“I’m still an ugly bastard,” says Dino Costa, staring at his heavily made-up face in the mirror. He was getting ready for an appearance on the Fox News network, where he has been invited to share his views on the Penn State scandal. He is the host of ‘The Dino Costa Show,’ which goes out to an audience of 23 million subscribers on SiriusXM‘s Mad Dog Radio channel 86. Over the years of his tumultuous career, Costa has stumbled onto a winning formula: He takes the overheated sports-talk-radio arguing, infuses it with Tea Party–inspired politics (Obama is the “worst president in the history of the country”; Mitt Romney is an untrustworthy “fake”) and evangelical sermonizing (diatribes attacking the “gay and lesbian lifestyle”); adds a healthy dose of politically incorrect boundary-pushing (Ben Roethlisberger got a bum rap on that whole raping a girl in a bar thing; the NBA All-Star Game should pit white players against black); throws in some borderline felonious ranting (to a caller on the show: “I’ll put a can of WD-40 right up your ass, and you won’t be squeaking the rest of your life, you rat bastard!”); and generally helped carry the Aggrieved White Man’s Burden through the Great Recession of 2012. “I’m not afraid to talk about racial issues or any other issues,” says Costa. “We all occasionally have bigoted feelings. I just talk about them.”
Costa has been fired from or quit eight radio jobs (and one on TV) over the past decade for reasons ranging from insulting corporate sponsors to allegations of sexual harassment. Yet Costa, whose first gig in radio was doing play-by-play for the Yonkers Hoot Owls (his high school ambition was to play pro baseball), keeps getting hired. In part, that’s because Costa is an extraordinarily talented radio host – acerbically articulate, angrily funny, intense to the point of mental imbalance – but also because of the outrageousness that has cost him those jobs. Costa makes Colin Cowherd or Skip Bayless, two of ESPN’S best-known Angry Male alphas, seem mild and reasonable. Compared with them, Costa is more like a militia leader broadcasting direct from Ruby Ridge under siege, an army of liberals blasting away from the other side of the barbed wire.
“To do the kind of show I demand of myself is an all-consuming undertaking,” he says. “Every time I take to the air, what happened yesterday is old news. You’re tuning in to Dino Costa that night to hear what he has to say that night. There isn’t enough of that in radio today. The worst thing you can be in radio is predictable, and 99 percent of radio is predictable.”In may 2008, when SiriusXM launched a sports channel, it made one marquee hire, giving New York sports personality Chris “Mad Dog” Russo $3 million a year to come onboard. But Mad Dog Unleashed could fill only five hours of airtime a day. What would it do with the other 19 hours?
Enter Dino Costa, who was living in Denver and had recently been fired from Radio Colorado, KRCN 1060. Management at the station decided to replace his show with a shopping program. (Costa, with typical diplomacy, tells me that his former employer is a “scumbag,” another in a long line of “fuckhead” bosses.)
Costa had, in those Denver years, developed his distinctive brand of sports radio, combining pro-Broncos rants, critiques of the Denver Nuggets, and biblical verse into a unique style. In 2006, he’d also gotten his first taste of national exposure, by picking a fight with Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin in the locker room after a game. Costa crowded Martin during an interview. Martin told Costa to “back the fuck up,” and Costa, who still calls Martin “a piece of shit, no class, despicable human being,” responded by telling the very large and heavily muscled professional athlete to go fuck himself.
Roger Cridlebaugh, Costa’s producer at KRCN, says, “Costa goes way over the line, it doesn’t matter to him,” the discernible tones of working-with-Dino PTSD still evident in his voice. “He trashed everybody, really personally. He’s an ass. He’s a bully.” But Cridlebaugh, a radio lifer, also calls Costa “one of the greatest radio-talk-show hosts that has ever lived.” Those kinds of comments – impossible but talented – seem to follow Costa around. Howard Monroe, Costa’s boss at SportsTalk 1370, a station in Wheeling, West Virginia, who fired him in 2000, describes him as “arrogant, brash, cocky, and hard to control,” but also “confident, competent, and fun to listen to?.?.?.?a small tornado that blew through our town.” People want that kind of charisma, even if they don’t want it for very long.
After leaving KRCN in August, Costa struggled to find another radio position. He fell into what’s a familiar pattern for him: an opportunity for success, or at least stable pay, undermined by his behavior, and back to doing odd jobs. Through the years, he’d worked in a deli, on a cattle ranch, started a lawncare business, and for six weeks between jobs in the late 1990s, was homeless. He had burned through a couple of marriages, and worse yet, in 2009, his 24-year-old son, whom he didn’t raise, was shot and killed in a Seattle nightclub.
