Straight shooter-- Local radio sportscaster learned his 'Lesson' well

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

A pre-teen Jeff Lesson grew up watching "Monday Night Football" and idolizing its bombastic and controversial announcer, Howard Cosell.

Cosell, who appeared on the sportscast from 1970 through 1983, was among the most loved, and most despised, announcers of the generation, due to his pompous, know-it-all attitude. Besides his career as a sportscaster, Cosell was also an attorney.

But Lesson, then 12, loved sports, and knew he wanted to follow Cosell's path into broadcasting.

"I always wanted to be him," Lesson said.

Now, more than three decades later, Lesson has become like Cosell, albeit on a smaller scale. Lesson has a radio gig on a Detroit sports station. And he is also an attorney.

Lesson, 49, was born in Detroit and attended Southfield Lathrup High School. But he also began crafting his desire to get into broadcasting when he worked for WSHJ, a station out of Southfield High School in his school district. By the time he was 16, Lesson became the station's sports director.

"I was a big shot," Lesson said.

He would broadcast high school basketball, football and baseball games for the 250-watt station, doing play by play.

"I was a sports nut as a kid," he said. "I really enjoyed communicating with the masses. And I felt pretty confident doing it. But I'm much better now than I was 30 years ago."

After high school, Lesson looked at his stint in radio as "a great opportunity.

"I got to do a lot of things. But when you leave, the real world is out there," he said. "I fell in love with broadcasting, especially radio. It's the theater of the mind."

But while his parents supported his dream of becoming a sports broadcaster, they also urged him to develop a back-up plan in case that didn't work out, knowing there were so few jobs in broadcasting. His father, Jerry, was a dentist, but Lesson quickly eliminated that career from his wish list.

"I was not interested in working in people's mouths, and I was not very good at science," he said.

But Jerry and Joan Lesson wanted their child to continue his education and get into a good profession. So Lesson put broadcasting dreams on hold and entered Michigan State University, majoring in telecommunications and political science. Lesson decided to attend law school after graduating from MSU in 1982.

"I had lot of lawyers and judges in the family while growing up," he said.

A cousin, Richard Kaufman, was chief judge in Wayne County Circuit Court. His father, Charles Kaufman, was also a judge there years earlier. And he had uncles and other cousins in the profession.

"It was all around me. And it was always the talk of the family, so I became interested," Lesson said.

He clerked for family members while in law school, and then graduated from the Detroit College of Law in 1985. Lesson hooked up with a law firm and became involved in a general practice.

"I enjoyed trials and interacting with people," he said. "I like being on my feet talking to people, moving around."

But he still had the urge to work in radio, and late in 1985, Lesson said he saw a newspaper advertisement to work five minutes each week as a sports commentator on someone's paid show. Lesson said he doesn't remember who the person was, or what type of show, only that it was on WCAR, an AM station.

He applied for, and got the job.

"I got paid next to nothing," Lesson said.

But money was not factor to him. He was back in broadcasting. And his work as a lawyer offered him the flexibility he needed to do both.

"I had just started practicing law, and now I was also doing radio," he said. "These were two really big breaks for me."

From that short stint, Lesson said he cobbled together a tape of himself, and soon after he found himself working on the Associated Press network. He was only doing two- or three-minute national sportscast spots, "but it aired on thousands of affiliates across the country," Lesson said.

And WWJ 950 AM in Detroit was one of those affiliates. To Lesson, that was like nirvana, because he always imagined himself one day working for his home town radio station.

"It was mostly me just spouting off about whatever I wanted to," Lesson said.

But eventually, it opened doors and he became known. He covered the Detroit Red Wings playoffs in the late 1980s, and Lesson said one night, the AP was "desperate" and needed a 20-second burst for one of its live updates.

"To me, it was huge," he said. "They liked me, so they hired me as a stringer."

Lesson said he got paid a little more, about $100 per game, "but I'm watching sports, and I'm getting paid," he said. "It was a huge ego stroke."

His law practice was also beginning to take off.

"I was building a pretty decent practice in law. But it was a pretty tough balancing act" with law and radio, he said.

From stringing with AP, Lesson said that other networks--such as ESPN, ABC, and CBS--also sought him out. For some games, Lesson said he found himself stringing for a dozen networks in the same night. And he collected a paycheck from each of those.

"I could make up to a couple hundred bucks for each game," Lesson said.

He continued that for about eight years, putting in day hours in the courts and at law, and nights at various sporting events.

