By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
Out here in the Wild Wild West, we’ve come to understand that every single good thing in the sports universe got its start on America’s east coast… and remains there. The east coast has the best teams, the best players and the best fans. We get it.
And once again we’ve been reminded by the Eastern Sports Programming Network that sports media – specifically the sports talk radio “debate” genre – was invented and perfected in the Big Apple, circa 1989. That’s when sports reporters Mike Francesa and Chris Russo were teamed together on a New York radio station for the first time and launched what would become a highly successful, two-decade on-air run. “Mike and the Mad Dog” is credited with being the first show of its kind, featuring hosts that would argue with callers…and themselves…and introducing “a genre that was once foreign to radio listeners but is now a fact of life.”
While promoting his “30-for-30” program on the duo, producer Daniel Forer said he wanted to “share the story of the start of the first all-sports radio station and give a sense of what the show was like for those who had heard of the show but had never heard it.” Show reviews credit the show for producing a litany of “imitators.”
That would be a great sentiment…if it were entirely true.
Truth be told, the oldest sports talk radio show in history DID reportedly start in New York, on an AM station back in 1964, WNBC. It was small is scope, focusing on Seton Hall basketball. But the genre was born then, so to speak.
The idea of pairing strong willed personalities who would engage in wide-ranging sports topic debate was NOT invented by the people who decided to pair Francesa and Russo in 1989. That on-air tandem was, among others, almost a decade behind programming that debuted on Denver radio in 1980. That early and notable sports “debate” programming featured Denver Post sports columnist Woody Paige – yes THIS Woody Paige – and former University of Colorado baseball coach and NCAA basketball referee Irv Brown, who’d been let go by the school as part of a budget crunch that would result in baseball being dropped altogether.
“I thought I was going to referee in the pros, to tell you the truth,” recalled Brown, who officiated six Final Fours during his two decades-long refereeing career. “I was going to do this and bide my time while I waited for something to open up.” Instead, his radio career led to a series of local and national television gigs as well, including doing color on the very first televised College World Series.
The two local sports personalities paired up and began what would blossom into an all-sports radio format that helped launched and further the careers of numerous sports media personalities, including former Bronco Tom Jackson and former Cleveland Brown receiver and Denver area product Dave Logan. The former became the renowned ESPN football studio host, the latter the voice of the Broncos on Denver radio. Their long time producer was Don Martin, who is now merely the Senior Vice President of Sports Programming for Fox Sports Radio and the Premiere Radio Networks.
While they both traveled the country for their “other” jobs, what they didn’t hear, Brown noted, was other sports talk on the radio. “I never did. I don’t think anybody else was doing it.”
Woody and Irv may not have invented sports talk radio, but they did everything that Francesa and Russo have been credited with doing in NYC…and well before their more celebrated counterparts. Francesa and Russo could actually be called the imitators.
Brown isn’t bothered by the attention given to Francesa and Russo. “We had Francesa on our show once,” he remembered. “He came up with something…and it was wrong. I don’t remember what. But we had him on.” He also never really considered himself a sports radio pioneer. “I really never thought of it,” he paused. “We got a lot of good guests. Michael Jordan, Lasorda. You name it. We didn’t miss too many. It worked out pretty good.
“I wanted to coach, and I wanted to referee. The rest of the stuff just sort of happened,” Brown smiled.
For Woody, being a sports radio pioneer helped expand and launch a multi-faceted sports media career. At that time in sports media history, writers were just writers. Broadcasters were just broadcasters. There was virtually no crossover (largely because most writers were terrible on the air.) But Woody had already been doing broadcast work, and had no problem adapting to electronic media. Brown was a natural story teller and debater. The two quickly garnered sponsors and good ratings, as well as the attention of the teams and players they were talking about. You’d made it to the big time as a young athlete if Woody and Irv were talking about you. That included a young Denver Broncos quarterback named John Elway.
Joe “The Hit Man” Williams began as a regular caller and prognosticator in those early days, specializing in football picks. At first, he was a fill in whenever Woody or Irv were absent, then often times a third man in the booth. He nicknamed himself “the Voice of Reason” and after he joined the show full time became the lone media voice to be openly and consistently critical of Elway and the city’s beloved football team. Joe was the “bad cop” well before Russo took on the role.
Eventually when Woody and Irv split, Williams took on a permanent role. The “Irv and Joe” show continued a four-decade run that is still going.
Brown officially “retired” in 2016 after 42 years behind the microphone…but not exactly. He’s back in his customary seat just twice a week now, still arguing with Joe and engaging callers with stories from Denver’s long sports history.
Over the years, Woody has done numerous other radio gigs as well as his television work that obviously continues today. He’ll always be one of pioneers of sports media “crossover” work, along with men like Randy Galloway and a handful of others (who didn’t ALL get their respective radio starts in New York, btw.)
And of course, he’s the producer of this fantastic web site.
So even though none of this happened on the east coast, it’s fair to point out that actually, out here in the untamed west there ARE notable sports accomplishments happening on and off the field.