The Freak, Dallas-Fort Worth’s third sports talk station, debuted Monday afternoon with Mike Rhyner emerging from retirement to lead it.
At 3 p.m., Rhyner came on the air to introduce a retooled 97.1 FM station that could rival Cumulus’ KTCK/KTCK-FM and Audacy’s KRLD-FM (105.3 The Fan).
In his intro, Rhyner explained his journey from retirement back to the airwaves, from settling into being out of the game to starting negotiations with Freak management. ”Welcome back, my friends, to the show that apparently never ends. Here is 97.1, the Freak. Dallas,” he said.
Over the weekend, the station, owned by iHeartRadio, had hinted at a change with promos like “Find out what The Freak is up with us. Today at 3.” At the end of the conclusion of the Ben & Skin Show on Friday, the station played a four-song loop of music with “Freak” in the title. It also leaned into several Tom Petty songs. Rhyner is an avid Petty fan and fronts a tribute band, Petty Theft.
On Monday morning, The Eagle’s website showed a splash page that simply read: “WHERE MY FREAKS AT?” Rhyner tweeted an image Monday morning with a handmade sign saying he’s out of retirement and his employer is “97.1 the Freak.”
“I’m just as surprised as anybody that this is actually going to happen,” Rhyner told The Dallas Morning News Sunday night. “When the possibility came up and things started to fall into place and we started to put this station together, I realized we might be on to something pretty good here.”
In a press release Monday afternoon, iHeartRadio confirmed the changeover, calling the new 97.1 The Freak “a broad based personality radio station that connects in a personal way with the DFW audience.”
The new lineup includes The Speakeasy with Jeff Cavanaugh, Kevin “KT” Turner, Julie Dobbs and Matt Cather from 7 to 11 a.m.; The Ben & Skin Show with Ben Rogers, Jeff “Skin” Wade, Krystina “K-Ray” Ray and Michael “Grubes” Gruber from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and The Downbeat featuring Rhyner, Mike Sirois and Gruber from 3 to 7 p.m.
Rhyner’s segment starts at the same time as The Hardline, the show he co-hosted for years on The Ticket with Corby Davidson. Sirois and Dobbs, both of whom are joining The Freak, are former Ticket staples.
Word of Rhyner’s return to the air surfaced last weekend when Sports Illustrated’s Richie Whitt reported that the Texas Hall of Fame broadcaster was unretiring to host 97.1 The Freak, a replacement for The Eagle.
On Thursday, Rhyner, 72 and affectionately known as the Old Grey Wolf, appeared to confirm the reports. He tweeted a 25-second video of himself walking down a dark hallway, sitting down and proclaiming “I’m back, bitches.” In announcing his retirement in early 2020, he had posted a similar video on social media, telling listeners he was leaving the radio business.
According to RadioInsight, a radio industry news outlet, The Ticket ranks seventh in the market with an audience share twice that of its competitors. (The News and The Ticket partner to produce the SportsDay Talk app.)
Rhyner started the KTCK The Ticket in 1994. The station has won several national Marconi awards and dominated the local ratings for three decades. Rhyner designed The Ticket’s format, which is anchored by sports but includes comedy bits and entertainment news.
Soon after, 105.3 The Fan joined the fray. At one time, the two stations competed against 103.3 ESPN before it left the air in 2020.
The Eagle upped its sports game in 2021 when it became the flagship station of the Dallas Mavericks. In mid-September, RadioInsight reported that Don Davis, KEGL and KZPS 92.5 program director, had resigned.
Mark Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner, said in an email “there is a reason that stations change formats — because it’s hard to draw an audience.”
But Cuban has confidence in Rhyner’s effort.
“I think the Old Grey Wolf still has some bark and bite left in him,” Cuban said. “And people will come to listen to him, if only out of curiosity and nostalgia.
“It’s up to the station to make it work.”
An Oak Cliff native, Rhyner began at the late KZEW (The Zoo) as a production assistant and soon wound up as the sports guy on the morning show hosted by John Labella and John Rody. He remained at KZEW until 1986, moved to WBAP-AM, then resurfaced for a time on KZPS-FM’s morning show. Before The Ticket, he reported on sports for GTE On Call, a dial-in sports hotline.
When he retired, he told The News that “it really felt like the right thing to do. I started to think about it early in the fall and kept waiting for something to jar me out of that idea. And it never came. Before long I reached — it almost sounds crazy — an almost Zen-like state with it. I guess I hit such a point of acceptance nothing could shake me. And nothing has.”
Jody Dean, a longtime radio industry veteran, said, “Mike thinks unconventionally.
“That’s his greatest strength … If anyone could make it work, it’s the Old Grey Wolf. I’m sure he has backers. The question is whether they have the patience. He’ll have to offer something the listener can’t find anywhere else, and that’s no easy thing.”
Rhyner has kept busy in retirement. He launched his podcast, Mike Rhyner Is Your Dark Companion, featuring guests such as Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Last March, he was a guest co-host on the Ben and Skin show. He also starred in a documentary about his life, Not In This Town.
“I do think we’ve got some really good people there,” Rhyner said. “All I want to do is get in there and make it better … to make it as good as it can be.”
Staff writer Sharon Grigsby contributed to this report.