Q/A with John Feinstein: High honors, challenging times; views on hosting sports talk radio

Note: I’m going to be out for a couple of weeks. However, I’m leaving behind some gifts for the holidays: The best of my Q/As. I’ll feature a new one each day through Jan. 2. Please check in. Happy Holidays to all.


Posted in two parts on June 11, 12

Note: Feinstein makes his debut today for the CBS Sports Radio Network, handling the 9 a.m.-noon (ET) slot. At the time of our interview, he was working for Mad Dog Radio.


You would think being inducted Monday to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in North Carolina would be the top thrill for John Feinstein this week. However, the noted author also has something else on his agenda:

A command performance from Robert Redford.

The actor invited Feinstein to Sundance in Utah Saturday to discuss books at one of his arts functions. It’s such a unique opportunity that the Golf Channel gave Feinstein permission to skip the third round of the U.S. Open in San Francisco to attend the event.

“He heard me on NPR promoting a book,” Feinstein said. “When I called the Golf Channel, they said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to be there.’ It’s pretty cool.”

Feinstein, 56, has enjoyed plenty of cool moments in his long career. More than enough to merit a nod to the Hall, where he will go in with Bob Costas on the sportscasters side.

He is the greatest selling sports book author of all time; his 29th book, Rush for the Gold, aimed for kids, just hit the shelves. Nearly 30 years after he wrote it, Feinstein still is fielding compliments for his breakthrough, A Season on the Brink.

However, the changing publishing industry (much lower fees) has even affected bestselling authors like Feinstein. It has forced him to take on other duties to make up for the loss in revenue. While he says he enjoys his new gig as co-host with Bruce Murray on the Beyond the Brink show on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio, he frankly admits it is something he is doing out of “necessity rather than want.”

Several times during our interview, Feinstein talked about the need to find the time to exercise in the wake of having heart bypass surgery in 2009. It all makes for a compressed and hectic lifestyle for Feinstein.

I checked in with Feinstein last week. Here’s the first part of my Q/A where he talks about his career, past and present. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss his views on sports talk radio.

What does it mean to be inducted into the NSSA Hall?

It’s up there. You look at the names on the writing side: Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dave Kindred, heck, Damon Runyon. Bob Ryan got inducted last year. That what it means to me. When you get older, you get a lot of honors and you say, ‘OK, thank you.’ But this is one where you go, ‘Wow. This is cool.’

How does it feel to go with Bob Costas?

It’s thrilling for me because I will be the tallest inductee. He actually called to congratulate me. We both grew up in the business together. In the early 80s, he was calling college basketball games for NBC and I was covering college basketball for the Washington Post. It’ll be great to go in with him.

What does this award signify about your career?

It says I’m old. It’s the old cliche: It’s nice to be recognized by your peers. I’ve learned to take compliments from people in stages. To this day, I still have people who say they love watching me on Sports Reporters. I haven’t been on the show since 2007.

When they say, they enjoy me on the Golf Channel or that they loved Season on a Brink, I say, ‘Oh, thank you very much.’ Now if they say they love A Civil War (Army vs. Navy), they’re my best friend. Civil War is my favorite book.

To have people understand what it means to write 29 books and work at the Post all these years, that’s more important to me than a fan poll about who’s your favorite sportswriter. Not that I’d win anyway.

Your last book, One on One, was personal, telling the back stories of people you covered in your books. Why did you go that route?

The great thing about doing that book was that I realized I developed some real relationships through the years. When you do a book, it isn’t just five minutes in front of a locker. You spend time with these people. To be able to go back to those people you haven’t seen in years, you realize there was some kind of relationship and trust that was built.

Any new books in the works?

I’m doing a book on Triple A baseball. The other day I watched the PawSox play the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

How have you been affected by the changes in the book business?

It doesn’t dim my desire to write books, but it’s harder because the money has gone down. It’s gone down for John Grisham too. I had a long period where I could focus on books and do other stuff that I chose to do. Now, I enjoy doing the radio show, but it takes four hours out of my day.

Because I’m not making as much as I need to on the books, because of (supporting a family), it forces me to take on more work where, frankly, I’d rather be focused on books. It’s not a matter of choice. It’s a matter of necessity.

