represent career goals. They will be the culmination of lifelong dreams as well.
If you were a New York sports fan in the 1980s, there are four iconic letters that have shaped the way you think and talk about sports. Brandon was just 14 years old when WFAN signed on at 1050 AM. Getting there was a goal of his as soon as he realized he was going to be a broadcaster.
While he eventually made it to 1050 AM, it was long after WFAN moved down the dial to 660 AM. That changes this week. Brandon Tienery and his partner of the last nine years, Tiki Barber, officially join the WFAN lineup.
Before the duo take over the mid day slot, I had the chance to chat with Brandon about what the opportunity and the history of the station mean to him. We also talked about what Tiki & Tierney could change about the station and what the station will change about the show.
Demetri Ravanos: What does it mean to you to finally get that call and to now host a daytime show on WFAN?
Brandon Tierney: Surreal. The realization of my earliest industry dream. I never knew exactly how I would get there, or when, but I always believed that I would.
That aspiration was fuel early in my career. It balanced me, centered me no matter what part of the country I was living in or how far away from home I was. I always had an eye on working at WFAN.
In 1997, as an intern in the Promotions Department at the station, I used to recruit other interns and sneak into a small production studio at the back of the station in Queens and do mock shows. Every day. Sat behind a mic, and actually rolled thru topic after topic. We weren’t even recording, but the allure of that microphone and those topics. It was potent, like a drug. I was creating a template for how I would eventually host. Finding my style, my voice, what worked, what didn’t.
I remember being so disappointed when I was kicked out of that studio and forced to actually do something pertaining to promotions. All I wanted to do was talk. Promotions? Nahhh man, I just want to let it rip. And I’ve always dreamt of doing it on WFAN from Day 1.
DR: How did this radio station influence your entry to the business? Who did you listen to?
BT: WFAN is in my DNA. It’s a huge part of who I am, even though I’ve yet to launch the new show, It was just always there, engrained in my soul. The sound. The energy. The jingles. How big it felt when I was a kid.
My Dad always had it on in the car, starting with Imus. I fell asleep to the Schmooze. I was captivated by the back and forth of Mike and Chris, the combative nature of some for their debates. They made it sound so important because it was so important – to them, to us as a city. Our teams, Knicks vs Bulls, Knicks vs Pacers, Knicks vs Heat, Yankees vs Red Sox, Bobby V. You cannot fake that. You’re either all in or you’re out. We sniff out the posers right away, we know when a host truly cares and we definitely know when someone is just wasting a few hours a day on the radio collecting a paycheck.
I view that as a personal affront to New York fans. They deserve the best. They’ve had the best. They demand the best. And it is my mission to continue that lineage, to make it even better with my slant and my style. But it’s not going to happen overnight.
I’m not naive. I have to earn the trust and respect of a new audience. I’m entering this phase of my career almost as if no one knows who I am. I don’t assume that listeners will remember me from my days at 1050 ESPN Radio or SNY or St. John’s. It’s a blank slate. And I can’t wait to begin creating something meaningful and God willing, something lasting and palpable.
DR: When Spike Eskin and Chris Oliviero raised the idea of moving over with Tiki to the local side, were there any reservations on your end or Tiki’s?
BT: Zero. The timing is right. I’ve always leaned on my instincts in this business and trusted my gut, and thankfully those instincts have always led me to a better place. To leave New York for San Francisco in 2011, of course there were real doubts, but deep down I was confident that was the right move, and it was.
I didn’t know it then, but it was preparing me for a 9-year national run. It added depth to my on-air game. It enabled me to do a four-hour Sunday morning NFL show (TOPS) for seven years, to mix it up with Coach Cowher and Boomer and eventually Nate. It diversified my game. And most importantly, it brought me back home, to the company that owns the FAN. That part definitely put me in position to make the jump back into local waters.
There were two levels to this move: the emotional level, which I was fully on board with from minute one. And of course the business side, which we were able to hammer out fairly quick. Once the two meshed, it was a no-brainer.
DR: After spending a decade on CBS Sports Radio, which is right next door to WFAN, how many times did you walk past the studio & think to yourself ‘that’s where I belong!’?
BT: I think I did a good job of balancing what I can control versus what I cannot and really just living in the moment. I appreciated what we were building on the national level. and investing all of my energies into that. Every year our profile and reach grew, especially when we launched the TV simulcast five years ago. Growth was my singular focus.
Candidly, of course, my mind occasionally wandered. I missed the energy and juice of local, but I did not live looking backwards. There were really no “what ifs,” just a desire to create something compelling, something memorable, and something lasting with Tiki.
If you squeeze too hard, things tend to fall out of your grasp. Personal maturity and a confidence in my place in the business allowed me to just be immersed in the show, to be present in the show, without constantly hoping for change.
Yes, without elaborating, there were a few times the past few years where it seemed as if my platform was poised to change. But for a multitude of reasons, it never happened, and I always took solace in the fact that it simply was not meant to be. Not yet. You can’t speed up fate. You can try, but it’s almost always more damaging than rewarding and beneficial.
DR: One interesting thing I think is that you have been in the building, just not at WFAN, as legends like Mike, Chernoff, and Steve said goodbye. You’ve been influenced by them as a listener, they have been co-workers. Chernoff was even your boss at CBSSR. But you represent a new era for the station without those names. How do you process that and what was it like to see and interact with that history in the way that you did?
BT: I do not take that responsibility lightly, I embrace it. And as much as we rightly romanticize what WFAN used to be, to me, I’m very impressed with our current lineup and looking forward to joining my new teammates. We have a ton of talent with diverse deliveries, different personalities and styles.
