By Bob Andelman
(Originally published in Players, August 1991)
The green blinking light is pressed.
“Bobby from St. Pete, you’re at bat. Take a swing!”
“Okay! I was at the airport the other day and Phil was there. He’s getting on a plane going to Newark. I said, ‘Hey, Phil! Good luck!’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it!'”
For those who don’t know the players on a first-name basis, Chris Thomas explains to the rest of his listeners that “Phil” is Phil Esposito, president of the vaporware Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I have to think the National Hockey League is losing its patience,” opines Thomas, host of WFLA 970 AM’s “Tampa Bay Sports Line.” “It has been two months.”
“He looked really nervous,” reports Bobby from St. Pete. “I wondered if you have an update?”
“Naah,” says Thomas, waving his hand in disgust as if Bobby from St. Pete could see it. “Because the NHL doesn’t believe in the First Amendment and free speech, the league has a gag order in place.”
Bobby from St. Pete, satisfied, hangs up.
Thomas, 43, looks across the WFLA studio to his engineer in the next room, explaining to him on the air how the name Bob is a palindrome because it is spelled the same way backwards and forwards. Only Thomas can hear Jesse’s response in his headphones, but he tells the engineer, “Jesse, you are not a palindrome, you are a meathead.”
Four nights a week, Tuesday through Friday from 6:30-8 p.m., WFLA-TV Ch. 8 sportscaster Chris Thomas gives up his dinner break to spend 90 minutes talking to listeners on WFLA radio. It’s worth it, both to him and to listeners. There is no more commanding presence and personality in local sportscasting on either TV or radio. Thomas has all the elements, from a voice dripping with sarcasm and bombastic exuberance to an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and a devil-may-care attitude.
Moments before the radio show begins, he and his producer, Kevin, discuss upcoming guests.
“I thought we could get (former Colts quarterback) Earl Morrall,” says Kevin. “Did you ever talk to him in Baltimore?”
“Oh, sure,” says Thomas. “I know Earl.”
“Are you kidding? Guy’s in his 50s, still wears a crewcut!”
When the show starts, Thomas chats up his listeners a bit to warm up. “We’re going to have a special guest whose name escapes me,” he admits, cracking himself up.
During the first commercial break, Thomas confesses his only gripe with Tampa Bay sports fans: they’re too passive.
“They tend to sit back and listen,” he says. “We know they’re there. Sometimes I have to kick ’em in the butt. Sometimes I say, you’re killing me, you’re going to get me fired, my daughter’s not going to be able to go to a good college … Then they call.”
Even when they do call, Thomas says area sports fans don’t have the same fire in their belly found in Boston, New York, Chicago or Baltimore. “You listen to callers in big cities, they’re brutal! Rabid! They’re passive here,” he says. “There’s a latent audience of Bucs fans that want to go berserk, but what’s to go berserk over? It’s the worst team in the league.”
Back on the air.
“Is our guest on the phone yet?” Thomas asks Jesse. “He’s not? Play the music. I have to get my notes.” Turning off his microphone, Thomas thumbs through his bulging briefcase and asks the engineer: “What’s our guest’s name again?”
The man’s name is Cliff Charpentier and he’s just published his eighth book on fantasy football. Thomas knows the game well and makes conversation easily. Despite his bluster, he never hesitates, never takes more than a breath between one solid question and then another.
Charpentier does not light up the phone lines and Thomas grows bored. While the fantasy football expert drones on, Thomas turns off his microphone, coughs, and says, “Guy’s pretty exciting.” He then closes his eyes and his forehead bangs into the microphone, as if the sportscaster has fallen into a deep coma.
The feeling is not held back from his listeners, either. “Thank you for being on the Sports Line, Cliff,” says Thomas, disconnecting Charpentier. “Exciting guy, that Cliff,” he says, laughing. “Not quite in the Hoyt Wilhelm league … ”
Former knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm played Major League Baseball far later in life than most athletes. Thomas interviewed him one night for the show. “It was dreadful,” he recalls. “He kept doing this (clears his throat, with great difficulty) before answering questions. I thought he was going to die. First of all, why did you come on the show if you’re going to die? And if you’re going to die, don’t take me with you.”
Thomas never set out to be in broadcasting. His mind was set on journalism until he accidentally walked into the campus radio station at the University of South Carolina. “I heard this guy doing sports. He was horrible! I turned to this guy and said, ‘He’s horrible! He stinks! You ought to fire him!’ He said, ‘Who are you?'”
But Thomas won an audition and bulldozed his way on the air, working as both DJ and sportscaster. He worked in radio for years, in South Carolina and Baltimore, adding TV later on. This isn’t the first time he’s worked both media, either.
Back to the phones.
The blue computer screen to Thomas’s left indicates the name of each caller, their sex, topic of interest and how long they’ve been waiting. Cellular car phone callers usually get through quickest.
Mike from Clearwater: “I think you and Tedd Webb should get off Ray Perkins’ back.”
Thomas: “Hey, I haven’t mentioned his name in two days!”
Some callers are better than others, of course. They require the host’s full attention. That’s when Thomas puts down his latest Marlboro, his eyes narrow and focus on a point beyond the microphone, talking to it like the caller is actually in the room.
Thomas, like other talk show hosts at WFLA, has his regular callers. Kerry is distinguished by his horse laugh. Bill has a very distinctive voice. And Bill is a retiree from Detroit. Thomas prefers “open phones” to interviewing authors and minor celebs, which makes the job seem more like work.
Physically, Thomas is different than you’d expect from seeing him on TV. Instead of the de rigeour jacket and tie, he shows up at the radio studio in his golfing clothes, yellow shorts and multi-colored polo shirt. And where TV makes him look pudgy, he’s not. Thomas is tall, thin, tanned and taut. The camera, she lies.
Six calls later – and discussion of Arena football, Hugh Culverhouse, the Seattle Mariners behind him – it’s 7:55:01 p.m., time for the Fat Lady to sing.
“This is a marvelous country, ladies and gentlemen,” says Thomas as Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” comes up behind him. “It’s a land that I love … Stand beside her, and guide her … From the mountains, to the prairies … ”
A year ago, a listener sent him a tape of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Thomas used it to close the show for a week or two as a gag. When he stopped, listeners demanded her return. Now WFLA promotes Chris Thomas and Kate Smith as “America’s Sweethearts.”
“Everybody needs a signature,” says Thomas with a shrug. “Not only that – it shortens the show by three minutes!”
Copyright 2013 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman