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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?

By Marc Fisher |  November 27, 2007; 2:58 PM ET
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I slog through the regular fare of sportstalk on WTEM with some frequency. Other than the early morning show, the station is all local, all the time. The two shows you cite are there everyday. Maybe it is too much 'Skins, but Coach, Doc, Mitch, Koken and the others have been providing this kind of insight into sports and a microcsm of society for some time.

While I wish there was more dicussion about the DC United, the Caps and other non-Skins material that we are blessed with in this region, it is much better programming than the canned national shows that most stations in the area subject its listeners to.

Todays discussions where exceedingly enlightening, and some of Doc's insights were poignent and emotional.

Peace to Sean Taylor and prayers to his family.

Posted by: DC Sports Fan | November 27, 2007 8:32 PM

Rest in Peace, Sean Taylor.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 27, 2007 8:34 PM

Nice column, Mr. Fisher.
I've never been a fan of the Redskins. The name is offensive. But, on days like today, all of that gets pushed aside and I mourn for a lost life that was lost so early. I don't care whether Mr. Taylor's death was surprising or not. He's still dead and the story line is all too familiar. Life IS too short.
Secondly, it's very interesting that a radio station owned by Dan Snyder, would push the company line and not examine the cultural implications of such a tragedy. Not blaming the victim, but examining through open conversation (even a half lucid one one) WHY this keeps happening. I certainly would have my switched from satellite radio to that re-tired AM signal. I suspect company radio hired company men who favored loyalty over reality. On any given sunday, this doesn't matter. This week was different and I thank you for pointing it out. I had no idea.

Posted by: Doug M. | November 27, 2007 8:45 PM

WTEM became a carnival act after it ran Ken Beatrice out of town (the last guy on the station who knew his stuff). Thompson, who regularly defends miscreants such as Allen Iverson, sounds like he has taken two quaaludes prior to air time. In short, he's a disaster. Brian Mitchell, who's moniker was that he "tells it like it is", is a trainwreck. He spends 3 hours agreeing with Thompson. Its a sad state of affairs. But worst of all is Larry Michaels, a stooge for Dan Snyder, who is a modern day version of Joe Stalin.

Posted by: Muskrat | November 27, 2007 8:54 PM

Thanks for the great column. This is an incredibly sad day, but I'm glad to see it brought this issue to the forefront. "Redskins Radio" is a joke and I've been getting worried even 980 was headed that direction after ditching the truly "refreshing" Feldman/Maloney combo (and by extension, the all-local format) for the absolute worst of the retread national clowns Dan Patrick. Coach Thompson is a treasure and this town is blessed with such a solid group covering what is usually the much lighter subject of sports. Doc, McGhee, BMitch, Riggins, Ray Brown, Koken, KJ, Pollin, Wilbon, and sometimes even Czabe are much appreciated in times like these.

Posted by: Ted D. | November 27, 2007 9:02 PM

Today's programming may have been good and that does show the potential of local radio. Let's not forget the fact that almost all of the time Rick Walker is a boring, unrelentless "homer," who is by no stretch of the imagination better than the best of syndicated programming such as "The Mike Tirco Show."

Posted by: 20001 | November 27, 2007 9:18 PM

"the ravages of the life from which so many pro athletes emerge, a culture of violence and struggle for survival"

Marc, are you aware that Taylor's father is a police chief? And that Taylor went to a private, college-prep high school?

Posted by: Tom T. | November 27, 2007 10:11 PM

Yes, indeed, Gulliver Prep, where he was befriended and defended by wealthy white supporters. Yet despite all those advantages, Taylor maintained close ties to his old neighborhood pals, a decision that is understandable yet clearly devastating to too many pro athletes who end up in big trouble.

Posted by: Fisher | November 27, 2007 11:15 PM

This is only from what I read today, but it seems the Miami college football experience is where his ties to the bad side of things emerged. That is, Mr. Taylor did not come from some impoverished background.

Interesting that Dexter Manley came out today. I wish I had heard him. Dexter certainly had his problems and (hopefully) has finally overcome them. I love Dexter, warts and all. It is a total shame Mr. Taylor did not have a chance to fully right his ship, and I was really pulling for him last night so he would have that chance.

