“You have to laugh in order not to cry in this situation.” These are some of the words from sports radio host Darren Smith that appear in the interview below. He’s describing his current situation at The Mighty 1090 in San Diego. Nearly two weeks ago on April 10, the station was taken off the air due to lease payments to the transmitting company not being satisfied.
Smith is originally from New Rochelle, New York. He moved from the East Coast to join 1090 back in April of 2003, and has been on the air with the company since March of 2004. The station getting pulled is a major shake-up, or more directly a “crisis” as Smith puts it. In the interview below, Smith does an excellent job of being candid while maintaining his professionalism. He has a positive outlook and talks about the silver lining in this crazy situation, but speaks openly without hiding his frustration.
“It’s radio.” Many people that work in the industry use this phrase to describe the unpredictable nature of the radio business. It basically means to expect the unexpected. What is currently happening to Smith at 1090 is very rare — even for radio standards. It’s easy to root for him to get back on the air. While you’re at it, you might want to root for Smith to achieve his one remaining career goal in radio as well.
Brian Noe: How are you holding up ever since the changes happened at 1090?
Darren Smith: It hasn’t been easy. This business is always a strange one and you think you’re prepared for all the twists and turns that it has to offer. But when you’re used to being on the radio for 15 years and then you’re suddenly off the radio and you didn’t plan that, it is without a doubt a huge shock to the system. So trying to get by using streaming platforms, social media, a lot of love from the listeners, and a lot of optimism. But it’s definitely been different. That’s for sure.
Noe: Is that a bit of a silver lining — there’s been a lot of support in light of the changes — has that help you cope and get your mind around the situation?
DS: Definitely been helpful. It’s been overwhelming to be honest because you hear from so many people. They remind you how big of a part you are of their lives. You know that people listen — we’re always gauging ratings and downloads and things of that nature, but when you hear somebody say — somebody you’ve never met say — “Wow, I miss you,” and you’ve never met that person, yeah it’s a reminder of just how special the connection is in radio.
Noe: What has the experience been like broadcasting on different platforms other than terrestrial radio?
DS: It’s been about the same. I think it’s different in that I’m trying to maintain the same level of energy and the same level of professionalism. You owe that to the people who are going out of their way to find you and listen to you on an app or listen to you on a stream. You owe that to them, not to just get in there and read out of the phone book. It’s been great to connect with those people. It’s really been great, and very flattering, when so many of them are experiencing us in a different way. They’re telling us, “Hey man, we’re out of our data plan because we’re streaming your show so much.” It just is much better when you’re actually on the radio.
Noe: Has your performance slipped in any way due to not feeling the same juice when you’re on the air?
DS: It’s radio so I don’t want to make it seem like it’s hard, physical labor, but mentally you know that there aren’t as many people listening to your show. You just know that. So it is a strict discipline to try to carry about your business the same way. I would tell you that the week that we’ve been streaming only, I have not been as tight with my clock. I’ve not reset interviews as much. I know I’ve done that.
I think it’s probably a bad habit to fall into because when you’re back on radio, you need to get back to the discipline, the blocking and tackling of doing radio. I’ve noticed that. You sort of allow yourself to say, “Well what difference does it make if I’m a couple of minutes late getting to this break?” You know? “It doesn’t matter. We’re not on the radio. This is just people who are streaming us.” Everything about it is different. I also feel like it’s probably a pretty crummy habit to get into.
Noe: What’s your mindset right now? Is the plan to keep doing it this way for the foreseeable future?
DS: The broadcasters can only control what they can control. I’m not part of any negotiation between our tower owner and our management company. All I can control is the broadcast. It’s up to me to continue to behave professionally and make the most out of this situation — make the most out of the audience that’s tuning in on the streaming services.
We’ve approached guests and been honest with them. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had great relationships with a lot of our guests over the years. We’ve had the manager of the Padres on. We’ve had the manager of the Rockies on while we’ve been streaming only. I’m sure that those PR staffs were reluctant to make them available because it is a diminished audience — for as happy as we are with the streaming numbers. It’s supposed to be business as usual. You still have an obligation to an audience even if the audience isn’t listening on an AM transmitter and it’s a bit smaller than what it would be under normal circumstances.
