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A Conversation With Erik Rydholm, Executive Producer of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption

erik rydholmErik Rydholm is the executive producer for Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, and Highly Questionable. He spoke with The Big Lead by phone Wednesday about his career path, the personalities he works with, and growing up as a sports fan.

Q: For the readers who are just learning about you for the first time, can you provide the cliff notes of your path between college and the enclave/mini-empire you preside over at ESPN now?

Erik Rydholm: Sure. I graduated from Brown in 1989 without a job. It took me until the end of October – after I graduated in May – to get my first job, which was working overnights in Minneapolis for a start-up … a Headline News knockoff called the All News Channel. I spent a year there, where I got to do everything in television. I got to write, produce, work the camera, and run the prompter.

After a year there, I came to D.C. along with my boss, where I spent three years working for something called Fox News Service — this is previous to the Fox News Channel, and we were setting up a feed for local affiliates. About a year-and-a-half into that, I started feeling like that wasn’t where I needed to be. I don’t know if you’ve ever reached that point in your life where you look at your bosses and you’re like, “Is this what I want to be?” and the answer is “No.”

Q: I had a similar feeling about three years ago when I left my job to just start writing.

ER: I wasn’t feeling creatively stimulated or challenged. I felt like I was doing a job, and that’s never what I wanted work to be. I started throwing out resumes left and right, hoping someone would rescue me, and nobody ever did.

Somewhere along the line there, I just started writing down a list of little things that I wanted to do, which nobody could say no to. One of those things is that I wanted to learn how to invest, so I called my best friend Tom Gardner and he sent me to his brother, who taught me how to invest in this wonderful way that included baseball statistics and all sorts of great humor. He, his brother, and I came up with this idea to start a little newsletter, and we called that The Motley Fool.

It was four pages of investment ideas, and 12 pages of whatever the hell we wanted to write about. We basically invented our own distribution platform because nobody else was hiring us to be writers at the time. This was before blogs and such existed. So that was going on on the side.

In the meantime, I left my job at the Fox News Service, went back to Chicago where I grew up, and took a job writing for the local Fox affiliate. They asked me if I wanted to produce, which I did, first as a weekend producer and then as the weeknight producer for the nine o’clock news. I was working with a guy named Walter Jacobson, who was a local legend, and the father of one of my older sister’s classmates, and Robin Robinson, who was just a terrific professional.

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Somewhere along the line there, I got a phone call from a guy named Jim Cohen at ESPN. He told me that there was a Chicago bureau producer job open, so I semi-reluctantly took it. I left in August of ’94, and did that job for four months. That was it. I did do some pretty awesome stories while I was there, though — I did a semi-investigative piece on Kevin Garnett (who was in high school) with Armen Keteyian for Outside the Lines, and I really got to be challenged in a way I hadn’t before.

But, along the line, the Motley Fool got put up on AOL, which I think at that point had maybe 600,000 subscribers. And it started to grow like crazy, and make some money. They asked whether I would consider quitting television and coming to work full-time on it in Alexandria, Va., which is where David Gardner lived with his family.

I’m thinking, “Okay, this might be the only time I have left to take a big risk and make a big career switch.” I felt like, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to television. So I decided to leave ESPN.

Q: So you were about 27 (my age now) at this time?

ER: Yeah. So this was in December of ’94, and I told Jim Cohen that I had to go. He understood because it was something that I’d created, and he knew the promise of this area of the Internet. The web was out there at the time, but nobody was using it yet because it was too slow.

motley foolSo, I did that for seven years — basically working for 14-hour days, seven days a week, and trying to grow The Motley Fool as fast as I could. We made the cover of Fortune in 1997, and had a bestseller through Simon & Schuster with our investment guide. We had a couple of great contracts with AOL. Things were going fairly well, but then the bubble burst in 2000-2001, and all the capital dried up for Internet companies.

We were losing money at the time. We had grown from three of us to 425, in multiple countries. We realized that in order for the company to survive we were going to have to reduce our payroll as quickly as possible. And it was unbelievably painful, because we had hired people who we loved, and a lot of people who they loved — including family members. The whole company was such a labor of love for so many people, and we reduced it from 425 employees all the way down to 75.

