On a moonless night in December 1994, the landlord at 4625 Ridgelawn Drive led a prospective tenant, Craig Miller, through the back gate, toward a kidney-shaped pool.
Miller was a gangly, 29-year-old novice broadcaster who had just won the gig of a lifetime as a host in the dead-air afternoon on The Ticket, a fledgling all-sports radio station.
As they made their way around the backyard, the landlord effortlessly navigated a narrow, 18-inch gap between the house and the pool. Miller followed.
“All of a sudden, I put my right foot out, and I don’t feel anything,” Miller says. “And I go straight into the pool.”
He fell like an idiot in a silent film gag, but his only audience was a bewildered, if amused, middle-aged landlord.
“So what is this landlord thinking?” Miller says. “What kind of moron am I showing the house to? The guy walks straight into the pool fully clothed.”
Despite the sight of the drenched and freezing young man with the sly, wise-ass grin, the landlord rented the house to the radio host. Ted Gangi, a producer at the station; Miller’s old college roommate Tom Walton; and fellow Ticket host Greg Williams all moved into the house as well. When Walton headed to Houston five months into the lease, Gordon Keith, a 23-year-old drifter who scored a job at the station by simply hanging around, replaced him. He slept on a sheetless mattress and kept his clothes in a grocery sack. The front door was rarely locked. Thanks to a station sponsor, there was an endless supply of beer. And Miller was far from the last idiot to fall into the pool. In the coming months, beer cans, roof jumpers, women, bicycles, and even a football-player-size television broadcaster who couldn’t swim made their way in.
“It was like the Playboy Mansion,” Williams says.
Miller, Keith, and Williams only lived in the house for a year, but it was a vital year in the history of the station, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. It was during this year that The Ticket, originally modeled after all-sports stations that dished straight-laced sports talk peppered with listener phone calls, began to mold a unique, idiosyncratic style pioneered by the two hosts who lived at the house and their partners on the air-—station co-founder Mike Rhyner and Miller’s co-host and former University of North Texas college roommate, George Dunham. It was the year that Keith found his place as the station’s resident comedic genius. And the house was where they would develop the rapport that would make the stories of off-air life the station’s on-air product: likeable, good-natured, endlessly funny hosts peddling wacky anecdotes to listeners who gobbled them up. It was a broadcasting style that would reinvent the very sports-radio medium they were trying to break into.
In the two decades since that pivotal year, The Ticket has become a cultural force, a cross between Oprah for men and a radio piazza. Every day, listeners can turn the radio to 1310 AM (and, since late last year, 96.7 FM) and be swept up in a close circle of friends with whom they share a common history and a common language. Many in Dallas use Ticket lingo, often without knowing it, even without ever listening to the station. “Spare,” “wheels-off,” “P1,” and “beaten down” were all popularized by the station. The daily lives of Dallas men (and more women than you might expect) are tethered to the warm, comforting blabber of The Ticket.
And it can all be traced back to the house on Ridgelawn Drive.
“It was wild, a continuous party,” Keith says. Michael Moroney, the station’s first head of promotions, calls it a “radio Haight-Ashbury.” On air, it was simply referred to as The Ticket Compound.
Rhyner found Williams and Miller in the auxiliary press box at the Texas Rangers’ old Arlington Stadium. The two younger men were low-level sportscasters and producers at other stations in town. Rhyner was a veteran of the popular Morning Zoo with LaBella & Rody on KZEW in the 1980s. During the summers before The Ticket’s launch, the trio would blow their nights watching games, chatting baseball, busting balls, and showing off for everyone around them in the press box.
“We would talk about anything,” Williams says. “We all had strong opinions.”
It all sounded like the kind of banter Rhyner wanted for Dallas’ first 24-hour, all-sports-talk radio station. But even after the trio of Ticket founders—Rhyner, ad man Geoff Dunbar, and investment banker Spence Kendrick—identified an available signal, assembled a crew, and planned the launch, there was still plenty of skepticism. The Ticket didn’t have much money. Nor did it have the rights to broadcast any local professional games. Kendrick’s Cardinal Communications had purchased a desperately low-wattage AM signal from the media arm of the Mormon church for $3 million. The Monday before the Cowboys won their second straight Super Bowl, Skip Bayless (now the host of ESPN’s First Take) said the very first words on KTCK 1310 AM. The phones instantly lit up with callers eager to talk about their team.
