'Brief History of Triangle Sports': Tony Riggsbee and the evolution of local sports talk radio

13 April 2022

A little over 50 years ago, one of the pioneers of Triangle sports talk radio Tony Riggsbee said his first words on the local airwaves.

And they had nothing to do with sports.

“It was simply a station break: ‘You’re listening to WPTF FM. Coming up next: Dutch concert hall’,” Riggsbee said of his start at the old WPTF, which is now WQDR.

Sports radio took some time to become what it is today. At that point, the first-ever all sports talk radio station was barely even eight years old.

But the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area with three colleges that fans all feel passionately about? It was a prime market for it.

Rigsbee, who’s been the Durham Bulls public address announcer since 1995 and was born and raised in the Bull City, was part of sports radio’s earliest moments in the Triangle because of the vision of his boss.

In the fall of 1972, Bill Jackson — former NC State play-by-play man — had been promoted to program director at WPTF. There was a news magazine show called ‘Kaleidoscope’ that ran every night. Why not try to make that more of a talk show? Then, he thought, why not try to add sports into that mix?

“Originally, it was a general interest talk show from 7-8. And Bart Ritner was the host of that, the late Bart Ritner. And they did that for about six months. And then they decided, well, why don’t we take a couple of those nights and see if a sports talk show would work?” Riggsbee said. ” This was right at the start of the ’72 ACC football season. Those were high times for NC State. Lou Holtz had just arrived from William and Mary. So they established a program called ‘Sportsline’. It was on initially Monday and Friday nights. Bill Jackson was the host, along with Dick Herbert, who had just retired at the News and Observer as sports editor and was working part time as the executive secretary of the American Football Coaches Association. So they did that, Jackson and Herbert, on Monday and Friday nights. On Wednesday night, they had something called ‘Wolfpack Sportsline’ that (former NC State football coach) Lou Holtz did with (former NC State radio announcer) Wally Ausley. And then it turned into the Norm Sloan Show.”

Coaches’ shows have been around for awhile, and had been around before that. Riggsbee himself did one with then-Duke head coach Mike McGee that was more along the lines of the coach’s shows they were used to, where they didn’t take calls from fans and were pre-taped.

Once they started taking calls on the NC State coach’s shows, things got interesting.

“It was always cordial to Lou Holtz, because he was the new guy in town and had just arrived. Not always so with (former NC State basketball coach) Norm Sloan.”

Sloan eventually brought an undefeated season and a national championship to Raleigh, but his personality was hardly the warm and endearing one that Jim Valvano would have later.

“And of course, Norm Sloan had a somewhat of a combative personality anyway, so it was a little bit different. But those programs were successful.”

The hosts were allowed to express their opinions. But the fans started expressing theirs, too.

Even in the early 1970s before things like message boards or social media, fans had to get their one-line jokes in about their rivals.

“There was always the stuff that you would have people with Carolina and Duke, primarily Carolina, who hated Carolina who would end up calling in and saying ‘Chapel Hill College’ and things like that. There was one caller in particular who did that for years and years and years,” Riggsbee said. “There wasn’t as much animosity toward Duke for the State fans back in those days. But it’s there was more animosity toward Duke after 1980 when Mike Krzyzewski arrived then there was in the 1970s because…Duke basketball was not the Duke basketball of today and and of course, State was coming off 1970 headed toward the 1974 national championship and the great seasons under Norm Sloan.”

Riggsbee has worked at many different iterations of radio stations in the Triangle over the years, even at Capitol Broadcasting for a time. But he saw how this market embraced talking about sports.

And that passion manifested itself in an area that has become a literal industry for media today: recruiting.

Sportsline blossomed and became a daily show that by the 1980s and 90s that ran two and then three hours a night. And people wanted to talk recruiting, even then.

“The other dynamic that built in year round was recruiting, which became huge, and that started in the mid 70s,” Riggsbee said. “There were the recruiting experts…All of those guys would come on on a very regular basis. And (callers) were always packed in. It was one call right after another.

“Most of it was, ‘well, where do you think so and so is going?’ I remember, for some reason, (former UNC player) Curtis Hunter, I think he had more conversation about him in his high school days than anybody I can remember. Where is Curtis Hunter going? It seemed like it went on for years and years and years and years. And it was interesting too, the dynamic and the callers who were interested in basketball recruiting, it was more passionate than those who were interested in football recruiting. We would have the football recruiting shows and those fans would be very knowledgeable, but they they didn’t seem to be living with it to the extent the basketball.”

