Your Buddy, Your Boy, Your Bookie: Scott Ferrall on the Art of Sports RadioElias Stein
Phase 2, Scott Ferrall calls it. A new era for sports radio. Phase 2 is about being clean. Classy. None of that nuking of “Dom from Far Rockaway” that sports hosts used to do back in the ’90s, when every show rang with Satan’s cackle.
It was just before midnight last Wednesday. Lightning-Rangers highlights were playing silently on a nearby TV. Ferrall was leaning over a microphone, clapping his hands like a man trying to get the attention of the cashier at a sportsbook. He was talking to nearly 200 affiliates on the CBS Sports Radio network.
Ferrall still feels the old temptations. Late at night, anger will boil inside him and he’ll say, “I wish they’d stop talking about that stupid—” Then he will pause. A smile will spread across his face. “I was going to swear right there.”
“People say, ‘Why do you work at night?’” Ferrall told me during a commercial break. “I say, ‘Well, that’s when all the games are on.’ I love the action. We just saw the overtime game. We saw everything. This is where it’s at.
“And I never have to be around suits,” he continued. “I never have to listen to ’em small-talk me and ask me questions. They slither their way in and start talking to you about your show and what’s wrong with it. ‘What are you talking about this for?’ ‘How’s your wife and kids?’”
Ferrall’s voice, gravelly in peacetime, sounds like a gas-powered Weed Eater when he gets angry. To the hypothetical suits: “I don’t fucking care about your family! Don’t ask me about mine! You don’t even care! Stop with the bullshit!”
Then Ferrall seems to remember Phase 2. Clean. Classy. “What I need to do is not be that guy,” he said.
If Scott Ferrall has entered Phase 2, so has sports talk radio. In the mid-’90s, it was cutting edge; it was an important forum for diehards like Doris from Rego Park; it was the place to find the proper take. But everything from Twitter to podcasts to First Take has termited away at what made it great.
Today, if you listen to sports radio, its essential components — hot takes, ticker updates, commercials — feel like things from another media epoch. “We had all these conversations about newspapers 10 years ago,” said Bob Sturm, a host at 1310 The Ticket in Dallas. “If you’re in radio, you have to know we’re all on borrowed time.”
At 49, Ferrall is sports talk in corporeal form: graying, goateed, dressed down (basketball shorts, high-tops), strutting, horny (“I’m a huge fanatic of hot women”), both liberal and regressive. He is an explorer of sports talk’s future and a guardian — some might say a survivor — of its ’90s prime. For three nights last week, I sat next to him from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET. Together, we gave sports radio a full diagnostic.
I thought I’d be a quiet observer. But during the first segment of Wednesday’s show, Ferrall announced my presence to the nation. He spent segments quizzing me about the Cavs and accusing me of drinking on the air. Slowly but surely, I became his Robin Quivers, his McLovin. By Friday night, the conversation drifted to my wife. “I heard she’s pretty hot,” Ferrall said.
“Yes,” I said haltingly.
Ferrall left it at that. It could be taken as another sign of his commitment to Phase 2.
Each night, Ferrall begins his shift by swabbing every surface in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Studio with antiseptic wipes. A metaphorical Phase 2 cleansing? Sure. But it’s mostly because a sports-radio studio is subjected to more continuous use than the Port Authority. CBS’s studio is located on a block of the West Village that’s so quiet that Ferrall can park his car on the street. It doubles — and this is a very Phase 2 conceit — as a TV studio for The Doug Gottlieb Show.
“I’m a radio guy,” Ferrall said glumly. “The theater of the mind. I’m describing that playoff game and going crazy on the air. It’s an art. A specialty of the house. TV’s too easy. Is there anything worse than looking at Mike Francesa on television talking into a microphone for five hours?”
At 10:03, Ferrall’s producers took their positions in a glass booth. They are Brian Ciano, whom Ferrall calls “Mafia,” and David Shepard, whom he calls “Shep.” Rock music began to play in our headphones. There were clips of past shows. Then Ferrall began to speak …
What does Ferrall’s voice sound like? Let’s go to the phones.
Bob Fitzgerald, midday host on San Francisco’s KNBR: “Like a bunch of broken glass ending up in a cement mixer.”
Dan Kamal, former play-by-play man for the Atlanta Thrashers: “Like a walk across jagged metal while you’re trying to fight off burning embers that are flying through the air.”
