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Donovan Lewis: From Holding Court in the Cafeteria to Hosting at The Ticket

“It hasn’t gotten old yet. It feels like sometimes you may hit a wall and think okay, you want to do something else, but I really enjoy getting up every single day going into the office, working with Norm and trying to think of different ways to entertain the audience.”

Brian Noe

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Donovan Lewis

You can’t assume the double play in baseball. You also can’t assume to have a rough idea of what a host’s journey in sports radio has been like. Take Donovan Lewis for instance. He hosts at one of the most successful stations in the country, The Ticket in Dallas, Texas.

He must have started at a sports station, right? Nope, he began in news talk. Then sports radio? Nope, next he worked at a classic rock station. Hmm, conservative talk radio and classic rock; sounds like a white guy. Nope, Lewis is black. Well, being from Dallas he’s probably a Cowboys fan. Nope, he was an Eagles fan growing up.

Donovan Lewis isn’t predictable, which makes him and his journey so interesting. The Dallas native began his career at 570 KLIF in 1993. Lewis was a self-described, bottom-of-the-rung board-op who only worked about nine hours on weekends. Then he transitioned to the classic rock station 93.3 The Bone. Lewis occasionally got some airtime, but he was mostly a board-op and producer for nearly 13 years combined before landing at The Ticket.

Lewis talks about the biggest bump he’s faced during his radio journey. He also mentions what it’s like to host a show for nearly seven years with Dallas icon Norm Hitzges. Lewis touches on his love for a certain NFL quarterback and tosses in an epic story about Alice Cooper as well. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: Where are you from?

Donovan Lewis: I’m born and raised in Dallas. It’s a little section of Dallas called Oak Cliff. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in, man. Nothing is ever going to change. I love the little neighborhood where I grew up. I went to school for radio and television; they always told us to be prepared to move anywhere and everywhere if you’re really serious about this. I’ve been really blessed, man, not having to leave the city of Dallas to keep going with the radio game. I started here and I’ve never lived anywhere else but Dallas. That’s pretty unusual in this business.

BN: Who were your favorite teams growing up and where do you stand with those teams now?

DL: It’s funny because being from Dallas of course everyone thinks you’re a Cowboys fan and I wasn’t a Cowboys fan growing up because my dad was not a Cowboys fan. Of course I want to grow up and be like him. He didn’t like the Cowboys so I grew up not liking them. But of course if you’re going to do radio in Dallas, you’re going to have to like the Cowboys somehow, someway.

Right now if you ask me what my favorite team is, now it’s Dallas. But growing up, man, I loved and idolized Randall Cunningham. I was an Eagles fan for a while and wherever he went, I followed. That’s my guy. That’s who I was in love with when I was growing up. I considered myself an Eagles fan, but always been Rangers, always been Mavericks. Of course hockey came around here in ‘93, so I’ve always been a Stars fan. Yeah, it’s pretty unusual, I’m pretty homegrown until you get to the football team. I wasn’t a Cowboys fan at all.

BN: Did they give you a hard time because the Eagles — it’d be one thing if your team was the Ravens, but a divisional rival? What was that like?

DL: Oh dude, it was not fun. I’ll tell you that much. I think everyone understood, but it just didn’t matter because my love for Randall Cunningham wasn’t going anywhere. They just had to accept the fact that whatever team he was going to be on, that’s who I was going to like.

I went to a game one time at Texas Stadium and I had my Randall Cunningham jersey on. My wife now, who was my girlfriend at the time, had a Cowboys jersey on when we went. I understand when you go to a rival’s stadium how things can go, but man, that’s the most afraid I’ve ever been in a stadium before in my life. I thought that was it. I thought I was done. I was like, ‘I’m about to get beat up, they’re going to take my girlfriend, they’re going to take everything I have and leave me in a bloody pulp in this Cunningham jersey’. But I survived. It worked out.

BN: What led to you getting on the air at The Ticket?

DL: I was at The Bone and I was producing the morning show. It did include some on-air things, but not the whole time. Then Cumulus came in and bought all the stations in 2006. That’s when they fired everybody at The Bone. I thought I was going to get fired too. They said there’s an opportunity for you to slide over and see how it’s going to work at The Ticket if that’s what you want. I was like ‘hell yeah, that’s exactly what I want’. That’s how it started. It was like May of 2006.

They kind of pushed me onto the show that was on from noon to 3. It was BaD Radio with Bob Sturm and Dan McDowell. They had been together for about seven years before I got there. So it was almost like okay, here’s the third man, go make it work. They didn’t really give us any direction or anything like that. Of course me being paranoid and all this other stuff, I didn’t know how to fit in.

