One of the real joys in this industry for yours truly is when I stumble upon a personality who I believe has something to offer but hasn’t yet put it all together. Helping someone grow is a rewarding part of the job and I saw that possibility a little more than 3 years ago when I first became familiar with my featured guest this week, Zach McCrite.
I was looking for a host to team up with Bryan Burwell when Rick Scott and I were having one of our weekly conversations and he asked me “do you know anything about a guy named Zach McCrite”? I asked “who the heck is that“? He mentioned that he was some guy out of Louisville on the STAA Talent website who sounded ok but he didn’t know much about.
I followed up by logging on to the website to listen to his material and I liked a lot of what I heard. He sounded fun, likable, happy to be doing his job and a guy who would be easy for an audience to relate to and connect with. He also had a very unique country-like sound that was soothing to the ear. I had no idea how deep his knowledge base was or if he could thrive in a bigger situation but when someone stands out, you investigate.
I then streamed a few of his shows in Kentucky where he was working with a co-host on a heavy college basketball program and when I listened to the pairing it just didn’t excite me the same as the solo work did. I figured though that if one sample size was strong and the other wasn’t that it was at least worth a look.
I then brought Zach into town for a 2-day audition with Bryan and overall he did well. His personality stood out and you could tell there was a good energy and vibe in the room. The competition for the opening was strong and I had 3 legitimate contenders for the spot and when I made the final decision, Zach didn’t get the nod. I felt at that time that Zach didn’t have enough confidence in himself and he was still rough around the edges and lacking experience and with the current show not performing up to par with the rest of the radio station, I needed someone to take the reigns who had been through the wars before.
The person who got the call was Bob Stelton and while I was excited to add him, I also felt bad to have to give Zach the bad news. I reminded him when we talked to not give up and keep working because he was someone I felt had the talent to break through and he had now earned a spot on the future’s list. While that might not have been what he wanted to hear at the time, I meant what I said. I was impressed but the timing wasn’t right.
Well about a year later, Bob had kicked ass for us and lifted the radio station’s ratings and earned the attention of his hometown (Seattle) station who wanted to hire him to host their midday show with Dave Grosby. That put pressure on yours truly to create a new show that could capitalize on the momentum that had been gained the previous 12 months.
I had a high opinion of former NFL Coach Rick Venturi who was working for me as an NFL Analyst and who I thought could evolve into a weekday talk show host but what I needed was a younger voice to drive the show. I knew I wanted someone who was less analytical, self-deprecating, informed but not looking to be the smartest guy in the room and a personality who could have fun with Rick and respect his position but also establish themselves as well.
While going through the process I kept coming back to Zach. I felt with Venturi’s experience and depth and Zach’s personality and ability to balance out the serious stuff, we could have a pretty strong team. I listened a few more times to Zach to see how he was sounding and his personality was still off the charts but his content selection wasn’t strong and his formatics and confidence in driving a show were still under par.
I figured he was doing everything on his own with limited feedback and as I investigated his background by talking to one of my former colleagues from ESPN Radio Bob Valvano and Louisville Courier Sports Columnist Rick Bozich I kept hearing how much people enjoyed being around him. His peers pointed out how every good or bad decision made on the show was due to Zach’s judgments because there wasn’t any support from up above and I felt that if he had some direction and was willing to accept coaching, he could do a damn good job.
I then drove to Louisville and spent 5 hours with Zach inside of a restaurant where I peppered him with questions and tried to provide a realistic picture of what he would be facing if he were to move to St. Louis. I even popped a 20-question quiz on St. Louis sports on him that I knew would rattle him and result in a failing grade. I did it because I wanted to see how he’d handle things when he wasn’t sure. I remember him telling me that day “I will work really hard to be the best I can be and make sure the radio station is rewarded for having faith in me and in the meantime I will fake it until I make it“.
I then gave Zach an offer and told him to go home and discuss it with his family and let me know his decision the next morning. We then met up for breakfast and he let me know he was ready to move forward and I signed him to a contract to join 101 ESPN in St. Louis at one of the weirdest places I’d ever done a deal – IHOP!
Once Zach came to St. Louis he fit right in. He’s very easy going (his nickname is “EZ”) and approachable and he did a really smart thing by going out a lot in the city and embracing all that St. Louis had to offer. Rather than try to make the market adjust to him, he adjusted to the market. Because of his approach, a number of media personalities responded well to him and I’m sure the association with Rick Venturi didn’t hurt either.
What impressed me about Zach was how eager he was to improve and how sincere he was about learning how to be a better talent. His good natured sense of humor and love for sports connected well with the audience and because he and Coach Venturi worked hard at developing their chemistry, we had continued success in middays following the excellent run turned in by Bob Stelton. He was also excellent at using social media and his daily whiteboard sayings always generated response and kept people laughing.
While I only spent a little more than 3 months working with Zach before accepting a position in SF, we have kept in touch to this day and I consider him a friend and someone who I think has a ton of potential to do great things in this business. He’s currently in a great position working alongside former NFL Player Tony Casillas for 107.7 The Franchise in Oklahoma City and he seems genuinely happy and in a great place professionally.