You’ve done books for Little Brown for years. Now you’re next book will be with Doubleday. Why the change?

After One on One, we made a mutual decision to go in different directions. Little Brown has gotten much more into publishing fiction. I started to feel a little uncomfortable and less of a priority.

You’re also working as a contributor to the Golf Channel. How did that come about?

When they reached out to me, I said, I’ve never had good experiences with TV. I told them I used to do essays for CBS. They said, fine, let’s do that.

It’s great, and I enjoy everybody over there. But if it was up to me, instead of being on the set, I’d rather be walking the course or working the range. That’s no putdown to the Golf Channel. Writing is what I love. It’s what I do best.

How do you balance everything?

It’s not easy. I try to write every morning before the show starts. But I also have to exercise. It’s something I must do. The radio show takes up a good portion of my day. When it’s over, I still need to have the energy to do the reporting and writing.

You’re 56. What frontiers are there left for you to conquer?

It’s interesting. Again, it comes down to necessity vs. want. Necessity keeps me doing radio and TV. I still love writing for the Post. That’s something I’ll always do. I love writing the books. I love doing the books for kids. You get those letters from kids or parents of kids, who say their kid never read a book until he read mine.

If there’s one thing I haven’t done is that I’d like to write a play. I’m 99.9 percent sure it never would leave the house. I love the theater. I’ve always thought Red Auerbach could be a great one-man play. I would like to write a play about men and their relationships in sports.

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I just haven’t had the time to do it.

What has it been like doing a daily radio show?

I haven’t found it that hard. I can talk for four hours with taking a breath.

It took a while for Bruce and I to adjust. He had been doing it alone. We have different ideas for what makes good sports talk radio. Bruce is more traditional. He focuses on games, NFL, NBA, baseball. We had an argument on a Monday about what was the big story: Tiger Woods winning the Memorial or Celtics-Heat. I thought it was Tiger. He thought it was Celtics-Heat.

Tiger Woods, for better or worse, is the best-known athlete in the world. I tend to talk about people, tell stories about people. Bruce likes to break down the games. It’s OK to get two different guys. Over the course of four hours, you don’t want to sound the same.

Is it possible to do a successful sports talk show without a lot of bluster?

Tony Kornheiser has shown you can be successful by doing a smart show. A lot of what I do comes from him. His philosophy is that you don’t have people on just because they are big names. A couple of times, they came to me and said, ‘We can get so and so.’ I said, ‘He’s terrible.’ Tony has a no athletes rule. I don’t think I can get away with that, but I’d rather have on a smart TV commentator or journalist or a coach willing to talk.

They booked (Baltimore GM) Dan Duquette. The Orioles have had a lot of success. Dan came on for 15 minutes and it was physically painful. Then I booked (Baltimore baseball writer) Peter Schmuck. He was great. Peter’s going to be honest, while GMs are paid to hide stuff.

Whether or not we can succeed this way, I don’t know. I’m going to try to do it.

What is your view on callers?

If you get a smart caller, that’s fine. Let him make a few points. But if you get someone who is screaming, get him off. Bruce said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that.’ I said, ’Not only can you do that, but you should.’

We had a cadre of callers who were pissed when I first got here. Part of it was people reacting negatively to change and part of it was people who felt it was their show. One day, we had a guy who was screaming because he was put on hold. I said, ‘Fine, don’t call.’

Some of those callers have gone away, and we’ve replaced them with some quality callers. We have 6-8 regular callers where I’m kind of interested in what they have to say.

What do you bring to the show?

I think I’m able to add some things because of my background. Because of what and who I’ve covered through the years. Sometimes I tell stories about people I know. Like when Casey Martin qualified for the U.S. Open. I talked about being in the Supreme Court when they heard his case, and then talking about it to Casey later. I talked about some of the arguments I witnessed in the locker room. I told the story of Fred Couples arguing with Payne Stewart. Fred thought he should get a cart because he had a bad back. Your typical sports talk host doesn’t know this.

What kind of feedback have you gotten thus far?

It’s been positive. But you know in TV and radio, you’re great until the day they fire you.

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