Sports Talkby Alan Eisenstock
Their voices explode over the airwaves -- with names like Mike and the Mad Dog, the Stinkin' Genius, Hacksaw, and JT the Brick. They broadcast in drive time and downtime, from rush hour to the dead of night. And yet, millions of fans tune in around the clock to hear their favorite larger-than-life radio personalities rant, rave, critique, predict, and mix it up with callers -- the dedicated fans of sports talk radio.
Never before has this cloistered world opened its doors to a no-holds-barred, behind-the-scenes, full-access look at itself. Noted journalist (and fan) Alan Eisenstock embarks on a journey through the American sports radio landscape and gives readers a front-row seat -- from breakfast at the kitchen table of Eddie Andelman, Boston's godfather of sports radio, to the WFAN commissary with Mike and the Mad Dog in New York; from the plush home game room of Chicago's hot dog-vendor-turned-#1 DJ Mike North to the empty 3 AM studio parking garage with nationally syndicated JT the Brick. Eisenstock goes into the studios, homes, and lives of these and many other of America's hottest and most-listened-to sports talk hosts.
Filled with hilarious and entertaining tales of what makes these hosts tick -- as well as the unbelievable stories of how they got where they are today -- Sports Talk paints a picture the fans never see. Eisenstock shows us the blood, sweat, and tears of program directors with their reputations on the line; hosts searching for career security; and station managers who are always eyeing the bottom line. And, of course, there are stories of the rabid, obsessed, and off-the-wall fans. Whether you're a sports fan or a sports talk junkie, you'll be hooked from the first page.
- Atria Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: how i got hooked on smack
It is November of 1973. I have been living in Los Angeles for barely two months. I am alone most of the time. My wife has just begun a grueling Ph.D. program while I stay home in our small one-bedroom apartment, trying to write screenplays on my IBM Selectric, which rests on a desk made of two black metal file cabinets and a plywood door. To be honest, I spend most of my day reading mystery novels by Robert B. Parker, Michael Z. Lewin, and Loren D. Estleman, featuring lone-wolf detectives who spend their nights trailing beautiful blondes and bad guys into bad neighborhoods, and their days sitting alone in closets doubling as offices, chain-smoking, their hands wrapped around a bottle. I don't smoke or drink hard stuff and I don't know any blondes or bad guys. But I know the night.
And so I drive, cruising Sunset and Wilshire and Olympic and losing myself in the voices of the darkness. The voices that pour out of the car radio.
I have heard these voices all my life, beginning when I was a boy. They were the companions who calmed my night fears. They were the voices of DJs like Crazy Joey Reynolds, who once locked himself in his studio and played "'Til There Was You" over and over, for four hours straight, while he honked aah-ohh-gah horns, rang cowbells, and cracked jokes in the background. What thrilled me was how Reynolds broke the rules. He was daring and irreverent, and what resulted was nothing less than theater of the mind.
Even before Crazy Joey, there was baseball, where long luxurious pauses in the action allowed my imagination to soar. Although I lived in New England, Red Sox territory, the powerful night signal from New York brought me the sound of the Yankees. Mel Allen, all Southern comfort, unconditionally in love with the Bronx Bombers, midnight pitchman for Ballantine beer and White Owl cigars, described the Yankees in his honey-soaked tenor: "How about that?" and "It's going, going gone!" Phil Rizzuto, known as the Scooter, the former vacuum cleaner of a shortstop, he of the timely hit and high-pitched chatter, jabbered happily alongside Mel. What a team they made! At ten, as I snuggled in bed, Mel and the Scooter visited me through a clunky brown console perched on my nightstand. I closed my eyes and was transported out of my room like the boy in Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, afloat over a magical baseball diamond, envisioning my own lush green field of dreams. Mel Allen is gone now, a victim of the bottle, murderer of many a night owl. Rizzuto is still part of the Yankee broadcast crew, but I've heard that lately the Scooter has started to slow down. On a recent TV telecast, sitting next to Bill White, a thin, sturdy former Yankee himself, Scooter looked directly into the camera and, obviously reading cue cards, said with a smile, "Hello, everybody, and welcome to another big Yankee game. I'm Bill White."
In '73, as I creep across the night streets of L.A., I swivel my head at each corner, peering for evidence of nightlife, of any life. There are 3 million souls in this tinsel city but not one single person on the streets. A deserted, empty urban terrain. Dark, eerie, and cool. Cooler than you'd expect. The smog has lifted but the emptiness leaves you with a chill. It's just past ten, but as I crawl through a green light, the only car on Pico Boulevard heading downtown, it feels like it's last call and the city is closing down.
