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A Conversation With Paul Finebaum, Part 2

Matt Fishman

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Paul Finebaum is a force in college football and the national media. His daily show airs via ESPN Radio, SiriusXM 81 and the SEC Network from 3-7pm Eastern. In part two of a three-part Q&A, Paul describes what it was like when his show moved to ESPN Radio and the SEC Network , his relationship with the late Mike Slive, and a some great career advice he got from Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Matt:  So when you got to ESPN they must have expected you to be like every other show and have hot takes which is not really what you do…

Paul: Yes..I had this wonderful gig going in Birmingham and probably the biggest moment of the radio show, and you played a big role in this, was when we went to SiriusXM. All of a sudden the town hall got a little bit bigger and we fed off of that. We started incorporating callers from all over the country—having similar conversations but it was North vs. South, Big Ten vs. SEC.  

Then we go to ESPN/ESPN Radio and they say “We’re not gonna change anything—just want you to be Paul.” Then the first day they’re like “You can’t do it that way! You gotta start the show hot and go to the Valvoline hotline!” That’s not me. I would be the worst ESPN radio host in America if I had to do that. 

No matter how many times people (at ESPN) said they didn’t want to change everything, of course they wanted to change everything. You have what was a successful product and then you put it on television. “We don’t want to change anything. We want Paul to be Paul!” and then they go “We gotta change it, it’s television. We gotta produce it. We gotta do segments. We gotta do bits!” It was a very difficult transition. First, ESPN Radio and then the next year The SEC Network. 

Suddenly this great radio show which I took immense pride in was not recognizable. After a lot of tweaking and working I think we have found some medium.  Whenever executives in our business say “We’re not gonna change anything” they’re going to change everything. 

Matt: I would like some credit for not trying to change you or your show when you were on SiriusXM..

Paul: That was the amazing part and in full candor my desire was to work for SiriusXM because I thought with what we had done–it was going to be perfect. There was a track record of Howard Stern and Chris Russo, and other people who had gone there—yea it was a bigger platform and there were more bells and whistles but it was still essentially the same show.  ESPN and the SEC Network popped up..I don’t regret it but I still think I yearn for the original concept that you had and some of your colleagues had to make this bigger and better and SiriusXM exclusive. 

Matt: Speaking of the SEC Network, former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive just passed a few months ago. You had a very special relationship with him. Can you talk about how your relationship started and developed with him?

Paul: I had met him once or twice when he was with Conference USA.  It started off terribly. I criticized him about something and when he got the job (SEC Commissioner) I was really in shock. I think I said the first day “This guy has no shot at making it!” He heard that and six-seven months later we got thrown together at dinner which led to every six-to eight weeks lunches and I started bringing him books. It went from professional to cordial to friendly to almost like older brother. By the end I’m not sure there was really anyone who I was closer to outside my immediate family.

It’s kinda weird to talk about this but one of the biggest challenges of my life was giving his eulogy because it’s so personal and it’s so important. It would be important if I was giving it for a caller—I did for Shane in Centerpoint’s funeral-because it’s so final. For him it was even more complex because of the circumstances and because of the people in the audience. I’ve never met or worked in and around someone like him and I probably never will. 

Matt:  It was interesting that someone of such stature, he always had such interest in the other person no matter what rung on the ladder they were at.

Paul: He had that trait and I think most executives have it at some point where they’re curious. I think too often that curiosity gets lost. Almost three years ago I found myself at Auburn one night. We were invited to the Athletic Director’s house. I got the time wrong and got to his house 40 minutes early thinking I was ten minutes late for a party. 

I walk in and there’s a man and a young kid with him as I think he lives on the west coast and he got the time confused as well. He walks over to me and he says, “Paul, I’m Tim Cook, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” In the back of my mind I’m like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, knows who I am? He was an Auburn graduate. 

We ended up sitting together and it was the most fascinating conversation. The first thing he did was look to see if I had an Apple Watch—which I do now! So I asked him, “When you hire people what are you looking for?” He said, “We’re going to get pretty high quality people, but I’m looking for three things. I want them to be wickedly smart, collaborative, and insanely curious!” I’ve taken that and think about it all the time. If you’re not smart, you can try to be smarter. Collaborative is easy to understand but curious is something that I don’t see much of. 

When I talk to young people—I’ll have a young student or an intern come to me and ask to pick my brain. I’ll find that they end up doing all the talking. I’m concerned about people especially in our industry because there are so many rich resources that could be a big help to people trying to matriculate in the industry.  But I stress that curiosity. I ask young people, “What do you want to do?” and they’re a student anchor at some university and they say “Well I’d like to host SportsCenter!” I’m like well that’s easy! I tell them to stay in touch with people. I meet a lot of people and it’s not like I’ll remember them, but if they stay in touch with me, I will. I just really learned so much from Tim Cook. 

