I recently had the opportunity to talk to David Smoak of ESPN Central Texas for nearly 30 minutes. There’s something he said that I can’t get off my mind.
“I’ve never thought your market size should dictate how well you cover something. I refuse to do that. At times, management has to reign me in and say we can’t do it, but I’m sure as hell going to try.”
Maybe he learned that life lesson from his father, a US Naval Academy Graduate. Or maybe he just learned it through all the ups and downs of his many years in the business. Regardless, it’s what always has kept Smoak on top of his game and into one of the best broadcasters in the state of Texas
Smoak traveled all over the world as a kid. That’s the lifestyle when you have a father in the military. Regardless of where the family made its home, David would sit at a desk night after night and pretend to call games.
He looked up to Howard Cosell, Jim McKay and Keith Jackson, as he was often more interested in who was calling the game than the game itself. His parents thought it was cool he had taken such interest in a hobby.
Smoak thought it was all a pipe dream, something that would never come to fruition. His passion, however, continued all the way to his high school and college years. While his friends were out partying, Smoak was inside his dorm room calling games.
Three-ring binders and notebooks were filled with box scores and anything else he could use to set the scene for a game. He knew what he wanted to do and that was cover sports. After graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University he immediately got the chance.
Start of a Career
Smoak’s first job came on November of 1981. Fresh out of college, he was immediately on the air and covering football. Until 1989, he would excel on the television side as a sports broadcaster in the small market he was in.
At the time, sports talk opportunities on the radio were hard to come by and had little existence. However, Smoak had a friend in TV that told him about a new sports talk station that had just opened up in Tyler, Texas. The friend urged him to inquire about a host position with the company. Smoak thought long and hard about moving from TV to radio and the risks that could come along with it. He also considered the fact he felt he had hit his peak at the position he was currently in. Finally, even though he knew very little about how to run a radio show, Smoak took a chance and started a show at KTBB.
If asked, he’ll tell you he had no idea what he was doing at first. But before he started he visited with Norm Hitzges and Randy Galloway, two prominent Dallas radio hosts at the time, to get a better feel of how things should operate. That willingness to go the extra mile and seek help, would be one of many reasons the show would become a huge success. In the year 1990, the show was off and running and on the airwaves. Smoak’s goal for the show was simple: Don’t let anyone drive down Interstate 20 and think they were listening to a small-time local radio show.
He busted his ass to get big guests on the show and pump out quality content. Soon after the start of the show, Smoak created some segments that started to generate buzz in the city.
His first stroke of luck came in the same year, when the Dallas Cowboys started to resurface. The franchise was filled with controversy after Jerry Jones had recently purchased the team. Everyone was still upset about the firing of Tom Landry and unsure of where the team was headed.
Smoak saw an opportunity to cover the team extensively. From training camp to games, to everything else in-between, Smoak was everywhere covering the Cowboys. In a town that had never any sort of resemblance of a sports talk radio show, Tyler, Texas was now home to one of the best shows in the state.
For 19 years until 2009, the show continued to grow in popularity. But as life sometimes happens, Smoak ran into a personal situation in the summer of 2009 that found him off the air and out of sports radio. For the first time in over 28 years, he was out of the sports media business.
A New Beginning
You don’t realize how much you enjoy hosting a radio show until it’s taken away from you.
Smoak was out of the business for around six months before he got a break. ESPN Dallas called and asked him to start doing shifts on the weekends. Sure, it wasn’t the daily show he did for 19 years, but it was an opportunity to get back into the business in one of the best markets in the country. For a month, Smoak busted his ass to do the best job possible. After a month, the owner from an ESPN station in Waco called. To this day, Smoak isn’t sure who recommended him, but in June of 2010, he was back doing a daily show at ESPN Central Texas.
Like the Cowboys in the early 90’s, Smoak’s second stroke of luck came when he arrived to cover the Baylor football program. A perennial cellar dweller in the Big 12 and without a bowl berth in over 15 years, the Bears now had an offense that was high-flying and scoring points.
“I was here in 2010 when they clinched a bowl berth against Kansas State,” said Smoak. “Everyone rushed the field. I was like, what in the hell are they doing? But it hadn’t happened in so long, everyone was just so excited. It was amazing. I was very lucky.”
Of course, that was only the start for Baylor, as back-to-back conference championships followed, along with berths in both the Fiesta and Peach bowl, a height most thought was impossible. During that time, Smoak doubled down on everything Baylor football. There was a commitment to attending every event and providing the best content possible. Sales and revenue ideas also were coming along great, as the glory years of doing a sports radio show in Waco had arrived.
The first bowl berth in 2010, the station had just two people in Houston for the game. But the time Baylor was playing UCF in the Fiesta Bowl during the 2013 season, the station had four people in Phoenix for a week. Baylor football was a big time story and ESPN Central Texas was cashing in.
The Dark Years
You’d never wish what happened next on your biggest competitor. Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any better for Baylor football. Just when a national title was thrown around as a realistic possibility for the program, it all came crashing down at a moment’s notice. Unspeakable acts were reportedly done by several football players at Baylor, casting a dark cloud over the program and bringing a halt to the wild success of the program. Instead of being looked at as one of college football’s best turnaround, it was now looked at as a despicable program that let terrible things happen.
“I lost sleep in 2015 and 2016,” said Smoak. “There were times were I was like, what the hell? What is going on?’ It’s really strange. There were times where I really, really struggled those years. Every day we woke up and seemed like there was something new. I lost sleep over like ‘my God, what’s next?’
Smoak never lost sleep wondering if Baylor was going to beat Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl or OU in Norman. But this affected him. Instead of covering a football team, his daily show had turned into a constant discussion about the terrible crimes committed by the football program.
“2016 was the dark year, because that’s when all hell broke loose,” said Smoak. “That was the Pepper Hamilton report, the coaching firing of Art Briles and all the other stories that came out. Our listenership went up. There’s no doubt that our online listenership, which they don’t use on Arbitron, was massive. I mean silly numbers.
“When the 2017 season started and they lost to Liberty, I realized that even though they lost the game and were staring at not winning one all year, that never affected. It got to the point where I didn’t even know who they were playing, because the story was so much about the program trying to overcome whatever actually happened.”
Though Smoak admits he’s just now getting over what happened and able to enjoy covering Baylor football again, but that is a period of his career he’ll never forget. Covering a story of that nature, especially for such a long time period, is something you’re never fully prepared to do. But Smoak stuck to his morals and what he believed was right. That’s what guided him through, quite possibly, the darkest time of his career.
Baylor football is back on its feet after becoming bowl eligible this year. Some of the wounds are still fresh to many people, but head coach Matt Rhule has done his best to try and move the program forward.
“Obviously, we’re there and doing our job whether they’re 11-1 or 1-11,” said Smoak. “But all of us would be lying if we said it wasn’t easier to cover a team that’s had success. It makes a huge difference. For example, the first time Baylor went to a bowl game they went to the Texas Bowl and we probably had two people there. When they went to the Fiesta Bowl against UCF we had four people there for a week. Winning can absolutely dictate the coverage.
“Last year wasn’t hard because they were 1-11. Our coverage doesn’t change because they only win one game. I refuse to do that. But the last 2 to 3 years? I’ve been in the business since 1981, but I lost sleep in 2015 and 2016. There were some things that I took personally because I was just so blown away by some of the stories.”
God willing, Smoak will never have to endure covering a story of that nature again. But moving forward is what’s best for both he and the station. That’s what both are attempting to do.
“We cover high school football and I feel like we do it better than any station in America,” said Smoak. “I feel like it helped us, being able to focus on that and not just the bad things happening at Baylor.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.