Could The Ticket's Future Rest In The Hands of Four Goofballs Known as Team Havin' Fun?
In the Dallas area, the legend surrounding KTCK 1310-AM The Ticket looms large. On-air meltdowns, on-field arrests and audio drops about knowing a man with a fake head — they're all part of the strangely lovable and in-joke-intensive package that's become the backbone to the station's role as a bona fide regional powerhouse.
But, as the station's most die-hard fans know, this wasn't always the case. Perhaps the most alluring parts of the Little Sports Talk Station That Could's story are the tall tales of the lean early days of the station's existence, and how today's crop of weekday hosts captured their chemistry on air, eventually turning their once-piecemeal offering into the No. 1-rated sports radio station in the Southwest. Ticket lore tells us that yuck-monkey-turned-morning-show-co-host Gordon Keith was almost let go in the station's first year, as it was feared that his four-figure annual salary would cut too deeply into the station's equally meager office supplies budget.
To say that the station was not a guaranteed financial success early on in its run is an understatement. But, somehow, that instability fed the Ticket's slavishly dedicated fanbase. Listeners — referred to as “P1s” based on some old Nielson radio ratings terminology — rooted for the underdog. And, as the station's popularity grew, listeners got to essentially hear on-air auditions for the station's hosting spots.
These days, just as listeners in the '90s got to hear hopefuls like Corby Davidson ascend from his role as a weekend part-timer to his present-day position as the co-host of afternoon drivetime show “The Hardline,” P1s are now starting to get familiar with a new crop voices — a roster that includes such should-soon-be-familiar names as Mike Marshall and Kevin Turner. Like the once-fledgling Davidson and Keith, these two have high hopes for their futures at the station. And — along with Mike Sirois, producer of “The Norm Hitzges Show” from 10 a.m. to noon on weekdays and co-host of Saturday afternoon's “Cirque du Sirois,” and “BaD Radio” and “Hardline” board operator Jake Kemp — they've formed an alliance of sorts to help them with their rise.
It's kind of like a gang, if you will. They even have a name. Together, Marshall, Turner, Sirois and Kemp have anointed themselves “Team Havin' Fun.” And, slowly but surely, they're capably establishing themselves as the possible future stars of not only The Ticket but perhaps all of sports talk radio in Dallas.
While, on the surface, their self-appointed name seems a goofy tribute to a job that entails prank calls and generally juvenile antics, there's something a little deeper to it, too. For all the lighthearted jokes, radio can be a nasty business. So, early on, this group of friends decided to be the exception to the rule that says radio has to be about playing dirty.
“The inspiration for the nickname 'Team Havin' Fun' was that it provided a shield against the initial hate or distrust of anyone trying to infiltrate this amazing place,” says Sirois, sitting in The Ticket's plush, new Victory Park studios, in between live, on-air takes during a recent Saturday broadcast. “It was kinda like, â€˜Look, we're gonna try to do this. You can either jump on board, or you don't have to. But our team is called 'Team Havin' Fun.' Are you really against that? If you wanna have fun on a weekend or a weekday up here doing radio, come with.'”
And that's the ultimate goal — that, as these newcomers to The Ticket's family find their footing, so too will the listeners' comfort with their presence. That, after all, is how most of Team Havin' Fun's members came to embrace The Ticket on their own.
Kemp's father was a dedicated P1, and, as such, the son grew up listening to the station since its inception 19 years ago.
“As far back as I have memories of being in a family car,” Kemp says, “[The Ticket] is what we listened to.”
So, in 2003, he emailed Danny Balis, producer of “The Hardline,” inquiring about an internship. Whether by luck or fate, Balis responded and shortly thereafter, Kemp was interning for that very drivetime show. After a short leave from the station to finish his undergraduate degree, Kemp returned and soon won the job doing “The Ticket Top 10,” the nightly countdown show of the day's top segments. Then, in April of 2012, when beloved board operator Michael “Grubes” Gruber left the station to return to school, Kemp was named as his replacement. Since that promotion, he's also become a fill-in host on “The Hardline” during the weekdays and handles that same role for various weekend shows, too.
