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The Value of Active Listening

Pablo Torre and Bomani Jones were supposed to have their new TV show in January. Then some things got in the way for ESPN and it was supposed to be April. April came and went and still no new show for Bo and Pablo. 

Finally last week, High Noon (9AM Pacific) made its debut. Reactions from fans were mixed, as they always are any time someone tries something new and different in the world of sports commentary. I, for one, liked the grainy western camera effect and the soundtrack that invoked visions of a duel on the streets of a ghost town. I thought it separated that show from others cut from similar cloth. Still, I can see how the seemingly random bells can be distracting.

I had Tweet Deck up while watching the first episode, so I could see reaction to it in real time. I noticed a trend amongst sports radio hosts. Everyone was commenting on the camera that was trained on the member of the hosting duo that wasn’t talking.

Bomani and Pablo might just change the way we think about sports debate, and it won’t be because of anything they said. It will be because they took time to not say anything and taught the audience and the medium the value of active listening.

I heard the comedian Jim Norton on a podcast once talking about how bad he was at acting. He described his process as standing in front of his acting partner and just watching their mouth move until it was his turn to blurt out the words he memorized. If I remember right, he said the way he thinks in a scene is “Not my turn. Not my turn. Not my turn. GO!”.

It’s a funny way to describe acting and it feels like sometimes that describes sports debate shows too. Have you ever been stuck in a radio partnership like that? I cannot say I have, so I don’t have a ton of personal experience to draw from here, but it sounds like it would be hell.

Radio is purely an auditory medium. TV hosts have the advantage of making faces or wild hand gestures to show the audience their dismay for the point their colleague is making. In radio, it is so important that we have the right comeback. You can’t have the right comeback if you aren’t fully engaged in a conversation.

The “Not my turn. Not my turn. Not my turn. GO!” model is such a detriment to good radio. It is fine to have points you want to make in an argument, but you have to assess how those points will make their optimal impact on the listeners.

Let’s say you and I are having a debate about the NBA Draft. You believe that Phoenix should hang on to the top pick, because they are so far from being competitive that to trade it for a superstar would make no sense. Before you can make that point though, you have to listen to me say that basketball is a sport where one great player can change your fortunes and doesn’t it make sense to use the pick to acquire a proven great player rather than select someone you think could be great someday?

How would you counter my argument? Would you wait for me to stop talking and then blurt out “The Suns are so bad. Why would they bring in a super star right now?” or would you listen to what I have to say and then use my argument to transition into your point? “One great player can change your fortunes? This team is in Golden State’s division. Ask LeBron James how one great player does against Golden State. Phoenix is so far away from being a playoff team that bringing in a star would maybe make them good enough to be the 8 seed in the West. It makes sense to use the pick on Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton and develop those guys. By the time they hit their peak, the Warriors will be falling off and Phoenix will be poised to strike.”

If you’ve read my stuff before, you know that I don’t see a ton of value in listener calls. The audience that tunes into your show, for the most part, doesn’t care what other listeners think. They want to hear your opinions. If your actively listening to your callers and not just watching a clock looking for the right time to cut them off though, those calls can be a conduit to your opinions.

It’s example time again!

Let’s say you’re talking about the Eagles being disinvited from the White House. It doesn’t matter what side of the issue you’re on or what you think of player protests in this example. A caller gets on the air to vehemently disagree with you and calls you an idiot. What value is there to the larger audience in either shouting him down or hanging up on him? Remember, the vast vast vast majority of them are coming into this thing on your side. Listen to what the caller says so you can then take it apart.

Be reasonable about it of course. You don’t want him going off on a tangent. You can cut him loose after he makes his point.

Arguing for sport is what we do sometimes in talk radio, and that’s fine so long as you genuinely believe your points and can back them up. If you are arguing for sport though it’s safe to assume you want to win. Wins don’t come from shouting louder than your opponent. They come from entertaining the audience.

Actively listening to what the person sitting across from you or waiting on the phone is saying will make your responses better. If a listener is hearing two thoughtful and engaged voices arguing an issue, they are much less likely to be turned off by the argument.

You don’t have to like or agree with Pablo Torre and Bomani Jones to get something out of High Noon. Pay attention to their rapport and the way they respond to the things the other is saying that they find absurd. If sports radio takes anything away from High Noon, it should be a lesson in the value of active listening.

About Demetri Ravanos (41 Articles)
Demetri Ravanos has worked as a Host and Executive Producer for 620 The Buzz, SB Nation Radio, 106.9 The Point, 96 Rock, Radio 96.1 and ESPN Columbia. You can follow him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos.

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