Since Riggsbee has been around so long and worked in so many capacities, he has seen a lot of important Triangle history. He didn’t personally cover the celebration of UNC’s 1982 national title, but some of his colleagues did. Riggsbee did fill in for play-by-play for a few games, including the start of NC State’s winning streak that began at the end of the regular season.

He did, however, make his way to NC State’s campus for its 1983 celebration. WPTF sent Riggsbee and Mike Raley down to the Brickyard to cover it, win or lose.

“We were right outside the DHL library listening to the radio call. And then it erupts,” Riggsbee said. “Suddenly we see couches on fire and things like that. So Raley and I decided we’d better get back to the news (van). We were right behind a WBTV van that come down from Charlotte. And then the students had, how should we say it, become more lubricated at that point. We were in there and suddenly, we’re being rocked by just massive and it’s first time I’d ever seen mob psychology.

“I think they wanted the car. And I’m on the two way radio doing a report. Raley is driving. Then I see Raley doing this ‘wrap it up’ thing and then suddenly there was a guy standing outside. My window was down and he’s what he was doing was telling me get the window up. There was a guy out there wanted to urinate into the car because the guy was so wasted out there. So we we survived that and we somehow got off campus.”

Like many media members at that time, Riggsbee got close with Jim Valvano. They only had one brief falling-out — when the scandals began breaking in the early 1990s, Riggsbee said on Sportsline that it was a conflict of interest for Valvano to remain the athletic director.

“Valvano calls me one day and says, ‘come over to my office. I want to talk about this.’ And he and he basically says, ‘What have you got against me?’ I said, ‘Coach, I got nothing against you. I love you personally. I just think that in this situation, there should be a different athletic director overseeing the program.’ And you know what Valvano said? He said, ‘That’s fair enough. I got no problems with that.’

“We were always fine after that, but people who were Valvano fans never forgave me. I had — not death threats, but people calling and saying ‘we’re gonna get you’, that sort of thing. I never believed any of it. But it was the passions of the time.”

Riggsbee’s own passion, though, is not recruiting or football or basketball.

It’s baseball, and the Durham native grew up on the Bulls and has been in love with both ever since.

He got to see the area fall in love with the Bulls, too.

“I was watching actually the year before Joe Morgan: 1962, when I was nine years old. It was my first year of my father having some season tickets to the Bulls,” Riggsbee said, “and so I got hooked on it then. … I started watching baseball constantly on TV and buying all the baseball books. There was an old slogan baseball had in the 70s and 80s called: ‘Baseball fever: Catch it, it lasts forever.’ With me it has.”

The Bulls left briefly, from 1972 through 1979. They came back in 1980, and Riggsbee got to do some play by play but was never the regular guy. At the time, he could not afford to be as the Bulls only offered $37 a game.

He watched the minor league fan experience grow, too. “In the 60s it had been simply baseball. That was it. Starting in the 80s, there was a little bit of entertainment aspect to it. There’d be some games on the field occasionally, the pitch through the board game. There’s a name for it, but it’s escaping me. And maybe a race or two,” Riggsbee said. “But it didn’t go big time with that as long as we were in the old ballpark (Durham Athletic Park). You couldn’t do fireworks over there because there were oil storage tanks across the street. And so the fire marshal would not allow fireworks from the old ballpark.”

The new park, the DBAP, opened in 1995 and fireworks have not been an issue there since. But a movie had already made the franchise famous: Bull Durham.

Riggsbee is not going to quibble with the minor details the movie got wrong, but one does stand out to him.

“What they got right about it, I think, was the passion that a lot of fans had for the Bulls. What they got right was the struggle of players and the occasional veteran. … Unlike in the movie, it would have been extremely unusual for a player with the amount of experience that Crash Davis had to go down to Class A Ball, but it was great for the story. You did see the struggle there,” Riggsbee said. “I guess the thing about the movie that I disliked the most was the fact that the guy that they had doing radio was a hayseed and Durham Bulls radio was never like that. Because if you know (former Bulls owner) Miles Wolff, that’s the last thing he’d want.”

Riggsbee has also enjoyed watching the evolution of the Bulls on the field, too. They used to be an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, and former Braves great Chipper Jones was once a Durham Bull. Riggsbee emceed his International League Hall of Fame induction. Braves’ manager Brian Snitker, who took them to the World Series title? Also a Bull.

Since the transition to being a Rays’ affiliate, though, championships have followed.

“There were a lot of great players who came through Durham with the Braves. Although the Braves were never able to give us — they gave us great players, but not good teams. You’re never able to get any championships whereas with Tampa Bay, it’s been one championship after another,” Riggsbee said. “And we’ve seen Tampa Bay is a prototype of how to build a team through your farm system and the success that they’ve had.”

This post was originally published on this site

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