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Dan Redmond drives an hour and a half from his Chevy Chase apartment to Martinsburg, W.Va., home of WEPM radio. There, for next to no pay, he lets listeners use the one phone line into the puny AM station’s studio to air their views on the sports issues of the day. Redmond, 30, loves the work, trading barbs with Mountaineers fans and Redskins rooters, and he hopes to someday make a living hosting a similar, caller-driven sports-talk show in the D.C. area.
“I know there’s an audience for that sort of show around here, too,” the Rockville native says in earnest tones.
Maybe. But the host who engages his callers the way Redmond aims to do is going the way of the VCR repairman. Sports-radio shows based on audience participation are a dying breed in this market.
Local sports fans have an awful lot to rant and rave about this week. Ranters would fire Steve Spurrier for letting his surroundings dictate his play-calling and for not running on one of the NFL’s sorriest run defenses. And fire Marvin Lewis for letting rumors of a move to Michigan State disrupt the recent progress of the Skins’ defense. And rehire Marty Schottenheimer, whose no-name San Diego Chargers have scored way more points and given up far fewer in his first year than Spurrier’s squad. As for the ravers, well, they’d want to relive Jerry Stackhouse’s game-winning dunk against the Lakers and talk up the Maryland Terrapins for that comeback over N.C. State.
There used to be forums for such rants and raves. Ken Beatrice had a two-decade career just taking calls at area stations. And at its inception in 1992, WTEM-AM, the first all-sports station in the D.C. market, modeled itself after WFAN, a New York juggernaut that depended on local programming and the views of angry or curious listeners.
“The Fan” still depends almost entirely on such programming and its listeners. But for better or worse, in D.C. sports radio, local callers have been all but phased out. Phil Wood’s was the last show host on WTEM to actually have conversations with callers and to feature open-phones portions. When Wood was taken off the air last year, station management was besieged with calls and Web postings from angry listeners. WTEM station manager Bennett Zier, in a broadcast that reeked of phoniness, went on the airwaves one afternoon and implied to the riled-up audience that Wood—and not the station—was responsible for the host’s disappearance.
“I’m hoping Phil will come back,” Zier said, as if he had no power in the matter. Wood was quietly fired some months later.
“I think somewhere along the line, a consultant told [WTEM management] that callers are superfluous,” says Wood when asked about his dismissal. “It’s a lack of respect for what the listener has to say, more than anything else.”
Syndicated programming now takes up 20 hours of WTEM’s daily broadcast schedule. And the shows still produced by the station—The John Thompson Show and The Sports Reporters—never open up the phones.
The only regular caller to the Thompson show, in fact, is Thompson himself. The former Georgetown coach shows up at the station’s studios only infrequently, so his hosting duties are often performed via the telephone, giving the show a cable-access feel. And The Sports Reporters, broadcast two hours on weekday evenings from (usually) the Redskins Store at Fair Oaks Mall and hosted by ubiquitous former Dan Snyder employee Andy Pollin, not only doesn’t feature callers, but barely features reporters.
The station touts its weekly one-hour John Riggins Show as being caller-friendly. A recent installment had Pollin, as co-host, taking the first call for Riggins 51 minutes into the show. The second and final call came two minutes later.
It’s not just WTEM that has moved away from local callers. WOL’s long-running weeknight program The Coach’s Show, hosted by Maret basketball coach Butch McAdams, went to XM Satellite Radio last year. And The Sports Junkies, the buddy act of four jockcentric friends from the Maryland suburbs, slowly devolved from a sports show to a Don and Mike-type zoo during its years on WJFK-FM. (The Culture and Family Institute, a self-styled family-values advocate, lumped the Junkies with the since-banished Opie and Anthony and Howard Stern, while advocating that Dan Snyder take the Redskins broadcasts off WJFK.)
The Junkies’ recent move from evenings at WJFK to the morning drive-time slot on WHFS might well prove to be a boon to their careers. But it also probably means that the quartet will only further reduce the amount of sports content and the number of callers who get on the air.
These trends aren’t lost on Redmond. “Right now, in this market, it’s like there’s one line of thinking, and the stations don’t want to deviate from that line,” he says. “There’s no criticism of the area teams, and that’s because the sports stations now are so tied in with the teams, and they don’t want to let that criticism on the air. It’s like Pravda—all dissent is squashed.”
Redmond does manage to get his dissent on the local airwaves, though it takes phone calls to California to do so: As “Dan in D.C.,” Redmond is an infrequent contributor to The Jim Rome Show. He sometimes uses his appearances on Rome’s show to rail against WTEM management and the station’s on-air talent. For his bashes, the host named Redmond “1st Team All Jungle,” a coveted status among Rome die-hards.
The strategy of slamming the hand most likely to feed you doesn’t seem like a sound one. But Redmond says he has nothing to lose.
“They know me at WTEM—I’ve sent them my tapes and they know about my calls—and they’re not going to hire me,” he says. “I’ve gotten hate e-mails from their people. But there’s other stations in this market, and I think somebody will take the risk and put on a show that opens things up and just lets people speak their minds. I’m sure I’m not the only frustrated sports fan in this area. I’m trying to do something about it.” —Dave McKenna