For many sports broadcasters, the opportunity to work for ESPN is a lifelong dream. It is viewed throughout our industry as one of the best sports media companies on the planet and when you get hired to work for the worldwide leader in sports, it provides a certain confirmation that you have arrived as a successful media professional. I can say that because I earned that honor back in 2004 and the man I’m writing about today, was right behind me entering the building (he’s stayed a lot longer than I did).
Freddie Coleman is one of those guys in our business who when you meet him, your instantly drawn to. He is full of life and energy and genuinely loves sports and being around people. His kindness and honest approach to doing sports radio is very contagious. While many listeners today know Freddie for what he’s accomplished the past 11 years on ESPN Radio, I have a little bit of an advantage because I knew him when he was a local radio DJ and TV sportscaster.
While I was pursuing my own radio career in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I worked in a town called Poughkeepsie, NY which was in the Hudson Valley region of NY. The location was roughly 60-90 minutes away from New York City and while it was a small market, it was a great place to learn the radio business.
A little known fact about the Hudson Valley, it’s produced a number of popular sports media personalities. MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, ESPN NY’s Ryan Ruocco and current ESPN Broadcasters Kevin Connors, Jay Reynolds and Mike Breen are just some who’ve called the region home, in addition to my featured guest Freddie Coleman.
When I first heard Freddie on the air, he was spinning records for Mix 97.1 and doing overnights on Classic Rock station 101.5 WPDH. Both stations operated out of the same building in Poughkeepsie (a building I’d soon work in a few years later) and you could tell that Freddie was passionate about music and loved his job. I remember listening to him and thinking “that guy sounds like he has the best job on earth“.
While Freddie would have a solid 2-year run on the local radio scene, he was destined to do bigger things and next he’d take on a position in television as a sportscaster and news anchor for Cablevision in Dutchess County. As he got comfortable in his new surroundings, I landed in his previous stomping grounds, landing a job as a producer/update anchor/host for a brand new sports station, 1340/1390 ESPN Radio.
Our afternoon host Rick Zolzer was the PA Announcer for the New Jersey Nets and a popular morning sports personality on the WPDH morning show and he had known Freddie for a long time. I would book Freddie from time to time as a guest to chat about local sports stories on our show and it soon became a regular thing as he and Zolz had a good on-air connection.
Less than a year later, I was promoted to host afternoon drive with Zolz but a few months later, Rick would announce his intentions to leave the show so he could concentrate on his other jobs (he was juggling a ton at the time). The company elected to make me the new lead host of the show and before I knew it, Freddie was appearing on my show as my guest, which when I think about it today, is extremely ironic and kind of funny.
Before too long, our company would be purchased by a new group who turned the sports talker into a spanish hits station (I was offered the PD job and responded “no comprende”) and that led me to accepting an opportunity with WPDH (the station where Freddie had worked overnights), producing the morning show and doing news updates.
Following a 15-month run at the station I headed north to Albany, NY to join two former WPDH guys Bob Wolf and John Tobin and before I could even get settled, Freddie Coleman entered my life once again. Clear Channel Albany decided to give John his own afternoon sports show on Fox Sports 980 and he soon recruited Freddie to join him. I would help out the show from time to time with phone numbers and ideas but I was working on a morning show on WPYX with Bob and John so being committed to it wasn’t possible. However, I’d listen often and liked the show and felt they were on to something good.
I was planning to go to management to discuss joining the show on a permanent basis when out of the blue, I was offered a job at ESPN Radio in Bristol. The next thing I remember, was sitting at John’s kitchen table with Freddie and their producer Lena and giving them a ton of my guest numbers to help them with their show as I took off for Connecticut. I figured at this point that Freddie and I had crossed paths professionally for the last time but once again, I was wrong.
After landing at ESPN Radio and getting comfortable in my surroundings, I was asked by two of my bosses (Bruce Gilbert and Dave Zaslowsky) what I knew about a guy named Freddie Coleman. I instantly perked up and gave a glowing review and spoke of his energy, work ethic and likability on the air and I was asked to chat with him to find out if he would have interest in coming up for an audition. Dave asked me to get a demo tape as well so he could get a listen and I then touched base with Freddie and told him to rush me his demo asap.
Well Freddie certainly did send the tape, and it was terrible. The audio quality was bad, the flow from the show that day wasn’t good and I remember walking into a studio with Dave to listen to it and he said to me “This is it? That’s what he sent over“? I quickly called Freddie and let him know that I appreciated the bad demo tape but despite that setback, I had pleaded my case on why he deserved a look and he was getting a chance to come in for an audition. As you can imagine, he was pretty excited and swore that he’d be ready and not let me down.