It’s funny because right when I got in there with them is when the Mavericks made their first 2006 title run. Those guys were going on the road. They were in Miami for the Finals and I was back in the studio because I was so new and I didn’t know what was going on. It was the weirdest time ever, man. I didn’t think I was ever going to make it. I can’t find my way. I don’t know when to jump in. Those guys are talking to each other and I’m just kind of sitting back here supposedly the third man on the show in Dallas. It was a little awkward at first.

I had a conversation with Corby Davidson who’s on The Hardline now. It was at training camp. It’s 2006, it’s July and we went to Oxnard for Cowboys training camp. We sat by the pool, man, and we talked for like three hours. He was a third man on a show and he was telling me hey man, get your footing, they wouldn’t have you here if it wasn’t for a reason. Once you find your voice it’ll be fine, just be patient. I wasn’t comfortable for a year, year and a half, you’ve been doing this for three months. It’ll come to you. It’ll come around.

He kind of talked me off the ledge a little bit. That’s how it started ticking up on the roller coaster as far as that went. You find your footing. You find your voice. You get comfortable and then you just keep on pushing. It was a weird start to the beginning of me at The Ticket. I’m telling you, it was crazy.

BN: How did it work for you to co-host with Norm Hitzges?

DL: That was a little weird also because I was with Bob and Dan for like nine years. I’m comfortable, I know exactly what they expect from me. I know what to expect from them, we’re kind of rockin’ and rollin’. Now I’m going on a show with a guy that’s been doing it by himself for 40 years. Now it goes from being pretty comfortable in your surroundings to I don’t know how he’s going to accept this. Is it going to be cool having a partner?

The thing that helped us out though is we did the Cowboys postgame show together. We had done it for eight years before I moved on the show with him. So we did have some type of knowledge of working with each other. Then once he said ‘you know what, I’m cool with it, let’s go with it’, as soon as I got with Norm it was pretty instantaneous that I felt pretty comfortable being the co-host of my own show. It didn’t take too long because he was really cool.

I told him one of the things I wanted was not to be Norm’s show with Donovan sitting in; this is our show together. It’s almost like starting brand new and trying to build something. I think that will benefit both of us. He totally agreed. You’re going to have some elements of the things he’s used to and then some new stuff that I incorporated in and it meshed pretty well really quickly. I was really surprised by that because somebody’s doing something by themselves for 40 years can get quite comfortable doing it by themselves and not want to have some young whippersnapper in there thinking he knows what he’s doing. That was a cool jump.

One of my professors at school, who is a real big mentor for me, used to tell me, “once you figure out what you want to do in your life, write down some goals on a piece of paper. And every now and then just look at it and see if you can check some of those off.” One of those goals that I had written down was to have a show with my name on it. Bob and Dan, it was BaD Radio. That show didn’t have my name on it. Now I get with Norm Hitzges and now this show has my name on it.

That was a pretty big milestone for me to check that goal that I had in 1993 off the list. That’s really cool. Some of that stuff, we try to be all hard and take for granted and all that stuff, but when you kind of get one of those milestone moments that you’ve probably been wanting since you’ve been in college or something like that, is pretty dang special.

BN: What would you say is the biggest bump in the road you’ve faced over nearly three decades in your radio career?

DL: We had this one thing with our company; they wanted the people of color to let them know how it is working in that company being a person of color. I said sometimes I feel like I have to work twice as hard to get half as far. To try to let you know ‘hey, I’m worthy of this position, just look at me.’ I don’t think it’s just this company specifically, I just think that’s how this game seems to be. 

Just being a brother in this radio game, I think sometimes it’s had some of the bumps that a lot of people may not think it had. Trying to prove myself that I’m worthy of being on the air and not trying to be anyone else, just being myself, I think that’s been the biggest bump.

When I was in school, one time I got kicked out of class because my professor told me when someone closes their eyes and listens to you, they shouldn’t be able to tell whether you’re white or black. I thought that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. It doesn’t matter if you know whether I’m white or black as long as I’m speaking correctly, as long as I’m giving you the information you need, who cares?

It’s about proving yourself. It’s about the opportunity and sometimes you just don’t get the opportunity to prove yourself. I’ve gotten the opportunity and I feel I’ve done a good job of proving that I do belong in this game. I’ve been here for a while, but a lot of people who look like me I don’t think they’ve gotten the proper opportunities to showcase their talents just because of the perception of what sports radio is supposed to sound like. I think I share that bump along with some of my colleagues who look like me to try to change that barrier and say ‘it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you know what you’re doing and you sound good doing it’, that’s all that should matter.

BN: Has that feeling changed for you over the last couple of years, or has it stayed relatively the same?

DL: I feel like it is getting better, but it’s not nearly where it’s supposed to be. Sometimes, especially with some of the things that have happened across America in the last few years and me being the only African-American voice at my station, I’m almost carrying a bigger load as far as what you say and how you say it and how it’s going to be perceived and all of that stuff. It’s something that you have to be conscious about.

