Firestone: “I’ve done 5,000 interviews. It’s less about the questions and more about the rapport with guests. Barry Switzer and Bob Knight were among my most challenging sports interviews.”
What in the world happened to ESPN’s Roy Firestone?
Beginning in the early ’80s during ESPN’s first and fledgling decade and continuing later through its formative years, Firestone dominated sports interviews. He was on regularly; virtually every night. For viewers, each show was a learning experience. The shows were entertaining and pleasant but could also have an edge to them as we’ll learn in our Q&A.
I can hear the show’s theme music now, leading into ESPN’s Sports Look and later when it was renamed Up Close. The program went thirty minutes and was so prevalent that Roy had his pickings of guests. It was so popular that Firestone’s set in Southern California was the place for athletes to be seen.
Through the years, Firestone had a plethora of big named guests on the show; from Michael Jordan down. Roy says that he produced some 5,000 interviews; so many that he was sometimes referred to as the ‘Oprah Winfrey of Sports.’
Television play-by-play announcers caption pictures. They have to be sharp, concise, prepared and not overbearing; but they generally don’t shape viewers’ opinions. The games and athletes speak for themselves; leaving little for interpretation. Lots of black and white, little gray. Many fans even enjoy watching games in bars, restaurants and places of public consumption where the sound is muted. And many will say that the hushed volume doesn’t compromise their viewing experience.
On the other hand, interviewers can serve as influence mongers. The tenor of their voices and the wording of the questions they pose to interviewees can steer audiences one way or another. Roy didn’t have an agenda. The setting in his studio was generally non-confrontational; it was informative and stimulating.
My recollection of Roy was that he was the psychologist asking questions and the interviewees were his patients on the couch. There’s a subtle art and a delicate skill to get subjects to open up, something that Firestone did very well. Using his disarming smile and a blessed dulcet tone, Roy effectively induced guests to show their hand, to reveal their on and off the field experiences; to divulge their innermost thoughts.
From my perspective, Roy Firestone is at the top of the list with Chris Berman, Bob Ley and Dick Vitale; fellows who helped build ESPN’s needed image during its first decade or so.
When it started in 1979, ESPN had little; little money and little live programming. The over-the-air networks owned the big live events. The network first proved itself in the studio. But until it built its reputation and coffers sufficiently to afford deals with the NFL and Major League Baseball, Roy Firestone was one of the network’s prominent faces. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Firestone and ESPN grew in lockstep. The names were interchangeable.
Roy had the goods! He grew up on Miami Beach, got into television locally under the tutelage of South Florida news and sports icon, Tony Segreto and the station’s irrepressible sports producer Bernie Rosen. He later moved to Southern California where he anchored sports reports for the local CBS affiliate.
Since leaving ESPN in the ’90s, he’s kept himself quite active in a variety of ways, including doing tons of corporate work. He also performs as a singer. But the long form interview in today’s world of short attention spans is not in vogue. As Lee Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated in 2010, “The sound bite has drowned him (Firestone) out and that’s a crying shame.”
Jenkins, who now works for the Clippers, continued, “He was a creation of the explosion in sports media and a casualty of it. While in the ’80s, fans were still being introduced to players as people, by the mid-’90s there was a sense we knew it all.”
Firestone has tried reviving the show but has been unable to find a network interested in running it. As Roy told me, “It’s not out of a lack of effort.”
As Jenkins put it, “It’s less a statement about him than about the industry. Despite the overwhelming demand for access to athletes, no long form sports interview show exists anymore.”
There was another factor. ESPN’s acceptance by leagues and governing bodies, something that Firestone and the other network stars helped foster in the ’80s, enabled it to land play-by-play; be it baseball, football or basketball. So programming in prime-time and even later nighttime hours, times when Firestone’s shows ran, were now committed to play-by-play. In other words, he might have been a victim of his own success.
Firestone’s laid-back style fit its format, perhaps because he didn’t face the tyranny of the clock. He went thirty minutes with guests. He ran a free form, friendly interview, which might no longer be doable in this day of confrontational and probing questioning.
How popular was Roy? When ESPN pulled a coup, getting rights to NFL games on Sunday nights in 1987, Roy was the first commentator, working alongside play-by-player, Mike Patrick.
Roy is still based in Southern California and we engaged in a long Q&A recently. It’s interesting to note that I generally send questions to our guests in advance of interviews. But Firestone insisted that he rather answer spontaneously and not get the questions ahead of our phone interview.
Who was behind the conceptual framework of the show and how did it evolve?
I was in my 20s when Tony Verna, an award winning and longtime sports and entertainment producer, hired me to do interviews which first ran on USA Network. I remember one day doing like 15 interviews, flying off the seat of my pants. I got $250 a show. It was called Mazda SportsLook. We didn’t have the rights to any big sports events so Tony had me conduct interviews with athletes at big events. They had to be done in parking lots and back alleyways because we weren’t allowed to do interviews on the actual grounds.
