Tue. Feb 19th, 2019

Tips From Fox Sports Radio’s Don Martin & Scott Shapiro

“In order to come up with unique talking points, you have to generally be curious in the topics and read as much as you can get your hands on and seek viewpoints from as many people as you can in order to craft your own unique argument.”

Many people believe that FOX Sports Radio has the best lineup in sports talk today. Don Martin and Scott Shapiro are two of these people. Both men have played key roles in positioning FSR to have major success. The network reaches 11 million monthly listeners on more than 400 radio stations. That doesn’t happen with weak leadership. It takes strong management and a vision to achieve this level of success.

I sat down with Don and Scott a few years ago for lunch. They offered to provide their feedback, coaching, and support. They’ve always followed through by taking the time to share their knowledge. The funny thing is that I was literally eating salmon during that lunch. Don coincidentally mentions why broadcasters need to act like salmon in this industry. It’s a tremendous comparison that appears below.

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The two kingpins continued the trend of offering their time — this recent occasion was to take part in a roundtable discussion. Both men have assessed a lot of talent over the years. They discuss the qualities of show hosts that they value most. It’s also fascinating to hear about the doubts they had early in their distinguished careers — something that many people can relate to. There are some great stories and tremendous viewpoints in this piece. I hope you enjoy it.

Noe: What initially got you interested in the radio business?

Don: I went to college originally to be a computer programmer because that’s what everybody was doing back in the days in which a computer was the size of a building. I was an athlete all my life. I blew my knee out, so I knew I couldn’t play. I said to my mother, “I need to get in the sports business.” I got into the game in Denver as an intern on the TV side. Then I was dubbing Christmas music from album to cart.

While I was doing that for a two-week period, the sports guy on that morning show got sick. Jerry Castro asked me if I would do the sports. I was still in school. I said absolutely. He then hired me two weeks later after I did the sports for a couple of weeks in morning drive. I was doing sports there. I was interning on television. I was doing metro traffic.

Then Irv Brown started one of the first sports stations in the country KMVP 1600. He put a midday show together with me, Dave Logan, Rich Goins, and a guy named John Marvel. Later on in life I worked with Billy Van Heusen, a former Bronco, from 9 to noon. A consultant took us off the air after two years saying we were too much like the afternoon show. I thought my career was over.

I became Irv and Joe’s producer. I found out that, “Wow, I liked that role,” and I did it well. While I was doing that, I was the TV play-by-play voice of the then Colorado Athletic Conference. Then a guy named Sam Pagano — a legendary high school coach in Denver out of Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado — we bought our own time and we were doing high school games on television on Prime Ticket.

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We did anywhere from three to four games a week between football and basketball while I was doing the college stuff on the CAC and doing the talk with Irv. I had to balance a lot at one time. Sam Pagano’s boys you know — Chuck Pagano was the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts. John was the other son and he was my analyst. It just kept growing and growing and growing. Then one day I got a call from KOA and I became the sports guy on KOA as far as producing everything — Rockies, Broncos, Buffs. Then they asked me to program the station. That’s how I came off of the air and got into management.

Noe: What about radio initially appealed to you, Scott?

Scott: There’s something about radio that’s truly special and unique. Hosts on the radio build such an intimate relationship with the audience. Ultimately, it’s that storytelling ability where in other platforms you really don’t get that luxury to expand, to show personality, and to truly tell stories. That’s a lot of the connective fiber that drives a very unique connection with hosts and their audience because it’s long form. It’s your true personality coming out over the radio. You can’t fake it. You have to be your genuine self and the audience usually are tough critics.

This day and age, so much of the audience has ADD. They only want to listen to somebody who’s very compelling and that has something special to offer. In radio, like I said you can’t fake it. It’s your true self and people are deciding whether to spend their very valuable time with you. It’s an investment that the audience makes. When they do make that investment, it’s an emotional connection that’s made. 

There’s really something special on the radio where the goal is to make people think. You want to make people react. It brings out a lot of emotions in people and when you’re doing it right you really build that relationship with your audience. Yeah, at times it can be a one-way relationship, but it’s truly a special relationship. I feel like I know the folks that I listen to on the radio. I feel like I know them well. Really it’s just me typically listening to their product. It’s such a special medium where you have the ability to truly connect with your audience and be genuine at the same time.

Noe: What would you say was your first major breakthrough in radio?