Noe: Has it been difficult to avoid the temptation of voicing your displeasure publicly or having bellyache sessions with co-workers?
DS: Yeah, well bellyaching off the air, that’s just radio. (laughs) That’s when things are good. That’s when things are bad. That’s just the business. I’ve never known the business to be any other way than at times dark humor, at times deprecation and all that, self-loathing if you will.
On the air, I think we’ve been honest, but we’ve tried to inject a little bit of humor. When the manager of the Padres came on we were like, “Hey, welcome to internet radio. It doesn’t mean you can bring your B-game. You’ve got to bring you’re A-game.”
Given the overall uncertainty during the period of time, we’ve not said anything about “tomorrow.” There is no tomorrow for us as far as we know. We’re just going day-to-day. Our approach to doing radio has always been to inject a little bit of humor into it. Whether that’s watching the Alliance of American Football go under a couple of weeks ago here in San Diego, or whether that’s our own current situation, just trying to be as consistent with that as possible. You have to laugh in order not to cry in this situation and other situations like it.
Noe: Is there any talk, or any possibility of things working out with 1090 being back on the air?
DS: I think so. I hope so. Our fingers are crossed that there’s going to be a resolution with 1090. There’s nothing that I would feel comfortable sharing publicly, but you certainly do hope so. There are a lot of people who have invested time into this radio station that’s going on 16 years. Whether it’s the people who currently work at The Mighty 1090 or people who have passed through The Mighty 1090 in yesteryear. A lot of people want to see this succeed because of what the radio station has meant.
The radio business is different than it was in 2003 when this sucker got going, but people across the board here, nobody — I don’t even think our competition wants to see us go under to be honest, because of what we’ve represented in the market and in Southern California. That’s been reassuring when you hear from competitors — people who stand to gain from your station’s failure — when they’re telling you that they’re rooting for you, maybe they’re being disingenuous, but I don’t think so.
Noe: If someone were to come up to you and ask why you’re doing non-terrestrial radio — what’s the point — how would you answer them?
DS: Well, personally I would tell you that I’m under contract, so I’m going to do what I’m told. (laughs) That’s number one. But number two, there’s no doubt in my mind that streaming is the present and certainly the future. I don’t know what the future is of AM radio, but I feel certain about the future of streaming. I don’t think that’s just on the television medium. I think that we’ve seen the success of Netflix. I saw that over 17 million people streamed Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1. There’s no doubt that streaming is a part of our future.
We want to be a digital company. We don’t want to just be a radio station. Being a digital company is what everything’s going to have to become at some point. We weren’t prepared for it to happen when we got taken off the air. I’m firmly of the belief that digital companies might not include radio antennas. The connected car is a real thing. There are cars being made that don’t even have AM radios in them. That’s something we have to think about certainly as we get closer into the future. This is a good test run for us, but I don’t want to pretend like this is part of our plan because it wasn’t.
Noe: Do you view any of this as a blessing in disguise with the attention that it’s garnered?
DS: I do. I think it’s been a blessing in disguise in that we’re reminded of what we represent. We’re reminded of our status in this market. I think that this time away from being on the radio will rejuvenate all of us who are on the air. I don’t think we’ll take it for granted. I don’t think that when we get back, if we get back, I think that all of us will make sure we’re doing everything in our power to make sure something like this never happens again. We weren’t taken off because of ratings. The winter book tells the story of where we’re at ratings-wise. The phrase is a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. This is a crisis. If this makes us a better company on the other side of it, then absolutely something good came from this.
Noe: As a radio guy, if your ratings stink and you get fired, at least you can make sense of it. Your situation is something totally different. Is that the toughest part of the whole thing?
DS: The toughest part of that is, you’re right, even though the ratings system is totally imperfect and I find it to be flawed and I also think that it is not favorable to sports talk radio — that’s neither here nor there — I think the toughest part is that our ratings were good and we had momentum. We were reminded when the Padres signed Manny Machado, even in a three sports station market like San Diego, when there was news, when something important happens, good and bad — and the signing of Machado was across the board a good thing — everybody came to our station.
