Paul Seebeck was caught up in the pace of his radio talk show - creative chaos, he calls it - when out of the blue on Friday afternoon Mark Rypien’s agent called.
Ken Staninger, the agent, said Rypien had just signed with the St. Louis Rams.
Seebeck was elated. He had a news break to top off a busy 2 hours of call-in. Another first-round playoff loss had sent irate Spokane fans to the phones to excoriate the Sonics and their coach, George Karl.
In times like these, 2 hours of jock talk is a snap.
There are times, though, when the fans aren’t worked up, when there is no breaking news, when you can hear a show laboring. That’s when Seebeck and Dennis Patchin - Spokane’s radio sports talk show hosts - plow through the void, hoping for the mercy call.
“People can almost sense when you’re dying,” Patchin of KXLY explains, “so somebody will usually give you a mercy call. The guy may not talk about anything, but at least he fills 2 minutes.”
Killing the clock is essential to the hosting craft.
“When you look at the clock and you’ve got 45 minutes left to fill and no calls, there’s that moment of terror that everybody who does talk radio has felt,” Patchin says. “I can talk a lot, but I can’t go 45 minutes straight.”
Callers who make or break a talk show are the future of AM radio.
“This is only the dawn of talk radio,” says Papa Joe Chevalier, whose show out of Chicago follows Seebeck on 970 The Score. “It’s not even noon time yet. I still meet tons of men my age (46) who have only FM stations on their car radios. Every day I get calls from people who say they just started listening and they’re hooked.
“How high is up?” Chevalier adds. “AM radio was dying and this is bringing it back. The political guys have done more than we have, but sports talk is growing.”
Sports talk in Spokane is built on welltraveled ground. Many have tried. Dick Wright on KEYF. Dan Kleckner on KSBN. Mark Patrick, among others, on KGA. Patchin, Rick Lukens, Chuck DeBruin and Bud Nameck on KXLY.
Other shows and other names have come and gone.
“Less than 1 percent of the market (392,000 in Spokane and North Idaho) will call and be part of a show,” said Craig West, the voice of the Spokane Indians and the hockey Chiefs. “What you have is 3,800 (listeners who might call.) That’s narrowcasting. Broadcasting today is narrowcasting.”
Narrow-casting is a method of targeting a specific audience - in this case males 25 to 54.
Patchin has a long association with that demographic group. His intro to sports talk goes back to 1986, when he shared time on Sports Plus. The program had a following, but died three years ago when station management decided women weren’t listening.
Women didn’t listen to the replacement voices, either, and under new management KXLY has returned to sports talk on its AM side with the re-birth of Patchin’s show three weeks ago.
It’s a move that gives Dennis Patchin the biggest soap box in town.
Not only is his call-in show on the radio, it’s seen on KXLY extra (cable channel 14) from 7-8 p.m. KXLY’s weekend sports anchor for 11 years, Patchin hosts the talk show, delivers channel 4’s nightly sports at 11, tapes a report for morning TV and does four sports news reports that play through morning drive time on KXLY radio.
“The talk show is the perfect vehicle for me,” Patchin says. “I get to talk sports and argue with people for an hour.”
Patchin typically will introduce a topic, fishing for a response. Monday night it was Don Fehr’s comment that another major-league baseball strike is a grim possibility.
Caller response wiped out 30 minutes in a hurry.
“I try to give fans a little credit,” Patchin says. “They know a little about their sport and they’re passionate about it. I try to let them make their point. I might disagree with them - might even get into a quick argument - but I don’t like talk-show hosts who use people as an avenue to get to their next soap box.”
The newer kid on the talk block is Seebeck. Two years ago he sold KTRW on a revenue-sharing plan for a sports talk program for an hour a week on Wednesday night.
By August 1993, it was 2 hours a week, and a year later Seebeck was on Monday through Friday. His current format is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on The Score, Spokane’s 24-hour sports station.
“Initially, nobody knew if this would work,” Seebeck says, “but over time I think the show has had some success and as people have listened it’s become a place that guests want to be on.”
The Score is an AM station on a shoestring budget with low ratings, but it’s not without potential. KXLY has signed a letter of intent to buy the station from Greyhound Financial Services. The deal requires Federal Communications Commission approval, which isn’t expected before late summer.
“A bank owned us,” said Brian Paul, general manager of The Score. “We were a fly on their portfolio. It was incredibly impersonal. Now, who knows what will happen when KXLY comes in? It’s exciting, thinking of the resources that could bring to our little sports station. I can see potential beyond my wildest dreams.”
Speculation is that The Score’s signal will be upgraded.
One improvement is already in place. Mariners baseball, occasionally taped-delayed, shifted from KXLY’s AM side to its FM station or simply ignored, is now semi-regularly farmed out to The Score. It’s painless for the listener, a quick switch from 920 to 970 on the dial.