It was during this time when I decided to make another one of those lists about all the things I wanted to do. My job had become going through a combination of this incredibly painful process of letting people go, and selling everyone else on the vision of why they should stay. What happens when you go through a big reduction in the workforce is that you have to keep these great people around, and convince them you know what you’re doing when in fact we didn’t have all the answers.

So, in that, I wondered what would be a really great job where I didn’t have to fire anybody, and would relate to my creative skills. And I thought about being a sports columnist for a Chicago paper — this is in 2001, so newspapers still mattered to a much greater extent than they do now — I thought it would be a wonderful idea to go to Wrigley for an afternoon game, sit in the bleachers, and write a column.

For whatever reason it sounded great — not that I was ever gonna get one of those jobs. I was totally unqualified, and they would’ve hired thousands of much more qualified people before me. It was just the dreamy thought process that I had, so I wrote a column. I sent it into the Chicago Tribune, and they published it, much to my amazement and surprise.

One of my old co-workers at ESPN saw it, and showed it to my old boss Jim Cohen, who called me to congratulate me on my piece being in the paper. Then he asked where I was, and what I was doing. I told him I was outside DC, working on TMF, and he asked if I read Kornheiser and Wilbon. And I said, “Yeah, they’re like my heroes in sportswriting.”

So he bounced around the idea of creating a show around them, where they would just riff on the daily stories. “Do you think that would work?” I told him yes on the phone, and in a follow-up note, and sent him an 18-page proposal the following weekend. It wasn’t that I wanted the job, but it was a great mental and creative challenge where I was building something in my mind. It was a wonderful relaxation during a time of incredible stress built around this company that I’d invested so much time into, along with everybody else.

And then Jim called me and told me that they’d decided they wanted me to create the show. I told them that I didn’t really want to leave TMF to go work for a big company, and he said, “You wouldn’t have to work for one. Would you do it if you could start your own company?”

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At that point, things got a lot more interesting. Ultimately, I said yes, we created PTI, I took leave from TMF in the end of August 2001; PTI went on the air in mid-October that year. Around the Horn started a year later under the leadership of a guy named Bill Wolff — who now runs the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC (and just got hired to run The View) – and then he left about two years later along with Max Kellerman, the director, and the producer Brad Como. Suddenly, that whole show next door was gutted.

Q: … But it outlasted I, Max.

ER: It was being put together daily, essentially by Tony Reali, Aaron Solomon, and a couple other really talented people. They were folks that had been on the staff, but basically the entire senior level had just left. So they asked me whether I’d take over Around the Horn, and I did, and then about three years ago we had the opportunity to create Highly Questionable.

So, that’s how I ended up where I am, and it was a path that made no sense a lot of the time when I was going through it. It looks a whole lot more compelling in retrospect than it did at the moment.

Q: You mentioned reading Kornheiser and Wilbon before you wrote up the proposal for PTI, and now neither of them is especially active as a writing journalist. Does that make it more challenging to produce the show, given that they aren’t as plugged in at that immediate level to the sports that you guys are covering? After this time, what do you do on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis to try to keep the show fresh?

ER: It hasn’t been as much of a challenge as you would think. Most of the time when they covered things — most, not all the time — they tended to be more local. They tended to be Redskins or Wizards-oriented. While some of that knowledge was really important, really what they gave to their work were certain perspectives on why things happened, why people made the decisions they did, how people acted the way that they acted — all sorts of that stuff. That sort of set the template in their head.

The fact is that Mike continues to write. He still writes for ESPN.com and ESPN Chicago quite often. And, there’s so much more information that’s available right now — both in terms of inside information and analysis — everyday, that’s online everywhere. It used to be that that was only under the domain or purview of just a few people, and now everyone so willingly shares it all that everyone can get a ton of information.

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Tony, while he doesn’t write as much, has a daily radio show. He has a ton of guests every single day, and gets a ton of information from them. He might not be a columnist anymore, but when you’re a columnist you work in tandem with the beat reporter to get information. He gets to talk with those beat reporters, columnists, and people who are on the scene. Both of them stay very plugged in.

While it isn’t the same as when they were writing, I don’t know if you can say that it’s any worse. It’s just different. The world has changed.

