One of the toughest decisions for an on-air personality is determining what is fair and appropriate and what is over the line and off limits. Some will say it’s easy and all you need to do is use good judgment but remember that we work in an industry which pushes its personalities to deliver hard hitting emotional opinions on subjects that may not necessarily be comfortable. When our people enter these muddy waters and take on touchy subjects, we’re the first to turn up the volume on our own radio stations and hope for them not to say something that could put the brand in an uncompromising position.
In my local market today, I’m watching the situation unfold after 49ers Broadcaster Ted Robinson delivered some commentary on the Ray Rice situation which offended a number of people. Truth be told, I don’t know Ted that well (we met once) but I’ve always found him to be a first class broadcaster and person and I was very surprised when I heard that he had ruffled feathers with his point of view. While his comments were bad and uncharacteristic, everyone has a bad moment in their life and maybe this is his.
That being said, I don’t believe it erases all the good he’s done over the course of his life or broadcasting career and it bothers me when I see others in a hurry to pile on while someone is down. I certainly don’t blame the 49ers either for taking this position because his comments put the team in an impossible situation.
To say I’ve gone through this a time or two would be an understatement. It’s not fun at all. The last thing a programmer or talk show host wants to deal with is the rage of an entire fan base and the loss of money from loyal advertisers. Whether we like it or not though, society today is way more sensitive and quick to respond on social media than ever before and once the storm starts, it’s not easy to get out of.
This isn’t to imply that an on-air host who makes a mistake should have his poor judgment swept under the rug and forgotten about because that definitely isn’t my point. It simply means that an offensive commentary with little substance or concrete fact to support it, puts those involved with the brand in a no-win situation.
During my time in St. Louis, my former afternoon host D’Marco Farr took a strong position on whether or not Rush Limbaugh should purchase the St. Louis Rams. D’Marco felt that Rush being involved with a team from an ownership point of view would make certain athletes think twice about whether or not to sign as free agents with the team. His opinion was strong and he had a good idea of how players thought, considering that he had spent seven years playing in the NFL but what he lost sight of was how Rush would react and how rabid his audience was.
Once D’Marco’s views were made public, Rush became aware and he went on the offensive, firing haymakers at my afternoon guy and calling on his listeners to stand up and support him and call for D’Marco’s head. Rush felt D’Marco’s position wasn’t accurate and he wanted to send a message to showcase his power. I remember D’Marco coming in to work and telling me “Dude, Jesse F’N Jackson just called my phone….Jesse Jackson…..this is freaking crazy!”. This was foreign territory for him and he was unsure how to handle the situation so we sat down, crafted an opening monologue and discussed the approach we’d take on the show that day.
In the background I handled the phone calls and emails that flew in from Rush’s fans and I alerted my bosses of what we were dealing with so they were informed. I stood by D’Marco because I knew the commentary wasn’t personal and I felt he had an honest point of view. I also knew who he was as a person and I felt he had handled the issue the right way.
As luck would have it, Jim Gray did an interview with Tom Brady and Larry Fitzgerald for Westwood One’s Monday Night Football broadcast and during his chat, both players admitted that they’d have to think twice about signing with a team owned by Rush. We cut up the audio and used it in D’Marco’s opening monologue and explained that there was no personal ill-will towards Rush or call to action for him not to be able to purchase the Rams, but to understand that his presence as an owner would create concerns with players in the league. D’Marco then closed the book on the issue and after that segment it was never relevant again.
While that particular issue wasn’t offensive to anyone but Rush and his audience, there have been plenty of examples where guys in our industry have went over the imaginary line. From Kirk Minihane in Boston, to Mayhem In The AM in Atlanta to Stephen A. Smith at ESPN to my own guy Damon Bruce in San Francisco, each of these guys have had the displeasure of being suspended or in the public line of fire and there are countless others who have endured the same wrath. Yet many of them draw strong audiences exactly for that same reason.
So if the audience is showing up to hear a passionate, honest and uncomfortable commentary from a talk show host who is known to present a polarizing presentation, and your on-air personality is willing to put themselves out there and live on the edge, is that a bad thing? I know plenty of programmers who prefer a less controversial personality and I know executives who want guys who will strike a chord and get the world talking. Whether it’s Keith Olbermann, Jim Rome, Colin Cowherd, Charles Barkley, Bill Simmons, Stephen A. Smith or Skip Bayless, these guys say things that we take notice of and while it may sometimes bother us, they’re usually also the people who we have the most passionate conversations and opinions about.
It’s easy to react after the fact to what someone says but when you’re in the moment and emotionally charged, it’s not always easy to slow down. It’s like asking a Nascar driver to go from 200 miles per hour to 20 in a split second. I’m not making excuses for any on-air personality because I believe when you step into that studio and get behind a microphone you have a responsibility to be smart with your words and not damage the radio station or your own personal brand, but I also recognize how double-sided things can be.
