Chris Rock once said of the music business, "Here today, gone today." The same might be said of radio, particularly sports radio, where hosts and shows change about as often as the baseball seasons. A few weeks ago, the latest change came at 1560 when Adam Clanton (now back on air at 790) and John Wessling were fired, their Afternoon Delight show canceled.
"I felt it was coming," Wessling told Hair Balls. "I likened it to when they whacked Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. You just walk into the room and there's a tarp on the floor."
It's been like that at 1560 for some time now. What was once "The Game" seems to be in constant flux as the station continually tries to find a balance between the irreverent, edgy upstart and a more traditional sports radio station. Wessling got his shot on the afternoon show when he and Clanton were paired by then station program director Craig Larson.
"They wanted me and Adam to go in there and be outrageous personalities and be creative," Wessling explains.
In fact, the original idea for their show was reminiscent of the early days of 1560, almost an homage to the "Double Rods" days of The Game. "They [Larson and station owner David Gow] essentially said, 'We're not hiring you guys because you're sports experts. We've got other guys that can do that. We can't out-Texans 610 and we can't out-Rockets 790. We have to provide something different, unique and entertaining,'" Wessling said.
And it started well. Though they were told management knew it would take time to build ratings, when the first ratings book came out a month later and their numbers were unchanged, their status as the "popular kids in the office" didn't last. Several months later, Dave Tepper, who had been at 97.5, was brought in, and not long after, Wessling and Clanton were on the street.
Wessling is no stranger to radio. He majored in radio and television in college and worked as a writer and assistant producer for legendary "radio gods" Stevens and Pruett at the now defunct 101 KLOL. After almost a decade in Los Angeles working as a comedian and writer, including time with the George Lopez radio show, he came back to Houston for a job with 610 after being spotted on a sports talk reality show by former 610 program director Gavin Spittle.
Though he had never worked in sports radio specifically, he felt his time in radio and his lifelong love of sports were a good match, calling them "the chocolate and peanut butter of the two worlds." He also felt his experience as a working comedian -- he even won a Best Of award from this publication in 2011 for comedy -- was well suited to the changing world of sports talk, allowing him to balance serious and silly.
"I've been performing as a professional comic for 15 years," he said, "And I've got a bead on when you can be straight and when you can be goofy."
But what surprised him was the backlash he received both from veterans of the industry and from former athletes. "As a comic, I've faced tons of prejudice in the sports talk business that I'm some sort of clown, that I can't be taken seriously," he said.
In truth, sports talk is going through an interesting time in which facts and stats, now so readily available online and even on the phone, are less important to listeners. Programmers struggle to find the right balance between hardcore analysis and pure entertainment. Wessling was introduced at his first meeting at 610 as a kind of outsider, which he found strange considering his background and the fact that so many of his co-workers were less experienced in radio than he was. A comedian is a tough sell among sports broadcasters, but Wessling remains incredulous.
"Show me how me being a comedian and being able to entertain people in public disqualifies me from being able to have a serious opinion about sports," he said. He points to Lance Zierlein as an example of someone able to combine pure sports with great entertainment, someone he calls the "gold standard" of the genre.
Wessling will continue to look for work in sports radio, but despite the abundance of sports stations, there are not many jobs to go around. He considered attempting a comeback at 610, but says, "They are like Walmart: they have a very strict no-returns policy."
In the meantime, he continues writing and doing comedy, but to keep up his radio chops, he produces the podcast Ripped Foul. He started it while still on the air as a means of honing his craft, but the now regular, uncensored show gives him a chance to continue to do what he loves. He says the response has been "surprisingly positive" and he attributes that to the fact his show is akin to a regular conversation between fans.
"[The] uncensored sports comedy perspective is a lot more congruent to how sports fans communicate with one another than the weird, inorganic guys in suits at a sports desk," he said. "Why are they wearing suits? Are they going to court? Did they just get done selling insurance all day?"
Ripped Foul is about as unlike terrestrial sports radio as it gets. While he does feature guests like former 1560 program director Chance McClain and even our own Craig Hlavaty (talking about the Astrodome), and he does talk a lot about sports mixed with pop culture, it is mostly Wessling in a very loose format cursing a lot. It is jarring and often extremely funny.
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As Wessling explains, the audience may be significantly smaller, but technology is changing the way people listen and that is opening up new opportunities that didn't exist before. "The delivery methods of getting to the consumer are changing by the day," he said. "The hard part is creating the content."
Still, there is no question Wessling would jump at another chance to be on a station where the FCC limits your ability to drop F-Bombs and sponsors, bean counters and "radio experts" constrict your creativity. There is something about the medium that he, like so many others in his field, find irresistible. "I'll always be, in my heart whether I have a job or not, a radio guy."