Darren McKee, who's better known to listeners of 104.3 The Fan as D-Mac, wasn't exactly an overnight success. Today, The Drive with Big Al & D-Mac, the afternoon show he co-hosts with former Denver Broncos great Alfred Williams, is among the highest-rated programs, sports-related or otherwise, on any metro-area radio station, as it's been for most of the pair's nearly eight years together. But as McKee tells us in the following in-depth interview, his career path prior to combining forces with Williams was marked by as many downs as ups, and probably more.
In conversation, McKee sounds a lot like he does on the air. He speaks so passionately that his words seem to come with their own italics and exclamation points, and he pulls no punches. Among those he roughs up below are a former program director and a general manger for radio giant Clear Channel who fired him twice — once at KBPI, where he mixed talk with rock, and later at My99.9 in Colorado Springs, during a period that he portrays as a long and arduous journey through the media wilderness. He also puts longtime Denver talk-radio icon Mike Rosen on blast and shares the moment when Willie B, his onetime teammate at KBPI, was so pissed off that he hurled a pen at his head.
As for Williams, McKee praises him effusively. But he also reveals that when they were first partnered, Big Al wasn't speaking to him — and hadn't done so for three months.
With the Broncos on the cusp of a key pre-season match-up tomorrow, August 19, against the San Francisco 49ers, during which quarterback Paxton Lynch will make a bid to become a starter (and attempt to avoid becoming one of the bigger busts in local sports history), it's the perfect time to meet one of Denver's most opinionated broadcasters. And don't worry about McKee holding back: As he readily admits in the following collection of highlights from an amazing ninety-minute chat, "I love to talk!"
Westword: Where are you from originally? And who would you consider to be some of your early influences in radio?
Darren McKee: I grew up in a suburb north of Boston, and my number-one influence was a guy named Charles Laquidara, who worked at WBCN in Boston. He did something called The Big Mattress on WBCN, which was a rock station; he did mornings, and, yeah, he played records. But he also had comedy, he talked about politics. It was just a mix of everything. And that's how I grew up listening to radio. I loved the funny stuff, I loved the social commentary on things. It wasn't your traditional morning-zoo sort of FM laugh-a-minute sort of deal. There was thinking to it. They talked to athletes, they talked sports, and they played rock music. Even though it wasn't a talk show, it was everything that I loved, and I loved it at a young age. I was like ten, eleven years old when I started listening to him, and I never really stopped. And I was fortunate enough to actually intern for him when I was twenty years old and I was between my sophomore and junior year of college. I went to Syracuse, but I came back home because I got that internship. Man, he was it....
The progression of sports talk, to me, evolved from the roots of that sort of radio in the beginning. I was not a music-radio fan; I didn't like music-radio guys even though I was one for many, many years. But that's how you start. Because who in the world wants to listen to a 21-, 22-, 23-year-old kid talk about anything? But that's how you get into radio....
There was no sports talk back then, not really. A pre- or a post-game show or a couple of hours on the weekends, something like that. But there was nothing like there is now. When you heard people talking on the radio, it was your typical morning-show radio, perhaps. But no Howard Stern. I didn't listen to Howard Stern at all growing up as a kid. I was in Boston, and he wasn't in Boston. It wasn't until I got to Syracuse that I even learned about somebody like Howard Stern. I have a great deal of respect for Howard Stern, but he wasn't an influence; I didn't know anything about him. Didn't know anything about Top 40 radio. Boston was a rock market. New York City was more of a hip-hop/Top 40 market. And when I got to Syracuse, everything changed. My college radio station at Syracuse, WJPZ, Z-89, was a contemporary-hits radio station, which I thought was awful.
What were the contemporary hits when you were in school?
Oh! We're talking Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Madonna, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses. Top 40 radio back then played everything. It's so segmented now. You had a George Michael or whatever the hits of the day were — Rick Astley, all that shlock. It was 1987 when I was a freshman, and I worked at that radio station for six years, which is crazy. My wife was my girlfriend then, and she was a year behind me — and I got a job at a rock station after I graduated. But after I graduated, I still worked at the college radio station. I worked there for a full year and change, just doing a variety of things.
Were you paid? Or was it for fun?