It turns out we started a series profiling influential people in the SEC that didn’t play sports. He (Tim Cook of Apple) was my first choice and even though I had dinner with him it took nine months to set up the interview! We ended up spending the better part of two days at Auburn and it was fascinating. I have always been curious and I think it has helped me. People in the industry need to quit talking some times and start listening. 

BSM Writers

Sports Talkers Podcast – Carl Dukes

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Carl Dukes went from DJing clubs to holding every job there is in a radio building. Now he is dominating 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. Check out his conversation with Stephen Strom.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3xYq3Oe 

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3JVYgDp   

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3JWPFQS 

Google: https://buff.ly/3w9RBzX 

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3psPDGZ  

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BSM Writers

Terry Ford Couldn’t Say No To 107.5 The Game

“In Columbia, South Carolina Gamecock fans are in 150 percent. These people love football. The Atlanta experience, the taste of it in Lexington really gave me a good foundation for what we have here in Columbia.”

Tyler McComas

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If he had to put a number on the big decision he made last year it would be 150 percent. Sure, leaving Lexington, KY and 96.1 WZNN didn’t happen without thought and consideration for Terry Ford, but the opportunity to work for one of the most respected names in the business was too much to pass up. 

In late November of 2021, Ford was named the new program director and host at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC. The opportunity originally came about during a conversation between Ford and Jason Barrett. That’s one of the benefits of being part of the Member Directory. Ford had always wanted to work with Bruce Gilbert. Barrett knew this, so when the position under the Cumulus umbrella opened, he urged Ford to consider the position.

“I’ve always wanted to work for Bruce,” Ford said. “Jason told me there was an opportunity to work with Bruce and I talked to the market manager Tammy O’Dell. She was fantastic. Everything was just too good. It was 150 percent the right decision. This has been nothing but a phenomenal experience.”

Columbia is the exact market you think it is. Situated in a college town, which breeds incredible passion for Gamecock athletics. South Carolina has had success in basketball and baseball, but to its core, it’s like most other SEC markets in that college football rules the day. To an outsider, that can sometimes be a challenge to immediately grasp and understand. But Ford is no outsider when it comes to the SEC. His previous stop was in Lexington and he even did a stint in Atlanta at 790 The Zone. He knows the landscape of the SEC.

“When I was at 790 The Zone, I’ll never forget the PD Bob Richards was like, ‘ok, you have to understand, we might have pro sports here but the Georgia Bulldogs are gigantic’,” Ford said. “This is SEC country. I kind of learned then and there that if Georgia was sniffing around some 9th grader that runs a 4.2 40-yard dash, that’s a story. When you’re in SEC country, everything is a story that matters to the local program. Atlanta gave me my first taste of the passion of the SEC football fan. Lexington was different because it’s a basketball school. And in Columbia, South Carolina Gamecock fans are in 150 percent. These people love football. The Atlanta experience, the taste of it in Lexington really gave me a good foundation for what we have here in Columbia.”

But there was much more to his new gig than just understanding how much passion there is in Columbia for Gamecock football. His biggest challenge was going to be to earn the respect and trust of his on-air staff as their new PD, as well as blend into the three-man show he was going to be a part of. So how did he do that?

“It’s kind of a tightrope,” Ford said. “You’re the PD, but you’re also in the octagon with them. I really think talking with hosts in ‘hosts talk’ is the best way to connect with them when you go to another market. We hosts are different. When you can sit and talk like hosts together I think it builds a connection. I think all hosts, when you get a new PD, you’re like, ‘ok, what the hell have you done’? You’re going to be in charge of me as a host, have you hosted? I think that’s natural for a host, whether it’s outward or internal. I’ve done the same thing.”

Ford has more than 20 years of experience in sports radio. That will garner him some respect in the building, but not as much as his continued eagerness to learn from others. That could very well be one of the best traits for any PD, no matter their age or experience. If you’re always eager to learn, you’ll undoubtedly be better. Ford is just that. He wants to learn from as many people as possible. 

“I’ve always wanted to learn from guys like Scott Masteller or Bruce Gilbert or Jason Barrett,” Ford said. “People who have done this successfully at a high level. And learning from guys who’ve done it in different size markets. You can’t take things from Philadelphia and apply them to Oklahoma City. It’s a different level. I wanted to learn how different guys in different markets program their brands. I wanted to learn all aspects of the business.”

