(12-26-2016) They Dare To Be Different

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By Editor in Chief Ed Ryan

Dan Le Batard has been one of the most respected sports journalists in Miami since 1990, when he started writing for the Miami Herald. He added radio to his resume when he met up with Jon “Stugotz” Weiner in the early 2000s, when they hosted afternoons together in Miami on 790-AM The Ticket. Today, Le Batard and Stugotz host one of ESPN Radio’s hottest syndicated shows, The Dan Le Batard Show, weekdays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. ET. In addition to the success of the radio show, The Dan Le Batard Show Podcast is averaging 5.8 million impressions every month.

ESPN launched the show into syndication in 2015. And while every host and sports talk team wants you to believe they do a “different” show, Le Batard and Stugotz deliver. It’s sports and a whole lot more. ESPN SVP/Production, Business Divisions Traug Keller says, “There is no secret sauce in what makes a good radio show, but there is one constant: chemistry. That’s what comes across from Dan, Stugotz, and the whole gang. Like all great radio, they invite you in to be part of their community. It’s fun, infectious, and smart must-listen-to radio for growing legions around the country.”

Le Batard says one of the reasons the show is different has to do with the team not taking themselves too seriously. “We treat this as what we are watching: games. They’re playing. We’re playing. I’m grateful that others turn sports into a religion and a cathedral because that makes our blasphemy sound rebellious, when all we are going for is fun. We like to think of ourselves as a ‘smart stupid show.’ Get you in the circus tent with some laughter and nonsense and clowns so that you are already in the audience when we tackle the important stuff like race, religion, society, injustice, etc.”

Radio Ink recently spoke to Le Batard and Stugotz in separate interviews. Here’s what they had to say about how they became a successful team and why their show is different from all the others on the radio today.

Radio Ink: Dan, what was your first thought when Stu came to you in 2002-ish and said he wanted to give you your own show on The Ticket?

Le Batard: I was more curious than anything. It wasn’t something I had been considering. le-batard-1I didn’t have any training — they didn’t teach me “Gasbag 101” in college. But the competing radio station had been bashing me and the Miami Herald for 15 years, while using everything we wrote as their content to get through their day. I didn’t think what they did was very creative. I figured it’d be fun to challenge them. So I was immediately interested in growing the tree, once he planted the seed. And, man, have we fertil­ized it.

Radio Ink: How about your friend Stu? Pretty entrepreneurial.

Le Batard: Yeah, he plays up the shark-snake-ape portions of himself on the radio, but those things serve him in business. Stugotz will always know how to make money. He had a vision, and he executed it. I don’t know if he has had a single completed vision since then, but he nailed the one he retired on.

Radio Ink: He told us you were a regular guest on QAM. Did QAM ever offer you a show when they caught wind of what The Ticket was up to?

Le Batard: Nah. I wouldn’t have worked for them. They were awful to me and my newspaper for too many years. It was the idea of going against them that even made me interested in the idea of doing a daily radio show.

Radio Ink: What were those early days of your show like? Did you get the hang of talking for several hours a day, or was it challenging?

Le Batard: We were truly awful. I didn’t know what I was doing, and Stugotz was hosting a tra­ditional talk show. I didn’t want to be traditional. I find a lot of sports radio to be super droning. But I didn’t know how to fix it because I didn’t have any training. I wasn’t having fun.

My mind was racing whenever we weren’t doing the show because I knew what we were doing wasn’t very good. It was basically Stugotz interviewing me for four hours as we tried to find chemistry. But we did a lot of learning dur­ing those days. I learned what I didn’t want it to be more than what I wanted it to be.

Radio Ink: What are some of the things you did to keep improving the show?

Le Batard: I talked to a lot of smart friends and other people who know me and my sensibilities. I asked a lot of questions about what I could be doing better. And I realized that, despite my lack of training, I had to steer and host the show. Stugotz had been driving it because he had the experience. But he had the experience doing it the way it had always been done, and that’s not how I wanted to do it. So I asked them to hire a friend of mine from college, Marc Hochman, who had my sensibilities, and we started reshaping it.

Radio Ink: Which do you enjoy more, radio or writing?

