Al Koken on what started his career ~
“All because I jumped out of an airplane.”
Andy Ockershausen: This is a special, special treat to me on our podcast, a man, and I know that’s a cliché and I’m going to say it anyway, needs no introduction, but he likes it. So I’m going to introduce you to a wonderful, wonderful great broadcaster, Smokin’ Al Koken.
Al Koken: We’re using my biblical name then? Is that what we’re doing?
Andy Ockershausen: Who came up with the “Smokin'”?
Glenn Brenner and a True Badge of Honor – “Smokin’Al Koken”
Al Koken: It was given to me, and I wear it with a true badge of honor, by the late great Glenn Brenner.
Andy Ockershausen: Glenn did that?
Al Koken: When I was working with him at Channel 9, it was back in the day. Remember when the third-string quarterback held the clipboard, as opposed to being inactive? Glenn called me the clipboard guy. If he was on vacation, Ken Mease would go Monday through Friday, and I’d fill in for Ken Mease. I was kind of their third guy. Back in the day when the Redskins were on CBS as opposed to Fox, after Redskin home games they would do a Redskin post-game show with Glenn in the studio, and I would be down at RFK Stadium interviewing players. During one of the broadcasts, we come back from commercial, they’re going to come down to me, and I’m going to interview a player. Glenn comes back and says, “All right, let’s go back down to RFK Stadium and rejoin,” and he paused. I’m thinking, did he forget my name? He goes, “Smokin’ Al Koken.” I kind of laughed, you know.
Andy Ockershausen: First time you heard it?
Al Koken: Yeah. Of course, the next day, because it was given by Glenn Brenner, people, “Hey, Smokin’ Al Koken. Smokin’ Al Koken.” That’s how it stuck, but because it was given to me by somebody who I respect and love so much-
Andy Ockershausen: Everybody. Everybody loved Glenn.
Al Koken: Yeah, I treat that like a real badge of honor.
Andy Ockershausen: One of the things, and, this isn’t at all for you, Koken, but it’s important. One of the things Janice and I would really look forward to, because they were friends, was the Redskins show on Saturday night. Well, they taped it on Thursday, but John Riggins and Sonny, of course, and George. Before that it was Glenn. It was all those guys. It was about fun. It was a fun show. Stuff I’m watching now, not fun.
Al Koken: Right, and directed by our great friend, Ernie Baur, and produced by Ernie Baur. He was a guy who always made sure that the best of what Glenn did, which was off-the-cuff, ad libbing, as you said, having fun, that had to shine through. You couldn’t sit there with John Riggins and Sonny Jurgensen and ask serious questions and get people to watch for 30 minutes. You had to have fun with it, and the more off-script they went, the better the show.
Andy Ockershausen: You were right, and it doesn’t happen anymore. But Al, you are a Missourian. You’re from Missouri, but you’ve gotta be shown. St. Louis. I remember you, we’re trying to get you on the phone. They said, “Don’t call him during the World Series. He’s in St. Louis.” That’s was the first time I knew you were connected by a lot of things to St. Louis.
St. Louis, Missouri Fan – Baseball, Football and Hockey
Al Koken: Grew up in St. Louis, and obviously I was a huge St. Louis Baseball Cardinal fan, football fan, St. Louis Blues. That’s where I really fell in love with hockey, seeing the St. Louis Blues for the first years of expansion. They came in 1967, and I remember my uncle had some season tickets, and going down and seeing the games, and just mesmerized. I tell everybody-
Andy Ockershausen: You lived in the city?
Movie “Back to the Future” Based on University City
Al Koken: Lived just on the edge. It’s called University City. In fact, I’ll give you a very quick story about University City. Everything from the movie Back to the Future was based on University City. It was co-written by a guy by the name of Bob Gale, who was good friends with Robert Zemeckis, who directed it. Bob Gale and I went to the same school. He was a year ahead of me. If you remember, University City, as you’re coming in from St. Louis, as you enter University City, there are these two giant lions on the statue. That was what you saw where Marty McFly grew up. There was also a school disciplinarian at Brittany Junior High School named Mr. Burkhead, who would always use the line, “Son, let me give you a nickel’s worth of free advice,” and that made the movie. So there were so many different University City references to it.
Andy Ockershausen: How about that little movie theater? That movie theater made the movie? Didn’t they change it?
Al Koken: Yep, The Varsity and The Tivoli were in there too. But yeah, a lot of references that Bob Gale snuck in there about University City.
Andy Ockershausen: About your hometown.
Al Koken: So that’s where I grew up.
Andy Ockershausen: Obviously you had to be listening. I wonder why, I look at your resume, I don’t see KMOX on it.
