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It’s a memory that’s probably three decades old, but it’s still completely vivid: sitting in the backseat as we crept along in traffic leaving a football game at RFK, the ceiling of the car lit red by brake lights, and a cut-glass Boston accent coming through the car radio. “Like the vast majority of NFL games, this one was nawt won, it was lost.”
Ken Beatrice, the iconic local sports talk host from the era that preceded our current all-sports-all-the-time culture, died at the age of 72 last week due to complications from pneumonia. I was stunned by how much that saddened me, for a few reasons: I hadn’t heard the man’s voice for years, and I hate forced social-media grieving for people who left the public eye years ago; his claim to fame was as a sports talk radio host, and I tend to find myself alternately bored and aggravated by sports talk radio; my fond memories of his show stem from my childhood, and I tend to hate nostalgia’s overpowering influence on sports.
But ever since those postgame traffic jams, Beatrice’s influence has been weirdly omnipresent in my life.
Decades later, when I started working in sports, Beatrice quotes and impressions were my lingua franca, the easiest way to find immediate cultural common ground with other longtime D.C.-area sports enthusiasts. Even now, when my friends and I yap on the phone about local sports drama, probably 85 percent of the conversations start with Beatrice’s signature “You’re next!”
In my mind, Beatrice’s Sports Call show on WMAL (“Foah three two DAH-bull-you em-ay-el is the numbah!”) was a completely different beast from modern sports talk: more staid, more informative, more professional, and somehow kinder.
To make sure my memories were accurate, I reached out to two current sports talkers with local roots to square their recollections with mine.
“Definitely,” ESPN 980’s Kevin Sheehan told me. “Ken entertained you through his encyclopedic knowledge of virtually everything. You can entertain in this business a lot of different ways; the ultimate goal is to be entertaining. Some people are funny, some people are really smart, some people are complete buffoons and that entertains. He was definitely a straightforward guy.”
Grant Paulsen from 106.7 The Fan concurred. “It’s definitely different now,” Paulsen said. “Stylistically, I’d like nothing more than to get on [the air] and break things down, be analytical. But now that ‘guy talk radio’ has gone away, there’s a mold that’s been carved out of sports morphing into guy talk. It’s more entertainment, not just cut-and-dried, straitlaced analytical sports.”
My sense of Beatrice being more staid and informative checked out. So did that ineffable sense of kindness on the other side of the mic: Both Sheehan and Paulsen, separately, reminisced about Beatrice’s rapport with the kids who would call into his show.
“He was the nicest guy ever when kids would call in,” Paulsen said. “Most people wouldn’t accept kid callers. I was always tempted to call in. I didn’t, but I remember I always wanted to, just because he was so nice to kids when they called in whereas a lot of guys just completely yell at them or belittle them.”
Sheehan went even further. “As a kid listening to him, if you called in and you were on hold when the show ended, he would actually call you at your house when the show was over,” Sheehan said. “You’re sitting at the house after the show and the phone rings and it’s Ken Beatrice on the line saying, ‘Hey, Kev! Sorry you didn’t get on, but I just wanted to call.’ And he would sit there and talk to you forever.’”
To me, Beatrice is on a short list of iconic D.C. sports personalities (which I am not going to call a Mount Rushmore, because this is not an ESPN morning show) who laid the foundation not only for the golden era of local sports but for the way we all consume sports every day now: Glenn Brenner and Warner Wolf, the forerunners of the modern jokes-over-highlights approach to TV; George Michael, the godfather of highlight shows; and Beatrice, who demonstrated that talk radio could be resonant while remaining detailed and informative and focused on the actual sports.
If his influence had remained as pronounced on his medium as Brenner’s and Michael’s have been on theirs, I’d probably be listening a lot more today.
Image via Vimeo