Little did we realize at the time that life as we knew it, including the sports world, was about to undergo a radical shift.
The day after our March 10 conversation, in the middle of a nationally televised game between the Denver Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA announced it was temporarily suspending play association-wide following Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert's positive test for COVID-19. Within days, every major professional sports league, as well as collegiate and amateur organizations from coast to coast, followed suit, in tandem with bans on large events and closures like those in Colorado targeting restaurants, bars and other places where crowds are known to gather. Finally, Governor Jared Polis issued his statewide stay-at-home order on March 25.
As a result of the viral pandemic, everyone is facing new challenges — to health, to well-being, to safety, to financial security and more. But the one that Stokley and Bye must tackle during their program on The Fan, which is heard from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays, is more unusual: What the hell do sports-radio hosts talk about when no sports are being played?
Nearly two weeks after COVID-19 squelched their main topics of conversation, Stokley and Zach are doing the seemingly impossible, delivering consistently diverting broadcasts on a daily basis. It's a high-wire act, but so far they've proved very sure-footed — and in a more recent conversation, they discussed how they're doing it day in and day out.
The dialogue below is broken into two parts. The first, from chat one, kicks off with Bye sharing details about his own athletic background; he played basketball for the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, where he began his broadcasting career before making the jump to Denver. Stokley, meanwhile, shows off his self-deprecating sense of humor when discussing his sometimes rocky early performances on The Fan, where he was originally paired with ex-CU Buffs standout Charles Johnson prior to Bye's arrival, and the way he improved by applying the mentality he developed during a fifteen-year NFL career (he played with good pal Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts before rejoining Manning on the Broncos, in addition to stints with the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants). Stokley also cites the wisdom he gained from his father, Nelson Stokley, a coach at LSU and, later, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where his son played college ball. Additional topics include the duo's undeniable chemistry, a result of friendship and plenty of hard work behind the scenes, and how they've managed to make a mark at The Fan despite not operating in the higher-profile morning- or afternoon-drive slots.
That's followed by material from our second session, in which Stokley and Bye speak frankly about their initial reaction to the virus-related shutdowns and their evolving approach to the show, which they see as a respite from the serious news that seems to be constantly raining down upon us these days.
And they're right.
Westword: Brandon, everyone is very familiar with your athletic background, but not as many people know about yours, Zach. Could you get everybody up to speed — and please start with that jumping record you set while you were in the sixth grade.
Brandon Stokley: [Laughs.]
Zach Bye: Side by side with someone like Stokley, my athletic background's not much. Once upon a time, in my home town, I was a good athlete. I really focused on basketball in my teenage years and was obsessed with the game. I knew that was my life's focus, and I tried to get better every day. I was a good high school player and got to play in college — and I still play to this day. Basketball has been a big part of my DNA since I was twelve. That's officially where I got my love of sports, for sure.
What was your top skill as a player?
Bye: My number-one attribute was as a leaper. I started dunking a basketball when I was about fourteen. I dunked in a JV basketball game. I would win dunk contests, I could do 360s. I was a good athlete, and I used that to be a rebounder. Although I'm not overly big, I could always rebound, and I was super-competitive on the glass. That was my calling card. I led my league in rebounding, and in junior college, I got twenty rebounds in a game twice, and I was able to get a scholarship. I was never a great player, but I was as good an athlete as anyone on the floor with rebounding and defense.
At what point did you become interested in broadcasting?
Bye: I knew I wanted to do this. If you look up in my college bio, it says I wanted to be a sports-talk-show host. I worked for it a long time. I did an internship in college, I had my own college radio show for three years, and I had hundreds of reps behind the mic before I graduated. Over the next nine years, I piecemealed together different jobs; at one time, I had four different jobs at once. Ultimately, I built up enough style and comfort and credibility in the business over the course of nearly a decade to get me in the position where a station like 104.3 The Fan could do a national search and pick someone like me to work with Stokley. It was a climb; it wasn't overnight. And it happened because of constant commitment — because this is what I wanted to do, and I would spend all my time being relentless and rewiring my competitive nature from basketball to what I did behind a microphone. And I got here, thank goodness.
Brandon, as you were coming to the end of your playing career, were you planning to make a move into broadcasting?
Stokley: I didn't really think about it early on. I wanted to leave my options open and play for as long as I could, then take a couple of years and explore different things that were out there. I tried some TV stuff, trying to find my way and see what direction I wanted to head. I wasn't sold on radio or anything else. I just wanted to explore my options and see what the best fit for me would be.
