A Q&A with Pablo Torre on his new, extraordinarly wide-ranging sports(ish) podcast
There was a time when Sports Illustrated not only had employees, it had fact-checkers.and I were two of them.
In addition to enjoying the life-altering honor of playing ping-pong with me (as we waited for drafts to fact-check), Pablo eventually wrote some of SI’s most unique stories. His piece on how pro athletes manage to go bankrupt was the basis for the “30 for 30” documentary Broke. And more than a decade ago, Pablo and I co-authored a story on transgender athletes.
Pablo went on to ESPN, where he was on TV so much that — even without a television — I was able to keep track of his professional development via gym and airport screens.
Pablo has an expansive curiosity, so I was excited when he recently left ESPN to start his own wide-ranging podcast: Pablo Torre Finds Out. But I also expected the transition to come with distinct difficulties. Like Pablo, I moved from a traditional media career to a role driven by my personal curiosity. Combine capacious curiosity with not having a manager, and suddenly figuring out what the heck to work on is a massive challenge.
In the Q&A below, I ask Pablo about a few of my favorite episodes of his new show — which feature topics from FTX, to alpha-male wolves, to Michael Jordan’s son (who is marrying Scottie Pippen’s ex-wife) — but also about how he decides what issues to take on, and how he preps for the enormous number of interviews he has to do. As with all Range Widely Q&As, this one is longer than a normal post. But I think Q&As are brisk reads. (The part about how much Tom Brady made per minute of promoting FTX is toward the bottom.) Hope you enjoy.
David Epstein: You moved from hosting ESPN Daily to this amorphous show you’ve titled Pablo Torre Finds Out. I just listened to the episode in which you examined how some former NFL linemen are able to lose massive amounts of weight once their playing careers are over. In that episode, you’re talking to Mike Golic Jr. — down from 315 to 260 pounds — and he congratulates you on having a great new sports podcast, and then he says: “...even though no one’s sure if it’s a sports podcast.”
I agree. Congrats on a great new show, and is it a sports podcast?
Pablo Torre: Technically? We do satisfy the letter of sports-podcast law: every episode mentions sports, in some way, even if it’s just one sentence. But even the “podcast” classification is a bit murky. While every episode is audio-first, our shows are also videotaped and edited to be bonafide TV shows, airing on the DraftKings Network and on YouTube. Which I then send out in the form of a free Substack newsletter.
But the reason this production is a sports show, spiritually speaking, is the same reason I’ve devoted my professional life to sports journalism: it’s a vast portal through which you can get smarter about — and laugh at — everything else in the world. My goal is for every single episode to be plausibly interesting to someone who has no idea who LeBron James and Tom Brady even are. It’s a sports version of Radiolab or This American Life, in that way.
DE: This gets into an issue I feel acutely. When I started this newsletter, I talked to a great guy who managed Condé Nast newsletters, and he gave me tips, one of which was that my audience should know what to expect. I told him that I wasn’t even sure what to expect. I enjoy bouncing around, but the challenge is that I never know what’s coming, and neither do readers. I struggle with this in all my projects, really — what are the boundaries?
Your podcast is often linked to sports, but sometimes you just have a popular comedian on to share behind the scenes stories. Or once you had Maury Povich reflecting on shenanigans from his old talk show. How do you define the purview of your show?
PT: My show’s title — Pablo Torre Finds Out — is its purview. I vow that a journalist named Pablo Torre is finding out stuff, by the end. And so it really does feel like I’m creating my own magazine: an outlet that, in dangerously heretical contravention of The Algorithm, will serve you stories that you didn’t know were coming. The struggle around expectations you just articulated is also the whole fun of it.
Maury Povich’s late father, for instance, was Shirley Povich, of The Washington Post, one of the greatest print journalists ever. A very serious newspaper man who ran their sports section for decades. (Sports: check.) I also watched Maury growing up; Maury, I discovered, watches me on ESPN. So it was a delirious joy to sit across from him and unpack how it was that Shirley’s son became the longest-tenured daytime TV host in American history — often cast as the antithesis of serious journalism.
DE: I should add, about that chat I had with the newsletter expert, he gave great advice. He said it’s good to have the audience know the day they’ll get something. And that I might want to post shorter and more often, and give more insights into my own life and use social media more, etc. By the end of the discussion, we agreed I probably wasn’t going to do any of those things, and he was awesome about it. He said something akin to, “It’s great that you know the purpose that this newsletter serves for you, and it might mean that the audience won’t be as big as it could be, and that’s ok.” I felt seen.