In every radio station I’ve worked at as a PD, I’ve had the following document printed up and posted inside the studio or on the door entering the room. While some may lose sight of these things along the way or break my balls for it being hokey, it all makes sense, especially the first line. As an air talent, you can go after any individual’s performance. Their results speak for themselves and they’re fair game. We can also criticize decision making because whichever way an organization or individual leans on an important matter, there’s another side to the conversation to be discussed.
Where I draw the line and will get into a heated exchange with an individual is when it becomes mean spirited and personal. If you don’t like a team, that’s fair. If you want to insult the people on the team though for what they do in their personal lives, that’s got no business in the discussion unless you can show a clear connection to it impacting the team (EX: Ray Rice’s domestic violence issue, Plaxico Burress shoots himself in a nightclub, Michael Vick dog fighting, etc.).
For example, if you dislike the Dallas Cowboys and the decisions that Jerry Jones makes, that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. You can go after the team’s record, roster moves and question whether or not Jerry and his people are effective at their jobs. To suggest though that the reason the team is bad is because Jerry is a drunk and a womanizer, would be an example of something uncalled for and it would lead to a bigger problem for a host on my watch.
If you can’t prove it or show that it has relevance to performance, then it’s wise to avoid it. Otherwise you’ll be swimming alone in an ocean full of great white sharks who want to eat.
I remember last year when former slugger Jack Clark accused Albert Pujols of using steroids and his comments led to the Pujols camp threatening to take legal action against Jack and his employer. Immediately Jack was suspended and then terminated, as was his on-air partner Kevin Slaten. While Jack and Kevin may have had their suspicions, they didn’t have proof and when you enter that arena, it’s a tough one to come out of.
Put yourself in the position of the radio station, are you going to defend the individual on-air who fired an accusation they can’t prove while a multi-millionaire hires the best legal team on the planet to make sure your company is brought to its knees? Probably not! I know this, I’d have done exactly what the radio station did and I personally like Jack who previously worked for me and is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.
While those are just some examples of things and how they can go wrong, I feel for some of the guys who do this type of work on-air and are known for being strongly opinionated and not afraid to take a stand on difficult subjects. Every day whether they realize it or not, they are risking their careers for the audience’s personal enjoyment. People want to know what our personalities think and they use their points of view to further their own conversations with family and friends throughout the rest of the day and night. Yet one slip and fifteen years of accomplishments can be quickly forgotten.
Sure you could say that it’s not that hard of a job, you get paid to give your opinion on sports and there’s a certain degree of truth to that, but how many people have ever gotten paid to give an opinion and then felt the wrath of a city when the majority have disagreed? In most people’s lives, they say something and a few friends disagree and that’s all there is to it. In our world, one unpopular position can lead to thousands calling for your job, personal attacks being delivered to your personal email or social media accounts, advertisers threatening to harm your employers bottom line if they don’t take action and teams, athletes, media members and fellow colleagues threatening to not do future business with the brand or associate with it due to one person’s involvement. It’s not as easy to handle as some might think.
I’m not here to tell you where the imaginary line is or provide you with the secret ingredients to avoid it. The truth is, every difficult topic presents a challenge for a broadcaster. Some pass with flying colors and some don’t. I personally believe that when you allow your emotions to take over and lead you to a place where your expertise is limited, your chances of falling on your face are enhanced. Yet some hosts can’t help themselves and make that mistake.
Let’s face it, we are not investigators, psychologists, doctors, therapists or members of law enforcement. We’re passionate sports fans who occupy a chair and microphone inside an air conditioned studio and get to pontificate on the world of sports. We don’t expect people in these other professions to step into our shoes and do what we do effectively so why would we think we can do their jobs with any strong degree of success?
When it comes to decision making I always believe that if you have to ask someone if what you’re about to do is a good idea, chances are it probably isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times a host will run something by me or a producer will ask me if they should include some type of questionable content in a promo and once I ask them if they really think it’s worth it, they nearly always agree that it isn’t.
I also think that sports radio personalities should steer clear from areas that divide and offend an audience. For example, I always tell my hosts to avoid politics, religion and race whenever possible. People come to us to hear us talk about sports, not provide our views on republicans vs. democrats, Jesus Christ or the racial divide in our country. Leave that for news talk outlets.
I understand that there are times when these issues must be broached. The Donald Sterling story and baseball’s day on capital hill are two stories that come to mind, but unless it connects to sports, we’re not paid for that level of commentary and usually it puts a personality in a bad position and even worse, it costs you listeners.
Remember this, if you’re going to take hard stances and be known as the personality who isn’t afraid to tackle the tough issues, you better have thick skin and some evidence on your side to support your uncomfortable positions. People today voice their opinions more than they ever have and they’re listening and hanging on to your every word to determine whether or not they agree or disagree with you.
The second you slip and leave yourself vulnerable, an avalanche could be coming your way. So protect yourself, be smart, stay in the lane you know best and always bring a shovel because you never know when you may have to use it to dig yourself out of something.