Replacing the co-star of a successful show can be just as difficult as building something new from the ground up. Finding someone to follow Steve Carell on The Office or Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, when the other components of the show remain the same, is challenging because the audience has an integrated level of expectation without much patience.
Boomer and Carton entertained a large audience for 10 years until legal issues forced Craig Carton to suddenly resign. Carton’s on-air personality is impossible to duplicate, but Gregg Giannotti is a creative host working to carve his own niche on an already top-rated program.
Giannotti’s talent was recognized after just a few overnight opportunities beginning in 2008, which put him on a path to land his dream job. Now he holds some of the most prime real estate in radio as co-host of WFAN’s morning show with Boomer Esiason, along with a team that includes Jerry Recco, Al Dukes and Eddie Scozzare.
I met with Gregg to responsibly enjoy a beer and discuss the path to his dream job. Gregg spoke while drinking a Blue Point Winter Ale. I went with Blue Point’s Mosaic Session IPA.
BC: Let’s start with the process of getting the WFAN gig. It opened up out of nowhere. How were the tryout shows and did you think of yourself as the favorite to land the job?
GG: I thought they were going to approach me, just because I had done mornings in Pittsburgh and there was some success there. They brought me back to NY for CBS Sports Radio and I knew they were pleased with the show. They saw me as a morning guy and not everybody can do morning radio. Some people would say they saw me as an entertainer so I thought they might give me a shot. When they told me they were putting me in with Boomer for a week, I was very excited, but I wasn’t surprised.
But the tryout shows were extremely stressful. That process was very difficult for me. Who do you lean on in that spot? How many people have ever gone through something like that? Basically, it’s up to you and your confidence and your belief in yourself to be able to pull it off, but you can’t ask anybody…”hey I’m trying out for morning drive, in the number one market in the country, at the station I’ve always wanted to work for, with Boomer Esiason, and the co-host had to resign out of nowhere because of a legal situation…you ever been through that before? What was that like?
Nobody has that experience in their lives. Everybody kept saying the same thing to me, just be yourself, but sometimes that’s not the best advice. I had to make sure I didn’t come across as too overbearing because Boomer has been there a decade. I wanted to make sure we could develop a good relationship. It was stressful, and I thought I was actually going to handle it better than I did. It ended up working out though, but I wouldn’t want to go through that again.
BC: As you mentioned, Boomer has been there a decade. The people working on the show have also been there for that length of time, and you’re added to a situation where the show is already number one. On one hand that’s great because it’s already successful. On the other hand, if the show drops in the ratings, you could be the scapegoat. How do you handle that pressure?
GG: Sure, I’ve thought about that, but there’s so many factors that go into the ratings. People will always think that you’re the one thing that’s changed and I understand that, but I looked at it as more of a positive than anything else. I didn’t look at it for the negative stuff. For example, you have two changes on WFAN, the morning and afternoon drive. I think it would’ve been more difficult for me to be on the new show that’s taking over for the legend, where you’re trying to make your own mark as opposed to being the one added piece to a well-oiled machine. Not that I wouldn’t welcome any challenge, but that’s the way I looked at it. These guys have welcomed me in. They’re the best crew in radio, and they know what works, so I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself to have to save something.
In Pittsburgh, we were launching 93.7 The Fan, so I went out there with the mindset that it’s either going to work or it’s not. When I got put into mornings 6 months in, the show wasn’t doing well, so there was a lot of pressure because we needed to fix it. There was a lot of pressure at that time to get it working. That was totally different because I never looked at it like what happens if bad things happen. I looked at it like lets fit in, work on the chemistry and be really grateful that I landed in this fortunate position and earned the right to have a tremendous opportunity.
BC: You went to school for music before radio. Did you write your own music?
GG: Occasionally. I wouldn’t consider myself a composer, but I would write some songs. I was in a blue grass band with my parents. I’ve mentioned this on the air before, I wrote a couple of blue grass songs with them so yeah I would write.