Nonetheless, it has grown more than I expected, but I still have no clue what I’ll be posting any given week, which is my long-winded way of getting to another question: What is your episode-generation process? When you were hosting ESPN Daily, there was sports news every day you could focus on. Now the world is your curiosity-oyster, which is great, but daunting. Can you give me a little insight into how you generate episode ideas? Is it a solo or group effort? Whiteboard brainstorming? Are there particular ways you tend to come upon episode ideas?
PT: My friends and family have diagnosed me with an illness they call “content-brain.” Fair. I pride myself on story ideas. And so I am thinking of potential episodes all the time, and writing those ideas into the Notes app on my iPhone, like a maniac, to be pressure-tested by my staff on a big whiteboard. A whole lot of them turn out to be trash. But I consider it a compliment that, in the end, pretty much nobody else in sports media is doing the same stories we are.
Another example: we reported an episode about why it is that these Silicon Valley billionaires all became so obsessed with the same exact mixed martial art, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Which then led to me finding out what it was like for a random dad, a union guy who works the overnight shift at a Bay Area hospital, to encounter Mark Zuckerberg at a local BJJ tournament. And then choke Mark Zuckerberg out.
But all of this means that if I am talking to you; doomscrolling Twitter; reading a memoir; listening to a comedy podcast; attending a movie screening; walking aimlessly through New York; reading to my daughter at night; watching Fox News while lightly stoned; or doing, literally, anything, a percentage of my brain is indeed wondering if this can be an episode. For better and for worse.
DE: Ah, I’ll try to be more interesting next time we talk. …So you have three episodes each week, and you seem to have a mix of genres. Sometimes you’re just interviewing interesting people — like the episode with former ESPN president John Skipper talking about bribery at FIFA. Other times, you’ll feature the story of an individual who represents some larger issue, like the episode on a transgender athlete who isn’t good at sports. And then there are episodes that revolve not around a person but a topic, like the one about the S2 cognitive test that prospective NFL quarterbacks take, where you took it and then talked to the S2 co-founder (a neuroscientist) about how you scored way better than Texans star QB C.J. Stroud. Am I imposing my own perceived genres on your show, or do you have systematically different types of shows that you slot into each week? In other words, is this just a natural outgrowth of your curiosity, or is this some system?
PT: It’s a system, a rotation, that we reverse-engineered around my editorial strengths and our logistical limits. And I am very glad that this architecture is not blindingly obvious, it turns out.
We publish every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. And from the start, I knew I wanted to do those evergreen-ish, Radiolab-inspired deep-dives. But the public-radio shows that have mastered such a format all come out once a week, at most, because of the intensive editing and research required. It’s impossible to do three of those features every week.
Luckily, I’ve also dreamed of hosting a talk show with two of my good friends where we basically play show-and-tell. And so we do that. Each of us brings in the most impactful article we read that week — from sports or not — and/or a story about something we did. We often wind up roasting each other mercilessly and/or crying on camera.
And for our third episode every week, I unapologetically indulge in a familiar format: the in-depth, one-on-one interview with a notable person. Which, guest-booking aside, just so happens to require relatively less production for our generally overworked staff.
DE: I loved the episode with retired NBA player J.J. Redick, on why he decided to coach nine-year-olds instead of taking a coaching job with the championship-contender Boston Celtics. The episode is hilarious, and includes a touchy ref ejecting him from a game, but he just stands in a corner of the gym so that his son Knox knows he still has a ride home. There are so many funny parenting moments. You have a clip where Redick is showing the kids a video that he had Bucks star Damian Lillard make for them, in which Lillard is telling them to be confident, and play for each other. The video ends, and Redick starts an earnest pep talk, like, “I know you’re nervous, but we have each other and — …” And the kids are interrupting him: “I’m not nervous! Can we meet Damian Lillard?” And Redick responds, again earnestly, something like: “Ok, I’m nervous. And Damian Lillard isn’t in New York right now.” And he tries to continue the pep talk.
It’s funny and adorable, but Redick is also seriously reflective about his own lessons in coaching these kids. He touches on a favorite theme of mine, one that I think pervades every page of Range: the idea that short-term optimization often undermines long-term development. He goes on a mini-tirade about how there shouldn’t be zone defense or full-court press in kids’ games because those tactics help teams win at the expense of learning how to play. I thought that was pretty cool.