The radio station he where he works has done a really good job in serving it’s local audience and Zach has once again embraced his new surroundings and found a way to fit in and connect with a whole new audience. He’s also done a great job blending with Tony Casillas and their partnership gives the station a strong pairing capable of having strong long-term success.
I reached out to Zach to have him provide some color on his radio career and explain some of the things he believes are important in creating great radio and I think you’ll enjoy the details of our conversation!
Q: When did you first become interested in sports radio? Who were some of the people you listened to who peaked your interest?
A: I was interested in sports radio for as long as I can remember. 10, 11, 12 years old probably. Except I wanted to be in play-by-play (and still have a dream of doing something on a play-by-play broadcast on a high level at some point. If not play-by-play, hopefully sidelines). Back then, it was Bob Costas and Marv Albert. Growing up in Indiana, Hoosiers play-by-play man Don Fischer was a must as well. In sports talk, my hometown had the old “One On One Sports.” I was a huge fan of Arnie Spanier and Papa Joe Chevalier. I listened constantly.
Q: Where was your first job and what were your responsibilities?
A: I was 14 and I begged the local sports station to let me intern during their high school sports broadcasts. I did the stats and then started setting up and breaking down the broadcasts after games. Then, the station gave me a job as a board op during their drive time hours when I could get a work permit. Looking back, I was an ant in the sports radio world but at the time I thought I had the coolest job on earth!
Q: You spent roughly 6 years in Kentucky doing sports talk radio. What were some of the lessons you learned that prepared you for where you are today?
A: That you are the ONLY person responsible for your success. Sports radio was in it’s infancy in the Louisville market when I arrived and landed a job in 2005. And I was a one-man show. Literally. Bigger companies started employing two-man shows on bigger sticks. I never had a real coach in Louisville and I was just doing what I thought was listenable. I promised myself that no matter what, my show would be different. It was the only advantage I had and I was proud of it.
Q: After Kentucky, you landed your first job in a top 20 market with 101 ESPN in St. Louis. How did that opportunity come about?
A: Wow, funny that Jason Barrett would be asking that question. You were the PD at 101 ESPN at the time and found me like a needle in a haystack. I got asked to come to St. Louis for an on-air tryout and didn’t get the job. You told me “We went in a different direction but out of all the people we brought in, you were my next choice.” I remember thinking “yeah right, you probably told all of the candidates that they were your next choice” but sure enough, when the next opening came, I got the call after you came to Louisville to vet me one last time, while slamming a bunch of pancakes at an IHOP!
Q: How difficult was it going from a small market with limited expectations to a larger market where ratings success was demanded and expected?
A: It scared the living daylight out of me. I remember having a dream after my first day on the air that the ratings came in and our new show had come in 17th place! But frankly, I’m glad it happened that way. I remember all of those 4am wake-up calls thinking “I’m going to prove all of my old naysayers in the biz wrong.” I had my share of those and still do. They fueled me then and they fuel me now.
Q: Your first stint at the station saw you team up with former NFL Coach Rick Venturi. What was the best and most challenging part of running point on that show?
A: The best part was really learning about football. Us talking heads that don’t have an extensive football playing or coaching career to our name still open up a mic and think we know football. It was then that I realized I really didn’t know football at all! I enjoyed talking about the social aspects of football (and other sports) but I didn’t really know a thing about the Xs and Os until I teamed up with him. And he enjoyed teaching me.
The most challenging part was trying to debate him on his views! I felt like he thought I was silly for questioning him (which I probably was). The guy has been around. I’m grateful that he was my first co-host in St. Louis. I think we learned a lot from each other and he’s still a great friend today.
Q: When Coach Venturi left, you then teamed up with another strong St. Louis personality, Bob Ramsey. How would you describe that situation?
A: Rammer was fun. So opinionated and a great sense of humor. We could debate! That was one of the biggest advantages. The biggest frustration was that we just didn’t have enough time together. Rammer had been a part of a great afternoon drive team before he got put with me. Being pulled from afternoon drive and swallowing your pride and hanging out with “the morning guy” can be a tough transition. We were getting there I thought but just not enough time.
Q: You experienced the hard part of the business when you were let go by 101 ESPN in November 2013. What did you learn from that experience?
A: It taught me to be ready for anything. I was certainly caught off guard by it. I thought things were great but I had never been fired before. This was the business. If the company thinks they can do better, they’ve got to do it. I now work under the assumption that today may be my last day on air. If you say that to yourself right before your show begins each day and again before your last segment, you find yourself feeling more proud about how that show went that day.
Q: That led to you moving to Oklahoma City where you’re now in PM drive working for 107.7 The Franchise with former NFL player Tony Casillas. How did that situation materialize and how would you describe it so far?
A: I got fired at 11:15am on a Friday and I had a call from Rick Scott by 1pm that same day. He was consulting for a brand new station out of Oklahoma City that was looking to take on the longstanding Sports Animal. By the end of the day, my resume was in the PD’s hands there (oh yeah, another thing I learned: always have your updated resumé ready to go). The PD listened to my material and we chatted multiple times on the phone about philosophies. I then visited OKC a few times both with and without my wife just to get a feel of the city and my potential new co-host and then made the move.