We were reminded that we were at the top of the totem pole in this market. We were flying high. Our morning show was doing well. My show was doing well. Afternoon drive was doing well. That’s a huge part of the frustration. What makes it exponentially more frustrating is that we had killer momentum. I think we’ll get it back. Hopefully we’ll be on the air sooner rather than later. But it stops you in your tracks. The tens of thousands of people can download this app and it’s not the same as being on the radio and cruising around in your car in Southern California.
Noe: I like your Twitter bio. It says the goal is high IQ radio with a splash of absurdity. How do you describe your own brand of absurdity?
DS: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t worry that you might get something wrong every once in a while. Don’t be afraid to say three simple words; I don’t know. I don’t know. Absurdity is reminding everybody that this is the toy department. This is not news.
We’re not analyzing the Mueller Report. We’re talking about sports. We’re talking about what people do to get away from the realities of their difficult lives. To get away from the stresses of work, of home, of finances, taxes, politics, whatever. That’s what we’re doing here.
I’m sure some people want their sports to be taken very, very seriously, but that’s not what we want to do. There’s a time to be serious when you’re dealing with serious subject matter. But a Tuesday night game, to fly off the handle because somebody struck out three times isn’t us. We’re there to make sure everybody’s laughing and to simply get you from 12 o’clock until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Noe: Do you roll your eyes as a listener when shows get way too serious?
DS: I don’t. I just don’t listen. I think everybody has their own personal preferences, what they want out of sports radio. I’m okay with that. I laugh.
Stephen A. Smith is my lead-in every day. When I hear him at 10 o’clock in the morning, fly off the handle about the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, then Tuesday he flies off the handle about what’s happening with Kevin Durant, then Wednesday he’s so angry you just sort of laugh at that and you understand that he’s a performer. I don’t think he really takes it all that seriously.
I’m of the opinion that sports radio is sort of like a baseball lineup. Not everybody should be a left-handed power hitter. Everybody should be a little bit different. You should have an average guy. You should have a power guy. You should have a doubles hitter. You should have a base stealer. I think that good radio stations, the programming should be differing. It all compliments one another in a perfect setting.
Noe: Take it a step further — if sports radio is like a baseball lineup, what’s it missing? What does sports radio generally not have enough of?
DS: Honesty. I think that’s missing in a lot of places. I think too often people are more concerned with giving an audience what it is that they want to hear than just giving an honest opinion. I’ve always said I’ll never listen to a radio show where I feel like the host isn’t being sincere.
You might not like my opinion. You might think that I hate your favorite team, or I’m too much of a homer. We all get called that. All I can say is that this is my honest opinion. You can take it. You can leave it. But you’re never going to have to worry about me being compromised. This is the honest opinion here.
I don’t begrudge Stephen A., or Cowherd, or anybody else who puts on a great performance every day — they make a ton of money — but I believe that if your radio host isn’t being honest with you, I don’t know why you would listen to that person.
Noe: Has it been challenging for you to remain honest with the audience while painting your employer in a good light?
DS: Absolutely. I might not always tell my audience the truth, but I’m never going to lie — if that makes sense. Clearly there are things that I cannot say during this time on social media or on streaming. Even in certain public settings there are things I cannot say about what’s happening.
There are certain things that you’re told off the record when it tracks back to sports that you can’t say. I can’t always tell the audience who’s told me something or where I may have heard something. That’s part of the agreement that you make with the people who you cover. They can fill you in and they can tell you certain things, not scoops, but they can just make you more knowledgeable, which in turn will help make your audience more knowledgeable. Whether it’s our situation or covering any of these teams, as I said I won’t lie, but I just might not always be able to tell the truth.
Noe: Can you take me through that day, Darren, when you found out right before your show that your station would be taken off the air? What did you do after the meeting? Take me through that whole day.
DS: Sure, so it was a Wednesday and Stephen A. Smith’s show was on. It was about 11:34am — not that I remember looking at the clock — and our station president walked into the studio and said, “I need to see everybody in the common area right now. We just got pulled off the air.” Myself, my producer, my associate producer and update guy — the three of us walked out. Some of the sales people who were there, they had already gathered. Imaging people, station employees, about 15 of us. Our station president, Mike Glickenhaus, says, “We’ve been pulled off the air. I’m sorry.”
