If you're in tune, they're listening

JOHN EISENBERG

September 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

It all started with the telephone ringing late one evening not long ago, just when Joe Friday was getting ready to bust a hippie on "Dragnet."

I considered not answering. My house is the same as your house. Any time you answer the phone, you stand a 50 percent chance of being violated by a taped sales message or a smarmy cold caller peddling slow-moving show tickets, rural condos or uninteresting magazines. (Warning: If you ever buy a theater ticket, just one, you get bombed for years.)

What can I say? I picked up the phone that night, and my life changed forever.

I was catapulted headlong into the bubble of babble known as all-sports radio.

The man on the line spoke in a wry manner, as though we were old friends.

"Hey buddy," he said, "can you go on the air with us and take some calls?"

It was not an old friend. It was a producer from an all-sports radio station in Chicago.

"When do you want me?" I asked.

"Right now," he said. "When this commercial break ends."

You quickly learn that planning is not the strength of all-sports radio.

The next thing I knew, I was talking to Zack from Evanston, who was extremely peeved about the White Sox's Bobby Thigpen blowing too many saves.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked after huffing and puffing awhile, as talk show callers are wont to do.

"I think I just missed Joe Friday slapping the 'cuffs on a Deadhead," I said.

OK, not really.

I took calls for a half-hour, the whole time wondering why the good people of Chicago would care what someone sitting in his living room in Baltimore thought about the Sox or Cubs, teams I had seen maybe a half-dozen times all season.

I was missing the point, of course. The point was that I was succeeding at filling time, and on all-sports radio, where life is a rain delay that never ends, filling time is the idol to which everyone prays.

It is a world populated by sporting versions of the obscure "experts" who appear on "Nightline" analyzing government policies. You don't have the slightest idea who any of them are, but if they're on, they have to be experts, right?

It is quite a shock to wake up one morning and realize that is you.

Anyway, I hung up with Chicago and figured that was that. Silly me. That was when the phone really started ringing.

It turns out that Baltimore and Hekla, Iceland, are the only cities in the hemisphere that do not have an all-sports station.

There is one in every big city, and that includes Albuquerque. There is even one in Williamsport, Pa., although I don't know what they talk about when they're through with the Little League World Series.

I think I have been on just about every one in the last month. Somewhere, there is a Big List with my number of it.

I went on in Minneapolis, where they wanted to talk about NFL expansion for "just 15 minutes." There were a lot of long silences.

I was on in Portland, Ore., where they wanted to talk "for just 15 minutes" about Cal Ripken, whose slump, I'm sure, was a big concern in Portland.

Las Vegas has called. Toronto. St. Louis. They all want "just 15 minutes." They call in the morning. At lunch. Late at night.

I never thought I would ever pick up the phone hoping for a taped sales message.

It is not that I mind doing these shows. Not at all. They're fun. It is just that I occasionally need time to do other things, such as eat.

Meanwhile, the bombardment continues. There are a lot of stations out there with hundreds of hours to kill. It has become unsafe for me to answer the phone. That there will be a producer on the line, asking for "just 15 minutes," is a virtual certainty.

Colleagues in other cities are having the same experience. Everyone is going on the radio somewhere else, where no one knows them. The concept of out-of-town does not exist in all-sports radio.

One friend was just getting out of the shower when the phone rang and suddenly he was on in Las Vegas, moments before his real estate agent knocked on the front door and came in. I will let you try to figure out how that one ended up.

Of course, it is no breeze on the other end, either. My friend Phil Wood, who works at WTEM in Washington, says, "You'll be talking along and suddenly your producer holds up a sign saying, 'Barry Larkin is holding on Line 2.' " Ah. Sure.

It is all part of what we shall call the ESPN-ization of sports, sort of a shrinking-globe meets Marshall McLuhan meets Yogi Berra kind of thing. Everyone knows everything about everything because they saw it on TV last night, so anyone from anywhere can talk about anything and someone else will listen.

What a decade.

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