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THERE ARE 421 sports-talk radio stations in this country and, it seems, one template. Call-in shows are hosted by jaded white men who like to call each other "guys" (as in, "Listen up, guys") and who are oracles of the conventional wisdom. They know their stats cold, yet they never let those facts get in the way of a strong opinion. When the guys' opinions clash, there is a protocol: Whoever yells loudest into the mike is right. If overly vehement callers disagree, they're quickly put in their places--or thrown off the air. You ignore at your peril the first rule of call-in radio:
The hosts are alphas; the callers follow in the pack.
Out of these 421 stations, however, there is at least one outlier, in Atlanta. There, for three hours each weekday afternoon, the two hosts greet callers with raucous cries of "What you got?" Aided and abetted by an ensemble of regulars, with handles like Junkyard Rat and Bugman, they proceed to smash the template with a show known as 2 Live Stews. What makes the program unique is that the hosts, brothers Doug and Ryan Stewart, are brothers. This is the one major-market sports-talk show in America whose hosts are black, whose callers are primarily black and whose sensibility is unabashedly hip-hop.
This anomaly is based on a seemingly obvious premise: There are 36 million African-Americans in the U.S., many of them avid sports fans. You just wouldn't know it to listen to sports-talk America. According to one study from Arbitron, the company that monitors radio audiences, this genre's listeners are but 7% Hispanic and 11% black. Clearly, it's tough for people of color to relate to all this white noise.
Ah, but 2 Live Stews is a one-show affirmative action program. From the show's graveyard-shift beginnings three years ago on a station called 790 the Zone, it has built an amazingly loyal and steadily growing audience, prompting the station to move it into progressively better time slots--currently 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday. There it has become by far 790's top-rated show, with an average of 50,000 listeners, 48% of whom are white. On a station that's ranked No. 23 in the Atlanta market, the show is No. 4 among the prize demographic: men, ages 25-54. 2 Live Stews is also heard nationally on Sirius Satellite Radio, and earlier this year 790 signed Doug and Ryan to a four-year contract that pays each in six figures (plus bonuses) per year, with prospects of much more side income from appearance fees and other sources.
"When we started out, we wanted to infuse the hip-hop generation into sports-talk radio," says Doug. Thus the Stews' "bumper music," in and out of commercials, is hip-hop. The Stews' guests may be NFL players, invited by former Detroit Lions defensive back Ryan--or they may be sports-fan rappers. Like every sports-talk host in the South, the Stews know their college football Top 20. Unlike almost every other host, they also know the hip-hop songs on the Billboard Top 10.
The Stewart brothers, who grew up in Moncks Corner, S.C., as the only two children of parents who were both sales representatives, were virtual walk-ons in the radio business. They approached 790 about doing a show in October 2001. Doug, now 34, was a mortgage lender. Ryan, now 31, had an events-promotion business. He'd been a guest host on a few Saturday-afternoon football shows on the station, but the two had no demo tapes, just a grand vision. It was hatched one night as the Stews and some friends were watching football in Ryan's basement. As Quincy Carter struggled to move his Dallas Cowboys offense, Doug wondered aloud: Why, given Carter's mobility, didn't Dallas build an option offense around him? Ryan scoffed, saying that would never work against NFL defenses. That touched off a lively 30-minute debate, brimming with assertions and insults and ending in no agreement, just a compliment--from a friend observing the byplay. "You all need to have your own sports-talk show," said the friend. Hmm, the Stews said to each other.
Soon they were pitching 790 program director Matt Edgar and playing up a couple of selling points. One, they'd bring a fresh perspective, both because Ryan had been a professional athlete and because they were African-American. "In a city like Atlanta that's almost 70 percent black, why is there no sports-talk show that comes from the background of the listeners?" Doug recalls arguing. "Let's say you can get 10 percent of the market. If your market is the 30 percent that's Caucasian, that's three people out of 100. But if you could get 10 percent of the [black] 70 percent, that's inherently better--seven people, off the rip" (read: immediately). The second selling point was their brotherly chemistry and gift for gab. "Been talking smack our whole lives," says Doug. Then Ryan put a question to Edgar: "What's more entertaining, to hear someone pushing stats all day or to hear conversations like the ones you have with your boys in the barbershop or in the basement or under the shade tree?"
The brothers, who even offered to start out for free, were elated when Edgar said, at meeting's end, "I like the idea. We'll talk it over here." They were terrified one week later when they got Edgar's e-mail: "You're on tomorrow night." They'd have been calmer if they'd realized 790's signal was so weak at night that their 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. audience was as sparse as an Atlanta Hawks crowd. The reception was so poor that the first time a fan named J.D. Dozier heard the Stews, he couldn't make out their words. Yet he was still attracted by their voices, which were not standard-issue authority-figure radio pipes but ones like his: young and black and "all about keepin' it real."
He was soon a devotee of the Stews, who introduce him on-air today as "Triple Platinum" Dozier. That's an honorific granted only to the show's earliest callers, who didn't just call the show but also helped hustle it. (Top-tier regulars who signed on later are designated as Double Platinums.) Some Triple Platinums would drive around and, while stopped at traffic lights, holler to the nearest drivers, "Whatcha got on the radio?" If it wasn't the Stews--a good possibility--they'd tell them to "check out 790 AM, the 2 Live Stews." Then came the Platinums' big finish: "If you're not Stewin', what the heck are you doin'?" Of course, confesses Junkyard Rat, "If you do that to a Caucasian person, he may, like, roll up the window."