I arrived at the “McNeil & Spiegel” pre-show meeting with a few preconceived notions about what was in store. Over the past 20 years I had observed Dan McNeil in action at four different radio stops (The Loop, The Score, ESPN, and then back at The Score) with several different co-hosts and producers, but the atmosphere was always the same: Palpable tension filling the air.
At first, I figured it was just the nature of the sports-talk beast. But there was more to it than that. That passion about sports didn’t explain the obvious off-the-air strain I had witnessed at each of his previous stops on the radio dial. The conflicts that arose in those places often had nothing to do with sports. There were conflicts with management, co-workers, and co-hosts, resulting in resignations, suspensions, confrontations, and altercations.
I braced for more of the same in that 8:30 a.m. pre-show meeting, but it wasn’t there. McNeil, Matt Spiegel, and the producers calmly discussed the topics and guests that would be covered, and then the host went into the production booth and went over the audio for that day, and again, everything seemed fine. Apparently, I figured, the fireworks didn’t start until the show began.
I sat in the producer’s booth during the first hour of the show – often a place on heightened alert – but there was no tension there either. Trust me on this – I can see the signs a mile away. This was a happy producer’s booth. Executive producer Jay Zawaski and associate producers Ben Finfer and Nick Shepkowski were running the controls, hopping on the microphone when they had something to contribute, screening the calls, monitoring Twitter for breaking news stories, and doing it all without the slightest trace of angst.
When I looked across the glass at the mug of my old pal, Mr. McNeil, he was smiling and relaxed. He actually looked both happy and content. Could that really be what I was witnessing?
To answer that question I went down the hall to the program director’s office. Mitch Rosen had been McNeil’s boss at ESPN (WMVP-AM 1000) radio as well. That stint had been a particularly contentious one.
“Is it just me,” I asked him, “or is Dan really happy and content these days?”
“I think he is,” Rosen said. Pressing deeper, I asked, “Why do you think that is?”
“Maturity plays a part in it,” Rosen explained. “We’ve all matured a bit over the years. I think we have great conflict resolution now. If there are issues, we deal with it and move on.”
I watched the way Spiegel and McNeil interacted in the studio during the next few segments to see if I saw any sign of the old tension there. During the interviews they communicated via eye contact and hand gestures to let each other know who was going to lead and where it was going to go, and it appeared to be effortless. I went into the studio during the commercial breaks and it was the same vibe off the air as it was on the air.
During the long commercial breaks at 20 minutes after the hour, I noticed that McNeil disappeared for a while, so in the third hour I asked if I could accompany him wherever he was going. I really only had one question, and I wanted to ask it when it was just the two of us.
“Sure,” he said, “c’mon. I’m going to have a smoke.”
We took the elevator down to the Prudential Plaza lobby and out the back door where he quickly lit up a cigarette. I just came out with it: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this happy and content before. Is there a reason for that?”
He looked at me a little strangely when I asked it, but after a moment of reflection, he had to nod in agreement.
“I do think I’m quite content where I am now,” he admitted. “Maybe I’m not taking the job or each show as life and death anymore. I’ve arrived at a station in life where I should be comfortable with what I’ve accomplished and where I’m at.”
I left the station shortly after that smoke-break conversation and didn’t really have a chance to chat with him again, but I could tell that my question had gotten to him a little bit. Receiving an email from him later that night confirmed it.
“You got me thinking about my unprecedented level of contentment,” he wrote. “Here’s what contributes that I didn’t really express well to you. More than ever, I’m finding balance in my life. I’m doing the best shows I can do, but I stopped letting who I am be predicated on Arbitron ratings or income some time ago. It’s just a gig. My LIFE is at home, with a wonderful wife [Sheri], three awesome sons, and many lifelong friends. Corny perhaps, but it’s true . . . radio has evolved into the work I do when I’m not really living my life.”
And that’s the way it should be.
— Rick Kaempfer