In tune with sports

Radio: From construction workers to cardiologists, the banter on Baltimore airwaves proves that talking sports seems to give people pleasure.

June 29, 2003|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

At lunch, Ryan Pattan leaves work at a ceramic tile company in Baltimore, climbs into his Chevy truck and turns on the radio. There he sits, in the lot, eating a sandwich and listening to sports fans chew the fat.

It's midday as Chuck Bragg jogs around Columbia's Long Reach High School, where he teaches. See Chuck run. The headset he wears broadcasts all-sports chatter.

That's not Muzak playing in the background in Rich Hershel's office in Owings Mills. It's a talk-show host rambling on about lacrosse. This is music to Hershel's ears. "Lacrosse is the greatest sport ever," the certified public accountant says.

The banter on Baltimore's airwaves has picked up of late. In March, a second radio station embraced an all-sports format. WJFK-AM (1300) joined WNST-AM (1570), which had gone that route three years ago. They are among 350 stations nationwide that cater, nonstop, to sports devotees from all walks of life.

"Sports talk is a forum for millions of people whose heads are crammed with statistics and opinions, to vent this vast body of knowledge," says Robert Thompson, of Syracuse University. "Sports talk does, for fanatics, what Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit did for well-educated baby boomers."

Who tunes in? Construction workers and CEOs, cab drivers and cardiologists. Though sports-talk demographics skew heavily toward affluent listeners, the genre cuts across socioeconomic boundaries, says Thompson, professor of media and popular culture: "Constantly talking and thinking about sports, looking at it from every obscure angle, gives an awful lot of people an awful lot of pleasure."

And they are smitten by the excruciating minutiae of sports. "The level of discussion keeps going up," says Frank Farley, professor of sports psychology at Temple University. "People are wrapping their minds around sports."

Lacking quantity

To corral those obsessed fans, the two stations have carved their own personas. WJFK bills itself as "The Jock" and wields a lineup of local and syndicated gabfests, interspersed with sports updates every 20 minutes that treat a fifth-inning baseball score like breaking news from Iraq.

Rival WNST casts a different image: a feisty, blue-collar Bawlamer outfit, more spit than polish, whose 5,000-watt signal has all the oomph of two tin cans and a string. If WJFK is the box seats, WNST is the bleachers.

Neither has drawn an overwhelming number of listeners. Of 40 stations in the metro area, WJFK placed 23rd and WNST 37th in the latest Arbitron ratings. WNST's audience is akin to that of the Florida Marlins: an average of 25,200 listeners each week. WJFK, the Ravens' flagship station, attracts nearly triple that (70,000). By comparison, No. 1-rated WPOC-FM, a country music station, averages 372,900 listeners a week.

A shabby rank is the norm in the sports genre, media experts say.

"Sports is such a niche market that we're talking quality of listeners, not quantity," says John Snyder, national radio sales manager for Columbia-based Arbitron. "[Sports fans] listen at a different attention level than you do to music. They are more involved, more passionate about the subject matter.

"If that's the consumer you want, as an advertiser, sports talk is a hell of a way to go after him."

At WJFK, the lure is a parade of national weekday talk shows, chaired by ESPN gossips such as Tony Kornheiser and Dan Patrick. There's one local chat room: "Those Sports Guys," a middling afternoon drive-time effort that, at its best, manages to touch all of the day's bases. On occasion, hosts Steve Stofberg and Paul Mittermeier welcome a sidekick known as Miss WJFK, who offers ear candy for an overwhelmingly male audience.

Stofberg and Mittermeier declined The Sun's request for interviews. "Basically, none of our [on-air] personalities can talk," says Bill Pasha, vice president of programming for Infinity Broadcasting. Management is currently developing "a number of other locally produced shows," says Pasha, perhaps to shore up its advertising claims. For three months, WJFK has hyped itself as "Baltimore's only all-sports radio station" despite sloughing through weekends with a slew of infomercials.

WJFK launched one new weekend entry June 7, an afternoon call-in with Phil Wood and Tom Davis, both recycled voices known to area listeners. Their lead-in is "The Ken Rosenthal Show," a brisk Saturday morning repartee between the host, a former Sun columnist who now writes for The Sporting News, and callers who have learned to set aside the time if they want to flap their gums. Few light up a Charm City switchboard like Rosenthal, whose old-school tenets -- keep on topic and keep it clean -- seem at odds today with the shift in sports talk radio toward issues of broader range and bawdy humor.

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