Sports Talk Scores With Radio Listeners

24-hour talk formats are sweeping the airwaves, but some say they undermine media-athlete relations and cheapens broadcasters

NOISE surrounds broadcaster Eddie Andelman as he sits in the center of a spacious cafe below the WEEI sports-radio studio. While crowds of people file in on their lunch hour, Mr. Andelman thinks about his afternoon sports radio show, scheduled to air in two hours.

The scene of noisy people is no different from his show. He handles noisy callers on his sports show ready to voice their opinions on sports news, people in sports, the economics of sports, or the sports bum of the day.

Since Andelman started 25 years ago, sports radio has grown beyond just a four-hour talk show. Now it's available for the fan who craves sports talk all hours of the day. Stations in both large and small markets are turning to a 24-hour-a-day sports format, seeking higher ratings and a larger listening audience.

``Sports radio has filled a need,'' says J. T. Anderton, editor of Radio Business Report in Alexandria, Va. ``It does a terrific job of reaching men, 25 to 54 - major demographics that advertisers want. If you start fireworks, in talk radio or sports, it contributes to higher ratings and makes the program more interesting.''

Andelman, who started the first sports-talk radio show, ``Sports Huddle,'' says he doesn't need to be controversial to be noticed. And he tries to ensure that his guests are experts. ``I think there was so much misinformation on the O.J. Simpson trial,'' Andelman says. ``I decided to put lawyers on my show to give out the pertinent information.''

Trash talk or talent?

Nevertheless, critics say the growth of all-sports talk shows is filling the airwaves with trash talk, stirring up controversy just to get higher ratings.

Broadcaster Chuck Swirsky, who hosts a sports-talk show on WGN in Chicago and reports regularly on sports, says controversy and negativity can translate into misinformed broadcasters. ``With the influx of sports stations, owners and general managers cannot get prime-quality talent,'' he says.

``The business is so competitive right now. Everyone is out to make a name for themselves, so they will say anything at any cost to be noticed.''

Mr. Swirsky criticizes these 24-hour sports shows for not maintaining certain standards of fairness and civility. He says the guests are often cynical; they may lambaste an individual or an organization without knowing both sides of the story, and when they do, it can turn players or owners against all media.

The 24-hour sports radio phenomenon began with WFAN in 1986. Since it switched from a country-western format to all-sports talk, its ratings have soared. Supporters say the format is filling a need for an audience hungry for sports.

The Federal Communications Commission deregulated radio in the early '80s. ``It left many large AM facilities looking for a viable new niche,'' Mr. Anderton says. Two formats emerged on AM: talk radio and sports.

These 24-hour sports stations must have a strong hold on listeners because only a fistful existed a few years ago. Now almost 100 stations have an all-sports format in cities such as New York (WFAN), Philadelphia (WIP), Boston (WEEI), Chicago (WSCR and WMVP), San Diego (XTRA), and Jacksonville, Fla. (WNZS).

Finding enough talk

Andelman says it's a demanding job to talk strictly about sports. He reads books and articles to keep up with daily events.

``Most days, there is just not enough sports to talk about,'' Andelman said.

Unless it broadens beyond sports, a station cannot do 24 hours of sports a day, he says, except in Las Vegas, Nev., where people gamble on sports full-time.

Ann Liguori, WFAN's only woman broadcaster with her own all-sports show, says that her male colleagues at WFAN try to make a name for themselves by being rude and disrespectful to callers and people in sports.

``I don't insult someone just for the effect of insulting someone,'' Ms. Liguori says. ``I am critical, but in a respectful way. I get my guests to open up.''

Liguori started her call-in show, ``Hey Liguori, What's the Story,'' six years ago. She also hosts a TV show, ``Sports Innerview,'' which she produces, sells, and distributes around the country.

``My show appeals to an intellectual audience because I talk about issues in sports, such as the O.J. Simpson [case] and the domestic-violence issue surrounding it.''

Although Liguori's show airs only twice a week, she admits that talking about sports for six hours straight can be exhausting. ``After my show, I listen to Mozart. I just need to step away and take a break from it.''Swirsky says the ice is starting to melt for women. ``Women do know sports, and there are many women out there who are very good.''

Some show struggle

Not every city has succeeded with an all-sports format. KEM in San Bernardino, Calif., had to bail out a few months ago because of poor ratings. In early May, Los Angeles's all-sports radio station, KMPC, also failed to make an impact in the ratings, in part because local teams such as the Dodgers, the Lakers, and the Raiders fell on hard times.

Robert Unmacht, editor of M Street Journal, (a broadcastin trade publication in New York) says: ``It takes a fairly long time until a certain format settles in. But once established, [sports- talk shows] are money machines.'' While the shows generate good ratings, they are available cheaply over satellite.

So, will an all-sports format survive into the next century?

``If you are executing, are providing listeners with interesting information and interesting guests, you will succeed,'' Swirsky says. ``If you aren't, you will fade away into the sunset.''

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