Former NBA player Stephen Jackson once said on Howard Beck’s podcast that experience is the best teacher. Amen to that. The next best thing to gaining experience on your own is to pick the brain of someone else who’s experienced. Enter Steve Czaban — a sports radio veteran that has accumulated a few terabytes of knowledge throughout his career.
Czabe has been featured on Milwaukee radio for nearly 25 years, and has hosted in Washington D.C. for over two decades. His resume also includes stops in Charlotte and Chicago as well as national experience at FOX Sports Radio and SB Nation Radio. The man knows what he’s talking about when he offers opinions on the sports radio industry. Thankfully he doesn’t share his knowledge with the feel of someone who is being fanned while fed grapes. He offers his insight like a guy drinking a beer while watching a ball game at the bar.
Like most great hosts, Steve has the ability to shift gears. He can have you cracking up one minute while describing his water polo broadcasting background; the next minute he can offer a thoughtful view about doing radio during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. His mantra for anyone who wants to get in the business is outstanding. The advice is so excellent that seasoned hosts can all benefit from it as well. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: How difficult is it right now to do a show without actual sports being played due to the pandemic?
Steve Czaban: At first I thought it was going to be about fun months of just going off the grid sports topic wise and just doing guy talk, movies, hanging out and beers to occupy us while this was dealt with. But as the severity ramps up, personally I have a hard time striking the right tone. Even though our job is to provide a diversion, we are real people with families and concerns and we live in the real world. It’s tough to just be there breaking balls, backslapping, doing what is the normal course of sports radio when the whole world has gone sideways.
BN: So how do you find that middle ground?
SC: I don’t know. It’s a day-by-day, hour-by-hour thing. I don’t have a replacement content problem. I have a tone problem because I’m trying to figure out what is the appropriate tone.
BN: Does the tone that you try to strike differ at all between your shows in Milwaukee and D.C.?
SC: No, I think the tone is the same in both places. It’s more blue collar in Milwaukee and more white collar, professional, government in D.C. But people are people and the tone I don’t think changes because of it.
BN: This isn’t an easy time to be a radio host. With that in mind what has been your toughest, most challenging gig?
SC: I think the one thing that frustrated me was when I was on nationally with FOX Sports Radio. It didn’t matter if I was doing well in the kind of mid-markets that you want to thrive in like Richmond or Indianapolis. We were losing affiliates even though I was doing great numbers in those markets because they would change their syndicator affiliation. Then they would be required to carry the other company’s product so to speak.
I would get calls from PDs going, man, I am so mad about this. I tried to argue saying but this show works for us, it’s a national show but we get numbers, we can actually sell off of it, and they just tell me sorry the company line is you’ve got to carry this instead. That happened a lot. When you’re up every morning putting everything you’ve got into a show and that’s the case you’re like damn.
BN: Remember those old Army-Navy games where the broadcast would highlight a kid and just go through his daily — at 0700 he wakes up, at 0800 he does this — if you did that based on your radio schedule, what does your day-to-day routine look like?
SC: I get up at 6 Eastern; 7am start time for the Milwaukee show. I do it from my home studio so I don’t have to go anywhere. I do the show from 7 to 10, which is 6 to 9 Milwaukee time. Then there is usually an hour of mopping up and other coordination work, emails, and blah blah blah until about 11 ET. Then if the weather is nice I go out and play nine holes or chip and putt. Get some lunch. Come back home and get back in the cockpit about 3 o’clock in the afternoon to get ready for the show on 980 from 4 to 7pm. Then once that’s over from 7 to 8pm is when I record my podcast, which is a supplemental, additional 35 to 45 minutes called The CzabeCast. I call somebody up and shoot the shit with them and post it. By that time it’s about 9 o’clock and I’m ready to go to bed.
BN: Are you a good golfer?
SC: [Laughs] Depends on who I’m playing. I only negotiate strokes on the first tee. I’m an avid golfer let’s put it that way. I’m a weak 8 handicap, which some people go, oh you’re really good. I’m like yeah not as good as I want to be and not compared to the players I like to play with.
BN: How many years have you been at 980?
SC: Shoot, 20 years now. I came back in the late fall of ‘99. It’s been 20 years in D.C.
BN: How many years in Milwaukee?
