One of the other steady writing gigs I have is reviewing movies for the local NBC affiliate in Raleigh, NC. I mention this because this week’s major release is the remake of the horror movie “It”, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was too scared to go see the movie myself,.
That made me think of a subject that I feel isn’t covered enough with leaders in the media: fear. I’m not talking about not having conversations about things that go bump in the night. I’m referring to why program directors and hosts too often operate from a place of fear and why it’s considered acceptable.
I’m going to tell a story that on it’s face may sound like it’s designed to make me look like Billy Badass. The truth is it is just a story of a time that I was so taken aback by a leader that I was afraid of what might happen because he was unwilling to see what could actually happen.
I was interviewing for a job, and it doesn’t matter where it was. All you need to know is that it wasn’t Boston or Florida. That’s important because this took place on the morning that Aaron Hernandez’s dead body was found hanging in his jail cell.
I was brought to town for a second interview. The meeting was a simple lunch with the PD, his boss and myself. We talked about sports, debated if the AM SportsCenter or the recently launched 6 PM edition with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith was better, and talked about an upcoming trip my family was planning to Banff National Park in Canada.
Then I was asked what I thought about Aaron Hernandez’s death. I said I didn’t really think anything about it. The big boss asked if I would cover it if I were running that day’s afternoon’s show, and I told him I would because even though the market had no local ties to the story, it was the only thing on SportsCenter that morning.
So next he asked “what specifically would you do so that people have a reason to listen to Demetri talk about this story?”.
“I was thinking about this on the drive down. I would use the music from Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ and write a parody song called ‘Goodbye New England’s Rose,” I said.
The PD laughed. His boss did not.
“Let me tell you why that it is a bad idea,” said the boss. “When I hear you tell me that is what you would do, I think about the guy that is going to pick up his phone and call me to complain.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because suicide is a serious thing, and I think about that one guy that is going to call because in his mind you went a step too far. To me that guy makes a bit like that, no matter how funny, not worth it.”
Now, dear reader, this is where I tell you that I was holding back my anger. I’ll explain why in a minute.
“Oh,” I said. “See, I never think about that guy. He’s not who my show is for.”
Everyone was really friendly and it was a perfectly pleasant lunch, but I knew right then that the job was gone and in hindsight, maybe that was a good thing.
I tell you this story not to advocate for the sports format becoming a realm for shock jocks trying to “out controversy” each other. I was in my car driving home after the meeting and realized that was probably how the guy heard my defense. “I never think about that guy. He’s not who my show is for” sounds like a nice way of saying “I’m not here for the PC police, maaaaaaaaaan!”
I know. It makes me want to vomit too.
My point in saying that and writing this column is to remind you that programming and creating content from a place of fear is counterproductive. Do I know that my “Goodbye New England’s Rose” bit would have been a hit? Of course not. Do I know that I would be the only one doing that? You’re damn right I do.
Fear leads us all to the same place. A radio landscape ruled by fear has led to a lot of local shows sounding the exact same. They have their Mt. Rushmore debates. They bring on a gambling expert. It’s like a fill-in-the-blank workbook. All you have to do is plug in the right team and player names and the same show works everywhere, right?
Strive to be truly different. Quit demurring from the chance to stand out in the minds of thousands because you’re afraid of the phone calls you may get from a handful. Don’t resist the urge to push a coach for better answers or to show more personality and create a memorable interview because he may be annoyed for a day.
None of us were drawn to radio or TV because we just wanted to be a part of the crowd. We’re the ones who wanted to stand out. Fear serves no one. Programming a station when you’re afraid to lose a tenth of a ratings point can cost you the opportunity to grow your ratings in a truly significant way.
If you believe that popular opinion is wrong, be the one voice willing to take the unpopular stand. Do it with passion and creativity and even the people that disagree with you will want to hear what you have to say. With so many different options for consuming sports opinions in 2017, it is only the truly fearless that stand out.