Revenge of the Monkey Boy
It's been a bad few months in Broncoland.
Things head south from jump street. The two-time defending Super Bowl champions limp through a pre-season memorable mainly for a quarterback controversy (Bubby Brister out, Brian Griese in) that most local media outlets inflate to gargantuan proportions. A number of them broadcast Coach Mike Shanahan's news conference about the switch live, and the Rocky Mountain News's next-day cover is dominated by a shot of the local press corps at Shanahan's feet -- an appropriate image if ever there was one. A pair of regular-season nosedives, to the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs, only make the situation worse. Deadly hurricane? Killer earthquake? We'll get to those stories as soon we find out how hacked off Bubby is.
This loony overreaction to the team's downturn feeds a fan frenzy. Boosters who seem willing to sacrifice their firstborn for a return to gridiron greatness flood local talk shows with panicky calls, and hosts such as the Fan's Sandy Clough attempt to pump up the frustration factor by arguing loudly and often that Shanahan, nicknamed The Mastermind, has been suffering more than his fair share of brain farts lately. Every sports commentator in town seems to be in a state of serious agitation.
Except for Scott Hastings.
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As color commentator for the Broncos and co-host of KOA-AM's Sports Zoo -- by far the most popular talk program on Denver afternoon radio (and the most consistently entertaining) -- Hastings is hardly the world's most objective Bronco observer; after all, he had to be approved by the team before he was allowed to call games with Sports Zoo partner Dave Logan. Moreover, when he's shoving a microphone under the snouts of whipped behemoths following this year's humiliations, he can sound as bummed as they are. "I had a program director tell me one time to still be upbeat even after they lose, but that's someone talking who's never been in a locker room," he says in his eccentric voice, a wheezy tenor distinguished by exuberant stammering, dropped g's and sudden changes in volume. "You'd better get your mood to match theirs or you're in trouble."
But when he's on the Zoo, he gives his rah-rahing a comic spin that helps keep football in perspective. Take, for example, one of the main reasons why he always hopes for a Bronco victory: "If they don't win, I'm the guy who's got to go down on the field and ask 300-pound men why they blew." Imagine his glee, then, when the Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
Hastings strikes the same balance between cheerleading and absurdity when rapping with Zoo listeners. On one show in late September, after listening to a string of callers eager to engage in endless, tedious debates about which pigskin-flinger should be sliding his hands between the buttocks of the Broncos' center the next Sunday, he argues that the solution to all the team's problems can be found in the 1978 film Animal House. "When things went wrong, you know what they did?" he asks. "Road trip!" An instant later, after realizing that a number of defeats happened during just such excursions, he reconsiders. "Well, maybe not a road trip. How about a toga party?"
Two weeks down the line, the Broncos have yet to take Hastings's advice, and they're paying for it. They've lost twice more (to the offense-challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the pathetic, injury-plagued New York Jets), and to make the humiliation that much more acute, a Sports Illustrated cover story headlined "We're Finished" following the Jets game suggests that the once-proud men in predominantly orange have devolved into whining, sniveling malcontents. While his broadcasting peers vacillate between resignation and suicidal tendencies over this state of affairs, Hastings trots out two new slogans, "Change the karma" and "Spread the buttah," that he believes will replace bad vibrations with good ones, and he encourages callers to shout them in their workplaces, out their car windows or even in the privacy of their own homes.
When the Broncos respond by winning their next two contests, squeaking out a victory over the Oakland Raiders and pummeling the Green Bay Packers, Hastings winkingly takes credit for their change of course. "How can you argue that it was something else?" he wonders. Unfortunately, the approach isn't foolproof: The Broncos fall a point short to the New England Patriots, and even after Hastings spends a week alternately referring to Minnesota Vikings QB Jeff George as "Phyllis George" or "Boy George," the Vikes top the Broncos anyway. Still, Hastings refuses to succumb to the melancholy that's settled over Denver loyalists. On the day after the Vikings loss, he comes off like a yokel George Patton, telling the team and fans alike, "You've got to stand up and fight. Don't roll over and pee on yourself."
