By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 11, 2009 4:36 PM
For former Redskin Brian Mitchell, it was one of those "Merry Christmas, You're Fired" kind of weeks.
First, the good news: Mitchell learned last week that the Redskins plan to induct him into their FedEx Field Ring of Fame during a home game this season -- a well-deserved honor for one of the greatest special teams players in NFL history after 10 years of consistently distinguished service for Washington's favorite football franchise.
Good for B. Mitch, and good for you Daniel Snyder.
Now the bad: Mitchell also learned last week that his services were no longer needed on sports-talk ESPN-980, the station owned by Red Zebra Radio, which also happens to be owned by Snyder. Mitchell, hired long before Snyder bought the old WTEM last year, has worked at the station most of the last four years as a show host, most recently on the John Thompson show along with Al Koken.
Koken also was relieved of his duties two weeks ago, told, like Mitchell, that his contract was not going to be renewed. According to station sources, Thompson was not at all happy about losing his two mid-afternoon partners, both good friends, though there's not much he can do about it under the terms of his own hefty six-figure contract, which may also be in some jeopardy the next time it comes up for renewal.
Rick "Doc" Walker has been shifted to the Thompson show that runs from 2-4 p.m., leaving behind his relatively new partner, Kevin Sheehan, to go solo for now on the "Locker Room" show he and Walker had been hosting from 12-2 p.m.
Asked about Mitchell's dismissal, fellow former Redskin Walker took the high road, saying, "I'm an employee, I don't run the station. I don't know anything about the business side of it."
In an interview 10 days ago, Red Zebra President and CEO Bruce Gilbert declined to comment when asked about speculation that Mitchell also was not long for the radio airwaves. He did indicate that Koken's dismissal was more about the current business climate than it was Koken's on-air performance. Gilbert, Mitchell and Thompson could not be reached for comment.
It's no secret that AM radio in general is struggling and that ESPN-980 has been particularly weakened in a horrific advertising market that also has resulted in other cost-cutting measures. Ratings also are not particularly strong across the board for the station, but getting rid of two popular and often outspoken hosts hardly seems to be a formula for reversing that trend.
And despite his radio station's financial woes, didn't Snyder just sign Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million deal, with $41 million guaranteed, and D'Angelo Hall for $55 million, with $33 million guaranteed? Wasn't he also prepared to use many more millions on quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez? You think spending all that cash is the reason Koken and Mitchell won't be on the radio any more?
The Recession? Clearly not when it comes to the Redskins.
Letting hockey expert Koken go during the Washington Capitals current playoff run made absolutely no sense at all, considering he's the only station host who truly knows his way around the blue line and has been a supremely knowledgeable source of information on the team and the NHL for years, both on the radio and as a long-time television analyst.
Koken more than occasionally took his shots at the Redskins, as well, though no one threw more haymakers at the often stumbling, bumbling franchise than the outspoken Mitchell. Remember this exchange last September when running back Clinton Portis, upset with Mitchell's criticism of him, came on the air for his contracted weekly appearance on Thompson's show?
Mitchell: "I'm gonna' tell you like this bro', I always talk. I'm an analyst. I analyze positive and negative. If you can't handle the negative..."
Portis: "You're a hater, that's what you are."
On the same show, it was:
Portis: "You think I'm gonna back down? I ain't gonna back down."
Mitchell: "If you ever want to go to that area, that'll be the wrong thing you do. Believe that. Believe that."
Now that's crackling good sports-talk radio, something we don't often get on the far more pasteurized ESPN-980 programming emanating from the Washington affiliate's mother ship in Bristol, Conn.
Some people believe Mitchell's consistently tough talk about his old team has always been fueled by his lingering bitterness at being dumped from the Redskins roster by Snyder back in 1999. At the time, there also were remarks from inside the organization that Mitchell was being let go because he was a bad influence on younger players.
I've never believed that for a minute, and the Philadelphia Eagles certainly weren't concerned about any locker room issues either, signing him for three more mostly productive years when he also was considered a valuable team leader.
I've also believed from the moment Snyder added ESPN-980 to his roster of six Red Zebra stations that dissenting voices on the Redskins were not going to be tolerated for very long. While most station hosts insist they've never been told what they can or cannot say about the football team, they also know who signs their pay checks and ultimately decides who goes and who stays. The muzzle may not be visible, but don't think for a minute that hosts are not fully cognizant of the line they can and cannot cross.
When Red Zebra first acquired the station, Gilbert, one of the most respected radio executives in the country, told me he expected his hosts to be provocative, as long as they were fair and didn't make it personal. He also insisted Red Zebra was not about to become a propaganda arm for the football team.
But not long after that, the station began airing the dreadfully forgettable Vinny Cerrato Show every week, an early portent of all-Redskins, all-the-time programming to come. Now Brian Mitchell and Al Koken are gone, as well. What's next, radio play-by-play voice Larry Michael, a Redskins team employee, getting more air time on the station during the week? The Clinton Portis Hour, hosted by Sheriff Gonna Getcha?
Better yet, how about the Daniel Snyder Show, sponsored by Six Flags, with one proviso. Definitely no call-ins allowed.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.