Pat Conneen

50 Years Of WBBM Newsradio Sports Reporters: Zach Zaidman

May 15, 2018 - 11:41 am

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- In honor of WBBM Newsradio's 50th anniversary, some of WBBM Newradio's sportscasters, past and present, have shared their Newsradio memories.

WBBM Newsradio's Josh Liss spoke with Zach Zaidman to look back at his career with the station. 

Liss: It’s good to see you Zach!

"Fantastic to be here. You brought me here!" Zaidman said.

Liss: Well, we’re going to get into that in a moment, as far as how you started at WBBM Radio. This is part of our Entercom family, obviously, at 670 The Score, doing pre- and post- and play-by-play for Cubs baseball, it’s a brand new gig, and we’re excited to hear about that. But you have to leave the Bears to do the Cubs, man! What’s the deal with that?

"It’s a terrible life, isn’t it?"

Liss: But still, we miss you! On the Bears sideline starting this fall it’ll be Mark Grote, who we also talk to in this series, but still – the balance of getting into Cubs baseball must be special too.

"Yeah. That’s the thing. We’re talking about one of the royal franchises in any sport, and an opportunity to do play-by-play, work with Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer, everyone associated with that team.  How could I turn it down?"Zaidman said. "The Bears…great part of my life, and I had some really good times covering the Bears, and there were some great years too.  They weren’t all lean years.  But, I think, going to the Cubs – especially this era, this Golden Age of modern baseball in Chicago is unbelievable."

Liss: Let’s spin back, let’s go back more than a decade, and talk about how long your tenure at ‘BBM was.  When did it all start for you?

"1999.  I was in Las Vegas, and I was the update anchor on “The Pete Rose Show,”" he said.

Liss: That’s right.  The Pete Rose, the Hit King from Major League Baseball.

"He used to call me ‘Zach Attack.’  I would respond by calling him ‘The Hit King.’ I think he called me ‘Zach Attack’ because he didn’t remember my last name was Zaidman, but that’s okay! Learned a lot about baseball talking to him every day, and then on the weekends I would host a football show with former Chicago Bear Tim Ryan, who went on to bigger and better things – he’s now the color analyst on the 49ers radio broadcasts. But the thing that I missed: professional teams.  Vegas didn’t have that at the time, and obviously Chicago did.  Back then we used to send cassette tapes – kids, Google it – and I send you a cassette tape," Zaidman said.

Liss: A demo reel of some of your work, an example of your work.

"Exactly.  And it must have been some fantastic work, because you called me back and said ‘How would you like to come to Chicago?’  And I said, ‘Absolutely!’ And I’ve been here ever since. 1999," he said.

Liss: How about that. So we made a good choice with you, bringing you to town. And as far as other connections to Chicago…you came here as a young man at what age? And you didn’t really know anyone?

"Yeah.  I was 25 years old.  Now, I did know a few people, because there were a lot of Syracuse alums that were working in the Chicago area. They told me ‘Hey, it’s a great city, just ignore the traffic and the weather and you’ll love it’.  And that’s kind of been my attitude ever since," Zaidman said.

Liss:  So it’s 1999, and here you go. Sports at :15 and :45, get it all in, in two minutes or less. How was the adjustment – and do you remember the lockout?

"I don’t remember the lockout ‘cuz it kept changing!" he said.

Liss: Oh, come on! It did keep changing.

"Every few weeks there was something new, and we had different bosses coming in and out…it was a very turbulent time.  But everything changed.  I came here in 1999 and then by 2001, everything at the station changed when the Bears came to WBBM.  That changed my life.  Jeff Joniak became the play-by-play guy, and then in 2001 he would have me in Platteville hanging out with him, kind of shadowing everything he was doing.  And before you know it there was that year where the Bears moved to Champaign while they were renovating Soldier Field, and that was a game-changer for me," Zaidman said. 

Liss: So, when you say game-changer…express that even more.  What do you mean?  Because you’re just an update guy at that point, you’re hanging around the Bears, Jeff – you know, part of our team at WBBM – showing the ropes to a degree.  How do you get from that position to Bears sideline reporter?

"So, I was just looking to do extra stuff. All I was doing was sports updates at :15 and :45, essentially every weekend, every evening during the weekday," he said.

Liss: You were the holiday guy, the weekend guy.