The most recent Arbitron survey from Jan. 5 to March 29 - from 6 a.m. Monday through midnight Sunday - shows KTRW with a .7 share, or about 400 listeners in any continuous 15-minute period.
That’s only 400 out of 57,000 who had their radios on in Spokane and Kootenai counties.
More encouraging are numbers from One-OnOne in Chicago, the radio network that markets Papa Joe Chevalier (see above story) among others. One-On-One monitors listener response through AT&T; phone reports.
Rich Bonn, the network’s vice-president for programming, says toll-free calls from this area code exceeded 400 calls an hour in March.
Typically only 10 to 20 percent of callers get through, but the number here suggests that the national stars have caught on here.
Nationwide, One-On-One receives 600,000 attempts to get through a month.
“In smaller markets, people tend to be more diverse in what teams they follow,” Bonn said. “So a national format like this works in Spokane.”
“Awareness is a slow build,” said Paul. “We’re finally getting a little reputation as a sports station.”
Paul realized he had an audience when he decided to tape-delay last fall’s WashingtonStanford football game to run live a Greater Spokane League playoff game.
“I got 500 hate calls,” he said. “People came unglued.”
Seebeck traces a breakthrough to the week of the Apple Cup game last November, when, he says, “We became part of the story.
“During Husky-Cougar week, Chad Eaton (WSU defensive tackle) told us first all those amazing comments of his - articulating some of his frustrations,” Seebeck said. “The Cougars had a team meeting based on what Chad said on this program. That’s when I felt we were a player. I thought, ‘This is going to work.”’
Since then, Seebeck says he has felt his show becoming what he hoped it would.
“It’s a voice for people,” he says, “a place for the fan to react. It’s also a place to build stories.”
Brian Paul adds, “Now, every armchair quarterback can second-guess - not only at home or in a bar - but on the air. George Karl has said talk sports radio is the worst thing that ever happened to coaching.”
Maybe, but Paul identifies with the fan who gets on the phone to get on the coach. He says he also knows what motivates the ones who just listen in.
“It’s a way of justifying your feelings, of knowing that you’re not the only one who feels that baseball players make too much money or don’t play as hard as the ones you grew up with,” he said.
Seebeck’s show is sandwiched in over the lunch hours, after the Sports Babe, Nancy Donnellan, and before Papa Joe Chevalier.
Seebeck promos the package as an opportunity to listen to your mother (The Babe), followed by your brother (himself), followed by your Papa Joe.
Locally, Cougar football is the undisputed No. 1 attention grabber, Seebeck and Patchin agree.
“The community doesn’t have a pro team to hang a peg on,” Seebeck says. “The participatory events are wonderful and part of the reason we live here, but we don’t have the passionate interest in one or two professional teams that drives and fuels sports talk radio in major-league cities.
“In this market, the pro franchise is Cougar football. That’s changed since I left Spokane (for a TV job in Miami) and came back. I’ve wondered if it’s the evolution of interest of people who’ve moved here, who’ve had professional teams in their past and want something to focus on.”
Patchin is fine-tuning the balance between radio and TV audiences. The simulcast nature of his program gives it a broader base and makes it a tougher challenge.
Patchin wants to play to the visual potential, but not to the point of turning off the radio audience.
His strength is an ability to make the tough point without offending a source.
“When (former Chiefs coach) Bryan Maxwell punched Gerry Johannson (a coach at Tri-City), we had it on camera,” Patchin said. “Probably because of our video, Maxy got suspended for three games. But I still had a nice working relationship with him.”
Guests see an advantage in the medium, Seebeck says.
“I’ve had people tell me the reason they want to be on is that they can be on and it’s not edited,” he said. “They know they can say something that takes 15 or 20 seconds and nobody is changing the context.
“I think people want raw access.”
Seebeck, who grew up in Sunnyside and went to WSU, divides his work between the show and his half-time job as a lay minister. He met his wife, Patty, in church in Boise.
Ambition took him from his TV job in Boise to Medford to Spokane’s KREM and on to Miami. When he returned in 1991 at 33, he no longer had visions of the network job.
He sees himself as a story-teller first. He says he welcomes the calls, but wouldn’t want a show that’s all call-ins.
Patchin wouldn’t want to do start-to-finish interviews.
“If I could have anybody on the show I wanted, but all I could do was interview guests - if I couldn’t take phone calls - I wouldn’t want to do the show,” Patchin said.
Either way, the first order of business is entertainment. Patchin grasped that as part of KXLY’s 1980s Sports Plus, when Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda was brought on one of the early programs.
“We called Tommy Lasorda at home,” Patchin remembers. “He told us his dog sings.
“Tommy gets the dog. He wouldn’t sing. He wouldn’t yelp, wouldn’t do anything. I could imagine Tommy working this dog over trying to make him perform and nothing’s happening.
“We told him we’d call him back when the dog felt like singing.”
It wasn’t pure sport, it was better.
It was entertaining radio.