For me, Boomer represents the quintessential player-turned-broadcaster: big presence, great playing resume, ability to expand on all sports, a true fan, which a lot of former athletes are not. When he speaks, it carries weight, but he’s also very comfortable laughing at himself and with others. And he better be, because sitting next to Gio every morning is a ride in itself. I think Gregg’s comedic timing and unpredictability are outstanding. He’s another talent willing to laugh at himself. He is legitimately funny and truly a good dude.
As for Craig and Evan, like any new show, naturally, they are still finding their ultimate footing together. But their individual talents are so obvious. Evan is a true fan. The dude knows his stuff as well as anyone in the city. He’s a walking sports search engine. And being wired like that myself, I truly appreciate that. Now, our deliveries are very different and we are two completely different personalties, but the work required to be that in tune with so many different things, I get it and I really respect it.
As for Craig, I view him as a radio genius, and I’ve told him that. New York radio is simply better when Carton has a mic. His ability to keep things moving, to piss people off, to hit areas most people are unwilling or unable to effectively hit, he was born for this job.
So again…the history and roots of WFAN are what pulled me, but adding to that unmatched legacy, that drives me. As for my partner, I simply love the guy. At the top of the list in terms of intelligence. Just a naturally curious person. Adaptable. We play off each other well. He knows when I’m getting ready to enter my zone, when the voice raises, the hands start flying and the beads of sweat build…and he allows me the space needed to be me. To do what I do.
It’s such an underrated aspect of a partnership. Mike was great with that with Chris. When it was time to explode, Mike surrendered the stage, so to speak. And long ago, l learned what drives him, and I surrender the space as well. But segment to segment, day to day, we are just in sync. We see the world in a very similar manner. We both subscribe to hard work, accountability, and common sense. We both come from relatively humble beginnings. But we also disagree on enough things inherently where there is an equal give and take. Nothing is contrived. Our deliveries are polar opposites.
Personally, I think Tiki is going to love local. He’s never experienced radio quite like this. You strap in every day. Bring a hard hat, exhale, and do it all again the next day and the day after. It’s like being back in the trenches, back on a field.
DR: Looking at WFAN, Gregg Giannotti, Craig Carton & yourself have hosted in other cities. Spike Eskin has programmed in other cities, yet others have moved up the ladder within the building to earn their shot. There’s no one way to be successful there anymore. How do you feel the experience of working in other major markets has made you capable of handling the big stage in NYC?
BT: I would not change a thing, quite frankly. As a young broadcaster with no family commitments at that time, traveling the country, chasing my dreams, it added a layer of depth that I believe is very much an asset for me on-air: toughness. Nothing was easy and nothing was handed to me.
I always felt natural behind a mic, but my actual broadcasting ascent was an arduous one. Lots of tough decisions and blind faith, an empty bank account until the age of almost 30. Granted, some people’s paths are more linear than mine. It’s a straight shot. Graduate from college, hook up with a local radio or TV station before slowly ascending to a more visible position. There are many examples of that in our field and in our market, highly successful talents who never left the city.
But for me, it was an amazing, galvanizing experience. The different traditions of each fan base, the politics of each city…I embraced it all. But even throughout all of my travels deep down, my focus was always on working and thriving in New York. It was my magnet.
Mentally, I never wavered from that New York sensibility, with the belief that I would eventually return home one day better than ever. When? Where? With whom? I wasn’t sure, but I always had conviction I would be back. I always felt as if I had unfinished business in New York.
DR: Aside from the obvious content selection, how will Tiki & Tierney on WFAN be different from the nationally syndicated version of Tiki & Tierney?
BT: Callers. On the national level, it’s all about topic development. It’s paramount to see things and present them in an interesting, non-obvious way. So there was the constant inner battle of talking about Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers but doing so in a way that was different from say, Colin Cowherd or Dan Patrick. That is a lot tougher than you think.
Locally, it’s about tapping into the vein of informed, passionate fans. The presentation is different. It’s a quicker pace. The tone is different. Still authentic, still intelligent…but a bit more raw, which I love. It’s natural. From the moment you open that mic locally, there is a rush and surge of adrenaline that is hard to describe and for me, nearly impossible to replicate in any other facet of my life. That pure, unfiltered mix of every possible emotion wrapped up into one memorable rant or take? It’s the best. It’s what drives me professionally, still to this day. It’s lmost like chasing the perfect golf shot. When everything clicks, when it all meshes, you feel like your flying.
DR: Is there anything about national radio you will miss when the show goes local?
BT: I had the great fortune of having a very large platform during a very pivotal, volatile time in American history. The world was changing and we had a lot of important conversations that I will always cherish. They were uncomfortable conversations that we brought an element of comfort to, conversations and topics that transcended sport. Real depth. That’s probably the best part of doing a national show. The reach.
Generally there is more surface stuff in national. More macro and less micro, less in the weeds.
But I like the weeds and have always enjoyed the nuance of local. I love the intimacy, but national gives you a chance to branch out in a way that that local does not. It was a nice weapon, one I took very seriously.
DR: Any concerns about interacting with a vocal Giants fan base that has a love/hate relationship with Tiki?
BT: We relish it. I know Tiki does. Listen, there’s no way around it, people are going to test Tiki early. Some are going to come to the table with a gripe or preconceived perception of who he is or what he did. A gripe that he retired early, resentment about what he said about Eli and Coughlin.
The irony is that during the time in which he said what said, we were ALL saying the same exact thing on the local airwaves. There was no real evidence early that Eli was absolutely going to elevate the Giants to prominence and there was little evidence Coughlin was going to do the same despite success in Jacksonville. He was inflexible. Some thought his style was antiquated, that it would no longer work with the modern athlete. It was not seamless for either with the Giants.