I flick the knobs on the radio of my humpbacked, baby blue AMC Gremlin, blinking my eyes, looking for voices, hearing...a comforting drone...unbelievably...
Grinning at me through the chrome glow of the dash. Six feet six, black wavy hair sculpted backward into a ducktail, guy looking like a "hitter" in Dodger blue, a lilting monotone in a slow, flat Sacramento drawl as he takes a call. Drysdale, the intimidator, who insisted that you have to pitch inside, that if a guy goes deep on you, you throw at him next time, bury one in his side, is now nice as can be, a voice beaming warmly at you, like a host at a sedate dinner party offering to take your coat.
"Big D, this is Cal from Long Beach," a caller offers up, his voice a nasal crackle right down the middle.
"What's on your mind, Cal?" Big D asks, pleasant, inviting, the perfect gentleman, no glower in his voice, no effort to intimidate, every effort to accommodate. This is Dodger Talk, where you get to talk one-on-one with Big D. What a thrill. What an honor.
"Well..." Cal from Long Beach launches into a stammer. He swallows, wanting to dislodge the something on his mind. Then a deep breath and with a whoosh: "I think we need a new manager. We have the goods Cey, Sutton, Buckner, Lopes, and this kid Garvey but Walter Alston is "
"Now hold on there, Cal," Drysdale says, his voice rising a little. This caller is out of line. This caller has to be told.
"You have to understand the game, Cal," Big D says, steady. No high hard one, but smoke on the inside corner, a lesson. "Walt Alston has been managing a long long time. He knows his players better than anyone, believe you me. If ever there was a manager who deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, Walter would be it. His experience, I mean, the word genius "
"Well," Cal the Caller says.
I'm tooling back on Franklin, slow, like an unmarked car looking for suspects. I turn the radio up. I'm looking for drama in the dark.
"Still" Cal swallows "I think the game might have passed "
I don't hear the rest. No one does. Big D has shut him down, gone for the seven-second delay. Did the caller curse or did he just kick metaphorical dirt on Big D's cleats? We'll never know because true to Dodger Talk, true to all sports talk, Drysdale dodges controversy. Sidesteps it like a mound of dog shit on the sidewalk. But gracefully. Without missing a step. This is 1973. The voices through the radio are soothing, agreeable, smooth, melodious. Talk Muzak.
"And now let's talk to Phil from Whittier. Hey, Phil, you're on with Big D..."
No mention of Cal from Long Beach. He's long gone, slain, a victim of stepping out of bounds. It's oddly unsettling to me. I wanted to hear Cal and Big D get it on. Wanted to hear them rumble. I remember Joey Reynolds and the chances he took and how thrilling it was to be a witness to his free-form radio experiment. Pissed, unrequited, I slam my foot down on the accelerator, hang a right toward Sunset, angling onto the Strip. I hit a light, cool my heels. Trying to find my balance in this new town, this new life.
My hand slides onto the radio tuner. I've heard enough of Drysdale and Dodger Talk. I search for night sounds, something more meaningful. Find it.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely...
Night falls the next day at five o'clock. A cool clean late-afternoon breeze. I leave the apartment windows open, soaking in the black night air. I've hammered out a couple of scenes to a screenplay, read them over carefully, balled them up, and slam-dunked them into the trash. I've air-guitared a riff to Captain Fantastic and collapsed onto the secondhand couch, my cat Lou curled up with me, a mystery novel his pillow, his motor rumbling in my lap like a semi.
I want to hear voices. The TV is not my friend. Too self-centered, too demanding. Maybe later I'll be in the mood. Find a good trashy made-for-TV movie, hopefully something with Linda Blair. Right now I feel like bullshitting about sports. I want to escape. Get lost in a discussion of football or basketball. I wouldn't mind a little sports emoting either, the kind you read in columns by the hilarious Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times or the always steady Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated. I'd even give an opinion if I could, invisible in the womblike sanctity of the dark. I reach over and absently tune to KABC, home of Dodger Talk, and "sophisticated talk of Los Angeles."
And I hear it.
Not an echo but a scream.
A voice with the consistency of sandpaper. A guttural celebration of phlegm. The voice of a man who sounds as if he's just staggered into the studio from a barstool.