Don: Irv Brown putting me in middays on one of the first all sports stations in the country. I was able to work with — then brand new into the game — Dave Logan who is now the voice of the Broncos for three Super Bowl championships. A guy named Rich Goins who’s got a huge name in Denver as the guy that sat on the billboard for all those days and Bob Costas kept using him. Rich has got a big name in Denver. And John Marvel, when we were doing that midday show, it launched all of this. The key was I was doing TV and radio and everything all at the same time, so when you say what launched it, being platform-agnostic and trying to do everything. I was young and hungry so I tried doing everything. Then it kind of just settled into its own space.

Noe: When you were dubbing Christmas music did you have a favorite and a least favorite song?

Don: (laughs) I’ll tell you what. It was one of the most boring, mundane things I’d ever done in my life. I said, “Did you make the right decision saying you’re going to go from computer programming to do this because that was boring?”

I mean I’m dubbing down Nat King Cole. It was the oldies too because it was an oldies station. I was a young guy. I was going, “What the heck am I doing?”

By the grace of God, the sports guy got sick and then he quit. It was awesome. You never know when and where you’re going to get your break. That’s what I always tell young people — I say be a salmon. Just get in the stream. Be where it’s going to take you. I still believe a lot of this business is 90 percent what beats in your chest and 10 percent what’s in your head. You’ve got to have passion, man.

Noe: What has your career path been like, Scott, that’s led to you being the Vice President of FOX Sports Radio?

Scott: My first job in radio was producing morning radio in Atlanta. At the time it was a FOX Sports Radio affiliate. That’s where I really learned radio. I was a 23-year-old kid with zero radio experience and I was producing three guys who all had 15 years more experience than me and they were all 15 years older. I had no idea what I was doing. There were many times where I wondered, “My goodness, is this for me? Am I going to be able to add value to the show and to these personalities who are all pros?”

I busted my butt. I basically dove head first into the product really to try to prove myself more than anything else. Let’s try to make the show better. I’m competitive and I put my heart into everything I do. It was really just producing content and trying to produce the best possible show in the country. I did that in Atlanta for two and a half years.

Then I was hired to produce Mike & Mike up in Bristol in 2006. With that it was the same mentality — come in and just make that show the best show in the country. We had a great team in place, obviously very talented people on and off the air. We set all sorts of records on Mike & Mike on multiple platforms. I produced that show for three years and then moved up into the managerial ranks at ESPN Radio where I was up until four years ago when I came here.

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Noe: What are a couple of the qualities that show hosts possess that either cause you to tune in or tune out?

Scott: Hosts that are compelling — that’s the difference. You have to be such a great storyteller and you have to be compelling. Like I said earlier people have so many options for their entertainment value. Hell, in a car they can make phone calls to their family and friends. That’s competition. We are trying to garner people’s attention. Ultimately you have to be so interesting on the radio to keep people’s attention. That’s a very hard thing to do.

It’s rare when someone devotes more than five or 10 minutes to listening to one or two people speak uninterrupted. Somebody who is able to capture people’s attention, keep them interested, it’s a very difficult skill. You have to be thought-provoking on the air. You need to be well-researched, but obviously present in a style that’s entertaining, and you need to keep people’s attention while making them think and making them react.

The things that I think are tune outs are somebody who is dry, somebody who lacks credibility on a topic, and somebody who’s not presenting a unique perspective on a topic. Another thing is talking about something that I’m not interested in. That’s why playing the hits is very important to appeal to the broadest set of the audience possible. You need to bring a unique presentation to the table that’s different from what everyone else is offering. There is a wilderness of people out there offering opinions whether it’s live shows or podcasts. What we look for are hosts who present something entirely different and can do so in an entertaining fashion.

Noe: What qualities of a sports radio host appeal to you the most?

Don: When you do this long enough there’s an “it” factor that you can’t coach. There is an “it” factor that you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t. Everybody gets into this game because they want to be on the air. I know you’ve got the anomaly that says, “No, I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes.” God bless you, I love those people too. But everybody gets in because they want to do this because this is fun. There’s a special few that can. But when they can, they are dynamite.

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It’s an ingredient only given by God. It’s a wiring. You have to have a certain somethin’ somethin’ to get it done. As a host — I don’t care if you’re talking sports or if you’re talking news — you work your tail off to get to the top.

You’re hustling 4-5 jobs. Then when you make it, all you can do is fail. On the way up that ladder, you’ve got to be a little arrogant, you’ve got to be a little cocky and have a little somethin’ somethin’ in you because it’s what drives you to be that performer every day.