I think at the end of the day, Tiki was only guilty of one thing: bad timing. When he said what he said, it came across as malicious, but that was never the intent. He was transitioning to the media, and I think the tone was unintentionally lost. Do I think Tiki could have communicated his thoughts on Eli better? I do. It was a bit awkward.
Forget about this business for one second though. Let’s just talk character. I’ve always taken immense pride in reading people, being able to decipher good intentions versus malicious ones. I’ve sat in the same studio with Tiki every day for nearly a decade. I know his character. I know the type of father he is. I know how well-intentioned and selfless he is with all of his charitable endeavors. Some fans will come with venom initially. I fully expect that and so does he. But I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t win them over quickly.
If you truly know Tiki Barber the person, the man, the father and husband, the concerned citizen, you can’t help but like the guy. And oh yeah, by the way, he’s one of the greatest players in the history of New York football, so there’s always that.
DR: When you consider how WFAN was built over the past three decades and compare it to the new lineup and direction entering 2022 and beyond, what final message do you have for New York sports fans who’ve made this brand a huge part of their lives?
BT: I do not take this responsibility lightly. I view it as if I am finally putting on the pinstripes, the absolute best brand in all of sports radio. This has always been a dream of mine. I’m from here. Grew up in Brooklyn and high school in Manhattan. My parents still live in the same home I grew up in. Sister lives in Manhattan. Both sets of grandparents lived in Brooklyn.
My roots run deep in this city. I’m one of you. I just happen to be blessed with a microphone every day. I can promise you we will not always agree and we will most definitely battle, but you will get my absolute best. Every fiber in my body will be fixated on doing this job to the absolute best of my capability. If you’re thinking it, I can promise you I will have the balls to say it. And back it up. When I’m wrong, I will own it. I don’t hide and I won’t duck. I will be accountable and I will demand accountability and transparency from every team in this market. Fans deserve that. Every morning at 10 AM, a little piece of Mike and Chris and Joe B and the Schmooze and all of the other great pioneers of this amazing network of voices and personalities will be with me in spirit.
I’ll do it my way, the only way I know how. I will be true to who I am and what I believe in. And I hope that before long, people will say, “You know, that BT, I really like that dude. He’s a little nuts, a little loud, but he knows his shit. Would love to have a beer with that guy.”
I’ve been fueled by this crazy dream I conjured up all those years ago. I’m ready. That’s my message for New York and New Jersey. Now, it’s time to stop telling you what I’m going to do. It’s time to simply start doing it.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Jonathan Vilma Went To the Super Bowl As a Player, He Wants To Go Back as a Broadcaster
“The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
From training camp to preseason action; then an 18-week regular season followed by a string of pressurized, single-elimination playoff action, the journey to the Super Bowl is long and arduous. That is part of what makes the conclusion of it all exhilarating for the winning team and, conversely, gut wrenching for its opponent. Jonathan Vilma knows firsthand just what this journey entails and now articulates it to football fans on a weekly basis.
Vilma also knows how it feels to be a world champion, starring on the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl championship team’s defensive line as a middle linebacker. As a three-time Pro Bowl selection and defensive captain, he always made sure he was ready to take the field, proved when he made a critical pass deflection that helped secure the Super Bowl victory. Yet he is not satisfied just winning the game, as he aspires to one day call the nation’s largest, most complex sporting event from the broadcast booth.
“This is no different than football for me,” Vilma said. “[I am] very competitive, so I would want to make sure that [in] each performance [and] each game that I do, I prepare and act as if it is a playoff game; a Super Bowl game. It’s the best game that I’m ever going to call.”
Vilma enjoyed a decade-long career in the NFL and was inducted into the New Orleans Saints’ Hall of Fame in 2017 even though he did not play in New Orleans for the first several years of his career. Instead, Vilma’s career started in East Rutherford, N.J. as a member of the New York Jets, an organization to which he was drafted with the 12th overall pick out of the University of Miami. Following his 2004 rookie season, he was recognized as the NFL defensive rookie of the year by the Associated Press and went on to lead the NFL in tackles the next season.
Aside from all of the accolades, suiting up in the New York-metropolitan area meant facing a deluge of media on a regular basis, aggrandized because of his abilities on the field. Vilma always sought to give 110% effort as a player and did the same when giving interviews by being truthful with journalists – no matter the situation.
“I notice that a lot of the beat writers [and] a lot of regional writers appreciate when you’re just very honest about the good and the bad,” Vilma said, “and they appreciate more when you’re the same person during the bad times as you are during the good times. If I lost a game, whether it was with the Jets or the Saints, beat writers come in and you handle it the same way.”
In February 2008, Vilma was traded to the New Orleans Saints and proceeded to sign a five-year contract with the team approximately one year later. After winning the Super Bowl championship in February 2010 just past the midpoint of his career, he began thinking about what he would do next and eventually decided to give sports media a try.
Despite being an active player, Vilma appeared on a local television postgame show to give his thoughts and analysis on the action, affording him early repetitions in the industry. Once his contract expired with the Saints, he joined Bleacher Report as a guest analyst, but then moved back to college football to cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with NBC Sports.
The transition from playing in the NFL to working as a media member in college football on pregame and halftime shows was facile since he remained informed about the NCAA and the various conferences. In his preparation, he examined Notre Dame and its opponent, organically forming cogent opinions conducive to his role and the matchup at hand.
