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Funk Brothers

What up, Dog? The ratings of Atlanta's 790 the Zone, that's what, after the station unleashed Ryan and Doug Stewart in the previously lily-white arena of sports-talk radio

THERE ARE 421 sports-talk radio stations in this country and, it seems, one template. Call-in shows are hosted by jaded white men who like to call each other "guys" (as in, "Listen up, guys") and who are oracles of the conventional wisdom. They know their stats cold, yet they never let those facts get in the way of a strong opinion. When the guys' opinions clash, there is a protocol: Whoever yells loudest into the mike is right. If overly vehement callers disagree, they're quickly put in their places--or thrown off the air. You ignore at your peril the first rule of call-in radio:

The hosts are alphas; the callers follow in the pack.

Out of these 421 stations, however, there is at least one outlier, in Atlanta. There, for three hours each weekday afternoon, the two hosts greet callers with raucous cries of "What you got?" Aided and abetted by an ensemble of regulars, with handles like Junkyard Rat and Bugman, they proceed to smash the template with a show known as 2 Live Stews. What makes the program unique is that the hosts, brothers Doug and Ryan Stewart, are brothers. This is the one major-market sports-talk show in America whose hosts are black, whose callers are primarily black and whose sensibility is unabashedly hip-hop.

This anomaly is based on a seemingly obvious premise: There are 36 million African-Americans in the U.S., many of them avid sports fans. You just wouldn't know it to listen to sports-talk America. According to one study from Arbitron, the company that monitors radio audiences, this genre's listeners are but 7% Hispanic and 11% black. Clearly, it's tough for people of color to relate to all this white noise.

Ah, but 2 Live Stews is a one-show affirmative action program. From the show's graveyard-shift beginnings three years ago on a station called 790 the Zone, it has built an amazingly loyal and steadily growing audience, prompting the station to move it into progressively better time slots--currently 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday. There it has become by far 790's top-rated show, with an average of 50,000 listeners, 48% of whom are white. On a station that's ranked No. 23 in the Atlanta market, the show is No. 4 among the prize demographic: men, ages 25-54. 2 Live Stews is also heard nationally on Sirius Satellite Radio, and earlier this year 790 signed Doug and Ryan to a four-year contract that pays each in six figures (plus bonuses) per year, with prospects of much more side income from appearance fees and other sources.

"When we started out, we wanted to infuse the hip-hop generation into sports-talk radio," says Doug. Thus the Stews' "bumper music," in and out of commercials, is hip-hop. The Stews' guests may be NFL players, invited by former Detroit Lions defensive back Ryan--or they may be sports-fan rappers. Like every sports-talk host in the South, the Stews know their college football Top 20. Unlike almost every other host, they also know the hip-hop songs on the Billboard Top 10.

The Stewart brothers, who grew up in Moncks Corner, S.C., as the only two children of parents who were both sales representatives, were virtual walk-ons in the radio business. They approached 790 about doing a show in October 2001. Doug, now 34, was a mortgage lender. Ryan, now 31, had an events-promotion business. He'd been a guest host on a few Saturday-afternoon football shows on the station, but the two had no demo tapes, just a grand vision. It was hatched one night as the Stews and some friends were watching football in Ryan's basement. As Quincy Carter struggled to move his Dallas Cowboys offense, Doug wondered aloud: Why, given Carter's mobility, didn't Dallas build an option offense around him? Ryan scoffed, saying that would never work against NFL defenses. That touched off a lively 30-minute debate, brimming with assertions and insults and ending in no agreement, just a compliment--from a friend observing the byplay. "You all need to have your own sports-talk show," said the friend. Hmm, the Stews said to each other.

Soon they were pitching 790 program director Matt Edgar and playing up a couple of selling points. One, they'd bring a fresh perspective, both because Ryan had been a professional athlete and because they were African-American. "In a city like Atlanta that's almost 70 percent black, why is there no sports-talk show that comes from the background of the listeners?" Doug recalls arguing. "Let's say you can get 10 percent of the market. If your market is the 30 percent that's Caucasian, that's three people out of 100. But if you could get 10 percent of the [black] 70 percent, that's inherently better--seven people, off the rip" (read: immediately). The second selling point was their brotherly chemistry and gift for gab. "Been talking smack our whole lives," says Doug. Then Ryan put a question to Edgar: "What's more entertaining, to hear someone pushing stats all day or to hear conversations like the ones you have with your boys in the barbershop or in the basement or under the shade tree?"

