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Hey, How'd You Build a Successful Sports TV Talk Show, Graham Bensinger?
The ambitious reporter reveals how he landed interviews with some of the top sports figures.- March 31, 2014
The fourth season of weekly interview series In Depth with Graham Bensinger is in full swing. Among this season's guests: Terrell Owens, the athlete who helped launch the reputation of the 27-year-old host many years prior.
Bensinger started doing an Internet radio talk show from his bedroom while in the 8th grade. But it was his 2005 ESPN interview with Owens that put him on the map; the football player's controversial remarks made international headlines and led to the athlete being suspended for the rest of the NFL season by the Philadelphia Eagles.
From his St. Louis headquarters, where the sports reporter can be found between traveling to various interview assignments, Bensinger spoke to Mediabistro about the Owens bookend chats and much more. This season, for the first time, In Depth is being shown not only on domestic cable and sports networks, but also on traditional TV stations. The program now employs a full-time staff of 11 and continues to simultaneously air on Yahoo Sports and in many international territories via several international broadcast partners, including Rogers TV in Canada.
You started off the 2014 Terrell Owens interview with an apology. Why did you begin the conversation that way?
Other than very brief instances in passing, I had not had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Owens during the eight years since the first interview. I wanted to do it in part because I know sometimes people will say one thing in private and then another thing publicly. So I wanted to say to him that I was doing this in the public forum so the viewers of our series could understand why I was apologizing.
The interview that I did with Owens in 2005, in part, provided me with the incentive to create this In Depth series. I created the show myself, signed on all the early interview subjects and sponsors myself, and so on. The purpose behind that was so I could have the opportunity to have a platform where I had complete editorial control. Because whether it [was] the three and a half years I worked for ESPN or the time I worked for NBC Sports after that, I ultimately didn't have editorial control. And I think the most notable example of that is the 2005 Terrell interview.
|"There are instances where you know going into it that you are going to cover sensitive subject matter. And how that's navigated is something I pay close attention to."|
I sat down with him for an hour-long conversation. We covered everything from his grandmother having Alzheimer's to encounters growing up to the controversial topics. Those controversial topics made up five minutes of the interview and were all that aired on Sports Center. And I can fully understand from a news perspective why that was. There's limited time, and that was the most newsworthy content.
But I also understand from T.O.'s perspective, he's thinking - 'Crap! I did an hour-long interview with this kid, and for what? Just so I can get some extra headlines?' And so I felt like I owed him an apology for putting him in a situation where I was interviewing him for a platform [on which] I did not have the ability to fully and adequately profile him.
Another notable interview you've done for Season 4 was with Kobe Bryant. How do you land such high-profile guests?
I started putting this series together in March 2009. It took about a year and a half to get it assembled; we launched in September 2010. And as the audience size and distribution of the series has slowly grown, it has without a doubt made it easier to get access to high-level athletes. But it's still definitely a process. Kobe probably took two years.
It's also easier to get access to these guys if you're asking for five, 10, 15 minutes. If you need an hour and a half, two hours or a couple of days, there's so much more involved in requesting the time. If we're going to do it, we want to have the best chance to do it right, so I really avoid jumping at the opportunities for 10 or 15 minutes. I'll always hold off and keep the dialogue going until the athlete and their people feel comfortable to give us an extended amount of time.
For this fourth season, I was really lucky to be able to hire away Jim Rome's long-time talent producer, Jason Stewart. [He] came over after 15 years with Rome. His relationships are obviously extensive. And although the budget is still really small, we've been able to carve out some money to send Jason all over to book the best guests. He's gone on our behalf to Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, Floyd Mayweather's fight, the Daytona 500, and on and on. He's constantly traveling and his guest-booking help has kind of enabled me to lessen my day-to-day involvement.
|"Coming to the interview as prepared as you can possibly be will separate you from 99.9 percent of the other people out there."|
How do you handle some of your tougher interviews?
There are instances where you know going into it that you are going to cover sensitive subject matter. And how that's navigated is something I pay close attention to. You want to be fair to the person and how it's presented, so there's a fine line there. The Kobe interview, for example, was the first time he opened up about his sexual assault charges. We spoke at length with Ray Lewis about him being charged with the murders of two people a decade ago. We went to New Zealand for the first interview with Tiger Woods' ex-caddie, Steve Wilson, after Wilson was fired by Tiger. Emotions were running high for that one. Going into these situations, I'm always cognizant of the need to tell the story with the figure's sensitivity in mind.
What have been some of your favorite interviews so far?
I always really enjoy it when we do an international episode because of the varying cultures and the backgrounds of the athletes -- whether it's going to China to talk to Yao Ming or Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines. Those are all exciting interviews.
I also did one in the Hollywood Hills with Jim Brown at his home. He's arguably the greatest football player of all time, one of the most socially significant athletes of the past century. This is a guy who retired at the peak of his playing career to pursue acting, helping pave the way for black action stars. He's created hundreds of black-owned businesses through his foundation. The type of people Brown called friends back in the day were Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Hugh Hefner, Richard Pryor, Jack Nicholson, Frank Sinatra, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Jr. So the stories he has are just unbelievable. He's also somebody who's very quick to tell you if you ask a dumb question.
You've also interviewed O.J. Simpson several times. How did those opportunities come about?
The first time I interviewed O.J., I was a junior in high school. Right from the start, I made a point of going out to events and meeting players [and] publishers. With O.J., it involved Jim Brown. I would use the proceeds of advertising on my Internet radio show to fund trips. [One time] I went to Washington D.C. to interview Brown, and while I was there I met somebody who was also an agent for Simpson.
I proceeded to call that guy twice a week for a year and a half. And finally one day, I was told that O.J. was scheduled to do an autograph signing in St. Louis, and if I could be there at a certain time, this person would make it happen. And at the last minute, I decided to bring a little hand-held video camera. And lo and behold, a week after the interview, Good Morning America flew me out to talk to Diane Sawyer about [it].
And then a couple of years later, I think because Simpson appreciated how I handled myself post-interview, he [gave] me access really whenever I wanted. Now, looking back on those interviews, I think I admittedly did a very lame job when it comes to asking the difficult questions. If I had another chance to talk to him today, there is a lot I would now ask.
Graham Bensinger's Keys to Success as an Interviewer:
1. Follow your passion. "I feel very lucky to have found something I was passionate about at an early age. It didn't even dawn on me at first that [interviewing sports figures] could be a career. It was more of a hobby in high school and just grew from there."
2. Emulate your idols. In Bensinger's case, two key influences were fellow St. Louis natives Bob Costas and Joe Buck. "Bob Costas wrote my recommendation letter when I went to Syracuse University, which is his alma mater. Both he and Buck have been very kind to me and obviously I have tremendous respect for both of their abilities and talents."
3. Do your research. "Between [me] and the producers, we probably do about 100 hours of research for each In Depth guest. Coming to the interview as prepared as you can possibly be will separate you from 99.9 percent of the other people out there."
Richard Horgan is the co-editor of FishbowlNY.
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