“I was following it prior to when I went to NBC,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of dialing in. When I say dialing in, I just reverted back to what I did when I was playing – and that was watching film [and] getting an understanding of the players, the teams, the coaches [and] the schemes. Once you do that, everything else outside of that is kind of free-flowing because I already know what the players are going to do or the coaches or the teams and how they operate.”
After a year where Vilma exclusively worked on Notre Dame football broadcasts, he began a four-year stint with The Walt Disney Company where he contributed to programming on both ESPN and ABC. With both linear television networks, Vilma was covering college football in its entirety, meaning that he needed to know information about every team. It resulted in a shift in his in-studio preparation for his role on ESPN2’s Saturday studio coverage to ensure he would be ready for any situation presented to him over the course of a broadcast.
“During the week, it would really be about watching [one] half of a team but not watching the whole game or not watching two to three games,” Vilma said. “Then, being very aware of what the media is saying about particular teams to see if it matches up with whatever I believe [about] that team.”
Upon signing a multi-year contract with ESPN in 2018, Vilma was moved to ABC’s Saturday college football studio coverage, working as an analyst during the day and at night on ESPN Saturday Night Football on ABC. Vilma joined the show to replace Booger McFarland, who had been added as a new analyst on ESPN’s presentation of Monday Night Football, collaborating with host Kevin Negandhi and analyst Mack Brown to prepare fans for the weekend primetime matchup.
Over his time with ESPN, Vilma had also been placed into the broadcast booth on occasion, including for its broadcast of the 2018 Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl between the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers and Northern Illinois University Huskies. Through the experience of being on the call for live games, Vilma was eager to explore an opportunity to progress into doing it regularly. It relates to his competitive mindset fostered from his time as a player, and one that he continues to carry with him in sports media.
“It allows me to, for three hours, do what I did mentally when I played – which was [to] break down the opponent; anticipate what they’re going to do; look at their strengths or weaknesses; talk about it and really be able to go in-depth,” Vilma recalls telling his broadcast agent leading into contract negotiations. “….It really lets me feel like I’m a master of this game this week and I really enjoy that.”
The only problem was an opportunity to make the move into a broadcast booth was not available at ESPN in 2020, as the Monday Night Football booth was filled by Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick and its college broadcasters were relatively in place. As a result, Vilma decided to interview for an NFL broadcasting position with FOX Sports, despite initially being hesitant because of the various nuances in the league and having the ability to adopt a parlance applicable for both defensive and offensive analysis.
Recognizing his passion for the game of football and enjoyment of calling games, Vilma chose to join FOX Sports where he was paired with versatile play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert.
The decision by the network to form this particular duo was auspicious for Vilma’s development since Albert had demonstrated experience working with an array of analysts and partially engendering their success. The impact of Albert, who joined the NFL on FOX in 1994, was even more apparent when Vilma had to work his first few NFL games without him since Albert had to complete a mandatory two-week quarantine period upon returning from the NHL Bubble in Toronto.
“Kenny has been in it for so long that he’s a guy [who] doesn’t want the spotlight [or] the limelight – he just wants to make you look good; ‘you’ as in obviously me,” Vilma said. “….I could see the difference in Kenny and how he likes to call games because I had watched about five of his games prior to my first season. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll wait until Kenny comes back and we’ll kind of go from there.’”
Albert and Vilma just completed their third season together in the booth and worked in tandem with sideline reporter Shannon Spake, who provided reports from the field. The congeniality within the broadcast team comes from having an understanding of optimizing each other’s roles and effectively supplementing them.
“I mess with him all the time; I call him a nerd all the time,” Vilma remarked of Albert, “but he’s actually really, really cool so we go to dinner a lot [and] we hang out a lot. Because of that, it shows through our body language [and] through our rapport when we call games.”
As an analyst, Vilma aims to present the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of each play while Albert’s play-by-play responsibilities center around his accurate and concise description of the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where.’ In order to perform their jobs to the highest standard, they take different approaches when it comes to preparation.
While Albert meticulously researches the rosters, creates detailed charts and talks to coaches and team personnel to elucidate storylines and set up his colleagues, much of Vilma’s preparation relies on watching film. Even though he is not taking the field as a player, the methodology corresponds to his participating in as many facets of the team as possible to gather quality film.
In fact, that practice was advised to him as an NFL rookie by Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, Ray Lewis – and it had a part in shaping the trajectory of his career. Instantiating that wisdom into media, Vilma tries to formulate comprehensive and coherent points on which to expand and implement in his analysis of a play – unimpeded by other sources of information.
“I don’t want the media to influence anything I say on Sunday when I’m calling that game,” Vilma said. “I want to make sure that whatever I say is because of what I saw on film and what I watched of those teams, and then what I’m seeing Sunday as a game is going on.”
Vilma officially retired from playing football in 2015, meaning he is not very far removed from the NFL. He remains immersed in the football community as a former player and maintains relationships with players, coaches and personnel in the league. His job as an analyst though is predicated on straightforward objectivity; therefore, it is his obligation and that of other analysts to critique individuals and teams as necessary.
“I’ve always felt that if I’m calling the game based on what I see and there’s no hidden agenda [and] there’s no sugarcoating it, then you’ll be fine,” Vilma said. “Just in the same light that I’ll talk about a player who’s inaccurate or whatever it is, I’ll also speak very glowingly about a person if they’re having a great game.”
Playing professional football generates ethos in terms of commentary and the editorializing thereof whether that be during live game broadcasts, shoulder programming or studio shows. Despite making the ostensibly inscrutable parts of the game understood, it is impractical to carry an expectation of pleasing everyone. With the advent of social media, viewers with minimal credibility can suddenly become boisterous critics and build a legitimate following, lending them exposure and a megaphone to project their voices en masse.
