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Sports Squawk

An overview of the 10 most influential broadcasts from the live, raw and relentless world of sports talk radio
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, March/April 2014

It began as a sleepy Wednesday afternoon in the universe of sports radio. But now Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez is ranting and radio host Mike Francesa is listening to his tale of woe. Having stormed out of his grievance hearing to appeal his suspension for using banned performance-enhancing drugs and obstructing a drug investigation, Rodriguez made a beeline for the WFAN studios in New York City to vent about baseball commissioner Bud Selig and the unfairness of it all. “The man from Milwaukee put the suspension on me without one bit of evidence. And he doesn’t have the courage to come look at me in the eye...” Francesa asked if he used PEDs, obstructed justice or “did anything that they are accusing you of doing?” The answer to each question was no.

Welcome to sports talk radio. The exchange—raw and impassioned and simulcast on the New York Yankees’ YES television network—made for compelling theatre. Rodriguez, so ubiquitous that sports reporter Mike Lupica called him “the Kim Kardashian of baseball,” has denied his culpability before. “For the record, have you even used steroids, human growth hormone or any other performance enhancing substance?” Katie Couric queried on “60 Minutes” in 2007. “No” came his flat reply.

In the aftermath, Francesa was accused of shilling for Rodriguez and not being tougher with follow-up questions. But the larger picture reconfirmed Francesa as the king of sports talk radio. He bagged the interview, not Michael Kay, his drive-time rival at ESPN radio; not Keith Olbermann at ESPN2, who bellowed that Alex was “sitting in Santa’s lap” for the interview; nor his former partner Chris “Mad Dog” Russo.

As athletes know their numbers, so radio hosts know theirs. In the last quarter of 2013, Francesa finished first in the drive-time Arbitron ratings, as he had for five of the last six quarters in the demographic for men aged 25 to 54. Kay, at ESPN New York, finished seventh. “If that’s the dent, good luck to him,” Francesa says, unimpressed. “Maybe I’ll be able to find him in about another 50 years at this rate.”  

Sports radio spawns as many issues as politics on a given day. Political talk may cover the NSA, the vagaries of ObamaCare or compare the presidential candidates for 2016. By comparison, sports radio callers weigh in on head injuries in football, on whether Rodriguez deserves a 162-game suspension, or whether Tony Romo will lead Dallas to a Super Bowl, and much more.

Since WFAN launched the first all-sports radio station in 1987, more than 600 stations followed suit. Callers ask questions, argue with hosts, and give impassioned takes on events in real time. The mania for watching games is matched by the desire to debate their meanings. At times there is more opining than thinking, more rhetoric than cogent arguing, more heat than light, more teaching moments missed than hit.

“Before sports radio, a guy got ripped in the paper,” says Jeff Smulyan, a CEO at Emmis Communications who began WFAN. “Now he walks out of the ballpark, turns on the radio and he gets ripped. Sports radio heightens everything.”

The station first sought hosts with national recognition. They signed Jim Lampley, a well-spoken fixture on the sports scene, and Greg Gumbel to take the morning show. Then “The King of Cleveland,” Pete Franklin, signed a two-year deal worth $600,000. But the Cleveland shtick flopped in New York. “Do I offend anyone?” Franklin would scream to his drive-time audience. “You suckers out there—screw you all. If you don’t like what the hell you hear, dammit, don’t call. I have a flood outside my door. Give me an office that doesn’t have urine in it. Set me free if you don’t like it. Fire me…”

He didn’t finish the two years. Gumbel’s morning ratings tanked. So Don Imus, familiar to New York listeners since the 1970s, was signed, bringing with him a 50,000-watt signal, WNBC, 66 on the AM dial.  Listeners liked his irreverence. Management hoped they would stay tuned all day. At first Imus balked: “I’m not talking about sports.” He would rather play “All My Exes Live in Texas” than answer calls from sports “geeks.” At the end of his shift he’d say, “It’s 10 a.m. This ends the entertainment part of today’s programming. For the next 20 hours, you will hear mindless drivel by idiots talking about sports.” But Imus helped form the station’s most recognizable pairing. Chris Russo had done updates with Imus, who told Smulyan, “This guy sounds like Donald Duck on steroids; he’s a talent. You’ve got to put him on.”

