With latest gig, Keith Olbermann sticks to his plan: 'Just do the work'
By Phil Rosenthal
July 6, 2017
TWENTY YEARS AGO this summer — yes, TWO-OH — Keith Olbermann signed off from SportsCenter, ESPN’s signature scores, highlights and sports news show for which he and co-anchor Dan Patrick established a new template that remains very much intact today.
“I have discovered, having done that in a number of places, they don’t like it when you bend the template,” Olbermann said last week from his New York apartment. “They sort of take it personally. But they keep it that way after you leave.”
What he’s doing now, regardless of whether you embrace him or his views, may be instructive for talented media people and outlets eager to cash in on their expertise. It’s the same basic philosophy that enabled Yahoo to build a lucrative franchise around NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski and his scoops that ESPN hopes to build upon in signing Wojnarowski recently.
“Just do the work,” Olbermann said. The audience and revenue will come.
A veteran of several sports and news outlets and formats, each of which he adapted in some way to exploit best all he brings to the fore, Olbermann now is taking on the Trump administration in “The Resistance,” an ongoing series of brief but pointedly critical online commentaries produced and distributed under the aegis of Conde Nast’s GQ magazine. Dedicated to rallying opposition to President Donald Trump among people and pols, the clips come out two or three times each week.
The zeal and sense of outrage are not unfamiliar to those who recall Olbermann on MSNBC railing against President George W. Bush's administration’s reasons for going to war in Iraq, or his sustained barrage against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice violence case on the ESPN2 program he hosted a few years back.
Not everyone is ready to embrace something like that; yet each commentary, produced on a shoestring with a couple of part-timers and a freelance teleprompter operator, averages about 3 million viewers across multiple platforms. On YouTube alone, each draws roughly 300,000.
“It hit in a way even I didn’t expect,” Olbermann said.
Olbermann approached several outlets about possibly doing commentaries during last year’s presidential campaign, but no one could figure out the exact business model. Then, much like the arrangement Olbermann struck in 2001 with a Los Angeles radio station to file reports from Ground Zero in the uneasy days after 9/11 because he wanted to do something, he and GQ agreed just to start posting commentaries and see what would happen.
“It was, we’ll do this, and when it calms down we’ll figure out what the arrangements are,” Olbermann said. “It was the same philosophy as when I was doing college radio. Just do the work. . . The results speak for themselves.”
Including radio work and an ESPN2 show that was dropped in a round of cost-cutting two years ago, ESPN has employed Olbermann at various junctures since leaving SportsCenter in 1997. He has not been back to the Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters in 20 years. Nevertheless, his impact remains felt there every time there’s a pop culture or political allusion, a new catchphrase introduced, a timely historical reference or simply a well-written turn of phrase.
Those were hallmarks of Olbermann and Patrick on “The Big Show” and it influenced and liberated a generation of sportscasters everywhere. Before Olbermann’s 1992 arrival in Bristol, Chris Berman was seen as the prototypical sports jester, often giving athletes amusing nicknames and incorporating other sportscasters’ signature lines into his highlights packages.
Some of the nicknames, such as “Bert ‘Be Home’ Blyleven,” weren’t too bad. But Olbermann and Patrick took it to a new level, making Berman (who attended the same prep school as Olbermann) seem a bit like the Pat Boone of entertaining sportscasters. That is to say, Boone’s versions of “Ain’t That a Shame” or “Tutti Frutti” might have passed for the real thing -- until one was exposed to Fats Domino or Little Richard.
Olbermann quite nearly moved to Chicago to work in local radio and TV -- a footnote in his career worth reminding everyone of, at least once a decade.
It was May 1996. WMVP-AM 1000 — now an ESPN outlet, but then part of Evergreen Media — was hurting for ratings and courted Olbermann as a last-ditch effort to save its all-sports format. The freedom his proposed show would have offered appealed to him, and the station’s courtship convinced him he would enjoy living and working in Chicago. Plus the money the station was offering was double what he was making with ESPN at the time.
Olbermann was sold on all of it. He had decided to ask ESPN let him out of his contract early to take the WMVP job when the station’s general manager called with bad news: Evergreen Media boss Jimmy deCastro had reconsidered, and instead planned to throw in the towel on WMVP in favor of simulcasting WLUP-FM 97.9. And that was the end of that.
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