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AA Q&A: Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo

NEW YORK — I'm admittedly not very knowledgeable about sports talk radio, but I know when I like people, and I definitely have a respect for Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo's work. They're funny, honest, and don't deal in platitudes or mindless chatter, and are clearly not just trying for YouTube-able moments. They're just two guys who enjoy talking about this stuff and want to make it fun without being terrible people. 

SVP and Russillo goes live from New York all week for their ESPN Radio program (simulcast on ESPNews) from Times Square, across the set from where ESPN records Olbermann each night. This is not as much an interview, but a conversation we had after their Monday show about being national voices in a super-regional world, getting calls from Matthew McConaughey, and what's made their partnership work over the last five years…

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Steve Lepore: Whenever I ask someone about sports radio shows they like, the default is always you guys and [Dan] Patrick. What do you guys think makes the show work?

Scott Van Pelt: First of all, that's great to be lumped in with that. I think there's a tendency in the medium to think if you yell the loudest, or you say the most outlandish thing to get attention, that's the way to go. We never went that way.

We like sports, we watch sports, we talk about sports. I think we like each other, but we don't… I think there's a little bit of brotherly there where we piss each other off from time to time, so it's not all cake and ice cream. 

I don't know, the thing that I'm the most happy about with what we do, is that we've never really changed what we set out to do. I think we were not instructed but, I don't know that we always thought that was going to work and to the degree that it has, here we are still doing it, and we never changed for anybody. 

Ryen Russillo: I agree with a lot of that. I also think that national talk show hosts are old, and it's really hard to get into this business and be like "I'm gonna be a national guy." I mean, I'm 38 and I'm considered young for this, which to me, is laughable. But when I first started I was 33, 34. I think, the way I see things and the way Scott looks at things… we're really one of the only national shows that can make Shania Twain references and not gross you out. When I hear guys talk about how hot some starlet is, they sound more like a pedophile than… [laughs] just a guy you would talk to.

SVP: At the same time, though, I think we're not trying to go to college bars and creep on women because we're adults. I think we're open in our fondness for remembering being young, and I think we have younger sensibilities, but no one's trying to kid themselves here. We're all older than we used to be.

Lepore: The internet, in terms of sports talk. How much do you think it influences you? Maybe in a reverse way, whereas the internet is sort of screaming into a vacuum, does it influence you to say something that will maybe last longer than 20 seconds? Do you try and make it last a little longer than something that might sound good as a tweet?

Russillo: I think there are times where you come across opinions that you have where you start thinking about different topics.

Like, the Andrew Luck topic was one of those we hoped would have a little more staying power than just "hey, this is a topic on the show." My feeling was, Andrew Luck, he's the best of the young quarterbacks. Every time I say that I get resistance because — there's Russell Wilson, there's Colin Kaepernick, RGIII or even Cam Newton, guys that are his peers — people looked at it as a race issue. Where I never thought of it as a race issue. I was just like… how could you guys think any of them other than Andrew Luck is a better quarterback? 

One of the things I noticed was all of the feedback I was getting when I brought up the topic, I would have black guys come at me on Twitter. I was like "Wow, this is a trend." So, what was happening is that people thought any time someone was standing up for Luck it was because he was white. That's the kinda topic where you go "This is something we can revisit, this is something that's a little more than just recapping a game."

That's something you hope has more staying power, and has somebody think "Hey, those guys were talking about that a few months ago." Because I'm sure it'll come again, because Luck's going to be compared to those guys forever.

SVP: My thought on the internet, as it relates to us, and I'm really guilty of this: to allow myself to think that Twitter represents society. I'll find myself saying "Well, people are saying this about X." Well, is it people? Or is it some idiot on Twitter?

I say "some idiot" dismissively, but I can look at what you said, and if all you do is troll people and whatever, then people didn't say that, somebody looking for a reaction said that. The internet can influence how you believe things are being consumed rather than how they really are.

That's why I thought what Deadspin did with the Richard Sherman thing was interesting and valuable. They referenced where in media the word "thug" was used, and who used it. Because, if the media's calling him that, well who said it and in what context? As opposed to comment egg on Twitter. 