Bob Hyland | KMOX – St. Louis, Missouri
Al Koken: That was way out of my league. You think about the people that Bob Hyland, your contemporary … You were the Bob Hyland of Washington, DC, and Bob Hyland, being in St. Louis, ran St. Louis. We talked about him the other day.
Andy Ockershausen: Talking to Dick Wylie, we got a fine from the FCC, and the first phone call I got was from Bob Hyland, who said, “Don’t pay the fine. They have no right to tell you how you’re …” I said, “Bob, everything you’re saying is right.” They tried to tell us we couldn’t run a commercial for two minutes, and they fined us five grand. We never paid the fine. Dick Wiley was Chairman of the FCC.
Al Koken: Well, Bob Hyland, for people who don’t know, ran KMOX radio, which is a 50,000-watt clear channel station out there. They were so powerful that that was the broadcast partner for the St. Louis Cardinals, and why the Cardinals were really the Midwest team.
Andy Ockershausen: Mid-America, I call it.
Al Koken: Mid-America, yeah. If you go to a Cardinal game on the weekend, and you look at the parking lot, Indiana license plates, Arkansas license plate, Nebraska license plates. This was before there was syndication, before you had affiliates. They could just boom into these small towns all across the Midwest.
Andy Ockershausen: Everybody in the Midwest was a Cardinal fan, and then Milwaukee sneaked in there, and then some Cubbies came in. But nobody had the talent that they had on KMOX, which proves … The baseball team was great, but remember Harry Caray started with St. Louis, moved to Chicago. Costas now, but he wants to be a radio guy, doesn’t he?
Al Koken: Right, and he loves doing radio baseball.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh, I know that.
Jack Buck | Joe Buck | Harry Caray and the Magic of Radio
Al Koken: Jack Buck, Joe Buck. I mean, when I was growing up, talk about being spoiled, my baseball play-by-play voices were Harry Caray and Jack Buck.
Andy Ockershausen: Jack Buck. I put it on my list to ask you about. We went to an NAB meeting, and he got an award posthumously. We sat at a table with his wife and a couple of daughters and Joe Buck. He went up on stage. He was involved with so many things, Jack Buck was. Great broadcaster.
Al Koken: And again, you know this better than anybody, the magic of radio, people don’t really appreciate it. I learned this lesson very early, listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck do baseball. I remember as a kid taking a transistor radio to the ballpark and listening to the game. I remember Harry, who was very hyperbolic about everything, and I remember seeing kind of a routine fly ball as I’m watching this in the ballpark, and Harry going, “There’s a deep drive. Way back. Flood to the warning track, makes the catch.” And I’m watching it in front of me, going, that was just a routine fly ball.
But then remembering sitting with an Uncle Eddie, who was confined to a wheelchair, who never missed a Cardinal broadcast on radio. He’s not doing the broadcast for little me sitting there with my transistor radio in the ballpark, he’s doing it for Uncle Eddie, who’s getting the visual of this in his mind, and the more exciting you made it the better. And that was the beauty of a guy like Harry Caray.
Andy Ockershausen: And everybody in the Midwest was listening to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Al Koken: Enthralled at everything he said.
Andy Ockershausen: Everything.
Yogi Berra | Stan Musial | Joe Garagiola – Baseball Greats
Andy Ockershausen: Did you grow up with Yogi Berra?
Al Koken: No, Stan Musial all the way.
Andy Ockershausen: St. Louis? Who was the other guy, Garagiola?
Al Koken: Joe Garagiola was a St. Louis guy, grew up-
Andy Ockershausen: He lived in the city, right?
Al Koken: The Hill, South St. Louis, called the Hill. If you ever need great home cooked type of Italian food, get into St. Louis and go to the Hill.
Andy Ockershausen: Better than Baltimore?
Al Koken: Little mom and the pop spots. Just like, or very similar to, Little Italy in Baltimore. Very similar.
Andy Ockershausen: Well Al, you’ve been involved in so many things. I see your resume, and we look at it and talk about it and so forth, but you got connected. Did you come here to work for Comcast, then it was not Comcast, it was Home Team Sports, or did you just happen to fall into that? Why did you come to Washington from … A lot of people want you to go back, Al. Now, I don’t. I want you to stay.
From St. Louis, Missouri to Our Town to Attend American University
Al Koken: Statute of limitations hopefully have run out on a lot of this. I came to American University in 1970, and I was going to major, I did major in government-political science with the intention to go on to law school. I chose American for a number of reasons. One, it was a very good school. It’s gotten a lot better since I left, no accident to that.
Andy Ockershausen: Well, that’s true of everything.
