`Stan the Fan' ends 21 years as voice of `ordinary guy'

March 12, 2002|By Michael Olesker

TODAY'S TRUTH in Broadcasting lesson comes from Stan Charles, known to Baltimore-area listeners as Stan the Fan, who has flipped off his radio microphone after two decades and will bid farewell to hometown Baltimore in a few weeks.

He says his broadcasting days are behind him now. He arrived as a spiritual child of Benny the Fan and Charley Eckman, who pioneered belly-up-to-the-bar sports talk around here, and departs amid a radio-band clutter of voices straining to be noticed amid their own static.

Over 21 years, Stan the Fan worked at five area radio stations, hustled for advertisers to support his shows, took heat from callers and from athletes. He ticked off Eddie Murray so much that Eddie took a powder. Doug DeCinces once taught him a whole new vocabulary of unprintable words. Earl Weaver told Charles, "I like talkin' to you, but my players think I'm a bleepin' bleep-bleep for doin' it. So, nothing personal, but I can't talk to you anymore."

He arrived on the air when the Colts had just absconded to Indianapolis and the Orioles were pennant contenders every year. He started out making $22 a show but, through hard work and pluck, quickly managed to get cut back to $15 a show. He departs with the Orioles scrounging for attention and Maryland basketball the big heart-thump of the hour. He left making a lot more than $22 a show, but not enough to cover the aggravation.

He sees himself as a fellow who pushed the envelope of sports broadcasting beyond its instinctive timidity and now, as he leaves, wonders if he helped set off something a little too coarse for his own taste.

In November, he and home station WJFK parted ways. For several weeks, says Charles, 50, he made the rounds of local radio stations looking for openings. Between time constraints, and money, and available hours, nothing worked out. Meanwhile, Charles' wife, Jayne, has developed work in North Carolina, and Charles says they've decided to settle there.

"It's been a good run," he said over the weekend. "When you think about how it all started. ... "

He was a local guy looking for a way to make a living. He'd parked cars at the old Pimlico Hotel, driven a cab, worked as a bartender at No Fish Today and at Jean Claude's. At the very least, he knew how to talk to people.

Then came a telephone call from Charles' brother, Allan Charles, president of the ad agency TBC whose then-wife, Laura, had begun a talk show at the old WFBR radio. The show was called Laura in Birdland. The critics called it a disaster. Allan Charles asked his brother if he could help out. In the parlance of the time, Laura was strictly a lady fan; Stan would bring a male's "expertise."

What, you thought guys studied to be sports experts, like brain surgeons?

So "Stan the Fan" was born - and lasted, at $22 a show, for six shows. And, on the seventh day, everybody rested. Baseball went on strike. Two months later, baseball came back, but the show did not. The next spring, Rex Barney took over the program and Charles became his producer, at $15 a show, broadcast nightly at the old Hit and Run Club at Memorial Stadium.

The following year, Stan the Fan got his own show, and an education.

"You grow up admiring the ballplayers, loving them," he said. "But you realize, you can't be the fans' eyes and ears and be friends with the players. You have to disassociate yourself. And you have to say what you know."

This is trickier than it might seem. Sports is not life-and-death, but those who follow it seriously believe that it is. Rex Barney was a gentle soul, reluctant to offer even the mildest chiding to any ballplayer. Charles remembered listening to a radio guy named Benny the Fan, who used to bedevil the Orioles' Paul Richards back in the '50s. He thought about Charley Eckman, the mouth that roared. Right or wrong, they took their shots. They became Charles' role models.

"I think I pushed the envelope," he says.

Meaning, if a guy didn't hustle, Charles didn't hesitate to point it out. Meaning, if the manager's strategy was weird, he said so. He wanted the hometown guys to do well, but he wanted the right to criticize their failings.

"Today," he says, "you have all kinds of people bad-mouthing Brian Billick and all that kind of stuff. But I think I was ahead of the curve bad-mouthing people. Today, it's gotten pretty rough. There's a lot of guys trying to be controversial for its own sake. Strictly for the ratings. The voice of sports is still the ordinary guy. That's what I was. And it means building a community of listeners, and letting them express their passions. That's when it's beautiful."

When it wasn't beautiful? Hosting a sports talk show in the evening, precisely while the Orioles were playing, and being broadcast on another station. There's got to be an easier way to make a living than that.

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