SoundOFF Stands Out5/4/2016
Twenty years and 1,000 episodes of sports-fueled lunacy on Sunday night TV.
In the summer of 1999, I was obsessed with WHO-TV’s offbeat sports call-in show, “SoundOFF.” Every week, WHO sportscaster Keith Murphy and local funny man Steve “The Round Guy” Pilchen would talk about virtually anything people called in to vent their feelings on.
I became a semi-regular caller that summer, and it was always a mark of pride when I’d hang up, and either Pilchen or Murph would say “good stuff there from Chad in Urbandale.”
A couple of years later, I moved away, but “SoundOFF” kept right on going. A decade after that, I came back, and there’s “SoundOFF,” not only still going strong, but continuing to stand as a one-of-a-kind piece of the local entertainment landscape. And now, this week marks a special milestone for the program as “SoundOFF” airs its 1,000th episode.
The format has changed with the times, co-hosts have come and gone, but through it all, Murphy has anchored the city’s only fan-driven television sports program for nearly two decades.
“When we started, I didn’t even know if we’d go 10 shows,” Murphy admitted. “It was such an out-of-the-box idea. Al Setka, the news director at the time, asked me to come up with a segment to replace ‘Beat the Bear,’ (a long-time regional Sunday night sports talk show) but that could go all year round.”
For decades, sports programming consisted almost entirely of highlights and scores. Started by programs like “This Week In Baseball” and the seminal “George Michael Sports Machine,” and refined into its purest form in ESPN’s revolutionary “SportsCenter,” the highlight show was ubiquitous by the mid 1990s, and its influence was seen in local affiliate newscasts around the country as they all recast their sports segments in the SportsCenter mold.
But what Setka wanted from Murphy was something entirely different. And what Murphy came up with would grow to become as much of a cultural touchstone for central Iowa sports fans as Floppy was for scores of Des Moines grade-schoolers.
“Al didn’t want it to be a highlight show,” Murphy explained. “There was really just the one meeting where Al asked me to come up with a program. I told him my idea, he liked it, took it to the general manager, and they said, ‘Come up with a name.’
“At the time, I was hosting the ‘SoundOFF’ radio show on 1040 WHO after football games. So I suggested that since the brand was already known, if we called it ‘SoundOFF,’ people would have an idea of what the idea was. We practiced once and did the first show in January of 1997.”
The early days
In the day and age of nationally televised shows like ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” it can be difficult to fully explain to anyone under the age of 25 just how revolutionary the idea of “SoundOFF” was or to underscore how unpredictable the results were. Success was far from guaranteed, and it is not an exaggeration to say that Murphy was likely the only person in the city who could have done it.
Murphy had joined WHO in 1996, the same year he was asked to create “SoundOFF,” after jumping to the station from WOI-TV where he had served as sports director. Already recognized as one of the most passionate, articulate and genuine voices in sports reporting in the state, Murphy also brought a level of professionalism and intelligence to his craft that made him a favorite among central Iowa sports viewers. If anyone was going to launch a program from scratch and see it be successful, this was the guy. But it was far from certain.
When I met up with Murphy and former “SoundOFF” co-host Andy Fales to talk about the past 999 episodes, the duo was prepping for a WHO-Radio remote at Confluence Brewery. Fales joined the “SoundOFF” staff in 2000, working behind the scenes in those early years before going on to be featured in one of show’s most popular weekly segments, “What’s Bugging Andy.”
The pair has seen news directors and station managers come and go, have adapted to changes in technology and social media, and have guided “SoundOFF” through its ups and downs. The chance to look back at those early days is clearly fun for both of them.
“I remember being filled with the anxiety of ‘What if nobody’s watching and nobody calls?’ ” Murphy recalled of that first show. “I was working with Round Guy at the time, and I started with a ‘Murphy’s Law’ — it was something on the Dallas Cowboys, as I remember — and immediately every line on the switchboard lit up.”
“That old Gentner phone box,” Fales interjects, recalling the on-desk phone system. “It’s probably still being used somewhere.”
“WE’RE still using it!”
The original format of “SoundOFF” relied heavily on that Gentner phone box. As Murphy recalls, in 1997 many stations did not yet have an online presence, and email was still very much a novelty to many people. Twitter and Facebook did not exist.
