An Interview with Bob Ley
“We do OTL because we fill an important part of the ESPN equation – which is asking people to take their brains out for a walk. We do it in a way that respects people – it’s not a top 10 list or a highlights show – those things are entertaining but this is different. We do substance…”
“We have frank and animated debates internally about who to bring on. That guy’s a big name but that guy’s a better speaker. What captivates an audience? I’m a firm believer that in 20 seconds you either establish credibility with an audience or you don’t.”
“There are perceived issues, different philosophies between ESPN’s entertainment side and journalism side, and between the business side and journalism side. But there is a Berlin Wall that is not coming down. Business interests do not dictate our news operation. Which is not to say the news side is not aware that our network has business partners.”
“You want to make sure you know your material and know where you want to go to get this done. Fatigue can be more of a question, particularly on Sunday morning when I’m up at 4 a.m., and I’ve got SportsCenter and Outside the Lines. The twin orbs of my brain are swirling in opposite directions at the same time.”
Bob Ley: Interviewed on December 18, 2006
Position: host, Outside the Lines; anchor, SportsCenter, ESPN
Born: 1955, Perth Amboy, NJ
Education: Seton Hall, 1976, communications
Career: WOR Radio, NY, 1976; Suburban Cablevision, East Orange, NJ, 77-79; New York Cosmos p.a. announcer 1979; ESPN 79 –
Personal: married, (Barbara), two daughters
Favorite restaurant (home): Landing Zone, Harwinton, Ct. “a little hole in the wall near the airstrip – noveau American eclectic cuisine – biker guys sitting at the bar – 212s sitting at tables”
Favorite restaurant (away): Tuscany, Bridgeport, Ct. “white lace Italian – if you have an outstanding warrant sit with your back to the door”
Favorite hotel: Mandarin Oriental, NYC “stayed there for ESPN’s 25th anniversary– plasma HD in the rooms – you gotta love it”
Q. You are known for being an artful interviewer – is there an art to asking a tough question?
A. ESPN brought in a guy – John Sawatsky – who was hired to do nothing but teach people how to conduct interviews and ask questions. I was in the first group – a four-day 40-hour seminar. Go to the NPR website – they did a story on “All Things Considered” about him.
I learned a number of things. The problem is learning the classic precepts and applying them on live TV. Most one-on-one interviews are not longer than four minutes – you want to follow up but not slow the show down. It requires adaptation. Even sideline reporters – the art is in asking a direct question to provoke a good answer – you’ve got to move right into it. You’ve got to ask it in a neutral sense in such a way that it moves the answer in the right direction. “Why did you warn him about going into the paint?” Why and how are the easy questions that hopefully can provoke an illuminating answer. The problem is that the world has become such a media-schooled place. People coming on (air) have been prepped – everybody has their force field on.
Q. You interviewed the elder President Bush a year after Katrina – one account said you asked him if his son deserved blame for the aftermath?
A. The Bush 41 question I recall was, “For leaders of the country, at all levels, what is the great lesson of Katrina?”
I’ve spent a lot of time with 41 in the past and with 43 and I know that 41 does not like to talk about 43 for a variety of reasons. There had been $100 million appropriated for Katrina relief and I was down there and didn’t see a lot of it at work – where the hell is that money going? If you read Doug Brinkley’s book – for a historian it’s full of anger but it’s factual too and you can weed out the opinion and fact. The book kills (New Orleans mayor Ray) Nagin and (Louisiana Governor Kathleen) Blanco doesn’t come out well, nor does (Homeland Security Secretary) Michael Chertoff.
Q. Sawatsky talks about asking “open-ended” rather than “close-ended” questions – and asking questions to elicit information rather than to prove a point – and persisting when necessary.
A. John is a tremendously intelligent man, a gifted reporter in his own right, and he’s raised the bar on interviewing no doubt. (His point about) persisting is interesting – because the demands and realities of live TV – and not just time, but the concerns of losing an audience in a 500 channel world – make that a calculated risk in any format except (Tim) Russert’s or Charlie Rose’s.
