Many mortals don’t want a heavy workload. Jeff Rickard doesn’t want any part of a light one. The ESPN and SiriusXM Radio host has basically experienced it all in sports broadcasting. On-air host, Program Director, play-by-play announcer — you name it. Jeff has done it while accumulating a wealth of knowledge.
When Jeff isn’t hosting shows, he works as the Program Director at 107.5/1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. We caught up to talk about his philosophies as a programmer, his career path, and the potent combination that is the foundation of a great sports talk host. Jeff also mentions what he considers to be the most interesting aspect of sports radio these days, and the most annoying. Enjoy.
BN: How’s the Program Director life treating you?
JR: I like it. I think it’s always been natural for me because radio is just in my blood. I’ve been doing radio since I was a teenager. I started out in small markets where you had to do everything. My first real job of consequences probably was as a Program Director in Tri Cities, WA. Later on being an Assistant Program Director in Denver — getting my first real big gig in Salt Lake City. Then, from Salt Lake City I was the Sports Format General for all of Citadel Communications.
I’ve always just loved radio and how things work and why they work. Where you put things on the air and why you put them there. There’s a really satisfying feeling of how to grade talent and then putting great promotional content around it — putting it all together in one package. Then, when you’re driving down the road listening to the great talent that you have surrounded by all the things that hopefully you put in place to support them, and it all sounds like one big symphony. If you’re doing it right, it sounds good. If you’re doing it wrong, it bugs you until you get back in the office and fix it the next morning. You know how that goes.
BN: Do you have any sort of hierarchy in terms of what you prefer doing more than others when it comes to programming and hosting shows?
JR: I personally like working with the talent. When you get guys in place that you respect and you like listening to — they’re different than you are and they have great ideas and they have their own way of doing things — I like being able to coach them and get the most out of them and what their talents are. Really try to help them find what’s best for them in their own voice and in their own way.
I think too many times talent coaches make the mistake of, “I’m going to go in and I’m going to make the guy sound this way.” You’ve got to work with the talent that you have, but there are talented guys out there. Everybody is just a little bit different so your job is to try and get the most out of them with their style and what they want to become and how they want to do it.
I’ve found in the past, if you want to fit a talent into a different way of doing things and they’re not buying it, it’s not going to work for anybody. Everybody is just going to be miserable. You take guys with their talent and what they do. You tell them the things that you expect and the things that you need formatically — how and why this might be a better way to do it — and you let them experiment. Just give them options and hopefully they can find their best voice through your lens.
BN: Are there ever times when you’re in a meeting with a talent and they say something where you’re like, “Wow, never thought of it that way,” or they teach you something with what they say?
JR: Absolutely. I’m not just saying this because it sounds like the cliché thing to say, but I think if you talk to people who’ve been doing this a long, part of the energy that you get back is what those people around you give. There’s something to learn from everybody every day. There may be a completely different style or way of thought — it’s not at all the way you would do it, or would’ve thought of — then you hear it come out of the radio and you go, “You know what, that worked pretty well for that guy.”
That’s the one thing I’ve learned over the years. It’s like a quarterback in the NFL. You’re gonna run an offense differently — if you’re an offensive coordinator or a head coach — if you have Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady than you are if you have Trevor Siemian or Brock Osweiler. There are certain things you can ask people to do and they’re going to be able to do it. You’re not going to tell Aaron Rodgers — you’re going to give him direction and guidance like, “Hey, Aaron. You missed this other guy open over here.” But those are guys that understand the philosophy of the game.
They have so much physical talent that you have to let them be themselves once the game starts. You give them a game plan. You tell them what you like to see. This is the philosophy of our offense. This is what we’re trying to accomplish and why, but there are some people that are so talented, you just almost have to get out of their way and let them run. There are other people that just need a lot more coaching whether it’s through inexperience or maybe they’re not quite as gifted as some of the other people, but your job is still to get the most out of them, just as it is to get the most out of the superstar so to speak.
BN: How often do you host shows right now?
JR: Between three and six times a week. Between Sirius and ESPN — I just filled in for Dan Dakich on my station today. I’ll fill in when needed here. I prefer that other people fill in here because I’ve got so much to do, but when needed I’ll fill in. Between all of the things combined, I’m still doing around 300 shows a year.
