“So. Where were we?”
With those words at about 3 p.m. yesterday, Mike Rhyner came out of a 1,000-day retirement and launched a new Dallas radio station, 97.1 The Freak. If you checked out the podcast with Rhyner that we dropped yesterday, you know that he credits Ben Rogers and Skin Wade with catalyzing this whole operation. Since they do their first Freak shift today, starting at 11 and aided by Krystina Ray and Michael Gruber, I thought we’d do some Qing and Aing with the lads. I interviewed them over text. Enjoy:
TIM: In our podcast, Rhyner called you guys “hustlers.” What does that word and Rhyner’s use of it mean to you?
BEN: I think he means that we’ve been scrappin’ our asses off to chase the illusive dream of working in radio. When we last worked with Rhynes, we were at the end of The Ticket bench. In the 14 years that have passed since then, we’ve been at Live 105.3, The Fan, 103.3 ESPN, back at The Fan, The Eagle, and now 97.1 The Freak. But we’ve never been fired; we’ve just stayed steady hustlin’. Always thinking ahead. Always networking. Always plotting our course.
SKIN: Well shit, I was gonna say he likens us to Huggy Bear, but Ben’s answer seems to make more sense.
TIM: Here’s the way I see it: y’all are Buddy Pine from The Incredibles. You were the biggest fan of The Ticket until you were denied a full-time slot there. Then you came back as Syndrome, and now you are using zero-point energy to throw the Catman of the Americas all over downtown, seeking your revenge. Am I close?
BEN: Jeesh. Syndrome was an asshole, Tim. What are you trying to say? I think this is far more of a Star Wars situation. These massive radio corporations are The Evil Empire, and most program directors are the Darth Vader of their spaceship. We’re merely a part of a local radio rebellion against corporate suits who think they know more about what local listeners want than we do, even though many of them rarely leave Philadelphia city limits. We’re a ragtag crew of underdog Skywalkers fighting for creative freedom. Rhynes is our Obi-Wan Kenobi. Cavanaugh is our Chewbacca. Sirois has Han Solo vibes
SKIN: I didn’t see The Incredibles, but I do know that Greedo got his nuts blown off trying to hold down Han Solo. That was wild. Han Solo is a hustler. We still talking about that?
TIM: Richie Whitt, as you guys know, is like a level-7 Sith Lord with 56 hit points. That’s how he was able to break the news about Rhyner (or Rhynes or whichever name is still alive) coming out of retirement with The Freak. Whitt is really, really good. If Elizabeth Albanese were still handing out Katie Awards, no doubt Whitt would get a shelf full of them. My favorite part of his scoop was that The Freak is all about sports talk. Does this mean you two are going to have to actually and finally learn something about sports?
SKIN: So he broke a story that a station that’s not a sports station is a sports station? I guess journalistic standards have changed significantly in the Twitter age. As has what garners awards. Nobody that I know that’s even remotely involved with what we’re doing at The Freak considers it a sports station. We’re personality-driven local talk. We’re DFW AF, Tim. You hear me? We’re a group of raggedy dudes and really cool ladies that know what this community is about, and we definitely know how to have fun. Of course that includes the local teams and bigger sports stories. We live in Dallas, so we are talking Luka and Dak when we want to. But there could very easily be days in which we never talk sports at all. We’re hear [sic] to have fun, keep everyone informed. I heard the pod you did with Rhyner Rhynes and you VERY intuitively pointed to the old KZEW that Mike was a part of. As we were workshopping the direction of the station with iHeart programming, we constantly brought up that irreverent feel that the old Zoo embodied and wanted a modernized version of the ethos that spawned the Zoo Freaks. We are definitely NOT another sports station, we are the ONLY Freak in the United Damn States of Damn America, Tim. Damn.
BEN: I want another sportstalk program director in Dockers yelling at me for not force feeding listeners enough contrived sports topics like I want my wisdom teeth extracted by a rope tied to a donkey wagon. Like Skin said, The Freak won’t be the third sportstalk station in DFW—it’ll be THE ONLY all-talk, hyper-local, pop culture funparty in town—and will likely be most refreshing for folks bored by sports content quotas. If we want to talk sports, we will. But only if we want to. We’ve assembled an insanely talented squad who will all have the creative freedom to do what they want, when they want. That was arguably the biggest draw of this thing for hosts who’d become disenchanted with the corporate sportstalk machine. This magnificent beast will truly be one of a kind, Tim. A damn revolution, damnit, Tim. Damn.
TIM: I see your point. So when is Jerry the owner going to fire Jerry the GM?
SKIN: Good God, I spelled “here” as “hear” earlier. Please fix that.
BEN: The Dak contract was a perfect example of what can go wrong with the hardcore sporty sports playbook. Exhausted hosts given directives to “play the hits” incessantly running generic topics into the ground until everyone is miserable. Hosts, listeners, everybody.
