The First Team's Last Stand

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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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Gaspar González