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.
I Raise My Microphone to You, Vin Scully
Thank you for your graciousness and for the gift you bestowed upon all of us. I wish you a peaceful rest.
“It’s time for Dodger baseball! Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.” That’s how the legendary Vin Scully would greet countless thousands of Dodgers’ fans every time they’d watch or listen to a game. His gift was making every single listener/viewer feel like he was your buddy, the guy sitting next to you at the game or a bar or wherever. Vin made everyone feel special because that’s who he was.
Now, unfortunately it’s time to talk about the passing of an absolute legend. Scully died earlier this week at the age of 94. Scouring Twitter and reading reactions to his death, there’s one theme I noticed. Most everyone that watched him or listened to him, Dodgers fan or not, say it feels like they’re losing a friend. Not that Vin’s career needed any validation, but to me, that’s the mark of a great broadcaster. Being there, through the ups and downs and being a trusted voice that people could rely on if they had a bad day or a great day.
Vin’s passing leaves a void in our industry that will never again be filled. I say that, not just because he was the greatest baseball play-by-play announcer to ever crack a mic, but because he was a tremendous person. He seemingly had time for everyone. Even a green around the gills play-by-play apprentice, me.
In 2004, when I was with the Cubs broadcast team, we made our annual trip to Los Angeles. I had been traveling with the team for a couple of years at that point, but never had the chance to meet Scully. I mentioned this in passing in the booth one afternoon. Pat Hughes, Ron Santo and our producer Matt Boltz started talking about Vin. Hughes said something to the effect of, let’s go visit him after the game. I thought nothing of it. But sure enough, after the postgame show, Pat motioned to me to come with him. I will admit, I was nervous. Out of character for myself, I didn’t know what I was going to say to him. I even had a baseball with me for him to sign. Such a geek.
We made our way through the press dining room at Dodger Stadium and tucked away in one of the back corners was a doorway marked “Private”. Pat and I entered the private dining room for the Dodgers broadcasters and there was Vin and the rest of the crew. Pat was greeted immediately by the guys and proceeded to introduce me to everyone. He saved Vin for last. The ever-gracious Scully stood up from his chair and stuck out his hand. I’ll never forget what he said and in his dulcet tones, I can still hear it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Andy, I understand you’ve been doing some play-by-play, how’s that going?” Floored, I managed to speak and told him that it was a work in progress, but I was happy for the chance. He told me to keep at it and shook my hand. He then noticed the baseball in my hand, and asked if I wanted him to sign it. The fanboy in me, shook my head and I still have that ball in my collection.
I moved on to San Diego and saw Vin numerous times. I almost literally ‘bumped’ into him before a Dodgers/Padres game at Petco Park. Vin would walk the hallways in the broadcast area to ‘warm up’ before a broadcast. I marveled at this man, who still seemingly had that nervous energy that we all experience before going on the air. He would stroll up and down humming, not loudly, but with enough volume that you could hear him. He told me that was how he exercised his voice in getting ready for a game. It was amazing to see and hear, then get the explanation.
Scully was a decorated man, winning many awards. He was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982, receiving the Ford C. Frick Award. He was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 and had his microphone retired by the Dodgers.
This great gentleman broadcast baseball for 67 years. Starting in Brooklyn in 1950 and finishing in Los Angeles in 2016. Scully worked for both CBS and NBC during his career and not only covered baseball, but on CBS he called NFL games from 1975-82. In his final telecast for the network, he was on the call for the NFC Championship Game, when Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark in the endzone for ‘the catch’ that put the 49ers into the Super Bowl. He also was on the network’s golf coverage as well as tennis.
At NBC he did baseball and he did it well of course. He called four All-Star Games, four NLCS and three World Series. Scully had some memorable calls in the Fall Classic. Scully provided the call for one of baseball’s most memorable plays when Bill Buckner’s error in the 10th in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series gave the Mets an improbable win over the Red Sox:
“Little roller up along first. Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it! “
Scully also called Kirk Gibson’s famous homer during Game 1 of the 1988 World Series:
“High fly ball into right field, she i-i-i-is … gone!”
Scully said nothing for over a minute, allowing the pictures to tell the story. Finally, he said:
“In a year that has been so improbable… the impossible has happened!”
