What would you do if a local radio legend and a new co-worker’s first words to you were a gruff, half-snarled, “Who are you?”
Would you make a documentary about him? That’s what Crystal Vasquez did.
Vasquez, a former TV journalist with KDFW Fox 4, among others, first met Mike Rhyner when she was hired at the radio station he founded, 1390 The Ticket, to fill in for the traffic reporter, who was on maternity leave. Her first meeting might have been inauspicious, but actually it was typical Rhyner.
“I knew of him,” said Vasquez. “Obviously when you get hired through The Ticket, you got to do some research. And so I was familiar with the name and then I think the first time he and I ever spoke words was when I walked into their broadcast center.
“I sat down with my traffic notes. And it’s kind of dark in there. For some reason they dim the lights, it’s really dark. But I just looked up and there was Corby and Corby said ‘hello’ and then Mike just looked at me from across the table and said, ‘Who are you?’ And it was kind of intimidating.”
Their “conversation” – if you can call it that, consisted of Vasquez replying, “Crystal,” followed by “I’m just here filling in for Becca, the traffic girl.”
Rhyner didn’t make any more comment, but as she continued to work there and research the station, Vasquez began to think about a documentary. Vasquez grew up in Arlington and graduated from Mansfield Summit. She honed her video storytelling skills at the University of North Texas. She now has her own business, CV Wonder Films, that seeks to do a bit more than the 30-second nightly news story.
“I’m passionate just about storytelling. Local TV news when I was in it, it wasn’t what I thought it would be,” she said. “You’re dictated by the story of the day, which in this market is always the Cowboys. So every day when I was at Fox, they would say, ‘okay, go to the Jason Garrett presser’ or ‘go talk to Dez’ or whatever,” Vasquez said.
That repetitive nature of TV news reporting was “limiting my ability to tell in depth stories,” she said.
“For me, I wanted to break out of that mold and do something, do a story that’s more in depth and stories that aren’t told by everybody,” she said.
No surprise, then, that two of her mentors were some great storytellers – Nann Goplerud, formerly with WFAA and currently at the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT, and Arnold Payne, a longtime WFAA photojournalist.
After getting to know Rhyner beyond the “Who are you?” conversation, Vasquez began to see the vague outline of a documentary.
Friends who heard her on The Ticket were her first clue. “They were fascinated about this station that was just different,” she said. Eventually, she began to focus on the on-air talent who was part of the “little Ticket’s” founding: the enigmatic, occasionally gruff Mike Rhyner.
Meeting a new fill-in host once on the air, Rhyner ended what he saw as a dull conversation with “5-4-3-2-1, and we’re done.” The “drop” is still used on the station and the fill-in host has yet to surface.
“I’m a storyteller first and foremost. I’m always an advocate for the underdog,” she said. “So as much notoriety as Rhyner’s built in his career, the underlying theme of this documentary is going against status quo, breaking barriers and doing what you believe, even though people don’t believe in you.”
If you don’t know Rhyner, you’re pretty rare if you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. You’ve probably heard him on the radio or with one of his many bands, most currently, the Tom Petty cover band. Petty Theft. A graduate of Kimbell High School, Rhyner eventually studied radio broadcasting at the University of Texas at Arlington. If you go back far enough in the area, to 1979, you likely heard Rhyner’s early work with KZEW, then the popular and highly rated rock ‘n’ roll station (think WKRP in Cincinnati in the flesh). If you listen to tapes of his broadcasts then, you can be forgiven if you don’t exactly see a budding superstar (budding pun intended).
He gained a measure of notoriety at KZEW when he received a letter from presidential assassin John Hinkley Jr. He then moved on to WBAP, occasionally penning articles on music with a musician’s understanding, as he has played in a variety of bands since high school.
In 1994, along with a few others and some paper clips and spit, Rhyner created Dallas’ first all-sports station, The Ticket. Though it struggled to make it as an independent station, it was an instant hit with passionate fans (termed P1s after some radio jargon) and has remained so for a shocking 26 years, highly rated among the coveted adult male demographic. Despite that continued success, in January of this year, Rhyner walked away, literally in a video that made him look a bit like a kidnap victim. He has since resurfaced for some guest sports on various radio stations – including The Ticket – and has just announced a podcast with The Athletic.
