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Before ESPN hired Erik Rydholm to be the producer of its then-new talk show, Pardon the Interruption, 20 years ago, he needed to meet with the show’s co-host, Tony Kornheiser, and make his case on why he would be the right fit. Rydholm arrived second at the hotel dining room on that day and vividly remembers Kornheiser sitting with his back against the glass as the sun turned him into a silhouette. Kornheiser was wearing sunglasses.
“I couldn’t read his eyes at all,” Rydholm tells City Paper. “Tony is incredibly pointed, incredibly opinionated, and very acerbic. And I walked in intimidated … I felt very insecure.”
Rydholm eventually shared his vision about what the show could be, and during the conversation, he related something in sports to Britney Spears. He doesn’t remember what the exact analogy was, but he does remember Kornheiser’s response. “At that point, there was a moment where he just said, ‘And that’s why you should produce this show,’” Rydholm says.
Twenty years later, PTI—with co-hosts Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, two former Washington Post columnists—is still on the air and remains one of ESPN’s most popular shows, with Rydholm as its longtime executive producer. Kornheiser thought, as he says in the recent ESPN documentary about the show’s anniversary, PTI20, that the show would last three weeks. Several core members of the team have been with the show all 20 years. Matthew Kelliher, Frankie Nation, and Matthew Ouano on the editorial side and Tom Howard and Bonnie Berko on the technical production team all joined around the same time, according to Rydholm. PTI, which is taped at the ABC News studio in D.C., celebrates its 20th anniversary on Oct. 22 and many shows, including those on ESPN, have tried to emulate PTI with varying degrees of success. The show revolutionized the sports talk show formula by introducing some levity and humor. The hosts occasionally wear costumes, and Wilbon signs off by saying, “Same time tomorrow, knuckleheads.” In a media landscape where sports debate shows are now ubiquitous, PTI stands out as an original.
“I’m so proud of the longevity of the show, but I’m more proud of the reasons behind the longevity of the show, or that people still turn to us for entertainment and enlightenment about the world of sports every day,” Rydholm says. “I think it’s really rare.”
The debates between Kornheiser and Wilbon started long before PTI was even an idea, in the Post newsroom. Kornheiser came to the Post from the New York Times in 1979 to write for the sports and Style sections, while Wilbon, a Chicago native, started as a summer intern at the Post in 1978 before being promoted to a full-time reporter two years later. Both writers worked for then sports editor George Solomon, who fondly recalls their banter in the newsroom and felt that their personalities would make a good fit for a show like PTI. (Full disclosure: Solomon was one of my journalism professors at the University of Maryland.)
“My initial thoughts were, they’ve been doing this act in the office of the Washington Post for years, I think America should see it, too,” Solomon says. “And I was hopeful that … the country would appreciate it as much as I and many other people at the Washington Post who heard these disagreements and arguments over the years did, but saw their affection for one another.”
But not everyone, as Wilbon notes in PTI20, enjoyed their constant bickering. The sports department was located at the end of the hall, which was at one point adjacent to the paper’s Book World section.
“On a number of occasions, the editor of Book World says, ‘Is there any way you could get them to tone down the volume?’” Solomon says. “And I will say, ‘No.’ So Book World moves.”
The same thing happened when the Outlook section moved in—and then out. Only the investigative team could handle Wilbon and Kornheiser’s volume. “They were as loud as Tony and Mike so they didn’t have any complaints,” Solomon says.
That constant arguing is part of PTI’s charm, according to fans of the show and those who know both Wilbon and Kornheiser. “They might differ, but it’s like [when] best friends argue … they remain best friends,” Solomon says. “I think that’s the chemistry that they realistically have, and have developed over the years. It comes through on PTI.”
In the documentary, Kornheiser succinctly explains why he believes PTI works: “The magic of this show is 11 words: ‘Black guy, white guy, yell at each other, love each other.’ It’s the relationship in a sports show that everybody wants. Everybody wants to be able to yell at his dear friend and then hug his dear friend after the yelling is done.”
Rydholm grew up in Chicago and read the two “religiously” in the Post. He also listened to Kornheiser’s radio show, watched them on legendary D.C. sportscaster George Michael’s TV shows, and read their chats on the Post website. Rydholm briefly worked as a Chicago bureau producer for ESPN in 1994 but left to start a financial and investment company called the Motley Fool based out of Alexandria. Before the launch of PTI, Rydholm’s former ESPN boss, Jim Cohen, saw a sports column that Rydholm had written and reached out for his thoughts on creating a daily sports show like PTI. In turn, Rydholm handed in an 18-page document about why and how the show might work that earned him the job as PTI’s coordinating producer. He believed that it had the right ingredients to potentially last 20 years.
“What I based that on originally, when we were developing the show, is I look backward over the previous 20 years, and there had been shows like Siskel and Ebert, … Crossfire, … [and] Sports Reporters,” says Rydholm, who owns and operates the production company Rydholm Projects, Inc., which ESPN contracts with. “All three shows provided analysis. All three shows were based on the chemistry of the people who were on them. All three shows lasted 20 years; when we were launching, they’d already been on the air for 20 years.”
To prepare each day for PTI, Rydholm wakes up at 7 a.m., and starts filling out a Google Doc with ideas for the show along with the other members of the editorial team. At around 10 a.m., the producers meet—virtually, during the pandemic—to discuss the topics. Kelliher, PTI’s coordinating producer, then calls Wilbon and Kornheiser and the three get a sense of topics on that day’s show. PTI tapes between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. and then the show airs at 5:30 p.m.
“Everybody knows the beats of their job,” Rydholm says, “and then they all intersect at a point that produces this thing we do.”
But back in 2001, there were questions about the viability of a daily sports talk show. ESPN was taking a risk by putting two newspaper columnists on TV nearly every day. Kornheiser says in the documentary that he told his staff before the show’s launch to “rent, don’t buy.”
“This was an era without all of the shows that you see today, so PTI was the first of its kind,” Rydholm says. “Some of the uncertainty wasn’t just about launching a new show, it was, ‘Will there be enough to talk about every single day that will be compelling to viewers?’”
The answer for the past 20 years has been yes, even as similar—and inferior—shows have come along. “I see them doing this as long as they want,” Solomon says. “They’re that good. People enjoy the show. And I know I do, and I hope it never ends.”
Rydholm doesn’t have any pointed thoughts on other sports debate shows, but says that he is “thrilled” that the whole industry is growing. “Just like any industry where there seems like there’s a lot of demand, there are gonna be some products that work and then there are some products that don’t,” he says, adding that the entry to the business seems to have fallen now with podcasts, blogs, and micro media companies. And as for PTI, Rydholm is, to quote an athlete cliché, taking it one day at a time.
“Tomorrow, I will wake up and pick up the computer and our whole team will get to work on building tomorrow’s show,” he says. “That’s the future.”