In terms of keeping the show fresh, you always try to hit that fine line of not changing for change’s sake. We’ve been really blessed. Ratings started out relatively strong at ESPN, and they’ve remained that way. There’s part of us that occasionally says maybe we should change things up a bit, and there’s part that says if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The main thing that we want to be able to do is entertain and enlighten. If we find tweaks to the format to give us what we feel is a better chance of doing both of those at the same time, we’ll make those changes. But we haven’t found too many that we think would work better. And there’s a certain comfort, I think, when you watch a show and the structure and the format are there as a viewer, and having all that all the time. You can’t change it up too often.

With both Around the Horn and PTI, they’re heavily-formatted shows. 1.5 years ago, we switched from a four-segment show to three segments on PTI because we realized that we wanted more time for Tony and Mike to engage with one another. We felt like that was the most important thing about the show. The topics were so quick in a four-segment show that we weren’t getting to their second level of thinking on things.

So we felt like our tangible advantage, and the thing that would bring viewers in that they couldn’t get anywhere else — these two incredibly thoughtful guys getting to the more thoughtful points that other people hadn’t necessarily pondered or been exposed to — necessitated giving them more time to go in-depth on the biggest issues of the day. We felt we were probably giving too much time and energy to the light stuff at the end.

To the extent that we had it, we weren’t going to put on new bells and whistles or graphics packages and all that sort of stuff. We just decided that our show rests on the chemistry and brains of these two guys, so if we’re going to make any changes it should be to give that greater exposure.

Q: On the chemistry end, it seems pronounced that it’s better when both PTI hosts — be it Mike and Tony, or with guests — are in-studio. It also feels like that’s been more of a priority over, say, the past year. Is there something to that?

ER: Absolutely, and it wasn’t even just recently. We have from the start. But, the problem is — and this is a high-class problem to have — that you have a successful show. Because it’s a successful show, these guys — and the rest of us — end up getting opportunities that we wouldn’t have gotten. Tony got to be on Monday Night Football, so for three seasons he was essentially going to have to be on the road during the entire football season.

Mike was on the NBA show, and has been a key contributing member to ESPN’s NBA content ever since we started on this show. Because of that, and especially when he was in Los Angeles on the NBA countdown set, he was on the road a ton. We felt that this did put a great challenge in the chemistry.

It’s weird. Chemistry’s an odd thing because a couple of things happen when you go on-remote, when people are separated by satellite. One, they tend to talk louder, which sounds ridiculous because you have a microphone on and they can clearly hear you, but because you’re staring at them on this screen across the room it’s just natural that you start to yell.

Also, because you can’t always see them — we’re playing video, and different things like that — you can’t always read their faces when they want to get in, or when they’re about to disagree with you. You can’t always read that in the way that you can when you’re sitting across the desk from them.

That chemistry and cadence tends to play off in the satellite with less continuity, so it doesn’t feel as much like a collaboration. It feels less like jazz.

New Haven Open at Yale - Day 5

Q: When I was observing your production meetings, Mike and Tony both didn’t really want to cover Rory McIlroy’s split from Caroline Wozniacki, but you convinced them to do it because it had been addressed in a press conference. How often is there pushback on a topic, and are there times where you allow them to kibosh one from the show?

ER: Oh, yeah, I look at Tony and Mike essentially as managing editors of the show. They have vastly more journalism experience than I do. I mean, Tony was writing for the New York Times back in the 70’s. Mike started with the Washington Post as an intern. I will absolutely take any pushback they have into account.

I think when there’s stories like the Wozniacki/McIlroy one, to their point, it wasn’t necessarily a sports story. It felt more like gossip to them. But, to my point, it was a story of big national interest. Whether it was true or not, there was the perception that it affected both of their performances on their respective playing surfaces. Because Rory had come out and talked about it at a press conference, I felt it made it a more than defensible news angle in which we could introduce it.

Now, I don’t have to go out there and have the uncomfortable discussion about what it means, or how romance or love or marriage plays into all of this. For most people, those are deeply personal circumstances and we don’t know these people nearly as much as we think we do. And so I respect Tony and Mike’s initial reluctance to do it.

