Adam Gold didn’t invent sports talk in Raleigh, North Carolina, but you could be forgiven for thinking he is the format’s patron saint in town. He has been on hosting sports talk shows in the area for nearly as long as there have been sports talk shows in the area.
You can hear Adam & his partner Joe Ovies each afternoon on 99.9 the Fan. They host one of the most irreverent and welcoming local sports talk shows you will ever hear. Want to know why Coach K can’t get consistent play from a roster full of five star talent? They’ll tell you, but first they’re going to spend ten minutes talking about tacos.
I worked with Adam briefly and spent the first few weeks in the building intimidated by him. He isn’t physically imposing at all. He is supremely confident and always up for a friendly debate.
Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill (or “The Triangle” to those of us that live here) is bitterly divided in its college basketball loyalties, but somehow only in those particular loyalties. Adam explained to me how a sports culture like that has allowed him to create consistently fun content. We also talked about pants and internet videos.
DEMETRI: How did you get to Raleigh?
ADAM: Well, my wife at the time – my practice wife as I call her – had been hired to run the training department at Central Carolina Bank, which was in Durham. We were living in Baltimore, and we decided if I could find a job making $18,000 it was worth it. Between the cheaper cost of living and her salary, all I really had to do was make minimum wage, which I could do delivering pizza if I had to.
I was a producer in Baltimore on the morning show, and there was really nowhere for me to go unless I got a chance to host. So we are in North Carolina, and I am looking through the classified ads at the radio jobs section and I see an opening at WRBZ, which at the time was 850 the Buzz, so I called the PD, a guy named Craig Schwalb.
At the time the station was news, talk and sports. He liked my tape and said that they may have something coming up that I’d be right for. About a week later I got a call saying that they were thinking about going all sports, and I thought “gee, wouldn’t that be perfect?”. They brought me on as a part time employee to do updates. Three an hour for like five hours a day. Then that turned into co-hosting my own show and then my co-host quit on the air. I’m sure you’ve heard that story.
ADAM: Pat Mellon was his name. He was the afternoon host before it was all sports and they kept him on as the Buzz started to tilt towards sports. He was a sports fan, but not a sports host.
They paired us together in March, and then like six weeks into it, at the end of the show on a Tuesday in May, he just says “Well, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this, but this is my last day. I’m quitting after the show.”
I really thought he was joking. We had a tendency to be a little silly at the end of the show and find something light to go out on. I told him “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” We close the show and as we’re walking out he says “By the way, I wasn’t kidding.”
It was too bad too, because through the first weeks everyone was happy. The word was good on the street. It was good with advertisers. People liked the vibe. I thought we were happy, but he wasn’t happy. It had always been his show. He quit. That was that.
Management told me they were going to do a search. That went on for two ratings books. The ratings went up in each book. So the general manager, who is still my general manager today, Brian Maloney said “The ratings are good. It’s your show. Go get ‘em.”
I know I’m very lucky. I always tell people half the battle in radio is right place and right time. The other half is what you do with it, so I am not overlooking the second half, but you couldn’t have gotten luckier. New town. No prospects. No contacts. And then all the sudden I have my first on air job hosting my own show.
DEMETRI: So, being here as long as you have, how have you watched the Triangle change as a sports market? How have you seen the appetite for sports radio grow?
ADAM: Raleigh was behind the times for sports radio, but I guess kind of everywhere was, because for so long there was just WFAN. Then things slowly started to trickle out mainly in pro towns.
We still argued sports here, but what we had on air was more folksy, positive, “everyone is a fan” deals. I was never afraid to give an opinion. I would never call myself a shock jock, but the market just wasn’t used to hearing someone say “You’re wrong! This is not good.”
This is not to poke fun at a guy like Tony Rigsby, who was in the market for a long time. He just did a different type of show and what I was doing fit with the time. It was the late 90’s. Sports radio was starting to mirror talk radio where it wasn’t positive all the time.
DEMETRI: It was starting to sound like an actual conversation. Things were more genuine.
ADAM: Let’s use the current language. It was becoming more real. So, what I was doing resonated because I was just giving my opinion and trying to have some fun. Even when we were ripping on stuff, we always tried to find the fun angle.
We would pick games with dominant mascot theory, which mascot would win in a fight. It was silly. It was fun. We did it for a year and it ran its course and we moved on to something else, but even something like that is genuine, because you’re poking fun at the people that claim to be experts.
DEMETRI: That is an interesting bit of history, especially when you combine it with just how divided this market is with Duke, Carolina and NC State. People can be so tribal, so I wonder, did you ever question yourself or your style or did you always think “the market needs to catch up to me”?
ADAM: Well, people will tell you that I have never thought I was wrong.
DEMETRI: (LAUGHING) Right, Joe (Ovies, Adam’s co-host) just wanted to make sure I got that on the record.