I'm not trying to say something to be viral. I'm not trying to say something to get replayed. That's a zero sum game, man. If it happens on Tuesday and gets retweeted on some site, then Wednesday we're onto the next. That's not a goal either of us has. 

Lepore: The Sherman thing seems like it would be a minefield for sports talk radio. It's catnip for a lot of people, but was it weird to watch that story evolve to the point where we're now all complaining that he's become boring? 

SVP: We kinda know him a little bit. The thing that was interesting was, when we met him in New Orleans, and sometimes people will come through where it just so happened it was a long enough break where we could talk to him before we talked to him on the air. And you [looks at Russillo] were kinda telling him what you thought of him, which was interesting. 

Russillo: Yeah, I told him "I don't really like you." [laughs] I told him I hated him, but then I started watching him more and realized he was really good, I didn't know how good he was. He was really cool about it. That's kind of the way that I like to approach things. 

I always kinda laugh about, if Favre comes to work for us, I'm gonna have to spend the first two minutes going "I really haven't been able to stand you for like five or six years [laughs]. So, let's get that out of the way."

SVP: But, to Ryan's credit, he told him that and then Sherman… the thing that struck me about  Sherman was he was genuinely kinda taken aback, he was like "Wow, that's what you thought of me?" And [Ryan] was like "Yeah, cause that's what you seemed to be presenting." And he's such a bright guy that I don't even think he'd considered that people had internalized it that way.

Russillo: It was not that I hated him because I thought he was dumb, though. It's just… there's nothing I dislike more in the world of sports than the Damon Jones of the world. Like, when Damon Jones got all those threes because Shaq got all the attention with Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat. Then he actually started to think he was good all of a sudden. You're like "you're not good." 

He was wearing a red crushed velvet suit on the front line of the Slam Dunk contest high fiving dudes who actually made money in the league [laughs] and I'm going "you're not that guy, you don't live in their world." I just thought, for a second, that Sherman was just one of those guys who was telling the rest of the world to look at him. But when you're doing that, and you're one of the best in the league, then I really don't have a problem with it.

That's why, the Sherman thing bothered me, I think we've become really obsessed with the use of words. All of a sudden "thug" became the worst. If somebody described someone as a thug, does that make them a completely different person?

SVP: The thing, in getting to know him, to the degree I've had conversations with him, they've almost always been texts. That Monday, I said "Hey, people are interested in your reaction if you care to come on" and he did and so he came on our show. And then that became the next part of it. Then the next day, we were on some "Hollywood insider" show because it came to that. Then he mentioned the thug thing.

But the entirety of it all filled the void between Championship Sunday and Super Bowl Sunday. And it became tiring. The most interesting thing that came out of that, in my opinion, is what his teammate Doug Baldwin told us. He said, "everything he does is calculated." Which makes you think, yeah, he doesn't like Crabtree and the minute the mic is in his face, he just decided he was gonna put on this show. I don't think anybody thought it would turn into this.

I don't worry about a minefield, though. I don't mind handling questions of race, because I'm not afraid I'm gonna say something stupid, because I'm not racist. I'm also, if I have a conversation on that issue where you're trying to be an adult about it, I think people give you that leeway. Sometimes people push back, but if they're worried or scared, I don't think we are.

Russillo: People discourage you about politics or race on the air because they don't wanna deal with the hassle of having a manager getting on their case. There's a pyramid of how it works: "You don't do anything on air, because I don't wanna deal with the hassle of you saying something wrong." Honestly, I've always looked at it as kind of an insult to your intelligence.

I've always felt if I'm smart enough to talk about these things with an open mind, hopefully people will listen. I can't worry about the close-minded person, I can't worry about the person who's already been offended before I've made my point. We seem to cater to those people all the time, so I think we should talk about that stuff. What's the problem with discussing the racial element of what's involved into the reaction of the Richard Sherman thing?

Because that's all we're doing, no one's dumb enough to go  on the air "I don't like him because of his race." I think people didn't like him or his reaction because, and I don't agree with them, but I think people just didn't like it because he was perceived as being selfish and taking attention away from his teammates.

What we've learned is even if you do something great in sports, you're supposed to apologize for it. Because if you actually said, "Hey, you know what? I'm pretty good, I had a great game tonight, those guys couldn't stop me." Then they want to crush you for doing that. 

