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Q&A, Part 2: Steiner, Ley reflect on their ESPN careers, commercials

Joe Deacon
Sports broadcasters Bob Ley, center, and Charley Steiner, right, talk with author and investigative journalist James Andrew Miller during a panel discussion to close this year's Steiner Symposium at Bradley University.

Sports broadcaster Bob Ley was one of ESPN’s original on-air personalities in 1979, nine years before Bradley graduate Charley Steiner joined the cable network — without any previous work in television.

The two friends and former SportsCenter co-hosts were in Peoria this week as the featured speakers for the sixth annual Steiner Sports Symposium at Bradley University.

Steiner left the network in 2002 to focus more on baseball broadcasting, initially joining the New York Yankees radio booth before ultimately realizing his childhood dream of calling Dodgers games.

Ley became the regular host of ESPN’s investigative program Outside the Lines in 1990, a role he maintained until he retired from the network in 2019.

In Part Two of this conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Ley and Steiner reflect on their time at ESPN.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Bob, over all your years of hosting Outside the Lines, what are some of the stories or investigations that you feel are the most important, or stuck with you and why?

Ley: Oh my gosh. We've done a lot of work in the area of brain trauma, concussions; the way it was handled by the National Football League, which at the beginning was not very good. We investigated the sneaker factories in Vietnam; I went there a number of years ago to look at the way workers are being treated. Work in the area of the sexual exploitation and abuse of athletes, and early on the use of steroids.

I can remember finding the doctor that a former Baylor basketball player said had prescribed steroids for him. We found him on his horse farm, and we were going to confront him because the player was with us and had identified him. So we're going to go out there (as) he's actually feeding his cattle into a cattle pen. This is out in East Texas, scrub pine country, and my cameraman, he's putting my wireless mic on me and he says, “You know, Bob, this is East Texas. There are more guns than people out here.” That’s a little melodramatic, but it’s in the back of your mind as you approach somebody.

But moments such as that, that allowed us to tell stories and to and to do them in such a way that — and that legacy lives on with E:60 now, and Jeremy Schaap’s reporting just recently in Qatar (had) a lot of gray and nuance. And when you have that kind of time — and that's the greatest luxury, time in linear television; we had that, that you can explain things because so much everything else in the culture of media, both sports and news, is binary: good-bad, white-black, red-blue. You can't live like that, you can't reason like that, because after a while you just become reflexive. I'm proudest of the fact that we took the time to ask people to think and they came along for the journey.

Steiner: If I could jump in for just a second, ESPN (and) SportsCenter with the commercials and all the craziness and all that nonsense, we could not have gotten away with all of that had it not been for the foundation, the news credibility foundation that was laid by Bob and the Outside the Lines crew, and very early on in the Outside the Lines journey, I had a few stories involved.

But ESPN and SportsCenter could not be nearly what it is now had it not been for the foundation that was laid by Bob and (producer) Jean McCormick and all the other folks that came along all those years, and all those years later.

Ley: The commercials: “Follow me to freedom!” I still hear about that.

Steiner: Oh, I get it every time.

Ley: “Do you know Charley?” “Yeah, I know Char-.” “Follow me to freedom!” is their favorite!

I was actually going to ask about that later to close with it, but since you brought it up now. I actually saw they're going to revive that ad campaign.

Steiner: I saw that this week.

Ley: Are they bringing us back?

Steiner: There's a new agency (and) they're going to restart the “This Is SportsCenter” campaign.

Ley: Oh, that’s good.

Steiner: Somebody sent me a link to the article, and there I was with, I think, yeah, I was “Bobby, the pool boy.”

Yes, I was going to bring that up – when you got “traded to Melrose Place.

Steiner: Which was fun. Again, it was one of those (where) I could not have gotten away with that crap had it not been for the credibility that ESPN and SportsCenter and Outside the Lines — we couldn't have … it would either have been a sideshow, or it would have just been a hardcore news organization. But because of Bob's sensibilities, my sensibilities and others along the way, we were able to kind of walk and chew gum at the same time.

Ley: My favorite was Sen. Bill Bradley. Keith Olbermann and I (interviewing) Senator Bradley, who had just gotten back — I just got back from Moscow from a business trip, and he had just gotten back. I had covered Bill when he was running in initially from New Jersey. It was amazing.

The punchline is: “Do you have any public speaking experience?” “Well, I gave the keynote address to the Democratic Convention.” “But do you have any experience speaking in front of a large group of people, senator?” We did like seven or eight takes and it was astonishing. You don't think of Bill Bradley as being media fluent; he eventually I think conquered the medium and became a comfortable speaker.