Al Koken: Yeah, everything. But as a Catholic student, if you went to Georgetown, you had to take 20 hours of religion, and I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t like the urban campus of George Washington. I liked the upper northwest campus of American University. So I went to American University and really loved the area, but the thing that honestly changed everything was a good friend of mine, we both played on the golf team, which at American University, if you had your clubs and you wanted to play golf, you could be on the golf team. So let’s not carried away about, ooh, you were on a golf team. There was no scholarships given.
From Stories About the Golf Team to Jumping Out of Planes (Which He Kinda Fell Into)
Al Koken: But Andy Horowitz was a year ahead of me. He was the best golfer on the team. He also happened to be the sports editor of The Eagle, a student newspaper. One day he said, “Would you mind just writing some of the golf team stories? ‘Cuz I’m kinda, to be honest, I’ve been writing about myself.” So, I said, “Sure.” So, I just did it for fun. I imitated Dan Jenkins and sports. Just, I had no idea what I was doing.
The next year, Andy graduates. The next year, the new sports editor comes and says would you like to still write for the paper. I say, “Yeah, sure.” I had fun doing it. So, he says, “Here’s you first assignment. There’s a parachuting clubs that has started on campus and we want you to go out and jump and do a story about it.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it, if you pay for it.” Knowing that they had no money. Well, he goes talks to the people that were really running this, the company that was really doing the actually-
Andy Ockershausen: Doing the jump.
Al Koken: -heavy lifting, and they said, “Yeah, it’ll be good free publicity.” So, he called my bluff. So, I went out and jumped and did this long two part story about it. It was kind of a harrowing landing, which I won’t get into. But, this long two part story. There was a journalism professor they use to bring in, either professors, or people from the Washington Post to critique the paper.
Koken Encouraged by Journalism Professor’s Critique of Parachute Article and the Rest Followed
Al Koken: So, this journalism professor on this Friday is critiquing the paper, the second of my two part story, and he’s ripping the paper to shreds, this and that. And, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, wait til he gets to this.” He said, “I saw this parachuting story by Al Koken. It was the second of two parts. I went back and read the first part,” he said, “without question, this was the best thing in the newspaper.” I’m like, wow. So, afterwards I went up and introduced myself and I asked, “Would you read some other things?”
Cuz, I’d never taken a journalism course, communication course, nothing. He read some of the other stuff I’d written, and of course he justifiably ripped it to shreds, but the one thing he said was, “You seem to have a knack for finding the story and telling the story.” So, I was kinda encouraged by that and I started doing freelance sports writing. Working for Eddie Crane at the Washington Star-
Great Eddie Crane, wonderful gentleman. Mike Trilling of the Montgomery Sentinel, and I just started doing those things that eventually lead to me stringing for UPI at Capitals and Bullets games where I met Phil Wood, the great Phil Wood, Mr. Baseball himself. And, started doing sports talk radio-
Andy Ockershausen: I didn’t know you had been a writer before you . . .
Al Koken: That was it, and , I’ll tell you a little…
Andy Ockershausen: Makes you a better broadcaster though.
Al Koken: It, I tell students all the time, “If you learn the UPI, which is the who, what, when, where, and why.” Elvin Hayes scored 15 of his game high 22 points in the fourth quarter as the Washington Bullets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 102 to 89 inland over Maryland. Boom, and then newspapers around the country cut that off. That’s it. That’s all you see. But, you’ve told the whole story. But, you’ve gotta do it while Gordon Beard from the AP sitting next to you dictating his story at the same time. You can’t be 20 minutes after that by saying, “well, let’s see if I can write this. Well, let me re-write…” No, you’ve gotta be able to do it like that. And, that helps when you’re doing live TV or live radio.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh, no question.
Al Koken: Got to get the organization of your thoughts.
Andy Ockershausen: It’s a good training.
Koken’s First Byline Related to St. Louis Cardinal Mel Gray’s Phantom Catch
Al Koken: Fantastic training. The thing that got me once I had graduated and I was following all this, and I was tending bar during the day. Thankfully, my parents weren’t giving you the, “What the hell are you doing?” They were letting me kinda find all of this out. I think the selling point for them was… remember back, it was either ’73 or ’74. There was the controversial Mel Gray of the St. Louis Cardinals catch. Did he catch it or didn’t he catch it, and it was either gonna get the Cardinals into the playoffs, or knock the Redskins out of the playoffs.
Andy Ockershausen: I remember that.
Al Koken: Remember that? And, they ruled that he caught it and knocked the Redskins out. I remember being back here, watching TV that night and seeing on the news that people had actually called the Metropolitan police to report a robbery. And, they would say, “Well, what was taken?” They would say, “The Redskin game.” And, I thought that was funny. I said, “I wonder what the reaction would be like in St. Louis.”
