The First Team's Last Stand

With four professional teams in South Florida, sports radio should be big business. It isn't.

Joe Rose is on the verge of tears. From laughing. The former Miami Dolphin and current cohost of The First Team,the weekday morning sports-talk show on WQAM-AM (560), is listening to two of the program's regular callers debate the likely outcome of the weekend's Dolphins-New York Jets game at Pro Player Stadium. Richie the Dolfan, matched against Mark the Jets Fan, begins by apologizing for calling in late. He claims Mark's wife hit her head on his steering wheel, necessitating a pit stop for ice. "I didn't want her to go home with a bump on her head," says Richie, exercising mock sincerity.

Barely able to contain himself, the middle-age, beefy-but-fit Rose (a former tight end, he's nicknamed "The Big Dog") looks to his on-air partners for help. Resident philosopher and funnyman Jeff "Defo" DeForrest nervously adjusts his Florida Panthers cap while 31-year-old, squeaky-voiced Brooklyn native Steve "Goldy" Goldstein fiddles with his mic. The on-air face-off between Richie and Mark, relentlessly crass and occasionally funny, is fueled by the kind of passion rarely seen -- or heard -- among South Florida sports fans. The First Team will take it.

"This is the biggest week of the year," says DeForrest, referring to the volume of sports talk preceding the annual Miami meeting between the Dolphins and their conference archrivals. (The Dolphins and Jets play twice a year, with each team hosting one game in its home stadium.) For the broadcasting trio, it's also a welcome break from the topic that has hung over the show for the past month and a half -- namely, the imminent demise of The First Team. In October, station management announced that Rose, DeForrest, and Goldstein, who have cohosted the morning show for five years from WQAM's studios just south of the Miami-Dade and Broward county line, would be terminated owing to declining ratings. All are being allowed to work through the end of the year.

If not exactly on par with Wayne Huizenga's wholesale breakup of the world champion Florida Marlins a few years ago, the possible dissolution of the area's only local morning drive-time sports-talk radio show is the latest indication that, when it comes to sporting culture, South Florida is far from major-league material.

At least compared with markets like New York City, where WFAN-AM (660), a pioneer in the sports-talk revolution, enjoys one of the largest audiences in the nation, its 50,000-watt signal virtually blanketing the Northeast with 'round-the-clock sports chatter. On-air personalities like Mike Francesa and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, cohosts of WFAN's popular afternoon drive-time show Mike and the Mad Dog, have achieved cult followings, as have frequent callers like "Short Al" and "Joe D. from Brooklyn," who wait up to an hour to get on the air and who generally have something of substance to say. Sports talk in the Big Apple isn't just a bigger deal than it is in South Florida; it's better.

"I call this the town without pity," says DeForrest, a 20-year veteran of local radio. "You can throw out topics that would be of interest almost anywhere and you'll think you're talking to the wind." He cites as an example the recent World Series, generally considered to be one of the most exciting in history. Everywhere else, that is. "We got a couple of calls," remembers DeForrest, shrugging his shoulders.

DeForrest and his First Teammates attribute local apathy in part to a fan base largely composed of transplants with loyalties to other teams. "We're the INS of sports fans," laughs DeForrest. "We process people from other cities."

Rose agrees. "Do you know we have New York Jets bars in this town?" he asks with the incredulity only an ex-Dolphin could muster. "Hell, we have Pittsburgh Steelers bars here."

And fans of local teams, adds DeForrest, are victims of the too-much, too-soon syndrome, as in too many expansion franchises too closely inaugurated and, in one particular instance, success too quickly achieved. "Within the span of a couple of years," recounts DeForrest, "we got the Heat [basketball], the Marlins [baseball], and the Panthers [hockey]. The market hasn't been able to handle it. If local teams aren't winning championships [as the Marlins did in 1997], they're not generating interest." With the exception of the Dolphins, who have been around since 1966, South Florida's sports teams either haven't had time to develop loyal, knowledgeable fans or, in the case of the Marlins, have alienated local fans by building backward, from a World Series championship to a mediocre squad stocked with young hopefuls.

