Long before Leila Rahimi was named 2022 Illinois Sportscaster of the Year, she was a teenage girl calling in to her local sports radio station. But she wasn’t just calling in as a fan and avid listener, she was creating the lane to her future.
“I had been calling in to the Dallas Cowboys postgame show on 570 KLIF starting when I was a freshman because I loved watching the Cowboys, and then I started recording using a cassette,” Rahimi told the Tribune. “Once I had a body of work together, I submitted it to try to get a sports broadcasting scholarship in the name of Mark Holtz, the Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers broadcaster.”
It was around that time she met Matt Pinto, then a play-by-play announcer with the Mavericks. He gave her his card and asked if she would be interested in interning. Of course she was. Not only did Rahimi win the radio scholarship, but she interned at KLIF the summer after she graduated from high school.
“She talked about her love for sports in general and she was committed, and so I just intuitively sort of got it,” recalled Pinto, now the radio voice of the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I felt like she was very sincere and authentic in how she presented herself. She cut up play-by-play audio to be used on air and other things that were needed production-wise around the broadcast. She was very willing and jumped in and was really a go-getter.”
Rahimi has come a long way from those days. In January 2021 she became the first woman to regularly host a sports radio talk show in Chicago when she teamed with longtime host Dan Bernstein on WSCR-AM 670. Her promotion to an everyday host broke a 29-year gender barrier on The Score, and the “Bernstein & Rahimi Show” rose to the top of local listeners’ favorite sports talk shows.
Then in March 2022, WMAQ-Ch. 5 named Rahimi its main sports anchor — the first woman to be named to that position at the NBC affiliate.
“It’s kind of flattering,” she said. “It’s also kind of sad because it shouldn’t have taken this long. And I am so glad that people were embracing the idea, but I think when you know better, you do better.
“I feel that way about the industry in some respects because this is a city that embraces forward thinking, embraces different voices and embraces different perspectives. A woman can talk about sports on the radio and television. We’ll all be OK.”
Earlier this month, the National Sports Media Association named Rahimi a co-winner of the Illinois Sportscaster of the Year. The honor seemed to validate what friends of Rahimi had known all along — including the man who gave her his business card all those years ago.
“I’m just incredibly proud to see what she’s done since and feel a great sense of — I don’t know … you know, I’m a dad. So it’s almost like there’s pride,” Pinto said. “She always had the tenacity about how she approached things and clearly a love for sports that has definitely developed and evolved.”
In addition to her interest in radio as a teen, Rahimi worked her way from assistant sports editor to editor-in-chief of her high school paper. She had grown up watching, reading and listening to women in Dallas sports media such as Gloria Campos, Clarice Tinsley and Susie Woodhams. They were women she admired and studied. She liked them for different reasons — but they were all doing what she wanted to do.
“I didn’t have a Plan B,” Rahimi said of her chosen career path.
Rahimi worked her way through college at North Texas, and her passion for sports and broadcasting propelled her forward.
“I wanted to be a journalist, and at the time there were so many opportunities,” she said. “We were being told at North Texas that there was never a better time if you wanted to be a reporter or you wanted to be in broadcasting.
“The industry has changed a lot since then. But it just seemed like if you had the dedication that it would be a good career.”
Before landing in Chicago, Rahimi worked in Dallas, Austin, San Diego, Houston and Philadelphia. She did all kinds of jobs, from part-time radio reporter to television to writing. Sometimes the 5-foot-3 Rahimi, working alone, would carry 75 pounds of equipment to cover a football game.
“You’re carrying big, heavy TV equipment, you’re trying to do work and you wonder if your work is going to pay off,” she said.
Rahimi prides herself on knowing how to do it all, and it has helped her in every position at every stop. She approaches her job the way one would with anything they love: She doesn’t just talk about it, she studies it.
Rahimi says she spends a minimum of eight hours a day — and sometimes as many as 11 — studying what’s happening in local and national sports. She keeps a notebook of all of the things she observes and wants to talk about.
“The best way is to just watch more games,” she said. “And it’s the hardest way because it requires the most time and effort, but it is to me the best way of studying and absorbing what you need about each team.
“Jen Lada and I talked one day about how she prepares for her shows in Milwaukee. And she gave me some great advice on how she records and thinks about watching a game. If there’s a question you have while watching the game, make sure you jot it down to make sure you’re always conscious about how you’re processing the game because those are things that you can bring in a segment later. Shea Peppler’s given me some tips when it came to how to study based on TV backgrounds to then bring that to the radio side.”
It makes sense that someone who grew up a Texas football fan would be able to match the energy of Chicago.
Rahimi has embedded herself into the sports culture here and she has support — not just from fans but from colleagues. While Rahimi was working at NBC Sports Chicago as a host and sideline reporter, she did occasional segments with Laurence Holmes and realized they had a natural chemistry. It was Holmes who suggested she make weekly visits on his radio show on The Score.