And sometimes it can feel like stations are purposely trying to out-sports the other with even more hardcore sporty sports. So often it’s an uncomfortable mandate from the corporate machine. And it’s a shame because so many of those hosts are extremely talented & fascinating people with a wealth of knowledge about varied interests that listeners would probably love to hear about. But the sports quota cram down is real. So that format ain’t us.
Our hosts all follow our local teams closely, so we’ll talk about them whenever we want to. But we’ll never have a program director forcing us to over-bludgeon some Skip Bayless sports topic that we know is boring listeners to death. And the most beautiful thing about this is that our programming department is right there with us, holding their own pitchforks and torches as we storm the castle.
They see the same incredible opportunity that we do. But the magic here is that this is far more collaborative and supportive than anything I’ve ever seen in radio. Our programming folks are down in the trenches with us, helping us create a station that we ourselves would want to listen to 24/7. A station that’s so much fun, you don’t dare change the dial. You’ll get exactly the amount of sports you need, but not a teaspoon more. This ain’t no copycat, Timothy—it’s an absolute uprising. But not against any particular station. This is all about creative freedom and the chance to launch the coolest and most interesting radio station in the country.
SKIN: As to your Jerry question, if the Ben and Skin Show is the Thelma and Louise of this thing, that’s the question that led us to punch the gas and gleefully drive over the edge and off into the abyss. Thanks a lot, Tim Layden.
TIM: Speaking of homophones, I see that you two are going to share Grubes with Rhyner-Rhynes as your board operator. I didn’t know those two Michaels were in an open relationship. How do you plan to handle the jealousies and complications during holiday meals that are sure come up?
SKIN: Well as everyone knows, there are only two Shoopies. But everyone gets to participate in GrubesLove. And we want to go vertical on that keg.
BEN: I honestly can’t believe we get to work with Sweet Grubes again! He was the producer of our Saturday show on The Ticket somewhere around 2004. He’s arguably the most likable human in the history of human person people. He’s had at least six bobble head nights—in sports stadiums—which is a world record in the board op community.
Hate losing KT, who’s been with us for a decade, but he’s been ready for his own show for a long, long time. So happy he gets an opportunity to do mornings with our ole 105.3 The Fan buddy Jeff Cavanaugh and the lovable, hilarious Julie Dobbs. They’ll also be working with military veteran Matt Cather, who might share an Only Fans account with his dad. Checking on that last note.
Also happy for Krystina Ray, who will have a much larger role on our show now that KT has violently turned his back on us.
Speaking of Rhynes, though—holy shit!! What an honor to work with The Godfather. It’s been one of the great joys of my life getting to know him better over the last several years. I idolized him for so long and now get to call him a dear friend. That man could read me my insurance policy and I’d find it fascinating. When we asked him to fill in for Skin (while he was battling cancer) you could tell he had every bit of zip he ever had on that fastball. He’s about to Nolan Ryan these [expletive redacted].
And the great Mike Sirois is my favorite radio host of all time. The man is a hilarious idea factory. My face hurts from laughing any time I’m around him for an extended period of time. To think he worked at his last stop for 16 years without securing a full time hosting opportunity probably speaks volumes about why The Freak intrigued him. I mean, he won’t be buried here—we’re building an entire station around that glorious bastard. Any listeners who are unfamiliar with that dude are going to instantly fall in love.
TIM: I am conducting this interrogation prior to The Freak’s Monday afternoon launch, after which there will be a party at an undisclosed lounge hosted by Mark Cuban and the disturbingly handsome Paul Corvino, the regional president of iHeart. You guys do your first midday shift, in your new time slot, the following day. How hungover will you be, and what will be going through Ben’s mind when, as I predict will happen at the party, he takes off his shirt and sings a Christina Aguilera song?
BEN: I believe Skin might be planning a seductive and shirtless rendition of “Genie in a Bottle,” but unfortunately he’ll likely be wearing bedazzled nip tassels. Look, we’ll all be levitating on happiness clouds because this is the opportunity of a lifetime. There have been many times during this process that we’ve all been looking around at each other thinking, “Is this REALLY happening? Are they REALLY letting us do this?” It’s absolutely a dream come true. And the best part is, we’re all extremely good friends. So the party’s not stoppin anytime soon. It’s just finally going to spill over onto the airwaves.
SKIN: Clearly “Ain’t No Other Man” would be my choice cuz Xtina plus Preemo equals the jam. You coming to the party, Tim? I invited Zac but purposely forgot to invite you.
TIM: Zac’s car has been “in the shop” for more than a month, during which time I’ve had to—and continue to—serve as his ride to work. I assume I’ll have to drive him to this party. So I can either play the Argyle to his John McClane, or I can come in and show you my stanky leg. I guess that’s up to Cuban and Corvino.
SKIN: Is that the ender?
TIM: Unless you want to make a joke about who will be the first at the party to get shot in the head by Hans Gruber.
SKIN: Too soon.