By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host
NEW YORK — During the recently concluded election cycle, it was surely tempting at times to inject political notes into our sports programming. These comments might range from analogies comparing sporting contests to the “horse race” factor of the campaign, to outright endorsements of a specific candidate. While the former might be be an instructive and harmless explanation of strategy, the latter could result in long term damage.
Most of us are slaves to quarter hours, even more so with PPM methodology, which purports to evaluate even the minutest of trends. Some of us see a higher calling however — if you believe the future of our country is at stake, you may feel compelled to speak out strongly in favor of your beliefs. You might even posit that since it seems everyone is talking politics and news/talk stations traditionally grow this time of year, you might profit from that boost in interest.
But you’d be wrong. Witness how close the presidential election was. Barely two percentage points separated the candidates. Can you afford to alienate half your audience?
You may claim that your listeners enjoy a good debate. If it involves who should quarterback your local team, you are correct. But research shows that when it comes to politics, conservatives listen to outlets that reinforce their views, and progressives do likewise, gravitating to MSNBC while Fox News Channel carries the banner for the right. A small percentage may stick around to hear opposing views, but most who disagree will tune out, perhaps never to return.
And consider this — does your opinion on politics hold any sway? Again, a few undecideds may be persuaded by your arguments, but more likely you’ll either be preaching to the choir or turning off the other side. Another unintended consequence is if you show yourself to be poorly informed or blindly biased, it could undermine steady listeners’ trust in your authority when it comes to an area that you know more about — sports.
Ever wonder how Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods vote? One can guess, but they have scrupulously avoided taking public stands, likely because it will compromise their commercial value. I’ve heard progressives this month state that they’ll never listen to a Ted Nugent, Kid Rock or Meatloaf song again. Many conservatives are equally turned off by Springsteen. Is your following stronger than those rock stars?
If you feel compelled to speak out on public issues, take a populist view on matters that directly impact sports fans — ticket prices, league policies, civic financing for arenas, etc. Be a public advocate for the fan. If you can do that without attributing brazenly evil motives to the other side of your constituency, namely the sports establishment, it will be a win/win.
Hurricane Sandy motivated WFAN hosts to eschew sports temporarily to address the travails of regular callers, with compelling tales of how they survived the storm. It morphed into opposition to Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to proceed with the New York City Marathon as scheduled, which spearheaded a groundswell of popular protest that caused its cancellation. Such is the power of our medium when used to unite a group of like minded sports fans.
Richard Neer is a sports talk host at WFAN, New York and an anchor on A Touch of Grey. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.