Miami, FL - November 11, 2014: (L to R) Portrait of Jon " Stugotz " Weiner and Dan Le Batard (Photo by Rodrigo Varela / ESPN Images)
Miami, FL – November 11, 2014: (L to R) Portrait of Jon ” Stugotz ” Weiner and Dan Le Batard
(Photo by Rodrigo Varela / ESPN Images)

Le Batard: Writing is the most fulfilling thing I do. Hard and lonely, but more rewarding. Radio is shared laughter, communal. I’ve never had more fun doing anything professionally than I’ve had doing radio. The room to roam, the intimacy, it shows off my complete personality more than anything I do. It softens me, too. I can sound obnoxious in print. I can sound that way on the radio, too, but we have a lot more buffers to soften.

Radio Ink: You have a special bond with the listeners in Miami. Tell us about that.

Le Batard: Miami is the only city I’ve ever loved. I don’t care about the vanities that this stuff produces, but I do care about having a voice for my neighbors. We are more a society show than a sports show. Sports is just the funhouse mirror where society goes to check its reflection.

So I like being a voice for Miami, representing Miami. And the people who listen to our show really get it. They do some of our best producing by being competitive with each other creatively. It’s a super unique audience.

Radio Ink: When ESPN came to you and said they wanted to take your show national, what were your thoughts? Were you all for it right from the start?

Le Batard: Not really. I was happy — I liked being the Miami show, and just that. I didn’t have any interest in being heard in an airport in Pittsburgh. And I didn’t want to start corporatiz­ing what we do to dilute the edge. I told them I’d only do it if the show didn’t have to change, if I could keep doing a Miami-centric show that others just happened to enjoy. And the support ESPN has shown us has been flabbergasting.

Radio Ink: They’ve built you a nice new studio. Tell us about that.

Le Batard: I mean, it’s a dream. It’s in a bar overlooking the beach in the most popular part of Miami, a few blocks from where I live. I walk to work. The sun is always shining, even when it isn’t. I should crawl on my hands and knees to work every day, I’m so grateful. ESPN built this thing for us outside its bubble and lets us cre­ate with hardly any interference. I’d say it is the dream job, but I never dreamed anything this perfect professionally.

Radio Ink: You had a recent blowout with local management that was also very compelling radio. Why did that tick you off so much?

Le Batard: Interference. My parents are exiles. I value freedom. I negotiate freedom. You can’t be telling me what to talk about. We were talk­ing about a distinctly Miami story with a Miami Herald reporter, about a botched penis surgery by a fake doctor in a warehouse.

Miami has a lot of weird things like that. It’s interesting. I wasn’t being sophomoric with it. It’s a legit Miami story. And you’ve hired me to find the interesting and talk about it. So let me.

Radio Ink: Has ESPN ever tried to “advise” you on topics?

Le Batard: I couldn’t ask for a better working relationship with these people. They largely leave us alone, for the best reasons. They trust us. I know at the very beginning, because they are planners, they wanted a daily skeleton script for topics. But our show is too organic and messy and unplanned for that.

We like the derailments. We like getting lost. We like stumbling over the unexpected. So we can’t really plan it. And while that was jarring for them at the beginning, they trusted us. And I’m super grateful. Couldn’t be more grateful.

Radio Ink: Have you and the local PD since buried the hatchet?

Le Batard: Of course. That’s the first time any­thing like that has ever happened. I like le-batard4-jpghim, and he is excellent at his job. Best program director I’ve ever had. Friends and brothers dis­agree and fight. But it made for good radio.

Radio Ink: In your opinion, how should talent and management communicate so both sides can work well together?

Le Batard: You should have good relationships with the people with whom you work. And there should be trust on both sides. But the relation­ship is first. That’s where the trust is built. I try to work for and with my friends. My employers tend to become my friends. I want to do right by them. I want to communicate with them the way I do with my friends. And my friends understand that trying to control me isn’t a good idea.

These relationships, in radio, TV, and news­papers, have always worked out for everybody. Easy for me to say from this position, right? But I’ve always tried to do that, even when I was making $20,000 a year. I’m not interested in power struggles. I’m interested in creative com­munities.

Radio Ink: Why do you believe your show is different from all the other sports talk drivel out there?