Lesson said those in the business would inquire about a need for someone in the Detroit area, and Lesson's name would come up. He estimated that, at one point, he was covering up to 200 events each year, ranging from hockey, Pistons basketball, Tigers baseball, and MSU and U-M games.

Then came a call from WWJ. Lesson was asked to cover a hydroplane boat race.

"I didn't know the first thing about boats and racing," he said. "But I had dreamed about working for WWJ since I was a kid."

Apparently, they liked him and his work.

"From there, WWJ started calling me in as a fill-in sportscaster, and as a stringer. In 1996, they offered Lesson a job, "and I've been there ever since."

Lesson started as a sportscaster on weekends, and an occasional fill in during the week, for a two-minute sportscast. Now, he works on WWJ AM and also on 97.1 The Ticket, in Farmington Hills, its FM station.

He still juggles the hats of being a lawyer and a broadcaster.

"I enjoy them both," he said. "I like to keep a good balance, but sometimes its difficult. Thank God some judges listen to the radio station and work with me to get me out of court sooner."

"I like helping people with the law. With radio, I try to keep them informed and entertained."

In 1997, he started his own show, called "Lesson on Golf." It originally was a feature on WWJ, but has since grown to a one-hour show twice a week on 97.1 The Ticket, and generally airs from April through September.

The show is in its 14th season, and has won awards as "Best Feature" from both the Associated Press and the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, about 10 awards in all. In 2004, Lesson was part of a play-by-play team for CBS national radio for the Ryder Cup from Oakland Hills.

The show features the best places to play golf in Michigan, tips from the golf pros he interviews, and also refers listeners to Lesson's website, Lessonongolf.com, where the public can receive half-off discounts to play golf and vacation at some of the state's best known courses.

He said the website and the show complement each other.

"It's a win-win," he said. "To play courses for half-off, especially in these times, it's a blessing (for the courses and the customers). The courses get new faces to their place, and they hope the customers return and spend some money."

Lesson said his website features about 50 courses for half-off play, "and the list is expanding all the time."

Lesson only started golfing 20 years ago, and is nowhere near a pro.

"People think I am, and then they play with me. I should be way better than I am," he said.

He said he started his "Lesson on Golf" show when he was really starting to love the game.

"It's the best social game in the world, and it brings people together. It teaches you about yourself and about others. Golf mirrors life in a lot of ways. It also lets you see some of the most beautiful parts of the country, the wildlife, oceans, mountains, and deserts. It's a game that lets you leave your problems at the door."

He also believes covering golf and the PGA Tour "is one of the greatest gigs in sports." Besides his radio spots and golf show, Lesson also writes a weekly golf column for The Detroit News, and does television features on golf courses for WXYZ Channel 7.

But Lesson is most proud of his website. He said that came about after gaining full control over his radio show about five years ago. He said the first nine years, "Lesson on Golf" was owned by CBS, and they paid him. But since taking over the show, Lesson buys the airtime for it and markets it himself, hence the need for a website.

"Airtime is expensive, but I've enjoyed a greater success since I've owned the show," he said.

On a recent Saturday morning, Lesson talked with various pros from a number of clubs during his show about warming up before a round, especially in cold weather. Snow had fallen and covered the grounds of some northern clubs. But Lesson has an easy-going style and keeps the interviews going with crisp commentary and questions the average golfer would ask.

Lesson said he plays golf several times each week, mostly in outings, for charities or with clients. His law practice usually winds down in the summer, but picks up again in the winter, when golf season ends.

"I don't do many trials anymore, but I still handle all sorts of legal matters," he said.

Lesson said he gets similar reactions from people who know he does both.

"A lot of attorneys familiar with what I do ask me why I want to be an attorney when I can do this. And people in radio ask me why do this if I'm an attorney. It's just another example of people thinking the grass is always greener on the other side.

"But each profession tends to keep the other one fresh." Lesson continues to practice law in the Southfield and Livonia areas.

Lesson, who lives in the Detroit area, tells people who want to get into broadcasting "to do as many internships as you can."

"It's really important to get as much hands-on experience as possible," Lesson said, recalling how difficult it was to get a job in a major market.

Lesson said he still enjoys sports, but has become more of a fan of broadcasting.

"Sports is a great vehicle to communicate with people," he said.

He knows he has not become the Howard Cosell of sports in Detroit.

"There are a lot of better known people than me, and I'm fine with that," he said. "But I've found my niche with golf."

And he says he'll continue to be a sports broadcaster, "for as long as they let me."

Published: Thu, Jun 3, 2010

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