Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Radio Nowhere: Does Cleveland need more sports talk?

92.3 FM flipped the switch Monday morning from modern rock to sports talk in becoming Cleveland's only FM sports station. "Sports Radio 92.3 The Fan," owned and operated by CBS radio, offers a mix of North Coast-centric sports speak as well as NFL and college football play-by-play coverage.

The new station will go up against WKNR, previously the market's only dedicated sport-talk source, while WTAM 1100 will remain the flagship home of the Browns, Cavs and Indians. 92.3 arrives with an eclectic if somewhat locally unknown lineup to battle WKNR's mix of local and national shows. For a city that loves its sports, you'd think breaking up WKNR's veritable monopoly would be a good thing.

The question is, Does Cleveland really need an FM sports station? The answer would seem to be "Hell yes," as over the last few years WKNR has degenerated into an odd grab bag of local programming that doesn't know if its wants to entertain or inform.

I can take or leave the national offerings - "Mike and Mike in the Morning" and "The Jim Rome Show" - but the local shows, from "The Really Big Show" in the morning to "X's and O's With the Pros" in the evening, suffer from among other maladies having too many voices in the studio at once. Hearing talent talk over callers as well as one another like attention seeking cocktail party guests, or worse, laugh obnoxiously at their own jokes, automatically makes me turn the dial.

The bickering is particularly annoying on The Really Big Show. Tony Rizzo plays the passionate, long-suffering Cleveland and Ohio State homer, while younger cohorts Aaron Goldhammer and Chris Fedor offer shticky-sounding "heel" commentary  in the form of pointed contrary opinions (i.e. Goldhammer gleefully calling out "Buckeye honks") that often grind the program to a squabbling halt.

"X's and O's" is probably the best show WKNR has going, although that's damning with faint praise. The unvarnished locker-room insight of former NFL players LeCharles Bentley and Je'Rod Cherry is interesting and unique, but is tinged with awkward barbershop talk about gold-digging women met at nightclubs along with listener-baiting ratings boosters like comparing the NFL to slavery.

Then there's the oddest duck of them all - "Afternoon R&R" with Michael Reghi and Kenny Roda, a program that shifts unceremoniously from painfully matter-of-fact coach-at-the-chalkboard analysis to free form, caller-centric "Bump and Run" segments that have been so deluged by pranksters that the hosts now essentially invite people to make their dildo jokes on the air. I'll admit to enjoying the trainwrecky aspect of the bit at first, but it's no longer funny now that the dupes are in on the gag.

So, after years of listening to some of the worst of what Cleveland sports talk has to offer, it has the inverse effect of making me want less sports gabble instead of more, especially at the expense of the only modern rock station in town. My conditioned sports talk = bad response is somewhat Pavlovian, I'll admit, so let's take an even-handed look at 92.3's lineup:

It starts with Cleveland's Chuck Booms, who's reuniting with former radio partner Kevin Kiley for a morning drive-time show from 6-10. WEWS-TV sports anchor Andy Baskin takes the 10 a.m.-2 p.m. slot, possibly alongside fellow Cleveland sportscaster Jeff Phelps, although ex-Brown Reggie Rucker appeared with Baskin for Monday's inaugural show. The pair is followed by someone named Adam "The Bull," a New York City sports-radio veteran who will co-host an afternoon drive program with Ohio State alum Dustin Fox. The day is rounded out by Ken Carman, a former sports reporter who's done play-by-play commentary for the Akron Aeros.

I can't speak for all these guys, but years ago Booms and Kiley had an afternoon show on Fox Sports Radio that I greatly enjoyed. Booms is a bit of a buffoon, or at least he plays one on the radio, but he's a funny buffoon and his chemistry with the straight-laced Kiley is excellent. The two have an Abbott and Costello vibe, and somehow their incessant ball busting of one another is amusing rather than aggravating.

Baskin is knowledgeable and straightforward in his anchoring style, so we'll see how that translates to radio. Phelps has an understated, self-depricating sense of humor. I've had contact with both broadcasters through my own media work, and for what it's worth they're two of the nicest guys in the business.

I've heard Fox filling in a few times on WKNR, although I've not listened to him enough to make a judgment either way. As a Clevelander who cares not for New York sports, I've never heard a peep from this Bull fellow. Still, the fact that's he's not from Cleveland is fine. His outsider's view could actually benefit the product, as myopic homerism, like incessant negativity at the other extreme, is the death of good sports' talk.

Perhaps a shake-up of the local sports-radio scene is what the market needs, and a sports-hungry city like Cleveland can certainly support two stations. But 92.3 will have to show it can be something vastly different from the status quo - a leap and not just a step up from the abrasive and often asinine meanderings of its AM competitor. Give me discussions instead of arguments, insight instead of shallow message board fodder, and by all means, make me laugh.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from a medium that thrives off of hair-trigger emotions, particularly in a town that's been stripped to the raw nerves over the last 50 years of cheering for these beautiful, terrible teams of ours.

But as we should with our sports franchises, we should also ask more of the people that talk about them for a living. Indeed, Cleveland's sports talk should be as solid and dependable as its fans. I suppose, in the end, I'm willing to give the new 92.3 a chance. Maybe, just maybe, I'm in for a pleasant surprise.