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Newsmaker: Jim Wexell / Talk show fight costs him a job, gets praise

Sunday, January 13, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the snarling world of talk radio, where hosts love to hate callers and vice versa, Jim Wexell broke new ground last week.

He unleashed venom on fellow talk host Mark Madden, accusing him of homophobia.

Free-lance sportswriter Jim Wexell. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Station management at ESPN Radio 1250 cringed at the sound of two employees in an ugly, unscripted confrontation over the off-field life of Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart.

Other people applauded Wexell, contending that he brought a moment of truth to a medium where loose talk can rule.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney sought out Wexell to shake his hand. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis found Wexell in a hallway and hugged him. Strangers sent him congratulatory emails.

Wexell's notoriety was, in large part, heightened by his firing from ESPN Radio because of the altercation. He had been a commentator on the pre-game Steelers shows until he attacked Madden during the Jan. 6 broadcast.

He was axed after he called Madden, the station's drive-time talk-show host, "a liar" and "a steaming pile of hypocrisy."

Wexell was angry because Madden had written a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which he denounced Pittsburgh residents who had spread false rumors about Stewart being gay.

Wexell maintains that Madden -- an in-your-face talker who refers to callers and critics as "jackasses" -- fueled those very rumors.

Madden says otherwise, contending that he squelched gossipy callers who tried to attack Stewart personally.

"I spent two years keeping those people off the air, probably at the expense of more listeners and better ratings," Madden said. "The one time in my radio career when I went out of my way to take the high road, I'm vilified for it."

Madden, in fact, called Stewart a good man and spoke on air against the rumormongers as far back as 1999.

Even so, Madden was among the quarterback's most vitriolic critics and, Wexell says, he laced his commentaries with nasty personal digs.

For instance, Wexell says, Madden made gratuitous references to Schenley Park when talking about Stewart. The park has a reputation as a hangout for gays.

"I am," Madden replied, "99.9 percent sure that I never said that. Show me a tape."

Wexell, 41, says his one regret about the on-air showdown with Madden was that it dredged up the untrue stories that were hurtful to Stewart.

Stewart's excellent play this season, in which he was named the Steelers most valuable player while leading the team to a 13-3 record and a spot in the playoffs, had silenced most of the beer-swilling fans who harangued recklessly about his personal life. Now, Wexell said, Stewart may be subjected to the old slurs if he has a bad game.

Wexell admits he is biased when it comes to Stewart, whom he admires as a player and a person.

"Kordell does not preach, but I would bet money that he tries to follow Christ's example," Wexell said.

He is less generous in characterizing himself.

"Madden called me a hack from Irwin, and he's right," Wexell said.

Wexell earns most his income as a free-lance sportswriter for and a handful of magazines and newspapers, including the Post-Gazette.

In his radio work, he usually was no more bombastic than the borough librarian. Wexell saw himself not as a provocateur but as a beat reporter offering detailed information about the Steelers.

Wexell was born Jim Buckley in Chicago. His father was killed by a drunken driver when he was an infant, and his mother remarried a man named Ron Wexell, who adopted Jim.

His new father also would die at the hands of a drunken driver. Ron Wexell was killed in a crash on the Birmingham Bridge when Jim was 16.

After graduating from Norwin High School, Wexell decided to study computer technology at the University of Pittsburgh. The courses numbed him, so he drifted to journalism. Sportswriting became his passion.

He rose from summer intern to sports editor at the Irwin Standard-Observer but could climb no higher in the newspaper business. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review bought the Irwin paper, Wexell said, but would not move him to its larger operation.

He resigned in October 1998 to try his hand at a free-lance career.

"I'm making it work," Wexell said, adding that he had cleaned up his personal life in the process.

He stopped smoking five years ago and quit drinking in 1999. Wexell said his healthier lifestyle has made him happier and led to he and his wife having a child after 15 years of marriage.

Wexell takes his journalism seriously, working six days a week and cranking out a dozen stories in that span. He writes mostly about high school players for his newspaper clients, and never utters a discouraging word about those assignments.

Terry Shields, assistant sports editor of the Post-Gazette, said Wexell is a diligent reporter and a clear, accurate writer.

"He never blows off a story," Shields said. "He tries to make every one of them a good read."

For other clients, such as Pro Football Weekly, Wexell covers the Steelers.

Wexell said he could not sleep after reading Madden's column criticizing the Stewart bashers. He decided that Madden was trying to revise history, and made up his mind to challenge him on the air.

Madden believes it was a gutless, sneak attack that was counterproductive to the talk show.

Jessamy Tang, station manager of Pittsburgh's ESPN Radio agreed, calling Wexell's comments about Madden "inappropriate." When Wexell refused to apologize, he was fired.

Good enough for him, according to Madden. "I just don't understand who appointed Jim Wexell the journalism police."

Wexell said he can live without the job and a medium that embraces rumormongers.

"I'm a music fan. I hate sports talk radio," he said.

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