Brian “The Beast” London of Miami’s WAXY: “Like Animal from the Muppets doing a sports talk show with the voice of someone who had esophageal cancer.”
“I have a real ballsy voice,” Ferrall said. “I can do a million things with it. I can be very scary, very intense, very intimidating. Very loud. Very argumentative. Combustible. Confrontational. Dominating.” Perhaps because of its scratchiness, Ferrall never loses it.
In Phase 2, sports radio is a Game of Thrones battle between great houses: CBS versus ESPN versus NBC versus Yahoo versus The Dan Patrick Show. The dirty secret is that many of these national shows go virtually unheard in the big cities. In drive time, local stations want local hosts talking about local teams. But Ferrall comes on at an hour when most of these stations want to pay for little more than a board operator. “I’m on in every city in Canada except Montreal,” Ferrall said, “because French people don’t like me.” He added, by way of explanation: “They don’t speak English.”
Ferrall’s biggest competition comes from games that would preempt him. Ferrall on the Bench tends to start slowly — “This is the time where you make your money,” he said during the first hour of Wednesday’s show — and then begins to build as the East Coast games wrap up around 11 p.m. The phone lines fill up, and Ferrall gets excited. He is America’s post-postgame show.
His schedule is hellish. Ferrall walks out of the studio every night between 1 and 2 a.m. Within an hour, he is secure in his home in a New Jersey city he’d rather not name. By 3:30, he is asleep next to his wife. He is up by 7 a.m. to pack his two kids off to school and make picks for his handicapping service. Ferrall prepares for his show, exercises, and sleeps again from 2 to 5 p.m. “I sleep in shifts,” he said. “I’m like a leprechaun.” Around midnight, when he is on the air, he eats a dinner of a sandwich, chips, watermelon slices, and Nutter Butters.
Caller Nick from Rhode Island was on the line. “What’s up, Ferrall, my brother?” Nick said. “Let me get a cold one.”
“I got you,” Ferrall said. Mafia pushed a button, and you could hear a sound effect of a beer being poured.
This is part of Ferrall’s aesthetic but no longer part of his life. He has been sober for the last 12 years — not counting the two years he “came out of retirement” after a couple of professional disappointments.
“Mafia, do I ever drink?” Ferrall asked later, when we were off the air.
“Not at all,” Mafia said.
“Do I have a problem not drinking? Is that a problem for me?”
“No,” Mafia said.
Ferrall’s energy remains undiminished. He waves a thermos and yells, “I’m lit up right now doing the show!”
Cindy Ord/Getty Images
In 1995, Mel Karmazin — the man behind Howard Stern — took Ferrall to lunch at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. He laid before him a bounty Ferrall had always thought he deserved. Ferrall on the Bench would be syndicated across the country. Ferrall would be a nocturnal counterpart to Stern and be heard on many of the same stations, like Los Angeles’s KLSX. Karmazin “made me,” Ferrall said during a commercial. “He made me a too-young, wealthy kid. He gave me too much money, too much power, too much autonomy. Too much of a mouth. I was out of control. I was immature and I was crazy. And the show was insane. I got away with murder back then.”
In Phase 1 of sports radio, a national host could think he owned the world. New York’s WFAN had signed on in 1987. But by the mid-’90s, the syndicated market offered little more than ESPN’s The Fabulous Sports Babe and gentle souls like Ron Barr of Sports Byline USA. Ferrall remembered a twentysomething named Jim Rome, then a host at XTRA in San Diego, coming to his L.A. studio one night to observe how to talk to the nation.
Ferrall on the Bench was strange. Ferrall grew up in Pittsburgh, loving hockey and wanting to be the next Howard Cosell — the outspoken voice of a generation. By the time he got a show, he took the id of sports talkers like Pete Franklin and Neil Rogers and crossbred it with rock and roll. Bands trudged through the studio. Ferrall played heavy metal and spoke over the music. Tim Dukes, who later hired Ferrall at WMAX in Atlanta, said the show “sounded like a guy with emphysema yelling over Metallica records.” Ferrall often stood as he broadcasted and sweated profusely — it was sports talk as sport. London, who later served as his cohost at WQAM in Miami, would invite people to behold the host through the studio glass like a zoo animal. Ferrall said he made nearly $1 million a year.
Within the talk industry, Ferrall was greeted as Satan. WFAN’s Chris Russo remarked, “I’m Marconi compared to him.” Baby-boomer media columnists, who’d been told as kids that Wolfman Jack was a debaucher, now relayed the same dire warning about Ferrall. “One wishes [Ferrall] could be arrested for violating the public esthetic,” the New York Times clucked in 1995.
