Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Talk Is Cheap, So Why Does Listening Cost Souls?

As a business proposition, it is unclear if Boston needs two large sports talk radio stations. As an aesthetic proposition, one seems like way, way more than enough.

(We pause here for WEEI to go full metal smug and assault me with its wallet. For a successful business enterprise, that institution has a remarkable set of twelve-story tall rabbit ears. It's one of the station's most unlovely attributes, although not it's only one.)

CBS Radio, a large corporation which presumably knows what's it doing, has decided to turn some FM station over to the sports talk format, and has hired my former colleague Michael Felger, who's just mad for radio start-ups, as proof of its intentions. As a sports fan and American, I like competition, so I hope the new station will actually provide some.

Oh, who am I kidding? I have no hope of that at all. I expect imitation of WEEI, not competition. Like many other human enterprises, radio broadcasting admires innovation and daring only when it's practiced by other people. I look for the CBS entry's programming to diligently follow the very lowest common denominators of 'EEIs approach. It will field familiar names beating familiar dead horses, present self-love as its primary emotional attribute, and take calls from the class of fans who think the Blue Jays will be delighted to take Julio Lugo for Roy Halladay and are certain Giselle Bundchen is why the Pats will go 8-8 this year.

Of course, if the new station does that, it will fail, and quickly, too. Why listen to an imitation when the real thing is available. What WEEI does is, to be polite, not to my taste, but God knows they're good at it. The thing about hack work is, you can't fake it. You have to truly think it's valuable.

I'll give CBS the benefit of the doubt I do not have, and assume they'll actually consider offering up a different approach to sports talk in the belief that's how they can make a buck off it. In that spirit, I have a few suggestions.

None of these suggestions involve personnel. It is my belief that sports talk as a genre renders the identity of the individual talkers more or less irrelevant. Four hours (the standard show length) is a long time to talk about anything, let alone sports, which people like because of action, not words. Put Socrates, Einstein, and Thomas Jefferson in the booth 20 hours a week, give them a topic like the NFL draft, and before the third hour of their first show, all three guys would be making hilarious factual errors and plugging restaurants. It's the nature of the beast.

But within the all-powerful format, there's some tweaking that might help CBS lose money more slowly on this station before they convert it to Afro-Pop or Christian rock, or better yet, get Clear Channel to take it off their hands. Nothing radical, just simple common sense, which is revolutionary.

1. Keep your *%#@$ voices down!!! A random car radio button push to 'EEI has a 99 percent chance of finding either yelling, guffawing, or both yelling and guffawing. You're talking to people who're less than a foot from your voice, not shouting imprecations from the last row of the upper deck. Sports generates passion, and sports talk should recognize that, but there has to be an acceptable conversational tone somewhere between NPR report on environmental problems in some country I never heard of and total Glenn Beck nervous breakdown.

2. Try talking about sports. Oddly enough, that's why your listeners tuned in. They have other outlets for knowledge on celebrity scandals, prime time TV, and, above all, politics. The competition for that all-important audience of angry white male ribbon clerks who are terrified of the entire world is already fierce. You won't win it. Trust me.

3. Interviews. This is a more serious suggestion. Get every player, coach, and front office type who'll return your calls and schedule them early and often.

Mike Francesca is an insufferable jerk on the air. But he gets the guests. A few years ago, driving in the New York area, Francesca had the general manager of the Mets, the GM of the Jets, and then-Yankee cleanup hitter Gary Sheffield on as guests-in one hour. Glen Ordway is actually a good interviewer. It's too bad the Big Show is so in love with the sound of its own voices that it has few guests. That blunder is your opportunity.

I don't think my old co-worker Michael will mind when I say I'm more interested in Tom Brady's thoughts about the Patriots than I am in his. I'm more interested in Brady's thoughts on the Pats than I am in my own, too.

Best of all, guests can, on occasion, MAKE news. News your rival will have to report-and credit you for.

See how simple it is. Talk sports, don't be jackasses on the air, conduct interviews with the people in the games as often as possible. It probably won't work. But "probably" is better odds than CBS will get with copycat radio.

In the interests of science, I promise to tune into the new station at least once. CBS, I'm warning you. I'd better not hear guffawing when I do.

Or Frank from Gloucester.


At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only quibble would be the interviews recommendation. The reason we had the rise of interviewers interviewing other interviewers is that the players and coaches are so damned boring! It made much more sense to talk to someone who wrote for a living and had opinions. Of course that has gone too far, but I really don't need to hear some monosyllabic right fielder dish cliches for fifteen minutes. Ciao.

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate WEEI probably more than you do, but I disagree with about 90% of this. Interviews with GMs/players/coaches are by far the most useless and boring thing on sports radio, especially the latter two. I'll listen to a Ken Rosenthal, or a Keith Law who Felger had on his old show, but why would I waste my time listening to Dustin Pedroia, god love him, talk about "going out and giving it 110%!"?

Also disagree about the "just talk sports" thing, if the host(s) can talk about other topics in an entertaining way. Completely disagree about the actual personalities being irrelevant. That's pretty much the only criteria I use to decide if I'm going to listen to a particular show on a particular day.


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