Watch and Learn

I spent a large part of my youth watching my dad work, even when this phrase suggested a totally different meaning than the act of turning on that four-letter cable behemoth.  No, he didn’t take me to “bring your child to work” lunches where I could watch a certain cable-TV-personality spit salad out of his mouth at the famous Duke Zeibert’s restaurant in downtown DC—my sister had that pleasure—and I was really too young to have many specific memories of my dad’s time at The Washington Post.  I do remember that we would watch the fireworks (possibly illegally?) on its rooftop, but that time will always be marked by the five-year-old me not fully understanding why my dad was “jumping on the bandwagon” in the winter of that supposedly glorious 1991 Redskins season to then pull away from the curb of that 15th St institution.

I did, however, watch, in studio, the rise of Pardon the Interruption, the experiment of Monday Night Football and, more recently, the close-knit production of the radio show.  With that first program, dad obviously has an amazing level of comfort and control over what he projects into the camera; interestingly, it is when the camera is shuttered in the “radio” studio where I see a different level of expertise and artistry.  If you visit PTI, you see a Tony Kornheiser who can do a segment in one take, a performer who balances his prep work with his natural personality to create a “talking head” that is, at both times, informed and willing to move.  In our current studio (at an undisclosed location in Chevy Chase, MD), I see that same performer multiplied by a roughly 65-minute podcast.  From the moment we start taping (plausibly live!, even), he is able to see how the different threads that are his daily notes and the shades of Mr. Tony the storyteller complement the unique tones of each voice in the room or on the phone.  He then has the ability to juggle and incorporate each of these sometimes dominant pieces to ensure that each segment works.  He may sometimes “warn” someone in the room that he will ask a certain line of inquiry, use the standard Barry Svrluga question (“Where are we now?”) to get straight to his desired area of focus (often the struggles of the local football team or those of a certain hot-house pitcher), pull from his notes with a “pre-penned” question or simply point to you in studio when he wants you to take lead on a new subject.  There is then an energy and fun level of competition that emerges to see who can carry that given thread forward, taking it from dad and, when the show is at its show best, give that growing tapestry back to the listener as a more interesting, nuanced or just absurd piece of art; there is also the confidence to allow this show to take different shapes each day depending on the news and those contributing.

Yes, there has been a shift in our relationship over the launch of this new venture now that we are working in the same room, one that probably started when Liz and I moved back to DC, where we started to see each other as adults.  (This means someone started to actually value my contributions to a conversation—at least I hope so.)  The good news is that no matter how much more comfortable it becomes to work with my dad in and out of the studio—there are a lot of moments where small disagreements could take a different meaning and affect other spaces because of our relationship—I still screen his phone calls, so even as our relationship evolves, there are aspects that will stay the time regardless of the growth or struggles of the project.

So, given dad’s ability to see the room and my new challenge of trying to find a role within an already successful show, what exactly am I doing out there, man?  I am simply trying to watch and learn, reviewing his decisions in the room where it happens both in the moment and well after the fact when I break down the show and he easily moves on to the next.  With almost one full month of the podcast in the books, I want you to imagine my excitement when I noticed his looking at me straight in the eye, as if actively and subtly trying to share some wisdom (Come here, Michael, my only son: I give this microphone to you—assume that it’s always on) or recognizing that I, over the past few weeks, have proven myself to belong at the table—sure, it was either all of that or maybe that he was just looking at the TV directly behind my chair, wondering what was going on in the third hour of the Today show.

New Beginnings...

I grew up in a house where my dad would always remind me that there was no family business to pass down.  At the same time, though, there was always the encouragement for me to follow a professional path that would give me a sense of purpose and fulfillment, rather than just quick rewards through a paycheck.  There was the reminder throughout my teenage years that, for my dad, the monetary success came well after personal satisfaction and ambition were met.  These present lessons made me think over the years: What does it mean for any of us to be successful?  Does success mean getting your own column and climbing the journalistic ranks, or quite simply, does it mean reaching your childhood dream?  No, I did not have the same childhood dreams as my dad; in a way, that would have been easy, to have that clear of a vision as a child—not all of us are that lucky.

