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Voice of Reason

Julie Swieca is the only full-time female voice in Chicago sports radio. And she knows how to listen.

Julie Swieca has her game face on. It’s an attitude that she picked up early in her career at The Score (WSCR–670 AM), an all-sports radio station. “During my early days as a producer, I got upset about something, so I shut myself in a closet and cried,” says Swieca, now a radio reporter. 

“Then someone pointed out to me, ‘You can’t be doing that around here.’ The guys at work-when they’re upset, they punch a wall, but that just hurts my hand. Now, I know I really can’t cry at work, either. You know that old joke about how there’s no crying in baseball? Well, it’s true. There’s also no crying in sports radio.”

Not that she has much to fret about these days. For more than eight years, Swieca, 30, has been playing in a league of her own: She is the only full-time female voice in Chicago sports radio. "I like to think of myself as the agility outfielder for The Score,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the only person at the station who has worn every hat except management: producer, reporter, news anchor, and host." During baseball season, Swieca (pronounced “Swi-ka") is the station’s main reporter; she provides backup reporting during football and hockey season and also anchors the news. Last summer, she was the solo host for a five-hour-long regular Sunday morning call-in show; this fall, she moved to “Around the NFL,” a fast-paced three-hour review of highlights from every football game in the country.

“Julie is incredibly well prepared,” says Matt Fishman, The Score’s sports director. “You just have to listen to her to hear that she knows what she’s talking about. Maybe she almost has to be that good; you know, some men have real problems accepting a woman in sports radio.”

Swieca, who still gets offensive messages on her voice mail, isn’t surprised to hear that. “Sports radio is still a vast wasteland for female reporters,” she says. "And the ones covering professional sports tend to gravitate to print or television, not radio.”

Sports radio, by tradition, is rowdy and rude, driven by testosterone and a tendency to indulge in sarcastic one-upmanship. “The misinformation, unsubstantiated opinion, and flat-out racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnic stereotyping that pass for programming day in and day out on these [sports radio] stations are especially troubling,” says Robert Feder, the television and radio columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. “The rudeness of the hosts is matched only by the boorishness of the callers.”

“Julie is definitely less confrontational than many of the other hosts on sports radio,” says Toni Ginnetti, a sportswriter for the Sun-Times. "But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know her stuff. She brings an educated level of fact and opinion to broadcasting.” That “educated level” stems from Swieca’s extensive research and out-in-the-field interviews, which she weaves together with insights derived from experts such as managers, print reporters, and sports financial advisers.

When she first started at The Score, Swieca admits, her colleagues looked on her as “the new fluffball on board.” Maybe it was the blond highlights in her hair, her quick smile, or her high cheekbones. “But once they heard me on air, they accepted me. The public-well . . . ” She trails off for a moment. "Probably 90 percent of the listeners are fine, but there’s always that small percentage who send letters or leave messages.”

There is the man who always calls her “Missy miss,” “Little Miss,” or “Girly girl.” And the one who said, “You should not be covering men’s sports; go cover the broads at the French Open." Such attitudes sometimes carry over to visiting teams. "The local guys see me around and in the locker room all the time,” says Swieca, “but sometimes I’ll see the visiting teams sort of raise their eyebrows at me. I hope that once I open my mouth, they can hear that I’m genuinely reporting on them and not in there to get a date. That is the most insulting thing I’ve ever had said to me-that I was in a locker room to get a date!”

Her hardest lesson learned? "Not to wear an electric blue leather skirt, no matter what,” she says. "It wasn’t a butt-hugging mini; it was a knee-length skirt that happened to be electric blue." Nevertheless, one NFL player kept running his fingers around the hem of it, asking, “Oh, is this leather?”

“OK,” says Swieca; “the skirt retired.”* * *

She grew up in the suburbs of Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights, the elder daughter of a sports-loving father. "He was the whole reason I loved the NFL growing up,” Swieca explains. “Every Sunday, my mother and my sister would go shopping, and my father and I would watch football." Her schoolbooks had covers with Jim McMahon and Mike Ditka on them; she ran the football pool for her father’s brokerage firm. Summers, they went to the ballparks and her father taught her to keep score. She still remembers with awe the first time she saw the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park.

“It’s so sad that my dad didn’t live to see me get the job at The Score,” she says.  “There were so many times I wanted to call him and say, ‘I talked to Michael Jordan today!’ Or ‘You should have been at Wrigley Field today.’ I’m very wistful about that.”

Swieca attended Northwestern University, where she majored in radio, television, and film. She chose that major over journalism because she wanted to log time in a broadcast booth and learn to edit tapes and understand the production side of broadcasting. By her senior year, she was the sports director of the student radio station, working on Big Ten games. In that capacity she met some reporters at The Score. "They said, ‘When you get out of school, look us up.’ And I did.”

Her first job at The Score was as a part-time producer-with the promise that if she worked hard, she might be able to do a little reporting. "I love reporting, so I worked my way up-first as a part-time reporter, then full-time,” she says. “Sitting in as an anchor is seen as a glamorous position, but I love being out in the field, covering games and doing interviews. That way, I get to know the players. If you sit in the studio all the time, you’re talking about players you don’t really know. It doesn’t seem right to pass judgment that way.”

The first time she had to go into a locker room was at a Blackhawks game. "I guess I was naïve, but I hadn’t realized that people didn’t have towels on in a locker room. In college sports, they bring the player out to you. So I was a little shocked. I just interviewed the first guy I saw who was dressed. I thought, You have clothes on; you’ll do.”

She still can find the nudity a little unsettling, particularly when combined with some of the strange locker room rituals. "The Hawks used to have these leather couches in the locker room and the players would sit on them naked and watch TV,” she recalls. “I always wondered, Don’t they stick to the couch?”

Another turning point: trying to deal with Craig Heyward, a Bears fullback. "He tried to intimidate me and any other female reporter,” says Swieca. "He’d use foul, crass terms to see if I’d flinch. I was in my early 20s then, and I remember looking at some other Bear for help. He just gave me a look that said, ‘You’re on your own, honey.’ And I realized no one was going to rescue me, that I was just going to have to deal with it.”
Even today, Swieca admits, there isn’t a lot of chivalry in either sports or journalism. “The TV cameramen are the worst,” she says. “They’re always hitting you in the head with their cameras. They don’t even say they’re sorry.”

On the other hand, as a host, Swieca has a reputation for being unusually receptive to phone-in callers. "I can’t say I’m part of a dying breed in sports radio, because I don’t think there have ever been that many of us who are polite to the callers,” she explains. “That’s sad. I think it’s important to treat callers with respect; the worst thing you can do is hang up on someone and then ridicule that person on the air.

“All summer, there were two older women who would call in. They are lifelong Cubs fans and they know their baseball. I looked forward to hearing from Lynn in Elmwood Park and Florence in Brookfield. And I realized that they probably didn’t have a lot of other outlets in radio; most other shows would have made fun of them or hung up on them.”

This is not to say that Swieca doesn’t get some callers with crazy theories. “The most I’ll ever say is, ‘Well, I disagree but you’re entitled to your opinion.’ Admittedly, that runs counter to some of the biggest names nationally in sports radio, who can be the nastiest and the most sardonic people on the air.”

Controversy may bring up ratings, but Swieca takes a different and yet successful approach: She doesn’t talk down to her listeners, and she doesn’t insult them, either. “I’m proud that both kids and adults can listen to my show,” she says. “I’ve heard some people say that they can’t listen to a lot of sports radio with their kids because it’s too off-color or too rude. I think that’s sad. Where’s the bonding experience in that?”

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