Shtick like this has made Hastings a star in Denver and may do the same for him in points beyond. Already he's a regular part of home Denver Nuggets broadcasts shown regionally on the Fox Sports cable channel, and his sideline reporting work for various NBA games on Turner Network Television (TNT) has made his face recognizable to hoopsters nationwide. Also, Clear Channel, the Texas-based corporate giant that owns KOA and seven other Denver-Boulder radio signals, has just started airing Sports Zoo on KIIX-AM, a Fort Collins outlet in its portfolio. Robin Bertolucci, the Clear Channel exec who oversees all the company's area AMs, hints that this may be the first step in syndicating the show throughout the mountain west and possibly beyond. "I'm no Jim Rome," Hastings concedes, "but it's a start. And I'd like to take it as far as we can go."
Such ambitions may sound strange coming from a guy who spends a full hour of one show gushing about the first time he tried hummus: "I never had stuff like that growing up in Kansas," he says. "When I was living there and was feeling adventurous, I'd go have a Big Mac as opposed to a Quarter Pounder with Cheese." But Hastings is no hayseed. He's a canny fella on the rise, and if his main goal is to show listeners a good time, he feels that his lack of seriousness makes a serious point. "I think people overanalyze things, whether it's sports or the O.J. trial or whatever. They analyze things to death. But to me, we're talking about kids' games, things we played when we were little. And why should you have radio hosts hollering at people about something like that -- or anything else, for that matter? If you don't understand that, get off the air."
A big part of Hastings's act -- and it is one -- is to play the rube, the bumpkin. A couple inches shy of seven feet tall, with sleepy eyes and a doughy face, this 39-year-old native of Independence, Kansas, was a professional basketballer for eleven years, but because he spent more time on the bench than on the court (he cracks that a highlight film of his NBA career would feature him waving towels in every arena in the league), he's cast himself as a cross between a towering Bob Uecker and a freak of nature. "I'm like the guy in the 1500s who'd walk around and people would throw potatoes at him," he says. "If I was 5' 11", I'd be okay, but I'm like a Frankenstein monster. I scare people."
Hastings, though, is hiding a dirty little secret: He's not an idiot. When he's on Sports Zoo with Logan and/or relatively new addition Susie Wargin, he can seem like a sufferer of comic Tourette's Syndrome, spewing out mischievous comments in knee-jerk fashion; when describing an impressive stiff-arm move by Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey during the Green Bay game, he repeatedly says that McCaffrey "got a stiffy." But Hastings is so in control of his idiosyncrasies that associates think of his screwy side as a separate character. Sports Zoo producer Ivan Sokalsky refers to this outré creation as "Monkey Boy"; KOA program director Don Martin dubs him "Booger Man."
When the circumstance calls for less crazed comportment, though, Hastings can deliver. As the number two gabber on Broncos games, he reins himself in, sticking to boisterous but relatively straightforward observations of the action; if the rare exceptions to this rule (like last August, when he begged on the air for a pre-season massacre of the Arizona Cardinals to finally, mercifully end) leave fans of his quirkier moments hungry for more, his enthusiastic contributions still make for a nice contrast to play-by-play-man Logan's extremely traditional approach. Moreover, on April 20, immediately after news broke about the shootings at Columbine High School, Hastings and Logan -- not members of the KOA news department -- anchored the coverage with sobriety and decorum, providing basic information and, as fathers themselves, offering frequent expressions of compassion for those who might have lost loved ones. To Martin, leaving the Zoo keepers in charge on such a day was an easy call. "I feel comfortable having them do whatever needs to be done on this radio station," he notes. "When people turn on the radio at three o'clock, they're doing it to hear what they have to say, whether it's about a police killing or penis jokes."