But I’ll actually ask a question now. At first it feels like it’s you and your buddy J.J. Redick just shooting the breeze. But it slowly becomes clear that you know quite a bit about his life. Putting my own interviewer hat on, you’re making it seem like you’re talking off the cuff to a friend, but I’m almost positive that there’s a ton of preparation that allows you to do that. Using that episode as an example, what was your research and preparation process?
PT: My content-brain is always hunting for stories where a thoughtful and even obsessive person can articulate a bigger idea that they themselves are living, in real time. A similar but very different episode recently was about the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s proud new policy of “free speech” absolutism, in rejection of cancel culture — a pivot that, in the UFC’s allowance of textbook homophobia, has been celebrated by the American right. For that episode, I sat down with Ariel Helwani, a dogged MMA journalist who’s been banned and repeatedly threatened by Dana White, the head of the UFC, for reporting on the business of the company. Because Dana White — spoiler alert — still doesn’t love speech. He just loves money.
But as for J.J. Redick, specifically: as soon as I heard that he was coaching his son’s youth basketball team, having turned down NBA coaching jobs, I began conceiving of that story as a sitcom. I’ve known J.J. for years — and he listens to the show, which helps — but I started reporting that episode by talking to two mutual friends who’ve seen his obsession bloom. One of them sent me the Dame Lillard video you referenced, which still makes me chuckle. And so by the time I texted J.J. and asked if he’d let me come watch a game he was coaching, alongside his players’ parents, in the stands, I had a rough sense of what the beats of a story might be.
At the game itself, I got to talk to some parents; put my Notes app to work; tape a couple videos off my phone; chat with J.J. afterwards; and then schedule a time for him to visit my studio. At which point he was keenly aware of what I found interesting, and let it rip.
DE: I want to harp on this, because for me interview prep is such a solitary endeavor, so I really like to take a chance to learn what others do. You just did an episode that featured biologist David Mech, whose wolf research became famous when he helped popularize the idea of the dominant “alpha male.” Except, in the episode he says that years ago he realized this work was wrong, and the supposed alphas were actually just the father wolves parenting younger wolves. It’s kind of a complicated topic, and when I think about how long it takes me to prepare for book interviews, I just don’t see how I could physically prep to do the quantity and diversity of interviews that you do and sound like I’m talking off the cuff. So what’s the secret here? Do you have a photographic memory? Do you have a support staff that helps with this? Do you have a lot of bad portions of interviews that get edited out? Asking for a friend…
PT: So, I’d been thinking about that alpha male story since the pandemic, to be honest. Some people baked bread; I was half-baking podcasts. But it really did take a village to make it finally happen.
And from our production staff, I should spotlight Meadowlark Media’s Bradley Campbell here. I began by brain-dumping my sense of the fundamental beats of that story into Bradley. I knew there was something profound in Dave Mech’s life. But Bradley — a former “alpha” athlete, himself — voraciously read the relevant literature, expanded my basic knowledge of the science, and flew out to Minnesota to sit down with Dave. Then, after crushing the interview, Bradley advanced the story by Zoom-interviewing one of the world’s foremost primatologists, Frans de Waal. We then did revisions on a conversation roadmap that Bradley put together, strategizing around the tape he collected that we’d want to play for the audience.
So, no photographic memory. More the muscle memory of hosting, since ESPN Daily, close to 800 conversation-driven podcast episodes. And absolutely, yes: it requires a support staff of ace producers, whose editing scalpel is one of our greatest weapons — so long as we can keep in enough of that natural, conversational fat to preserve that off-the-cuff feeling.
DE: Speaking of good interview prep, I thought you did an outstanding job in the episode about how Sam Bankman-Fried very calculatingly used sports to make crypto-exchange FTX seem trustworthy. I was interested to learn that Tom Brady made $916,000 per minute of promotional work for FTX. Not bad. That crushes Schwarzenegger’s $21,000 per word in Terminator 2. It also reminded me of back at SI when George Dohrmann and I were investigating the dietary supplement industry. I remember learning at the time that Brady was endorsing a drink that claimed (illegally) to treat concussions. So thanks for bringing back that memory.
Anyway, on that episode, you had on both authors who wrote popular books about Bankman-Fried: Michael Lewis and Zeke Faux. You get into issues like how thoroughly pro sports leagues vet companies to which they sell promotional assets, including naming rights to stadiums. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but the takeaway was basically: the NFL didn’t want FTX money; NBA teams would take it after some mild vetting; and MLB would basically just take it and slap an “FTX” patch on every umpire. I have two questions here. First, does that reflect some difference in conscientiousness among the leagues, or just their relative economic prospects, or something else?