ADAM: (LAUGHING) It should be on the record.
Seriously though, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t wrong. I just thought it was important that the first goal be to make people laugh, because we aren’t talking about splitting the atom. We aren’t talking about nuclear codes. What we are talking about is purely entertainment. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but this is purely entertainment, so let’s make people laugh.
I wanted to challenge people’s conventional thinking. I thought that was important on certain elements, and I’ll get into specifics in a moment. But I never faked an opinion to be a contrarian. If I had that opinion, I had it and was willing to stand by it. That way I never had to think back about “well, what did I say about this topic last time?”.
Now, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t change my opinion if presented with new facts. When it came to issues though, I think people respected that I could give an opinion and that I had done the work and research to back it up.
I’ll give you an example. After Latrell Sprewell choked PJ Carlissimo, Spree did a commercial for Converse maybe. I don’t remember the brand, but in the ad he says he was the American dream. And I saw that and thought, “He’s right,” and I knew that was going to make people upset, but we’re living in America. We love second chances and reclamation projects, and the whole point of the ad is “I screwed up.” In that way, Latrell Sprewell was absolutely living the American dream.
I pointed that out on air, and of course you know how that went. So, that was a very explosive type of show. I wanted to make people face why they were so anti-Latrell Sprewell getting a second chance when maybe they would have been a little more sympathetic to another athlete that looked a little more like them.
When Earnhardt died, and people get uncomfortable when I talk NASCAR, because I’m not a fan, I asked openly why not retire the number 3? Now, I’m not crass, I didn’t do this the next day, but people started talking about who would be the next to drive the 3, because it wasn’t Earnhardt’s number. Richard Childress owns the car, so it’s his number. But look, certain numbers don’t belong on the track anymore. NASCAR purists, and there are a lot in North Carolina, couldn’t tell me why the sport doesn’t retire numbers beyond “We’ll run out of numbers.” Give me a break!
DEMETRI: You’ve been here long enough to see the market change from only caring about NASCAR or the ACC to becoming this major transplant destination. We have people that moved here from all over the country. Does that change what is “in bounds” for daily topics?
ADAM: It’s an interesting market. When we talk college basketball, it is a local market. It’s a very small market type of conversation we have.
DEMETRI: How about with hockey?
ADAM: We don’t talk a lot of hockey. If the Canes are a playoff team, we’ll talk about it then. When they are really bad, Alec (Campbell, Adam’s producer and The Fan’s pre-and-postgame host for Carolina Hurricanes broadcasts) and I will do a little crosstalk, but that is it. Day of a game we’ll have the TV play-by-play guy John Forslund on to preview the game, but we don’t set up to talk a lot of hockey.
But with college basketball, that is a local conversation. I never have to talk about any other team in the country or even the conference. It’s Duke, Carolina and NC State. I assume East Carolina has a basketball team. We don’t really care.
Frankly, as a listener, it bugs me when hosts talk about this stuff and waste my time. I really don’t care what (Miami basketball coach) Jim Laranega has to say about his team. He is a perfectly nice gentleman, but I really don’t care. We have other shows on this station that give us that and it is a complete waste of time. It’s not Duke, Carolina or State, so it is a waste of time.
Now, this market is so transient, that we can talk about anything else. If we talk about the NFL, sure it has a Panthers or Washington slant, but for the most part Joe and I are just talking NFL football. We can talk about coaches, quarterbacks, or any of the big personalities. Same with college football. We’ll always start with State, Carolina and Duke, but college football is a national sport, so we will talk about Nick Saban or other national topics.
We’re local mainly just when we talk college basketball, but there are so many people here that didn’t grow up here. We’re a national show when we talk about literally everything else, which is good. I think if we only talked local sports, we would bore each other.
I look at other local hosts, or even Paul Finebaum. I see on Twitter that he is going to talk about Ole Miss recruiting in the middle of March and I think “I would poke my eyes out if that was my show.” I just can’t do that. We mock recruiting here. That’s the only way we talk about it.
DEMETRI: This ties in nicely to something that has become a signature of the show, because a few years ago you and Joe made the decision not to take listener calls on an average day. It has worked out well for you guys and really fits the show. It has worked on the national level for a while, but it’s not a decision a lot of local shows would make. How did you guys come to that decision to break with what sports radio “should be”?
ADAM: Well, there was never a conversation where we decided “Hey, let’s stop taking calls.” We were just having our own conversations, and they were good conversations. We didn’t give the phone number out and we were entertaining ourselves.
Joe and I have been really fortunate to have some really talented and creative producers. And to me it’s even insulting to say Shannon Penn was our producer. Alec Campbell is not just our producer. These guys are just another part of the show. They just happen to have different responsibilities than we do.
So we just started getting creative and we were mixing it up with more benchmark elements. We found things that were entertaining and irreverent. Then we would get back into these conversations with ourselves. We just didn’t need the phone calls. They were honestly the worst part of the show.
