Al Eschbach goes into the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Fame
Mike Steely listened every night; 6:15 p.m. to 7 p.m. Radio station KTOK had taken a flier on a sportstalk show. Al Eschbach, sports editor of the Oklahoma Journal and owner of a Jersey accent straight out of Central Casting, was on 1000-AM weeknights.
It was 1976. No ESPN. No Internet. Barely any cable television, and only in a few markets. One or two college football games televised per week. One or two college basketball games televised per week. One or two Major League baseball games televised per week. AM radio was starting to feel the squeeze of FM’s hold on music, and talk radio started to blossom. Most of it was political. Some of it was pop culture. And a sliver of it was sports.
Steely, then a kid growing up in Norman, listened to that sliver. In 1978, Steely actually won a trivia contest calling into Eschbach’s radio show. Which Dallas Cowboy linebacker was a licensed florist? Steely didn’t know, but he knew the Dallas Cowboy linebackers and threw out a guess. Anthony Dickerson.
Jackpot. Steely, then 14 years old, won a trip to Dallas to watch the Cowboys play the Dolphins. Ritzy hotel. Big breakfast. Limo ride to the game. Tickets, all for Steely and his dad.
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Less than 10 years later, Steely was working in radio with Eschbach, and 41 years later, Steely is hailing Eschbach’s induction into the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Fame, which comes Friday at the Skirvin Hotel.
Eschbach, 43 years into his radio career and still going strong on The Sports Animal’s afternoon drive (4-8 p.m.) show, has been on the Oklahoma scene since arriving from Jersey City, New Jersey, to attend OU in autumn 1963.
“He’s the godfather,” said Steely, who worked 21 years with Eschbach and now does a morning show on the Franchise, 107.7-FM. “He’s the guy that started it all.”
From that 45-minute show, the Oklahoma City market now includes six all-sports radio stations, four of which produce local talk shows, including three that produce at least 12 hours a day.
“Think about that,” Steely said. “One hour of radio on a news station, in the evening, and look what it’s grown into.”
Quick disclaimer: I’ve been part of Eschbach’s afternoon show for more than a decade, alongside Jim Traber, too, who does a 2-6 p.m. show on the Sports Animal.
“He means everything to” Oklahoma sportstalk radio, Traber said. “When he started doing it, nobody was doing it. Boy, it had to be tough, because, heck, a lot of people didn’t know what he was doing. He had to talk. He wasn’t getting the phone calls. Now, it’s a lot easier, because you’ve got all these people that know sports radio.
“Forty-three years of anything is unbelievable. And you know, obviously, you gotta know what the heck’s going on. He’s as sharp as he ever was. The guy’s got an unbelievable memory. It’s really really impressive.”
Eschbach went full-time radio when the Oklahoma Journal folded in 1980. WWLS launched an all-sports format in 1985, with Eschbach as the anchor, and it is believed that OKC joined New York City and Denver as the first markets with all-sports radio. Outside of eight months in Kansas City in 1993, Eschbach has been on Oklahoma radio consecutively for 43 years.
“I’ve always called him the pioneer of sports talk,” said Craig Humphreys, who hosts a morning show on the Sports Animal. “Obviously, he’s the one that started it. What I respect about Al, he’s the guy that started it all. He probably would have the right to have the biggest ego in radio, and he doesn’t.”
Humphreys in 1995 famously started a rival sportstalk on 1340 AM, with Traber and Steely aboard. In summer 1996, Humphreys tried to sign away Eschbach from WWLS and Eschbach agreed. But that night, virtually every employee from WWLS – sales staff and on-air hosts – invaded Eschbach’s house and pleaded with him to stay. Knowing the jobs of several people were on the line, Eschbach stayed.
“I just got overwhelmed, how they cared for me and wanted me,” Eschbach said. “It was really pretty special. The toughest thing then was, Craig was a friend and I had so much respect for Craig. For me to make that phone call and say I’ve changed my mind … then of course, Jim went nuts.”
Said Humphreys, “To his credit, he stayed. I don’t know anyone at the station that he doesn’t get along with. Accomplishing what he’s done and being around as long as he has, I just absolutely love the guy and respect him.”
Eschbach has mentored or recommended for jobs dozens of people in OKC radio.
“What a story,” Steely said. “Here comes this guy from New Jersey with this crazy accent, but he took off. I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve been doing today … the guy’s been so good to me. He’s recommended me for my first show, he recommended me when he went to Kansas City.”
My experience with Eschbach is a little different. All these guys look back on Eschbach as a radio pioneer. But I look back on Eschbach as a newspaperman.
Growing up, I read four papers every day – The Oklahoman, the Norman Transcript, the Oklahoma Journal and the Oklahoma City Times. The latter two are gone. But of those four, the must-read guy in the 1970s was Eschbach, primarily for his notes column format. He frequently would write multi-subject columns, hitting on several topics. The notes columns largely are gone from papers today, but I still try to replicate them in spirit, with my blogs, usually writing three a day on different subjects. That’s an ode to sitting at the breakfast table at 1223 East Boyd in Norman, reading Eschbach.
I went into the business at age 17, working for the Transcript, and I’ve never been very starry-eyed, either with coaches or athletes or even journalists. But I have to admit, getting to know Al in the early ‘80s was pretty cool. Now, of course, I’m an old man, and, like Steely’s story, Eschbach has become my colleague. We’re part of a small club of guys who experienced the old days. I love the new era. I wouldn’t go back. But it’s fun to reminisce, and I can do that with dang few people. Eschbach, who arrived in Norman in Bud Wilkinson’s final season as football coach, is at the top of the list.