Listener: Two Stations, Two Sean Taylors
When the Washington Redskins put out statements about the death of Sean Taylor today, Redskins Radio--the team's trio of radio stations dotted around the D.C. area--got the news first. When players spoke about their teammate, Redskins Radio had the inside track.
But if you wanted a more complex picture of the Taylor tragedy, if you wanted to hear talk show hosts, journalists and others exploring the racial, cultural and psychological dynamics of the Redskins star's murder, you had to listen to SportsTalk 980, WTEM.
In the fast-changing structure of sports media, the Redskins lead the way toward an environment in which teams try to gain control of their own coverage, both to make more money off their on-field enterprise and to limit the more piercing coverage that independent, outside media outlets might provide. So the Redskins-owned stations today had the team's play-by-play man, Larry Michaels, talking about the players and executives he'd spoken to early this morning--an insider's view, to be sure.
But it was WTEM's Doc Walker and John Thompson who turned their shows into impromptu seminars on race and money in America, and the difficulties that highly-paid athletes face when they move suddenly from impoverished, isolated backgrounds in black, urban neighborhoods to the hot lights and megabucks of the NFL or NBA.
On Redskins Radio, the tone through much of the day was one of great mourning tempered by a desire to see how the team might rally around Taylor's memory and make a comeback starting with Sunday's game against Buffalo. Host John Riggins, the former player turned talk host who preempted the station's usual ESPN syndicated programming to stay on the air all day long, urged guests to talk about "Sean Taylor, the man, the father, the hero."
"He died in a very heroic way," Riggins said.
"It's a great opportunity for the Redskins to come back on Sunday" and perform better in Taylor's memory, replied ex-Redskin player Dexter Manley.
"I implore them to go back and honor Sean's memory," Riggins said. "Sean Taylor was a hero in death and we have to celebrate that."
Contrast that with some of the discussion up the dial at WTEM:
"People keep saying it's not about race," Doc Walker, another former Redskin turned talk host, said on his show. "But it is a racial thing. We grew up differently. I have people in my life who were murdered, who are addicted. When you go to these funerals and you see these wasted stars--not on the field but in life--well, it's not all the burgundy and gold knitted sweater you think it is."
Thompson, the former Georgetown basketball coach, set the tone on his show by explaining that he was not surprised to hear of Taylor's shooting. "Had he not been involved in anything, you could really be surprised. But he had." Post columnist Michael Wilbon came on the station twice to stress that the evolving explanations for what happened to Taylor have little if anything to do with sports, and everything to do with the ravages of the life from which so many pro athletes emerge, a culture of violence and struggle for survival that creates an almost unimaginable contrast with the riches and possibilities available through celebrity of any kind.
Washington is the richer for having two all-sports stations, and the Taylor murder demonstrates anew the folly of wasting hours and hours of each day's programming on nationally syndicated shows from Fox or ESPN. Both Redskins Radio and SportsTalk 980 scrapped their normal syndicated fare to go all-local and stay with the big story. Would that some of the political talk stations in town might dare to do such a thing when a big local news story breaks.
But the day's programming also shows that having a team own its media outlets puts a very different spin on the coverage. Those who listened to WTEM today got to go on a more complicated and challenging journey, a sometimes uncomfortable trip to the core of what divides us and what explains who we are in this country. Those who stayed with Redskins Radio will likely be better prepared to follow the action on the field come Sunday, but does that really matter right now?
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