Why this matters
The growth of sports talk radio in the United States gave fans a way to plug into local chatter on the go, and to interact themselves. Though podcasts and other forms of digital media have forced radio shows to adapt, they still play an important and popular role for diehards and casual fans alike.
For the sports fan with a particular pattern of media consumption, sports talk radio may appear to be in the throes of a long, slow death spiral. Across large portions of the Internet, the most popular media personalities outside of television are not radio hosts but rather podcasters, some of whom have built entire audio empires that exist completely separate from terrestrial or satellite radio.
Former ESPNer Bill Simmons hosts a huge podcast for Spotify now. His former colleague Dan Le Batard took his popular show, sponsored by the online sportsbook DraftKings, to Meadowlark Media. The entire Barstool Sports world, now owned by Penn National Gaming, once had a radio operation but ditched it in early 2021 and now is known largely for its podcasts.
The radio headlines that break into this realm are rarely good ones. On the content side, maybe some hosts had a terrible conversation about a Black quarterback. Maybe someone likened Deshaun Watson’s accusers to terrorist extortionists. On the business side, the penny-pinching Oakland Athletics cut radio broadcasts in favor of streaming in 2020. In 2021, talk radio stalwart Jim Rome got angry on the air that his bosses at CBS Sports Network nixed his broadcast for a swimming competition. On top of all of it, sports radio remains an extraordinarily white and male field, even compared to other media industries.
That is one picture of sports talk radio in 2022: as a fading medium, filled with blowhards who all look the same, on its way to second-class status as the people who love sports choose to consume their audio via downloads instead of dials. It is an enticing picture, especially if you adore podcasts or (like me) have your own.
There is some truth there, but as a predictor of the business’s future it is also a stretch. Research and surveying by the Pew Research Center in 2021 painted a clear picture that, even as podcasting has grown, radio remains firmly entrenched as the audio format of choice – or, at least, of habit – for American listeners. The share of Americans who listen to online radio or podcasts has risen over time but also has plateaued in recent years in the upper 60 percent range. (The share listening to podcasts specifically? Forty-one percent.) Meanwhile, the share who listen to AM or FM radio had indeed been falling since 2010 – yet still stands at 83 percent. If the lines on that graph are eventually destined to cross – and it very well might, given that research shows younger Americans are the ones listening to the most podcasts – that day has yet to come.
The sports talk radio and podcasting sectors lack a similar broad analysis, but the picture is probably similar. The biggest sports talk radio programs have enormous audiences that would dwarf almost every podcast audience. (Podcast download numbers are not public in the way radio ratings are, but a six-figure-download podcast is massive, and only a few are thought to even sniff the millions.) The Los Angeles Times reported in 2018 that Rome’s CBS radio show, syndicated on about 200 local stations, reached about 2 million people every weekday – a total that doesn’t include the podcast version of the same show. Dozens of localities have huge sports radio stations of their own. In a highly competitive Boston market with two big stations, one morning show reaches several hundred thousand listeners a week.
Mark Ennis, who hosts an afternoon show for ESPN Radio’s 93.9 “The Ville” in Louisville, offers a useful reminder of talk radio’s reach and influence.
“There’s still a pretty sizable demographic who don’t do tons of technology and are quite comfortable literally just turning on a radio,” he says. “It’s pretty simple technology for them, and those people are spenders who consume entertainment that way. I think there are still a lot of people who don’t live on their phones, believe it or not, or don’t stream everything and that sort of thing, or who are in their cars. I think it’s just still a giant group of people who still listen that way.”
Digital disruption upended newspapers and magazines, decimating local sports pages and the once-dominant Sports Illustrated magazine. By contrast, boring old radio – a technology that predates television, never mind touchscreens – remains a dominant force in reaching people who care about sports. It is nowhere near its death. Whether it lasts forever in anything like its current form is impossible to know. But the reasons it will last, at least to some degree, are already apparent. They’re the same reasons sports talk radio got so big in the first place, and technological shifts can alter them only so much.
Filling Airwaves and Vacuums
In March 1964, New York’s NBC affiliate launched the first sports talk show in radio history. The host was a longtime newsman and sports fan named Bill Mazer. The station purchased an advertisement in the New York Daily News that month that began “Talk back to Bill Mazer about sports … but on the telephone.” It went on, in all caps: “YOU’RE ON THE AIR WHEN YOU CALL WNBC RADIO.”
