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Mark Madden: The mouth that roars

Sports talker Mark Madden pushes to the edge and his listeners love it

Thursday, March 02, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mark Madden is mad. The wrath of Madden descends upon "Kevin in the car," a disobedient caller to his sports talk show on ESPN radio.

"This isn't rocket science, for God's sake," says Mark Madden, who earns in the six-figure range for talking sports. "All I am is a guy with a big mouth and a microphone." (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

"TURN DOWN your radio. You are irritating me a great deal. When I say, 'Turn down your radio, TURN IT DOWN, ' " Madden bellows before hanging up.

"You're at a pay phone. God, get a life," Madden snorts at the next caller after an operator breaks in to ask for an additional five cents.

"THAT MAKES ZERO SENSE. You are really stupid. So I am going to hang up on you," he screeches at another caller who wants to bring in a high-priced quarterback as a backup to Kordell Stewart.

"Bro, bro, bro, HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND," he disses another caller who thinks Penguins coach Herb Brooks was trying to fire up his team when he pushed a Colorado broadcaster.

Midway through his testy rant, which comes and goes like an angry storm cloud, a soft-spoken caller virtually pleads for Madden to stop beating up everyone. "I thought in the year 2000, we would get a kinder, gentler Mark Madden," he says, "but I guess not. You sound like you are on the edge."

A kinder and gentler Mark Madden?

Yeah. Right.

Madden is definitely on the edge. Which is exactly the way he and his male listeners like it.

Brash, abrasive, funny, quick-witted, sports-smart, moody and testosterone-powered, Madden slings opinions that are either wickedly entertaining or thoroughly obnoxious -- depending on your outlook.

He brings all the manners and good taste of professional wrestling -- one of his greatest passions and another source of income -- to the tame world of Pittsburgh talk radio. Like those bombastic nicknames he bestows on himself. Big Sexy. Ayatollah of Rocknrolla. Terminator of talk show violence. All openly ripped off from the wrestlers he talks about as a national commentator and scribe for World Championship Wrestling.

Madden's 4 to 8 p.m. weekday radio show on WEAE is duking it out with KDKA's Thor Tolo, whose show airs from 6 to 9 p.m. Direct ratings comparisons are hard to make because there are only two hours of overlap, and because KDKA's 50,000 watt signal is 10 times more powerful and gives Tolo an advantage in reaching outlying counties.

But among men aged 18 to 34, a group coveted by advertisers, Madden is edging out Tolo, according to average ratings number during 1999 (see chart).


Mark Madden vs. Thor Tolo

      Average 1999 ratings during the weekday 6 to 8 p.m. timeslot for six-county area.

Men 18 - 345.33.8
Men 34 - 545.48.5
Overall rating for men and women2.77.7
Source: Arbitron, Based on the average of four 12-week ratings periods during 1999. and Post-Gazette


Dan DiNardo, an 18-year-old at Norwin High School, gushes: "Madden's hilarious. He cuts people off and tells it like it is," he says with a boyish grin before a Penguin game.

Madden says he's aiming his talk at younger men. Never mind that Madden is 39. Middle age hasn't stopped him from acting totally juvenile. In fact, he occasionally hangs out at Ross Park Mall just so he can sit around and listen to the way teen-agers talk.

Of course, his Howard Stern-esque boy talk makes others dismiss him as crass. Michael Max Mosorjak, a 50-year-old from Johnstown, calls his show "this egotistical, male, prideful, macho, testosterone-crazed, kind of commentary."

Tolo dominates among men aged 35 to 54, and has broader appeal that includes women. Tolo says women tune into his show because he "treats a woman the way you would treat any man. Not just like a piece of meat that you use to get a cheap laugh."

Madden has another spin on the gender gap: "That's because every old lady in Pittsburgh turns on KDKA and doesn't turn it off until night."

Madden's ESPN-radio show is only one of his four jobs. A former Post-Gazette sports writer, he writes a weekly Saturday Viewpoints column for the newspaper, does Penguin's between-period commentary, and records a hot line and does Internet dispatches for the WCW.

And he was recently named a color commentator for TNT's "Monday Night Nitro Live." Speaking to a national cable audience at a show in Tulsa, he spewed out one-liners such as: "I can sum up the women of Tulsa just by spelling the name backwards."

"I never had a job that was so much fun," he says. In the over-the-top trash-talking spectacle of pro wrestling, Madden's bawdy humor doesn't stand out. Heck, he hasn't even been bleeped out on live TV.

