Voices

Brandon Tierney and the Art of On-Air Authenticity

Ryan Phillips
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Authenticity is imperative to Brandon Tierney. The veteran radio host has opinions and a passion for sharing them while being real with his audience. That drive has buoyed him along a winding career, leading to a marquee national spot with Tiki and Tierney on CBS Sports Radio alongside co-host Tiki Barber. What sets Tierney apart from much of sports punditry is a willingness to stick to his guns when he fires off a take. He’s dedicated to his craft and even more committed to his viewpoints.

The Brooklyn-born son of a police detective, Tierney pursued a life in radio following a college baseball career at Marist. A grinder by nature, his journey began at WTKZ 1320 AM in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His odyssey has taken him to Detroit, New York, San Francisco and back home to New York again. At each stop along the way Tierney honed the voice that now reaches across the country. More than anything, he just likes to talk.

“When it's too quiet, I'm not incredibly comfortable,” Tierney told The Big Lead. “I like to converse, I like to interact. So it's always been natural. It's always been a passion.”

Tierney is a live wire on the air. He grew up admiring Chris Russo for the style and energy he brought. “I love Mad Dog. I loved his unpredictability. He’s different. A little zany, and I mean that in a good way. He would just rifle off these elongated hit jobs that were appealing.”

Those kinds of exchanges made an impact on Tierney at a young age and had him considering a career in the medium. “The things about radio that drew me in were those loud rants or exchanges, even uncomfortable moments between co-hosts. I think that’s what really resonates with listeners. That humanizes the show and I think it’s an important part of my skill set.”

Tierney’s best moments on the air are the simplest. They involve an idea and a microphone. That’s where he lives. “My comfort zone is uncomfortable radio. My blood just pulsates through my body at a speed that is really hard to replicate in anything else that I do in life.”

Talking about a subject uninterrupted for several consecutive minutes isn’t out of Tierney’s comfort zone. In fact, it’s where he thrives. “People say, ‘How do you do that for sometimes two, three, four minutes straight without stopping, without cursing and making sense?’ I would say I just think it’s the way my brain works.”

Tierney’s rants have an edge to them and feel natural, but he doesn’t pull them from thin air. There’s an uncommon crispness to his opinion segments.

“I’ve taken immense pride in being able to connect dots and in being a stat-head,” he said. “My ability to recollect was always strong and still is, and I lean on that quite a bit. And that's one of the things that I think makes those explosions powerful and gives it credibility, because I'm able to weave in some facts and some stats. Even if you truly disagree with my assertions you can't sit back and say well that was wrong and that was factually incorrect and that was sloppy. It's one thing to disagree with the take. It's another thing to challenge the authenticity of it.”

Tierney prides himself on truly believing everything he puts on on the air. “I think the process, it's organic, is the best way I can put it,” he said. “It's obviously not contrived, it's never any material that I don't truly subscribe to, that I don't fully believe in.”

Sports takes can fly around the world in seconds, and anyone with a computer can latch on to an opinion and counter with their own. Tierney has seen several opinion segments go viral over the last year. Among others, he lambasted Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred repeatedly before the 2020 season began, he took Bryson DeChambeau to task for throwing his caddie under the bus at the Masters, and recently he called LeBron James a “classless narcissist.” Most notably, a few months ago he unleashed an NBA take that quickly garnered immense attention and even caught the eye of several Hall of Famers.

In February, Tierney took to Twitter and claimed that at his apex, Chris Bosh was never as good as peak Julus Randle. The radio host was heavily criticized for even making that suggestion. The tweet found its way onto TNT’s NBA coverage, where Dwyane Wade, Candace Parker and Shaquille O’Neal all shared their opinions. None agreed with Tierney, though he believes they were taking what he said out of context.

“You have to understand that people read things very quickly,” he said. “People are predisposed to being angry, to conflict, to hate, I understand that not everybody loves my style, I get it and I'm okay with that.”

For months, Tierney has stood by that opinion and even retweeted the initial post several times after Randle had big games. In the end, Randle was named Second-Team All-NBA, arguably vindicating Tierney’s defense of the Knicks star.