So, I called up the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sports editioin and I said, “Would you be interested in a story about fan reaction here in D.C.?”
He said, “Sure.”
So, I sent out a story, it appeared on the front page next day, and I remember talking to my mom on the phone. And, I said, “Did you see that story about the Washington fans?”
She goes, “Oh yeah. They’re so mad about everything.”
And. I go, “Did you see who wrote it?”
“Oh my god! Allan!” She calls to my dad, “Did you see?”
First Byline Gave Koken Legitimacy at Christmas Dinner
Al Koken: They hadn’t seen the byline: Al Koken, Jr. So, that I think gave me a little legitimacy and certainly at the Christmas table with all the other relatives, now that I’m a published sports writer. Now, I suddenly had legitimacy as opposed to just being a bartender trying to find a job.
Andy Ockershausen: That’s … see that’s not in any of your bio anywhere. I think that’s as important as anything of who you are Al. I mean you seized the moment.
Al Koken: That’s it.
Andy Ockershausen: And, ran with it.
Audition at Channel 5
Al Koken: And, it literally has just been that kind of one thing, thankfully, has led to another. Sonny Asselin with the, at that time, was the news director at channel 5, was looking for a weekend guy. He heard me on the radio, said, “Would you like to come down to an audition?”
Andy Ockershausen: Radio put you…
Al Koken: Yeah, so it just, all those things just kinda seemed to snowball all because I jumped out of an airplane Andy.
Andy Ockershausen: And, you jumped back too.
Al Koken: At least I landed successfully.
Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen, and a delightful conversation with Smokin’ Al Koken. Which, I really don’t like ‘cuz he doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t push it either. This is Our Town.
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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town.
Andy Ockershausen: Andy Ockershausen and I’m having a great conversation with Al Koken. Learned some things I didn’t know before. I was anxious to ask him. He got the job somewhere along the line. When we first met, I think it was with Home Team Sports, was that Bill Aber that hired you, or Jody, or…
Home Team Sports – Bill Aber | Jody Shapiro | Bill Brown | David Poile
Al Koken: Bill Aber, Jody Shapiro, Bill Brown, also they really had to get the blessing from the Washington Capitals and David Poile. That’s a job I guarantee you, Andy, I could never get today. As somebody who never played, to any degree…
Andy Ockershausen: I know, but you had, come on.
Al Koken: You could be the color commentator of a professional hockey team without a quote, unquote, player background resume I don’t think that would ever be given today.
Andy Ockershausen: You’re probably right now.
Al Koken: But, I sold-
Andy Ockershausen: Who else was involved with that decision?
Al Koken: But I sold David Poile on my enthusiasm and my love for the sport.
Andy Ockershausen: Right.
Al Koken: And, Home Team Sports was a very adventurous operation. They tried different things. They really were outside of the box before it became fashionable to be outside of the box.
Andy Ockershausen: Bill Brown was a little genius wasn’t he?
Al Koken: Absolutely.
Andy Ockershausen: And Jody. Did all kinds of things.
Home Team Sports Visionary Dynamic
Al Koken: There were things now, I’ll never forget this, I remember seeing Jody and Bill Brown, when they were ready to go up to Baltimore to meet with the Orioles while Camden Yards was being designed, because they wanted to talk to their broadcast partners, Home Team Sports, their cable partner, and I wanna say it was WMAR or WBL. One of the two was their over the air partner. Jody and Bill have got charts and diagrams. They were looking for where can we place a camera? If we can place a camera on the left field foul pole area, where we can go down the line for a play at the plate, or swing it for a guy bringing a ball back over the fence. They were thinking of the best way to broadcast.
Andy Ockershausen: To do a television show.
Al Koken: Right. So, when they came back I asked them how it went, and they laughed. They said, “Oh yeah, well, we spent about an hour and a half with our diagrams.” The people from MAR said, “Well, what do you guys need?” They said, “Well, we could use a bathroom for our broadcasters.” That was their contribution. And, there are things you see in television, of televised baseball today that these guys started way back when. They were visionaries back then.
Andy Ockershausen: As you say, when they were building the stadium, and there was Ed Williams, a guy that was in that deal too. That was really a baseball stadium. It was built for them.
Al Koken: No question.
Andy Ockershausen: But, they had the breweries comin’ in and put the blinds in for the beer.
Al Koken: Right.
Andy Ockershausen: Did you know that?
Al Koken: Yeah, but then, having that warehouse as a backdrop was visuals of it.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh, was that there?
Al Koken: And, the people of Home Team Sports knew it. They knew how good that would look on TV if we position our cameras correctly. And, they were thinking way ahead of the game. Those guys have all gone big, big…Bill Brown, when he left Home Team Sports, became the third highest guy at Fox Sports.
