By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 12:33 PM
When Dave Feldman and Carol Maloney were summoned to the office of WTEM Radio program director Bill Hess along with their producer, Dave Ross, after their two-hour mid-day talk show this past Friday, they were stunned to hear that they were being taken off the air, effective immediately, after less than six months on the job.
No, Hess told them, it had nothing to do with ratings.
No, he insisted, it was not in the least bit performance-based.
Yes, he admitted, the station had received nothing but generally positive feedback from listeners almost from the day they began last May.
So why pull the plug?
Feldman and Maloney had just been steamrolled by the media juggernaut known as Dan Patrick, the former ESPN SportsCenter anchor who recently left the so-called Worldwide Leader to strike out on his own. In addition to signing up last week to associate himself with all things Sports Illustrated, Patrick also is now in the third week of his new syndicated radio show, and apparently WTEM just had to have him.
Never mind that Feldman and Maloney's smart and more than occasionally sophisticated show had been a true breath of fresh air from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the all-sports, all-the-time ClearChannel Communications affiliate.
Never mind that they had even begun to build a loyal and dedicated following by attracting top-flight guests (in the spirit of full disclosure, yes, occasionally even including moi), and offered up discussions that were not always centered on the Redskins sputtering offense. (You think Coach Thompson would ever have a segment on just how long an out-of-town golf trip with the boys should last before a wife or girlfriend threw his socks and underwear out the window?)
And never mind that Maloney was the only female voice on local sports talk radio on any station, and an extremely well-informed and opinionated voice, at that.
Despite all of the above, sadly, the show won't go on any more.
"I thought it was a fun and entertaining show," said Maloney, also an anchor/reporter for Comcast Sportsnet who, like Feldman, Channel 5's sports director, had never done this sort of show before, even though both seemed to thrive in the format. "We tried to be a little different. Nice, different and funny. Maybe nice wasn't working.
"But they kept telling us how much they loved us, right up until the moment they said goodbye. We worked so hard and did the best job we could. My biggest regret is that we didn't have a chance to go on the air one more time and thank everyone who contributed, and everyone who listened. That kind of bums me out."
Still, classy Carol was gracious to the bitter end. After the firing meeting had ended on Friday, she went up and hugged Hess and thanked him for the opportunity.
"Feldy said to me afterward 'you can't hug someone when they just fired you,'" she said.
But Feldman also took the verbal high road.
"We were suprised by the decision. Carol and I liked doing it, we really enjoyed it," he said. "The feedback from management had been very positive. It's one of those things where they make the decision and there's no point crying over it. They can do what they want. The only positive is at least now I can sleep in."
Ironically, both Feldman and Maloney initially had some reservations about doing the show. Feldman has a full load of writing, reporting and anchoring for his sportscasts and other shows on Channel 5, and was always used to a more nocturnal schedule after going off the air at 11 p.m.
Maloney has pre-school children at home as well as her duties for Comcast, clearly more than a full-time job as well. They both were not certain how long they could keep the show going given the frenetic pace of their pre-radio days, but both also found as the weeks and months passed they were able to find a pace and rhythm in their personal and professional lives to make it work.
And more often than not, it did work.
A few weeks ago, I showed up five minutes late for an interview simply because I didn't want to get out of the car while Feldman was speaking with Jim Harbaugh, the Stanford football coach whose team had just upset No. 1 Southern Cal a few days earlier. Harbaugh also was Feldman's high school basketball teammate (guess who scored more points), and this clearly was a delightful non-coachspeak performance, two old pals yakking, with Maloney also contributing to a lively discussion.
The definition of compelling radio: any time you take a few extra loops around the block or park in the driveway and don't get out, the better to stay tuned before the next commercial break. I'll often do that with NPR or the Tony Kornheiser Show (get back where you belong, Mr. Tony, and soon!!). And Feldman and Maloney showed more than occasional flashes of similar brilliance.
Hess, the program director, insisted the only reason they're now off the air is because the station had a chance to air the Patrick show. Price may have been a factor, because syndicated programming usually comes cheaper than paying your own. A little nepotism never hurts either. Patrick's brother, Dave Pugh (yes, Dan Patrick changed his name for obvious reasons), also happens to be the programming man for all the ClearChannel stations.
Hess, of course, was the very same programming director who ballyhooed WTEM's reliance on all locally-based sports talk programming when the station revamped its lineup last spring, a direct shot at Dan Snyder's mostly syndicated Red Zebra operation. This week, Hess simply parroted the company line on the change.
"The opportunity to put Dan on the air in a prime slot made a lot of sense," he said. "We've still got them (Feldman and Maloney) on the team. They're going to continue doing Sports Reporters and will be our primary fill-ins as anchors. These decisions are always difficult. Dave and Carol were doing a great job. This in no way was related to the job they were doing for the station."
So now, sandwiched between Doc Walker in the morning and John Thompson in the afternoon, Dan Patrick will bring his nationally-oriented show to WTEM. No doubt he'll have big-time guests on a regular basis, though I must confess I thought his old ESPN radio show was nothing particularly special, at least not until he got his old anchor sidekick, Keith Olbermann, to make regular daily appearances.
Mostly though, Patrick seemed to practice the fawning, yuk and suck-up style of interviewing, particularly with athletes and coaches. Still, he's a terribly talented guy -- or rather, brand, as his agents probably prefer -- soon to appear with a column on the Sports Illustrated web site, with a likely presence in a magazine that, by the way, also is about to lose back-of-the-book columnist Rick Reilly to ESPN (Reilly to ESPN for Patrick, straight up, you have to give ESPN a big edge in that trade).
But would I drive around the block to keep listening to Dan Patrick? Not right now. Back to you NPR.E-Mail of the Week
Jim Donahue, St. Louis
I see now ESPN is exactly what we fear -- they are getting too "incestuous" for objectivity. The network has become too big for itself. Like a scene from the movie "In Good Company", this is all about "synergy" and the cross-branding that goes on between sports and the networks. The pairings on Monday Night football, for example, demonstrate that the emphasis has gone from an "entertainment show" with emcee Howard Cosell, to people who are not "A" list celebrities and ex-jocks who litter the ESPN landscape. How can you get objectivity when the former players want to remain close to the limelight?
Don't get me started on the ESPN anchors. That conversation could last a lifetime. Chris "Boomer" Berman and Kenny (please take him off the air) Mayne have outlived any recognizeable value and serve only to block new and fresh faces from delivering the corporate line. The "jockocracy" which is now sports is being superceded ( if possible) by ridiculous events such as the ESPYs and the X Games. It kind of makes one pine for the Wide World of Sports, or to have Howard Cosell do MNF games again. Don't you remember when MNF games were the talk of the week? Don't you recall when the "halftime highlights" were the talk at the coffee break room? Now we are stuck with Tony, Mike and Jaws. Doesn't seem to have any of the excitement attached to it. How do we fix this? Perhaps with competition, but if you love sports, how many venues can you go to? Maybe the "synergy" needs to end.