When Jeff Hullinger ended his final WAGA-TV broadcast on May 31, 2002, he had established himself as one of the biggest sportscasters in town after 18 years on the job. A slew of Emmy Awards. Play-by-play announcer for the Falcons when they made the Super Bowl. Sub for CNN’s “Talk Back Live.” Prominent radio gigs at 96rock and WGST-AM.
At age 43, with a rock-solid resume and brand-name appeal, he figured he’d have no problem finding another TV job in Atlanta.
He never did. After calling games for ESPN on a freelance basis and two years toiling in Tampa, he nabbed a job reading the news at WSB-AM in 2006. But the news/talk radio station inexplicably cut him last summer. (No comment from WSB-AM program director Pete Spriggs, per policy.) He is now unemployed.
Hullinger has gotten nary a nibble from any of Fox 5’s rivals. Nothing close, he said. (Management at those stations did not return calls and emails or declined to comment.)
“I’ve been mystified,” said Bill Hartman, retired WSB-TV sportscaster. “If I were one of the other TV stations besides Fox 5 and WSB, I’d hire him in a minute to be my newscaster – not my sportscaster, my newscaster.”
The local radio sports stations don’t seem interested either. “He’s really talented but I don’t think sports talk is an ideal format for him,” said Steak Shapiro, co-owner and morning host at 790/The Zone.
Hullinger, when he was younger, had a reputation of being brash, brusque and a bit remote.
“He had a lot of self confidence,” said Doug Richards, veteran former WAGA-TV reporter now at WXIA-TV. “Some put that off as arrogance. But there’s nobody who does live better than him that I’ve ever worked with. And every time I thought I knew something, Hullinger would leapfrog me and know a little bit more. It baffles me why people aren’t beating down the door and hiring him.”
“Southside” Steve Rickman, who worked with Hullinger at 96rock for three years in the mid-1990s and is now part of the Regular Guys on Rock 100.5, said Hullinger “was very guarded at first. But by my second year, we became friends. He doesn’t let you in easily but once you’re in, you’re in.”
“Jeff,” he added, “is too talented to be silent.”
Hullinger’s former boss at WGST Gabe Hobbs said there was friction between Hullinger and Fox 5 General Manager Gene McHugh when Hullinger was juggling jobs at both places. “I got a feeling from Gene,” Hobbs said, “that he was never terribly thrilled with Jeff doing radio. He [McHugh] was never as cooperative as we would have liked to have seen.”
McHugh declined to comment about Hullinger’s current status or why he let him go in 2002.
Former colleagues at WSB-AM mostly praised him, said he was a team player and actually called people to thank them after he was dismissed. “I loved working with him,” said Kerry Browning, a reporter who was let go from WSB in 2008. “He could handle anything you could throw at him. He was creative and showed great wit in his writing. Sometimes it was subtle. You had to know it to appreciate it.”
Now at age 50, Hullinger is at a precarious point in terms of his TV career.
Though he was massively popular in 2002, metro Atlanta has added about one million people since then who don’t have a clue who he is.And most broadcast news operations has been paring down staff and even when they’ve hired people, they’ve tended to be younger and presumably, cheaper. (The CBS affiliate WGCL-TV just outsourced its sports coverage to 790/The Zone and no longer carries sportscasters. I plan to write a blog entry update about that next week.)
“It’s been a difficult and humbling experience,” said Hullinger. “I have two children and a wonderful wife. I’m hoping better times are ahead.” He said he still gets recognized all the time. Heck, two parents at his son’s school asked him what was up today. “It’s like a singer getting asked to sing the same song over and over,” he mused.