But, as you saw, what ended up happening is we found the common ground and talked it out. You would have no newsroom worth any salt at all if they didn’t talk through issues and end up with devil’s advocate.

Q: Yeah, we do that constantly in our internal email chains.

ER: It’s completely natural that it would happen on this show, just as it would in the building of any other news product or service. It happens. And, yeah, they’ll occasionally push back on stuff, but I’ll tell you that I think we’re totally aligned on everything 96% of the time. It just comes down to finding the right angles on each individual story. Those are usually left to Matthew Kelliher and me, and I like to think we do really well on that most of the time.

There are times where it starts taping, and I think we gave them the wrong angle because we just heard a repeat of things they said in the past. They’ll take those angles and go ahead and react to those, and I think that from my standpoint is that I always like to progress and move an issue forward. And I don’t think I always do a good enough job with that because it’s so easy to just end up with, “Hey, this happened today — your thoughts?”

Q: When Dan Le Batard gave his baseball Hall of Fame vote to Deadspin readers, there was a video in which he pointed to the shock in your production room. What was your first reaction when he revealed that in tapings?

ER: It was exactly as you just portrayed it as. I was completely, completely surprised, because the article hadn’t come out yet. We taped that show between noon and 2pm, and I think the piece hit around 2, and then the show airs at 4pm. We were completely shocked.

Here’s the thing about Dan. Dan is one of the more thoughtful people I’ve ever met. He also has a very big contrarian and subversive streak in him. He likes to make statements. I guess, in his character and who I know him to be, it didn’t surprise me. But because we didn’t even know this was coming out — we knew that Deadspin had talked about how it was trying to buy somebody’s vote — and at that point I didn’t know any details on it. Had he sold it?

I knew he wouldn’t sell his vote, but we were just flabbergasted because he’d not mentioned anything to us. We love Dan. That was just rare when he actually surprises us like that, because were tight with him and we sit there with him every single day for a couple hours, and he’d never said a word about any of it to us.

Q: It seems like HQ wants snippet clips to be shared more than PTI and Around the Horn, which are available online in podcasts, but less distributable in YouTube form. Is there a strategy behind that?

ER: No, it has more to do with the fact that because we tape Highly Questionable so much earlier in the day there’s just a greater window later in the day for folks to watch the show, pick up a clip, and send it out. For instance, we’re all slammed on PTI right until the show actually hits the air, and then even doing work while the show’s on the air until 6pm. And then the workday’s over and we all go home. We’re not pulling stuff from it to send out there.

We could all be doing a better job virally on the show, but I do think that our first priority always has to be making the show as great as possible on its standard platform. Frankly, that’s where all the viewers are. There’s occasionally a clip from HQ that will go out and have a ton of viewers.

Q: Like the Nelly/Floyd Mayweather one from last week…

ER: Yes, exactly. And here’s the great thing about that for HQ. They’re starting off of so much of a smaller radius base. It’s on ESPN2 in the mid-afternoon, rather than ESPN in the early evening. There’s just less awareness of what it is, and it’s a harder show to be able to locate and sit down and watch. And it does interviews that we don’t do on any other show, obviously. It takes some chances.

So we feel like we can get exposure in that way, which we can’t necessarily otherwise because people are at work and can’t see the show. So it makes more sense for them to put that stuff out as well. PTI can be built in to part of most people’s day because they can get home (or DVR) and get back to the couch to watch it.

I would actually say that out of everyone, Around the Horn probably does the most progressive stuff of the three shows.. They get behind the scenes with the panelists talking about different things, either on or off the sports page. You can see those folks in more of their natural personalities when they’re just joshing around before or after segments.

Q: It’s always struck me as a little bit odd that sports television broadcasters are expected to wear suits and ties. Bill Simmons wore a t-shirt and hoodie in SportsCenter studio on the Friday night of LeBron’s announcement, and it was kind of a big deal. Every so often, an image will emerge of, say, a PTI host wearing shorts and sneakers under the desk. Have you ever given any thought to relaxing the dress code on your shows, or maybe even implementing casual Friday?