Andy Ockershausen: I know.
Al Koken: You’d see the closing hoods. Yeah, you know David Hill and Ed Goren and then Bill Brown, Senior Executive Producer. He’s our guy.
Andy Ockershausen: Well, we just think so much of Home Team Sports, Al, and you were fortunate to work there. I was fortunate to be a part of it. That name was magic. It was, and then we get all these glamorous names. They’ve had so many names now.
Al Koken: Right.
Andy Ockershausen: I don’t know what the hell it is. But, in all your years you also were doing radio at the time-
Al Koken: Yes.
Freelance Career – It’s in the Blood and More Lucrative Than Permanent Position for Koken
Andy Ockershausen: And freelance. Why didn’t you ever get a grasp on a permanent job?
Al Koken: You know, one of the-
Andy Ockershausen: ‘Cuz you were doing freelance everywhere.
Al Koken: It’s interesting because I thought about that a lot. One of the things that has always intrigued me and I’ve always wondered. My father was a freelance commercial artist. He worked for himself. Never worked for a company. So, for example, we never had family vacations where here’s our two weeks and we’re gonna go do this. But, he always found time with the four kids to say, “Here’s our day to go fishing. I’m taking you Mary.” And, everybody else, you know. So, he did everything sort of as a day to day sort of existence. I’ve always kind of followed in that vein and one of the things I’ve always at least taken, if I ever take a little pride on what I’ve been able to accomplish is: I think of myself as a great utility player.
Do you need me at second base? I can play second base. Do you need me in the outfield? I can… if you have an inning of catching, I can catch for you. I feel like that versatility. If you can write, if you can do radio, if you can do TV, if you can host, if you can be an analyst, if you can do all those things, there seems to be a need for that at some point as opposed to only being type cast and put in this box. He can only do this. He’s only a news anchor, don’t let him go in the field and do a live report. He can only sit behind the desk and read.
I’ve always tried to be exactly the opposite of that.
Andy Ockershausen: So, you’re free. You’re a true freelancer.
Al Koken: True freelancer would try to be a versatile as possible to fill as many roles as they could.
Andy Ockershausen: Well, I knew in all these years you had to have a lot of job offers. So, that says to me, what you’ve done is very fulfilling to you. It’s made you a better broadcaster.
Al Koken: No question about it. If I-
Andy Ockershausen: It’s all these different things you do.
Al Koken: And, I’ve always also appreciated the fact that no week is ever the same. I’m never in the same place at the same time at the same day at the same route to work. I love the fact that I’ve had that independence, and I think it’s kept me fresh, because I think it’s one of those… I had one of those opportunities when Channel 5 came to me one day, I had been working as a, what was called an, after the union, a freelancer and a part timer. But, they union contract said anything more than 25 hours a week I had to get time and a half.
So, during the football season working with Bernie Smilovitz it was, Bernie was the Monday through Friday guy, I had the weekends. But, during the football season somebody had to go out to Redskins park. So, I’d always be making a lot more than just the 25 hours a week.
They came to me one day and said, “We’ve got great news. We’re gonna establish a full time number two sports caster.” I said, “Great.”
“And, we’d like you to be it.”
Sensational. “And, here’s the pay.”
And, I was like, “That’s less than what I’m making as a part timer.”
“Yes, but you’ll be full time.”
“But, it’s less than what I’m making as a part timer.”
They never could understand why I said no. Because, then you were at their beck and call. If they need you at six in the morning to interview people outside of Metro, if they need you at 10 o’clock at night to interview someone you’re at their beck and call. Right?
Andy Ockershausen: You’re still . . .
Al Koken: And, you have no way to say, well, now pay me for doing this. That was a scary moment. I’ll be honest with you. That was something I really wanted to pursue. That’s when…
Andy Ockershausen: It’s tough to turn it down, but look at the alternative, Al.
Al Koken: Then, luckily, about 3 or 4 months later, after getting unemployment, that’s when my opportunity with the Capitals and Home Team Sports popped up. That has changed everything.
Andy Ockershausen: Changed your life. This is a great conversation with Al, and we learned…the reason we do this show. I heard things from you tonight I have never ever dreamed of. And, that’s why whenever I hear this…but that’s great Al. Most people don’t know those things, and I think Our Town is helping, and it is Our Town, Al, it’s your town now.
Al Koken: Yes, absolutely.
Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen with Al Koken.
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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town with Andy Ockershausen. Brought to you by Best Bark Communications.
Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen and were talking now to Al Koken in a podcast in which I didn’t know what it was until Janice told me, but you had a great radio career at, TEAM, or WEEM, or whatever it was.
Al Koken: There was a WEEM.