If you’re a talented host, I want to hear your opinion and I want you to have as much fun with it as you can. This is going to sound crass, and I don’t mean to sound dismissive of callers, but as a host you use callers. You use callers to create more callers. If 1% of your audience is going to call in, then why would you cater to them?
The majority of listeners are annoyed by callers. Why would you try to annoy your listeners?
I don’t want to sit here and laud the ratings, because I know how volatile they can be and I know how they work. The ratings though have gone up and the show has been better and more successful as we have eliminated callers. And again, it’s not something we set out to do. It just kind of happened.
DEMETRI: So what would get you to take calls? Because it does happen occasionally.
ADAM: Well, we do a segment at the end of each show called Ask Away where we open the phones and the listeners are allowed to ask us anything and we will answer, as long as it isn’t an HR violation or something we can claim attorney/client privilege on. People that get the show know we don’t want to talk sports at the end of the show. We have been talking sports for 4 hours at that point. I mean, unless we’re off on a tangent about pants or something. And that happens a lot.
DEMETRI: Yeah, I think when I filled in for you Joe, Alec and I talked about workout routines for a good 15 minutes.
ADAM: Oh, that will happen a lot. It’s a big part of the show. When Roy Williams wore that multi-colored, striped sweater at his press conference a few weeks ago we talked about the sweater for…I mean for a long time. That’s kinda where we’re at our best.
DEMETRI: So, you are in a market with three sports stations. All three are owned by the same company and the programming on each one is meant to serve the others. So what do you look at as your day to day competition?
ADAM: Our competition is anything that occupies men 25 to 54. In terms of radio that’s country radio, urban radio and NPR. That is our competition in the time slot. But I don’t really think about competition. Man, that sounds really arrogant.
DEMETRI: No, I think that is the right answer, but everyone has an idea of who they expect to see occupying the first and third slots or the second and third slots when the ratings come out.
ADAM: Yeah, it’s a usual cast of characters, right? Lately we’ve been number one in our time slot. Sometimes number two, but it is great. I think that is because we are always changing what we do. It’s rare that things stay the same for a given year.
Frankly, we’re trying to entertain each other. The best compliment you can pay the show is “I’m not a real big sports fan, but I love the way you guys talk about sports.”
We’re always going to talk about issues before we talk about games. I am not going to preview a damn thing. We make jokes about breaking stuff down. Thursdays during the football season we’ll predict the stupidest storylines for the next day. That’s why women and guys who aren’t even sports fans like the show.
I love that. My wife is a hairdresser. I would estimate 30% of her female clients listen to the show. I love that if you take a broad cross-section of our listeners, a big chunk of it would be made up of people that aren’t hardcore sports fans. Those are the people we are probably pulling away from NPR or country radio.
DEMETRI: The company that owns 99.9 the Fan is Capitol Broadcasting, which not only owns the market’s NBC and Fox affiliates, but they also were very quick to adopt the idea of making content exclusively for their digital platforms. How do you think that has grown the show and changed who you’re exposed to?
ADAM: Digital has made some of what I do easier. I cover the Hurricanes for the station. Writing a story after each game would kill me, so instead I’ll prop my phone up and do a four minute video with my thoughts about what the outcome means. It sits right on top of the game story. That makes my life easier.
There have been more podcast opportunities for me. They aren’t lucrative, but that’s not why I do it. I have a weekly Canes podcast. I do a golf podcast every couple of weeks. There was a time when I did a college baseball podcast with John Manuel from Baseball America. I didn’t do it because I was a huge college baseball fan. I did it because I like hanging out with John.
It’s good. We do goofier videos. You gotta be multimedia now and make yourself valuable, otherwise they’ll find someone that can be more valuable.
DEMETRI: If I gave you a magic wand to wave over all of sports radio, what kind of thinking would you want to change in the format?
ADAM: Sports radio and talk radio mirror each other really well. That’s good and bad. Talk radio is, in general, pretty angry. It’s getting angrier too. I sense that happening with sports radio now. People are getting angrier. I hope the way Joe and I do it heads that off.
I will say this. There’s still way too much subtle racism in sports talk. I want that to go away. I don’t want to hear you say Jameis Winston is a running quarterback when he’s not. But he’s black, so he must be a runner, right?
Subtle racism and sexism. I’d love for people to not patronize someone like Lauren Brownlow (99.9 the Fan’s ACC reporter and regular contributor to Adam’s show) when she’s talking about college basketball because she absolutely knows what she is talking about more than I do. I look forward to the day when we don’t have to overcome those barriers, but I think that probably comes along with people being more angry. They don’t want their territory infringed upon. I’m all about new points of view and different points of view and I am intolerant of your intolerance.
DEMETRI: Is that what is going to go at the bottom of the campaign poster?
ADAM: It’s very meta, isn’t it?