Bob McCown, the famously cantankerous broadcaster, just marked 25 years as the host of Prime Time Sports. He has interviewed legends, earned his own nickname (“The Bobcat”) and has hung up on more than a couple of notable callers. Lately McCown has been focused on brand expansion, launching his own production company and buying Stoney Ridge Estate Winery in Ontario’s Niagara region. Here he shares some of the secrets to his success, and explains that he’s not really a jerk (he only plays one on the radio).
New passions fuel old projects
Over the past few years, friends were always saying to me that I should be “expanding my brand.” I didn’t really think much of it at first, but then about three years ago I made a list of other sorts of projects that I might be interested in getting involved in. I picked my two favorites, which were to form my own production company and to own a winery. I did both of those things, launching Fadoo Productions and buying Stoney Ridge Winery. Both have been going even better than I could have predicted. The production company recently shot the new Rush concert video which went to No. 1 on Billboard the first week it was out. It’s funny because the whole reason for starting these projects was to see if the value of this brand I had created could translate to ventures outside of broadcasting, but what I didn’t realize was how being part of new projects would contribute to my existing work. It’s not something you can quantify, but there is no question that I was at a point where the broadcasting was feeling a bit like an assembly line. Now I go into the workday feeling so energized and excited. Putting yourself in unfamiliar territory will do that.
They don’t have to love you, as long as they listen
When I started the radio show I was relying on my knowledge of sports. I thought that was what qualified me to be on the air, but I soon figured out that that wasn’t the way this industry works. I remember one night where I finished a tough show and came to this realization that despite my knowledge base, I simply wasn’t an interesting enough person to compel people to listen to me. So instead of focusing on being the authority, I started to think about the job in terms of acting. I thought about Robert De Niro in some great movie – that’s not him, that’s his character. To create my own character I literally sat down with a pen and paper and made a list of characteristics. I decided this guy would be a know-it-all – impatient, arrogant, obnoxious. Of course there was the possibility that he might anger people so much they wouldn’t listen, but they weren’t listening anyway, so it wasn’t a big risk. The very next night “Home Bob” left and “Show Bob” showed up. I would hang up on people, insult people on the air. And you know, success came almost immediately. People didn’t like me, but they listened.
The best preparation is an open ear
I’ve never gone into an interview with a list of questions. I may have a direction that I want to go in, but my philosophy for a long time now has been that an interview is nothing more than a conversation, and a conversation is predicated on reacting, rather than planning. The key is not to be so caught up in your own role that you lose the ability to listen. Same thing with a list of questions – if you have them in front of you then invariably you’re thinking about the next question rather than listening to the answer. The answer will give you the next question and then that answer will give you the question after that. The subject’s response always sets the road map for the interview. After it’s over, someone might ask me, “Did you get what you wanted?” and I’ll say, well I didn’t know what I wanted, but I got something. And it was a real conversation. For me, that’s the goal.
Silence is golden
I never went to broadcast school, but as far as I know they still teach this concept that dead air is a terrible thing and that as a radio host, your most important function is to fill it. I totally disagree. For me a silence in an interview can be a dramatic pause – either an exclamation point or a “dot, dot, dot” like a drumroll. People don’t change the channel. If anything they turn up the volume to see what’s coming. In an interview the willingness to be silent is a great technique for getting your subject to go off script. Let’s say someone has given me an answer and it’s the typical, party line kind of stuff that they always say. When they finish talking I will just wait. The silence makes most people uncomfortable and they will feel like it’s their job to fill the space. That’s when you get the good stuff – when they’re scrambling and saying things that they didn’t prepare. You get that one unexpected nugget and then, as a host, you attack.
It’s not a gimmick!
It’s funny because I’m sure a lot of people think that the sunglasses thing was a planned gimmick or me trying to look Hollywood. In fact they are a totally practical measure. When we started to simulcast the show on television, we began shooting in a room with a bunch of very bright lights. We were doing a week of testing before the TV broadcast actually started and on that first Monday I got the most brutal headache. The same thing happened on Tuesday and again on Wednesday. I honestly thought I might have a tumour and then on Thursday, I was driving into work and it happened to be a really sunny day, so I was wearing my sunglasses and I just forgot to take them off when we were filming and of course – no headache. I’ve been wearing them ever since. Most people who have achieved a level of recognition wear sunglasses to hide their identity. For me, if I want to go unnoticed, I take the glasses off.
Confidence trumps knowledge
I don’t watch anywhere near as much sports as I used to and mostly I don’t talk about the things that other sports talk-show hosts address: Who’s going to play left wing? How did the quarterback play last night? I find all of that stuff boring. I’m more interested in the relationship between sports and business, rule changes, societal pressures. When I first started, I felt like I had to watch absolutely everything. Now I have a comfort level where if someone mentions last night’s game, I’ll say, well I didn’t see last night’s game. Why don’t you tell me about it and we can talk about it. I’ve also stopped talking to athletes almost entirely. An athlete only becomes interesting after they retire. They all go to media school – they learn the catchphrases. Go watch Bull Durham and how Crash Davis teaches him what to say in an interview. There are only a few phrases – play hard, give 110 per cent – that’s what you get. It’s a waste of time. For me the big get is the commissioner, owner, head of the television network.
Credit to the Globe and Mail who originally published this article