One example of such an instance came following a game between the Atlanta Falcons and Vilma’s former team, the New Orleans Saints. As a Super Bowl champion with the team, some fans of the Saints expected him to be inherently biased throughout the game; however, they were flabbergasted when he lambasted their play amid a substantial defeat.
After the game, Vilma opened his Instagram account on which he received direct messages where afflicted fans expressed disbelief that they ever cheered him on as a player. Those types of excoriating messages can unnerve typical social media users and beget demoralization, but for Vilma, it was the epitome of a successful week in the booth.
“After each game, I want to have the fans from both teams saying I was biased for the other team,” Vilma said. “That means that my passion is coming through; it means that the emotions of the game – I’m expressing it as I call the game.”
Throughout the game, Vilma has chances to infuse his personality within his analysis and display his synergy with Albert. He genuinely enjoys his work and is not afraid to divulge how he feels about certain situations, including replay reviews during which he has a 50-50 chance of getting the ruling correct.
“You can’t be right for three hours,” Vilma said. “Nobody is perfect, and I’m not trying to be perfect. [I just] try to make sure that I talk about what I see, have fun and then let my personality come out when the moment presents itself.”
Similar to studio programming across professional sports, Vilma is looking to find a way to incorporate interactive elements into a live game broadcast so viewers can feel engaged and entertained. He has thought about implementing tweets over the course of the broadcast directed at him and Albert, potentially to guide their commentary or to implore them to hone in on a certain player or situational tendency. They would then sometimes choose to respond to the viewers while on air, akin to a point-to-mass communication system occasionally exhibited by alternate-style broadcasts.
In this manner, the user is able to gain control over what they are watching, a critical element of appealing to consumers in the 21st-century amid advances in streaming technology and an active proliferation of OTT content providers. Overall, broadcasting across the NFL is a means through which to promulgate the sport and attract viewers – and Vilma, as a live game broadcast analyst, is a fundamental part of that process. The challenge for him and other analysts is to resist allowing pundits on social media to regularly sway them in a certain direction, which would actualize capriciousness and render entropy in some of their viewpoints.
“If you try too hard to appeal to everyone that is going to comment negatively or positively about your performance, you can find yourself not knowing who you are when it comes to calling games,” Vilma said. “That’s very important because you have to establish yourself in some regard.”
Vilma aspires to call a Super Bowl at some point in his career; however, the next time FOX Sports will have the broadcast rights to the game is in Feb. 2025, the culmination of what Tom Brady expects to be his debut season in the network’s lead broadcast booth alongside Kevin Burkhardt. With other lead broadcast booths around the league being cemented over the last few years on CBS, ESPN/ABC, NBC, it is unclear how that opportunity may come on linear television, but it remains a future goal he looks to attain.
“It’s very eye-opening for me how much media surrounds the game,” Vilma said. “….With FOX [and] being on this side now, I’m still kind of just amazed at how much time, effort and investment goes into the production of the game. It’s very interesting to see how it’s really two different kinds of industries – the athletics and the media – but very similar in the sense that everyone is locked in to putting out the best product. The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
An effective way to be considered for an opportunity of that magnitude may just come from following Ray Lewis’ advice he received early on as an NFL player of amassing a library of film. In that practice, Vilma demonstrated a persistent, indefatigable effort to continue to grow – and sees the parallels between his time on the field and current endeavors in sports media.
“I did local TV; I did NBC; any interview I could do at that time, I would do,” Vilma said. “It was now to be able to have as much film as possible – at that time, enough good film – that someone could look and say, ‘You know, I can respect him. This guy is really trying to perfect his craft. He’s been on film; he’s got a lot of good tape,’ and then go from there.”
For former athletes, moving up in sports media, aside from notoriety or expertise, often derives from putting one’s ego aside and evoking a sense of humility. It comes from adopting a hard-working attitude while taking chances that others may perceive as being demeaning or beneath them.
In many ways, it is what any entry-level employee usually does early in their career, generating a sense of respect and collaboration through their work ethic and, in turn, making enduring connections. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” and it seemingly holds true across various industries, making relationship-building and versatility integral to experience sustained success.
It all begins with repetitions and focused practice, and Vilma shows no signs of slowing down.
“A lot of the guys don’t want to do the local [or] regional stuff, and that’s the only way to get film,” Vilma expressed. “Unless you’re just going to go off of your name – which few can; most cannot – you’ve got to get on film.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Gabe Kuhn Isn’t Worried About Filling Gary Parrish’s Shoes
“I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out.”
In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character, Crash, says, “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once. Twenty-one greatest days of my life.” That quote popped in my head because of a sports radio host that recently got called up. Gabe Kuhn is now the host of a brand new drive-time afternoon show on 92.9 ESPN in Memphis.
This is a major opportunity for Gabe, and the smart money is on him lasting much, much longer in Memphis than Crash Davis did in the majors.
Gabe is a former offensive lineman at the University of Memphis. He obviously knows the Memphis area well and has risen quickly in the industry. Some say that love is the universal language. I would argue it’s ball, and Gabe definitely knows his stuff when it comes to football.
We chat about finding the balance of talking football on a deeper level but not too deep. Gabe also talks about filling big shoes, St. Louis Cardinal face tats and being motivated by fear. We even sneak in a little Super Bowl talk. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: You basically just got called up to the big leagues. What does it mean to you to get this opportunity?
