Saturday, February 21, 2004

Talk radio becomes part of nation's male fabric

Florida Today

Sports fan John Gans listens to sports talk radio when he is driving or working in his yard, so he'll have something to talk about at the bar he manages.

Like anyone else who listens to a format that encourages contentious and highly charged discussions, Gans has gotten mad enough to want to pick up a phone and start punching numbers.

"I get the urge to call, but I don't act on it because the majority of the time you have to sit on hold for 45 minutes," he said.

He's finally made the call, though - several of them. His local ESPN radio station began to air two hours of political commentator Bill O'Reilly, shaving 60 minutes each off popular sports hosts Tony Kornheiser and Dan Patrick, and an unhappy Gans let the station know about his displeasure.

That's how ingrained talk radio has become in many sports fans' lives.

A format initially scoffed at when it was proposed in the late 1980s has become so big that most large cities have more than one sports-only station, said Jeffrey Yorke, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

At a time when two-newspaper cities are on the endangered species list, that speaks volumes about the demand for sports-talk radio.

"I think the passion that exists with sports; that's never going to go away. That's what makes it such a good format," said Bruce Gilbert, the general manager of ESPN Radio. "(Fans) vicariously live in the car and office and want to play along."

ESPN has been giving sports fans a chance to play along since 1992. ESPN Radio's new digs are a good indicator of how much sports-talk radio has grown.

After broadcasting out of a small room not much bigger than a walk-in closet for a decade, ESPN Radio recently took over an entire floor in one of the buildings that encompasses the ESPN complex in Bristol, Conn.

When Jeff Smulyan proposed switching a New York City radio station from a country music format to all sports in 1987, he encountered some - let's call it skepticism.

"Friends in the industry thought I was stark-raving crazy," Smulyan said. "In my own company, nobody wanted to do it. Some of my senior managers did it as a favor to me."

Terry Bowden had no time for talk radio when he coached football at Auburn University. Hosts and callers were armchair quarterbacks and naysayers that Bowden, who coached the Tigers from 1993-98, didn't need.

"I wouldn't dare listen," he said, "because it can be so negative."

Now, a quirk of fate - and, of course, the foresight of Smulyan, who has turned New York's WFAN into one of the best-known stations in the country - has placed Bowden in the role of sports-talk radio host.

But Bowden's Florida-only show, like most others of its ilk, is not just straight sports.

For example, one recent discussion segued into talk about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez' breakup. A chat about a plane that skidded off a runway with St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa aboard prompted Bowden and co-host Daniel Dahm to talk about scary flying experiences.

The chat shows how elastic the format is and refutes a stereotype about those who regularly listen to sports talk radio.

"It's really entertainment for guys," said Rick Scott, president of RSA Sports International, a sports radio consulting firm. "It's been referred to as a sports bar on the radio or a Tupperware party for guys. Good sports radio is way beyond that. It's about entertaining personalities that are fun to listen to."

On the Web

ESPN Radio's schedule:

New York's WFAN radio:

Orlando station that hosts Terry Bowden's show 4-7 p.m. weekdays:

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Talk radio becomes part of nation's male fabric
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