Watching smoke billow from the World Trade Center on their new compact-car-sized high-definition TV only made the morning of September 11 seem more real, if that were possible. The TV was a gift from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a fan of the sports-talk station at KTCK-AM 1310 known as The Ticket. In retrospect, it made the images clearer than anyone ever wanted.
"It looks like a plane flew into it," morning-show host Craig Miller said before anyone knew that's exactly what had happened. His co-hosts, George Dunham and Gordon Keith, kept up the guessing game until they saw another plane fly into the second tower, eliminating doubt as to what was going on. It was at that point that the hosts on air and the ones who followed took off their "yuk-monkey" masks and revealed themselves as deserving commentators in the subsequent search for understanding.
Cuban is a fan of the station, one suspects, because its hosts have long been seen as mirror images of him: big lucky kids who love sports, blue humor and arguing. Which is why it was odd and somehow understandable that The Ticket would provide pitch-perfect coverage of the terrorist tragedy: heartfelt, comforting, angry, honest. Callers shared their horror; hosts expressed equal parts fury, understanding and confusion; Barry Switzer cried. It was, for the P-1s, P-2s and even the marginal P-3s, a town hall of the airwaves where they could join the cacophony of aftermath.
"I was unable to listen to anyone 24/7, or even 16/5," says Robert Philpot, who covers local radio for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "So I didn't hear all of The Ticket's coverage. I did hear from a lot of people, though, who thought that The Ticket gave the best [radio] coverage."
How is that possible? Hasn't much of the debate about entertainment post-September 11 focused on how irony and satire and snarky humor--the mien of the guy-talk/sports-talk hybrid that is The Ticket--been made irrelevant by the crushing weight of our newfound national sobriety? And wouldn't that make a friggin' sports-talk station, like, totally unnecessary now?
Of course not. For one, the idea that ours was an age of satire that now should end, as expressed by more than one New York media maven, would come as a shock to folks like Milton, Swift and Wilde. Satire and irony and stupid humor have all survived wars. In fact, they are important tools in understanding our culture pre- and post-attack. Humor doesn't elevate false values; it criticizes them by ridicule and mockery, setting in relief the things that we should see as important. Mocking the pretensions of Jerry Jones isn't an act of an unpatriotic brat so much as it's a statement against the false idolization of sports.
It's this sense of frankness that has always run through The Ticket and made it so popular. It's that same candor that came out during and after the terrorist attack that so struck a chord with listeners who tuned in to hear Rangers recaps or the fake Juan Gonzalez. It's why the station has received some 3,000 e-mails thanking the hosts for helping listeners cope.
"It was amazing the response we got. It was like all the listeners got together and decided they would write their e-mails together, because they all used the same words," says Greg Williams, co-host with Mike Rhyner of the afternoon drive-time show The Hardline. "They all said, 'Thank you. It was like listening to family.'"
Williams was certain he and the station would never receive such plaudits, because by noon on September 11, he figured The Ticket would cut to a news affiliate. He called in to his program director, Bruce Gilbert, just to make sure. Gilbert felt the right thing to do was to go on with the station's familiar voices. He told Williams, Come on in, we're doing the coverage ourselves. It was a hunch that worked.
"I mean, I know we're just a sports station, the toy department," Williams says. "I know we just goof on athletes. But in a case like this, we just said, 'OK, we don't know what we're doing, but let's just tell people honestly how we feel and do the best job we can.' And in our own way, it worked. We were there for the listeners. I was incredibly proud of everyone here."
Gordon Keith never thought the station would switch coverage to a news affiliate, just as he still has no idea why listeners connected so much with the station during its coverage. "I hate to say this, but I still don't know exactly what we did that was so great," Keith says. "People said they kept going to the TV to see what was happening, but they kept coming back to us to listen and discuss. And all we did was listen to the TV and react to what we were seeing."
One reason for the response, Keith acknowledges, is that the hosts had the freedom to not be journalists. They could immediately speculate on who would commit this terrorist act and why, what the U.S. response should be and what citizens must do differently now and forever. They could debate the questions and address the fears that rang in people's minds.
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But it probably goes deeper than that. After all, any talk radio station could and did provide an open forum for such discussion. The station's success in explaining the tragedy had much to do with seven years' worth of trust built up between itself and listeners. And, as the Star-Telegram's Philpot notes, most of print and TV media give DJs too little credit as communicators.
"I'm not really surprised that an irreverent station like The Ticket would be able to handle this well," Philpot says. "First, I'm an irreverent person, and I turned serious in the days after. Laughter still sounds a little strange. But second, since The Ticket is so much less politically motivated than other talk radio, I think it's able to have a more measured response. The same goes for the station's hosts."
In a word, then, they were honest--in their response, in their love of fart jokes and country and everything in between. This no-bullshit edict is what makes the station successful, and it is what made its coverage unique and appropriate, from Dunham to Miller to Norm Hitzges to BaD Radio to The Hardline to the Hot Spot. It's what some of its competitors don't understand: Honesty, not schtick, sells. It's what media-savvy consumers buy.
"We just don't know any other way to do radio," Keith says. "It's all organic. Our return to jokes and normalcy will be organic. We'll do it when it feels right, just like our audience will. We know what we do isn't important, but we still want to do right by them, our listeners. It's touching when they tell you our coverage was great, when they use terms like 'friend' and 'family.' I never realized how much people respond to our voices. It's moving."