Of course, Hastings remains much better known for the latter. On a show this summer, for instance, his discovery that sperm contains zinc, a mineral lauded for its effectiveness at fighting the common cold, led him to goad listeners into guessing the last time the very pregnant Wargin's husband Mike slipped her a health-giving "injection" -- a routine that Wargin heard about when she got home. "Mike told me, 'Well, honey, maybe we should keep some of this stuff private,'" she says, chuckling. "He's a teacher, and the kids don't tend to listen that much, but all their parents listen, and all the other teachers listen, too, and when we talk about him, he hears about it. Usually he doesn't mind, but that subject went a little too far for him." Judy Hastings, Scott's wife of seventeen years, knows how Mike feels. When Hastings recently tried calling her to ask if she sometimes pees in the shower, she made herself scarce. "The worst thing for her is caller ID," he contends. "Because if she knows I'm talking about women peeing in the shower and then I call, she is not going to pick up."
But Hastings's naughty talk is more akin to a preteen eager to see how his folks will react instead of like Howard Stern's calculated leering, so he seldom offends the surprisingly large number of females who tune in (much less the 25- to 54-year-old males targeted by Sports Zoo); Martin cites surveys showing that 75 percent more women visit the Zoo than any other Denver sports-talk program. But that hasn't prevented mainstream media writers such as the Rocky Mountain News's Dusty Saunders from denigrating Hastings's work: One Saunders column suggested that by focusing on "double-entendre dialogue" and "guffaws," Hastings was dragging down the staunch Logan. Martin has little patience for such criticism. "There are a lot of people covering the media around here who time has passed by. They should take a whiskey and go to bed. Scott tells a joke, and you have some of these people acting like he's the anti-Christ. They expect him to cross his hands and talk about morals all the time, but that's not Scott. He's a hip guy who gets into what he does. And he doesn't just do sports radio. He does entertainment radio."
"I don't want to exclude anybody," Hastings says. "Sports is always going to be the basis of our show, but the sports audience is only a relatively small part of the big audience out there. I'm not trying to be insensitive, but I want to push the edge of things. Radio is theater of the mind, and if I take you to the gutter and you see there's a turd there, that doesn't mean I said there was a turd in the gutter. You're the one who saw it. I'm just the one who took you there."
And he does so quite often. During one show, Wargin is showing off ultrasound pictures of her developing fetus. "Look," she says. "They got a shot of his scrotum and his wee-wee."
"Whoa!" Hastings interrupts. "'His scrotum and his wee-wee?' First you use a medical term and then you say 'wee-wee'? Why did you do that?"
"I don't know," Wargin answers, collapsing in laughter.
"Then again, how do some words get to be medical terms in the first place?" Hastings asks. "Like, who's the first one who called that a scrotum? Or gonads -- who was the guy who named them that?" He pauses before adding, "At least he didn't call them Hastings."
Despite the presence of Wargin, who also does a regular shift on hard-rocking KBPI-FM, Sports Zoo is very much a boys' club even when Logan isn't on the scene. (The head coach of Arvada West High's football team, Logan puts the Zoo on the back burner for most of the late summer and fall.) Just prior to the start of one recent program, Hastings sits in the middle of a clotted staging area outside KOA's downtown studio, his long legs splayed out like tree roots while Zoo producer Sokalsky, technical producer Ashley Sarrazin and a slew of interns scamper back and forth over them. Their male bonding has a hands-on quality; there's lots of butt-slapping and hair-mussing, and at one point, an intern jumps onto the back of a buddy and rides him past cubicles lined with award plaques and crammed with boxes, books, stacks of old 45s and a very prominent case of Henry Weinhard's Blackberry Wheat beer. In the tradition of middle-school jocks everywhere, these dudes attempt to prove how not gay they are by engaging in locker-room lampoons of homosexuality. At one point, Hastings asks Sarrazin if he needs a hug; later he offers to let Sokalsky sit on his lap.
Most talk-show hosts use the hour or so leading up to a broadcast to map out the program to come, but not Hastings. He and Sokalsky usually chat each morning, and Hastings may assemble some topics gleaned from newspapers and the like; Sokalsky also puts together a daily idea list larded with sports info and pop-culture data. But Hastings often ignores it. "I don't know if it's insecurity or what," he allows, "but I'll have three or four things ready to go, and then I'll be sitting in front of the mike ready to start, and I'll think, 'That's not funny.' And so I'll just say the first thing that pops into my head."
