Call him crazy, but Rich Eisen believes in conversation.
In this age of text messages and 140-character tweets, it's not hard to see why thoughtful conversation would be marginalized. It exists, sure, but sometimes it gets drowned out in the noise of our fast-paced, what’s-next society.
Of course, tools like Twitter and texting serve a crucial purpose and allow us to communicate quickly and efficiently. But they don't always lead to reasoned discussion. By their nature they force us to compress our thoughts into easily digestible, and sometimes easily misleading, bites.
And it’s not just our national dialogue that’s being affected by the transformation in the way we converse. Our well-being may be at stake as well. A 2010 University of Arizona study found that people who engage in less small-talk and more substantive conversations tend to be happier.
With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise you to hear that Rich Eisen is having the time of his life.
The 44-year-old face of the NFL Network and former SportsCenter anchor is the host of one of the most popular sports podcasts around. His show, The Rich Eisen Podcast, consistently ranks in the top 10 downloaded sports podcasts on iTunes, and it recently celebrated the 10 millionth download of its three-year existence.
The Podcast is much more than a sports talk show, however, and Eisen’s guests have ranged from Larry David to Ice-T to Marisa Miller. It's mix of sports and pop culture and whatever else Eisen and his guests want to discuss. The conversations last 20, 30 and even 40 minutes, with no shortage of laughs.
Truth be told, if substantive conversation is correlated with well-being, Rich Eisen may be the happiest man on earth.
"I'm having a blast, I really am," Eisen says while relaxing in the green room at the NFL Network Studios in Culver City, Calif., on a recent afternoon. "I'm living the dream, man. There's been many bucket items over the last 10 years that have gotten scratched off. And the only thing that I hope that I’ve been able to accomplish is to do it the way that I have the fans of the NFL and of the Network alongside me. That it’s an inclusive endeavor. That when people say that it looks like I’m having fun on TV, that's the best complement I can get. Because my true enjoyment is showing, and folks at home are sharing in it. Because that’s what this is all about.”
Ten years ago Eisen made a difficult choice that wasn't really that hard at all. He left ESPN, the sports entertainment behemoth, for the soon-to-be launched NFL Network. While these days it's common for football stories to dominate sports talk year round (see: the New York Jets), back then the NFL hadn't quite secured its place atop the American sporting landscape. Eisen remembers a production meeting at ESPN in the spring of 2003 when someone suggested doing a football story in late March or early April. That person was laughed out of the room.
But Eisen was confident that football would one day reign. He trusted Steve Bornstein, the president and CEO of the NFL Network and the man who hired Eisen at ESPN. Eisen, immediately cast as the face of the burgeoning network, never felt the weight of expectations. Instead he saw the new gig as an opportunity.
"To be able to come out to Southern California, talk football and have the ability to also have conversations with celebrities who love football, it’s been a dream and I never once thought, 'Well, this is a lot of pressure,'" Eisen says.
It didn't take long before Eisen knew he had made the right choice. Eleven weeks into the Network's existence, Eisen and the Network crew were taping from Houston for Super Bowl XXXVIII. On the Wednesday before the big game, Eisen interviewed former President George H. W Bush, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Brett Favre, Terrell Davis, Warren Sapp and that year's NFL co-MVPs, Steve McNair and Peyton Manning.
Not a bad single-day haul for a network that had been in existence for less than three months.
Eisen walked off the set that day and called his wife, sportscaster Suzy Shuster.
"We're good," Eisen said. "We're going to be fine here."
Since moving from Connecticut to California ten years ago, Eisen has gotten married and celebrated the birth of two sons, a daughter and a podcast.
Indeed, when Eisen's daughter was born on Aug. 31, she became the second infant in his family. He often refers to his podcast as his "baby," and in many ways it is.
As Eisen watched the Super Bowl blossom into the largest television event of the year, an electrifying cross section of sport and pop culture, he came to a realization. A pop culture aficionado himself who can reel off movie references as easily as NFL starting quarterbacks, Eisen thought it would be neat to combine sports, movies and television into one program.
"To do a show that taps into that is something I hadn't seen anybody really do,” Eisen says. "I wanted to be the first to attempt it.”
The Rich Eisen Podcast launched on Sept. 14, 2010, with guests Ray Lewis and Dan Patrick. The next spring, as the Network was scrambling for content during the 2011 NFL lockout, Eisen started taping some of his podcasts. Those evolved into podcast specials, which are now filmed around tent pole events like the NFL draft, the Super Bowl and the start of the season (this year's Kickoff Special airs Sept. 3 at 10:30 p.m. EST).
The Podcast is centered around sports but often meanders into whatever Eisen, his producers, Chris Brockman and Chris Law, and his guests have on their minds.
"Celebrities who come on and talk about sports, sure that person, like Matt Damon, you see him in all these movies and he is an A-list celebrity," Eisen says, "But his take on Wes Welker is probably the same as the guy from Quincy, Mass., whose never been in a movie. But the common bond between these two folks is how upset they are that Wes Welker's on the Broncos now. And it brings the celebrity down to earth and it allows the fan to connect with somebody that they never thought they could connect with, and it’s a winning combination in my mind."
For celebrities, who are used to stiff and sometimes uncomfortable promo tours, the Podcast offers a more natural, relaxing environment to discuss whatever is on their minds.
"I love sports so much and I just respect what they do because they do it on the highest level,” says actor Jerry Ferrara, a common guest on the Podcast. “I get to come in and kind of have that bar banter almost. This is what I do with my friends."
During a recent Podcast, Ferrara, Eisen, Brockman and Law got to talking about 1970s films, the best sports movies of all time and Ferrara's predictions for his beloved New York Giants.
If this sounds like a conversation that you'd have with your friends on the couch, the Podcast has done its job.
The Podcast has developed a life of its own during the three-year run, with a remarkable social media and international following (a quarter of the 10 million downloads have come from overseas).
The beauty of the Podcast is in its simplicity, its ability to tap into what's on the everyman's mind.
"I can't tell you how many of my friends listen to the show and then go ‘Oh, I was thinking the same thing that you guys said,'" Brockman says. “Or ‘That conversation you had had me screaming and I was at the gym and people kind of looked at me funny.'"
These discussions, and the customary teasing that comes along with them, often make their way onto Twitter:
— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) September 1, 2013
Eisen isn't afforded much free time in the fall, what with him hosting NFL GameDay Morning on Sundays, traveling to a game on Wednesdays, doing an on-location shoot on Thursdays and then attending meetings for NFL GameDay Morning on Saturday. But he still carves out time to book guests and record a podcast or two every week.
And every week hundreds of thousands of people across the world make time to listen to Eisen, Brockman, Law and their guests riff on the topics of the day.
Eisen figured that people would be interested in a show where conversation is king, where men and women are talking football, telling funny stories and generally having a good time.
Three years, 200 episodes and 10 million downloads later, it appears that Eisen was right.
“I think conversation is making a renaissance in a way,” Eisen says. “I really believe it.”