Jeff Pearlman

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Steve Bennett

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Nine years ago, when no one knew the word "podcast," he launched The Sports-Casters in order to interview his favorite journalists. Despite myriad health problems and the demise of Pearl Jam (Sorry Steve—it's true), he continues to produce one of the nation's best listens. POSTED May 9, 2019

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Steve Bennett is relentless.

I know this firsthand, because every few months he reaches out to ask if I’ll appear on his podcast, The Sports-Casters. If I ignore him, he reaches out again. And again. And again. And again. He’s the Terminator robot of sports podcasts hosts, which is to say sooner or later, he will track you down and you will do his show.

And be better for it.

See, what Steve lacks in name recognition and corporate backing, he makes up for in passion. The guy simply loves sports and (more impressive, from my vantage point) loves sports journalism. Yes, his Drew Brees knowledge is strong. But ask him about Jeff Passan and Jon Wertheim; Jane Leavy and Richard Deitsch. He’s all about covering, and breaking down coverage, and understanding the difference between good coverage and great coverage and phenomenal coverage. He wants to know how authors think; how beat writers cover. He’ll actually read every page of a book, then read again.

That’s what makes time spent on his show so worthwhile. The authenticity is real. No bullshit. No false praise. Too much Pearl Jam, but … hey. No one’s perfect.

There’s also the backstory. Steve isn’t just a guy who digs sports media. No, he’s a guy who digs sports media and has suffered through some absolutely awful health problems. The show clearly keeps him going; provides something to look forward to.

I’m babbling. One can listen to the Sports-Casters here and also here, and follow Steve on Twitter here.

Steve Bennett, stop asking. You’re finally the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Steve, I’d say you’ve wanted to do one of these Quaz Q&As more than anyone in the series history. Why? It’s just some mediocre interview series on a mediocre website.

STEVEN BENNETT: First, thanks so much for having me. I am fired up. I have always wanted to do this for a few reasons. First, my podcast is set up to promote the guests and put their work over. I am always promoting others. It’s nice once in a while to get a little promotion for the work that I do. Second, I have so much respect for you. I’ve always read the Quaz and wondered what Jeff Pearlman would want to ask me. You do over 300 interviews per book and are always looking for a hook with each interview. What would the hook be with me? There is a danger to that being that I might not have a hook. I could be a total dud. Shit, I hope I’m not a dud.

J.P.: So you are the host of The Sports-Casters, a podcast that features you regularly interviewing many of the biggest names in sports journalism. How did this thing come to be? What was the impetus?

S.B.: Near the end of 2010 it was clear that my career was over because of my health and I was going to have to go on SSDI. I was going to be home full time for at least a little while. I needed something to keep busy. I started working as a busboy when I was 14 and had been moving nonstop every since. Suddenly, everything stopped. So I needed something.

Over Christmas that year I read a book called Death to the BCS by Jeff Passan, Dan Wetzel and Josh Peter. I finished with a ton of questions and thought this could be a podcast. I’ll read books and ask the author (or authors) questions. I looked up the publisher online and sent them a pitch for an interview. Jeff Passan agreed to appear on a podcast that didn’t exist yet. I didn’t really expect to hear back but since I did I had to put my money where my mouth was. I created the show, interviewed Jeff, and posted the first episode in about a week. The first show debuted the day after the BCS championship game between Auburn and Oregon. It was sort of ironic that the podcast was born out of my reading of Death to the BCS and it debuted the day after a BCS Championship game. Cam Newton had a great week but I’m not sure he was as excited as I was. It was a dream come true to publish that first episode even if my mother was the only person who heard it.

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J.P.: I’m gonna say something, and I hope it doesn’t hurt your feelings: So, while I have done your show a ton of times, and I enjoy the experience—I don’t 100% get it. It’s very long, it’s very winding. You jump from Pearl Jam to Mike Piazza to bad eggs. It’s fun and quirky, but unfocused and sorta zig zaggy. Is that by design? Like, what are you attempting to be?

S.B.: The Sports-Casters is never the same twice. It can be long and random like you describe but it can also be very focused. It’s always by design. I never just turn the mic on and talk. I always have a plan. If I call you to be on during the promotion of a book we are going to have a much more focused interview than if I book you to be on just to shoot the shit. When you are promoting, I’ve read the book and I have questions. I want to get the book over and sell copies. If 200 people listen, I want 185 to buy the book (I’m assuming the other 15 already have it). It’s important to me to help the authors get their projects over and sell copies. I work hard to ask good questions and sell the book.

