The Ken Beatrice phenomenon is the most peculiar, inexplicable Washington institution this side of the pandas. For almost 8 1/2 years, the WMAL sport-caster has endured, even thrived, in a tough, topsy-turvey radio market, building a loyal following with his encyclopedic knowledge, wide range of guests and patience with a variety of callers.
And yet, to many area sports fans, Beatrice's style is so grating, so suffocating and so unnerving that they'd rather listen to the screeching sound of a rake against a sidewalk for relaxation.
Since March 1977, Beatrice has held some Washington sports fans hostage with his nightly "SportsCall" on WMAL-630 (his fans, though, swear by him). Since it's the only regular sports talk show in town, there's not a lot to choose from. But when he becomes unbearable, and if you're so inclined, you can turn him off without feeling any real loss or pain.
Still, Beatrice's staying power is a remarkable feat in such a transient town. Last year, in a market with about 40 stations, he ranked No. 7 in his time period. In the latest spring '85 ratings, Beatrice's average listenership in any 15-minute period was 17,600, a 35 percent increase over last spring.
"He thoroughly enjoys what he does. That enthusiasm is evident to those who listen to him," said Andy Ockershausen, WMAL executive vice president and general manager. "It's good entertainment, even if they disagree. Washingtonians are a cross-section of America, and they feel comfortable talking to him on any topic."
Beatrice, at all times, seems to be part prophet, part pretender. Here is the most popular radio sportscaster in town, able to assess the height, weight, speed and prospects of most any collegiate basketball or football player in the nation at a moment's notice. And here is a man who ducks most tough issues, seldom admits he doesn't know something and sometimes cuts off callers whose opinions differ from his own.
In a recent interview, Beatrice briefly assessed his strengths and weaknesses on "SportsCall."
"Strengths? I know my business because I spend a lot of time studying it," he said. "I try hard to treat my opinions as opinion and not as fact. And I'm very patient with callers."
With his "General Manager's Corner" almost every Friday night and other timely guests, Beatrice does provide a forum for potentially informative, engaging sports talk. He does display an amazingly wide sports knowledge. He does make an effort to talk to as many listeners as possible, even off the air, daily averaging 25 to 35 phone calls before and after the show.
But in the end, a two-hour nightly dose of Beatrice fails as entertaining radio because of his irritating quirks and endless mannerisms. Sure, he's popular, but the feeling here is that if you're on one of the area's leading stations and there's no real sports-talk competition, a lot of people are going to listen regardless.
"I go on too long with some callers, I know that. But if I'm going to err, I'd like to err to that side," Beatrice said when discussing his weaknesses.
"I have a tendency to overanswer questions . . . I don't realize it until I listen to tapes of the show. I have a tendency to fall into certain phrases. And yes, I let time pressure me."
The issue of time -- the show never has enough, he says -- often obsesses Beatrice; he discusses it at the beginning of nearly every show and brings it up again and again. He's his own worst enemy on time: he wastes it by mentioning it, rambles on too long during his periodic sports-news updates and often cuts off callers in mid-sentence to repeat his own points.
He is always right. The last time Beatrice was wrong, Aristotle was at the dry cleaners picking up his son's toga tux for the senior prom.
He gets exasperated when listeners don't understand him and occasionally gets perturbed when callers failed to hear a point he made earlier in the show -- sometimes earlier in the week.
Any broadcaster on the air as often as Beatrice naturally will fall into habits and repeat phrases. But with Beatrice, the pet phrases come tumbling out in bushels, from "not too shabby" to "I'll be perfectly honest with you" and "Hey, would you get back to me?" The rhetoric fills a room with such force that it can scare small children into foreign-exchange programs.
On occasion, Beatrice will say, "I have this recurring fantasy. I want to talk to every Washington sports fan at least once before I pack it in."
It's that delusion -- that he's talking to us and not at us -- that's most disturbing. At least once a show, Beatrice will say, "It's yooooour show here." Well, in recent weeks, I did a study of how our show breaks down from 7 to 9 p.m. In the 120-minute period, these were the average time allotments: News (local and network) -- 16 minutes. Commercials -- 26 minutes. Beatrice, guests and callers -- 78 minutes.
Of those 78 minutes, Beatrice averaged 52 minutes of air time. In other words, on our show, Beatrice spent 67 percent of the time talking.
"SportsCall" averages about 15 callers per show, but Beatrice dominates conversations. Additionally, seldom does a guest talk more than the host. Most of his questions actually are long-winded statements seemingly designed to display his own knowledge, and they usually elicit the response, "Well, you're right, Ken . . . "
Several months ago, as he interviewed San Diego Padres Manager Dick Williams, I grew so infuriated at Beatrice's inability to let Williams talk that I nearly caused a multiple-car collision on 16th Street NW.
It was then, as several motorists cursed me, that I decided: never again would I listen to "SportsCall" while driving. The risk is too great.