Jason Fitz has seen many parts of the world while touring with The Band Perry. He’ll now get much more familiar with Bristol, CT after landing a huge opportunity with ESPN. Jason is set to co-host a national show with Sarah Spain weeknights from 6p-9p ET. Spain and Fitz debuts on ESPN Radio Tuesday January 2, 2018, and Jason can also be seen hosting SportsCenter on Snapchat.
During our recent conversation, Jason touched on many things including his approach to the sports industry and his love for girlie drinks. Although he just got called up to “The Show” (shout-out to Kevin Costner in Bull Durham) Jason still has very high goals. You’ll find that his mindset is the opposite of complacent even after receiving a giant promotion. By the way, can you believe Bull Durham came out in 1988? Good Lord. Enjoy.
BN: So, you’re packing your bags and heading to Bristol. How excited are you to start this new gig?
JF: It’s all a little surreal. You set out life to have huge dreams, and then they start to come true and you’re like, “Oh, man. There’s like actual consequence I have to start to figure out now and deal with.” It’s kind of funny. We laugh about it a lot I think in our heads. We thought in a few years I might get this chance, not so quick — kind of a first world complaint that I’m like, “Oh, wow. It’s all happening too fast.” We’re figuring it out and it’s really cool. It’s really exciting.
BN: What was your first gig in the radio business?
JF: I started with a podcast. I was touring with The Band Perry and in our busiest year we were gone 300 days. I came home to my wife one day and I said, “You know what? I realize I’ve worked my whole life to be here and I’m successful. I’m really thankful for that, but I don’t love what I do.” So, she said, “If I ask 100 of your friends what you love, what would the answer be?” I said sports. So she said, “Alright well, find a way to talk about sports.”
I took my microphone that I used for my fiddle part of the string section and I sat in my car because I felt like such an idiot. I didn’t even know what a podcast was at that time. I sat in the car and I recorded a 10-minute ‘here’s me talking about sports.’ I put it up on Facebook for my friends, and everybody was like, “Oh my God, this is great.” Me being me, I sort of ripped it apart and said okay, how can I build a business plan and what’s the next step?
I did the podcast a little over four or five years ago and eventually CBS Sports liked it and we tried a partnership for a little bit. In that process SiriusXM actually took note. They gave me my first shot a couple of years ago doing a one off in the middle of summer, solo hosting for four hours on the NFL channel. I did four hours by myself on NFL radio the first time I ever hosted on radio.
They liked my work and eventually gave me a little bit of a run as a fill in during the holidays on Mad Dog Radio. I think they looked at it like, “Hey, if you’re home and you’re not on the road, and you want to do some shows, then come sit in.” I just kept using that to try to get better, and eventually ESPN noticed. My first TV show with ESPN was almost a year and a half ago. My first ever radio show with ESPN was January of 2017, which is now about a year later. I’m about to have my name on a national show, which is very humbling.
BN: What do you remember from that first experience of doing four hours on the NFL?
JF: Man, the funny thing is, I’ve always been sort of a prep freak anyway, but I think I got to the studio — no kidding — probably six hours before the show. I brought in all these different marker boards and paper and I story boarded it like they do a movie or a music video. I looked at it and I said okay, I’ve got four hours. Four blocks per hour, so I have to have 16 topics. I had a buddy that helped me a lot on the podcast and he actually came into the studio with me and just helped me flesh out ‘okay, here’s what we want this to be.’ I tried to find topics and then research it. I’m not kidding, I think I was in there six hours for a four-hour radio show.
And I’ll be honest, I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t even know how to take a phone call. A lot of people don’t realize this at Sirius, you’re not in the room with anybody. I was at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville where there’s a Sirius studio. I was in a room with a mic and a computer in front of me and that’s it. My producer, who I’d never met, was in New York. He hopped on my headphones three minutes before we went live and said, “Okay, here we go.” I didn’t even know how to press the button to answer a phone call. That’s how crazy it was.
BN: Was your heart beating out of your chest?
JF: Yeah, I think I was amped up more than anything. The weirdest part of it was a bunch of my friends had a listening party at one of my buddy’s places in Nashville. They were all listening to it and they were going to throw a big party afterwards.
The funniest thing is I spent my whole life in music. When you finish a show in music you have a crowd and hopefully applause. You walk off the stage, and with your buddies, you can sort of high five and say, “Heck yeah, good show.” Instead, I was in a studio by myself.