It was definitely for fun, but we didn't treat it like that. If I've had any amount of success in what I've done, it's because I went to a college where kids took the media and broadcasting so seriously. Yes, it was fun. But we, the students, got no funding from the university, so we had to go out and sell sponsorships. It was non-commercial, so you couldn't sell traditional commercials, but you could say, "This hour of music is brought to you by XYZ." It's just like NPR.... We were like that. You couldn't run nine commercials an hour; you could run one. However, the rules were looser on what you could do for promotion. We could do a promotion and say, "Hey, we're going to give away a trip to Florida" or whatever. And then you could roll out the sponsors, say, "It's brought to you by Pepsi, and it's brought to you by this, and it's brought to you by that." And you could sell it like that, too. And because we sold our own sponsorships, we kept the radio station on. We paid the rent, we repaired whatever we had to repair. There was no digital programming in those days. Some of the music was on records, if you could believe that, but most of the music was on carts, which look like eight-track tapes. You would put each individual song on these carts; the commercials, the sponsorships, the imaging — all of it would go on carts. And the DJ had to make sure all of these things fired. That was work! If you go into a radio station now, there are no CDs, there are no carts. Everything is digital, and I've done plenty of that, too, and I'm not against progress. But I'm telling you, if you wanted to really get involved, wanted to get on the air back then, you had to prove that you could run the radio station itself. You had to hit the buttons, you had to be on the air live. We didn't tape anything. And we stayed on 24/7, 365.
My thirty-year anniversary of my first on-air shift ever is coming up on Thanksgiving. I stayed at Syracuse my freshman year to do the 2-to-6-a.m. shift on Thanksgiving night and the next night as well. That's how busy the station was in terms of getting air shifts. That's what I had to do in order to get on the air for the first time at my college radio station. But the reason I'm pointing this out is that the environment was so competitive, and I worked with so many talented kids. Newhouse, the school of communications at Syracuse, was highly overrated, because all of those professors, all they taught was theory. And I wanted to do it; I wanted to be in the mix. I wasn't the greatest student, that's for sure. But I was finding my competitive spirit at the radio station, because everybody was pushing everybody else. And that lesson has served me well through some ups and downs, for sure. It's a brutal business.
Syracuse is well known for having lots of alumnus who've been big in sports journalism. Did you work with or take classes with any folks who've gone on to those kinds of careers?
I worked with Mike Tirico [longtime host of Monday Night Football now with NBC]. Mike never worked at WBJZ, but he was a senior when I was a freshman, and we actually crossed paths because he started doing sports reports at the professional radio station I ended up working on: KIX-FM, a classic-rock station. He did a sports-talk show on WFBL, a station that was known as Music of Your Life — which was Frank Sinatra music. For whatever reason, the general manager sold this one-hour sports-talk show, but Mike would get no calls. As famous as Mike is now, he was just a kid then.
KIX-FM was in the same building, and I was doing the Sunday night six-pack on the rock station, where you just put on the CD and you did nothing. You just let the CD track through. You're like "Here's Tom Petty, and there you go," or "Here's Led Zeppelin, and there you go." But Mike and I literally shared a pane of glass, and when the CD was playing, I'd call in as Fred from Solvay and talk about whatever Syracuse thing was going on. And he appreciated it, because it was an hour to kill....
A lot of other people went to Syracuse when I did, too. Ian Eagle, who's been on CBS for a long time. Howard Deneroff, who's in charge of Westwood One programming. Craig Carton, who's the sports-talk host on WFAN in New York City with Boomer Esiason. Mitch Levy was there; he's been in Seattle for 35 years. And there were tons of other guys kind of like that. So the environment in terms of broadcasting was awesome. We didn't know what everybody would turn out to be, and most people who worked at the radio station haven't stayed in radio. There's really only a handful of us who've remained broadcasters throughout the years. But the things these people have done have been unreal in terms of their professional lives. It's the whole iron-sharpens-iron thing. Not to go all biblical on you, but that really was the case at that radio station. It taught me how hard you had to work in order to go after what you want to do, and it taught me that if you don't have the heart for it, if you don't have the gumption for it, you probably shouldn't be in this business, because it is so difficult. And it was difficult for me early on. It wasn't easy.
What else did you do at KIX?
I was a morning-show producer, and then the morning-show guy left — he went to a competitor — and they hired me as a 22-, 23-year-old, just out of college, to host the morning show with a buddy of mine, Ed Wenck. Ed's got a funny name, but he's been in broadcasting forever; he's a big name in Indianapolis now. And I didn't realize that the reason they hired me was to fire me. They were a small company, and they were fixing to sell the radio station. I thought I was awesome, and that's why I was hired. But when I look back on it, the reason I was hired was because they were going to sell the radio station and they needed somebody to literally keep it on the air. They had no intention of doing anything with me in the future. So they sold the station, turned country, fired all of us, and I ended up getting a job as a producer at a rock station in Buffalo.