Andy Ockershausen: But, all those years on the air, was that a steady job, or were you gettin’ paid by the show, or by the company.
On Working with John Thompson
Al Koken: That was a, that was more by the company, and one of the highlights of my, not only radio career, but one of the highlights of my life, was the ten plus years I got to spend working with John Thompson.
Andy Ockershausen: John Thompson.
Al Koken: I can’t tell you A – how much I learned. How he built that Georgetown program, what he endured, how they got to…from nothing to the top. The stories I heard, and the people I got to meet through John was truly amazing. I’m so happy to be able to call John a friend. Once you’re in John’s inner circle, there’s no question that you’re in his inner circle. He’ll do anything for you.
Andy Ockershausen: And, if you’re out, you’re out.
Al Koken: Yeah. And, his loyalty and his friendship meant so much to me working on the show. I had such a great time with Doc Walker. I know he’s been a guest on Our Town before, but John, Doc, and I had so much fun for ten years.
Andy Ockershausen: Yeah, I listened and I learned a lot, as you say.
Al Koken: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: John had a multitude of friends, of course. That name was magic. We did a lot of work with him with the Police Boys and Girls Club. So, I remember him so vividly, and he’s real great. But, Al, you were with the golden years of John Thompson, in a lot way. Remember y’all would cover the golf tournaments and so forth and John would show up and…
Al Koken: Right.
Andy Ockershausen: And, it was all the…it was so good.
John Thompson’s Reach Was Beyond Sports
Al Koken: We had a great…but, you know, his reach, one of the things I learned was his reach was so far beyond sports. Early on in the show that we were trying to put together, he wasn’t really sure that, did we want to do a purely sports show, or sort of more like what Tony Kornheiser was doing. Which was, a little bit of pop culture, news, and things like that.
Andy Ockershausen: Right.
Al Koken: So, one day he was kind of talking, “So, guys, what’s been kinda been going on in the world today?” This was back, remember when the two U.S. pilots were shot down over Kosovo and Jesse Jackson went and got them and-
Andy Ockershausen: Brought them back.
Jesse Jackson | Tiger Woods | Allen Iverson | Charles Barkley | Shawne Merriman | Kobe Bryant
Al Koken: Brought them back? He goes, “Jesse Jackson did that?” He pulls out his phone, hands it to the producer and says, “call that number. This,” and, you know John likes to have a little colorful expression every once in awhile, “This so and so owes me a favor.” The next day, the first interview Jesse Jackson did when he returned was on the John Thompson show. Now, think about that. The reach of this man, and that’s where…
Andy Ockershausen: He had the same thing with Tiger Woods.
Al Koken: Oh yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: He’s the only guy who could get Tiger on the phone.
Al Koken: No other radio show in the history of radio ever had, at different times, Tiger Woods, Earl Woods, and Tida Woods, the mother.
Andy Ockershausen: The mother.
Al Koken: One day, we had Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley on the phone for 45 minutes; blew through ever commercial break possible. One day, we’re having Shawne Merriman, great Maryland player at that time was the AFC defensive player of the area was promoting a project. We’re into it 5 minutes, the producers says to me, “we’ve gotta let him go.” And, I look back to the glass behind me and I say, “why?” He goes, “Kobe is on the phone.” “Oh, okay.” His depth, his power. That show had more great guest-
Andy Ockershausen: Oh John. Why did it stop? Why did it end?
Al Koken: That’s, I still don’t know. I think it was up to the radio folks, and they probably didn’t want to pay the money.
Andy Ockershausen: That didn’t make sense, because it made them. Had to make them money.
Al Koken: Right.
Andy Ockershausen: They sold it properly.
Al Koken: There in lies the problem.
Andy Ockershausen: Did John get tired of doing it?
Al Koken: No. I think it was more about the bottom line on everything. Let’s be honest. We know what the radio business has become.
Andy Ockershausen: Absolutely.
Al Koken: Everybody has consolidated. Everybody has been gobbled up, and sometimes what is great quality doesn’t seem to be able to transfer over, because nobody knows how to sell it. I always used to complain all the time to people who say, “This show cost too much.” I’d say, “Well, every day this man runs a song that says it’s 5 o’clock somewhere where he’s gonna pop a top again.
Andy Ockershausen: Right.
Al Koken: You don’t think a beer company would want to sponsor that? He talks about putting his toes up and eating sausage sandwich. You don’t think Johnsonville would like to…if you have a sales staff that could sell this, it wouldn’t be that expensive.” But, they didn’t seem to be able to connect the two.
Andy Ockershausen: It doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, he had the Mercedes deal. I know that.
Al Koken: Yes.
Andy Ockershausen: Remember he had a Mercedes deal.
