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Jock Talk

Competition heats up in the world of sports talk radio.

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In my car the radio buttons are set to every Memphis station that carries sports talk radio shows. From the first time I discovered sports talk during my college days, I was hooked.

In those early years I only had a few choices. There was George Lapides and maybe another show or two. Nothing like today. Memphis has two radio stations that are committed to the sports talk format -- 24 hours a day. Another broadcasts three hours of sports talk each afternoon.

Tired of listening to the same old fans call in day after day? You can tune in a national show such as Jim Rome or Tony Kornheiser. Can't get enough college recruiting talk? There's even a show for you.

I even got to work on a sports talk show. From 1992 through 1996 I was a weekly guest on WREC-AM, on SportsLine, the show originated by Lapides back in the 1970s. That was a thrill, getting paid to talk on the radio about sports. But the landscape has changed quite a bit since I had my 15 minutes of sports talk fame.

Some would argue that the changes have been for the worse. There are more choices, to be sure, but with the opening up of so many hours of local sports talk (there are 15 hours of locally produced sports talk weekdays from 6 a.m. till 6 p.m. by my count), the bar has been lowered.

"I've listened to sports talk in other areas. I would like to think that our show is up to standards anyplace else in the country," says John "The Rainman" Rainey, whose show, Memphis Primetime, is on Sports 56 (WHBQ-AM). "I think overall, sports talk in Memphis is pretty good. I think there are some shows that wouldn't be on the air if I had the option of making that decision. But you have to be careful. There are a lot of different types of fans that listen and you have to try to give each one of them something during the day. That's hard to do."

Dave Woloshin, the radio voice of the University of Memphis and host of Sports Call 790 on WMC-AM, says the format has changed since he first got into the field in 1983.

"You have to understand what talk radio really is now. Sports talk radio is not journalism. It's entertainment with a sports theme. There are still folks who do talk radio as sports journalists. Myself, George Lapides, I think Greg Gaston, the newest entry into the field, is trying to do that," Woloshin says. "A lot of the other guys either have agendas like gambling or they are trying to be sports entertainers. Sometimes it's unfortunate, particularly in this market. There are guys who are not entertainers, who are not journalists, what they are is fans. They have wiggled their way in. I don't know if they demean the genre or not, but I think you have to recognize the genre for what it is. It is not journalism anymore. Entertainment is the primary objective."

Rainey, whose first experience in radio came in 1993 when he began hosting a handicapping show on the weekends, doesn't dispute these facts: He owns a sports handicapping business; he buys the 4 to 6 p.m. time slot from Flinn Broadcasting; and he uses the show to promote his handicapping business.

"There has to be some reason that people listen to you and pay attention to what you say," Rainey says. "I think when we started, the handicapping was the reason that people listened. Whether people want to admit it or agree with gambling on sports or not, a large percentage of the population bets on games."

Several of the shows on WHBQ are similar to the arrangement Rainey has. The host buys the air time and then sells the advertising spots himself. This trend (called "Do It Yourself Radio" by one disdainful local broadcaster) is alarming to some.

Woloshin makes it clear that his station doesn't sell time for sports talk shows. "I know that is not true at WMC, it was not true at WREC. Those are the two stations where I have done the majority of my work," Woloshin says. "Dr. Flinn has a responsibility, in my opinion, to try to make that as professional as he can make it."

Flinn Broadcasting is owned by Dr. George Flinn, a local radiologist. Even the program director at Sports 56 won't say how many of the station's local shows are purchased by the host.

"Some do and some don't," says Bill Grafeman, the new program director. "It's an odd situation. I would rather not go into it. I don't know everybody's situation yet. My idea is eventually for everything to be consistent throughout the day."

According to Grafeman, Jeff and Jack is the highest rated show on Sports 56. Jeff Weinberger, the co-host of the show, is equally evasive.

"It's a back and forth deal," he says. "It's not as simple as a yes or no answer."

Generally the way to tell if the time has been bought by the host is by the type of commercials run during the show. If most of the advertising spots are testimonials ("Have you been to XYZ Electronics lately?") the chances are you're listening to a show that is buying time. This method is not foolproof, however.

John Rainey and Tony Brooks host Memphis Primetime on WHBQ.
"You don't go from saying, 'The Tigers signed the top recruit in Memphis yesterday and let me tell you about Oak Hall,'" says Rainey, who broadcasts his show from his own professional studio and prerecords all his commercials. "I don't think commercials should be part of the show content. That's just a personal opinion."

The Oak Hall remark is a personal dig at Lapides, the dean of sports talk hosts in Memphis. Lapides' show from 8 to 9 a.m. on Sports 56 is laden with deals, from barbecue to automobiles to dry cleaning.

