Overt the course of the last decade I have watched Taylor Zarzour grow from someone who was trying to get back on the air to one of the most in demand names in our industry. We first met when he became the sports director at the Curtis Media Group in Raleigh, and as a result he became the third mic on my show on 96 Rock.
During that time, we discovered that we grew up just nine miles away from one another in Mobile, Alabama. Small world, right?
Today, Taylor has become one of the most valuable sports voices at SiriusXM. He and Greg McElroy co-host The First Team on ESPNU Radio. He also contributes to the network’s PGA Tour Radio, anchoring the coverage of major tournaments and hosts a show called The Starter.
On television you’ll find Taylor on the SEC Network handling play-by-play for both football and baseball. He previously hosted Dale Earnhardt Jr’s official weekly podcast, but with all that he has going on, something had to give, right?
Taylor’s modesty is the kind of thing that might make you want to punch someone. I mean, nobody that has accomplished what he has can really be that modest and “aw shucks” about it, can they? But having spent every morning with Taylor for the better part of four years, I can tell you that it’s genuine. I’ve never thought of him as arrogant, just supremely confident. What may seem like Taylor being unfriendly is his hyper-focus.
Our conversation for this column centers on his career history, his motivation for doing what he does and how he does it, and the message he hopes colleagues and fans will take away from his work.
Q: When someone tells you they think you’re a good broadcaster, do you think it’s because you get to cover the sports you love (college football, golf, NASCAR) or is it because you’ve built a great career by being a good broadcaster?
TZ: It’s probably a little bit of both, but I’d like to think that, hopefully in a non-arrogant way, that being hard-working, passionate, and knowledgeable about the things I’ve always loved have served me well and led me to this place. I count my blessings everyday because not everybody gets to do something as professionally fulfilling as what I’m doing. Hopefully I’m giving off that kind of vibe whether it’s on radio or television. Some of the responses I’ve received from people that I work for have been exactly that and that’s what I think my biggest strength is. It’s the passion and enjoyment in my work, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that. There are countless things I need to improve on. I’ll always be my toughest critic, but I think the thing that has served me best is how much I love what I do.
Q: I’m often asked, “how has Taylor Zarzour created these opportunities for himself?”. When we started working together, your previous position didn’t exist until you became available. The podcast with Dale Jr. didn’t exist until you were on it. How do you manage to get yourself on the radar of people? Is it simply reputation or are you active in promoting yourself?
TZ: I don’t know, Demetri. I’ve never tried to lobby for anything. David Stuckey (Senior Vice President of Curtis Media Group) approached me. Mike Davis with Dale Jr. approached me, and I’m grateful and honored that both of them did. When Mark Packer left to join SiriusXM, DJ Stout in Charlotte asked if I’d be interested in taking that job and joining WFNZ. Steve Cohen reached out through a mutual friend and asked if I’d be interested in working for SiriusXM. All of these relationships began when those guys contacted me. Without them reaching out, I don’t have these opportunities. Maybe I’m just incredibly fortunate, but I’d like to think that through hard work and hopefully what they would consider good performance, that I earned the benefit of their phone calls.
Q: What lessons did you learn from working on a rock show and news show that you carry with you to your current show with Greg McElroy?
TZ: I learned not to be too close-minded and only service the most diehard fans that are going to be interested and watching you no matter what. David Glenn, for example, had a huge impact on me, because David at some point in every broadcast will refer to Coach K as “Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski” or “North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams.” By doing that he brings every person that’s listening into the broadcast no matter how much or little they know. So that’s an example of something that had a huge impact on me, but those experiences made me more open-minded to who is listening and how much knowledge they have. I try to be really careful when talking about an offensive line’s ability to block or certain schemes and the zone read compared to a triple option, because the over-whelming majority of our audience only casually follows a sport. They have so many other responsibilities that they aren’t going to be able to be locked in all the time.
Q: So what about the time that you spent out of broadcasting entirely? What did you learn from it that sticks with you now?
TZ: That this is where I belong. I was working in real estate and realized my passion was broadcasting. I put pressure on myself to be something else because we had just had a family. I wanted to make a certain income and I thought it was a good opportunity, and I’ll never forget my wife saying “(Broadcasting) is what you’ve always wanted to do. You’ve always believed in yourself. Why would you stop now?”. I made the decision that I was going to go back into the broadcasting business, but I don’t know what I would have done to pursue it if David Stuckey hadn’t called.
Q: How old are your daughters now?
TZ: 11 and 12.
Q: I ask because this is a time period where they are involved in so much more. I know your goal is to provide them and Betsy (Taylor’s wife who likes me even though she shouldn’t because I cussed too much in front of their children) with the best life possible, but is there a point where you’d pass something up and say “I’m doing too much and I’m missing too much?”
TZ: I think about that everyday. I’ve seen some of the personal sacrifices that so many of my contemporaries have made and some of the regrets that they’ve had through the years. By taking more professional assignments, they’ve made sacrifices in terms of how much time they spend with their families. I would have so much regret about that if I put myself in that position, so I’ll probably continue to feel that way. There’s nothing I cherish more than my wife and two daughters, and there are other things that I’ve been considered for and turned down because of that.
