Illustration by Dongyun Lee
It’s five minutes to airtime and Mo Egger is freaking out.
His mouth hangs open in disbelief, his eyes the size of Ritz crackers. “That’s unbelievable!” he howls, his befuddled face reflecting off the glass case of a fully stocked vending machine. The scrolling electronic screen just above the bill collector is flashing a message: no sales available.
“It’s filled with Diet Coke and shit!” he yelps, snapping a picture with his phone to document the ridiculousness of the scene. “That’s absurd.”
Four minutes to air. Egger shrugs his shoulders and heads down a narrow hallway of the Clear Channel offices, sequestered in a very corporate-looking building in Kenwood. He turns into the studio where he hosts his sports talk radio show most weekday afternoons, tosses his stack of notes on the table, and positions himself behind the microphone.
Three minutes to air. The show is broadcast on ESPN 1530, a Cincinnati affiliate of the national sports powerhouse that is owned and operated by Clear Channel radio. The 3 to 6 p.m. slot is Egger’s local show, devoted to discussing and prognosticating on the hometown teams. Despite the vending machine outrage, his breezy, nonchalant demeanor in the moments before the broadcast is surprising. Is he always this at ease?
“Lindsay,” he hollers through the glass window that divides the adjoining room, pawning off the inquiry. “Do you get nervous before the show?”
His producer, Lindsay Patterson, smiles and shakes her head. “I never get nervous.”
“I just barfed,” quips Egger, trying to mask a smirk.
“You’re pregnant,” Patterson chimes back.
Two minutes to air.
It’s not as if Egger should be nervous. He’s done this plenty of times. He spent all of this morning in early May poring over his notes, mapping out each segment for the upcoming show, jotting down quick talking points in case he needs a reminder during his off-the-cuff monologues. “You’re only nervous if you’re unprepared,” he says, and that isn’t an issue for him. The man knows sports, lives sports, devotes an overwhelming majority of his waking hours to sports. Talking into a microphone about what he knows best is no cause for concern, regardless of how many people are listening on the other end.
One minute to air. Patterson passes along the 60-second deadline. Egger fidgets in his chair, organizes his notes, pens, and iPad in front of him, adjusts the mic, and punches the cough button as he clears his throat. The red light kicks on. Music pours through his headphones. “Hi!” he bellows into the mic, talking to no one and everyone at the same time. “It’s four minutes after three o’clock on ESPN 1530. Good afternoon, my name is Mo Egger.”
His voice changes slightly when he’s on the air, louder and more pressing, yet still conversational and fluid. If you could see him, the 35-year-old radio host would look like any other overzealous, fashion-challenged sports fan walking the streets. No matter the day, his uniform regularly hews to this line: Bengals T-shirt, jeans, New Balance sneakers, a UC Bearcats hat covering his thinning hair, shading his clean-shaven baby-face and pudgy nose. (“I love having a job where I can dress like a 12-year-old,” he says.) He sounds like a typical Cincinnati sports fan too, because he is one—just a smarter, more knowledgeable exemplar of the breed. His points are rooted in fact and observation, his opinions rational and thoughtful. He’s slow to criticize or dismiss any opposing points of view, even slower to fall into the talk show trap of cultivating hysteria for hysteria’s sake.
Egger is cruising through his first 12-minute segment, happily hashing over an incident from the previous night’s Reds game in minute detail. “I’m always going to talk Reds and Bengals,” he said earlier that afternoon. People expect to hear him talk about sports, and especially the local pro teams, which always garner the biggest response from his listeners. “I’m never going to apologize for playing the hits.”
The red light clicks off. Egger gets up from his seat and disappears into the hallway during the commercial break.
Every know-it-all sports fan thinks he could have his own radio show, could do what Egger just did. But it’s much tougher than it sounds. He ad-libbed 12 straight minutes of astute yet entertaining sports talk, walking a funny and opinionated tightrope without plummeting to overbearing annoyance. He had an engaging conversation with no one but himself, and somehow made it sound easy. Anyone who thinks they could do just as well or better—merely because they follow sports or memorize statistics or aren’t afraid to “tell it like it is”—has clearly never been in that chair, the red light shining back at them. Making it sound easy is exactly what’s so difficult about it.
Suddenly, the studio door swings open again, and in walks Mo—a pack of M&Ms in one hand, a cold bottle of Diet Coke in the other. “All right, now we’re ready to go.”
One minute to air.
