Atlanta Postcard

By

Late one night in 2001, Curtis Brown was finishing up some work in
his office at a car dealership in suburban Atlanta, fiddling with
the tuner on his radio in the hope of finding a ball game to make
the time pass more quickly, when he stumbled upon something he'd
never heard before--or, to be more precise, something he'd never
heard before on the radio. Because what Brown heard that night was
actually, to his ears at least, quite familiar. It was a raucous,
freewheeling discussion about sports in which no topic was
considered taboo and no observation was deemed out of bounds. It
was the type of no-holds- barred sports talk Brown had grown up
hearing at the local barbershop in his native Detroit; and it was
the type of sports talk he now often participated in with his
friends in Atlanta when they gathered in bars or basements to watch
games. But, until that moment, it was not the type of sports talk
Brown had ever heard on the airwaves. "It was real, it was down to
earth, it wasn't about statistics, it wasn't afraid to say the
stuff most people think but a lot of the time won't ever actually
say," Brown recalls. "It was totally different from any other
sports radio format, and I've been listening to sports talk shows
for a long time." In other words, he explains, "It was black
guys"--black guys like Brown and his friends--"talking about
sports."The black guys Brown heard that night were Doug and Ryan Stewart,
two brothers (in both senses of the word) who had recently
persuaded the management of Atlanta's sports talk station 790 The
Zone to put them on the air. Between the two of them, the Stewarts
had scant radio experience: the then-31-year-old Doug was a
mortgage lender; Ryan, who is three years younger, had played
football at Georgia Tech and, since retiring from the sport after
five years in the NFL, had done some fill-in work at the station.
But the Stewarts did possess an undeniable chemistry--the kind that
can take years for a radio duo to build but tends to come naturally
to two guys who grew up under the same roof--and they had a
convincing demographic argument for why they deserved some airtime.
"Atlanta's about 70 percent black, and a good percentage of those
black people love sports," Doug remembers telling 790's program
director. "But there's no sports talk show in Atlanta--or anywhere
else, for that matter--that specifically speaks to them."

The powers that be at 790 were intrigued by the Stewarts and their
idea for a "hip-hop" sports talk show, so they gave them a tryout
in the graveyard shift- -when few people bothered to listen to 790
and even those who wanted to listen (like night owls working late
at car dealerships) had a hard time doing so, since the station's
AM signal became extremely weak after sundown. It wasn't long into
their first show that 790's management realized that, in the
Stewart brothers--or, as they called themselves and their show, the
"2 Live Stews"--the station had a hit. "There was no question,"
says Andrew Saltzman, 790's president. "Hearing them that first
time--their cadence, their vernacular, their energy--was like
jumping in an ice pool."

The Stews have come a long way in the four and a half years since
their late- night debut. While they did their first shows for free,
today they both pull down six-figure salaries. And, after moving "2
Live Stews" into a succession of increasingly better timeslots,
last year 790 took the ultimate step and installed the Stews in
sports talk Valhalla--otherwise known as afternoon drive. Earlier
this year, the Stews extended their reach beyond Atlanta when the
black media company Radio One began syndicating their show as part
of its national black talk-radio network (the network's two other
shows feature Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson); today, "2 Live
Stews" is heard in more than 25 markets. In the process, the Stews
have become sports celebrities--even earning a profile in Sports
Illustrated. In February, when they broadcast their radio show from
the NBA All-Star game--an event so popular among African Americans
that Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon once called it
"Black Thanksgiving"--the duo sometimes received as much attention
from the fans as the players. That the Stews bested the likes of
Shaquille O'Neal and the rap star Ludacris at an All-Star weekend
celebrity pool tournament only seemed a fitting confirmation of
their new cachet.

But, for all the distance the Stews have traveled in the last few
years, there is one thing that has not changed since their first
night on the air: Despite its tremendous success, "2 Live Stews"
remains the only sports talk show in the United States--and there
are now more than 500 of them--that features two black hosts and is
explicitly geared toward black listeners. Which almost certainly
has something to do with the other thing that makes the Stews such
a sports talk anomaly. The world of sports is routinely hailed as an
oasis of colorblind meritocracy and racial harmony, but the most
common racial dynamic is a group of black players taking orders
from a white coach as they play for a team owned by a white guy.
Most members of the sports media typically suppress the tensions
that come with this reality or deny that they exist. The Stews, on
the other hand, make their living by bringing them to light.