That was a big mistake for a while, because I went backwards. I went behind the scenes. I was a producer, not a host, and I stayed in that producer role for more than ten years. Yikes. I was offered a job at State College, Pennsylvania, but I thought, "Ah, it's too small." And going from Syracuse to Buffalo was actually a big deal. I went around and around the mill in Buffalo, but I got into talk radio. My first real talk-radio gig was a show called Infomania. It was on from 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays, and I worked with Dr. Jenny Bagan — and it was crazy. Aside from cursing, you could talk about anything. It was billed like a health show, a public-service show. But I was the comic relief. Jenny was the serious person. And this was before Loveline with Adam Carolla. He came on after we were doing what we were doing. We were copying a show out of New York City, which was way before Loveline.
So when someone would call in about their sexual problem, you'd riff on it?
Give me a sexual problem! "This itches. This is sore. I don't know what this is. I think I'm a lesbian." It was all that. So I would riff a little bit, and then I'd go, "Dr. Jenny, she thinks she's a lesbian. Can you help her out?" It was so much fun, because it was talk radio, and I was finally doing it. We weren't playing records. All the other shows I was on, the morning shows, we would talk and have fun, but we'd play records, too. No records here, no songs. And I loved it. I did that for free for ten months. I didn't take a dime. The guy that had been doing it was Bob Richards, who came out to be a programmer in Denver, which is how I got here eventually. And I just said, "I want to do it." He helped me out in terms of replacing him. But then we got a new owner of the radio station, and he didn't like the tone of the show. He thought you should just be like, "Hello, next caller. You're on with Jenny." I wasn't interested in that. So after doing it for ten months for free, I stopped doing it.
But I loved the element of doing talk radio, and when I was in Buffalo, I was offered a job doing the pre- and post-game for the Buffalo Sabres. That was my first foray into doing sports talk. The play-by-play guy in Buffalo was so popular on TV that they decided to put him on radio; it was Rick Jeanneret and Jim Lorentz, and Rick was the main guy. They needed somebody to link the TV with the radio simulcast, so I had to sit in the studio and watch the TV. I kind of knew when they were going to go into commercials and come out of commercials. So I'd watch and then go, "Now it's time for Sabres hockey!" And then they'd pot things up. I did the pre-game in between periods and the post-game, and the post-game was an hour-long show at the Marine Midland Arena, where we'd talk to the players and coaches and do a live show in front of people. I did that for an entire year — but I knew I didn't want to stay in Buffalo. I'd been there for around six years at that time. It was a great run. I did all sorts of stuff in Buffalo: ups and downs, hired and fired for a variety of reasons. But I enjoyed my time in Buffalo.
Then I had to make a decision. I was sort of slowly getting into sports, but then I was hired at KBPI. I was actually offered a job in Boston at WAAF at the same, exact time I was offered at job at KBPI. WAAF was a direct competitor to WBCN, and I was offered a job on the morning show as the third guy — the producer, news, sidekick kind of guy. I thought that was going to be my dream. I thought I was going to be on WBCN, but still, I had a chance to be on a morning show that still exists now — Greg Hill, Hill-Man in the Morning — and this was back in 1999. But I turned it down to take the job at KBPI, because KBPI was more money, the dollars went further, and I went skiing in Vail on one of my visits and was just blown away by Colorado. And I really found I'm much more of a Colorado guy than an East Coast guy, despite growing up there. I'm into the mountains, into skiing and hiking and camping and all of that stuff, and in spite of the fact that it was so hard to leave my parents and my family, when they really thought I was going to come back home to Boston, it was the best decision of my life, for sure. I don't regret making it.
What were the highlights of your time at KBPI?
When I was originally hired at KBPI, it was not with Willie B. It was with Craig Carton and Marc Stout. Think about that for a second. And the name of the show, which I came up with, was The Locker Room.