Q. Any memorably tough interviews?
A. I do recall interviewing David Stern live during the 2001 All-Star break, when the issues of NBA players disrespecting the game/image were paramount – those were the pre-Lebron and Carmelo days. Our piece included Nate McMillan, then coach of Seattle, basically calling out young players, as well as a veteran player. Stern was, to borrow from Queen Victoria, not amused – and I’ve known David for years. I’d like to think there is a good reservoir of mutual respect there. And as he criticized the report I simply asked him, “Commissioner, what specifically is inaccurate about that report?”
Q. Why does ESPN do Outside the Lines?
A. Do you mean why does it still, or why does it do it? That’s a question many people feel the need to ask. I know why originally – there was nothing like it since Sports Beat had moved on. It started in 1990 as an episodic hourly show, then it became a monthly through the 90s and then in April 200 it became a weekly show to the not inconsiderable amount of skepticism internally about its chance of survival. It became a nightly in May 2003 and a daily show in July 2006.
We do OTL because we fill an important part of the ESPN equation – which is asking people to take their brains out for a walk. We do it in a way that respects people – it’s not a top 10 list or a highlights show – those things are entertaining but this is different. We do substance – good journalism – we find good stories and macro issues and present them well because nobody is going to watch if we don’t. In the hyper-competitive environment of 500 channels you better give somebody a compelling reason not to hit the clicker, which is part of the male chromosome and I think our network has more high-testosterone males watching than anybody else. So it’s a challenge to hold those viewers. We’ve figured out a proven form to present a good story and hold our audience.
Q. Does ESPN do OTL to satisfy a journalistic obligation?
A. Inherent in that question is an inference – and I’m not saying you are, but one might say there is a lot of that going on elsewhere, and I would not necessarily agree with anybody who would say that.
I remember when we were building this place and we were the young Engine That Could and everybody loved us – we were the network everybody gravitated to because we were the new kids on the block. Now we get to the top of the mountain – we are acquired by Disney – and we’re not so much a network as a brand. We’re an international entertainment brand and we have more viewers around the world than domestically. So now that you’re on top what’s the natural American inclination – you take shots at the guy on top – it’s a chic thing to do.
Inherent in that question is a criticism that we don’t do journalism, and that’s simply not the case. Yesterday morning on ESPN News (correspondent) Chris Sheridan was being interviewed on the Knicks fight and he gave a tidbit about (Knicks coach) Isaiah (Thomas) talking to ‘Melo (Carmelo Anthony) before the foul – saying ‘I wouldn’t go into the paint – it’s not a good idea’. That’s now the focus of the league investigation and we had it yesterday morning.
There’s a pretty good body of journalism being done on the network. Some of the longer-form features being produced are evocative and telling. SportsCenter, in its 60 or 90 minutes, does a good job of encapsulating and highlighting the news and our anchors do their jobs extremely well.
That said, there is an obligation on all the shows here, and incumbent upon us, to deliver a number. Ted Koppel said this in the Times about ABC, “It’s not a public interest corporation – it’s publicly owned.” Nightline had to turn a profit. His biggest rating was a show with Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, which generated the coin to allow him to go to Israel to do a town meeting – that’s the tradeoff.
Outside the Lines as a corporate entity must carry its own weight. Incumbent on us is doing shows that appeal to people – it’s no different than the New York Times watching its circulation numbers.
Q. Do you worry about OTL ratings?
A. Do we sit in the corner and whimper and ring our hands – no. Are we cognizant of the need to present an appealing show – yes. How do we tell the story of Marvin Harrison? How do we get inside this enigmatic spectacular somewhat reclusive Hall of Fame quality receiver? Maybe it’s not necessary to do that show a day before the Bengals play the Colts on Monday night, but if it’s a good story we’re going to mention that. We are accused of being over-promotional – and I take the fifth on that – but that’s what keeps us going.