But there was something a little off about The Ticket. Less than 24 hours after the station went on the air, the hosts flew to Atlanta to broadcast from Super Bowl week. The Ticket was sharing a studio in Dallas with KZPS. They didn’t have good equipment or much expertise, and Atlanta was a mess—toppling microphones, lost signals, and dead air. But during that first week, something else was happening. Each night the young hosts would go out together. Thursday, January 27, just days before the Super Bowl, was both Williams and Gangi’s birthday. They went to The Cheetah lounge, a famous Atlanta strip club. When they got in a cab at the end of the night, the crew was plastered, and Dunham, a bearish man with a doughboy face, passed loud and tremendous gas.
“George had farted so big that it resonated and just rattled off that vinyl,” Williams remembers. “And I said, ‘Man, you have to be pretty sorry to fart in a man’s cab.’ ”
The antics, the flatulence, the jokes, the story about the stripper who wrote Williams’ initials on her breasts in bubbly green body paint—it all became fodder for conversation on the air. And after Atlanta, it continued. Early listeners found something more than sports on The Ticket. They had stumbled upon a fledgling community of off-the-wall personalities whose stories, bits, and observations on everything from football to the trivial frustrations of everyday life struck a chord. At first, local radio legend Ira Lipson, who was working as a consultant with very wide latitude for the station, pushed back against the silliness, trying to promote a more caller-driven format. But when Kendrick’s Cardinal Communications sold the station to SFX Broadcasting in early 1995, the station’s new program director, Mike Thompson, a loud and demonstrative Philadelphia native, spotted what he now calls “lightning in a bottle” in his midday hosts.
By the end of 1995, straight sports talker Bayless—who had manned the morning-drive slot since the station’s launch—was gone. Dunham and Miller were moved to mornings. Within a year, Rhyner and Williams would be moved to the afternoon-drive spot.
“The problem with most sports stations is they set themselves up to be an ancillary station, like going for traffic,” Thompson says. “Especially at 1310 on the dial, there’s no way you can exist like that. You had to get the average fan away from the other male stations. And to get full-time listening, you push them through the story, the never-ending story of ‘us,’ where the personalities are just as important as the topic.”
When those who visited The Ticket Compound tell stories about it, they are often dominated by Williams and Keith—Greggo and Gordo—the charismatic, country-bumpkin neat freak and the devilish, 23-year-old wild man with an intellectual streak and little interest in sports.
Williams paid an extra few hundred a month and took the master bedroom, where he kept his collection of Playboy magazines. Miller and his college roommate Walton (known to listeners as “our neighbor Tom”) shared a Jack-and-Jill bathroom in the “children’s” wing of the house. Gangi was a slob, and not long after they moved in, the hosts would relay stories on air of Greggo wandering the house, angrily picking up Gangi’s food-crusted plates. Then at night, groceries would disappear.
“It was always Greggo who ate the ice cream because he was a big late-night eater,” Miller says. “And he would always have a really poor excuse the next day, like ‘I was afraid the refrigerator was going to shut off, and it was going to melt, so I better go ahead and eat it.’ ”
Keith built a reputation for nailing farcical imitations of sports figures, particularly Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. But perhaps his most popular impersonation was one of Williams called Fake Greggo. Drawing from life at The Compound, Keith would blabber in a wild redneck drawl, cracking about the many meals Greggo ate each day, which inevitably included courses of “hog” and “fence.”
“The whole thing was comedy,” Williams says. “All we did was either go to Louie’s and drink, or we’d sit out by the pool, and Gordo would play guitar, and we would crank phone-call other radio stations.”
Most of the station’s listeners didn’t know where The Ticket Compound was, but they all knew about it. The stories of the late-night antics became staples of the broadcasts, stories of Keith on the back porch with his guitar egging on Miller to leap off the roof and through a plastic tube floating in the pool.
“We were all in our 20s, and whatever circle of friends you have, someone always had the party house,” says Jeff Catlin, who started at The Ticket in 1994 as a producer for The Hardline and is now the station’s program director. “On the air, it’s very relatable for everybody listening. That was part of the mentality of the station. We would do broadcasts out there by the pool, cookouts, and they would ghost-ride bikes into the pool—and it would make the air.”
For Memorial Day 1995, Williams had an idea. The rest of the working world was off, so why didn’t the hosts pretend they were off by doing a day of broadcasts from The Ticket Compound? That morning, The Ticket’s remote truck pulled up to the house and extended its 40-foot mast. Later on, an early frequent caller nicknamed “Nascar Dennis” pulled up a trailer with a grill mounted on the back and began cooking for the hosts.
“Greggo loved the pool or the lake,” Miller says. “So he came up with it because he would rather be in the pool than on the air.”