I then talked to Dave and was told that the plan was set and Freddie would be brought in to co-host three nights of GameNight opposite John Seibel and Sean Salisbury. The nights would be Friday, Saturday and Sunday and he’d be in during a time when the Preakness and Indy 500 were happening. I thought immediately “Oh my god, he’s screwed….how the heck is he going to know anything about those subjects” and when I brought it up to him, he quickly calmed me down. He explained that he was an auto racing fan and proceeded to rattle off the names of a ton of drivers and historic events from both sports and I was blown away because this was off the top of his head. I knew that with some prep time he’d do well, as long as he didn’t let the moment and his surroundings get too big for him.
As luck would have it, John, Freddie and Sean would click, the three nights of shows were fun and management was impressed. I remember half way through the first night on the show Sean shouting on the air “This man is good. Hire him already. Give him a job“. I felt good because I knew how far Freddie had come to reach that level and I was personally proud because he exceeded even my expectations.
Shortly after that weekend Freddie was hired and after 11 years, he still remains there doing what he does best – talking sports and making people smile. I even had the pleasure of producing him for a year on the “GameNight” program and what I enjoyed most was that I could really push him and get through to him in ways that some others couldn’t because of our previous connection and the trust we had in each other.
For example (and he’s going to kill me for bringing this up, hahaha), Freddie still holds the distinction in JB’s book of delivering one of the worst outcues ever heading to a break. I’m sure Amy Lawrence remembers this too. Freddie who was notorious at the time for not reading the screen and using the producer’s guidance to help himself, presented the classic outcue of “If you don’t have your radio on ESPN Radio well then man, you just don’t have your radio on“.
We can laugh about it now but when he said it, I walked into the studio, shaking my head and showing clear frustration on my face and Freddie looked up from some small talk with Amy and asked “JB what’s wrong”? I replied “do you have any idea what you just said“? He looked at me puzzled, hoping he didn’t commit a Ron Burgundy moment and asked “what did I do“?
I then gave him the word for word recap and explained why I needed him to trust my direction and use the screen to his advantage. He agreed it wasn’t good and by the next segment, we were off and running and he was using the extra support to help him sign off stronger.
While that scenario may not be one of his proudest on-air moments (we all have one), what I loved about it was that a mistake became a coaching opportunity and when I challenged him to do better, he accepted it and worked harder to get it right. Sometimes guys will reject the advice or critique of someone they’re close to but in Freddie’s case, he wasn’t afraid to hear a critical point of view or different idea to help him get better, even from a friend.
The fact that he’s coachable, likable and committed to improving is a big reason in my opinion why he has continued to make great strides in his business. To be at ESPN Radio for 11 years signals that you’ve done a pretty good job and to still be willing to take direction and ask for help to get better, speaks volumes about what type of professional Freddie is.
I thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane and bring to light some of Freddie’s beliefs on creating good sports radio. It’s been a pleasure knowing and working with him over the past 15 years and to say that I’m proud of what he’s accomplished goes without saying.
A: I loved sports radio since WFAN in New York debuted in 1987. A landmark day for sports nuts like me.
Q: Who were some of the personalities you enjoyed listening to?
A: Art Rust, Jr. on WABC. He was the 1st host I heard that I loved. I loved his style and his knowledge.
A: Who didn’t I work for. I worked as a Top 40/Classic Rock DJ in Portland, Maine, Poughkeepsie, New York, Albany, New York as well as in New York City. I also worked on TV as a Sportscaster/Color Analyst for the now defunct SportsChannel and Cablevision.
Q: How did you end up in Albany, NY doing sports talk radio?
A: My friend John Tobin (from our days in Poughkeepsie) wanted to do a sports show, but didn’t want to do it by himself. We had a trial run in the Summer of 2003 and got a chance to do Afternoon Drive in February.
A: Learning how to craft a show was invaluable and working with a partner who was completely off the cuff helped a bunch. There was nothing bad about any of it.
Q: What do you remember about your first night on ESPN Radio?
A: I figured I had nothing to lose, so I just went in and I was me. John Seibel, Sean Salisbury, Dave Zaslowsky, Jeremiah Crowe and you made it so much easier.
