Can Our Reporter Keep Up with a Man Who Is on the Air from Sunup to Sundown? No.
Text by Buzz Mcclain / Photography by Jonathan Timmes
At 6:45 a.m. I’m idling at the dark, cold school-bus stop. My daughter is in no mood to talk so I have Fox Sports on the XM radio. I’m listening to a rant by Steve Czaban, the host of the national broadcast called “The First Team,” as he opines on sports, of course, but also other things in pop culture that occupy the blurry fringes of the early-morning mind of the average male listener. He’s informative, sure, sort of, but he’s more than that. He’s amusing without any “morning zoo” excess.
So now it’s 6:45 p.m., and I’m driving in the darkening remnants of rush-hour traffic to pick up my son from his piano lesson. I turn on the radio to the local sports station, ESPN 980 AM, and the voice coming out of the Prius speakers is Czaban’s. He’s the co-host of “The Sports Reporters” with Andy Pollin on ESPN 980, on the air from 4 to 7 p.m. each weekday.
It’s the Czabe again. I do a double take. He seems to be on the air from 6 in the morning to 7 at night every day on two different sports talk stations. Can that be right? It doesn’t seem possible. Maybe he’s taped.
But no. Not only is it possible, but if I were in my car with the radio on at 8 a.m. Wisconsin time, I would be listening to Czaban doing a different broadcast on a different station in Milwaukee.
Solly Rings His Bell
Is there more than one Czabe? How does he keep a schedule that has him on the air nationally and in two local markets for 13 hours a day while maintaining a 4 handicap in golf?
To find out, I followed Czaban for a Thursday from sunup to sundown, to see exactly how a man can stay on the air and stay on top of things without, I don’t know, sleeping maybe?
Czaban’s producer, Steve Solomon, calls Czaban’s phone at 4:30 a.m. every morning because “alarm clocks can’t be trusted,” Czaban said. Czaban lives with his wife Deana and daughters Catherine, 9, and Megan, 6, on 10 acres in Round Hill, west of Leesburg and near the Loudoun County-West Virginia border.
Now consider this: The station where he broadcasts from is in Rockville, Md., just west of the District of Columbia. Czaban’s house is 25 miles closer to Winchester than it is to Rockville.
The Czabe is unfazed by the commute.
“It’s 52 minutes door to door,” Czaban says, fluidly reciting the vagaries of traffic that he breezes through in his 2005 Acura, from his long driveway to the McDonald’s near the station where he takes his morning sustenance.
Breakfast is long gone by the time I get to the station at 7:30 a.m. (alarm clocks really can’t be trusted). He’s already been on the air an hour and a half when I make it to the fourth-floor suite of ESPN 980.
Czaban is about the right size for his authoritative baritone. He’s 40 and keeps his hair clipped short so as to blend it with his ever-heightening forehead. He’s easily 6-foot-1 and comfortably carries his 228 pounds, “but I should be 205,” he says. Remarkably, he appears healthy, not exhausted at all. I expected suitcases under the eyes.
He sits at an oblong table with his back to a bank of windows looking out at Rockville Pike; as he talks into the microphone in front of him he deftly punches up the sound effects heard on the show from a box of 1,000 of them he has at his right hand.
Across the table is his “First Team” partner, Scott Linn, who, along with Solly (he hates that nickname, but they call him that anyway), has the same morning-to-evening schedule as the Czabe. Brutal as that may be, they live far closer to the station in Montgomery County.
Listeners tuning into 150 Fox Sports stations and XM’s national broadcast eavesdrop on a running conversation between Czaban and Linn, who have been together since June 2002. Linn scans listener emails, reads the Internet and makes notes from newspapers, while Solly forwards periodic phone calls to Czaban.
Czaban, who wiggles in his seat the way a golfer might waggle at address on the tee box, has a few notes on a computer printout of topics. What’s astonishing is how much detail he applies to a variety of subjects, and how much color his clever turns of phrase bring to the conversation.
“He’s the iron horse of broadcasting,” remarks “Smokin’” Al Koken, who hosts 980’s afternoon show with John Thompson and Brian Mitchell. “How he has the energy and passion at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to do what he does, that’s the true mark of a professional.”
Here’s how: When the show goes into commercial at 8 a.m., Czaban cracks open a two-ounce 5-Hour Energy shot, one of many. He’s so beholden to the elixir that he calls his home theater—a 110-inch projection screen flanked by 60-inch plasmas so he can watch three games at one time—“The 5-Hour Energy Dome.”
When the Fox Sports show is done at 9 a.m., Czaban goes on the air from the same chair and microphone for 30 minutes with Bob Madden and Brian Nelson—“Bob and Brian Mornings,” the No. 1 show on rock station 102.9 FM, the Hog, in Milwaukee. He was 27 and temporarily out of radio when he became a feature on the show, and now he’s “like an adopted son” in Milwaukee, Czaban said.
‘The Mean Streets of McLean’
Czaban grew up “on the mean streets of McLean,” matriculating to Cooper Middle School and Langley High. His father was a computer-systems analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his mother taught elementary school.
“The whole ‘mean streets of McLean’ became one of my favorite cliches on the show because the suburban streets of the McLean Hunt were anything but mean,” explains Czaban, who played drums in a high-school garage band. “Nice, quiet, tree-lined, very middle America. We played tackle football in the park every weekend during the fall and winter. Basketball games in driveways of at least three different kids. I played whiffle ball in the yard, where my roof over the front porch was the ‘upper deck.’ Stuff like that.”