The weirdest part was we finished the show and they have to immediately connect the next show, so it was just a, “Great job, man. Hope to talk to you soon.” And they hang up and you’re like, “Oh, okay?” So I was just sitting there in the studio by myself — self high fiving saying “good job.”
BN: Did sports fill you up a little bit more than music or was there something about music that contributed to your feeling unfulfilled?
JF: I started playing the violin when I was four. It was eight hours a day most of my life growing up being a classical musician that I had to practice. I just turned 40 this year. I played the violin for 38 years and you can say I did it as a full-time job for about 32, 33 of them. That’s a long time for anybody in any career.
When I was a little kid — my dad is a big Raiders fan — Sunday, his rule was that was the one day I didn’t practice. It’s not because we were religious. It’s because my dad didn’t want to listen to it while we watched the Raiders game. He would go get a dozen donuts and we would sit down and we’d watch the Raiders game together.
I think somebody smart in psychology could pinpoint why that was always a release for me, but sports were my release. Even as a kid sometimes when you’re practicing, you’ll mute a game and you’ll watch it. You can have a game on in the background while you’re working on scales and stuff. Rudimentary music stuff was always there with the enjoyment of sports.
As I got older, I think the passion just grew for sports because it was my release. It’s always been my escape and that’s what I love about it. What music is for most people — an escape — it’d become a job for me. Sports has always been my escape, so I just followed that escape passion.
BN: Are there still times when you hear a song and you’re like, man, I wish I was onstage right now?
JF: There’s been a couple of times that I’ve seen buddies play and I’m like, “Oh, it’d be fun.” You always hear athletes say they don’t miss the game as much as they miss the locker room. The comradery of musicians on the road is a very special and unique thing. There’s a part of me that will always miss that. At the same time, no one’s ever going to stop me from picking up a violin when I feel like it, or sitting down at the piano with a bottle of whiskey and writing a song. Nobody’s going to stop me from still having music. It’s just part of who I am.
It’s really nice to not have to worry about — is my song three minutes and 20 seconds? Does it get to the chorus in the first 45 seconds? Will radio play it? What demographic wants it? All the behind-the-scenes business stuff that makes music the music business. I’m so glad to not be a part of, that I haven’t really had that missing-it moment.
BN: Is whiskey your go-to song writing drink?
JF: Well, everything kinda girlie for me, I’m a girlie drinker. Canadian like Crown — I drink a lot of Crown — so Canadian whiskey. There’s always flavored cherry vodka. I get made fun of all the time when I sit down. Most guys, you’ve got this image of a country guy sitting down who’s got the scratchy voice, so he’s going to drink the Jack. I’m the guy that walks in and I’m like, “Oh, do you have a cherry vodka in diet I can drink?” It’s always nice to have that drink now and just sort of relax and try to get in a flow and see what you can write.
BN: What from your history and experiences in music do you apply to your approach in radio?
JF: Everything. I mean literally everything. From the day that I started, I think back to my influences growing up in sports talk radio because it’s all I listened to. Colin was a huge influence. Dan Patrick was a huge influence. Rich Eisen. Stuart Scott. Guys like that were huge influences. Then, when I started piecing together a podcast, my original goal was to — just like in music where you hear something and you say, “Okay, how can I emulate that sound?” — my thing was how can I let those inspirations affect things?
When I solo host especially, taking a look at what guys like Colin do and where they take their pauses at and how they approach their show. That immediately became ingrained in me. Anyone that listens for a little bit knows there are a lot of analogies from me. I’ve always been that guy.
The music business is very similar in a lot of ways. I think it’s why I’ve become fast friends with so many athletes and so many sports broadcasting people. There’s similarities to what that life is and how the connection between guys and the work you put in. Like I just said, the locker room sort of love that you have for everybody.
You think about how all the guys in the NBA seem like they’re friends. Well, I cut my teeth at the same time with the guys that play for Jason Aldean, the guys that play for Rascal Flatts, the guys that play for Florida Georgia Line. We were all sort of coming up together. There’s a special connection and I think that transfers over whether you’re talking about music or you’re talking about sports. I think that’s a huge part. It’s part of what I think makes me different as a host, but it’s a huge part of what is wired into me for sure.
BN: You just mentioned the pausing that you will hear from certain hosts — is there anything along those lines when you heard yourself early on and thought, “Oh gosh, I have to work on that. I didn’t even know I sounded like that.”
JF: I think slowing down was my biggest challenge in the beginning. One thing that I will say is that as I reached out to people in life. I never reached out for people to help me. I always reached out for people to try and make friendships. That was always my goal. Then, eventually as people become your friend and they say, “Hey, you want me to come on your pod? I’d be happy to.” That was sort of my process.
