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Ernie Johnson Is Trying To Get From Point A to Point B to Point C

“I think the key is always to know your role, know your material, know how to prepare, and know that the show is not about you.”

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Ernie Johnson

His work is well known. His bowties are instantly recognizable. The smile is always present, and why not, right?

When you’re Ernie Johnson and you host one of the best studio shows on television, there’s a lot of reason to laugh and be happy. Johnson is a versatile broadcaster, the kind you can plug into any situation and know the job will be done well. In addition to his work on TNT’s Inside the NBA, Johnson hosts Turner and CBS’ coverage of NCAA March Madness and is the lead play-byplay announcer for Turner’s coverage of Major League Baseball and the PGA Championship. It’s already a very impressive resume. Add to it the NFL, The British Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics and you have the complete package. 

Ernie Johnson Jr. | Bio | Premiere Speakers Bureau

During the shutdown of sports, Johnson is trying to stay busy while at the same time helping young journalists. He is not a fan of fake crowd noise and he has as much fun hosting with Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal as it looks like he does. 

I caught up with Johnson this week and he was kind enough to answer some questions. We started with his work in the NBA and as studio host of Inside the NBA

Andy Masur: In general, how much fun is it to host Inside the NBA on TNT? You guys seem to have a blast every time you’re on the air. 

Ernie Johnson: It’s as much fun to do as it appears on the screen. We all realize how fortunate we are to have a job that requires us to watch basketball and then talk about it.  I mean if you hear that job description who wouldn’t say “Sign me up!”? Kenny, Charles and I have been together for 20 years, Shaq for the last 8. 

With producers like Tim Kiely and Jeremy Levin, we’ve been able to come up with a show that broke out of the traditional mold of studio shows, so that it became very unpredictable, very spontaneous, freewheeling—call it what you will.  And we haven’t been afraid to venture outside the traditional boundaries and voice our opinions on social issues, politics, whatever topics the average fan was talking about, we were going to talk about too. 

AM: What are some of the keys to hosting alongside 3 high profile former players and entertaining personalities?

EJ: I think the key is always to know your role, know your material, know how to prepare, and know that the show is not about you. Working with Kenny, Charles, and Shaq is about as much fun as you can have in this job.   You just have to keep in mind that they’re the ones who played the game at the highest level.  Nobody in the audience cares what I think is going on in a team huddle with a second and a half to play, but these guys have all been there.  We need to hear from them. 

My role is to move the show along from point A to point B to point C, and be armed with the latest information from around the league which will spark conversation.  That information can be anything from a key stat to a quote from a player or coach which begs a response from our trio of NBA players.  I think the reason our show has been successful through the years is that no matter how “high profile” the personalities may be, nobody has tried to make the show about themselves.

Shaq, Charles Barkley fight over speaking time makes Ernie Johnson ...

AM: I know a lot of us in this business are looking for ways to stay active and relevant in the sports world.  Looking at your Twitter account I noticed you started “Ernie’s Journalism School”. How did that come about and how much fun was it for you? 

EJ: It was born out of a feeling of “okay, what do we do now?” which popped up in the first few days of the NBA’s suspension of play.  As a journalism student at the University of Georgia way back when, my favorite classes were those in which a professor would bring in a guest speaker who was already doing what I wanted to do one day.  We as students were able to fire away with any questions we had about what it’s like in the real world. Now after 40 years in the business, one of my favorite things to do is return to my Alma Mater and talk about our industry, and answer questions.  

So, I talked to Turner’s social media team, just asking what possibilities were out there, and they mentioned Twitter Live.  I’ve been on Twitter for years but never realized there was a Live element to it.  So, I just thought with so many college students’ lives turned upside down maybe I could give the journalism students out there an outlet to ask questions.  So I reached out to some of my friends and told them what I was thinking—a daily, hour long session—in which they would take questions the students could type in Live, and basically tell their stories—where they started—how they moved up—advice, that kind of thing.   

I just basically went through the contacts in my phone and was so pleased to get such positive response. So, students got to hear from the people they see on their screens, or whose stories they read, and ask ‘em anything they wanted.  I didn’t know at the time that it would run Monday through Friday for six weeks, but before it was all done the students had heard from about 35 different people who were in the business—from Scott Van Pelt to James Brown to Andrea Kremer to Brian Anderson, and on and on.  I’ll admit it too, I learned a lot, even after this long in the business.

AM: What a great idea! I’m wondering what kinds of things have you learned during this pandemic about the importance of sports in our society? I know I miss them greatly! 

EJ: I’ve always said that sports are a great distraction to the pressures of real life and that’s just been amplified during the course of the pandemic.  Even if you don’t sit down and watch an event from start to finish, you might have it on as background noise for whatever else you’re up to, and you’re checking back to see the score, who’s leading the tournament, that kind of thing.  I think you saw how much people miss live sports, watching something without knowing who’s gonna win, with The Match: Champions for Charity.  Sport just gives us that escape valve that’s been missing for months now.

AM: Along those lines, there’s been a lot of talk recently that network TV broadcasts will pump in fake crowd noise and perhaps use virtual fans during games held with no fans. What are your thoughts on that possibly happening? 

EJ: I vote ‘no’. We all realize the situation we’re in with no fans.  There’s no need to fake it.  It might be interesting to hear all the things you normally don’t during a telecast because they’re drowned out by crowd noise. 

Amen to that. 

A note about that golf event he referenced earlier in our conversation. Johnson was supposed to be in Florida for “The Match”, but didn’t attend for personal reasons. In an emotional segment before the broadcast he described the reasons. 

Sportscaster Ernie Johnson on Adopting His Son with Special Needs ...

His son Eric has dealt with Muscular Dystrophy for years and since 2011 he’s depended on a ventilator to breath. Johnson said his son would be at great risk of dying if he contracted COVID-19. Said Johnson in the piece aired before the event, “I just didn’t think it was worth the risk of bringing in an unseen foe into our house.”

Ernie Johnson, tremendous broadcaster and equally tremendous as a father.

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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