The pairing of Russo and Francesa made for audio synergism. More kinetic than verbal, Russo delivered energy whether reliving NFL play-off games, or dying, slowly, when his San Francisco Giants were losing to the 2000 New York Mets. He squealed with schadenfreude, mocking his callers when New York teams lost. Francesa’s knowledge, honed from his days as a studio analyst at CBS Sports, was vast enough that The New Yorker once referred to him as “Brent Musberger’s brain.” The contrast of Francesa schooling his audience and Russo giggling like a sneezing hyena at their misfortunes worked.

Their 19-year union, which ended in 2008, became the standard in the industry. Other sports radio hosts carry it off, too, and can be rated by their entertainment value, sports knowledge and insight, even integrity. Francesa’s show deserves the first ranking.
 
1. Mike Francesa - “Mike’s On: Francesa”

A New York native, Francesa’s flavor is local but his reach is national. Usually, though not always, he talks with authority on the three major American sports. When the Rangers, Islanders or Devils make the playoffs, he summons guests who respond to his listeners’ craving for hockey. He rates New York Giant and Ranger fans as the most loyal, since they fill their venues regardless of how well the teams play.

Some criticisms arise from his curt manner with callers, especially those who disagree with him. On the other hand, fans who call just to seek affirmation for their inane views, or pranksters seeking to get a rise out of him, deserve brusque treatment. Radio requires pace. Callers often hold the line for more than an hour, and they don’t suffer fools gladly.

That said, he shouldn’t deny once falling asleep while listening to Yankee beat reporter Sweeney Murti talk. After all, it’s on camera: His head hung and then he awoke, startled, as if his alarm clock sounded. Why deny it? Just roll with it and share the laugh.

But Francesa, who one columnist calls “The Sports Pope,” is bombastic, even without evidence. A fan of Mickey Mantle, Francesa declared that Babe Ruth and Mantle were the two greatest World Series performers. This is nonsense on stilts. Ruth owns the highest slugging average (.744) and on-base plus slugging percentage (OBP, 1.211) in Series history, with Lou Gehrig right behind in slugging (.731) and OBP (1.208). Though Mantle is the all-time leader with 18 World Series home runs—due to playing in 65 games, (far more than Ruth or Gehrig)—he trails badly in slugging (.535) and OBP (.908). Also, Reggie Jackson, playing 27 Series games compared to Ruth’s 41, slugged .755 and posted an OBP of 1.212. So Francesa needs to hit the books.

The subtext is disturbing: the audience learns that you can defend any view, even without evidence. If listeners don’t know any better, it will stick.

Francesa also makes a peculiarly lame defense of steroid users like Rodriguez. He won’t discredit his 654 home runs, since “We don’t know when he started [cheating].” A day before the Hall of Fame voting was announced, he asserted that Rodriguez, Clemens and Bonds “have the numbers to be Hall of Famers.” Oh really? You mean those phony totals they attained while using performance-enhancing drugs?  Let me know what the Olympics does with suspect numbers and get back to me.

2. Dan Patrick - “The Dan Patrick Show”

Dan Patrick is a skilled interviewer. First off, while some hosts are extemporaneous, he prepares. Anticipating temperatures falling to 4 degrees and a wind chill of -14, Patrick asked Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers “Does the weather affect you?”

“No one in Green Bay is going to complain,” Rodgers replied. Patrick wanted more: “If I said you can have 32 degrees and sunny but [San Francisco quarterback] Colin Kaepernick is going to get the same condition, would you take that, or would you have 8 degrees as a high?” Rodgers said that he preferred being able to feel the ball and throwing it without wind, but he would still take the 8 degrees.

Patrick also confronted his competitors for stealing material from his Kurt Warner interview. “You’ll notice the mothership [his term for ESPN] is using our questions and answers. ‘Pardon the Interruption,’ ‘Around the Horn,’ even other radio shows. Just be a journalist or have some ethics there. When my last question to Kurt Warner is about his kids playing football. And then Colin Cowherd goes on and his first question to Kurt Warner an hour later is ‘When I heard the news about Junior Seau I was thinking about all the parents who weren’t going to let their kids play football.’ Really, that’s the first thing you thought of? Junior Seau puts a gun to his chest and kills himself. C’mon. You’re better than that. You may be competing with me—don’t be lazy. And you were lazy yesterday and you know that.”

3. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic - “Mike & Mike”

The Mikes are Greenberg and Golic and their show is unfailingly upbeat and humorous, the sports equivalent to peppy shows like “Good Morning America.” Both are knowledgeable. Following “Black Monday,” the day after the NFL regular season ends when coaches often learn if they will be fired, they invited former NFL coach Herman Edwards. Edwards made predictions about the coming play-off games. “Bill Belichick will try not to let Andrew Luck drift out of the pocket to extend plays.”

The Mikes at their mics play it straight. They address the latest games and topics—including skier Lindsay Vonn’s injury that kept her out of the Olympics. Via telephone, former Florida State University coach Bobby Bowden claims that FSU, a double-digit favorite in the college football title game, was “overconfident,” whereas Auburn burned as an underdog. Florida State then woke up in the second half.

4. Mike Lupica - “The Mike Lupica Show”

Mike Lupica embodies the five-platform approach of ESPN. ESPN started with television in 1979 and followed with radio, Internet, a magazine and books. Lupica, a columnist for Esquire a generation ago, sees their five and raises them one: he also toils as a columnist for the New York Daily News.

As with many others who come from a writing background, Lupica brings the same savvy commentary to the radio that he brings to his writing. He floats above the fray—an urbane, independent voice, seemingly beholden to no one. Hence, his tough assessment of the New York Knicks—who he claims always have a plan, which gets them to “the next plan.” At times, however, he seems like one more host in love with his own views.

Consider: Lupica is against firing Knicks’ coach Mike Woodson because of his 84–56 record over three years, yet he rails at the piety of Giants fans who think that coach Tom Coughlin should be untouchable. Coughlin is 90–70 in five years as the Giants’ coach—oh yes, and that small matter of winning two Super Bowls. A little consistency, please.

Following a memorable game six of the 2013 NBA Finals between Miami and San Antonio, Lupica was revved to go. “We set the debate, we don’t join the debate. We won’t hang up on you,” he said excitedly. But then he did. A caller began, “If you were going to take a Lebron [James] game, the one to take was not game six.” Then the caller was cut off, since his opinion differed from Lupica’s. The caller was right: had he not been clicked off, he might have mentioned the last 41 seconds in regulation, when James lost the ball twice, bricked a three-pointer, made one, and missed again with eight seconds left. In sum, 33 seconds, two misses, two turnovers.

5. Chris Russo - “Mad Dog Unleashed”

During his New York tenure, Russo was at his maniacal best while off on a riff, rabidly debunking your favorite team or unravelling an overrated player. On SiriusXM satellite radio the same formula works. After New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees set the record for passing yards in a season (since broken by Peyton Manning), the Dog barked: “Nobody in America outside of Stewart Scott and Mike Turico cares about Brees’ record—he’s not even the best quarterback in the league!

Rodgers is better, and Brett [Favre] is better than Brees. Nor was Marino in ’84, since Montana was better. Don’t get me wrong, Brees is going to the Hall of Fame. I didn’t stay up to watch that. I don’t think anybody in America cares.” Favre over Brees? Questionable. Overkill? No doubt. But rants are excessive by definition. If stream of conscious rants were your calling card, and someone offered you $3 million per annum, wouldn’t you do it?

Russo is also infamous for malaprops. He once explained how Amadeus was a movie about Johann Sebastian Bach. Then there was the one about the “anals of sports history.” Who needs English?

6. Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti - “Felger & Massarotti”

The 2013 baseball season is ending. Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti, both former Boston Herald columnists, are conducting a “Yankees elimination party.” As tempting as it is to stomp on the Yankees’ one-World Series-in-the-last-13-years grave, the duo resists. The bit was muted—more in the spirit of the Yankees will flounder because they lack minor league prospects and are committed to paying millions to aging and underachieving players. Felger included Vernon Wells (paid $21 million in 2013), Alfonso Soriano (37 years old, $18 million), and Derek Jeter. “Jeter’s $8 million—that’s not crippling in itself, except he’s 39, can’t move, and he’s your opening day shortstop. What are you gonna do, start him on the bench?


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