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Dan McNeil Q&A Part 3: An Immediate Buzz

“I think living with regrets is kinda like inviting cancer. I regret the result of the decision to go to The Drive, but I don’t regret my decision.”

Matt Fishman

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In the final and third part of my Q&A with Dan McNeil, he talks about getting fired by ESPN, building The Score, the late, great Doug Buffone and how much longer Dan plans to be on the air.

Getting fired by ESPN 1000

Fishman: When ESPN tells you in January 2009 that they no longer need your services, how did that make you feel?

McNeil: I was crushed! It changed the way I would look at the business for the rest of my life. From that day on it would be nothing more than a job. I never again could commit myself emotionally 100% to a radio project. That place (ESPN 1000) was a dump when we walked in. It was billing $5 Million a year. We peaked, I think, at $26 Million/year in billing and it was because of “Mac, Jurko and Harry” it wasn’t anything else. 

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For them to, after a couple of bad fiscal quarters and disagreement with somebody coming in from the corporate nipple (ESPN) to kick me to the curb, I can’t say it was innocence lost, because that happened a long time ago. But it was a reminder of innocence lost.

What did Gordon Gekko tell Bud Fox (in the movie Wall Street)? “Never get emotional about a stock!” Never get emotional about a radio show. As counterintuitive as it seems, it might not be bad advice.

The Building of the Score in 1991

Fish: I’m not sure everyone is aware of your role in the building of The Score in Chicago even before it went on the air. Can you share that story?

Mac:  I’m producing “Coppock on Sports” and Seth Mason calls me in the Summer of ‘91 and says he wants to meet at some clandestine location and talk about a project. He was with ‘XRT and I had always respected him. I meet with him and he tells me about this daytime only opportunity where I would do afternoons and I was ready to try my own thing, I thought.

I was just turning 30 that summer so I didn’t have a whole lot of life experience, yet, but I said “Shit, yeah!” I’ll take a chance on a daytime operation run by Diamond Broadcasting. I had a high regard for what they had done. I started working there in August of ‘91 about five months before we actually fired it up. My job was building a sound library and interviewing would-be producers.

Fish: So you go on the air and at the start of your show you had Terry Boers as a co-host some days and Brian Hanley some days, right?  

Mac: Right. Terry didn’t commit full-time until August. So he and Brian Hanley were on utility duty with The Chicago Sun-Times covering college basketball, covering the Bulls. I was the most polygamous guy on the stations. There were days where neither of them was available and we’d roll in Kent McDill from The Daily Herald, Paul Ladewski from The Daily Southtown, or Tom Dore. I was given a lot of different faces those first six or seven months.

Fish: What was that first year like? You’re on a daytime only, brand new station in Chicago. What was that like in the initial stages?

Mac:  We felt an immediate buzz in the community but the newspaper industry rallied hard against us. There was an old guard of sports writers, a lot of them who tried to dismiss what the project was, because it seemed bombastic for them. It wasn’t “The Sportswriters” on WGN. It wasn’t journalism. Here’s (Mike) North, a guy making cracks about point-spreads and gangster movies. It offended a lot of sensibilities among those who covered media.

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Advertising dollars were scarce. The early sign-off…we all had bad feelings about some of the hurdles over which we had to leap. But I think because of that, there grew an authentic “us against the world” mentality. And despite of our occasional differences, there was a lot of pulling at the same end of the rope. There was a lot of team (effort) because we had a lot of things going against us. 

We were running the most grass-roots level Ma and Pa operation in town. This wasn’t CBS. This wasn’t ESPN. This was Diamond Broadcasting. They had ‘XRT and a station in Oklahoma City. The owner is down the hall. We’re on the Northwest side of Chicago in a low-slung bunker across the street from Foreman High School. It really was a shoestring budget. 

Fish: It seemed to me that the tight quarters helped create some of the great radio because everyone was right on top of each other. What do you think? 

