The Hardline has never been sane.
After this, it may never be the same.
On Friday, October 12, the most popular sports talk radio show in the history of Dallas prepared for a routine remote broadcast at Addison's Blackfin Pub. KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket afternoon co-host Mike Rhyner arrived on time. Longtime sidekick Greg Williams, however, was alarmingly tardy.
Williams—"The Hammer" to a legion of loony fans that consistently makes the irreverent guy-talk station No. 1 in the market—finally appeared, albeit noticeably fidgety and audibly discombobulated. And then, just one segment into the four-hour show, he abruptly up and left.
No one's sure where Williams had been. But now we know where he was headed—down a dangerous, dark detour toward self-destruction. One that, according to multiple sources, ultimately landed him in rehab for a cocaine problem. One that, undeniably, has thrust his career in jeopardy, his co-workers in limbo and his countless loyal listeners into a passionate debate about his fate.
"I've got a lot of fences to mend," Williams said last week from his Turtle Creek condo. "I had the world by the balls, and I just pissed on it."
Speaking in strained, guarded tones, Williams declined to discuss the specifics of his six-week absence. In his first public comments since bailing in mid-syllable, he confirmed only that he's now void of drugs, full of regret and buoyed by hope that he'll be welcomed back to the 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. show that nurtured him into one of local radio's most charismatic personalities.
"I'm OK," said Williams, who in 2004 endured 43 sleepless hours and suicidal thoughts in detox combating an addiction to the prescription painkiller Lorcet, and who has admitted on the air to experimenting with cocaine in the 1980s. "I'm doing what I need to be doing. Getting the help I need. I'm in a much better place than I was a month ago."
Fueling the mystery and hyper-driving the speculation on Williams' disappearance, Ticket co-workers and management were forced to respond with silence.
Because of legal ramifications and health care privacy laws, The Ticket is ball-gagged by what it can say about Williams, an employee on paid leave while voluntarily receiving treatment for a disease.
Nonetheless, the secrecy has flabbergasted devoted Ticket listeners attracted to its unique camaraderie and candor. Like no other station, The Ticket fosters a rabidly strong personal relationship with listeners through honesty and disclosure, allowing them to feel like members of a beer-guzzling, boob-gawking, ball-bouncing frat house.
But program director Jeff Catlin would only say last week that Williams is "taking personal time off." Threatened with termination of their contracts if they speak publicly about Greggo, station hosts remain uncharacteristically mum. Rhyner has addressed his partner's absence with just a few terse declarations.
"He's not here," Rhyner snaps a couple times a week on air, "and we don't know when he'll be back."
Mandated or not, the awkward radio silence reeks of hypocrisy.
The idle time without one of their favorite personas—speaking of full disclosure, I sat in for Williams on The Hardline's October 24 show—also sparked a flurry of rumors. Depending on what you choose to believe from my e-mail inbox, voice mail and comments to our Unfair Park blog, Williams is either: recovering from Lap Band surgery; getting replaced by San Francisco talk-show host Ralph Barbieri; reuniting with old mentor Randy Galloway; on maternity leave; spending time as an outpatient at the Timberlawn psychiatric hospital on Samuell Boulevard; dead; appearing in the remake of Dallas; stockpiling a gun armory; getting married; or finally admitting he's gay.
Though it's easy to dismiss a Hardline audience whose moral compass is guided by yuk-monkey Corby Davidson's over-cussing, producer Danny Balis' black cloud and a slew of disgruntled bikini girls, The Ticket's hard-core listeners are 60-40 in favor of Williams' return. Some decree, as was the case with the Dallas Cowboys' Michael Irvin and Mavericks' Roy Tarpley, that he be afforded a second or even third chance to defeat his drug demons. Some, disgusted by his on-air decline, horribly selfish choices and sanctimonious lambasting of Barry Bonds' steroid use, wish Williams good riddance. Others are just intoxicated by the drama, constantly posting possible sightings to Web sites such as wheresgreggo.com.
Bottom line: Williams will complete his rehab and return to The Ticket's airwaves before the end of the month.
"I've always wished Greg would treat himself as well as he treats others," says friend and former Ticket co-worker Richard Hunter, host of Big Dick's Wild Ass Circus weeknights at 10 p.m. on KLLI-105.3 FM. "After talking with him during his absence, I believe he's taking steps to learn how to do that."
With sports talk competitor KFCD-990 AM recently dying and ESPN-103.3 FM still airing the ridiculously annoying and New York-based Stephen A. Smith in the afternoon, The Ticket has continued to thrive without Williams. Like the New England Patriots overcoming the brief loss of Randy Moss simply with more Tom Brady and Wes Welker, the station's eight straight ratings periods as No. 1 among men ages 25-54 validates its radio dynasty.
But considering Williams' sad saga, can the Marconi Awards continue? Can The Ticket retain its credibility despite one of its hosts drugging his into oblivion? And, if forced to put on a disingenuous happy face, will The Hardline deteriorate into The Hard Lie?
When Hammer returns, he'll be met by everything from hugs to indifferent shrugs. He can boast of eating 10 Whataburgers and produce classic "Do you like this gig?" ramblings all he wants, but Williams' reputation has suffered serious damage. Privately, some co-workers no longer trust him, caring for Williams as a person but writing him off as a professional.
That alienation surfaced during the last month, when the same station that circled the emotional wagons in the wake of close friend Carter Albrecht's death unsympathetically abandoned and morphed Williams into a punch line. The Hardline returned from commercial breaks to Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and Eric Clapton's "Cocaine." And Rhyner, Williams' partner since the station's inception in 1994, one day punctuated a Hammer series of "don't stop him, he's on a roll" archived audio snippets with "Oh, if you only knew how much he was rollin'." A diluted kinship amongst on-air personalities would severely damage the station's hallmark: genuine chemistry.
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Whatever the resolution, Hammer's status is the biggest blow The Ticket has faced.
But come to think of it, The Hardline could—like the dead guy propped up in Weekend at Bernie's—eternally embalm Williams' legacy just by regularly playing well-timed drops. Even more fascinating will be Williams' reality-check return to the air.
"Honestly, you know what the best thing for me would be right now?" Williams says. "Getting back to work."
Stay hard, right?