Al Koken: Yes.
Andy Ockershausen: I know who did the spot for him.
“I’m new here. I’ve told everybody that I speak two languages fluently. English and profanity. So, the guy behind the glass has his finger on a button in case I speak my second language. How come that guy behind the glass didn’t stop you?”
~John Thompson to Greaseman
Al Koken: They were great shows. His interrogation question to the Greaseman was the best I’d ever heard-
Andy Ockershausen: That was-
Al Koken: Anybody-
Andy Ockershausen: Were you alive when that happened?
Al Koken: Yeah.
It was two weeks into the show and he brings, Rock Newman brings the Greaseman in thinking the previous day he’d done the entire lap.
Andy Ockershausen: Right.
Al Koken: He thinks, “Okay, well, we’re out of it.” John, went at it in a completely way. Talking about it, he said, “I’m new here. I’ve told everybody that I speak two languages fluently. English and profanity. So, the guy behind the glass has his finger on a button in case I speak my second language. How come that guy behind the glass didn’t stop you?” The Greaseman was taken aback. He didn’t know what…and John, again, for somebody who is just starting to do radio, did a masterful interview slash interrogation that wasn’t the outrage that people thought. It was just basically dissecting the business. Why would you respond in this way and that. It was brilliant, and that was the genius of John Thompson.
Andy Ockershausen: That helped the Greaseman too. Amazingly well.
Al Koken: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Maybe.
Al Koken: But, but this day he thought he was off the hook when he came in.
Andy Ockershausen: But, he didn’t let him off.
Al Koken: It was not off the hook with John Thompson.
Andy Ockershausen: Well, you’ve had so much experience, Al. Now, translating into your career, which I call it, you’ve finally landed in a great, great position with, it’s to me a full time job, with hockey. I know you can do a lot more. It’s freelance in it’s own way too.
34 Years with NBC Sports Washington and Capitals 2018 Stanley Cup Victory
Al Koken: Yeah. But, it’s in, this’ll be year 34.
Andy Ockershausen: It was a great, great, great year. You lived through the bad years and I’m so happy for Our Town that we got a winner.
Al Koken: You grabbed it, because the thing, everybody says, “what was the coolest thing about it?” When you watch the celebrations on F street and, we were there broadcasting live from every game-
Andy Ockershausen: Oh, I know that. It was great.
Al Koken: This was Washington D.C. This wasn’t just, oh look at all the hockey fans having a good time. This celebration crossed every gender, every age, every ethnicity. It was the entire city coming out saying, “Yes. We finally have a champion.” When you watch that parade, and you watch the celebration, and when you watch the players celebrate with the city, this wasn’t, “Oh, you can watch us behind the velvet ropes while we celebrate.” They took the cup out to the public. They went out and shared it with everybody. They understood that-
Andy Ockershausen: It was everybody’s trophy.
Al Koken: They understood what it meant to the town and because of that it was truly an Our Town celebration.
Andy Ockershausen: Al, the great part for you, is you lived a long time with the bad days, and the miserable days, and the almost good days, and then, does this change and that change? You lived through it all, and so, what a history you have.
Save the Caps Campaign
Al Koken: You can talk. Remember the Save the Caps campaign.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh, God yeah.
Al Koken: When Abe Pollin literally had a telethon with George Michael leading the way, just to get 7,500 season tickets.
Andy Ockershausen: Season tickets. Tickets I remember vividly. He came-
Al Koken: You were part of it.
Andy Ockershausen: He came down to talk to us at the Board of Trade and said, “We want to have this thing. We need help.” And, he wanted to get people. I’ll never forget, Joe Allbritton said, “I’ll give you a big contribution, but I ain’t going to the game.”
Al Koken: Right, exactly.
Andy Ockershausen: Abe said, “Good, we’ll just take the money.” He had to beg for money.
Al Koken: Right. But, don’t you also think, Andy, that this town could never repay Abe Pollin for what he did by building that building?
Andy Ockershausen: Isn’t that incredible?
Al Koken: It changed the entire structure of downtown.
Andy Ockershausen: We sat, Irene Pollin right here and talked about that. You know, she lived through that with him, of course. He stuck his neck out. You know that don’t you?
Al Koken: Absolutely, and I can remember how close he was with Wes Unseld. I also, for a long time did-
Andy Ockershausen: His son
Wes Unseld and the 3 Hour Neighborhood Committee Meeting
Al Koken: Did Bullet sidelines as well, and I got to know Wes. I remember one day, Wes was a big guy, and later on in life had difficulty getting around.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh, I know. He was…
Al Koken: I remember seeing Wes one day walking, walking worse than normal. I said, “What happened?” He goes, “I had to sit in one of those neighborhood committee meetings the other night,” this was as they were planning to get the building built, “for three hours as they debated the fate of a tree.” He says, ” I kept trying to remind everybody what this is going to do to the city. The tax base, the jobs, what’s gonna go around.” They were debating three hours over a tree. This was the difficulty that they had to negotiate.