The Ticket is big on nicknames and the name of Vasquez’s documentary on him is Rhyner’s, courtesy of the P1: The Old Grey Wolf.
If you don’t know The Ticket, they have a host, Gordon Keith, who is a man of 1,000 voices, sometimes all at once, and his “Fake Jerry Jones” is often referenced by Troy Aikmen during FOX NFL games. They also once had a producer who would go to sports press conferences and talk like “1920s Reporter Guy,” named “Scoops” Callahan and occasionally pissed off overpaid athletes, while some – like Phil Mickelson – played along to great comic effect. “Champ, let me ask you about tonight,” Callahan asked of LeBron James. “How do you and your hard-boiled cagers from Lakerland plan to put the lid on Luka Doncic and his razzmatazz, hop skiddley-doo on the money-making end of the court?”
I asked Vasquez how the idea for the documentary began.
“I just thought it was interesting that he started with a very popular rock and roll station, morphed that into creating a radio station that was more popular than his rock and roll station,” she said. She felt there was more there.
Vasquez knew Hardline (Rhyner’s show on The Ticket) producer Danny Balis and in the summer of 2019, she asked him if Rhyner would be open to a documentary. She emailed Rhyner and was sort of surprised when he answered: “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
But she didn’t jump on it and then, in January, Rhyner abruptly announced his retirement from the station he co-founded and continues to contain his DNA. She approached him again and they began.
She began shooting video of Rhyner at his old school, at the original Ticket studios. They talked about more than just The Ticket (“It’s not a documentary on The Ticket,” says Vasquez, “it’s about Mike and obviously a lot of that is The Ticket.”) Dallas history, going to school in Dallas during the days of segregation, the Kennedy assassination and his early days at KZEW and The Ticket.
“He’s been through a lot of changes in Dallas,” said Vasquez. “And one subject we talked about in the documentary is the topic of segregation and how he went to Kimball High School and through all his elementary, junior high, high school, he never went to school with a single black person,” she said. “That to me was interesting because we can’t … I mean, I’m in my early thirties, I can’t fathom the idea of segregation. It doesn’t make sense to me. But Mike lived it.”
Rhyner still has trouble with all the interest in him.
“It just does not connect, no matter what,” said Rhyner. “I just can’t imagine that reticent, skinny little kid from Oak Cliff ever accomplishing anything that somebody would want to do a documentary about. The two just don’t square up. But here we are.”
Vasquez felt Rhyner was a bit skeptical until she showed him her first edits. “It came together, we built this sort of camaraderie.”
It was a long way from “Who are you?”
Vasquez spoke to John Rody, the former KZEW DJ who now lives and spins platters in Fort Worth and other co-workers, including Greg “Greggo” Williams. Greggo was the initial “star” at The Ticket and Rhyner’s radio partner. They had an infamous flameout at the station that resulted in Greggo’s dismissal. It was a very public breakup and the two have not spoken in years. Others interviewed include Dale Hansen, Randy Galloway, Brad Sham and even Ken Rundel, who first hired Rhyner at KZEW. And, of course, Ticket hosts George Dunham and Corby Davidson.
And, of course, Rhyner talks about music.
“In the doc we interviewed Jordan Rhyner, his daughter, and she talks about how the radio was always on and he would give her quizzes about bands that were relevant during his time,” said Vasquez. “And he plays guitar throughout the documentary.”
Music, in fact, gets a shout out at a screening of the film on Sept. 16 and 17 as a fundraiser for #SaveOurStages, a live-music nonprofit to aid musicians during the pandemic.
The documentary itself uses music from local musicians, The Toadies, Charlie Crockett, The Quaker City Nighthawks and The Orbans and others.
“Fans can expect [from the documentary] a thorough journey of a legendary figure here in Dallas Fort Worth, with commentary from a lot of his peers and equals that were along for the journey,” said Vasquez.
And look for information soon on how you can see the documentary. Vasquez doesn’t want to spill the beans before everything is signed, sealed and delivered.
For Rhyner, it remains a bit of a mystery, but he is on board with the documentary and the current state of his life.
“I love my scene these days,” he says.
Neetish Basnet contributed to this report.