That's what happens when Hastings, holding a plastic cup into which he regularly spits juice from his omnipresent chewing tobacco, suddenly challenges Sokalsky, a onetime producer for ESPN radio who announces his dimensions as "5' 7", 145 pounds," to try to set a world's record by slamming thirty espressos in an hour. As if on cue, a doctor phones to say that by doing so, Sokalsky could wind up with an irregular heartbeat, which essentially puts an end to the scheme. Yet oddly diverting blabber about caffeine addiction and the like fills most of the next hour, and it's followed by chat about microwaveable plates, hating tomatoes and other ephemera that's spontaneously knitted together in a Seinfeld-ian demonstration of how to create a show out of nothing.
The arrival of comic Richard Jeni imposes some structure. A veteran of movies such as The Mask and the ultra-flop TV series "Platypus Man," Jeni is present to plug a local appearance, and he does so by rolling out twenty minutes of carefully memorized material. Hastings joins in by suggesting himself as the lead in a sitcom about (that theme again) a gay NBA player. Potential titles: "Posting Up Richard," "What a Swish," "Two Guys, a Ball and Some Dribbling" and, inevitably, "Rim Job."
After giving Hastings the name of a strip joint in Tampa Bay, where the Broncos are playing that weekend, Jeni does a bit about using Dick Clark's urine as a health drink and then departs, leaving Hastings with a difficult transition. "This is the hardest thing in this show," he notes off-mike during a news update. "Everybody out there's either laughing really hard or they're pissed off because he said 'urine.' And we need to get all of them back." Then, and only then, does he focus on the Broncos -- and he is rewarded when several callers respond with vigorous arguments for or against replacing Brian Griese with Chris Miller, a onetime Pro Bowl QB attempting a comeback with the Broncos after a series of concussions prompted his temporary retirement from the NFL. (Miller led the team to its win in San Diego.)
But while he listens as Jim on a cell phone says the team's poor performance isn't all Griese's fault and Pete in Boulder tries to heap blame on a defense that isn't stepping up, Hastings doesn't seem truly engaged. "I don't think I could do five days a week on who should be playing quarterback," he later admits.
He seems happier when bantering with Wargin, who gives as good as she gets and isn't afraid to work blue (or maybe light blue) when the subject turns to, for example, the prospect of her breasts leaking after she gives birth. "If that happens on the air, I'm going to have a little problem paying attention to the show," Hastings declares.
Still, the talk stops far short of the chortling sexual specificity that's a staple of many morning radio shows, and it's leavened by a fondness for -- believe it or not -- old-fashioned virtues. As seven o'clock nears, Hastings shares an anecdote about his oldest daughter being mildly ashamed to have him in the same high school football stadium with her, then casually asks if Wargin and her husband would like to join him and his clan at the next game. She agrees, and after she and Hastings sign off for the evening, she calls Mike and makes the necessary arrangements while Hastings puts his feet up on the counter and spits into his cup. "That's me," he says. "Just your average family man."
If this claim is a little off base, it's only because Hastings's background is more Leave It to Beaver-esque than most folks in the Nineties can manage. Hastings lives in a sprawling south-suburban home with his three kids (ages six to fourteen), a cat that he's somewhat embarrassed to admit is named Princess, and the personable, athletic Judy, who was his high school sweetheart. "We went to all the proms together," she says. "I actually asked him out the first time. It was a dance where the girls had to get a date, so I invited him."
In that regard, they've lasted longer than Hastings's own parents, who split up when Scott was twelve. But he and his two younger brothers got along fine with the principal/Episcopal minister his schoolteacher mom later married, and he depicts his school years as trauma-free thanks to Judy and a group of friends with whom he played every sport imaginable. His height made him best suited to basketball, and he went from helping Independence High win the Kansas state championship to an impressive run with the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. He was widely expected to be one of the first fifteen players chosen in the 1982 NBA draft, but that wasn't the way it worked out. He and Judy were flown to New York along with the year's other top prospects, yet every team in the first round passed him by -- making him the only player present to suffer such a fate. "That night, they put us up in this hotel where our view was a brick wall all covered with soot," Hastings remembers, "and Judy says, 'I don't care who you get drafted by, and I'll be happy anywhere, as long as it's not here.'" The next day he became a second-round selection of the New York Knicks. "It's lucky they didn't have a camera on [Judy]," Hastings says, "because they would have seen her just bawling away."