BN: 300 a year? That’s basically full-time on air.
JR: That’s why I said I’m busier than a three-legged cat on ice. I’m just trying to stay in my lane and not hurt anybody and make sure I get everything done that I need to do. I think because I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve just learned what I need to do — what’s really important, what I can delegate, what other people can do for me because it helps them develop and grow.
I’ve always been a believer that you don’t just give assignments to people because, “Oh, I don’t have time for this. I’ll let them do that.” Hopefully, when you give assignments and you delegate to other people, you’re helping them grow in their career too. You’re showing them how to someday do your job.
BN: When you’re doing the two-hat thing programming and hosting shows, you’re going to be stretched thin. When it comes to having your show set up the way you want it, how do you approach it if your time is more scarce than you’d like it to be?
JR: I have a studio in my home and I’m always up to date on stuff. Sirius knows that they can call me for breaking news or whatever and I can do a show on Jim Mora getting fired from UCLA or I can do a show on the NFL. Or somebody’s equipment is down and they’re stuck in travel and, “Hey, Jeff, we’re on the air in 30 minutes, can you fill in?”
What I’ve always done and this is kind of my daily routine — I get up early in the morning and the first thing I do is spend about an hour going over everything I can find on the internet that’s new, that’s different, what I didn’t know the night before. The last thing I do — my wife and I call it my evening sweeps — I spend another 30 to 45 minutes just scouring what happened during the day. Anything that seems interesting to me. I use that kind of as a general show prep. Now, if I know I have a show coming up I can be a little more focused. Just doing those two things, and then like everybody else constantly checking Twitter throughout the day when you have a minute here or there to make sure you’re not missing things.
I always call it kind of a river of information. We live in this information overload era, but it’s a river of information. I don’t know how you feel, but it seems to me that once you’re swimming in that river and you stay swimming in that river, you’re just kind of in it. You just know what’s going on day to day, moment to moment. That’s what’s helped me out a ton. The broadcasting experience I have, so I don’t worry about that. First thing in the morning and the last thing at night, I try to make sure I’m as up to date as possible in just about everything of major consequence in sports.
BN: You mention looking for stories that are new and different. If you apply that to talent, is there a host that you think has a style that’s just new, different, and something that most people haven’t heard before?
JR: Yeah, Dan Dakich, who happens to be on my radio station. One of the things that really attracted me to the station was Dan’s personality. He’s very abrasive. He’s definitely one of those hosts who you either love or hate. I get feedback from both sides all the time, but he’s unique and different. To me, that’s what makes him special.
First of all, you couldn’t go out and find another Dan Dakich. He was Bob Knight’s protégé for a long time. For whatever reason, which I still don’t know and I have never asked, he and Coach Knight had a falling out of some sort. He never specifies why or what happened. I don’t ask, but there’s a lot of Bob Knight in him.
Dan just says what’s on his mind. There’s very little filter. Sometimes, that can get him in trouble, but because he’s had so many unique experiences as both a head coach and an assistant coach under Bob Knight, and he’s got by nature just a very outspoken way of doing things — he tells you what he thinks and why he thinks it — doesn’t really care whether you agree with him or not — it’s new and it’s fresh.
I don’t know that we’ve had someone with that unique set of experience come to talk radio in sports. He knew what it was like to be with Bob Knight and there’s a lot of Bob Knight in him. A lot of that’s good too, it’s not necessarily all a bad thing. He’s been a head coach at a Division I program. Here in Indiana, for a short time he was the interim head coach for the Indiana Hoosiers, which is a pretty big deal in Indiana. He’s now also the Big Ten main analyst on ESPN. His national exposure has grown with his personality.
He’s a take-no-prisoners guy and sometimes he’ll go a little bit too far, but I’d rather have a guy that I have to pull back a little bit than a guy that I have to push toward that line. Dan’s just fearless in that way. He’s kind of damn the consequences. He says what he thinks. He’s got a very unique and entertaining style in which he delivers it. A lot of people get really upset and irritated by it, but the thing he does that we’re all looking for is that he makes people think — he makes them emote. That’s, to me, what I’m looking for in a good talk show host.