But the timing is essential. You're doing a 30-second spot and they're, they kept doing, “Senator, we're going to do it again. Can just shave it by a second and a half?” Son of a gun, it’s Keith and I just teeing it up for Bill and he's nailing it each time. That was thrilling.

When we started those campaigns, the first one was (boxer) Roy Jones Jr. and I kind of did a walk-and-talk through him; that was ’95 and they had to find him to do that and they had to cajole him. Within a year, they were like fending off requests. Everybody wanted — I think they got $1,000 to donate to their favorite charity — but it was astonishing, the people that would approach the company: “We’ve got to get my client in there. My guy wants it in there.”

Charley, let me just say, you're obviously known for you've had several that were memorable. Obviously, when Evander Holyfield was chasing you through the newsroom or –

Ley: “Come out and get your whippin’, Charley!”

Or, obviously, the Y2K one is one of the most — I mean, what was your favorite one to do?

Steiner: Well, the one that has the longest and strongest legs is “Follow me to freedom,” which has gotten a rebirth now with all the crap that Elon Musk is going through. They are, apparently, inside the Twitter headquarters playing “Follow me to freedom!”

Was it your idea or someone else’s, to tie the necktie around your head?

Steiner: No, no, no, no, no. It was one of the — not enough credit can be given to the advertising agency, Wyden+Kennedy, who did the Nike spots “Chicks dig the long ball.” That was basically the same structural format that we had. No, it was Y2K and we did an a mock takeoff on that: you know, the place was going crazy and the tests weren't working out well. All of those commercials, every one that we did, were basically filmed out of sequence. So I had a vague idea what the role was going to be I had no idea it was going to be what it turned out to be, the punchline of the spot.

That day at noon — I wouldn't shoot that segment until about 4 o'clock (and) we had the 7 o'clock SportsCenter. At noon, they put on Indian war paint on my face and I'm writing the show for 7 o'clock as normal people come in, “Hey, how you doing?” Now it's 4 o'clock, and they take me to — I go to the men's room just to get ready, and I look at the mirror (and) I've had Indian war paint on for four hours, and nobody even looked at me twice.

So now they're explaining to me, “We're going to do a bunch of different takes.” “I'll lead you to the underground, brothers and sisters!” We did a bunch of variations and “Follow me to freedom!” just happened to be one of them. That was chosen by the producers, and again, little did I know that that line still has legs. And again, that particular shot was filmed totally out of sequence, out of context.

Ley: You would be in the building and you'd know they were coming into shoot, whether you're involved or not, because they'd be setting up in the hallway. But it was almost like walking across a Hollywood lot. I had an office right off the newsroom at that period of time — best office location I ever had — and there I am sitting, watching all three hours of Bon Jovi filming the “It's My Life” commercial, and I think, by the way, getting increasingly irritated; I think he was told, “Jon, you'll be in and out in 20 minutes.” It was not 20 minutes; he kept going.

Or I go over to the copy machine and I say, “Excuse me” and I look it's Davy Jones of the Monkees just standing there. I still regret not picking up the phone and saying, “Hey, Davy, could you say hi to my wife? She’s a huge Monkees fan from the 60s.” But you would see these people; I got to deal with George Mikan a founding father of the NBA. But it got to the point where you wouldn't even look twice in the hallway: “Yeah, of course there's a gladiator or an encephalic Mr. Met head walking down the street. It became a carnival.

Steiner: Again, it was one of those things, we had no idea what was going on. One day we have a meeting and these two producers, creators from Wyden+Kennedy are in this — they'd been watching us for several days and we had no idea who they were. Then we have this meeting, and then they are introduced to us and they said, “We've been watching you all. We're going to put together this campaign where we're going to kind of extend your personality to the way we see it”

And it happened, and “Follow me to freedom!” — again I'm 50-something years into my career and “Follow me to freedom!” is one of those, you always think about what's going to be the lead in your obituary.

Ley: I see it on your tombstone, frankly. I really do. Which could mean an arrow up or an arrow down, I’m not really sure.

Steiner: My tombstone, I think I wanted to be –

Ley: “Back after this.”

Steiner: No, “He was listed as ‘day to day’ — until today.”

If I can go back to seriousness for a little bit, Charley. Bradley, as you said, is hosting the Steiner Symposium. It's the sixth annual; obviously, we haven't had them the past two years. How important is it to have this opportunity to come back and share your thoughts with the students, and the educators in the audience?

Steiner: It is so gratifying to me, for me. You know, when I first came to Peoria in 1967, I was just hoping someday to have a career in broadcasting. My goal was to be the announcer for the Dodgers, and damned if it didn't happen. So through this serendipitous journey, and all of these wonderful sportscasters who came out of Peoria and came out of Bradley, and when they opted to really put an emphasis into sports and broadcasting and communication, I was, well, more alive than many of my predecessors, and they wanted to affix my name to the school.

