When Talent Gain Influence In The Hiring Process

Professional sports are an excellent teacher for understanding how a quest for power can rip apart an organization. When too much control is placed in the wrong hands, good situations turn into nightmares. Just look at the St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos, and Philadelphia Eagles under Mike Martz, Josh McDaniels, and Chip Kelly.

But for every individual who sends a franchise into a downward spiral, there are leaders like Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Pat Riley who remind us that great results can be achieved when power is placed in capable hands.

In the radio business, the person making the final call on key decisions is often the Program Director or General/Market Manager. Some PD’s have strong vision, excellent decision making skills, and are empowered to do their jobs. Everyone inside the organization knows that it’s their way or the highway.

In a few other instances, programmers are hired who are great caretakers, and schedule makers, but not equipped at making important hiring decisions. Some PD’s get hired because they’re willing to concede control to a GM who wishes to decide all key programming decisions.

GM’s can operate very differently. Some put their trust in their programmers, allow them to make decisions, and hold them accountable to their decisions and results. Others are fixated on picking the talent, seeing their names in print, and taking advantage of their power.

It may seem exciting, but when you put your fingerprints on a decision it can be exhausting and extremely stressful. Not everyone is good at it. Even great ones make mistakes. I find that most who have success, do so after they’ve failed once or twice.

In most situations where talent need to be hired, there are plenty of qualified applicants. However, there’s only room for one individual. Making a move that delivers results is all that matters to your employer, advertisers, and the people inside your building. One wrong step, and it’s your ass.

The normal process involves the PD and GM, but when bigger shows and personalities enter the equation, one can make a case that including your top performers is good business. Some staff members may get jealous or annoyed, and listeners may object or get angry when they hear that a key on-air figure has veto power or influence over a big on-air decision, but, you’re not in the popularity business, you’re in the ratings and results business. To involve your best talent, and make sure they’re invested is important, and necessary.

To be clear, not every personality in your company deserves a voice in the decision making process. Just because a show had a good year in the ratings, doesn’t mean they’ve earned the respect of being included in big picture conversations. I’m a big believer in trust, long-term relationships, and track records. If a show has exceeded expectation for a lengthy period of time, beat the competition, generated revenue, developed trust, executed the game plan I’ve asked them to operate, and built a profile as the show of record locally or nationally, I’m more likely to bring them into my inner circle.

Gaining input from shows that have helped you earn a couple of raises and contract extensions is smart. It makes your people feel valued, and respected. It also shows that you share a common goal of making a good decision that will put the show in position to earn future success.

Anyone who has the power to hire or fire an employee, loves the challenge of making the final call. To relinquish that power or allow another individual to influence your opinion might be hard to stomach. But one thing PD’s and GM’s forget, is that nobody has a better read on why a show works than those doing the show on a daily basis. They don’t prep with the show, hang out with the cast outside of work, or understand the highs and lows of the relationship until issues are brought to their attention. If the right ingredients aren’t supplied for the crew to make an award winning meal, everyone starves.

This doesn’t mean your top people will have all of the information that you do, or the vision to see the things that only you can. But, hearing their feedback should matter. As long as they understand that the final call comes from the top, and the goal is to continue winning, they’ll respect, and appreciate you more for hearing them out.

What triggered my interest in this topic was something I read last week.

Having an inside track on sports television news has never been my area of expertise, but when radio people are involved my ears perk up. A few weeks ago, Skip Bayless announced he was leaving “First Take” on ESPN. Fox Sports 1 is expected to become his new home, thanks to a sound relationship with Jamie Horowitz, and a whole lot of Benjamin Franklin’s.

That leaves Stephen A. Smith without a partner once the NBA Finals are over. Which leads to the following question, who will fill Skip’s void?

Mike McCarthy of the Sporting News wrote an excellent piece which gives people an idea of how involved Stephen A. Smith will be in the final decision of who becomes his permanent partner on “First Take”.

Upon hearing that news and tweeting about it, I received a number of emails and social media messages asking “how could ESPN grant executive power to Stephen A.”? I heard the same exact thing when Chris “Mad Dog” Russo left WFAN, and Mike Francesa was given the same respect from CBS New York executives.

In both cases, if I was currently running ESPN, or WFAN when Russo left, I’d do the exact same thing.

You reward performers who bring you big ratings, and bigger revenues over a sustained period of time. Having their full support and buy in is critical. That doesn’t mean you have to hire the person they like most, but if you keep them removed, and put someone into the studio that you like, and they don’t, a future trip to the unemployment office will await you.

Can you imagine if “Mike & Mike” were split up? Or some of the top local sports radio shows in America, such as “Valenti & Foster”, “Toucher & Rich”, “Boomer & Carton”, “The Musers”, and “Waddle & Silvy” were separated? Do you think any of those shows would have a chance at future success, if their station’s excluded the holdovers of each program from the process?

It’s hard enough replicating success when the original version of a program has been altered. The odds fall less in your favor if you place a stop sign in front of your most important talent during critical times. Without their blessing, and complete investment in the future direction of the show, you’re dead man walking.

So why is ESPN giving Stephen A. Smith this type of respect? Here are a few things to consider.

