ESPN producer sees room for women in sports radio
Tony and Robin Smallmon weren’t surprised when their sports-minded only child Michelle landed a job four years ago on 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis. She was producing a show and doing on-air banter with the likes of the former St. Louis Rams’ player D’Marco Farr, sportscaster Randy Karraker and veteran sports writer Bernie Miklasz.
But when Michelle got the call this summer to move to “The Mothership,” ESPN’s network headquarters in Bristol, Conn., the family response was divided.
“My dad was very excited and my mom started sobbing,” said Michelle. No more Sunday family dinners together. “She thinks I’m never coming home.”
Michelle spent the past four years with 101 ESPN in St. Louis, where she produced and did some on-air work on the “Bernie Miklasz Show” and “The Fast Lane” with Karraker, Farr and former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson.
“I was very happy here,” she said. But when the opportunity arose to interview for a job in Bristol, she took it. She started in July and eventually settled into producing a weekday evening radio show called “Jorge & Jen.” It debuted in late September, but is currently not airing in St. Louis. It can be heard on www.espnradio.com, the ESPN app, SiriusXM, Apple iTunes, Slacker Radio and TuneIn.
“When I got there, I was not assigned (to a show). I was supposed to take ‘College GameDay.’ But they thought I would be better served with a Monday through Friday show. It’s a much more prominent position.”
She got an early start on a love of all things related to sports.
“I was raised on ‘Death, taxes and Cardinal baseball,’” said the 29-year-old with a laugh. She grew up in east Belleville. Her parents, Tony and Robin, now live in Shiloh.
“When I was a little kid I was always with my dad. He was a massive sports fan. He took me to Cards games and forced me to keep score!”
She was a well-rounded sports kid, though.
“He took her to hockey and football games, too,” said Robin, 55, who is a fan herself and dressed their young daughter in appropriate team jerseys and pigtails.
When she took up soccer at a young age, Tony became a coach. The lower level of the house is a shrine to sports.
Tony, 54, said there was a telling moment when his daughter was 6.
It’s 1992 and I’m a big fan of Miami (Dolphins). She had a (Dan) Marino jersey on. We’re watching the game. ... The Dolphins lost a heartbreaker and I turn around and she’s crying. That’s when I knew I had turned her into a sports fan.
Tony Smallmon on his daughter’s sports interest
“It’s 1992 and I’m a big fan of Miami (Dolphins),” Tony started. “She had a (Dan) Marino jersey on. We’re watching the game. ... The Dolphins lost a heartbreaker and I turn around and she’s crying. That’s when I knew I had turned her into a sports fan.”
It was especially easy to become attached to baseball in this family. Tony’s father, the late Ron Smallmon, had worked for the team as a youngster.
“He was a batboy for the (St. Louis) Browns and the Cards in the ’40s and ’50s,” Michelle said. “Stan (Musial) and other players would give him money to go wash their car and tell him to keep the change.”
Robin said her daughter tried dance, volleyball and softball in grade school before settling on soccer. She played varsity as a freshman at Althoff High School and was co-captain her senior year (2004) when the team went to state.
A graduate of the University of Illinois with a degree in broadcast journalism, her first job out of college was entry level, as a production assistant with KSDK-TV.
“I always wanted to write. I wanted to be a sports writer,” Michelle said.
But she liked to talk sports, too — “I’m a Chatty Cathy” — so she found herself having off-air conversations with KSDK sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott. When Knott started doing a weekly sports wrapup show, he asked her to sit in and make some comments, Michelle said. She also was handling remote production on the sidelines at Rams games.
A fan of sportswriter Bernie Miklasz, she took note when ESPN radio came to St. Louis and he got his own show. Then Bernie’s producer moved on.
“I had never produced radio, but I wanted to work with Bernie,” Michelle said. “I thought I would always be in TV. ... When I got the call, plans change and you roll with it.”
He took a chance with her, she said, as producer of “The Bernie Miklasz Show,” then “The Fast Lane.” Sitting in the booth running the shows, the hosts would throw her questions or ask for comments, and in 2014, she began hosting the weekly “Rams Playmakers” show, featuring in-depth interviews with various players.
“I was dealt the best hand of cards with Bernie,” she said. “He’s been my biggest supporter and champion.”
Bernie said he knew she was the one for him “about five minutes into the interview. ... She was so smart and witty and vibrant. ... And she knows sports. She loves sports. She understood how much our teams and athletes mean to the community,” he said. “That combination of knowledge, spark and sincerity was just what I wanted. She had no experience producing but I didn’t care. The mechanics of producing can be taught and learned. But you can't teach someone to have flair. You can't install an abundant personality.”
D’Marco showed her what acceptance is all about.
One of the best guys ever. He treated me like one of the guys. He said, “I forget you’re a girl sometimes.” My gender isn’t in play.
Michelle Smallmon on D’Marco Farr
“One of the best guys ever. He treated me like one of the guys,” she said. “He said, ‘I forget you’re a girl sometimes.’ My gender isn’t in play.”
But Bernie says being a woman still comes into play.
“To be honest it bothers me that she doesn’t have her own radio show. She would be better at it than 75 percent of the people that host sports talk radio. She is a rare talent,” he said. “It infuriates me how the sports media industry still has a way of putting women into a certain slot. ... Michelle can hang with any guy in terms of sports knowledge. She can hang with any guy in dishing out zingers and taking shots. When she produced my show she had a chance to contribute on-air, and listeners loved her. Men liked her. Women liked her. She earned across-the-board respect. She is a wonderful producer, but she should be a star. She’s that good.”
Her parents were listeners and proud that she talked about them on the air.
“We kind of felt like celebrities,” said Robin. “She mentioned us all the time!”
Tony, who sells commerical real estate, said he misses hearing her voice on St. Louis radio.
“I would revolve my (work) schedule around her.”
For now, her job in Bristol involves behind-the-scenes production and on-air skills to keep the show moving and on time.
Michelle says she’s very organized, a necessary skill for a producer. “You have to be very Type A and have your ducks in a row, to have everything set up in advance,” she said of getting a show ready for broadcast. “You have to be just as prepared or better prepared than the host.”
Which means long before she dons the big headset and sits down to run the show, she spends hours doing research, setting up guest bookings and web development. She frequents Twitter and Instagram, too.
Robin says she has no doubt her daughter is going places, though she hopes she’ll eventually come home.
“She always had that sparkle in her eye. And, I know she wants to make her dad proud.”
- On moving to Bristol: “It’s very calm here. I love my job — there’s nothing here except ESPN. But I get to go to New York every weekend. ... I’m not ready for the winters here. Yet.
- On her job: “It’s cool where I work. It’s all like-minded people. It’s a great environment.”
- Dick Vermeil — “Nice man. Great leader”
- Kurt Warner — “Just an all-around nice guy.”
- What she is reading: “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
- Favorite food: Her grandmother’s lasagna. “I’m a sucker for Mexican food, too.”
- Hobby: Travel
- Favorite TV: “Obviously, I watch a lot of sports. I love Bravo’s ‘Real Housewives.’” She also binges on watching a season of shows at one time, such as “The Wire.” “I just fall down the rabbit hole.”
- Sport she knows nothing about: NASCAR
- Sport she plays: Golf