Maurice “Mo” Egger lived in New Jersey for most of his childhood, traveling to Northern Kentucky each summer to stay with his grandparents and attend as many Reds games as possible. When he moved to the Cincinnati area full-time with his mother the summer before his senior year of high school, it was the radio that made the transition easier on him.
“I remember thinking, I get to hear Marty and Joe every night now. I get to listen to Gary Burbank every day. When you’re a high school kid, that shouldn’t be your first thought,” says Egger. “I wanted to be on the radio from a very early age. I just knew that.”
He enrolled at the University of Dayton in 1995 solely because of the campus’s independent radio station, which he was told he could start at day one as a freshman. “I was on 2 to 5 a.m., or some bizarre hours,” he recalls, “so I would always stop playing music and start ranting and raving about UD basketball or whatever was going on in sports.” As he describes it, he turned his time slot into a talk show by sheer force of will. “I used to call the night manager at the Burger King on Brown Street every night, get his take on things, ask him to give the phone to people coming through the drive-thru, stuff like that.”
He landed a Clear Channel internship in 1997, the summer between his sophomore and junior years, returning again the next year before quickly earning a paid position—one that led to random producer jobs, behind-the-scenes stuff, and fill-in spots. Then, in 2007, he was put on the air full-time alongside sports writer Gregg Doyel.
“They told me they wanted me to do a show. Just me,” recalls Doyel, now a national columnist for CBS Sports. “And I show up Monday morning or whatever it is, and Mo is sitting in there.” The two were pretty green when it came to hosting their own show, and it lasted only seven months before a Clear Channel staffing purge left Egger with his first solo gig. “All I remember about the show were the bad moments…probably because they were all bad,” chuckles Doyel. “Honestly, I feel like Mo owes me a little bit. I was so bad that they put him in there with me, and he’s had his own show ever since.”
Egger has spent most of that time getting better. Over the years, he has carved out his niche as a fan’s voice on Cincinnati sports radio, rooting for the local teams and declaring his opinions as such, but without succumbing to the ranks of a homer or apologist.
“It’s who I am, and you have to be yourself,” Egger says of his on-air fandom. “I’m not an insider, I’m not a journalist. It sounds overly simplistic, but I’m a fan who gets a microphone. I try to be the fan with common sense.”
Egger literally puts his money where his mouth is as well. He’s a Bengals season-ticket holder. He goes to upwards of 50 Reds games a year. He goes to plenty of Bearcats basketball and football games. When he’s on the radio speaking his mind, it comes from a genuine place. “I think it helps that he’s such a big fan, because the people listening to him are fans,” says Patterson, who’s worked with Egger for the past four years. “That’s why he hates doing postgame shows, because he puts so much emotion into it.”
“Sports talk radio has long been the one avenue where we can still be fans,” says Egger. “I can be a fan. Now, I can’t be a lunatic. But when the teams lose, I’m pissed off. When they win, I’m happy. I try to express that. I hope that emotion comes across.”
He hasn’t always been this levelheaded.
“Everybody gets to a point in life when you start to grow up just a little bit,” says Egger. “When I was in my 20s, I used to stay up in the middle of the night because my team lost. I used to break toasters in my house. But when certain things happen to you, you look at things through a different prism. And I think the show has grown up with that.”
For him, the moment of truth was four years ago, when he lost his father. Despite spending the majority of his childhood with his mother after his parents divorced, Egger established a strong bond with his dad, Dennis, who moved back to Cincinnati while Egger was in college. Their mutual love of sports played a big role.
“The thing that fostered that [relationship] was going to a ton of baseball games, going over to his house and watching the games, calling and talking to him about whatever the local teams were doing,” says Egger. “The most important conversations that I had with my dad were in the Moon Deck at Great American Ball Park, or in red seats at Riverfront, or section 306 at Paul Brown Stadium, the stands at Fifth Third Arena.”
The two were at Great American Ball Park together on May 20, 2009, to watch the Reds take on the Philadelphia Phillies. A few minutes before the first pitch, his dad suffered a heart attack. After the paramedics rushed him to the hospital, Egger raced off to find his car—“which, because I’m a cheap ass, is parked way uptown,” he recalls.
“And I remember running out of breath and just having to walk and saying out loud to myself, Now you have to grow up.” When his father passed away later that night, the impact was unavoidable. It forced him to mature, something he feels has also been reflected in his show.