SC: Well I was on a morning show on another station from ‘94 until a year and a half ago. So that was 24 years. Then this new station started up and they wanted me to be the centerpiece and to be the morning show. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up and so I said okay let’s do this.
BN: It’s really unique, man. When they first approached you to do two shows in two different markets what were your thoughts about it?
SC: I was all about it. Milwaukee has lagged behind the rest of the country when it comes to sports radio. They didn’t really have a full-time sports radio station I don’t think in town until like maybe 2000. So now obviously they’ve caught up and there are three stations, which I think is a bit excessive, but we’re really not trying to be a sports station. We’re trying to be a station for men who know sports, like sports, but they’re not going to get in knock-down, drag-out arguments with you about reliever numbers unless it’s something appropriate. We want it to be a lifestyle, guy station as much as it is a sports station.
BN: Sometimes bands forget which city they’re performing in. Have you ever forgotten which audience you’re doing a show for?
SC: [Laughs] That hasn’t happened yet. As I get older I forget more and more things but that is one that I’ve yet to encounter. My biggest check swing nowadays is — because I’ll use occasional profanity on my podcast I have to sometimes really check swing when I’m on the air because I’m talking into the same microphone for both the podcast and my shows.
BN: [Laughs] Oh, man. You haven’t slipped up yet?
SC: Nothing really bad has happened yet. It’s probably just a matter of time.
BN: Is it liberating to cuss compared to being buttoned up on terrestrial radio?
SC: It’s liberating but I’m always mindful of being gratuitous about it. It’s like the kid whose parents are gone and he can eat ice cream for breakfast. You don’t want to go hog-wild with it because it doesn’t add to the content. The content still has to be interesting and something people are going to want to come back for. You can’t just get on there and cuss.
BN: If you could choose the Packers or the Redskins to win a Super Bowl, who would you pick?
SC: Oh, the Redskins. It’s easy because my people have suffered the longest. My people have suffered greatly. The whole thing with fandom is interesting. When I started this new show I said for years when I was on this other FM morning show I was a friend of the Packers. I rooted for you guys on the side but I never considered myself a true fan. But now that I am doing a show every day that’s my own show, I feel like I have earned the right to apply for “probationary dual citizenship” I call it. I am not going to have to renounce my fandom of the Redskins while also being a Packer fan because it’s special circumstances.
People’s opinions on this vary greatly. Some say that’s impossible, you can’t do that. Others are like of course you can and that it’s okay to have two different teams depending on your circumstance. Maybe you grew up and your dad was a Cowboy fan and he raised you as a Cowboy fan. But now you live in Denver and so you go to Broncos games and you’re a huge Broncos fan. I don’t think that’s in conflict. I only think that you can’t be a fan of two teams that are traditional bitter rivals, and you certainly can’t be a fan of two teams that are in the same division.
BN: What is it about being a sports radio host that gets you up in the morning and fires you up to do more shows?
SC: Well it beats working for a living that’s for sure.
SC: No, the world of sports is fascinating and interesting. There are more great, dumb, hilarious, fascinating stories all the time. When they started sports radio in ‘87 at WFAN, the common reply was, ‘Sports all day? What are they going to talk about?’ Now look at the landscape and you say to yourself I don’t have enough hours in the day for the stories that are coming across my desk.
BN: Going back to the very beginning of your sports radio career, how did it start for you?
SC: I went to UC Santa Barbara, the Harvard of the West as I like to call it. I just started going to the student radio station. They had a little set of equipment where you could take two headsets, a mixer and literally a handheld radio antenna — sort of like you broke it off somebody’s roof. Then you would set it up at the baseball diamond, you’d point it back at the tower in the middle of campus, you’d get the connection, and then you would call a baseball game that absolutely nobody listened to. We did that for just about any sport. Me and the guys in college — we called water polo games. Do you know how hard it is to call water polo where all you see are their heads? Do you know how little anyone cares about water polo? But we did it. We did it because why not?
BN: Sports radio hosts are sometimes urged to appeal to a younger audience. Are you mindful of that, or is it like here’s my show, take it or leave it?
