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Local talk radio took a U-turn back toward the tedious on Friday the 13th. Management at WTEM pulled the plug on Kiley & Booms, the only daily show that let sports fans act like sports fans.

Both Kevin Kiley and Chuck Booms, who replaced Tony Kornheiser in WTEM’s evening drive-time slot a year ago, claim the dismissals came as a shock. Just after the pair wrapped up what would be their last show by telling the audience “See you next week,” program director Tod Castleberry joined Booms for the elevator ride downstairs. At the studio door, Castleberry stopped small-talking to let Booms in on a company secret.

“By the way, you no longer work here,” Castleberry said, according to Booms. Castleberry, now accompanied by two very large underlings, then demanded Booms’ keys to the studio. Booms wasn’t even permitted to go back upstairs to commiserate with Kiley, his suddenly former partner, who was being given his walking papers at the same time.

“They got me out of the building like I was ticking,” Booms tells me. The comment sends Kiley, who generally played straight man to Booms’ lunatic ranter, into a laughing fit.

“Geez, what a great line!” howls Kiley. “Where the hell was that line when we needed it? Maybe we’d still have work.”

The pair hasn’t been laughing much since Friday, however. According to both ex-employees, Catherine Meloy, senior vice president and general manager of WTEM, had assured them just days earlier that the show was doing well—”spiking,” in radio parlance—and had even begun discussing extending the hosts’ contracts. (Booms’ deal would have expired in a matter of weeks; Kiley’s, early next year.)

Even beyond Arbitron and the Beltway, there was evidence that the duo’s act was being noticed: They’d been flown out to Los Angeles together last month to audition with Paramount, which is developing a sports-talk show for late-night television. And earlier on the very day they got canned, MSNBC had invited both to appear on Laura Ingraham’s morning chat show, Watch It. (MSNBC rescinded the invitation after the firings.)

Meloy, however, claims that long before fateful Friday she’d determined that things weren’t going swimmingly enough. The decision to kill Kiley & Booms, she says, was made “over a period of weeks and months.” The Arbitron numbers were never sufficient, she says, and, combined with contractual considerations, made the terminations a sound business decision.

Meloy’s premeditation sure appeared clear the morning after the firings, in the Washington Post Sports section. Though the bodies were still warm, the paper not only reported on the dismissals, but also ran WTEM’s revamped lineup in its entirety.

“We were able to get that notice into [the Post after deadline] because we have a very strong relationship with Len Shapiro,” Meloy says, referring to the paper’s sports-media critic. Shapiro frequently used his column to nitpick Kiley & Booms while pumping up the radio exploits of Post colleague Kornheiser, who will now re-assume the evening drive-time spot in WTEM’s lineup. Kornheiser will be aired on tape delay in that time slot, just as he was a year ago when WTEM management pulled the plug on him. For conspiracy buffs, Meloy adds that Shapiro had zero impact on the station’s decision to get Kornheiser back in drive time.

WTEM has hired no new on-air talent to replace Kiley or Booms, and there are no plans to do so, Meloy says. At one time, the station offered locally produced programming around the clock. Now, at least 15 hours per day, including both drive-time periods, are devoted to syndicated shows. (Kornheiser moved to ESPN after WTEM yanked his show.) Despite appearances to the contrary, Meloy, who also runs oldies station WBIG, vehemently denies that WTEM is in full cost-cutting mode in hopes of making the station more attractive to potential buyers.

“In no way is WTEM for sale,” she says.

In any case, the ax fell so hard and swift on Kiley and Booms that neither had the opportunity to bid farewell to the show’s increasingly faithful audience. While essentially every media type in D.C. treats local sports figures—players, coaches, owners—with as much reverence as towel boys would, Booms, a comic by trade, used to rip into deserving louts from the Wizards and Redskins and Orioles as if they’d interrupted his stand-up act. The way a real sports fan would, in other words.

Early in his WTEM career, Booms’ ceaseless defamation of Chris Webber’s character—if that’s not an oxymoron—made for great listening.

“I take great personal pride in running Webber out of town,” Booms says. “I didn’t know I’d be following him on the next train.”

And when players and teams did their fans right, Booms showed he could cheer as hard as he jeered. He propped up the Capitals as Stanley Cup contenders and tried to get listeners and callers fired up about hockey and the team well before last year’s incredible playoff run commenced and everybody else with a microphone jumped on the bandwagon. (That on-air zeal was no doubt what scared Castleberry into bringing two heavies with him when handing Booms the pink slip.)

Kiley’s job was to maintain order during Booms’ tirades, but on most recent Mondays that just wasn’t possible. Booms’ deportment was typical the day after the woeful Skins dropped into a prevent defense with the lead and 35 seconds to go against the Cardinals, then dropped the game on a last-second field goal: In a 20-minute diatribe, he called for Mike Nolan, the man behind the Redskins’ bottom-feeding defense, to “show some pride” and resign. And if Nolan wouldn’t resign, Booms railed, then John Kent Cooke should stop taking the fans for granted and step up and fire Nolan. Or Norv Turner. Or Charley Casserly. Or, best yet, all of the above.

If nothing else, Booms’ passion was breathtaking. And it found an audience. Callers spent the next two-and-a-half hours thanking Booms for echoing their sentiments about the home team, when nobody else at WTEM shows (including Kiley, for that matter) or anywhere else in town would.

“I feel most sorry for myself and Kevin, because I thought we did a great job, but I also feel sorry for sports fans in this town,” Booms says. “When the Skins lose again, and again, what is this supposed sports station giving them? It’s giving them Tony Kornheiser calling out bingo numbers on tape. That’s sports radio? It’s embarrassing, is what it is.”

On the first Monday after the terminations, WTEM debuted its new lineup. Rich Cook, a longtime staffer with no hosting experience, was thrown into the air chair for the morning show. “The Redskins are going to run the table,” Cook blathered, without irony, less than 10 minutes into his first show. “Here you have a team that is peaking at the right time.”

Oh, geez. Where’s that oldies station?—Dave McKenna