By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Twenty minutes into my assignment, in the first hour of a three-day, nonstop marathon of listening simultaneously to both of Washington's sports talk radio stations, I got my first hint about why CBS created 106.7 "The Fan" last month to compete with ESPN 980, the sports talker owned by Washington Redskins boss Dan Snyder:
One station played an ad for a new impotence treatment at the same time the other played a spot for DirecTV. I am unaware of two more universal male interests.
In a town that has long harbored doubts about its identity as a sports city -- whether we are a one-sport town with too many transient residents to build a strong foundation of die-hard fans -- WJFK (106.7 FM) gave up its guy-talk format to take on the only all-sports talk station in the area, WTEM (980 AM), known as ESPN 980.
The development raises many questions: Will this battle of the media titans prove profitable, with enough pricey impotence ads to keep everyone happy? Will Washington fans support two 24-hour sports yakkers? Is there a difference between the Redskins-owned property and the supposedly more independent voices on CBS's station? Isn't one station of ranting enough?
I listened, and listened, and listened . . .
9:10 a.m. Thursday, 106.7 FM: The station's morning team -- the all-male Sports Junkies -- quizzed a 20-year-old female intern about pornography.
"Have you been to a pornography Web site in the last year?"
This got the Sports Junkies really wound up. I wondered if male drivers ages 25 to 54 on the Beltway were drifting into other lanes.
"On your own volition?"
"There were no links involved."
Around the same time, ESPN 980 was broadcasting from Redskins training camp. "We are on the practice field," said host Larry Michael. "We can see everything. This is the place to be for the only real training camp coverage in D.C.," a clear jab at the Fan.
Therein lies the essential difference the stations are touting: ESPN 980 says it has better access to the most important team in town, while 106.7 says it's the place for frank Redskins talk because it is not owned by the guy who owns the team. On the new station, afternoon host LaVar Arrington likes to remind listeners of the distinction this way: "This is the Skins keep-it-real station."
At 34, and being a man, all this back-and-forth is aimed precisely at me, with my disposable income (LOL -- check out my upside-down mortgage) and gnatlike attention span (true). The idea is that advertisers can remind me that football season is coming, and, oh, wouldn't DirecTV be great? (Actually, yes.)
"The 25-to-54 male demographic is hard to reach, but valuable," said Tom Taylor, an industry analyst for Radio-Info, a trade publication. "If you don't believe me, just ask a woman. It's hard to get these guys' attention. But you can do it with sports talk." For many men, Taylor added, sports radio is that so-called third place of American life -- not the office, not home. It's like going to the bar with the boys without the nagging from the wife or chick.
Both stations tend to keep the listener from changing the station in ways that generally please men: arguments over who is better or worse (Michael Vick vs. Pete Rose, Snyder vs. Abe Pollin), making fun of anything that smacks of the delicate conversation that might be heard at a Starbucks, talking about junk food, and allusions to pornography as frequently as possible.
The hours slid by glacially and the hypochondriac in me wondered whether the side effects I experienced -- severe anxiety, brain-cell shrinkage, tendency toward hyperbole and cliche while speaking to my chick, also known as my wife -- would prove permanent. My concern began one afternoon when Arrington, the former Redskins linebacker, riffed on his co-host's affinity for employing the word "egregious."
Arrington: "You like 'egregious,' bro. That's one of your words."
Co-host: "I do like that word."
"You fire off 'egregious.' "
Co-host: "I will limit it."
"No, no. I like 'egregious.' "
This goes on.
I generally like sports radio -- really, though in limited doses. Growing up in South Florida, I listened on my grandpa Sam's old GE radio to Ed Kaplan, who didn't sign off until the last West Coast game was done. Some of my favorite childhood memories include reading Sports Illustrated under a flashlight with Ed yakking on my nightstand. I still have that radio -- now it's my son's -- and last month, I set it up on the dining room table next to my laptop. I tuned the radio to 106.7 and streamed 980 over the Internet.
Vick, the convicted dog abuser, was about to be reinstated by the NFL. Redskins training camp was gearing up. And there were rumors that the lifetime Major League Baseball ban on Pete Rose might be lifted. Mixed together, the audio booming through my dining room had my head bouncing back and forth like I was watching tennis.
2:57 p.m. Monday, the Fan, Chris from Alexandria: "While Pete Rose gambled, he earned all those hits."
3:18 p.m., Monday, ESPN 980, former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, on Vick: "Is his church going to ban him, too?"
4:33 p.m., Wednesday, ESPN 980: Just as I presumed listeners were zoning out -- because I was -- I heard the words "Mister Softee truck" and "Good Humor" and "popsicles." I went to the fridge, had a piece of cheese and contemplated a nap.
While ESPN 980's hosts criticize the Redskins and openly wonder about the futures of Coach Jim Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell, I didn't hear much, if any, critical talk about Snyder until Thompson interviewed him, live from Redskins camp, and felt compelled to ask the boss about the perception that he controls the message on his radio station.
Snyder's response was no shocker. "When you invest in something, it's because you like the business," he said. "I'm not operating the stations. I've never even been there."
Meanwhile, hosts on the Fan haven't held back from tweaking Snyder. "I think he should be given a trophy," said Chad Dukes, Arrington's co-host. "He puts a losing team out there and still makes a lot of cash."
Snyder's privately held company doesn't release financial information, but basic economics dictate that if you are the only one selling hamburgers on a corner, and somebody else starts selling them next to you, you better hope a lot of people really like hamburgers. Do enough people in D.C. like sports passionately enough to support competing stations?
"There's enough sports and enough sports interest around now that the two stations could grow the sports audience," said Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming at all-news WTOP, which airs brief sports-news reports twice each hour, but doesn't compete directly for the sports-talk listener. "But is there enough ad revenue to support two stations? That's the important question. People have always been rabid Redskins fans; we love the Wizards when they are winning; now everyone loves the Caps; and people were waiting forever for baseball."
Should Snyder be nervous, especially because Washington listeners spend far more time on the FM dial than on old-school AM? "Oh sure, I'd be worried," said Farley, whose own station migrated from AM to FM three years ago. "You always have to be careful of competition. If a competitor has any advantage -- and FM is a slight advantage -- yeah, you are worried."
Snyder's radio company, Red Zebra Broadcasting, did not return several calls seeking comment.
The battle over the coming months may not quite rank with the Cowboys vs. the Redskins, but following it will require endurance. I'm still trying to recover from extended exposure to the poetry of sports talk, hosts who say things such as "Once Carlos Rogers takes the margarine off his fingers, he's going to be very good" and "Guys who become serial killers have one thing in common: They didn't get along with women."
Wednesday, 3:42 p.m., the Fan: Arrington asks listeners how Rice Krispies Treats apply to a discussion about the best NFL story line of the coming season. Answer: "Because we are eating Rice Krispies Treats while we are in the studio." That never even crossed my mind, bro.