Bob Richards foresaw what was going to happen with sports-talk radio. In 1999, there were no FM sports-talk stations on in Denver whatsoever. But he foresaw a format different from Lewis and Floorwax. They were really about the comedy, and about music — the blues and that sort of thing. And Bob's vision was to do a morning show that skewed a little bit younger and focused on sports. I said, "What do you think about calling it The Locker Room," and it was with Craig Carton, who's now the number-one talk-show host in New York City; Marc Stout, who's been in Denver since the mid-’90s and was on with Root and now AT&T Sportsnet doing Rockies games; and me. That was the three people on the show. That's the show I thought I was joining, and I did join that show. But then Craig's wife didn't like Denver. She wanted to move back to Philadelphia, and he quit after six months — and I got Willie. And Willie and I got along great, but he doesn't know anything about sports. We had been doing a show with three guys who were all really into sports; it was great. It was sports, it was hard-rock music, it was girls. And man, we had fun with it. It really was a very early version of what FM sports talk is now. We played Godsmack and we played Metallica and we played Led Zeppelin, but we talked about the Broncos, we talked about the Avs. We really did everything that sports talk is now. But when they hired Willie, I'll never forget this: We worked together for five years, and one day, Willie comes in, and we were talking about the Super Bowl, which was the day before. And Willie says, "Oh, I forgot it was on. I only saw it after half time." So I'm supposed to do a morning show....
This really isn't against Willie. He is what he is, and for the people who love Willie and that station, he's perfect; he's the king. But Marc and I weren't into rebuilding our cars, we weren't into dirt biking. We were into sports. We watched the Super Bowl. Crazy. Sometimes the show was brilliant, because the dichotomy of personalities was unbelievable. But in the end, sadly for me, Bob Richards left to go run a cluster of stations in Colorado Springs, and this real uber-awful person, Mike O'Connor, was put in charge. And he is the essence of everything that's wrong with radio. Everything that's wrong with radio can be tied into this guy, Mike O'Connor. He was the worst. He was all about numbers, not about people. He could not form a human connection with other people. He one time brought us into an office and said, "I've got to know that anything you're going to say is better than Godsmack into Led Zeppelin." And I thought, what an awful thing to say to people who are trying to be creative. I'm pretty sure "The Immigrant Song" into "Awake" is pretty good, and I don't know if my riff on Michael Jackson is going to be better than that. But I do know this: Great personalities always top great music. The hard part is finding great personalities, and there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do that....
We did that format for a few years, and eventually Mike O'Connor and the general manager at the time, Mark Remington, fired me. Lee Larsen, who I really liked, was kind on his way out. I loved Lee, I wish he'd stayed around. But Mark Remington, he was taking charge, and he's the one who actually fired me. It's his name on the termination papers or whatever. He canned me. Total idiot, total moron....
I really don't pin the blame on Willie after all these years. I wasn't thrilled by it. Willie was trying to work his way up, become the program director, and he had his goals and dreams and aspirations and visions of the way things were. It was really Mike O'Connor who ruined that station and ruined that show and all that stuff. I think Willie's done an amazing job over the years, and I give him all the credit in the world.
People say, "Maybe they did you a favor." But I would have liked to have had that favor done for me on my own terms. As it turned out, it was good for me in the long run, but not right away, because I went and worked in Colorado Springs — which wasn't good for me. That was awful. But I needed a job, and I didn't want to move my family. I had two young kids at the time, I had just bought a house, which thank God I still live in now, and I was dedicated to keeping my family stable. If I just wanted to make money and work in radio, I would have done what every other radio guy does, which is to move from market to market to market. I easily could have done it. I had the background and the resumé. I'm sure I could have picked up and moved somewhere else. But I wanted my family to have stability. My kids were, like, seven and five years old, and I just wanted them to be able to stay in the same school.
I've got an unbelievable wife who was willing to roll with me. I met her in college, and we've known each other since we were nineteen and eighteen years old; our 23rd wedding anniversary is coming up. We've been together since 1988, and it's awesome that I've had such an amazing partner in this business — and you need one, that's for sure. My oldest son just went off to Arizona State, and my youngest son is a sophomore at Smoky Hill High School....
But after I got fired at KBPI, I had to commute to do mornings in Colorado Springs. So for years, I woke up at four o'clock in the morning and drove to Colorado Springs to do mornings and other stuff there.
What was the name of the station in the Springs?
It was My99.9. It was a hot AC. I had done rock radio for twenty-something years, and all of a sudden I'm on a station that's playing Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. It was brutal. But I did it because as a radio professional, you can't get too hung up on what the format is. And I actually became program director. You have to do everything when you're in a smaller market....
I got that job within three weeks of being fired from KBPI, which was great. But six weeks later, I was hired by Kris Olinger to do talk shows on KOA! In the same building! They hadn't even deactivated my pass code, which I thought was a riot. They closed me out of the email, but they hired me to do talk radio. I went from the third floor, where the music stations were, to the fourth floor, and I started doing weekend talk radio on KOA. And I loved it. I thought it was awesome.
