It's probably taken us too long to catch up with Dan Needles. After all, he spends the first few hours of his day alongside OnMilwaukee.com Senior Editor Drew Olson as co-host of "The D-List" on Milwaukee's ESPN Radio affiliate (540 AM).
Then, he heads over to his "full-time" job, sports director at WISN 12 (with which we also have a promotional relationship).
But Needles, 45, is an easy interview subject. He's a Waukesha native who still roots for his home teams. He started his career in Wausau, New London and Chippewa Falls, but has been working locally for the last 18 years. He's seen TV sports coverage change of the years, and he's changed along with it.
Still, Needles' style is all his own. For a guy who's played golf with Brett Favre and once worked as a lifeguard, Needles is the last to complain about the 14-hour days. "It's not digging ditches," he says.
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Dan Needles.
OMC: You start at 9 a.m. on the radio, but you must get here earlier to do some show prep, right?
DN: Maybe 8:59. Bill (Johnson) and Drew do all the work, then I show up and stay stupid things and leave at noon.
OMC: Do you go straight to Channel 12?
DN: Sometimes. It depends on what's going on that day and who's working. Today, I'm solo, so I'm going right in. But on a normal weekday, I get up around 7:30, take two of my girlfriend's kids to school, come in here, go home and try to take a nap for a half hour, get ready for work and go to the TV station.
OMC: And what time does that wrap up?
DN: Usually about 10:45 p.m. I work Sunday through Thursday. I've been at Channel 12 for 18 years, and at the radio station since 2004.
OMC: Are you burning out at all?
DN: If it were something that I didn't like, I might be, but to be honest, doing radio is more fun than doing television -- and that's no knock because (Channel 12) is the most important job to me. But this, we're just talking sports, nothing else. It's not work, it's just a lot of fun.
OMC: Is hard to go back and forth between straight reporting and hosting a show with some humor?
DN: It is sometimes. When Brett Favre retired, and I wasn't opinionated in any way, on TV I mentioned that I was there for Favre's first pass, which he completed to himself in Tampa, and I was there for his last pass, which was an interception. A viewer called in about my "acid tongue," and how "this is supposed to be a day we're celebrating, and why do you have to bring up that he threw an interception ..." And that wasn't even opinionated! It's really hard sometimes to catch myself and not be too opinionated on TV, because they're not paying me for that. They're paying me to report.
DN: I started in Wausau in 1987, and I was there for two and a half years. I went from one Saturday night where I had eight minutes of sports. When I came to Channel 12, I think it was three and four, or something. Now at 6 p.m., I get two minutes and 15 seconds. At 10 p.m., I get three minutes. It's much more concise. Everything in television is so much about click points and commercials at exactly this time. You can't ramble on like you used to. There were fewer games available to show highlights of. The Brewers are going to be on TV every game this year, and baseball is hard to go out and shoot yourself. We used to put scoreboards up, now you have the crawl at the bottom of the screen. You don't have a reporter ripping through 20 scores. The biggest change has been with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, the way they injected humor and sarcasm and everything else. A lot of people lightened up with the way they delivered sports.
OMC: Have you found yourself emulating those guys? Who were your role models as you developed your own style?
DN: You can't help but pick up some of that stuff. It's really hard not to copy somebody that you really like when you're 22 and watching someone on ESPN. There are times when I've caught myself doing exactly that. I'm not here to do a bad impression of Keith Olbermann. Growing up in Milwaukee, I watched Channel 12 because they had sports on before weather. I really liked Rod Luck, who was completely different as a sportscaster than anyone else at the time. Then Ron Swoboda, and Tom Sutton, and I ended up working with Tom. It's interesting that I wound up working for the station that I grew up watching, because they were always a little bit different.
OMC: It's a little unusual that you could rise to this level in your own hometown, isn't it?
