How Senior Statesman Norm Hitzges Fits into the Ticket's Land of Sophomores
Norm Hitzges leans into the microphone, ready to bear the joke's brunt. He's sitting in KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket's fourth-floor studio on Victory Plaza as the digital clock's red numbers count off the first minutes of the noon hour. Four TVs decorate the wall to his right, flickering ESPN, NBA TV, ABC and CBS, where a soap opera twists and turns for some reason. Around Hitzges, at the studio table with microphones and headphone jacks, sit the hosts of BaD Radio, the station's noon-to-3 p.m. show.
This is "crosstalk," when an earlier show hands off to a later one. Light and unscripted, it's meant to provide a seamless transition from show to show. Really, it's an opportunity for the hosts to catch up on-air. BaD Radio's hosts, Bob Sturm, Dan McDowell and Donovan Lewis, do two — one at noon with Hitzges and one with Corby Davidson and Mike Rhyner before their show, The Hardline, at 3 p.m.
Of the two, the latter makes for better radio. From about 2:50 to 3:20, the five hosts, with Hardline producer Danny Balis, talk loosely. They jab and jest amid an indistinguishable flurry of drops and inside jokes. For drive-by listeners, it must sound like they're speaking in tongues. For the station's loyal fans — so-called P1s – it's can't-miss radio.
The noon crosstalk, though, follows a different script, and that's why Hitzges is prepared for the friendly fire. McDowell asks why there's a reporter in the room.
"Interviewing me about ... stuff," Hitzges says obliquely, which prompts his producer, Mike Sirois, to ask if the story will be on the cover. Not missing a beat, Hitzges' board operator, Jeremy Moran, finds and plays a drop of Hitzges saying, "back cover." The room erupts.
"You've been on that back cover. You leaf through that thing," McDowell says to Hitzges. "Wouldn't it be cool to see a picture of Norm in there? Let's put an ad in the Observer."
"What would I be seeking in your ad, Dan?"
"Something with a foot fetish," Lewis says.
McDowell doesn't answer. Instead, he takes a detour back to his childhood, to finding the Playboys in a friend's dad's closet. He circles back to Hitzges.
"For a good prank," he says, "we could put a picture in the back of the Observer."
"For a good time?" Lewis asks.
"Yeah," McDowell says, "just call for phone fun."
"No parameters," Hitzges butts in.
"Nothing. Off. Limits," Lewis says.
McDowell asks if Hitzges will be on the cover.
"No," Hitzges says. "No cover."
"Slow down," McDowell says, and looks at me sitting near the door, far away (thankfully) from any possibility of the microphones picking up my response.
But I still try to think of something clever to say, to get in good with the funny guys. I only manage to mutter a meek, "Should be," though. The hosts probably would have preferred dead air.
"Should be, he says," McDowell continues. "Unless there's another 9/11, he just said."
Through the ribbing, Hitzges is good-natured, laughing huskily into his microphone, comfortable in his role as the old fuddy-duddy, the guy for whom The Ticket once released a CD titled Bits Norm Won't Listen To. Finally, mercifully, a commercial cuts into crosstalk, ending it. Hitzges heaves himself from his chair and grabs his cane, a black pole with a gorilla-faced handle, and walks out.
Earlier that day, as he does most mornings, Hitzges beats the sun to the station. He wears a green polo tucked into khaki shorts, white Nike tube socks that run up his calves, and Tevas. His gray hair — on the sides of his head, anyway — is fine and wispy. His moustache, as always, is thick.
From his car, he takes the elevator from the underground lot up to the Cumulus Media offices. The company owns seven city stations, including The Ticket, KESN-FM 103.3 ESPN and KSCS-FM 96.3 New Country, which might explain the Taylor Swift poster outside Hitzges' makeshift office. In the narrow room, he settles into a chair at his desk, a piece of wood found at a nearby trash bin and laid flat on two short file cabinets. Three computers dot the other side. Technically, no host has an office, but Hitzges needs a place to prepare. The office joke is that he's squatting here.
His eyes, a washed-out blue, rove The Dallas Morning News' sports section. He cuts the paper into individual broadsheets and draws black vertical lines through the paragraphs he's finished reading. He writes down what he wants to expound upon on a yellow legal pad. Come show time, his notes will amount to little more than a page, with lakes of yellow between cursive scribbles. When he's done with one sheet, he folds it and throws it in the trashcan next to his desk. He never wads them up; he might need to check a date or a quote later. "That's his filing cabinet," his intern later explains, pointing to the trash can.
Hitzges is 70. In quiet moments he looks every bit his age. But when he begins animatedly describing the season a Ranger is having or how NBA general managers strangely covet athletes over players, his youthful enthusiasm for his profession shows. He might as well be a boy during a late night in Dunkirk, New York, listening, to his mother's chagrin, to a Yankees-Red Sox game broadcast over his first radio.
