Ribbing 'Em When They're Down

Levan Reid's new around here. So he's still learning that in this market, newspeople don't have fun at the Redskins' expense. Not even when the team stinks.

"I can't wait to get to Redskins Park tomorrow!" Reid, while laughing, told the audience at the end of a WUSA-9 newscast a few weeks back. "I can't wait!" He'd just finished imparting details of the Skins' blowout loss to the lowly Buffalo Bills, and he knew things were going to be ugly at Dan Snyder's Ashburn compound. From his cackles, you could tell he was thinking: The uglier, the better.

Reid was hired this summer as the weekend sports anchor at WUSA. He's also the only second-team sportscaster on local TV to have his own show: Sports Plus airs on Sunday nights after the 11 o'clock news.

In his half-hour on-air, Reid projects all the doom portended by this year's Skins, but little of the gloom that's long been a prerequisite to football reportage around these parts when the team's losing.

"I came here from Boston," says Reid, 33, "and in Boston, you learn from the sportswriters there, and what you learn is that you're out there to be a fan, a really brutal fan. And like a fan, you think, I want you to win, but if you don't win, if you make dumb mistakes, that's what I'm going to write about, that's what I'm going to talk about. And when I'm watching this game, you better not make many mistakes. So you can take it either way: I'm being malicious, or I'm watching it as a fan. I really don't think you're being malicious when you say a 4-8 team is bad. You're just pointing out what everybody knows."

Sports Plus, the only sports call-in show on broadcast TV in this market, sometimes has the aura of a cable-access show. After dispensing with a normal assortment of the day's highlights, the host and his guests, usually members of the Sports Junkies morning radio team, sit on high chairs and mull over the state of affairs at Redskins Park with whoever calls in. During the few months Reid's been in town, that state has been uniformly sorry.

And so what viewers have gotten, and given, all season long is Skins-bashing, but with a smile.

"I love having fun, and I try to let on that this is still a game we're talking about," Reid says.

The sports department at WUSA has had a pretty bad run

for about as long as the Redskins have, and with about as much turnover. Superstar Glenn Brenner, after 15 years at the station, died in January 1992 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Weeks after Brenner's death, coach Joe Gibbs dedicated the team's Super Bowl win over the Buffalo Bills—the Skins' last bright spot, really—to the sportscaster.

Then came the short, unhappy return engagement of Warner Wolf, he of "Boo of the Week" fame. Wolf was canned after a squabble about, no fooling, whether horse-racing results should be broadcast nightly. Next up was Ken Broo, a nice enough guy who couldn't overcome his blandness. Jess Atkinson, a former kicker for Maryland and the Skins, replaced Broo, but he left the station last year after management cut his spot on the 11 o'clock newscast to as little as one minute a night. Atkinson now runs a Web site devoted to Terrapins sports.

After a national search to replace Atkinson, WUSA hired Baltimore's Steve Davis to be the lead sports anchor, but bizarrely reassigned him to weekend duties shortly after his debut. (This weekend on the "Who cares?" beat, Davis was assigned to cover the finals of the BB&T Classic at a nearly empty MCI Center.) WUSA replaced Davis with Frank Herzog, a fixture on the D.C. sports scene. Herzog was out of the WUSA sports department and doing cooking spots on the station's morning show before being put back on the anchor desk when Davis was relieved of his nightly duties.

Herzog's first big gig came as the play-by-play man during the Washington Bullets' run to an NBA title in 1978. Since 1981, he's been paired with Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen for the radio broadcast of Redskins games, the rights to which are controlled by Dan Snyder. The trio's homerisms make locals turn down their TVs and turn up the radio, and make out-of-towners just shake their heads. Herzog doesn't bother trying to turn off his Redskins allegiances during his work for WUSA.

The team's ties in local media go way beyond Herzog, of course. NBC-4's George Michael, the undisputed champion of D.C. sportscasters since Brenner's death, handles play-by-play for Redskins preseason games on television and hosts The Steve Spurrier Show, both of which are owned by the Washington Redskins. Fox 5 runs a Sunday-morning show, Redskins Game Day, owned by the team.

All of which makes the happy hammering of the Redskins on Sports Plus stand out even more.

There wasn't much celebrating of the Skins' 20-7 win over the lowlier Giants on the program. "That game was hard to watch," Reid told WUSA viewers. "The Giants are terrible." And when a caller brought up Bruce Smith for finally getting his sack record, Reid's guest, Sports Junkie J.P. Flaim, interrupted him with what most Redskins fans are thinking: "Can we cut him tomorrow?"

The WUSA bosses clearly haven't thrown much money or energy into set design for the program, but at least, Reid says, they've not hinted that he should change anything about its tone.

"You could say I've noticed that they cover the Redskins a little different here than they would [in Boston]," Reid says with a chuckle. "I've had some [other reporters] come up to me and say, 'Man, that's kind of cold, what you did!' Another thing I learned [in Boston], there are guys in the media who go positive and guys who go negative. When the team does bad, you pay attention to the guys who are going negative. Here [at WUSA] they haven't said too much to me, which has been great. They're very good about letting me be me with the Redskins. Now, if I step outside the box, I'm sure they'll pull me aside and let me know. But it's been great so far."

Reid says he felt he might be influencing his colleagues when he appeared with Derek McGinty on WUSA's new 7 p.m. newscast. "He was tearing into the Redskins, too," Reid says, with still more laughs. "I'm sure if that got Derek in trouble here, he'd be saying, 'Well, Levan said...'" —Dave McKenna

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...