Ford’s eagerness to learn isn’t where his characteristics of being a good PD ends. In the eyes of a host, it can be appreciated that the PD in the building has also seen things from their side. Ford has done exactly that. In a closed-door meeting, he’s now the one delivering the news, good or bad, to a host. But it wasn’t long ago when he was the one sitting on the opposite side of the desk. 

“I never want to forget when I went into programming, what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk in that other chair,” Ford said. “Because it can suck. I’ve sat in that chair and gotten good news and I’ve sat in that chair and got some crappy news. I just never want to forget what it’s like to be the guy sitting there getting news. I want to take all those experiences and all that knowledge and you come in and deal with a Heath Cline, or a Jay Phillips, or Bill Gunter, or a Pearson Fowler, who’s under 30, or Patrick Perret, who’s under 30. I want to be able to relate to them and talk to them in their host language, where they say, ‘ok, this dude speaks the language. He gets where I’m coming from’. It’s just about finding a way to relate to everyone.”

To be completely transparent, the phone call I had with Ford only lasted 20 minutes. But even in that short time, I found myself saying, ‘wow, this is a PD I would love to work for’. He’s intelligent and passionate about the business, incredibly skilled and genuinely cares about relating to his hosts. He’s also really funny. Each question he answered was well-thought-out and insightful, but it wasn’t said without a short joke until he broke out with a serious answer. He’s a guy that knows what he’s doing but isn’t the dreadful guy that sucks the life out of the building. Columbia seems lucky to have him. 

“Sometimes you get good fortune from the radio gods and other times you feel like you can’t get any luck they’re taking a dump on you,” Ford said. “They smiled on me through circumstance and with the help of a guy like Jason Barrett I ended up with a good opportunity in Columbia. It was too good to turn down. It was one of the moments where, if I turn this down, I’m a dope. I’ve been a dope in my life and this time I decided not to be one.”

I’ve always been interested in the daily life of someone who’s both a host and a PD. I don’t envy it because you have to perfectly delegate your time to fulfill both duties. So how does Ford go about it?

“Massive chaos at high speed while blindfolded,” joked Ford. “I get up around 6:30 in the morning and away from the office, I try to put in a couple hours of prep. That way people aren’t asking me about stuff and I’m not doing PD things. All I’m doing is trying to prep like a host. I try to give myself a couple hours of that before I come into the office. I’ll be honest, prepping as a PD and prepping as a host, good luck. I tell the guys here, I’m probably about 75 percent of a host right now, in terms of effectiveness. I just can’t prep like I want to. I’m a prepping dork. I jump down all sorts of rabbit holes and I’m deep-diving into stuff. As a PD you don’t have that time to dive.”

Ford started his radio career outside of sports talk. But he was always captivated by the business and spent many nights debating sports with his friends. It was a passion, even though he wasn’t yet hosting a show. 

“I always was captivated by sports talk, but when I was growing up it was a certain way,” Ford said. “It really wasn’t the way that I wanted to do it. I said, man, if it ever becomes where you can be opinionated, compelling but you can also have some fun, I’m all in. I always had an eyeball on sports while doing music radio. Around 2000, I said, I love sports, talking sports, you know what, screw it, I’m going to start looking for sports talk openings.”

So he did, but while searching for openings, Ford had to refine his craft, while also building a demo. He did it in a way that perfectly sums up who he is as both a talent and a person. He made it fun 

“I was doing rock radio at the time, and you talk to dudes, and what I would do is start sports conversations with them and record it. I would save those and put a riff in front of it like a monologue and I would take these calls and I built a demo by talking to drunk guys at a rock station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I got the gig off of that for Sporting News magazine in Seattle.”

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BSM Writers

Anatomy of a Broadcaster: Kevin Burkhardt

He is always upbeat, but never over the top. No screaming, but his energy remains consistent and smooth throughout a broadcast.

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster, Kevin Burkhardt

It wasn’t all that long ago, that Kevin Burkhardt was selling cars in New Jersey. Now that’s all in his rearview mirror and Burkhardt is getting ready to enter his first season as the main play-by-play voice of the NFL on Fox. You could say he could be the definition of ‘perseverance’, doing whatever it took to chase a dream. That focus has certainly paid off nicely for Burkhardt. The leap he made in two decades time is amazing and not often duplicated. 

Growing up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Burkhardt, would do play-by-play for his Nintendo games back in his Junior High days. He loved Gary Cohen and tried to emulate him as best he could. Strangely enough, he would end up working with Cohen on Mets broadcasts on SNY. 

