Sports Talk Radio Gets Disintermediated (Ouch!)
(The Listener, not yet dead even one week, couldn't stay silent. He's back, if only in blog form....)
Years from now, when the book about the decline of America's most successful professional sports leagues gets written, the chapter about how team owners finally went too far will focus on the decision by the likes of Redskins boss Dan Snyder to assure themselves of friendly news coverage by buying up the news media.
This has been going on for some time now, and in both directions. The Chicago Tribune in better times bought the Cubs and Wrigley Field. The New York Times owns a chunk of the Boston Red Sox (leading many Yankee fans to argue that Times' columnists write more favorably about the Boston team than about their hometown squads). And Snyder, as The Post's Paul Farhi has documented, has been peppering local TV and radio with team-produced programs about the Skins for years.
But Snyder advanced this particular ball considerably in 2006, when he bought three little radio stations on the outskirts of Washington and declared them "Redskins Radio." The venture has been pretty much a flop--the stations' signals are too weak for most fans to hear them at home or in the car. So now Mr. Moneybags has bought three more stations, including Washington's longstanding, dominant sports station, Sports Talk 980 (WTEM).
When WTEM and the two other stations Snyder picked up this week from Clear Channel--both political talkers, one left and one right--come under the boss's control July 1, the two big losers will be Washington sports fans and the other Washington sports team owners.
On local sports blogs, much of the agita over Snyder's latest monopolistic maneuver has focused on the potential (or even likely) loss of some of WTEM's better program hosts, including harsh critics of the Skins such as former players Doc Walker and Brian Mitchell, as well as radio guys Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin.
Sports fans who enjoy the kind of no-holds-barred banter that enliven the sports conversation in many other cities are in for a big surprise. Anyone who believes Snyder will grant his radio talkers the independence they need to criticize the team should read Farhi's news story quoting Bruce Gilbert, chief executive of Snyder's radio operations, saying that his company will encourage, "within reason," a freewheeling exchange of opinions. "Within reason." Yikes.
The Skins management will continue to assure us that Redskins Radio will be tough and critical of the team. But the station's record so far is hardly encouraging: The station covers every little PR appearance and event the team lays on. Redskins Radio is very overtly a promotional device.
And the Redskins seem determined to funnel fans toward their own media operations, both by snapping up everything they perceive as competition--they even bought a blog, extremeskins.com, that was gaining quite a following by encouraging sniping at the team--and by making it ever harder for independent media to cover the team effectively. (So far, extremeskins.com is pretty good about letting fans vent against Snyder.)
As Jack Shafer at Slate noted at the advent of the Redskins Radio era, the team has prevented network TV and The Post, as well as other non-team-owned outlets, from conducting certain interviews with coaches and others, while presenting those very same interviewees on Redskins-controlled media.
This disintermediation of the media--basically cutting the independent media out of the loop to steer fans to controlled media, which the Skins call "unfiltered" media--doesn't seem to alienate most fans to any great degree. It may add to the general grumbling about Snyder, but hey, if he owns the places where fans might expect to hear each other griping and moaning about the owner, then those individual gripes never grow to mass proportions.
In fact, a smart owner allows just enough criticism on his own media so as to make certain fans have no reason to suspect the boss of censorship.
And if the critical talk show hosts happen to be replaced by boosters such as Redskins Radio's Larry Michael and John Riggins, well, maybe some folks won't notice.
The people who will most certainly notice are the Lerners, Abe Pollin, Ted Leonsis and Victor MacFarlane, the owners of the Nats, Wizards, Caps and United, as well as the local colleges that depend on their big fan bases for support.
If, as expected, Snyder's broadcast arm, Red Zebra, consolidates the programming on his new stations with that on his existing outlets, you can expect the Redskins-ueber-alles programming on Redskins Radio to become the rule on Sports Talk 980--with coverage and discussion of the other local teams shrinking dramatically.
Attendance and fan enthusiasm tracks the liveliness of the media buzz surrounding a team, and in cities with real passions for hoops or baseball, for example, the sports talk stations are always aflame with controversy and argument.
This is a big football town, but it is far more than that--a reality that is hardly reflected on Redskins Radio. So what might the other owners do about it? Surely they're not going to go out and buy their own radio stations--or maybe they should.
The best solution, of course, would be for some other entrepreneur to come along and create an independent, feisty alternative to Redskins Radio. But starting up a radio station with local content is expensive, and given the troubles that commercial radio are in these days, this is not a likely scenario. So for now, Snyder has plenty of running room. Like it or not, he is winning in his effort to control the story. Will fans notice or care? I believe they eventually will--not in a way that leads them to protest or demand change, but in a far more destructive way. Over time, they will just care that much less. Without powerful, even aggressive, arguments about the wisdom or boneheadedness of team owners, coaches and players, the emotional bonds that fans form with teams start to fade.
Pro sports may not even see this as it happens. But one day, they'll wake up to it and it will be too late.
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