The very success of the whole network allows OTL to continue and be a showcase. Sunday morning at 9:30 is the Rodeo Drive of network time slots, and I don’t want to say that too loud because there’s not a lot of competition for what we do. It’s Sports Reporters and us, and if we do our job well we’ve got 300 million Americans all to ourselves.
The afternoon show, by comparison, is at a hyper-competitive time.
Q. Are OTL ratings adequate?
A. Absolutely. Between SportsCenter and Sports Reporters on Sunday morning it more than holds its own. Weekdays it’s not nearly as large a number, but more often than not it raises the ratings of the show that precedes it.
This is not charity. We’re not some Ford Foundation show on PBS.
Q. What was the highest rated OTL show?
A. I believe it was on the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry – it happened to be on the day that Don Zimmer got into it with Pedro – that was a huge number for obvious reasons.
We’ve done shows on thorny topics like race – race is the great elephant in the living room, especially in sports. We’ve done some thoughtful shows on race that have done very well, and that’s encouraging. There’s a body of thought that while American’s demographic is changing white Americans still predominate and white Americans don’t want to have this uncomfortable conversation about race. But our shows have done well because sport presents a unique opportunity to have this conversation that resonates to other parts of America.
LZ Granderson wrote a piece for Page 2, about the HBO show ‘The Wire’ being a huge hit among black athletes – because it unstintingly presents a certain slice of black life in honest and human terms. The point is that when you work in sports you’ve got to understand the concept of diversity in your soul – and that applies to when you are thinking about stories who to talk to and how to make develop a story cognizant of this. We’ve got a term – ‘Rolladex suspects – meaning round up the usual suspects. Sometimes you have to say, wait a second, how can we do better?
There’s a constant dynamic on TV – we have frank and animated debates internally about who to bring on. That guys a big name but that guy’s a better speaker. What captivates an audience? I’m a firm believer that in 20 seconds you either establish credibility with an audience or you don’t. Either you know what you’re saying or you don’t. Putting together a good panel is a chemistry class – it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes thought. Live shows are even more difficult because you can’t edit. When you sit somebody down in front of a camera, with lights in his face, and ask him questions – it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. It’s an acquired skill.
Q. Granderson’s piece also was about homosexuality – about when a gay male athlete in a team sport will come out.
A. We have done a number of shows over the years on gay athletes, as far back as when we were only a monthly show. I’d estimate at least five shows, between a monthly, and some Sunday and daily/nightly shows. The great question has been – when will a male team athlete come out in the pros? And the reporting seems to be stuck there. I did a story with a young high school kid in a small Pennsylvania town who was basically run out of town for coming out. Wrenching.
Q. How large is the OTL staff?
A. That’s tough – I’m not sure I can conjure up a number. There’s a core group of about 15 and some rotate in and out. We also have freelance reporters and producers and we also utilize the resources of SportsCenter and they use our material. In some instances we take their features and repurpose it for our needs. And of course our research department is top of the line – they’ll research any number of concepts or fact-check something usually in 20 minutes.
Q. George Solomon, the ESPN ombudsman, has criticized the news operation in several general areas – that it overplays and over-covers sensational stories and that interviews need to be sharper and with tougher questions. Are those fair?
A. George was hired to do his column and I don’t disagree with a lot of things he says. But we do so much as a network and speak to so many different people in so many way – anybody who sits there as a parent or consumer and agrees with everything they see – you’d have to be on Kool-Aid. I don’t run the place – a lot of smart people do, some of whom are my friends, and they’re all very open about what we do. We hired George to do that column – I had him on my show to discuss the Bobby Knight ‘chin’ thing. Everybody is very open to dialogue on why we do certain things and why we should do some things differently – it’s a collaborative process.
