With reports of Craig Carton nearing a return to New York’s WFAN just over three months after being released from federal prison, the premiere of HBO Sports’ documentary on the sports talk radio personality, Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth, almost seems orchestrated.
Debuting Wednesday (Oct. 7) on HBO and HBO Max, Wild Card is a compelling look at Carton’s rise to radio superstardom and the overwhelming gambling habit that destroyed his career. For those unfamiliar with Carton (and it’s somewhat curious that his name wasn’t included in the title), directors Martin Dunn and Marie McGovern quickly explain how successful he was in radio. But the documentary becomes much more engaging when chronicling the evolution of his addiction and how it spun out of control.
If the consequences of Carton’s crimes (convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud, and securities fraud) weren’t clear, the documentary begins with stark images of prison: barbed wire fences, security towers, cement structures seemingly placed in the middle of nowhere, and daily life largely restricted to a small cell.
The story then recounts the path of a radio host paying his dues, beginning in Buffalo, then progressing from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Denver. Wherever he went, Carton and his bombastic, high-energy style drove up ratings. That led to the opportunity anyone in media covets: a show in New York City, the nation’s No. 1 media market. And Carton’s WFAN morning show with co-host Boomer Esiason became huge.
Sports media followers might enjoy several of the people that appear in the documentary to provide insight into Carton’s radio work and the impact he made, including the New York Post‘s Andrew Marchand and New York Daily News‘ Bob Raissman. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a frequent guest and listener, also talks about his interactions with Carton.
All of Carton’s WFAN colleagues — Esiason, executive producer Al Dukes, sports anchor Jerry Recco, board operator Eddie Scozzare — and program director Mark Chernoff share their experiences, which help define Carton for viewers beyond radio loudmouth or degenerate gambler. Of course, none of them realized how bad Carton’s gambling problem was until he didn’t show up for work on Sept. 6, 2017 because he’d been arrested by the FBI.
The developments leading up to that arrest and the apparent end of Carton’s radio career are what makes Wild Card fascinating to watch. What began as an interest in blackjack turned into a money-making machine for Carton. He was so good at it that he could’ve made a living that way, as investors gave him money to play with for returns.
But like any addict, the continual feeding of the habit became more important than whatever ill-advised decisions and financial consequences that followed. As the documentary explains, Carton would go to casinos at midnight and play until he had to be on the air, his wins or losses having no effect on his performance. So why would anyone suspect something was wrong?
If there’s one misstep in the documentary, it’s with Carton providing narration, reading from the journal he kept in prison. Carton’s voice does provide a personal touch and maybe that will engage some viewers more. Yet it doesn’t quite strike the right tone because Carton sounds like he’s “on” with his radio personality while narrating.
At one point in the film, a colleague explains that there are two Craig Cartons: There’s “Craig,” the guy not on the radio who’s really nice and kind. But “Carton” is the brash provocateur who insults callers and rips sports figures on the air. The presumption is that “Craig” is reading from his journal for the documentary, but maybe he can’t help sneaking in some “Carton” because he’s doing it for a microphone.
Ultimately, Wild Card tells a familiar story. What made Carton a success also led to his downfall. He constantly wanted more and believed that his gains in radio and gambling could be applied to other businesses. But that led to associations with deceitful, greedy individuals and those connections put him on the FBI’s radar.
Carton makes the documentary more engaging than it might be otherwise. Especially with revelations such as his history with childhood sexual abuse and an incident when he considered suicide, but was talked out of it by former producer Charod Williams. He wanted to tell those stories in his book, Loudmouth, but publishers wanted a book full of jokes and funny anecdotes.
Being so open about his personal issues and his failures makes what could’ve been a pedestrian, by-the-numbers documentary surprisingly compelling. And with Carton reportedly returning to radio, what would’ve been a cautionary tale has something of a happy ending.
Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth premieres Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.