Le Batard: We don’t really respect the way it has always been done. We mock it. I try to be empathetic and non-judgy, first of all. I’m look­ing for the fun and the laughter. I’m not looking to assassinate the character of the guy who blew the game. I just think we run all this stuff through a more detached lens. Not emotional, rational. And there isn’t anyone in radio or at ESPN quite like Stugotz.

All of us have been doing this for more than 10 years, so the production staff has been trained to think differently and find the funny and fun. And I can’t imagine a show with more creative production help than ours.

Radio Ink: What are your general thoughts on sports talk radio?

Le Batard: I don’t want to sound like we are better than anyone. I just know that we are dif­ferent than most, and that people tend to gravi­tate toward that different. Now they also tend to turn off that different while screaming curses at their radio because we are sissy, idiot, giggling jackasses. But the people who like it really like it, and the ones who don’t really don’t.

And ultimately I think that’s because sports talk radio can be pretty repetitive and droning, and news of the day that is only slightly differ­ent from the news of the day 10 and 20 years ago. I do think that is changing; I think more and more shows are willing to take the road less traveled. But I haven’t listened to much sports talk radio over the last 15 years because it didn’t seem like many people were taking chances, so my opinion isn’t the most up to date.

Radio Ink: What role does social media play in what you do with your show?

Le Batard: They’ve replaced callers. Texters and tweeters respond in real time, and we are able to take the best stuff to produce our show. It really has become invaluable. It isn’t just us producing the show, it’s an entire community of creative people pushing us to be better and pushing each other to out-creative each other. Social media has allowed us to be more attached to the audience than ever before.

Radio Ink: What are your general/overall thoughts on the radio industry?

Le Batard: I’m not sure this is the magazine for this thought, but here goes: I’ve seen too much of what happened to newspapers happening in radio. Newspapers had a business model that was throwing yesterday’s news in your bushes for a cost while you could get today’s news more immediately for free on your computer. That’s obviously pretty stupid. Hadn’t accounted for the Internet. And radio is doing some of the same.

Podcasts are the future, clearly. But nobody has quite figured out how to monetize podcasts. So you exist for the sponsors. Radio is free for the sponsors. Talent is paid because of the sponsors. But you are giving it to the consumer

on podcast without your sponsors, often. That needs to stop, obviously, for terrestrial radio to not get cannibalized by the podcasts.

We work at ESPN, which can afford all this stuff. But we have something like 10 million monthly podcast downloads. People can hear our four-hour show in 2 1/2 hours, without com­mercials, at their leisure. That’s kind of inevi­tably going to cannibalize what you are doing terrestrially.

I should also say this: We don’t take ourselves seriously. We treat this as what we are watching: games. They’re playing, we’re playing. I’m grate­ful that others turn sports into a religion and a cathedral because that makes our blasphemy sound rebellious when all we are going for is fun. We like to think of ourselves as a “smart stupid show.” Get you in the circus tent with some laughter and nonsense and clowns so that you are already in the audience when we tackle the important stuff like race, religion, society, injustice, etc.

Radio Ink: How did you get your start in the radio business?

Jon “Stugotz” Weiner: It started with me growing up in New York, listening to Mike & The Mad Dog on WFAN. I was in the car with my dad, and I was enjoying what I was listening to — two guys who sounded like I sounded. They weren’t ex-jocks. They weren’t athletes. They were just two guys like me. I asked my dad, “What is this?” He said it was a 24-hour sports radio station.

lebatard5-jpgI was so enamored with what they were doing that I decided right then and there, at 15 years old, that’s what I wanted to do for a living. Once I had that figured out, I pursued it relentlessly. I moved down to Miami. My first big break was being the executive producer of The Hank Goldberg Show. Then, from there, everything just kind of took off for me. I started doing my own shows and updates. Then I was part of the group that started 790 The Ticket in Miami. At one time I was the vice president and general manager of the station while also doing after­noons with Dan Le Batard, which was kind of a tricky thing for me to balance.

I loved what I heard that day, when I listened to WFAN and decided right then and there that I wanted to do it. I pursued it relentlessly, which is what you’ve got to do, and here I am. But I will tell you that never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would wind up at ESPN. It’s been a dream come true for me.

Radio Ink: Talk about the launch of 790 The Ticket.

