At 10:20 on a Wednesday morning, the Denver Post's Woody Paige strides into his paper's newsroom wearing a cream-colored suit, a pricey tie and a hairstyle that would look more at home on American Idol host Ryan Seacrest than it does on a 57-year-old sports columnist. No scribbler in his right mind would affect such an appearance for a day of pavement pounding, but that chore isn't on Paige's agenda. He's dressed for television.
Since last fall, Paige has been a contributor to Around the Horn, an ESPN offering (seen locally at 3 p.m. weekdays) that pits sports columnists from around the country against each other in a highly choreographed shouting match that reviewers have widely reviled. "I'm sure if you do a Google search, you'll find that this is the worst show in the history of television -- worse than My Mother the Car," Paige declares, in what winds up being only a modest bit of hyperbole.
Yet despite poisonous notices, the program, hosted by Gen-X poster boy Max Kellerman, has found a sizable audience of viewers attracted by its lightning pace, video-game-inspired graphics and air of gleeful rudeness. According to Paige, it's ESPN's most eyeballed show among TV watchers between the ages of twelve and seventeen. No wonder Horn was recently renewed for a second season.
In many ways, Paige is surprised that he's still involved. Early on, he says, "I sucked; the program sucked; I was losing sleep -- I was going to quit." He changed his mind after conversations with folks like remote-site field producer Jason Weindruch, who handles the Denver end of Horn. These chats helped him realize that "this show isn't for me, and it isn't for you. All the critics who hate it are my age, and this isn't made for people our age. It's for kids."
There are exceptions to this rule, of course; Paige says he hears from Horn blowers of various ages who live in the United Kingdom, where the broadcast is seen at night. Still, he's developed an unlikely following among the under-21 set, with a group of students at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University even basing a drinking game on his televised exploits. Kellerman has a mute button that he pushes to silence panelists whose remarks irritate him for one reason or another, and whenever he uses it on Paige -- and he uses it pretty damn often -- members of the Lehigh contingent guzzle down a shot. Move over, Bob Newhart.
Even more bizarre, if that's possible, is the existence of www.woodypaige.com, a Web site owned and operated by John Schelewitz, a Chicago software salesman, who forked over $14.95 for the domain name so he could pay cyber-tribute to the late-blooming TV star -- with Paige's belated permission. The site's news section chronicles the Wood Man's every Horn performance even as it aims barbs at the likes of Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, a graduate of the Denver market, who's usually referred to in the text as "Puke." Also on hand is a top-ten list of answers to the question "Why even care about Woody Paige?" (choices include "He's known as LL Cool W -- Ladies Love Cool Woody") and T-shirts available for purchase; at the request of Paige, who's a diabetic, some of the proceeds are earmarked for the American Diabetes Association. A recent Post mug shot appears on the back of each shirt along with the Web site address, but up-front slogans come in several varieties, including "Misunderstood, as Genius Often Is . . .," "I Can't Be Muted!" and, inevitably, "Got Woody?"
Plenty of people do now. Schelewitz, 32, who says Paige's "personality is appealing across the board -- he has a different level of charisma," launched the Web site on May 5 only to have it crash three times because of, he insists, higher-than-anticipated traffic. He's also sold nearly a hundred shirts to Paige-a-holics from as far away as Germany. The Post, meanwhile, has received so many requests for autographed Paige photos since Around the Horn debuted that it printed up 2,000 of them -- and half are already gone.
The thought of Paige as a hip, lovable youth icon will strike many locals as thoroughly incongruous. After all, he has been writing about sports and other topics in Denver since 1974, and over that span, he's gotten into more than his share of trouble: Take a Mormon-needling column penned during the Salt Lake City Olympics that made him about as popular in Utah as the kidnappers of Elizabeth Smart ("Woody Goes Limp," February 21, 2002). Even Paige's supporters, of whom there are plenty, often see him as curmudgeonly, and in conversation, he can be. He claims that he's "not a sports fan," says he'd rather watch Trading Spaces than ESPN, regularly mentions divorce and depression (he's dealt with both), and declares, "People don't really like me here. I'm not well liked by people who work with me."
If that's true, the taping of Around the Horn probably has exacerbated the situation.