Then when you get there all you can do is fall so you become insecure. Those aren’t traits that live naturally together — cocky, arrogant, insecure, what? So we had to give them a name — we called them talent. It’s a special somebody though. There are a lot of people that try to do this and they work their tail off for a long time and they’re good, but they’re never great. You know great from the beginning. You don’t teach great. You don’t grow into great. You know it from the beginning.

Noe: Can you put your finger on what “it” is — what separates good from great?

Don: Yeah, what “it” is — it’s a magic that draws people to you. You’re a magnet for people. You give them an escape from reality. People work hard. People are beat up over politics. They’re beat up over their bills. They’re beat up over traffic and oh my God the stresses of raising your kids and your boss yelling at you. Our guys give them and escape.

Great for us is no different than — I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody — the lead guy in a band. You’ve got that magnetic thing that draws people to you so that when you’re performing whether you’re singing, you’re talking, you’re giving your opinion, they need to listen because you’re entertaining them. You’re teaching them, but you’re giving them some sort of solace and some sort of entertainment along the way that allows them to escape reality.

Noe: When you think about sports radio in general what could the industry use more of?

Scott: I would say the biggest thing in the industry is just creating great content no matter where it airs. Whether it’s live on the radio, whether it’s streaming, whether it’s podcasts, we’re in the content business and all we’re trying to do is create wonderful content.

I think people overthink it at times in terms of whether this is going to play to certain people, whether it’s going to play on certain platforms or not. Really it just gets in the way of creating great content.

I believe if you’re creating great content it really doesn’t matter what type of platform it’s on. It’s going to be unique. It’s going to be thought-provoking. It’s going to be fascinating for an audience.

Audio consumption is growing like crazy. There’s never been a time where audio consumption is really being utilized like the current day. Whether it’s live, terrestrial, streaming, or on-demand, there are more people creating audio than ever before. The ones that create excellent content are going to be the ones that are going to win and survive. I think at times people need to stop overthinking whether, “Oh boy, terrestrial radio is not going to work,” because every bit of evidence is showing that it is. Audio consumption as a whole no matter where you’re doing it is growing rapidly.

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Noe: The BSM Summit is right around the corner February 21-22. What does the industry gain from having an annual event that focuses on issues related to the actual job?

Scott: I think when you put all of these brilliant minds together, not only are there new ideas created, but I think everyone at a summit like this really should lean on each other to help grow the platform.

It’s not just competing in a local market station X versus station Y. When you put all of these minds together you’re going to learn key things that are going to help your individual station or network. But I really think when we’re able to think bigger picture about growing the industry and growing what sports talk radio is and figure out ways to really capitalize on that no matter what market you’re in, I think that’s the biggest thing.

Everyone’s in their silos working on their own objectives in each of their local markets, but when you put all of these brains together I think there’s so much to gain for the industry as a whole to really become that much more of an urgent product for the audience all over the country.

Noe: Why do you think it’s important for programmers to get outside of their radio stations and attend events like the BSM Summit?

Don: I think the biggest part about it is just camaraderie. If we’re going to win as a platform, we’ve got to quit taking shots at each other. We’ve got to go and get our audience from our sister stations, the news talk stations, the music stations. We’ve got to aim our guns out there and bring in a new cume that allows all of our sports radio boats to float higher.

It’s more of a camaraderie thing for me. We all talk anyway. There’s not a new thing that all of a sudden pops up that teaches you to do this with talent, or that with a podcast. We’re all talking all the time anyway within our companies. Everybody has their secret sauce. Summits like this are more for camaraderie. The Super Bowl is what we’ve been using lately. You go to the Super Bowl and everybody gets to see everybody for the one time all year — whether it’s talent or other programmers.

I think it’s a come together, join arms as a platform, and raise the sports platform together. That’s the most important part of this. And then you know what, if you can gain a nugget here or there because of podcasting being able to drive this, or streaming being able to drive that, or helping change what Nielsen is doing on the ratings, God bless us all. But the main thing is so that we all join hands together, no different than an NFL or an NBA, and say, “Okay, how do we keep growing this platform?”

Noe: Speaking of camaraderie, who are some of the people in the business that have helped you the most during your career?

Don: Irv Brown basically gave me my start in this business. He just died by the way last week at 86 years old. He’s legendary in Denver. Greg Ashlock and Julie Talbott have been incredibly important in my career. Bob Martin got me in to cut my first tape. Bob Martin was the voice of the Broncos back then. I’ll never forget it. I said, “Bob, how can I repay you?” He said, “The only thing I want from you, Don, when you make it, the first young guy that comes to you and asks you for help, you help them.” I’ve done that my entire career because of what Bob did for me. 