Stu: It was interesting. I had worked at WQAM, which was our competitor and is still our com­petitor. It was the heritage station down here. I have some entrepreneurial spirit. I liked to cre­ate things and start things; I still do. I just felt like if sports radio was growing, you had some cities where there was more than one sports radio station in the market, especially in the major markets, and I felt like there was a mar­ket down here in South Florida, in Miami, for a younger, hipper, more fun sports radio station.

So I got some guys together. The owner’s name was Joel Fineberg. We had a group of five guys that were part of our ownership team, our management team. We looked for the best AM signal in the market at the time, which was and still is 790 The Ticket, and I presented Joel with my business plan and model for how I thought we could succeed and the lineup I wanted to go with.

We did an LMA. We controlled the program­ming, the sales, everything for about 3 1/2 years. Then Joel decided he no longer wanted to do it, mostly because he was young and wanted to move on to other things. He’s a real estate guy. The great thing about it was, we made such a great impression and impact in the market, both financially and with ratings, that the people who owned the station at the time, Lincoln Financial, loved what we were doing so much, they contin­ued with the format and just kind of took it over.

Radio Ink: So that was all your idea?

Stu: Yes, with the help of two guys in Atlanta, Andrew Saltman and Steak Shapiro; they’re two good friends of mine. They had done the same thing with a station called 790 The Zone in Atlanta, so they really planted the seed in my head that it could be done in Miami. I don’t want to take full credit, because those guys planted the seed in my head. They really helped me with the business model and the business plan, and they were actually consultants of ours for the first couple of years we were on the air. It was me, and it was just a matter of finding the right group of guys to do it with, and the right owner, and I found all of that. I will tell you that inside of 18 months, we were outrating the heritage station down here, and not too far after that, we were outbilling them.

Radio Ink: What year was that launch, and what was the original lineup?

Stu: I want to say the 2002-2003 range. We were an ESPN affiliate, and we still are. One of the keys for us was getting Joe Rose from WQAM. The key to putting this thing together and making it successful was to create a younger, hipper, better lineup that at the same time could also be an easy sell for our sales staff — so guys who not only were young and hip and fun, but guys who have a connection to the advertising world. And down here there is simply no one better than Joe Rose.

I was able to get Joe to come over from WQAM, and he did our morning show. It was supposed to go Joe Rose, then me, then Le Batard. I sat down here for years wondering why no one had ever offered Dan a radio show. He’s the biggest sports personality, media per­son down here. His articles were so interesting at the time for the Herald. He was well thought-out, articulate, smart, and he would be a guest on WQAM and was so good.

Dan and I didn’t know each other until we started working together. I knew through friends that there was a very smart, caring, funny person inside that doesn’t come out in print, and I knew it would come out on the radio.

So it was supposed to be Joe Rose, me, and then Dan. Dan called me up a couple of days before the launch and said, “Hey, I still want to do this, but I’m not doing the show by myself.” And I said, “All right, give me some names and I will see if I can get someone.” And he said, “The guy I want to do it with is Boog Sciambi,” who is currently the voice for Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN Radio, amongst other things. But Boog was the voice of the Marlins at the time. I explained to Dan that I couldn’t get Boog. And he said, “I know you can’t. He’s with WQAM.” So I asked Boog who I should go with, and he said, “You. You’re doing it with me.” I said, “I’m scheduled to do a midday show.” He said, “Stugotz, you don’t understand. You’re doing the show with me, and if you’re not, then I’m not doing the show.”

So I did the show with Dan, and I quickly had to find another midday show, which I did. It was Craig Minervini and O.J. McDuffie, former Dolphin. We did very, very well at the beginning. The key for me was getting Joe in the morn­ings and Le Batard in the afternoons. I knew if I could get those two guys locked in, morning and afternoon drive, that we would really have something special. Luckily, I was proven right.

Radio Ink: How many years were you humming along?

Stu: I knew at some point I wanted to go full local in order to compete with QAM. We needed to be local for as long as we could, especially 6 a.m.-7 p.m. One of the things we did early, one that really helped kind of cement our place in the Miami market, was getting the rights to the Dolphins in the first year of our being in existence. Once we got the Dolphins, we spoke to ESPN and said, “Listen, we want to be local 6 a.m.-7 p.m.,” which they were fine with.