Well before those moments, he was part of so many legendary and unforgettable calls with the Dodgers. Upon his retirement Dodgers fans voted on his greatest calls of all time. There are too many to list here, but a couple come to mind immediately.
Scully had a flair for the English language. He would say things in a way that made the listener/viewer feel like they were right there with him. He set a scene unlike any other broadcaster. Take for example the 9th inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965, a 1-0 win over the Cubs at Dodger Stadium.
When Koufax struck out Harvey Kuenn for the game’s final out, this is what Scully said to paint the picture as perfectly as Koufax painted the corners that night:
“You can almost taste the pressure now,” he said as the ninth inning got underway. ” … There are 29,000 people in the ballpark, and a million butterflies.”
“It is 9:46 p.m.,” Scully said. “Two and two to Harvey Kuenn. One strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch … swung on and missed, a perfect game!”
There were then 38-40 seconds of nothing but crowd noise.
“On the scoreboard in right field, it is 9:46 p.m. in the city of the angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games, and he’s done it four straight years. And now he’s capped it; on his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game.”
Brilliant. Simple, yet incredible. The first of the three perfect games Scully called, took place in the 1956 World Series. Don Larsen faced the Dodgers in the Bronx and as the game went into the 9th inning, Scully epically described the tense feeling building at Yankee Stadium.
“Well, all right, let’s all take a deep breath as we go to the most dramatic ninth inning in the history of baseball,” he said.
Scully later described Yankee Stadium “shivering in its concrete foundation” as 64,517 fans hung on every pitch.
When Larsen struck out Dale Mitchell on a called third strike to end the game, Scully said, “Got him! The greatest game ever pitched in baseball history by Don Larsen, a no-hitter, a perfect game in a World Series.”
“When you put it in a World Series, you set the biggest diamond in the biggest ring,” Scully said.
Scully was the gem of the biggest kind. I’ve heard many words used to describe the man upon his passing. Gentleman, kind, warm and friendly are a few. To me, Vin always displayed class. Even as his final game in the booth for the Dodgers came to an end, he eloquently said so long:
“You know, friends, so many people have wished me congratulations on a 67-year career in baseball, and they’ve wished me a wonderful retirement with my family, and now, all I can do is tell you what I wish for you. May God give you, for every storm, a rainbow; for every tear, a smile; for every care, a promise; and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life seems, a faithful friend to share; for every sigh, a sweet song, and an answer for each prayer. You and I have been friends for a long time, but I know, in my heart, I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me, and I’ll miss our time together more than I can say. But you know what, there will be a new day, and, eventually, a new year, and when the upcoming winter gives way to spring, ooh, rest assured, once again, it will be time for Dodger baseball. So, this is Vin Scully wishing you a pleasant good afternoon, wherever you may be.”
A year after he signed off, the Dodgers advanced to the World Series for the first time in 29 years. Dodgers’ fans started a petition for him to come out of retirement and call the games on Fox. Joe Buck was even on board. Scully declined, preferring instead to lay low. “I honestly don’t feel I belong there and I would not want anyone to think I was eager for a spotlight.” Scully said. He added, “I’ve done enough of them.”
I think any of us, that got to meet him, watch him or listen to him over the years would disagree with that last statement. You could never get enough of the great Vincent Edward Scully. Thankfully his voice lives on through audio recordings and YouTube videos to show the younger generation how it was done. And done so well for so many years. It’s always hard to say goodbye, to someone you feel like you knew, even if you never had the chance to meet him.
Vin, I raise a microphone to you. Thank you for your graciousness and for the gift you bestowed upon all of us. I wish you a peaceful rest. And we all know where you’ll be, in our hearts and fondest memories forever.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at Andy@Andy-Masur.com.
Sports Talkers Podcast – Linda Cohn
Linda Cohn has lived her dream for the last 30 years at ESPN. She tells Stephen Strom about the ups and downs, the moment she thought she was being let go and the advice that calmed her down before going on live TV.
Stephen Strom can be heard hosting ‘The Sports Talkers Podcast’ for Barrett Sports Media. In addition to hosting here, Stephen works as a broadcasting assistant for the Miami Heat and color analyst for Nova Southeastern. Additional career experiences include working for SiriusXM, performing analyst duties for Princeton basketball, and hosting shows for TalkNorth.com. You can find him on Twitter @SStrom_.