Mac: I’m sure that’s correct. We couldn’t get away from each other. The studio was a phone booth with George Ofman (update anchor) behind us in a closet with a window. We didn’t have a computer. When we got a phone call–Judd or whoever was producing would right it on a note card and hold it up through the glass “Joe is in Arlington Heights. Topic-Sox.” We were given away spots for 35 bucks a throw and we had two-minute commercial breaks. I ran the board the first six months so I would pad the breaks with a 40-second sound byte from Bull Durham so I could get a smoke break. 

Fish: Terry Boers makes the decision to come aboard full time in August of 1992. Can you talk about the difference it made having him with you every day?

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Mac: I had a real good level of comfort with Terry. We had three and a half years together when we would fill-in whenever Coppock was off. We had a head start on our partnership. That made me feel at ease. It’s got nothing to do with how I feel about Brian or anyone else. It’s just that Terry and I had a high level of comfort. 

Then in the fall the station ponied up for “The Mike Ditka Show” and it was fortuitous because Ditka lost his mind in his final season. They went 5-11 and he was at the high end of “Mount Ditka” of his years. He didn’t talk to the media except for his Tuesday show on The Score. So we had these TV stations trying to get video of him outside that dumpy little restaurant he had on Bryn Mawr near the airport. We had exclusivity.

Among the things he went nuts about that year was when he denounced his friendship with Ed O’Bradovich. He said “I don’t know OB!” Ditka told a caller “Neal from Northlake” to meet him at his office and he’d “whip his ass!” I broke a story that (Bears Offensive Coordinator) Greg Landry was so pissed about Ditka berating him on the sideline that he moved up to the booth. Ditka was a nut-job that year and we had exclusivity on the f***er. Mike Ditka had as much to do with making the Score a success in its first year as anybody. Ditka and Mike North.

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Fish: Having grown up listening to Sports in Chicago, what I hear on The Score was completely different than anything people had heard before.

Mac: Sports radio had been just that weekend kind of vanilla sports talk. This was much edgier. This was much more interactive. It was much more willing to hold the feet to the fire of the teams in town. That first summer, Mike North’s fight with Bears President Michael McCaskey over Jay Hilgenberg’s holdout. It was something different.

We gave people a fastball that they hadn’t seen before. It was a pretty solid lineup, too. It made a lot of sense. I thought North and (Dan) Jiggetts were a really, really good, fun midday show. I think Terry and I grew into a pretty damn good show, too. 

Fish: Do you have one or two favorite memories of something that happened on the show? 

Mac: I think our trip to Seattle with the Bulls in 1996. I was going on 35 and I had been wearing headphones for 14 years and I still wasn’t quite sure I belonged. We made the trip to Seattle and (PD Ron) Gleason had been tough on Terry for us not being positive enough about the Bears, Bulls and the Chicago teams. So when the Bulls lost unexpectedly on a Wednesday night, we were scheduled to fly home Thursday morning. They had another game in Seattle Friday at Key Arena. So I called Gleason and told him there’s no reason for us to come home. Let’s stay and do our show until the Larry O’Brien trophy is safely tucked in Jerry Krause’s suitcase. 

We met back at the hotel–Terry, Alzy (Producer Mike Alzamora) and me. That night we were having drinks at the bar with Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick, and Brent Musburger. We’re sitting there at the hotel bar at 6th and Seneca at the Crown hotel. I’ve got these guys I admire with drinks in their hands laughing their asses off as I’m holding court. I remember my head hitting the pillow that night and thinking maybe I made the right choice. It was the first time I felt that I belonged. We had an awesome trip. Bernsy (Dan Bernstein) was out there. We had fun with him and I fell in love with Seattle. 

Fish:  Score Management decides to break up the shows in 1999. What was your reaction to what happened? 

Mac: I was both pissed off and surprised. I felt as a founding father they certainly didn’t need my consent but I was owed a conversation before decisions were made. I was actually on vacation at the gas pump filling up my Expedition when Gleason called me with the news. He said “Starting Monday you’re going to be hosting with either Dan Jiggetts or Dan Bernstein.” I said, “Excuse me, what does that mean? And why are you doing this?”

We went back and forth for a while but I had to delude myself into thinking that it was good for the station. Terry and I opposed it but we went to work the next Monday on our new shows.