Gabe Kuhn: It means a whole lot. It means a lot of people have the confidence in me that I can get this job done. It also means that the city of Memphis has embraced me to the point where people believe that I’m worth listening to from 4:00-7:00 PM. But overall, man, I feel like the job itself — the confidence I have in myself in getting it done — it means a bunch. I just want to make sure I can reciprocate the love the city has given me to this point from 4:00-7:00 PM every day.
BN: What were the sports radio gigs you had before this latest opportunity?
GK: Four years ago, I was let go by the Memphis Express of the AAF. Obviously, the AAF ended up folding. But I decided to just move on from there. I really started about as ground floor as you could get. I just hit up a connection I knew from Sports 56 in Eli Savoie. Eli was great. He told me that they didn’t have any spots open there. I basically stayed there in the morning, checked out the afternoon, learned some things for free. I wouldn’t even call myself an intern; I was just sort of looking, watching and trying to figure out the whole radio thing. This was four years ago.
Then about three weeks into it my guy, Johnny Radio – Johnny Hardin, knew the new producer. Right place, right time, hired me. Wasn’t making anything for two and a half years really, but obviously enjoyed it and learned a whole lot. Started producing middays for Eli Savoie and Greg Gaston. Then made the jump about two and a half years in when the station decided to rearrange their show. Dave Woloshin, voice of the Tigers, wanted to take a step back in workload. Brett Norsworthy needed a co-host with him. I ended up getting the 3-6 show Sportstime with Gabe and Stats. It really was interesting. It was from $9 an hour to salary in about two and a half years. Now I’m where I’m at.
BN: What was it about sports radio that got you interested right after your football career, and what was it about sports radio that maintained your interest when you weren’t making any money for a couple of years?
GK: Well, first of all, I love talking ball. I always had the confidence in myself that I would eventually get where I needed to go with it. I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out. I feel like that always shines through. That’s just the confidence I have in myself. And honestly, when it comes down to it, I appreciate the art of it. I know how cliché, corny that may sound, but I appreciate being able to have contrary thoughts and show my personality through. That’s one of the perks of the job that I do appreciate.
BN: You’re from the St. Louis area, right?
GK: Yes, sir.
BN: That’s cool. My dad is originally from Alton, Illinois.
GK: About an hour away. I’m in West County. Wildwood, Chesterfield if you’ve ever heard of that.
BN: Nice. Are you a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
GK: Of course, absolutely. 100%.
BN: There ya go. It almost sounds like you’ve got Cardinals ink. Like, yeah, of course, I’ve got an Ozzie Smith back mural.
GK: I don’t have the full Cardinals face tat yet. But it’s coming soon.
BN: [Laughs] That’s great. Taking over for Gary Parrish, who as you know is big deal in Memphis, pulling huge shares, what’s your approach when it comes to filling big shoes like that?
GK: First of all, I do want to give a shout-out to Gary. Gary was very nice through the process and congratulated me and reached out. I thought that was really cool of him. But as far as filling those shoes, just be as informative, as entertaining as he is. I know that’s simple. I know that’s an easy way of putting it, but Gary was so popular for a reason; he put out good content and people enjoyed it. He had a genuine back and forth with his audience. His audience latched on to what he was putting out. I guess that’s as best as I can put it. That’s what I plan to get done as well. And also, I think that Gary has a love for this city that I have as well. I think that we’re similar in that way.
BN: The cliché of you never want to be the guy who follows the guy. I’ve always thought that’s total BS; I don’t want to be the guy who never gets an opportunity. What is your thought process when you hear someone say you never want to be the guy following the guy, because in your situation, you’re the guy following the guy?
GK: I would say that I don’t think about that in the grand scheme of things. I’m not going to lose sleep over opportunities I get. I know that it’s tough at times to follow a guy who has been so successful in whatever industry it may be. But I tell those people, I’m going to do a fantastic job as well. I guess that’s where I’ll go with it.
BN: What do you want your show to sound like?
GK: First of all, genuine. That’s where you have to start with this thing. I think there’s a lot of people coming up through the ranks that try to find their voice. I feel like that’s something I’ve done a good job of, I’ve found my voice. I have a personality that will absolutely shine through. I don’t want to be overly serious, but I love just talking ball.
But also, as far as the sound day-to-day, I love more so than a lot of people in the city, talking with players, with coaches, people inside the locker rooms, people that are connected still to whatever sport they’re in. I certainly feel like I have some good connections there. I feel like I can break down some barriers in talking with those guys that a lot of people can’t. I feel like that’s something that people will really like as far as my sound is concerned.
BN: You played ball. You know it very, very well. You could get really intricate with it if you wanted to. How do you balance not getting too crazy with the details, but also not being basic to a fault?
GK: I think the biggest equalizer there is if I’m going to dive into some deep ball talk, if I’m talking about the Philadelphia Eagles run game for example, I’ll say what I’m going to say and then I’ll explain it. I’ll try to bring people in there with me. I try not to get carried away when it comes to blocking schemes and who had a down block here, who was pulling there. I try to stay away from stuff like that. But I feel that listeners are a lot more moldable and understanding than some people think.
BN: Who do you like in the Super Bowl, Eagles or Chiefs?
GK: The Chiefs looked very good in the AFC Championship against the Bengals, but when I just sit back for a half second and think about the situation, Patrick Mahomes has a bum ankle. The Eagles pass rush got after Brock Purdy to the point that he got knocked out of that game. They got after Josh Johnson to the point that he got knocked out against the Eagles.
I just feel like the Eagles pass rush mixed with the rest of that defense, they’ve done a good job of building that secondary. They have a MVP-caliber quarterback this year, who will finish in the top five in MVP voting. Their offensive line is great. They’re just so complete. I don’t know if the Chiefs are as complete a team. I feel like the Eagles will be able to get after Patrick Mahomes and bother him in ways that he hasn’t been bothered through the playoffs. But we will have to see. This is definitely going to be an interesting back and forth.
