In the final and third part of my Q&A with Dan McNeil, he talks about getting fired by ESPN, building The Score, the late, great Doug Buffone and how much longer Dan plans to be on the air.
Getting fired by ESPN 1000
Fishman: When ESPN tells you in January 2009 that they no longer need your services, how did that make you feel?
McNeil: I was crushed! It changed the way I would look at the business for the rest of my life. From that day on it would be nothing more than a job. I never again could commit myself emotionally 100% to a radio project. That place (ESPN 1000) was a dump when we walked in. It was billing $5 Million a year. We peaked, I think, at $26 Million/year in billing and it was because of “Mac, Jurko and Harry” it wasn’t anything else.
For them to, after a couple of bad fiscal quarters and disagreement with somebody coming in from the corporate nipple (ESPN) to kick me to the curb, I can’t say it was innocence lost, because that happened a long time ago. But it was a reminder of innocence lost.
What did Gordon Gekko tell Bud Fox (in the movie Wall Street)? “Never get emotional about a stock!” Never get emotional about a radio show. As counterintuitive as it seems, it might not be bad advice.
The Building of the Score in 1991
Fish: I’m not sure everyone is aware of your role in the building of The Score in Chicago even before it went on the air. Can you share that story?
Mac: I’m producing “Coppock on Sports” and Seth Mason calls me in the Summer of ‘91 and says he wants to meet at some clandestine location and talk about a project. He was with ‘XRT and I had always respected him. I meet with him and he tells me about this daytime only opportunity where I would do afternoons and I was ready to try my own thing, I thought.
I was just turning 30 that summer so I didn’t have a whole lot of life experience, yet, but I said “Shit, yeah!” I’ll take a chance on a daytime operation run by Diamond Broadcasting. I had a high regard for what they had done. I started working there in August of ‘91 about five months before we actually fired it up. My job was building a sound library and interviewing would-be producers.
Fish: So you go on the air and at the start of your show you had Terry Boers as a co-host some days and Brian Hanley some days, right?
Mac: Right. Terry didn’t commit full-time until August. So he and Brian Hanley were on utility duty with The Chicago Sun-Times covering college basketball, covering the Bulls. I was the most polygamous guy on the stations. There were days where neither of them was available and we’d roll in Kent McDill from The Daily Herald, Paul Ladewski from The Daily Southtown, or Tom Dore. I was given a lot of different faces those first six or seven months.
Fish: What was that first year like? You’re on a daytime only, brand new station in Chicago. What was that like in the initial stages?
Mac: We felt an immediate buzz in the community but the newspaper industry rallied hard against us. There was an old guard of sports writers, a lot of them who tried to dismiss what the project was, because it seemed bombastic for them. It wasn’t “The Sportswriters” on WGN. It wasn’t journalism. Here’s (Mike) North, a guy making cracks about point-spreads and gangster movies. It offended a lot of sensibilities among those who covered media.
Advertising dollars were scarce. The early sign-off…we all had bad feelings about some of the hurdles over which we had to leap. But I think because of that, there grew an authentic “us against the world” mentality. And despite of our occasional differences, there was a lot of pulling at the same end of the rope. There was a lot of team (effort) because we had a lot of things going against us.
We were running the most grass-roots level Ma and Pa operation in town. This wasn’t CBS. This wasn’t ESPN. This was Diamond Broadcasting. They had ‘XRT and a station in Oklahoma City. The owner is down the hall. We’re on the Northwest side of Chicago in a low-slung bunker across the street from Foreman High School. It really was a shoestring budget.
Fish: It seemed to me that the tight quarters helped create some of the great radio because everyone was right on top of each other. What do you think?
Mac: I’m sure that’s correct. We couldn’t get away from each other. The studio was a phone booth with George Ofman (update anchor) behind us in a closet with a window. We didn’t have a computer. When we got a phone call–Judd or whoever was producing would right it on a note card and hold it up through the glass “Joe is in Arlington Heights. Topic-Sox.” We were given away spots for 35 bucks a throw and we had two-minute commercial breaks. I ran the board the first six months so I would pad the breaks with a 40-second sound byte from Bull Durham so I could get a smoke break.