Fish: Terry really seemed to think that North had a lot to do with the lineup changes. What do you think?

Mac: I do, too. I talked to Mike about it on my show on ESPN in the Summer of ‘08 and he denied it. Mike had said something to Terry several months before the changes went down about Terry doing an 8 to Noon shift. Mike’s idea was to break up traditional time-slots you’re doing a 6-8am, 8-Noon, Noon-4 and 4-8pm. What the f**ck is that? And why would anyone decide Mike Murphy was good for the first two hours of morning drive. I was pissed about all of that. I thought they had taken our radio station and made it sick. 

Fish: What was it like working with the late Doug Buffone?

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Mac: I first met Doug when I was writing for The Hammond Times in 1986 or 87 and he was involved with an Arena league team locally–The Chicago Bruisers. One of the many short lived semi-professional football leagues in America that come and go like yogurt shops. I interviewed him about a couple of local athletes who played college ball. We talked football for about 15 minutes and he offers me a job in PR. Suggested I get a job in PR either with the Bruisers or with a team in Denver. 

We became fast friends. He was very easy to approach. He was the real deal. People say that about so many guys, but he was. There wasn’t a pretentious bone in Doug’s body. He smelled like salami, he didn’t wear matching socks, he almost blew up his house by putting the wrong fuel in a lawnmower once. He embarrassed his parents in Pennsylvania by misspelling “apple” in a spelling bee.

More than anybody I’ve ever known, he had the ability to laugh at himself. He was a dear, sweet man who was a monster as a player but a true gentle giant. It was enormously sad for all of us when Doug passed away. 

It was tough on me, too. I was at The Drive at the time. I didn’t really have anybody at The Score to grieve with. I didn’t go to the private dinner that night because I felt there was gonna be tension. I wanted to see Mike (North) and I wanted to see all of my Score teammates who I knew Doug with. It didn’t feel right the way ‘14 ended. So I grieved alone, except I had a nice visit with Doug’s sister. To my surprise, Doug had told her many stories about me. She knew as much about how long Doug and I worked together.

We get rained out and head back and he says pull over to the McDonald’s at the Des Plaines Oasis. Doug orders a double cheeseburger, a large fry, and a Diet Coke. Doug says, “You gotta know when to draw the line!”

Fish: Do you have any regrets looking back at your career? 

Mac: I think living with regrets is kinda like inviting cancer. I regret the result of the decision to go to The Drive, but I don’t regret my decision. I regret anytimes that I’ve been disrespectful to co-workers or listeners or anybody I’ve dealt with in business because I’ve been no angel, that’s for sure. I didn’t want to leave anything unturned. If I get to 75 (years old) I don’t want to wake up one day and think “I wish I would’ve tried that guy-talk thing” but I tried it and it failed conclusively. I’m sure I would do some things different because now I have the benefit of the knowledge of how they turned out. But no, there isn’t a bad decision that I’ve made that has disabled me. Only temporarily.

Fish: Is there something that you have yet to do it your career that you would like to do before you hang it up? 

Mac: Yeah. As a writer, I’ve gotta tell the story of the most important role I’ve had in my life as the father of Patrick, who is severely autistic. I’m halfway done with that book. It’s a tough book to write. I really need to get back to it because I have a message to share with millions of fathers who feel like they got a raw deal and take it out on the wrong people. 

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I’m also going to write the book about my career. On the air, I’m really heartened by the Chicago sports landscape. The Chicago sports teams that matter to me they’re pretty healthy right now. I’m eager to see this golden era of Cubs baseball play itself out even though I’m a Sox enthusiast. I think it’s a remarkable story and I’m on the Cubs flagship and that’s pretty good real estate in sports radio. I’m also looking forward to seeing (Bears Coach) Matt Nagy and (Bears GM) Ryan Pace finish what they started. I’ll be going out right around the time Jonathan Toews is skating his last shift in a Hawks uniform. That may be only 4-5 years from now and that’s all I’ve got left. 

Dan McNeil can be heard weekdays from 2-6pm Central on “McNeil and Parkins” on 670 The Score in Chicago or nationwide on the Radio.com app. 

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If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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