Which brings up another point -- there is a lot of animosity among the various talk radio hosts. This is not limited to local personalities. Rome, who is based in Los Angeles, constantly makes derogatory remarks about Kornheiser, who broadcasts from the D.C. area. But the enmity between hosts on the same station can be a little disarming.

"There are a few talk shows that just go after other talk shows. I don't know why they do it, but it is always going to be that way," says Weinberger. "It's the same way in other cities, too. It's really sad, because this is just talk radio."

There has been more than one occasion where rival sports talk hosts have almost come to blows at public functions. This isn't true of everybody in the genre, but if you are planning a dinner party and want to invite sports talk hosts, it might be wise to check the list twice.

Two guys who do get along are Weinberger and his partner Jack Eaton. "We don't have any ego problems," the former TV news anchor says. "He thinks I'm an idiot and I think he's an idiot. It's just talk radio, it's not life and death. It's not brain surgery."

Into this rough-and-tumble atmosphere comes Grafeman, who arrived in Memphis just last month. He is 26 but could easily pass for 17. How is this guy going to tame the Wild West that Sports 56 has become?

"If the guy was 50 years old, he would have trouble with that group," Weinberger laughs.

"I'm looking forward to it," Grafeman says of the challenges facing him. "I have a lot ideas, not only from myself but from the staff. I'm really looking forward to the situation."

One of the first changes under Grafeman has been the addition of the Morning Sports Report from 9 to 11 a.m. The show features ABC-24 sports director Greg Gaston and Michael Eaves, a reporter and part-time anchor at Channel 24 and its sister station UPN-30. Graffman is quick to credit Flinn with the negotiations that brought Gaston and Eaves to the station.

"They're a great addition," Grafeman says. "I'm real proud of the way that show is going."

Gaston and Eaves work for Clear Channel Communications, which owns several radio stations in Memphis. "It was a very touchy situation. It was very complicated. [General manager] Jack Peck gets all the credit for it," Gaston says. "I'm sure the Clear Channel people were a little reluctant to do it. But then again they were not giving me an opportunity on their [radio] stations. We get our name out in front of a sports audience. It is good name recognition for the TV stations."

Though some would say that it is the ultimate oxymoron, Gaston says he wants to deliver "intelligent sports talk."

"I know that a lot of the sports shows here have been beaten up for not having intelligent sports talk. They're either trivia-oriented or giveaway-oriented or shock talk, things thrown out just to get callers," says Gaston, who had talk radio experience before coming to Memphis. "We're going to bring on experts. We aren't always knowledgeable about every subject. That's what our expert guests are for."

One group of experts Gaston will not be able to tap is the sportswriters at The Commercial Appeal. The paper's management does not allow reporters to do talk radio shows (Geoff Calkins seems to be an occasional exception). The Memphis market is being deprived of some interesting perspectives (not to mention the impressions and general humor of Ron Higgins).

Ironically, one of the most respected voices in Memphis sports talk radio belongs to former C.A. reporter Mike DeCourcy. DeCourcy, now the college basketball editor for The Sporting News, is a guest on Lapides' show every Wednesday. DeCourcy brings a national viewpoint that is refreshing, yet because of his time spent at The Commercial Appeal as the U of M basketball beat writer, he provides a local take as well.

Another newspaper reporter who makes for good conversation is David Climer from The Tennessean. Also a guest on Lapides' show, Climer understands the Memphis-Nashville rivalry and makes particularly judicious use of that knowledge.

In fact, sportswriters are popular on sports talk radio nationwide, both as guests and as hosts. Kornheiser works for The Washington Post and former Memphian Paul Feinbaum, a columnist with The Birmingham News, has a show in that hot-bed of Southern talk radio.

The emphasis may be talk, but not every show focuses on callers. Lapides, for one, will often do his entire show without talking to a single caller. If he has interesting guests, he concentrates on them. In fact, one of the problems with a small market such as Memphis having so many locally produced shows is the lack of original callers and original takes. Anyone who listens to Memphis sports talk radio can recognize about a dozen callers. Some seem to call every show every day.

"We want to encourage people to call us. If you have something to say, call us," says Gaston. "But we don't want people to call and take up five or six minutes saying nothing."

As Jim Rome would say: "Have a take and don't suck."

It is what sets the national sports talk show apart from the local. On the national level there is no patience with callers who don't have anything to say. The Fabulous Sports Babe -- whose host is one of the few female voices in the genre -- is no longer heard in Memphis, but her show is famous for its lack of tolerance with boring callers. When she doesn't like a call she hangs up with the sound effect of a bomb going off. Rome is equally impatient.

Larry Robbins, host of The Press Box from noon till 2 p.m. on The Ticket 1210-AM, the other Flinn all-sports station, remembers the first time he heard a Memphian call The Jim Rome Show.