BC: The reason I ask is because I think that goes along with your creativity. There are different types of hosts…the encyclopedia type, the angry host, the radio junkie who’s obsessed with radio, the former athlete, and then there’s the creative type. I’d put you in that category because you come across over the air as someone who’s creative. I would imagine you’re handed a pre-show sheet in the morning and rarely stick to it, never knowing which direction the show will go. I think it makes sense that you’re a musician, similarly to the way Howard Stern is also a painter. Do you think of radio as a way to express that creativity?
GG: Without a doubt, absolutely. If I couldn’t do what I do on the air I would be playing more music. There’s no doubt about that, but when you have the ability to create something and a blank canvas for four hours, it fulfills that part of me. Plus, I definitely like to be good at stuff. With music, I’ve been out of it for so long, that when I pick up the guitar I’m like “oh man I’m not as good as I used to be and I need to practice.” But do I really want to practice? Do I have time for it?
I don’t know if other people feel like this, but when you can do a show, and it’s yours and you’ve created something original and you know that it works and can touch people in some way, whether they like what you said or are upset by it or laughed at something you brought up, there’s NOTHING more fulfilling to me than that.
When people said nice things when I left Pittsburgh, or when I left the network and people tweeted at me to say that thing you did, that voice you did, whatever, that for me is the most fulfilling thing. You obsess over it and care so much that you want whatever’s going on in your head to payoff somehow. When it does your like man…it’s all worth it. I mean creative people are also crazy people, Stern says he goes to a therapist 3 or 4 times a week and he’s still unhappy. It’s just what comes with the territory. When you get that positive reinforcement from the things you’ve created, there’s nothing better.
BC: Right, the creativity aspect of radio is just the same as writing music, painting, a chef with their own restaurant.
GG: I’ll give you this analogy because you brought up the chef. I think you’ll like this one. Between national and local radio the analogy I make is that national radio is like going into a supermarket if you’re a chef and picking out anything you want to make the dish. Local radio is like the show ‘Chopped’ because you’re handed a basket of ingredients and it’s what you have to talk about. Both are fulfilling, but right now in the middle of winter I’m looking through the basket and it’s like no spring training story or hockey story that many will care about, and I’m like “how am I going to make this dish to wow the judges?”
BC: Speaking of making that dish, a few weeks ago I was listening and you wanted to play audio during Jerry’s update. Al, your producer, wanted you to wait til the next segment and jumped in to explain that if he was hosting the show he’d look at it like, “how am I going to fill these four hours? When Jerry’s in for the update that takes care of 10 minutes so I can save something to fill time in the next segment.” When you were doing nights in Pittsburgh, it was a new station. You probably had no calls at first, no co-host, and you’re in a new city. How did you approach filling those hours while getting started?
GG: That was radio Siberia in a sense because we launched the station February 15th, 2010. The NHL players at that time were in the Olympics so the Penguins weren’t playing. It was two weeks after the Super Bowl so that story was done. We had no commercials so that meant massive segments, and no one was calling. You asked, how would I fill it? That was the most invaluable experience I’ve had in radio. I looked at it at the time like I made a massive mistake, but if I didn’t have those months of going thru that, I don’t think I’d ever have been able to get to the level to accomplish what I’ve been able to so far.
Basically what I did was, I’d have a sheet in front of me with each segment in a block. I’d write one word in each one and I would just go. No other notes, just the one word. When you’re a producer like I was, the structure is in your head. You think, I need to talk about this today. I can put this wacky thing in here. It’s about what’s interesting to you and to the listener. Make it a combination and go, just go go go, be fearless and do it. That helped me in finding my voice. That and the network helped me too because I found that space to be very liberating. It didn’t feel like there was a lot of people paying attention to us, so those are the two things that allowed me to cultivate my voice. Both were difficult but in different ways.
BC: Do you listen to old shows you’ve done?
