In tune with sports

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

For instance, on Kornheiser's show, to get to the chalk talk, you might have to wade through a 10-minute discourse on chocolate. Meanwhile, on "Those Sports Guys," a caller queries Miss WJFK: "Would you rather date a tight end or a wide receiver?" as the studio erupts in giggles.

"It [sports talk] doesn't have to be low-brow, though in many markets, that's what sells," Rosenthal says. "If a caller gets disrespectful on my show, he's gone. The rules are no different than at the dinner table.

"You can run an intelligent talk show -- though, ultimately, it may not be what the station thinks will make the most money. More than anything, what people are looking for in sports is an informed, analytical, rational opinion. They want to learn something," says Rosenthal, who still lives in the area.

Why do they want to learn?

"Sports talk-show audiences tend to be voyeuristic," WJFK's Pasha says. "They want to have an expert opinion on something before they step up and talk about it, too."

What do they do with the lowdown?

"Many a person has scored points on a job interview or impressed the right person at a cocktail party thanks to his ability to dip into the vast knowledge of sports," Syracuse's Thompson says.

Baltimore's two stations are as adversarial as some of the teams they report on. Broached on WJFK's claim to be the lone all-sports outlet in town, Pasha quipped: "Is [WNST] a full-time radio station?"

It is.

"That's insulting to anyone who's been listening to us," says Nestor Aparicio, WNST's part-owner and irascible talk-show host. "But if [WJFK] flatly wants to lie to Baltimore sports fans, if that's their jumping-off point, then God bless 'em."

Free-swinging

On the air, Aparicio, 34, is less restrained. "Our competitors are running a Cubs game today," he informed listeners recently. "Great radio station, you morons!"

In any battle of the sports-talk airwaves, the public ends up the losers, media experts say. "One station [in a city] is OK, but two creates problems. The more competitive they are, the more outrageous they become," says Frank Deford, senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a commentator for National Public Radio. Invariably, he says, quality suffers: "Instead of moving up the ladder, you move down."

From the opening tap of his microphone, Aparicio screams foul. He rails at the Ravens' 2003 schedule, bereft of Monday night games. Never mind that the team went 7-9 last year. In the WNST studio, the purple microphone and purple carpet match Aparicio's purple rage. "The Ravens are being treated like Ned Beatty in Deliverance," he says, referring to a grisly rape in that movie. Cue a blood-curdling scream. Sound effects routinely permeate the show. "I'm gonna start drinkin' today on the air, I'm gonna tell ya," he says. Cue a bottle being poured. Glug-glug-glug.

Some days, it appears Aparicio's entire four-hour show is a tribute to testosterone. He is less Bill Stern, famed sportscaster, than Howard Stern, shock jock.

"There used to be a lot of 'guy talk' on sports shows, the barroom stuff, men shouting about girls and work and stuff," says Alan Eisenstock, author of the book Sports Talk. "Nestor seems to have made a choice to go the guy-talk road."

Says Aparicio: "I talk about what's on my mind -- sex, movies, sports, music, girls and beer. I entertain myself. If I talked about the Ravens all the time, I'd probably blow my brains out."

Much of his monologue is introspective. Two weeks ago, he declared his intention to undergo a vasectomy and asked doctors willing to perform the surgery to call in. One did.

Tamer, by far, is WNST's midday forum with Bob Haynie, a no-nonsense host with a gravelly voice and a bartender's ear.

"I try to talk to callers like they were sitting on a barstool," says Haynie, 38, who used to serve drinks downtown at The Brass Elephant. "People want to hear sports. Other people are beating that [guy talk] to death. I stick to what I think I know."

On the other end

One fan of the format is Pattan, 27, the lunchtime listener who tunes in from his truck to hear Haynie: "He asks the questions I'd like to hear answers to."

On the other hand, Pattan says he is turned off by "Those Sports Guys," who "ramble and make jokes and stumble over their words. They get on my nerves."

Kornheiser's show is a favorite of Bragg, 58, the math teacher, who likens the ESPN chitchat to "an entertainment sports show you might get from [humorist] Dave Barry."

Chuck Nicely gets a kick from Aparicio's rants. "I'll listen to 'Nasty' on the way home from work [at General Motors] -- but not while taking my daughters to soccer practice," says Nicely, 48, of Dundalk.

Come Saturday morning, Pikesville's Morton Marcus flips on Rosenthal's show. "He's smart, and he doesn't defend [Orioles owner Peter] Angelos, like others do," says Marcus, 55, a federal attorney. "[Rosenthal's] callers are knowledgeable, too; they seem to make the most erudite points."

Then there is Harvey Brook, once a three hour-a-day listener who, last year, pulled the plug on all sports talk.

"I sensed a feeling of elitism on the [hosts'] part, like they were something special beyond you and me," said Brook, 61, a retired government worker. "They are very good at fomenting discussion and raising one's blood pressure, but in the end, those guys know about as much as my cat."

So Brook, of Columbia, quit listening. Snubbed the AM dial. Killed the static.

"Those shows are just entertainment," he says. "I mean, you're not hearing words from the Talmud."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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