Like every "2 Live Stews" show, this one begins with a jolt--a sonic
collage that features an old Public Enemy song, snippets of
dialogue from movies like Bad Boys and Barbershop, and, of course,
the Stews themselves. "You're in the doooooooog house!" Doug yells
into his microphone, as Ryan barks and growls into his own. The
Stews--both wearing sweatsuits, both with shaved heads, and both
sporting large diamond stud earrings--are seated at opposite ends of
an elliptical console in a studio on the eighteenth floor of an
office building in the upscale Atlanta suburb of Buckhead. Through
a window in front of them, they can see their producer in the
control room; through a window behind them, they have a view of
Stone Mountain.

After their ear-shattering introduction and some words of greeting
for the "dogs" and "poodles" (which is what they call their male
and female listeners), the Stews turn to the big news of the day,
which, on this particular afternoon, involves Michael Vick, the
hometown Falcons' supremely talented but maddeningly inconsistent
quarterback. Vick, who recently finished a disappointing season,
has decided to voice his frustration to the press, telling a
reporter with USA Today that the Falcons' offensive coordinator
doesn't know how to use him properly. And the majority of Atlanta's
sports talk community--both the hosts and the callers--has reacted
predictably, blasting Vick for refusing to listen to authority; for
airing the team's dirty laundry in public; for being, in the
parlance of the medium, a "malcontent," a "brat," and an
"uncoachable punk."

But that is not the view of the Stews. In their eyes, Vick is the
victim and the Falcons' coaches are the bad guys. And they spend
the next hour making that case. According to Doug, the Falcons'
coaching staff really isn't using Vick properly. Rather than taking
advantage of Vick's blazing speed and remarkable running ability,
they're trying to force him to become something he's not-- namely a
conventional, drop-back passer who stays in the pocket. Ryan isn't
sold on Doug's notion that Vick can be an option quarterback like he
was in college, but he doesn't fault Vick for going public with his
grievance. That the quarterback did so, Ryan argues, only means
that the coaching staff wasn't taking his concerns seriously. In
effect, Vick had no alternative but to go to the press. And,
because Vick is black and the Falcons' offensive coordinator is
white, the whole situation becomes, in the Stews' retelling, a
thinly veiled parable about race in America--in which a stodgy
white system once again conspires to thwart a creative black
talent. Even the statistical measure used to assess
quarterbacks--something called the "passer rating"--is biased
against a multi-dimensional player like Vick, Doug argues, since it
fails to take into account the yards he gains by running.

This sort of racial talk goes on constantly on "2 Live Stews."
Often, it's lighthearted and frivolous--such as when it involves
making fun of white athletes for being slow or detailing the
differences between white strip clubs and black ones. (In case
you're curious, Ryan explains thusly: "Black strip clubs, the girls
dance a whole lot more and shake it a whole lot more. White strip
clubs, the girls model more and walk around more. Silicone has a lot
to do with it, too.") But, just as frequently, the racial talk can
be serious--and it's at its most serious when the topic is the
athletes themselves, who, after all, are predominately black.

Where most sports talk shows consist of angry white hosts and angry
white callers braying about the myriad shortcomings of these black
athletes, "2 Live Stews" features the reverse: black hosts and
black callers voicing sympathy, understanding, and support for the
black people who play the games. When they're not defending Vick,
the Stews and the dogs and poodles are defending former Ohio State
running back Maurice Clarett, who was generally vilified on sports
talk shows for leaving school early and then accusing Ohio State of
NCAA violations but who, according to the Stews' portrayal, was a
young black man who'd won a national championship for Ohio State
only to be abandoned by the university when he ran into problems
off the field. Or they're sticking up for Barry Bonds or Terrell
Owens or whichever black athlete happens to be serving as a sports
talk punching bag at that moment. "When everyone else is saying
that this guy is crazy or that this guy is a jerk, we're usually the
only ones on radio viewing it the other way," Doug says.