Nate Bukaty Didn’t Sell Himself Short
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bukaty remembered his friend saying to him. “That’s the sentence I remember he kept saying.”
There’s an old Vin Scully video clip I can’t stop watching. It may be the most impressive example of how to do baseball play-by-play I’ve ever seen or listened to. It’s the bottom of the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium as the home team plays the rival Giants. Madison Bumgarner is on the mound for San Francisco and Scully is telling a story in the middle of the inning about how the pitcher and his wife saved a baby jackrabbit from the inside of a dead snake.
The story goes that Bumgarner and his wife ran across a rattlesnake while the two were roping cattle. They were startled, so the three-time World Series champ grabbed an ax and chopped the snake to pieces. That’s how they found the baby jackrabbit. Bumgarner’s wife brought the rabbit back to the apartment and nursed it for the next few days. Eventually, the rabbit was healthy enough to be released back into the wild.
Mind you, Scully is telling this incredible story while calling a baseball game and not missing a beat with the live action. It’s truly a spectacle of broadcasting mastery.
Scully ends the story by saying, “Madison said, just think about how tough that rabbit was. First, it gets eaten by a snake, then the snake gets chopped to pieces, then it gets picked up by people and lives.”
Scully then follows with “so I guess, really, the moral to the whole story about the rabbit and the snake is you have to somehow survive, you have to somehow battle back. A lesson well-taught for all of us.”
When I listen to those final two sentences I can’t help but think of how it relates to Nate Bukaty’s journey into sports media, which is a story I heard just a few hours before the news of Scully’s passing on Tuesday night. Granted, Bukaty’s story has nothing to do with something as intense as taking an ax to a live rattlesnake, or even something as heroic as saving a baby rabbit, but his start in the business can be a comparison to the moral of the story, which was overcoming early adversity and battling back.
Bukaty realized in the front seat of his dad’s car in the sixth grade he wanted to be in sports media for a living. An hour before he made that decision, he would have told you he wanted to play the game professionally, instead of broadcasting it. But after his dad quickly pointed out how difficult it was going to be for him to be a pro athlete with a very to-the-point conversation, Bukaty turned his decision to the guys calling the Kansas City Royals game on the radio. His dad didn’t fight back at that aspiration. The father and son then spent the entire rest of the car ride discussing what it would take to achieve his newfound dream.
The dream persisted through junior high, high school, and even upon the decision to attend The University of Kansas. For over six years, Bukaty never re-considered what he wanted to pursue for his future. He made the decision long ago that he was going to broadcast games. But during one of his first days on campus at KU, his first major roadblock hit.
“I met with the sportscasting professor and he told me I would never make it in the business because my voice was too high,” said Bukaty. “It was my childhood dream since I was in 6th grade and the professor told me the first day on campus I was never going to make it. I was pretty devastated by that for a day.”
This wasn’t a criticism an aspiring broadcaster normally gets. It was something completely out of Bukaty’s control. His voice wasn’t something he could change. Most, probably, would have changed their major as quickly as possible, but Bukaty didn’t. Instead, he remembered a time he overcame adversity by being cut from the high school basketball team his sophomore year, only to be a starter on varsity his senior season. He was ready to overcome adversity again.
“I just went back to him and said, ‘well, I’m going to give this a shot, with your help or without’, “ Bukaty said.
But this isn’t a story where the young kid tells the professor he’s going to do it anyway, and easily finds himself in the future as the voice of a Major League Soccer team and 18-plus year veteran at Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City. No, there’s more adversity to come in this story and it happened less than three years later.
Bukaty was now a junior at KU and the reality of how hard it was going to be to make a career in broadcasting was settling in. He was applying for internships and realized there were all kinds of people working for free. The thought of finding a way to get paid for one was starting to become overwhelming.
His morale was starting to sink as he expressed his frustration over dinner with a friend that also attended KU. Bukaty even told him he may try to attend grad school to become a history professor or even a lawyer.
“I’m just looking at the odds and how hard it is to get a foothold in this business of sports broadcasting, especially since I don’t have any connections or anything,” Bukaty told his friend. “I think I find those other things interesting enough to be happy doing it.”
The next thing that was said is something Bukaty will never forget. You could even argue it set the tone for the rest of his professional career.