GG: I have a lot. Every stop I’ve done I’ve went back to shows and listened to myself. I haven’t done that here yet.
BC: Not even the trial shows?
GG: No, and I’ll tell you why. It was already a high-pressured crazy situation. If I put extra stuff on, it’s probably not healthy. The other situations, there was pressure, but this is a very different level. I know when something doesn’t sound great and I’m not happy with it. Those are the times I’ll go back and listen to see how it goes. There may be a point I’m comfortable enough, but one of the things I don’t want to do is overreact too early to anything. When I feel we’ve hit some sort of happy place maybe then I’ll go back and listen.
The times that I do go back to listen the most is when I feel complacent. I haven’t felt that at all, but the times that it’s felt too easy, I’ll go back and listen to see if it’s still good. When my antenna’s are up and I’m so hyper-focused on how things are going, I won’t listen back to it.
BC: After you got the gig, you mentioned that you heard from Craig Carton. How was that conversation?
GG: I didn’t expect that at all. Much like on the air, off the air Craig was a ball-buster. When I saw him around he wasn’t always saying the most positive things, so I didn’t know how he felt about me to be honest with you or how he felt about me getting the job. When he called, and sent a text message, and I talked to him, it meant a lot to me. He had no expectation of me sharing that publicly and I didn’t even know if I was going to share that, it just kind of happened. Whether it was for him or for me, it doesn’t matter, what mattered to me was that he was in a sense giving his blessing. If he didn’t like me at all, or thought it was a terrible decision, he wouldn’t have done that. So it made me feel more comfortable going into it because I didn’t have to worry about what he thought.
It’s a hard thing for me to say, but if I was in his shoes, I don’t know that I would have been able to do that. I just don’t know if I could. It felt good, and it gave me confidence to go in there and start that first day in a good place. I actually needed that, because I would’ve been thinking about what he was thinking because it was his spot for TEN YEARS! Maybe it’s wrong to think like that, but I’m just being honest. I think it’s human nature to think that way and I know that I would’ve been thinking about whether or not I had his approval, and is he wishing me well? The fact that I actually heard that from him, I was like great, now I can put that aside and go ahead and do this.
BC: Because you were doing your own morning show at the time, were you able listen at all to Boomer and Carton? Can you tell if Boomer is different now vs. when he was with Craig?
GG: Well, the one thing that changed, is that after everything went down, Boomer sort of had to take control. That’s the difference. He went into quarterback mode, where it was like…you go here, you go there, you run this route. There are times you can tell he’s taking control, and it’s his thing. I’m sure if you listen back to a vintage Boomer and Carton show from 2013, I bet you wouldn’t see him hit the phone call ever, but he loves doing that now. In that sense, I think that’s the biggest difference. Aside from that I don’t know. He seems to enjoy coming back from break and going to a call, but I think if he’s changed at all, it could be with those things.
BC: How much attention do you give the ratings?
GG: I saw the first month. Obviously they were down and you go into the reasons why. It sounds like you’re making excuses or whatever, but I don’t believe with any of these changes that people are turning the radio off. There’s nothing going on in New York sports and if you look at all day parts on the two sports stations in our market, it seems like the numbers are down across the board. You’d love for them to be better, and the first book to be phenomenal, but I really don’t think there will be a concern until you get to baseball season. You want to see the station pumping during baseball season with the Yankees and that’s my expectation. So yeah I look at them. I think you always do no matter where you are. Whether you’re in first or fifth, you always want them to be better, but I don’t think you can put too much stock in the first couple of weeks good or bad.
BC: When you were on CBS Sports Radio, how much did you miss the local aspect?
GG: I wanted to get back into local. I absolutely did. The pros and cons of this when you’re doing national radio, as I mentioned before, you can pick and choose what you want to talk about, what’s interesting to you, and what you think will sound best. But with local radio you have to sort of transport yourself. What does the guy listening want to hear? That’s an element you need to get back into with local radio. I might find something interesting, but is the guy getting in his car for two hours at seven o’clock going to find it interesting? Whereas with national radio, I had no idea who was listening or where they were. Whatever I thought was interesting I was going to talk about it, I don’t care. But the connection with the audience that you have in local radio, there’s nothing like that. I missed that the most when I was doing the national show. You just don’t have that connection to the audience.
