A few months ago, there were rumblings at WTOP Radio that Phil Wood, the genial gentleman host of the nightly sports call-in show, was in danger of being replaced.
No more Mr. Nice Guy for WTOP. They were talking to Pete Franklin, the insult king of Cleveland, about transferring his body and his bile to the nation's capital, where his rip-and-ream cheap shots would give Ken Beatrice at WMAL some nasty competition.
Wiser heads have prevailed, so far. WTOP Station Manager Michael Douglass listed to Franklin's demands -- a six-figure salary was one -- and then decided both he and Washington could survive without this nightly dose of venom.
That is good news for Wood, and more important, for his faithful followers grown accustomed to Wood's encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and hockey, to his mannerly approach, low-key humor and frequent topical guests.
Wood, a 30-year-old native Washingtonian, heard all the talk about Franklin and said, "I haven't talked to anybody at the station about it and they haven't talked to me. I assume it's true, and I'm concerned about it. But what can I do?"
Douglass, meanwhile, said he always is on the lookout for talent to upgrade the station, but that he is not now actively trying to replace Wood. "As long as he keeps working at trying to improve, he will stay on the show," Douglass said."
Ratings, he added, are not really a factor. Wood is on at all different times of the evening among Bullet, Capital and Oriole games and it is difficult to judge exactly where he stands on the few occasions hel goes head to head with Beatrice.
Through Wood occasionally will allow callers to stay on too long, from a pure listening point of view, he is far easier to take over stretches of time than his striden know-it-all competition at WMAL. Wood makes no attempt to single out obscure second-team linebackers with great upper-body strength. He has no scouts reporting in from precincts around America with hot flashes on sleeper prospects. If he doesn't know the answer to a question, he won't bluff it.
Like Beatrice, he also has no particular penchant for creating on-air controversy, nor does he plan to change his style "and become something that's just not me." He said the station "has never come to me and said, 'You will be more controversial,' I'll rip if it demands it, but I'm sure not going to fire on anybody just for the sake of firing."
Lneither Wood nor Beatrice is called upon very often to offer up that many opinions. For some reason, Washingtonians seem more bent on trivia, on getting information about Boise State's football recruits or assessments of Toronto Blue Jay Class AA farm teams. Hardly ever do you hear "How could that jerk Beathard trade . . ."
"I dond't know why, but that's just the nature of people in this town, Douglas said. "You listen to shows in other cities, Cleveland for example, and it's not like that. We've talked to Phil about eliciting opinions. If one night he came on and said, 'Don't talk to me about statistics, give me an opinion,' he could probably change the tone of his calls. But I'm not asking him to change his style, not at all."
Wood believes his show could be improved, not by adding outrageous opinions, but simply by adding his friend, Al Koken, to the regular lineup during the week. Koken handles the weekend sports talk show and works only part time. His strengths are professional football, basketball and hockey, and when both men occasionally do share the microphone "we really do cover all the bases," Koken said. Douglass, however, says there are no plans to make it a two-man operation.
Koken says Wood deserves more recognition. "I tell you this guy is unbelievable on baseball. I honestly can't recall the last time he couldn't answer a question about the old Washington Senators. I think Phil's appeal is that he's the gut sitting next to you at the bar. He's relaxed and he's funny. He informs you and he entertains you without driving you crazy."
There are times when he is on the air that Wood has every right to go bonkers himself. Most talk show hosts at major stations have lots of help -- an engineer, production assistants to help with the spots and screen the calls. As they say in the trade, Wood works his own board. He alone is responsible for popping commercial cassettes into the machinery, for recording his commercial log, for pushing the buttons that put his callers on and off the air.
But Wood will not complain out loud. That's not his style either. He also has no high-priced contract, certainly no guarantee of job security and the station does very little to promote his show. "I can tell you they're not going to find anybody who'll work any cheaper," Wood said.
And if they have any sense at WTOP, they won't try.