Sports Talk Radio: Blessing or Curse?

At three o'clock in the morning of July 1, 1987, the world's first 24-hour-a-day sports talk radio station, WFAN, came on the air in — where else? — New York City.

It all began when a woman — Suzyn Waldman — became the first voice ever to be heard on the new station, mostly with an update of the scores of the Major League Baseball games played the day before. Jim Lampley, who no doubt would have delivered a diatribe against mixed martial arts if MMA as we know it existed back then (throughout his professional life, Lampley has been a fulsome shill for the boxing industry, such as it is), then became the first host of any show on WFAN, whose early roster of hosts included Greg Gumbel (who once "humbly" quipped, "No, I'm not Bryant Gumbel's brother — he's my brother"), Art Shamsky (who an early caller to the station claimed was better than Roberto Clemente), and Pete Franklin (who adamantly insisted that there was no such thing as "choking" in sports).

While these early years were more than successful enough, WFAN really took off, not only ratings-wise, but as something approaching a legitimate cultural endowment, when in 1989 the station hired Mike Francesa, who was teamed with Chris "How Bout Dat?" Russo as "Mike and the Mad Dog." The show ran for 19 years.

Naturally, once the sports talk radio phenomenon caught in New York, it would not remained confined to that city for very long — so much so that some cities, obviously smaller than the Big Apple, soon had two such stations.

Logically, one would figure that one of the first such cities would be the one just an hour and a half down the New Jersey Turnpike — Philadelphia, whose two sports talk stations are WIP and WPEN (also known as 97.5 The Fanatic). WIP has had the upper hand in the ratings battle for quite some time — but it doesn't appear as if The Fanatic is going away anytime soon.

Meanwhile, across the continent, two stations, ironically owned by the same company, also vie for listeners — San Francisco-based KNBR and San Mateo-based KTCT ("The Ticket") — and since the common owners don't want to compete against themselves, they are as un-alike as facebook and twitter, with KNBR appealing to a "classic" — read "Baby Boomer" — audience, while The Ticket is the ticket for Gen-Xers and younger, with dirty jokes (to the extent that the FCC allows such jokes) and all.

Yet interestingly, it was on KNBR that San Francisco's worst sports talk radio-linked controversy occurred — in August of 2005, when one of its hosts, Larry Krueger, who, giving him the benefit of the doubt, is probably no relation to Freddie Krueger, was fired for denouncing the "brain-dead Caribbean hitters (on the "San Francisco Baseball Giants" — a clarification that is entirely called for, thanks to Chris Berman) hacking at slop nightly." Adding that Felipe Alou, the team's Caribbean manager, had "a mind that has turned to Cream of Wheat" didn't help Krueger's cause either — and both the director and producer of Krueger's show got canned, as well.

What made Krueger think that he would be able to get away with this — in San Francisco?

There is nothing wrong with giving fans a forum on which to praise the local teams when they win — or, far more commonly, to slam them when they lose. But unscrupulous hosts who troll for callers — and ratings — with inflammatory rhetoric are creating an increasingly toxic environment, particularly in "passionate" markets like Philadelphia.

But no matter what, sports talk radio is here to stay.

Comments and Conversation

April 14, 2021

Bud Fisher:

It’s tough when you read an article that’s premise is wrong. If it weren’t for WNBC selling its spot on the AM dial and WFAN keeping Imus In The Morning, Chris & Mike may never have started. Now after that pairing in the afternoon, everything about how Mike & the Mad Dog really invented today’s sports talk is correct.

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