That original lineup lasted, I want to say, about three years or so. Obviously Dan and I started off in afternoon drive and were there

until recently, when we took over for Colin [Cowherd] on ESPN Radio. Joe Rose was there three years or so, and then the Dolphins rights went back to WQAM. And Joe, through us, was one of the announcers in the Dolphins booth, something he had never done before he got to our station. He was great — he wanted to follow the Dolphins, and we totally understood. As hard as it was to lose him, we had to let him go.

We bounced back really well. After Joe left, our lineup was Sid Rosenberg in the morning and George Sedano, Boog Sciambi, and then it was Dan and I in the afternoons. I had so many program directors and people in the business calling me from across the country, saying, “This is the best local lineup we’ve ever heard. It’s almost like a national lineup.” And it really was. All the shows were different. They were fun. It was like a family. We all really enjoyed each other. We were all friends, and that made it easy.

One show blended into the next. So we had sellable guys and we had guys that had recog­nizable names, not just in Miami, but across the country. That really helped take our station to a whole new level. For my money, that was the best local lineup in any market in the history of sports radio.

Radio Ink: Do you still have a role in the management at The Ticket?

Stu: I don’t have any management role. I still help out with The Ticket where and when I can as it relates to sales, as it relates to any sort of programming advice that they ask me. But I gave that up. It was such a difficult thing to balance, to be the general manager and also the co-host of a show. I’m telling other shows

what and what not to talk about, and they would always fire back at me, “You of all people, how can you tell us what to do when you and Dan are doing what you do in the afternoon?” That was tricky.

I gave up the managerial stuff gladly, by the way, when the owners of our station, when we first started, negotiated a deal to give it back to Lincoln Financial. When they did, the guys at Lincoln Financial said, “We value you. We still want your input on a lot of stuff, but you can’t do both.” I gladly said yes when they wanted to strip me of the GM duties and I just started doing the show with Dan. But I’ve always helped out in sales and programming, and I still do, to a much lesser degree, today.

Radio Ink: So the network comes to you and says, “We want to make you national.” Did you want to go national? Were you hesitant at all?

Stu: To be honest, they came to us and said, “We want you to be our national afternoon show.” They had had interest in the show pre­vious to that inquiry. To Dan’s credit, he just didn’t want to leave Miami. He didn’t want to move away from the city he grew up in. We were offered things by ESPN before, but Dan just said, “Listen, I am not moving up to Bristol.”

So when they came to us and said, “We want you to be our afternoon national show,” I know this sounds crazy, but it was really a difficult decision for us — Dan more so than me, because when he says Miami is the only city he cares about, that’s not lip service. Miami is the only city he cares about.

So that was difficult because even though the time slot wasn’t changing, we knew some of the content might have to change. But luckily, it didn’t. It was a decision that we wrestled with. Obviously, we ultimately ended up deciding to do it, and I think what made it easier for us at that time was we weren’t moving time slots. We were still in the same spot, and that helped make us feel comfortable.

But the other big thing was that from a con­tent standpoint, we had the Heat down here, so we had LeBron, Bosch, and Wade, and also that first year we were national, there was the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin “Bullygate” story. Those were two very Miami stories that resonated nationally, and it made our transition from local to national very easy — because when we were in the afternoons, it’s all about clear­ance with national radio, and the biggest market we were on in was Miami. And the folks at ESPN said, “Just keep doing your show the way you’ve been doing it. Talk about the Miami stuff. It’s the biggest market you’re on in anyway.” That really carried through our first couple of years going national.

The decision was hard. It wasn’t an easy one, because we were comfortable. We were doing a show that was rating so well and Dan wanted to just do Miami. It was easier to get me to go national than it was Dan, but I also had an affin­ity for doing a local Miami show. We took the chance. For my money, it’s the best decision we’ve ever made. If we don’t say yes to them then, then we’re not sitting here doing what we’re doing now. And the show has really taken off since we moved to the new time slot.

Radio Ink: What is your goal when you guys prepare for the show?

Stu: We don’t have meetings, I will tell you that. Our goal is simple, and it’s been our goal since day one. Dan has a great pulse on what’s inter­esting and has such unique viewpoints on an array of topics. Our goal is always to entertain ourselves first. I know that sounds selfish, but it’s been the way we’ve done the show since day one. If we aren’t engaged, then the audience isn’t going to be engaged.

