Meet Jason Smith: ESPN Radio's All Nighter
Late night radio isn't typically where you'll find an energetic sportstalker — much less one who would easily reference Brett Favre's retirement to the ‘80s movie “Can’t Buy Me Love.” ESPN radio host Jason Smith does that five nights a week (Sunday through Thursday.) Heard locally on 710AM, from 10:00 at night to 2:00, All Night with Jason Smith is high quality radio at an hour where most station's broadcast as though their audience is half-dead.
Jason Smith was a New Yorker who thought his radio career was over before it started. Thanks to a lucky break, a pile of talent and great work ethic, Smith can now be heard in over 500 markets from coast-to-coast. With his lovely wife Pam (who he met working at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut,) newborn baby Zoe, and hit show, Smith is happier than ever.
LAist recently had a chance to chat with Jason Smith about his show, LA sports, and why he loves his new home, Culver City.
Were you always a big sports guy?
Growing up I was a big sports fan. I was reading the newspaper, magazines, and Sports Illustrated all the time. My dad told me when Tom Seaver got traded from the Mets I cried and cried and cried. I marked up his baseball card and crossed off
Mets and wrote Reds on the top -- which I obviously shouldn’t have done as it ruined the value of it.
Where are you from?
I’m kind of from New York and Upstate New York. I was born in Syracuse and I lived in Staten Island.
You were in radio while at Syracuse University. What’d you do after that?
I’d done two and a half years at the big campus radio station. I did some work at a professional radio station and then I couldn’t get a mid-day job at a country music station in Central New York. I’m like oh well, radio's never going to work out for me.
Where did ESPN come in?
After I graduated, I moved to New York City, and interviewed with the marketing department at ESPN. I worked there for the summer as a marketing intern. I went to Bristol one day when they went up to do a big shoot. I got to see the whole production of "SporstCenter." I got to see the studio and the anchors. There was Dan Patrick walking by me, there was the screening area where everybody watches the games and cuts the highlights -- I was like this is it. I had an interview in Bristol. Nine months later they called me for the job.
You eventually moved to Los Angeles and produced television news at KABC. What was that like?
The majority of the local news is really negative. Good news comes up over time, when something shocking happens it’s usually negative. It slowly seeps into you. Producing local news everyday was really tough. My wife told me I’d changed a little bit, my tempter was shorter. She said “you’ve got more of a gloom over you.” I kind of knew I had to get out.
How did you go from producing the evening news to sports radio?
I owe Ellen K a lot for introducing me to the people at 1150 AM. If she wasn’t there I don’t know if I would’ve got back into radio. I was able to go from being out of radio for ten years to filling-in in the number two market in the country.
Does that sort of thing ever really happen?
I only hear about it in Los Angeles. I remember, when I was trying to get into voiceovers, a guy who was a PA announcers for the Avengers or something. You get paid $8 per game for being the PA announcer. It just so happened that in the stands that day were two people who were big muckety-mucks at a voiceovers company. They heard this guy and signed him. Now he’s a big voiceover guy.
Where else does that happen? Stuff like that wouldn’t have happened to me if I was in Dallas -- to go right on the air and suddenly I’m talking to the number two market in the country. It was a dream.
What do you think of that break?
I think at some point everybody gets a break. But it’s taking that break, and realizing it’s your one shot -- that you really can’t screw it up.
What’s the philosophy of “All Night?”
I always like to get a little left of center with a story, and take an angle that maybe people aren’t getting. You can listen to anybody give you the nuts and bolts of the stuff, but I can give you something a little bit different. That makes the show stand out a little bit. If I’ve done what I’m supposed to do I’m either going to make you think or make you laugh or entertain you.
What would be left of center?
Like with A-Rod. Granted, you’ve got to remember you’ve got to be meat and potatoes, but let’s get a little left of center. Who is this mysterious cousin who he said he got steroids from? It is My Cousin Vinny? Cousin Bruce? Is it Cousin It? Who is it? That’s kind of a fun bit.