Corby Davidson, who now co-hosts The Hardline with Rhyner, started at the station as an intern, eventually working his way into the lowliest job, the weekend overnight board operator.
“I was such a low-level minion,” Davidson says. “But I always wanted to be a part of that because you were petrified if the group was together that you were going to miss out on stories.”
One of those stories involved a Fourth of July party at The Compound when a few people grabbed Curt Menefee—now host of Fox’s NFL Sunday, at the time a CBS 11 sportscaster with a show on the station—and hurled him into the pool.
“It was a nightmare,” Davidson says. “He couldn’t swim. And the look on his face, it was full panic. That stopped things down pretty good.”
In hindsight, few of the shenanigans that transpired at The Ticket Compound rise to the level of mystique that surrounds it. That, too, is part of its magic. The Compound was, in many ways, the kind of house that so many young men live in after college during that limbo period before the responsibilities of adulthood fully kick in.
Adulthood had already kicked in for some. Like most of the guys at the station who were already married with kids, Dunham didn’t frequent the house as much as the others, but he’d go for parties and bring his kids over to swim.
“We were all in our 20s, a bunch of idiots,” he says. “I kind of lived vicariously through those guys.”
So did the listeners. The stories turned the all-sports station into something closer to a sitcom, with recurring characters, stories, jokes, and jabs floating on top of the day’s Cowboys chatter. It made listeners feel part of the life of the station in a way no other radio station at the time did. And Nascar Dennis wasn’t the only listener who came to the house to pitch in. There was a woman nicknamed Judy the Ticket Chick who would come by and clean the pool for free. Another devoted listener, a higher-up at the Miller Brewing Company, delivered pallets of beer to the front door.
“It was cases and cases of beer, and it was stacked up in the breakfast nook,” Keith says. “And we’d just polish one off, and throw another couple of cases in the fridge, and drink those down, and throw another couple cases in. It was like we found this eternal fountain of beer that was inexhaustible.”
These listeners were eventually termed “Ticket P1s,” a moniker Miller would later adopt, using insider radio parlance to describe the station’s most obsessed listeners. It’s a classic example of what started around the time of The Compound, exposing the station’s behind-the-scenes goings-on to the listeners to draw them deeper into The Ticket world.
“A lot of lines got blurred back then,” Rhyner says. “It was very hard to tell where the show stopped and the real life started. And I bet that was especially hard in that house. But that’s the way it was for all of us back then. We had everybody pulling in the same direction, and, by God, we were going to make this work.”
And somehow it did.
“All we did was just do radio, go to The Compound, and drink,” Keith says. “And drink until we went out at night, and then drink at bars. And there were women who would come through The Compound, and there were swimming parties and ridiculous challenges. It was just a bunch of jackassery. And The Ticket in those early days just sounded like state-sponsored jackassery. It was this suspended adulthood, this eternal adolescence.”
Program director Mike Thompson had bet the future of the station on this ragtag collection of hosts who had slipped through the cracks at other stations and honed their seamless, entertaining banter over countless hours hanging in office cubicles, at sports games, bars, and The Ticket Compound. When the station was sold again to Susquehanna Media in 1997, the new program director, Bruce Gilbert, took the chaos and gave it structure. Gilbert taught the young hosts the ins and outs of radio, how to use the clock, cross-promote, keep listeners, and get new ones. That’s when the station really took off.
“We were attack dogs,” Williams says. “The only thing we cared about was ratings.”
The Ticket dominated in the ratings, regularly ranking first in the 25-to-54 demographic, and became one of the most profitable stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. It still is: in 2012 and 2013, The Ticket was No. 2 in the Miller Kaplan Arase radio revenue rankings, behind only KISS FM. And yet, the station has managed to retain its nickname as The Little Ticket, its outsider personality rooted in the upstart days of twentysomething high jinks. The station got rich and so did The Ticket personalities, who became as big as the sports figures they were supposed to be covering.
“I had a Porsche, a Hummer, and two Harleys,” Williams says. “I had a lake house, with two great, fast Jet Skis, right on the water. A big boat. Toys. Everyone else was putting their kids through college. I was buying toys.” The extravagant lifestyle went to his head. “I started believing in all that shit.”
The Ticket hosts had something more than money: they were at the center of a gigantic boys club, darlings in a city that had fallen in love with them. They were the heads of something like the biggest frat house in the world, the ball-breakers in the back of a bus that spanned the entire region. They had the most rabidly devoted listeners in radio, as much money as you could want, and a job that required going into a studio, talking sports, and goofing off for a few hours every day.
