Jim O'Donnell: 30 years of "The Score" -- from daring phenom to homogenized horizontaling
THE CHICAGO RADIO STATION known as "The Score" went on the air 30 years ago this week.
If there is any anniversary celebration for WSCR-AM (670) -- and station management says there will be multiple ones -- it will all be about friendly old ghosts and an outfit now running on triumphs past.
It's bada-bing and bada-splat.
An operation that started out as an independent mom-and-popper facing a steep climb was once a base tale of bold and resourceful broadcast minds.
Now it's a story littered with the redundant, the yappy and the budget-consumed.
THE CONTEXT WAS SO VERY DIFFERENT on the frosty morning in January 1992 when WSCR-AM (820) set sail.
The owner was Diamond Broadcasing, headed by Dan Lee, Harvey Wells and Seth Mason.
The signal was modest and the FCC license in lockstep -- daytime only.
That meant on Opening Day, "The Score" signed on at 7:15 a.m. and signed off at 5:45 p.m.
THE LINEUP WAS a mixed bag:
Morning -- Tom Shaer, with newsman Tom Webb and traffic reporter Beth Kaye, a refugee from Robert Murphy's old hit hammerer on WKQX-FM (101.1);
Midday -- Dan Jiggetts and Mike North;
Afternoon -- Dan McNeil, juggling Sun-Timesmen Brian Hanley and Terry "Windy" Boers;
Weekends -- A tossler's jig including McNeil, North, Bob Hillman and first-man-off-the-bench Mike Murphy.
WITHOUT QUESTION, the single most important talent hire by program director Ron Gleason was Jiggetts.
The Harvard-educated former Bear brought immediate national sports credibility and ceaselessly amiable professional equilibrium to the startup.
The even-keeledness of Jiggetts was so assured that it enabled the raw North to engage in what became his trademark flights of fancy as the neighborhood 'loon.
(Back note on North: His "naturalism" as a hot-dog seller with opinions wasn't all so natural. Shortly after getting out of the United States Navy, he used some veteran benefits to study acting at an adjunct of the uber-percolating Steppenwolf Theatre while working for the Chicago Park District.)
BUT THE RESOLUTE RADIO TUGBOAT was in the water.
And it has managed to stay there for three decades.
Three segments marked by distinct trending markers:
• 1992-2002 -- Ascent;
• 2002-2012 -- Major corporate glide into market sports dominance;
• 2012-2022 -- Flatulent drift into an empty-calorie horizontaling.
ALONG THE WAY, there have been challengers.
None seemed more ominous than in 1993 when crafty Evergreen Media and brilliant bossman Jimmy de Castro announced the relaunch of AM-1000 as WMVP, a 24 / 7 sports talker.
De Castro and Co. had money and talent including: Steve Dahl (mornings), Jay Mariotti and Mark Gentzkow (middays), Chet Coppock (afternoons), Brian Davis (evenings) and Norm Van Lier (late nights).
They also had all-corners digger Cheryl Raye-Stout and would eventually add both Michael Jordan / Bulls and White Sox play-by-play.
THE CONFIGURATION APPEARED to hold all of the explosive potential of Robert Oppenheimer's work at Los Alamos.
But few could have predicted that most of the biggest explosions among de Castro's glamour group would be directed inward.
The biggest came with a near-instant battle royale between Dahl and Mariotti.
THE PIONEERING DAHL IS a lot of things. Most prominently, he is one of the greatest creative geniuses in the last half-century of American radio.
Howard Stern learned from the man. (Literally, paying a fellow from Chicago to send him Dahl "air checks" -- capsulized version of daily shows -- to Detroit in 1980-81.)
But by the winter of 1993-94, Dahl was reelin' and rollin' in the wrong direction.
The deepest part of his Coho soul had been severely singed by the abrupt departure of longtime on-air ballast Garry Meier that fall.
Dahl was also in his thankfully final furlong with some insidious gremlins.
AS FOR MARIOTTI, he was to be the critical linchpin in transitioning WMVP's daily log from Dahl's a.m. generalism to pure sports at 10 a.m.
Every morning, the pugnacious Pittsburgh native would be set to go, on the dot, to thrust and parry with his own chin-first style.
And almost every morning, Dahl would intentionally backlog commercials to run well past Mariotti's stipulated opening time.
The matter came to a head on the June 1994 morning when Ryne Sandberg suddenly announced his retirement from the Cubs.
Mariotti and Gentzkow had a bevy of A-list guests set to talk about the white-hot topic.
The liquid Dahl, impervious, ran long.
THE DAHL-MARIOTTI FEUD wasn't the only thing that brought de Castro's grand sports scheme down.
But in June 1996, after a 33-month run, Evergreen white-flagged AM-1000 to simulcast rock programming from WLUP-FM (97.9).
Game, set, match -- "The Score."
SINCE THEN, THE HAUNTED AM-1000 signal has served as a constant also-ran to WSCR.
All of that while "The Score" has gone through ownership changes, dial respositionings and evolution into a full-service 24/7 outlet with a great terrestrial radio AM spot.
That 670 slot -- the best in Chicago's legacies airwaves -- came in 2000 only after a three-year move to AM-1160.
When The Sun-Times -- ahem -- reported in 1998 that WSCR would be moving from 1160 to 670, major local radio "experts" dismissed the projection.
But the sourcing was extremely solid. Crain's Chicago Business later even offered a gracious mea culpa.
SO NOW "THE SCORE" is 30 years old.
The station's successes should be celebrated. The vision of people like Lee and Wells and Mason and the hard foundational work of pros like Gleason and Jiggetts should be saluted.
But if only the third decade could have been as innovative and facile as the first.
Some say Chicago sports talk has been waiting far too long for The Next Big Thing.
Others insist is has yet to fully arrive.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.