There’s one other person I need to bring up, Lee Larson in Denver at KOA. I’ll never forget it. The greatest thing anybody has ever done for me in this business or said for me outside of Irv Brown getting me started — Lee Larson calls me into his office and says, “I want to mentor you.” I was the PD of the station at the time. I said, “Wow.” That was one of the coolest things anybody had ever said to me. It just blew my mind.

I never forgot that because I was a 38-year-old guy at the time. When we went looking for somebody to help me on the network side, I always kept that in mind. I said I need a young 30 something that’s going to keep me cool. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when Scott Shapiro walked in the door. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing today. All I’m trying to show you is everything that we do and our lives, is because of something somebody did for you in a nice way in yours back in your day.

Noe: When you’re the one doing the mentoring and showing hosts a formula for success, what are the key things that you point toward?

Scott: I would say for any host — they have to be incredibly passionate about the subject matter on the air. If somebody’s not a big sports fan, there’s no way they’re going to be able to fake it. You need to be so deeply and inherently interested in the topics you’re talking about. You need to be so curious about it that you’re reading stories that come up during the day. It’s not something where you can just come in before a show, cram, and be able to deliver it right.

You need to have so many different areas of knowledge that’s based off of the curiosity. When you’re curious, you follow people on social media who provide depth to these stories. You read articles to be able to provide different insights. In order to come up with unique talking points, you have to generally be curious in the topics and read as much as you can get your hands on and seek viewpoints from as many people as you can in order to craft your own unique argument. To me it’s that curiosity.

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The prep work shouldn’t be considered prep work. It should be what you’re already doing because you’re so engulfed and impassioned in the subject matter of what you’re discussing. To me that’s a very important thing.

Another thing too, clearly without question anybody who does this well, they need a lot of reps. It’s very difficult to be able to talk on the radio for that long. Even somebody, if you go to a bar, somebody talking to you for seven minutes. It’s a very difficult thing for them to be interesting and compelling for that long. Then you throw in that you need to be interesting to thousands of people and you’re measured by ratings.

You have to be well researched and well prepped. You have to nail the PPM formatics and make sure there’s a takeaway for everything you’re doing. You’re never wasting time on the air. It’s basically valuing the audience’s time. I think that’s a very important thing.

The delivery is very important as well. You can’t be somebody who is monotone and sleepwalking through a segment. You’ve got to deliver a sense of urgency on the air. You need to have a certain energy level and strong pacing to take all of your great insight and make it presentable to the audience where they think they’re listening along to a buddy or eavesdropping on a conversation and not being lectured to the whole time.

Noe: I think that’s really interesting when you say have a takeaway for everything. There’s so much digressing that goes on in sports radio these days. Some discussions outside of sports are valuable, others not so much.

How do you gauge what is wasting time and what is valuable if the conversation goes beyond sports?

Scott: Listen there’s always room, but I think the biggest thing is when you do veer off you know how to get back. You’re not going too far down a path where you’ve taken so many left turns and then the audience is lost as well. You have to know what your mission is each segment. Yes, clearly you’re allowed to veer off. This is radio and we want people to be free without handcuffs because sometimes the best stuff is created that way.

I think also you are guiding the ship when you’re hosting a show. Sometimes that off-sports humor or story, there can be takeaways in that. But you’ve got to know if you’ve delivered on that, won people’s attention, and created something memorable, you do need to know how to steer the ship back and then get back to the meat and potatoes as well.

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Noe: What’s your best advice for broadcasters that want to improve?

Don: What you do is you pick 20 minutes of a show. That’s all. What I suggest you do for yourself once a week — and you’ve got to be honest with yourself — sit down with your producer and you’ve got to take an arbitrary 20 minutes and just listen to it. When you listen to it, be honest. There are five questions you’re asking yourself.

Do they know my name because I said it?

Do they know the call letters of the station that I’m on?

In that 20 minutes now, did the topic — if I were a listener — grab me and hold me?

Did I promote something forward coming up?

Did I reset if I had a guest?

Those are the only five things you need to know. If there’s any given 20 minutes within your show and you can’t answer those five, it lets you know what you need to work on.

Our average listener comes in for 10 minutes. That’s where you can help yourself too. You’re in a popularity game because of Nielsen. They can always go across the street. Don’t get confused — I can’t tell you how many times someone says to me, “Yeah, I listen to Petros [Papadakis] on ESPN.” What? Petros has never been on ESPN. Make damn sure they know where they get you.