Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lake Magazine Article: The Demon of Sports Talk

In 2004, I spent an afternoon sitting in on the afternoon sports talk show on ESPN Radio in Chicago--"Mac, Jurko & Harry." At the time, there was an obvious tension in the air. That tension reared it's head again last week, when Dan McNeil (Mac) and Harry Teinowitz got into an on-air fight--causing them both to be suspended for two weeks.

They posed for this picture just for the article, but Lake Magazine decided not to run it. That's Harry on the left, and Mac looking longingly into his eyes.

Read the quotes in the section about the three man booth, and you won't be surprised the tension came out on the air again.

The Demon of Sports Talk

By Rick Kaempfer

(From the Summer 2004 issue of Lake Magazine)

Dan McNeil doesn’t seem to have a filter that stops his thoughts from traveling directly from his brain to his mouth. It’s a trait that has been a double edged sword for the popular afternoon talk radio host on ESPN Radio (AM 1000) in Chicago. It has garnered him a loyal following of listeners who know he will give it to them straight. But it has also garnered him a series of public feuds with bosses and co-workers, and those have led to several suspensions.

Does he ever consider getting a filter installed?

“I try to filter,” said McNeil with a smile. “If what I’m going to say is going to hurt someone close to me, I try to, but I’ve not always succeeded. Whether it’s a family member who is out of line at a 4th of July barbeque that I light up the next Monday, or a friend who doesn’t bring contributions to the Sunday football fest at my home, I’ve said things that have hurt feelings. Most of the people in my universe understand that goes with the territory.”

It’s easier for friends, relatives and co-workers to forgive McNeil than you might imagine. They get over it pretty quickly because they know the harshest slings and arrows have a tendency to wind up in the rear end of the host himself. He has been candid about himself to a fault; particularly about his faults.

“I have given out a lot of things about myself,” he admitted. “I’ve admitted I abused substances. I’ve admitted that my marriage hasn’t worked. All is fair game on the show; if it’s interesting and what’s coming out of the radio in people’s cars is engaging, that’s what I’m looking for. And if it comes at my expense, the expense of my mental health sometimes, that’s the way it goes. A buddy of mine is on me constantly about giving up too much personal stuff, especially the demons. You know what? My attitude is simple. While I don’t talk publicly very much about my spiritual convictions, I believe my higher power has seen everything I’ve done, so what do I care what Mike in Schaumburg thinks?”

Back home again in Indiana

Most of the things his higher power has witnessed have taken place in Highland, Indiana; McNeil’s long-time home town. He grew up in Highland, attended high school there, and remains a resident to this day. The “tell it like it is” approach of the neighborhood is not the only thing that has rubbed off on McNeil.

“My dad was a production supervisor in Hammond,” McNeil said, “he worked his ass off—shift work. Most people in Northwest Indiana have a very strong work ethic. I saw Dad, even though it wasn’t in a white collar environment; commit himself to supporting his family. That’s the part of Indiana I bring with me to work every single day.”

“He puts a lot of time and effort into what he does,” agreed ESPN afternoon co-host John Jurkovic, another Indiana resident. “He has a great passion for his job. He’s got an intensity in the sports radio business that I don’t think a lot of people can match.”

Dan is a combustible potion of intensity, work ethic, and candor mixed together with a passion for sports. That potion has been Danny McNeil since his early days in Indiana.

“When I was eight,” he said, “Kenny Holtzman pitched his first no-hitter for the Cubs against the Braves. I was home sick with an abscess tooth that had been removed. I scored the game, then dragged my mom’s Smith Corona out of the closet and typed a one page story on his no hitter. I was a geek. I would turn the sound down and do play by play of Hawks games. I had this little portable cassette recorder. I remember recording WLS Music Radio’s Top 89 hits of the year on New Years Eve. I was fooling around with audio and writing and broadcasting even though it wasn’t to an audience…just into a recorder.”

He might have been a radio geek behind closed doors, but his love of sports wasn’t limited to watching and broadcasting from the sidelines. McNeil was the captain of the Highland High School football team as a senior, taking the team to its first conference championship in school history (1979). He tried to pursue that love of football at the next level, but that’s where his dream ended.