BN: What do you think are the top-3 most popular teams or sports in Memphis?
GK: We have a very, very passionate audience, and certainly I think the Grizzlies audience has grown a lot. It’s catching up and it might be there right now. But we have a very passionate audience when it comes to Memphis Tiger basketball. That’s the truth of the matter. The city loves following recruiting. The city loves the AAU circuit. The city loves everything like that.
Since we’re in the Southeast, since we have a footprint of a lot of different college football teams, and obviously the University of Memphis in town, I’d put college football up there. But really close, as it always is, is the NFL. The NFL is a year-round topic as well just because of how national it is. We don’t really have a defined fan base here. I guess Cowboys, Steelers, maybe a little bit of Titans sprinkled in there. I’d say those are really at the top.
BN: Going back to your playing days at Memphis, what was your experience like playing on the team?
GK: When I came in, there were 29 guys in my recruiting class, I was easily the 29th. Granted I did get a scholarship. Obviously, I had to pay for my first summer. That was a little bit different. I came in and I had to really, really grind for everything. I came in at 260 pounds. I had to get myself up to 310. I had to play different positions. I played left tackle in high school. I had to move myself to center and then eventually guard. It was an uphill grind the entire time. I learned a whole lot and honestly, it gave me the pride in my work and the work ethic in general that I have today. I’m glad for that time, no question.
BN: Who are a couple of the big name players from Memphis that went on to the NFL while you were still there?
GK: Oh, how much time you got? I’m just kidding. Jake Elliott. Bobby McCain. Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor Jr. Tony Pollard. There’s more where that came from. There’s a few more that got through, Wynton McManis spent some time in the NFL. We had some really good talent on those teams, ‘13 to ‘17. That’s why we won as much as we did.
BN: How about Tony Pollard, man? It’s really cool to see how his career keeps growing and growing.
GK: He was a guy — Mike Norvell was my second head coach. We always had some questions, ‘Why is he not getting as many totes?’ Obviously, we had Darrell Henderson Jr. in that backfield, Patrick Taylor Jr. in that backfield, so we had to sort of balance that out. But we always knew what he was capable of. The fact that he can get out there, play in the slot, catch some balls, run outside, get into that sort of zone scheme that the Cowboys can run, get him out on the edge into space. We always saw that. But honestly, it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t have all of those body blows in college, because that tends to help out running backs these days.
BN: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s a random question, but I just have to know, your Twitter background picture where it’s a guy and a girl at a baseball game or something. If you know what I’m talking about, I have to know the backstory of that.
GK: [Laughs] Well, honestly, I find it to be a funny picture, first of all. That’s the background story in general. But I have a lovely fiancée, and I find myself explaining a lot of sports situations to her, discussing my day-to-day life with her. I just feel like that’s me, I guess. I feel like it’s just a funny representation of what I go through with my fiancée day-to-day.
BN: [Laughs] I love it, man. That’s great. Do you have a marriage date?
GK: September 30 is the marriage date. I told her, try to stay away from fall weddings and she came back to me five minutes later and asked if September 30 was okay. It looks like the first battle I’ve lost.
BN: [Laughs] Ahh man, that’s funny. I also need to know the name of the dog in the background of your Twitter picture there.
GK: So I have two dogs now. I have about 185 pounds worth of dog at my house, both Great Pyrenees. One is named Nola. She’s the girl, and then Motley is the boy.
BN: Are you a Mötley Crüe fan? Where does Motley come from?
GK: He’s actually a rescue. He was named previous to us rescuing him.
BN: Oh, gotcha. It might be a weird time to ask about your future when you just got a big opportunity, but when you think about the next five years or so, what do you want it to look like?
GK: As far as the gig I have, 4:00-7:00 PM, that’s just going to be a massive part of my life and obviously going to be my A-priority the next five years. But also within that, I really do think that some opportunities as far as maybe college football games, color analyst, those type of things. Helping out in the community in general away from the studio, that type of thing. But I feel like the professional opportunities will widen a tad bit and I’m looking forward to it.
BN: When you were transitioning from football to sports radio, who were a couple of the sports radio hosts or TV personalities that you enjoyed?
GK: What’s interesting and kind of funny is I know a lot of people will smack him down, but over the years, especially earlier, probably a little bit less now, but I think Colin Cowherd is a guy that I always watched growing up that I had some appreciation for. And yes, he’s wrong. And yes, there’s a lot of people that go after him for various things. But I feel like the engagement that he has is pretty nice. But also in town, let’s be honest, the truth of it is the guy I’m following. When I didn’t have my 3-6 show, I listened to Gary a lot. I thought he did a fantastic job. He was the guy in town that I certainly appreciated and thought the world of as far as the show was concerned.
BN: What are some of the things that get you to listen to a show if you’re driving around, and what gets you to turn away from a show?
GK: That’s tough because I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to sports radio. I generally give people a longer shot. I think when we’re just speaking generally, someone who’s informative and engaging, no matter what content they’re putting out. I know a lot of people will say they like the bits, they like segmented items that bring them back every day. I think there’s something to that as well. But if you’re informative, engaging, I’ll listen to anything you have to put out there.
On the flip side of that, if you hear a bunch of errors. If you hear a bunch of people slipping up. If there’s no point to the conversation being had, if there’s no sort of end goal — and that goes with the engaging part of this whole thing — I feel like that would be the time where you may switch stations. I feel like that’s a pretty long-winded way of saying you stay around if it’s informative, engaging. You don’t if it’s not informative and engaging.