But among the Pittsburgh rush-hour traffic, his biting radio persona is outrageous.

Madden is fiercely private about his off-air life. But what you hear on the radio, he says, is the real him -- only amplified. It's even hard for him to tell where his own naturally gruff personality ends and his stage persona begins.

"I don't think you can be trained to do this. You can't teach somebody to be a jerk. You either are or you aren't."

"This isn't rocket science, for God's sake," he barks impatiently. "All I am is a guy with a big mouth and a microphone."

Two species of sports fans -- those who delight in Mark Madden and those who cringe at Mark Madden -- are packed into Whiskey Dick's Saloon in the Strip District on a recent Friday night to hear the big mouth roar.

Of course, the pro-Madden faction dominates this happy hour, which is part of his once-a-month bar tour, when he takes his show on the road. "He cuts through all the B.S.," says Bill Webb, a 44-year-old from the North Hills. "He's very sharp. To call him, you have to have a lot on the ball. If he doesn't agree with you, he will run you through the mill."

Webb and other fans don't interact much with Madden. Instead, they watch the spectacle of this boyish 350-pound man with pale blue eyes and straw-like blonde hair roaring under headsets, deriding callers who annoy him as "slapnuts," or "slappy" for short.

At around 6:30 p.m., Madden brings out his main attraction -- a group of strippers from Club Elite. Regular listeners know he is going through stripper-withdrawal, having given up going to their shows as a New Year's resolution. But that doesn't mean strippers can't come to him.

"Don't be shy, Violet. I have seen you naked before," he barks to a blonde favorite.

Later, Violet, a voluptuous 21-year-old with flowing blonde hair, says Madden is actually a sweet and well-mannered strip-bar patron.

"He doesn't talk dirty," Violet says. "He likes to talk about sports, and my boyfriend is a big wrestling fan. Some guys pull your G-strings to the side. He is not like that. I think he is looking for a girlfriend. I don't think he is trying to sleep with a dancer."

In the back of the warehouse bar, two city housing authority police are also talking about Madden. But they aren't calling him "sweet" or "well-mannered."

"He's obnoxious," says Bob Pagane, 34, of Shadyside.

"He's entertaining," says Ron Greiner, 28.

"Obnoxious," Pagane says.

"Entertaining and obnoxious," Greiner says.

In an adjacent room, Mark, a 25-year-old treasury analyst who like most Madden-haters won't give his last name, calls him "an ignorant awful person." But he is not going to confront Madden. In fact, Madden has only had two ugly incidents in which fans screamed obscenities at him in person.

But on the air, protected by the anonymity of talk radio, some offended callers have threatened to come down to the station and kick Madden's ample butt. Madden thunders back to come on down, but no one has ever showed up. "I know they are just bluffing. I don't really want to fight somebody in the parking lot, for God's sake."

Is there a soft side beneath the bark of Mark Madden?

If there is, he won't let you see it.

He repels questions about his personal life with the same impatience that he deals with the 12th consecutive caller who rants about bringing in a high-priced backup to Kordell.

"Part of his gimmick is that he doesn't let people get to know him," says Ric Flair, the white-haired maniacal WCW superstar who is his friend. "He is very warm, very respectful of his family. If he is your friend, he is your friend ... thick and thin."

Madden grew up middle-class in Reserve Township, an only child raised by his mother, Peggy and his late grandmother, Irene.

He never met his father because his parents divorced when he was young. He has never tried to track his father down.

"I have no interest," he says emphatically. "No interest. I have no bitterness. I guess he had to do what he had to do."

He has lived at home with his mother all these years, but explains it as a pragmatic move that lets him sock away money for a really nice house. He just bought a new house in the city with a spectacular view. Colleagues say he is a devoted son to his mother, a retired speech teacher. But Madden changes the subject and doesn't want a reporter to talk to her. His mother declined comment.

On and off the air, he is a moody guy, engaging one day, glum the next. "He is on perpetual male PMS," says Lin Hartman, a 43-year-old optician from Carnegie and occasional listener.

Madden often works 12- to 15-hour days juggling his various gigs. He sometimes looks sleep-deprived, but the hectic pace has a big payoff -- a salary in the six-figure range. "I think I am worth every penny of it," he says with characteristic immodesty.

"I am single. Work is what I do right now. Period," he says. He declines to talk about girlfriends, except to say, "Just say I am open to offers."

His only real indulgences are gambling at Las Vegas and eating.