  • Precedent – Before Stephen A. was added permanently to “First Take”, executives sought Skip Bayless’ feedback and support. The show was rotating co-hosts, but reached a point where it needed consistency. Having their key star (Skip) buy into the concept, and sign off on his partner was important. Judging by the decision that Skip and ESPN executives made, it was a good one. Skip earned that respect, and now Stephen A. has too. The goal now is to have the next decision turn out the same way as the last one did.
  • Ratings Success – Whether the show turns your stomach, or soothes your soul, it’s been a ratings hit, and continues to get stronger. The show has been built around Stephen A. and Skip’s personalities, so having the right combination is critical. If Stephen A. doesn’t believe he can find common ground with someone, and create a conversation that is must-watch television, he deserves the right to say so. That should matter when determining who to hire.
  • Loyalty – By no means is Stephen A. Smith hurting financially. ESPN re-signed him last year for a reported 3-3.5 million dollars per year. You may feel he’s overpaid, but that’s the going rate for high profile sports television talent, especially ones who move the needle. If Bayless can warrant close to 6 million annually from Fox Sports 1, don’t you think Smith could get the same? One can argue that he brings more to the table than Bayless. He hosts a national radio show, and appears on SportsCenter, and NFL and NBA programming. Skip is rarely seen outside of “First Take”. Stephen knew there were options out there, but he remained loyal to ESPN. When a big show that he’s involved in experiences adversity, loyalty should be reciprocated.
  • Pressure – With Skip off to FS1, all eyes will be on Stephen A. If the ratings slip, or his on-air relationship with his new partner seems fractured, critics will be out for blood. TV executives can push their own guy or girl, but if the connection isn’t there, the program is doomed. Chemistry, comfortability, passion, and a willingness to engage in heated conversations without things getting personal are all part of the job description. Nobody knows how to execute the show better than the two men who have done it. If Smith feels a connection to someone outside the company is what the show needs to enjoy future success, it’s management’s job to figure out how to make it happen. The main priority should be making sure the show succeeds, not worrying about who they win with.

If “First Take” falls apart in the future, do you think the blame is going to be directed at John Skipper, Norby Williamson, or John Wildhack? Not a chance. The public will point their finger in Smith’s direction.

ESPN may wish to make headlines by signing the biggest name, excite employees by rewarding an internal candidate who’s well liked, or please advertisers by choosing someone they’re comfortable with, but when it’s showtime, nobody will know the fit better than Stephen A. If the conversation isn’t natural, the vibe and chemistry feels forced, or mutual respect isn’t shared, the only thing guaranteed is cancellation.

Which is why ESPN is making a smart decision by involving one of their most high profile stars in the final process. Executives may love the thrill of making the final call, but when this much is on the line, you owe it to yourself, your company, and your best talent to make sure they’re heavily involved.

A few weeks ago I mentioned four candidates for the opening. I later learned of a fifth. Four of the options had radio connections. They were Max Kellerman, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Brandon Tierney, and Doug Gottlieb. Will Cain was the one television candidate.

I know that trust, chemistry, on-air connection, and a healthy relationship off camera with Stephen will be important, which is why I have a tough time believing Will Cain will be the choice. Will is very talented, and may have support from management, but he doesn’t have history with Stephen A. I can’t picture Stephen placing the fate of the program in Cain’s hands, unless he’s forced into it.

I could be wrong. I’ve never claimed to be nostradamus, especially when it comes to television hires, but, I believe Russo, Tierney, and Kellerman hold the advantage. They’re comfortable debating him, have his respect and prior experience working with him, bring the edge, volume, and style that the show is known for, and share similar interests from living, and/or growing up in the same area.

What will be interesting to see, is whether or not Stephen has the courage to take a risk and bet on someone like Tierney who he has excellent chemistry with, rather than take the safer path with someone like Kellerman. Both are excellent, and offer something fresh, and different than Skip. Max has the internal advantage, and higher profile. BT requires going outside the company, and developing another network star.

The scenario with Russo is also intriguing because Chris is a high profile talent, who’s older than Stephen (so was Skip), and not afraid to mix it up. He’s the one guy best suited for keeping the show similar to where it was previously, although his sound is different, and his knowledge is superior to Skip’s. He’s also earned Stephen’s trust due to hiring him at SiriusXM. The downside is that he’d likely command a higher price tag which probably doesn’t excite ESPN.

The five candidates I’ve listed remain strong options, but there will likely be others who emerge in this process. One of the outside candidates could very well become the choice. The question is, who will Stephen A. love the most?

The only one he should be giving his heart to at this point is ESPN. After all, they’ve given him greater influence behind closed doors than they do on their own airwaves. Now they need to make sure that his decision making skills are in line with Bill Belichick’s not Chip Kelly’s.

Under The Radar:

  • 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland has hired Landry Locker to produce the morning show with Ken Carman and Anthony Lima. Locker previously worked for ESPN 103.3 and Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket in Dallas as an Assistant Program Director, Producer, and Host.
  • Dave “Deuce” Mason, who was recently let go by KHTK in Sacramento, was brought in to do some fill-in work at rival station ESPN 1320. Mason stepped in last Thursday with Whitey Gleason of “The Rise Guys” while co-host Mark Kreidler was off. Whether it will lead to future fill-ins or additional opportunities in unclear at this time.
  • Congratulations is in order for Mike Taylor who recently signed a multi-year extension to continue hosting mornings at The Ticket 760 in San Antonio.

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