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.