Lepore: Do you think sports is national news too much now? Does it cross over too much at this point? Is sports maybe how we try to deal with sensitive issues nationally in a lighter way?

SVP: I hadn't thought of that. But I mean Sherman, that he was from Compton, that he went to Stanford. That Grantland article was great, like, what if he went to Harvard? Or if he went to some HBC, would it be a different discussion? Ryan's point of, when it makes it to The View, is interesting. 

Russillo: I've always thought once you start seeing four housewives on ABC chop it up, and Kathie Lee and Hoda have a graphic that goes "RICHARD SHERMAN: THUG?" it's bad in the sense that all these different people are paying attention to me. And all these different people that I run into that I'm friendly with are that now they're rooting against Richard Sherman because of the outrage.

There's also a huge benefit to that now, which is there's curiosity for it, that sports people I think find so stupid. Like, he plays corner for the Seahawks. What do you think's gonna happen? You're gonna see some different version of football on Sunday? 

SVP: More than anything, I think it goes back to the internet and Twitter, is that there's this shared experience. For good or bad, it brings more people into the conversation that may have no frame of reference on anything. People try to find the common ground thing to talk about, so they go "Oh, he's from Compton, he went to Stanford, that must mean he's smart!" Well, they're not mutually exclusive. You could be really bright and really narcissistic. 

I don't see it as negative. It's certainly not for us, if more people are interested in sports, we're a place they can listen to and watch it with all the rest. 

Russillo: I do think with some of the bigger stories we've had — and there's a two-pronged thing here — one is that for national sports, you have to figure out what's going to play nationally. When I first started doing national sports at ESPN, using the stuff that I was interested in and what I thought was interesting to the listener to learn about sports was really the wrong way to go about it.

I did one year, a Top 25 preseason overview of every college football team. Five teams a day, and I told you every interesting detail about every team.

SVP: No one cares [laughs]. 

Russillo: It was horrible. I was so proud of it because it was all thought out, each day I'd spend hours on it.

SVP [dramatically]: RUTGERS! 

Russillo: I was like, "Hey, how was that?" And the managers didn't wanna say "Hey, it sucked" but they basically let me know it wasn't good. So, I realized the stuff that'll play nationally is, as much as I can't stand the Richie Incognito story, that plays. It plays nationally. You go out to have drinks somewhere, and a guy who knows you work in sports asks you "What do you think of Richie Incognito?" He never wants to ask "Hey, do you think the SEC West is overrated?" [laughs]. 

Whenever there are these national type topics that crossover, it is kind of a gold mine for sports talk radio, even if I have my own expiration date on some of this stuff. That's what I think is one of the unfortunate things, is if it's still in the news you kind of have to find a way to move it forward. 

With the Richard Sherman thing, people who are not interested in day-to-day sports are asking about him, I think people are learning about the day-to-day workings of what it's like to be a pro athlete. 

So when you hear the Richie Incognito story, it starts out as this racist, mean guy who's into hazing his teammates. If you learn more about the story, you learn unfortunately this is reality in many cases. I don't know what Incognito really did or what Martin's going through, but it's funny how when the outside world tries to peak into what the inside world is, they all seem to get really upset about it. The sports world probably is more accustomed to dealing with what's supposed to be offensive.

Lepore: Scott's done SportsCenter forever, you guys have been doing the show for five years together, is it harder to be a national voice these days? Now that every team has a network, every team has 20 blogs covering them. Is it harder to have — not necessarily authoritatively — but be able to know what you're talking about and seem credible?

SVP: Ryan has a point that I agree with about this: you can never know the Seattle Seahawks as well as the guy in Seattle who does their blog, you just can't. That person's immersed in the day-to-day dealings, watches the coach's show, listens exclusively to that team's discussion.

You can be well-versed enough to talk intelligently on the topic so they might be interested in what you think. If you come to this with an authentic interest in things and you represent that every day, people know that. I think that people know that what we do is authentic to us. We're not trying to create some meringue. Which looks big, but when you poke at it, there's no there there. There's no smoke and mirrors with us. 