Turner, meanwhile, grew up a Green Bay Packers fan in tiny Olney, Texas — a place completely untouched by 1310's AM signal. But, on a trip to Dallas to see the Cowboys play the Packers, he and his father discovered the station. According to Turner, it was love at first listen. It didn't hurt that he knew that he wanted to do radio since, he says, “I was 13 years old — before I even hit puberty.”
Ticket fandom didn't come as easily to Marshall and Sirois. Marshall initially bristled when forced to listen to the station by a co-worker who knew Marshall loved sports. Eventually, he was won over and found himself with the opportunity to meet Norm Hitzges. That meeting, in turn, led to his own internship at The Ticket.
“Norm walked in front of this restaurant I was working at and went into Jamba Juice next door,” Marshall recalls. “I got a buddy to cover my tables and went in and bought him a shot of wheatgrass or something. Not knowing Norm that well yet, I did know that he loves the hell out of some free food. And then I emailed him and got an internship.”
Sirois' journey to the station was perhaps the most roundabout. He was living in L.A., working TV jobs that included a stint with The Simpsons and, on a visit to Dallas to see his brother Cash, Sirois was forced by his brother to listen to the station. Despite initially being dismissive, Sirois soon found himself living in Dallas and transitioning from TV to radio. A Myspace post about the station needing a weekend ticker personality — the voices that read sports updates and scores every 20 minutes on the station — caught his attention and led to an opportunity to audition.
“I emailed [a former “Norm Hitzges Show” producer named Mark Friedman who went by] Friedo, and I put some jokes in that original email,” Sirois says. “I lied a little bit about my experience. He responded and said, 'Send me a demo.' I literally didn't know how to record audio, so I set up a video camera in my guest room and I did a ticker. And, of course, of the 30 I did and messed up, I started them all with 'Take One!' Then I did an hour-long audition and they had me do an on-air ticker during 'BaD Radio,' which was trial by fire. Afterwards, there was this one thing: I said, 'I really need this to work out.' I think that convinced Friedo to give me a chance, and I owe him for that.”
Everyone's paths eventually began crossing more and more frequently at the station as they showed up for their shifts. And, over time, the group started gravitating toward working together.
“To meet people not just my age but who shared the same sense of not taking yourself too seriously was cool,” Kemp says. “Plus, they were fucking funny.”
“The first night I ever covered a game, I came in to pull the audio and there was Jake working the overnight,” Turner remembers. “And he was cool and funny, so you'd go talk to him. And then I remember coming up on the weekends during the day to get tape or just hang out, and Sirois was doing tickers and, same thing, I'd talk to him.”
In June of 2010, Sirois pitched the idea of a weekend show called “Cirque du Sirois” with his brother Cash, who pays his bills with his day job as the creative director for the Dallas Mavericks. The station's programming director, Jeff “Cat” Catlin, agreed to give them a one-show shot at it.
Remembers Sirois: “There was a lot of pressure on that one show.”
As Turner and Marshall had previously helped Sirois' out with his tickers, Sirois brought brought the two on board as his ticker guy and producer, respectively.
Around that same time, Kemp's notoriety at the station grew — although in a way that he never anticipated and that he still somewhat regrets. Outside of the station, Kemp and his roommate at the time, current “Ticket Top 10” host T.C. Fleming, had a weekly podcast called “It's Just Banter.” During one episode, while discussing the prospect of “BaD Radio” booking astronaut Buzz Aldrin as part of their annual guest booking league bit, Kemp uttered the insouciant phrase that soon hung from his neck like a millstone.
“Up next,” Kemp said on that fateful podcast, “we have some old fuck named Buzz Aldrin. I don't know, man. I just think space is super gay.”
Unbeknownst to Kemp, Bob Sturm and Dan McDowell of “BaD Radio” had begun listening to the podcast. Not at all surprisingly, they took the soundbite and ran with it. Soon, the other weekday shows followed suit, playing the clip on the air with startling regularity.