"Yeah.  There were no days off for me.  Which isn’t a bad thing – I mean, I am talking sports – but a very rigorous schedule.  Anyway, the point is, so, we go down to Champaign just to kind of help out, report after the game, get some soundbites for you guys to use in the sportscasts.  And there was one day when I roll in to Champaign, walk up to the broadcast booth just to say hi to Jeff, Tom and Hub Arkush at the time.  And all of a sudden, Jeff takes the headset and the microphone, throws it at me, and goes 'Hey.  I need you to do a 90-second pregame report.  It’s gotta be 90 seconds.  Not 91, not 89.' I go, 'Okay, from where?' 'From the field.  Go!' He closes the door.  I don’t even know how to get down to the field.  But the reason I had to do this is because our good friend Mike Adamle was the radio sideline at the time on the broadcasts.  But he had also committed to doing sidelines for television and forgot that he was doing radio, for whatever reason!" Zaidman said.

Liss: That sounds like a difficult task!

"We’ve all been there! And I’m not a good multi-tasker either, so it probably would have happened to me as well," he said.

Liss: And you find yourself in the middle of an audition, basically!

"Pretty much!  So I find my way – I needed a GPS to get down to the field.  I get down there, I’m shaking.  What am I gonna talk about for a minute and a half, which seems like an eternity?  They had just changed the field surface at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  They had gone to this synthetic stuff.  So I find the groundskeeper, I start asking him all these questions about it, I’m writing down all the information, I get my stopwatch out – not longer, not less – boom.

"They go to me, I nailed it!  I gotta be honest with you.  It’s one of the few times I was proud of myself. I didn’t stumble, it was a good report.  I go back upstairs to give them the headset and the microphone and they go 'No!  You’re down there for the whole game!'

"Now I’m really nervous.  What do I talk about?  Where do you stand on a sideline during the middle of the game?  And no one knows who I am, I’m this young pup, all I do is night updates on WBBM.  So I get down there, and over the course of the game I come up with these interesting nuggets just watching football.  Come back upstairs, Jeff said 'Good job.' I thought that was up.

"The next day he calls me up and goes, 'Do you have a suit?'  I go 'Yeah, of course I have a suit.'  He goes, 'Good.  You’re coming to Miami next weekend.'

"And that’s kind of how it started. I did a few games during the 2002 regular season, and during the 2003 regular season – that was the first year that Soldier Field opened up, the renovated version – but during that season I was doing only the road games.  And the Cubs happened to make that magical run before the Bartman play," Zaidman said.

Liss: Now, you’re getting to the point where I remember sitting with you at some memorable playoff games, exactly.

"Oh, it was unbelievable.  We were down in Miami and you thought 'Man, this is really gonna happen.  The Cubs are finally gonna do it.'  They come back to Wrigley Field and you’ve got Mark Prior and Kerry Wood going back-to-back games," he said.

Liss: Yeah. We’re in the ’03 playoffs.  Here they are, they dropped that game they could have clinched in Miami, which you’re alluding to, and here, like you’re saying, the two best pitchers on the team lined up, all you need is one win – and they got within five outs.

"Yeah. And I remember being down in the camera well at Wrigley Field. This is game number six, because Mark Prior is cruising. Then all of a sudden there’s a fly ball that’s kind of slicing into the stands there in left field, and you know, from the camera well at the time at Wrigley Field, you couldn’t really tell what was going on.  All I see is Prior pointing to the stands. I see Moises Alou jumping up and down. I’m thinking it’s a foul ball. And then you see these fans…they’re using language that we would never use, Josh," Zaidman said.

Liss: Yeah, that got hot quick, in that section, in the Bartman section!

"Security is swarming the area!  And you realized…oh, no.  Oh no!  Then after that the whole thing fell apart," he said.

Liss: They melted down from there.

"After the game, Moises Alou is just going through the whole thing about how, you know, ‘I was right there, I thought I could have it,’ whatever. But you’re thinking ‘okay, take a deep breath, Kerry Wood’s on the mound,’" Zaidman said.

"Cubs go down 3-0, early on, in game number seven.  And then Kerry Wood hits a game-tying three-run shot!  I’ve never heard Wrigley shake, never felt it shake, the way it did that night. But we all know what happened, and that was that."

Liss: They’d have to wait thirteen more years for their breakthrough. And now two years after that you’re doing Cubs play-by-play!  So you’ve got some of that history.  Memorable stories that you covered here at WBBM…you’re talking about getting on that Bears beat, they made a Super Bowl.  You’re talking about covering Cubs playoff games where there really aren’t that many over the course of time!  The White Sox have done special things, the Blackhawks have done special things…what else stands out as far as memorable stories that you reported on for WBBM?

