A Conversation With Paul Finebaum, Part 3
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 three of a three-part Q&A, Paul describes his infamous callers, being a newspaper reporter, his dream jobs, and his future.
Matt: You have really made some callers stars or supporting actors and actresses on your show. How did that develop and how do you orchestrate their appearances?
Paul: We went from a time that the show was so poorly rated, that we had to call the callers instead of them calling us. Someone, maybe Pat Smith (Former Finebaum Network Director and current APD of Jox 94.5 in Birmingham) had the idea to have a Christmas lunch with some of our better known callers. By getting to know them, I think we let them know that they were very important to the show. It started mushrooming from there. The lunch became an annual event and occasionally we would have callers come down to the studio. That just morphed into the callers becoming the show.
I think we realized being in Birmingham that we really couldn’t compete with Chicago, Philly, and New York for the a-list guests but we could dominate maybe by having the most unique callers. All of a sudden I would go around town and people would say what about so and so. Then when we went national with SiriusXM, I could be anywhere in the country and somebody would say “I’m Tammy” or “I’m Phyllis!” and it just caught on.
When we went to ESPN, I thought it was going to come to an end. There was a feeling there that the callers weren’t necessary. I think it was about 2-3 months into the ESPN show Alabama lost the Ohio State game when they lost to Urban Meyer. The next day everyone declared Urban Meyer the best coach in college football. Nick Saban was done. Cowherd just did this epic takedown of Saban.
Later that day we went to (caller) Phyllis from Mulga and she just went in on Colin Cowherd, called him “Cowturd!” One of our guys sent the clip up to Bristol and about five or six o’clock I saw it on SportsCenter and I think for 24 hours they ran the Phyllis clip. At that point it was no longer, “Hey you be a good host and get great interviews. Let’s hear the stupid callers!”
I realized “why are we trying to re-invent the wheel.” It doesn’t matter where I am—whether it’s with someone I’ve never met or a famous person—they know about the callers. It also helped having a guy like Harvey Updyke call.
(Writers note: Harvey Updyke was a big Alabama fan who literally poisoned the famous trees at Auburn’s Toomers Corner. Instead of keeping it to himself, he called the Finebaum Show as “Al from Dadeville” to brag about poisoning the trees. Full story here: https://bit.ly/2Mziuol )
If Harvey Updyke had called our show in Birmingham it wouldn’t have been a big deal. I think I’ve run into 20,000 people who claim to have heard that show. It was on SiriusXM and I say this—that call because we were on a national platform made it more important. The national platform back in 2010 also enabled callers. Suddenly, Shane, Phyllis, or Tammy or Jim started thinking “I better up my game we’re on national radio.” That was the line of demarcation; where callers said “I can’t just call up and be a normal caller, I’ve got to put on a show!”
That moved to television with the show. I had a guy call in the other day when we were only on radio, not on television. I asked him if that was a big deal to him and he said “Yes! The second I get off the call with you, I run back into the other room and rewind the DVR so I can listen to my call again!” I had never thought of that.
Matt: You started your career as a newspaper man, at what point did you realize that radio was really your future and not newspapers?
Paul: Early on I could see the signs of the newspaper business. I’m not sure there’s anything I’ve ever loved more than being a newspaper reporter. To me I thought that was the ultimate in life! If my dreams had come true in my 20s I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I wouldn’t have a job!
What newspapers did was help me prepare for radio. I never looked at radio as work. To me it was something kind of fun to do. I still don’t think of myself as a television person. That is really a foreign animal. I feel like I’m still somewhat awkward on television but maybe that’s just who I am.
Matt: I think you come across as very genuine on TV and that you are being yourself.
Paul: I think it comes from age, too. I was always tilting at windmills early on. I’m not alone in this. I was at an ESPN Meeting a couple of years ago and a guy said, “When you give that opinion on the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game you gotta really sell it!” It’s hard for me to believe that someone really cares what I think about that game.
When you’re talking about an important subject—I get it. Listen, I admire Stephen A. Smith. We have become very good friends. I had dinner with him last year and I think he’s calmer on television than he is at dinner. I’m not like that. I learn from others more than myself sometimes. Now he’s entertaining. I could listen to Stephen A. Smith read the Manhattan phone book. He would make it interesting. The people that bug me are the people who aren’t remotely interesting but pontificate and think that everyone really cares what they think.
As opposed to being the guy behind the camera talking to the person at home, I picture myself more as the person driving the car or watching on television and how do they feel about an issue and they don’t want to get talked down to. I watch a lot of politics—that’s one of my hobbies. The second that Wolf Blitzer says “we have a Republican and Democratic congressman to talk about the new health care bill” and they start just lying and making stuff up–I quit listening. I don’t want to hear that conversation. I want honesty vs. party-line. It sounds self-serving but I really do care what the person is consuming and when we waste their time with the company line, it offends me!
