John Madden

Radio Star

BARHOF Class of 2015

By Stan Bunger

John Madden and Gene Nelson (Photo)
John Madden and Gene Nelson in the studio of King Broadcasting’s KYA, circa 1992.

The widespread news coverage of the December 28, 2021, death of football legend John Madden has generally focused on his coaching, TV broadcasting and influence on the video game industry.

Much of the Madden story is by now familiar. Successful coach retires young, falls into TV commercials, winds up re-inventing the role of TV sports analyst, lends his name and expertise to America’s all-time best-selling sports video game.

That’s the John Madden known to the world. But for more than thirty years, Bay Area radio listeners treasured their own version: a familiar voice during morning-drive broadcasts.

John Madden (1975 Photo)
Madden with the Raiders, circa 1975.

That story began in the immediate aftermath of Madden’s decision to retire from coaching after the 1978 NFL season. His bigger-than-life sideline persona offered immediate opportunities as an advertising pitchman.

But on a smaller scale, Madden was testing the world of radio. A deal for a regular feature syndicated by RKO General led Madden to the San Francisco studios of King Broadcasting’s KSFO. There, a young production director named Fred Greene would record Madden’s segments and be pulled into the coach’s orbit.

Greene would later recall how Madden would listen to his entrepreneurial ideas as they did what Madden loved to do: hang out. Madden even recorded custom answering-machine greetings for Greene’s family phone.

And somewhere along the way, everyone realized they had an unconventional star in the making. In 1982, Madden began to appear daily with KSFO morning man “Emperor Gene” Nelson (they’d had occasional on-air chats in earlier years). On a parallel path, Madden was being “discovered” as a pro football analyst.

With his larger-than-life personality, his “Maddenisms,” and his use of new technology like the Telestrator, Madden was becoming a major cultural figure. His pairing with Pat Summerall on the top CBS Sports NFL crew ensured even more visibility.

As Madden’s fame and fortune grew, he could easily have backed out of the daily radio commitment. After all, it required him to be available on schedule, no matter where he was. For a guy who famously traveled only by bus, the logistical challenges were significant, especially in the years before widespread cellular telephone coverage.

Yet Madden showed up every day, easing his way into the daily routine of Bay Area morning radio. Upon Nelson’s 1994 retirement, he shifted to KNBR. His pairing with former sportscaster and avid golfer Frank Dill was more radio magic. Longtime listeners still recall conversations between the droll Dill and the loquacious Madden.

After Dill’s retirement, word that Madden might be unhappy at KNBR reached longtime KCBS news and program director Ed Cavagnaro. Cavagnaro recalls writing a letter to see if Madden might be interested in shifting to the all-news station, locked in a seemingly endless ratings battle with news/talk powerhouse KGO.

Cavagnaro’s gambit paid off. Installed at 8:15 am weekdays with KCBS morning anchors Al Hart and Susan Leigh Taylor and sports anchor Steve Bitker, “The Madden Segment” was the exception to the rule at the rigidly-formatted station.

Madden’s connection with Hart and the team was instant. Perhaps it had something to do with their shared Minnesota heritage. (Madden was born in Austin, Minn., before the family moved to Daly City, while Hart was a Twin Cities native and University of Minnesota alumnus.)

In any case, Madden’s 8:15 calls became the stuff of legend. Ostensibly sports-related, they often veered far afield, depending on whatever captured Madden’s imagination on a given day.

Listeners would talk of lingering in the parking lot to hear the end of the segment. Pure magic for a radio programmer, of course: the “lift” from Madden soon allowed KCBS to best KGO in the 8am hour and rise to the top of the morning drive ratings. In fact, former KCBS SVP/Market Manager Doug Harvill now recalls the 8:15 – 8:30 am quarter-hour as the single most-listened-to quarter-hour on the station for many years.

Hart’s 2000 retirement led to another shift for Madden. That’s when I joined the story.

I will never forget my first day back at KCBS in the summer of 2000. (I’d spent ten years at the station before heading off to other ventures between 1992 and 2000.)

On that first morning with Coach, I thought I knew the drill: prepare for the interview, have a couple of questions ready, listen to the answers, adjust on the fly. After all, I’d done thousands of live interviews over a quarter-century career.

A few minutes before 8:15, a producer’s voice crackled in my headphones. “Madden’s ready on line 74,” came the message over the intercom.

I hit the talkback button and said, “Got it,” as I punched the appropriate button on the audio console to bring John Madden’s voice into our broadcast mix.

And then I hit the talkback button again and asked, “What’s the topic?”

There was a long silence and through several layers of studio windows, I could see into our newsroom, where a couple of staff members sported baffled expressions. Finally, the producer leaned into his intercom microphone and said, “Um, whatever you like. It’s Madden.”

John Madden and Stan Bunger (Undated Photo)
John Madden and Stan Bunger at a station event
(Photo By Ed Jay)

Now that the programming statute of limitations has required and all concerned have moved on, I can admit that we seldom kept the segment to the five minutes allotted to it on the program log. At one point VP/Programing Mike Preston acknowledged the obvious and suggested we insert an additional traffic report before bringing Madden on; otherwise, commuters might wait 15 minutes between updates.

I used to worry that it was all too good to be true, that Madden would wake up one day and decide he didn’t need the bother of a daily call from KCBS. He’d often joked that he stayed on the air so his mom would know what he was up to, but even after Mary Madden’s death (well into her 90’s), Coach kept showing up.

KCBS John Madden Feature (Image)As I look back on Madden’s magic, I can only say that he was simply a guy who loved to hang out with people. He loved to hear a good story and really knew how to tell one. And he had a keen eye for puffery and a willingness to deflate it.

When Madden was being inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2015, I sat down with him for an interview. We talked about his unlikely multiple careers. He considered himself “lucky” but quickly said a big part of his luck was having great partners.

And he shifted into nostalgia mode when he started talking about his deep love for radio. “I think everyone remembers their first radio play-by-play broadcaster,” Madden told me. “Mine was Jack Macdonald.”

And then the aging coach, already retired from TV work and nearing the end of his 21-year stretch on KCBS, broke into an impression of the home run call used by Macdonald as he called San Francisco Seals games in the 1940’s.

“It’s going … going … it’s gone! Right through Aunt Maggie’s window!” shouted Madden in a gravelly voice I can only assume approximated what he heard in his youth when Seals games were carried on KYA.

Radio was in John Madden’s blood. It was here in the Bay Area that he fell in love with it, and here that he made radio magic for 35 years.

Count us all lucky.

Stan Bunger, longtime KCBS news anchor, also hosted the daily “Madden Segment” on the station – including Al Hart on Wednesdays. Stan was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2010.

Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame Logo

John Madden

John Madden’s BARHOF 2015 Presentation Video:

On the occasion of his induction into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in September 2015, John Madden sits down with KCBS morning news anchor Stan Bunger to reminisce on halls of fame, his radio “sidekicks,” and his love of radio in general.

The Madden Segment (December 7, 2006):

It’s a special “Madden Segment” at 8:15 AM on the KCBS Morning News, as Coach Madden joins Al Hart and Stan Bunger to celebrate Al’s selection into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame as a member of the first class to be inducted.

Al Hart Takes A Ribbing – The Madden Segment (2007)

Al Hart takes a literal “ribbing” from John Madden for posing with a “show rib” at the Coach’s annual barbecue in Pleasanton, as heard in this brief fragment from the following Monday’s “Madden Segment.”