The other times are different. I want to create a situation where Jeff and Steve meet up for chicken wings and a beer and the microphones are on but neither of them know it. We are just hanging out and chatting about whatever might come up. People love this. I get so many emails from listeners saying that they love the randomness and the laid back approach. Jeff Pearlman is the favorite guest of many of my listeners and it isn’t because of the book promotion. It’s that other thing. The hangs. Jeff Passan and I usually take this approach when he is on. He told me the show has a Wayne’s World quality to it. I’ll take that. This is supposed to be fun. You mentioned the podcast being long. I hate short podcasts. What is the rush? The format offers no time constraints. I like to take advantage of that. The interviews can be long but its never for the sake of it. If you listen to local sports radio and they have Joe Buck on they might do 8-20 minutes and they get out to go to commercial. If I have Joe Buck on (I have several times now) we talk for 30-60 minutes and I have the chance to get details from Joe that WSR 620 didn’t have time for. Also, I do one show a week. It usually has 2 guests, an intro, a book club segment, and the ultra personal one last thing where I open up to the audience about something from my personal life. This usually takes 90-120 minutes depending on how long the interviews are. That it for the week. Maybe 2 weeks. They do 5 episodes a week of Around the Horn. That’s 150 minutes of the Around the Horn. So is it really that long? The listener has complete control. I have heard from one of my listeners who says he listens to the intro and the first interview and then the next day listens to the rest. It breaks up real easy. I never worry about the length. I’m in no rush.

Steve (center) with with Anthony Day and Greg Day Jr.

Steve (center) with with Anthony Day and Greg Day Jr.

J.P.: So you suffer from major bowel issues. You DMed me recently: “March 23rd hits and I go to the ER thinking I’m having a flare.  Turns out it’s a blockage and on April 3 I had my 3 bowel reconstruction since 2004.” So when did this all begin? How bad is it? How does it/has it impacted your life?

S.B.: In December, 2003 I was going in my last year of college at SUNY Fredonia. I woke up, went to class and got a bit to eat at the student center. It was Monday at 1 o’clock and I was done for the week. I remember walking into my apartment and telling my roommate I was going to play Madden and nap all week but I had a stomach ache so I was going to start with a nap. I woke up an hour later and I knew something was seriously wrong.

I went to the ER and they decided I needed to get my appendix out. The surgeon was gone for the day so the ER doctor ordered me a ton of pain meds and said the surgeon would take it out in the morning. I woke up to the surgeon screaming about emergency appendectomies and demanding to know why he wasn’t called. By the time they got me in the OR and got the thing out it had ruptured and I had a mess. Two huge infections had me hospitalized right until I begged to go home for Christmas. I went home with a bag that was meant to drain the infection. Once they studied the remains of the appendix they found gangrene and Crohn’s Disease. In February of 2004 I had my first bowel reconstruction surgery. In 2006 they removed my diseased gall bladder. In 2009 I had Nissen fundoplication surgery because I was aspirating toxins into my system and got three pneumonias in a short period of time. In 2011 my Crohn’s really started to flare. By 2013 I had my second bowel reconstruction. They took out 17CM of my colon. I was in the hospital from January 28 until March 14. I was home for four days and woke up in a puddle of discharge. I had a massive infection. I was back in the hospital. I never really recovered from that surgery. Like you said, I just had my third reconstruction. The surgeon thought I needed about 2-3 hours of surgery and it was closer to 9. I got an ileostomy to help it heal and have to have it for two months. That means I’ll be back under the knife in June to have the ileostomy reversal.

I know that’s a mouth full but I’ve always sort of taken it in stride. I’ve kept my sense of humor. I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital but every single time I’ve walked out of the front door at the end of it. There are kids with cancer, my own grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, and everyone I turn on the news there is a story of someone who passed on in a way I hadn’t even thought of. My point is, who am I to complain?