"Look at it this way," the voice wheezes. "All you people out there, get it straight. It goes like this. Life is a department store and sports is the toy department."
I sit up. My cat hops off my lap.
"My name is Ed Beiler," the voice through the radio roars. "I know that doesn't mean anything to you right now. So let me tell you who I really am. I am your voice, the voice of the fan, the everyday Joe who can't afford a, a, a fancy box seat at the ballpark, who sits in the bleachers with a, a, a beer and a hot dog and shouts bloody murder from the first pitch to the last out because...I paid for my ticket and I am entitled! That's right! I'm the guy who boos the umpire when he makes a, a, a lousy call. I'm the guy sitting behind you who screams like hell when a Dodger player boots a routine grounder or turns an easy fly ball into an adventure. I am also the first guy on my feet when Davey Lopes steals a, a, a base, when Don Sutton strikes out the other team's best hitter, and when Steve Garvey hits one out of the park! I am your best friend and management's worst nightmare! I am...Superfan!"
"I'm the guy who's ticked off at the prices you have to pay to see a Los Angeles Rams football game or a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. I'm the guy who is ticked off at how much you have to pay for a Dodger dog. I don't like owners who charge too much, coaches who make bonehead decisions and play the wrong guys, and players who make more money than I'll ever make in my life and cry about it. If you're like me, you got a lot on your chest. So let's talk about it, folks. Come on. Call me up. I'm gonna be here every afternoon from now on to take your calls. I'm not a radio DJ or a, a, a former player or anything like that. I, am, you."
I am hallucinating. I must be. Superfan? On KABC, the home of sophisticated talk...?
"Yeah? Supe?" The caller sounds like he's at a construction site.
"What do you think of Alston? Isn't it time for a change?"
"Heck yeah!" Superfan bellows. "Walter Alston is old. He used to be old and good. Now he's just old! Too old to manage the Dodgers. The team should be looking elsewhere. He's had a great run, done a lotta good things, but the Dodgers need someone who can communicate with the younger players. Throw him a nice farewell party, give him a, a, a gold watch and retire his jersey, give him a free pass to Cooperstown, because he belongs there, but let's move on."
I turn the radio up.
"Okay, let's take another call. Ron from Glendale. You're on with Superfan."
"Hey, Superfan! This is great! What do you think of the Rams?"
"The Rams? I think you mean the Lambs, don'tcha? They stink!"
And so it goes. For two straight hours, the man called Superfan rants, rages, screams, shouts, whines, taunts, and wails. He hangs up on callers and hollers at players. He challenges owners to call him and explain where they get the cojones to charge obscene ticket prices and virtually eliminate the very fan who made them rich. It is astonishing radio. It is both fresh and a little bit frightening. I feel like I'm overhearing a drunk in a bar screaming and slurring his opinions until he either throws a punch or passes out. On the radio, Superfan is the vocal equivalent of a train wreck. I know I should turn the dial, but I just can't take my ears off him.
The next day, a Tuesday, I tune into KABC just before five and settle in with a beer and a bag of chips, the perfect Superfan snack. No way I'm boiling up a pot of chamomile tea while I listen to this guy. Bill Ballance, the host right before Supe, intros him curtly, then grudgingly reveals that all of Superfan's phone lines are lit up, blazing. Callers are backed up, on hold, waiting like they're on line to get Springsteen tickets. If he notices, Superfan doesn't let on. He just wants to pick up his rave where he left off.
"Hey, everybody, it's me again. Superfan! We gotta talk. I wanna talk about the ugliest eyesore in town. The biggest pit. The absolute worst, the poorest excuse for a, a, a stadium in the world. But what choice do we have, folks, if we wanna see a professional football game? In Cleveland they have the Mistake by the Lake. We have the Screw-Up by USC. I'm talking about the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum! Have you been there? What a joke. First of all, I don't know about you, but I can only afford the cheap seats. But I love football. So I went to the game Sunday. You know where I sat? In the very last row! Have you ever sat in the, the, the last row? Huh? Lemme tell you something about sitting in the last row of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. You can't see the game! You are a million miles up! You look down and the players look like, like, like a buncha ants wearing football helmets! You know what? I want my money back! I'll tell you what else. We oughta find the right politicians, call them up, and tell them this: tear down that pit and build us a new stadium! We deserve it! What do you think? Huh? Call me! Get it off your chest, folks! This is where you can let off steam. Right here. On my show. Because, remember, I, am, you! And I am...Superfan!"