ESPN wanted the participating columnists to speak from their respective newsrooms and paid to transform a space near the border of the Post's sports and business departments into a mini-studio loaded with high-tech equipment. For instance, the Ikegami camera that stares at Paige is remote controlled from Atlantic Video, a Washington, D.C., facility where Kellerman is located. The building also serves as the base of operations for Pardon the Interruption (a sports-yak show featuring Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon that strongly influenced Horn) and, oddly enough, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
What looks like the camera's teleprompter is actually a screen that allows Paige to see Kellerman and the other three columnists -- on this day, Plaschke, the Boston Globe's Michael Holley and the Chicago Sun-Times' Jay Mariotti -- in close to real time; there's about a half-second delay. To achieve this goal, intended to help personalities without TV backgrounds interact more naturally, the network needed fiber-optic lines whose installation required the Post to tangle with Qwest, a telecom whose foibles have been well-documented by the paper.
"It was a challenge," concedes Howard Saltz, the Post's associate editor for new media and strategic development. "It involved a lot of screaming and pushing."
In the end, the lines were put in place, and the gadgetry worked well, but the tapings are disruptive anyway for the simplest of reasons: volume. Whereas Paige listens to Kellerman and company through an earpiece, others in the newsroom sense nothing until he gets his chance to reply, which he usually does in the manner of a New Yorker hailing a cab. During taping times, the newsroom is at its most peaceful, with most of those present quietly doing their duty -- except for the recurrent sounds of a man yelling out-of-context responses at unheard inquisitors.
"The business department complains," Paige concedes, "and believe me, I understand." So does Saltz, who hired an acoustician to try and improve matters. After the day's taping, heavy, sound-absorbing curtains recommended by the expert are being installed on a set of windows opposite Paige and across part of the area leading to the business zone that's just out of camera range.
Not a moment too soon. At a signal from Weindruch, who does everything from applying Woody's makeup to dragging around an enormous piece of decorative Plexiglas nicknamed "the monster," Paige reacts to Kellerman's introduction of him by hollering, "Is your mom still dressing you?" A business reporter whips around in the direction of the racket, then sighs, looking exasperated but resigned.
The first take is stopped short, because of a screwup by Kellerman; the show is made to look as if it's shot live, but each segment is taped separately, and do-overs are fairly common. Kellerman's botch gives Paige an opportunity to refine his opening insult: "It's good to see your mom's still dressing you, Puke!" he bellows. Too bad Kellerman stumbles again. For take three, Paige counters Kellerman's assertion that Adam Sandler's clunky flick The Waterboy is the best football movie of all time. "You're ESPN's waterboy, Max!" Paige declares, earning his first mute of the program.
Next, Kellerman explains Horn scoring, which takes subjectivity to new heights; he awards two points for a good answer, three points for a great answer and uses the mute, which carries a deduction of one point, for "a worthless answer and to direct traffic." He adds that one columnist is eliminated after the end of the second and third rounds. Then it's on to the first topic, an NBA trade involving players such as Latrell Sprewell. Paige comes up after Mariotti, another writer with a Denver stop on his resumé, whom he treats with theatrical disdain. "You never have any answers, you only have questions!" Paige snaps. "Why do I always have to straighten you guys out?"
For this tirade, Paige racks up five points from which two points are subtracted, because he's muted twice more. He gets worse treatment when tackling a trade that brought outfielder Kenny Lofton to the Chicago Cubs -- a brief chance to speak, followed by three mutes that leave him mired in last place among the columnists. As soon as he's off screen, he gives the on-video Kellerman the finger. Earlier, he recalled being approached by a couple of tweens who asked what Kellerman was like. "He's a dick," Paige told them.
In the second segment, the columnists debate the actions of attention-seeking Los Angeles radio host Tom Leykis, who's named the Colorado woman accusing basketballer Kobe Bryant of sexual assault. After Holley presents his view, Paige states that many rape victims don't report such crimes, and suggested that others would stop coming forward "because of people like you" -- at which point he's cut off before he can amend a qualifier along the lines of "who want the name released."