For its time, Ferrall on the Bench was a technical marvel. The show was anchored on WFAN but based in Los Angeles, so Ferrall read faxes of out-of-town sports pages every day. “There was a set of people listening to our show and also watching sports on TV in the background,” said his former producer, Darren Chan. “This was right at the dawn of the age of the Internet, and if people wanted information, they had to come to you as a broadcaster.” Before instant Twitter reactions, Ferrall’s show was the equivalent of an open browser window.
Don Imus once gave Ferrall some advice: “It doesn’t matter what they tell you. If you’re no. 1 in New York, they can kiss your ass.” To Ferrall’s great regret, he took it to heart. “I did horrible things with every musician in the world,” he said. “Guns N’ Roses? Guilty. Metallica? Guilty. Everything was bad. The behavior was awful. There was usage. There was drunken, shit behavior.” When WFAN executives would call to complain, he would lie on a raft in his pool in Los Angeles and tell them, “We’re all laughing at you and smoking weed right now!”
That indifference to authority was part of his allure. Ferrall talking about weed was, in its own way, like Stern talking about his penis — a sign he’d burrowed to a level of authenticity other media machers had not. When I was in studio, Ferrall nodded at me and asked Mafia: “Do I do the same show every fucking night of the week whether he’s here or not? Do I change one iota for this guy?”
“You change for no one,” Mafia said.
By the dawn of the millennium, Ferrall’s affiliates began to melt away. In 1999, he surprised Karmazin by taking a job as the Atlanta Thrashers play-by-play man. (The syndicate fired him shortly after.) He lasted one year with the Thrashers, then wandered the dial — Atlanta, New York, Miami.
In 2006, Ferrall was thrown a life preserver by Stern, who put him to work on one of his Sirius channels, back on the night shift. In 2009, when Ferrall’s beloved Penguins won an NHL championship, he did live, R-rated play-by-play of the final two minutes of Game 7: “Penguins win the Stanley Cup! Fuck you!”
On Thursday, Ferrall talked about Dwight Howard’s Game 2 double-double on the air. After he cut to commercial, he turned to me and his face grew thoughtful. “Fifteen years later, 20 years later,” he said, “the thing that has changed most in the business is me.”
Ronnie in South Carolina was on the line. “You are literally the funniest man on the radio,” Ronnie said.
“That’s incredible,” Ferrall said.
“I’m literally in my car rolling the entire show,” Ronnie said. Since Ronnie was still alive, perhaps that was a stray “literally.”
Ferrall loves callers. But later, he told me, “Ask anyone in this business and they’ll say, ‘Callers are idiots.’”
Indeed, handing the mic to Ronnie — telling him, in the classic phrasing, “This is your show” — is a Phase 1 idea. In Phase 2, sports hosts regard calls with trepidation. When Bob Sturm was hired by The Ticket in Dallas, his boss told him, “We don’t pay you guys what we pay you to let some plumber fill the content of your show.”
A navel-gazing sports fan — which is to say, a sports fan — can derail a good conversation. “You could be talking about Steph Curry,” said KNBR’s Bob Fitzgerald, “and someone wants to talk about the time they went to a Giants game in 1974 and saw Dave Kingman hit a home run and spilled mustard on their lap. It might be an interesting anecdote. But it’s like throwing concrete in the washing machine.”
“I’m one of the few that actually tries to deter my guys from calling,” said Sid Rosenberg, a former WFAN host who now hosts a morning show in South Florida. “I say on-air, ‘With a good host, the train is moving, man …’”
The essential interaction of sports radio was once between the host and the caller. Now, it’s between the host and his producer. The phone call was replaced by the email that was read over the air. When the emails got too wordy (“In 1974, I saw Dave Kingman hit a home run …”), the tweet became the new email.
You can observe a further Phase 2 iteration on Ferrall on the Bench. These days, the calls have begun to sound like tweets — mere prompts for Ferrall, or a fist proffered for a bump. On Thursday, a New York Rangers fan named “John from Strong Island” called. He asked Ferrall to pour him a drink. Mafia obliged.
Then John said of the Rangers, “I’m startin’ to give up.”
“Giving up is failure!” Ferrall screamed. “Feeble! Weak! Pathetic!”
Mafia played a drop from the movie Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option.”