From Dunkirk, he made it to Dallas. His voice — fellow Ticket host George Dunham, who's imitated him since 1988, says it's a "high-pitched Kermit the Frog" — crashed onto the city's airwaves for the first time in 1975. He's changed some; the industry has more. "Norm is a dinosaur who survived the Ice Age," Morning News sports columnist Barry Horn says. Having signed a three-year contract extension in April, he'll be surviving until at least 2017.
When his intern walks in, Hitzges' hunched back snaps straight. "How ya doin', pal?" Hitzges asks. A Texas A&M lanyard hangs from his intern's front pocket. Hitzges swivels from his desk to a computer to answer email, typing ellipses-laden responses with both index fingers. Soon, the host turns to his intern.
Kyle Orton, whom the Cowboys signed to back up veteran quarterback Tony Romo, hasn't showed for mandatory minicamps. The team has fined him; still, no Orton. The QB says he's considering retirement, but the host thinks there might be another explanation. Really, Hitzges says, it doesn't make much sense for a 31-year-old to back up a 34-year-old, and if he saw the field, Orton could play well for several more seasons. He could be a starter on other NFL teams. Why would he want to retire?
"What if he just doesn't want to play here?" Hitzges asks. "What if that's behind this?"
Later, after Hitzges has settled into his studio chair, the standoff between Kyle Orton and Cowboys management becomes a six-minute segment. "The Cowboys said they were encouraged that backup quarterback Kyle Orton would be [at minicamp]," Hitzges says. "This must've been a message from Mercury at Valley Ranch. Our thoughts about Kyle Orton are, well, he's not sure he wants to play or retire, right? Isn't there a third one here we should start thinking about?"
Hitzges moves his left hand up and down to emphasize his points, explaining to the audience what he explained earlier to his intern.
"Are we certain," the host ventures, "he just doesn't want to be in Dallas?"
A month later the Cowboys release the second-string quarterback.
The Ticket is not so much a radio station but a distilled and distributed moment in time. If you're a dude (most Ticket listeners are), the conversations the hosts have on-air are the conversations you have with your buddies as the TV blares the game, as the beer flows, as the women are away (or, for some, right next to you, a few beers ahead). You talk sports, you talk movies, you talk women. A particularly weird crime in the news that day might come up, as might a massive spoiler to your latest cable-TV obsession. In the grand scheme of things, that time might not mean much, but you sure as hell don't want it to end.
Though it's a sports station, The Ticket hasn't inspired such fervent loyalty from listeners by having hosts plod through rote interviews with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. No, the reason fan sites like The UnTicket.com, which archives funny bits and drops, have sprung up is because Fake Jerry Jones calls in. The impersonation, by the morning show's Gordon Keith, is searing satire that arrives at some truth about the man, probably more than he'd admit. You won't find other stations poking the bear like that, and it's what The Ticket does that the others don't that has cultivated a thriving community.
Drops are a big part of it. Remembering a particular drop's origin is P1 street cred, enough to prove whether you've been listening since Day One. Pop culture is currency here, too, like the recent Hardline segments on a modern country song's lyrical requirements: booze, tractors and the word "girl," to name a few. Face-to-face interactions with Ticket fans, either through roving mics or restaurant remotes, have bolstered loyalty. More than that, though, The Ticket pushes the envelope of what sports radio is, or could be. Sometimes, the hosts toe the proverbial line, and often they tumble over it, and the programming director summons them to his office. There's one host he never has to call in.
Hitzges was going strong, closing in on his 10th year of his morning-drive sports talk show on KLIF-AM 570, when the upstart Ticket made its first broadcast, in 1994. Before Dunham and Craig Miller replaced Skip Bayless in the morning slot, Hitzges was killing the young station in the ratings. Then he wasn't, and he didn't appreciate how he was being beaten. "Some [segments] annoyed me," Hitzges told the Morning News three years after he joined The Ticket. "And quite frankly, when that approach started working, that annoyed me all the more."
He assumed his rival hosts didn't take their jobs seriously, which to him was practically a crime. The son of children of the Great Depression, young Hitzges learned the value of work and working hard. He regrets never finishing his journalism master's degree at the University of Texas in Austin; he didn't work hard enough as a student, he says now. The regret propelled him throughout his career. He wasn't going to feel that way again. He thought if he out-hustled other reporters, he'd have information no one else had. It worked. He broke stories, a rare feat on local sports talk now, when a host's job is more often analysis. So, when the opportunity at the station arose, he did not go enthusiastically.
"I didn't like some of the ways they handled themselves at The Ticket," Hitzges says. "Some of the comments, some of the approaches to stories. I'm not terribly big on vulgarity at times."