DN: It's a huge blessing. Most of the people I work with, there are quite a few from Wisconsin, but maybe not from Milwaukee. They haven't been able to be here as long. We're seeing more and more people from Wisconsin getting the chance to work in Milwaukee -- younger people. It used to be that if you started, it would be in small market like I did in Wausau or Rhinelander or La Crosse. You'd have to work up to a medium market. Now people are going from the small market right to Milwaukee.
OMC: I'm not sure that's a good thing.
DN: If they're good, why not? There's a lot better training now in colleges. That was the best part of working in a small market. I loved working in Wausau, there were people my own age. I made a lot of mistakes, but I was able to make them without a ton of people watching. As soon as I got to Milwaukee, I was at a live broadcast at Luke's Sports Spectacular talking about a boxing match and I was trying to say, "It's been a whale of a fight," but I said, "It's been a whale of a fart." It made the "Sports Hall of Shame" calendar.
OMC: Did you grow up as a fan of our local teams?
OMC: Have you been able to turn that off and report objectively?
DN: I've lived in Wisconsin my whole life, and it's hard to turn that off. And I don't even want to. I think the viewers appreciate if you're a fan of that team. I'm certainly not Pollyannaish. I've been ripped by some of the teams for being too much of a critic. But I grew up in the vast wasteland of the Packers, and I'm still a huge fan. When they lost the championship game to New York, I winced a little bit. It made life easier, because I would have a day off after a three-week stretch. But I loved doing it, and I don't think it would be the same if I was covering the Bears or White Sox. I hate Chicago.
DN: When I first started, the first time I tried to interview Robin Yount, I basically stuttered. I think that went away after about a year. When they retired Kareem Abdul Jabbar's number, I felt like Chris Farley in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Now because all the athletes are younger than I am, it doesn't matter.
OMC: I understand you've been to Brett Favre's house.
DN: I have not been inside the gates in Hattiesburg. In Green Bay, I was. After Brett's first year with the Packers, we did a weekly sit-down interview with him and Reggie White. At the time, I didn't realize I was sitting with two Hall of Famers. I went to Favre's house, saw his basement. I had to sit there for a half an hour and I just looked at his collection of football jerseys. That was at the beginning of his career. I can imagine what it must look like now. He had a couple of taps behind the bar going. I got to play golf with him. Some athletes you see, you know exactly what they are behind the scenes, and then the cameras turn on and they're happy. He certainly wasn't that way.
OMC: Will that be a relationship that you remember for the rest of your career?
DN: Without a doubt. He is a lot like me in some ways that I don't want to necessarily say -- very human ways. We both grew up around the same time. Not just as kids, but as adults learning to mature. It was really neat to see how he did that. Was he ever a bad guy? No, but he certainly took advantage of his fame. I give him and his wife a lot of credit for a marriage in the spotlight with all that they've gone through. I've seen people give up on a lot less.
OMC: How does it feel to be recognized in Milwaukee?
DN: I don't go to bars much anymore, because of a combination of diabetes and that I'm just too old. When I do, someone wants to talk about the Packers or the Brewers. That doesn't bother me. It is a little weird at times. I've been dating a woman for a year and a half. It took a little while for her to get used to that.
OMC: On air, are you a caricature or an exaggerated version of yourself? Or is it really you?
DN: I'm very boring. When I do have days off I like to sit on my couch and watch TV. But I've always been kind of a clown. Coaches hated me because I was always smarting off. I've never tried to have a television personality. I've tried to be myself, and I know some people don't like that.
OMC: Do you hope to spend the rest of your career here, or do you have network aspirations?
DN: When I was younger, I always thought about what it would be like to work at ESPN or something. But my goal was always to get to Milwaukee, and I was shocked when I got it. It was luck, I wasn't the most qualified, but the timing was perfect. I've never wanted to leave.
A few years back, I investigated a job in Dallas. I thought about it briefly, but that was when I was still doing weekends, and I really wanted to stay here. My family and friends are still here. I love Milwaukee. I would love to spend the rest of my career here. Whether they want me to, that's a different story.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.