BC: So how did you measure the success of the national show?
GG: Never once was I even approached with ratings with that show. It was never a discussion, which was the craziest thing. That’s one of the first things I was told, no one pays attention to the ratings with a national show. There is no tiebreaker if you have a disagreement with management. If you have a disagreement in local radio with a successful show and the ratings back you up, you can say “screw you, we’re number one.” If you have a disagreement with a national show, no one cares about the ratings, and you lose a lot of those battles because you have nothing to say. In a way it’s refreshing because you’re just being judged on how the show sounds, but it can be tough if someone says I think this is better than what you’re doing because you can’t counter with, well the audience says this.
BC: You’ve had a few different program directors during your career. How have they been helpful to your growth? How have Mark Chernoff and Eric Spitz been different to work with as a host compared to when you were a producer?
GG: Ryan Maguire was refreshing in Pittsburgh. He and I worked well together. But sure, it’s more about how you look at them. I was less afraid of them as a talk show host than I was as a producer, because as a producer you’re replaceable. Now I look at it that they need me more. But nobody’s perfect in management. I don’t know if I could do a good job, but I’ve got a lot of respect for them. I’ll say this, they’ve always had my back. Eric Spitz, Mark Chernoff and Chris Oliviero have always been in my corner. If there was anything I screwed up or if I made a bad choice or was an idiot, they’ve always had my back. I have a lot of respect for those guys.
BC: Have you ever had to apologize or retract anything you said on the air?
GG: Never on the air, but there was one bit I got yelled at for. In Pittsburgh early on I would get yelled at a lot because I didn’t mesh well with the original program director. There was one time from CBS Sports Radio when I was working with Brian Jones where I did a bit and was trying to make light of something. I got a call from an executive who I never talked to before. He read me the riot act on a conference call and that was interesting because my intention was coming from a good place, but they didn’t want to hear that. Then there was one time in Pittsburgh (Gregg begins to laugh) I was talking about my wife’s friends and I don’t know what made me say this, but I said there was only one friend of hers that I liked. I don’t know why I said that, but her friends heard it and they’re all texting her “am I the friend he likes?” She wasn’t too happy about that. But I’ve never had to apologize for anything.
BC: When you joined the network, did you expect at some point that it would air in New York?
GG: I mean I hoped. It’s sort of ironic because I desperately wanted to be on Sirius. The only thing that held it up was the CBS lawyers were worried about a music licensing issue. They were super strict about it. As soon as we became Entercom, we got new lawyers and the Entercom team didn’t see the same thing that the CBS lawyers did. Then all of a sudden, boom we’re on Sirius. I’d much rather be on WFAN than CBS Sports Radio, but that would’ve been cool to be on there. I’m really happy for the CBS crew that they have that platform now.
BC: So you’re going to school for music, then you get into radio. You become an intern, a producer, and then a host. At what point did you realize hosting was what you wanted to do and you were good at it?
GG: Well, I very rarely thought about not making it. There were only one or two times where I was like, wow if you’re putting all your eggs into this basket and it doesn’t work out you’re screwed. I really felt I could do it. And doing it at that time didn’t even mean just doing it on air, it just meant making it in sports radio. If you’re in your 20’s and you’re making an okay salary, you think you can do it forever. Then stuff changes.
So I never really thought about failing much. I remember the first show I ever did, Chernoff gave me an overnight shift. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving 2008. Out of the first break, I did the monologue and I remember getting up out of the chair and walking into the newsroom and being like “I could do this.” I hope that doesn’t come across as too over confident, it’s just the truth. I tell people, it’s either in you or it’s not. Some people are born with an ability to be athletic or whatever, it just happened.