A 1997 graduate of William Paterson University, Burkhardt earned a degree in broadcasting. He took that degree to radio station WGHT in Northern New Jersey, spending eight years working for the station. It was a 1,000-watt, daytime only AM station. Burkhardt delivered local news and called high school football. While at WGHT he also worked at Jukebox Radio, broadcasting New Jersey Jackals minor league games for WJUX. To make ends meet while doing freelance work, Burkhardt began working as a sales associate at Pine Belt Chevrolet in Eatontown, New Jersey. Over the next six-plus years Burkhardt could not find a larger station willing to take a chance on him. 

He recalled the frustrated feeling he had back then, when he spoke with Sports Illustrated in 2013. . “I thought I was good enough to make it [in broadcasting], but after so many years of busting my tail, I was making $18,000 a year and working all kinds of odd hours,” says Burkhardt. “It just wasn’t happening for me.”

Finally, Burkhardt got a part-time job working at WCBS-AM in New York, which in turn put him on the radar of the all sports station, WFAN. He began to work there part-time, then eventually became the station’s full-time New York Jets reporter. He got the break he needed. 

ROAD TO FOX

After his stint at WFAN, Burkhardt joined the Mets broadcast team starting the 2007 season for SNY. He appeared on shows such as Mets Hot Stove, Mets Pregame Live, Mets Postgame Live and Mets Year in Review. His main duties though were as the field reporter during Mets telecasts. He would also call select games during both Spring Training and the regular season. 

Also, while employed at SNY, he called Dallas Cowboys games on Compass Media Networks from 2011 until 2013. That’s when he left for Fox. But, sandwiched in between was an opportunity to be seen by Fox execs. He called a Mets/Braves game with SI’s Tom Verducci on their network. The Fox brass liked what they saw. 

According to that 2013 SI article, Burkhardt’s agent initially had discussions with the network about his client calling college football this season but those talks morphed into an NFL opportunity. “When my agent called me with that, I was floored,” Burkhardt says. “I’m sure you hear people say ‘this is my dream job’ all the time, but I literally dropped to one knee on the floor. I could not believe what he was saying on the other end.”

He started with the #4 broadcast team and of course has worked his way up from there. Now, some 9 years later he’s on the top crew. After Joe Buck left for ESPN earlier this year, Burkhardt was promoted to the #1 broadcast team for the NFL on Fox, alongside Greg Olsen. 

Football isn’t the only thing Burkhardt has exceled in at the network. He is the lead studio host for Major League Baseball coverage on Fox and FS1 during the regular season, for the MLB All-Star Game and throughout the entire MLB Postseason.

GOOD CHOICE

When Buck left for ESPN, in my opinion Burkhardt was the obvious choice to replace him. Buck leaves some big shoes to fill, but Burkhardt has the ability to make this work. It’s never easy to replace a well-known commodity like Buck, but Burkhardt himself has been featured prominently on the network. As mentioned, his other high-profile assignments have made him visible and appreciated by viewers. 

If social media is a good judge, I almost got that out without a chuckle, the choice was a good one. Even the outgoing play-by-play man was on board with the decision. 

Burkhardt will do a great job and will become a fixture on Sunday afternoons. 

WHY IS HE SO GOOD?

Maybe we’re finding out that he was a great car salesman through his work on television. I mean there’s a friendliness and something reassuring about the way he calls a game. It’s positive, almost downright cheerful in his delivery. You know what you’re going to get from a Burkhardt broadcast. He is always upbeat, but never over the top. No screaming, but his energy remains consistent and smooth throughout a broadcast. I really enjoy watching everything he does.

While the style may be more lighthearted in nature, the information and description are right on the mark. The presentation seems much more relaxed than some announcers that can be a little ‘in your face’ at times. I say relaxed as a compliment, because as much as you want, a broadcaster can’t be ‘hyped up’ all the time. That would be disconcerting to say the least to the viewer.  

The fact that he has such a diverse background in the business really helps. Having done radio, he can understand the importance of brevity. That comes in handy when calling a game on television, especially when you want your analyst to feel free to make points. The reporting and studio hosting on his resume allow him to be very conversational and at ease. Those assignments also tune up your listening skills, which helps when calling action and working with your analyst.  It didn’t hurt either that he had so much experience on the big stage of New York. 

I know I’ve said this a million times, but he genuinely sounds like he’s having the time of his life every time he works a game or hosts a show. Considering where he came from, I’m not surprised. 

DID YOU KNOW?

In 2019, he called select games for FOX Sports Sun, the television home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since getting his break, Burkhardt has appeared as the celebrity endorser of Pine Belt Chevrolet, his former employer, in Eatontown, N.J.

In 2019, Burkhardt and his wife established the Kevin and Rachel Burkhardt Scholarship at William Paterson University in New Jersey, their alma mater, for a fulltime student majoring in Communications and preparing for a career in broadcast journalism.

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