A new Washington-area sports talk radio show will finally make its debut Monday, two weeks after it was abruptly shelved in a move that prompted accusations that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who also owns the radio station, was seeking to kill the program to silence a prominent media critic of his team.
While the reasons behind the delay, or whether Snyder and the Redskins had anything to do with it, remain unclear, the uncertainty surrounding the show’s debut on ESPN 980 (WTEM-AM) apparently led to the resignation of the station executive who conceived of the program. And in a bizarre and unexplained subplot, someone made prank calls to WTEM this month claiming to be the president of ESPN — one of the most powerful sports media figures in the country — and demanding the show’s cancellation, and nearly succeeded.
While the calls were a hoax, the person making them mimicked ESPN President John Skipper’s Southern drawl and knew enough about ESPN 980’s inner workings to initially convince station executives that they were from Skipper, according to three people with knowledge of the events.
The show, which will be co-hosted by former Washington Post columnist Jason Reid and veteran radio and TV personality Chris Paul, was scheduled to debut March 16. Titled “The Man Cave,” it was heavily promoted by ESPN 980, reflecting the station’s boldest and most expensive attempt yet to boost its morning ratings.
But at 6 a.m. March 16, the show did not air as scheduled, and the station offered no explanation to listeners. Instead, it broadcast ESPN Radio’s nationally syndicated “Mike and Mike” show, which has occupied that time period on ESPN 980 for years and apparently will now move to SportsTalk 570 (WSPZ-AM), a sister station also operated by Red Zebra Broadcasting, the parent company owned by Snyder.
Several individuals associated with ESPN 980 and in the local radio industry alleged that Redskins management ordered “The Man Cave” killed to get back at Reid for his criticism of team management. A sports-talk rival, 106.7 the Fan (WJFK-FM), gleefully aired promotional spots mocking the Snyder-owned station.
WTEM and Red Zebra officials have not explained the reason for the delay. Red Zebra chief executive Rick Carmean has declined repeated requests for comment, as has Mark Shapiro, chairman of Red Zebra’s board of directors. Redskins management also has declined several requests for comment through team spokesman Tony Wyllie.
Reid — who left The Post with an emotional farewell party March 11 — has not replied to calls and texts from former co-workers, and both his agency and his co-host, Paul, have remained silent as well.
Months of preparation and promotion in advance of the show’s scheduled debut appeared in vain just two weeks ago, when a confusing series of events, including the prank phone calls and the unexplained resignation of longtime WTEM program director Chuck Sapienza, left the show in limbo.
The oddest of these events were two phone calls received by the station in the days leading up to “The Man Cave’s” planned debut by a man representing himself as Skipper. In one of the calls, the imposter threatened legal trouble for the station and possible financial penalties if it bumped “Mike and Mike” for “The Man Cave,” according to three people with knowledge of the calls.
While it seemed odd that someone as high-profile as Skipper would meddle with programming at a local affiliate, the imposter was apparently convincing to Carmean, who took the calls. In addition to mimicking Skipper’s accent (Skipper is a native of North Carolina), the caller also knew details about the station’s inner workings and called from a number with an 860 area code — in Connecticut, where ESPN is headquartered.
Carmean told people the show was dead and that the president of ESPN had killed it, one person with knowledge of the events said. Carmean also alerted Redskins management about the calls.
The ruse was uncovered, however, when Redskins President Bruce Allen, after hearing that Skipper was upset about something at WTEM, called the ESPN president to assure him that Allen would look into Skipper’s concerns. According to three people with knowledge of the conversation, a confused Skipper thanked Allen, then called his deputies at ESPN and asked them to figure out what Allen had been talking about.
After a flurry of phone calls between ESPN management and WTEM management, it became clear that Carmean had been duped. Skipper telephoned Allen to say the calls had been a hoax. When told that Skipper had not called him — and that he had no problem with “The Man Cave” — Carmean expressed relief, sources said.
Skipper declined an interview request. Traug Keller, senior vice president at ESPN who oversees ESPN Radio, issued a statement.
“ESPN did not determine the local programming changes by the Washington, D.C., radio affiliate, nor did any member of ESPN management reach out to the decision makers in order to influence any such decisions,” Keller said in an e-mail.
Allen, who is in Phoenix attending the National Football League owners’ meetings, declined to comment. “Talk to the radio station,” he said in a brief interview. “You should talk to the radio station.”
Still unanswered is why “The Man Cave” was delayed — and why ESPN 980 did not offer an explanation to listeners.
After receiving assurances that Skipper had not demanded that the show be scuttled, Carmean and Sapienza resumed plans for the show’s March 16 debut, according to a person close to the station. Within less than 24 hours, however, Sapienza resigned, apparently out of concern that the show’s future was in doubt.
Now, it appears, the show is back on again.
“The Man Cave” is an ambitious play by ESPN 980 to gain ground in the all-important morning drive time slot it has long ceded to 106.7 the Fan.
Starting Monday, for the first time in the station’s history, ESPN 980 will have a local show of its own — hosted by two African American men — to compete with “The Sports Junkies,” the morning show on 106.7 the Fan with an all-white slate of hosts.
An official announcement is expected later this week, sources said. Then, perhaps, the Twitter account that ESPN 980 created to promote the show — @980mancave — can be updated. As of Tuesday evening, the show’s account had tweeted once.
“#Countdown 4 days until “The Man Cave,” it wrote March 12. “Monday morning 6AM. It’s. About. To. Go. Down!!”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.