What was it that made you eventually decide on radio?
Stokley: For me, I liked it because it's a lot more relaxing. I feel I can be myself a little more with radio than TV. I mispronounce a lot of words [Bye laughs], and you can do that on radio. You really can't get away with it on TV. So after taking a couple of years off, I got this opportunity. It came out of nowhere. I thought, three hours every day is a long time to talk on the radio, but I might as well see if I enjoy it.
One of the phrases you use most on the air is "playing at a high level." When you first started doing radio on The Fan, do you think you were playing at a high level?
Bye: [Laughs,] That's a great question.
Stokley: No, I wasn't. It's just like anything else, when you first start doing something. I feel like I'm better now than I was then, and I still feel like I have things to get better and improve on. I look back early in my football career in the NFL. I thought I was pretty good, but I had a long way to go. I knew when I was getting into radio, and being on three hours every day, that there was going to be a learning curve and a growing period. I knew that going into it. I feel I have improved and gotten better, but I still feel I can continue to get better and improve.
Do you think working with Zach has helped in that development?
Stokley: I think so. Obviously, your partner goes a long way in your success. You need to have good chemistry on the air when you're doing it for three hours. If you don't have a good partner and good chemistry, I think the show suffers. That was a big thing for me — trying to find the right guy when C.J. left. And I think I found the perfect partner. I approached radio like I did football. I knew I didn't know it all, and I was always looking at other people and how they did things, and then I'd look at myself and just try to get better. I made sure I wasn't getting comfortable, that I continued to push myself and try to improve.
Bye: That last part is something I'm most proud of when I hear about it from other people. It developed over a period of time, and I think the most pivotal part of developing the tease was really being a student of it. Really, it's no different from me watching the footwork of someone like Kobe Bryant and trying to replicate it in the back yard. I heard people like Colin Cowherd and Mike Greenberg teasing things that made me want to stay in the car — waiting in the parking lot for the tease to pay off. I'm a fan of the business, and I wanted to get better. And I think the biggest part of that, other than being a student of it, is trying to put it into practice — putting in the effort before the show starts.
Some other people do that, too. But if you don't have a plan going in, you're going to get exposed for the lack of a plan by someone who knows what they're listening to. Every show we go into, the whole show is formatted. We worked on it for an hour and a half, and we know what every topic is. If we get rolling and something else comes up, we can push the structure back, but it's always there. That speaks to work ethic. If I hear someone going into a commercial break by saying, "We'll be right back," they're showing me they haven't done the work before the show. Me, Stokley and our producer Stephen [Priest, Jr.] have a plan and a direction that has been established probably twelve hours beforehand.
That work ethic is definitely evident in you, too, Brandon. You break down film of players and are able to discuss it in ways that are as detailed as that of any coach — and of course, your father was one — but really accessible.
I think for me, football, because I grew up around it, is something I see differently than maybe most people do. I think that's one of my strong suits. I have a knack for being able to watch film and watch guys and see why things happen and be able to articulate it. I don't do many things good, but football, I feel, is one thing I do good — playing it and watching it and looking at it and trying to dissect it. I always wanted to be a football coach, but once I saw the hours they put in while playing for fifteen years, seeing the hours and commitment it took, I put that on the back burner real quick. But I just feel like, growing up around it, I have a sixth sense for it.
Another thing that comes across on the air is the camaraderie between the two of you. Both of you really seem to enjoy each other's company.
Stokley: Actually, we really don't like each other [both laugh]. I'm glad it comes across that way. We're just two guys who like sports, and we get along. I think you have to want to have a good partnership, you have to have a good partnership off the show, too. If you have that kind of chemistry, you're going to carry that over to the basketball court or the football field. Doing it three hours every day, that's a long time to be around someone if you don't like their company. I believe listeners will sense that. We're good friends and have a lot of fun together.
Bye: I echo what he said. At its core, you're sitting in a room talking for three hours. That's more time straight through than I talk to my wife or anybody else. If you can't do that comfortably, it's going to come across. As much feedback that I hear from people, the number-one thing they say to me is, "You guys have good chemistry; it sounds like you're having fun and actually like each other." And that's true. We could be at a bar doing this. On the best sports shows, you could have that same conversation at a sports bar.
Zach, you're also the host of special "war room" programs on The Fan, where multiple hosts on the station get together and break down various subjects. Is that something you enjoy doing?
