She's big. She's had. She's obnoxious and caustic. A listener calls her Mother, and she answers, "Yes, my child." She chastises, coos, interviews and spews. She's half cranky, half funny. She's every guy (or gal) in Middle America sitting on a barstool talking sports. She is the Fabulous Sports Babe, and chances are, she's coming soon to a radio station near you—if she's not there yet.
"Hey, bubba in Albuquerque, you're on."
"Babe, I gotta say, I don't like your show."
"Where are you?"
"In my office."
"Someone got a gun to your head?"
"THEN CHANGE THE STATION!"
On July 4 the Babe (a.k.a. Nanci Donnellan) took her raucous gig from KJR radio, in Seattle, to ESPN radio, out of Bristol. Conn. The four-hour, five-day-a-week show is presently aired in 34 U.S. cities, from Bangor, Maine, to Anchorage, Alaska. Donnellan has yet to crack the biggest markets—New York City, Los Angeles, Miami—though she has just been added to Chicago's airwaves. Nevertheless, she is the first woman to host a nationally syndicated sports talk show, and most likely the only person ESPN president Steve Bornstein ever hired who waltzed into his office saying, "Hi, booger."
ESPN courted Donnellan for six months, touching off a fight between the Babe and KJR's owners, who had seen their ratings skyrocket in her three years with their station. ESPN eventually settled with KJR for the remaining 2½ years of her contract and created a program—ESPN radio's first call-in show—that would showcase the Babe's unique talents. Nobody's talking salary figures, but she admits, "It's good to be the Babe."
"You don't hire someone and ask her to be somebody else," says ESPN radio general manager Mark Mason. "We wanted a marketable, knowledgeable personality. The Babe is everything that is politically incorrect. She breaks any mold we've ever had before."
But Donnellan is not all shtick. On one show last week she discussed three-and five-step drops with Cleveland Brown quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the Albert Belle corked-bat incident with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and race relations in sports with the director of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition for Fairness in Sport. In between, she took questions about O.J. Simpson's case and the surge of the Montreal Expos. "I don't profess to know anything," she says. "I'm not afraid to ask someone in Detroit what's going on there. They know. I'm just here to provide the forum and a little entertainment."
"Babe, I have a comment about something you said about Portland yesterday."
"Honey, I say it every day."
"About Portland being the plumber's butt of America?"
"Thank you for saying it again for me so I don't have to."
The fortyish Donnellan is intensely private about her personal life. She admits to having attended various colleges, though she claims to have gotten her degree from the University of Mars. "I like to keep the Babe separate." she says. "Dad was an Air Force officer. I went to high school in North Africa. My parents still want to know when I'm going to get a real job."
Before KJR, she hosted similar shows in Florida and Boston. Her nickname was born when she broadcast from a Tampa hospital bed after wrenching her back playing golf. "I said on the air, 'Come spend the afternoon in bed with a fabulous sports babe.' The name stuck."
Her new show should do the same.