Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Eulogy for WDFN, AM 1130, The Fan

While it was a great day for the United States, with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, it is sad day in Detroit. That's because WDFN, Detroit's first all-sports radio station was, for all intents and purposes, eliminated in a nation-wide cost cutting sweep by its parent company, Clear Channel Communication. Former host and program director Gregg Henson warned that this was coming earlier this week, but I didn't want to believe it. Yet, the reality is here, and all of WDFN's local programming, including the Stoney and Wojo show, are history. And all without even the courtesy of a last show for any of WDFN's personalities, like Mike Stone, who has been with the station from day one in July of 1994.

While it seems almost silly to say outloud, WDFN has played an incredibly important role in my life, and I am especially sad to see the station as we know it end. I have listened to the station since its inception, where as an eleven-year-old, I couldn't believe my luck that a radio station which talked sports 24-hours-a-day had started. And so I started listening, to Mike Stone and Rob Parker, and Butch Stearns and Larry Sorensen, and Van Earl Wright, and, of course, the Mega Mega Sports Man Ike Griffen. And I started writing, just for myself, sports "columns" about what was going on in the sports world.

And one Friday afternoon, while at my grandparents for a family dinner, I faxed in one of these "columns" to the afternoon show hosted by Rob Parker and Mike Stone. The column was about the Detroit Lions and how insane it was that despite a blowout loss in the playoffs to Philadelphia, coach Wayne Fontes somehow got a contract extension. As you can see, nothing changes with the Lions. I still remember the thrill I had when Rob Parker read the last line of that column on the air ("Mr. Ford, you could have lost your coach, but you lost your mind instead.") and commented on how clever it was.

I was hooked. After that point, you couldn't get me off the air at WDFN. From calling into Stoney and Parker's show, to impersonating Hulk Hogan on Ike Griffen's show and winning ringside tickets to WCW's Halloween Havoc pay-per-view event at Joe Louis to proposing absurd Detroit Pistons' trades with Art Regner and Gregg Henson on the "Sunday Afternoon Sit-In," I was a regular caller at WDFN. The morning show, then hosted by Butch Stearns and Keith Gave, became my favorite show, and the one I called into the most. And Butch and Keith were great, allowing a twelve-year-old kid to ramble on and on. They kept me on the air sometimes for a half hour or more, taking phone calls, and acting as a de-facto co-host.

And then, one day, it was over. WDFN went through a massive reorganization, and Butch and Keith were unceremoniously let go from the station. Unlike today's bloodletting, though, Butch and Keith were at least allowed to have a final show to say goodbye to their listeners. I was in seventh-grade at the time, and my math teacher, Nicole Champe (who, later, went on to marry WDFN Program Director Gregg Henson) allowed me to go down to the teacher's lounge and call in to Butch and Keith so I could appear on their last show. Later that day, at lunch, I called Keith, who had become somewhat of a mentor to me, and I'll always remember him telling me that while sports journalism was the greatest job in the world, that job security was not something the industry provided. It was something I always kept in mind when deciding whether or not to pursue a sports journalism career full-time.

And the fact that I had that option to consider at all, and the fact that I was able to write for The Detroit Sports Confidential, The Oakland Press, The Detroit Jewish News, Michigan Live (twice), and The Detroit News, would have never happened without WDFN. Without the encouragement of people like Mike Stone, Butch Stearns, Keith Gave, Art Regner, Gregg Henson, Jamie Samulson, Damon Perry, Rob Parker and Bob Wojnowski, who humored a teenager who thought he knew it all about sports by letting him on the air and reading his faxes and columns he sent in, I never would have had that start in sports writing. In fact, my first real "gig," at the Detroit Sports Confidential came about because the editor of the monthly sports magazine heard me co-hosting The Great American Sports Trivia Show, a weekend show WDFN aired back in the mid 1990s. Without the Confidential, there would have been no future columns anywhere else. And there wouldn't have been a job at the Confidential without WDFN.

What this city will also miss, in addition to the radio station itself, the news it broke, and the analysis that it provided, is the yearly Stoney and Wojo radiothon. Each year, the station came together, spearheaded by Mike Stone and Bob Wojnowski, to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Over a million dollars have been raised through Stoney and Wojo's dedication to defeat the disease and I'm proud to have attended and donated to many of the radiothons. I'll always remember the 2000 radiothon, hosted at the Star Southfield. Stoney and Wojo had scheduled a live interview with actress Elizabeth Berkley (of Saved by the Bell fame and Showgirls infamy). I was working on yearbook at the time at North Farmington High School, where Berkley attended for her freshman and sophomore years before she moved to California to become Jessie Spano. So, learning that she was going to be interviewed in the afternoon, I grabbed an old 1988 yearbook from the back office, and headed to the radiothon. Knowing me from my history with the station and sports writing, Stoney and Wojo put a headset on me during Elizabeth's live interview, and we all had a good laugh about her pre-fame days at North Farmington. Afterward, she signed that yearbook for me, and it's one of my favorite stories to tell (as most of my friends know -- most have heard it more than once). If nothing else, the legacy of WDFN should be the money raised to fight cancer, and hopefully, that tradition does not die with the station where it began.

I never worked at WDFN, but today's decision to pull the plug on the station ends a significant chapter in my life. From my twelfth birthday celebrated at WDFN's anniversary party at the Main Event at the Pontiac Silverdome, to the WDFN hockey jersey I still, and will continue, to proudly wear, to all of the columns I have ever written which I owe, at least in part, to WDFN, and to the hosts who have provided me friendship and advice over the years, it is truly an end of an era. And one I will not soon forget.

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Anonymous said...

I share the sentiment...I was concerned when Stoney and Wojo ended early yesterday and then no Matt Shephard this morning...I knew something was wrong then and the warning signs began months ago with the morning shuffle...Too bad for the sports fan in Detroit, there is a void that cannot and will not be filled by the boys up the dial at 97.1...Lastly, Stoney and Wojo should be given the chance to continue to kick luekimia and lymphoma's asses

Anonymous said...

I was an avid listener too. Every day I tuned in while going to and from work. When I heard that cheesy national show instead of Matt Shepherd, I thought what is this? Then no Stoney and Wojo, I thought uh oh. They are gone. Now I have to move to 1270 for my sports fix. They are definately second to the folks at the Fan. I can only hope some of the Fan personalities land up the radio dial at 1270. Kim

Anonymous said...

This really hits like a kick in the mouth, my drives to work will never be the same. My only hope is that shep, stoney, wojo, sean and marty land on their feet some where...hopefully still in Detroit.

Anonymous said...

This sucks!

Anonymous said...

I used to listen to WDFN every morning and afternoon going back and forth to UDM dental school. It was therapeutic for me... it allowed me to escape the dental realm for those few hours a day in my car. I moved out of state this year and not having detroit sports 1130 was a huge void. Sadly, when I return to MI this June, that void will be permanent. What a bummer... It is an end of an era

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