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John Sterling Isn’t Going To Quit Telling Stories

“I’ve been able to find something for the home run calls and it’s fun, but it’s not the end of the world. People get so excited about everything, it’s just a zany thing to do on the games.”

Brandon Contes

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John Sterling

At 81-years old most people would gladly settle into retirement, but Yankees radio voice John Sterling chose the opposite route. Instead, he’s adding a job.  Sterling recently launched a podcast, Pinstripes and Bright Lights on RADIO.COM.

Image result for pinstripes and bright lights

One of the best broadcasters in the country for his ability to tell a story, Sterling flips the microphone on to share an interesting memory, anecdote or behind-the-scenes look at America’s pastime for the podcast.  His unique and colorful style endeared Sterling to Yankees fans as his voice became synonymous with the club.

Having been in the booth for every inning of every Yankees game in the last three decades, Sterling certainly will never run low on material for his podcast.  The iconic voice of the Bronx Bombers called a remarkable 5,060 consecutive games for the Yankees before taking a few days off earlier this year, but even at the age of 81, Sterling has no plans of slowing down.

Brandon Contes: Let’s start with the podcast, Pinstripes and Bright Lights, was this your idea or was it something Entercom presented to you?

John Sterling: Actually, it was two outside producers from Boston who came to me with the idea of doing a podcast. I’m not an internet kind of guy, but they explained what they wanted and I said sure! Frankly, they do all the work, they produce it, they sell it and they style it. All I do is give them content.

Last year I did maybe 10 stories, long stories. One story was about Joe DiMaggio, one was about Ted Williams, another about Willie Mays and so on.  They put this package together, Pinstripes and Bright Lights and I hope it attracts a lot of listeners and that we’ll continue it for a while.

BC: You mentioned long stories, but the episodes are quick, which personally, I love. I look for podcasts that are in the 10 to 20 minute range, because no matter what I’m doing or where I’m going, even if I’m going around the corner, by the time I grab my wallet and keys, get in the car and go, I always have time for a 10 to 15 minute podcast. If it’s an hour long, I have to find time for it. Was the timeframe by design?

JS: I don’t really plan anything, I live by the seat of my pants and I broadcast by the seat of my pants. I told these stories and I didn’t time them, I don’t do any of those things, I’m not a stat guy if you ever hear me call a game.

I’ll use the DiMaggio story as an example. In 1949, Casey Stengel’s first year, DiMaggio missed the first 65 games because of a heel injury and it was a very dramatic story that I’ll shorten for this interview.

One beautiful late June morning, DiMaggio woke up in his suite in a Midtown hotel, and he had been wearing a carpet slipper on his bad heel because he couldn’t put any pressure on it. He stepped out of bed and nothing happened, he didn’t feel anything, he couldn’t believe it, he walked around the suite and didn’t feel any pain. The Yankees were playing an exhibition game that night, a Thursday, and then they were heading to Boston for a three-game series.

And this of course is Joe DiMaggio now. He called them and said, ‘I need pitchers to throw to me and I need kids to shag.’ As the story goes, he went to Yankee Stadium and hit until his hands bled and he told the Yankees I’m ready to go to Boston tomorrow. The Yankees left that night and he flew up the next day and walked into the clubhouse at Fenway Park telling Stengel I’m ready to go.

You’ll have to listen to Bright Lights and Pinstripes for the rest, but it was a tremendous weekend for DiMaggio and the Yankees. The Yankees won the pennant by one game and the final two games of the year were against Boston at Yankee Stadium. They won Saturday to tie Boston and they won Sunday to win. That was the first of Stengel’s and the Yankees’ five straight World Series Championships. It’s a pretty good story, at least I’d like to think so.

Image result for 1949 yankees red sox

BC: Were these all stories you already knew of and chose to share on your own, or were they suggested and given to you by the producers of the podcast?

JS: I had read about all of them, certainly, but nothing is written down. I don’t know what that proves, but I just do them from the top of my head and I hope they work.

BC: You’re a fantastic story teller. Whether you’re doing a game, or the podcast, or just talking to me right now. And I know you introduce the podcast by saying ‘hello fans’ as if you’re talking to a group, but when I’m listening, it feels like you’re talking to me one-on-one. I think that’s true for the way you and Suzyn Waltman call a game together also. The way you engage with each other, there’s an easiness to it. It’s such a great way to build that unique connection with fans whether it’s through a game broadcast or your podcast. So it might only be a 10 minute long podcast, but it resonates with listeners.

JS: I began like everyone else. I had a very formal upbringing in broadcasting and I started in a really small town at a small station, and I worked my way up. But when you go on the air that’s what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to envision that you’re talking to one person and that’s how I’ve envisioned it since the beginning as Boy Disc Jockey. So thank you for saying it because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

BC: You welcome fan engagement with letters on the podcast, do you think you’ll ever include a guest?