Costa had a difficult upbringing. “I was terrified of my father,” he says. “There was a lot of fighting. I saw my mom cry many times.” These discordant notes help explain some of Costa’s irate radio persona. But they don’t really account for his getting fired from an ESPN affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey, after just one week (he trashed one of the station’s sponsors and refused to apologize); or the sexual harassment accusation (which he denies); or how in Jacksonville, Florida, he was booted after he asked, on-air, why the local NFL franchise owner had brought his grandmother to a game (she was his wife).
Then one day that summer, he got a call from an agent named Alan Sanders. Sanders told him about Mad Dog Russo’s new channel on SiriusXM. Was he interested in trying out? He was so confident that he would get a job, Costa packed up his home and drove east with his third wife and their two-year-old son. “No promises, no nothing,” he says. “I was thinking, they have to hire me.”
At the studio he met with Russo and the channel’s program director, Steve Torre. He did a test show, went home, and waited for a call. A few days later, he got it, from Russo.
“Did you say anything about Obama during your audition?” Russo asked him. “There are a lot of Obama fans in the building!”
Over the next few weeks, Costa waited, doing man-with-a-van odd jobs and posting ads for work on Craigslist while Mad Dog Radio filled up its time slots. He didn’t get one. “I was enraged,” Costa recalls. “What the fuck could they be thinking by not hiring me?” He sent an email to Torre, berating him. “One email?” Torre groans when I ask him about it. “More like multiple, lengthy emails. I would see a Dino Costa email and think ‘not again.’ But I read every single word.”
Nine months later, Mad Dog Radio was struggling for ratings, and Torre offered Costa a job. His show has since built a rabid following, and he regularly gets more phone calls than any other sports-talk host on SiriusXM. Of course, he has also pissed off more people than anyone else, too. “Everyone hates Dino,” says Andrew Caplan, his producer and on-air partner. When I asked Steve Cohen, senior VP of sports programming at SiriusXM, about complaints against Costa, he said he hadn’t “received any phone calls today.”It’s three minutes to 7 pm, and Dino Costa is staring out the window of his cramped Manhattan office, looking out onto Times Square. He gets a coffee, tells Caplan and his other producer, Fast Eddie Erickson, to print a few things out. He has done almost no preparation for the show. No real notes, no scripts, no detailed lineup of stories. He doesn’t do prep, he says. He just goes on air and starts talking. Four hours later, he stops.
“Ladies and gentlemen across America and around the world,” Costa intones at the beginning of the show. “This is Dino Costa speaking.”
For the next four hours, Costa discusses, among other subjects, his frustrations with the creative and organizational failings of his bosses; calls an interview Mad Dog did with ESPN’s Vince Doria “the worst interview I’ve ever heard”; and riffs on topics ranging from Bobby Valentine to Jerry Sandusky. He also takes calls from his listeners.
“You jackass,” he yells at one of them. “I’m not going to suffer a fool like you. If you’re trying to attack me, be prepared.” He then transitions seamlessly to “Alan is from Huntsville, Alabama. Hi, Alan.”
“I’m in the car all day, and you make my day bearable, bud,” Alan tells him. “Thanks, that’s very nice of you,” Costa says, before returning to his favorite talking point – the cluelessness of elites.
“I love these broadcasters who comment on sections of the country, the heartland or the Southeast, and they have no understanding of the region. Not a damn thing.”; This is Costa’s singular skill: to take America’s favorite topic of discussion – sports – and infuse it with the angst and insecurity of the politically irate. “My show is something the average person driving in their car can relate to,” Costa says. “This is good theater. This is good radio.”
Costa feels like he is on the cusp of something – greatness, perhaps, or maybe his own television show. He also knows that if he messes up again, it’s back to the bush leagues, if he’s lucky. But Costa is so convinced of his own greatness, so persistent, so profane, so addicted to the I’m-gonna-do-it-my-way kind of risk, that he can’t for a second imagine that will happen. Someday he’ll have his own station on SiriusXM. Dino Radio, he’ll call it. He is, however, in danger of blowing it: Just last July, he again risked his job by moving the show to Cheyenne, Wyoming, over the objections of SiriusXM’s management.
Costa likes to blames his failures on other people: The suits in Denver and Jacksonville and Trenton and Wheeling – all the places where he wore out his welcome – were too worried about their sponsors and producing “content” to know great radio when they heard it. The listeners, too, have trapped him in a world that doesn’t leave room for sports talk with politics and political talk with sports. “Radio in America today sucks,” Costa says. “It is led by a bunch of brainless fucksticks who are more worried about their cushy jobs than providing the consumers with something worthwhile to listen to.” The scary thing is, he’s probably right.