When ESPN 980 debuted as Sportsradio 570 WTEM “The Team” on May 25, 1992, there were doubters. Some wondered how a radio station that just talked sports all day could last. One dope even said, “I give it two years.”
Uhh…yeah that dope was me. I was 33 at the time, had been in radio for 14 years and sports director of this new venture was my seventh job. What reason did I have to believe this one would last longer than my average stay? Sure, all-sports-radio stations had gained traction in cities like New York and Philadelphia, but Washington didn’t seem to exude the fan passion that those cities have. New York has two football teams, two baseball teams, two basketball teams and three hockey teams. There was plenty to talk about. Washington didn’t even have a baseball team.
I had been in on the ground floor of 24-hour sports yakking. WFAN in New York launched on July 1, 1987 by a radio company called “Emis”. Included among its investors were David Letterman and Jeff Smulyan, who 19 years later would emerge as a potential buyer for the Nationals before Ted Lerner was awarded the team.
In those days before smartphones, they identified the importance of being a source for scores and sports information. Since the all-news stations like WINS and WCBS were doing sports twice an hour, they promised sports updates every 15 minutes. I was one of those “update” guys. Every quarter hour I would interrupt the flow of whatever conversation was taking place on one of the talk shows to tell you for like the 27th time that day that the Mets had beaten the Braves the night before. And I was interrupting big name talents Greg Gumbel and Jim Lampley.
Eventually, those updates were downsized to every 20 minutes and after 15 months, I was downsized myself from full time to part time. I went back to working full time for United Press International, which was usually bankrupt. Meantime, with the help of Don Imus in the morning and the duo of Mike Francesa and Chris Russo in the afternoon – “Mike and the Mad Dog”, WFAN became a monster success.
Finally, early in 1992, I was contacted by Scott Meier, who as general manager of WFAN had demoted me and was now working as a consultant for successful Washington business executives brothers Steven and Mitchell Rales. They owned the 570 frequency and were planning to flip it over to WFAN’s format. And not ones to do anything small, the Raleses wrestled away the Redskins radio rights from WMAL, where they had been for 40 years. And they did it at the highest of values. The Redskins were coming off a Super Bowl championship.
Meier wanted to hire me. Let that be a lesson to you kids — never burn a bridge. I became involved in the hiring of most of the talent, with the exception of a 40-something Washington Post sportswriter named Tony Kornheiser, who was already on board. The hope was he could be as funny on the radio as he was in print. Tony knew how to drive a hard bargain. He had negotiated giving up a week of vacation in exchange for a free parking spot. He was pretty proud of himself until he found out that the Rockville based station was giving everybody free parking at the building that was across the street from what was then White Flint Mall.
Tony wasn’t the only big name to join the station. James Brown was working for CBS, but had not yet achieved the national name he has now when he came aboard. Kevin Kiley had lots of local and national television experience and was then working for TNT was also hired. And with the Redskins radio contract came extra on-air contributions from Redskins legends Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff.
There was also a name in the making and a great story to be written. The ones who push the buttons for commercials and sound effects are known as board operators. While the hiring process was going on, a just graduated kid from Frostburg State showed up and applied for one of those jobs. He told them he had experience running a board and was hired to do it for the “Tony Kornheiser Show.” That night, he returned to the station and said to the board operator on duty, “Teach me how to run a board.”
That kid must have been a quick learner. He was creative with sound effects and pithy comments to Tony on the air. After six months of wearing shorts every day no matter what the weather was, he said he was leaving for Hollywood. His name is Greg Garcia and he’s gone on to produce hit television shows like “Yes Dear”, “Raising Hope” and “My Name is Earl”, for which he won an Emmy.
Tony made it clear he wasn’t doing his show without someone sitting in the studio with him. That someone turned out to be me and it was one of the big breaks of my career. There were no worries about Tony being as funny on air as he was in print. His show, which aired from 10 a.m. to noon, was a hit.
The original morning show was hosted by Paul Harris, who had incorporated some sports talk into his music based morning show he left behind on WCXR. Tony was followed by JB from noon to 3 p.m., but it wasn’t long before his growing television career prevented him from being in town very often to host that show. And the afternoon drive went to Kiley and a local bartender rags to riches story in Rich “The Coach” Gilgallon. His nickname was based on the bartender character from the television show “Cheers.”
When the startup dust cleared late in 1994, the only original show remaining was Tony’s. While there were plenty of offers to make radio his full time career and go into a morning or afternoon drive time slot, he still loved working at the Washington Post and insisted he could only work those late morning hours and still maintain the writing job that he said, “Makes me Tony Kornheiser.”
It took out-of-the-box thinking by General Manager Bob Snyder for a solution. Tony’s show would air live from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and would be repeated between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. It worked. Imus, by that time in syndication, was the morning show and Doc Walker and Dan Miller filled the donut hole between Tony’s live show and the re airing.
Oh and by the way, Tony needed every Thursday off. In addition to his sports columns, he was doing a humor column in the Style section that he said needed a full day of attention. Management was willing to live with that, too. There were various guest hosts, including Warner Wolf, who had been dumped by WUSA 9 in his second go round and Tim Legler, who was still playing for the Bullets – not yet the Wizards – at the time.
Finally in 1998, the little engine that could signal, 570, was swapped out for the stronger 980. Also about that time, Tony’s show was picked up by ESPN Radio and I was lucky enough to go along for the ride. I would work with Tony in the late morning and head back to Rockville in the afternoon to work on new show that I helped create. We called it the “Sports Reporters”, which was totally stolen from the ESPN television show.
The idea was to have two rotating guests on a daily basis with me. If both guests were strong, it was a good show. If not, not so much. That changed when Steve Czaban returned to Washington from a job in Charlotte. When he joined me as a permanent member of the show, we took off. The first run lasted 13 years. John Thompson, who hated members of the media as the legendary coach at Georgetown, surprised everybody by becoming a member of it with his own show that ran 13 years. And though he never gave up that 10 a.m. start time slot, Tony did eventually give up the Washington Post for huge television success with ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” and Monday Night Football. He still managed to sneak in three separate runs with Sportsradio 570/Sportstalk 980/ESPN 980, usually calling it “WTEM”.
All was going well for me, until Chris Cooley’s playing career ended in summer 2013 and he was paired with Czabe and Al Galdi in the afternoon. I was bumped back to 570, where I revived the “Sports Reporters” in the morning for a year and a half. Last May, Cooley and Kevin Sheehan created a terrific morning show and I landed back in the afternoon with Czabe.
Now our brief second act is over. On January 19th, I was told my contract was not going to be renewed and my quarter century with the station was done. There is no bitterness. The “two years” I gave it produced an additional 23. The run was much more than I could have asked for. I leave behind people I loved working with for many years like Doc, Brian Mitchell, Scott Jackson, Czabe, Scott Linn and Kevin. Plus there’s the gratifying success of Galdi, who started as intern and worked his way up to show host. Bram Weinstein, also a former intern, is following up a great run at ESPN television as a show host back in his home town. And Cooley, who I think of as a friend, has given the sports-radio format something new and different. His film breakdowns are as revealing about the Redskins as anything on the air. It’s a great group.
Included in the tributes to the late Mary Tyler Moore was the last scene from the final show of her sitcom in 1977. As the entire newsroom engages in a group hug after all were fired she says, “Thank you for being my family.” Though I have a great family of my own with two kids who spent their entire childhoods watching the old man do what he loves, let me echo to all the great people who I worked with over the years and all of those of you who took the time to listen — exactly what Mary Richards said.