“It’s not an option!” Ferrall said. “You have to go back in the battle and win!”
Love them as he may, Ferrall also regards callers with some wariness. This is Phase 2. Clean. Classy. The next night, a caller named Daniel got on the air and blurted, “I love the shit out of your show!” Ferrall’s hand instinctively reached for the “dump” button. Listeners never heard the line. This is Phase 2. Clean. Classy. As Ferrall told me during a break, “I’ll dump every word they say!”
Every half-hour, the door of the O’Reilly Auto Parts Studio opened and a young man entered. He sat at Ferrall’s left. The man was an update guy. The update guy is as much a fixture of sports radio as the ads for gold and Low T testosterone-replacement centers. Ferrall threw it to the update guy, and we heard a jingle in our headphones: “CBS Sports Radio — sports flash!”
A rundown of the scores is reasonably useful during a nighttime show like Ferrall on the Bench. During daylight hours, the update is stale. It punishes anyone who sticks around for more than a few segments. “I say this with me being a former update anchor: The update is dead,” said Kevin Rogers, a handicapper who works as a part-time host on Miami’s WINZ. “I can find the scores on my phone. You’re telling me at 7:30 a.m. who won — I already know.”
Like “traffic and weather together,” updates are part of the culture of radio: something longtime listeners expect even if they no longer need them. When I asked Michael Harrison, editor of the trade magazine Talkers, when sports updates would be axed, he said, “The answer to that is when they can no longer sponsor those kinds of features.”
In the wee hours of Friday morning, after the Warriors had polished off the Rockets in Game 2, Ferrall welcomed a guest. It was Art Spander, the longtime San Francisco columnist who now writes for the Examiner. Ferrall likes Spander. He just hates guests. “The fact is, guests suck because they’re show killers,” Ferrall said. “They have to listen to some guy ramble on and on about the same shit I’m going to tell you anyway.”
Ferrall’s computer screen showed five callers waiting on hold. He told me to watch: The callers would “scatter like cockroaches” as soon as Spander began to talk.
This is a common view in sports talk. Back in Phase 1, hearing from an out-of-town sportswriter was a big deal. The Internet made that superfluous. Now, thanks to social media, we never stop hearing from out-of-town sportswriters.
“The other night, I had on E.J. Hradek from NHL Network,” Ferrall said. “I love E.J. But he was boring as shit. It was the same old shit, talking about, ‘I’m a hockey expert and I’m going to tell you everything I know — spew hockey for eight minutes.’”
Players are even worse. They won’t even spew. “For the most part, athletes have become radio Ambien,” said Marc James, who hosts morning drive on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. “Not all of them, but most of them. I call it jock talk: It’s the same old cliché, cliché, cliché. To me, it does nothing.” James noted that it’s retired athletes who don’t want to be assistant coaches — say, Joe Horn — who give you the best stuff.
Radio stations still like the idea of big-name guests. Ferrall showed me the page on the CBS website where the network displayed his interviews like trophy heads. When Spander finished, Ferrall pointed to his computer that showed the callers on hold. Two callers had hung up. Another vanished a few seconds later. Ferrall said, “There’s a girl on after me” — Amy Lawrence, CBS’s overnight host — “and she’s good. But she’ll have on six guests tonight. You know what I want to do when I listen to six guests? I want to fucking kill myself!”
He flipped on his mic and spoke to the nation. “I just told Bryan I wanted to kill myself …”
It was just before 1 a.m. on Friday morning. Shep the producer leaned toward his mic. Shep suggested that the playoffs had been lousy because of the NBA’s division-based seeding system.
Ferrall’s face fell. “Oh, god …” he groaned. “We’ve been begging you not to do this.” For the next three minutes, he berated Shep for trying to reconfigure the playoffs instead of talking about the games that were already on. “Thanks for doing that in front of Bryan, too,” he said. “Anything else you want to ruin the show with tonight? Could you ruin something else in the last hour? Jesus Christ.” He cut to commercial.
I thought Ferrall was doing the classic host-sinks-his-teeth-into-the-hapless-producer bit. But when he turned to me during the break, he was actually livid. “I don’t like wasting the show on nonsense bullshit,” he said. “That’s just fairyland shit! To me, that’s a bunch of fucking nonsense.
“My boss would have a conniption if he listened to it,” Ferrall continued. “Thank god he’s sleeping.”
To Mafia: “Am I wrong?”
“No,” Mafia said.