Fish: Terry Boers makes the decision to come aboard full time in August of 1992. Can you talk about the difference it made having him with you every day?
Mac: I had a real good level of comfort with Terry. We had three and a half years together when we would fill-in whenever Coppock was off. We had a head start on our partnership. That made me feel at ease. It’s got nothing to do with how I feel about Brian or anyone else. It’s just that Terry and I had a high level of comfort.
Then in the fall the station ponied up for “The Mike Ditka Show” and it was fortuitous because Ditka lost his mind in his final season. They went 5-11 and he was at the high end of “Mount Ditka” of his years. He didn’t talk to the media except for his Tuesday show on The Score. So we had these TV stations trying to get video of him outside that dumpy little restaurant he had on Bryn Mawr near the airport. We had exclusivity.
Among the things he went nuts about that year was when he denounced his friendship with Ed O’Bradovich. He said “I don’t know OB!” Ditka told a caller “Neal from Northlake” to meet him at his office and he’d “whip his ass!” I broke a story that (Bears Offensive Coordinator) Greg Landry was so pissed about Ditka berating him on the sideline that he moved up to the booth. Ditka was a nut-job that year and we had exclusivity on the f***er. Mike Ditka had as much to do with making the Score a success in its first year as anybody. Ditka and Mike North.
Fish: Having grown up listening to Sports in Chicago, what I hear on The Score was completely different than anything people had heard before.
Mac: Sports radio had been just that weekend kind of vanilla sports talk. This was much edgier. This was much more interactive. It was much more willing to hold the feet to the fire of the teams in town. That first summer, Mike North’s fight with Bears President Michael McCaskey over Jay Hilgenberg’s holdout. It was something different.
We gave people a fastball that they hadn’t seen before. It was a pretty solid lineup, too. It made a lot of sense. I thought North and (Dan) Jiggetts were a really, really good, fun midday show. I think Terry and I grew into a pretty damn good show, too.
Fish: Do you have one or two favorite memories of something that happened on the show?
Mac: I think our trip to Seattle with the Bulls in 1996. I was going on 35 and I had been wearing headphones for 14 years and I still wasn’t quite sure I belonged. We made the trip to Seattle and (PD Ron) Gleason had been tough on Terry for us not being positive enough about the Bears, Bulls and the Chicago teams. So when the Bulls lost unexpectedly on a Wednesday night, we were scheduled to fly home Thursday morning. They had another game in Seattle Friday at Key Arena. So I called Gleason and told him there’s no reason for us to come home. Let’s stay and do our show until the Larry O’Brien trophy is safely tucked in Jerry Krause’s suitcase.
We met back at the hotel–Terry, Alzy (Producer Mike Alzamora) and me. That night we were having drinks at the bar with Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick, and Brent Musburger. We’re sitting there at the hotel bar at 6th and Seneca at the Crown hotel. I’ve got these guys I admire with drinks in their hands laughing their asses off as I’m holding court. I remember my head hitting the pillow that night and thinking maybe I made the right choice. It was the first time I felt that I belonged. We had an awesome trip. Bernsy (Dan Bernstein) was out there. We had fun with him and I fell in love with Seattle.
Fish: Score Management decides to break up the shows in 1999. What was your reaction to what happened?
Mac: I was both pissed off and surprised. I felt as a founding father they certainly didn’t need my consent but I was owed a conversation before decisions were made. I was actually on vacation at the gas pump filling up my Expedition when Gleason called me with the news. He said “Starting Monday you’re going to be hosting with either Dan Jiggetts or Dan Bernstein.” I said, “Excuse me, what does that mean? And why are you doing this?”
We went back and forth for a while but I had to delude myself into thinking that it was good for the station. Terry and I opposed it but we went to work the next Monday on our new shows.
Fish: Terry really seemed to think that North had a lot to do with the lineup changes. What do you think?