I was thrilled and overjoyed, and I thought, “Well, this is kind of a nice, vain, vanity project.” But it's much more than that. I tell the folks all the time — and you hear it: “You've done well, and you're at a point in your life where you want to give back,” and it sounds like a bunch of hooey. But it's the absolute truth. I mean, I say this every year: I learn as much if not more from the students than they do from me and my guests, in that I have a better sense of what makes this next generation work.

I grew up in New York, I live in L.A., and there was a sizable portion of my being here in Peoria. So to come back and get all of that, it is truly one of those things that makes me feel good and happy.

Charley, as you’ve mentioned a couple times how you really wanted to broadcast for the Dodgers, and you've gotten this opportunity now for the past almost 20 years, it seems. Obviously, we just lost Vin Scully. What are your remembrances of him and what he meant to you in that relationship?

Steiner: Vin was one of the most meaningful figures in my life. Because again, I'm 5, 6, 7 years old and I'm listening to the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio, and then they'd have the games on weekends on television. So he's the reason you and I are talking today. So for, what, it’d be 68 years, he was a part of my life. When he passed away, and especially in Los Angeles and a good part of the sports and broadcasting community, he was a lot like Queen Elizabeth: He was there for everybody's life.

Again, he was the guy that I wanted to be like, and I was lucky enough (where) I worked with Vin in 14 of my 19 years with the Dodgers. He was a friend, he was a mentor, and he was, next to my dad, I guess he was probably the most important guy in my life. So when we lost him — and we knew it was coming; the public didn't, (but) I did and those of us who were close to him were aware — it was still just, you know, it was painful and still, it's only a few months ago. So it's ever-present.

Again, I would not be here, and I would not have been at SportsCenter, I would not have done any of this stuff had it not been for Vin because that was the first voice I heard on a big old Zenith radio that was in my mom's kitchen. Then all those years later, working alongside him and becoming friends with him, and we would have lunch or dinner before a day or night game all the time. So we probably had upwards of more than 1,000 dinners together over the years. So he was a big deal, and especially to me.

What was it about the way he did his job that made him so special and so revered everywhere?

Steiner: Bob said something earlier about writing. Vin wasn't necessarily a writer, but he spoke like one. He was really smart, he was really insightful. He had the ability to communicate one-on-one; he was a broadcaster more than just a play-by-play announcer. When he sat in front of a microphone, he was talking to one person — times a million, 5 million, 10 million — but he had a one-on-one communication.

He had a vocabulary second to none. He read every section of the newspaper, and generally the sports section was last, and we fussed and fought about politics and all that stuff. So it really became a father-son relationship for me. And he, he was Babe Ruth: He was the best whoever did what it is that we do.

Bob, was there anyone in your formative years that you looked up to was similar to the way Charley did with Vin?

Ley: I tell you what, I had a chance to tell Brent Musburger this, because I hosted the NCAA basketball tournament for 10 years, and Dick Vitale and I were sitting in the studio; we'd have the cut-in, so from 1980 through '89, and when Brent came to work with us at ABC/ESPN, I told him, “So much of what I knew and gleaned about how to sit in this chair, multitask, watch all these events, keep the storylines going…” — which is a skill I tried to bring forward as I hosted World Cups — I said, “I watched and developed from you.” It's nice to be able to tell people like that.

I tell you, the bond — and I've said this for years — that people who watch SportsCenter have with those of us fortunate to be in the on-air chair, and we sit for the dozens of people behind the scenes that make it possible, ESPN remains the only network that, they don't have viewers, they have fans. I don't think CNN or MSNBC or Fox necessarily have, and they may have some, but I think culturally, ESPN ascended to a unique position there. The company, its voice, its promotional abilities are grounded on the fact that when we started back in 1979-80, Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal, the two guys who hired me, said “Talk to fans the way you want to be spoken to.” With that simple instruction, I think, in the back of your mind, it kind of forms the way you try to communicate and we've been blessed. Both of us, incredibly blessed.

Steiner: We had no idea — swear to God, no idea — when ESPN was evolving, and Bob was there 8-9 years before I got there, that it would become what has become. We were just a bunch of jamokes going to play TV in this little town — think of Bristol (Conn.), halfway between Boston and New York, it’s the same way Peoria is halfway between Chicago and St. Louis. It was like in the middle of nowhere, and that was part of, I think, what made us as good as we were: the sensibilities that we were — you know, we were at “Ice Station Zebra” working every day, and when, as it became a much bigger deal, we were the last ones to know.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.