Listeners to ESPN Radio 1250 are hearing a kinder, gentler Mark Madden these days. But the change in his act is not necessarily of his choosing.
Madden, who has made himself one of the best known media figures in the region at least partially by inflammatory statements, sexual innuendo and insulting popular sports figures, has been ordered to tone down his act by his bosses at ESPN in Bristol, Conn., or face dismissal.
According to multiple sources, Madden was close to being fired when the full extent of his on-air behavior was made known at ESPN headquarters.
Although the local station has long used the ESPN brand, it was under the direct control of ABC Radio. When Disney, the parent company, sold off most of its stations, the remaining sports stations last spring came under more direct control from ESPN headquarters. When made aware of the sexual nature of some of Madden's comments, ESPN, concerned about its wholesome image and that of Disney's, acted swiftly.
According to several sources, ESPN received a tape recording of Madden's show, displaying his propensity for off-color comments, from a listener.
Just before Thanksgiving, Madden was telling friends and some members of the Penguins that he was concerned about his job and could be fired shortly. The firing was averted when Madden promised to clean up his act.
Whether ESPN would have followed through on its threat is debatable. Although Madden would not have many options if fired, the station would have none in replacing him in the crucial afternoon drive-time slot.
But the threat of losing his job, which presumably would have voided the long-term contract he recently signed, was enough to make Madden agree to changes in his style.
To ensure he behaves, the board operator on duty for Madden's show, which airs weekdays from 3-7 p.m., has been told to dump any off-color remarks by Madden and go to the built-in seven-second delay that all talk shows have. Usually, the board operator must be alert for off-color remarks made by callers. Now his primary duty is to keep a leash on Madden.
Program director Jim Gracie offered full support for Madden. "Mark has been part of our radio station in the past and he will be part of it in the future. We plan to have him on in 2008 as great as he ever has been."
Earlier this month, after a successful tenure, Dennis Begley resigned as general manager of ESPN. It is not known if there was any connection between his resignation and the problems with Madden.
Off-color remarks, sexual innuendo and attacks on public figures are a small part of Madden's show, but they have become his calling card and enthrall his listeners who wait for him to go off on somebody. His attempts to defame such popular sports figures as Arnold Palmer, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Jim Leyland and Myron Cope are part of that act.
Typical of his rants was this one, made about a year ago when he was fired as a panelist on a sports discussion show on WTAE-TV and tried to place the blame for his dismissal on the Steelers in general and owner Dan Rooney in particular:
"The Steelers are like the Mafia. The Steelers are like Pittsburgh's own version of the Kremlin. Don't even tell me it's run by good people. Don't even tell me the Steelers are run by good guys. Never tell me Mr. Rooney is anything more than another typically greedy control freak again. That's all he is."
Bettis was a frequent target after he backed out of an appearance on the Madden show because he was not contractually allowed to do so by KDKA Radio.
Even his colleagues were not spared his vindictiveness. When Madden disagreed with an opinion of Eddy Crow, a former employee of rock station WDVE who now does a talk show from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1250, Madden said, "That's what you have when you let the FM DJ talk sports instead of spin records."
This won't be the first time Madden cleaned up his act. Years ago, he stopped telling male listeners who might disagree with him that he had sexual relations with their wives.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .