Paul Allen on Jeff Dubay, Brett Favre, the Vikings
IN THE WORLD of Twin Cities sports talk radio, spring can be a no-man's-land. By his own admission, KFAN midmorning host Paul Allen is in the business of merely killing segments at this time of year, when the Vikings are inactive, the Twins have barely gotten their cleats dirty, and the Timberwolves once again are on the outside looking in at the NBA playoffs.
So it's a godsend for Allen when Vikings backup linebacker Erin Henderson stops by the studio midway through an otherwise uneventful Tuesday morning show. Allen jumps at the opportunity to continue what he calls "the on-air internship" of Henderson, a semi-regular guest who has expressed some interest in trying out his broadcast chops.
While interviewing Boston Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande about the NBA playoffs, Allen invites Henderson to pose a couple of questions, and Henderson lobs a softball about Kevin Garnett. Once Allen has wrapped up the Grande interview and said his goodbye, Allen continues his on-air tutorial.
"You froze in the middle of the interview," he says. "I saw fear in your eyes when I asked you..."
"No fear! Never, no fear!" Henderson protests. "I don't even know what that word means."
But Allen is undeterred. "Erin, Erin, this is not Altoona, Iowa. This is not Oxen Hill, Maryland. This is not Lodi, California. These are the Twin Cities. This is top-16 market material. If you want to make—when football is over—$375,000 a year minimum hosting a radio show, you need to know in the interview process, if you freeze for a second, just think of a player on their team and just go, 'Sean, Rajon Rondo—your thoughts?'
"He answers and then you start to think of how you can play off of Rondo," Allen continues. "That's called getting a conversation going. What I saw in your eyes three minutes into that interview, I have never seen that, except for after the New Orleans game when I couldn't see your eyes because they were in the top of your head."
In a media market frequently criticized for being soft on its sports stars, Allen has the swagger to tell a strapping young professional football player that he looked afraid. On top of that, he turns the "if I could be like Mike" syndrome on its head, telling Henderson to watch and learn because in a few years, he's going to want a job just like his.
It's quintessential Paul Allen. The 44-year-old is known simply as "PA" to listeners of KFAN-AM, the all-sports station where he has held down the midmorning time slot since Jesse "The Body" Ventura decided to run for governor in 1998. From the day he cruised into the Twin Cities in 1995 to call races at Canterbury Park, Allen rose to become one of the market's top broadcasters through a quirky combination of confidence, exuberance, and a vernacular that, if not all his own, was at least new to Minnesotans.
By the onset of football season, he will be a man in perpetual motion. On any given day, Allen may race between four or five different jobs. He's at the radio station by 7 a.m. for his 9-to-noon show, tapes spots for his advertising partners afterward, and often spends afternoons at the Vikings practice facility to record interviews with players and coaches for a weeknight KFAN show. On top of that, he finds time for his Thursday-through-Sunday race-calling duties at Canterbury. Back in his Eden Prairie home before midnight, he might spend another hour sharing insights with fans on his KFAN show page and in the website's rube chat before calling it a night.
"He has a great sense of show biz," says Gregg Swedberg, operations manager for Clear Channel Minneapolis, which owns seven radio stations in the Twin Cities, including KFAN. "From the day he walked in here, it was evident that he has talent and he gets it. You don't need to explain how radio works to Paul Allen."
FROM AN EARLY age, Allen has been propelled by his tenacity and clear vision through a rollercoaster career. He left Pasadena City College in California without a degree after five years of bumping through communications courses and as many extracurriculars as he could squeeze in.
"College was not for me," he says. "But specializing in individual things was. I was editor of the college newspaper for three years, I did a big-band radio show for the college station, and I traveled with the drama team."
He landed a job at the Pasadena Star News in 1988 covering Southern California high school sports and horse racing. Even then he displayed an uncanny knack for stacking one job on top of another, adding a stringer role covering the same two beats for USA Today.
Horse racing has been part of Allen's life since childhood. His father died of diabetes when Allen was seven. His mom remarried and moved the family from Washington, D.C., to an apartment complex next to Rosecroft Raceway, a harness racing track in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Young Paul would often sneak through the woods with friends to the backside of the track and watch the races.
"I would listen to the announcer, and then I would go to our pool at the apartment complex and my friends would run around the pool and I would call the race," Allen recalls. "One day, the announcer at Rosecroft was staying at the apartment complex and was at the pool as I was doing this, and he picked the race up mid-call and took it the rest of the way. That was the most embarrassed I'd ever been through the first 10 or 12 years of my life."
