By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Mike Thompson was a protege of Bigby's in Philadelphia. Two years ago, he moved to Dallas and took over as program director of The Ticket. (Shortly before this story was published, Thompson left The Ticket and took a job at another Philadelphia radio station. KTCK General Manager Dan Bennett says it was a voluntary departure, and that Thompson has been retained as a "consultant" to the station.) When Thompson came to The Ticket, the station was operating under its second owner, SFX Communications, which bought it in March 1995. The station began in January 1994, when Dallas banker Spence Kendrick led an investment group that bought oldies station KAAM and changed the call letters to KTCK. Kendrick's company, Cardinal Communications, sold out to SFX, which in turn sold to Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Broadcasting in May 1996. Susquehanna also owns KLIF-AM and KKZN-FM (The Zone) in Dallas.
Thompson charged into a format that was heavy on straight sports talk and light on entertainment. Dunham and Miller, refugees from sports reporting jobs at KRLD, had been at The Ticket since its beginning. They started as hosts of a midday show. Two other local radio veterans, Rhyner and Williams, were also in on the ground floor. Local sports gadfly Skip Bayless had the early morning slot; Chuck Cooperstein hosted the evening drive show. Both Bayless and Cooperstein were widely respected among their colleagues in the sports media for their knowledge of the business. They could quote stats endlessly and expound on team histories. Callers would trade arcane sports information with them for hours. Rhyner even coined a nickname for Cooperstein--"The Higher Authority."
But Thompson grew impatient with the same old sports talk. He had trained at Bigby's knee, and he wanted shtick. His job as program director required regular criticism of the talent. Of the original group, Dunham and Miller and Rhyner and Williams jumped on board immediately, Thompson says. They mixed sports gab with silly gags, comedy send-ups, and personal revelations ranging from lousy summer vacations to favorite sleeping positions. They were encouraged to talk about their families, their dates, their friendships. (Rhyner, for instance, refers to his wife as "the She Wolf" and his child as "the squid.")
The remaining talent was reluctant to embrace the change. They are no longer with The Ticket. Cooperstein, the most recent casualty, was fired in June.
The Ticket was gradually evolving into one big slumber party, complete with gossip, gab, and prank playing. And Thompson reveled in it.
"We wanted the format to be like talking on one big party line," says the 42-year-old Thompson, a rotund and gregarious veteran of numerous big-market talk stations. "Up until just a few years ago, talk radio wasn't discourse. It was just someone talking at you, droning on with a bunch of boring statistics and inside information. But you know what? People want to listen to somebody they like. They want someone they feel like they can hang with."
The proof, Thompson says, is all in the quarterly Arbitron ratings. The station consistently ranks among the top five stations of male listeners ages 25 to 54. And although Dunham and Miller frequently struggle in that age category to beat out WBAP and KLIF, their strongest competition in the 6 a.m.-to-10 a.m. time slot has always been KEGL-FM, former home of Howard Stern's show.
But when KEGL abruptly yanked Stern from its lineup earlier this summer, the bosses at The Ticket smelled opportunity. Ever since the sudden upset infuriated thousands of Stern fans, The Ticket has been running promotional ads urging the disenchanted masses to come over to the Musers. "The next [Arbitron] book will tell us if we're succeeding," says General Manager Dan Bennett.
And what of women listeners? Where KTCK is concerned, we are what researchers would call "statistically insignificant." In the all-important 25 to 54 age category (you know, the women who actually buy stuff), Dunham and Miller pull a paltry 28th place out of 35 stations. Rhyner and Williams place 29th.
Mike Thompson would like to make me feel better about this, to shine a kinder light on my insignificance.
"Ultimately there will be more women listeners," he says, eagerly. "Our women numbers do go up during football season. This state is just football crazy. The NFL drives this entire market. Even women."
But when I listen to the station's ads, I know better. There are pitches for prostate exams. Hair transplant clinics. And Vigor Fit, an herbal nutritional supplement that Rhyner endorses. He says it "gives you more bounce in the bedroom." I haven't yet heard an ad for penile enlargement surgery, but I'm waiting.
One morning, during a break in the show, Craig Miller puts this whole female-listener jag into perspective for me.
"Our numbers show that we get about one woman listener for every million men. So we have, uh, four women listeners."
God, I love this guy.
You could say that Dunham and Miller are practically joined at the hip. These guys dress alike (except, as Dunham points out, Miller buys Ralph Lauren Polo shirts--with a capital "P"--while Dunham favors generic, small "p" polo shirts). They play golf together. Sometimes they drink beer together. Of course, they use the same Ticket-sanctioned lingo ("shtick," "beaten down," "sorry," "spare," and "whipped," to name a few). They drive the same model car--a Honda Accord sedan. Miller's is midnight blue; Dunham's is burgundy red.