Hitzges seemed an odd fit. But in 2000, KLIF dropped sports talk. Dan Bennett, the manager of the company that owned KLIF and The Ticket, offered the host a position at the then-six-year-old station. If he wanted to stay in Dallas, which he did, Hitzges would have to sign on with the station he didn't like. After several meetings with Bennett, who hired him at KLIF, Hitzges agreed to do the 10-to-noon slot. He told the Morning News at the time he would do his show his way, regardless of the dial number.
"I wasn't here very long before I realized, hey, these guys are knuckleheads but, golly, they work on stuff," Hitzges says now. "It may sound on the air like it's just three guys sitting, but they work on stuff. They work hard on stuff. Doing those routines just doesn't happen. I've always thought that my path to competing in this business is to work as hard or harder than other people. And I didn't think there was much hard work going on here until I got here. It's hard work in different areas than I put in hard work, but that's who we are."
Drops — the often hacky radio callback that The Ticket somehow pulls off — don't just happen. They require the fastidious ear, encyclopedic memory and quick hands of a top-flight board operator, ready to drop two-to-three out-of-context seconds into the conversation at any moment, often repeatedly, for optimal laughs.
Michael Gruber was a Ticket board operator from 2002 to 2012. He soon grasped that Hitzges' trademark caller-triggered rants ("You oughtta be damned ashamed of yourself for even hinting that in public!") and his goofy utterances ("Snacks") proved fertile ground. He also learned to use Hitzges' church-appropriate vernacular (other than the occasional on-air "bullshit") to comedic effect. He spliced Hitzges' words together to form new off-the-wall drops: "Hey Mike ... guess — what I ... have — in my butt? I have a rather large ... uh, pig!" Then came the fart noises.
At first, though, Gruber was leery. He'd started as Hitzges' intern; he loves the man. He didn't want anything on-air that would offend him. Early in his board op career, Gruber would finish making a drop, then tell Hitzges. If the host didn't approve, he wouldn't use it.
Hitzges was hesitant on the perverse-sounding drops, but he never said no. Eventually, Gruber stopped asking. Hitzges would even toy with Gruber about the glut of drops he produced. After saying something he knew would have a second life, his eyes would find Gruber in the board op room and say, with a wink, "Don't pull that." He understands his role in the machine.
He provides the drops; he doesn't deploy them. "I don't usually play drops with him," says Moran, the board op for Hitzges and Dunham & Miller. As a board op, you have to know whether and how the show will flow around the boulder you're hucking into its ebb. With Hitzges, a drop might clog it up. "He responds to them," Moran says, "and makes it kind of awkward."
At the start of his career, Hitzges emphasized being off-center, at least by his traditional standards. He knew, like The Ticket, if he wanted to increase his audience he couldn't just talk bare-bones athletics. "What we try to do," he told a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter in 1979, "is give them things, kinky things, funny things that more than the serious sports nut would appreciate. I had one guy call me up on the show and tell me, 'I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds funny and I'm going to keep on listening.'" In the late 1980s, he hosted a cable program, Summer Tailgate Party. The pilot showed then-Rangers owner George W. Bush bowling a frozen turkey at 2-liter Coke-bottle pins.
Since Sirois began producing him four years ago, he's incorporated more of what he calls "off-roading." Every Wednesday, he answers "sports, travel and lifestyle" questions that P1s tweet at his account. On Fridays, he reads kooky crime stories from around the country (particularly Florida, because that's where Sirois is from) and picks a "Knucklehead of the Week." Sirois has also encouraged Hitzges to tell more personal stories on-air. Personalities have always fueled The Ticket, a big reason it slays in the ratings. People like Hitzges, Sirois says; they tune in to hear him. Since beginning his Ticket tenure, those close to him say, Hitzges has brought more of his ebullient and jocular off-air personality to the mic.
"This station has made me a better talk show host," Hitzges says. "I like to think I've made the station better. I like to think I add something they didn't have before. I think they've changed a lot of my approaches. I have a lot more fun with things now than I used to. I still do a lot of serious types of things, trying to give different angles on things. But there's also times when I just say, this is fun, let's take this angle on it."
Hitzges' Fake Gordo is an example. A few years ago, the host impersonated the station's master impersonator, Gordon Keith, a man Hitzges once thought embodied The Ticket's disrespect of the medium. Hitzges' take was funny. Not because he was spot-on (though he wasn't way off), but because Hitzges, "the station's venerable dinosaur," as he calls himself, attempted a Ticket staple. The clash of old-school host and new-school station generated the humor.
"He is an outsider," Sirois says, before he clarifies. "He's both [an insider and an outsider] because he's squarely in the middle of it, literally with his show time." He's not your standard Ticket guy, though, Sirois adds. "He's Norm. He's different than the eight other guys. It's almost like he's above this nonsense."