Unlike some opinion dealers in the industry, there’s nothing of the carnival barker in Tierney. His takes feel raw and real. There’s a dedication to his beliefs that makes his voice cut through the noise and hit harder. Staying loyal to his stances even in the face of criticism is key and part of what makes his voice feel authentic.

“I think that’s a vital part, it’s not negotiable,” Tierney says. “You have to eventually get to a place where you’re incredibly convicted in your beliefs. If you make a mistake, you’ve got to be human enough to put your hands up and say, you know what, my bad. I messed that up and I was wrong. But I think when you know, you know.”

When a radio segment or a take goes viral, it can be daunting for some to face the inevitable backlash. Tierney seems to relish it.

“It’s galvanizing and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that. Listen, if you’re a baseball player you go up to the plate four or five times a night, you want to get a couple hits. If you’re a radio host, you’re a TV guy, you’re an opinion-giver, you want to -- for me at least once a week or so -- crank out content that’s picked up by outlets other than the show that I do.”

Show-worthy opinions don’t make themselves. Hours of preparation go into every national radio broadcast. That prep work is invaluable to hosts and certainly shows when making a judgment on the news of the day. That process is constantly ongoing for Tierney.

“I think for me, I’m always prepping,” he said. “I think that anything that crosses my desk, literally or figuratively, over the course of the day is potential content for the show.”

Equally important to preparation and passion, a host looking to unleash a hot take needs a partner willing to let him take the mic and cook. “Oh it’s vital,” Tierney said. “If I didn’t have a partner that allowed me that real estate, so to speak, I would railroad him because I know what good radio is.”

Tierney has such a partner in Barber, who has a calm, laid-back presence. Barber gives his co-host the space to work, but isn’t absent during those longer rants. He’s an active participant who sometimes pushes his partner deeper into his subject.

“Not only will he push back, he’ll throw a little gas on the fire,” Tierney says. “It might be if he thinks I forgot something or if he knows I can now take his two words or four words and transform that into nine sentences and 45 more seconds of entertaining radio and TV. He does that very deftly. It’s imperative.”

Barber and Tierney initially began working together in 2013 on TBD in the A.M. along with Dana Jacobson. The trio did mornings when CBS Sports Radio launched, and stuck together until late 2014 when Jacobson left to focus on TV work. In 2017, after Doug Gottlieb left CBS for Fox Sports Radio, Barber and Tierney moved to afternoons and the current iteration of Tiki and Tierney was born.

Barber wasn’t Tierney’s first professional athlete partner, but he’s the first he’s gelled with in this way. “Most of the ex-players that I've worked with, not that they weren't cerebral, but they were a little more bombastic, a little more combative for sure. Tiki is the exact opposite. I mean, there's incredible sensibility. There's a real cerebral element. He's passionate about what he's passionate about, but his delivery is not combative.”

That dynamic works and has allowed both hosts to establish their own unique voices.

Tierney’s successful partnership with Barber wasn’t his first that allowed him to explore his ability to develop a take and stick to it. That process started years ago when he used to talk sports with his father.

“I didn't know it at the time, but my first debate partner was my pops. I mean we'd be in the car going back to and from games CYO basketball and baseball. Even in college I would pick up the phone and before I went out we would just kind of shoot the breeze about the Knicks at that point. I've always had this desire to speak.”

In the Internet age, the reward for a bold sports talk opinion doesn’t come in the form of awards or accolades. The payoff is often creating a vigorous debate on social media or other shows. If it reaches that point, Tierney believes that’s the measure of success. “It’s awesome. It’s a validation of an interesting take or something that resonated to the point that most people jumped in to either have an opinion or some sort of reaction.”

Chasing the high of a viral take is tempting but Tierney warned it can be a treacherous path to tread. “I do think if you constantly chase that, I think it’s dangerous because I think it waters down the authenticity of the takes. I do think there's a lot of people in our media who do that and I think a lot of us can probably identify who they are,” he explained. “If you do that too frequently you might make a lot of money but you're kind of going to be viewed as the guy or the gal who's always saying something that's really not accurate.”

The key for Tierney is authenticity, saying things he’s willing to stand behind every time he’s on-air and being honest with his audience if he ever makes a mistake.

“I will always carry this with me everytime I’m on the air is that it’s authentic. It’s real,” he said. “It’s original, it’s on the money knowing that I’m not always going to be right.”

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