I wish I had more kind of nastiness in me like Dan has. However, Dan is not a nasty person at all, so that’s probably not the right word. There’s an edge to him. It’s edgier than what I have. I’ve had people tell me throughout the years that I respect a lot, “Man, if you were just a little more edgy, and a little more outspoken,” but that’s not who I am. You have to be true to who you are and Dan is certainly true to who he is. He doesn’t try to be anybody that he’s not. I’ve just really grown to respect the talent that he has.
BN: Some of those adjectives are interesting — abrasive, fearless, edgy. With young hosts — do you think that they’re less abrasive and more fearful that if they check their Twitter timeline and someone calls them out they’re going to be a basket case? Is there anything age-related with styles?
JR: I don’t think it’s so much age-related as it is self-confidence related. In a case like Dan’s, and I don’t mean to make this all about Dan but sinse we’re using him as an example, he has very clear opinions on what he thinks and why he thinks it. He’s lived it and he’s coached kids. He’s been a college athlete. He coached with Coach Knight. He travels to meet and talk to coaches all the time. When he says something, in his mind it’s been vetted. He’s lived it. He’s talked about it. He’s thrown it past other people. So, when he has that fearlessness about it, I don’t think there’s any hesitation from him because in his mind he is right.
That’s what makes a really good talk show host. You can agree or disagree with him, but in his mind, he’s right and he’s not afraid to go toe to toe with you verbally. Whether people like that style or not, people do listen to it. It’s interesting, when you’re walking down the street and you hear two people kind of getting in each other’s business, you stop and you pay attention like, “What’s going on over there, man? What’s happenin’?” It doesn’t mean a fight is necessarily ready to break out, but those are the kind of things that cut through the clutter.
I don’t think it’s so much an age thing. I think it’s more a confidence, “This is who I am. This is what I think. This is where I’m going.” You look at some of the great talk show hosts and radio personalities — look at Howard Stern who is unbelievable, right? He’s always been fearless when he gets on the air. He’ll take whatever slings and arrows come his way because in his mind he knows what’s going to make people laugh, or make people talk about him. I think Dan has a lot of that gift inherently in him.
BN: So how exactly did you end up in Indianapolis?
JR: I was working in Bristol for ESPN, which I still do now. My wife, who is a very talented attorney, was offered a really great job out here. We looked at the cost of living. We looked at everything — the jobs and the schools and everything else. She said, “Well, what do you think? Could you live in Indianapolis?”
When I think of Indianapolis — they do Final Fours here. They do Super Bowls here. They do sports festivals here. There is something happening here — Big Ten Championship, football, basketball. There’s NCAA Regionals all the time. I mean there’s always something going on here.
I thought, “Man, if you can get a great job for yourself and advance your career” — she’s general counsel for an insurance company now — and I can be in the middle of a really great sports city — and in this day and age of technology still do all of my Sirius and ESPN stuff out of my house. That’s how we ended up here.
BN: That’s not a bad gig. Just curious, what ages are your kids and where are they at in their lives?
JR: I have two little guys. They are eight and nine. My eight-year-old is a really gifted student. I’m so proud — he’s just a smart little kid that loves sports. And my oldest, who’s nine, doesn’t really care about sports at all, but man, he will make you incredibly buildings, vehicles, whatever out of LEGO. He’s just a really creative little guy.
They’re both finding their niche, and it’s fun to watch them grow. They’re both doing really well in school and I just couldn’t be happier with where they are right now. When we moved to Indianapolis they were five and four. So, they knew Connecticut and their house there. They had a great little school there. One of the greatest schools I’ve ever come across. It was hard to leave that, but we found some good schools here too — some terrific teachers and things that we liked. I think in their minds — the oldest one has a little bit more memory of Connecticut than the youngest one, but for the most part this is really the home that they know. So far, so good.
BN: How did you arrive at ESPN in Bristol to host national shows?
JR: I had done a little bit of work for ESPN when the Olympics came to Salt Lake City. I was the Program Director and I was an on-air host in Salt Lake City back in 2002 when the Olympics came there. I sat in on a couple of shows with Trey Wingo and some other folks from ABC Sports. At the time they were all in town with ESPN. They let me do a couple of shows and then I did a couple of New Year’s Eve shows for them — the special holiday shows over a couple years.