BN: Going back to your football days after college, what was it like in the AAF? Just that year and how the league was shut down, what was that like, man?
GK: It was interesting to say the least. I got cut right after minicamp. That’s the truth of the matter. I got signed to the inaugural team, and then was cut directly after minicamp. I guess I wasn’t big enough, whatever it may be. But it was not a good experience. To be completely frank with you, it was bad for most everybody involved. They didn’t have a practice field all figured out. Everything was pretty spur of the moment. After I got done, they sent me a bill for the physical I took previous to minicamp. It was just a bunch of errors stacked on top of it.
Obviously, I got cut early and moved on and found my role, but there’s a lot of good guys I know that got cut from that league and couldn’t really land on their feet for a while. Didn’t get paid, didn’t have anywhere to go for a moment. Obviously, some of them found their way, some didn’t. I just thought that that operation in general, and I know this is getting serious and a little tough, but that operation in general was very disappointing to see about how ill-prepared they were.
BN: I just thought of Mark Schlereth, a former offensive lineman. He once talked about being scared during his NFL career. He was a guy that wasn’t highly recruited, wasn’t highly drafted and he was just scared that he was going to get replaced or get cut. I think about your football career and how you explained it where at Memphis you’re one of the last guys on scholarship. You go to the AAF, you’re cut. I don’t know if that builds a fear that might be a good thing with what you have now in sports radio, where it’s like, I got to prepare or the next guy is going to take my spot. Do you feel like that at all?
GK: Yes, I do. I think I would relate it to my fiancée is always telling me you never give yourself credit. You never sit back and enjoy and give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. I say I don’t think there’s time for that. If you’re giving yourself credit that means you’re patting yourself on the back for a job well done. I hate to say it like this, but the job’s not finished, right? You have to move forward day to day like the job’s not finished. I would relate it to that. I think there’s absolutely a part of me that feels that way.
The Chiefs & Eagles Have Super Bowl Game Plans, How About You?
“The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either.”
When it comes to preparation, I usually hold off. I’m a procrastinator’s procrastinator. It sounds better if I say; “I’m driven by deadlines,” but the truth is, I just generally put things off until they absolutely have to be checked off the list. If your goal as a producer is to have a great post-Super Bowl show, don’t be me, you best start working now.
There are many things that complicate booking guests for a Super Bowl reaction show. The obvious is that you have no idea who is winning the game. But, beyond that, you have no way of predicting what will be the biggest story coming out of the game. It could be anything from overtime to a blowout, halftime show debacle, officiating blunder, or even a surprise retirement announcement.
With that in mind, there are some strategies for targeting guests. With these, though, working ahead is paramount. Most anyone that is going to have enough insight to improve your show will be slammed in the hours following the end of the game.
Strategy 1: The Game Participant
This is a big risk, big reward strategy. It is also one that is only available to a select group of shows. If your show is nationally syndicated, in a very large market, or home market for one of the teams, you have a shot here. If not, the odds are not in your favor. The team’s media departments are as busy as anyone during a Super Bowl run. They aren’t likely to help a show they’ve never dealt with during that whirlwind of action.
I am reminded of a friend of mine who worked as the media relations director for a mid-major basketball team that sprung a huge round two upset and advanced to the Sweet 16. Needless to say, he was swamped overnight with interview requests for his coach. He told me every station led with “ESPN Radio” then mumbled the part about being in Puyallup, Washington. It never hurts to ask, but understand it is a long shot.
Strategy Two: Local Player Not In The Game
This can be a really solid idea for both previewing the Super Bowl and the Monday after the game. If you are in a local NFL market, or if a local college or high school star is in the NFL, consider him as an analyst. Who better knows what happens in an NFL game than an NFL player? Bonus points if he has been a Super Bowl participant in the past.
Don’t underestimate how many NFL players are thinking about life after football. One of the dozens of roles as NFL analyst at a major network is an excellent retirement plan. You don’t have to have a Hall of Fame jacket for those gigs, but you do need to be good on air. You might be surprised by how many players will agree to an interview with that in mind.
Strategy Three: The Trusted Analyst
Every network has all their biggest voices either In Phoenix or in the studio for the game. These are people that know the interview game and have plenty of experience. This strategy comes with some obvious hurdles; it turns out the networks paying the analysts to be on site keep them rather busy. While they might have been happy to join your show the Monday after Week Three, this is a different animal.
One other factor you should consider in this strategy is the fact that Sky Harbor airport will be one of the busiest in the world Monday morning. Many of the analysts will be scrambling home to start their off season as well. If your analyst is on the move, travel delays can wreck your whole plan.
Strategy Four: The Pop Culture Angle
Oftentimes the biggest talking point coming out of the game is one of the things happening outside the actual play on the field. If you watch Super Bowl Twitter, the biggest traffic moments are people joking about a slow starting Star Spangled Banner “hitting the over” or how bad the halftime show is. Regardless of the act, it has become the default position that the halftime show is awful, even when we all think they are pretty good. 50 Cent hanging upside down will forever be a meme.
Commercials are going to be a massive talking point after a game, especially if the game doesn’t quite deliver. Who is the voice that can talk to your audience about everything from Rihanna to a Taco Bell commercial? There is the inherent risk of alienating the “talk more sports” guy with this type of guest so, as you should with any guest, make certain they are entertaining.
The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either. Communication between hosts and producers is critical. Have a plan, work ahead and be on the same page.
Most of all, try to enjoy the game – and take the Chiefs and the points.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.