Obviously this was an incredibly shocking moment, which you could see on his face and everybody else’s face. He started talking to us about the situation the station was in and gave us some background as to why this would have happened. From there everybody was free to go. I asked if we should stream. I was told no. Then a group of us on the programming side went back into the radio studio and started watching a baseball game and a soccer game.
As we sat there, my show — sense we were the one that was preempted — what we did was we decided to record something and post it through the website and allow people to hear in our words what was going on. We wanted them to hear not on a video, not on Facebook Live or anything like that. We put out about a 21-minute audio clip where the three of us just talked and told the audience what was happening.
We said that this situation was something that people had worried about, but it’s still shocking that we find ourselves in this situation and we don’t know what our future is. We wanted our audience to hear from us — hear being the key word — we wanted them to hear from us what it was that we knew. We put that out and it got like 12,000 downloads that day, which was pretty overwhelming. Then we went home.
A group of us went to a local brewery in San Diego. We weren’t sure — this could have been the last time that we were all together. We didn’t know that we would be called back in. Then a station-wide email came out about five o’clock in the afternoon and said we’re all working tomorrow. So we dispersed and went our separate ways and we’ve been in there business as usual since.
Noe: What a crazy day, man. Has there been a situation where you’re scrolling through Twitter and a co-worker posts something colorful where you say, “Ooo, Joe shouldn’t of posted that”?
DS: (laughs) No, not too bad. I haven’t seen anything along those lines — nothing in terms of proprietary information. You get trolled. We all get trolled, any of us on social media, especially those of us with any kind of public persona. People come out of the woodwork and they say, “Hey good, I’m glad you guys are off. You guys are terrible.” As if people are forced to listen to us, right? I’ve seen some of my colleagues clap back with some pretty harsh language, but that’s the closest thing that would even come to what would be described as anything inflammatory. But no, nobody’s crossed any lines. Some people have just pushed back a little bit on the trolls.
Noe: What gives you the most joy being a sports talk host and are you able to feel that joy with this current setup?
DS: The most joy has to be similar to a home run or a great golf shot; you just sort of know you got it. You just know that what you just did — whether it was an interview, or whether it’s a breakdown, it’s a bit — you just know that the segment crushed. You can feel it in your bones that you hit the sweet spot.
I don’t think we’ve been able to do that since we’ve been streaming just because we know that our audience it’s not what it was before we got taken off the air. I think that there’s been some good stuff done. I appreciated the banter and interaction with people who are listening to us on streams, but I don’t think we’re going to be made whole again until we actually get back on the radio.
Noe: If you could script out your next five years as a sports talk host what would it be like?
DS: I got to be honest, I don’t really think that way. I feel like I’m in the minority. I always hear people talking about what’s your one-year plan, what’s your three-year plan, what’s your five-year plan? I live so segment-to-segment, show-to-show that I always am envious of the people who have that kind of thought process. I just get so wrapped up in the moment.
I tend to think that the next five years are going to bring about even more change in terms of the digital capabilities. We’ll probably all have YouTube cameras in our offices. I don’t know that we’re going to be sitting around exclusively worrying about radio ratings as an industry. For me personally, I gave up on those kind of things when I moved to San Diego.
When I moved to San Diego I was really only interested in staying here for two years. I moved from New York to San Diego and I remember telling my mother before I left that I would be out of there in two years. Two years of experience and go climb the ladder and try to go to bigger markets and keep climbing and get back to WFAN in New York at some point.
Your goals change. You come out to the city and everything that you thought was important turns out to be not as important as trying to stay here — meeting a future wife here and buying your first home here. I would love to continue to be successful in this business. I have no idea where this industry is going to take me. I would love to be able to adapt with the industry as the industry modernizes with technology.
Ultimately my one career goal is to leave on my own terms. This isn’t a business that many people retire from. It’s a very cruel business especially as people start getting a little bit older. There is example after example after example of aging radio hosts who end up becoming the butt of a lot of mean jokes. I’m super aware of that and I’m super cautious to not be in that situation when this is over. I don’t want to hang around here just for the sake of hanging around. I want to at least come up with some plan so that I don’t end up being Willie Mays stumbling around in center field.