The brothers, who even offered to start out for free, were elated when Edgar said, at meeting's end, "I like the idea. We'll talk it over here." They were terrified one week later when they got Edgar's e-mail: "You're on tomorrow night." They'd have been calmer if they'd realized 790's signal was so weak at night that their 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. audience was as sparse as an Atlanta Hawks crowd. The reception was so poor that the first time a fan named J.D. Dozier heard the Stews, he couldn't make out their words. Yet he was still attracted by their voices, which were not standard-issue authority-figure radio pipes but ones like his: young and black and "all about keepin' it real."

He was soon a devotee of the Stews, who introduce him on-air today as "Triple Platinum" Dozier. That's an honorific granted only to the show's earliest callers, who didn't just call the show but also helped hustle it. (Top-tier regulars who signed on later are designated as Double Platinums.) Some Triple Platinums would drive around and, while stopped at traffic lights, holler to the nearest drivers, "Whatcha got on the radio?" If it wasn't the Stews--a good possibility--they'd tell them to "check out 790 AM, the 2 Live Stews." Then came the Platinums' big finish: "If you're not Stewin', what the heck are you doin'?" Of course, confesses Junkyard Rat, "If you do that to a Caucasian person, he may, like, roll up the window."

That was just one facet of a grassroots campaign to build an audience. Ryan would stand before his church's huge Sunday-morning congregation, testifying for the Lord and the show. He leveraged his day job by having his "street teams" staple 2 Live Stews leaflets to event-promotion flyers. He got on-air sound bites from old NFL pals: "This is Vonnie Holliday. When I'm not knocking heads for the Kansas City Chiefs, I'm down with the 2 Live Stews." The Stews also tapped into their vast network of Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers, asking them to spread the word.

The brothers refer to callers as dogs, and often during each show one of the Stews will tell listeners, "You're in the ... doooghouse," while the other loudly woofs. Female callers are referred to as "poodles" and get automatic priority in the caller queue. There aren't many of them, though, for, just like white sports talk, this is overwhelmingly guy talk. The difference is in how much less predictable and how much livelier it is (above). The Stews are 100,000 watts of energy, somehow emitted from a 23,000-watt transmitter. In the early days Doug sometimes left the studio lathered in sweat. Today, he's playing more within himself, but he and Ryan still often seem more like jamming musicians, playing off each other's verbal riffs, than sports-talk hosts. As I watch them in the studio one afternoon--Doug sitting on one side of a table, Ryan standing on the other--their thoughts on the day's top subject fly back and forth. Typically they call each other 12 to 15 times before a show to select the day's hot topics. On this day it's easy: Ricky Williams has announced his retirement from football. While nearly every other sports-talk host is blasting the enigmatic running back for running out on the Miami Dolphins, Ryan Stewart defends him.

"A lot of people in talk radio don't get it," he tells listeners. "In the NFL every tackle, every chop block is the equivalent of a car accident. If Ricky doesn't want to play and isn't running like he needs to run, he's going to get hurt. He's got to take care of himself because you know the league won't. Good as he is, he's just another player." (This was before reports of Williams's third positive test for marijuana. Ryan says he stands by the principles he expressed that day but would no longer so vigorously defend Williams: "He wasn't 100 percent honest with himself or his public.")

Ryan knows a lot about the precariousness and the politics of athletes' lives. He was recruited to Georgia Tech by coach Bobby Ross--who then departed to coach the San Diego Chargers. That left Ryan marooned with a new coach, Bill Lewis, who had no commitment to him. Ryan nonetheless had a stellar career at Tech, was drafted as a safety by the Lions and had a five-year stint in Detroit before being waived in 2000 following a groin injury. The coach that cut him was ... Bobby Ross. Coaches! Don't get Ryan started. "I heard the interview with [Miami coach] Dave Wannstedt," he tells listeners. "Reminded me of Dick Vermeil, like he was going to cry. You know what? Coaches walk away every freaking year."

