In late February, the Denver radio scene was shaken up when Alfred Williams, a former CU Buffs and Denver Broncos star universally known as Big Al, suddenly left his longtime broadcasting home, 104.3 The Fan, to accept a fat new contract with iHeartRadio's Denver division, which includes KOA and 760 Orange & Blue.
A non-compete clause in his old deal with the Fan means Williams won't be able to speak out on his new station or stations (his actual role is still in flux) until August 28 at the earliest. But Darren "D-Mac" McKee, who spun ratings gold with Big Al for close to fifteen years on their weekday afternoon show, The Drive, has been behind the microphone in his regular slot for the month-plus since the surprise announcement as a slew of personalities engaged in on-air auditions to become his new radio partner.
The winner: Broncos Ring of Fame center Tom Nalen, who makes his official debut as D-Mac's latest collaborator today, April 22.
Nalen, who was a teammate of Williams's with the Broncos, makes it clear that he's not going to try to be Big Al 2.0.
"I love Alfred," he stresses. "I think everyone does. If you don't love Alfred, you should be kicked in the shins. But if anyone thinks I'm going to replace Alfred, I can't do that. I'm the complete opposite of him. He has a big personality, a big laugh. He's fun to be around. And I'm kind of curmudgeonly and sarcastic at times. So I'm not replacing Alfred. I'll be doing my own thing — and hopefully, I can help win back whoever left the station because Alfred left, but also try to entertain people in my own way."
McKee, who's not exactly the shy and retiring type, either, sees it as a positive that Nalen isn't a Williams clone. "There are definitely people who consider me over the top, and I get it," he concedes. "But you don't have to be like that. You can be funny and subtle and snarky and be great on the radio if you're with the right person. And I've always thought Tom was brilliant."
The Williams move has taken McKee a while to process.
"It's been a crazy couple of months," he acknowledges, "and I've gone through a large range of emotion, because it was difficult for me to understand what happened and why. I really struggled with that over the past two months. But at the end of the day, I love Big Al and I really do want what's best for him."
Last week, he adds, "I reached out to Al before I knew everything officially with Tom just to say thanks — thanks for being a friend and a great partner. Al will always be a big part of my life, and I do miss him. We'll see each other; we only live a mile down the road from each other. But it was a tough transition point, and I feel better now, knowing that Tom's on board and we're moving forward."
The relationship between McKee and Nalen — radio and otherwise — goes back nearly two decades. Back in 2002, while he was still playing for the Broncos, Nalen did a regular Monday segment on the KBPI morning show that McKee co-hosted with longtimer Willie B and Marc Stout, whose recent dismissal from 760 Orange & Blue (along with two other personalities, Andy Lindahl and onetime Broncos great Ray Crockett) has insiders speculating that the moves were made in order to clear salary for Williams. Nalen subsequently tore his ACL, and McKee jokes that he thinks the injury was caused by his decision to do the show, since the Broncos offensive lineman routinely refused to talk to the press during that period. But Nalen says there was another culprit.
"I blame my haircut," Nalen says. "I had really long, nasty hair, and I cut it all off. That was some bad juju."
Nonetheless, the appearances laid the groundwork for a long friendship between the two, which deepened after their kids got into hockey and wound up playing for different teams at the same facility. "We would run into each other," Nalen recalls, "and he would kind of throw some barbs at me for my lack of listeners."
This last line is a reference to Nalen's post-football broadcasting career, which included a stint at ESPN Denver, where his pairing with Nate Kreckman earned a 2014 Best of Denver award for top sports radio show. But in July of that year, Nalen left the station by his own choice, with co-owner Tom Manoogian, best known to listeners as Lou From Littleton, telling us that he'd been offered a contract extension but turned it down. And in late 2017, Nalen also walked away from an Altitude Sports Radio program in tandem with Kreckman over problems behind the scenes. "It didn't have anything to do with Nate," he stresses. "I love him. He's fantastic. But even though the three hours on air were great, the other 21 hours were frustrating for me."
These departures and the year-plus he's been out of the radio game made Nalen wonder if the folks at 104.3 The Fan would be gun shy about considering him for The Drive. But he decided to get into the running in part because, he deadpans, "I needed to stretch my mind. I'm pretty isolated in my lifestyle. I go through days where I don't talk to anyone outside of my wife and my youngest daughter, who's still living at home. I feel like my brain's dying, so I thought I'd challenge it with sports."
He had plenty of rivals for the position. Among those who shared a studio with D-Mac after Big Al split were three other ex-Broncos, Orlando Franklin, Nick Ferguson and onetime Westword contributor Nate Jackson; Nicki Jhabvala, a writer for The Athletic (and ex-Denver Post scribe), and former Mile High Sports president James Merilatt, who are both now on the 104.3 The Fan payroll; Stokely & Zach co-host Zach Bye; Denver7's Troy Renck; and late 1980s/early 1990s CU stalwart and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Chad Brown. McKee has positive things to say about all of them, but singles out Brown for praise: "I love that guy. He's such a good dude."
Still, McKee believes that "there's this intangible with Tom that's impossible for me to match with anybody else. It's been a crazy process to be on with so many people that I really love, and the depth of talent we have at The Fan right now is kind of preposterous — impressive to say the least. But Tom is special. Of all these really great people, Tom still stands out."
Given The Drive's status as a Denver radio behemoth, particularly for listeners in the 25-54 male demographic, Nalen knows expectations are high. But that's one of the appeals for him. "It doesn't give me pause, because I'm not scared to fail," he says. "I've failed plenty of times in my life. But I love to compete, and I always wanted to compete with Big Al and D-Mac. I wanted to overtake them, so it's weird being on the other side. And now I want to compete against everyone else — to build on what they've done and go from there."
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He is ready, willing and able to talk Broncos with listeners, but he'd also like to broaden the conversation to include hockey, of which he's a big fan: "Anybody who's ever been on a little blade of steel on the ice can really appreciate how hard it is to do what these players do. I find it pretty awesome."
As for his dry sense of humor, he takes it out for a ride when asked about the fact that he and McKee both hail from Massachusetts. "We're only going to talk about how terribly the Red Sox are doing," he says through the tongue in his cheek. "That's going to be the whole show."
Not exactly, but McKee thinks their shared background will have an impact. "It'll be like hanging out at your favorite Irish bar talking about stuff, which tends to be sports," he predicts. "Sometimes I'll be louder. Sometimes he'll be louder. Sometimes we'll agree about things, and sometimes we'll disagree. But if you have a respect for each other, you can disagree all day and still walk away as friends. That, to me, is the most significant common thread I shared with Al, and I know I'll share that with Tom."
The Drive with D-Mac and Tom Nalen bows at 3 p.m. on 104.3 The Fan.