Tony Bruno is/was one of the most popular sports talk radio host in the country, but he's yet to find work since leaving The Sporting News Radio network last January. Bruno's worked everywhere from ESPN, to Fox News, after getting his start as an up-and-coming Philadelphia radio host at a local station. Yet, now, with national sports radio shows becoming less and less available thanks to the dominance of the Jim Romes, the Dan Patricks chewing up all the real estate, he's well aware that he probably won't be making the big-shit dollars that he's used to. Right now, he can be heard in 30 minute stints on KNBR in San Francisco from 10 a.m. to 10:30 Pacific.
Bruno spoke to me via phone from LA about the state of the industry, his frustrations, his fears, and the possibility of where and when he'll land next.
DS: The sports radio industry seems like it's being scrutinized the same way that blogs are. Do you think that's fair?
TB: I don't know if sports radio is better or worse than it was 10 years ago, a lot of it's good, a lot of it's crap. It depends on the company that hires the people to do it. I worked at ESPN for 8 years, back then it wasn't as tenuous as it is now — you could pretty much do whatever you wanted as long as you weren't irresponsible. You're dealing with Disney. This Mark Madden situation, he's dealing with Disney. Disney's not going to tolerate that kind of commentary — now you're going to be held accountable for dumb comments on the air. Back in the day, you never saw that. Now working with Disney, and you've got people calling in, and people micro-managing people to make sure they're not politically incorrect and you've got the PC police out there scrutinizing everything you say…I mean, you can use humor and be funny and make a comment that might be a little off-color, but it depends on how many people complain. You can say something really, really ridiculous and if nobody hears anything important, you get away with it. Or you can say something that's not as ridiculous and 50 people call up and complain and management says "Oh, we've got to do something about this." I think that's the difference. I don't think the business has changed – I think the corporate structure of the business has changed. We've pretty much regressed on what we're allowed to do, but I also think there are a lot of people on the air right now who are very irresponsible, who don't know the difference between being funny and being irresponsible. You have a lot of hosts who don't know where the line is anymore.
Isn't that line arbitrary though? Nobody knows where it is. Don't you think that's dictated by the audience that the host creates? You've never been much of a "shock" guy, but you delve into the t-and-a stuff pretty heavily.
Because I know that sports radio, for the most part, is listened to by males. And people will be like, well, "Why do you talk about porn?" A lot of people like porn. I don't like it , personally, but I get porn sent to me every month. I've got cases of it and I usually give it away to friends. I'm not hypocrite – I like sex, I like hot chicks, just like every other guy does, but I don't have an agenda to promote the porn cause, you know? The girls would call me, I'd put them on the air, we'd have some fun – porn stars making football picks. I never did that at ESPN because they would never allow that stuff. We all have to know where the line is before we go on the air.
Are there any topics that you just won't touch because it's too much of a risk?
No, I'll talk about anything. I've been doing this half-hour thing on KNBR – it's my only job right now – for 10 years, I do it every morning from 10-10:30 Pacific. We go on the air, we have no scripts, we don't even have an idea what we're going to talk about . We just roll with stuff. We'll talk about the NBA Finals and then we'll move on to something stupid – music, or politics. The biggest problem with sports radio as I see it is – something that I've always been able to do differently – is if you keep talking about hardcore sports, you're really, really limiting self to the people who are going to listen. That kind of radio, while it works in New York and Philly and some other shows, you've got to mix some entertainment in. That's what you hear on radio now: you've got guys who are trying to be entertainers with very limited sports knowledge, then you've got guys with no entertainment knowledge who are just sports geeks trying to impress people with their sports knowledge. It's all over the place. Depends on where you live, there's no one set rule on what works and what doesn't. It's just what the audience will tolerate.
In the past year, you've got Dan Patrick moving over to SI to essentially be a radio host. ESPN has Scott Van Pelt doing a radio show now and I'm assuming he's not getting paid in tissues. These guys really don't have the pedigree in sports radio that you do, but is it helpful to you that this kind of money is being thrown around now? Or does it hurt you because you really haven't been a SportsCenter anchor at one point in your career?
