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Friday, October 25, 2002
Updated: May 31, 2:15 PM ET
'Bill from Boston ... you're on the air'

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

A friend of mine asked me recently, "What's it like to appear on the radio?"

Trot Nixon
Bill Simmons just wanted to be as functional on radio as Trot Nixon at the ballpark.
Pretty simple question ... so why was it impossible to answer? Ever since I started appearing on the radio last fall -- phone-ins for stations around the country, as well as occasional co-host duties on Sean McDonough's drive-time show in Boston -- I've been waging a clandestine battle with myself. Could I pull it off? Could I learn how to become a mediocre radio personality, somebody who didn't knock your socks off, but somebody who didn't make you wince, either? I only strived for mediocrity. I didn't want to be Vlad Guerrero, I want to be Trot Nixon. I just wanted to hit .255, knock out 25 homers and drive in 75 RBI. That's it.

So I plodded forward. Unfortunately, there were four problems:

1. I hadn't done any radio since college. I had no idea what to expect, no idea how to approach things ... I was absolutely clueless. I was a blank slate. And yet, because of the current "Writers are somehow qualified to appear on TV and radio" climate, I was suddenly working with professional broadcasters who expressed themselves verbally for a living.

2. During the first few months, I was fighting some sort of bizarre, Knoblauch-ian anxiety problem ... for whatever reason, I became nervous right before every appearance. It was like one of those public speaking nightmares in eighth grade, when your heart starts pounding, your mouth gets dry and all you can think about is, "I hope I don't sound nervous." That was me. I have no idea why this happened and why it continued to happen. I was subconsciously psyching myself out. I was a head case. I was Rick Ankiel.

Rick Ankiel
But instead, the Sports Guy started out like Rick Ankiel.
3. I have bad lungs and weak pipes, I speak through my nose, and when I'm nervous, my voice inevitably rises a couple of octaves higher than normal. And since I didn't know what I was doing, that only made things worse. Maybe that's why, over the first few months of my radio experience, my voice was alternately described by readers as sounding like Michael J. Fox, Norm McDonald, Conan O'Brien and Jackie MacMullan. Honestly, it's not that bad in person. I'm not James Earl Jones or anything, but when I'm nervous, all bets are off. And the fact that I didn't want to get nervous made me nervous, if that makes sense.

Which leads to ...

4. I spent so much time worrying about sounding jittery, I wasn't paying enough attention to what I was actually saying. So I would appear on these radio shows across America, and the host would give me some fawning introduction like, "He's the wacky Sports Guy from Page 2" or "This guy's funny, you have to read him!", and then I would come on the show, make my crummy, rudimentary points, and sound like a 16-year-old asking someone's father for permission to take her to the Junior Prom.

So those were the problems. On the flip side, three things were working in my favor:

1. I'm wildly competitive, to the point that it's practically a character flaw. I hate losing. It drives me insane. You know the guy in a smoky bar who's playing Golden Tee with his buddies, the one who bangs the machine in anger after botching a drive, and everything in the bar stops, and everyone looks at the guy thinking, "That guy needs to get a life"? That's me. Not being capable of radio mediocrity was just plain infuriating. There was a brief time in December when my Page 2 columns actually suffered because I was obsessed with the radio thing: How can I get better? What am I doing wrong? What if I tried this? I wish I were kidding. The good news was that I wanted to get better and cared about getting better.

2. Because of the visibility of Page 2, people kept giving me chances. And if you ever wanted to learn anything about this business, learn this: The more times you appear on radio or TV, the better off you'll be (like driving a stick shift -- you just have to hope that you won't ruin your transmission as you're learning).

3. My brain works in strange ways, as you can probably tell from some of my columns. In radio, this is a good thing. The material was in my head, and I knew my stuff, and I love to argue, and I felt like I had decent radio instincts -- what works, what doesn't work -- so I only needed to learn how to present myself in an articulate, semi-interesting, utterly mediocre way.

Easier said than done.

***** ***** *****

Welcoming Ming
Apparently one of my dreams from this week's Ramblings column has been realized! I'll let reader John Chou explain:

Did you happen to catch the clip of Yao Ming meeting Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis for the first time on NBA.com? Mobley walks up to Yao, shakes his hand with a handshake that Yao doesn't know yet, then bumps chests with him. Soon after, Francis walks up to Yao, does the same, and Yao pretends like he knows what he's doing, but it's all awkward. As Mobley walks away, he gives Yao a little shove with his forearm and Yao reciprocates ... well, at least he tries to. Trust me, you'll want to see this one for yourself!"