SC: I don’t think like ooh, what do the kids want today? It’s like OK, boomer. My one mantra always for anyone who wants to get in the business is simple; to be interesting — and that’s the goal — you have to be interested. You have to always keep an open mind. If you turn your nose up at certain sports whether it’s MMA or hockey or baseball or boxing, you’re not opening yourself up to the possibility of oh hey, this is really interesting. You know? You can’t be a picky eater. Some guys are. You get to a certain stage in your career and a lot of guys are like I just don’t talk hockey. I don’t know it. I don’t care about it. But I always try to stay interested in as many things as I can. I try to skew young even though I know I’m not young because in my mind I feel like I am.
Even if I don’t know anything about Instagram, I will still look at it and be curious about it and ask questions about it to people that might know whatever it is. It took me awhile to get my head around “Okay, Instagram. Why is this different than Twitter?” Then someone put it to me very succinctly; they said millennials don’t like to read. I said holy shit, that’s perfect. 280 characters is too long for them. Just give me a picture.
BN: [Laughs] Oh man, that’s funny. What would you say is your biggest weakness as a sports radio host?
SC: What is this a job interview? I have no weaknesses. I’m impervious. I’m a 24/7 content machine. I’m indestructible. I’ll be doing this until I’m 90.
BN: Just cranking out the hits. I like it.
SC: The biggest weakness, I don’t know. The more laps you take around the sports radio track so to speak, the easier it is to get jaded and cynical — if not jaded, just to be sort of bored. The sports world has a routine and I like that routine. It helps guide me and other sports fans through the seasons. But it’s easy at some point to be like okay here we go again. I’ve watched 41 NFL seasons that I can remember or whatever the number is. I have to constantly remind myself hey for someone who’s 22 years old, they’re in the prime up their sports fanatic life. They are like so into this. They love this shit. I think that’s something that I constantly have to guard against.
BN: I love what you said about being interested. That’s awesome advice. When you break it down to what is most important to you to be a good sports radio host, what else would you have at the top of the list?
SC: When you tell a story, have a point. It makes it so much more interesting to the listener. Everything you say has to have some kind of a point no matter what that is. It can be a big, small point, you always have to think okay so what is the reason for me talking about this? What’s my endpoint of the segment? Whatever you’re talking about, think about it critically and understand okay here’s the point I would like to make about it.
My personal philosophy is I don’t try to force a point if I don’t believe it. I can’t fake it. I’m not a take artist. I know people will say that’s not true, everyone likes to criticize all of us as take artists, but I believe what I say. Unless I’m saying something while doing it with a wink of my eye, like you know I’m kidding you on this.
BN: When you compare the very beginning of your career to later once you gained experience, what was something important you learned about doing good radio?
SC: Preparation is key. Learning how to write even if you’re not going to read your scripts. I don’t read scripts but I do write. I’ll write notes. I’ll write outlines. I’ll write certain riffs maybe. I’ll write bullet points to help guide me through what I’m going to talk about. Writing for your own blog is another good way to sort of focus your content. If you write a well-written blog about something, you’ve really sharpened the points that you want to make and the phrases that you’re using. By the time you go to “read” your own take on your own radio show, you’re not reading it, it’s just coming out of you naturally because you’ve already spent some time writing it.
BN: How important do you think it is to do a podcast in this day and age?
SC: I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do one. The cost to do it is virtually nothing. Especially for people that want to get into the business it’s something that I would do because then you can go show somebody — look at my product. I have product. I think it frees you up to do other things and it gives you another area to sort of hone your craft. It’s another boutique product that you as the host can own entirely. That’s valuable. It may be a little gift shop in terms of whatever revenue or free stuff you can get out of it compared to your regular employer, but you own the gift shop, which I think is a nice thing.
BN: When you look at your future over the next 5-10 years, how do you think it’ll look and what do you want it to look like?
SC: [Laughs] Glorious, employed, healthy, all those things. I can’t predict the future. I love what I’m doing right now. I’d like to keep doing it. I’d like to grow the Milwaukee show and give the Milwaukee market a really good, interesting, compelling show to come to every day. That’s the way I’ve been here in D.C. as well for the last 20 years too. Keep going, keep going until it becomes unbearable or I’ve got enough money and nobody ever has enough money. I guess you go until they take your guitar away.
Mike Greenberg Asked a Fine Question, But He Can Do Better
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
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.
Media Noise – Episode 74
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.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
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.