When you look around nationally syndicated shows, there are maybe four or five names in this entire industry – and I'm not blowing my own horn, I've been told I was one of the top three guys in the country that do this. There's [Jim] Rome obviously, and Dan Patrick. But Dan's primarily a TV guy and somebody approached him about leaving ESPN last year and he was smart. He became a brand name. ESPN's a brand name and I think Dan took advantage of the situation where somebody came to him and said "Hey, listen. You're a brand name and we want to give you your own show, you'll be away from that whole Disney/ESPN micro-managing style and you get to do your own thing. And ESPN wasn't really unhappy that he was leaving because they don't like stars over there. Dan became a star, he made demands, and they got tired of listening to him and they let him out of his deal.
How can you say ESPN as not liking stars? They do like stars. Rick Reilly being exhibit A, at this point. You do not give a sports columnist a $3.5 million contract…
Rick is definitely a star. They see him as a triple threat. But the Rick Reillys of the world are few and far between. When you're ESPN and you lose a big name like Dan Patrick, who they feel was skewing toward a younger demo, they had to go out and replace him. You look at the radio: I was there, Dan Patrick's gone, Keith Olbermann's gone, there are a lot of people that left there, because once you get to a certain level at ESPN, ESPN is about the company brand. It's not about personality. Even if you're a personality there, they don't have a problem with that, but it's all about ESPN. I mean, ESPN is talking to me now, and I'm going to sit down and have lunch with them again today, but they're not going to offer me a lot of money, they're not going to offer me what I need to live. That sounds stupid, I sound like an athlete now, but I'm talking about the ballpark that I was in. My problem now is – I'm not making Rome money, I'm not making Dan Patrick money – but I was making over a half a million dollars a year and nobody wants to pay that. No matter how good you are or how much you delivered, that's tough money to get right now because ESPN is the only legitimate station right now. Fox Sports Radio now, they're not giving anybody any money, they're doing it on the cheap. They don't have any stars. And Sporting News? The radio side is pretty much going out of business. That's why they didn't renew my deal because they didn't want to give me a three-year deal, because they probably aren't going to be in business on the radio side in three years.
Dan Patrick was in the right place at he right time, because when I left Sporting News, his show was already on the air, and when I left he benefited. I leave and Dan Patrick picks up 100 stations and now there are no openings. Nobody wants to syndicate an afternoon drive show.
So, you're not getting work because of your price tag?
Because of the price tag and there's also this perception that I'm difficult to deal with – I don't know where that came from. Because the last three jobs that I took, it wasn't my intention to leave. I worked at ESPN for 8 years. I was there from '92-2000. I left when I was doing the morning show with [Mike] Golic because I got frustrated. I was out of work for 7 months when I left ESPN. It wasn't because I was trying to scam my way out of a contract – Dan did that, and more power to him for it. I left not to get out of my contract, but because I was frustrated and because of the micro-managing of Disney. That's why I left there. I left Fox after four years and because Clear Channel owned them and they wanted cut my salary. So they didn't offer me a deal – well, they offered me a deal, but it was a huge pay-cut of $150,000 and I refused to take it. Again I was out of work for 7 months. Back then I could pick and choose. I didn't own a home and I wasn't going through a divorce, so back then I had the luxury of sitting around and trying to figure out what was right for me.
Since you're caught in this no man's land right now, do you feel like there's pressure on you to adapt? That you need to become more TV-friendly and start building your own brand?
I don't have to do anything. I'm not desperate. I don't have enough money to retire — I have a home here in LA that costs me a lot of money and I can't even sell if I wanted to. I could work for less money than I made before. But I'm not going to sign with somebody until the next best deal comes along. I don't work that way. My problem is, if I take a sub-standard job with a huge cut in pay, I won't be able to pay my bills. If I could sell my house and break even, that'd be fine. But I would lose like a 100 grand right now, the way the market is. If I would take a $200,000 a year job right now, I'd basically be upside down. I'd barely make my bill payments. I'd be like the average American! Work just to have enough money to pay your bills. I've got alimony and I've got the house.