Why is your show filled with pop culture?
I’m a sports guy and a pop culture junkie guy. It’s just who I am. They always tell you when you’re a radio personality the number one thing you need to do is be who you are -- make what you do an extension of yourself. You see people that put on an act and don’t really last all that long.
Is it ever too much?
When A-Rod talks to the media that’s not a night for me to spend 15 minutes talking about how good Mickey Rourke was in “The Wrestler.” That’s not the night to do that. But a night that doesn’t have a big overwhelming story I can talk about it a little. I love being able to get that in, in addition to talking sports.
In the end people are tuning in to hear me talk about sports. They want to know what’s going on. That’s something that I’m always very conscious of because you’re given a lot of choices. If the biggest sports fan in the world is not hearing what he likes he’s going to put in a Guns ‘n Roses CD.
What’s an example of pop culture mixing with sports on your show?
Tyson Chandler went from New Orleans to Oklahoma City and back because he failed his physical. It was The Untrading of Tyson Chandler. That sounds like a Lifetime movie. Of course Bonnie Bedelia would be in it. Somewhere Nancy McKeon would be in it... then I move on. Because I mentioned Lifetime movies it blew up. I got killed with emails. Jason, seriously, did you just talk about Lifetime? Then it became a bit for the whole show. Don’t forget Bruce Boxleitner would be in the movie, and Kate Jackson... It was a fun thing to vamp on.
A Tyson Chandler deal, how big is it? My job is to make it bigger and talk about how this is a sample about why NBA teams will always choose making money over winning a championship. That was my point.
Are you having as much fun as it sounds?
I’m having a lot of fun. I’ve never had one day since I’ve been at ESPN where I go I can’t believe I have to go on the air. There are things that happen and I say I can’t wait to talk about this on the show. Even when you get what seems like a horrible story, I like to find a way to talk about it and make it something people will want to listen to. That’s the challenge and it’s fun. It’s something that I think is in my wheelhouse now.
Are there nights when it isn't fun?
The nights that aren’t fun are when people die -- because you’re talking about someone dying. That’s always a tough show.
What do you want listeners to take away from your show?
I think listeners always want to know what’s something I can hear that I can either pass off as my own thought, or something I can say as a part of a conversation I can have with my friends. You really have to make sure people are getting something from what you’re saying.
If I have Mel Kiper Jr. on and he’s talking about the NFL draft and says “I tell you what, whoever gets Michael Crabtree is going to be the happiest team in the draft.” People listening are going okay, I can take this information and pass it off as my own and talk about Michael Crabtree -- I feel like I know something, I’m an insider.
Do you like your time slot?
I’m on over 500 stations in the US and Canada and shows during the day aren’t on that many. I don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock which is great. I’ve always been a night guy anyway. I’ll go to bed at 3, and sleep ‘til noon like college. Being on at night feels like a loose atmosphere. It’s just you and you’re talking. There’s seven people in the building when I’m there. A horror movie could happen.
How do you appeal to 500 different markets?
If you get too secular, narrow your focus, you end up alienating your audience. I have to realize that if I’m doing a story that’s big on the West Coast I have to figure out a way that everybody can get on the same wavelength.
If a USC defensive tackle got sent home from practice because he cried, in it of itself that story is ha-ha-ha, but then I’ve got to make it about more than a USC defensive tackle crying at practice. Guys, is it ever okay to cry? Is there any circumstance a guy can cry and you’re okay with? Is crying at practice is a sign of weakness? Suddenly it becomes a topic that everybody has an opinion on.
Do you change your style when you fill in for other hosts?
I don’t really change what I do from the night to the daytime. It’s a shock for the listener because you’re listening to someone who you’re not used to, and here I am, in the middle of talking about a basketball trade, I’m making a reference to Tim Robbins from “Shawshank Redemption.” It can be a little jarring, and I understand that, but that’s kind of how I think of things.
