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Day 73: In Defense of Sports Talk Radio

October 21, 2010

On Monday morning, I received a text message from an old friend who works at the same radio group I produced at during my Northeastern undergrad days.

“Someone must have finally read your middler year paper…just announced today Dennis & Callahan will be broadcast live on NESN!”

At NU, as part of the five-year cooperative education program, undergrads are required to submit a complete 20-30 page proposal to an executive relevant to your field of study.  As a communication studies major focused on sports broadcasting, I submitted a proposal to the New England Sports Network (co-owned by the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins ownership groups) to simulcast SportsRadio 850 WEEI’s “The Big Show with Glenn Ordway”, the top-rated afternoon drive show in New England at the time.  The proposal was, at heart, an exact mirror of the YES Network’s simulcast of WFAN’s “Mike and the Mad Dog” program with the caveat that “The Big Show” would serve as a direct lead-in to the Red Sox’ and Bruins’ hour-long pregame shows (when playing in the Eastern Time Zone).  As a wildly optimistic undergrad, I theorized that with the added advertising revenues combined with the low production costs of a simulcast could net the Sox and Bruins as much as $64 million dollars annually (provided spots sell at a premium and aren’t included in package sponsorship deals).

Granted, the number is pretty far out there (despite being supported by the actual advertising rates provided by WEEI and NESN sales staff at the time), but the basic premise remained: fans near a TV (or restaurants carrying the Sox and Bruins) will click the station on as a local, live, responsive,  and active discussion-based lead-in over taped editions of ESPNews directed to a generic national audience.

“All politics is local…” – Tip O’Neill

The most vivid interactions between Entercom’s news talk and sports talk hosts and producers were the ones where they crossed over into their colleagues’ specialties.  The news hosts, like Howie Carr, ALWAYS wanted to talk with us about the Sox and the Pats.  The sports hosts always vented about politics with unyielding familiarity.  The level of insight the on-air talent had in their counterparts’ genre was often greater than their supposed field of expertise.  The conversations were thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and heated without condescension.

Once the talent manned their respective studios for their programs, that’s where the similarities ended.  Carr would spout off some of the most dismissive and counterproductive political commentary New England had to offer.  Topics were discussed only if they fit into the local conservative narrative, and callers were screened based on agreeability with the host’s ideology.  Much remains the same about 95% of “news talk” radio today.  There is no diverse audience for the format; by its nature, you are tuned in because you want to confirm your own opinions in firm disregard for any opposition.

On the flipside, some of the most lively and logical debate in American discourse takes place on local sports radio.  I’m not talking about national syndication like Jim Rome (who doesn’t directly engage his callers in debate and needs a staff of writers to provide him with material) or ESPN Radio (which doesn’t take calls from listeners anymore); that’s not sports talk, that’s “sports listen” and it’s the brand of the format which is the most passive and least interactive.  What I’m referring to is the kind of sports talk radio where hosts make initial observations on a game or story, then open up the forum to the general public.  In this realm, the stereotypical “Fire the manager! Anyone’s better!  They’re a buncha overpaid BUMS!” caller is heckled and exiled for not offering any deeper insight.   (This type of caller was excellently portrayed by Patton Oswalt in “Big Fan”, the unheralded depressingly dark comedy about an obsessed New York Giants supporter from 2009.)

Stations like San Francisco’s KNBR, New York’s WFAN, KFAN in Minneapolis and even the great Canadian stations like Toronto’s The Score are great examples where disagreements abound between hosts, between callers, between hosts and callers, etc.  Even though the volume gets turned up from courtesy to shouting, the calls will always end very cordially, often with an invitation to take up the conversation again.

My theory about the civility of true sports talk radio is two-fold: A) the impact of which side will be proven “right or wrong” has little directional impact on society at large or quality of life and B) just about everyone in the market holds a common end goal for their arguments: championships for their city’s franchises.

Sports discussion is often considered a water cooler hobby; ultimately it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong because the argument gets decided on the field/court/ice.   If you’re a naysayer and you’re wrong?  Your favorite team STILL WINS and you’re left with the feeling of “it’s nice to be wrong this time.” This can’t be said of the hot button political topics that arise every political cycle.  When the stakes aren’t as high, the participants’ willingness to remain moderately cool-headed isn’t seen as a weakness but a sign of authority.  News talk callers tend to view themselves as crusaders of their predominant views, as culture warriors.  For these individuals, it’s a life-and-death defense about how they choose to live life.  When someone disagrees with you, it’s a threat to your culture.

There are certainly exceptions to the rule and there are sports talk hosts who tend to toss out politically and racially charged commentary for publicity.  The current political landscape has become polarized to the point that any middle ground has become a desolate demilitarized zone of relevance, unrewarding for those creative enough to derive any satisfaction from any common ground.  It’s the main reason my terrestrial radio choice is self-limited to NPR.  The local sports talk scene here isn’t relevant or passionate enough to sustain meaningful discourse; no major college athletic programs to capture the city’s imagination, too far down the professional sports ladder (with hardly any hardware for the local minor league teams to boast about), and close enough to Los Angeles and San Francisco to catch reception from their AM stations.

I’ve had to give up all those for Year Without Football, but if you need some reassurance that people ARE capable of discussing and settling (or accepting) their differences then find a reasonable sports talk call-in program and give it about 20 minutes.  It’ll be good for the soul.  Unless you live in Philly…then you’ll probably want to shoot your radio if you get near


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