Andy Ockershausen: Go ahead downtown.
Al Koken: Just to get something that now can never be repaid back.
Andy Ockershausen: Ever.
Al Koken: For what he did.
Andy Ockershausen: Janice didn’t we do a promotion when they were building that. We did, Harden and Weaver, we went down and did a big bit with the team when it was a dirty parking lot and everything
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: A ground breaking
Andy Ockershausen: A ground breaking.
Al Koken: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: But, that was WMAL. Of course we were in…you know, we used to carry the games on the radio.
Al Koken: I know.
Andy Ockershausen: Abe and I made that deal with the guy. I’m so glad you brought that guy back. The announcer. Who brought him back? Ron Weber.
Ron Weber :: Former Play by Play Announcer for Washington Capitals – 24 Years
Al Koken: Oh, Ron Weber, yes.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Ron Weber.
Al Koken: John Walton, who’s the current play by play radio voice, does a spectacular job, made sure that late in the season Ron Weber got to come back and do a game. Ron Weber, was also in the championship parade as well.
Andy Ockershausen: I know. Isn’t that great?
Al Koken: Which was sensational. That I was glad, because I’ve always said to the people who celebrate now, you’ve gotta remember a little bit of the history. Eight wins in their inaugural season. Okay, the worst expansion record in history. Then, the Save the Caps campaign, so you had all of these struggles, then the disappointments to losing not one but two four overtime playoff games. How do you lose two four over-
Andy Ockershausen: Impossible.
Al Koken: When you get to the second overtime it’s basically flip a coin. Something goofy is going to happen. Two four overtime games, so, to really appreciate what they did, think back to what they had to endure and for the fan base, and that group of people that was there from day one, man I couldn’t be happier for them.
Andy Ockershausen: Weren’t they great? It was great for Our Town. I think the whole town became the fan base of the Washington Caps, and all because of you Koken, ‘cuz you bring a lot to the broadcast. I hear ya on radio, I hear ya on TV. I didn’t even know you were a writer until your, or some of your things. You should’ve stuck to writing. You’d probably be doing a book.
Al Koken: I’ve got the face for newspapers.
Andy Ockershausen: But, Al, you’re a delightful reporter and a great guy. What can’t you do? I don’t know why you’re not a permanent party of Comcast. Why did they let you get away? Maybe, they couldn’t pay ya enough.
Al Koken: That’s it. I can always fall back on bartending.
Andy Ockershausen: Al Koken, this has been great and thank you so much. That we’re a fan of yours Al.
Al Koken: Andy, Janice, thanks for the invitation.
Andy Ockershausen: I can’t do you any good because I don’t run that place, I never did, and thank God. But, I used to have influence, now I can’t get in the building. Neither can you.
Al Koken: No. I always check to see if they changed the key on me.
Andy Ockershausen: Good luck to you Al Koken. I hope we can get a repeat here.
Al Koken: Love to do it.
Andy Ockershausen: I hope this hockey team will repeat. I think the hockey team will repeat before the Redskins do.
Al Koken: I’m hoping for both, okay.
Andy Ockershausen: Alright, we all are.
Al Koken: Andy, Janice thanks so much.
Andy Ockershausen: We’ve been here, we’ve been through the ups and the downs, and highs and low, Al, you’re the best. Smokin’ Al Koken on Our Town.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Our Town, Season 4, presented by GEICO our home town favorite with you host Andy Ockershausen. New Our Town episodes are released each Tuesday and Thursday. Drop us a line with your comments or suggestions. See us on Facebook, or visit our website at ourtowndc.com. Our special thanks to Ken Hunter, our technical director, and WMAL radio in Washington, D.C., and thanks to GEICO. Fifteen minutes can save you 15 percent or more on care insurance.
Debbie Staats Sanders says
Brilliant–love this–so lively and hits HOME literally!
Sending congrats on keeping this going! You guys ROCK!
Many thanks for all your great stories and HIGH ENERGY!
Barbara Wise says
I loved reading this wonderful reminiscence of Al Koken’s career in the DC sports world. Speaking of University City, Al’s home town, I was in Al’s graduating class of 1970 at that high school. I’m on the committee searching for our classmates to invite them to attend our 50th reunion. I’m hoping that a message can be relayed to Al to contact me, Barbara Wise @ firstname.lastname@example.org or send an email to email@example.com.
The reunion website is ucity70.com.
Many thanks for passing this on to Al.