Were you doing all this while you were working full-time in Colorado Springs?
That's right. I'd work in the mornings Monday through Friday and sometimes on Saturday, in Colorado Springs. Sundays I was on in KOA, and I filled in on the afternoons, primarily. But if they needed me to do a morning, I'd take a day off in Colorado Springs. So I was working seven days a week for basically two and a half years. I never turned a shift down.
At the time, KOA was 24/7 news talk. Live shows, all the time, overnight, on the weekends, every shift. It was me, Reggie McDaniel and Sean Rima. We were the weekend guys. And I thought it was fantastic. I loved doing it. Shortly thereafter, they asked me to do fill-in shifts at KHOW. I filled in for Caplis and Silverman, I filled in for Peter Boyles. I loved KHOW. It didn't matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat. I did tons of shows with George Brauchler, who I think is running for governor right now....
Me and George Brauchler did so many shows together, that we thought they were going to hire us to follow Caplis and Silverman. Caplis and Silverman were doing afternoon drive, and we thought they'd hire us afterwards. We used to call ourselves Caplis and Silverman Lite, not because we were lighter in tone, but just because we were smaller. Caplis and Silverman were larger guys. Me and George did tons of shows together, and even though George and I could not be more politically different, he's a great guy. What he went through with the Aurora theater-shooting trial was something else. I probably won't vote for him, but I wish him the best of luck. He's honest with his opinion, and even though it would be different from mine, I could respect it. I had a great time, and I loved working with Craig Silverman. They never let me fill in for Craig; Dan would just do the show by himself. But when Dan was gone, they'd ask me to fill in with Craig, and that guy is incredible. The intelligence on that dude. His voice is a bit quirky; he'll tell you that himself. But, man, did I grow to respect him, and I still do to this day....
One of the loneliest shows I've ever done was Thanksgiving afternoon, filling in for Caplis and Silverman. That doesn't sound necessarily all that bad — but the Broncos were playing! Talk about nobody listening to KHOW! And no commercials. They had one or two spots an hour for the four hours I was doing this. At one point, I opened up the microphone and said, "If you are listening to my voice, call. Because I've got to know why you're listening to this radio station at this particular time of day when the Broncos are on." And I got a woman who was a security guard in a meat-processing plant, and her story was unbelievable. She was in her fifties, and her daughter had gone through some really tough times, and she was just doing what she could do to help out her family. She gave me her life story, and I had her on for a half-hour or so. And it made me realize that everybody's got a story. If you can bring that out, if you can bring out the stories — not the scores, but the stories — that, to me, is the essence of great radio. That's what I was listening to when I was listening to Charles Laquidara when I was a kid. Those were the types of things that really got me excited about radio. What is the personnel connection? What's funny? What's interesting? What's compelling? All those sorts of things. That's why I fell in love with talk radio.
I also filled in for Jay Marvin on 760. Once, in the span of, I think, eighteen hours, I did a morning show on 760, I did an afternoon show on KHOW, and I think I filled in for Dave Logan on KOA. I was literally on all three stations doing at least a four-hour show during an eighteen-hour period. It was tough, but I loved doing it. Jay was quite a guy, and I thought 760 was where I was going to end up. But instead, they hired a guy named Mario something [Mario Solis-Marich], and he was in Los Angeles, if you remember this atrocity. They hired this guy from Los Angeles to do a local Denver show. This was after about two and a half years, and when they did that, I knew it was probably the end of the line for me there. I hadn't really clicked on with them. I really wanted to work in Denver full-time again, and I needed to get out of Colorado Springs, because I felt I was going to drive into a snow plow at some point doing that commute every day. And when 760 didn't happen for me, I was disappointed. I thought some way, in some form, something was going to happen. Maybe George and I would get a show or I'd get a show on 760. I was pretty sure KOA was never going to hire me full-time, because they pushed politically so far to the right. And as it turned out, they stopped doing weekend programming. There was the passing of Reggie McDaniel, who was such a wonderful guy. Sean Rima, he left for whatever reason. I was kind of on my way out. But it was a beautiful time for a short period, and I'm always grateful for the opportunities afforded me.
How did you wind up moving to The Fan?