It was a sound pitch. Newspapers and television were fundamentally one-way mediums. And for most topics the media delved into, that was fine. “Media for decades – all media, sports, entertainment, news, and especially broadcast as well as print – was seen as a passive activity,” says John Carvalho, an Auburn University journalism professor who wrote the 2020 book Sports Media History: Culture, Technology, Identity. “You just listened. You just read. You didn’t contribute. You had no opportunity to respond.”
Mazer’s show, and thousands that followed it, posited that something more interactive made sense for sports. People craved an outlet to talk about why the New York Yankees’ lineup made sense or didn’t. Newspapers didn’t offer anything like that, save for letters to the editor that seldom made it into print.
Sports talk radio provided a platform, and instant gratification, for anyone who was sitting by a telephone and wanted to weigh in. In Carvalho’s view, that interactivity came to give hosts enormous power within the sports world – the power to set the terms of discussion and debate. Consider Paul Finebaum, the host whose eponymous SEC Network show has become a cultural bedrock of college football’s best conference.
“Finebaum’s success is not that he can tell people what to think about [University of Alabama football coach] Nick Saban and [Texas A&M University football coach] Jimbo Fisher, but he can get them thinking about Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher,” Carvalho says. “I think that they set the agenda, a lot of what we are talking about, and are able and do it very nimbly to move from one thing to another. It's always interesting to stop and say, ‘We’re not talking about Tom Brady’ all of a sudden.”
Sports talk radio provided an expressive outlet. It also fulfilled the basic function of giving sports fans something to listen to as they drove around. Mazer’s show launched when the country’s suburbanization was in full swing. Millions of Americans were commuting to work in automobiles, and sports talk became music to their ears that, for many, became preferable to actual music in their ears.
“That’s always been radio’s strength,” Carvalho says. “Radio is the perfect medium for the car. You really shouldn’t read while you’re driving, but you can listen.”
For the medium’s first few decades, the audience could either listen from the car or call in from home. Since the advent of cellphones, those two use cases have merged, making the platform even more potent. The same technology that has rendered sports print media largely obsolete has made being live on the air even more potent.
“Early on, if you did sports talk, you would just listen in your car,” Carvalho says. “You might get home and call up, fight the kids for the phone and everything, and then be on hold for an hour. But now with the cellphone, even if you’re driving, and with them queued into the cars, they don’t have to hold it up [to your ear] or anything. That even, I think, has probably increased the popularity of sports talk.”
Challenges and Solutions
It is hard to fathom that sports fans will ever stop looking for places to talk about sports, and especially for places where lots of other people will hear them talking about sports. We’re not built that way. So at least one of sports talk radio’s long-term advantages over podcasts and other mediums should endure – even as online message boards, traditional social media, and nascent live, online audio efforts like Twitter Spaces and Spotify Live try to grab market share.
That said, it isn’t hard to imagine a world in which fewer Americans drive cars, those who do drive them spend less time in them, and fewer people participate in the traditional 9-to-5 office workdays that allowed so many sports radio stations to profit from a captive, commuting audience by broadcasting morning and afternoon “drive-time” shows. Along with so much else, the pandemic took a huge bite out of radio listenership in 2020. Nationally, listenership was nearly back to pre-pandemic levels by the summer of 2021. But if the future of work is increasingly remote – as many want it to be – that will cut into sports talk radio’s potential audience.
But even in the least car-centric future someone could conjure up, certain elements of radio’s appeal will endure. For instance, the brand equity of the hosts and stations populating the airwaves. Ennis points out that when something big happens with a University of Louisville team, listeners are accustomed to looking to a specific place – his station – to immediately make a phone call or to just listen to others dialing in.
“We established our bona fides by being able to react very quickly when big news stories happen,” Ennis says. “In Louisville, lots of big news stories have happened over the last several years. Louisville fans are junkies for sports. There are successful podcasts here, but when (news) breaks, I know by and large the reputation around town is, ‘All right, put on the station. They’ll still be going, they’ll still be talking about it.’”