“I know they say that any publicity is good publicity, but that's a bad plan,” Kemps says. “But, at the same time, I definitely got more time to talk and explain that and just joke around on-air. And then, apparently, 99 percent of the people who heard it, even in context, are like, 'I can't believe that you not only said that, but that you're going to try to defend it.' I'm just trying to be entertaining and, at this point, if I sat down and said I didn't want to defend it anymore, that would not be entertaining.”
That speaks to another key to the chemistry between the members of Team Havin' Fun: They give as good as they get when it comes to pranks at the station. When Sirois pranked Kemp into reading fake profiles for players that didn't exist during the station's annual NBA Draft coverage, it was less an attempt to embarrass him and more a rite of passage — just like those pranks the weekday hosts play on each other on a regular basis.
And perhaps that's why this group of guys has gained some traction at a station where so many others languished and then ebbed away.
“When we all work together, you can hear the sound of guys who like to hang out with each other and who enjoy each other's company,” Kemp says. “I think that was a big factor in why the guys who are hosts now were so successful early on. I think I heard someone say this during the 19th anniversary: They said that, with other sports radio stations, you're listening to people do radio and, with The Ticket, you're listening to people talking to each other. This sounds a little trippy, but when I was 9 years old, I said I was going to work here. And it wasn't like it was a family business or a neighborhood grocer. The fact that I work here now — albeit very low down the ladder as far as status — means something. This place means something to me. The relationship this station has with its listeners means something to me. The fact that I can relate to my dad and he's proud of me because I work here means something to me.”
“This is one of the most unique places on earth to work,” adds Sirois. “It's already weird enough to work in talk radio but, even within sports talk radio, this is still one of the most weird and unique places to work. To be in any position, to be way down the line, to maybe one day have a baton handed to us, is kind of a dream scenario. But I don't want that to happen. Because I don't want The Ticket to change the way it is right now. I want Norm to live forever. I don't want any of the other shows to change.”
Turner's take is a little broader: “I think the idea is, 'Hey, itâ€™s been 20 years [since the station launched]. Let's make it 40 years.' Some of these guys might want to get out of town one day. But, for me, the goal is to be kicking everyone's ass and still be as amazing and fresh and creative as [the station] has been for the last 20 years, only for 20 more years, 30 more years. And to already be a very small part of that is huge to me.”
For all of their enthusiasm and aspiration, though, Team Havin' Fun is at least certain of one thing: Maybe they'll be ready to take over some of the reigns at the station one day. But that day? Well, it's still a long ways off.
“I feel like it's always just a ticking clock until I'm exposed for being a hack,” Sirois says. “Even joke-to-joke or comment-to-comment, I'm like, 'Theyâ€™re all gonna figure it out soon that I've got nothing and I'm faking all of this.”
Adds Marshall with a laugh: “The fuse on the self-doubt bomb is lit so quickly, and you're afraid everyone is just gonna think you've got no jokes and you've got a bunch of nothing.”
Kemp says he feels the same. But also adds something else: “The more people you meet and the more you listen to other stations, you think, 'Maybe I don't suck. Those guys are boring as hell.' This will probably print very poorly, but there's nothing that gives me a bigger boost to what we're doing here than listening to other stations.”
As for what the future holds for Team Havin' Fun, all four of the group's members confesses to aspiring to hosting their own show one day. But, emphasizes Sirois, replacing the current hosts is an impossible task they don't look forward to having — if that opportunity ever comes, many, many years down the road.
“We're fortunate to have the bar that we stare at each day set so high for us,” Sirois says. “And it's all these guys [the weekday hosts] who set that. We'll never get there, and that's OK. In a perfect world, maybe there's a 24-hour Ticket and we all fit in somewhere. There's no plans at the moment. The plan, for now, is to have fun.”
Looking around the Ticket's conference room table and at the group of friends and coworkers surrounding him, Sirois takes in his last statement and laughs.
“I'd be surprised,” he says, “if anyone here had a plan.”