Once you're appearing on the air, there are four major obstacles to achieving radio mediocrity:

Obstacle No. 1: Your supporting cast

As weird as this might sound, radio is just like pro wrestling: The most underrated part of being a host or co-host is learning to sell everyone else on your show, just like the most underrated part of wrestling is learning how to sell your opponent. Ric Flair and Mick Foley wrestled the highest number of quality matches over the past 25 years, and for one reason: They knew instinctively how to make other people look better. With radio, the same principle applies -- if somebody isn't selling your jokes or your opinions, it sounds like you're failing.

In my case, I was cutting my teeth on Sean McDonough's show -- which launched a little more than a year ago -- and Sean was making a big deal about "raising the bar" of Boston sports radio and fostering a climate for intelligent sports discussions (a stark contrast to the popular "boys will be boys" show with host Glenn Ordway on WEEI). Well, you've read my columns. Raising the bar isn't one of my strong suits. Plus, I was already nervous, as well as extremely deferential to McDonough (for whom I held/hold a great deal of respect). And McDonough was learning the ropes as well -- how to set people up, how to run a show, how to handle coming in and out of breaks, how to keep the show fresh for four hours, how to make his guests look better.

You can guess what happened. Those first few shows, I came on and gave birth to a new face: The Bill Simmons "I'm Going Down In Flames" Radio Face. Maybe it wasn't that bad, but it felt like that. And it didn't help matters that McDonough is damn hard to crack up -- totally deadpan, impossible to rattle and prepared for anything -- and even if you make him laugh, he often cracks up without making a noise. After a few months, I turned "Operation: Crack Sean Up" into a personal challenge, but those first shows were extremely trying. I felt like the Unknown Comic on "Make Me Laugh." Fortunately, McDonough improved at selling the schticks of his co-hosts, and I improved in the sense that I went from "No Schtick Whatsoever" to "There Are Signs Of A Potential Schtick Here."

(One other factor: McDonough's show always features two co-hosts, mostly media people from the Boston area, and like anything else, you mesh with some people better than others. It's just like real life.)

Obstacle No. 2: All the behind-the-scenes stuff

Stations can attempt all the gimmicks they want (mismatched guys arguing, middle-aged guys acting like teenagers in heat, one crazed host and a cavalcade of callers), but if it sounds unnatural and forced, people invariably won't like it. When sports radio is working -- and I mean, really working -- it should sound like two or three guys having a conversation at a sports bar, only somebody turned on microphones and the listeners just happen to be eavesdropping.

For instance, I did a show this week with Michael Smith (talented kid from the Boston Globe -- buy stock in him now) and Mike Giardi (anchor for New England Cable News, up-and-comer, a friend of mine and the author of the new best-selling book, "How To Become a Broadcaster When You Reek Of Tomato Sauce"). I'm not saying the show should immediately be sent to the Radio Hall of Fame or anything, but we enjoyed ourselves, the show flew by and we could have adjourned to a local sports bar and carried on for another four hours. That's the way it should be. During at least three different breaks, Michael said, "I've never had so much fun doing a show." When you're having fun and you're comfortable, that's half the battle.

Now here's the catch ...

Once again, it's easier said than done. Back in my old Boston-only column days, I used to hammer the guys at WEEI, making it a personal crusade for them to improve their station. In retrospect, that's one of the biggest regrets of my career -- not that I hammered them, but that I was judging something so extensively without trying it myself. And the fact remains, radio is hard. Dozens of things are happening that could submarine a good show.

For example ...

  • The production crew -- There isn't a radio show alive that can survive multiple glitches, talent-vs.-producer tensions, crummy guests and all that other stuff; the behind-the-scenes crew makes or breaks every show. But here's the weird thing: These same people are always chronically underpaid. How does that make sense?