First and foremost is, we’ve got to believe in what we’re doing and what we’re talking about and be engaged about the things we’re talk­ing about. If we’re entertaining ourselves, then by extension, we’re entertaining the audience. Laughter is contagious; if we’re laughing, they’re laughing. So that’s certainly one of our goals.

This is more to Dan’s credit than mine — I would give all the credit to Dan, because I wanted to do traditional sports radio. Again, I grew up with Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN. I wanted to be Marino and Montana, and that’s not the type of show that Dan wanted to do. So, for us, and for Dan, it was really just, “Let’s be different, and let’s do something different and unique.” That’s what we set out to do every sin­gle day. Because so much in this format sounds the same. We like to think that we don’t.

We want to laugh, we want to occasionally make you cry, and if it is tears emanating from your laughter, that’s fine, too. But Dan likes to use the analogy of getting you into the circus tent with the silly stuff — and the silly stuff is usually me — and once we have you in the tent, you will pay more attention to the serious stuff that we want to use the platform for. It’s really entertaining ourselves and trying to be different at all costs. That’s really the philosophy we go in with just about every day.

Radio Ink: Dan did something a couple of weeks ago that every host wishes they could do and not get fired for it. He went off on management for meddling in his show, and it made such compelling radio that you couldn’t stop listening to it.

Stu: It was, but he was absolutely right. We do a local hour from 9-10 before we go national from 10 to 1. That happened during the local hour. We were talking about a story that is very Miami, and the local PD didn’t like the topic and he didn’t like how long we stayed with it. And Dan went off.

Sitting in that management chair before, I kind of understood both sides. We’ve been doing the show for 14 years at a very high level and with tremendous ratings in this market, and we know we toe the line a lot, but we never go over it. I think where Dan came from was, we’ve been doing this for so long and he felt like he should’ve earned the trust of the local program director, and I think that kind of hurt him a little. It stung.

He was right. He has earned the right to talk about, within reason, whatever he wants to talk about, and has certainly earned the trust of everyone to know that he’s not going to cross that line. It was great, compelling radio — I totally agree with you.

As it relates to ESPN, we have been flattered and pleasantly surprised. One of the things when you talk about making this decision that was tricky for us, we didn’t want anyone to mess with the content, and they promised us that they would not mess with our content. I can’t even give you one example of a time where they called us and said, “Stop talking about what you’re talking about.” To ESPN’s credit, they really honored their word and they let us do what we do, and we are extremely grateful for that. But that one day, that was the local PD, who has since apologized.

Radio Ink: So what is the next step for the show?

Stu: I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m exactly where I want to be, doing the show with the host that I want to be doing it with, and with the production staff that I want to be doing it with. I’m at the company I want to be at. From a show standpoint, we really reached the pinnacle. I’m not certain how much higher you can go than where we’ve gotten.

As an individual, certainly I’m always looking to do other stuff, whether it’s my own TV stuff or getting involved with the Thirty for Thirty at ESPN. I’m starting a podcast very soon on my own, so there are certain individual goals that I have that I will continue to pursue. If I’m doing this for the rest of my life, I’m pretty happy.

Radio Ink: Any managers that are reading the magazine who don’t carry the show, what would you tell them to get them to consider the show?

Stu: I would tell them that if you want some­thing different, if you want something unique, if you want something that doesn’t sound like any­thing else on your radio station, than we are a show you should consider. We’re different. We’re fun. We will bounce in and out of sports. We try to find the funny in all stories, whether it’s sports or not sports. We like to do a lot of pop culture. We like to mock ourselves. The show is all about self-deprecation.

But when it comes to the serious stuff, the serious sports issues, I’d like to think that we’re really good at it, and I know there’s no one bet­ter at it than Dan. I would tell affiliates that are thinking about our show, or markets that are thinking about our show, if you want something that sounds completely different from most of your lineup, with different angles and different slants, that’s going to make you think and going to make you laugh at the same time, then we are a show you need to consider.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Can you repost the full-size images? It’s impossible to see anything in these shrunken down versions. Otherwise, great article.

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