Monday, August 23, 2010

Sports Radio's Front Lines

Last week, I talked about 680 The Fan's (WCNN-AM's) dominance over its direct Sports rival, 790 The Zone (WQXI-AM).  The reason probably is a combination of factors, marginally better daytime signal, much better nighttime signal, Braves and Thrashers, consistency.  The biggest reason for The Fan's ascendancy, however, is likely the talk hosts on both stations.

As I thought about each station's staff, I wondered whether The Fan's hosts are superior, or whether The Zone is doing things to drive listeners to the competition.  I mentioned last week that sports knowledge and broadcast talent do not seem to go together on Atlanta's Sports stations for the most part.

In morning drive, The Fan has Christopher Rude with Perry Laurentino and Leo Mazzone at his side.  I have always been a big Chris Rude fan back to his stellar run at 96 Rock.  He anchors the show with talent and professionalism, and keeps things on an even keel.  His background is not sports, but he's learned enough to conduct an effective show with the sports-minded Laurentino as co-host.  I am not a Laurentino fan; I find him a bit on the irritating side, and some of his opinions seem a little out there.  Mazzone is an Atlanta favorite, and his being there adds comfort, especially during baseball season.  But his tangible contributions to the dialogue are not exactly profound.

Mornings at 790 The Zone feature co-owner Steak Shapiro (when he's there), Chris Dimino and Nick Cellini.  All three have at least a modicum of broadcast talent.  I enjoy Dimino and Cellini very much.  They're the best baseball guys in town and do about as well with the other sports.  Shapiro is the lightning rod, thought to come across as obnoxious, and just as likely to talk booze, strip clubs and where he ate last night as he is to discuss sports.  Steak is actually good when talking sports although his sound does carry a tinge of obnoxiousness.  Mornings of course set the table for the rest of the day, and my feeling is that Shapiro has driven listeners over to The Fan's Rude Awakening.  I don't know how Program Director Matt Edgar tells an owner that he should be replaced with a new third voice, but such a move seems imperative for The Zone to get back into the fray.

In late mornings, The Fan carries ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd.  The Zone has Jeff Woolverton, up until recently paired with the much-maligned Brandon Adams.  While we have awaited word of Adams' replacement, Woolverton has been partnered with Sam Radin, John Michaels and Hans Heiserer.  Woolverton has a decent knowledge of sports, especially the NBA, but has an overbearing delivery that borders on abrasive.  I find him a difficult listen.

In early afternoon, 680 The Fan airs Chuck (Oliver) & (Matt) Chernoff.  Many consider these hosts, both formerly on 790 The Zone, as the market's best.  The show is intelligent, interesting and substantive.  But here's my question:  Where is the broadcast talent?  Chuck & Chernoff seem to do pretty well without a whole lot of radio aptitude, and I guess knowledge and intelligence override talent when you're talking sports.

The 1-4PM slot at The Zone is filled by The 2 Live Stews, brothers Doug and Ryan Stewart.  The Stews and their Doghouse originate from the 790 The Zone studios and are syndicated by Sporting News Radio.  Doug and Ryan are talented and know sports, but they're not for everyone.  The typical adult University of Georgia fan in Atlanta might not prefer the style of these young African-American hosts.  This is a case where the benefit of creating and originating the show probably pays bigger dividends to The Zone than a local show that attracted more listeners.

Buck (Belue) & (John) Kincade handle afternoon drive on 680 The Fan.  Belue is in the air chair by virtue of leading the Georgia Bulldogs to the 1980 national championship; and for his 93-yard touchdown pass that season to Lindsay Scott that led to beating Florida.  The Fan is fortunate that Belue found time to do the show while writing his best-selling book, How I Developed a Philadelphia Accent in Valdosta.  John Kincade worked at 790 The Zone and joined The Fan when it resurfaced in 2000.  He also hosts a Sunday morning show on ESPN Radio.

College football is king in Atlanta, and Buck & Kincaide accordingly did a college football-centric show.  Yet as their station has started airing the Thrashers and the Braves, they have done a nice job of increasing coverage of those teams.  That a show hosted by Georgia legend Belue would lure Atlanta sports fans, especially with its first hour competing against The 2 Live Stews, is no surprise.  Nevertheless, we get back to the issue of broadcast talent, and Buck & Kincade have little.  Moreover, the chemistry between Buck and John does not seem copacetic; you get the impression that they dislike each other.

Opposite Buck & Kincade from 4-7PM on 790 The Zone is (David) Pollack & (Mike) Bell.  In my opinion, this is Atlanta sports radio's best show.  This is a different Mike Bell from the comedian on Mayhem in the AM who talked about his sexual conquests and boozy adventures.  Bell has broadcast talent and keeps the show moving.  Pollack, a former All-American at UGA, has less radio ability but shows intelligence and is knowledgeable about several sports, especially football.  My only complaint is that Bell tends to dominate and often steps on Pollack.

Overall, 680 The Fan is more laid-back while 790 The Zone is more upbeat and flashy.  The Fan has been steadfast in its pursuit of local play-by-play rights.  After Clear Channel treated the Braves as an FM programming interruption, 680 The Fan embraces the team.  The Braves have also been leading 680 The Fan to record billings and its Cumulus FM cousin, Rock 100.5 (WNNX-FM), to record ratings.  And, Cumulus has stolen The Hawks from 790 The Zone for the Cumulus 97.9 FM translator signal, which is a pretty good one.  The Fan, being a blood relative of Cumulus, will carry a significant amount of Hawks coverage minus the play-by-play.

In summary, 680 The Fan is winning because of a combination of factors.  Some, such as better nighttime and pre-sunrise signal, and Braves play-by-play, provide an insurmountable advantage.  However, 790 The Zone could get back into the race by replacing Steak Shapiro on Mayhem in the AM with an effective third voice and hiring someone such as the AJC's Jeff Schultz or WXIA-TV's Fred Kalil for 11AM-1PM.

I want to thank Roger Tiberio, an avid sports fan and Sports radio listener, for his considerable contributions to this week's column.

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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV Blog:

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