JS: I don’t think we’ll have guests, we certainly haven’t spoken about that. I will read a letter, or two or three and answer them on air. Then I’ll go into whatever story I have that day and I hope that it will be interesting.  If I was driving, and I heard someone tell a really good story about these different people, I would be interested, so I really hope the listening audience is.

BC: Did you grow up a Yankees fan?

JS: Actually I did, but I do want to say this. I broadcasted the Braves before the Yankees. Well, I wouldn’t care who I’m broadcasting, when you work for a team and you’re investing your career in that team, you want the team to win! Why? Because you have more listeners, you have better ratings and the station can charge more for advertising, so it’s more financially successful.

The old line its good for business – well – it’s good for business! I never dreamed I could get the Yankee job and here it is, 31 years later and they have a terrific team and it’s been a heck of a year. The Yankees are a hugely successful franchise and I’m glad to be part of it.

Image result for john sterling braves

BC: Your consecutive games streak was 5,060 games with the Yankees? But it goes back even before that with Atlanta, correct?

JS: I was a little run down near the All-Star break and the London trip didn’t do me any good, so I was persuaded by my program director Mark Chernoff to take some games off. He kept saying to me, ‘I don’t want you to get sick and be out for a long time.’  So I took four games off and they dovetailed with the All-Star break, which gave me four more days off. That’s the only games I’ve missed in 38 years. With the Atlanta Hawks and Braves I had five years doing them together, I was doing about 220 games a year!

I got to the Yankees in ‘89 and didn’t miss any games until this year’s All-Star break, so I’m proud of it, but I also never really cared about the streak.

BC: Were you surprised how many others did care?

JS: Yes!  Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe the reaction, people thought I was dying, but yes, I was surprised.

I missed two games in my first year with the Yankees, when I had to lay my sister to rest so I don’t consider that missing two games, those days were for a death in the family. Those are the only games I missed in 38 years, from my first Hawks game beginning in November 1981, until this All-Star break.  But you know what? When you think about it, it’s not important. I’m not getting anything out of it and it’s amazing how many people cared about it which is wonderful. But I never went to work every day thinking, ‘Oh, I’m adding one more to the streak,’ I never thought about it. I was healthy and that was my job, so I went to broadcast the game. 

Also, I go to the game because I love the games, I get into the games. So it was very easy for me to go and do a baseball game or basketball game, or even college football and college basketball, I get a big kick out of them.

BC: Obviously you love going to games, I love going to games, but I’m 31 years old and I think about the amount of hours you put into a broadcast and the amount of travel that you have to do throughout the entire season.  It seems a little daunting.

JS: Yes, that’s the toughest part of it, without question. And it’s even tougher being with the Yankees because baseball doesn’t give the Yankees a lot of getaway day games and as a result, we keep getting into these cities at four in the morning. I call it Yankee time.  And I would say that’s the tough part of the job. I also don’t go to sleep right away, it takes me a while to unwind after a flight, so I go to bed even later than other people. That’s the tough part, of the job.

BC: You did 30 straight years without missing a game which means you were never able to listen to a Yankee call on the radio or sit back and watch them live on television. So when you did take a few days off, did you get to do that?

JS: I sure did, I didn’t want to listen on the radio because I didn’t want to have to answer what I thought of the people who replaced me, who I understand did a really great job. At home I have two big screens on the wall of my bedroom side by side, so I actually watched the games without sound, I would watch the Yankee game on one screen and the Mets game, on the other screen and I really enjoyed it.

People would ask, ‘Did it bother you missing games?’  No, I never had any problem in missing those games. I have a host of friends in the business who do the same thing. Tom Hamilton in Cleveland, Denny Matthews in Kansas City, Michael Kay of course on YES, Howie Rose on Mets radio and Gary Cohen on television, they all miss games and they’ve been telling me, ‘John, you gotta take time off, you have to take games off,’ which is now an accepted thing and I never did it until this year. I can’t say it bothered me at all.

BC: So will you schedule games off next season?

JS: No. No I’ll go and see how I feel that’s all.

BC: Was that the same time Michael Kay was out?

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JS: Michael’s surgery was just after the games I missed.

He missed four or five weeks and as a matter of fact, I had the same surgery back in 1980, so I told him – here I am, fine. You have to learn how to use your voice, I hurt my voice because I was doing a three-hour daily talk show and Nets basketball and Islanders hockey and Morgan State football, my goodness it was a lot. I had the operation and got a few ideas on how to use my voice correctly and I haven’t hurt it since. I told Michael, imagine in 40 years how they must have improved the technique, so you’re going to be great. And of course, he came back great.