Q: What are the benefits and struggles of doing a show, particularly a morning show, out of your home?
TZ: There are a lot of benefits to being home. We can live anywhere we want. I can broadcast from almost anywhere because of my job with SiriusXM, so there are few restrictions which is a huge benefit. The downside to it is cabin fever. I have a room in my house that is my work room. When I’m in there it’s like I’m at work. When I get done, I am literally leaving the office and trying to mentally power down which is a huge challenge compared to getting in your car, driving home, and having enough time to mentally escape to a different place.
Q: There has been a lot of talk lately about the way people consume media. Whether it’s cord cutting or the ESPN cutbacks, there are many in our industry who are skeptical. One area which is included in that conversation is the future of satellite radio. How much do you concern yourself with these topics?
TZ: I actually worry less about that kind of stuff today than I used to. I used to worry a lot about the terrestrial radio ratings game and competing against other radio stations and how much money the station could make off of my show. SiriusXM is in a tremendous place and growing day by day. I am ecstatic. I don’t have any concerns about the company’s future. As far as ESPN goes, there will always be tremendous demand for live play-by-play programming. I can’t envision a day where that goes away. To be connected to ESPN and the SEC calling games every weekend is something that is the chance of a lifetime, and the only concern I have is my performance.
Q: You grew up playing golf, so certainly you’re a fan of the sport. When it comes to NASCAR, if there was one thing I learned about you from working with you, it’s that you were a fan of Dale Jr. But you’re also an SEC guy through and through. So when you cover these sports, how do you balance your fandom with remaining professional? Particularly when you’re hosting a show with Greg McElroy who won an national championship at Alabama, a school you grew up rooting for. It’d be very easy for someone with less skill and experience to turn that program into a daily Crimson Tide report.
TZ: I’ve never thought it was any different than any other business where someone is considering what is best for their family and financial future. If they went to a certain school and are a banker, they aren’t going to take their business from only UNC fans or the side of the community that they can most relate to. That would be foolish.
Q: Right, but none of us got into this field without being a passionate sports fan. When you’re younger and developing your interests as a fan, it’s hard to love the sport as much as you love the team you’ve invested most of your time and energy into. That has a lasting impact on a lot of people.
TZ: I’m sure that’s the case for some, and maybe it is for you, but honestly, that’s never been the case for me. I’ve always cared much more about the sport than I ever did a particular team. My objectivity and professionalism is far more important to me than any team I’ve ever cheered for or who wins or loses a game. I didn’t go to Alabama, and while I do have four siblings that went to school there, I also had a brother that went to Georgia. I have a father that went to Florida. I have all kinds of relatives that went to Auburn and that’s always kept me much more open-minded to those schools and how great they are. Getting into this business and developing relationships at all of those places, has made me pull more for people. Roy Williams told me years ago that the longer you’re in this business, you will start to pull for people over teams because of the relationships you build, and that’s where I am now. The only exception to that is when I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was a Carolina Hurricanes fan because I wanted the team and the city to be successful. That didn’t in any way shape or form mean I was an NHL fan which is probably the way most people look at their teams. But I love college football. I love college basketball. I love the sport far more than any one team and I try to be as objective as I can because this is a lifelong passion for me.
Q: Who have you looked at in the broadcasting industry and said, “If I can be a tenth of the broadcaster that guy is, I’ll be okay”?
TZ: Vin Scully had the biggest impact on me. I used to watch the Saturday NBC baseball game of the week and Vin’s ability to paint a picture and provide perspective on what I was watching – I still think he is the best that has ever lived. Even until the end of last season when he called his final game, I just marveled at his preparation, his passion and his perspective for what he was seeing in front of him. In my opinion, he is above all the others. I can never sound like Vin Scully, and I’ll never have his vocal chords, but I can try to emulate his ability to be prepared and be passionate about what I am talking about.
Q: Your tag line at the end of every show is “Whether you agree or disagree it’s all for him,” right?
Q: How much when people talk to you about your show does that come up? Do they notice or appreciate the message?
TZ: It happens from time to time. I decided to say that back when I first had a sports radio show in Mobile (on WNSP-FM). My point in saying it was no matter how animated we get when we discuss certain topics, let’s try to keep things in perspective of what really matters. “Him” to me is God. “Him” to someone else listening may be someone else or something else, but I think that keeping things in proper perspective whether we’re calling for guys to be fired or sharing our predictions for who will win a game, let’s realize this is for fun. We’re supposed to be enjoying what we’re discussing. I always appreciate it when someone notices or has something to say about that.
Taylor Zarzour hosts The First Team with Greg McElroy, weekday mornings from 7a-10a ET on SiriusXM. He also calls college football and college baseball games for ESPN’s SEC Network, and hosts golf coverage for SiriusXM’s PGA Tour Radio. He can be found on Twitter @TaylorZarzour.