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Justin Spears Started From The Bottom Now He’s Here

“They always told me I was the best intern they have had,” said Spears. “I always thought they were just blowing smoke up my shorts but they really meant it.”

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There’s few things more intimidating in the radio business than walking into a station as an intern on your first day. Its borderline terrifying and I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this has been in those shoes.

Most likely, you were a wide-eyed kid with no experience that prayed you didn’t screw something up on your first day in a studio. Then, as time went along, you grew more and more comfortable with your surroundings and began to adjust to life in sports radio. But during your time as an intern, between working all the long and odd hours that found you doing grunt work for no pay while balancing school or even a full-time job, there was a moment where you decided if this was really the profession you wanted to pursue. 

Justin Spears had that exact same moment in the summer of 2015. After finishing his sophomore year at the University of Arizona, he needed an internship for school. Though he was already the sports editor at the student newspaper, Spears’ passion had always been in sports radio. Plus, he loved listening to Zach Clark in the afternoons. So, in late May of that year, he began interning at ESPN Tucson. 

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Call him old-fashioned, but Spears made a decision when he started his internship. He was going to do everything in his power to make a great impression on everyone in the building. To accomplish this, he was going to make sure everyone came away impressed with his work ethic and hustle. 

“That was a goal of mine,” said Spears. “If you’re going to be an intern somewhere you want to leave a great impression. I would come in an hour earlier than my normal time and get some audio for the show, have it prepared and then tell the hosts it was ready to go if needed. I’d do anything. I was always doing something to help improve the show.”

Little did he know at the time, but that became one of the main reasons why Spears would find himself in the host seat at ESPN Tucson by the age of 23. After his three-month internship with the station, Spears returned to U of A where he would soon graduate. Upon doing so, he was hired at the Arizona Daily Republic in Tucson as a digital journalist. He did everything from writing, to video work to even having a major hand in starting a podcast that was centered on U of A sports, where he eventually became the main host. He would even occasionally fill in as a host on the competitor station in town, Wildcats Radio 1290. 

Though he didn’t have any working affiliation with ESPN Tucson at the time, Spears did something any young broadcaster should learn from. Yes, his job now was with the local newspaper, but he always made it a point to keep a great relationship with everyone he worked with at the radio station. You know, just in case. 

“Oh yeah, of course I always stayed in touch with Zach (Clark),” said Spears. “He was one of my mentors. Whenever I saw him, at a game or in public, or there were even times I drove by the studio and had time, so I went in and said hello. I always kept that good connection with them. Mainly Zach, but also Stacey Wampler, who’s the PD, he was the producer of a show and a really good friend of mine. But yeah, I always kept in touch with them.”

Maybe Spears was just being genuinely nice, regardless, it was such a smart move on his part. So much so, that when Zach Clark decided to leave ESPN Tucson last June, management quickly considered Spears as his potential replacement. 

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“When the spot opened, they realized, there’s Justin, he’s in town and interned for us, he hosts a podcasts and he has live radio experience,” said Spears. “It just seemed like a fit so they reached out to me and I’m really glad that they did.”

Though ESPN Tucson was interested in adding Spears to the team, they didn’t personally contact him. Instead, Spears found out from another source that an opportunity in radio was available to him. 

“It’s funny, because it was third party,” said Spears. “It wasn’t them reaching out to me or me reaching out to them. It was a Saturday afternoon at the Arizona Daily Star. My editor, Ryan Finley, comes up to my desk and says ‘hey, I’m going to walk across the street to the Circle K and get a soda. You want to go?’ I kind of got the message that I really needed to walk with him because he has something he needs to say or tell me. At first I thought I was in trouble, but I couldn’t remember anything I did that was wrong.

“We started walking and he told me ESPN Tucson was looking for a temporary host and wanted to know if I was interested in the position. I thought about it and for a second, I thought, well, is he telling me I have to choose this job or the other? I asked him what this would do for my current job if I did accept it. Ryan and everyone at the Daily Star were cool enough to allow me to have both jobs. I’m literally living the dream as a kid from Tucson. I’m hosting a radio show and I get to write for the newspaper that I grew up reading. I’m just so thankful for the people I’m surrounded with.”

At the young age of 23, Spears is now in the host seat at ESPN Tucson. Sure, mostly because he’s talented, but also because he made a serious of excellent decisions, that involved working hard and successfully networking that kept him in mind for the position. 

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“They always told me I was the best intern they have had,” said Spears. “I always thought they were just blowing smoke up my shorts but they really meant it. They said, you always came in and did your job and you were always looking for something to do.”

Though Spears is happy where his work ethic has taken him, he’s still working as hard as ever as both a radio host and a writer for the Arizona Daily Republic. Though being a host at 23 years old is great, that doesn’t mean it comes without challenges. Most notably, you have to constantly fight with sounding young to an audience that’s almost always going to be older than you. 

“Since I grew up in Tucson I feel like I know what my audience is thinking,” said Spears. “I try not to sound young, I don’t want to seem like the young and arrogant kid who’s a know-it-all, because I’m not that. I’m not a guy that’s really going to scream or yell. I like to keep it fun and light. That’s been the biggest struggle for me, is not showing my age and showing how young I am. But I’m working on that.”

Working at a newspaper and doing a radio show can be a tough grind that makes for a time consuming schedule. But when it comes to on-air content, it can have its advantages. Writers and radio hosts are always looking for fresh content to give their readers and listeners. Seeing as Spears does both sides on a daily basis, it’s made for better ideas. 

“We’re always looking for creative content in the dog days of summer,” said Spears. “We have to be more creative in the ways we present our stories. You know engagement pieces, like away teams or who the Top 10 Arizona running backs of all-time are. Stuff like that, I think it really does help me with content for the radio show. We like to be as creative and as listener engaging as possible. I think being a writer really helps me be a radio host.”

Though it goes without saying, it can’t be stated enough that hard work is the main ingredient to excel in this industry. That will never change. Spears is living proof that you can accomplish big things at a young age by rolling up your sleeves and being the hardest working person in the building. And that’s exactly the advice he would give to any intern.

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“Be the first one in and the last one out,” said Spears. “Always ask questions and don’t be afraid to share your ideas. That’s something I had to overcome, like I said before, I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all, because I don’t.  But if you have ideas that you think are great and can benefit, bring it up. You never know the response you’re going to get.

“You can enjoy the moment because you’re working in sports, but just be a hustler. In college, I was a part-time waiter at IHOP on the weekends. I balanced five classes, writing for the student paper and working at the student radio station and TV station, as well as being the student correspondent for Sports Illustrated. There were times when I left Arizona Stadium at 2 a.m. then had to get up the next morning, a few hours after, to wait tables. That was a weekly thing for me. It may suck at times, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and I kept telling myself that. Trust me, people recognize that and appreciate it. Plus, you have a ton to put on your resume. Just work and it’s going to pay off.”

BSM Writers

Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content

Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.

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USA Today

When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.

“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.

Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:

1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”

2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.

The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.

I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.

Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”

There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.

First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.

The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.

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BSM Writers

The Client Just Said YES, Now What?

We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.

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One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!

We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.

When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.

They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.

A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 74

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This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.

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