By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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The rule of thumb in the industry is that anywhere from 90 to 98 percent of listeners will never call in to a show. But that group of callers can often, somehow, see themselves as key players.
"Guys will send you e-mails like, 'Hey man, I'm back in town, you remember me,' and I'm like, 'I have no idea who you are," Zierlein says. "To them, they've been a real big part of the show."
It's a tricky relationship between callers and hosts. The hosts, for the most part, are more or less experts who have to be patient with callers wondering why the Texans can't just beat the New England Patriots. And many of the listeners are convinced they could do as good a job as the hosts. After all, it's just sitting around talking about sports, right?
"They all think it's an easy job. I think there are times when we're doing it well where we can make it look easy," Zierlein says. "But try doing a show if you think my job is easy, then walk into a studio on July 20 when the Astros are 15-and-a-half games out and do four hours with no football, no basketball, only Astros baseball to talk about, and see how many calls you get."
"A lot of people think they can do it, but with all due respect, they can't," says Pallilo. "Some people are more skilled than others with their knowledge, thinking ability it's ostensibly four hours of ad-libbing, you have to be able to think on your feet...Plenty of people can do it, but not close to everybody can do it well."
Hi, love the show. I had a question and then I'll hang up and listen. Who's the best sports-talk host in Houston?
Not much of a debate there it's Pallilo.
A legitimate brainiac who excelled in the cutthroat but legendary broadcast school at Syracuse University (other alumni: Marv Albert, Bob Costas and Ted Koppel), Pallilo has gigabytes of sports stats stored in his head, along with a passion for anything involving a bat, ball or stick.
The big question he's facing now is whether he can carry a show alone. Sports talk is pretty much a world involving cohosts playing off each other.
"Maybe that's because of the whole frat-boy, locker-room, sports-bar aspect of it," he says.
Other hosts say privately that a cohost would be a help, and that the sometimes prickly Pallilo is letting his ego get in the way. He doesn't see it that way, of course.
"As with anything, there's pluses and minuses," he says. "If it's a dead period, it can be good to have someone to play off to whatever the verbal equivalent of wincing is, like at a bad play on words. On the other hand if you're a good interviewer and have a guest on for ten minutes one-on-one, if you have someone else [cohosting] and even if they're skilled you ask a question that provokes an obvious lead-in to another question, but there's the unwritten rule that if you ask three questions in a row you're mike-hogging."
Pallilo's life is pretty much sports, either going to events, watching them on TV, reading about them or playing them.
One of his best friends, Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman, plays tennis three times a week with him. "I don't know anything about his personal life," Hoffman says. "I think he still lives in the same apartment he moved into when he arrived in Houston 18 years ago. He's like Curly in City Slickers 'one thing.'...If I had his work ethic I'd be publisher of the Chronicle now."
In the studio, Pallilo has only one ear cocked to callers, typing away furiously to answer the e-mails and text messages that all stations are pushing their hosts to take part in. When it comes time to answer a question, he looks somewhere off in the distance, putting on a private performance, always aware of how he's modulating his voice and pacing his response. It's only when he does more pop-culture stuff, like discussing the latest "hot babes" (sports-talk radio is not noted for refinement in matters of sexual politics), that he makes eye contact or interacts with anyone specifically, the producer in the booth, who usually doesn't respond on-air.
Pallilo always saw Houston as a stepping-stone to other markets, but now he's content, both with the lack-of-blizzards weather and the gig. He might seek to do some more play-by-play in the future, perhaps when the Astros' Milo Hamilton retires from the booth of KBME's sister station KTRH.
Pallilo is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the increased sports-talk competition in Houston. Salaries here were below what should have been market value because there weren't many jobs available. When KBME hired Pallilo away from KILT, he cashed in.
(No one talks actual salaries, but veteran hosts in morning- and afternoon-drive slots can make well over six figures in base salary and the cut they get from ads they read live on-air.)
"You're not necessarily going to get rich," Pallilo says, "but you can do all right in a field you're giddy to work in. I knew pretty early on that I wasn't going to play these games for my living, so to have a career in the same field...I have a job that is not a total 'real job,' so life is good."