I'm not gonna tell you I know the Seahawks better than you know them, but I'm gonna tell you what I think. If you've earned some chips from your listeners, if you've earned that equity, they'll listen to them. If you're upfront with them like, "Hey, I don't know this as well as you." I don't think you have to say that verbatim, but they sense it. 

I don't think it's hard. If you're authentically passionate, then it isn't that difficult. There's people in our business who don't truly love sports, and I think it'd be difficult and hard. It would be a job then.

Russillo: You wanna list some? [laughs]

SVP: I'm gonna not tell you the people that I work with that I don't think like sports. My guess is if you pay attention you'll figure it out.

Lepore: You bring the show here this week and it looks great. As far as it being a radio show versus a television show… is one more important than the other? Do you care about how the show looks on television?

Russillo: I don't care what the show looks like on TV. I honestly don't. I don't think it should ever be thought of as a TV show first. I think it should be thought of as a show you can watch on TV that gives you the chance to watch a radio show. It doesn't mean I wanna wear different clothes, when you think about that part of it. The only thing I've ever thought about is if there's something visual going on, we've gotta tell the guy in his car what the hell we're talking about.

SVP: I differ in this way: more than ever, we are consumed — and we always thought this show, because we skew younger. I don't care what the ratings are in that I don't believe them — you can listen to our show on the phone, on satellite, on apps, in any number of ways. But television is always gonna represent a sizable chunk. 

To that point, I think Mike and Mike has become more a TV show that happens to be on radio. That being on ESPN2 for all that chunk of time in the morning, you can't deny what that brings in terms of people that are consuming you. I came to radio through the backdoor of TV first. I love it, it's harder than TV, but I value the fact that we can be seen also because it just brings eyes which bring ears.

Ultimately, you're presenting a radio show. But the TV component is really important for anybody, whether it's Francesa locally, or Colin on [ESPNU] or Mike and Mike, it's an important component because it just gives people… people want to be able to choose how their going to consume you. Whether it's a podcast, an app or on television. Gimme TV, give us a third hour on TV, we gotta fight for the two. Philosophically it doesn't change it but it's an important piece of it. 

Lepore: I heard your interview with Matthew McConaughey, what's it like to pull something like that in not only the day after he wins a Golden Globe, but gives an acceptance speech where he's the most him he could possibly be? 

Russillo: There are times where you're definitely reminded of how cool the job could be. Sometimes, you get numb to it. You look at the guest list and go, "Who's on the show today? Joe Montana? What's he doing?" 

SVP: Is he pitching those fucking Sketchers again? [laughs] Is it the shoes where he can walk with a loaf of bread and run fast? Pass. 

Russillo: It's crazy, and we've talked to him a million times, and he's awesome. I think whenever you have a Vince Vaughn in your studio, and you're hoping he's going to be a certain way, and he is that way and is just a guy you would hang out with. We had Matt Damon on very early and we did this bit with him and felt like he got it and genuinely laughed and had a good time.

Now McConaughey comes on the second time now and actually reference something Scott said on the show and say he's a big fan, and everybody says they're a big fan. Denzel [Washington] came on with us one time, because apparently he was a huge fan. So we went into it with the expectation that he knew who we were. He had no freaking clue who we were. We felt like dopes after two minutes.

McConaughey, that's something with the job that reminds me how cool the access is because you're at ESPN. 

SVP: Specifically when he referenced, which was really gratified, because he said that the way we approach what we do… I think he said "You guys don't go for the low-hanging fruit," and he said these specific things that were clear he appreciated it. Now, is he any cooler than some guy from Austin, Texas who drives a pickup truck? No, but it resonates maybe differently.

Someone will think of him as this guy who was this kinda popular actor maybe did some shitty movies, who then morphed into doing really critically acclaimed movies and he recognized that the way we approached what we do — which we always tried to do — it's like him saying that we're pretty good.

When Deitsch says what he said about our show, whatever critics have to say positive or negative is a matter of opinion, but when people look at you and say that what you're doing, they like… sometimes I think our bosses need to have some other person go "Hey, they're really good." I think they want someone to go, "Well, Matthew McConaughey thought they were really good" "Yeah, we've always known they were good." Did you? I don't know if they did or they didn't [laughs]. It can only help us if people who are seen to be artists of some merit, for the lack of the better word it's cool, it's humbling.

Steve Lepore

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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