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Playing the Hits — All Two of Them

| September 19, 2012

By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host


NEW YORK — Whereas print and online media have the luxury of providing a rich environment with a wide scope of content including “minor” sports, broadcast sports talk enjoys no such freedom.  A case could be made that this is why nationally syndicated shows are constantly trumped by stations that feature local hosts.  Hockey talk may be big in Detroit — in Atlanta, not so much.

If a magazine or website contains a story that is of slight interest, a flick of the wrist moves on to something more compelling.  A similar action when your station drifts onto something of little import directs the audience not to a different space in your galaxy, it sends them at warp speed to another universe entirely.

Blame the inventor of the remote control or the push buttons on your car receiver for the low tolerance your listeners have for anything that challenges their pre-conceived notions of what they expect to hear.  There might be an interesting story about soccer you’d like to examine, but if the listener is not an MLS fan, they’ll be gone within the first 10 seconds.  In this day and age of PPM, we are forced to narrowcast to a degree that is downright draconian.

Of course, there can be exceptions.  Clever teases that hit hot buttons while disguising the actual content.  A personality who is so compelling that they make reading the phone book sound exciting.  Or maybe you have a monopoly on sports talk in your market, (although listeners may then be tempted to go with general talk, music or…gasp!, turn the device off in favor of human interaction).

Obviously, there is a “beating a dead horse” element that can prove dangerous if you severely restrict your scope.  Conversely, keep in mind the old music radio axiom — “just when the jocks are tiring of a record, the audience is just discovering it.”  You may be bored harping on how a coach blew a game by incorporating an unimaginative game plan, but for the many who tune in late or casually, they have not heard your take.  Thus it is incumbent upon us to come up with different angles on the same story — re-state your premise frequently, but keeping the steady listeners in mind, constantly riff on your original take.

Another music analogy: Imagine how tired Springsteen must be of performing Born to Run.  Great song, but he’s played it 20,000 times if he’s done it once.  Yet fans would go away disappointed if he leaves it off his set list.  So what does the Boss do?  Freshens it. Does it acoustically.  Gets the crowd to join in.  Leads in with a great story.  Makes it part of a medley.  But even then, newer fans might take umbrage if it isn’t performed exactly as it appeared originally on vinyl.

Keep the show tight.  Realize that if you venture into esoterica, you’ve got to find a way to make it universally relatable or risk losing market share.

Dispensing this evaluation provides no joy.  It would be nice to harken back to the days when choices were limited so that your loyal listeners might cut some slack if you tread into areas that fail to sate their immediate desires.  But today’s landscape, alas, does not afford such freedom.  It’s possible we are headed toward that slippery slope where programmers monitor real-time readouts and burst into the studio when something you opine proves unpopular.

The greater question is: Does this approach improve our product, or does it dumb it down to such an extent that intelligent consumers will turn to other avenues to get more variety…at our expense?  Given today’s emphasis on short-term gain, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

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

Category: Sports