Because of the experience and vernacular that the Stews share with athletes--Doug was a running back at Newberry (S.C.) College before tearing up a knee--they land guests like Deion Sanders, who often eludes other Atlanta talk shows. They banter with Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler on a weekly segment called "Kickin' It with Crumpler." Not that players get a free ride with the Stews. Though former Falcons offensive lineman Bob Whitfield (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars) is from the 'hood and down with the Stews, they mercilessly chided him when his play deteriorated.

What really makes this show, though, isn't the Stews' interaction with their guests but with their callers, who are lining up on hold at the switchboard well before airtime. The program is, just as the Stews had envisioned, a kind of barbershop of the air. It's also something of an empowerment zone. "They captured our imagination," says a frequent caller known as St. Louis Rhon, who in his other life goes by Rhon Lee. "This was the only forum where you felt you could express opinions from an African-American perspective."

The regulars often play distinct roles in this ensemble cast. St. Louis Rhon is the show's recognized boxing authority. Green Bay Johnny is the old-school sage, calling in from his truck with historic perspective. BMOC (Theodore Clark) contributes the funniest Top 5 lists (a la Letterman's Top 10); he is now attending broadcasting school in hopes of emulating the Stews. Junkyard Rat (Orlando Rawls) is the show's designated bad boy. The Stews have banished him from the show for weeks at a time for such offenses as trying to sneak off-color material on the air. Junkyard often makes it back on the show under assumed names, however, like Larry from Buckhead (a tony, predominantly white section of town).

The Stews' relationship with their dogs often goes well beyond their phone calls. When the show does "remote" broadcasts from car dealerships or malls, dozens of dogs are there. When the show put on a two-week-long "rap-off," the 10 callers selected as the best on-air performers faced off at a nightclub packed with 300 spectators. When the show held open auditions for someone to do its new entertainment-report segment--a position requiring a sexy female voice and an ability to relate star rappers' latest deals, romances and arrests--400 people turned out to watch 20 prospects. The winner, a 21-year-old makeup designer and hairdresser named Elle Duncan, took the on-air handle No. 1 Stunna.

A rap-off? An entertainment reporter named No. 1 Stunna? Barking? Clearly the Stews are not for everyone. Concedes program director Edgar, "I get emails from some people saying, 'I just don't get it--all the whooping and hollering and lingo.'" So the Stews have made efforts to be inclusive. They limit the Platinums to one call a week, so that the doghouse doesn't seem to be a closed fraternity. They talk in production meetings about how the show can reach out to "Caucasian brothers." The Stews sometimes stop in mid-riff, in a nod to white listeners, to define a hip-hop term. They've invited callers to discuss the difference between black and white strip clubs and between the black and white senses of humor. (Blacks, we learn, find mooning far less funny than do whites.)

Given their breakthrough, do the Stews personify the next wave in sports-talk radio? Rick Scott, a Seattle-based sports-radio consultant who's worked with 790, thinks other sports stations will start trying to develop their own version of the Stews, as a way of broadening their audiences. "People are becoming aware of [the show] and saying, 'Here's what's working in Atlanta,'" he says. But Scott adds a big qualifier. "While I can see others trying to emulate them, their personalities are so special that it will be tough," he says. The most significant impact of the show, he thinks, may be in encouraging stations to think outside the box and depart from the standard sports-talk formula in other ways. "I think its success helps spur creativity in our industry," Scott says.

The Stews' ambition is national syndication, but for now they're delighted with their doghouse at 790, where it's worked out just the way they pitched it. They've drawn a whole new demographic to 790 and broadened the station's audience. The voices of African-Americans are now heard far more often on 790's other shows. The Stews have also accomplished what sport, at its best, does. They created a community in which dogs hang together, bark together, even have their own Yahoo chat room. At a gala third-anniversary party in October, as Doug and Ryan shouted to their dogs over the thudding bass beat of the music, BMOC reflected on the Stews' ascent. "This has gone from a following to a fan base to a movement to a community," the Double Platinum said. "We're all part of the show."

