Respect, Caring, and a Whole Lot of Sports Knowledge
By: Leslie Barker ~
Tune into the “Norm & D Invasion” on The Ticket radio between 10 a.m. and noon, Monday through Friday, and you’ll hear a lot of sports knowledge, a lot of mirth, a lot of observations, and a lot of opinions.
Which sounds like a basic recipe for a good sports talk show. How could it not be?
Norm is Norm Hitzges, Texas Radio Hall of Famer. D is sports-immersed Donovan Lewis — knowledgeable, engaging, interested. The Ticket is 96.7 FM and 1310 FM, the highest-ranked radio station in the Dallas area.
But whether you’ve been listening for a while or just happened upon the show through your rental car radio, you can tell even before the first commercial break there’s way more to it than the tried-and-true sports radio recipe.
“The show works,” Jeff Catlin, operations manager and program director of The Ticket, said, “because of the respect have for each other.”
That’s also a word Norm and Donovan use when talking about each other. You hear it, sense it, and feel it right off the bat when Donovan introduces Norm: “Here he is, The Texas Radio Hall of Famer, the Colonel, the Reverend, the Moderator, Mr. 120” (an inside joke Ticket listeners understand) “Norm Hitzges, broadcasting live from his home in Little Elm.”
The tone is lighthearted but laced with respect; the show laced with trust and with caring — which was more evident than ever earlier this year when, except for a few segments, Norm was too sick to do the show. He’d been diagnosed with bladder cancer but was suffering from an infection that led to sepsis as well as anemia. (“Please don’t make too much of all that,” Norm told me. “God was so good to me.”)
“There were mornings I called Donnie and said, ‘I just can’t do anything,’” Norm said. “Donnie and Mike carried the show for two months. I’d do one segment and say, ‘I’m exhausted.’ They’d talk to me every break.”
“I was so concerned about his well-being, a couple of times especially,” Donovan said. “As a person and as a friend, I wanted him to be OK. I’d tell him, ‘Norm, don’t worry about the show. We’ll take care of it. Take care of you.’ I tell him all the time, he’s as thoughtful a person as I’ve ever met in my life. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
In turn, Norm said of Donovan: “A lot of times people are good on the air together and not after. We’re just the same on-air as off. Donnie is the same cheery, upbeat person every day on-air and off-air.”
Norm, whose credits include hosting the first all-sports morning drive show in the country, came to The Ticket in 1999 as the solo host in the 10-to-noon timeslot. Donovan joined The Ticket in 2006, riding shotgun with Bob Sturm and Dan McDowell in the noon-to-three show then known as BaD Radio.
The following year, Norm and Donovan teamed up for the Dallas Cowboys Postgame Show. They worked well with, and played well off, each other. In 2016, Catlin approached them about sharing Norm’s timeslot.
“They’d already been working together every week right in front of my face and ears.” Catlin said. “I don’t know why it took me so long.”
The show, everyone determined, would be both Norm’s and Donovan’s — not, Catlin said, “just Donovan fitting into Norm’s world. This is a ratings-driven business and the audience immediately responded.
Ratings for their time slot went up for 11 months.”
When Donovan came on board, Norm said, “I remember saying his light had been held down under a bush at this station. He’d get two to three segments in his old show and that was about it. This was his time to shine.”
Norm continued: “Donnie has decades in front of him. He likes to laugh and he really knows sports.”
When Donovan joined The Ticket, he had never swum, played golf, or snow skied. Now, Norm says proudly, he’s done all those things.
And when he and Norm teamed up, Donovan had never listened to Lawrence Welk or watched an episode of Mister Ed. He’s done both of those now, too. Just remembering their segment on the talking horse TV show sends them both into gales of laughter, as does remembering Norm’s first foray into playing video games — another event that took place on the show.
Which all just goes to show: The unexpected is part of the show’s magic.
“Norm has been really willing to try things I want to do,” Donovan said. “He’s trusting. If I say, ‘I want to do this and I know it will be fun,’ we try and it is fun.”Said Norm: “It’s things like that. They happen and they’re good and maybe they can open your mind to other things. Donnie’s always happy-go-lucky, and I was more serious. I’m very thankful. Initially, I didn’t know if I was all in about working with someone else. But in no time at all, this was great.”
In five years sharing the show, they said, they’ve had maybe five disagreements, which are resolved almost immediately. They’ve been working together so long that planning the show is second-nature. Which is good because, with only two hours in their timeslot, every second is precious.
“He calls me about nine, when he’s on his way into the studio,” Norm said. “We don’t talk long. Like today, we talked for one minute, 45 seconds. That’s all it took us to plan what we’ll do on the air.”
“If he sees I have something I want to do, we don’t have to say another word,” Donovan said. “I love how it all comes together like that. All of us are really good friends, and that helps.”
Donovan continued: “Norm has been in the business forever. He has taught me how to handle yourself on the air; how to present the information you have in your head. That’s really not an easy thing to do; I usually have quite a few things floating around at any particular moment. So knowing how to get it out of my head and into my mouth has been easier for me seeing how Norm gets it done.”
Donovan just turned 50; Norm is 77. Donovan grew up in the Dallas area. Norm is from Dunkirk, N.Y. Donovan is black; Norm is white.“Even though it’s obvious they are very different people with different upbringings from different generations, they do have enough in common to see each other’s perspective,” Catlin said. “Good radio teams have personalities that have both similarities and differences to each other. If it’s a hundred percent one way or the other, it’s not going to work.”
But Norm’s and Donovan’s does because they listen and because they care. During the pandemic last year, they called upon resources they’d not yet tapped: What do you talk about on a sports radio station when no sports are being played? How do you address social inequality?
“I don’t know what it’s like to be black or to be a black talk show host on a major station,” Norm said.
“At the same time, I’m thinking, ‘What should I say?’” Donovan said. “Sometimes it’s jarring, I’m the only African-American sports radio host in our area. It is what it is. I keep plugging along and keep doing my thing.”
His thing, like Norm’s, is sports. But it’s more than just that.
The day after Christmas every year, Norm, with Donovan at his side, hosts the Whataburger Normathon. Across 20 years, it’s raised more than $7 million for the Austin Street Shelter.
Following in his partner’s altruistic footsteps, Donovan now hosts Donnie’s DFW Classic every Labor Day weekend. Proceeds benefit At Last!, a boarding school opportunity for Dallas kids living in poverty.
“I modeled everything I did from what he does,” Donovan said. “Norm is king of this.”
“Norm is one of the most generous on-air partners I’ve ever worked around,” he said. “Despite his longevity and successes, he is always willing to share the stage and let any other on-air partner step into the spotlight. Donnie is a genuinely great guy: Funny and plain fun to hang out with. He brings more of that ‘everyman’ style to the show that compliments Norm’s X’s and O’s.”The show works for many reasons. One, Donovan said, is their shared goal: “Put out the best content to entertain and inform.”
And way up that list, quite possibly at the very top, is their friendship.
“We’re all really good friends and we all truly care about what’s happening in each other’s lives,” Norm said. “You can’t fake that. I believe our listeners can easily tell that every day.”