"The Monday Night Football game in 2006 in Arizona.  Bears down 20-3 at halftime," Zaidman said.

Liss: “They are what we thought they were.” – Dennis Green, right?

"Exactly. 'Crown ‘em. You wanna crown ‘em?' But halftime…all of a sudden players are racing out of the locker room, and I had a staff member tell me 'man, you had to be in that locker room. You don’t understand what just went on.' And Olin Kreutz had given this fiery speech about how, ‘we’re not going out this way’.  Ron Rivera had lit up the defense.  And they come out – and the Bears basically had no offense – they rallied back to win the game.  And if you remember, the former Illini kicker Neil Rackers had an opportunity, even after all that, to win the game for Arizona.  But he missed a field goal, which is why Dennis Green lost his mind.  And I was in the locker room after the game interviewing Bears, and they had the feed of the Denny Green press conference live on the TV.  And as he was losing his mind going through that rant – ‘you wanna crown ‘em?  The Bears are who we thought they were’ – all the Bears are quiet now, watching this.  And then he gets done, he smacks the lectern and walks off.

"And then, all of a sudden, there’s a Bear that breaks up – I forget who it was – and just goes “BEARRRRSSSSS.” And everyone starts cheering in that Bears locker room after watching Dennis Green. So that was a great moment. Super Bowl," Zaidman said.

Gary W. Green/MCT/Sipa USA

Liss: Yeah, tell us…Devin Hester takes the opening kickoff, you’re thinking ‘this is ours.’

"What was interesting is, a couple of nights before the game, I’m down in the hotel lobby, and Mike Brown’s talking to me – he couldn’t play, it was killing him, he was injured and was not going to be able to play in the game – and he goes, 'We are so much better than them on special teams. I’m telling you right now, we’re scoring a touchdown on special teams.'

"And they did. Right from the get-go.  Devin Hester, the opening kickoff for a touchdown, first time in the history of the Super Bowl that’s happened in the rain. Deion Sanders – his good friend, who’s working for NFL Network – jumps over my shoulders on the sideline to go congratulate Devin Hester.  What a moment, and you’re thinking, 'there’s no way they’re losing!'  Well, they lost," Zaidman said.

Liss: Well it was Peyton Manning. Who took wet snaps every week from a barrel of wet balls during his career, and it rained in the Super Bowl.  He was ready!

"But you know what?  It wasn’t necessarily Peyton Manning. It was the fact that Manning was almost a decoy in that game, because they kept handing it off, and the Bears, without Tommie Harris out there, could not stop the run," he said.

David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT/Sipa USA

Liss: They were so close.  They were so close. But the NFC Championship Game was a memorable one too…so what else are we forgetting about. You, at WBBM, maybe some of the other people you’ve worked with over the years.  What stands out from your time here?

"I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the name Eric Brown. One of the longtime voices in the history of this distinguished station. He was my mentor early on, teaching me the way, always making me feel like I was part of the family. And you know, at a lot of radio stations, that’s not necessarily the case. Everyone’s kind of selfish and they go about their own way. But Eric Brown welcomed me with open arms and taught me everything that I needed to know, where I felt like I had the Cliff’s Notes version for success.  He’s one of the best men that I’ve ever met in my life, in this business, because he was so authentic," Zaidman said.

Liss: It’s nice to hear you say that. We miss Eric to this day, we lost him just a few years ago, and he’s certainly part of the fabric of WBBM Sports over the years. What’s the future going to bring to a news radio station?  How do you imagine people getting their information?  Is radio even going to be around in another 50 years, Zach?

"I think radio is always going to be around. How we listen to it, and the medium in which we listen to radio, might be different. But I think it’s always going to be around.  You’re always going to have people who want to drive cars, right? So if that’s the case there’s always going to be an opportunity to listen to radio. I think podcasts are something…it might morph into different areas. But I think there’s an intimate relationship between ‘us’ and ‘you.’ And when you have those headphones on, I think there’s something special that takes place on radio," he said.

"And by the way, I also need to point out – you guys got rid of me!  You traded me!" Zaidman said.

Liss: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.  Are we gonna…now you mentioned sort of a management upheaval earlier in this interview…you wanna give a ten second recap, you were traded once.

"I was traded, I’m one of the few people in this industry, I was traded for Dave Kerner in 2004. Everyone’s happy, but Kerner had covered the Bears for The Score, they traded me to The Score, and you’d think one trade in a lifetime is enough for a man who does radio – I’ve been traded twice!" he said.

Liss: Yeah, the Grote swap. Just goes to show, you’ve kept your value up! After all these years.