Philadelphia sports fans booed and pelted Santa Claus with snowballs. I don’t judge them; they used to pay 50 cents a phone call to help keep me employed. If you’re keeping score, here’s how it was done in 1981.
I was in Philly during good times for its pro sports teams. Sports, it turned out, would be my next job.
In 1980, the Sixers lost the NBA championship to the Lakers in 6 games. I was present at Game 4 when Dr. J made his famous baseline reverse layup where, I swear, he went out of bounds then back in bounds while flying through the air. That happened down at the other end of the court; at my end, I got this shot of a Daryl Dawkins dunk.
The 1980 Eagles went to the Super Bowl, but lost to the Raiders. The Flyers made the Stanley Cup finals and I was reporting from Nassau Coliseum when the Islanders beat them in overtime in Game 6. Pete Rose had followed me from Cincinnati to Philly and in 1980 the Phillies won their first World Series ever. But I had left WMMR by then and couldn’t get media credentials, so had to watch on TV and join the celebration on Broad Street that night.
Capitalizing on his ratings success, Jeff Pollack left WMMR to launch his own consultancy. I asked his successor PD, Charlie Kendall, for the go-ahead to continue building the news department with the hiring of a second staffer. He agreed and I hired a young woman to take my place in morning drive, freeing me to get out of the station and cover local news and events in person.
It didn’t work out well. The new news anchor hadn’t a lot of experience in major market radio and Kendall decided he wanted me to return to morning drive. I decided I wouldn’t. Not only did it represent a setback in the growth of the news department, it meant a return to the morning drive “lifestyle” for me — i.e. not enough sleep and a constricted nighttime social life. I had had enough of that. The PD said it was either morning drive or hit the road. I chose the latter, and in an amicable fashion, Kendall agreed to characterize my departure as a layoff so I was eligible to collect unemployment for a period of time.
My girlfriend Barbara came to my aid with a suggestion for where I might find some work. Her father, a commercial illustrator, had been doing some artwork for what was to become known as Dial Sports. (“Dial 976 one three, one three, get all the sports news instantly.”) A local entrepreneur had secured a deal with the regional phone company for a 900 number and was creating what would become a precursor to internet gambling. For 50 cents a call, gamblers and sports fans could find out how their teams were faring in – almost – real time.
Mickey Charles lived in the Philly suburb of Huntingdon Valley and had a cottage industry going as a gambling “expert” – a radio show, a column in the local newspaper and a reputation as a tireless self-promoter in a Donald Trump kind of way. He detailed his plan for the sports score update service at an initial meeting attended by myself and about a dozen eager young would-be sports broadcasters, some already working in radio, some just graduated from Temple University’s communications program. Charles wanted to convert his two-car garage into a studio where the score updates would be recorded and uploaded to the 900 number hub.
It was immediately clear to me that what he needed to build was essentially a radio newsroom – to collect and distribute audio reports, taped as well as live scores. During weekday hours when no games were underway, the phone updates would feature locker-room and practice field interviews with athletes and coaches. I had, at that point, built newsrooms at three radio stations. As soon as I started detailing the tape decks, microphones and portable tape recorders we would need, Charles realized I was the program director the enterprise would need.
We got it up and running and obtained credentials for our eager young reporters to cover all the local teams, along with mic flags – Dial Sports logos for their microphones. The service took off almost immediately, with soaring call numbers and revenue. And the launch of Dial Sports is recognized today as a seminal moment in sports betting history.
One Dial Sports memory that only a hockey fanatic like me could appreciate: in our never-ending quest for “content” during the long daytime hours when no games were underway, we would sometimes call the Philadelphia Flyers’ minor league hockey team, the Maine Mariners, to get news about upcoming prospects or veterans sent down to the farm club. We recorded and pulled out portions of a taped message updated daily by the team’s young public relations staffer in Portland, Mike Emrick. Today, “Doc” Emrick is the dean of hockey play-by-play announcers and the highly regarded voice of national telecasts and Stanley Cup playoffs.