The many tributes inspired by Ken Beatrice's sudden and strange retirement last week left out a dark episode from nearly two decades ago, when the radio pioneer was nearly run out of town.
Beatrice, or just Ken, as his fans call him, arrived in Washington from his native New England in 1977. Sports Call, his superearnest call-in show on WMAL-AM, essentially created the market for sports talk radio in this town. From start to finish, Ken proved himself an odd but harmless and approval-starved talkaholic willing to work as many hours as his listeners demanded--he gave out his office number several times during each show and begged audience members to engage him off the air--and a guy who would rather pass a stone than concede ignorance about anything sports-related.
Ken's stay here almost ended, however, in late February 1981. That's when the Washington Post ran a 4,000-plus-word piece by Tony Kornheiser titled "Ken Beatrice: Facts and Fears on the Airwaves." Kornheiser was pretty green about D.C. and lacked Ken's stature on the local sports scene at the time. All these years later, the story is fascinating, if only for its meanness.
The lede found Kornheiser grilling Ken about his height and weight and address, then mocking him for not being as quick with those facts and figures as he was on the air when asked for stats on NFL draft prospects. Several of the 100-odd column inches featured sadistic descriptions of how uncomfortable Ken appeared during the "at least eight hours" of interrogation:
[Beatrice] was not looking well.
Pale. So pale and waxy that he could have been on exhibit at Madame Tussaud's.
And gaunt, like he hadn't eaten in weeks.
Nervously, he wiped his right hand hard across his forehead and through his dark hair, matting it. There were white flecks at the corners of his mouth. When he went to light his pipe his hands trembled. He took in great gulps of air. It seemed like he was drowning.
In fact, he seemed terrified.
About the prospect of this story.
Most of the criticisms of Ken in the piece were comically picayune: "On a recent show...[Ken] called Michael Ray Richardson, 'Michael Raymond Richardson.'"
But Kornheiser was able to beat out of Ken that: he had never been a linebacker for Boston College, as the host had sometimes claimed, but instead had played club football while an undergrad; that the Ph.D. Ken had sometimes mentioned was conferred by Liberty University in Girard, Ohio, apparently a mail-order outfit; and that when Ken was a talk show host in Boston years earlier, he had sometimes gotten his father to pose as just another listener and call in on slow nights.
Ken's longtime listeners took the news that he sometimes played loose with some truths about as hard as pro wrestling fans do when a greenhorn tells them it's all fake. Not hard at all, in other words. But, as it turned out, Ken wasn't faking his discomfort with the interviews: He took an emergency leave of absence from WMAL even before the story hit the streets.
Once Ken's fans read the piece and realized what had sent him into seclusion, the Post, not the host, got the heat.
"If you fellows are all through making the world safe for sports trivia, how about laying off Ken Beatrice?" a Post reader named Colin Barrett wrote in a letter to the editor printed during Ken's hiatus. "I'm no rabid Beatrice fan, but I like his show when I tune in, and I'd hate to see him driven out of town by some journalistic vendetta."
"[Kornheiser] could easily succeed in driving away from Washington a person whose voracious enthusiasm and ability to communicate that interest to others probably brought more of them to care about and appreciate sports than any other sports talk show, past or present, in the area or perhaps the country," railed Post reader Milton R. Goldsamt of Silver Spring.
Rank-and-file readers weren't the only ones peeved. Though at least one sports columnist stood up for Kornheiser, William Raspberry, his Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague, felt sufficiently disturbed by the way Ken was treated to write his own open letter to the wayward host, which appeared on the op-ed page:
I don't care about all that stuff they're saying about you in the papers. I don't care that you never played linebacker for Boston College...or that your doctorate is from an extinct diploma mill. Hey, I don't even care that your facts aren't always on the money.
The only facts I'm concerned about right now are: 1) you've got the best sports show on radio, bar none, and 2) you're about to let them chase you out of town.
The only opinions of your work that matter to us are our own. We think you're out of sight. We also think you're not a quitter. Let these newspaper guys take their best shots: we'll keep listening.
The Post's revelations notwithstanding, WMAL management declared it wanted Ken to return right away. Finally, five weeks after his disappearance, he was coaxed back to work, where he rarely mentioned his absence. The article, as it turned out, only strengthened the bond between Ken and his audience, and his employers noticed. Several weeks after his return, WMAL awarded him a three-year contract extension, with a pay raise. All told, his stay at the station lasted more than 18 years.
Reached in his office, Kornheiser tells me that the 1981 story "wasn't intended to be mean."
"I was a reporter then, not a columnist," Kornheiser says.
In the fall of 1995, Ken took his show to WTEM-AM. The all-sports station already had Kornheiser on its roster. Despite sharing an employer, Kornheiser continued playing Ken's public tormentor. Sports Call was bounced around from time slot to time slot, and for some months now it has been taking a ratings pounding from WJFK-FM's younger, hipper evening sports show, The Sports Junkies. Last week, WTEM announced that Ken, who has had serious health problems and is disturbingly frail for a 56-year-old, had decided to leave the station and call it a career.
Fans had plenty of reasons to be upset with the way the farewell was handled. Rather than trust Ken with a final few hours on his own to spend with longtime listeners, the station brought in Andy Pollin to play MC for the final program. For years, Pollin has provided the laugh track for Kornheiser's now-syndicated radio show. In that job, he's guffawed on cue to innumerable cuts on Ken, some funny, most just mean.
During the bon-voyage broadcast, Pollin played a taped message from Kornheiser. In it, Kornheiser confessed having always envied Ken for all the loyalty his listeners had shown, and he said the bashing would now cease. Kornheiser didn't use the time to apologize. --Dave McKenna