“I originally went to a Junior College because I thought I was going to play football. I realized after getting the crap kicked out of me every Saturday that I wasn’t going to make money at it. I was attempting to get a ride at Ball State…and I eventually did go to there, but it wasn’t to play football.”

He pursued his other dream instead. The dream that began with the Smith Corona typewriter and the cassette recorder blossomed at the communications college at Ball State. Ball State may not have offered Dan McNeil a chance to play football, but it did give him his first shot at hosting a radio show.

“It was 1981. I got a show on WBST-FM in Muncie playing the Ramones in the middle of the night. It was like the movie Private Parts. ‘If you like music, here’s Deep Purple.’ I was awful.”

But he got the bug. And although he got an offer to do radio in Fresno, the money and the location weren’t right. He just couldn’t see himself in California. The Indiana boy stayed close to home, and accepted the job as the Radio/TV writer at the Hammond Times newspaper. In what would become a habit at every stop in his illustrious career, McNeil let it be known what he wanted.

“They threw me a bone to cover sports because they knew I was going to miss it,” is the way McNeil explained it. “And covering sports led me to Chet Coppock. He was a pretty good self promoter in those days, and we developed a relationship. When Chet moved from WMAQ radio to the Loop (AM 1000) in 1988, his producer overplayed her hand. She wanted more money than the station was willing to offer her, so it quickly happened between Chet and me. I became his executive producer.”

The Big Bohunk

Chet Coppock was one of the pioneers of sports radio in Chicago. After overplaying his own hand at WMAQ television, he eventually landed at WLUP-AM, hosting the night time sports talk show after Steve Dahl & Garry Meier.

Producing a show after that famous twosome was more of a timing challenge than McNeil imagined it would be. Steve & Garry’s show was supposed to end at 7pm, but routinely ended at 7:05, or 7:10, or 7:15 or whenever Steve felt like ending it. McNeil and Coppock always tried to book the biggest sports stars at the beginning of their show to take advantage of the formidable lead-in audience, but when big-name guests had to hold on the phone for fifteen minutes, (or worse, couldn’t hold on for fifteen minutes) McNeil’s passion would get the best of him. The studio wall at the old Loop studios had the perfect imprint of Dan McNeil’s fist before construction on the new studios began.

But working as the Executive Producer for Chet Coppock was also the big break for Dan McNeil’s radio career. Somehow, the jive insincerity of Chet worked well with the Indiana candor of McNeil. At least it did at first.

“Yeah, it worked pretty well the first couple of years,” McNeil said. “And I recognize the effect he had on my ascendancy in Chicago sports radio. Without him I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you today about what I do.”

But the marriage ended badly. McNeil began filling in for Chet when he was on vacation, and began to feel the itch to spread his wings. “I sucked on the air filling in for him,” McNeil says. “I was terrible.”

But the programming staff putting together Chicago’s first all-sports radio station, WSCR Radio, didn’t think so. They made a pitch to Chet Coppock, and he flatly refused to move to the rinky-dink daytime-only station (820 AM at the time). After being rebuffed by Coppock, the Score went after his Executive Producer. McNeil jumped at the chance, and his relationship with Coppock, which had begun to sour, was irretrievably damaged. The two men bickered in print and on the air against each other for more than a decade, but McNeil says that they have recently mended fences.

“I ran into Chet at US Cellular last year,” McNeil said. “He and his son were sitting in front of me at the ballpark. And when his son Tyler told me he was a White Sox fan and hated the Cubs, I immediately went and bought him an ice cream sandwich. Chet, of course, took a pass—probably still on Nutrisystem. But we’ve had a few telephone conversations since then. I feel good about where he and I are at. He was a tremendous influence on my career, and for that I will always be thankful. The stuff that happened afterwards was ugly on both sides, and I don’t want to dredge that up again. With age comes maturity.”

The Score

With maturity came his voice. He remembers distinctly when that moment occurred; it was midway through his nine year run at WSCR.