Matt: Now that you’ve signed your new deal with ESPN(three years) what that you haven’t done yet at ESPN would you like to do over the next three years?
Paul: Hmm…sounds like the conversation over the past two years (laugh). I want to keep doing different things. This year for football season I’ll go to Bristol for Sunday Mornings and I’ll be in New York for Wednesday morning “Get Up!” and “First Take.” For me that’s a new element. It’s a different feel to actually be there. I did 25-minutes of “First Take” this morning from a bureau where I couldn’t see anything. It’s like driving at night with your headlights off.
I’d like to continue to expand interviewing people from different walks of life or sports. I love to interview. (Former SEC Commissioner) Mike Slive heard me with one of my callers—Phyllis or Tammy—and he called me and he said “Do you have to do that? Can’t you just do a show more like NPR?” I said, “Yeah I’d love to do that, Mike, but I’d like to also make a living!”
If you asked me the perfect job, it would be doing probably what Larry King was doing on radio 25-30 years ago. Bring in a guest, take some calls. I love to interview people. I used to be somewhat cynical about Larry King. It almost felt like he barely knew what the guest’s name was let alone what they had done. Whether it was Paul McCartney or Paul Ryan. But I was on his show one night 12 years ago and I found out how good he was. He is so inquisitive. He wanted to know everything.
That’s what I like to do. I really love to talk to people. I will try to keep expanding that. I talked to (Apple CEO) Tim Cook, John Grisham, and Billy Payne (Augusta National). I love doing that but it’s also difficult to do that with everything else. If there is another job I’d really love, other than the one I’m doing, is as a correspondent for 60 Minutes. I’m sure those jobs are easy to come by (laugh).
Matt Fishman is a former columnist for BSM. The current PD of ESPN Cleveland has a lengthy resume in sports radio programming. His career stops include SiriusXM, 670 The Score in Chicago, and 610 Sports in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter @FatMishman20 or you can email him at FishmanSolutions@gmail.com.
Disney Has One Logical Choice For The Future – Jimmy Pitaro
“If Bob Iger wants his next successor to come from the sports world, that is his guy. Hell, forget sports. Pitaro may be the best person available no matter how far and wide the search goes.”
Bob Iger’s latest tenure atop the Walt Disney Company fascinates me. The company begged him to come back to clean up the mess made by his handpicked successor, but it was made clear from the get-go that he has a very limited window to get this right and then go home. That is why, less than six months after Iger returned to Burbank, we are already hearing about who will be the next CEO of Disney.
There is reportedly a shortlist of candidates for the job and it is sports-heavy. Two of the four spots are occupied by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro. I see the value both men could bring to the job, but I think there is a clear frontrunner and obvious choice.
Jimmy Pitaro is already inside the Disney walls. He has already learned to operate within the Disney hierarchy. He has had to answer investors’ tough questions about budget and direction. If Bob Iger wants his next successor to come from the sports world, that is his guy. Hell, forget sports. Pitaro may be the best person available no matter how far and wide the search goes.
Adam Silver’s tenure as NBA Commissioner is the target of all sorts of criticism, mostly from people that don’t watch the NBA anyway. For all of the pissing and moaning about load management and player empowerment, people are still watching and the league is still as profitable as ever. By the metrics that matter to the people that matter (team owners), he is doing an excellent job.
On a recent episode of Meadowlark Media’s Sports Business, John Skipper made it clear that he loves Silver and thinks he would make an excellent CEO for the Walt Disney Company, but that is a totally different world from the one Silver is currently thriving in.
“My advice would be to stay at the NBA,” the Meadowlark Media boss said. “It’s not a public company. You don’t have to face shareholders. You do have to face 30 NBA owners, but you don’t have activist shareholders. And I think Adam is a committed NBA commissioner. He’s been for a long time.”
The public posturing of Ron DeSantis will always get attention, but it doesn’t always have to be taken seriously. The moment he threatened to dissolve the special district in Central Florida that Walt Disney World operates out of, legal scholars were quick to point out that the proposal would create a major burden on the state and its citizens that no politician wants to be responsible for.
DeSantis wanted his culture war. Disney wanted the problem to go away. The two sides quietly found a compromise that made it look like the governor didn’t lose while Disney got to go on basically with business as usual. That is the kind of corporate policy war whoever takes over for Bob Iger will have to be ready to wage.
Disney needs a salvager in that chair, someone who knows how to diagnose the problems of business relationships and find fixes that hurt each side just enough that both can say the other really took it on the chin. Pitaro is that guy.