  • Commercial breaks -- An absolute show-killer. You're in a groove, the conversation's flowing ... and BOOM! Another break. An average hour of McDonough's show features three two-minute "20/20 Flashes" (sports updates), as well as four separate breaks totaling 12 minutes of commercials per hour. So that's 18 minutes an hour out the window. It's also distracting to speak while the host is either A) listening to one of the producers in his headset, or B) holding his hand up (signifying that you need a break).

    Took me about three months to get used to this stuff. Anything that makes you think, "What the hell's happening right now?" instead of "What am I trying to say?" isn't a positive development. But when you advance to the stage where you expect distractions, learn how to absorb them, and remain in the flow of the conversation -- all at the same time -- it's like you advance to a higher level, almost like the way you would advance in Grand Theft Auto 3 or something.

  • Call-in guests -- Probably the most jarring adjustment. In most cases, the guests don't know you that well, and you don't know them -- you have no idea where they're headed, when they'll stop talking and what you should ask next. You feel like two complete strangers having sex in the dark. The host always asks the first question, the guest starts responding, then one of the other co-hosts will raise a finger (as in, "Can I ask the next question?"), and the co-host will point at him ("OK, you got the next one"), and then you have to wait for the guest to stop talking, and as soon as he does, you have to unveil this articulate, well-stated question that has been welling in your throat for the past 20 seconds. It's a little weird.

    Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson
    Learning the fake laugh gives a new appreciation for Ed McMahon, left.
  • The fake laugh -- An absolute prerequisite for every radio show. You have to learn a fake laugh. I'm not saying you have to pull a Reggie Hammond in "48 Hours" ... you just need one of those "You just made a joke, and I need to signify that the joke just happened, or else the joke will be followed by dead air" ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha's. I wish I could purchase one of these on eBay.

  • Phone calls -- Good callers help a show; bad callers kill an entire segment if you allow them to babble long enough. And it's tough to learn when to interrupt a caller and steer him in another direction, another learned skill, if you will. Which reminds me ...

  • Jumping in -- The single hardest skill to develop. During my embryonic period, I was host of a show with McDonough and Bob Ryan -- quite simply, one of the three or four best co-hosts alive, whether we're talking TV or radio -- and Ryan swallowed me whole. I'm not kidding. There was one 45-minute segment when I probably said five words. He was MJ and I was LaBradford Smith.

    And that's not a knock on Ryan at all; he's absolutely brilliant at this. I'm not even using that word loosely. Ryan has an innate gift for knowing exactly 1.1 seconds ahead of time when somebody's about to finish a point, then barreling in precisely when the other person is still pronouncing the last syllable of their last word. It's uncanny. I've never seen anything like it. Ryan has radio ESP. Needless to say, I learned more during that first show with him than I learned in every other show combined. There are ways to jump in without interrupting people ... you just have to learn them.

  • Energy -- That's the other thing I learned from Ryan. For four straight hours, he was throwing 98 mph fastballs and mixing his pitches, his energy never waning, raising everyone else's collective game. And that's no small feat. Four hours of thinking, joking, talking and analyzing -- while selling your co-hosts, maintaining a serviceable level of energy, absorbing every distraction in stride and trying not to repeat yourself too often -- isn't nearly that easy. Believe me.

  • Repeating yourself -- Flashback to last July in Boston. The Pats haven't started yet. The Celtics are on vacation. Nobody cares about the Bruins. The Red Sox are in the middle of a "We either win 12-4 or lose 4-3" stretch, which the entire town has been dissecting like frames of the Zapruder film. Now we have to fill a four-hour show and come up with new wrinkles on tired questions like, "Why does Nomar always swing at the first pitch?", "Is Grady Little doing a good job?" and "Why can't this team rally back to win a game?" And on top of everything, we have to avoid making the same points over and over again. For four straight hours. Now that is a challenge.

    (Important note: This is why radio people flip out and say dumb things. I remember one show where I claimed that Jimy Williams was trying to get himself fired in his last few weeks in Boston. My only evidence was his demeanor and the fact he batted Morgan Burkhart third in a game about two days after Burkhart was called up from Triple-A. In retrospect, I was talking out of my butt like Ace Ventura ... but when you're on the radio, once you make a dumb point, you have the equally dumb inclination to defend that point to the death. Hey, it happens.)