In the booth, Shep stared at the ground.
Shep hadn’t said anything especially new. David Leonhardt, who edits the Upshot data site for the New York Times, aired the same opinion on Twitter the next day. But in Phase 2, we find sports radio and the web operating on two different planes of discourse. Sports radio is about reacting to what’s in front of you — the game as it is. The web is about free-range nerdery, the big picture — the game as it might be.
There was a time when the sports host was the king nerd. “Back in the day, maybe the audience or the caller would really treat you as the absolute god, the absolute authority,” said Zig Fracassi, a host on SiriusXM’s NFL Radio channel.
But now, when Mike in Minneapolis calls to inquire about the Vikings draft, Fracassi noted, “he may be trying to test you.” To see if you’d gone free-diving into a site like RotoViz, or if you were just reheating whatever Mike Mayock said on TV.
It presents the host with a difficult conundrum. The Ticket’s Bob Sturm watches hours of tape to prepare for the NFL draft. But as Sturm said, “If I talked about what I’m interested in — the deep X’s and O’s, this mental exercise of how to defend the zone-read — you could almost hear the radios click away.”
So Sturm winds up doing a show that, while being sufficiently brainy and very, very good, resides a few floors down from the level of discourse he desires as a fan. “I’m not positive I would listen to me,” Sturm said. “That’s what’s weird about this.”
The podcast beckons like an oasis. On a podcast, a host can be as nerdy as he wants. He can also loosen the manacles of terrestrial radio — the language restrictions, the hyper-focus on the NFL, and especially the commercials. An hour of Ferrall on the Bench, minus ads and tickers, contains between 36 and 39 minutes of talk; a podcast, minus the inevitable Stamps.com plug, is all talk.
Ferrall is not a dilettante who wings it. “I tape and watch every sporting event in the world,” he boasted — and you almost believe him. His nerdery is gambling-focused. Since the ’90s, Ferrall has not only made picks but taught the audience how to spend its money — one unit here, one on the over/under. These days — and this is also a Phase 2 sports radio conceit — Ferrall tucks his picks behind a paywall on his website. He says the money he makes from this almost matches the salary he pulls from CBS — meaning several hundred thousand dollars a year.
We want sports talkers to know more than we do. In Phase 1, this was a given. In Phase 2, the host must work at it. While Spander talked, Ferrall muted his mic and shared a nice laugh with Shep. All was forgiven. “He may be a penis,” Ferrall said of his producer, “but it doesn’t mean I don’t like him.”
The readout from our sports-radio diagnostic noted the following: Hosts don’t necessarily maintain the air of swamis. Callers have been downsized or have fled. News updates are anachronistic. Why do we still listen to sports radio?
A local talk station can forge a real connection with its audience by lavishing attention on local teams. (Sturm noted that every time a job comes open in Dallas, national hosts fill the station’s inbox, hoping to gain a foothold with Cowboys fans.) There are elements of sports talk we might file under the “magic of radio”: the coolness, say, of a voice speaking live to you from the car stereo. “That magic is a 20th-century manifestation,” said Talkers’ Michael Harrison, “that the average person, as we enter the digital age, is no longer impressed by.”
In Phase 1, I listened to sports radio to learn about sports. In Phase 2, I find my mind wandering when the hosts talk about sports. I snap awake when they latch onto a subject they know better than anyone in the world. When Dan Patrick talks about his former corporate paymasters. When Colin Cowherd talks about fame. When the guys at The Ticket flash North Texas identity politics. Peel away the sports and you’re left with a host’s ability to keep you in his mesmeric grasp.
The mandatory analogy when writing about sports radio used to be that of two men arguing in a bar. As I sat at Ferrall’s side, I could see the analogy refresh for Phase 2. Sports radio is now the sound of one man talking in a bar. Every 20 minutes or so, he asks the man next to him, “Am I right or what?” He does not expect an answer.
Yet the second man is content to be a voyeur. In Phase 2, we have our own online forums on which to spew, our own gurus to study, our own tickers to plug into. What we still need is a friend.
“They love me because I’m like their buddy, their boy, their drug dealer,” Scott Ferrall said. “I’m like their lover! I’m their bookie! I’m the guy they can tell their secrets to. I’m the guy they can talk to because they can’t talk to their wife, or their friends that don’t put up with their bullshit because they ramble.”
Some minutes later, the insistent voice of a CBS announcer filled our headphones: “Thiiiiis is Ferrall on the Bench.”