ESPN sports talk host may have been ahead of his time

Inspired by TV One’s Unsung series, this multi-part MSR series shines a well-deserved spotlight on individual or group accomplishments that unfortunately have been overlooked, or perhaps even “forgotten.” This week the spotlight is on veteran sports journalist Mark Gray.

ESPN Radio last month celebrated its 25th year anniversary. It was launched on January 1, 1992 with 16 hours per week of sports programming.

“The real founders were Chuck Wilson, Tony Bruno, Chris Berman, Keith Olbermann and Mike Tirico,” noted Mark Gray, who joined the network after it began broadcasting ‘round-the-clock in October 1998. Wikipedia unfortunately lists the network’s all-time hosts alphabetically, but overlooks Gray, a former weekend late-night host.

Mark Gray (Photo courtesy of Mark Gray)

“A lot of stuff Stephen A. [Smith]…and dudes like that are doing was stuff [I] was doing in 1999-2001 and got run [off the air] for it,” stressed the “forgotten” Gray in a recent MSR phone interview. He, Bruno and Wilson were the three main reasons why I even turned to ESPN Radio at the time.

“People look at Chuck as this bland sports talk show host, but he was the consummate broadcast professional,” Gray recalled of Wilson. “The best sports talk host in the business ever is Tony Bruno. He’s clever [and] witty… Those were guys I was fortunate enough to be around.”

Gray brought refreshing color to ESPN, which at the time was mainly vanilla. “Sports talk always has been ‘talk how you like,’” continued Gray. But his on-air style was often problematic for his bosses at the time. “It was a different time then. I don’t know if they were ready for me then.”

I temporarily lost track of Gray after his ESPN departure but rediscovered him during a drive home for my 25-year high school reunion around Thanksgiving 2003. My rental car had XM Radio, and his Sports Groove show was on the then-all-Black talk channel The Power.

“The Sports Groove on The Power was the first originally produced sports talk show on satellite radio” out of Washington, D.C.’s WOL-AM that was simulcast on the service — “a local show that had a national audience,” Gray pointed out. “I was the first weekend host on XM Satellite Radio, and the first MLN host as well” on the XM’s MLB channel.

Gray, with a quarter-century of sports broadcasting experience, is now heard weekly on TSL Sports Talk on Shadow League Radio and is the longtime voice of HBCU football and basketball for HSRN. His print work included working as an NBA correspondent for The Sporting News, general sports correspondent for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Atlanta Daily World sports editor.

Also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and Prince Georges (MD) Community College, Gray might have been forgotten by ESPN Radio, but he said, “That experience was invaluable for me.”

He also pointed out sadly, “Sports talk is still the last bastion of racism. The harsh reality is if you’re Black and you want to do sports talk, and you’re male, and you have been blessed with athletic gifts and made a name for yourself on the field of play,” the chance of you being hired on-air is unfortunately better than someone’s who is Black but isn’t a former star even though he may be “good and supremely better” as a trained broadcast professional.

“I am concerned that there are some talented Black podcasters and local [broadcasters] who are still not getting a second chance after arbitrary broadcast decisions” by radio program directors and radio station owners, said Gray.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

About Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at challman@spokesman-recorder.com

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