That was just one facet of a grassroots campaign to build an audience. Ryan would stand before his church's huge Sunday-morning congregation, testifying for the Lord and the show. He leveraged his day job by having his "street teams" staple 2 Live Stews leaflets to event-promotion flyers. He got on-air sound bites from old NFL pals: "This is Vonnie Holliday. When I'm not knocking heads for the Kansas City Chiefs, I'm down with the 2 Live Stews." The Stews also tapped into their vast network of Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers, asking them to spread the word.
The brothers refer to callers as dogs, and often during each show one of the Stews will tell listeners, "You're in the ... doooghouse," while the other loudly woofs. Female callers are referred to as "poodles" and get automatic priority in the caller queue. There aren't many of them, though, for, just like white sports talk, this is overwhelmingly guy talk. The difference is in how much less predictable and how much livelier it is (above). The Stews are 100,000 watts of energy, somehow emitted from a 23,000-watt transmitter. In the early days Doug sometimes left the studio lathered in sweat. Today, he's playing more within himself, but he and Ryan still often seem more like jamming musicians, playing off each other's verbal riffs, than sports-talk hosts. As I watch them in the studio one afternoon--Doug sitting on one side of a table, Ryan standing on the other--their thoughts on the day's top subject fly back and forth. Typically they call each other 12 to 15 times before a show to select the day's hot topics. On this day it's easy: Ricky Williams has announced his retirement from football. While nearly every other sports-talk host is blasting the enigmatic running back for running out on the Miami Dolphins, Ryan Stewart defends him.
"A lot of people in talk radio don't get it," he tells listeners. "In the NFL every tackle, every chop block is the equivalent of a car accident. If Ricky doesn't want to play and isn't running like he needs to run, he's going to get hurt. He's got to take care of himself because you know the league won't. Good as he is, he's just another player." (This was before reports of Williams's third positive test for marijuana. Ryan says he stands by the principles he expressed that day but would no longer so vigorously defend Williams: "He wasn't 100 percent honest with himself or his public.")
Ryan knows a lot about the precariousness and the politics of athletes' lives. He was recruited to Georgia Tech by coach Bobby Ross--who then departed to coach the San Diego Chargers. That left Ryan marooned with a new coach, Bill Lewis, who had no commitment to him. Ryan nonetheless had a stellar career at Tech, was drafted as a safety by the Lions and had a five-year stint in Detroit before being waived in 2000 following a groin injury. The coach that cut him was ... Bobby Ross. Coaches! Don't get Ryan started. "I heard the interview with [ Miami coach] Dave Wannstedt," he tells listeners. "Reminded me of Dick Vermeil, like he was going to cry. You know what? Coaches walk away every freaking year."
Because of the experience and vernacular that the Stews share with athletes--Doug was a running back at Newberry ( S.C.) College before tearing up a knee--they land guests like Deion Sanders, who often eludes other Atlanta talk shows. They banter with Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler on a weekly segment called "Kickin' It with Crumpler." Not that players get a free ride with the Stews. Though former Falcons offensive lineman Bob Whitfield (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars) is from the 'hood and down with the Stews, they mercilessly chided him when his play deteriorated.
What really makes this show, though, isn't the Stews' interaction with their guests but with their callers, who are lining up on hold at the switchboard well before airtime. The program is, just as the Stews had envisioned, a kind of barbershop of the air. It's also something of an empowerment zone. "They captured our imagination," says a frequent caller known as St. Louis Rhon, who in his other life goes by Rhon Lee. "This was the only forum where you felt you could express opinions from an African-American perspective."
The regulars often play distinct roles in this ensemble cast. St. Louis Rhon is the show's recognized boxing authority. Green Bay Johnny is the old-school sage, calling in from his truck with historic perspective. BMOC (Theodore Clark) contributes the funniest Top 5 lists (a la Letterman's Top 10); he is now attending broadcasting school in hopes of emulating the Stews. Junkyard Rat (Orlando Rawls) is the show's designated bad boy. The Stews have banished him from the show for weeks at a time for such offenses as trying to sneak off-color material on the air. Junkyard often makes it back on the show under assumed names, however, like Larry from Buckhead (a tony, predominantly white section of town).
The Stews' relationship with their dogs often goes well beyond their phone calls. When the show does "remote" broadcasts from car dealerships or malls, dozens of dogs are there. When the show put on a two-week-long "rap-off," the 10 callers selected as the best on-air performers faced off at a nightclub packed with 300 spectators. When the show held open auditions for someone to do its new entertainment-report segment--a position requiring a sexy female voice and an ability to relate star rappers' latest deals, romances and arrests--400 people turned out to watch 20 prospects. The winner, a 21-year-old makeup designer and hairdresser named Elle Duncan, took the on-air handle No. 1 Stunna.
A rap-off? An entertainment reporter named No. 1 Stunna? Barking? Clearly the Stews are not for everyone. Concedes program director Edgar, "I get emails from some people saying, 'I just don't get it--all the whooping and hollering and lingo.'" So the Stews have made efforts to be inclusive. They limit the Platinums to one call a week, so that the doghouse doesn't seem to be a closed fraternity. They talk in production meetings about how the show can reach out to "Caucasian brothers." The Stews sometimes stop in mid-riff, in a nod to white listeners, to define a hip-hop term. They've invited callers to discuss the difference between black and white strip clubs and between the black and white senses of humor. (Blacks, we learn, find mooning far less funny than do whites.)
Given their breakthrough, do the Stews personify the next wave in sports-talk radio? Rick Scott, a Seattle-based sports-radio consultant who's worked with 790, thinks other sports stations will start trying to develop their own version of the Stews, as a way of broadening their audiences. "People are becoming aware of [the show] and saying, 'Here's what's working in Atlanta,'" he says. But Scott adds a big qualifier. "While I can see others trying to emulate them, their personalities are so special that it will be tough," he says. The most significant impact of the show, he thinks, may be in encouraging stations to think outside the box and depart from the standard sports-talk formula in other ways. "I think its success helps spur creativity in our industry," Scott says.