BAY AREA SPORTS RADIO TITANS
Brian Murphy& Mark Willard
GO HEAD TO HEAD
By Dennis Strazulo
For the past several years, Mill Valley residents Brian Murphy and Mark Willard have been circling each other’s orbit in and around town. Prior to that, they were doing the same in their professional careers for over 10 years as sports-oriented radio broadcasters. But it took an interview and photo shoot with Mill Valley Living to allow these fine gentlemen more than a moment to enjoy each other’s company.
Photos by Cameron Cressman Photography
From our perspective, the experience was delightful, which also describes the personalities of these two friends who, as fate would have it, are now “competing” on the airwaves.
Murphy’s parents, Bea and Bob, moved to Mill Valley in 1961 where they raised son Brian (also affectionately known as “Murph”) , his sister Katy, and brother Kevin, who still lives in town. After venturing to LA for a spell, where he attended UCLA and pursued his quest to become a national sports journalist, Murph found his way back to the Bay Area, settling back in Mill Valley to raise his family. Fate changed direction for him in 2004 when he was hired to anchor the morning show on KNBR radio (aka “The Sports Leader”). He’s been on the air, in the morning time slot, since that time. It’s been an unexpected stretch he thought would last no more than his two-year contract before he returned to his passion for writing, spawned in high school where he was Editor of Tam News and then while scribing for Mill Valley’s town newspaper, The Record as a young man. Murphy is currently co-host of the “Murph and Mac Show” with Marin County resident, Paul McCaffrey (“Paulie Mac”), which has run since 2006.
Willard’s journey to Mill Valley is more recent, though he’s a Bay Area native where he became entrenched as a Giants/49ers/Warriors fan growing up in the Peninsula. He served time in Southern California for 18 years, but always with an eye up North, starting with his first local Los Angeles primetime show, sitting beside Mychal Thompson, father of Golden State Warrior guard, Klay Thompson. He followed that by hosting on-air stints locally and nationwide for ESPN and Fox Sports Radio before taking his dream job at KNBR in 2019. At KNBR Willard held down the evening sports talk show slot, doing so for over a year from a makeshift studio in his Mill Valley home due to the pandemic. He and Murphy worked together at the station, in opposite time slots, until last month when he accepted a position co-hosting “Willard and Dibs” on Bay Area Sports Radio KGMZ-FM (aka “95.7 The Game”).
For both acclaimed broadcasters, staying close to home was paramount to pursuing an avenue of their careers that would have put them on the road and thus away from their families. Murphy had dreams of writing for Sports Illustrated journaling sports on a national scale, a real possibility after successful periods as a beat writer reporting on the 49ers and A’s for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and covering the PGA Tour for the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on Tiger Woods. Willard aspired to become a play-by-play announcer from the time he was a young boy listening to Hank Greenwald describe Giants games late at night through a transistor radio, not so artfully hidden from his parents under his pillow. (They have since confirmed they knew he was doing that!) His first job out of college was doing play-by-play for a minor league team. At separate times while on separate paths, Murphy and Willard both realized their ambitions would come at the cost of weary travel schedules not conducive to setting roots in a community where they could be part of their children’s lives. As it turned out, they found the best of both worlds in Mill Valley. Though perhaps not on the national scale they once contemplated, they’ve found a way to live their dreams locally while maintaining a broad reach throughout the Bay Area and beyond.
Even with their expanded audience, listening to either Murphy’s or Willard’s shows on a regular basis, you might notice frequent references to their Mill Valley experiences. For Mill Valley residents it’s cool to hear these top Bay Area radio personalities reference specifics about their hometown, but what do listeners and station program directors have to say about such provincial references? The Mill Valley shout-outs “go to the core of just being us” said Murphy. “And I live in Mill Valley. Of course, like everything else in radio you’re always going to get some flack, but it’s only from a small sliver of the audience. I also think references to my Mill Valley Little League experiences work because it’s still universal,” he added, explaining that listeners “stoke on it, no matter which community they live in. Little League coaches and parents in all communities can relate to the stories.” That said, while he actively tempers too many references to his hometown and consciously tries to not overdo it, all the accounts are true reflections of his life. “Our ultimate deity in life as broadcasters is Howard Stern,” Murphy continued, “and much of what he did was tell funny stories about his life. In addition to primarily being there to hear about the 49ers, Giants, and Warriors, people are there to be part of your life.” There is no question Mill Valley is a central part of Murph’s life. Willard, at least early on, was a bit more careful about “doing Mill Valley radio” given he was a newcomer to town. Unlike Murph, Willard was still getting to know the area when he joined KNBR. “But once I fell into a comfortable place and established a relationship with the audience I felt more at ease pointing out certain markers around town.” As an example, Willard recently tossed out the decision question to his listeners: “Whole Foods…Blithedale or Miller Ave?” Indeed, Willard has officially arrived as a Mill Valley guy.