Look at ESPN’s relationship with the NFL when he arrived versus where it is now. The company needs someone that makes stars and creators feel like this company is one that it can trust and one that they want to be in business with. Look at what Pitaro has done to bring the Manning Brothers, Pat McAfee, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman under the Disney umbrella while simultaneously finding ways to keep stars like Stephen A. Smith and Bomani Jones happy with non-exclusive deals that allow them to grow their profile with new opportunities outside of the company walls.
Most importantly, no segment of the Walt Disney Company and arguably, no network on basic cable, has had to answer as many questions about the future of distribution as often as ESPN. Jimmy Pitaro has been asked about a future where entertainment is driven solely by the needs of the audience so many times that he has undoubtedly thought about the ups and downs of the streaming landscape more than just about anyone else on Earth.
Bob Iger will be atop Disney through the end of the year and into 2024. This isn’t a decision that is being made tomorrow. Even when it is made, Iger doesn’t just get to write a name down on a piece of paper, slam down an “APPROVED” stamp and go home.
Everyone on that reported shortlist will be vetted by Iger, his confidants, members of the Disney board, and shareholders. Some may wince at the fact they have no idea how Jimmy Pitaro envisions running theme parks and a cruise line, but the reality is that no one checks all the boxes for any job as big as this one until they have been in it for a while.
When you know the perfect fit for a job doesn’t exist, you go looking for the person that is the best fit. I think Bob Iger and Disney have already found him in Bristol, CT.
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.
Michael Kay Couldn’t Leave 98.7 ESPN New York Just Yet
“I wouldn’t want to leave it the way it is right now.”
When a New York Post report back in January suggested that Michael Kay was “seriously contemplating retiring from his 98.7 ESPN New York show”, maybe he was in a dark room in his home thinking about his future.
In his mind, his days of hosting sports talk shows were pretty much over.
“When that story came out, I thought I was definitely not going to come back,” said Kay during a phone interview with Barrett Sports Media. “I almost appreciated it a little bit when Aaron Rodgers said when he went on the dark retreat that he was 90% retired. Well, I’d say I was even more than that. I was probably 95% certain that I was going to walk away in September when my contract was up.”
But between then and now, Kay had a chance of heart and he announced this past Thursday on his show that he had signed a new contract with 98.7 ESPN New York and that his show would continue for “a good long while”.
The decision to stay was not an easy one and, as it turned out, it was his family that played a big role in staying at 98.7 ESPN New York.
“It was really difficult,” said Kay who is also the television play-play-play voice of the New York Yankees on YES Network.
“The most difficult part of it is that my kids are 8 and 10 so you want to see important things in their life. Even during the winter when I’m off from the Yankees, I’m out of connection from 3:00 to 7:00, so I had to reconcile with that. I talked with my wife and I actually talked with my kids about it, too, and they like me doing it so I decided to keep doing it.”
After initially feeling like it was time to step away after hosting The Michael Kay Show for 21 years, Kay began to reconsider but he also knew that he had to decide with his current contract expiring this September. The sales staff at the radio station needed to know because they had to inform potential advertisers who was going to host the show. Kay also owed it to his co-hosts Don La Greca and Peter Rosenberg to let them know what his plans were.
Everyone at 98.7 ESPN New York needed a decision.
“The radio station has to make contingency plans,” said Kay. “What’s going to happen if I, in fact, do leave? All of those people are impacted.”
Speaking of La Greca and Rosenberg, Kay’s sidekicks played a huge part in his decision to continue doing the show. There’s a tremendous amount of chemistry on the program and Kay wasn’t about to walk away from his radio family.
“Don and I have been together 21 years,” said Kay. “That’s a longer relationship than my wife and I have. We’re really special friends. Peter is for about 8 years and I feel the same way about him.”
Kay also acknowledged the people behind the scenes like Program Director Ryan Hurley, as well as executives from both ESPN and Good Karma Brands.
“They certainly tried to appeal to me to stay and after a while, it got to me,” said Kay. “I said you know what I’m not done yet so I decided to re-up. The pull to stay was stronger than the pull to just kick back and relax.”
These are certainly interesting times to talk about sports in New York.
Baseball season is about to get underway and both the Yankees and Mets are expected to be playoff contenders.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be on his way to the Jets while the Giants are coming off of a trip to the playoffs last season.
The Knicks and Nets are heading toward the NBA Playoffs while the Rangers, Devils, and Islanders could all be going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But all of the local teams’ success wasn’t a factor in Kay deciding to continue talking sports.
“To be honest, it didn’t play any role because sometimes when teams are bad it makes for better talk radio,” said Kay. “The fact that they’re good and they could be playing in postseason, all of them, is intriguing but that didn’t play a role.”
And now that Kay has signed his new contract, he can continue his quest to regain the top spot in the afternoon drive war with WFAN. The show has been losing the ratings battle with Carton & Roberts and it would have been difficult to retire with his show in second place.
It’s not the reason why Kay decided to sign a new deal, but he does now have some more time to become number one again.