Allen's mom divorced and married again, moving them to Southern California, where Paul attended high school and bumped through college before landing at the Star News. Print journalism paid the bills, but Allen wasn't giving up on an announcing career. Once his stories were filed, he would call races for an audience of one.
"I would go under the roof at Santa Anita Racetrack or sit in the stands at Hollywood Park with a tape recorder and microphone, and I'd call the races from the stands," Allen remembers.
He courted and eventually married jockey Christine Davenport, who introduced him to Trevor Denman, a South African who announces at Del Mar Park and Santa Anita.
"I put 1,000 races down on tape and took them to him, and he told me what he liked and didn't like," Allen says. "He's still the number-one influence on me getting into horse-racing announcing."
In 1993, Allen heard that Bay Meadows Racetrack near San Francisco was auditioning for race callers, so he jumped in his red Honda Civic, drove up the coast, found track president Jack Liebau, and slapped a demo tape into his hand. Liebau summarily dismissed him.
"The next day I went back to Mr. Liebau: 'It's me again. I just really, really can't leave here until you give me this opportunity.' I played part of a race for him from my tapes and he said, 'You've got the ninth race today.'"
Allen called three races in all. Liebau sent him back to Los Angeles with an unnerving "We'll be in touch." But a few days later, Liebau contacted Allen to tell him he was a finalist for the job.
"I said, 'What does the job pay?' and he said, '$225 a day.' I said, 'I'll do it for $150 a day.' He chuckled and said, 'We'll get back to you.'"
Soon after, Allen was hired as the Bay Meadows race caller at $225 a day.
"It was a wild-ass thing to do," says Liebau, now the track president at Hollywood Park near Los Angeles. "We were looking at a lot of experienced track announcers from across the country, but I liked this kid who was trying hard and who had a lot of nerve to just come up and hand me his tapes. I'm known for taking risks, and that was one that turned out well."
ALLEN'S MOXIE SERVED him well in 1995 when a group of investors was ready to reopen Canterbury Park in Shakopee. Canterbury Park's president, Randy Sampson, recalls that the decision was made to hire Terry Wallace, an established track announcer from Oaklawn Park Race Track in Hot Springs, Arkansas, but Wallace backed out at the last minute.
Members of the Canterbury media department asked Sampson to watch simulcasts of Allen's calls (he had since moved to Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley), and an invitation to come to Minnesota quickly followed.
"Paul had such an energetic, fresh voice and face," says Sampson. "In his calls, he'd say a horse was 'more erratic than a shopping cart' or 'further behind than his car payments.' From the start, some of the serious horse players at Canterbury didn't buy into his unique style, but for us, it was a tremendous fit when you look at the young people and casual fans we were trying to attract."
Allen slid comfortably into the Canterbury job from the start, but his life outside of the booth was descending into chaos. Davenport, his jockey wife, moved with him to Minnesota, but she couldn't gain the confidence of Canterbury trainers and eventually returned to California. Soon after, they divorced.
Allen fell into a nomadic lifestyle, calling races at Canterbury between Memorial Day and Labor Day, returning to the Bay Area in the fall to call races there, and motoring to Grand Island, Nebraska, every spring to call races at Fonner Park before returning to Shakopee and starting the cycle all over again.
"There was a lot that was fun about traveling around the country, but ultimately, it was a road to nowhere quickly," he says. "I was deep in debt, had no property, no wife, no kids, and no life."
In 1997, he met Julie Guzek and KFAN program director Doug Westerman, both at Canterbury Park. The former became his wife in 1999; the latter offered him a job giving sports updates during Jesse Ventura's show.
When Ventura decided to run for governor in 1998, the station needed someone to take over his midmorning slot. Once again, Allen was the right kid in the right place with the right amount of gumption. He was teamed with Jeff Dubay, a former Twins batboy who was working as the sidekick on KFAN's morning show hosted by Bob Yates.
"Two things were happening as we moved further into the job," says Allen. "People started liking the outsider in me, who had different opinions and a strong personality, along with the local sports-loving, maroon-and-gold-loving rube in Jeff. Meanwhile, we were out at the State Fair and I saw the crowds that Jesse was getting compared to his opponents and I said, 'Dubers, he might just win this thing!'"
Ventura, of course, "shocked the world" on election night, and his KFAN show was Allen and Dubay's for keeps. On election night, Allen found himself on familiar ground in Canterbury Park's presidential suite, where Ventura campaign workers celebrated the victory.