Look, I tell everybody, I don’t speak for anybody but me. You may look like me and you may not believe a word that I’m saying and I’m okay with that because I’m not trying to speak for a race. I’m not trying to speak for anybody but myself and my opinion on whatever situation is out there. I think that’s the beauty of our station because it’s not just sports. They allow us to speak freely about a whole bunch of things, issues sensitive or not. You are allowed to say what you truly feel, what you truly believe without any consequences from the company. I do think that that’s one of the better things about our radio station that allows us to do that.

I think it’s a little bit of an extra burden when you are the only African-American voice and you’re speaking on sensitive subjects like that. I take that responsibility seriously, man. I really do. You’re going to get talked about badly by some people, some of your own people, some people that just disagree with you, all that. But that’s the price of playing poker, man. That’s the platform that you have and you have to try to use it to the best of your ability and try to do what you feel is right. 

BN: [Market manager] Dan Bennett has been a big believer in you along the way. What has he meant to your career?

DL: He’s meant a ton, man. He tells me all the time, he just walked into the cafeteria one time and he saw me holding court. That’s when I was a board operator. It was lunch and there was a table full of people and I was holding court. He thought you know what, maybe that can work on the air. He’s been really instrumental in allowing the opportunities for me to show myself where I think I may not have gotten those opportunities. He saw something in me and thought ‘hey, let’s put this on the air and see if it works.’

He knew that I wanted more than what I was getting at that particular time. Once he knew I was willing to do whatever it takes to work up and try to prove myself, he allowed those opportunities to happen. And again, when Cumulus came in and bought The Bone, I thought I was going to get fired along with everybody else at that radio station. But he said ‘let’s see if this works at The Ticket. I think it’ll be a good fit.’ I’m thankful to him for that big time because it worked out and we are where we are right now. He’s played a huge part of where I am right now.

BN: Your story is crazy, man. Same city, didn’t have to go to Iowa or whatever. From a classic rock station; it’s wild, right?

DL: Yeah, from conservative talk radio to classic rock to sports radio. Because when I was in college, sports radio was just kind of a niche genre. It wasn’t as prevalent as it is right now. I didn’t think about sports radio as a job. I didn’t even think about that. If I wanted to get into sports it was going to be doing games, sideline reporter or something like that. And now that that opportunity worked out. It just makes the story even better though. There’s no way I thought I would ever work at a classic rock station and I almost didn’t take the job because I don’t know anything about the music.

I’ll tell you a quick, funny story; when I got hired for the producer gig for the classic rock station, the weekend before I was going to start they had this big event. They said ‘why don’t you come out and check it out and then start on Monday, kind of get a feel for everything.’ I was like, that’s cool. They said ‘hey, do you want to meet Alice Cooper?’ I was like ‘yeah, who is she?’ They were like oh my gosh. You got a lot to learn buddy boy. [Laughs] You’ve got a lot to learn. That’s how my classic rock career got started.

BN: Hey, Shannon Sharpe is going to be in town. Oh yeah? Is she pretty?

DL: Nikki Sixx. Oh, who is she? Yeah, you don’t know anything about this. That’s how the classic rock career got started by asking about Alice Cooper, who is she.

BN: Man, I’m sure you came a long way from that point.

DL: It didn’t take long to realize that I’ve got a lot to learn. But it was four of the most fun years I’ve had in radio. It was really cool exploring that whole new world. Like these songs made in the ‘70s were new to me. So I’m like okay, I knew nothing about this and it was fantastic.

BN: That’s cool, man. How about the future? Your piece of paper, do you have anything else written on it besides having your name on a show that you want to check off?

DL: I know I have it somewhere and I need to go and look at it and see if anything hasn’t been checked off. Man, that’s a great question because it’s Dallas, it’s a huge market, you have your own show with your name on it and it feels like I can get really, really comfortable right here. It’s my hometown. I’m pretty sure there are going to be other things that I think of to say okay, this is something else I want to accomplish or get into. But right now, man, this is dream job one and it’s been that way for a long time.

Just to try to do it as best as I can. It’s been really cool. I think there are still some challenges in doing this job. That kind of keeps the blood going, it keeps the mind racing to try to think of different things, different segments, different topics and all that stuff. It hasn’t gotten old yet. It feels like sometimes you may hit a wall and think okay, you want to do something else, but I really enjoy getting up every single day going into the office, working with Norm and trying to think of different ways to entertain the audience.

I wanted to be an engineer when I first went to college. I couldn’t imagine being an engineer now, I’d be asleep right now. I’d be so bored with myself. No disrespect to engineers, but this is definitely a path that I saw. I didn’t think it would be this wild and crazy or anything like that. But it’s been fun as hell and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

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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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