Are you bitter about the situation?
No, not at all! I'm happy, I'm healthy, I love life. I'm not battered, I'm not angry at anybody. I'm just willing to take the time to wait and see what's out there. I've got local markets offering me jobs, but I can't really move from LA because, as I mentioned, it would bankrupt me. I don't' want to go broke just to have a job. I'm in a Catch-22 situation. I'm not saying that I have to hold out to get a 7-figure deal. I mean Rome's getting money, Dan Patrick's getting seven-figures, and I ‘ve got people telling me I'm in the top three, so why should I take a $200,000 year job? Not only from an ego and market value perspective, it's I wouldn't be able to pay my bills! It's because of my divorce situation. My wife has everything. All I have is the house and a lease car. I'm not crying the blues or anything, though...
In terms of your ego, though, wouldn't it be a little weird if you took a job and you weren't the lead guy?
It's not even about ego, though. It's not like I have to be the lead guy. It's if I take a job and I fall off the face of the earth – not that LA is falling off the face of the earth, there's 8 million people in their cars. I'm just disappointed that I'm not doing a national show because I get tons of emails everyday from people who tell me they miss the show. From all over the country. I think doing a national show keeps me interested because there is just so much more to talk about. You know, like, Philly, it's just all Eagles all the time. I like the ability to talk about things the whole country cares about. The whole argument that syndicated radio doesn't work is nonsense. Look at the Rush Limbaugh's, look at the Sterns. Maybe sports is a little different, but "Mike and Mike" are doing okay, Rome is good as a syndicated show.
Do you think Rome is the best in the business right now?
I don't know, he's not my cup of…I don't have a problem with it or anything. I know Jim personally and I give him a lot of credit for creating a niche. Back when he first started he had the people who supported him and he had the shtick and he had his own little unique thing going. The bottom line is whether or not I like it or you like it, the company that employs him continues to think he's delivering for them and they'll continue to pay him. Once your employer thinks you're too valuable to lose, that's when you have the power.
If he did not get into the on-air fistfight with Jim Everett that he wouldn't be the star he is now?
That definitely helped. That's so far removed now though, that I think there's a lot of people that listen to him that have no idea that happened. Rome's ratings aren't great, but the thing that's good about him is that he's in a time slot that's not really damaging to him if you don't' have great numbers. He's on 9-noon Pacific. That's the safe zone. That's a spot where a lot of sports talk radio stations don't want to go out to hire somebody, so it's easier to just pick up his show and Jim built an empire out of it. I'm not jealous. I don't sit at home saying, "Jeez, Jim Rome makes 3-4 million per year, how come I can't make this?" If nobody wants to hire me, I'll do something else.
Is it fair to make the comparison between terrestrial radio and print media at this point? The vitality of it, that is?
I think the more that you can offer a company. The more you can demand. If you can write and you can broadcast and you can do some TV, that's where the value is. Rick Reilly. He write columns, he can do screenplays, he can go on radio, tv, he can blog…(Ed. Note: No, he can't.). He becomes super-valuable. J.A. Adande of the L.A. Times, he's doing well right now. (Ed. Note: Yes, he is!). Michael Levy left the LA Times to work for Yahoo! because the world is changing. You're going to have more immediate impact if you give people the information they want instantaneously. That's why you're seeing the blogs and sports talk radio thrive so much because the information is instantaneous. That's why it's so tough for people to go from the written word to the spoken word. Bill Conlin is a classic example. I don't know if you remember when Bill was just writing and they started putting him on TV. Bill can write incredibly well, but you put him on TV and he couldn't utter a sentence. So, his value becomes just as a writer. That's why writers like to get on TV. That gives them more opportunity. Write a blog, have a column, do some TV, do some radio, and boom! — you've got it covered. Especially with all of the sports talk radio. There's so many sports talk radio stations that need content.