Immediately thereafter, Paige realizes the comment might have come across like a personal attack on Holley. He apologizes to Holley, who doesn't seem to have been bothered, and asks the producers for a retake, which they grant because, Paige says, Plaschke inadvertently misstated a statistic involving the number of women who make false rape accusations. In the re-do, Paige focuses his wrath on Leykis, whom he deems "an absolute pig," but it doesn't help his score; he's racked up more mutes than points. As his video image is blacked out, he asks, "Don't you want to know my favorite football movie?" Kellerman mutes him one more time, giving students at Lehigh one last chance to get their drunk on.
Paige's showing is fairly typical. In general, he serves as comic relief, burning slowly as Kellerman muzzles him without apparent cause or inadvertently spewing words such as "humilifying," for which the others on the show give him no end of grief. But while he seldom finishes in the lead, Paige wins more laughs than any of his fellows -- particularly Mariotti, whom he says "has no sense of humor whatsoever" and obsessively keeps tabs on how often he's victorious. Not so Paige. "I don't take myself that seriously, and I don't take the show that seriously, either," he says. "It's supposed to be fun."
Despite his often grumpy demeanor, Paige is obviously enjoying the notoriety brought to him by Horn -- and the show's profile is on the rise, thanks to the taping of special editions that Paige likens to "the nighttime version of The Price Is Right." The first of these efforts ran just prior to this month's ESPY Awards show, which was marked by Kobe Bryant's first public appearance after the sexual-assault allegations came to light, and the next will fill the hour just prior to the August 2 NFL pre-season opener between the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With face time like that, Paige is likely to hear more observations like the one made to him by departed Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Todd Jones. As Paige relates it, Jones said, "I hate your column -- but I love you on TV."
The stations strike back: On the surface, the July 22 decision by Jefferson County commissioners to allow construction of a 730-foot broadcast tower on Lookout Mountain ends a conflict whose roots stretch back two decades. However, odds are strong that the battle between the Lake Cedar Group, which represents channels 4, 7, 9 and 20, and Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), a consortium of homeowners associations, is simply entering a new phase.
Previous tower applications, including one in 1999 that was intended to make digital television available in Denver prior to 2006 (a date mandated by the Federal Communications Commission), failed for a slew of aesthetic and safety reasons; one proposition was rejected because the "fall radius" of the tower left other structures in potential jeopardy. These issues are important to CARE members, but of greater concern are the potential health effects of radiation from antennas on the tower. Most broadcasters believe there's no proof such emissions cause cancer and other ailments among residents in the line of fire. After all, a 1999 Colorado Department of Health and Environment study that found higher cancer rates in some Lookout Mountain enclaves didn't establish a causal link between cancer and radiation, and a separate survey being conducted by Colorado State University won't be finished until next year at the earliest.
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Nonetheless, CARE spokeswoman Deb Carney believes the documentation argues strongly for caution. "We had a number of practicing physicians testify that the scientific evidence is accumulating to indicate adverse health consequences at the radiation levels we would be subjected to," she allows. "For physicians, the principle is 'Do no harm,' but the tack being taken here is, 'We're just going to keep increasing radiation until we see harm.' In our opinion, that's unethical and immoral."
Similar worries were voiced by hundreds of residents who attended a series of public hearings prior to the commissioners' ruling; only a relative handful of speakers were pro-tower. But Lake Cedar Group spokesman Fred Niehaus decries such rhetoric. "Deb and her group have done a disservice to people out there, and it's really troublesome and sad. They've incited a public outcry based on a fear factor they've helped create, and that's dead wrong." Niehaus emphasizes that the successful proposal addresses many of the concerns voiced by residents; it's not as tall as other models, won't contain FM antennas that sometimes create radiation "hot spots," will result in the removal of other towers currently on the mountain, and should lower overall radiation in the vast majority of locales.
Carney disputes this last claim and many others in terms that suggest CARE will file a lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court shortly after the formal tower resolution is drafted on August 19. Niehaus expects this action, but he says Lake Cedar will move forward with tower plans anyhow, even as it continues to counter what he sees as a disinformation campaign. "How many times did we hear people testify who said, 'We love Lookout Mountain; we moved there recently and had no concerns until we heard from CARE representatives, and now we're scared to death'?" he asks. "What they've done is unconscionable and disrespectful."
This rebuke doesn't seem to bother Carney. "We are not willing sacrificial victims," she says. "We will not go quietly."