“I was terrible for my first couple of years at the Score. I didn’t feel comfortable doing it until 1996. I was in Seattle with the Bulls in ’96, and had put together a string of shows that was pretty good—and did things socially with people I really respected on a national level like Mike Tirico and Dan Patrick. We were out howling at the moon one night, they came on the show the next day, and I felt the wind break. For the first time I knew I made the right decision. It was a specific occurrence. But it was a long time after I started there.”

It was a bumpy road at the Score. The frequency at 820AM was only licensed for day-time broadcasting, so WSCR wasn’t taken seriously by the rest of the media at first. They eventually moved their frequency twice in the next few years. First to 1160AM when Infinity Broadcasting blew up the format of WJJD, and then to 670AM when Infinity Broadcasting blew up the format at WMAQ. The on-air lineup also went through a series of shake ups and match ups during those first few years until they found a formula that worked. For McNeil, that formula included being matched up with Sun-Times writer Terry Boers. Their partnership proved to be successful in more ways than one.

“He was a great partner,” McNeil said. “We passed the ball to each other as willingly and unselfishly as any twosome has ever done it in this market. There wasn’t a clash of egos. There were days when I didn’t have a ton of thoughts or energy, and I could count on him to carry the show. All I’d have to do was punch buttons. ‘Joe in Orland, tell him why he’s an idiot.’ There were days when I dominated shows. There were days that we fought on the air. But we never got mad at each other personally. We could have the most intense sports arguments and never once did we take it personally. And after a period of time, we became very close friends. He was a big brother to me in a lot of ways. Working with Boers was good for me on and off the radio because he was a pretty good influence on me in many ways. We still talk on a regular basis.”

The connection between Boers and McNeil was so strong, that it eventually led to the dispute that severed his relationship with WSCR. The management at the station was unhappy with the ratings and another personality on the air, Mike North, was unhappy with his role. The steps they took to rectify those situations erupted Mount McNeil. It’s hard to imagine that the management didn’t know how someone with the passion and candor of McNeil would react to their proposed changes. Unfortunately, they had another passionate and candid man on the staff that could make even more trouble for them, so they chose to appease Mike North. It was a calculated risk that blew up in their faces.

“In August of ’99,” McNeil explained, “The management team was convinced by Mike North to restructure the radio station, without any discussion with the other players; Dan Jiggetts, Terry Boers or myself. They blew it all up. They called me in on a Thursday afternoon in late August when I was on vacation and said ‘When you come back Monday, you’re on with Dan Jiggetts from 4pm to 8pm and by the way, you’re doing the last hour by yourself. Mike convinced them that he needed to spread his wings, paint on a bigger canvas, talk about things other than sports, and he didn’t need a partner to bridle him.”

At the time, the Bulls championship run was over, the Bears were in a long-term free fall, the Cubs and Sox were just average, and the Blackhawks were dead and buried. There wasn’t a great deal of sports going on to get the Chicago fans excited about sports. With North choosing to talk about things other than sports to jump start his ratings, Dan McNeil tried to make it work with a new partner. It was a very difficult time for him.

“I was miserable working with Dan Jiggetts. I liked him a lot personally, but we were doing two different shows. I thought the show preceding ours was one of the most hideous things I’d ever heard (Mike North solo); fifteen minutes of David Cassidy followed by a twelve minute commercial break. You know, we were restarting the engines at 4:05 every day—it was brutal. The Score did more than just blow up their station. They let ESPN radio back in the game. I mean they were on the canvas and the referee had already given them a ten count. Harvey Wells (the Score GM), brain surgeon that he is, let them off the mat. I respectfully protested what they were doing in several correspondences with the general manager.”

When that didn’t get the job done, McNeil took his complaints public. He was suspended. He came back on the air and tried to convince them again. It was no use, the Score had set their table, and as far as McNeil was concerned, they didn’t set a place for him.

“I asked them to reconsider politely three times, to consider putting me back with Boers, or even moving me to an overnight shift to just play out my contract. Finally in October, I had enough and said ‘I’m done.’ You guys won’t reassign me, and I’m not working with Dan another day.”

