It's been a long time since local listeners got a chance to hear former CU Buffs and Denver Broncos star Alfred Williams on the radio. After all, he announced that he would be leaving the afternoon program at 104.3 The Fan, his longtime broadcasting home, in order to climb aboard iHeartRadio flagship KOA, at 94.1 FM and 850 AM, way back in late February.
But when he's asked if it was frustrating to spend half a year sitting on the media sidelines because of a non-compete clause in his contract before making his KOA debut, scheduled for 3 p.m. today, September 3, alongside veteran iHeart executive and new partner JoJo Turnbeaugh, Williams's answer is a melancholy "No," for reasons of a family tragedy.
"In that six-month period, I was able to tend to my mother, and I was able to be with her in her last days before she passed away," Williams says. "She was living in Houston," his home town, "but right around March, she came up to Colorado to be with me, and she stayed until June. Then we took her back home, because that's what she wanted — and that's where she passed. So that was almost like a huge blessing."
The man known as Big Al has experienced plenty of those over the course of his life and career. In the years following his retirement from football, at the end of the 1999 season, he made a smooth transition to radio, and his on-air partnership with Darren "D-Mac" McKee on The Drive became the Fan's signature show and a formidable ratings blockbuster in the key 25-54 male demographic.
His leap to KOA produced a slew of ripple effects at several stations. After he joined up, iHeart killed Orange & Blue 760 ("All Broncos, All the Time"), combining the signal with a newly acquired FM to create Freedom 93.7, a conservative-talk outlet now anchored by syndicated star Rush Limbaugh, who'd been heard on KOA for a quarter-century. Meanwhile, over at the Fan, a long audition process for Williams's replacement seemingly ended in April with the pairing of D-Mac and Broncos Ring of Famer Tom Nalen. But this week, we learned that Nalen is moving to Massachusetts for family reasons, necessitating the creation of yet another new lineup. The triumvirate of D-Mac and two former Broncos, Tyler Polumbus and Nick Ferguson, is expected to launch in early October.
Turnbeaugh, for his part, was a surprise choice to become Williams's new wing man.
"JoJo is an interesting guy," Williams says. "Every time I would run into him, he always had a smile on his face. He was always glowing, and when I heard him on ESPN Denver with Les Shapiro, I was attracted to his energy. I think a lot of what you do in our business, on the radio, depends on your frame of mind, and I want to do good work with good people — especially positive people with great laughs. I tend to want to be with people who are positive more than anything else."
Over at the Fan, the powers-that-be decided to move forward with the D-Mac/Polumbus/Ferguson combo platter after an extensive testing period that included the recording of sample shows subsequently analyzed by station executives, consultants and focus groups. But that didn't happen at KOA.
"Still to this day, we have not done a dry run on what the show is going to sound like," Williams reveals. "We've had show prep, but we haven't had a real-life session of doing radio. The first time that will happen is on the air. The first time you hear us together will be the first time anybody has heard us together, and it'll be the first time we'll be able to re-listen to our conversations, whether it's a podcast or a re-broadcast."
Fortunately for all concerned, Williams doesn't want for opinions about the Broncos, which will be subject number one when the microphones open this afternoon given the end of the pre-season on August 29 — new coach Vic Fangio's squad defeated the Arizona Cardinals 20-7, bringing their record to 2-3 — and weekend cuts that brought the roster down to the mandated 53-player limit in advance of the September 9 kickoff against the Oakland Raiders.
"I think things have gone as well as they could possibly go," he allows. "I think the draft was good. I think the coaches they have on the staff are good. I think the quarterback [newly acquired Joe Flacco] is phenomenal. The only fear I have is that they won't get the credit they deserve because of the tough schedule they have. It's one of the most brutal schedules I've ever seen for a Denver Broncos football club. You've got Kansas City, touting the league MVP [Patrick Mahomes], you have the [Los Angeles] Chargers and the Raiders. It's very difficult. But they've upgraded the quarterback position."
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He adds: "One thing most people don't understand about football is that the team has to believe in the quarterback or they can't win the big games — the ones where this guy can give you a chance to win. Without having that guy in the saddle, you can't win big games in the NFL. It's impossible. And Joe Flacco does all the things good quarterbacks do. He can make all the throws. He has the demeanor to keep everybody calm in big situations. And he's won a Super Bowl. Case Keenum [the Broncos' starting quarterback last season] folded like a lawn chair when the pressure got to him. It was clear the moment was too big for him. And Joe Flacco is the adult in the room, a guy who can play three or four more years at a very high level, and a guy with a chip on his shoulder [after being supplanted as the starter for his previous team, the Baltimore Ravens, by rookie Lamar Jackson]. He's still a quality NFL quarterback."
Williams, for his part, took a temporary break from monitoring his radio rivals after splitting from the Fan. "My wife didn't let me listen for the first two or three months," he notes with a laugh. "But since then, I've listened to everybody around Denver and everybody around the country. I'm a sports-radio fan. I love it. I listen everywhere I can, so I can take what I want and use it in my own show, or learn not to do certain things. And I'm excited about this opportunity to bring good energy, good fun and good insight to what the Denver Broncos community has in store for them on game day, leading up to the game."
Just as important, he continues, "I now get to talk about my beloved CU Buffs — and I won't be penalized for that. I'm a huge CU fan, and I'm a fan of their new coach, Mel Tucker. I think there's going to be a rebirth."
The same can be said of Big Al's role in Denver media. And it starts today.