During that time, I was talking to Tim Spence, who was program director of The Fan. You've got to remember, when I first got here, it was Irv and Joe radio. And I love Irv and Joe — but it was, "I remember Tommy. He was a great little shortstop for Arvada West back in 1954." Irv would literally sit there with business cards that people would give him and go, "Timmy's Plumbing. Good guy, Timmy." It was like that. Irv and Joe are icons, no doubt about it. But Irv and Joe didn't have to get ratings, they didn't have to drive revenue, they didn't have to do the things you have to do at most commercial radio stations, because it was just different. The expectations were different. It wasn't their fault. It's just that they came out at a different time.
When they put The Fan on FM, I thought, I've got to do this. I know how to do this. I can take all my FM sensibilities, my music background, my sense of entertainment, my use of sound. It was everything, and even though I wouldn't be doing political talk anymore, I still felt, I've got to be there. And I was almost there. I was almost the third guy with Alfred and Scott Hastings when they first went on the air. I'd had several interviews, and it was lining up for me to be their third guy, to be the radio guy between the two athletes. And then at the last second, it didn't happen, which bummed me out.
I would listen to Al and Scott, and they had some great shows. Just really entertaining, really fun. But sometimes they'd have horrible shows. They'd go off the rails, it would be boring, no one cared about what they were talking about. It was inconsistent, it was a roller coaster, it was up and down. When it was great. it was unbelievable, and when it was bad, it was unlistenable. It rode that sort of wave. But that being said, I'd still listen, no matter what. They were on from 1 to 3, and then they came over to FM....
Tim was great. He offered me a weekend shift on The Fan, and when he did that, I had to make a huge decision. I knew KOA wasn't going to be okay with me being on The Fan and doing politics on Sunday mornings on KOA. And Mike Rosen was complaining about me to management. Rosen was a turd, and he would do weird things. Like I'd be on in the weekends, and he'd need copy in a copy book that was in the studio — and instead of waiting for me to go to a commercial break, he'd just come into the studio while I was talking, get the book, get what he needed, then come back into the studio again while I was on the air and put the book away. I was like, "Hey man, we're only two or three minutes from a break, ever." No nice things to say, no words, ever. And then I found out he was coming to management with complaints about me behind my back. I was just scrapping, and this guy, who was well established and full time, he could have just not said anything. I'll bet if you asked him about me, he'd deny even knowing who I was, to be quite honest with you....
Anyway, I was still working for Clear Channel in Colorado Springs. I'd never quit that. So I ended up leaving KOA, which was tough. I admit that I looked down a little bit on talk radio at the time. After doing gun control and immigration and all these big issues, to go talk about the Seahawks are playing the Broncos felt a little different. But I was wrong. When I did sports talk, I realized, this is the connection. There are good things going on. This can be done in an entertaining way.
You eventually moved from just doing weekends at The Fan to weekdays, right?
They put me on with Oren Lomena, who was fantastic, and they ended up moving us to 7 to 9 at night — not full time, just on an hourly basis. But when we were on from 7 to 9, we didn't hold back. We had nothing to lose. Oren was trying to be a hip-hop star, I was trying to support my family and still work in Colorado Springs. We felt like they gave us the keys to the castle, and we had a blast. We turned radio on its head. We took a morning-show mentality to sports talk, and it was a blast. We had so much fun with it, and we were convinced that The Fan was going to put Al and Scott in afternoon drive and we'd do 1 to 4, middays.... That's what we were hoping for. But they came to me and offered me the job with Alfred, and I'm pretty sure I was the sixth or seventh choice.
I think there were many, many people in front of me. I'd done some fill-in with Al when Scott was on the road — but then Al got really pissed at me. Alfred hadn't spoken to me for three months because Al got remarried, and when he came back, I said, "Alfred, you got remarried? That's like getting out of jail and then throwing a brick through the police station window." That joke always gets a laugh, every time, and that's the way it was intended. But it was a huge mistake on my part, because I hadn't built my relationship with Alfred strong enough. I assumed way too much. Alfred was very offended, as he should have been. It was his second marriage, and his wife, Kristina, is such a wonderful woman. He had all his relatives in town, and here's this guy who he doesn't really all that well — we'd done maybe 20, 25 shows together — making this kind of joke. It was a mistake.
I apologized, but he wouldn't take my calls. Tim Spence wouldn't set up a meeting so that me and Al could sit in the same room. I sent the radio station barbecue I knew Al would love. Al wouldn't eat any of the barbecue. He was done with me. He didn't want anything to do with me.