A few years later I was speaking at a seminar for Jon Chelesnik. He and David Brody were hosting a seminar for STAA. Bruce Gilbert, who was running ESPN Radio at the time, and I were both speaking at it. We just started talking. My contract was coming up at Sporting News, which I left Salt Lake City to go to Sporting News.
I had been there for a couple of years and my contract was up. Just because it was coming up I kind of offhandedly sent an email to Bruce going, “Hey, you guys are probably full, but would you have anything open at ESPN Radio?” He literally emailed me back within like two minutes because that’s how Bruce is. He’s so good at stuff like that. He said, “Hey, we’re looking for a host on GameNight. Let me get you in touch with Justin Craig.” I talked to Justin over email. We talked over the phone. Then, they flew me out there. I did a show with Doug Gottlieb one night and I guess they liked it. They hired me and I’ve been doing stuff for them ever since.
BN: How did you initially get into the business?
JR: I was always an athlete, but I was a lot like my youngest son — I was smallish side. It was hard. I did walk on and play at an NAIA school in football (Colorado Mesa University), but I didn’t play a whole lot because I was small. I think I only weighed like 155 pounds or something like that. I was a good enough athlete that I could be on their scout team and play secondary. I was like the backup kicker because I could kick the ball a long way. I wasn’t always accurate, but I could kick it a mile.
I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to have a big future as an athlete. Even though I was a good athlete for my size, it just wasn’t going to happen. I had always loved sports and I had always loved TV and radio. I used to do play-by-play of the old NBA Finals games into a tape recorder when I was in high school. I’d give the cassettes to my dad. He’d listen to them on the way to and from work and give me critiques.
Broadcasting was always something that interested me because at least you were involved in the game and that was always my big thing. I just wanted to be involved in the game and be around the game because I loved the game. I loved being an athlete and I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. I just wanted to be connected to sports. I just think it’s the greatest thing in the world.
I started working at the college radio station while I was still playing football. Then, I got a job at the 50,000 watt station that was the play-by-play home for the local college. Pretty soon I started being kind of an analyst for them and a sideline reporter for games that I didn’t play. By the time I got to be a senior, it was clear where my future was going to be so I didn’t play football anymore.
I just started broadcasting some of the games and I started working at the TV station there in Grand Junction, CO, which is also right near the college. It just kind of went from there. You know how the stepping stone goes. It went from Grand Junction to Billings, MT, then to Washington State and back home to Denver to start up The Fan, which is gosh all the way back to 1995. It makes me sound older than I am — I started when I was a teenager just so people know.
That’s where it really started to take off was when I started working at The Fan in the mid 90s and it was such a great time in Denver. The Broncos were winning Super Bowls. The Avalanche were brand new and they won a Stanley Cup. Colorado State I think one year finished with Sonny Lubick in the top 10. They were beating up on teams from the Pac-10 at the time, it’s the Pac-12 now. They were beating on teams in the bowl games. The University of Colorado was still decent. They had Rick Neuheisel as a coach one year and then Gary Barnett. The Rockies had just gotten there and just opened Coors Field.
I was in Denver and that really helped me because my role at the radio station — in addition to doing on-air shifts — I was the beat reporter for whatever was happening. I was the studio host for the Nuggets and Avalanche. During the summer, I was the beat reporter for the Rockies. I also covered the Broncos during the week during football season too. I was really busy but getting plugged in at that level to all four major sports has really helped me.
I couldn’t do the things I do at Sirius on a moment’s notice and talk about that river of information. It’s easy for me to do a show on MLB Network Radio because I’ve been covering baseball as a beat reporter since 1995. I’ve been covering the National Football League as a beat reporter since 1995. I’ve just kind of been lucky. I think I’ve worked real hard at everything and I think I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities that I’ve been given and that have been presented to me. Every time I saw an opportunity, I jumped on it and I’ve just been fortunate to get a lot of opportunities too.
BN: It sounds like you don’t know how to not be busy.
JR: I don’t think I would know what to do. The other thing is, I still somehow someway — and I tell my family this — I still need to spend time with my kids for a little while every night. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is I either go for a ride on my bike for an hour, or I ride indoors for an hour just to stay in shape. I’ll probably watch SportsCenter if I’m riding indoors or I’ll listen to sports radio or something like that while I’m on my bike.