Often, those discussions will last late into the night, with no regard for quaint concepts such as “running too long.” For a lot of U of L fans, there is no such thing. “When [former Louisville football coach] Charlie Strong left for Texas, we stayed on the radio, all of us, all the regular radio hosts, all weekend long, nonstop,” Ennis says. “We just handed it off in shifts.”
Sports talk radio is not always pretty – or polished. A caller might ramble on for several minutes. Someone might lose their temper. It’s all live, which means crazy things can happen. Ennis has learned to be comfortable working, as he puts it, “without a net.” But that shagginess, spontaneity, and slight element of potential danger can be charming, and radio is still a more natural place for that sort of dynamic than any kind of pre-produced podcast, even one that fields audience feedback and questions.
“One of the first, best pieces of advice I got in this business almost 15 years ago … is that the best sports talk show is like a ride on a school bus,” says Chris Mueller, a drive-time host at Pittsburgh’s 93.7 “The Fan.” “It’s mostly smooth, but there are enough big bumps in there so that you keep the listener’s attention. The message was pretty clear: ‘Don’t be so polished that it starts to work against you.’”
One other (and likely critical) advantage radio has: It remains the medium for sports teams to air their games for fans who aren’t watching on TV. Those rights-holding relationships, for the stations that have them, give the stations a giant billboard that they can use to advertise the rest of their shows, whether during commercials, those 10-second station identification pauses heard during every broadcast, or the literal signage that so often adorns a home team’s broadcast booth for all to see in a stadium. “It just sort of creates this local culture, at least where people know, ‘If I want to know about what’s going on over there, I’ll start there,’” Ennis says.
A Radio Future That is Not Entirely Radio
Most every sports talk radio company already streams its episodes online for listeners without actual radios. The shows post highlights on Twitter and Facebook. Some are present on Instagram and TikTok. And many – particularly giant national programs but also some local shows like Ennis’s and Mueller’s – cut their radio episodes into hour-by-hour or segment-by-segment files that become podcast episodes.
“I’d be crazy to tell you that doing good radio alone is enough,” Mueller says. “Being ‘multiplatform’ matters. We do a live video feed of the studio that uses three high-def cameras. We post a video clip of the show to Twitter every day.
“In my mind, the goal is to want the listener to try out all the different ways in which they can consume the show, but not necessarily try to pigeonhole them into a particular one.”
Mueller’s point gets to something fundamental: Radio is a medium, but sports talk radio is a concept that can live on platforms other than the one with the dial.
Ennis finds himself thinking about similar adaptations, like finding snippets of radio shows that can be deployed on their own as podcasts. Sure, those won’t air live and so don’t appeal to the segment of the population that wants to inject sports commentary into their bloodstream within seconds of news breaking. But they’re still sports talk. “To me, that just seems like the best opportunity for radio: to take your core activity and then also find ways to maybe repurpose that material or augment it in such a way that you can also capitalize on people who don’t necessarily need the live component to it,” Ennis says.
Radio’s challenges are significant, and the podcasts that are large enough to compete with national radio shows have managed to do so without the immediacy that radio has historically had as an advantage. But podcasting has its own challenges – namely, how to channel the interactivity and loyalty that sports talk radio has fostered for generations. It’s all to say radio still has things going for it that other media do not, even if some of its edges have started to wane in an era with more listening options.
Still, adaptation matters. There are enough ways to hear (and contribute to) sports talk in 2022 that a company that uses only the radio will have fallen miles behind the times. That does not mean, however, that sports talk radio on the radio is even close to its demise. In all likelihood, the airwaves Mazer filled when he sat down at his microphone in 1964 will remain an effective way to reach a big chunk of fans.
“Different media, their demise has been predicted wrongly,” Carvalho says. “That just goes to the pundit’s love of hyperbole. If you want to be a good pundit, you can’t say something ike, ‘Well, there are lots of arguments in both directions there. I don’t know.’ The production control panel would say, ‘Cut him off. Cut him off. Cut him off.’ You gotta say, ‘Well, that’s obviously the worst thing that has happened in the history of multi-celled organisms.’ With hyperbole, you’ll always get the death of media, whether it’s radio, newspapers, magazines, whatever. And in a fragmented media world, obviously they don’t have the slice of the pie they used to. But I think they’ll always have a slice.”
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?