“We joke that we call it the monthly visitor ‘cause I like to make jokes,” she said. “Bathroom humor is for everyone as far as I’m concerned. That’s where the segment came from. And then Danny Parkins had me on as a co-host a couple of times. And then David Haugh. And that’s when I started trying to do as much as I could in that space.”
Her weekly visits on The Score were a success. Some people tuned in because they loved her, some because they didn’t. “But they were listening,” she joked.
Rahimi’s popularity grew. She was someone people could relate to. She was funny, charming and smart. She was a fan.
“I always enjoyed the radio side of it, the creative side,” she said. “I like the shared experiences. I also try to take the approach that I’m still a fan, so I try to be fair and respectful. They say don’t read the comments, but the reason I do is because it lets me learn more about the people I’m trying to serve.
“I always like talking about the offensive line as a football fan, even when I was in high school and college. But the passion for the Bears offensive line here is something that is quite amazing. And I’ve gotten to learn about it because of guys like Tom Thayer and Olin Kreutz and how people embrace the offensive linemen in this town. So I’m like, OK, I’m definitely leaning into that bit. Let’s talk about who’s part of the guard and tackle rotation because it’s something people want to talk about. I like that stuff.”
As part of her TV duties for NBC, Rahimi covered the 2018 Winter Olympics, reporting on the women’s hockey tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It’s an opportunity she refers to as “one of my proudest moments of my career.”
But it hasn’t all been roses for Rahimi, who experienced two layoffs six years apart. The first was in 2014 from Comcast SportsNet Houston, the other in August 2020 when she was laid off from her full-time job at NBC Sports Chicago after five years with the regional network.
“It was the second time that I had been laid off rather publicly at that point,” Rahimi said. “Over three years and eight months I lived in so many cities. I went coast to coast and I was emotionally tired.”
This time she decided to stay in Chicago.
“To survive,” she said.
After NBCSCH downsized, Rahimi was open to new opportunities. Mitch Rosen, the general manager of The Score, reached out about doing regular work and it grew from there.
“I was like, ‘Sure, let’s do this!’ because I don’t have anything else to do right now,” she said. “And I think in TV, especially as a woman in sports, you just kind of know that you’re on borrowed time. At some point, your career is going to be over before your male counterparts, and that’s been the history.
“It wasn’t like (radio) was some sort of backup plan. This was a way for me to stay in Chicago and learn new skills and work with people I already know.”
Rahimi knew the setback was a setup for a comeback. And she rebounded in an epic way with the groundbreaking pairing with Bernstein.
“There were people who were wondering whether having a woman in the role where she’s giving her opinion would work, and Leila doesn’t back down,” Holmes said. “I remember seeing some of the numbers. People responded to her in a way that made me so happy. And it made me feel like we had gotten so far as sports radio in Chicago.
“They want to hear what Leila’s opinion was, knowing that she was sitting in a chair across from a guy who has strong opinions and is not afraid to share them. To me, that’s where I feel like her greatest impact has occurred. She’s changed the game and how sports radio in Chicago looks. There have been other women who have hosted. Maggie Hendricks, Julie DiCaro, Peggy Kusinski and Dionne Miller are out there now doing great stuff. But this was every day.
“The spotlight that was on her was so bright and the pressure was so big, and the way that she was able to handle that and not just survive but thrive has been one of the most impressive things that I’ve seen in our industry. Seeing her win is so gratifying.”
In October 2021, Rahimi returned to television on NBC-5 as a part-time replacement for Siafa Lewis, who had left for his hometown of Philadelphia. Less than five months later, she was sent to cover the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, this time reporting on both men’s and women’s hockey.
But her comeback wasn’t complete. Once again she made history with the full-time anchor job at NBC-5. And she still drops in with her colleagues at The Score each Wednesday on the top-rated “Bernstein & Holmes Show.”
“Leila is a true talent. And she deserves all of it,” said Kevin Cross, NBC-5′s president and general manager. “Leila has the ability to do radio. She has the ability to do TV. She’s a strong writer. And what I’ve always tried to encourage Leila to do is to not limit herself in any one of those categories.
“This past year she has really unleashed all of her talents to the world, and I love the fact that she’s been recognized for it.”
While she did take a moment to celebrate the Sportscaster of the Year award, Rahimi hasn’t forgotten the things she has felt, learned and experienced. She says the work continues for women in the industry.
“I just hope it continues to be filled with opportunities,” she said. “Part of the hard part about the layoffs and the pandemic when it related to sports was, for example, when networks said we don’t want to have sideline reporters. So many of those jobs were held by women. So when these decisions are being made, I worry that it’s going to take a lot of opportunities away.
“As we continue to be more present, it is my hope that it just becomes based on what your work is. That it’s not just based on a labeled identity that’s easy for somebody to check a box on a form.”