I travel a lot. I’ve been to 49 states, nearly all of them on business. I’ve rented cars in all of these markets, which has given me a chance to sample sports radio everywhere: California and the Northeast, the South and the Midwest. Thanks to the internet you can do the same now via streaming. Most people aren’t going to go out of their way to do that, except to follow distant team coverage. Having listened to so many different sports talk stations, I can give you one complete immutable fact about them.
THEY ALL SUCK.
The programming is disposable and predictable. The talent is largely marginal. It’s the low hanging fruit of media. There really isn’t much difference from one station to the next. Listeners may latch onto one or two hosts because of their style, or listen to a particular station mostly because it’s a team’s flagship. 95.7 The Game launched with the idea that it was the A’s flagship, but would give thorough coverage to all of the Bay Area’s teams.
Jason Barrett came in as the program director shortly after the station’s launch in 2011. Not surprisingly, the New Yorker brought in a New York host, Brandon Tierney. That didn’t go over so well – with A’s fans especially. Some worked well for a small but loyal audience, like The Rise Guys until they were unceremoniously canned, or Damon Bruce most recently. Chris Townsend has been the one constant on the station, taking numerous time slot changes like a pro that he is. If the maxim of radio is know your audience, Barrett didn’t. He brought an East Coast sensitivity to the Bay Area under orders from an East Coast corporate parent, and it showed.
I don’t think it’s possible to make truly good sports talk. It is possible to make sports talk that sucks less. One way to reach that not-so-lofty goal is to hire hosts that really know the local teams. When a guy doesn’t know much about a team’s history or players it’s glaring. It gives one more reason for a listener to change the station. For whatever reason Barrett wasn’t terribly concerned about that, figuring that outside talent had a natural learning curve and would adapt quickly. That brought at best mixed results. Even bringing in guys with a clear specialty and without broad sports knowledge can be dangerous, as we saw with Ric Bucher (basketball) and now John Middlekauff, whose discomfort level rises when venturing outside football.
Whether it was Barrett or the higher-ups at Entercom, the push to get Giants fans has proven highly divisive to A’s fans, though it has probably led to The Game’s firm 2nd place among the three Bay Area sports radio stations. A’s fans are willing to stomach some amount of Giants talk, but not the beyond-equal-time treatment frequently on display. Though I’ve heard a lot of things about what Barrett did to meter topic time, I don’t have any interest in doing any measurements or protesting loudly. Mostly because of the aforementioned reasons, I simply don’t care that much. Fans can choose to be inundated by coverage in many forms, from traditional beat writers and columnists to bloggers and fan sites to podcasts and live streams. I watch all four major pro sports, multiple college and individual sports, pretty much anything competitive. I don’t worry too much about how well-executed sports radio is, I’m only concerned that the A’s have a proper station. So if the station’s execution improves by having better hosts or a better program director, great. It probably won’t affect might listening much, it might affect yours.
If anything, my criticism is reserved for Entercom’s disinterest in boosting the station’s signal. As a Class B station with less than 7,000 watts of power, the coverage footprint was limited. East Bay coverage could be sparse at times, North Bay coverage a big fade. Maybe Entercom wanted to wait until the station stabilized. Whatever the reason, the signal has left many unsatisfied, though game broadcast availability through MLB apps has helped. There’s no way The Game will ever come close to challenging KNBR-680 without a boost to cover more of the Bay Area.
Then again, maybe second place is good enough. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is. They could go totally cheap by turning automatic and simulcasting ESPN Radio’s shows from Bristol, then supplementing games with pre/post-game coverage. They could boost the signal, get into a real bidding war with 680, and get into a real war with The Leader. Or they could go in generally the same manner as they’ve been going, but with a better PD and more hyperlocal focus. I don’t know that such a move will seriously improve ratings. It would at least reduce the bad PR associated with Barrett.
Barrett’s blog, citing his desire to spend time with family as his reason for leaving
Bay Area’s Sports Guy’s anecdote about meeting with Barrett