It was around the mid-90s when my father first asked me to tape him calling into a Philadelphia sports talk radio station. My Dad was trying to establish a reputation as a regular on WIP’s cretinous popular morning show using the handle “Big Al” but he wanted to practice calling into the Craig Carton show first. Carton was more of an afternoon/weekend fill-in host back then, so it was easy for people to get on the air, and the pressure wasn’t as high to perform.
But the lead sports story that day in late May was Flyers playoff hockey. My Dad was not a hockey guy, so this was a real test, even on a lightweight show. I was secretly hoping for a disaster because that would be much more fun to have on tape forever.
Here’s the scene I remember: I was downstairs in my parents’ basement with an old boombox turned at low volume and a Maxell tape snapped and ready. I’d have to monitor the recording as he waited for his turn to go live on the air. He was a little on edge, nervous about my ability to press record in time to get his entire minute-long commentary. “Remember about the delay,” he said. “And keep the volume down. They don’t like it when people have the radio on.” As we waited, I heard him pacing around the bedroom upstairs, practicing what he’d say, going over the notes he’d written down.
Because the boombox was so old, you had to keep one hand on the orange record button and the other on the play button to ensure it stayed in place. It had to be a decade since I’d last seen this thing used, mainly at pool parties where they’d play the Dirty Dancing soundtrack at high volume to let the neighbors know that shit got wild in the summer at the Daulerio household. Despite the technical handicap, I got his call on tape.
I know what my dad would text to me as soon as the clock ran out Sunday. “Sadness — absolute sadness.” Sadness is the happy memory that got me through the day.
When we played it back, I saw his eyes get big. He was impressed and surprised by his performance — the crispness of his delivery, Carton’s response, and his opinion about the Flyers was only slightly inane. The fuse was lit.
He called in as Big Al frequently, but only during the afternoon or evening shows. The morning show was consistently the highest-rated one in Philadelphia, and its loudmouth host, Angelo Cataldi, had become the highest-paid radio personality in the city. But bad news: a “Big Al” was already regularly calling into the morning show.
“He’s good, too,” my Dad said, sizing up the competition. But he was determined. And soon after that, “Big Al from Ambler” was born.
The senior intern on WIP’s morning show
In 2007 I was a blogger for Philadelphia magazine and I worked part-time at Deadspin, which gave me access to some of the producers and hosts who worked at WIP.
One afternoon, my father called me at the office very excited that there was an opening on Angelo Cataldi’s morning show for a “senior” intern — as in senior citizen — because the most recent one had retired. “I think I’m gonna apply,” he said.
I used my little amount of juice, emailed the show, and told them about my dad’s desire to get the intern gig. Since there were no other applicants, he was hired on the spot. He was 65 years old at the time. but once a week my father would wake up at 5am and make a 30-minute commute to WIP’s Bala Cynwyd studio.
I think my father expected that he’d be asked to do the same as the 20-year-olds who were there to fulfill college credit — internet research, run errands, but, most importantly, stay out of the way. But they always worked him into the show, usually in the early-early hours, a few minutes past 6am, when the hosts would stretch their vocal cords, get out their yawns and wait for the coffee to hit.
I emailed one of the hosts to ask how he was doing. “He raises his hand when he wants to chime in and it’s so adorable!” I listened to him a few times giving some post-game analysis after gruesome losses — especially the 2009-2011 Phillies’ seasons, which he took particularly hard.
He used to text me after these losses — any championship losses, really. “Sadness …” The existential weight of the ellipsis came through loud and clear.
It was because of these appearances that he became a mini-celebrity amongst our family and friends. They would always make a big deal when they’d hear my father, like, judging Wing Bowl bikini model contestants, complaining about gas prices with former Phillies closer Mitch Williams, or discussing his favorite scenes from Love Actually with Mayor Ed Rendell. I’d get texts and emails from most of my Philly friends. “Heard your old man on WIP today getting yelled at by [Former Flyers Winger] Keith Jones!” Even Angelo Cataldi told me how much he enjoyed having my Dad on his show.