A lot of times I would have people — talent guys or behind-the-scenes guys — that would say, “Hey, if you want me to give your podcast a listen, I’d be happy to.” The biggest thing for me is I took every ounce of coaching I could get.
Early on, I remember one of the pieces of advice I got from a coach was always give people time to catch up. You just said something, you think it makes a ton of sense, but you gotta give it a beat. You gotta let people catch up with what you said. Process it. Agree with you or disagree with you, and then move forward. Stuff like that. Once you hear it, then you know to listen for it in the future.
I think that it wasn’t so much a weirdness of hearing my voice as much as it was, am I applying all of the coaching I’m getting? I looked at every single pod as a demo. Does this sound so good that if I ran ESPN, I would say, “This guy’s got potential.” That was always my approach.
BN: How would you describe your style in radio?
JF: I never want to shy away from saying anything big and important. I have no problem with that, but I also really understand there’s a big part of this that’s entertainment. I’m the guy that is looking at it saying, “What are we doing here? Are we having fun? Is there big energy to it?” Those are all keys for me.
I think when you get in the car especially, and you’re listening to radio — I always said this when I was hosting the morning show in Nashville — you get into the car in the morning. You’re already in a bad mood. You’re going to work. You’re stuck in traffic. And you’re angry because your favorite team is not as good as you think they should be. So how do we have that difficult conversation but still make you smile and laugh along the way? That’s sort of always been my approach. I’m not going to shy away from telling you that your team stinks, but I hope that I can do it in way where we can laugh about it through the process and we can have a good time.
BN: There are players in the NFL that have their welcome-to-the-NFL moment when they’re like, “Oh gosh, I’m not in college anymore. This is a different level.” Have you had your welcome-to-ESPN moment yet?
JF: I’ve had a bunch of them. I think even the first time I actually hosted on ESPN Radio, it was January of 2017. It was a two-hour show. I was flying solo. I was in a remote studio connecting with people in Bristol. I think that when you first hear the voice that everybody knows — the this-is-SportsCenter guy — but he actually says your name. That’s a very holy cow, this-is-real moment.
I’ll even go back to the much talked about talent meeting last week that happened in Bristol, where they brought in everybody that works for ESPN. Walking through the halls and seeing the studios filled with every person you’ve watched for a generation, and you’ve listened to for a generation, all working their butts off. That was a holy cow, I’m not watching this, I’m a part of it. It’s a very inspiring moment.
I’ll give you one more cheesy one. My first TV show with ESPN was College Football Daily with Mike Golic Jr. and Elika Sadeghi. We’d been into that maybe a couple of months. I was walking through the halls of ESPN. I had gone up there to meet with a few people. I didn’t have anything going other than the TV show at the time, but Mike Golic Sr. was in the hallway. He stopped me and he was like, “Hey, Fitz. You’re doing a good job on the TV show. Really like it.” I realize his son is on it and that’s why he’s watching, but the fact that he knew who I was, it was a very kid-in-a-candy-store, man-I’m-making-it moment.
BN: Can you give me an idea of what the process has been like for you over the past few months leading up to this weekday opportunity with ESPN?
JF: Man, it flew by. I did my first solo hosting last January. Then they gave me a Sunday night show with Jordan Rodgers for part of the winter, Jordan & Fitz, that we did in I think February and March. That was sort of the end of my contract. We knew that was going to be the end of contract one. The question was what were they going to do for contract two. They made me another offer, which took me to the next level. In July, my first eligible day to work back, they put me and Golic Jr. together on Mike & Mike, which was another sort of what-the-heck-am-I-doing, how-am-I-already-in-this-chair moment? That was July 3rd this year.
I was working my tail off. I’m not going to deny that, but I think you have to have a little bit of right place, right time in life to make it. In July, everybody was on vacation. I was doing my four hour Braden and Fitz show on ESPN Radio in Nashville. Then I would go home long enough to maybe take a nap or grab a bite. Then I would come back to the studio.
There were a lot of days for six to eight weeks where I was in solo hosting on Jalen & Jacoby, and then filling in with somebody on Izzy and Spain. There were weeks and weeks and weeks of four hours of national at night, and four hours of local in the morning. A lot of times I would just sleep in the studio and then wake up the next morning and do it the next day.