Mac: I do, too. I talked to Mike about it on my show on ESPN in the Summer of ‘08 and he denied it. Mike had said something to Terry several months before the changes went down about Terry doing an 8 to Noon shift. Mike’s idea was to break up traditional time-slots you’re doing a 6-8am, 8-Noon, Noon-4 and 4-8pm. What the f**ck is that? And why would anyone decide Mike Murphy was good for the first two hours of morning drive. I was pissed about all of that. I thought they had taken our radio station and made it sick.
Fish: What was it like working with the late Doug Buffone?
Mac: I first met Doug when I was writing for The Hammond Times in 1986 or 87 and he was involved with an Arena league team locally–The Chicago Bruisers. One of the many short lived semi-professional football leagues in America that come and go like yogurt shops. I interviewed him about a couple of local athletes who played college ball. We talked football for about 15 minutes and he offers me a job in PR. Suggested I get a job in PR either with the Bruisers or with a team in Denver.
We became fast friends. He was very easy to approach. He was the real deal. People say that about so many guys, but he was. There wasn’t a pretentious bone in Doug’s body. He smelled like salami, he didn’t wear matching socks, he almost blew up his house by putting the wrong fuel in a lawnmower once. He embarrassed his parents in Pennsylvania by misspelling “apple” in a spelling bee.
More than anybody I’ve ever known, he had the ability to laugh at himself. He was a dear, sweet man who was a monster as a player but a true gentle giant. It was enormously sad for all of us when Doug passed away.
It was tough on me, too. I was at The Drive at the time. I didn’t really have anybody at The Score to grieve with. I didn’t go to the private dinner that night because I felt there was gonna be tension. I wanted to see Mike (North) and I wanted to see all of my Score teammates who I knew Doug with. It didn’t feel right the way ‘14 ended. So I grieved alone, except I had a nice visit with Doug’s sister. To my surprise, Doug had told her many stories about me. She knew as much about how long Doug and I worked together.
We get rained out and head back and he says pull over to the McDonald’s at the Des Plaines Oasis. Doug orders a double cheeseburger, a large fry, and a Diet Coke. Doug says, “You gotta know when to draw the line!”
Fish: Do you have any regrets looking back at your career?
Mac: I think living with regrets is kinda like inviting cancer. I regret the result of the decision to go to The Drive, but I don’t regret my decision. I regret anytimes that I’ve been disrespectful to co-workers or listeners or anybody I’ve dealt with in business because I’ve been no angel, that’s for sure. I didn’t want to leave anything unturned. If I get to 75 (years old) I don’t want to wake up one day and think “I wish I would’ve tried that guy-talk thing” but I tried it and it failed conclusively. I’m sure I would do some things different because now I have the benefit of the knowledge of how they turned out. But no, there isn’t a bad decision that I’ve made that has disabled me. Only temporarily.
Fish: Is there something that you have yet to do it your career that you would like to do before you hang it up?
Mac: Yeah. As a writer, I’ve gotta tell the story of the most important role I’ve had in my life as the father of Patrick, who is severely autistic. I’m halfway done with that book. It’s a tough book to write. I really need to get back to it because I have a message to share with millions of fathers who feel like they got a raw deal and take it out on the wrong people.
I’m also going to write the book about my career. On the air, I’m really heartened by the Chicago sports landscape. The Chicago sports teams that matter to me they’re pretty healthy right now. I’m eager to see this golden era of Cubs baseball play itself out even though I’m a Sox enthusiast. I think it’s a remarkable story and I’m on the Cubs flagship and that’s pretty good real estate in sports radio. I’m also looking forward to seeing (Bears Coach) Matt Nagy and (Bears GM) Ryan Pace finish what they started. I’ll be going out right around the time Jonathan Toews is skating his last shift in a Hawks uniform. That may be only 4-5 years from now and that’s all I’ve got left.
Dan McNeil can be heard weekdays from 2-6pm Central on “McNeil and Parkins” on 670 The Score in Chicago or nationwide on the Radio.com app.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.