Not that it’s a democracy nor should it be – it’s a business. In terms of dialogue the top guys listened to complaints about the ‘Bonds on Bonds’ show – which I was totally against. It all came out during a talent symposium in March at Bradley Airport. We had an honest, open and frank dialogue about the propriety of doing this – they didn’t shrink from it – they asked questions and considered all the viewpoints. It wasn’t like ‘We’re doing it this way and screw you.’ And ultimately they responded to our concerns.
Q. Is there tension between the entertainment and journalism sides at ESPN?
Sometimes questions arise. There are perceived issues, different philosophies between ESPN’s entertainment side and journalism side, and between the business side and journalism side. But there is a Berlin Wall that is not coming down. Business interests do not dictate our news operation. Which is not to say the news side is not aware that our network has business partners. We did a story developed by espn.com about NFL research into concussions – it was Peter Keating’s story. If you read it you know it raises serious questions about the NFL policy, but there was never a suggestion that we don’t do the story. We do vital business with the NFL. You let folks know it’s coming out on Sunday – if they want to let their folks know it’s their business. We just don’t want a colleague blind-sided at 10 a.m. Sunday morning. I’m not saying folks internally are always happy that the guys at OTL have done a particular story, but there’s never a suggestion it’s not something we should be doing.
Please understand that on a regular basis, at story conferences and management meetings, the boys upstairs are constantly updated on stories in development from all areas of the company – for reasons of editorial content, insuring an economy of labor, etc., – and in that mix is the education of all to any particularly sensitive story. So I can’t specifically say for sure how Peter’s story was brought to the attention of upper management – my boss is Vince Doria – but it was probably in the normal course of business. No badge of courage need be presented to anyone here.
Q. Didn’t the NFL exert pressure to cancel the “Playmakers” series?
A. It took a fair amount of stones to put that on to begin with. My understanding is that there were indications the NFL wasn’t happy about it before it went on, and even so it went on and lasted a full year. I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve read it in other media, that the company was approached by other entities to sell the rights of Playmakers – we could have made a lot of money and believe me we’re about making money – and we chose not to. You can take the contrarian view that ESPN folded like a bunch of lackeys, but it took something to put that on. By the way Tank Johnson, what’s fact and what’s fiction?
Q. ESPN’s impact on the sports culture is said to be negative – is that fair?
A. It started with the highlight phenomenon – and this goes back ten years now – the wallpapering of highlights contributed to the “me first – look at me” attitude. Maybe ten or twelve years ago there might have been some validity on that issue, but I can tell you first hand a lot of thought goes on about what goes on the air. We are the 800-pound sports gorilla that defines the daily discourse on sports, and I said this to Chris (Berman) on our 25th special – with being a leader goes a great amount of responsibility. It is one we take seriously. I can speak for myself and the people I work with on a daily basis – we do take it seriously. I think parenthood helps you understand, and answering e-mails and phone calls helps you understand just how much responsibility we have.
The flip side is they give us a great forum. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves these are the jobs we wanted all of our lives. It gives us a podium.
You can positively affect things – if somebody doesn’t run out a ground ball and you report it – sometimes the facts alone are damning. I’m very happy we were the first to report this Isaiah thing. If somebody sent somebody out to commit a hard foul on one of the best players in the game that should be reported.
To assume our impact is always negative is somewhat unfair.
Q. Are you a sportscaster or a broadcaster?
A. I guess I’m a broadcaster. A sportscaster would be the Red Blazer in the white world of sports.
A. That’s from the old Cheech and Chong song, “Basketball Jones.” A song on which, by the way, George Harrison and Carly Simon played in the band, and Michelle Phillips was a backup singer.
Q. Ever experience stage fright?
A. No, but you’re always on edge. You’re always driven by a fear of failure. One of the funniest things that happened to me was when we were doing a town meeting on ‘sportsmanship’ at Disney World, in 1997, before a live audience. We spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on this and put in a lot of work. With two minutes to air, I’m standing on my mark, my boss, Howard Katz, calls me over. He says, “Bob, don’t bleep it up.” I said, “Thanks Howard, I’ll try not to.” That was his way of loosening me up.