And just like that, a nine year relationship with a radio station ended with a resignation. In his mind, McNeil’s intensity, candor, passion, and love of sports were incompatible with the new Score. He walked away from a $200,000 a year job with nothing lined up, and no place to go.

The Dark Days

McNeil was a married man with three children and big mortgage. He didn’t have the luxury of sitting at home in Highland Indiana or playing shuffleboard at the senior center. It wasn’t exactly an ego stroke to the 40-year-old broadcaster to show up on doorsteps with hat in hand. He doesn’t remember those days fondly.

“I had to go to the Super Bowl in January like a college kid on a recruiting trip,” McNeil recalled. “I met Len Weiner, who was at ESPN network at the time, and he asked me to do some weekend stuff in Bristol, Connecticut. They have a map in the studio with all of their affiliates and Game Night was on 600 stations in America when I hosted it—but it did nothing for me. There was no fraternity, no commonality. I would have rather gone to Detroit and talk to Lions fans about what they were going to do in the draft than have this generic vanilla national show.”

It might not have been satisfying, but like his days at the Hammond Times, it led to a connection with someone who would open the door to his next opportunity. Not too long after bringing McNeil in to the network, Len Weiner was brought in to help the sagging ratings at ESPN Radio’s Chicago affiliate. One of the things he helped the local management realize was that their locally produced afternoon show (with Bill Simonson and Lou Canellis) was not getting the job done. And Weiner knew someone at ESPN Network.

“Len Weiner punched the button here in Chicago for me,” McNeil acknowledged. “He pushed ESPN to hire me when the management was a little slow in getting rid of the last show.”

A three man booth

At ESPN Radio, McNeil was teamed up with former NFL player John Jurkovic. Jurkovic had been a defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Cleveland Browns, but had also made his mark off the field with his wit, a rare commodity indeed in the NFL. Bringing Jurkovic aboard was McNeil’s call.

“I called Jurko three weeks into my Jiggetts experience, and he was playing with Cleveland at the time. He was a regular guest on McNeil and Boers. He wanted to do radio when his playing career concluded, and I told him we have to do this sooner rather than later. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for John, he tore the hamstring off his femur his second year in Cleveland and his football career ended. We were able to expedite putting a show together.”

It’s little wonder that John Jurkovic is one of McNeil’s staunchest allies and supporters. “If it wasn’t for Danny Mac, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Jurko told me. “He insisted I come aboard here and do the show with him. He’s fun, he’s edgy.”

While the McNeil-Jurkovic partnership has gone smoothly, they were also teamed up with former comedian Harry Teinowitz. Unlike Jurkovic, Teinowitz was a radio veteran. He had co-hosted a show with former partner Spike Manton, played a role on the national Mike and Mike morning show, and had a stint at WCKG as part of the Pete McMurray show. Teaming him up with McNeil and Jurko was the radio station’s call. “Harry was a carryover,” McNeil said. “They wanted to keep some of the station’s old feel because they were adding two new voices.”

But doing a three man show was a much different animal than the two man show McNeil had done for most of his radio career. And McNeil and Teinowitz had different views of what a show should be. “We both want to do a good show,” Teinowitz said. “But I like bits. I like goofy bits. I like having fun. If we’ve been telling people all day that we’re going to have Jerry Angelo on the air and he blows us off (which he did the day I sat in on the show), then I want to go in the other room and be Jerry Angelo. I like fake commercials. I say you play them all the time—until it’s not funny anymore. Mac thinks we played it once and we’re done with it.”

The tension started building from the very beginning. It wasn’t just that the two radio veterans had different approaches; the dynamic of doing a three man show was a difficult beast to tame on its own merits.

“It was extremely difficult at first,” McNeil admitted. “I would rather be doing something other than playing traffic cop, but fortunately over a period of time, in going over air checks (tapes of the show) and realizing that we sometimes have to pull back and not always talk, I’m comfortable with it now. It took me a long time to develop that comfort level. I was conditioned for seven and a half years to have a partner who had opinions on many subjects. When you have two guys who are pretty well plugged in and have lots of energy, a third guy sometimes can get in the way.”

