Newsletter 118: Getting Used to Live Television

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from August 2018, about how I’m trying to get more used to being on live television. It’s still sort of hard! I’ll be on MLB Network all day today, and it’ll never stop making me a little nervous.

This Tuesday, just minutes after the MLB Trade Deadline passed, I got to talk about everything that was happening on the MLB Network on “MLB Now.” A panel of four people — Brian Kenny, Joe Magrane, John Hart and myself — reacted to every last-minute move in real-time on national television. (Well, basic cable, anyway.) I didn’t write a piece about the trade deadline. I wasn’t there to talk about a book I had written. I was just a person on television wearing makeup and opining on the news of the day. I was a pundit. I was paid to simply talk. It’s … it’s strange.

The first real time I spoke nationally on any sort of live program — and we’re not counting “Win Ben Stein’s Money” here — was on Dan Le Batard’s radio show, probably around early 2006. Deadspin was only about four months old and just starting to get noticed, and Le Batard, as usual, was ahead of the curve. His producer emailed the tips line asking if “whoever runs this site” wanted to come on, and I said yes, because I liked Le Batard (I’d used to nurse hangovers listening to his old Sunday morning ESPN Radio show) and because, hey, gotta promote the site, man. But I knew I wouldn’t be very good at it. I had no media training, I spoke even faster than I do now and I was very nervous. The interview was a bit of a shitshow, just me saying, “um” and “you know” over and over while trying to sound tougher and cooler than I was. I knew I was bombing, and I remember checking my email when the interview was over and having a bunch of readers tell me, “you should probably stick to typing.”

That was fine with me. I was raised in the print journalism world, where being on television was basically considered selling out. We at the Daily Illini made fun of all the broadcast journalism people, mocking them for not being real reporters, basically just glorified theater dorks. Our heroes were Mike Royko, and Gary Smith, and Molly Ivins, sarcastic ink-stained grumblers who’d never let a makeup brush near them. We were too busy closing the bar down to go talk about waffles on your morning show. We were Serious Journalists. We told ourselves this, a lot. Neverminding that my hero growing up, Roger Ebert, was of course famous mostly because of television. That was how I knew him, after all.

The real world has a tendency to shatter the misguided ideals of college students, As Deadspin grew, and I started to get more media requests, I decided it was in my better interest to improve my on-air abilities, so I went after it the only way I know how to do anything: Do it over and over and over until I’m not horrible at it. (“The only way to get better on television is reps,” a producer friend once told me. “There is no class to take.”) I said yes to every request, I started doing regular radio hits, I even started myself a podcast. The best training I ever got for television, frankly, was the infamous “Costas Now” appearance. If I could handle a lunatic basically going after me with a chainsaw for 15 minutes, there was no way I’d be scared of any television thing ever again. It couldn’t possibly get worse than that.

After I left Deadspin, it became clear that being some sort of purist about writing vs. talking was going to be a major detriment: You had to learn to do it, or, I started to find, you’d actually miss out on writing opportunities. Being on television kept you in people’s minds and, more important, it kept you in editors’ minds. All I ever wanted to do was write, and going on television made more people want you to write for them. So I decided to do as much television as they’d let me, on one condition: It wouldn’t slow down my writing any. If I ever stopped writing because of television, I’d have abandoned the only reason I got into this in the first place. So now I just do both.

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As you can surely tell by watching any television appearance, I’ve hardly mastered this. I’m still a writer impersonating a television person. I’m still too long-winded on television. I remember once doing FS1’s “Fox Sports Live” with Charissa Thompson the day Chris Kluwe wrote his infamous Deadspin essay. Kluwe was on the show that night, and we took turns interviewing him. My questions were all long, complicated, what-does-it-all-mean? longform magazine writer questions. Thompson completely schooled me, asking sharp, to-the-point questions about the news of the day. Eventually I just stopped asking questions all together and just watched her be much better at her job than I ever will be.

But I like how television keeps you on your toes, how it’s a high-wire act, how, if you had some sort of Tourettian brain spasm, you could end your career in basically half a second. (It’s the difference between blogging and having an editor who can save you.) I also like how you have to react not just to whatever the news is, but also to whatever the person you are talking to is saying. Writing is a solitary activity, but television is a group effort; I haven’t worked in an office in more than 13 years, and I’ve discovered that I do sort of miss the collective team effort of television sometimes. I feel a kinship with the people I work with on television in a way I never get to feel with writing, where it’s always just me out there. You can’t do it alone. I have such respect for the work that goes into doing a television show. It absolutely blows my mind how much work goes into even something as simple as my Sports Illustrated show. Even the worst shows are, in their own way, a miracle. They’re hard to put together. It’s sort of amazing there are so many of them.

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And the thing about it, I’m finally realizing, is that they are fun. Every Sports Illustrated show, even the Scaramucci one, gets my adrenaline level up. It’s exciting to make something that didn’t exist before. Being able to talk about baseball trades at the deadline — something I would be doing anyway, with friends at a bar — for a live viewing audience is actually fulfilling. You feel proud of it. You feel like you did something that day. You feel like you’ve earned that drink. It doesn’t replace writing. It will never be my first love, or my true passion. But I’ve come to really value it. I’ve come to take it seriously. And I’ve come to think that those who do it at the highest levels are more skilled that I ever could have realized. Doing it is a blast. I never would have guessed I’d feel that way. But I really do. I’m lucky to get the opportunity. And I won’t forget it.

I still talk way too fast, though. That’s never gonna stop, I’m afraid.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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