Working with Tony is a lot like working with Rick Venturi. Tons of football knowledge and fun to hang out with. Now, the trick is trying to get him to buy in to some of the “radio” things that he’s new to. This is his first full time radio gig and it’s a work in progress but we’re making a dent! I love the climb!
Q: Why do you think that type of combination (broadcaster and former athlete) is so popular today in sports talk radio?
A: I think it’s popular because it’s the conversation many listeners want to have. They want to have the discussion with the former athlete that I’m having. So I speak for them. The “broadcaster” is really just Joe Fan so I come at it from that angle on air. The former athlete comes from a completely different vantage point. The broadcaster’s main job, in my opinion, is to let the former athlete shine while trying to get them to understand where us nitwit fans are coming from. It’s a great dynamic.
Q: To those who aren’t familiar with the Oklahoma City sports scene, how would you describe it? What is the biggest misconception of the market?
A: Oklahoma City is obviously a football-first market. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State rule. I don’t think that’s a surprise to many. But I think the biggest misconception is that football is all OKC is. That’s certainly not the case. I’m sure it used to be Football was ranked #1 and the Thunder (and Kevin Durant) were ranked a distant 2nd. Not anymore. Case in point, right now. It’s two weeks from the start of the college football season and Kevin Durant is leading our radio shows a lot. The Team USA departure and his current endorsement battle between Nike and Under Armour is at the top of the headlines. If it wasn’t for off-the-field issues with multiple OU players, Durant would be an even greater portion of our show each day.
Q: What’s your approach to preparing each day for a 4-hour talk show?
A: I know this sounds kind of uppity but you’re kind of always preparing. Almost every time I have an opinion about something I see in sports or in my life, I’m either writing it down or tweeting it out. Either way, I have record of it and then I can start to expound on those points when I’m at my desk and ready to write. I’ve got a nice “shell” of the show put together the night before. Then it’s just letting the next day’s news start to filter in and collarborating with my co-host and producer on what things they are hot on as the day goes on.
Q: When it comes to improving the show, how often do you guys meet to review the show’s strengths and weaknesses? Who’s involved in the feedback process?
Q: As an on-air talent, how important is it for you to be coached regularly?
A: I like being told regularly how to get better. When I see other people get asked this question, I always wonder why their answer isn’t closer to mine. Wouldn’t you want to be told how to improve? Yes I know you don’t want to suffer from paralysis from overanalysis. I don’t either. But I’d rather know how to make myself better (and make my boss happy) then to steer clear of bosses as much as possible and then get let go down the road.
Q: To help you become a better broadcaster, who are some of the people who have helped you along the way and what did they do to make you better?
A: You see, this is JB looking for a pat on the back! Nah, I’m kidding about that. But you have probably been my biggest influence. When you offered me a job in St. Louis, I literally had never been trained on how to do a radio show. NEVER. So your voice is constantly in my head with reminders of the fundamentals I need to keep sharp.
My parents were also a huge influence. My mom used to call me a “starving artist” and in some ways, I’ll probably always be but they were always there when I was living paycheck to paycheck and needed a home-cooked meal. They sometimes threw in an extra tank of gas too. And my mom and dad have their own successful highway construction business and not once would they tell me not to go after my radio dreams.
Kent Sterling and Hoss Neupert were both PDs in St. Louis that taught me a ton too. Kent drove home the point to go with what gets you excited. “Entertain and enlighten” was his thing. Hoss always, always, always had either an angle on a topic or an angle on the construct of the show that I hadn’t thought of yet.
Rick Scott has also been a huge influence. He’s great at explaining and improving the dynamic of a two-man show in a way that is relatable and is so good at the ins and outs of how to get the most out of the ratings.
All of these people, more than anything, saw something in me that, at times, I hadn’t seen in myself. They all believed in me and for that I am truly grateful.
All of my different types of co-hosts have also taught me how to adapt to different styles and still try to stay true to me. All a gift.
Q: If someone is thinking of entering this industry and asked for your advice on what to do and what to avoid, what would you say to them?A: I’m sure you’ve all heard this before, but for crying out loud, if you haven’t interned yet…. GO! Do it now! Like, leave this page and just go.
If you’re trying to take the next step in the industry, I would say call a PD and see if he’ll just critique a quick tape of you. Don’t ask for a job (at least not yet), just introduce yourself and see if they’ll help. That way, they’re under no pressure to hire you and now they’ve got your name. And if they’re not hiring, maybe they know someone that is!
If you can help it (and sometimes you can’t), avoid a place that doesn’t actually have a boss that coaches you to do your job better. I can attest and I know others can too, that some places just leave you to your own devices, which can feel freeing but can also lead to getting better at a slower rate.
Zach McCrite can be heard weekday afternoons on 107.7 The Franchise in Oklahoma City. To learn more about the show, check out their show page by clicking here. You can also follow Zach on Twitter by clicking here.