I feel as if I have been slammed backward into the wall by a blast of gale-force wind. I remember Big D from the other night, recall his solemn devotion to the Dodgers, and it feels like a dream.
Now, every afternoon, with increasing arrogance and assurance, Superfan booms his broadcast through my twin KLH speakers standing guard on either side of my bricks-and-boards bookcase. Listening to him is my new ritual; he becomes a legend in my living room. In the real world, in the world that tracks his dollars-and-cents success, his first ratings come out. The L.A. radio community is stunned. Superfan owns the afternoon drive-time slot. Sports columnists and TV pundits don't know what to make of him. We, the legion of his followers, don't care. Hell, we're not even sure we like him. We certainly don't always agree with him. But we always, always tune in.
I wonder if he is unique. I wonder if other markets across the country have their own Superfans. I call around. Talk to friends in Detroit. Pittsburgh. The Bay Area. Nothing like him anywhere. Finally, I speak to a friend in Boston. No broadcasting barkeep like Supe in Beantown, but there is something else. Every night from seven until eleven. Three guys who talk sports, with an edge. The Sports Huddle.
My friend sends me a tape and a picture of the Huddle. Two balding guys with narrow arrogant smiles flank a beefy, dark-haired guy with thick black geeky glasses that make him look like a welder. This man, the one in the middle, is the legendary Eddie Andelman. He sits behind a WEEI microphone and wears a major shit-eating grin. Sports radicals. I know I'm going to like this. The tape is a mishmash of hilarious arguments, outrageous one-liners, and prank phone calls, including a call to room service at Howard Cosell's hotel in Detroit during which Andelman orders a double prune juice straight, no chaser for Cosell's breakfast. The Huddlers make no bones about it: they rifle the sports pages in search of the punch line. They're intelligent and shameless, the Firesign Theatre of sports.
At one point, they talk about the America's Cup, the most important yachting race in the world. The Cup had been won most recently by Australia, but this year yachting mavens believe that the Americans have an excellent chance of bringing the Cup back home.
"Who cares?" one of the Huddle guys howls on the tape. "I mean, the America's Cup? This is a sport? This is a waste of everybody's time."
"I don't know," one of the other Huddle guys says. "I think it's us. I'm sure the America's Cup is a big deal everywhere else in the country. We're just in the minority."
In the background a phone rings as the guys place a call.
"Who you calling?"
"I'm calling a Mr. Stevens, who is a forest ranger at station number eleven in...I can't read this, I think it says Hairy Knuckle, Texas. Can that be right?"
"Why are we calling this guy?"
"Testing your theory."
A voice dipped in brine. A Lyndon Johnson soundalike.
"Sir, we're calling from WEEI radio in Boston, Massachusetts. We want to get your opinion on the big upcoming sporting event this weekend. You're on the air. Okay?"
"Well, I guess "
"Great. So who are you picking in the America's Cup?"
"The America's Cup. Who do you like?"
"I'm not familiar "
"You rooting for the white guy in the blue yachting cap or the Caucasian in the blue yachting cap?"
"Or the blue guy in the Caucasian yachting cap?"
"Caucasian? Oh, we're talking golf "
High-pitched, contagious laughter, mine and from the guys of the Sports Huddle, drown him out.
Months go by. I flip the radio dial. I hear sports being talked about, usually right before or right after the Lakers, Dodgers, and Rams games. Team house men and station shills humming along.
You gotta love the Dodgers' chances this year Lakers looking good every player on the same page very positive attitude in the locker room clubhouse dugout hum hum hum...
But in the afternoon on KABC, seven ninety on your radio dial, Superfan rails against the rickety bleacher seats in the Coliseum left over from the 1936 Olympics; inconvenient, unsafe, and overpriced parking; concession stands located too far from your seats serving lousy, overpriced food; and overpriced crybaby players caring more about their stats and their salaries than winning a ball game. He shouts down anyone who disagrees with him; he blathers, bellows, and brays. Okay, it's one note. But it's a high note. A helluva high note.
Then two unexpected things happen.
First, I get a job.
A guy reads a screenplay I wrote, passes it on to another guy, who hands it off to Carol Burnett's husband, Joe Hamilton, who happens to be the executive producer of a one-hour Smothers Brothers television special. I am hired as a writer for the show. Which means, gulp, I have to leave my house.