It’s like killing two birds with one stone. I can get my workout in and still listen to what I need to. I think staying fit and healthy has really helped me do all of those things too. You gotta have a lot of energy for that. I think the fitter you are, the healthier you are, the more energy you have.
BN: What do you think is the most interesting aspect of sports talk radio right now, and what’s the most annoying?
JR: My favorite sports talk radio host is somebody who has real knowledge, but also has a fan’s passion for it. That’s a really rare thing to find.
Whether someone who has been a beat reporter or whether someone has been a lifelong, find out everything I could ever find out about my favorite team my whole life kind of fan. When you can combine somebody that’s got the professional knowledge, I mean real professional knowledge in sports, not just listening to people from watching TV and games but being at practices, talking to players, finding out why they did things, what were they thinking, how did they do this, why did they approach it this way.
When you do that for a good amount of time, you really start to understand truly the mindset and culture of the teams and the athletes. If you still retain that fan’s passion — that’s when you’re going to find gold because you gotta have that fan’s passion. If you take the passion of a fan and now you mix it with somebody who really truly knows what’s going on, man that’s a potent combination — a really potent combination.
One of the things I like about Sirius, and ESPN does a really good job of this too, they take these people that have lived this lifestyle. It doesn’t even have to be an athlete — it can be a coach, you could be the former general managers that ESPN uses a lot of the time — they take these people with real professional knowledge of what’s going on, but they have a fan’s passion. You can tell that they love what they’re talking about. That’s when you find gold.
What I can’t stand are the people that just want to be on radio and TV just to be on radio and TV. I cannot stand that personally. I can’t stand it because they’re not interested in what they’re really there for. They’re just interested in being on TV or being on the radio.
BN: Can you hear that right away when you listen to somebody?
JR: Yeah, listen to Colin or Doug Gottlieb and what they do, just to make it about different networks too. Colin paid his dues as a sports reporter on television and as an announcer with certain teams younger in his career before he found talk radio in Portland. Then, he really seized on that. He had a really solid foundation of knowing sports and knowing how and why teams do what they do.
What’s it like on a road trip? What’s it like for the average athlete when he’s away for a week and a half? Because you’re with them and you see what they do during the day when they’re not at practice and how they approach it. When they get bored and why they get bored. How they work out before practice starts. How they work out after practice is over. You talk to the coaches about the game because you develop a relationship with them. They’ll tell you, “We got our butts kicked and I’ll tell you why right here.”
It’s something that you as a layperson probably never would’ve seen. It teaches you to see a different game than you otherwise would’ve. Colin is also an entertainer. He knows the game and has never lost the passion of the fan. I think he brought that and that’s what he does as well as anybody.
Doug Gottlieb, obviously with his basketball career — people don’t realize it, but after college basketball at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, he played overseas professionally for a couple of years. Here’s a guy again with real life experience that most of us don’t have. Doug is a little bit like Dan Dakich — he’s got very strong opinions. He says what he thinks. He very rarely puts a muzzle on himself. If he thinks it, he’s going to say it. He doesn’t put a lot of filter on it. Maybe it offends some people sometimes. Maybe it doesn’t, but he also understands humor and he mixes that in.
He’s got that passion for the games. I think you can hear with those guys is the great passion mixed with a really great amount of knowledge. Those things, once you combine them — I go back to it again — Brian, you just can’t find that everywhere, the people that have both of those things. Now, if you throw in the ability to entertain on top of that, now you’re talking about really special talent on that level.
BN: Is there anything that you haven’t accomplished yet that you’re really striving to achieve?
JR: Yeah (laughing), you know what’s funny, I never in my wildest imagination thought I’d end up being a talk show host. It’s what I’ve been doing now since 1995. All I ever wanted to do was pay bills by being a talk show host so I could do play-by-play.
I don’t think a lot of people realize that I’ve done well over 1,000 games in almost every sport you can imagine — college to professional. That’s my passion. That’s what I always wanted to do, but it just so happened that every time I turned around I kept getting bumped ahead and promoted in sports talk radio and so that’s just kind of what I followed. Unfortunately, I’m doing fewer and fewer play-by-play games, which is what I’d really like to be doing, but at the same time life’s been good to me. So, I keep riding the wave.