“Obviously, I wouldn’t want to leave it the way it is right now,” said Kay. “We had beaten everybody that they put in front of us. We beat Mike (Francesa), and we beat Joe and Evan. People conveniently forget that we also beat Carton & Roberts. Carlin, Maggie, and Bart…we beat them all. Our ratings, for some reason, have not been comparable to what they were before the pandemic hit.”
The ratings aside, Kay is happy with the content he, La Greca, and Rosenberg provide their listeners daily. While they have some catching up to do in the battle with WFAN, Kay is pleased with the product and that his show is good clean sports talk.
In Kay’s mind, business is business but he has his way of doing a show.
“Ratings tell you one thing and that’s how we keep score, but if you listen to what comes out of the speakers, in my opinion, our show is the best sports show in all the country. We not only talk about sports but we treat people with respect. We don’t have to go low-brow. Ratings didn’t have anything to do with (his decision) but it does give you a little more runway now to make up some ground. We have already proven that we can beat them.”
Michael Kay has been a part of 98.7 ESPN New York going back to the launch of the radio station in September of 2001. Just like Aaron Rodgers, he was pretty close to calling it a career…but Kay didn’t want his radio career to fade to black just yet.
Peter Schwartz has been involved in New York sports media for over three decades. Along the way he has worked for notable brands such as WFAN, CBS Sports Radio, WCBS 880, ESPN New York, and FOX News Radio. He has also worked as a play by play announcer for the New Yok Riptide, New York Dragons, New York Hitmen, Varsity Media and the Long Island Sports Network. You can find him on Twitter @SchwartzSports or email him at DragonsRadio@aol.com.
Xperi & Joe D’Angelo Are Ready For Radio’s Future
“I want this audience to see how they can leverage the technology that is nine times out of ten already going to be at their radio station.”
In October 2022, Xperi Senior Vice President of Global Radio and Digital Audio Joe D’Angelo hosted the single most impressive radio presentation I’ve ever seen at the NAB Show in New York.
I wrote about my takeaways from the presentation after returning from New York, which essentially boiled down to: Xperi is looking out for the future of radio like no one else is. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The company is making sure FM radio is in the best place to succeed as the audio space continues to evolve and see more and more emphasis placed on on-demand digital offerings.
D’Angelo will continue the conversation in a panel at the 2023 BSM Summit titled “How Radio Can Compete and Win in the Connected Car” on Tuesday, which will focus on the company’s DTS AutoStage platform. The offering from Xperi will revolutionize broadcast radio as automobiles become more and more technologically advanced.
“So many other platforms are much more crowded — mobile phones, smart TVs, smart speakers — there’s very low barriers of entry to building a brand, and getting content on those platforms,” D’Angelo said. “But broadcast radio has the unique advantage in the car and it’s incumbent on the publishers — the producers of content — to look for every opportunity to sustain and exploit that branding and that relationship with the car driver.
“We also allow and deliver internet-only radio — so streaming services for broadcasters — as well as catch-up content. So if you wanna make yesterday’s morning show available today, we create all the linkages there, as well as podcasts. If you’re creating podcasts, we create those linkages that aid in the discovery of that content and serve it up on your behalf on the dash of the car.”
DTS AutoStage will allow drivers to continue listening to radio stations even after leaving the broadcast range of a station, utilizing the station’s stream to continue a seamless audio delivery. Additionally, it will provide real-time analytics weekly to stations about the time spent listening, and a “heat map” of where your listeners live, work, and travel.
D’Angelo noted that the sports radio space is ripe with opportunity to promote and utilize the technology Xperi has worked on, adding that music has been co-opted by brands like Apple and Amazon to sell you more products, while sports radio is simply looking to share opinions and content with passionate audiences.
“The real opportunities now are accruing to the talk formats and sports is such a ripe opportunity with a passionate audience, and I’ll tell you from personal experience, finding sports programming on a platform like TuneIn is nearly impossible,” D’Angelo continued. “If you’ve ever used it and tried to search for a live event, you’re going to get a catalog of a hundred different things that might related to the team but have nothing to do with the live event.
“I’m coming here because we’re at a unique opportunity where I want to explain to this audience how what they do can benefit from the technology we’ve deployed…clearly, sports programming — live sports, sports talk, sports betting, local sports — is a really unique category for local radio and I want this audience to see how they can leverage the technology that is nine times out of ten already going to be at their radio station.”
At the BSM Summit, D’Angelo will showcase the real-time analytics available to stations who opt to share data with the platform, and will give attendees a look at a sample of what information is supplied to stations and companies by using data gathered by listeners of Washington D.C.’s 106.7 The Fan. BSM Summit attendees will get a first look at the information, before it’s released worldwide at Radiodays Europe on March 28th.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio. Reach him at email@example.com.