Being fat, he says, is his one vulnerable area. "I get it every night on this show, fatass this and fat that. There are two groups it's fashionable to lambaste -- fat people and uneducated white trash. Luckily, I am only one of those."

Madden, a graduate of Duquesne University, says he doesn't obsess about his weight, but ever the pragmatist, he says, "It would be a shame to make all this money and drop dead, though."

He does commercials for Andrew Lessman's Fat Control, and says he recently started a diet. But some callers taunt him as an unconvincing diet pitchman. On a recent show, a caller said he had seen Madden and was appalled that a man of his size was plugging a fat control product. Then the caller hung up. As always, Madden had the last word, ripping the caller as a coward and "a piece of crap."

If Madden hasn't exactly been driven at the gym, he has always been driven in his career. He became a free-lance writer for the Post-Gazette at age 17 and continued after college. More than 10 years later, he became a staff writer, serving as zone sports editor and backup hockey writer. He was known as a talented writer, but as a sometimes harsh supervisor who could be overly brusque.

Madden left the paper in 1996, upset that he was not named a columnist or a reporter on a major beat.

"I saw myself as being the next Phil Musick, not the next Myron Cope," says Madden, who took a job with Penguins Report and then WTAE Radio.

His radio career had a stormy start. In the summer of 1997, upset that he wasn't given full-time status, he went on the air and threatened to quit if he wasn't hired full-time. "My boss was jerking me around so I jerked him around," says Madden, who says he quit.

Frank Iorio Jr., then-general manger of WTAE, says he fired him. "I hated to do it. He was an incredibly talented kid, one of the most talented guys I ever heard. But it was wrong to threaten me on the air. ... He had a cocky, smart-mouth, foul-mouth attitude before he became a personality. The guy could have talked himself out of the business."

But the station, which became WEAE, changed owners and Madden was hired back a year later.

Fritz Huysman, assistant managing editor/sports at the Post-Gazette, says Madden has found his niche on radio. He says he gets along well with him -- better now than when he had to supervise him.

"He makes me laugh more than all the other talk show hosts put together, and he makes me cringe more than all the other talk show hosts put together. ... I wish he weren't as confrontational. But he is not talking to my generation. Young people seem to be challenged by it. You would think they would get to the point where you are ridiculed and people would stop calling. But it doesn't seem to be happening."

Paul Steigerwald, the Penguins' radio play-by-play man, says Madden has the sports knowledge and intelligence to back up his bombastic style. "It's that wrestling thing. He doesn't suffer fools well."

Phil Musick, former talk sports radio host, newspaper columnist and sports editor, says, "It is fairly obvious that he has some kind of Howard Stern schtick. That is not my bag. But Mark has hit on a schtick that serves him well. It appeals to the lowest common denominator."

Madden and his arch-rival Thor Tolo are a study in contrasts. If Thor is the glib, verbose and polite Minnesotan, Madden is the abrupt, in-your-face Pittsburgher with a local brogue.

Madden trashes Thor on the air, calling him a "buffoon" and the "50,000-watt blowhard," a twist on the station's advertisement for its powerful signal.

Off the air, Tolo retorts: "Let's put in this way -- cream rises to the top. Crap falls to the bottom ...What makes me better is that I put myself in the shoes of the listener. Being confrontational and in-your-face for the sake of being confrontational and in-your-face is disingenuous. The act wears thin in a real hurry."

Though the feud with Tolo is mostly radio drama -- they are perfectly pleasant with each other off the air -- Madden's feud with Bruno Sammartino is real and raw. Madden calls the beloved wrestling legend "a hypocrite and a self-aggrandizing charlatan. He said when he did it, it was real. It was never real."

Sammartino, in turn, calls Madden his No. 1 enemy and a "lowlife" who maligns the wrestling of his day without having a clue about it. "This guy talks big on radio, but he is afraid of his own shadow. I don't think he would fight his own grandmother. He is just a big mouth."

There's some irony to the grandmother reference. Madden's late grandmother, Irene, was a huge Bruno fan and turned Madden on to wrestling when they would watch Bill Cardille's wrestling show together. "I feel bad that I have a bad relationship with Bruno because my grandmother loved him so much."

But don't expect Madden to run out, kiss and make up with Bruno or others he offended anytime soon. He didn't apologize to an offended Polish American Congress after he made a Polish joke to a caller from Polish Hill.

Madden's not looking for love on the airwaves. "I always tell people, if you are offended by what I do, or if you think the show is stupid, please by all means don't listen. I don't want to torture you."

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