It's 8 p.m. in Cleveland. The Lake Erie waterfront is long since dark, the wheels of industry are stilled for the night, the Polish-sausage men have vacated the streets, and the voice of Pete Franklin—Jack the Ripper of sports-talk radio—once again stalks the airwaves.
"Hello, Pete? This is L-L-Lenny from Akron. I'm a first-time caller."
You can tell poor Lenny is nervous. He has the voice of a Parris Island recruit addressing his drill instructor. "P-P-Pete, I'd like to talk about truck pulling," he says. "You know, where they put r-r-ropes on trucks and pull 'em around?"
Franklin recognizes a loser when he hears one. He can sense if a caller is about to whimper. "Well," Franklin says, "let's be articulate here. Don't just say 'trucks.' What the hell kind of trucks you mean? Double bottoms? Twelve-wheelers?"
"P-P-Pickup trucks, Pete. You know, you put ropes on 'em and pull."
Franklin pauses for effect and then swoops in for the kill. When it comes to interrogating witnesses, he makes Howard Cosell sound like a choirboy. "Tell me something." he says. "Has anyone ever pulled on your brain and found anything there?"
"No," the caller says tremulously.
"That's what I figured!" Franklin roars. Boom! His finger hits the red disconnect button, and Lenny the truck puller is sent deadheading, as it were, into the night, never to be heard from again unless he's a glutton for punishment and calls back for more.
This kind of scene is repeated a half dozen times a night on Franklin's enormously successful five-hour-long Sportsline show for WWWE, a 50,000-watt clear-channel station that can be heard at 1100 kHz in 38 states and parts of Canada. A writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer once wrote that Franklin, 53, is "loud, boastful, obnoxious, rude, fawning, mercenary, exhibitionistic and overbearing." He was only half right. Sweet Pete is also brilliant, vulgar, informed, profane, fascinating, cruel, leering and funny—once you realize that 90% of his insult-the-caller routine is contrived to keep the show moving.
"A lot of it is show business," admits The Mouth. "I yell at some guy, dress him down, call him a Communist, that's what people will remember—the social faux pas. You analyze it. What did I do? I spoke to some anonymous person and called him a dum-dum. All I did was violate someone's sense of propriety."
There's obviously a market for such uncouth behavior. Franklin's show has been rated No. 1 on nightly radio in Cleveland for more than a decade; he dominates his city as no other broadcasters do theirs. He pulls in 22.4% of male listeners aged 25 to 54 in his area, and his weekly audience averages 250,000 listeners in the Cleveland area. Other knowledgeable and more civilized sports talkers—Cincinnati's Bob Trumpy, New York's Art Rust Jr. and Washington's Ken Beatrice, to name a few—have larger audiences but smaller audience shares. They also have far fewer enemies.
Franklin says some of his callers are loons who instinctively gravitate toward talk shows. Some are "out-and-out morons who deserve to be treated as such." And others are repeat callers—"It's all they have in life." The rest are intelligent fans seeking the unvarnished truth, says Franklin, "so if I think a guy can't coach or is detrimental to the franchise, then—whammo!—I go after him."
It's here that the darker side of Franklin emerges. His criticisms do possess kernels of truth but too often spill over into character assassination. Though he greased the skids for former Indians Manager Frank Robinson, among others, none of his targets has endured contumely to equal that heaped on Cavaliers owner and former WWWE client Ted Stepien, whom Franklin has nicknamed T.S.—as in Too Stupid—and accused of being "a fascist" and other terms of endearment. (Stepien sued WWWE last year, charging that the station breached its contract with the Cavs by allowing Franklin and play-by-play announcer Joe Tait to rip the team. He later dropped the suit.)
With Sweet Pete's lighter side in mind, we offer these final Franklinisms:
"What do you think this show is, kid? Sesame Street? You should be in bed by now.... You bore me, meat-head. What did you take, Tylenol for dinner?...I love to talk to intelligent sports fans. The rest of you dummies, hop inside a mummy and sew yourself up."
We confess that we yanked these lines out of context. Pete. But we have a suggestion: If you don't like it, why don't you just bug off?