Murphy’s current run with McCaffrey has impressively eclipsed 15-years. No small task in the ever-changing, ratings-driven business that is radio. Asked to what he attributes his successful run within a volatile industry, Murphy did not hesitate saying the number one thing contributing to his longevity is “the energy and positivity of Paulie Mac, who is the ultimate pro and teaches me to be consistent every day. There are no bad days, no bad moods. We all have things that bring us down, but you can never bring that to the air.” Also, he long ago came to grips with the fact “you are only as good as your ratings book which comes out every three months”, so if someone points out your rating book looks good, it’s like, ‘so what?’, there’s another one around the corner.” The only way to deal with that and be successful is to “approach every single day with a brand-new attack with a new mode of professionalism and consistency.” Murphy carries that consistency into his daily routine with rigid discipline. “Every morning the alarm goes off at 4:17AM and there’s no hitting the snooze button. My feet hit the ground in a nanosecond and I start being me.” With a nap and coffee as essential mainstays supporting this effort, Murph has thrived.
The complimentary shout-out to Paulie Mac and a wake-up time just three minutes short of 4:20 set the table for a discussion about Murph’s long-time partner who is known to sprinkle the morning show with music references laced with frequent mentions of the Grateful Dead. Somewhat of an odd mix when juxtaposed with sports and the more conservative-appearing Murphy, who playfully self-deprecates in saying “I’ve been a nerd my whole life.” So, we asked the direct question: Has Paulie Mac effectively chipped away at the otherwise conventional Murphy causing him to appreciate, if not enjoy The Dead? “Absolutely,” said Murph. It was a slow burn, but with some foundation to it. Murph points out that he did see Jerry Garcia play with The Dead (he even has the date memorized – December 28, 1987) when two of his former Mill Valley Little League teammates – both Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parochial school grads – “were slippin’ into darkness, to borrow from War, and asked if I would drive them to see a Grateful Dead show.” Admittedly, Murph questioned why he’d want to go hang out with a bunch of hippies, but he did the deed and thinks “having at least seen Jerry once gives me some credibility with Mac.” That, plus the fact he owned the American Beauty cassette album in college, set the table. Murph confirmed these factors plus 15 years beside McCaffrey resulted in his slow, warm, and positive embracing of The Dead community, which surrounds him in Mill Valley. He, and that he has now been to several Dead & Co., Phil Lesh & Friends and other like kind “Dead shows”.
Somewhat on the same subject, Murph shared a story involving his father Bob Murphy’s love for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band who appeared at Sweetwater at a time his dad was struggling with Parkinson’s disease near the end of his life. Murph asked then Sweetwater GM Aaron Casey if the club could accommodate his father at the show. Casey obliged and told Murph to text him when he and his dad arrived. When they did, Casey opened the side door to the packed house and “started chucking bodies out of the way” leading to a chair reserved for Murph’s dad near the stage. As fate would have it, Bob Weir made a surprise appearance with the band as Bob Murphy took it all in. The next day while with his father, Murph’s sister came upon them and their dad asked, “Hey, Katy, are you a “Dead Head?” “No,” she said, to which her dad replied, “Well, I am!” Their dad passed away about three months later.
While “Murph and Mac” have established their style over the years, Willard has been creating a highly successful one of his own. And for the most part, on his own! Until teaming up with Dibley at 95.7 The Game, his shows on KNBR were solo acts, which he describes as “a different entity.” He says he “gets why stations are hesitant to put you in solo. It’s not for everybody. It requires different preparation and execution. It’s more difficult to carry an audience, which is why you no longer see stations doing that in prime spots.” But Willard, who excelled at this role, believes working in this position, especially during the extreme challenges of COVID, “ended up being the most empowering thing in my career.” COVID restrictions forced him into doing a four-hour show by himself, in his bedroom, with no producers, no eyes on the phones, and no sports to discuss! Though with some trepidationhesitation, he thought to himself “it will never get harder than this, and if we can do this, we can do anything.” “Anything” now involves doing a show alongside Dibley, his friend for a decade, which is something they had daydreamed about in passing but thought would never happen. He calls it a “cool manifestation” and admits it’s much easier to have fun with a partner and expects he’s going to laugh a lot more. “During all those shows at my home I never knew if anyone else was laughing,” he said, only half-joking.
