A little over 50 years ago, Tony Riggsbee, one of the pioneers of Triangle sports radio, spoke his first words on the local airwaves.
And they had nothing to do with sports.
“It was just a station break: ‘You’re listening to WPTF FM. Coming soon: Dutch concert hall,'” Riggsbee said of his debut at the former WPTF, which is now WQDR.
Sports radio took a long time to become what it is today. At that time, the very first all-sports radio station was just eight years old.
But the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area with three colleges that excites every fan? It was a market of choice for him.
Rigsbee, who has been the Durham Bulls’ public announcer since 1995 and was born and raised in Bull City, was among the early days of sports radio in the Triangle due to his boss’ vision.
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 newsmagazine show called “Kaleidoscope” that was on every night. Why not try to make it more of a talk show? So, he thought, why not try to add sport to this mix?
“Originally it was a 7-8 general interest talk show. And Bart Ritner was the host of it, the late Bart Ritner. And they did it for about six months. And then they decided, well, why not take a few nights and see if a sports talk show would work?” said Riggsbee. “It was right at the start of the ACC football season in 1972. It was a great time for NC State. Lou Holtz had just arrived from William and Mary. So they started a program called “Sportsline.” It was originally Monday and Friday. Bill Jackson was the host, with Dick Herbert, who had just retired from the News and Observer as a sports editor and was working part-time as executive secretary of the American Football Coaches Association. So they did, Jackson and Herbert, on Monday and Friday nights. On Wednesday nights they had something called “Wolfpack Sportsline” that (former NC State football coach) Lou Holtz did with (former NC State radio presenter) Wally Ausley. And then it became the Norm Sloan Show.”
Coach shows have been around for a while and existed before that. Riggsbee himself did one with then-head coach Mike McGee that was more like the coach shows they were used to, where they didn’t take fan calls and were pre-recorded.
Once they started taking calls on the NC State Coach Shows, things got interesting.
“It was always cordial to Lou Holtz, because he was the newcomer in town and he had just arrived. That’s not always the case 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 what Jim Valvano would later have.
“And of course Norm Sloan had a bit of a combative personality anyway, so it was a bit different. But those programs were successful.”
Hosts were allowed to voice their opinions. But fans have also begun to voice their own.
Even in the early 1970s, before things like message boards or social media, fans had to pass their one-line jokes on their rivals.
“There were always things you would have people with Carolina and Duke, mainly Carolina, hating Carolina who would end up calling 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 towards Duke for fans in the state back then. But there was more animosity towards Duke after 1980, when Mike Krzyzewski came along, than there was in the 1970s because… Duke basketball was not Duke basketball. of today and and of course State was coming out of 1970 heading for the national championship in 1974 and great seasons under Norm Sloan.”
Riggsbee has worked on 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 started talking about sports.
And that passion has manifested itself in an area that has become a literal industry for media today: recruiting.
Sportsline blossomed into a daily show which, in the 1980s and 90s, lasted two and then three hours a night. And people wanted to talk about recruiting even then.
“The other dynamic that developed throughout the year was recruiting, which became huge and started in the mid-’70s,” Riggsbee said. “There were the recruiting experts… All these guys came in very regularly. And (the callers) were always excited. It was one call after another.
“Most of the time 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 anyone I can remember. Curtis Hunter? 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 didn’t seem to live with it as far as basketball.”
Since Riggsbee has been around for so long and held so many positions, he’s seen a lot of important Triangle stories. He did not personally cover UNC’s 1982 national title celebration, but some of his colleagues did. Riggsbee replaced play by play for a few games, including the start of NC State’s winning streak that began late in the regular season.
He did, however, make it to the NC State campus for his 1983 celebration. WPTF sent Riggsbee and Mike Raley to the Brickyard to cover for him, win or lose.
“We were right outside the DHL library, listening to the radio call. And then it broke,” Riggsbee said. “Suddenly we see couches on fire and things like that. So Raley and I decided we better get back to the news (van). We were right behind a WBTV van coming down from Charlotte. And then the students had , how should we say it, let’s get more lubricated at that time. We were in there and all of a sudden we got rocked by just huge and that’s the first time I saw the psychology of the crowd.
“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 ‘loop’ thing and then suddenly there was a guy standing outside. My window was He was telling me to roll up the window There was a guy over there who wanted to urinate in the car because the guy was so exhausted over there So we survived that and we left the campus one way or another.
Like many members of the media during this time, Riggsbee grew close to Jim Valvano. They only had a brief falling out – when the scandals started to break out in the early 1990s, Riggsbee told Sportsline it was a conflict of interest for Valvano to stay on as sporting director.
“Valvano calls me one day and says, ‘Come to my office. I want to talk about it.’ And he and he basically said, ‘What do you have against me?’ I said, “Coach, I have nothing against you. I love you personally. I just think in this situation there should be another sporting director overseeing the program.” And you know what Valvano said? He said: “That’s fair enough. I have no problem with that.”
“We were still 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 kind of stuff. I never believed in it. . But it was the passions of the time.”
Riggsbee’s own passion, however, is not recruiting, football or basketball.
That’s baseball, and the Durham native grew up with the Bulls and has been in love with both ever since.
He also got to see the region fall in love with the Bulls.
“I was actually watching the year before Joe Morgan: 1962, when I was nine. It was the first year my dad had season tickets for the Bulls,” Riggsbee said, “and so I got hooked on that time. … I started watching baseball constantly on television and buying all the books about baseball. There was an old slogan that baseball had in the 70s and 80s: “The fever baseball: catch it, it lasts forever.” With me, it does.”
The Bulls left briefly, from 1972 to 1979. They returned in 1980, and Riggsbee was able to go play-by-play but was never the regular guy. At the time, he couldn’t afford it because the Bulls were only offering $37 a game.
He also saw the experience of minor league fans grow. “In the 60s, it was just baseball. That was it. From the 80s, there was a bit of an entertainment aspect. Sometimes there were games on the field, from the field to the board game . There’s a name, but it escapes me. And maybe a run or two,” Riggsbee said. “But it didn’t work as long as we were in the old baseball stadium (Durham Athletic Park). You couldn’t do fireworks there because there were oil storage tanks there. across the street. And so the fire marshal is not allowing fireworks from the old ballpark.”
The new park, DBAP, opened in 1995 and fireworks have not been a problem there since. But one film had already made the franchise famous: Bull Durham.
Riggsbee isn’t going to quibble about the little details that the movie went wrong, but one of them stands out for him.
“What they understood, I think, was the passion that a lot of fans had for the Bulls. What they understood was the struggle of players and casual veterans. … Unlike the movie , that would have been extremely unusual for a player with the amount of experience Crash Davis had to come down to Class A ball, but it was great for the story. You saw the struggle there,” Riggsbee said. “I guess what I didn’t like the most about the movie was the fact that the guy they were doing radio with was a hayseed and Durham Bulls radio was never like Because if you know (former Bulls owner) Miles Wolff, that’s the last thing he would want.”
Riggsbee also enjoyed watching the Bulls’ progress on the field. They were once affiliated with the Atlanta Braves, and former Braves great Chipper Jones was once a Durham bull. Riggsbee hosted his induction into the International League Hall of Fame. Braves manager Brian Snitker, who led them to the World Series title? Also a bull.
Since transitioning to a Rays affiliate, however, 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 great teams. You’re not never been able to get championships when with Tampa Bay it was one championship after another,” Riggsbee said. “And we saw that Tampa Bay is a prototype of how to build a team through your farming system and the success that they’ve had.”