"I was standing right next to him when the results went up that said he'd taken the lead," says Allen. "To be next to a monster of a man like that and watch a tear come out of his eye...a tear came out of my eye, too. The adrenaline and energy that night, I will never forget as long as I live."
LISTENERS LIKED THE new team, who stuck to talking sports on the Twin Cities' only all-sports station when many of their colleagues drifted into politics and pop culture. From the start, says current KFAN program director Chad Abbott, the show finished in the top three in its time slot among the key demographic of males age 25 to 54.
"The way I've always looked at this radio show, whether it was PA and Dubay or me alone, is that we are the San Antonio Spurs of radio shows: We're going to run the same plays every single day with just a few twists to the game plan until somebody beats us on a consistent basis," Allen says.
Fast-forward three years. KFAN regained broadcast rights to Vikings football games and stumbled through a so-so season in 2001 with play-by-play announcer Terry Stembridge Jr., the son of a friend of team owner Red McCombs. KFAN and the team were looking for a replacement for the 2002 season. Allen, who had broadcast Vikings games over the internet one previous season, was once again competing for a job against more experienced talent.
"There are a million, billion guys who want to do play-by-play, and they all come out of the woodwork when you're hiring," says Swedberg, who was leading the search.
Swedberg and Westerman sat through countless auditions and kept returning to the same conclusion. "Sometimes you have to look beyond what might be the obvious choices of guys who have done play-by-play for years and years. We kept asking ourselves, 'Is this guy any better than PA?' and the answer was always no. It kept coming back to maybe we should just give PA a shot."
With the job secured, Allen, a bigger fan of NBA basketball at the time, began cramming, asking Vikings Head Coach Mike Tice and assistants Steve Loney and Scott Linehan every question he could think of about offensive and defensive schemes, while leaning on KFAN colleague Chad Hartman, who was announcing Minnesota Timberwolves games, for play-calling advice.
"The biggest thing I tried to leave him with was to be true to himself," recalls Hartman, who now competes against Allen at WCCO-AM. "You can get consumed by all of the criticism, but if you believe in yourself and if the people around you believe in you, you have to be true to that."
That was a risky proposition in a market that, over several decades, had become accustomed to the buttoned-down style of Ray Christensen, Ray Scott, and Herb Carneal. But Allen didn't flinch, liberally injecting his colorful lingo into play calling and bringing a fan's enthusiasm (and occasional disappointment) to the air.
"I didn't start in Smalltown, USA, listening to everybody else's style," Allen says. "I came into it with my own style, mixed a lot of my horse-racing flavor into it, and just brought my natural, God-given energy and my desire to watch this team win games. That's what I did, and that's what I still do."
He made a splash nationally on the last play of the 2003 regular season when Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown connected with wide receiver Nate Poole in the end zone to defeat the Vikings. Allen's crestfallen call replayed around the country: "Caught! Touchdown! No! Nooooo! The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs!"
Other signature calls would follow. In 2005, he imagined Mike Tice taunting a Soldier Field crowd after a Vikings interception with, "What do you think of my defense now?" And last year, there was Brett Favre's interception in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game against New Orleans. Allen spoke for every fan in the state of Minnesota, exclaiming exasperatedly, "You've gotta be kidding me! I can't believe what I just saw! Why do you even ponder passing? I mean, you can take a knee and try a 56-yard field goal! This is not Detroit, man, this is the Super Bowl!"
His emotional attachment to the Vikings was evident that evening and for weeks after the New Orleans loss. He vented openly during his daily show, giving callers the opportunity to lie down on the "therapeutic davenport of love" and mourn with him.
"You can talk to my wife about the way I was for a month after that game," Allen says. "I would never compare it to a clinical depression that I couldn't get out of, but from a professional standpoint—and that part of this profession leaks into my personal life—I was heartbroken."
IF THERE WAS a bright side to that loss, it was the opportunity to finally bond with Favre, one of the few athletes who has intimidated him. Allen, who travels with the team, has cultivated a core group of players whom he talks with after games to help him analyze what happened on the field, providing fodder for the next week's radio shows. Allen says he spoke with Favre early last season, but could tell that the Hall of Fame quarterback was uncomfortable, so he stopped. But he wasn't going to let the season end without telling Favre in the locker room how much he enjoyed being part of it.
