Tony Rizzo, Jim Donovan and Andy Baskin walk into a bar.
It's not the start of a joke, but a hypothetical of sorts used by one close observer of local media to illustrate the landscape of sports talk radio in Cleveland.
One hundred people would probably gather around Rizzo, they said. Ten or so might gather around Donovan. And Baskin would be one of the hundred people around Rizzo.
Rizzo, of course, is the longtime Fox 8 veteran and homer-ific host of The Really Big Show on WKNR 850 AM. He's also the most popular sports talk radio personality in town, and for good reason ... by comparison. He's combined decades of experience with a willingness to show some semblance of personality in a business that often finds itself deliberating on the seriousness of a groin pull.
More than that, however, and in a much more accurate way of describing Rizzo's talent, he's the most successful infomercial host in Cleveland. Guy can flat out hawk product. Bee pollen wonder pills, windows, cars, jewelry, steaks — you name it, he can sell it. Ron Popiel is in awe of Uncle Rizzy's versatility. The creator of the aforementioned bee pollen pills, JoeBees, can probably afford to retire thanks to all the men in Northeast Ohio Rizzo's convinced to buy them.
The JoeBees live-read ad gets prime placement every morning at the beginning of Rizzo's perpetual audition tape for QVC, which is also when he tends to run down what the show will be covering when it takes the occasional break from ads to talk sports.
On one recent Tuesday morning — August 25 — Rizzo kicked off the rundown by saying that they didn't really have any guests for the day. The show would be carried by Rizzo along with his co-host, former NFL player Je'Rod Cherry, who doesn't get to talk all that much but mentions that he won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots when he does; and the show's two producers, Casey and Matt, who we can't tell apart and who mainly take turns trying to impress Rizzo.
There'd also be former Plain Dealer reporter and current ESPN Cleveland Browns beat writer Tony Grossi, who was scheduled for his usual segment discussing the latest Browns training camp news and who usually does so on a phone that sounds like it was most recently used to dial BUtterfield 8. But other than that, not much. You'd be forgiven for assuming no one was listening, which is what we assume the hosts were also thinking.
First they started with the time-tested debate of whether Johnny Manziel should play more in pre-season games or learn by holding a clipboard. It turned into a shouting match, with the two-headed yuk-monster advocating for learning on the sideline and Rizzo going out on a limb by saying, "This playing-for-next-year crap has to stop."
This goes on for about an hour.
Then Rizzo dips into the by-the-book time filler of examining the entire Browns schedule, game by game, and getting everyone's prediction on all 16 matchups. Just about every sports talk show host worth his pittance of a salary does this when they're not asking listeners to grade the GM or coach. All right, guys, week 12 against the Bengals, what do you got? Oh, I think they'll lose. Oh, I think they'll win, but it'll be close. Is Johnny playing by this point? He's gotta be playing by then! Dalton's a bum! But they might lose. All right, week 13 ... .
Invariably, one guy has the team at 16-0 and the other has them at 0-16. The Really Big Show broke tradition in that regard: Rizzo came in with two wins, Cherry had the Browns with eight, and Matt/Casey had a total of 12 wins between them. They sort of acted like their predictions were serious and meaningful.
They killed more time with calls about their hot Johnny Manziel takes.
One of the Kardashians' asses was analyzed at some point.
Then it all really fell apart, and it happened in the very insular and pro-Cleveland content reaction that the sports media in this town has fallen into over the past few years. Sports Illustrated writer Emily Kaplan had written the timeworn puff piece on how Cleveland Browns fans were very dedicated after all these years of losing. It was all hearts and flowers, with Browns tackle Joe Thomas sharing with Kaplan that Lake Catholic grad and former Browns receiver Joe Jurevicius told him when he was a rookie in 2007 that what Browns fans "care about most is that you bust your ass every day."
It was innocuous, and anyone who has ever worked in the media could easily see that. But not the Rizzo gang. They seemed angry that Ms. Kaplan interviewed Browns fans in an East Cleveland bar at 2 in the afternoon (she interviewed lots of Browns fans in other places too) and that East Cleveland afternoon drinkers at the Club Dew Drop at Euclid Avenue and Ivanhoe Road did not give a fair and positive portrayal of the city. And the comments then gushed forth about how this sports writer didn't praise Cleveland as she should.
"Man, Cleveland is a great place to live and raise a family," Rizzo said. "Wow! We have the RNC next year."
"If you're in downtown Cleveland, you feel like you're in New York or Chicago," said either Matt or Casey.
But then Cherry topped them all for what Sport Illustrated missed about how great Northeast Ohio is. "I live 30 minutes from two zoos," he said.
And 17 Acme Fresh Supermarkets, Je'Rod. Don't forget that.
Let's get this out of the way: Everyone working in the Cleveland sports radio market thinks things are great. Well, everyone in management, anyway. The business is great, the ratings are the highest ever, the people of Cleveland love their sports like no other, there is more than enough room for two and a half stations talking sports from morning to night, maybe more, and the guys employed to do it now are the right guys to be doing it.
The millennials all listen to terrestrial radio sports talk through apps on their phones, the old timers sit on lawn chairs in their garages and drink beer and call in, the hosts have great personalities, and none of the teams ever complain to the bosses if a host says they think the team is more shitty than usual.
In reality, they have a steady but aging listenership, and they do make a little money if they keep their costs down. But because there is little to gain by trying new things, and the profits razor thin anyway, it's best not to do something that offends the old farts who have nothing to do in the afternoon.
That's why a four-hour show will usually get programmed like this: a few recordings of gangbang interviews from a locker-room (whether they say anything or not), a short interview with the station's team expert (like ESPN's Tony Grossi, on the high end, or a salesperson turned de facto beat writer, on the low end), a chat with a national blogger or an NFL Network guy who tweets vaguely about nothing quite often, and maybe Mary Kay Cabot dropping by to talk about what other people wrote. Fill in the time with the two hosts talking to each other and taking some calls that seem to come from the same few people who call all the shows. Rinse, repeat, see you back here at the same time tomorrow. What do you think the Browns record will be? Should Johnny be playing more?
Cleveland was at one time the center of sports talk experimentation. Pete Franklin pretty much invented the format in 1967, and people found him berating caller after caller entertaining. In the mid-1990s, WHK-1420 AM had a dedicated following that thought it was in a private club and the term "mother scratcher" was the password.
And that history in Cleveland helped ingrain sports talk radio nationally as a male tradition — killing time with nonsense, but nonsense men liked — and it became the place where guys hung out. Call it the man cave or the tree house or the he-man-woman-hater's-club, but sports talk became a gathering place.
"We thought being funny and intelligent was more important than just breaking down a defense," said Les Levine, who was the lynchpin at WHK for its brief three-year existence. The station was there when Browns coach Bill Belichick benched Bernie Kosar and the Browns left, and joked and cried through it all. The station ended quickly because of a sale of its parent company, not bad ratings.
But hardly anyone has tried to be the least bit clever since. Some say that wouldn't work because Cleveland loses too much, and the fans aren't in the mood for any sports hilarity or content that requires more than a sixth-grade education. And Cleveland seems to be in one of its moods where any putdowns of the teams or the players or the city — even done smartly and by locals — is not well received. And god forbid if the criticism comes from an outsider.
Rizzo, more than anyone else in the market, attempts, or attempted at one point, to have fun. It's why The Really Big Show with ESPN Cleveland — which has led the station's line-up since 2007 — has the following that it does and serves as WKNR's cash cow. The dial is otherwise filled with some talented people, some not, and a whole lot of the same, indistinguishable except when the stations' call letters are uttered.