I spent July and August grinding with no idea where that was going to lead me, but I just knew that if I said yes to everything and I worked my ass off, that’s all I could do. You have to trust that process. I said yes to everything. I just kept my head down and did all the work I could, but once football season starts, as you well know, that’s the primetime, the most important time for the sports talk world.
When football season started my ESPN assignments sort of went away because that’s when they want all of the regular hosts in — to be there and make sure that fans are getting the voices they’re used to hearing at the right times. So my work just sort of went away. I just wasn’t sure what was going to happen. You hear rumblings. You hear rumors, but after all the years in the music business I know not to count any chickens before they’re hatched. Again, I just sort of kept my head down and said, well whatever happens happens.
It was really kind of out of the blue. I was up there doing some screen testing for what I now get to do — the SportsCenter Snapchat that I do on Thursday nights and launches on Friday mornings. I got called in to meet with some of the big wigs and thought nothing of it. A couple of days later I got a call and they said, “Hey, we know you’ve worked with Sarah. We know you and Sarah get along. Sarah likes you and you like her. We think it’s a good pairing. What would your level of interest be?” Within days it went from not working all that much and we’ll see what’s going to happen, to by the way, you need to move to Bristol and we’re going to give you a bunch of opportunities.
BN: Your general vibe seems to work really well in radio in terms of a two-person show. Do you find that you have a natural chemistry with whomever you’re working with and it can be even better depending specifically on who you’re working with?
JF: To a certain extent. I spent a lot of the summer hosting solo. I love hosting solo because it’s the Colin in all of us — you get to give a monologue, make a big statement, there’s a lot of nice things to hosting solo. The great thing about the co-hosting in general — I’ve always felt like — as long as I know my role, things are going to go really well. My role in co-hosting is to make it fun and conversational and to facilitate. I feel like I’m at my best in that role when I’m acting as a point guard.
For example, hosting with Jordan. Jordan played football. He played in the NFL. If I can find a way to get a great tidbit, a great story, a great moment out of Jordan, then I’ve done my job. If we’re talking about what quarterbacks we do or don’t believe in in the NFC, of course I have an opinion. I’m going to give you that opinion, but then I’m also going to make sure that Jordan gets his opinion out. His opinion comes with weight because he played in the NFL. I’ve looked at it that way with everybody I’ve hosted with.
I’ve been really lucky at ESPN. They’ve put me with great people and the biggest thing that I find at ESPN that’s sort of empowering, is there’s so much freaking mutual respect for everybody. They believe that because you’re in the room, you belong in the room. I was afraid it was going to be this super cutthroat, I hate you, get off my radio show environment like the music industry can be at times. When you’re sitting in with somebody and they’re like, “Get out of my way. Don’t play on my song. I want my solos.” ESPN’s much different than that.
I look at it and say my job is to make it conversational. That’s why I love working with guys like Golic. Golic Jr. and I have become really good friends. Jordan and I have become really good friends. When you can do that, and you can talk to somebody about sports, that’s when I think you’re giving the world hopefully the most entertaining product. When it can be smart, but it still sounds like a bunch of buddies sitting at the bar having a conversation. That’s when I know I’m doing my job.
BN: I know you just got this major opportunity and it probably sounds strange to ask you about your career goals, but is this it or are there other things that you eventually want to achieve?
JF: Heck no. That’s the thing, the first day I walked into ESPN and actually met with anybody years ago when I was just a podcaster, I had to convince people that they should let me have some sort of a format on air. They asked me what my goal was. My answer to them was quite simply to be the face of the network for a generation. I know that that sounds just as obnoxious as it is.
To me, the goal has always been very simple — I want to combine the things that I love the most about guys like Colin Cowherd, Rich Eisen, and even Jimmy Fallon. They’re so damn likable in what they do, and it’s so much fun to watch them perform, that you feel connected to them. You feel like you are hanging out with a friend. That’s what ESPN offers on all of their platforms.
The radio piece was a huge part of my first step, but there’s also a desire to have a daily presence on TV. I also want to make sure that I’m involved in all the social media things that we’re doing now. I’m really excited by the brand’s focus on Twitter and Snapchat and the things that they’re letting me be a part of.
Mike Golic Jr. and I did a college football playoff rankings reaction show through the course of the fall. The last episode that we did after the final four came out got 3.3 million views on Twitter. I think that we’ve got a format that’s averaging over 1.5 million views for episodes of SportsCenter on Snapchat. There’s a big piece of the future of the network that I’m working hard to try and be a part of.
I think as generations of fans grow up, I want to be to a generation, what the Rich Eisen’s of the world were to me.