By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mark Madden, who made his reputation with bold, outlandish attacks on famous people, has been permanently removed from the air by ESPN.
His dismissal, which came down from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., came five days after he made a scurrilous remark about U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on his 1250 ESPN talk show, which ran from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays.
"We've taken Mark off the air pursuant to our contractual rights," said Josh Krulewitz, the vice president for public relations at ESPN.
The decision comes less than a year after Madden signed a long-term contract. No decision has been made on who will fill Madden's time slot.
At the opening of his show last Wednesday, Madden said this about Sen. Kennedy, who days earlier had been diagnosed with brain cancer:
"I'm very disappointed to hear that Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is near death because of a brain tumor. I always hoped Senator Kennedy would live long enough to be assassinated."
At the urging of station general manager Mike Thompson, Madden apologized over the air for his remarks about two hours later.
After initially reviewing the situation on a local level, Madden was neither reprimanded nor suspended. When asked if there would be some form of punishment, Thompson said, `No. The fact is we took action right away. Frankly, it was a comment that was stupid. He admitted that. I don't think it requires any such thing as [discipline]."
ESPN had a change of heart, and it came from the corporate level in Bristol. Krulewitz explained the change of course
"We had a chance to regroup and review the situation and consider it more thoroughly from all perspectives," he said. "This is the decision we have made, and we feel it is the right one."
Madden was on the air Thursday but had not been heard on his show since his comments appeared in the Post-Gazette Friday.
He was replaced Friday by Jim Colony, who usually did the sports news on Madden's show, and weekend host Ken Laird. They referred to it as "The Mark Madden Show."
What happened Monday indicated something was amiss. The show was not called "The Mark Madden Show." Substituting for Madden were Eddy Crow, co-host of the "Junker and Crow Show," heard weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Chris Mack, a producer who also co-hosts Pittsburgh GameNight and does hockey hotline shows. That Crow would be moved from his regular assignment was unusual.
Station program director Jim Graci informed WTAE-TV yesterday that Madden had been suspended. The station reported that on its 5 p.m. newscast.
About two hours later, ESPN announced Madden had been removed permanently
Concerning a successor, Krulewitz said: "This is something we have to figure out immediately. We don't know our long-term plans."
Madden was put on warning by ESPN for his on-air manner in December. According to multiple sources, a disgruntled listener sent a tape to Bristol on which Madden behaved in an especially rude manner. For a time, Madden thought he would be fired and confided as much to friends.
But in a meeting with network executives, he promised to change his ways and kept his job, which paid him a six-figure salary. He was let off with a warning, which, judging from his Kennedy comments, he did not heed.
The Kennedy comments were typical of Madden, who built his following partly by his willingness to take on popular and important people. Some of the people he regularly attacked were Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Franco Harris, Arnold Palmer, Jim Leyland and the late Myron Cope.
But his popularity was more than just due to name-calling. His willingness to take on most Pittsburgh teams, regardless of their success, also drew listeners, and the station liked the younger demographic he brought.
Madden drew a significantly larger listening audience than his only sports-talk competition on Fox Sports 970 and did well, sometimes extremely well, in the ratings. His numbers for the final book of 2007 were an 8.3, extraordinarily high for sports talk and the best of his career. Those numbers came down considerably in the first three months of this year, but that wasn't unusual for what is considered a slow sports period.
The one team Madden rarely criticized was the Penguins, and he routinely referred to himself as a fan of the team. He was an unabashed admirer of Mario Lemieux, the team's greatest player and current president.
If the station decides to keep Crow in the 3 to 7 p.m. slot, it would open a spot on the late-morning show for Stan Savran and would reunite Savran with longtime colleague Junker. Savran's television duties at FSN Pittsburgh would preclude him from filling Madden's time slot.