This pro-athlete view, Ryan argues, stems from the fact that he and
Doug-- who also played football at the college level--are
themselves athletes. But the sports talk landscape is littered with
ex-jocks now trying to make a second career talking about the game
they once played, which means that something else must account for
the Stews' unusual dynamic. And Doug, the more avowedly political
of the duo, isn't afraid to put his finger on it. "It's also
because we're black," he says of his, his brother's, and his
callers' propensity to see things from the athlete's perspective.
Later, he adds, "I just think that, deep down, we feel like the
setup is on. I don't know if it's a conspiracy or it's because
we've been wronged so many times by authority--and when I say
authority I mean the system, the establishment, the sports
hierarchy."

Indeed, the figures who typically come in for the most criticism
during a "2 Live Stews" show are the people who sit atop that
hierarchy: the coaches, the general managers, the athletic
directors, and the league commissioners, who tend to be white and
who, on most other sports talk shows, tend to be treated like minor
deities. According to the Stews' schema, these deities have feet of
clay: Dick Vermeil, the former pro football coach who was widely
hailed in the media for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, is a
crybaby and the butt of frequent jokes; Larry Brown, who before his
bad turn with the New York Knicks was celebrated as a coaching
genius for winning an NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons, is
a glory hound stealing the spotlight from his players. The Stews
even take shots at David Stern, the NBA commissioner whose
stewardship of that league has made him as close to a universally
revered figure as you're likely to find in professional sports.
When the NBA instituted a dress code for its players, the Stews
argued that Stern was unfairly targeting the league's young black
players, who, prior to the dress code, tended to wear the sort of
hip-hop gear the Stews themselves favor. "Who's the dress code made
for?" Doug asks. "It's not made for Mike Dunleavy [a white player],
it's not made for, I don't know, give me another white player. So
deductive reasoning would tell you that it's directed toward this
certain group of people who make white folks uncomfortable."

None of which is to say that the Stews don't ever try to make
athletes uncomfortable. "If a black athlete does something crazy,"
says Doug, "we're going to call them out on it." Ricky Williams,
for instance--who was recently suspended from the NFL for violating
its substance abuse policy--is the butt of many a "2 Live Stews"
pothead joke. But, when the Stews do criticize athletes, it's
usually done in the spirit of tough, almost brotherly, love.
Saltzman actually likens the treatment of athletes on "2 Live
Stews" to Doug and Ryan's treatment of each other. "It's like I can
take shots at my brother that nobody else can take," Saltzman says.
"I'm going to be harder on him than anybody else, but, at the end
of the day, I'm going to be the one defending him in a street
fight."

The Stews like to say that their show is simply a re-creation of
what happens when men get together in person to watch and talk
about sports. But, no matter how exact that re-creation is,
sometimes people want the real thing, and so, with some regularity,
the Stews give away tickets to local sporting events and then join
the winners. On this night, the Stews are at the Philips Arena to
watch the Atlanta Hawks in a section of seats the team has specially
reserved for the Stews and their fans called the Dog Pound. (The
Stews' seat-giveaway arrangement with Atlanta's pro hockey team,
the Thrashers, is called "Soul On Ice.")

The Hawks reside near the bottom of the NBA standings and the arena
is largely listless and empty, but the Dog Pound, although only
filled with about a dozen people, is a comparable den of activity.
Vendors and security guards make their way to the section to say
hello to the Stews, who spend most of the game schmoozing with
their fans and offering a running commentary on the action on the
court. It's almost identical to the commentary they offer on the
air-- albeit with curse words--and much of it is hilarious. But
it's not without its moments of insight, and, in the game's final
moments, one such moment occurs. With the Hawks trailing by three
and setting up for a final shot during a time- out, the Stews and
their fans all agree that a sharp-shooting rookie named Salim
Stoudamire should take the last shot. But when the Hawks return to
the floor, Stoudamire is sitting on the bench. The Stews and their
fans are incredulous. "Where's Salim?" they howl. And, when the
Hawks miss the shot and go on to lose the game, the howls grow
louder. Doug merely shakes his head. "Salim's gonna be pissed," he
says. "I wouldn't want to be in that locker room right now."

Sure enough, Stoudamire will pitch a fit in the locker room that
night-- according to some reports, he'll have to be physically
restrained from attacking the Hawks' coach--and, the next day,
he'll be suspended for two games for conduct detrimental to the
team. The sports talk universe will have another misbehaving,
entitled athlete to excoriate. And "2 Live Stews" will have yet
another poor, misunderstood athlete to defend.

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