Rightly or wrongly, many listeners perceive WMAL-630 and WTOP-1500 as Washington radio's only "sports stations." That raises expectations of those station's sports responsibilities, and for this listener, WTOP consistently disappoints in that role.
WMAL carries the Redskins and Maryland football and basketball. WTOP carries the Bullets, Capitals and Orioles. Beyond game coverage, there is a significant difference in the sports approach of each station.
WMAL carries frequent sports reports from Johnny Holliday and Ken Beatrice during morning and afternoon rush hours and has Beatrice's sports talk show five nights a week. WTOP, Washington's only all-news station during the day before switching to primarily sports programming and talk shows after dark, chooses not to use an on-air sportscaster for its twice-hourly sports updates.
Instead, WTOP's news anchors handle the sports reports. Even though WTOP has sports producers who prepare the copy and the audio inserts, WTOP's anchors routinely mispronounce names and sound ill at ease with the sports duties. In addition, WTOP's reports sometimes are so brief that a little static on your AM radio could wipe out half a sportscast.
"It is our operative notion that we have as much sports on the air per hour as the audience wants," said Holland Cooke, WTOP's operations manager. "Our research shows they want 60 to 90 seconds of sports at a time. . . . People are coming to us for a snapshot of information. Listeners just want the headlines.
"The fact that there's no sportscaster is on purpose. We don't want people to flick the button to another station because they think we're about to have three minutes of sports."
Cooke also points out he's concerned with the "other 75 percent of the world" not interested in sports. That means that the 25 percent of us who qualify as serious sports fans -- and heaven knows we ought to be part of the other 75 percent -- will have to live with WTOP's lean-and-light sports approach.
Still, there are times when our 25 percent deserve better. When the Redskins make a trade, you turn to WMAL knowing it probably will have a lot to say about the topic. When the Bullets make news, you can't expect the same performance out of WTOP.
Last year's NBA draft is a perfect example. You might expect WTOP, the voice of the Bullets, to mobilize special coverage of the draft. Instead, we got 45-second reports from sports producer Harvey Smilovitz and Bullets broadcaster Frank Daly from Capital Centre.
We didn't get so much as a rundown of the draft's first round; a typical report would give the Bullets' first six picks and nothing else. If you wanted the "top news instantly" (to borrow WTOP's slogan), the best place in town to go was George Michael's 362-4444 sports phone.
Speaking of George Michael, some radio stations here prefer using TV sportscasters rather than hiring their own. That policy hurts an already bleak sports-on-radio picture in Washington.
Very few area radio stations give comprehensive sports reports and fewer still bother to hire sportscasters. So when large music stations such as WRQX-FM-107.3 and WASH-FM-97.1 show they will spend money on sports, it might be nice if they committed those dollars to fresh faces who might go out and do some reporting.
Instead, Q107 hires Michael and WASH uses Channel 5's Bernie Smilovitz. It's understandable -- the stations get proven, recognizable personalities.
But what we get are superficial, scratch-the-surface sportscasts, almost afterthoughts in the busy days of Michael and Smilovitz. Michael tapes his two morning spots the night before after finishing the 11 o'clock news; Smilovitz, who does morning and evening sportscasts, tapes them from his home when necessary.
WUST-1120 sportscaster Harold Bell recently suggested, on the air, Redskins running back John Riggins as someone who "could pick up 'Monday Night Football' " by replacing Joe Namath or O.J. Simpson as an analyst.
Anyone who saw Riggins during his weekly show for WJLA-TV-7 this past season might concur. He's delightfully irreverent on camera, and if ABC could keep his mind on the game, Riggins might prove to be a funnier reincarnation of Don Meredith.