The result is sports radio that bears less resemblance to the informed sports talk found in places like New York than that it does to political talk, replete with personal attacks. Or as DeForrest puts it: "In other cities, sports callers analyze the games. Here, they analyze each other."

Hence the featured sparring session between Richie and Mark, followed this morning by The First Team's assault on Florida Panthers general manager Bill Torrey, whose club has won only four of its first sixteen games. This change of direction pays off. The computer screen in front of DeForrest lights up with hockey calls. Gary from Coral Gables, Jane from Margate, and Gus from Miami all want to talk about the pathetic Panthers. Gary and Gus agree that blame resides with Torrey. Jane pleads for compassion for the players. "I don't think they'll play any better if they hear people booing them," she reasons. The fellows listen attentively to their only female caller of the morning (in the testosterone-dominated world of sports talk, only women, paradoxically, are consistently afforded the opportunity to complete their remarks without interruption), ultimately dismissing her point with a gentle but firm "Well, whaddaya expect?" Then it's back to the Dolphins.

"It's hard to do four hours of sports in the morning," DeForrest says during a break, referring to The First Team's 6-to-10 a.m. time period. "We're up against everybody who does guy stuff." By "guy stuff," he means drive-time shows on the FM dial (particularly those on rock stations), news on WIOD-AM (610), and of course self-proclaimed King of All Media Howard Stern, whose highly successful blend of sophomoric locker-room humor and verbal T&A airs weekday mornings on WBGG-FM (105.9). DeForrest's well-honed sense of the competition indirectly points to another obstacle the morning team and WQAM face: Sports talk, as it exists everywhere, is tailored to a predominantly straight, white, male, English-speaking audience, and almost no major media market in the United States has fewer people who fit that description than South Florida.

It's also true that The First Team's time slot is a bit of an anomaly within the sports-talk radio industry. WFAN in New York, for example, features old-school shock jock Don Imus in the morning, primarily to compete against Stern. It is the station's only nonsports programming. By comparison, WQAM's only nonsports offering, The Neil Rogers Show, airs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., leaving The First Team to contend with the early-morning traffic jam of personality-driven shows.

Whatever the reason, for the past year or so, The First Team just hasn't been able to compete, says WQAM general manager Greg Reed. The most recent ratings place the morning show ninth in its broadcast time among its target demographic, men 25 to 54 years old. And that, according to Reed, isn't nearly good enough. So the general manager decided to shuffle his lineup and release Rose, DeForrest, and Goldstein from its contracts. But why leave the lame-duck broadcasters on the air? "I'm letting them work through their severance period," explains Reed, "because we've always had a solid relationship."

Maybe. Or maybe it's because, in a sports-talk market where personal drama and back-room intrigue count for more than fan loyalty, a trio of broadcasters with its collective head on the chopping block makes for good radio. Reed doesn't deny that listeners have responded to the announced shakeup with the kind of fervor sports fans in other cities reserve for a blockbuster trade. "I've gotten a lot of voice mail and e-mail supporting the guys," admits Reed. "Some blame the ratings slump on too many commercials; others say this guy should stay but this other guy should go." Pause. "We'll see what happens."

If Reed sounds less than definite about the changes he's initiated, it's because he is. He concedes that DeForrest and Goldstein may very well be back, possibly joined by a new cohost. Rose has decided to leave the station regardless of management's final decision, opting instead for the possibility of an expanded role with local NBC affiliate WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), where he currently does part-time duty as the evening sports anchor.

Despite the speculation, members of The First Team are not too worried about their respective futures. Nobody, they'll tell you, goes into radio for the job security. On this morning, they appear more concerned with building something resembling an enlightened sports-talk culture in South Florida. Goldstein tries to do his part. When Kenny, a first-time caller, opines that professional wrestling is a better sport than hockey, then admits he's never been to a hockey game, the host offers his Panther tickets for the evening.

Time for one last Dolphins-Jets call. It's Sal, another regular and a Jets fan, who wants Richie the Dolfan to call back so he can scream at him, Rose to wear a dress if the Jets win (which they did, and he did), and -- what the hell? -- to beat Rose's ass regardless of the outcome of the game. Rose, DeForrest, and Goldstein look at each other and smile. Whaddaya gonna do?

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