[April 20th marks the 50th anniversary of NPR’s first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of radio histories and contexts, leading up to a Guest Post from a colleague whose upcoming book on college radio should be a must-read!]
On two lessons I learned from many years’ worth of commutes listening to sports radio.
For something like 5-6 of the 16 years I’ve been commuting two-plus hours a day to and from Fitchburg, I listened to WEEI, one of Boston’s two most prominent sports radio stations (alongside its main competitor, The Sports Hub). Because of timing, both in terms of what time of day I was driving in and during what years I listened (somewhere in the 2006-2012 range, roughly), a great deal of that listening was to one particular and particularly controversial show: Dennis and Callahan, featuring co-hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan. Given that those two are known as two of the most overtly and proudly far-right voices in sports radio and journalism history, as well as more specifically known for a 2003 racism scandal that led to their suspension, it might surprise longtime AmericanStudies readers to hear that I listened to the duo at all, much less for years. But instead, I would argue that I learned a valuable lesson about politics from listening to the pair—but also a distinct and equally clear lesson about the undeniable appeal of sports radio.
The lesson about politics is one that has likely become far more familiar over the last half-dozen years, thanks to a certain Orange President who shall remain nameless (and who both Dennis and Callahan vocally support, shockingly): that the loudest political voices are often also the most ignorant. Relatively early in my time listening to Dennis and Callahan, the two featured a segment in which they discussed the public release of salaries of all UMass employees and professors; D&C bemoaned that “even just regular professors” made X amount, and they “weren’t even assistant or associate professors.” This argument, which was central to their extended spiel, got the promotion and rank system for professors entirely wrong (indeed, backwards), making every point they made comically inaccurate as well (I tried to call in to correct them, but pulled into FSU while I was still on hold). Time and time again, I found that D&C were similarly wrong not just about the big issues, but also and especially about the small details and facts out of which such issues are constituted—and it makes sense that they were, because none of this was their job, none of it anything that they were paid or required to learn about for their work. That epiphany unfortunately didn’t lessen their influence (I’m sure a lot of listeners digested and later regurgitated all that inaccurate info), but it sure did clarify things for this listener.
I did keep listening, though, and not just because someone was wrong on the radio (although I will say that some percentage of my time with D&C would have to be classified as hate-listening, and I did eventually stop because they were contributing to my high blood pressure in very unhealthy ways). No, I also remained a D&C and WEEI listener because, when they shut up about political and social issues and talked sports, I found the conversations highly entertaining and compelling. The thing with sports is that it’s a fundamentally communal experience, not just for those who play a sport alongside their peers, but also and in some ways especially for those who watch sports. That includes the powerful pleasures and joys of watching sports with others, which is why it has long been and remains one of my favorite things to do with my sons. But it also includes talking about sports, sharing our reactions and opinions and arguments, hearing those of others, engaging in debates and discussions. In recent years I’ve taken those conversations to twitter, as have many others of course. But for a long time, sports radio was a place where I could hear (and, at least occasionally, respond to) such conversations, and that both kept me coming back and helped me understand why the medium has endured and grown.
Last RadioStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?