I adjust. For the next several months I am crammed in a small conference room with Tom and Dick Smothers and ten other comedy writers who scream sketch ideas at the top of their lungs and desperately try to be funnier than everyone else in the room. We break for lunch at noon, go to a famous Beverly Hills hangout, bitch about the business and the Brothers Smothers, and try to be funnier than everyone else in the restaurant. I leave the office after seven each night. I've got a migraine from the smoke and the tension and the junk food and the flying one-liners, some of which hit me head-on, most of which just graze my scalp. I can use a friendly, soothing voice. I punch in KABC but I'm too late. Superfan's show is over. He is done for the day, no doubt wobbling back to his barstool. I'm surprised at how disappointed I feel. Is it possible that I actually...miss him? On my way home, or on my way downtown to have dinner with my wife, I tune my car radio to a game, jazz, NPR, or slide in a tape, Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, The Police. It's a settle. I want to unwind with Superfan.
In spring of 1974, the Smothers job ends. I am back home, unemployed, scratching my cat's back, catching up on the new Parker. At five o'clock there is nothing but sun. The night is a season and a lifetime away. But it's okay. I take my chances, indoors, with the radio. I tune in Superfan.
And hear unexpected thing number two.
He's not there.
In his place are two second-string baseball announcers politely taking phone calls in an even more sanitized version of Dodger Talk, if that's possible. Where is he? Where is Superfan?
I find out a week or so later.
He's in jail.
Busted by the IRS for fraud. Something to do with an illegal trucking operation. The word racketeering is thrown around. The charge seems bogus to me, trumped up. They got Supe because he told it like it is. Locked him up because he took on the sports establishment. Threw him in the slammer because of his big mouth. A few days later, I find out that this is his second tour of duty. KABC not only hired a virgin broadcaster, they hired a convicted felon.
The afternoons go by in slow motion. The boring baseball guys are replaced by a hideous sports call-in show hosted by a human sleeping pill nicknamed The Steamer. Maybe because they can't find anyone better, or they just give up, the station leaves The Steamer on the air. Weeks later, I learn that the ratings in Superfan's old time slot have plummeted. I, too, feel myself falling into a void.
I miss Superfan's rants. I miss his passion. I miss his convoluted opinions. I even miss his volume. I know he's not clever or subtle enough to inspire a dialogue of any intelligence or insight. I know I'm not really challenged or engaged. In fact, I'm provoked and often annoyed. I know all this. But Superfan was instinctive enough to say the harsh, honest things about sports that smarter, slicker, and more melodic voices were too afraid or too blind to utter.
Man, I got the itch.
I hear the hum; I want the buzz.
And then, miraculously, he's back. Just like that. Four and a half months into his jail sentence, he's let out on parole to do his radio show. Nodding off to The Steamer one day, I hear simply, "Hello, everybody. It's time to reopen the toy department."
I sit up.
"I done my time."
Pause. A sniffle.
"Ahhh. Sometimes ya gotta let it out."
Superfan. A super fan and a sensitive man.
"I made a, a, a mistake. Big time. I got mixed up in some, some, some things. Ran around with the wrong crowd. I've suffered. My family's suffered. My bosses here have, have, have suffered..."
"Okay. Enough. I just want to say thank you to KABC for letting me back on the air. And I want to tell you no, I want to promise you all of you, that that part of my life is behind me. Yep. That is a promise. So let's take some phone calls and get back to what it is we're here for...sports! Let's talk to Jim in Van Nuys! Yo, Jim!"
"Supe! Great to have you back!"
"Great to be back, Jim."
"Hey, about those Dodgers, did you see the game last night?"
"See it? I was there! Talk about no clue! What was Alston thinking? He leaves the, the, the guy in? A blind man could see that Messersmith was done, cooked! Your pitcher's arm is hanging like a wet noodle, you got a, a, a lefty batter coming up, you bring in your lefty! Managing one oh one!"
Superfan's voice rises in indignation. I envision him thumping his chest in triumph, released for good behavior into the recognizance of his program director. I picture prison guards and parole officers getting choice box seats during the pennant drive. I see the warden sharing the owner's box during the World Series. I guess my two months in show business have made me cynical. Superfan's return reeks of a superstar's preferential treatment, a backroom deal.
A few callers express this opinion. Supe cuts them off, changes the subject. His stammer becomes more pronounced. His anger boils. He is clearly thrown by those who don't welcome him back, don't want him back.