By the end of 1995, everyone had moved out of The Ticket Compound. Everyone except Williams eventually got married, and most started families. Time together was reserved for remote broadcasts or special events, like the periodic Guys’ Night Outs.
But The Ticket Compound lives on. They’ve re-created it a couple of times in recent years, renting a house for a week, shoving the station’s hosts in it Big Brother-style, and broadcasting it all. In the past few years, they’ve all gone on campouts, where listeners hear things like the hosts egging on Rhyner to drink a shot of beer once a minute for an hour.
Even without consistent off-air antics, however, the chemistry forged in those early days has sustained the station and its dedicated listenership. “It tracked along with our own development as people,” Keith says. “We had our carefree 20s back at a time when the station was more carefree. And now I think everyone has mortgages.”
It’s a familial bond, and it’s ingrained a stability that’s unheard of in radio. “It is a part of the fabric of my being,” Rhyner says. “All of us know that at least professionally, if not personally, this is the coolest, greatest thing that any of us will ever be involved in. There is nothing that any of us have had, or ever will have, that is anything like this.”
After 20 years, despite multiple offers to go elsewhere, with lures of money, prestige, and national profile, only one of the original four hosts from The Dunham & Miller Show and The Hardline—Williams—has left, and he didn’t do so willingly.
Williams was kicked off The Ticket in 2007, fired after his credibility and ability to function on air had been lost in a haze of drugs and alcohol. For a time, Williams was arguably the most popular personality at the station, a wild, jocular hillbilly with an impossible Texas accent and spectacularly off-the-wall opinions. After getting fired, he bounced to a few spots at rival sports stations before being let go for similar offenses. Now he’s holed up in a house north of Gainesville. These days, his once wide-faced, bulldog scowl has turned gaunt, sallow-cheeked, and scruffy.
At a Chili’s off Interstate 35, just south of Lewisville, Williams slumps behind a table in the corner of the barroom. He rambles, his mind digging back into the small towns of his youth, his failed baseball career, his swinging days as a bartender—always coming back to the events that led to his dismissal from The Ticket. It’s as if he’s trying to tease apart cause and effect, isolating each little bad decision so that, on their own, they don’t add up to the monumental screw-up they all eventually amounted to. He shouldn’t have accepted cocaine at that party in Highland Park. He shouldn’t have gotten lap-band surgery, or lied about it to the guys at the station, which only greased the slippery slope of incredibility. And what about that 24-hour Whataburger that opened back when he was bartending on Greenville Avenue, long before The Ticket? If he hadn’t eaten so many hamburgers, he would never have needed lap-band surgery in the first place.
The Ticket haunts Williams, and his story haunts the other hosts.
“It still stings,” Keith says.
“It was awful because he was a good friend,” Miller says. “We just had to move on because it was weighing us all down, such a cloud hanging above everybody.”
Williams’ last months at the station weighed most heavily on Rhyner and Davidson, who were co-hosting the afternoon-drive show with him.
“You can’t describe it,” Davidson says. “How tense it was, how fucked up he was.”
“I had made up my mind,” Rhyner says, in that unmistakable, slow drawl that sounds like a rubber tire on gravel. “By then, next time contract time came around, if he was still here, I was not going to be. There was just so much shit behind the scenes.”
Williams’ story stands as an all-too-real example of what anybody working in radio knows: no matter how long a run you’ve had or how secure your job might seem, you could always be fired before your next broadcast.
“I don’t know how long it can go,” Dunham says of The Ticket. “But I think the day we do start taking it for granted is the day we start getting into trouble.”
For a while, Keith couldn’t reconcile the triviality of his own job, that his success had been created out of the haze of a wild youth that needed to be sustained in one way or another to maintain the personality that had become synonymous with his livelihood.
“I just considered that my job was frivolous,” he says. “You feel like a joke of a human being. No one could actually think that what you do is meaningful.”
But Keith had an epiphany in the hours and days after the planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
“It was a week or two when there were no real jokes, when that had been our bread and butter,” Keith says. “We reacted honestly in that emotional time, with our gut and with the listeners in real time.”
After that, Keith, whose job is called “yuk monkey,” started to understand that the station was more than just sports and wisecracks. It was a gathering place, an emotional sounding board, something that was somehow necessary to the city.
“I started feeling that court jesters were important, too,” he says. “And that the relief valve of humor, and the endurance of us being on the air all these years, it meant something. Before, I thought, ‘Well, I’m never going to do anything in my life that has any importance.’ And then I realized that the very thing that I was doing felt important.”