Paul Finebaum is a force in college football and the national media. His daily show airs via ESPN Radio and the SEC Network from 3-7pm Eastern. He recently signed a three-year contract extension to remain with ESPN. This is part one of my three-part Q&A with him.
Matt: With everything that’s going on with Urban Meyer at Ohio State right now, I wanted to get your take on where he went wrong and what’s going to happen.
Paul: It’s fascinating to watch these stories unfold. For some context, I was in a room at the Sheraton in Hartford at ESPN’s college football seminar when the story broke. At the time I was listening to a conversation about rules and I kept showing the story to people around me and they didn’t really react. I went outside and ran into a former Ohio State player and said “What do you think?” and he said, “Well don’t forget Urban Meyer won a national championship three years ago.”
I thought “is that gonna matter in today’s world?” By the end of the hour the dynamic had changed. We all did our typical rush to judgement but I think in the world that we live in, that’s what we do. We’re influenced by the first couple of opinions we see. As a person who was brought up in journalism, I always want to be careful not to jump to a conclusion. I left there (Connecticut) to come to LA and after flight delays and ten hours of flying I found myself live at 130am Eastern Time doing SportsCenter from LA being asked the question I had been avoiding all day.
I was glad that I had 12 hours to think about it. Unfortunately nowadays we don’t have 12 hours to think about it. We just immediately give the first opinion that comes to our mind. If you’re on a radio show, television or on Twitter that opinion is going to influence people. It’s a dynamic that I think creates a lot of issues—very negative issues—but it’s the reality that we live in. You can be king of the hill at 10am and a disgraced bum by dinner time.
Matt: Isn’t it the case that people are encouraged to have “hot takes” on the story of the day and it becomes a firestorm that feeds itself and is the Urban Meyer firestorm lessoned by the fact that Brett McMurphy reported it?
Paul: I found that (McMurphy reporting it on his Facebook page) to be the most interesting part of the story. A lot of people waited on the story because he did not have to go through a normal vetting channel (if he had worked for a news organization). Urban Meyer calls this guy (McMurphy) out last week and he has time and ability. He researches, reports and writes the story because he really had nothing to lose.
That’s one of the problems in our industry today is that we all have so much to lose that we are more careful than we have ever been on the one hand and more reckless than we have ever been on another. It is an utterly bizarre time to be alive in the media industry.
I have a lawyer friend of mine who likes to critique my ESPN appearances. He says, “You really need to be more careful. You need to say there’s two sides of the story.” I’m thinking when you’re on with Stephen A. Smith do you really have time to say “Hold on a second Stephen A., there’s two sides to the story”?
One of the criticisms I get from my own staff is “We want more hot takes!” Well, I’ve done the “hot takes”. I’m more trying to just moderate the conversation now than just come out of the shoot trying to see how outrageous my take can be and you’ll react to it. That’s the world we live in. I feel like I sit in a pretty good seat having done it all—and not very well at times—I can very easily see through almost anyone when they’re just saying something to say it because I’ve already done it before. I’ve already made outrageous statements. I admit it; I’m a recovering “Hot Taker”!
Matt: Something you mentioned there cuts to the core of how you do radio which is extremely unique. You called yourself a “moderator.” How would you describe how your style developed?
Paul: I think I learned more about myself reading a story about myself. It was a pretty famous story in The New Yorker magazine. They were quoting a guy in there and I think it was Chris Vernon. Chris Vernon is just an amazingly talented guy. I could listen to him every day, all day.
He said “I hear about this Finebaum guy and I get to Birmingham a couple of times a year and I put the show on and I’m wondering what’s the deal? The guy’s not saying anything. He sounds like a drowsy Rush Limbaugh. I’m waiting and waiting and finally a caller says ‘What do you think about what Bill Curry said about Nick Saban?’ then Finebaum says ‘Who cares about what Bill Curry thinks? He’s just a lowlife scumbag!’ Then Finebaum threw to break. I finally got it. I can’t believe it. This guy just called Bill Curry, who everyone in the world loves and respects, a pathetic, lowlife scumbag. Then he goes to a break. I finally got it!”
I’m not sure I got it until I read that. It’s about subtlety. I feel like I’ve got an arsenal of knives on me at all times but I choose not to use them–especially if someone is looking. I’ve done the “hot take” routine. I used to come on and bloviate, script it out. I found that I really wasn’t very good at it.
I mentioned Colin Cowherd before who I think is the best I’ve ever heard at just tackling a subject and doing it in an intellectual way, where there’s a sound argument. I’m a little too lawyerly. It’s not interesting radio—I’ve been to the Supreme Court—it’s not very good radio.
What I’m best at, if I’m good at anything, is being a symphony conductor. Start out the music and then find a way to change it. Then know where to go whether it’s the strings, percussion or horns.
I listen to callers, I listen to interviewees intensely and intently and I’m always just looking for that moment. I take great pride in knowing where to go. If I go to the wrong call or the wrong question to a guest, that drives me crazy. That’s what I obsess over. It’s not something you can prepare eight hours a day for.
Join us Tuesday August 7th for Part Two as Paul Finebaum talks about his show’s transition to ESPN