There’s days when people say, what are you gonna talk about tomorrow? There’s nothing going on, how are you going to get through that? I’m like, I don’t know, it just happens. The first time I did that overnight, it just came out of me. It was after that one show that Chernoff said they’d transition me to a show host. I did six overnights, just six shows TOTAL…EVER!…before I got the Pittsburgh job. That’s how raw I was when I went to 93.7 The Fan.
BC: I think that’s where the creativity factors in. When you don’t know what you’re going to talk about, when there isn’t much going on and you’re still able to show up and entertain an audience.
GG: Right, and that’s where you have no anxiety. If you have that in you, you don’t have any concern about doing a show because you know it’s just going to happen. If there’s not a lot of topics today that are entertaining, you’ll just do it, because it’s there, and it’s in you.
I never liked the people that complain about the slow times. I’ll complain about the slow times in sports because there may not be as many listeners because they’re not interested as much. When you have a Yankee playoff run more people are going to be into it. Sometimes though the best shows you ever do are when there’s not as much going on, because you’re just being you. You’re like “here’s me and I’m going to give you everything I’ve got.”
BC: How has social media, more specifically Twitter, changed radio since you’ve been in the industry?
GG: I have a love hate relationship with Twitter. As much as you want to act like people saying negative things to you doesn’t affect you, if you do something on the air that you’re not totally sure about and you happen to look at your phone and someone’s like “you suck you piece of s***,” it’s going to get in your head. That’s just human nature. Over the years I’ve become more callus to it. When good things have happened to me like getting this job or the birth of my daughter, the outpouring and genuine caring from strangers was amazing. Even when I left Pittsburgh, there were people that reached out that never did during the five years that I was there. They said, “I’ve listened to you every single day, I’ve never called or reached out, but I wanted to let you know I listened.” So there’s times I love it, but other times where I hate it.
BC: Speaking of that genuine caring, do you find that to be strange? You have hundreds of thousands of people that you play such a big role in their lives and they know you. For example, when we sat down here, we’ve never met before, but I said “how’s the baby?” If I just had a child and sat down at a bar next to someone who I had never met and they asked “how’s the baby” I’d be a little concerned.
GG: Oh sure, I mean it is strange, but it’s rewarding too. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, it feels right. That’s one of the things I love about local radio. People really get to know you and you get to know them. It’s such a cliché thing to say that one of the great things about radio is how personal it is, but that’s what drew me to it. I don’t expect people to only say nice things. I’m not naïve in that sense, but I’m not going to lie, I love that. I love being able to do what I’m doing, have fun doing it and have people care enough about it. That’s so special because I was that guy for so long who was the listener. I cared about what Joe Benigno thought. I loved hearing Mike and Chris tell stories about their kids and going to Disney. Now being on the other side of it is one of the coolest things ever.
BC: How about the future of the show. You joined a program that’s been strong for a decade. Can you see this continuing for another 10 years?
GG: 10? How about 30! It’s an interesting question. I’ve never thought about that until just now. I’ve never been asked that before. What would be the future? Boomer, he’s just there. He’s the man, especially now since Mike left. I can’t even imagine him not being around. He’d be the natural guy though that you would think about because he’s the oldest and has so many other things going on that you may wonder how long is he going to want to do this?
BC: And your producer, Al Dukes, is someone that’s very entertaining and creative. He’s done it for a long time. Maybe he envisions doing something different at some point.
GG: True, and he would be one of those guys that if he got something where he was featured in a way that he didn’t have to produce anymore, I would feel great for him. I know he deserves something like that, but I would almost have to say this is too new for me to answer that because this is what the show is and was and I’m still working my way into it. I can’t even wrap my mind around more changes. I can’t do it. I mean Boomer’s 56, so maybe we’ll be doing the show where I’m 65 and he’s 86! That’s what we’re shooting for. 30 years from now that’s what I’m looking for.