Stage fright is a Ralph Kramden thing. You want to make sure you know your material and know where you want to go to get this done. Fatigue can be more of a question, particularly on Sunday morning when I’m up at 4 a.m., and I’ve got SportsCenter and Outside the Lines. The twin orbs of my brain are swirling in opposite directions at the same time. Sometimes I’ll introduce a live piece on the SportsCenter set, and then turn to my computer and work on the 9:30 show. Even on the afternoon show I can be juggling two shows, or taking care of e-mails during a commercial.
Q. Who do you read?
A. Peggy Noonan – I wish I could write like her. Tom Friedman – though I don’t always agree with him, but he is a master of synthesizing the complex to the conversational. John LeCarre – he can construct such marvelous plots. I’m reading Dave Kindred’s “Sound and Fury” – we had Dave on for the anniversary of John Lennon’s death – he gave us the behind-the-scenes story of how Monday Night Football reported it. James Lee Burke – the novelist – who is painfully poetic.
Q. Who do you read in sports?
A. We get a daily clipping service. I don’t have a favorite columnist – I’m always driven to read out of necessity. The usual suspects – (Mike) Lupica (NY Daily News), Mike Penner (LA Times) – whether he writes a column or a story you know you’re getting good stuff. One of the troubles with the afternoon show is by the time I open the Wall Street Journal or USA Today it’s 8 p.m.
My day starts at 6. I open e-mail and click on live links and by the time you come up for air it’s dinner. I’m up at 6 to check the night note and see if the world has exploded. There’s a meeting at 8 and 10 a.m. and we’re on the air at 3:30. I come home and I’m working on the next day’s show. There’s always a piece to polish or something an associate producer has prepared. Right now I’m off for two weeks and my PDA is buzzing away and I’m fighting the Pavlovian urge to check it. I really don’t have a sense of an off day because of the need to stay current.
Q. On-air personalities you admire?
A. Bob Costas – I always enjoy him. I watched his Sportsman of the Year show – he’s always thoughtful. The world has changed – I used to watch the Voice of God at 6:30 – Cronkite or Brokaw or Jennings. We’re in a new media age – it’s interesting to watch Katie (Couric) try to establish herself. I like to watch my good friend Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.
Q. How did you get to ESPN?
A. I sent a tape after I got a call out of the blue from Scotty Connal – the original No. 2 guy in our company, with Chet Simmons. I’m not sure of Scotty’s exact title but he was a prince, and an icon in the industry. He offered me a job and at the same time I had an offer from New Jersey Public TV. I had 18 hours to choose. It was a tough call – like one of those countdown clocks to the NFL draft we put on. I was 24 when I had the offer from ESPN, and I took it.
Q. Good decision?
A. I think it worked out okay.
Q. Ever consider working elsewhere?
A. I’ve had a number of feelers over the year. The most serious was 10 years ago when CNN SI was beginning operations, and my contract was coming up at ESPN. We had very substantial conversations, but – like my choice between job openings in 1979 – I think I opted correctly.
(SMG thanks Bob Ley for his cooperation)
Q.The Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticized an OTL show about Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche using medication for ADD. The paper said OTL failed to point out that LaRoche’s improved hitting coincided with becoming a regular in the Braves lineup, and that it failed to point out that other major leaguers are using the medication. Your reaction?
A. The AJC’s reaction was rather surprising. My recollection is that we did mention other major leaguers using ADD drugs. I do recall we were startled at the volume of the criticism, and that the central issue of the LaRoche show was this: he was using a drug otherwise banned by baseball. We contrasted that, in our presentation, with the OTL exclusive earlier in the summer in which retired major leaguer David Segui said he used HgH with a doctor’s prescription, late in his career – and Segui ascribed incredble recuperative qualities to the drug.