ER: It sounds like the type of thing Dan Le Batard would put you up to asking. Dan would like nothing more than to wear a t-shirt and baseball hat on the air every single day. Our feeling is that there were going to be so many silly elements on HQ that the least we need to do is to provide some semblance of credibility to the guy who’s giving all the opinions, and credibility can sometimes be underscored with at least wearing a jacket. He doesn’t wear a tie but he at least wears a sport coat, and Bomani wears a full suit.

They sometimes don’t wear pants because they don’t have to. You’re not seeing their legs on television, and it’s a lot more comfortable on a given day. Wilbon, you will never find wearing shorts, or incredibly rarely because he loves to dress. Tony dresses, too. I think it was Whitlock last week that was wearing shorts.

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Tony, in particular, feels like when you’re going to work you dress like an adult. And so we don’t actually have conversations about what they should and shouldn’t wear. If it’s an incredibly snowy day in DC, they tend to dress a little more like they were out there roughing it trying to get in. Not because it’s any fashion statement, but they actually feel like it’s more practical to dress that way.

And then there have been a couple of shows back in the day when Mike was traveling, he was wearing his airplane clothes, he landed late, and he had to rush over the studio and go on TV wearing basically a sweatsuit. Those moments have happened, but as far as we’re sort of concerned, at least wearing a blazer is a key indication that you’re there to work, and we’ve never really gotten any pushback on it.

It’s been their career for 30 or 40 years. For a long time, they were wearing suits because that’s what you did when you went to cover teams. Part of it is tradition. Part of it is when we started PTI and Around the Horn, there always was a dress code, and there were no shows other than Sports Reporters that were doing anything like what we were doing. And so we just took over the dress code, and said we’ve gotta dress like grown-ups on the air. And we never stopped.

It’s actually kind of fun, though. Here’s an example: Look at the NBA dress code. Before that, players used to dress casually.

Q: To put it lightly.

ER: Now everyone goes out of there way to dress in incredibly adult fashion, with all sorts of fancy suits and sweet threads.

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Q: I can’t remember a more universally positive outpouring of support than when it was announced Tony Reali would be joining Good Morning America. How will his dual role at GMA and Around the Horn affect your production schedule, and are you ready to announce who will take the role of Stat Boy on PTI?

ER: I wish I was organized enough to have given it more thought than I have. Sadly, I am not. He is going to be up in New York starting in September, and hosting from up there. We don’t know how it’s going to work out.

What we do know is this: When ESPN was going through its negotiations with Tony, we just couldn’t imagine the show without him. So we were willing to, of course, go ahead and make every opportunity that could be available to him to be available to him. We would just work it out on our end.

He has hosted Around the Horn from New York and Bristol in the past several months as one-off shows, and it’s been able to work. What we felt was, as long as we’re able to have open channels of communication — whether it be Skype or GMail video chat — where Reali can continue to have a presence in the newsroom over here, that would be tremendous.

Maybe we’ll meet those, maybe we won’t. But what we’ve found is if we’re able to do Around the Horn with all the panelists in different cities, and HQ with the hosts in Miami, I know it can be done well. I’m not that concerned about that show.

Much more than concerned, I’m just thrilled for Tony. Because now a whole bunch of people who never got to see him before — Good Morning America brings a much broader diversity of audience to the table — will get to see Tony Reali. He’s not just a guy who knows sports, and now he also gets to sink his teeth into other types of work that he’s interested in. We’ll see depths of his knowledge and personality that he doesn’t always get to flash on Around the Horn.

Q: Are you ready to name his replacement as Stat Boy on PTI?

ER: We have some work to do on that. I’ve got nothing to divulge at the moment, but we’re gonna figure that out. What I do know is we want someone who will bring some energy to the program, and will stand up to Tony and Mike.

You’ve gotta remember: We hired Reali as a behind-the-scenes researcher. There was no on-air role when we started this show. We came up with that at the end, and only after that did he start hosting segments. So, this is a very organic role. To the extent that we can make it possible, we’d want someone who works really hard on the show and does a lot of research for it.

Reali still does a lot of the research for PTI now — he comes over right after Around the Horn ends and starts doing it. So we would like somebody who crops up organically, and I think that’s where we’ll ultimately lean. Until we figure that out, we’ll just patch something together. It’s not like we feel like we need to have somebody right for September 1st.