“He chewed me out and told me, how dare you give up on your dreams before you even give it a shot,” Bukaty said. “He told me I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t at least give it a shot.”
It was the exact push Bukaty needed to refocus. It was made clear to him he could go back to law school at any time, but his dream was something he needed to chase.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bukaty remembered his friend saying to him. “That’s the sentence I remember he kept saying. That really helped me refocus and realize, yeah, this is what I have wanted to do since I was a kid and I shouldn’t give up on it. I’m going to keep going.”
It’s a moment Bukaty hasn’t shared very much over the years. But there’s no denying the incredible impact it had on him. From that moment, he’s never looked back.
The funny thing is the friend that shared incredible wisdom with him that day had no intentions of going to college while he and Bukaty were in high school. The only reason Bukaty convinced him to come to The University of Kansas was because he turned his friend into a huge KU basketball fan. Without the Jayhawks fandom, there’s a great chance that distinct conversation never happens.
But that’s not the end of the incredible interaction that night with Bukaty and his friend.
“That night, he also said, here’s what’s going to happen: You’re going to become a successful sports broadcaster and I’m going to become a sports historian and I’m going to write a book on you someday.”
His prediction was nearly spot on. Amongst many other incredible jobs and titles, Bukaty is the play-by-play voice of Sporting KC and one of the longest-tenured sports talk hosts in Kansas City. His friend is no other than Matt Zeysing, who’s the head curator of the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
There aren’t any current plans for Zeysing to fulfill the entire prediction and write a book on Bukaty’s career, but if he wanted to, he could probably write a best-seller on just the night the two shared inside a bar in Lawrence. Regardless, it was an incredible prediction that had a lasting impact on Bukaty’s career.
And about the professor who told Bukaty his voice was too high to be in the business? It was that same person who got him a radio job in Moberly, MO. Talk about a redemption story.
Bukaty’s career story combines overcoming adversity, living out a dream, and getting outside his comfort zone to realize new passions and talents. Calling Major League Soccer games for Sporting Kansas City is truly a dream come true for him. Play-by-play was always his first love and getting to realize that dream is one that he never takes for granted. Even if that means getting home after a game at 11:30 at night and having to do a morning drive radio show the next day at 6:00 a.m.
“My sleep schedule is a complete nightmare,” laughed Bukaty. “After a game, I cannot go to sleep. Say it’s a Wednesday game and I get home around 11:30, I’ll go for a three-mile run around my neighborhood. That does wonders. I feel three really good hours of sleep is better than four hours of tossing and turning and not turning your brain off.”
Bukaty has always challenged himself to get out of his comfort zone. That’s originally how he started in sports radio at 810 WHB. He listened to sports radio, but it wasn’t something he was immediately drawn to as an opportunity. Bukaty saw it more as a forum where hot takes were consistently lived, which wasn’t his broadcast style.
“I came to talk radio reluctantly,” said Bukaty.
The human drama and the amazing feats of athleticism were things that interested Bukaty far more than a hot take.
“I love the storylines of humans overcoming adversity and achieving hard-fought objectives as teams,” said Bukaty. “I love the emotional connection between the team and their fans. I didn’t love sports because of the hot take.”
That’s what makes Bukaty’s sports radio career so impressive. He’s seen the beginning and the rise of the industry, yet, he’s never changed who he is on the air. Regardless of how the business has changed, he’s never let the style of other broadcasters change the way he wants to do a show.
“What makes it easy for me is that my co-host, Steven St. John, drives the show,” said Bukaty. “And that’s the way it should be because he connects with the sports fans in Kansas City better than any person in sports talk radio and maybe better than any media member in town.”
Bukaty has a career that the young version of himself at KU would only dream about. Who knows, just like he made the decision to broadcast games in the front seat of his dad’s car while listening to a Royals game, maybe he’s helped a kid in Kansas City realize play-by-play is what they want to do. But one thing is for sure, Bukaty isn’t done getting out of his comfort zone to make himself better. That’s why he’s now calling MMA events. And it’s why he could accomplish even greater things in the future.
“I’ve always tried to make it a habit to get outside my comfort zone and say yes to things that seem a little uncomfortable,” said Bukaty. “Every time I’ve ever done that I’m glad because it’s made me grow professionally or as a person.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.