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.
Rizzo, for his part, offered to chat for this article but never ended up following through. A handful of hosts were offered up by 92.3 The Fan. Top men at both stations did chat, and they're pretty damn proud.
"We have great talent who understand the fans here in Cleveland, and we are very satisfied with where we are," says Keith Williams, vice president and general manager for Good Karma Broadcasting, which owns ESPN 850. "This is a football town, and we have the best coverage of the Browns."
Tom Herschel, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Cleveland, which owns 92.3 The Fan, echoes his competitor's sentiments. "One of the reasons we built and launched The Fan four years ago is the incredible enthusiasm and sports in this area."
Both Herschel and Williams say the Northeast Ohio market is not oversaturated with sports programming, they both think that the interest in sports in the Cleveland market is very high right now, and they don't expect any changes to their line-ups in the near future.
And Chucky Booms thought he was going to be around long after Kevin Kiley croaked.
(As for the recent stability/instability of the line-ups: WKNR went through an almost complete reshuffling not that long ago, sending Michael Reghi and Kenny Roda packing and shifting hosts in different timeslots or with new partners; Booms, as well as one-time weekend host Joe Lull, are the two most recent changes at The Fan. Kevin Kiley, whose disdain for sports, and Cleveland sports in particular, is palpable, is widely expected to leave sometime in the not so distant future.)
Optimism is one thing, as is the general feel-goodiness about their performance, but despite what the program directors say, it is now nearly impossible to know how many and who are tuning in to any given show. Because Arbitron measures the radio signals a person is tuned into, and doesn't factor in the Internet or mobile phone connections, the ratings are somewhat meaningless. WKNR 850 doesn't do Arbitron anymore; 92.3 does. And stations have long learned how to fudge their numbers so they look good. Like they might say they have 50 percent of the 25 to 54 male audience, the best of all stations. When you press them, they'll say they have 50 percent of the 25 to 54 male audience with one leg. When you ask how many one-legged men there are in that group, they'll say 12. But they have six of them.
Ratings, of course, are still important. WKNR relies on them less as a barometer of success, and the station's business model — partners, partners, partners and their staff's ability to sell the shit out of them — means that they're not as beholden to the numbers as others. (And by all accounts, that partner-driven model works for them. If they have six one-legged males age 25 to 54 listening, as long as all six of those guys buy JoeBees, they're happy.)
But it's likely they also don't want to get into numbers because they're getting beaten. And badly. Baskin and Phelps host 92.3 The Fan's lunchtime show. It's four hours of harmless radio that few would point to as the best of what both stations try to do. Nevertheless, that show has routinely topped Rizzo's ratings the past four months or so, an astounding comparison given our opening bar hypothetical.
Which isn't entirely their fault. FM stations will almost always trounce AM stations in listeners (and 92.3's ratings are nothing to crow about), so the platforms themselves help explain away the Baskin/Phelps oddity. Fewer and fewer true millenials even know what the hell AM radio is. (National sports talk host Colin Cowherd, speaking on a podcast back in May, had this to say about the prospects: "I think terrestrial [radio], AM especially, is done in five years.") Professional teams are signing deals on FM, not AM. Listeners are finding Grantland podcasts if they want to hear someone talk about basketball in an educated fashion, not tuning into someone whose grasp of their free hot-dog lunch is firmer than his grasp of the NBA salary cap. (They also tune into ESPN's Brian Windhorst on KNR, whether they love him or hate him.)
But basketball is second fiddle to football here. (Baseball, for various reasons, doesn't even get a fiddle.) As the station's bosses noted, Cleveland's insatiable appetite for Browns coverage must be fed. Both stations back up the feed truck, and both are now the flagship stations for the Cleveland Browns.
But while they coordinate and combine on gameday coverage, only WKNR is forced to air Cleveland Browns Daily, an astoundingly vacuous two-hour show each afternoon recorded by the Browns for the Browns. It's hosted by Nathan Zegura, a fantasy football expert and all around affable personality who we imagine seals himself in a hyperbaric chamber after it wraps up each day, the only solace possible to recover from talking about things like the Browns' third-string safety in March. Cleveland Browns Daily is filled with team-approved hyperbole like, "With a better arm, Connor Shaw could be one of the great quarterbacks in the game," a real thing that was said on the air back in May. More recently, co-host Matt Wilhelm misappropriated a bit of elementary school-level history in calling the Cleveland media Uncle Toms for their negative coverage of the team. "Do you think a lot of people are going to lose their jobs when this team starts winning?" Wilhelm asked no one in particular.