Willard muses that “while I have not had a Brian Murphy-type run anywhere, I have been lucky enough to have a Brian Murphy-type run everywhere.” To illustrate, he cites his experience in three different markets, roles with Fox Sports and ESPN nationally, hosting shows during different time slots, and the fact he’s hung in there while having his “toe in different bodies of water.” Right now, he’s happy to see how the next experience plays out and not envisioning anything beyond that. The most important thing in his career is the fact he’s been the best broadcaster he’s ever been because he is “home”, back in the Bay Area and now a proud resident of Mill Valley, doing things he wants to do professionally, which works perfectly for someone with three kids. As such, Willard is rightly perfectly situated to further hone his craft and feels lucky to be professionally attached to something he was affixed to as a child from the time that radio was hidden under his pillow and he imagined being” “the voice of the Giants.” In doing so, he’s formulated a style of broadcasting that starts with talking sports with a goal of broadening from there to hopefully reach listeners from top to bottom within families. To achieve such success, he “imagines a dad in his car, glued to sports radio, with a wife and child as passengers also listening, and neither of them asking to please change the channel.”. Listening to Willard, you’ll find he’s hitting the ball out of the park, so to speak.
Despite living in the same town, working at the same radio station for two-and-a-halftwo- and- a half years, knowing each other for 10 years, considering each other friends, and sharing similar aspirations within their profession, Willard and Murphy struggled to find time to hang out when Willard arrived in Mill Valley. They originally got to know each other more closely through mutual friend, Aaron Overhouser, a professional golfer and analyst for the Golf Channel, but even that and their mutual love for the links couldn’t overcome the many obstacles standing in the way of finding a way to socialize together. Before Willard moved to Mill Valley, their communication was mostly by text message, which picked up considerably about 4 years ago when Willard started texting on a more regular basis telling Murphy he had been listening to his show online from LA. Little did Murphy know at the time, Willard was paving his way back to the Bay Area. Now that he is here, Murphy points to obvious reasons why their relationship still feels long-distance. “The number one factor determining whether parents hang out together in Mill Valley,” he says, “is whether your kids go to school together; and second is whether they are the same ages.” Add to that their divergent morning and evening on-air time slots, “it’s difficult to find commonality in our schedules to play golf or even have a cup of coffee,” he explained to round out the thought.
Ironically, Willard’s move to the 9AM to Noon slot at competitor 95.7 The Game is likely to open more opportunities for these voices to see each other. But what about the inherent competition of them now working for different Bay Area sports stations, especially given the fact the two will go head-to-head for an hour each day, with Murph continuing to hold down the 6AM -10AM hours? Indicative of the zero-animosity resulting from the two now vyingcompeting for market share ratings in the mornings is Murphy’s take on the newly created rivalry: “The biggest issue we have is resolution of Willard’s continued participation in the KNBR fantasy football league! Mark’s move to 95.7 The Game has nothing to do with ratings and everything to do with fantasy football.” The playful banter between the two on this subject – including Willard’s suggestion Murph has never held athe first place position in the league countered by Murph’s reminder of the season where Willard was forced to drive Murph to work at 4:30am for coming in second to Murph (which by the way was documented in a slickly produced video found on YouTube) – says all you need to know about their views on “competing.” It’s an afterthought that will not stand in the way of their friendship. “I don’t think of it as a competition,” said Willard. “The people at KNBR are my friends and that’s not going to change. I learned so much from everyone there and will continue to keep tabs on them and learn from what they’re doing.” Murphy mused on the subject by quoting his Tamalpais High School basketball coach, Ethan Winterling, who taught him: “Your only true opponent is yourself.” “The only way you succeed in this business”, he said, “is by doing you, by doing your own show. We do us. Like a swimmer keeping their heads down. This job is about churning out laps day after day. Mark and I are only going to do well if we both focus on ourselves.” Willard concurred wholeheartedly. “Maybe if we were in New York, or Philly, or Boston it would be a different story,” Murph concluded. But they are in Mill Valley, and so it goes.