It was interesting reading Ken's reaction to being lambasted by The Sports Reporters on ESPN 980 the other day - I didn't hear the show, since I've moved my listening patterns to 106.7 and music over the brief afternoon drive. I used to be a listener, but the show's just gotten too "old bitter guy radio" for me lately, talking about ancient sports history and pop cultural notes I have zero interest in as an under-30 listener. The other day I turned on the Mustang, and it was still on 980 from listening to Sheehan during the lunch drive, and I listened to the two of them talking about the Golden Girls before gritting my teeth and switching to listening to LaVar Arrington and Dukes pretend to know thing one about the NBA. That's a typical experience.
For what it's worth, I can pinpoint when I stopped listening, even as a fan of Steve Czaban's style, and the exact reason. It was last July, possibly right after they'd had Feinstein on for his regular expression of ego, politics and complete naivete about sports fandom today. They had Thom Leverro on and were talking about steroids -- a classic subject for them, and one they spend a lot more time on than, say, the Nationals or the Wizards or the Caps -- and the three spent a good half hour reacting to Bill James' thoughts on the subject, which he'd shared in a recent essay. James is, of course, the famed sports writer and the father of sabermetrics, a profoundly respected author, and is widely considered the most influential baseball writer in his generation.
The following exchange took place between Andy Pollin and Czaban:
"Who the hell is Bill James?"
"Well, Peter Gammons says he's important."
"Why should we care what he thinks, he's not a Hall of Fame voter like Loverro!"
This is the point where I realized: these guys just don't take this job seriously. And that's the problem.
It's fundamentally odd to listen to two people who don't live in DC and never attend or cover any games representing themselves as informed commentators on local sports, pro or college. If I recall correctly, Czaban went to his first Redskins game at the "new" stadium in 2008, and Pollin has been to a handful of games at Nationals Park (he always emerges with complaints about the food, fans, lines, etc. (how insightful). But not only do they not go to games, most of the time it seems they don't watch the games. This is the basic fee for entry into putting out good product -- and for fans, who obsess over these things, it makes their opinion rapidly shrink in value.
These guys have local ties, but they just don't seem all that interested in anything other than the Redskins as their beat. Czaban obviously lived in McLean as a teenager, went to California during his college and formative years. Pollin is from New York, started out doing radio in Dallas. Both have been here since the mid 1990s -- in other words, 15 years of the Redskins being the only show in town worth talking about, from their perspective. But compare their attitude to someone like Sheehan -- born in DC, Walt Whitman high, Maryland alum, lived and worked in area basically his whole life -- and there's no question who comes across as being more interested in local sports, and caring enough to watch the games, read all the news, and get it right.
The time they spend talking about the Nationals is so fleeting and Strasburg focused, you'd barely know the sport exists. (Again, I wonder if it's because they don't even bother to watch the games). During last season, I can recall roughly three hours of radio where they talked about the Caps - hour at the beginning, hour at the trade deadline, hour at the playoffs. Maybe it's because, unlike the Redskins, there's no pre-existing narrative of heroes and villains (mostly villains) for them to bash. Nobody hates Ted Leonsis.
This lack of interest in any serious coverage of local teams might be mitigated if Czaban and Pollin paid attention to sports in other big markets, such as the way Wilbon pays attention to Chicago or Kornheiser to New York -- but they don't do that, either. I remember sitting in traffic last summer when they spent a good minute debating about the ESPN break update about Adam LaRoche being traded, and whether he was going to switch off with Mike Lowell at first. It took Loverro, who is a Hall of Fame voter, a full minute to remember the existence of one Kevin Youkilis, and the fact that at that point, Mike Lowell had never played a game at first base in the big leagues.
I genuinely like and enjoy quality sports radio. I lived in Houston for a while, and spend a lot of time in Louisiana and Chicago, and listening to other affiliates really impressed me for how much attention other towns' local sports guys pay to, well, sports. The full breadth of teams and everything going on in the area gets hashed out and considered, and their attitude -- while often critical -- was nearly always that of a smart, observant host who paid attention to the news and provided an opinionated filter for the fans listening. That's not what these guys are.
DC is full of "sports guys" who don't bother to watch any sports, stuck in jobs in an otherwise dying "opinion without news" industry. Frankly, 106.7 isn't much better -- a solid week after the NFL Draft, I was listening for about an hour and heard zero discussion of the awesome Nats start, the then-gnawing questions about the Caps playoff attempt, or anything of the sort -- the anchor was instead arguing with his partner about whether Oakland was a better place for Jason Campbell because the Redskins line sucks, because "we don't have any more wins than they do in the past few years" (Oakland under Al post GM firing, over past eight seasons -- 29-83; Redskins in same period -- 48-65, with two playoff appearances). or whether it is better because, and I quote, "Al Davis will die a lot sooner than Dan Snyder."
The sad thing is, the DC area is turning into a great place to cover sports. We've got a major league quality baseball team at last, with a golden new arm starting tonight; we have the most talented offensive player in hockey; we have a basketball team which is remaking itself under new ownership, and about to get an incredible young talent. We have a great college and high school scene. And we have a mega-franchise in the Redskins which is always worth talking about. Yet between 106.7 and 980, does anyone disagree that we also have some of the worst sports broadcasters in the business talking about these teams?
It's not their fault -- maybe you get older and just lose interest in the magic of sports, the great writers and reporters and play by play men who made you interested in the career fade as heroes for you, and you start mailing it in (Update: For an example of what I mean, check out what Aaron Rodgers said about Tony Kornheiser). I don't know that I'm like that as a listener or reader -- it's hard to think of a day when listening to Vin Scully or reading something by Joe Posnanski doesn't move me -- but some columnists and hosts get tired of their beats after a while, and need to move on. And if they don't, the marketplace speaks and those who used to listen turn to other sources, new filters for news and opinion who take over podcasts and blogs and supplant the old media.
Some of these new voices are fans like Ken, some of them former journalists like Mark Zuckerman -- but they watch the games, they cover all the details of the team, they pay attention to others, and they take pride in the quality of their work.
I like good sports radio. I wish we still had it. But with these other sources for content, smarter, younger, more capable and more dedicated -- who really needs it?