That's neither good nor bad, Sirois says.
"He's part of the family; he's sort of a patriarch," the producer continues. "He's not a P1. I feel like all the other guys are P1s, and [the station's] sort of this intertwined thing, and Norm is just kind of also here." Put more succinctly, Hitzges fits in "awkwardly," Moran says. "But it works."
The board rests by Hitzges' knees, up against the white mini-fridge next to his desk. It's another early morning in the narrow room. The news broke overnight that former Mavericks center Tyson Chandler is coming back to Dallas, along with former New York Knick Raymond Felton, who faces gun charges. "Get me the details of his career," Hitzges tells his intern, "and the details of what kind of dirtbag trouble he's been in." As the intern searches online, Hitzges grabs the 2-by-3-foot board.
Tonight he'll host the station's NBA draft coverage with Mavs play-by-play man Mark Followill. Hitzges has been preparing for weeks, and in his hands is his labor's fruit, his draft board. It includes potential draftees' names and positions and all 30 teams in draft order, with an abutting space for the picks. He also employs note cards that list the needs each team should address in the draft and the team's free agents. Last night, Hitzges says, he spent about 10 hours creating it.
If he sounds on-air like a reputable information source, it's because he puts in the time. The other hosts do, too: BaD Radio's Sturm is known for his football expertise, maintaining a wonky blog. Hardline host Rhyner is a baseball almanac. And for the World Cup, the station broadcast a nighttime show catered for the city's soccer crazies. Often, though, the hosts put time in on offbeat stuff, such as when BaD Radio's McDowell drove to Alabama to locate the "Alabama Leprechaun," an urban legend that turned out to be a 3-foot-tall man who climbed up a tree and started shouting. McDowell recorded his interactions with the locals, mainly asking directions, and it became a segment. It even played on The Ticket's nightly highlight show. You might find it hard to believe hosts such as Hitzges and McDowell inhabit the same frequency, let alone share a crosstalk segment, but it's part of The Ticket's success.
Hitzges has the station's fourth-best rated show, but he's a force in his time slot. Of the four weekday shows, his is the shortest. Because of commercials and the ticker news, he needs to fill a little more than an hour. But it's a burst of pure, 20-karat sports talk, which is all the station can afford. WFAA's longtime sportscaster Dale Hansen says pure sports talk can't sustain an audience. "People have told me I'm dead-ass wrong about this, but I know I'm right," he says. "The Ticket is proof."
Sports might not bring all the listeners, but it does string all the hosts together. The reason Rhyner spearheaded starting The Ticket was because Dallas lacked an all-sports station. But the reason it scoops up the ratings lion's share is because each host brings something different to the studio table. "I think part of our success is the spectrum of the talk show hosts offered," Hitzges says. "The characters they are. How different we are. A lot of stations, it's three guys you don't really differentiate from each other, followed by two guys you don't differentiate from each other, followed by three guys you don't differentiate. And that's not true here." With the exception of Keith, the dissimilar hosts share a common passion: sports.
And this is where Hitzges dazzles. In 1982 he wrote a Sport magazine article advocating for a 16-team playoff for Division I college football based on the bowl system (it got him a Good Morning America appearance). During late '80s football seasons, he handicapped games in a Morning News column titled "Odds & Trends." For the 1990 season, he analyzed baseball games from an ESPN booth, leaving to focus on his radio show. Before The Ticket, he argued and joked, blustered and wheezed into microphones for KERA and KLIF, where in 1986 he brought sports talk to people's morning commute for the first time. Then as now, his encyclopedic sports knowledge and his infectious enthusiasm drew in listeners.
"He will break down what you think is the most minute detail of a game: why a team punted, clock management in the third quarter, why a penalty wasn't called or was called," says Jeff Catlin, The Ticket's programming director. "It will be one moment in a game and he will communicate it to you in a way that, one, you never thought of before and, two, it will make you think it is the live-or-die, be-all-to-end-all [moment], not of the game, but maybe of the season and maybe of this person's career. That passion that he has and that ability to communicate that passion is what makes him unique."
"We've been doing mornings since 1995," adds Dunham, co-host of the morning-drive Dunham & Miller show. "It takes its toll on you, but Norm I think still wakes up just as early as we do and goes through the papers and goes through the stories on the net."
It's a formula that's worked for nearly 40 years, and Hitzges says he has no plans to retire. "Oh, I'll die on the air," he says, debonairly. "Some morning I'll be in the middle of Twitter or something and Mike will say, 'Well, that was a good segment, let's go to break.' And quick call to Donnie and Bob and Dan to say, 'Hey, you need to come in early today.'"
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