Q: The obituary that your family wrote for your father this past May was very touching, and it mentioned that he was a die hard Northwestern, Bears, and Cubs fan. I know my father was instrumental in my passion for sports, and covering them for a career. Are there any memories you have of watching games with your father when you were young that really stick out in your mind?

ER: My father traveled all the time. He was a creative director in advertising, so he was always on the go, shooting commercials or pitching accounts across the country. The quality time that we really got to spend together was when we were going to games. He had season tickets for the Bears and Northwestern (where he graduated from) football, so we’d go regularly.

We’d go to Cubs games. He grew up a Cubs fan; he was born in 1937, and obviously never got to see them win a World Series. We even went to some Blackhawks games as well. Every game I attended with my father, there was some portion of an Italian Sausage that managed to drip onto his shirt or jacket.

In the ’70s, what you have to understand, is just how terrible all the teams were. The Cubs were pathetic and the Bears were awful. Northwestern was record-breakingly terrible. And so what it really did was it taught me a huge amount of humility at a very early age. Sports were not about winning to me. There was a great humor — you had to find something else about the games that you could connect with.

That sort of provided a foundation for how I look at the world of sports. There’s always some level of humor and human interest in it, rather than just who wins and who loses.

Dad was an incredibly generous, bright, and thoughtful guy, and was absolutely instrumental in my love of sports. Whenever we talked, it was always part of our discussion. The Bears. The Cubs.The Bulls, in particular. Before the exhaustive coverage on TV and obviously online, Dad got all of the draft guides. Ourlad’s. Mel Kiper. Whenever the NFL Draft would come around, he would spend 90 minutes reading all of the analyses of the players that the Bears picked — all the way down to the free agents.

He had an insane passion for all of that. I love it, and I eventually came to realize that it had less to do with our teams and more to do with the time that we were sharing.

There are four memories of games in specific that stick out for me:

1) We went to a Cubs game when were a kid, the Pirates were in town, and Willie Stargell came up to the plate. People started to boo, and I got on my feet as a kid and I started to boo. And Dad told me to stop booing: “Willie Stargell is a great player, and you shouldn’t boo a great player no matter what team he’s on.”

Pittsburgh Pirtates v Chicago Cubs

2) We went to a Northwestern football game, and parked outside the stadium right as the game was kicking off. By the time we got into our seats — which was not more than just a few minutes later — Northwestern was losing 21-0. This was the sort of experience that we had regularly.

3) In 1992, one of the few benefits that I got from working with the Fox News Service is that I could call up and get media credentials for major events, and the Bulls were in the Finals against the Trailblazers. I got Dad a media credential, and a reporter’s notebook and pen. We went all the way up to the top of the old Chicago Stadium, and we would sit there looking almost straight down onto the court and watched as the Bulls beat the Blazers.

Chicago Bulls v Portland Trail Blazers

On the clinching game, which was in Chicago, we made our way all the way down onto the floor. We were just standing within a few feet of the scorer’s table when all the Bulls were up there dancing. I point this out because when LeBron was saying, “Not four, not five …,” Jordan made a mannerism with his hands where he was doing that and shrugging.

We just loved it, because we were on the floor and we were so close to these guys. We’re both fake reporters, and we’re watching this. Anyways, Sports Illustrated comes out the next week, and as you go in, there was a two-page shot of all the Bulls dancing on the scorer’s table of Chicago Stadium. And there were Dad and I, standing right there on the floor. So Dad got that photo blown up, and it hangs on our wall in our house in Michigan.

4) Finally, that column that I wrote in the Chicago Tribune was all about my Dad. It was about Michael Jordan, first and foremost contemplating coming out of retirement, and a lot of people saying not to do it and tamper with our memories of his greatness. I called my Dad, who had been sort of forced into retirement the year before, and said, “Do you ever think about making a comeback like Michael Jordan does?”

“Every day,” he said.

Long view of scoreboard and full bleachers during a professional baseball game, Wrigley Field, Illinois

What I did was made parallels between MJ’s situation, and the situation that so many of us are going to face when people say that we can’t do this any longer, and how we want to come back and prove them wrong. In some ways, without my Dad, I never would be sitting here today. Because, if I hadn’t written that column, I would have never gotten that call from Jim Cohen, and we never would have started PTI.

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