The impact on my life is obviously the physical part but also the impact on my family. That has been the hardest this time around. I have an almost 3 year old daughter now and she doesn’t understand why daddy wasn’t home. She got some separation anxiety. I really struggled with this. I felt so bad. I cried at nights in the hospital not because of the pain in my abdomen but because my daughter was sad. The good news is that kids are resilient. Paula is glad dad is home and we are calling her Paula the Mini-Nurse because she loves to take care of Dad. We turned it into a positive.

J.P.: I won’t name names, but I recently had a journalist say to me, “Who the fuck is Steve Bennett, and how does he get such great guests?” You’re here—let’s hear the answer …

S.B.: That is funny. The short answer is that I asked them. Obviously it’s not that simple and it takes a ton of hustle and persistence and patience. When I started in 2011 I was asking people to come on my podcast and they didn’t know what a podcast is. I remember when I first booked Peter King he asked me flat out, “What is a podcast?” He had no idea. Now he has his own podcast that probably out downloads mine by 300 percent but he’s Peter King.

In the beginning it was just ask everyone. Then ask them again and again. I was a bit of a pest back then. Now, I’ve built up a reputation. I never took a cheap shot or tried to railroad anyone for my own gain. I’m always prepared. It’s always about the guest and what they are promoting. My podcast was named one of the best by Sports Illustrated in 2014 and The Athletic in 2018. Richard Deitsch and I went viral in 2013 with our best moment in pictures thread. So I have a reputation that I can draw off of now. I have a great relationship with ESPN PR and that helps me book their people. Sports Illustrated long ago gave me the green light to book any of their writers and I have promoted books for almost every publishing house in the United States.

That doesn’t make it easy. The hardest part is that I almost never get a respectful decline. It’s always yes or radio silence. It blows me away to this day that people would just flat out ignore my polite request but it’s a good reminder of who I am. I am the guy that your unnamed journalist has never fucking heard of. I have to keep hustling.

Little Steve with his grandmothers and, far right, mother.

Little Steve with his grandmothers and, far right, mother.

 J.P.: You were REALLY early on the podcast thing. Really early. So what caused you to start? What did/do you like about the medium? And has the explosion of podcasting made it harder? Easier?

S.B.: I was early to the podcast game strictly out of circumstance. I was grounded to my house because of my health and I could do a podcast without leaving the house. I’ve always been a huge fan of sports radio and being the next Jim Rome or Chris Russo was always a dream of mine. So I took my shot and created The Sports-Casters.

The thing I like the most about the medium is the freedom of it all. There is no time restraints. I can get a guest on the line and we can just go until we are done. I don’t have to worry about a commercial break or the end of the show.

The explosion had made it harder because the battle for guests is more competitive and the battle for listeners is even harder. The explosion has helped in that people have learned how and where to get podcasts and listening to them has become more of a habit for people. That’s been huge. I don’t have to explain what a podcast is anymore. You do get that eye roll when you say you have a podcast. It’s that of course you do look. Who doesn’t have a podcast???

J.P.: What makes a great guest v. a shitty guest?

S.B.: The best guests are the ones that come on the show and treat it like being on Howard Stern’s couch. They aren’t on a small independent podcast wasting the next hour of their life talking to some jabroni from Buffalo. They are engaged and fun and they see the value of doing the show. Like I said before if you are promoting a book and I can sell 20 of them that’s pretty good. Who wouldn’t want to sell 20 books after a 30 minute interview?

The worst guests are the ones who make it clear pretty quickly that they don’t want to be bothered. I’m often not sure why they agreed to do it. They eat, they do the dishes, they pump gas. I have about 30% of their attention and they just want to get it over with. These guests clearly feel like they are too good for The Sports-Casters. Maybe they are.

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J.P.: You were recently on Richard Deitsch’s podcast, which was big for you. You were psyched, as far as exposure for the show. But here’s my question: Why does it matter? Being serious—you have a fun pod, you enjoy doing it. Why does it matter how many people listen? Isn’t the joy in the doing?

S.B.: The Sports-Casters is a labor of love and will always be about having fun first. If I’m not having fun doing it, I won’t be doing it for much longer. If I’m being honest, I think I do really good work. I believe the content is good. I want more people to hear it. I’ve been doing this show since 2011 and I’ve almost never promoted it. I’ve asked very few favors. I decided at some point that if I’m going to keep doing this why not work to get it in front of more people?