The flagship deal comes with its fair share of back and forth, but several hosts have told Scene that station higher-ups have come into the studios and told them to start talking Browns.
And there's this: The deals are loss leaders in more real terms. The Browns sell ads on the radio "network" that has the weekly pre- post- and game itself programming, meaning there are many companies the stations can't even approach for ads because the Browns have already locked them up. In effect, the stations are paying the Browns to run the games and then competing against the team for ad sales.
It used to be that sports talk radio was based on the host, where the personalities were just as important as the topic. Bruce Drennan, who has been in Cleveland sports talk for 46 years and is now on Fox Sports Ohio, had, and still has, a fiery personality of sorts. "What bugs me about sports radio these days is they are nothing but talking heads, they don't really take many calls much, and they just babble at each other without saying much," he says.
Ken Carman, the talented 29-year-old who replaced Booms on 92.3's morning drive show after building a strong following during the evening slot, likes taking calls and shows how working them into content can be fun radio at times. "When Rick in Parma calls, for that two minutes I've got to treat that person with respect, but also find out why they feel the way they feel," he says. "We've gotten to a point in this business where there are a lot of radio hosts who want to use callers but don't make a connection. But disagreeing and still having respect and a connection can be great radio."
The problem is that the sports media has been upended, and social media has made the hosts' personalities less important for the programmers. It used to be that the local print reporters broke sports stories — trades, benchings, free agent signings — and the TV and radio hosts sorted through what was important each day and put their spin on things. What they said wasn't important, but how they said it.
Now everyone has everything all at once — and the problems that causes. Like last month when an Atlanta TV station accidently tweeted that Browns' suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon had gotten a DUI. It was an old tweet (a tech malfunction was the explanation for it), but all the stations ran with it, then backpedaled and tried to point out how they found out the tweet was wrong before the other station did.
"In the end, I think there is a constant pressure when you host a sports talk show to be on top of every little topic and every little nuance," says WKNR afternoon host Aaron Goldhammer. "We have to report what has been reported, but we also have to be vigilant to make sure we are right."
It's not just wrong news that gets covered by both front to back, it's no news.
The stations run press conferences live even if nothing is said. As 92.3 The Fan afternoon host Adam the Bull says, "You have to run them just in case they do say something important." The problem with that is simple: Players and coaches almost never say anything. Time filler itself then becomes fodder for more time filler as everyone discusses the nothing that was said.
Case in point: A few weeks ago at Browns training camp, running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said one of the team's three young running backs needed to step up and grab the starting job. He didn't name anyone specifically, but expressed his slight disappointment that none of the three had distinguished themselves as yet.
So all the radio sports shows chimed in and killed multiple segments on Montgomery throwing down the gauntlet on these juvies. Fine. That's what sports talk shows do. But they played the interview over and over again, and analyzed Montgomery's vague comments for deeper meaning. But none of the hosts on either station joked about this, 'cause this was serious Browns business.
A few days later, the business got more serious — and much more stupid. Browns second-year running back Isaiah Crowell was trotted out by the Browns PR staff for an interview with print and radio and TV after practice. The gaggle of media asked Crowell over and over for his views on Montgomery's comments for six minutes, and 15 times Crowell answered with some version of, "I have to work harder."
In the old days, TV and radio would pick out the best answer and just use that if they used anything at all. No one would print all the answers; no radio or TV station would play the whole interview. Someone would say, "That sure was a waste of time."
And now? Cleveland.com put the whole six-minute interview on its website. Both stations ran it in its entirety several times and then analyzed its deeper meaning. This isn't to say the stations should have ignored Crowell and Montgomery's comments, but maybe just play, "I have to work harder," three times instead of 15. The "they're doing it so we're doing it" sentiment runs deep, which means listeners got the soundbite not 15 times but 30. (Sports talk radio isn't alone here: Newspapers and blogs are in the same boat, recycling the same news, the same takes.)
And that makes it hard to pull big audiences, let alone distinguish yourself from the competition. Far and few between are the radio reporters who would follow up with anything except, "Isaiah, talk about Coach Montgomery's comments."
What about: "Is it the quality of your work that you have to work on, or the quantity, the number of hours you need to put in?"
Or: "How many zoos do you live close to?"
The problem of everyone having the same nothing at once is exacerbated by the fact that in many cases, 92.3 The Fan is reliant on other media not just for its newsy talking points but for its content, period.
The station has shown a wanton disregard for spending money even as CBS Radio in Cleveland has shed expensive contracts. 92.3 didn't send any reporters to cover Ohio State's national championship run last year, for example, nor did it send any talent on the road to cover the Cavs' run to the NBA Finals. No trips to Boston, Chicago or Atlanta, let alone Oakland. If the wine and gold had taken the series against Golden State to a game seven, 92.3 would have been sitting in Cleveland relying on every other outlet's material being gathered on the ground in California — including WKNR, which had a team on the West Coast.
And for a flagship station, one that trumpets its coverage of Cleveland's most popular team, it's embarrassing that 92.3 doesn't even send a reporter on the road with the Browns unless the game's in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. (WKNR, meanwhile, sends Tony Grossi just about everywhere, including the owner's meetings.) As one host told Scene, "It's not anything a podcaster couldn't do sitting at home." Home of the Browns, indeed.
"The problem is that the sports talk radio stations in Cleveland don't have any content of their own, content that would make them a destination listening place, mostly because they don't want to have original content," says John Gorman, longtime Cleveland radio icon who was program manager at WHK in it sports talk days and now operates WOW Media, which tries to recreate WMMS in its heyday, which Gorman also ran.
The sad state of affairs is that the stations don't believe that, and that attitude trickles down to employees, and that whether or not you have original content, it doesn't much make a difference.
"I don't think it matters anymore what's on the air," says former 92.3er Joe Lull. "I don't know that it ever did, actually. But today, more than ever, it doesn't really matter. Look at the dismissal of Booms, who, like it or not, was one of the most polarizing figures in Cleveland media, and he was just tossed to the curb. And the station is just 'onward and upward.' I largely believe that with the exception of a few people, sports talk is just white noise. And if you look at some of the people on air who aren't necessarily engaging personalities but rather just people who've been in sports, that speaks to it. The stations don't try to be cutting edge. They're very conservative. The Fan doesn't invest in covering things, but I don't think that necessarily matters. You're not going to have more or less people listen to the radio station because you do or don't send someone to cover the national championship game."
Which ties into something else we heard: That it doesn't really matter who's hosting a show. It could be a fill-in or the regular host. The ratings stay the same. It's a built-in, ready-made audience.
"I've heard shows where callers call in and they don't even know what host they're talking to. I don't know why people listen but I'm guessing it's because it's voices talking about Cleveland sports," says Lull. "It doesn't matter to the people making decisions and unfortunately it doesn't matter to the listener either. I don't think either station is in a position where they have to worry much about the quality of the product. You'd think persona-based radio would be in higher demand given the saturation, but I think they're comfortable having voices on the radio. What those voices are is irrelevant. I don't think that's just Cleveland sports talk. It's sports talk in general. You don't get encouragement to develop. And if you want to take a full-time job at a Cleveland radio station, you shouldn't be taking a pay decrease from what you're doing today. The reality is, there are gas station attendants making more than part-time employees at The Fan. But they don't want you to know that because it undermines this image of the big voice on the radio."
The teams, according to the hosts, are partly to blame as well. Almost everyone interviewed for this article said the Cleveland Cavaliers were notorious for not providing athletes for interviews on the stations, and that the Browns and Indians were not much better. Original takes are generally frowned upon, not least of all because denial of future access for hypothetical interviews or credentials is always a threat.
And even when a station gets somebody on the line, it's hit or miss.
"Most athletes are not great interviews," Adam the Bull says. "If we can get a player the fans have heard of we'll try, but we aren't just going to go get anyone so we can say we have a player on. And you have to play things carefully with the teams, not asking for a player every day and abusing the relationship."
It isn't that sports talk has to be intellectual vibrant or always doing something important. But thinking that all your listeners are brain dead, that they don't care what you serve them up, is not a good way to program content that tries to gain listeners, not push them away. Not being serious intellectually does not mean one has to be intellectually vapid either. We get enough of that through social media.
It leads to some very odd choices, both media-wise and culturally. The radio stations all go on and on about how Ray Rice and the other wife-beater athletes should not be allowed to play anymore, that being a pro-athlete is a privilege and not a right of employment. Yet WKNR had Tony Rizzo on the air the very morning he got out of jail in December of 2013 after being arrested for spousal abuse. The news hadn't even broken yet, and Rizzo was hosting the show like nothing had happened. And when reports surfaced mid-program, Rizzo was allowed to use the station's airwaves to make his defense. (Those charges were eventually dropped and Rizzo pleaded no contest to persisting disorderly conduct, a fourth-degree misdemeanor, in March 2014. The prosecutor said at the time that Rizzo's then-wife told authorities the day after his arrest that "she initiated the argument and struck him with a wine glass" and didn't want to press charges. The details of the case are not the debate here; it's Good Karma's decision to let Rizzo host the show that day at all.)
Donald Trump is being railed in some quarters for being insulting to women, yet ESPN Cleveland's Golden Boyz (Aaron Goldhammer and Emmett Golden) recently debated whether tennis star Serena Williams was hot. (Both determined she was not.) It's so overblown, such mail-it-in material, such low-hanging boys' club fruit, like the debate over whether Michael Jordan could beat LeBron James one-on-one, another scintillating topic explored on the show a few weeks ago. It's the man cave taken to its logical if maddening conclusion. Fine enough to keep the people who've always listened around. But probably not fine enough for a twentysomething who would rather not hear whether or not you think Serena Williams is fuckable.
Dustin Fox is a fairly well spoken former Ohio State football player who had a brief swim through the NFL. He currently co-hosts the afternoon show on 92.3 The Fan with Adam the Bull. Most of the time he brings a decent spin on what NFL players are thinking about as they go through the season, and he stands up to the Bull's frequent pontificating rants. At times, it can be good radio.
Last week, they brought on journalist Gilbert Gaul to talk about his new book, Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big Money Culture of College Football. Gaul has won two Pulitzer Prizes, worked for both the New York Times and Washington Post and, to justify his sports cred, was a New Jersey state high-school champion in the javelin many years ago.
Gaul's book is about how some colleges are increasing general student fees and cutting academic and other programs to prop up football which, in all but a few big programs, has become a cash drain for the schools. He cites the University of Akron specifically in his tome, which is a timely local tie given Akron's recent budget moves like cutting its baseball program and laying off faculty, in part because football costs so much.
Fox regularly weighs in on the importance of college football programs based on his OSU experience: how tutors are important for the athletes, how the programs are worth the cost, how they bring pride to students and provide good marketing for the schools in more than just sports.
Fox started the interview by thanking the author for sending him a copy of the book a few weeks ago and then noting that he hadn't read it. Now, many media members do not read every book that comes across their desk — there can be a mountain at times — but this was right up Fox's alley.
After Gaul explained how IRS tax deductions were given to college football donors, how the costs of tutoring athletes were passed on to the general student body with fees, how the highest paid public official in most states was a university football coach, and how Akron had undermined the entire university budget by building a costly new football stadium, Fox asked Gaul this: "What's the biggest problem you found with big-time college football?"
Then Fox opined that perhaps the problem in Akron was with the success of its football program. If they had won eight or nine games — instead of five games under Terry Bowden (who makes $400,000 coaching at Akron, plus $1.4 million in related "services") — Fox figured Akron's program would be a good thing for all concerned. Not that maybe schools like Akron might be better off getting out of the football business.
Fox then politely thanked Gaul for being a guest on the show and said that he thought the book was "well done." Yep, a book he hadn't read.
"Ever do five hours of radio a day? We prepare our ass off, but I don't read every book of every guest," Fox told us last Friday. "We've brought on comedians as guests that I have never heard. Maybe me saying his book was 'well done' even though I hadn't read it was me just being nice to a guest."
This is not to bag on Dustin Fox here. He didn't have to say he hadn't read the book. He probably could have faked his way through the interview as if he had. But he didn't think it was important for his job as a sports talk show host to read it, and he figured his audience didn't think it was important that he did either.
But, then again, why should it be?
This is Cleveland, and being a sports fan is all about killing time between years of losing. It's wait until next year. And wait until next show. Same result, though.