"Brett had just hugged Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, and Adrian [Peterson].... He was crying and I went up to him and I put my hand out and I said, 'In my eight years of doing play-by-play for this team, you're the greatest football player I've ever been around. I really hope you come back next year, and thanks for letting me be part of it by calling your games,'" Allen recalls. "He shook my hand and put his arm around me and hugged me, and I almost started crying. It was the most emotional moment in sports that I've ever had."
Allen's high-energy, homer approach to play-calling has certainly pleased the Vikings. Earlier this year, the team renewed its contract with KFAN to broadcast its games through the 2011-12 season.
"I truly feel he's the best play-by-play announcer in the National Football League," says Steve LaCroix, the Vikings' vice president of sales and marketing. "He relates to the fans and the emotions that they go through during a game, and he translates those over the airwaves. With radio, it's all about painting the picture and bringing that passion without any visual context. I think he does a great job of that."
Swedberg also likes the "voice of the fan" approach, as long as it's a Vikings fan. "I like it when PA yells, 'Touchdowwwwn Vikings!' because I'm yelling that myself. Now, if you were to ask me whether I like his approach in other markets, well, I think it's over-the-top and terrible, but I'm not a fan of one of those teams."
For his part, Allen says he is intent on keeping the focus on the plays and the players, but he's earned some leeway with his on-air antics.
"Because I have equity with this team now and I've been involved in a lot of big spots with this team—where my highlights have been all over the place on ESPN and the NFL Network—I have achieved something where I am identified with the team," Allen says. "It's not like people are saying, 'Hey, let's watch the Vikings so we can hear Paul Allen's highlights.' It's the Vikings—Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen—called by Paul Allen. It all ties together like someone who has been with the team for a long time."
FRIENDS AND COWORKERS say Allen is intensely loyal, a trait that wore him down emotionally when his KFAN partner Jeff Dubay struggled with drug addiction, sought treatment, relapsed, and was eventually fired by the station after being arrested for possession of cocaine during a routine traffic stop in October 2008.
Allen says Dubay confided in him earlier that year, asking for help, but also asked him not to divulge the addiction to station management.
"Between my wife, his mom, and me, we put a lot of time, energy, and tender loving care into it. It was working and then it wouldn't work, and then it would," Allen says. "It got to a stage in August 2008 that it was really affecting my marriage. It was taking too much of an emotional toll on me to keep it from KFAN executives. In fact, it's the closest to a divorce that my wife and I have ever been."
It all came to a head one August night when Allen's wife called a KFAN executive and told him the station had to deal with the situation or it would ruin her marriage.
"What Julie did was the best thing for the whole situation because it brought it out and got Jeff in touch with management, which sent him into rehab," Allen says.
Dubay was off the air during Vikings training camp that year, returning briefly in the fall before being arrested. He served time in the Ramsey County workhouse, was released on parole late last year, and has been arrested twice since for violating parole. He is scheduled to be released from the workhouse in early August.
Allen says he speaks with Dubay's mother occasionally, but he can't recall when he last spoke with his former radio partner. Despite the risk the Dubay situation posed to his own career, Allen says he never held it against his partner.
"I don't in any way blame him," Allen says. "There may have been anger, but I never let Jeff know. I always kept what was going on with him in perspective. Maybe I could have helped more. Maybe I could have gone over to his house more and yanked him out of bad situations. I've spent at least a year kicking my own ass thinking about what I could have done better to help somebody who I dearly love and always will love stay away from this. But there came a point with my wife and my kids and my desire to do things where I had to take a step back. If I didn't, it was going to cost me my marriage."
Honest to a fault, Allen let listeners of his weekday program know that he wasn't comfortable doing the show alone. Although he continued to pull strong ratings and advertising support, Allen didn't think it was as entertaining without Dubay.
"I hated it for the first year after Jeff left," Allen says. "It was a complete identity shift for me, from the very popular PA and Dubay show to a show that still doesn't have a name and probably never will."
He asked station management to let him find another partner, but Clear Channel was struggling in the down economy and began cutting staff, including the highly paid Hartman. To compensate, Allen has assembled a list of regular weekly guests such as friend Gorg and fantasy-football guru Paul Charchian. He says he's only recently started to feel comfortable with the quality of his daily show.
"The 'having fun' part is finally starting to happen," Allen says. "I was driving down [Highway] 169 from Vikings workouts to Canterbury the other night, and I called my wife and said, 'You know, I've done play-by-play for eight years, radio for 12, and have called close to 20,000 horse races, and it still hits me how awesome my life is.'"
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