I told him that I had interned with Keith Olbermann at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
And when I said that to Al Jaffe in 1993, the man who hires all on-air ESPN talent, it undoubtedly ended any chance I had of ever working at ESPN.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it all makes sense now that I recently finished reading Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN (aff link), the mammoth book that came out last year. If you have any interest in sports and/or broadcast journalism, I highly recommend it to you.
It’s really, really good.
There’s very little narrative in the book — it’s an oral history that relies very heavily on direct (and lengthy) quotes from 500+ people that were interviewed for the book. There’s some juicy stuff in there about the early days, about newsroom behavior/antics and about some of the feuds between personalities. There’s a lot about the business side, and how ESPN grew from a network that aired Aussie Rules Football almost every night to the biggest cable network on earth.
The book has changed my opinion about some of ESPN’s talent; Mike Tirico, for starters.
But it also confirmed a few things for me — primarily that Chris Berman is a self-absorbed blowhard. (There are so many situations where he’s quoted, and the quotes quickly shift from him talking about the event/story to talking about himself.)
The other thing it confirmed for me is just how much Keith Olbermann is/was hated at ESPN. I’d heard some of the stories about his time there, but the book had so much more background on how badly Olbermann had burned all the bridges with people at ESPN.
I remember him being very arrogant when I was an intern at KCBS in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. (He wouldn’t remember me from Adam — or Eve — and I doubt he spoke to me more than a handful of times.) So none of the things that have happened to him more recently come as a surprise to me.
But, of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1993 when I was desperate to find a way to start working at ESPN.
I hated my weekend sports gig in Idaho and, after getting a few pep talks from friends in the sportscasting industry, I worked up the nerve to cold-call ESPN and ask for Al Jaffe. His secretary did a deft job of deflecting me at least once, and probably a couple times. But I was persistent and kept calling when she said he might be in his office.
And finally, he was.
I told him that I was planning to visit family on the east coast, and that I’d love the chance to come audition in person for him at ESPN headquarters. That was only half-true: I didn’t have any specific plans to visit the east coast … but I’d book a flight to see my parents on a moment’s notice if he gave the go ahead.
I don’t remember much about the phone call. He asked a few questions, one of which was about my background, or maybe about my influences, or what sportscaster I took after … something like that.
That’s when I mentioned Keith Olbermann. I said that I had interned for him in Los Angeles and that, like Olbermann, I also considered myself a strong writer with a good sense of humor. (My news director in Idaho loved me and laughed at all my on-air humor.)
I never said that I liked or admired Olbermann, but after reading the ESPN book, I’m convinced that just mentioning his name was my death knell. I think Jaffe said they weren’t doing any auditions soon, and may have said that he’d call me if that changed.
He never called.
But that’s okay, because we’re very blessed with how things worked out.