What was one of your most memorable interviews?
I interviewed Refrigerator Perry. The guy was playing poker while we were interviewing him. He would say stuff like “I think the Bears this year are going to have a -- check.” You could hear him betting.
What’s some great radio advice you’ve received?
One of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever gotten was from JT The Brick who does a show out here on Fox Sports Radio. He said you will see you’ll get more breaks because of people blowing up in front of you than you’ll ever get because of something you’ve done. When people make mistakes and wind up losing their jobs, somebody’s got to fill that void. Sure enough, many thing have happened outside of my control that I wound up benefiting. It’s really odd that’s how it works.
I’ve never seen more people implode and blow themselves up like I’ve seen in radio. I read stories about so-and-so got let go because of a fist fight with their Programming Director. Who does that? I don’t need a daily reminder I don’t need to punch my PD.
Who do you like to listen to?
Colin Cowherd is really good. He’s really smart and really intelligent. Being with the baby, I’m up that early now. I’ll listen to Jim Rome. His takes are always spot on. There are as many opportunities for people out there in sportstalk because of his success in the early ‘90s. He was the first sportstalk superstar. I don’t know that he gets the credit that he deserves. Honestly, I do what I do for a living because of him.
What’s the state of radio today?
It’s a tough time in radio. Certain companies are just in bad shape because of the economy and it’s like where can we shave money.
Tell us about your ESPN NBA podcast.
I’ve always been a big NBA fan. The Knicks are my team. ESPN had an opening for the NBA podcast, it was a great fit -- I’m here in LA, it’s an NBA town. Living in LA for 13 years, it’s impossible not to become a Laker fan. Podcasts are a good medium and the downloads are just amazing. Good ones are up to 70,000-80,000 but some like Bill Simmons are like 250,000. That’s amazing. Podcasting is something I think is only going to get more and more popular as time goes on.
What blogs do you read?
I read Gilbert Arenas blog which is always extremely interesting. He’s a great personality. That’s how he gets his creativity out, because the NBA doesn’t really push many people other than Kobe and Lebron. Gilbert will talk about anything. He doesn’t care. He’ll talk about if he’s hurt, how long he’s going to be out. I wish all athletes would do that. I read Ken Levine’s blog. He’s really funny and creative. I live and die with Jeremy Roenik’s . He blogs everyday.
What’s your favorite LA team?
That’s either Lakers or the Kings. I’m a big hockey fan. The town really came alive when a few years ago they had a big run in the playoffs and lost in seven games to the Avalanche. It was one of those times were the Kings took over the town. Now they look like they’re getting better, they have a few good young guys. If they go out and get a goalie I think they’ll be pretty good.
How did the Lakers win you over?
I think what won me over was how great the Shaq-Kobe soap opera was. That was unbelievable. The town loves a winner, but that whole soap opera sucked everybody in. We saw that story together. We saw Kobe coming up from a young kid, and Shaq becoming a star. Their relationship was a daily thing. The fact that these guys could play, and they didn’t get along, and you knew it was building towards getting to the top of the mountain and being able to sustain it. The personalities in the NBA win you over because it’s such a game of individuals.
What’s one of your favorite Lakers moments?
I think everybody in LA can tell you where they were when Robert Horry hit the 3-pointer to beat the Kings.
What surprised you in LA sports?
I thought David Beckham was going to take over the town. Here comes the most famous soccer player in the world, as good looking as he is, and even if the Galaxy stink, I said he’s going to be a big deal, he’s going to be in a town that loves it’s stars. He had everything going for him. Tom Cruise, and Kevin Garnett were going to the games. But he kind of went away and I was really surprised. Now the stuff with AC Milan -- is he going to stay or is he going to go -- doesn’t really matter at this point.
In what part of LA do you live?