"Can you believe that guy? Listen, pal, you don't like that I'm back, fine, but don't call my show with that, that, that crap. I suppose you're a perfect citizen, right? Huh? None of us is perfect. None a you is perfect. How about this? Call me up if you're perfect, if you never made a mistake. Awright? Huh? Now let's get back to the phones..."
Supe's off and running, but not without his share of sidestepping and backpedaling. He is a brawler, though. No surrender in him. I can hear him in clinches with callers, on the defensive, hanging on, desperate for this round to end.
The negative calls keep coming the next day. Superfan's screeners are ready. They shoot most of them down before they hit the air. Supe himself is uncharacteristically subdued. He seems less interested in mouthing off, and more interested in being indignant. He raps now, incoherently, about sports and life, bleating about society. He's out of his league.
"Stick to sports," I say into my radio. "Rant about the Dodgers' weird play at the plate last night."
But he doesn't. I'm not sure what Superfan is talking about anymore. I tune him in each afternoon, but what I hear is pure babble. Maybe the shock of the talk has worn off. Maybe I have spent so much time with my ears glued to Superfan that I've been dragged below the surface. The surface, unfortunately, is pretty thin. Superfan is loud and obnoxious, the guy behind you at the game, screaming at every batter who comes up. But like the guy behind you, by about the third inning, the screaming gets old.
I have an option. I can turn him off. Which is what I do. Instantly, the two hours between five and seven become found time. I work, take up running, and am even inspired, on occasion, to cook dinner. My head feels surprisingly clear. I am drawn back into music. When I crave talk on the radio, I find myself listening to All Things Considered on our local public radio station. After a couple of months, I become a subscriber.
One afternoon, bored stiff by a report about new forms of edible algae found on the ocean floor, I fall off the wagon. Fondling the free coffee cup I'd received for sending in my twenty bucks to the NPR pledge drive, I switch back to Superfan.
He's on a mission. A suicide mission.
"Have you ever really tasted a Dodger dog? Have you? Do it. I dare you! Hold the pickle, hold the relish, hold the mustard, no chili, no ketchup, no bun! Just eat the damn hot dog! You know what? It's garbage! Everyone loves 'em and I don't know why. I'm stumped. Now, I'm a big man! I love to eat! I eat all kinds of, of, of garbage, all kinds of, of, of crap! But I will not eat a Dodger dog! No way, no how, no sir! You could put a gun to my head and I will not do it! I'll tell you why. I wanna know what's in those things! Beef? Pork? Meat and meat by-products? Wood shavings off the floor? Animal droppings? What? I'm afraid to think about it! I am going to do all of southern California a big favor. I am going to make those rich owners, the people who sell us Dodger dogs, replace them with something edible! I want all-beef franks! That's the least they can do! I guarantee you that Peter O'Malley, and all the rich guys up there looking down on us pee-ons, don't eat Dodger dogs! No way! I bet they're laughing like hell at us while they're sitting in their box seats, sipping their champagne and, and, and eating their roast beef sandwiches! I promise you they are not eating them disgusting Dodger dogs!"
Well, in fact, they were. And like most of the fifty thousand plus fans at each game, loving them. To KABC management and the owners of the Dodgers, Superfan had gone too far. Disrespecting them was one thing; disrespecting Dodger dogs was a sacrilege.
In short, Dodger ownership and KABC management had heard enough. I thought Supe's harangue against Dodger dogs was classic, vintage Superfan. But KABC fired him on the grounds of a conflict of interest. Apparently, he had been warned previously and repeatedly. This recent rant was part of an ongoing campaign against the unfortunate, unsuspecting wiener. It was the last straw. Superfan was kicked off the air without ever having the chance to say good-bye.
Once I knew he was gone for good, I spun the radio dial feebly in a halfhearted effort to find him again. I heard voices in the early morning, late afternoon, and into the night, baritoned stoners introducing acid rock, sultry seductresses breathily announcing freeway pile-ups, and a bunch of screamers trying to be funny. This was 1974. Howard Stern was still in college, Don Imus was not yet clean and sober, and Rush Limbaugh hadn't been invented yet.
As Superfan vanished, sports talk radio took a deep breath. The genre needed to examine itself. Programmers needed to find out what their audiences wanted. They knew their listeners wanted serious stuff scores, stats, highlights, and analysis. But sports freaks didn't really want to hear oddball personalities and their crazy opinions, did they? They certainly didn't want to mix sports with humor. And they definitely didn't want to combine shock talk with sports talk.