It was around age 11 he hit his personal sports zenith, when he made the McLean Little League All-Star baseball team and discovered the joyous wonders of golf. He realized then he’d maxed out in the former and devoted himself to the latter.
His passion for golf manifested in the form of the creation of the annual Potomac Cup, a tournament between golfers from Virginia and those from Maryland. He started it in 2001, humbly, and now “I’m blown away with where we’re at with logoed shirts, logoed golf bags and all the different stuff we do.”
Virginia, by the way, leads 5 to 3.
His first move from the area was to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he earned a degree in communications in 1990 and for four years did the play by play for the Gauchos’ football and basketball games, while also hosting a local sports show. He moved back to his hometown and was again out of radio when Andy Pollin hired him at WTEM-AM (now ESPN 980) to do updates as a part-timer. “He’s sent in a tape, and it was pretty good,” Pollin recalls. “He was working as a range monkey over at Avenel. I remember calling his mother to see how to get hold of him.”
Then he was on to Chicago for One-On-One Sports Radio Network, where he met Bob and Brian, Charlotte’s WFNZ-AM, six months at ESPN Radio and then back to WTEM, where he was finally paired with Pollin on “The Sports Reporters.” Pollin, 50, an area native whose extensive institutional memory of local sports is collected in the new “Great Book of Washington, D.C. Sports Lists” with Leonard Shapiro, believes their partnership works because of their differences.
“We’re very different,” he says. “A different age, different politically, different interests, that works well on the air, but in terms of what we can bring to the table, we generally agree on what we want to talk about. I know how he’s going to react to certain things, and that’s how we come up with show topics.”
Czaban’s office is next to Pollin’s. It’s a smallish affair and looks like a 14-year-old boy’s bedroom, with framed Sports Illustrated covers on the walls, a large Darrell Green action painting over the desk, and assorted bobblehead and toy collectibles on a bookcase. But the dominant furniture is an overstuffed green chair and ottoman with a blanket on it. It’s where Czaban takes his daily nap.
As he updates his popular website, The Daily Czabe, Czabe.com, with opinions, videos, photos of women in bikinis and reader poll, we talk about time management. Each year he takes four breaks for himself and others with his family. He occasionally does a Sunday Redskins TV pre-game show, but says: “I don’t want to take on any more on the weekends.”
It dawns on me that he has to watch a lot of weekend sports to be as informative as he is. Isn’t that working on weekends?
“You have to watch the games, but you should still want to watch the games,” he insists. “What’s frustrating for me, particularly with the morning show, is I can’t watch as many of the games as I’d like to because I just can’t function on four or five hours of sleep. And that’s frustrating because I’m still a guy in this business who believes in watching long-form sports, watching details, the game within the game. You can get by in sports radio now with the Internet, with just watching the ‘SportsCenter’ highlights and reading stories, but I’m of the mindset that I’m still a sports fan and want to watch as much as I can in long form.”
The idea that every listener thinks they could do his job is not new to Czaban. “As Andy likes to say, ‘Everybody’s got one good show in them.’ One. What are you going to say the next day? And the next day? And the next day? That’s the real trick to it. And in truth, not everybody has one good show in them because there is a sort of a learned art to talking into a microphone and doing it in a way that makes the microphone disappear.”
The Lure of the Chair
Czaban can play 18 holes of golf during his break between shows, but today is not a golf day. So while the Czabe runs “some pretty mundane errands” after lunch—we had a 20-minute meal at a nearby barbecue place—I find myself in the plush green chair in his office.
Whoa. It’s nice here. The sun is on my face, ESPN.com is on his computer monitor, and you can hear faint sports radio down the hall somewhere. It’s cozy. Relaxing. Oh, man, is it relaxing. And before you know it, I’m out.
How embarrassing. But who could resist?
I groggily make way at 3 p.m. so Czaban, Solomon and Pollin can have a pre-show meeting; they quickly discuss a small handful of possible topics in no detail whatsoever and adjourn.
After the meeting it’s Czaban’s turn to snooze, and he closes the door. A few minutes before 4 p.m. he strides into the studio and takes a different seat, this one facing the window with a clear shot of Golf Galaxy across the highway. I find myself staring at it, my mind wandering to the fairway, and despite my nap, my eyes are heavy. And Czaban has three more hours of work to go.
The show moves at pace—in the car the commercial breaks seem much longer than they do in the studio—and at 5 p.m. he has a slice of pizza and a diet Dr Pepper. There’s been no exercise today besides walking to and from the parking garage. He has a home gym, “a nice one, but I never use it. I’d use it theoretically at night, but who wants to?”
At 5:30 p.m. he takes in another slice, plus additional 5-Hour Energy shot. At 6:21 there’s more pizza—free from a sponsor—and at 6:37 he does The Daily Czabe, a humorous roundup of non-sports items that either irritate or appeal to him.
My question is: When did he find time today to discover anything new to talk about? And how does he go all day on three programs and never once repeat himself? In an odd moment, I find myself quoting him to him, forgetting that I had heard him say it 10 hours earlier. Clearly, I’m getting delirious.
At 6:55:46 he says his final words on the air and after quick goodbyes is out of the studio, out of the building, out of the garage and into the thinning traffic for his ride home to Round Hill.
And all I can think is how grateful I am that I can sleep in tomorrow.