Within the wide, vast world of hot take sports talk shows across the nation on TV and radio, few have the authority, ability or even willingness to discuss topics like race, gender or sexuality that veer from the norm. Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, who host His & Hers on ESPN2 at noon eastern Monday through Friday, embrace having some serious conversations that push the boundaries of what you would expect from a sports talk show that follows Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.

Awful Announcing conducted a lengthy Q&A over the phone last week and spoke about how they discuss racial issues like the recent events at the University of Missouri, as well as their opinions on sports, The Undefeated and the duo’s shared love of The Roots.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Since there are so many sports talk shows on your network and others, how do you guys try to differentiate yourselves?

Jemele Hill- I think what probably sets the tone for our show is our relationship. We’ve been friends for almost 15 years. We knew each other as print reporters. We sort of came up the same way in this business, although Mike got to ESPN before I did, and because we are genuinely friends and have such a close relationship, that’s the lens at which we look at a lot of things.

We knew a long time ago that if people wanted a breakdown of the Cover 2 or some of the more intricate analysis about particular sports, they have plenty of things to choose from. But if they want to laugh, they want to be entertained, they want things that are relatable to their lives— whether they’re intense sports fans or maybe just casual sports fans— I think we’re a good option for them.

And we know that might be a bit of an untraditional or non-traditional way of looking at things in sports, but we kind of say it over and over to ourselves, to remind ourselves as former newspaper people, that we’re more of a talk show. We’re not a newspaper. And so I think that’s the kind of approach we try to take into it.

Michael Smith- We do our show, and eventually the viewer will catch up and learn to like it. And if they don’t, that’s their story. How many options on television are there for you to get what you’re looking for? But you can’t try to be anything other than who we are. We can’t go out of our way to differentiate ourselves just for the sake of being different. We’ve gotta do us. And we watch other shows and we study other shows for presentation or graphics or in terms of the look or design or things like that. We have no problem doing film studies on other successful shows. But the one thing that we keep coming back to when we watch other successful shows, other successful duos, other successful talent, is that man, they don’t care about anything but them. They just do them.

And so we’ve kind of insulated ourselves in a lot of ways. We live in a bit of a bubble. The only person whose opinion I care about is Jemele’s. I don’t listen to what anybody else has to say. And the only person’s opinion I hope she cares about is mine [laughs]. And because we do it that way, we’re not consumed with comparing ourselves to other shows on our network, whether they come on before us, after us, opposite us. We just do us and let the viewer differentiate.

Anybody that watches His & Hers— they actually watch it— and I’m not talking looking at it and making grand assumptions based on other programming. If they actually watch our show, it’s crystal clear that we’re unlike any other show on television. In terms of execution, presentation, content, perspective, approach. There’s no other show like us.

The people who actually watch our show, who support our show, they know the difference.

Briefly, for those unfamiliar, what are your backgrounds and how did you two get to this point today?

Jemele Hill- I worked at the News & Observer in Raleigh, I worked at Detroit Free Press for six years, that’s where I met Mike, when he was at the Boston Globe. I was also a sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel. When ESPN hired me in 2006, they hired me to be a sports columnist.

So I was not hired to be a talking head [laughs]. So the television part of my career kind of just naturally evolved.

Michael Smith- I started at the Boston Globe in 2001, and I was there from ‘01 until ‘04, covering the Patriots and the NFL. When I came to ESPN in ‘04, my primary role was as an NFL insider. I served in that role until 2009, approximately.

And along the way, like Jemele, I started taking on more television in various roles, I really started off at Around The Horn when I was at the Globe back in 2003. So whether it was SportsCenter, Sports Reporters, Jim Rome is Burning, Cold Pizza/First Take, various shows. I  just bounced around for a while, until Numbers Never Lie in 2011. At that point it was about keeping the seat warm for Jemele [laughs]. And then she joined shortly thereafter, and I guess the rest is history.

You two met and then how did that evolve into what you have today?

Jemele Hill– We met in 2002 when we were both covering the NBA. I was helping out with the Pistons coverage, back when they were really good, for the Free Press and Mike, you were a general assignment reporter, right?

Michael Smith- Correct, helping out with Celtics coverage.

Jemele Hill- Yeah. So they were in a playoff battle. As seems to be a common practice in this business a lot of the time you walk into locker rooms and you’re looking around to see who the other reporters are. And while the NBA is more diverse in terms of the journalists that cover it, a little bit more diverse than most, I think I walked into the Celtics locker room and I immediately saw somebody about my same age, which was unique and rare itself and I’d never heard of him or met him before. And I felt that I was plugged in to who the up and coming young journalists were.

The funny part was that our mutual friends who were covering both teams, and covering the NBA in general, they thought it would be funny and that it would be a good idea to hook us up. And we all went out to the movies together and they angled it so Mike and I sat next to each other and we didn’t talk much because we were at a movie and nevertheless we traded information.

Via ESPN Images
Via ESPN Images

I tried calling him to meet him in Boston, where I’d never been, and he promptly ditched me for doing auto-franchise mode in Madden [with the Arizona Cardinals when they were really bad] which is a true story [laughs]. But somehow we recovered and became friends.

He came to ESPN and then I came shortly thereafter to Bristol. We stayed in touch here and there, but the foundation of our friendship probably really didn’t come together until we were both at ESPN and were kind of doing the same thing, although in different lanes.

Him establishing himself as an insider, me starting to get more TV reps. And we ended up doing the same shows like Cold Pizza, First Take, Around The Horn, kind of going through that entire rotation. We became just really good friends and we’re so like-minded, even though we had our different opinions.

Michael Smith- We had a shared struggle in terms of trying to find a consistent home on ESPN. And we have one of those relationships where it’s like ‘man, when did we become best friends? When did we start doing karate in the garage?’

And we don’t really know when that was. I was in Bristol a lot, Jemele was coming to Bristol a lot and at a certain point we just started to click and hang around each other. Go to the cafeteria together or we both were crashing at the Residence Inn. We’d go to Cadillac Ranch and grab some wings or something.

We just started having this bond and then we’d just talk on the phone a lot. And at a certain point we were like, what if we could take our own conversations and put it on television? What if we could talk about sports on television the way we do on the phone? People might dig this. And that’s when the podcast came about and the rest is history.

Jemele Hill– In terms of the evolution, and this is what happens when you’re at a place like ESPN. There are a lot of really talented people that work here. It’s always a fight for real estate and sometimes you just have to wait your turn. And as much as we had wanted for years to like work together, build some kind of product together, because we felt like we really had a unique and rare chemistry, and as much as we would get frustrated and get in each other’s ears about our respective stories like assignments we wanted and assignments we didn’t get, it was ultimately all for the good.

Because just thinking about where I am now in terms of broadcasting, just how I am on the air now versus when I just trying to knock on doors and convince people to put us together, I’m much stronger now than I was then. It was just another lesson that how everything happens for a reason. And everything happens in its due time.

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About Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is a writer and columnist for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He's also a baseball contributor for Sporting News and the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in NYC. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.