That happened literally one day before the show. McNeil and Teinowitz had an argument about a segment that Teinowitz wanted to do and McNeil did not. After a relatively trouble-free existence at ESPN, McNeil’s famous passion exploded again.

“He got in my personal space and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jurko, who is a very calm dude, said ‘Harry, shut the F up. He told us three times we’ll talk about it later.’ Harry wouldn’t accept that, so I shoved him. And I was suspended for two weeks.”

That suspension provided McNeil with a wake up call. He couldn’t go on letting his temper get the best of him. When he returned, he vowed to make it work with Teinowitz, and he has. Both men still have passionate opinions about the way the show should be run, and the tension still exists, but they have learned to turn that tension into a positive. The real tension that exists on the air between the two men adds to the texture and authenticity of the show. But of course, anyone who knows either man knows that it couldn’t happen any other way.

“Put three or four guys in a room and show me who gets along harmoniously all the time,” McNeil pointed out. “It doesn’t work that way. What brings you together often tears you apart, and I would much rather be with passionate people with thoughts—like Harry—than a guy who just fills a vacancy by plopping his ass in a chair. I prefer to have a partner with whom I have occasional battles. I don’t want milk toast.”

“Working with Dan McNeil every day is an education,” is the way Teinowitz put it. “But we have each other’s back. When we get away from this place and someone says something bad about the other guy, we’ll both stick up for each other.”

On the day I sat in on their show, the results had become evident. For the first time since the threesome was put together, they got the news that they had surpassed the afternoon ratings of their fierce competitor, the Score. McNeil was now beating his old nemesis Mike North head to head.

The Former Producer’s Producer

Of course, Mac, Jurko and Harry are only part of the reason for the success of their show. They have a strong supporting cast behind the scenes. Having an ex-producer as a boss is not exactly the dream situation for a producer, but that’s the situation that faces current producers Adam Delevitt and Ben Finfer. McNeil realizes that he may not be the easiest person to produce.

“It makes their lives more difficult,” he conceded. Delevitt agreed. “I sometimes have to remind him that things have changed a little bit since he produced a show.”

On the other hand, McNeil possesses something that is rare among radio hosts. He is loyal to a fault with his staff. “My producers have cursed me regularly over the years, but I know every one of them would tell you that I am as loyal as the day is long and they learned a hell of a lot about producing radio from being affiliated with me. I’ve had good relationships with all of my producers. Adam Delevitt is like a little brother to me. Ben Finfer came with me from the Score—he is now the sound man on the show. I’m lucky to work with these guys. They give me their blood, sweat and tears sixty hours a week. They are very creative. Adam is a good administrator and during the show producer. Ben is an extremely creative behind the scenes guy with production. He’s going to have his own show someday.”

Delevitt explained the process of how they put the show together every day. “Mac gives me a list of hit it out of the ballpark guest ideas, then I try to book them. If I can’t get them, I have a secondary list of guests to pursue. We also talk at night a lot, going over topic ideas. The other guys also have their input. The next day I come to the meeting with a list of guests and topics and we go over the show.”

Delevitt also admits that the tension on the show is real. “Keeping them all happy is a challenge. For Jurko the radio stuff seems to roll off his shoulders, but the other guys have been in radio for awhile and they tend to take it more personally. The bottom line is that they are all working toward the same thing; the best sports radio show they can possibly do.”

The Future

While the first three years of his four year contract have been tumultuous, as long as the results continue, McNeil feels he has found a home at ESPN Radio. His marriage to his wife of twelve years is ending in divorce, and his marriage to former partner Terry Boers is over, but his new dysfunctional family has been supportive during a very difficult personal time.

McNeil has even learned to see the positive in what he used to consider a negative. He is now at ease presiding over a daily three way. “It’s pretty nice on this show, that if one of us doesn’t have a lot of energy on a given day, we’re not going to suffer. It’s also a nice balance to have the three of us. Harry is a North Shore guy who loves the Cubs. Jurko is also a real Chicago sports fan, a dese dems and dose kind of guy, and I’m somewhere in the middle. Is it interesting at times? Yes. But I think we have something now that really works.”

And ‘work’ is something that a Highland Indiana boy knows a little something about.