The other thing about that Deitsch podcast is that the format of the episode was my idea. I pitched it to Richard and he thought it was a great idea and he booked it. I was really excited that he liked my idea and that it became a podcast that people downloaded and listened to. That was almost as cool as being a guest on the show.

J.P.: Obviously we hear a ton about #Fakenews these days. You’re hard and heavy into sports media coverage. So, in this realm/genre, how are we doing? Do you think the Internet (Twitter, etc) has improved things? Made the product worse? Both? Neither?

S.B: I think the Sports Media is a fantastic space filled with tons of talented writers and front facing talent on television. There is so much great content to consume that I could never get to all of it. I read 25-40 books a year. I spent 2-3 hours a day reading articles in magazines, newspapers and websites like The Athletic or The Ringer. I don’t like the fake debate shows on television. I skip that. There is plenty of great content that I don’t see a reason to waste time with anything I don’t care for.

The internet has improved things for the simple reason that it has made so much more content accessible. I can read the newspaper they are selling at the corner store near your house in So. Cal. The internet has also created a need for more content and that has provided more opportunities for content providers. In the last month I’ve probably read articles from 50 different writers who all come from different backgrounds. That’s pretty cool.

J.P.: I tell my journalism students there’s no excuse for not having a podcast. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s the future, and the future is now. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.

S.B: You are totally right. What’s the downside? Even if not a single person listens you still win from the experiences gained by doing the podcast. I have learned how to interview, produce and edit audio, produce content, and operate a microphone all because I have a podcast.

Most of your students probably only need to buy a microphone and they will have everything they need to do a podcast. They might not even need that. Go for it. You might be the next superstar of the genre or you might be the next Steve Bennett. It’s a win/win either way.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEVE BENNETT:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Seth Davis, Chuck Muncie, Twisted Sister, Nolan Cromwell, Buffalo Sabres, Chris Cornell, the Avengers movies, four feet of snow, palm trees, runny eggs: Chris Cornell, Buffalo Sabres, Twisted Sister, 4 feet of snow, Chuck Muncie, runny eggs, Nolan Cromwell, the Avengers movies, palm trees, Seth Davis.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Luckily, I have not. I’ve probably only flown 20 times or so and unfortunately I don’t even have one good story. Bust.

• If someone said to your face, “You’re a fucking whore and I hope you die,” would you most likely laugh, walk away or punch the guy?: I would walk away. I’m not very tough, Jeff.  I’ve been weakened by years of bowel surgeries. I need to pick my battles and I probably won’t pick a battle with a crazy random dude calling me a whore.

• What happens when we die?: Light out. That’s it.

• How’d you meet your wife?: The Sabres were playing in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars. Game 1 of the series was in Dallas so the Sabres had a viewing party at the arena in Buffalo. It was a couple of bucks to get in and the money went to charity. In between the first and second period my buddy and I took a walk and were looking for a better spot than the one we had in the first period. We spited an empty row that just so happened to have three girls who looked like great hockey fans sitting behind it. My wife was one of those girls. We went out for coffee to celebrate the Sabres win that night. I can’t believe that was almost 20 years ago.

• Three least-favorite Pearl Jam songs?: Gremmie out of Control, Stupid Mop, Sweet Lew

• One question you would ask Noam Bramson were he here right now?: Why isn’t Dyngus Day a bigger thing in the United States?

• Trump v Biden—who are you voting for?: I probably wouldn’t vote for either of them. Like in 2016, I would probably write in another Republican. Trump isn’t my taste and he isn’t winning in New York anyway. Biden isn’t bad as far as Democrats go but the party in general is drifting far too left for me. I would likely punt again.

• Celine Dion calls—she’ll pay you $100 mill to spend the next year away from your family, living in her Las Vegas mansion. But you can only wear diapers and you spend your days mowing her lawn while listening to her music on a boom box resting atop your shoulder, which is coated in marshmallow and her phlegm. You in?: I love my family too much. I couldn’t leave my wife and daughter for a year for any amount of money. I just left them for almost a month when I was in the hospital and it hurt more than the surgery. Also, I despise cutting the grass. We hire someone.

• Five all-time favorite writers: Roald Dahl, Jane Leavy, SL Price, Jeff Pearlman, Jim Kelley

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life