People contacted the show either by penning letters and mailing them to the studio or calling directly into the show. In each episode, Murphy and Pilchen would give their opinions on the sports topics of the week, and viewers would call in — sometimes waiting on hold for a half an hour — to give their two cents. In the early days, the show was shot live with no delay, something hecklers quickly learned to take advantage of, and cutting a caller off before they could swear on live television or crack a joke about Pilchen’s weight became a weekly challenge for the WHO staff — and a part of the entertainment for viewers.
The pairing of Murphy and Pilchen was an unconventional choice, but it wound up being a vital one to the early success of the show. And like so many of the best decisions on “SoundOFF,” the idea came from Murphy.
“At the beginning, my thought was that I didn’t want to do another show with two people sitting there who looked like sports guys with suits and blow dried hair,” he explained. “I wanted someone who was more relatable — someone who looked like the every fan. Round Guy looked like he had just gotten up off his couch, come into the studio and claimed a chair.
“I knew him a little bit at that time. He was on KGGO by then, and I’d seen him at the Funny Bone a couple times. I knew that he had been a scout with the Yankees organization and that he was a big sports fan, so we asked him.”
The pairing of Murphy and Pilchen would continue for six years and might have carried on for even longer if not for the inescapable reality of Fales’ growing popularity.
Along comes Andy
“When I started in the summer of 2000, all I did with the show was play video,” Fales said. “I was in charge of getting all the videotapes together so that if a caller was talking about Hawkeye football, I would have clips of the game queued up to play. It was a real backseat position. But once I co-hosted an episode, I got more feedback from that than anything I had done on the Channel 13 news before that.”
If Fales’ popularity as a fill-in co-host was the spark that hinted to his future with the show, it was his regular segment that would become the explosion that was too big to ignore.
“The idea (for ‘What’s Bugging Andy’) came from Keith, as almost all the good ideas have,” Fales said. “I’d just be sitting around the sports office during the week, and there would be something that I would be ranting about. I’ll notice something when I’m out and about, and I kind of develop this little rant.
“It wasn’t intended for air at all, but it was just observational humor that would really make me laugh,” Murphy added. “Andy would come in to the studio, and he’d be like, ‘What is up with the guy at the gym with the flop sweat who doesn’t think he needs to wipe off the bench? You’re just going to leave that sweat?’ And he’d go over his whole hour at the gym. I don’t know how much time passed by, but after a series of Sundays, I was like, ‘You need to not release this frustration. Just hold on to it until Sunday, and let’s try it on the air.’ ”
“What’s Bugging Andy” would quickly become the most popular — and most polarizing — segment of “SoundOFF” to date. Fales soon became cemented as the second face of the program.
“Round Guy had every right to feel hurt and disappointed about Andy moving into his spot,” Murphy admits. “But I think he understood it.”
A little lick
For the bulk of the show’s life, Murphy and Fales have been at the desk together. There have been other contributors, including a new co-host for six months in 2007 (Heather Burnside) when Fales joined an affiliate in Kansas City, and the show’s most famous alum, Chris Hassel, who left WHO to move on to ESPN.
During his time with “SoundOFF,” however, Hassel was responsible for what is arguably the show’s most controversial moment, a bit on Todd Lickliter, the coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ men’s basketball team at the time.
“Chris made this video he titled ‘Little Lick, Lotta Bite,’ which was about the Todd Lickliter era at Iowa,” Murphy explained, recalling the 2010 incident. “The video made its way over to the eastern part of the state, and we got hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls. The University (of Iowa) president talked about it publicly.
“I thought Chris pushed it a little bit in that video, but I stood up for the right to say it. But so many of the people I talked to about it only saw the video out of context and thought it had happened in the newscast, rather than on ‘SoundOFF.’ ”
“It should also be noted that the University publicly complained about the video, and then a few weeks later fired Lickliter. Chris came on ‘SoundOFF’ and said, ‘Yeah, I might have said that he was a bad coach, but I didn’t fire him and force his family to move out of Iowa City.’ ”
Hassel left WHO for ESPN in 2013, and in 2015 Fales moved to WHO’s morning show, “Today in Iowa,” ushering in John Sears as the new co-host of “SoundOFF.”