They were talking about Al doing afternoons, and I think Marc Moser got brought up, I think G-Man got brought up, I think all sorts of different people got brought up and it didn't work out. And if I owe anything to anybody, it's one guy, and that's Steve Price. Steve Price was the sales manager, and Bob Call was the general manager, and he's still there. And Steve went to Bob and to Tim Spence, and at the time he had a little bit more power than Tim Spence. Tim helped me out by getting on there, but I don't think he was really for me to be the permanent afternoon host with Al for a lot of reasons — reasonable reasons. But Steve said he thought he could sell me and Alfred. He was convinced that his sales department could do that. Because me and Oren had been successful at night. We had sponsors, and we did all kinds of stuff that made money for the radio station in a time period when nothing was going on. So Steve was convinced he could do it.
But I hadn't talked to Alfred in three months — and now they were offering me a full-time job on The Fan with him. I was shocked. Shocked! But it was a no-brainer for me to take the job. And then I had to make one of the toughest phone calls I've ever made in my life. I had to call Oren, who I love, and say, "I cannot turn down this opportunity." I just couldn't do it. Like I said, I had the house, I had the kids, and I loved Oren, but I couldn't turn down the deal. And by the way, it was only a one-year deal — and it wasn't for the largest amount of money in the world. The offer was such that I didn't quit my job in Colorado Springs. For about six months, I would work in the mornings in Colorado Springs and then do afternoon drive on The Fan. I thought, I wonder if I can do this for two years?
What happened after six months to change things?
As it turned out, they sadly fired Bob Richards in Colorado Springs for all sorts of wacky reasons. They shouldn't have, but they did. And then Mark Remington, the same guy who fired me at KBPI, he was the guy they hired to replace Bob Richards. The guy who fired me in Denver ends up being the GM of the cluster of stations in Colorado Springs. Unbelievable! The same guy fired me in two different markets!
But at the time, I'd been doing The Fan for about six months, and things were going well, and I was ultimately okay with it, although it was a lot of money. I had a full-time job in Colorado Springs. So that hurt. But things were going okay, and that was a job I was ultimately going to quit. I wanted to focus on what I wanted to do at The Fan.
How did you break the ice with Alfred after you were hired, since you hadn't been speaking?
When they took us into this little office at The Fan, it was the first time I'd been in the same room with Alfred in three months. But it turned out okay. There are so many great things about Al, but what Al has taken away from being a professional athlete is the attitude that things happen and you just sort of roll with the punches. He wasn't exactly warm to me at first, but before long, he was fine. I apologized for what happened, and he said, "Fine. Let's move past it."
This wasn't exactly set in stone forever. Remember, I only had a one-year contract. The money I was making in Colorado Springs was actually higher in base salary than I was making when I was hired in Denver. That's a little embarrassing. And it wasn't even close to what I was making when I was fired at KBPI years and years before that. But it didn't matter. I knew it was the right station. I had a good idea how to do it, and Al turned out to be amazing. Unreal. So it was probably awkward for five or ten minutes during that first meeting, and that's been it for eight years. How about that? Through all my years of radio, not only is Al one of my best friends, but he's the best radio partner I've ever had. Never mind being a broadcaster who was an athlete. I'm just talking about being a broadcaster. That's how good Alfred actually is.
I found out that Alfred was going to do his work, he was going to do his research, he was going to be on time, he was going to do all these things that you hear these nightmare stories about athletes who become broadcasters not doing. What he needed was just a little structure from the radio side of things.
You said things were so up and down on his show with Scott Hastings. How did that even out when you guys started working together?
It's simple stuff. Teasing breaks, making sure you're on time, figuring out that, yeah, this topic's good, and no, this topic's not good. That sort of stuff. That's really the artistry with radio. That's the tricky part, to really have a sense of what not to do. Just because you've prepared for hours and hours to do a show, that doesn't mean it's a good show. It just means you worked your ass off. And nobody wants to hear that you spent hours at a radio station looking up stuff on the computer. People want to know that you're out there, that you're doing stuff, that you're seeing things, that you're participating in life.
So it was stuff like that, and with Alfred, it was a piece of cake, because he's used to being coached. He's very coachable. He wants to know stuff. He's used to watching game film. He's got thick skin. He is not a prima donna. All that kind of stuff. His work ethic, everything in his life, made him so good for what he does. I don't think there's anybody in Al's role anywhere in the country as good as Al. Period. I don't think there's anybody as funny, that works as hard, that is as opinionated. This guy is unbelievable. I thank goodness every day. I am so thrilled that Alfred Williams is my radio partner. I'm grateful. We may bicker and that kind of stuff, but when we go to break, we're laughing, we're talking, we're fine. I would go to break with Willie B, and I thought he was going to punch me. There was one time Willie took a pen and threw it at my forehead....