Bye: It's one of those things where I really do like it — but sometimes I don't like it, because at that moment, you're just a facilitator. It's less opinion-giving and more making it about your other co-hosts at the time. I think the reason I was asked to do it initially by our former boss goes back to the structure question. I think they felt I was the best suited to handle that. I can't believe how many we've done since then, and it's a blast. We do it quarterly, and it's always interesting, even when it's like herding cats. Everyone wants to chime in, as I do. But you're just trying to keep the ship above water, trying to break on time when four different people want to get a point in. You'd think I'd just hang back and let everyone else do the talking, but sometimes the moments are a little more chaotic than anything else we do at the station. You have to find the balance, but that's something I enjoy.
Stokley: I think the reason Zach is so good at that, and why they asked him to do it, is his flexibility. He comes in prepared and removes himself from the conversation and just throws it out to everybody else. But he's organized enough to keep everyone under control and the show moving in the right direction.
Stokley: We're looking to move on up and kick people out of their time slot. Put that out there. Let people know we're coming for their spot [both laugh]. Just kidding. For me, this is the perfect spot. It's right in the middle of the day, and it gives me so much flexibility in the morning and afternoon to watch my kids and go to sporting events. That's where I'm at right now. Obviously, we understand that drive-times are the most listened-to shows, mornings and afternoons. But for me, I look at my family situation and I love this time slot. Would you like to have more people listening? Sure. But at the same time, for me, personally, this is a great slot to be in.
Bye: Schedule-wise, I believe the afternoon slot is the best slot in radio. But I spend every morning with my baby boy; he's a year and a half old. After I take him to the babysitter, I'm able to sit down and do more work or run an errand or go to the gym. And after our last break, at 2:55, you're walking out at three. The afternoon show has a bigger audience, and it can be a more lucrative audience. But right now, it's great. And even on the mid-day show, we do numbers that would out-perform a lot of drive-time shows in different markets. So I have an understanding that this isn't a.m. or p.m. drive, but at the same time, every time we take the air, there are tens of thousands of listeners. And just in the month of January, we had 50,000 downloads of our podcast. And we're not a podcast. We're a radio show. The show is podcasted after the fact. So having that many in a 28-day period is an indicator that our audience is beyond who's tuning in between noon and three. People might be listening at six at night or six in the morning. So I think for right now, we're in a great spot to continue to grow. If you think Stokley couldn't be doing drive-time in this market or anywhere else, you're crazy — and I feel like I could do it, too. But I don't look at it like varsity versus JV. If you have a time slot on The Fan, that's a pretty big deal.
The station just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and its ratings continue to excel even after losing Alfred Williams to KOA, and despite not directly partnering with any of the major teams in town.
Bye: I think that's what makes The Fan very unique not just in Denver, but nationwide. As I referenced before, I'm very much a student of sports-talk radio across the country, and to have a station as dominant as The Fan that doesn't have an affiliation to any of the teams is very uncommon — and it gives the hosts a license to tell the truth. The listeners understand that level of authenticity. At The Fan, we're able to speak on a level of truth. It's not shtick, and it makes it unique. Having a platform like The Fan, one that's 25 years old, is incredible. I'd equate it to the New York Yankees. They're the Yankees because of the platform and because of all the great players who were there before. Someone like [former Colorado Rockies standout turned Yankee] DJ LeMahieu is standing on the shoulders of people like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and a host of others — and at The Fan, we feel like we play for the Yankees, because of all the great hosts who came before us and made it what it is.
Stokley: When I first started off, I was looking for the biggest platform. People don't like change, and I wanted to start at the top and know that people were going to listen to you. And that's what happened. People listen to The Fan, and they'll give you an opportunity, and stick with you or not, because they love The Fan. They've had loyal listeners for 25 years, so you'll get that opportunity. They love the overall brand and what it has to offer. And I love the fact that we're not affiliated with anybody. I like to state my opinions, whether they're good, bad or whatever, and not worry about any kind of repercussions or upsetting anybody. There's no agenda: I just state my opinions. It's hard to do radio any other way. I think people can see through you if you don't. I want to be myself, and that's what the station allows me to do.
Brandon, a while back, Peyton Manning was on the show and he gave you a scoop: He said that [Broncos quarterback] Drew Lock had to have his wisdom teeth removed. Can we expect breaking news about any other body parts?
Stokley: [Laughs.] That's the great thing about listening to our show. You never know what you're going to hear, whether it's about wisdom teeth or throwing sessions or training camp breakdowns. We cover it all, wisdom teeth included.
Westword: It hasn't been that long since we talked, but the whole world has changed. Did you immediately realize the repercussions that would have on your show?