Credit where credit is due
But through everything, the show’s one constant has been Murphy. Even now, 20 years after he joined the station, Murphy handles almost the entirety of the show’s weekly prep himself. Throughout the week, he will read viewer email, scrape Twitter and Facebook for comments and suggestions, write copy for the weekly segments and send them to WHO’s graphics team for workup, and write his own weekly segment, “Murphy’s Law.” Once each show is done for the week, Murphy is often the person to stay late and post clips to WHO’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
For his part, Murphy remains humble about the success of “SoundOFF.” He will tell you that the show would never have existed in the first place without Setka’s confidence and blessing, and that it would not have continued for two decades without the continued indulgence of news directors and general mangers. He will also be quick to point out he could not carry the load alone and that the show owes as much to the talents of men like Fales and Hassel as it does to his own contributions.
“Andy and Chris, playing to their strengths, had genuine moments of broadcasting genius on ‘SoundOFF,’ ” he said. “The show evolves, like Chris needing a bigger stage for his considerable talents and Andy getting the chance to host ‘Today in Iowa.’ John has done a really good job as co-host by just being him. It would be really tempting for someone coming in to that position to try and be Andy or try and be Chris, and he hasn’t done that. He’s had moments that are funny, moments that are thoughtful.”
But for people like Fales who have worked alongside Murphy for so many years, the lion’s share of the credit belongs squarely with the man who has been there since Day 1.
“I got an opportunity because of Keith to do something that not many people ever get to do,” Fales said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to people in other markets and they’ve said, ‘I can’t believe they let you do that in Des Moines, Iowa.’ Keith proved that it was a good idea, so when the station switched general managers, they didn’t even question it.”
Even though much of what happens on “SoundOFF” comes from Murphy’s head, the evolution of his role in the program — and the manner in which the program plays out from week to week — is something that he is well aware of.
“When I came along and started ‘SoundOFF,’ I was the young, funny, cutting-edge guy,” he said. “Then Andy came along, and I was suddenly the more moderate guy, and Andy was the edgy one. And then Hassel came along, and suddenly ‘What’s Bugging Andy’ was more stable and well thought-out, and it’s like, ‘How can this Hassel guy get away with this?’ Every few years another guy comes along and pushes the envelope a bit more. I remember the first time Chris said ‘douche’ on the air. It was like, ‘Can he say that? Is that allowed?’ ”
“I remember literally asking our news director what I could say,” Fales added. “ ‘Can I say ‘ass?’ Can I say ‘bastard?’ Can I say ‘bitch?’ And he said ‘yes’ because of the time slot. And it was like, ‘Alright man, you said yes. It’s on you now.’
“It’s always a matter of, ‘Is it funny?’ A lot of the segments we’ve had may have been a little crass, a little sophomoric, maybe even a little obscene. But if it’s funny first, then it works. That’s how we’ve always tried to be.”
For the 1,000th show, Murphy plans on showing some of the most popular clips, including the best of “What’s Bugging Andy,” and some of Hassel’s best work, such as the “Stivers Ford Jingle” sketch. Pilchen is recording a spot for the show, and Fales and Sears will both be on hand. But whether he cares to admit it or not, the celebration of 1,000 “SoundOFF” episodes is just as equally a celebration of Murphy. Without his dedication and talent, “SoundOFF” would not exist at all, and talents like Fales and Hassel might be in very different places.
For his part, Murphy envisions a time when “SoundOFF” continues without him. Now that the format is well entrenched, it would simply be a matter of finding someone with the ability to serve as equal parts emcee and ring master, and the show might never skip a beat. Fales is less certain of that.
“He’s more than just the face of ‘SoundOFF,’ ” he said. “He’s the heart and soul. When the time comes that Keith walks away, I don’t see the show having the same popularity or the same life without him. It would be almost impossible.”
Murphy has had plenty of opportunity to move to larger markets over the years. His insightful, thoughtful approach to his craft has made him one of the defining names in Iowa’s newscasts, and station and hiring managers from larger local affiliates to ESPN have made their bids to steal him away. But Murphy has made no secret of just how comfortable he is in Des Moines and his happiness at WHO.
“Like anybody, I started my career by wanting to get to the top of a ladder,” he said. “But as time went on, I had more and more friends in the business and learned from them that your salary and market size do not dictate your happiness; it doesn’t make you more valuable or smarter or even more successful. If you’re happy, and you like your life and you like your job, appreciate that.
“There are times when I think it might be nice if I didn’t have to be the one to post things to the web after a show. I realize that Chris isn’t still editing videos at ESPN. But I can’t imagine that I would be any happier in that job. I love it here. I definitely wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think I’ll work anywhere else in television. It’ll be here, or I’ll be done.” CV