Radio fight for hearts and minds falls short

One of the great things about having your own blog is that you can say just about anything you want about whomever you want and the only person you have to answer to is, well, you. If you're lucky, you might make some beer money, but other than that it's mostly a labor of love.

When you go to work for someone else, things change. Your writing is influenced – whether you want to admit it or not – by your audience, and especially the guy signing the checks. It's the most natural thing in the world, and it happens in every profession. It's the trade-off between wearing – and writing about – every emotion on your sleeve and having a more measured approach that, in the long run, can help you advance your career. (In the extreme, guys sell out; Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless are the most obvious examples; two writers who found a niche – however inane – and parlayed that into high-paying gigs at The Network. Like Droz told Gutter in PCU, "Don't be that guy.")

I've been writing on a regular basis since February 2004, soon after the Pittsburgh Steelers put the finishing touches on that forgettable 6-10 season. It all started because I got tired of sending irrational emails to my buddy Andy and instead decided to just create a website for my ridiculous thoughts. It kinda snowballed from there.

But even before I started writing this crazy stuff down, I knew who Jim Wexell was. I lived in Pittsburgh when Wex had his now famous on-air run-in with Mark Madden. Madden is the poster slob for all that is wrong with the sports media: obnoxious, abusive, vindictive, often misinformed unless it's about hockey, while offering little substance to most every discussion.

For me, Wexell immediately graduated to cult hero status after losing his radio job for refusing to apologize to Madden. "This guy's got some balls," I thought. And I still do. I have a lot of respect for Wexell. He's a great writer, doesn't succumb to the temptation to "sell out" just to advance his career, and through his writing you get the sense that he is genuinely a good person. He does things the right way, even if that means fewer opportunities as a result. To me, this is what it's all about. His voice is an important one, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with everything he says or does. And guess what?

Wex blew it.

There, I said it.

I was excited when I heard he would be on Seattle sports-talk radio discussing his latest – and maybe his best – column primarily because I was sure it wouldn't be a fair fight. Jim Wexell, the inveterate Pittsburgh Steelers beat reporter pitted against a guy who actually goes out in public looking like this while calling himself, "Softy." Yeah, it seemed to be a no-brainer – kinda like watching Patrick Swayze compete against Chris Farley in the SNL Chippendales Dance-Off skit: You look at Swayze and just know he's going to mop the floor with this guy. Farley's trying really, really hard to compete, but barring a miracle, he ain't got a chance.

Well, Farley got his miracle on Friday. Instead of reducing Softy – okay, I can't, as a grown man, call this guy Softy … it just sounds dirty; he's David Mahler from here on out – to, ahem, a puddle, we were basically treated to a re-enactment of the Morton Downey Jr. Show complete with seemingly staged outrage by both parties.

As best I can tell, the appearance did nothing to change anybody's opinion about either the Super Bowl or the subsequent 100 days. If anything it just hardened these views and I'm not sure why that's a good thing.

But maybe that was the plan all along. I didn't talk to Wex about it so I have no idea. Whatever, it seems to me that debating Mahler on the merits – something that Wex has done with aplomb in previous radio appearances – would've been much more convincing.

Yeah, you can make the argument that Mahler was pandering to his audience – he seemed dismissive of Wexell's employer, the Johnstown Tribune – but was this a surprise? The guy's a sports-talk radio host for cripes sake. That's what he does. And in the Mark Madden scheme of things, Mahler's the equivalent of a Chihuahua: he makes a lot of noise, but he's harmless. He works in a market that isn't quite as rabid about there sports as, say, Pittsburgh. If he tried the Madden shtick out there he'd probably be working at Starbucks by the end of the month. And yes, I realize it's May 27th.

Look, most Seattle and Pittsburgh fans probably aren't going to be swayed one way or the other. The officials' calls were too one-sided Seahawks fans might say; Cowher out-coached Holmgren, and overcame adversity Steelers' fans would respond. Fine. But at the margins there are fans on both sides willing – eager, in fact – to listen to opposing viewpoints. Wex had an opportunity to tell Pittsburgh's side of the story and he dropped the ball.

The conversation quickly devolved from civil to "No Spin Zone" status in the time it takes to say "loofah." Some Steelers' fans were ecstatic about how things played out. Why? What did it accomplish other than to broadly paint all Steelers' fans as brash, arrogant jerks? After the slow-motion train wreck was over, my first reaction was "What the hell just happened?"

If you're argument revolves around any form of, "Well, Mahler antagonized Wexell and Wexell didn't back down from a challenge. He was right to tell him off," then let me ask you this: Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon, as Will Hunting, eviscerates the pompous Harvard graduate student (you know, the doofus with the ponytail) after this guy makes Will's best friend (Ben Affleck) look like a buffoon in front of some girls? Wouldn't you have much rather seen that scene play out on your radio? Wex is better than that. You know it. I know it.

Bringing up Jerramy Stevens' personal issues and dropping the p-bomb might have made for "good radio" but the only thing it did was reinforce stereotypes of Steelers' fans as irrational, close-minded and petty. Yep, Wex blew it. How do ya like them apples?


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