My wife and I bought a house in Culver City two and a half years ago. It’s really blown up the last couple of years with all of the different restaurants. We'll go to Ford’s Filling Station a lot. We’ll to go Honey’s Kettle. Their fried chicken and the biscuits are not healthy at all but they’re sooo good. Rush Street is pretty good too. The first time I went to Akasha I saw Donna Mills from "Dynasty." It was like wow. You don’t see Donna Mills all the time.
What’s your favorite restaurant if you’re paying?
Asuka, sushi on Westwood. I never thought I’d like sushi in my life. Now we go once a week. We know all the chefs.
What’s your favorite restaurant if ESPN is paying?
Koi! They have a kobe beef that is out of this world. We always see celebrities there. It’s always a circus. It’s kind of fun. You feel like you’re riding the high life a little, like you’re one of the big stars of the world even for ten minutes.
Me and my wife are huge "West Wing" fans. We’ve seen every episode. My favorite episode is the season finale of the second season. It looked back at President Bartlett when he was in high school. We get there and I look at Pam -- oh my god don’t look, the guy who played Bartlett as a teenager is a waiter here. We didn’t know -- do we say anything to him? Or does he feel bad because we’re recognizing him in a restaurant? We never said anything. That was a big experience for us.
Do you ever run into sports stars in LA?
You don’t see too many sports stars out, though I did see LenDale White at the movies a few weeks ago. We were at The Bridge. He had the biggest watch with rhinestones and diamonds.
Do you ever get confused for celebrities with shaved heads?
I’ve been shaving my head for a few years. A girl I dated before my wife said to me once, and this was when things were going well between us, “you know, you remind me so much of George Costanza.” I said “well this relationship’s never going anywhere if I remind you of George Constanza.” I wouldn’t mind being Evan Handler. He dated Kristin Davis in Sex and the city. She’s gorgeous.
How would you describe the sports energy in LA?
I think it is a different energy. LA gets a bad wrap. When teams are bad anywhere there’s less interest. If the Washington Nationals are bad people don’t go to the ballpark. People don’t say “it’s a Washington problem.” Every town loves a winning team and it’s much easier to support a winning team on a consistent basis. If it was a case where there weren’t so many choices you would say “okay, maybe it is an LA thing.” But there are so many choices in LA.
No matter how bad the Sacramento Kings are people are still going to love the Kings because that’s the only game in town.
People say we’re hurt by not having a professional football team in LA. But are we really hurt? The town goes crazy for USC, the town goes crazy for UCLA basketball, the Lakers and the Dodgers. There are always alternatives. When the Dodgers were bad, the Angels were winning championships. They were a pretty popular team. That’s why they’re called the Angels of Greater Anaheim/La Jolla/San Bernardino County.
What would you want someone from Randomville, USA to know about LA sports?
Certain cities you play in are different than any other experience you can get. There’s only a couple of them. There’s something about being in Los Angeles, being part of a town that has a star every five feet. If you are a sports star you become as big as the town. It’s an advantage and it’s an experience no other town has. If you’re a star among stars, that’s an experience you can’t top. It’s why so many people like coming to play here, because they feel like not only are you part of the game, but you’re part of the upward level of whatever it is.
You can be big star in Chicago, but what else is there going on beside sports? A couple of athletes and entertainers live there but okay, by and large the athletes are the big stars in the town.
Would you want to give Conan O’Brien any welcoming words to LA?
Buy sunscreen. He’s white like I am. He’s got to buy sunscreen.
Are you ever tempted to move Back East?
I don’t know how anybody goes from there, to here, and goes back. It’s really hard. You withstand a bad couple of seconds every five years with an earthquake and it’s 72 and sunny everyday. That’s the trade-off. Bottom line, you can’t beat the weather. Do I miss waking up, going outside ten minutes early to warm-up the car, and walking back inside and waiting, and putting on my heavy coat?
I don’t miss that one bit.
Top photo courtesy ESPN / used with permission
Other photos courtesy Jason Smith / used with permission
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