“You gain an appreciation for the experience of being a sports fan. The outcomes of the games are very, very important to us. We invest time and money and energy rooting for a team. The outcomes matter, but…” He pauses. “I watched the Bengals lose a lot of games with my dad. A lot. And there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t have a great time with him. I’ve watched the Bengals win a lot of games since he passed. Been to the playoffs three times. I’d rather watch them lose and have my dad with me. That ends up being what’s important.”
The changed perspective is obvious in his professional life. He’s sharper, more confident now. His show found and developed its voice—his voice. He became the regular fill-in guy for Lance McAlister on 700 WLW’s Sports Talk. And just last year, through some of his connections with the local ESPN affiliate reps, Egger learned about openings on the national ESPN Radio schedule. He sent in clips of his work to the right people, and last December made a trip to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, to discuss the prospect of working some national broadcasts.
“Just kind of, why not? We’ll see what happens,” he says. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions. If anything I thought, Even if they tell me I suck, they’ll at least tell me why I suck.”
ESPN did no such thing. Instead the network offered him a few national guest spots when there were random openings to fill. His first was in January of this year, and by April, the Worldwide Leader offered him a steady second gig on Thursday and Friday nights, as well as weekend spots when needed. Roughly five years after first being handed the reins to his own show, he’s now being carried by frequencies across the country. He’s still talking into the same mic and sitting in the same studio, but his voice is finding more and more ears.
“He stuck with it. He knew this is what he wanted to do, and now he’s working for ESPN,” says Patterson. “I’m constantly telling him, This is a big deal. I don’t know if he admits it to anyone, but I know he’s happy.”
“Is it a big deal to me? Yeah,” says Egger. “If nothing else, I can say that I did it. But a big deal to other people? I don’t think anybody else really cares. Nor should they. But everything you do has to be a big deal to yourself.”
“I’ll hear him all over the place. There’s Mo, there’s Mo. He’s everywhere,” says Doyel, his former colleague. “And he sounds like the same guy, but he’s more confident now. He’s like a major league player who knows he’s gonna hit .300. I don’t think he worries about that red light anymore.”
After finishing his regular daytime program and polishing off a New York strip at Outback Steakhouse for dinner, Egger heads back into the studio for his Thursday night ESPN Radio show. Minutes before he goes live on what is only his 17th national spot (since May, he’s hosted another 30 or so), Egger is giving off a much different vibe than he was a few hours earlier, when a petulant vending machine was his greatest concern. It’s clearly a different environment: He’s by himself and the producer in his ear is 750 miles away, not cracking jokes in the next room. There are more moving parts to this broadcast, more things to keep tabs on. He’s in the same chair, in front of the same microphone, in the same studio, but his mood has completely changed.
“I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, just less comfortable,” he says, barely glancing up from his notes. “It’s a different format, a different type of show. I’m not consistent enough yet.”
His voice is quieter, too, more reserved. But his nerves show: He’s chewing on his pen cap, reciting things to himself, fidgeting more in his seat. He can’t seem to relax. The only thing that snaps him out of it is the playback of his voice from a pre-recorded interview.
“I hate my voice,” he says, turning down the volume. “If I could physically get away with it, I’d smoke two packs a day to get that deep, smoker’s voice. Like a Bob Trumpy voice. I’d have that leathery skin and look like a first baseman’s mitt, but…”
The voice of his producer cuts in through the headphones. “You good to go, Mo?”
“Yup.” Egger fidgets in his seat again, taking one last look over his notes. One minute to air. He adjusts the microphone, hitting the cough button a couple times out of nervous habit as he clears his throat. He’s sitting forward, staring blankly, talking to himself again. ESPN lead-in music floods his ears as he pulls away from the mic to take one last deep breath, like a swimmer pulling his head above water during a butterfly relay.
But once the show starts, his nerves seem to melt away, as if he simply had to remind himself he knew how to do this. As the minutes tick past he relaxes more and more, and by the first commercial break he looks like the same carefree guy he was earlier that afternoon, talking to no one and everyone at the same time, making it sound easy. As a wise sports talk host once said, “You’re only nervous if you’re unprepared.” And Egger has been preparing for nights like this for years, ever since those 2 a.m. calls to the Burger King on Brown Street.
Things aren’t much different now, really. It’s still talk radio, and he’s still a fan who’s lucky enough to find himself behind a microphone, carrying on about what he knows best. It’s where you can always find him, whether he’s talking to thousands locally in the afternoon or millions nationally at night. On the air, that red light shining back. Talking sports. Playing the hits.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue.