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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?"