Three hours before conducting one of the biggest interviews of his career, Jason Bishop was playing blackjack on the floor of an Atlantic City casino. Two hours before embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford called into WJFK (106.7 FM) The Fan on Thursday morning, Bishop and his three “Sports Junkies” co-hosts were downing shots of Fireball whiskey with listeners.
And 20 minutes before the mayor dialed in — making his first media appearance since new allegations surfaced Wednesday, including that Ford might have tried to buy a video that appeared to show him smoking crack cocaine — the Junkies were discussing Robert Griffin III.
Minutes after the interview began, the longtime sports-talk radio hosts were discussed on NBC’s “Today” show, fielding interview requests from CNN, and mentioned by virtually every major Canadian news publication. Then they went to play in their annual poker tournament at the Borgata.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” said Eric Bickel, a Junkie. “We’ve gotten some attention before for interviews we’ve done, but to be in the middle of a controversy as it’s occurring? We were in the middle of the hurricane, and that’s what was so crazy.”
“We didn’t even realize we were in the middle of it until after the interview, to be honest with you,” Bishop added.
“No, we knew it,” Bickel disagreed. “You were drunk.”
The four Junkies — lifelong friends from the Maryland suburbs, who started with a cable-access show nearly 20 years ago — banter about sports, pop culture and their own lives for four hours weekday mornings. They’ve never been accused of excessive maturity, or of rigorous journalism, but they’ve earned a loyal following among Washington area sports fans for their lively, irreverent chatter. (They also recently began hosting a casual sports-interview show for Comcast SportsNet.)
That the Junkies briefly became international newsmakers Thursday was thanks in large part to two of their producers, Matt Cahill and Matt Myers, who wrote to Ford’s representatives about two weeks ago “as a lark, really,” said John-Paul Flaim, another host. Cahill and Myers regularly aim high with their requests; they’ve been turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Katy Perry, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Peyton Manning, among many others.
They tried to appeal to Ford — a known football fanatic who attended a Redskins youth camp as a teenager and watched last weekend’s Bills game in person — by inviting him to pick NFL games, as former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used to do. To the surprise of Cahill and Myers — heretofore perhaps best known for voluntarily spreading Icy Hot on his private parts while on air — Ford’s chief of staff got in touch Tuesday, saying the mayor was in.
The timing was perfect. For one thing, the Junkies would be in Atlantic City for their annual pre-tournament show, which tends to be a bit more festive than a typical morning in CBS Radio’s studio, which sits just outside the Beltway, in Lanham. For another, after the Junkies announced the news Wednesday, court documents were released detailing the new accusations, including wiretaps of alleged gang members who claimed to have images of Ford using crack.
(Ford has admitted to smoking crack in what was likely a “drunken stupor,” amid other transgressions, and has been stripped of many of his mayoral powers by the Toronto City Council.)
“As soon as we saw the story [Wednesday night], we knew we couldn’t just do football picks, or people would laugh at us,” Cahill said.
And yet there was also the poker tournament to tend to. So the Junkies and their producers spent Wednesday night not reading up on Canadian politics, but at the Borgata’s Gypsy Bar. Bishop moved on to blackjack tables, never slept, and showed up at the set two minutes before the 6 a.m. start time, still wearing the previous day’s clothes.
Some of the hosts doubted Ford would actually call, until the mayor began following them on Twitter shortly before his scheduled segment. But they were forthright about their approach, both before and after the interview.
“We’re not Mike Wallace, and this isn’t ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Bickel said. “I didn’t need to learn the minutiae of Toronto politics. We just needed to get him talking.”
“I barely care about American politics, yet alone Canadian politics,” John Auville, the fourth host, added. “But he’s a larger-than-life figure. We knew if we got him on the phone, we’d have fun with him.”
Ford’s staff members — who specified that the mayor wanted to make his picks against the point spread — anticipated a two- or three-minute segment. It wound up lasting nearly 24, plowing through a scheduled commercial break. Bishop, operating on no sleep, took charge of the political questions, which nearly derailed the conversation before Ford had even weighed in on the Texans-Jaguars matchup.
“Number one, that’s an outright lie,” Ford said, of the suggestion he had offered money and a car for the video. “And number two, you can talk to my lawyers about it. But I’m here to talk football, guys, so if you want to talk football, talk football.”
So they did. They talked about the Redskins name (“I think everything’s fine and I’d just stick with the name”) and Griffin’s knee (“They should get him healed up.”). They talked about Auburn’s miraculous win over Alabama, the weekly NFL pool in Ford’s office, and some of his betting philosophies (he doesn’t like dome teams playing in the cold).
Meanwhile, the Canadian media establishment — which Ford has largely bypassed and ignored twice Thursday morning despite shouted questions — continued to listen in. CP24, Toronto’s all-news station, went live with the beginning of the interview and then re-aired sound bites all morning as political reporters live-tweeted highlights.
“Everyone was glued to it, and we’re used to doing that,” Daniel Dale, the acting city hall bureau chief for the Toronto Star, said. “It was mostly softballs, but they did ask him that one important question that he hasn’t answered from us yet. Being a political reporter, I wish they had asked him two or three more. But given that they’re called the Sports Junkies, and given that he just wanted to make his damn NFL picks, I’ll take that piece of news happily.”
By the end of the segment, the five men were fast friends. They agreed Ford would come back to make weekly picks against the Junkies, with chicken wings as possible stakes. He invited them to do a show live from his office. They accepted and plan to follow through.
“I would venture to say we will do a show together with the mayor as long as he’s in office,” Bickel said. “I fully envision us doing a show from his office. He invited us, and I take what this guy said, believe it or not, seriously.”
Meanwhile, loyal listeners continued to send in keepsakes of the day: Al Roker and Willie Geist joking about the show’s name on the “Today” show. The Globe and Mail leading its Web site with the interview. CNN legal correspondent Jean Casarez throwing to audio of Bishop’s exchange with the mayor. Surely this was the biggest moment in Sports Junkies history, yes?
“I would still say our game with the D.C. Divas was our biggest accomplishment,” Flaim said. “We got 8,000 people to come out and watch us play football against girls.”