Talking up The Ticket

Or: Why The Fake Johnny Oates is better than the real thing

Until today, the weather had been warm in Port Charlotte, Florida, temperatures reaching into the lower 80s, the wind barely existent, humidity thick during the wee small hours. But this morning, especially through press-box windows that open to reveal a neatly trimmed baseball diamond below, the air is dry, crisp, and brisk at Charlotte County Stadium.

George Dunham--one-half of Dunham and Miller, KTCK-AM (1310)'s morning show--refers to it as the "ill wind" blowing through the Texas Rangers' spring training. "Can you feel the ill wind?" he asks repeatedly, even addressing the question to Rangers pitcher Rick Helling, who responds: "Uh, not really."

It is 6 a.m. Central Standard Time on March 8, and Dunham and partner Craig Miller are only 30 minutes into their first broadcast of spring training. Miller is in the middle of a story about hotel accommodations and sleeping arrangements when he and Dunham get word over their headphones that the inevitable has happened. They are told that Joe DiMaggio, New York Yankees great and the man who always insisted on being called the "greatest living ballplayer," has died at the age of 84.

The news does not come as a great surprise; it's more of a relief than anything else, DiMaggio's long battle with cancer finally over.

So, for all of 43 seconds, the hosts of The Ticket's morning show talk about DiMaggio's death.

Then it's back to stories about snoring and how the sound of the television makes it hard for "Junior" Miller to fall asleep. It's a transition so jarring that even one of their own can't help but notice.

"That's what's wrong with The Ticket right there," mutters Gordon Keith, the voice behind such impressions as The Fake Johnny Oates and The Fake Randy Galloway. Keith, who doesn't even like sports, is only joking--his comments go out over the air. But he knows the station will get some grief over the lack of proper respect paid DiMaggio's death. It wouldn't be the first time in the station's five years of existence that someone accused the sports talk station of paying short shrift to...well, sports.

Miller tries a few minutes later to engage his partner in a conversation about DiMaggio, and for a few moments, they half-heartedly argue about whether DiMaggio was the greatest living American sports hero. But no one seems terribly interested. Instead, the two would rather talk about how Dunham forgot to pack underwear for his trip to spring training.

DiMaggio's death is relegated to Keith's regular "Muse in the News" segment, lumped in with director Stanley Kubrick's demise one day earlier. And then, Keith suggests that DiMaggio, who "used to be a baseball player of some sort," died as the result of a "murder-suicide pact" with Kubrick. It is rather funny--and the very reason Dunham and Miller still get e-mails lambasting them for being nothing more than Howard Stern knockoffs.

A few minutes after this broadcast ends, Craig Miller sits in the press box and wonders if maybe he and Dunham didn't make a mistake by spending more time talking about underpants than about DiMaggio. Indeed, that's all Dunham and Miller think about for the rest of the day: How did we let that get by us?

"I think we really dropped the ball there," Dunham says with a shrug. "I went back to the hotel and watched all the retrospective pieces on DiMaggio and thought, 'We didn't do that with the proper respect, especially for the all-sports station.' Sometimes we do get too caught up in what we're doing as much as what's going on around us."

If nothing else, he figures, Greg Williams and Mike Rhyner, hosts of The Hardline, will talk about it during their 3-7 p.m. show. Williams and Rhyner are both baseball fanatics--that, and they have to figure out where DiMaggio's death fits into their regular "trifecta watch," a feature built around the fact that celebrity deaths come in threes.

It's little wonder that even now, some Ticket staffers wonder if they're perceived as "nonprofessional" (in Miller's words) by their peers.

"It's not like we're seen as complete jokes," Miller says. "I don't think people see us as complete jack-offs. I think on our show a lot of times we do come across that way, and a lot of times we are that way. But I think everybody's done a good job of maintaining that balance, not getting so ridiculous you can't be credible. I mean, we get accused of not talking a lot of sports, but it's pretty much what we're thinking about all of the time when we're away from the job."

The Ticket, at its best, lies somewhere between SportsCenter and The Howard Stern Show. At its worst, the station is filled with vacuous talk-talk-talk that kills the time between Dunham and Miller and The Hardline.

It's shrewd enough to talk sports insightfully--especially with regular guests such as Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, Dallas Mavericks point guard Steve Nash, or Texas Ranger Rusty Greer--but smarter still to admit that at the end of the day, there's only so much ball-and-strikes talk a grown man can stand. That's why former Dallas Cowboy Harvey Martin proclaims himself an enormous fan; so, too, do Channel 4's Mike Doocy and other local media folk.