PT: First, I’m glad you enjoyed our SBF episode, which was weirdly inspired by The New York Review of Books. I’d read two competing books about FTX — Michael’s and Zeke’s — and interviewed both authors, separately. The challenge was to then put them in conversation, and in tension, with each other. Which we could not do without that aforementioned [editing] scalpel.
But as for your question: both authors spoke to the way that everything is basically a high-school cafeteria — even multibillion-dollar sports leagues. To me, the degree of vetting each league did fairly neatly corresponds to their status inside the cafeteria. The NFL is prom king, and they didn’t need this weird, shady nerd peddling his wares. The NBA, by comparison, is a bit more class-anxious; they could use an edge. And MLB has gone from the national pastime to general existential dread, these days, having lost that status, and so they just looked at the NBA and figured that if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. They didn’t want to be left out. The fact that the FTX logos wound up on the bodies of umpires, of all people, is the sort of symbolism you can’t invent.
DE: Second, you don’t shy away from the seedy side of sports. I remember back after Selena Roberts and I broke the A-Rod/steroids story, a great veteran sportswriter shared with me an adage that I took as a warning: “People read the sports section because they like sports.” How do you think about balancing the fact that people turn to sports for escapism with your desire or maybe even feeling of responsibility to do some stories that are more investigative in nature?
PT: I think sports fans want to be treated like adults. And I think that the pendulum has swung way too far the other way. Sports Illustrated is a zombie now. Real Sports, on HBO, just died — yet another institution to collapse after decades of investigative work. Vice is over.1 The Los Angeles Times fired scores of writers. And on and on, deep into the podcasting industry, too. Ambitious journalism has never been more necessary. Or more conspicuous, when it happens.
But I also want to be very clear about this: I believe that journalism can and should be entertaining. Smart and funny — as one of my mentors, Tony Kornheiser, often intones — is my ambition, in three words.
DE: Last question: You mentioned that you have a Substack for the show, and the “about” page features some laudatory blurbs, and then this one: “Miserable” — Larsa Pippen and Marcus Jordan. What’s that about?
PT: If you judge a person by the enemies he makes, I am somewhat troubled that my enemies — as chronicled in the New York Post — are Vivek Ramaswamy and Larsa Pippen and Marcus Jordan. But the strange thing about Larsa and Marcus is that I loved the time we spent with them.
For those unfamiliar: Larsa, who happens to be Scottie Pippen’s ex-wife, is getting married to Marcus, who happens to be Michael Jordan’s son. A dynamic further complicated by the fact that Scottie and Michael — once the preeminent duo in sports history — are now, themselves, bitter exes, waging a war of narrative control through autobiographies and The Last Dance.
So what I did was listen to every episode of Marcus and Larsa’s podcast — because of course they had a podcast — and do something that nobody in sports had done: ask them actual questions about their relationship. And about reality television. And the incentives of the attention economy. And what Michael Jordan thinks about all of this. Anyway, I heard from many people who came away from that episode with a greater appreciation of Larsa and Marcus. Larsa and Marcus felt the opposite about me. Again: fair.
DE: I lied, actual last question: if a Range Widely reader proposes a show or interview idea in the comments below this post, and you do it, will you thank them in the episode?
PT: Without a moment’s hesitation. It would be my content-brained honor to give credit where credit is due.
Thank you for reading. You can check outwherever podcasts happen (i.e. Apple Podcasts, YouTube, etc). His Substack has episode descriptions and links. If you have a show idea or interview suggestion for Pablo, leave it below; it’d be fun to hear him credit a Range Widely reader.
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Until next time…
P.S. While we’re on sports: shoutout to the runners (three women, three men) who nabbed podium spots at the insanely dramatic U.S. Olympic marathon trials over the weekend. Fiona O’Keeffe won — in her *first marathon ever* — and finished with a blood-soaked race bib, due to a chafing gel packet that was tucked in her uniform. American record holder Emily Sisson took second, and the final Olympic-team spot went to erstwhile hockey player Dakotah Lindwurm, who walked-on to her Division II college team. On the men’s side, training partners Conner Mantz and Clayton Young finished just about side-by-side in first and second, and U.S. Army soldier Leonard Korir took third. Also, props to a few heroic efforts: Zach Panning, who led 17 miles in the Orlando heat before finishing sixth; Jessica McClain, an unsponsored non-profit director who finished fourth; and 40-year-old Sara Hall, who finished fifth, and has run *eight* Olympic trials on the track and roads.
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