 

My dad's radio show has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I could break it down into four main categories: the local 570 days of elementary school; the national ESPN days which allowed me to go to private school and gave rise to the first of the vacations; the back and forth days of MNF football and the confusion over Billy Joel's famous last words, words that left lingering questions into the summer of will he or won't he come back; and, finally, the meta—see what I did there for those of you in the club?—iteration of the taped-for-live-podcast that we hear today, replete with such voices as the over-confident Chris Cillizza, perfectly-timed Gary Braun, ex-pat Marc Sterne, Tony-scolding David Aldridge, mom-card-carrier Torie Clarke, bacon-prowler Jeanne McManus and, when lucky, the sigh of reason, Liz Clarke. 


Now, while this show has been on in the background of my life and I have slowly become known to many of dad's listeners from father-son golf highlights and lowlights and, more recently, my return to the D.C. area and the start of my own family, its presence has definitely grown in these post college years.  (Dad jokes that there just comes a time when you want to hear smart people talking, not just music.  I began to realize in graduate school—more fully than even from the first-and-last-annual-nerds-in-paradise-golf-tournament in 2005—the power of The Tony Kornheiser Show community.)  Oddly enough, it was with my now wife, Liz, where I saw the reach (to be honest, the potential) beyond the expected audience when we were driving down the Merritt Parkway on our way back to DC and listened to dad break down the Golden Globe nominees with the enthusiasm of a normal sports-show host breaking down a mock draft.  

My daily listening led to follow up phone calls, more dinners at the house and even the sharing of the show with my in-laws. (There is nothing quite like getting into your mother-in-law’s car to hear the familiar chant of "Tony, Tony, ahhhh, Tony, Tony" start abruptly from the Bluetooth connection of her phone.)  Now, for the past few years back in DC, I have had more of a chance to offer feedback on segments and guests, which is a polite way to say, I became a fully-fledged little who had the chance to "call in" and not only ask "how are you doing?" without getting the "Banned from The Tony Kornheiser Show" button but also vent my mounting frustration: "I can't believe you misdirected your guest here (remember the first appearance by Chelsea Janes?)" and "How could you twist my words with ____________ (this is pretty much the case with every interview with Steve Sands)?"

I now find myself at a time when the nascent nature of how the podcast version of the show has grown within the on-demand market and where I am in my professional and personal lives that gives me a chance not only to help amplify what I believe is more than just a great show—nominally-sports-adult-talk-show, that is—because of its community but also to try a new field, one which I hope will give me space to combine some of my skills as a communicator and teacher in a new venue.  The added benefit is the chance to strengthen (hopefully) what becomes increasingly more important to me as I get older—family—and my relationship with my dad. 

I return to the idea of success and recognize that in my professional path to this point, teaching could and would give me the real-time feedback to know real success, even through the simple act of working with teenagers struggling through understanding themselves, let alone the questions as to what “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” would bring any of us.  As we look forward to this new venture, what will success look like?  Will I have the same recognizable moments of clarity as from my teaching?  Do I have the same realizable goals as my dad trying to get his first column (maybe even a columnette)?  I honestly do not know.  So far, the interactions I have enjoyed as a larger part of The Tony Kornheiser Show community and the new challenges presented through my ever-changing role representing the show have allowed me to feel that success even before we weigh download numbers: working with our partners from DGital Media and IMG to balance our desire to honor where the show has been for twenty some years with the need for growth, primarily, and with our wonderful, friend-of-the-show graphic design, Jeff Jones, to find a visual aesthetic to capture the unique quality of the show and its brand.


No, dad, there is no family business to pass down, no front signage that can say "Tony and Son(s)".  I do know this: I am excited to get on the bike and give this a spin—I’ll make sure we are both wearing white.