2 Live Stews

Dog Day Afternoon

ON TUESDAY, Oct. 12, the 2 Live Stews had a full plate of Atlanta sports topics for their midafternoon show. The previous night, the Braves had been eliminated from the playoffs by the Houston Astros. On the Sunday before, the Falcons had suffered their first loss of the season, 17-10 to the Detroit Lions. And the Stews' "everyday topic"--the issue of the day--was, Did Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal (DUI) and Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis (drug bust) get special treatment when they were allowed to postpone their respective prison sentences? Meanwhile, the Stews also found a way to employ a term--"smuck"--that they coined to avert the wrath of the FCC.

Ryan: 404-233-7979. Blasting calls is what we do, sir.

Doug: (Barking.)

R: Let's talk to my man St. Louis Rhon; he's Triple Platinum.... St. Louis Rhon--what you got?

St. Louis Rhon: What up, Stews?

Stews: What up, baby?

SLR: Big ups to the dogs and the poodles.... Hey, man, as the unofficial Number 1 fan for the Cardinals here, I'm kind of disappointed in the Braves because now I'm deprived of getting a home run ball off the bat of Albert Pujols. Hold on, hold on, hold on. (Shouting an aside.) Kindell, keep your eyes on the road! Hey, man, it's a struggle trying to teach this girl to drive. I had to unhook the horn because you know kids like the horn.

D: She's seven, St. Louis.

SLR: She's six ... nooo, she's three.

(Stews laugh.)

SLR: Getting back to the everyday question, man, we can't hate this. If we had money, we wouldn't be going to jail right away either. I was kind of scared for Furcal. If it was up to him, he'd still be playing baseball through January.

D: Without a doubt, bro.

(St. Louis Rhon leaves the air.)

R: Before we blast some more phone calls, Georgia Tech homecoming is this weekend....

D: We could do a whole show on the differences between homecomings at a Division I school and a black college.

R: Easy.

D: Division I school: jeans, oxford shirt and a tie--and penny loafers. Black college: five-piece suits.

(Ryan laughs.)

D: Performing act that night: none. Because they don't have a concert at a white school. At a black college ... hmm.

R: Busta Rhymes.

D: Lil' Flip ... whoever's hot at that time.

R: Ludacris.

(A later segment, featuring Lions defensive end--and Ryan's former teammate--Robert Porcher, concluded with the Stews saying, "Hey, Que, we appreciate the time.... Nothing but love for you, dog!" and Porcher responding, "O.K., you keep it going, man, you all stay strong.")

D: (Barking.)

R: Could I recap a few things? First, what Robert Porcher said about [Falcons quarterback Michael] Vick. He said Vick, in his eyes, was not playing Vick's game.

D: You're talking about a Pro Bowler, 13 years.

R: Two times in that game, it was third-and-short and Vick tried to throw an outlet pass to Warrick Dunn to get the yards, and Warrick dropped the passes. I said, "Just run it and get us the first! Just run it and get us the first!" I mean, that's a play, man. All I know is this. He hasn't been playing his game for the past couple weeks. He's trying to appease the crowd, appease the coaches, and smuck that. O.K.? Smuck it. And the last thing I want to say is, Did you hear what Porcher just said?

D: What? He said a lot of things.

R: He can't move his agenda forward in Atlanta; he has to stay in Michigan. For those who are listening: In life, to be successful, you've got to have an agenda. You have to have a thought process, you have to have goals. I want the dogs, the poodles, 790 the Zone, Sirius Satellite, everybody in the sound of my voice to hear what I'm about to say.

D: Preach it.

R: The Stews have a smucking agenda.

D: A serious-assed agenda.

R: O.K., I'm done.

D: Hey, when we get back from the break, we'll blast your calls.

(Barking and out.)

Mighty Mouths

Every day, from coast to coast, local sports-radio talk-show hosts set the hometown athletic agenda and incite howling from their listeners. Here are SI's choices of the shows that make the most noise



3 p.m.-7 p.m.