    Sean McDonough
    Once Simmons started challenging Sean McDonough, their chemistry improved.
  • Chemistry -- The final frontier. You can take the three most polished radio people on the planet, throw them in a booth and they still wouldn't necessarily have a good show. In my case, months passed before McDonough and I developed chemistry, and that was mainly because I stopped being deferential and started challenging him (busting his chops and disagreeing with him, just like I would with my friends). At the same time, McDonough was loosening up and drifting away from the "Raising the bar" motif -- not too much, but just enough where I felt infinitely more comfortable. And once my jitters faded away last spring, we started clicking on air. Now I pride myself on the fact I can make Sean crack up three to four times per show, which is like homering off Mariano Rivera in his prime.

    Obstacle No. 3: You need some sort of schtick

    And I'm not saying you have to go overboard ... but it helps when people have a pretty good idea of where you're going and what you're trying to accomplish. With me, it took about six months to carve out my mediocre schtick:

    Younger guy, diehard fan at heart; not a typical media member; self-professed Celtics expert; can talk Pats and Sox with anyone; turns into deaf-mute when college football or NHL is discussed; unafraid to say anything at any time; more than willing to go down in flames with a bad joke; has crazy readers calling in; sometimes unable to back up his more outlandish statements and theories with any hard-core evidence (but that doesn't stop him from trying to sell it); not afraid to poke fun at own annoying voice; occasional chauvinist; always tries to have fun and not take this stuff too seriously; flies off the handle any time someone mentions renovating Fenway Park; enjoys making McDonough uncomfortable; relentlessly tries to make McDonough crack up on the air.

    And that's it. Again, it's a work in progress. My biggest improvement over the past few months? My voice. It's not horrendous anymore ... it's just plain lousy. Trust me, that's a major leap.

    Obstacle No. 4: The "Risky Business" lesson

    NFL Picks
    Dallas (-2½) over Seattle: When Emmitt breaks the record, can Chad Hutchinson serenade him with an acoustic tribute?

    New England (-3) over Denver: Backs to the wall.

    N.Y. Jets (-3) over Cleveland: We're still about two weeks away from "The league has caught up to Chad Pennington."

    Tampa Bay (-7) over Carolina: If Chris Weinke set off a stampede in Vegas sports books last week, then Randy Fasani might cause them to spontaneously self-combust.

    (Season record: 9-8)
    Everyone remembers that scene in "Risky Business," when Miles tells Joel Goodson, "Sometimes you just gotta say, 'What the (Bleep)?'" Well, same goes for radio. And again, that's easier said than done.

    Out of everything, this was my single toughest adjustment -- turning off that tiny person in your brain that tells you things like, "Maybe you shouldn't say that" and "Are you sure you want to go there?" There are at least 10-12 moments during a radio show when you're talking, and you have no idea what you might say next -- you just know you're heading in a specific direction -- and you have to trust yourself completely. It's almost like that exercise in elementary school when you fall backward and trust that your partner will catch you. Same thing with radio. You have to trust yourself.

    In my case, I worried about dropping a random F-bomb on the air, a goofy concern considering that every radio show operates on a seven-second delay. But I was terrified. I swear too much; it's one of my worst habits (count me among those people who think that the F-bomb is the most expressive word on the planet). And that was always in the back of my mind -- Don't swear, don't swear -- along with everything else that was cluttering my head. Just another obstacle.

    (And you thought being on the radio was easy.)

    ***** ***** *****

    Last spring, everything finally fell into place. It took four months to feel comfortable and kick the nervous bug, and another three months to feel like, "Hey, I know what I'm doing." I even remember the exact show when full-fledged mediocrity was attained: A Thursday before Game 5 of the Sixers-Celtics playoff series, featuring McDonough, Ryan and me. And I never gave an inch. Ryan made good points, I made good points. Ryan did his schtick, I did mine. We were talking four straight hours of basketball -- me and someone I grew up reading, someone so knowledgeable about hoops that his nickname is "The Commissioner," a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame -- and I held my own.

    Best of all, it was a good show. Even better than mediocre. When I left the studio that night, I was floating on air, a rush unlike anything I've ever felt from writing. I'm not saying it was better or worse ... it was just different. Like getting drunk on tequila instead of whiskey. You talk sports for four hours, you get paid for it, and if you're lucky, it's even fun. What could be better than that?

    Anyway, that's what it feels like to be on the radio.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.