The show moved to ESPN in 1982 and ran at 6p prior to the 6:30 SportsCenter. Years later when SportsCenter was expanded to an hour, SportsLook was renamed Up Close and ran at 5:30. When I started with ESPN, the network was filled with Australian Rules Football and trout fishing. I stayed until 1994. Chris Meyers and later Gary Miller hosted the remaining years of the show. I’ve done some 5,000 interviews through the years, I would say that 3,500 were with notable athletes.
Why were you successful?
I wasn’t that good at first. I learned that it’s not the questions as much as it is having a rapport with your guest. It’s why Howard Stern is a tremendous interviewer. You want the viewer to think to himself, ‘I like what he’s asking. It’s what I would ask.’
How would you label yourself?
I’m not a journalist. I’m a communicator. An interviewer relies on his feel. Ask what hasn’t been asked before. Today, the line of questioning is predictable. ‘What were you thinking when you were down a touchdown?’ That question won’t get into a subject’s head. A good show to me was when the viewer learned what makes the guest tick.
What’s the key ingredient that makes an effective interviewer? Is it curiosity?
Curiosity, of course, but what’s essential is preparing your butt off. I did most of my interviewers before Wikipedia or Google or the internet. I had no benefit of one-stop shopping. I enjoyed the process; I had the passion. If we got a confirmation for an interview last minute, I would dig through old Sporting News clips and sit in the library until late at night. You can’t go into an interview cold.
I am also a big believer in storytelling. I may start a story and have the subject pick it up. It might have been a life changing story. Instead of asking something like ‘What happened in your life that made you…?’ Start the story and let the guest go from there.
I had the late former Braves’ great Eddie Mathews on the show. He had suffered from alcoholism. I would begin a story and have to remind him of the facts because he suffered black outs. It was an emotional interview.
My love of people makes me want to find something special about them; something human. People on the field are just like the rest of us, except that they’re preternaturally gifted.
Again, ask the question that hasn’t been posed in the past.
I asked Vin Scully to share tips for students about interviewing and he said, “Pause for a couple seconds after the subject answers a question. Don’t jump into the next question immediately. You never know if the subject will add something of interest.” Do you agree?
Absolutely and Vin was an excellent interviewer. I guess it plays along with Vin’s style of pausing when the crowd erupts. Don’t be afraid of dead air. Embrace it. It’s a great tool. Listen to Rush Limbaugh or Colin Cowherd. Long pauses are drama.
Again, let me repeat. It’s not so much about the questions as it is about information you bring and the rapport you have with your guests.
What’s interviewing like today?
Too many soundbite interviews. Too many are argumentative and opinionated. Opinions are the cheapest form of programming.
If you were teaching a class on interviewing to a group of budding broadcasters, what three suggestions would you make?
- Never write out a question.
- Never be unprepared.
- Listen to what the subject is saying. Sometimes there’s a hesitation, a pause or apprehension. Sometimes the guest is stringing along an answer to parry a query. These are all good signs; door openers.
What is the best compliment you can get?
A viewer would say, Roy didn’t just interview the subject. He made him more interesting.
Through all your guests over some 15 years, who was your most difficult interview?
The first guy I can think of is Bobby Knight. He’s unpredictable. He can be irascible and a bully. He’ll try to character assassinate you. Then again, get him on a good night and if he likes you, he’ll give you a lot. I’ve experienced both sides of him.
Another toughie was Barry Switzer, the former Cowboys coach. He threatened to hit me during an interview. His dad Frank was a bootlegger in Arkansas. He cheated on his wife Louise. The house in which they lived had no insulation, cold in the winter and overbearingly hot in the Arkansas summer. The mom drank a lot. Barry came home from college and the mom came into his room to say good night. She was drunk and there was a gun in the house. When she left his room, Barry heard her draw a pistol. She walked outside and committed suicide.
I asked Barry, ‘You knew she was drunk and had access to a gun, why didn’t you stop her?’ A 45 second pause followed and he said, “I don’t know. It’s haunted me the rest of my life.”
In some ways these interviewing experiences remind me of the time Jim Everett went after Jim Rome on ESPN.
What Rome did was appalling. Jim was trying to gain points and look like a tough guy. Rome was aggressive. Everett asked him politely to stop and he just kept coming. Not good. I don’t do Rome-like smack. It’s not my thing. You need dignity. It’s not who I am, I don’t mock or ridicule. Jim Rome interview with QB Jim Everett
How did you deal with interviewing terse and guarded subjects?
I would get right at it and ask the question. I’ll give you an example. I had Dean Smith on. He was terse and expected the same of his players. I asked why would a guy like Michael Jordan not say much? What makes you and especially your players so tight-lipped or guarded? His answer helped paint a profile. Smith said, “It’s not my place to judge Michael about his personal or political views.” It said a lot of why both spoke in careful and measured intervals.
Any other confrontations by guests?
Well, I had the black, Stanford and Olympic figure skater Debi Thomas on the show. She was a pre-med student. I asked how as a budding doctor, knowing how bad cigarettes are, she can skate for a team that was sponsored by a cigarette company. She wasn’t happy, so during the taping, she asked if we can stop the tape. I said, no. This is live for tape. (Editor’s note: Thomas later lost all her savings through divorces. She reportedly lives in a shanty, a bug-infested squalor in the South.)
(More with Roy to come)