Scott and Judy weren't in a New York state of mind for long. In February 1983, during the All-Star break, Hastings was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks. He averaged seventeen minutes a game during his first season before suffering a knee injury, and by the time he returned, the Hawks had thrown their lot in with a new draftee, Kevin Willis, making Hastings the odd man out. Nevertheless, he stuck around Atlanta until 1988, when he was picked up by the new Miami Heat franchise in the expansion draft. After suffering through a season in which the Heat won just 15 of 82 games, he signed as a free agent with the Detroit Pistons. The team, built around unimpeachable talents like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and rough-and-tumble types such as Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman (just prior to his wedding-dress stage) promptly won its second consecutive NBA championship, with Hastings contributing a grand total of one point and one rebound per game. The next year, the Pistons' performance fell off for reasons that Hastings thinks may also be affecting the Broncos this year. "After the Pistons won again, a lot of the intensity was gone," he says. "Everybody was thinking so much about endorsement deals and that sort of thing that sometimes the last thing on people's minds was playing."
Following the 1991 season, Hastings was traded to the Denver Nuggets, but, as usual, he mainly collected splinters on his posterior. Yet Dan Issel, who coached the 1992 Nuggets and is back at the helm again this year, denies that Hastings was dead wood. They played against each other in the Eighties, and although Issel isn't sure that Hastings is the last person he dunked on, as Hastings contends, he says, "That might be right -- because if there's anybody I could have dunked on, it would be Scott." But he notes that when Hastings was with Denver, he played hard when called upon and worked behind the scenes with former Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo and others to sharpen their skills. "I think Scott would be the first one to tell you he wasn't the most talented player in the NBA," Issel says. "But with his size and his knowledge of the game, he was able to stick around, and he really helped the young players on our team understand how to act and be professional. He was very valuable in that role."
Maybe so, but the Nuggets still didn't offer Hastings a contract the next year, and while both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic expressed some interest in him, he and Judy decided that they'd had enough of the life of an NBA vagabond. "I still have a lot of pride that I played in the NBA for eleven years," Hastings says, "and sometimes it bothers me when a little kid will come up and say, 'My dad says you were terrible.' Because I was always very serious about what I did. I played with the philosophy that Moses Malone is a better athlete and a better basketball player than me, but he can't work harder than me, and if he's going to get twenty, it's going to be the hardest-earned twenty he's ever going to get in his career. And there were probably 25 games in my career where I didn't play a second until we were one point down with thirty seconds left and they put me in to inbound the ball because they knew I was someone who would make a good decision."
"There's a part of me who thinks I could still play now," Hastings adds. "But back then, I didn't want to uproot everyone again when I knew it might only be for one more year. So I retired at 33, knowing I needed to find a new career."
Hastings never thought he'd be in the media -- but in retrospect, his path to the microphone looks like part of a carefully conceived strategy. In Detroit, reporters discovered that while he didn't put up big numbers, he gave good interview, which led to guest spots on a classic-rock morning show and a Sunday-evening program hosted by sportswriter Mitch Albom. In Denver he continued in this vein, regularly popping up alongside morning personalities Lewis and Floorwax on the Fox. But his big break came in 1993, when writer Scott Gummer profiled him in Life magazine under this heading: "The 12th Man: Scott Hastings is 6'10" tall. He was a high school hero and a college star. He makes $600,000 a year in the NBA. He almost never plays -- but that's his job." In the piece, Hastings scoffs at his basketball prowess and expresses his desire to someday appear on Late Night With David Letterman. That was one of the most widely read Lifes of the Nineties (Charles and Di were on the cover), and a couple of weeks later, Hastings's dream came true: The Letterman folks called, and before he knew it, he was in New York horsing around with fellow guest Bruce Willis.