A: That I couldn’t believe I was at the same place where Chris Berman, Robin Roberts, the late Tom Mees and Dan Patrick among others worked at. My jaw hit the floor the second I drove onto the campus. It was completely surreal.
Q: Your first regular show on ESPN Radio was “GameNight” where you worked with John Seibel, Doug Gottlieb, Chuck Wilson, Sean Salisbury and a slew of others. How would you characterize the experience of working on that program?
A: It was fantastic! I learned so much from all of those guys. We had our share of butting heads at times, but that will happen when you have people who are passionate with their opinions. I had a lot of great times on that show and those memories will last me a lifetime.
A: I learned that when you listen, you learn so much more. It’s easy to want to get your words in, but when you listen to your co-host or an interviewee, you would be amazed at how much you can learn and create something that might be better. A very valuable thing that I use to great effect now.
Q: Next, you took on additional roles such as hosting the NFL on ESPN Radio and filling in on all of the key weekday ESPN Radio talk shows and currently you’re hosting your own program weeknights 10p-1a. How has your mindset changed, going from a personality on all of those branded shows to now hosting a show that carries your name on it?
A: I felt constricted by those shows because I always had it in my mind how much better it could be by putting my own stamp on it. I believed enough in my abilities that if/when that opportunity came, I would be able to make it work. Plus with my name out there, I’m not leaving anything to chance. Not that I did that before, but I’m really driven to show that I was right to have faith in what I felt I could always do if/when given the chance.
A: I’m proud that I haven’t tried to be someone or something else to either get ahead or make a show work. Listeners can feel when you are not real. Whether you agree with what I have to say or not, I am always coming from a credible and true place. There’s no fake in my game and I don’t shortcut my audience and this medium. And I NEVER WILL!
Q: I’ve noticed that you’ve started doing some TV work on ESPN’s First Take. What is it that you enjoy most about doing that show?
A: Being blessed to be a fill-in on that show is the thing I enjoy most. Never, EVER saw that coming! Plus debating Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Danny Kanell and others is always a good time.
A: It’s the same thing to me. You’re bringing yourself to that forum and you go from there. The only difference is I’m wearing a suit compared to when I’m slumming on the radio side.
Q: When it comes to creating a talk show, what is your goal each night for your program?
A: My goal always is to make you feel like you’re missing something if you don’t listen. I always want this show to have that feel that if a listener goes away for one second, whether it’s to eat, use the bathroom or whatever, that they will be sorry they did.
A: That there is no place that I’d rather be. I’m blessed to do what I love and I love what I do. That’s something I always want people to get from my show.
Q: When you analyze your own performance, what is one area where you believe you still need to improve?
A: Everything! I’m never satisfied with what I’ve done. I always feel I can feel I can improve in every area. Part of my problem is being a perfectionist.
A: Every day I get feedback from my direct report Louise Cornetta. It is essential and necessary. And it is always on point. I get the good and the bad and she does nitpick, but that’s completely fine. It’s all about helping me get better. My producers Stosh Cienki and Rob Kelly are also involved and there is no such thing as sugar coating. If you want that, buy a candy bar.
Q: In terms of preparation for your show, how much time do you put in each day?
A: When I get up and before I get in at 6:30 p.m. My mind is always working on angles to a story. I’m always interested in what I/we can do to keep putting out compelling content without sounding like I feel the world is going to end.
A: I practice all the time. I have interviews in which I ask myself questions and answer them (strange, I know). I also read out loud to work on inflection and pacing, plus I love to read.
Q: How do you feel about interviews on a talk show? What makes them work or miss the mark?
A: I think they’re great if you do your homework on the subject. There is nothing more painful than hearing an interview and you can tell the interviewer didn’t do their homework. I also hate when the interviewer feels the need to show they are smarter than the person they are interviewing. That bothers me to no end!
A: I take calls all the time. I think when it’s done right and effectively, it adds to the show. But when I take calls, I lead them to where I want them to go. Nothing is worse than hearing a host having a caller on and the caller is rambling on endlessly about nothing. If you’re smart about it and your producer is great at screening (which I’m blessed to have), then it’s a great tool for your show. Hosts who have callers just to have them on strike me as lazy.
Q: For someone who’s considering entering our industry, what piece of advice can you pass along to help them in their quest to be successful?
A: Always feel that there is something out there that you don’t know. Have that insatiable thirst for knowledge and nothing/nobody will keep you from achieving what you want. The more you reach out for knowledge, the closer you will get to reaching your dreams.