So what's up with sports talk?

Blogger Ryan Wilson wonders exactly when sports talk radio jumped the shark. Reporting and analysis have been replaced by a lot of yelling, screaming, bells, whistles, but very little substance, and it's not quite clear who benefits ... other than the advertisers and the blowhards behind the microphones.

I've got a serious question. Why is sports talk radio so awful? The recent news that Pittsburgh's FoxSports 970 gave Stan Savran the boot, and the uncertain future of "In the Locker Room," a morning show hosted by former Pittsburgh Steelers Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley, got me thinking about all of this. Obviously, ratings are the driving force behind programming decisions, but if the views expressed here are any indication, then hiring Tim Benz as Savran's replacement will be about as popular as New Coke. Although, after reading this, it's not clear exactly what the good folks over at 970 have is mind.

The Pittsburgh area's sports talk death spiral can be traced back to ESPN 1250 putting Mark Madden on weekday afternoons. Most people find Madden's radio shtick an extension of his professional wrasslin' days: Staged theatre that's sure to incite the crowd, no matter how inane the accusations being tossed around. And as far as advertisers are concerned, it works. Apparently that's the current recipe for a successful radio show: Say something so idiotic listeners feel obliged to respond, resulting in call-in shows that quickly devolve into shouting matches that invariably end in hang-ups and offer little in the way of substance.

I lived in Pittsburgh for three years -- from 2000 to 2003 -- and I listened to Madden for the first few months only because I didn't know any better. After I realized I was actually getting dumber as a result -- kinda like smoking pot everyday for three months straight – I just quit listening to talk radio all together. That said, I go through phases, usually during football season, where I'll tune in just to hear what people are saying, but for the most part it doesn't take long for me to remember exactly why this medium is headed for the Thomas Crapper.

(As an aside -- and in the spirit of full disclosure -- I should mention that I made my first radio appearance on Baltimore's ESPN 1300 earlier this month to talk about the AFC North. I was a little nervous about doing the show but not so much because I'd be on the radio for tens of people to hear, but because I didn't know if this might be one of those Softy situations – you know, where the host is primarily interested in setting up the guest and before you know it Jerry Springer brings your wife on stage and she turns out to be a transvestite stripper who's running off with your pastor. Luckily, this wasn't one of those times. In fact, it proved to be a pretty boring segment, and I take full credit for that. As my buddy Andy pointed out later: "You have a face for radio and a voice for silent movies." And even though we talked a lot of football, none of it involved yelling, screaming, hemming, hawing, or anything else that might've made listeners go, "Man, these dudes are crazy!" My mind-numbingly dull appearance aside, why is just talking about football such a bad thing?)

Despite current developments, there are still a few radio guys I like: Savran, and Tunch and Wolf locally; Tony Kornheiser (formerly of ESPN), and Steve Czaban and Chris Myers on FoxSports radio and, well, that's about it. I think Mike and Mike are unbearable. (Mostly Greenberg, not so much Golic. I mean, how can you not love the guy from "Saved by the Bell: The College Years"?) And anytime Sean Salisbury is on the radio I reflexively want to jerk the wheel into a *@#!%& bridge embankment.

What I find mind-boggling though, are those listeners – and there seem to be a lot of them – who tune in every day to hear the likes of Madden, Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, Jay Mariotti, or any of the countless other dolts who have traded in their credibility for a chance at stardom, no matter how brief or, well, embarrassing. Who are these people and why do they listen? Seriously? And worse still, why do they get so upset when one of these talking heads bad-mouths their favorite player/team/mascot/whatever (like this idiot, for example)?

At some level I guess I understand the dynamics at work here -- I call it the Howard Stern Effect: Fans listen because they want to hear what he'll say next; people who hate Stern listen too, because … they want to hear what he'll say next. Same idea here except most sports talk hosts are completely unoriginal, usually uninformed, and often not very smart. They instead rely on inflammatory rhetoric, double-talk, or if that's too much work, name-calling. And for the most part, this formula, no matter how tired – and hard to believe -- works.

Years ago, scribbling a Letter to the Editor was the only outlet available for fans to voice their displeasure with the sports news coverage. Well, either that or you could just show up at Club Erotica – on virtually any night of the week, mind you -- and harass one unnamed sports talk personality until the bouncers threw you out, but I wouldn't know anything about that. All is not lost, however. One of the great things about the internets is that it provides average guys the opportunity to point out how ridiculous things have gotten in the sports media. If nothing else, examples like this and this (just keep scrolling) are proof that at least some segment of the listening population is turned off by such silliness, and is seemingly on the verge of a revolt. And that's a good thing. The print journalists aren't immune either. In tracking down links for this column, I came across this gem. Another glimmer of hope can be found in the television medium; the complete and utter failure of Stephen A. Smith's "Quite Frankly" not only brings a smile to my face, but gives me hope that "Cold Pizza" is close behind.

Hopefully, sports talk radio – and the buffoons behind the mic leading the most recent charge over the cliff – is next on the hit list.


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