Bye: No, I didn't. I was more reacting to the news itself. I'll just use Thursday [March 12] as an example. The night before, the NBA had suspended the season, so we were talking about that. But while we were on the air, March Madness and Major League Baseball were suspended, too. In the moment, you're just trying to inform your listeners, but during commercial breaks and throughout the afternoon, you realize, "Oh, gosh, we're not going to have anything to react to." That fully sunk in over the next 24 hours.
Stokley: It took a little while to comprehend. I was just shocked the NBA was suspending the season. I didn't comprehend what the next steps were going to be or how it was going to affect everything we do. At the time, it was hard to fathom. And looking back, it's hard to fathom where we are now and everything that's actually transpired.
Did you immediately come up with a strategy for what to do moving forward? Or did your approach naturally adapt over time?
Bye: I think it was definitely the latter, naturally adapting. We never got together and said, "What are we going to do now?" We know what we have to do. We have a job to do. That goes without saying. We have to come in every day with a plan. We already talked about that structure, which is unfamiliar to some shows — a lot of shows around the country. But it's not unfamiliar to us. So we've continued to do what we do: be creative, think outside the box and try to bring engaging conversations to the airwaves. At the end of the day, we're entertainers. So go do it. Go entertain.
Stokley: At first we were just reacting to all the news about everything that got suspended. There was a lot to talk about. It just seemed like there was something happening every five to ten minutes. And now, with all the NFL stuff going on [the free-agency period opened, with players moving from team to team], it's been great to react to that. I think listeners have really enjoyed having a break from everything else that's going on, or the lack of what's going on — to be able to talk about their favorite team and who they signed. I think the NFL has been really good for a lot of people. It's helping them try to make it through these times.
Do you look at what you're doing as a kind of public service — a distraction from all the other confusing and disturbing things that are happening?
Stokley: Yeah, absolutely. Sports is a great escape for a lot of people, especially with things of the magnitude that we have going on now. There's no sports being played, so it's hard to escape it. But at least there's the NFL stuff happening, and we try to provide some levity with it, try to help people forget about things for a little while. We want to entertain and have fun, and the reaction we've gotten from our listeners has all been positive. We're going to keep doing our job and try to do it really well. Obviously, these times are different from any we've had to endure, but we have stuff to talk about, and we keep on plowing forward.
Zach, have you heard the same kinds of things from listeners?
Bye: I have. We've heard from listeners saying, "Man, this is like coming up for fresh air." And it's also a good relief for Stokley and myself. Stokley has a family, I have a family, and it's been a little bit of therapy. It's good for mental health for me to get out of the house and talk about sports and not having to worry about social distancing or who does or doesn't have the coronavirus. It's been a nice reprieve for us, as well.
Is there any part of you that wonders, "If this goes on for months, with all the sports still suspended, what are we going to do?" Or are you trying to live in the moment?
Bye: I think it's a little of both. I think we're living in the moment and truly attacking these shows one day at a time. If you zoom out enough, it's a pretty daunting proposition if sports don't come back when we believe they might — call it another two months, say. But at the same time, if that does happen, it's just going to ratchet up our work ethic and creativity to be able to pull off these three-hour shows. How can you find ways to talk about sports when there are no sports actually happening? I think that's going to speak to the work ethic of hosts and the creativity that's put into a show before you go live.
Stokley: When you look at it, nobody knows what's going to happen next, or what's going to happen in two months, three months, six months. You have to live in the moment and not worry about what's happening next. I wouldn't have thought that we'd have no sports things to talk about except the NFL. But I believe we have a great team that's able to adapt and be creative and come up with different story lines and still give listeners a great show. I think that's what we bring to the table. When you have good people around you, you'll be able to come up with creative things and fun topics and give listeners enjoyable sports radio.
Does your background as athletes help you at a time like this?
Bye: I know for me that's definitely true. I think of this as a personal challenge. I've always been proud of my work ethic, so now, let's compete against the shows on our own station and other shows in town. Let's see who's doing their homework. From a competitive standpoint, I'm like, perfect. Now we don't have anything to react to. No one does. Let's see who outworks whom.
Stokley: When you play sports your whole life, it's about fighting through adversity and difficult challenges. That's what life is, and that's what sports are and what sports teaches you. We've got adversity. But you can't put your head down and mope about it. [Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy] said, "No excuses, no explanations." We've just got to find a way to get it done. Sports have taught me about perseverance. These are the times we're in now, and we're going to fight through this and bring a good product to our listeners.