Once I became editor of Deadspin, he was always quick to email me when they were talking about the site on WIP, marveling at the success I was having — we were having — at the same time. I was scrolling through some of the old emails from that period, and here was one that jumped out:
Deadspin’s story about the Fox dong showing got quite a play on WIP this morning, in particular, the comment, “I thought third legs were outlawed in the NFL.” It was hilarious. Add this to your reasons for writing that book. Have a great day, your Dad.
There were so many emails like that — prideful boasting about his appearances on WIP and how surprised some of the ex-athlete co-hosts were that we were related. “[Former Eagles linebacker] Hugh Douglas asked about you!” And so many of those emails were signed “Your dad” or “PROUD! Dad.” Our relationship was always kind of teetering on estrangement, but I forgot how much he liked me sometimes.
But there were several times his WIP internship caused strain between us. Sometimes he would call me very worried because someone at the station told him I was going to either get sued or beat up for some of the stories I’d publish. Then in 2011, he called me gravely concerned because he’d heard live on-air from [another former Phillies closer] Ricky Botallico that I was filmed dropping acid as part of a stunt for the site. “I had to look up what acid was. It’s drugs — and it’s illegal!” Then he said I’d embarrassed him in front of his colleagues. I told him to never tell me how to do my job and hung up on him.
One afternoon, my father called me very excited that there was an opening on Angelo Cataldi’s morning show for a “senior” intern because the most recent one had retired. “I think I’m gonna apply,” he said.
I was a frequent guest on the morning show, too, but after that blow-up, I didn’t prioritize not being hungover for my spots. On more than one occasion, my phone died in the middle of an interview. And once I just slept through the alarm and the frantic phone calls from the producer. After that, I got a nasty email from one of the hosts who hinted at banning me from the show altogether. They continued to let my Dad come in, but he sensed he wasn’t as welcome. “I think you made them mad.” He sounded heartbroken, but I didn’t care. That’s the type of person I was back then.
He didn’t go into the studio at all after that. He called in to say goodbye when he and my mother shipped off to Florida full-time. He was no longer Big Al from Ambler anymore.
I emailed one of the hosts a couple of weeks ago — the one I screwed over — to let them know Big Al had died. And I tried to squeeze in mini-amends to them as well, but I didn’t hear back. Probably the wrong email address. It’s not productive to assume it was a personal punishment — that the ban still extends to me and to him into the afterlife. I will just assume they are sad to hear the news and that his memory is a blessing.
Remembering Big Al from Ambler
I was frustrated by the Eagles’ latest Super Bowl loss but not despondent. “Life is pain!” was my most common response to my friends who texted me dumbstruck apologies after the game’s controversial ending. I was halfway kidding — I think my attachment to Philly sports has changed. All sports, really. I feel stringy and bland, like old confetti. I can’t tell whether this is grief or total dissatisfaction with life. Maybe I’m dissociating? Or about to. It’s probably grief.
But Monday yesterday was a chilly, typically remarkable sun-soaked morning in Los Angeles, where I now live. My children were all awake at 5am, barking requests. “Can I have the phone?” “CHOCOLATE MILK!” “Dad, can you wipe me?” All welcome distractions — I barely dipped into the usual post-mortem highlights and analysis about the Super Bowl. I tried to listen to WIP in the morning, but I no longer find that masochism as entertaining as I once did, similar to how bored I was when I tried to watch Jackass Forever recently. And get this — Angelo Cataldi is retiring this week from the station after his remarkable 30-year run. Eerie timing. Maybe I should have emailed him first.
I tried to picture what Big Al from Ambler would add to the Super Bowl aftermath conversation: Would he be furious at the referee for the holding penalty? The way the defense collapsed? Or would he be content with a very good season, even if there was no parade at the end of it? All of those responses were on the table.
But I know what he’d text to me as soon as the clock ran out. “Sadness — absolute sadness.” Sadness is the happy memory that got me through the day.
AJ Daulerio is the former editor of Deadspin and Gawker. This piece first ran in The Small Bow, his newsletter about long-term recovery.
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A sketch of AJ Daulerio and his Dad by Edith Zimmerman