We know now that audiences wanted all of it, all the time, twenty-four hours a day.
No one knows what became of Superfan. There are rumors that he went back to his original career, selling liquor to wholesalers, or that he became a bartender. There is also a rumor that he died.
A few years after Superfan's last broadcast, I lie in bed, bleary-eyed, channel surfing with my remote. I breeze by a local eleven-o'clock newscast. The anchors are stereotypes: a white male with a chiseled chin and a mane of perfect white hair camped next to a bubbly black woman wearing eye makeup that looks like it was put on with a roller. They are laughing hysterically. When did the news become so funny?
Catching their collective breath, they introduce a new sports guy who's subbing for their regular sports guy who's covering the Lakers downtown. The sub sports guy is a wide truck- driver type, short, stubby, thick around the neck. Stuffed into his pants is a gut much more accustomed to pancakes than sit-ups. His face is flat and ruddy, his hair close-cropped army-style. Pockmarks dot his skin. He looks a little like Robert Parker, the mystery writer, whose books have sustained me through many a dark and lonely night.
The sports guy starts to talk, and within three seconds I know who he is. His voice gives him away.
It is none other than Superfan.
As proof, the words "Ed 'Superfan' Beiler" appear superimposed beneath his formidable skull. Supe peers uncomfortably into the camera and reads the sports scores haltingly: "The a, a, a, Dodgers beat the Pirates tonight over at the Stadium, five to a, a, a, three..."
It's obvious that Superfan has a face made for radio. He has no business here. Who was the genius who thought he would work on television? Maybe he needs the money and someone is cutting him a break. I stare, pained, praying for the sportscast to end.
He finishes his report. His forehead is swimming in sweat. His cheeks are deep crimson, two shades short of a stroke. The two chuckling, oblivious news anchors press on, trying to entrap the former Superfan into an opinion.
I can't watch. I want Superfan to stay tucked in the corner of my memory alongside those thrilling moments of radio that reside there still several World Series and playoff broadcasts, DJs going off the deep end, live coverage of news events that became theater of the ear such as Watergate, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and Bush vs. Gore at the Supreme Court.
Today, nearly thirty years after Superfan's first blast on the radio, I am still obsessed with sports and addicted to smack, loosely translated as sports trash talk. But the phenomenon of sports talk radio would not exist without Superfan.
The book that follows is a journey, a trip through time and space and countless hours of conversation. The journey represents a year of travel and discovery. I trekked through the studios and control rooms of some of the craziest, most respected, and most popular sports talk radio hosts around, including Mike and the Mad Dog, the number-one sports radio team in the country, broadcasting on WFAN, the number-one billing station in the world. I was welcomed into the lives of radio legends and spurned by one of the biggies, Jim Rome (the man who coined the term smack). In addition to hanging out with the hosts, I hung with their program directors, producers, engineers, screeners, Update-and-Flash guys, wives, children, pets, and neighbors. I had coffee and dinner with some of their most notorious callers. The result is a fan's notes, a character study, or more correctly, a study of characters.
It is, most of all, a book of voices, the voices I hear.
One voice, the loudest voice, echoes throughout the book. It belongs to Arnie Spanier, the Stinkin' Genius. Arnie is not yet rich or famous or held in high esteem by his colleagues or critics. But as one sports talk radio host said, "Arnie is there, at the four-star restaurant, waiting for his table."
Arnie is also a typical middle-class American, busting his hump every day, fighting the good fight, struggling to make a living and provide for his family. He just happens to have an atypical job in a fierce and fickle business, an industry that relies on scrutiny and stealth and that believes, as another talk show host told me, "You're nobody unless you've been fired."
As the book unfolds, Arnie finds himself in a make-or-break situation. If things go well, he will be a hero. If not, he becomes the goat. How it all turns out is part of the story.
But why Arnie?
I think because he reminds me of someone else, another voice in another time, clear but distant, the voice that started it all for me thirty years ago. The voice that got me hooked on smack.
The voice of Superfan.
Except now his name is the Stinkin' Genius.
Copyright © 2001 by Alan Eisenstock
Meet the Author
Alan Eisenstock, a sports talk radio fan since the early 1970s, is the co-author of Inside the Meat Grinder: An NFL Official's Life in the Trenches. His numerous television writing credits include Married...With Children, Mork and Mindy, Sanford and Son, Family Matters, What's Happening, and The Nanny. He lives with his family in southern California.
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I know hacksaw