I’ll never forget the first time I heard Joe McDonnell’s voice on the radio. My father was driving us around Van Nuys in the spring of 1993 while McDonnell and co-host Doug Krikorian were on KMPC 710 campaigning for Magic Johnson to replace Randy Pfund as the next coach of the Lakers.
I had just turned 13 and my dad finally allowed me to control the radio on our long drives from the San Fernando Valley to just about anything worth seeing and doing in L.A. It was my introduction to sports-talk radio, which was still in its infancy. KMPC had launched one year earlier, joining XTRA 690 in San Diego and WFAN 660 in New York as one of about half a dozen all-sports radio stations in the country.
With information about the city’s teams confined at that time to the morning newspaper’s sports section and nightly local television news, I was instantly hooked. I listened to McDonnell every day after school and followed him to KMAX 107.1, KWNK 670, XTRA 1150 and KSPN 1110, which would later become ESPNLA 710.
As I grew older I wanted to be more than a listener. When I got my driver’s license, one of the first trips I made was to the Fallbrook Center in West Hills, where I knocked on the doors of KWNK, which was next to Weight Watchers above Hot Dog on a Stick. I asked McDonnell if I could be his intern. He didn’t know me but we instantly bonded as two sports fans who grew up in the Valley.
He went to Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills. I went to Notre Dame in Sherman Oaks. He went to Los Angeles Valley College. I went to enough summer camps and classes there to feel as if I was an honorary Monarch. We both had an affinity for mint chocolate chip ice cream and diet soda and enjoyed more than our fair share of both from the food court below the studio.
McDonnell’s 63rd birthday would have been Friday. He died in 2015 at 58. I often think of “Big Joe” — he weighed more than 700 pounds before undergoing gastric bypass surgery in 2004 — whenever a big moment in Los Angeles sports happens. One of our last conversations was on the possibility of the Rams moving back to L.A. He was the host of the postgame show for the last Rams game in L.A. and was hoping they would return to L.A.. They would come back 10 months after his death.
I felt a connection to the “Big Nasty” — he once famously said “most people who listen to radio shows are morons” — the moment I heard his voice. He had the same passion for the city’s teams as I did. We shared the same unhealthy anger after losses and skepticism toward hires and transactions we didn’t like. He was the voice of the L.A. sports fan on the radio and never once considered leaving his hometown despite the revolving door that was sports talk here for many years. He always believed this format would work in this city even when the ratings would tell him otherwise.
“You need the credibility that comes with living and working in this city for a long time,” he told me. “This is a great sports town with great sports fans and they want to hear someone from their city talk about their teams with the same passion they have. It’s not that complicated.”
I couldn’t help but think of my friend and that conversation when ESPNLA announced Friday that they would be changing their on-air lineup beginning Tuesday. Three years after debuting an all-local lineup from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and proclaiming itself as “the destination station for Los Angeles-area sports fans,” ESPN announced the station would be airing the nationally syndicated “Stephen A. Smith Show” from 10 a.m. to noon and the “Will Cain Show” from noon to 3 p.m. Smith and Cain do their shows from New York and cater to a national audience. So after a big night in L.A. sports this fall, there’s a good chance they’ll be talking about the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and New York Knicks instead of the Dodgers, Rams and Lakers.
The move might make sense to ESPN executives living in Connecticut but it makes no sense to anyone living in L.A. The problem is that the same people making the decisions for ESPN’s owned and operated station in New York are the same ones calling the shots for their station in L.A. They were the same ones who begrudgingly tried to make the “Dan Le Batard Show” from Miami work in L.A. before finally being forced to listen to a frustrated L.A. sales staff unable to sell the South Beach show to a Southland audience. The same week ESPN gave up operational control over its radio affiliate in Chicago, the network essentially gave up on its listeners in L.A.
McDonnell helped launch ESPNLA in 2000 and I can just picture his reaction to all this. As upset as he would be, he wouldn’t be surprised. After a profanity-laced tirade, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “What do you expect?” He never had much confidence in the countless executives for whom he worked and who would eventually fire him — he was once let go outside of a sandwich shop after a remote broadcast. No matter how many lineup changes he was a part of or watched take place from afar, he never lost faith in sports-talk radio working in this city, even if that day wasn’t today.
“It can and will work here,” he told me. “I might not be around to see it, but it will happen.”