Guest Post: Paul Finebaum

August 17, 2010 – 11:40 am by Jimmy Shapiro

Sports Radio launched the week before the 2009 Super Bowl.  My goal was to show the online world that the most newsworthy and entertaining sports interviews took place on sports radio.  After 20 months of running SRI, we’ve written about and transcribed over 3700 interviews from close to 200 different sports radio shows.  While taste in radio hosts is obviously subjective, there’s no denying the fact that there are a multitude of ways to conduct a quality interview.

Every Tuesday, starting this week, we’ll have a guest post from a sports radio host.  I have asked them to comment on what makes a good interview, some of their techniques, their favorite guests, least favorite guests, and carte blanche to write pretty much whatever else they want.

Our first guest columnist is a sports media legend in the South who’s been a multimedia star for years, Paul Finebaum.  His sports radio show is syndicated on 38 different stations in the South. He’s been interviewed on 60 Minutes, Larry King Live, ESPN, Fox News, and HBO (for a full bio, click on his name below).

By Paul Finebaum

My career began as sportswriter and later as a sports columnist. About 20 years ago, I began drifting toward talk radio. Today, I host a program based out of Birmingham that is syndicated throughout the South on 38 stations between 3 and 7 p.m. (EDT). The program also airs nationally on Sirus/XM Sports Nation (Sirius channel 122 and XM channel 143).

The show’s primary focus is college sports and is a mix of guest interviews and listener calls.

Callers are the favorite part for our listeners. And while I enjoy the give and take, I love to interview people. My style is simple. Ask the question and get out of the way. While I strongly believe the interviewer should have a strong command of the subject, I still believe the best are those where you don’t remember the questions because you are riveted by the answers. The subject is the star. It doesn’t matter whether the person is Tiger Woods or a street cleaner in Brooklyn who happened to find Joe Namath’s Super Bowl’s ring in a trash dumpster.

It drives me up the wall to hear radio guys talking over their guests and asking two-minute questions. There is a time and place for that when you are talking to a newsmaker and they are being disingenuous. I used to chuckle at Larry King’s style. It seemed like he rolled out of bed and into the studio, asking who, what, when, where and how questions, whether the guest was Obama or Oprah. However, one night several years ago, I was on his CNN television show, “Larry King Live.’’ A teenage girl from Birmingham was missing in Aruba and he had about eight guests. On for the entire hour, I was blown away by how effortlessly and adroitly he moved from one person to the next, and still made a complex and painful story easy to watch and understand.

I think his ability comes from hosting an all-night radio show for many years where he had to learn the gift of gab.

I think Johnny Carson was the best interviewer from the old Tonight Show. He said something once in an interview which I subscribe to this day. Don’t talk to the guest off the air if you can help it. He would say hello to the person before the show, but briefly. And during the breaks, he would go off stage. Carson said he never wanted a guest to either fail to say something funny because he had already said the line off air. Or to say, “As I was telling you during the break.’’

The interviewer has been inquisitive and almost child-like in getting information. People always ask me about the best and worst interviews.

The worst are easy – anyone hawking a book or product. They reek of commercialism, especially, when the guest says at the end, “And, of course, you can buy my book by going to my web site or at’’

I’ll never forget being interviewed a couple of years ago by “60 Minutes.’’ It was about a Birmingham businessman accused of defrauding his stockholders out of several billion dollars. The day before, Mike Wallace’s producer came by and we were going over the details. I began to go through my resume with him, just to make sure he had it all down.

He gently put his hand up and said, “Paul, say no more. If we didn’t think you were important to the story, we wouldn’t be here.’’
Guests should realize the same thing. Once you’re on the show, you don’t have to sell your importance.

And Mike Wallace. When he showed up, I was scared to death, even though I was a bit player in the piece. The man’s reputation was that of being the toughest interview in the world. He was the most charming man I’ve ever met. He shook hands with me and smiled like a loving grandfather. He said, “May I call you Paul.’’ He had me at hello.

One of my favorite interviews came about 10 years ago. We had a group of old men together in the studio that once played minor-league baseball for a team called the Birmingham Black Barons. This was before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn. One man was talking about playing with Willie Mays as a teenager.

“Well, how good was he back then?’’

The old man took his time before answering. “Let me say this. Wille was good, real good.’’

“Not surprised,’’ I said. “Some say he was the best ever, either on the same plane or better than Babe Ruth.’’

“Best of all-time?’’ the man said, softly. “Willie could play some baseball. But let me tell you something. He wasn’t really as good as Cat.’’

Cat was Cat Mays – Willie’s dad. It’s an answer I’ve never forgotten. My regret is never being able to see him play.

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