Posted by: johng1 | November 28, 2007 12:25 AM

Remember Mr Taylor came from an upper middle class family not the projects in some big city or dirt poor from some two light rural town. He went to a private elite high school. He had advantages most kids dont have from any ethnic group.

Mr taylor amde a mistake of bringing a knife to a gunfight and staying in hsi hosue which ahd been broken into twice with his fiance and child. Dumb and macho

Posted by: Anonymous | November 28, 2007 8:56 AM

John Thompson is probably the last person I'd turn to if I wanted to make sense of something. Seriously, if that's the sage of local radio you need to start seeking your wisdom elsewhere. Doc, Dex, and JT are good hearted and entertaining guys, but come on. That's not exactly a think tank.

But I guess if people made a point of sticking to what they know, we wouldn't have talk radio at all.

Posted by: huh? | November 28, 2007 9:27 AM

Has the dumbing down of public discourse reached such a level that the only adjectives retaining any currency are "heroic" and "cowardly?" It is very sad that this beautiful young man was killed in such a way. I don't see how describing his death as "heroic" clarifies anything.

Posted by: Paul | November 28, 2007 10:22 AM

First I want to offer my condolences to Sean Taylor's family, friends, and his Redskin teammates. His loss will be heartfelt for years to come.

As a fan of the Bolts who is married to a Skins fan, I am feeling this loss from multiple perspectives ... from the view of a competitor team who had to face him and the view of a fan (by marriage) who watched him play.

Also, from the perspective as a Dad, I grieve his loss while considering the "what if this was my son?" I pray I never have to find out how that truly feels.

Watching Sean over his way-to-short career was like watching my own son grow and mature.

Sure, he was a little cocky in his first two years. He made mistakes on and off the field. Over that same time period my son made mistakes too - maybe not as bad, but mistakes were made. This is called being human.

We are going to see replays of Sean on the field. Everybody needs to take a look at him and watch how #36 turned into #21.

#36 played hard and hit hard. He was a force to be considered by every offense. It looked like he played angry.

#21 was smiling during the game - on the sidelines and between the lines. Having a child does that to a guy, even a tough one. He was growing, maturing, turning into the type of man any father would be proud of.

I will always remember #21 ... and the smiles. I'm 53 years old and about to drop tears in the keyboard so I will end now.

RIP Sean.

Posted by: SoMD | November 28, 2007 11:48 AM

This is a sad story. Too many young lives are being cut short. Question: Was Sean able to injure his attackers with the machete? Imagine the headlines if this had gone the other way: "Washington Redskin Beheads Two in Miami!"

Posted by: Master of the Universe | November 28, 2007 1:06 PM

"Dumb and macho" Huh? The Post wrote he was in his bedroom with his fiance and daughter and the intruders broke the bedroom door down and shot him.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 28, 2007 1:53 PM

I don't understand what the big deal is over owning a machete. Is the media implying that it is part of "street" culture? I own one. I bought it in Jamaica from a tourist gift shop. I bring it out once in a while to have a little fun chopping up pineapples or coconuts. If Sean Taylor used a golf club to defend his family, I wonder how the media would portray the tragedy.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 28, 2007 1:59 PM

It's only a game. Hundreds are murdered in DC each year with hardly a peep. A culture of celebrity.

Posted by: Karl | November 30, 2007 1:58 PM

I love it when the media, who write about race mostly when they can piggyback onto a huge local or national event so they get more eyeballs, tries to school its readership on race. Fact is, most people, fans, know enough than to listen to Redskins radio during a time like this. We really don't EXPECT an in-depth "cultural analysis." We understand that it is the safe zone, the safe outlet. We have that knowledge and maturity not to expect anything else. We also know where to go to get a ton of different points of view. We know that not all African Americans think that Sean Taylor's "past" bears any responsibility for what ultimately happened to him. On the other hand, some do. Point being: stop patronizing us!

Poor Sean Taylor. May he rest in peace.

Posted by: Harmon | December 2, 2007 11:13 AM

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