There are all
sorts of tempting McLuhanesque explanations for this interaction between
technology and 20th-century urban custom. A generation ago, the fans who now
use their cellular phones to argue sports after work would have been doing the
same arguing at a neighborhood saloon. Dr. Don Beck, a Dallas sports
psychologist who is a frequent guest on local call-in shows, says, "TV is
becoming boring because it is staged and canned. But sports talk is always
spontaneous. You stay tuned and interested because you don't know what someone
might say next. Or how he might say it."
Perhaps. But now,
many sports-talk shows are adopting the conventions of contemporary
entertainment. A recent sports-talk entry in the Los Angeles market is
Sportsnuts, a drive-time radio show hosted by former TV sitcom star Gabe Kaplan
(Welcome Back, Kotter). Kaplan has no background in sports, but that is not
true of the first man contacted about the job. Norman Epstein, vice-president
and general manager of station KLAC, says he approached Ronald Reagan to do the
original version of the show. Reagan, after all, had experience with those
phony baseball broadcasts back in the '30s. It would have been wonderful to
listen to him arguing with some fan about whether Tommy Lasorda overworked his
pitchers, or Georgia Frontiere underpaid her linebackers. Reagan may have
thought so too; it took him two weeks to turn down the job.
But while sports
call-in shows are a contemporary phenomenon, they did not arrive fully formed
along with the portable phone and commuter gridlock. The hosts of today stand
on the shoulders of yesterday's giants. And as anyone in the business will tell
you, Pete Franklin, who had a show on WWWE in Cleveland from 1972 to 1987,
perfected the put-down style emulated by many of today's hosts.
"Pete was the
greatest. The absolute best," says Bob Lochamy, producer and cohost of a
sports-talk show on WAPI in Birmingham, Ala. "Everybody who does it is
somehow playing off what Pete Franklin did."
how, as a student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, he commuted 60
miles to school from his home in Gadsden, Ala., usually returning late at
night. "Pete probably kept me alive," Lochamy says. "It would be
cold, and I'd have the windows all rolled up and the heater on. I'd be so tired
that it wouldn't have taken anything for me to fall asleep and put it in the
ditch. So I'd turn the volume up and listen to Pete giving somebody hell. You
never knew what he'd say to somebody, so I'd just stay awake long enough to
find out and, pretty soon, I'd be home."
Franklin lives in North Poway, Calif., outside San Diego, where, he says,
"I spend my time handicapping sea gulls." He has done occasional
commentary for WWWE, and he may host another call-in show someday. But for now,
he is happy to remember the days when he had fans in 38 states. "I played
the Palace," he says, referring to the two years he was on WFAN in New
York. "I was at the top."
is invariably described as confrontational, but he doesn't see it that way.
"I was doing entertainment," he says. "I knew that what people
liked to do when they talked about sports was argue. Two guys could be friends,
but if one of them said Mantle was better than Mays, the other one could call
him a dumb s.o.b. and they'd still be friends because they knew it didn't
matter. It was only sports."
So Franklin would
argue with anyone, at great, almost excruciating length. "Guys today like
to get a caller on and off the air quickly. I figured, if they're good, leave
'em on. So if I got a venomous s.o.b., that's great. Let him talk. Or a pompous
ass—even better. Let him talk and then tell him he doesn't know what he's
talking about. Most of these guys wouldn't know a slider from their own
underwear, and when the people listening heard me tell someone that, they loved
Franklin used all
the techniques of barroom debate. He would insult and harangue callers, cut
them off, hang up on them, correct their grammar—anything to keep the ball
rolling. And when talk was insufficient, Franklin used other tricks to raise
tension over the airwaves. During football season, when Michigan fans called
in, he played the Ohio State fight song in the background. "After a while,
that got old, so I got some guys with kazoos and washboards—who sounded like
hell—to record the Michigan fight song, and I'd play that."
He made up
nicknames for some of his regular callers. "I'd call one guy the Piranha
and another guy the Judge. I was just doing shtick, and people loved it
because, goddammit, it's sports and who gives a——. Sports is not life or death,
but it is important because it's therapy."