Willie was an intimidating guy. I wouldn't stand a chance against him. But Al's 6' 6" and 300 bills. He's way more intimidating than Willie B in terms of just a physical presence. But that's never an issue. And thank goodness we sit down when we do the show. Because I think if I had to stand up next to Alfred, I think it would be too intimidating for me to do the show. We sit down, and we've had so many great conversations over the years. I'm so thankful for my time with Alfred, and I hope it goes for years and years and years to come. And what's crazy about me and Al is what we have in common. Alfred is only six months older than me, and we live one mile from each other — and we lived one mile from each other before we even knew each other. Our kids literally go to the same school. My son Dylan played on the same lacrosse team as Eric Williams this past spring. It's been amazing. And that's chemistry. That's nothing you can predict, that's nothing you can manufacture. It was such an amazing decision by Steve Price and Bob Call and eventually Tim Spence to go along with it — to put that together in the first place. I'll thank those guys for the rest of my life....
Don't forget Mark Schlereth was on the show for eighteen months. They hired Mark a little before my first year ended. They hired Mark to be the third guy on the show, and I became the traffic cop. It wasn't a role I was thrilled with, and when they hired Mark, I was pretty sure I was being moved out the door. They hadn't offered me a new contract, and they made me and Mark and Al work for maybe a month or so before they offered me a contract — another one-year deal. But the show was pretty good, too. Different from me and Al, for sure. After my next one-year deal, they offered me a two-year deal — but then Mark left, because we lost the rights to ESPN. No bad blood, no bad feelings. Mark is a great guy, and great at his job, too, obviously. We were bummed. We had developed a chemistry, a friendship. But Al and I were confident we could still do the job we wanted to do, and we did.
A lot of other traditional radio stations in Denver and beyond are struggling right now, but The Fan seems to be bucking that trend. Why do you think that is?
Sports talk radio is doing great, while other media is abysmal. I would never want to be a music-radio disc jockey ever again as a full-time job. I don't dislike them, I don't think poorly of them; I just think it's really hard to make an impact with that right now....
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I don't know how long this traditional-radio thing is going to go. I don't know what's going to happen. I am more convinced than ever that things are constantly going to be in a state of change. But I'm 48 years old, and if I can get ten more years out of it as a solid employee, I'm hoping at The Fan, and then maybe hang on part-time for another four or five years.... Give me a little shack up in the mountains so I can ski and write and read and those things, and I'll be a happy camper. I'm not done by any stretch, but I see where everything's going. And that's why sports talk is such a great format. Sports-talk radio is pop music for men in their thirties and forties, essentially. Pop music has a hit of the day; you want to hear the new music. Well, that's sports-talk radio. It's a music sensibility going into talk radio....
I got this job when I was forty years old, and I just turned 48. And that's how long it took for me in broadcasting — from age eighteen to forty — to finally find where I truly fit in. It's been an awesome run with Alfred. If you just look at the radio landscape in Denver, if we're not the longest-standing radio talk show in Denver, we've got to be close to it. And I don't take that for granted.
On my email — and it's not my only email, I've got other emails — there are the numbers 1041. And 104.1 was WBCN in Boston. It reminds me every day about that. And my phone, the first three digits are 719, because that keeps me humble and reminds me that for years, I toiled in Colorado Springs to get what I wanted. I've been at the radio station for eight years. I certainly could have gotten a new phone number. But I don't want to have a new phone number. I want to have a 719 number, so I'm reminded on a daily basis how lucky I actually am. I know that sounds very cliché and pie-in-the-sky. But with athletes, they need a chip on their shoulder. Well, that's the chip on my shoulder. I need it. I need to know 1041. I need to know why I started in this business more than thirty years ago. And I know I'm a thin hair from being back in Colorado Springs or some other place. I need to be reminded of that. That gets me up. That gets me moving. That gets me to the Broncos every day. That gets me to the press conferences. That gets me writing. That gets me going on a daily basis. That gets me wanting to give back to the community. I've run Colorado Flash Baseball, a nonprofit baseball organization, for five years. And hopefully, that gets me to be a good husband and a good father, which is really the most important thing.
I know it could all go away tomorrow. It's radio. Nothing is guaranteed. If you want to rest on your laurels, good luck to you....