BC: Do you think about the Hall of Fame at all? Being the voice of the Yankees for so long, the streak, the home run calls and their popularity, is that something you think about?

JS: Well, it’s brought up all the time. I don’t think I’ll ever get in.  I remember Harry Caray, before he got in, he never thought he would make it because his style was so different and I kind of think the same way of myself. They seem to bring in people who have a different style than I have.  If it ever happened, I’ll be very happy, but if not, I’m fine.

BC: I think the uniqueness is what makes you so popular and generational. People that were listening when they were in grade school are now in their 40s and their kids are listening. You’re one of the sounds of summer and I think the uniqueness of what you bring to a broadcast helps build that connection I mentioned earlier.

JS: Well, I wish you were voting!

BC: Do you remember which of your creative homerun calls came first?  Was it Bern baby Bern?

JS: It was without question Bernie Williams, but I had done this for other athletes in other sports. I had one with Dominique Wilkins on the Hawks, he would do something great and I would say ‘Dominique is Magnifique’ and it caught on, he loved it. I do everything by the seat of my pants, I’m not thinking these things out. One day when Bernie did something great, I said, Bern baby Bern. It caught on, he loved it and then there was Bernie goes Boom. [Laughs]

Image result for bernie williams home run

It was never meant to be for every player.  But it turned into that, I’m very proud and happy about it, but it’s become as they say, a cottage industry so now I’m supposed to do something for everyone and I try.

BC: What do you think led to that becoming the case? Was it radio shows replaying them? Or the internet and the way everything gets shared on social media?

JS: The answer is yes!

BC: Is there pressure now that you need to create one for every player?

JS: I don’t know if its pressure, I don’t think they’re going to put me up in a tree if I don’t come through. [Laughs] But yeah when the Yankees acquire a new player in the offseason, people start wondering about the call, so we try to find something, some are very good and some aren’t.

BC: Did you have calls in your back pocket for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?

JS:  [Long Pause] I did not. [Laughs]

I thought the Yankees were right in not going after them and tying up all that money in one player. Brian Cashman has had the best year that any GM has ever had. That’s why the Yankees have survived with the incredible injuries, not just the number of injuries, but injuries to their biggest and best players.  The things Brian has done are sensational, whether it’s Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman or Cameron Maybin. I’ve been able to find something for the home run calls and it’s fun, but it’s not the end of the world. People get so excited about everything, it’s just a zany thing to do on the games.

BC: Were you surprised how quickly the Yankees were able to rebuild in the last few years? It looked like they were headed for a down period and it just never got that bad before they built championship aspirations again.

JS: Even when they really weren’t very good, Joe Girardi did a phenomenal job, he was winning games in the mid-80s. So when they were having their down year, they were still over .500 and they were very competitive teams. Then Brian Cashman made these great trades and Judge came up through the farm system, and Gleyber Torres was traded for. Gary Sanchez also came up through the farm system and they’ve built up a terrific ball club.

BC: As the voice of the Yankees, do the playoffs still generate extra excitement? Or because the Yankees were there so many times, are you immune to the added energy and new expectations?

JS: Oh no, you react to the game. I’m really good at that, I react to the game that day. A couple of years ago, the Yankees went to the ALCS, and lost in seven to Houston, the eventual champion. The Yankees played six playoff games at home that year and the new Stadium was just as loud as the old Yankee Stadium, it was thrilling, absolutely thrilling.

BC: Some TV play-by-play voices have joined the local radio call for the playoffs. Kay being on ESPN and the Yankees on WFAN make the hypothetical even harder, but has Michael ever expressed an interest in doing that? Joining you and Suzyn for a few innings during the playoffs?

JS: No, not to me anyway.  And Michael would tell me before anyone else.  Michael knows how it works. If you do television, you wind up not doing the playoffs because they’re all on national TV. They do allow home radio and if they didn’t I would be very unhappy, I don’t want them to play these big games in the playoffs without my broadcasting them and Suzyn feels the same way.

Image result for john sterling and suzyn waldman

BC: How do you view the rest of your career? Is it a goal of yours to retire on your own? Some professional athletes have retired as an All-Star, others say they’ll play until their uniform is ripped off.

JS: At the present time, I have four kids in college so I have to work. [Laughs]

When that’s over, I’ll think about it, but I’ll take it year by year. I don’t want to go on-air if I can’t do it, but I honestly don’t know. I can’t imagine retiring, but I guess there will be a day when I just – even Vin Scully finally retired and he was 88 or 89, so I have some years left.

 Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.

BSM Writers

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.

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WRONG BAD

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.

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BSM Writers

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.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

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.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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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.

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