Paul Finebaum is a force in college football and the national media. His daily show airs via ESPN Radio, SiriusXM 81 and the SEC Network from 3-7pm Eastern. In part three of a three-part Q&A, Paul describes his infamous callers, being a newspaper reporter, his dream jobs, and his future.
Matt: You have really made some callers stars or supporting actors and actresses on your show. How did that develop and how do you orchestrate their appearances?
Paul: We went from a time that the show was so poorly rated, that we had to call the callers instead of them calling us. Someone, maybe Pat Smith (Former Finebaum Network Director and current APD of Jox 94.5 in Birmingham) had the idea to have a Christmas lunch with some of our better known callers. By getting to know them, I think we let them know that they were very important to the show. It started mushrooming from there. The lunch became an annual event and occasionally we would have callers come down to the studio. That just morphed into the callers becoming the show.
I think we realized being in Birmingham that we really couldn’t compete with Chicago, Philly, and New York for the a-list guests but we could dominate maybe by having the most unique callers. All of a sudden I would go around town and people would say what about so and so. Then when we went national with SiriusXM, I could be anywhere in the country and somebody would say “I’m Tammy” or “I’m Phyllis!” and it just caught on.
When we went to ESPN, I thought it was going to come to an end. There was a feeling there that the callers weren’t necessary. I think it was about 2-3 months into the ESPN show Alabama lost the Ohio State game when they lost to Urban Meyer. The next day everyone declared Urban Meyer the best coach in college football. Nick Saban was done. Cowherd just did this epic takedown of Saban.
Later that day we went to (caller) Phyllis from Mulga and she just went in on Colin Cowherd, called him “Cowturd!” One of our guys sent the clip up to Bristol and about five or six o’clock I saw it on SportsCenter and I think for 24 hours they ran the Phyllis clip. At that point it was no longer, “Hey you be a good host and get great interviews. Let’s hear the stupid callers!”
I realized “why are we trying to re-invent the wheel.” It doesn’t matter where I am—whether it’s with someone I’ve never met or a famous person—they know about the callers. It also helped having a guy like Harvey Updyke call.
(Writers note: Harvey Updyke was a big Alabama fan who literally poisoned the famous trees at Auburn’s Toomers Corner. Instead of keeping it to himself, he called the Finebaum Show as “Al from Dadeville” to brag about poisoning the trees. Full story here: https://bit.ly/2Mziuol )
If Harvey Updyke had called our show in Birmingham it wouldn’t have been a big deal. I think I’ve run into 20,000 people who claim to have heard that show. It was on SiriusXM and I say this—that call because we were on a national platform made it more important. The national platform back in 2010 also enabled callers. Suddenly, Shane, Phyllis, or Tammy or Jim started thinking “I better up my game we’re on national radio.” That was the line of demarcation; where callers said “I can’t just call up and be a normal caller, I’ve got to put on a show!”
That moved to television with the show. I had a guy call in the other day when we were only on radio, not on television. I asked him if that was a big deal to him and he said “Yes! The second I get off the call with you, I run back into the other room and rewind the DVR so I can listen to my call again!” I had never thought of that.
Matt: You started your career as a newspaper man, at what point did you realize that radio was really your future and not newspapers?
Paul: Early on I could see the signs of the newspaper business. I’m not sure there’s anything I’ve ever loved more than being a newspaper reporter. To me I thought that was the ultimate in life! If my dreams had come true in my 20s I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I wouldn’t have a job!
What newspapers did was help me prepare for radio. I never looked at radio as work. To me it was something kind of fun to do. I still don’t think of myself as a television person. That is really a foreign animal. I feel like I’m still somewhat awkward on television but maybe that’s just who I am.
Matt: I think you come across as very genuine on TV and that you are being yourself.
Paul: I think it comes from age, too. I was always tilting at windmills early on. I’m not alone in this. I was at an ESPN Meeting a couple of years ago and a guy said, “When you give that opinion on the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game you gotta really sell it!” It’s hard for me to believe that someone really cares what I think about that game.
When you’re talking about an important subject—I get it. Listen, I admire Stephen A. Smith. We have become very good friends. I had dinner with him last year and I think he’s calmer on television than he is at dinner. I’m not like that. I learn from others more than myself sometimes. Now he’s entertaining. I could listen to Stephen A. Smith read the Manhattan phone book. He would make it interesting. The people that bug me are the people who aren’t remotely interesting but pontificate and think that everyone really cares what they think.
As opposed to being the guy behind the camera talking to the person at home, I picture myself more as the person driving the car or watching on television and how do they feel about an issue and they don’t want to get talked down to. I watch a lot of politics—that’s one of my hobbies. The second that Wolf Blitzer says “we have a Republican and Democratic congressman to talk about the new health care bill” and they start just lying and making stuff up–I quit listening. I don’t want to hear that conversation. I want honesty vs. party-line. It sounds self-serving but I really do care what the person is consuming and when we waste their time with the company line, it offends me!
Matt: Now that you’ve signed your new deal with ESPN(three years) what that you haven’t done yet at ESPN would you like to do over the next three years?
Paul: Hmm…sounds like the conversation over the past two years (laugh). I want to keep doing different things. This year for football season I’ll go to Bristol for Sunday Mornings and I’ll be in New York for Wednesday morning “Get Up!” and “First Take.” For me that’s a new element. It’s a different feel to actually be there. I did 25-minutes of “First Take” this morning from a bureau where I couldn’t see anything. It’s like driving at night with your headlights off.
I’d like to continue to expand interviewing people from different walks of life or sports. I love to interview. (Former SEC Commissioner) Mike Slive heard me with one of my callers—Phyllis or Tammy—and he called me and he said “Do you have to do that? Can’t you just do a show more like NPR?” I said, “Yeah I’d love to do that, Mike, but I’d like to also make a living!”
If you asked me the perfect job, it would be doing probably what Larry King was doing on radio 25-30 years ago. Bring in a guest, take some calls. I love to interview people. I used to be somewhat cynical about Larry King. It almost felt like he barely knew what the guest’s name was let alone what they had done. Whether it was Paul McCartney or Paul Ryan. But I was on his show one night 12 years ago and I found out how good he was. He is so inquisitive. He wanted to know everything.
That’s what I like to do. I really love to talk to people. I will try to keep expanding that. I talked to (Apple CEO) Tim Cook, John Grisham, and Billy Payne (Augusta National). I love doing that but it’s also difficult to do that with everything else. If there is another job I’d really love, other than the one I’m doing, is as a correspondent for 60 Minutes. I’m sure those jobs are easy to come by (laugh).