They're an odd couple, but Ralph (the Razor) Barbieri, 57, a cerebral radio veteran, and Tom (Mr. T) Tolbert, 39, a former NBA journeyman turned cutup, share a willingness to wade into tough issues: This summer Barbieri (bottom) blasted the Giants for being too cheap to sign a hitter to protect Barry Bonds.



12 p.m.-3 p.m. ET

From his base in Southern California (where he made his rep), the 40year-old Rome now reaches more than two million listeners. Commanding his legions (labeled "clones") to "have a take and don't suck," the influential "Romey" has expanded his empire to TV (ESPN's Rome Is Burning).



3 p.m.-7 p.m.

The hosts with the most in Big D are gruff Mike Rhyner (top), 54, and easily incensed Greg Williams, 44. When Williams roars, out flows a stream of back-porch Texas country wisdom. The pair's primary sports interest is baseball, which would seem suicidal in Cowboys country. Still, they own the 18-to-34 male cohort.



2 p.m.-7 p.m.

The 48-year-old Finebaum is the agenda-setter in Alabama for sports--meaning college football. Also a Mobile Register columnist, Finebaum maintains tight relationships with prominent figures at Alabama and Auburn; he advertises his show as the place where "coaches are fired."



4 p.m.-7 p.m.

Because owners, coaches and politicians use South Florida radio mainstay Goldberg as a sounding board, he has a huge edge in breaking news. The 64-year-old hammerin' Hank pulls no punches, whether terming callers "jag-offs" or questioning the financial wherewithal of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.



3 p.m.-7 p.m.

A former commentator for World Championship Wrestling, the 43-year-old Madden revels in that sensibility, referring to callers and critics alike as "jackasses." He can be downright nasty: Madden once labeled Darryl Strawberry's recovery from illness as a "waste of a cancer cure."



1 p.m.-6:30 p.m.

To hear Mike Francesa and Chris (Mad Dog) Russo bickering, you'd think they wouldn't last 15 minutes together. But Francesa (top), 50, and Russo, 45, have been at it for 15 years, pronouncing on all the big stories, as when they mercilessly grilled Mets owner Fred Wilpon about the club's implosion this summer.



2 p.m.-6 p.m.

In August, when a listener named Curt Schilling wanted to set the record straight about the then erratic Red Sox, who did he call from the car? Ordway, that's who. The 53year-old host of The Big Show offers segments like the "Whiner Line," a playback of fans venting their frustrations.



5:30 a.m.-10 a.m.

In this blue-collar, boo-spewing town, the 53-year-old Cataldi, anchor of 'IP's morning drive-time show, identifies with Joe Sixpack and zestfully skewers local sports figures. His favorite adjective is "stinking," as in "[General manager] Ed Wade's Phillies are a bunch of stinking losers."



6 a.m.-10 a.m.

A former hot dog vendor at Wrigley Field and a fixture on Windy City radio since 1990, the 52-year-old North is known for his passion for hot-button topics and his brazen approach to the town's sports figures: Earlier this season he called Bears wide receiver David Terrell "a nut case."



2 p.m.-7 p.m.

While bleeding the purple of his Kansas State Wildcats, the 40year-old Mission, Kans., native has landed so many scoops that rival stations have assigned interns to listen in hopes of learning something new. In 1999 he organized a fan walkout of a Royals-Yankees game to protest payroll disparities.

Among the Stews' main selling points to program director Edgar was their gift for gab. "Been TALKING SMACK our whole lives," says Doug.

The program is, just as the Stews had envisioned, a kind of BARBERSHOP OF THE AIR. It's also something of an empowerment zone.


Photograph by Jeffery A. Salter


To make sure their show is not all bark and no bite, Doug (left) and Ryan huddle often before going on the air.





The brotherly bond extended to the gridiron, where Ryan (seated, top) would play for five years with the Lions.



[See leadin above]

  [See caption above]




St. Louis Rhon is a driving force for the Stews.


Illustration by Jonathan Carlson