"Rome will make fun of people who live in this area. One guy from Memphis tried it and he just tore him apart," Robbins recalls. "Called him stupid, called him a hillbilly, told him to go back to his trailer. That's so unfair to everybody who lives here."

Locally sports talk is more personal, more laid back.

"We have made a conscious effort to build a relationship with the listeners and the callers," says Rainey, who regularly does remotes at casinos. "We are maybe more out in the public and available to the listeners on a personal basis than some of the other show hosts are. That's by choice."

Robbins agrees. "Sports fans are very loyal. You become friends with these people," he says. "Some of them call on a daily basis, so it becomes just like having a friend."

Of course not everyone who likes sports is in love with the sports talk format. Many players and coaches, for example, don't like it.

"I don't listen to it," says Memphis head basketball coach John Calipari. "I never listened to it in Boston, I never listened to it in New Jersey, and I have never listened to it here. So to any Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi fan that is going on radio trying to get under my skin, I don't listen. They are wasting time and breath. I never listen to it and if anybody asks me about talk radio I say you are talking to the wrong guy."

As a head coach in the most visible sports franchise in town, Calipari makes appearances on local and national talk shows. But he seems sincere in saying that he never listens.

"Living in this town which has so many fans from other teams, why would you let them drive you crazy?" he asks. "They don't have any effect on me whatsoever. And I would say this: Do you think those fans want me to be the coach here?"

New Tiger football coach Tommy West makes no such claims. On national signing day, the day schools can announce which players have signed scholarships, West went on WMC-AM, which broadcast the press conference live.

The day before, Lex Ward, Woloshin's co-host on Sports Call 790, had said that he thought West was ready to hire an offensive coordinator, an assistant coaching position that is unfilled on the new coach's staff. Ward named the candidate. But when he asked the coach about it on signing day he didn't get the answer he was looking for.

"Well, I thought you took care of that for me yesterday," West laughed. After he was off the air he admitted he hadn't even talked to the assistant coach who was thought to be the leading candidate.

It was a harmless situation and West didn't seem to mind, but it does illustrate one of the negative sides of talk radio, especially in a market where many of the hosts are not trained journalists. Anyone can say anything on the radio. And because it is on the radio, it feels authoritative, it feels real. What the host says and what the caller says can get mixed in the listener's mind.

Dave Woloshin, the “Voice of the Tigers,” hosts Sports Call 790 on WMC- AM; Channel 24 sportscaster Greg Gaston (far right) is the new kid on the block at WHBQ-AM.
"It was on the radio. I heard it."

If you look at the numbers, the audience for sports talk radio is small -- miniscule compared to the powerhouse FM stations. According to the Fall 2000 Arbitron rankings, an average of 3,100 listeners tuned into Sports 56 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day. That makes it 19th among the 26 Memphis station ranked by Arbitron. WMC was 21st, with an average of 2,000 listeners.

But according to people in the industry, sports talk radio makes money. The audience may be relatively small, but it includes the demographic group that some advertisers want to reach.

"Can an all-sports talk format make money in this market? I don't have any doubt. I know for a fact. I have proven that," says Rainey, who operated his own station in the mid-1990s -- SuperSport 1030.

"It's very profitable. We've really started to turn a corner," says Robbins, who besides hosting a show works on the staff at Sports 56. "Even Dr. Flinn was really pleased with its performance."

For the average sports talk listener, demographics and ratings mean little. We just want our fix -- sports news, opinion, and smack.

As Larry Robbins puts it: "Sports talk will always be on the radio. As long as there are guys, as long as there are athletes, there will always be a need for sports talk radio. Forever."

You can e-mail Dennis Freeland at freeland@memphisflyer.com.


The Coaches' Corner

Dana Kirk and Pete Cordelli

Former coaches bring unique perspectives.

6 to 8 a.m., Sports 56

Sportstime

George Lapides and Mark McClellan

Great guests, few calls -- no-nonsense sports talk.

8 to 9 a.m., Sports 56

Morning Sports Report

Greg Gaston and Michael Eaves

The new kids have a good spot: between Lapides and Jim Rome's national show.

9 to 11 a.m., Sports 56

The Press Box

Larry Robbins and Jake Lawhead

"Sports, girls, beer, and other stuff interesting to guys."

Noon to 2 p.m., 1210 AM, The Ticket

Jeff and Jack

Jeff Weinberger and Jack Eaton

Recruiting and comedy. Argumentative. Fun.

2 to 4 p.m., Sports 56

SportsCall 790

Dave Woloshin and Lex Ward

News, talk, and Tigers -- the home station of the U of M.

3 to 6 p.m., WMC-790

Memphis Primetime

John Rainey and Tony Brooks

Contests, nicknames, and handicapping.

4 to 6 p.m., Sports 56

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