By Jim Schutze
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He wears bikini briefs. TiVos The View. Spends alarming time with his morning mirror, caressing his hair with extravagant product and bathing his skin with lush lotion.
And when he's not acting like our city's most sensitive woman, Mike Rhyner is one of Dallas radio's most powerful men.
He can be both queen and crotchet, a gruff host who'll scorch Bill Parcells and America's Team in the afternoon before snuggling up with Ryan Seacrest and American Idolat night. But feminine quirks be damned; for the last 12 years the founding father and pompous patriarch of KTCK 1310 AM The Ticket has been the most popular personality on the area's most successful sports talk radio station.
Equally shocking: From Rhyner's girlish traits evolved guy talk, and from his soft underbelly grew the station's manly mantra: "Stay hard."
"In the beginning I never allowed myself to even dream of it getting as big as it has," Rhyner said last Thursday before The Ticket's "Guys' Night Out" bash at Sneaky Pete's on Lake Lewisville. "Probably because, for a long period, we were a wobbly day-to-day proposition. I went home many nights thinking we were done, it would hit the papers and we'd all be a big joke."
Rhyner and friend Geoff Dunbar hatched the idea of an all-sports station while watching the 1992 Duke-Kentucky basketball game that ended with Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater. The format was hardly new--local icons Brad Sham, Norm Hitzges and Randy Galloway had been doing sports talk shows since the 1970s--but a 24-hour, all-sports station in Dallas was unprecedented.
When it launched January 24, 1994, plans for a 12th birthday party seemed a bit premature, considering the station's first voice was worried about lasting 12 minutes.
"It was against staggering odds that we even went on the air," says original host Skip Bayless, these days soiling his reputation on ESPN's contrived and crappy 1st & 10. "It was a serious concern that I would go on at 6 a.m. and creditors would pull the plug at 6:10."
These days our only fret about The Ticket: How would we live without it?
Eschewing traditional formats, Rhyner concocted guy talk with pinches of sports, sex, bathroom humor, fake guests, recorded drops and, of course, the King of All Media.
"Anybody that tells you we weren't strongly influenced by Howard Stern, well, fold up your notebook and go home, because they're lying," Rhyner says. "We knew we couldn't sound like the other guys in this market."
Turns out sounding different was just as difficult as sounding better. "There were consultants saying we had to go straight sports," Rhyner says. "At one point there was a memo sent out that I was to be fired. Thankfully the ratings came out later that week...and that was that."
Ratings and revenue have continued soaring, making The Ticket an elite player. Last week at Sneaky Pete's, about 1,000 listeners showed up. To compete in a Speedo swimming race and a hairiest back contest (Gays' Night Out?). To gawk at the incredibly upgraded Ticket Chicks (Three words: Claw Dee Yuh!). And, yes, even to get an autograph from Rhyner, who dressed for the occasion in a Pittsburgh Pipers throwback ABA jersey featuring Connie Hawkins' No. 42.
This spring The Ticket will change owners for the fourth time as Cumulus takes over for Susquehanna. There will, undeniably, be changes. But it's difficult, if not impossible, to fathom a Ticket without The Old Gray Wolf, a guy who looks more genius and less goofball with each station birthday.
Says Rhyner, "I only take credit for convincing ownership to take chances on guys like Grego [Greg Williams], George [Dunham] and Craig [Miller]. They were repressed at other stations, but I thought they would be perfect hosts. I was the equal sign in what turned out to be a very powerful, potent equation."
Rhyner can be kidded about his TV viewing, his undergarments and his self-pampering because: 1) It's gay. 2) We're jealous. You sit around with your buddies swapping sports opinions and fart jokes; Rhyner gets paid for it.
But before he was the innovator of "The Shticket," he was a bespectacled, befuddled kid growing up in Oak Cliff, too skinny to play sports and too cerebral to ignore them. He idolized Johnny Unitas, Ted Williams and Wilt Chamberlain but didn't dare try to emulate them.
"I was a terrible athlete," he says. "I was always the kid wondering, 'Why did they call that play?'"
At Kimball High School and UT-Arlington, where he earned a degree in journalism via the extremely rare 13-year plan, Rhyner romanticized radio. While his friends were fascinated by remote controls and Pong, he was fixated on old KLIF and shows like "Russ Knight, The Weird Beard."
"I've never been able to put my finger on it, but radio was always magical to me," he says.
The Ticket's 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. show, The Hard Line, hosted by Rhyner and Williams, has as loyal a fan following as any in Dallas. It's rambling, raunchy, irreverent and, most important, frickin' funny. In its 12-year run, The Hard Line has never finished out of the market's top three among males 25 to 54.
Rhyner is the 55-year-old alpha of the pack. Though his show and his station are built on camaraderie, Rhyner is hardly a social butterfly. Williams, his co-host for 12 years, says he has yet to step inside the house Rhyner moved into four years ago.
Says Williams, "He's just Rhyner. Honestly, I don't feel like I know him thatwell."
Rhyner loves baseball and plays in the tribute band Petty Theft, so Hard Linetopics are often steered accordingly. But last week he also spent segments offering suicide options for chickens, pondering his wife's reaction should he decide to set his genitals afire and spin around in a chair, and expounding on his conviction that Parcells is a "New Jersey Con Man," a belief that has put him way ahead of the curve.
"The most gratifying and special thing to me is that the station means so much to so many people," Rhyner says. "I know I'll never have anything like this again in my life."
Happy 12th Birthday to The Ticket, a station that acts its age. And congratulations to Rhyner. Let all the guys in Dallas raise a toast.
Perhaps a nice spritzer down at La Madeleine?
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