Chemistry, Fan Interaction Drive Franklin’s Weekly Radio Show

James Franklin brought a special guest with him to his weekly radio show.

It’s a little past 6:30 in the evening in early September, and nearly 100 people have gathered in the downstairs of Lettermans, the revamped sports bar and restaurant that’s located in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.

Coming straight from practice and entering the room to applause, Franklin smiles. But he’s not alone. His daughter, Shola, is all revved up. She was at practice, her dad says, running 12 laps.

“That takes the guilt out of the ribs she’s about to crush,” Franklin says. 

Shola gleefully scurries around tables, making her own introduction and feeling completely at home. That makes sense, because for the next half hour, that’s what Lettermans feels like.

Sitting to the right of Franklin is Steve Jones, a 1980 Penn State graduate and long-time voice of Penn State football and men’s basketball.

Like tens of thousands of other Penn Staters spanning generations, I grew up listening to Jones, and his voice made listening to a game more than a game. It was — and continues to be — an experience that he distinguishes with his insight and presence.

The same is true for Franklin’s weekly on-air spot. There’s analysis and fan interaction, with a little showmanship added at just the right times. Jones and Franklin are colleagues, and as Jones says about their chemistry, “It’s really taken off.”

Not starting last week, last month, or last year. But rather, from the first meeting, the first handshake, the first show.

“There are certain people, that for whatever reason, they click,” Jones says. He and Franklin had never been in the same room before Penn State hired Franklin, but the coach and play-by-play caller immediately treated one another like they’d known each other for 10 years.

“I have a lot of respect for him, personally and professionally, and as a family man and as a father. He’s a great figure,” Jones says. “It’s always important from my standpoint that you have a great working relationship, because you have to be out there together. He’s always had my back, and I have his back. It’s worked really well since Day 1.”

Jones adamantly says that the most important aspect of the show is that it belongs to the fans. He’ll typically ask one or two questions to kick things off, just as he does tonight by inquiring what Franklin gleamed from the season-opening footage against Kent State.

But Jones describes himself as the facilitator, giving the fans not only an up-close look, but also a chance to be part of the conversation. They’ll have some fun along the way, too, though as Jones says, “The fans ask a lot of really good questions. They may kid around him before the question, but once they get to the question, they’re really insightful.”

And here’s the really cool part: Fans aren’t watching Franklin on television or listening to him answer questions from the media. He’s talking to them

“They get to know him as a person, and not as a figure up and down the sideline,” Jones says.

Franklin doesn’t minimize anything, and a few times tells guests he appreciates the questions. He’ll routinely talk to people during a break in the show or hand out T-shirts. When a fan asks about Penn State’s offense and how he noticed that quarterback Trace McSorley would sometimes look to the sideline and sometimes not, Franklin describes the four tempos installed by new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

He also takes the time to explain to a guest the anatomy of a screen pass, and that when a defender beats the lineman almost too easily, they’re trained to step their foot in the ground and get back downfield, going so far to explain the rule that allows offensive lineman to block linebackers and secondary players three yards past the line of scrimmage, as long as the ball is thrown behind the line.

The guest’s question didn’t necessarily need all that explanation, but Franklin took the time to make sure she understood. Everything is given proper attention, with the focus being on the fans.

“James is the easiest guy on the planet to work with,” Jones says. “He and Patrick Chambers. They completely understand the concept. They want to interact with the fans and enjoy it.”

During the show, Jones’ earlier point about fans asking great questions is made when a guest brings up Penn State’s star running back Saquon Barkley. The fan’s name is Dave, and when he tells Franklin he lives in nearby Port Matilda, the coach responds by calling him his neighbor.

Instead of asking about a highlight run or some dazzling breakaway touchdown, Dave instead wants to talk about Barkley’s ability as a blocker. Two days later, Barkley would score five touchdowns, and he might already be on his way to becoming one of Penn State’s all-time great ball carriers, but the fan wants to talk about blocking.

Specifically, Dave’s impressed with Barkley’s ability to pick up blitzes in the backfield, saying, “Everybody knows he can run the ball, but the little things he does are quite impressive.”

Remember what Jones said earlier about the fans: “They’re really insightful.”

Franklin agrees, telling the crowd that Barkley wants to become a complete back. The sophomore wants to run, and block well, in addition to contributing on special teams.

A few questions later, the show wraps and Franklin selects the winner of a Penn State mini-helmet that bears his autograph. He poses for a photo and shakes a few hands. But just as importantly, he’s genuine.

And if you think that’s an aberration, think again.

“Sometimes people see this natural enthusiasm — they hear him say,  ‘dominate the state’ — and then they wonder who’s the real guy,” Jones says. “He has natural enthusiasm, and he’s positive. That’s him. I’ve been around him for three years now, and who he is, that’s what you see.”

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