Both Dunham and Miller and The Hardline are almost radio shows about sports-talk radio shows--meaning you're far more likely to hear Gordon Keith ask Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore if Johnny Oates is "a bitch to deal with" than one more banal question about the Rangers' chances this season. Such is the simple genius of The Ticket, a station that gleefully taunts the very thing it's there to extol. No wonder WFAA-Channel 8 anchor Dale Hansen is now part of the Friday-afternoon roster--no one loves to hate to love sports more than he.

"The fact is," says Gordon Keith, "intelligence has a lot to do with our success. Listeners want to feel smart, and between us and the callers, everyone is parodying the same medium."

A few weeks ago, The Ticket celebrated its fifth birthday, and the station bears little resemblance to its baby pictures. When it debuted in January 1994, KTCK was typical of its genre--so much X's and O's, local newspapers' beat writers droning on, callers jabbering from morning-drive till midnight. It was talk radio for the obsessed and bored, armchair quarterbacks and cheap-seat coaches yammering on endlessly about the Cowboys and Mavericks and other jock-sniffing blahblahblah. And it was like every other sports-talk station in America, perhaps only slightly less obnoxious but certainly aimed at the fetishist instead of the casual, Sunday-afternoon fan.

Back then, the station was dominated by its better-known hosts: former Channel 11 news director Curt Menefee, Chuck Cooperstein (who knows more about sports than anyone), and ex-Dallas Times Herald columnist Skip Bayless, whose love for sports was transcended only by his love for bad puns. Menefee and Bayless didn't last too long, and in June 1997, Cooperstein would be run off by now-ex-program director Mike Thompson, who felt Cooperstein's higher-authority acumen didn't fit in with the burgeoning more-comedy-less-sports format. Cooperstein eventually landed at WBAP-AM, after Randy Galloway's 6-8 p.m. so-called "wimp-free" sports show--a perfect fit.

Cooperstein's replacement, Rocco Pendola, would signal all that's so unnervingly wrong with The Ticket. Pendola might well be the most obtuse, most invidious personality on local radio, a guy who didn't graduate from high school, thinks Monty Python is one man, and believes it's actually possible to donate your liver while still living. And he's the antithesis of Dunham and Miller and The Hardline: a Yankee transplant who doesn't so much talk as much as he barks, screams, and yowls incessantly. Pendola is some New York City consultant's idea of a sports-radio afternoon host.

His colleagues aren't inclined to speak about Pendola on the record, though their treatment of him on the air says enough: Pendola is often portrayed as a moronic, screaming monkey. Rhyner, who lured Dunham and Miller to The Ticket five years ago, and Williams still think there's a place on The Ticket for someone like Cooperstein. Indeed, they almost demand it, fearing that the station is beginning to sound too much the same from 5:30 a.m. till 11 p.m., when relatively new host Bob Sturm signs off. (KKDA-FM's Chris Arnold takes the highly rated 10 a.m.-noon slot.)

"I thought Coop was OK, because I thought we lured him into our world," Williams says.

"And we could do that too," Rhyner adds. "Once he did his show, he was doin' his own thing, but I thought there was a place for that at the station. There is a place for that at the station. I wish we had it on the station. And I fear the fact we don't have it on the station. They're always wonderin' about what's gonna get us in the end. Well, that may be one of the things to me."

"And," Williams notes, "having Chuck Cooperstein here gave us credibility. We may not be worried about it, but it's something that's good to have."

Craig Miller admits it "probably" wouldn't matter if he and his colleagues stopped talking sports altogether. After all, ratings shot up around the time sports stopped being a primary concern. The Ticket has become driven not by its sports talk, but by its personalities--the talk jocks who can draw thousands out just to watch them play bad hockey for charity. Hence, the consultants who often traipse through The Ticket's studios, trying to figure out how to clone the format. Soon enough, there will be dozens of Tickets throughout the country--a rather frightening prospect.

What consultants fail to realize is that the station (again, at its best) relies on the camaraderie between its hosts: Miller and Dunham, for instance, were roommates at the University of North Texas and worked together at KRLD before coming to KTCK. Indeed, hanging out with Dunham and Miller, Williams and Rhyner, and Gordon Keith in Port Charlotte is little different than spending time with fraternity boys on spring break.

They're a traveling dorm room, grown men passing gas in rented Cadillacs at 11 p.m. while looking for a sports bar in Port Charlotte with a satellite TV showing the Mavericks game. That, they will tell you, is their charm: They are no different off the air than on. And they must love sports. Who else would even try to find a Mavericks game in Port Charlotte

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