Post-retirement, Hastings found himself very much in demand in Denver, moving from a gig doing sideline reports for Nuggets games to co-hosting an afternoon radio show circa 1994 with Logan on KTLK, a brand-new outlet.
At first the pairing seemed an odd one. Logan had starred in three sports at Wheat Ridge High School and was drafted by the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball (the only person other than baseball's Dave Winfield who can make such a claim) before distinguishing himself as a receiver for the Cleveland Browns and the Broncos. But he was an established and much-respected media figure, earning Colorado Sports Broadcaster of the Year honors in 1992 and 1993 (he'd repeat again in 1997). Hastings, however, was a novice, and Logan had concerns about the arrangement. But he says they were less about Hastings than about shifting from an evening slot at KOA that didn't interfere with his coaching at Arvada West to "a station that nobody had ever heard of." KTLK's studios hadn't been built yet, so the duo was relegated to a production facility that Logan describes as "this little room that was about eight by ten feet. And since you had one guy who's 6' 10" and [weighs] 260 and another one who's 6' 5" and 230, we couldn't even stand up. We were in there with this kid, Al, who I don't think had even had much training being a board op, trying to produce the show, and no one knew that we were even on the dial. Sometimes it got so bad that Al would hop down under the board and call us himself."
But from the beginning, Logan believes, the chemistry between them worked. "Scott can be off the wall, whereas I'm probably a lot more introverted, much more serious. But the two of us mesh, and I think Scott's really helped me loosen up a little. I've had a lot of people say they never even knew I had a sense of humor until I started working with Scott."
The program earned an impressive audience share during its very first ratings book, and after a year on KTLK, it was transplanted to KOA, where it's been a cash cow ever since.
Putting Logan and Hastings together in the Denver Broncos broadcast booth was more controversial. "There were some people in our building, and some with the Broncos, too, who thought, 'This is an NBA guy, a guy who's liable to say anything at any time. He's not what we're looking for in an analyst,'" Logan says. But Hastings huddled with buddy John Elway and ex-Bronco Steve Atwater in an attempt to better understand zone defenses, passing alignments and other nuances of NFL football and even had Logan draw out plays to get him more familiar with x's and o's. The grousing about his presence stopped shortly thereafter, and in 1998, Hastings blindsided members of the journalistic community by scooping them on Elway's announcement that he would play one more season. But the attention he received for doing so didn't make him eager for more such glory.
"I ended up doing like forty interviews around the country," Hastings says. "Afterward I told John, 'Next year, if you decide to play again, tell somebody else.'"
But Hastings won't turn up his nose at fame as a nationally syndicated radio personality. By beaming Sports Zoo into Fort Collins, Clear Channel has taken the first tentative step in that direction (just as it's now sending Peter Boyles's KHOW morning program to a station in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and KTLK's Business for Breakfast to a Casper, Wyoming, outlet). Billed as "the 50,000-watt voice of the West," KOA already booms into Fort Collins -- but it doesn't market to Northern Colorado advertisers, so putting the Zoo on Fort Collins's KIIX gives local advertisers "a chance to buy a show that might have been unaffordable for them before. They can now listen to the Zoo but also get local news, weather and sports updates and win local prizes," says Clear Channel's Bertolucci.
In the short term, Bertolucci notes that Denver will likely become a "regional hub" whose programming will increasingly appear on outlying stations in Colorado and neighboring states, thereby upgrading content quality and, not coincidentally, saving money for Clear Channel. But when it comes to Sports Zoo, program director Martin sees even more possibilities. "The biggest problem with syndication is that you've got to be good at spinning all your stories nationally, so there'd have to be some changes," he says. Adding Wargin to the mix has broadened the program's appeal, he notes, "but the big magnet for Scott and Dave isn't that they talk about the Broncos. It's their humor, the electricity and their personalities. And I think that could translate anywhere."
While Logan is open but cautious to the idea of going national, Hastings is enthusiastic. "I don't want to settle for the Zoo being a run-of-the-mill sports show, I don't want to settle for being entertaining just three days out of five, and I don't want to be satisfied with being just in this market. I want more."
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