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Is Cleveland Sports Radio Dying?

Everyone working in the Cleveland sports radio market thinks things are great. Well, everyone in management, anyway. The business is great, the ratings are the highest ever, the people of Cleveland love their sports like no other, there is more than enough room for two and a half stations talking sports from morning to night, maybe more, and the guys employed to do it now are the right guys to be doing it.

The millennials all listen to terrestrial radio sports talk through apps on their phones, the old timers sit on lawn chairs in their garages and drink beer and call in, the hosts have great personalities, and none of the teams ever complain to the bosses if a host says they think the team is more shitty than usual.

In reality, they have a steady but aging listenership, and they do make a little money if they keep their costs down. But because there is little to gain by trying new things, and the profits razor thin anyway, it’s best not to do something that offends the old farts who have nothing to do in the afternoon.

That’s why a four-hour show will usually get programmed like this: a few recordings of gangbang interviews from a locker-room (whether they say anything or not), a short interview with the station’s team expert (like ESPN’s Tony Grossi, on the high end, or a salesperson turned de facto beat writer, on the low end), a chat with a national blogger or an NFL Network guy who tweets vaguely about nothing quite often, and maybe Mary Kay Cabot dropping by to talk about what other people wrote. Fill in the time with the two hosts talking to each other and taking some calls that seem to come from the same few people who call all the shows. Rinse, repeat, see you back here at the same time tomorrow. What do you think the Browns record will be? Should Johnny be playing more?

Cleveland was at one time the center of sports talk experimentation. Pete Franklin pretty much invented the format in 1967, and people found him berating caller after caller entertaining. In the mid-1990s, WHK-1420 AM had a dedicated following that thought it was in a private club and the term “mother scratcher” was the password.

And that history in Cleveland helped ingrain sports talk radio nationally as a male tradition — killing time with nonsense, but nonsense men liked — and it became the place where guys hung out. Call it the man cave or the tree house or the he-man-woman-hater’s-club, but sports talk became a gathering place.

“We thought being funny and intelligent was more important than just breaking down a defense,” said Les Levine, who was the lynchpin at WHK for its brief three-year existence. The station was there when Browns coach Bill Belichick benched Bernie Kosar and the Browns left, and joked and cried through it all. The station ended quickly because of a sale of its parent company, not bad ratings.

But hardly anyone has tried to be the least bit clever since. Some say that wouldn’t work because Cleveland loses too much, and the fans aren’t in the mood for any sports hilarity or content that requires more than a sixth-grade education. And Cleveland seems to be in one of its moods where any putdowns of the teams or the players or the city — even done smartly and by locals — is not well received. And god forbid if the criticism comes from an outsider.

Rizzo, more than anyone else in the market, attempts, or attempted at one point, to have fun. It’s why The Really Big Show with ESPN Cleveland — which has led the station’s line-up since 2007 — has the following that it does and serves as WKNR’s cash cow. The dial is otherwise filled with some talented people, some not, and a whole lot of the same, indistinguishable except when the stations’ call letters are uttered.

Rizzo, for his part, offered to chat for this article but never ended up following through. A handful of hosts were offered up by 92.3 The Fan. Top men at both stations did chat, and they’re pretty damn proud.

“We have great talent who understand the fans here in Cleveland, and we are very satisfied with where we are,” says Keith Williams, vice president and general manager for Good Karma Broadcasting, which owns ESPN 850. “This is a football town, and we have the best coverage of the Browns.”

Tom Herschel, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Cleveland, which owns 92.3 The Fan, echoes his competitor’s sentiments. “One of the reasons we built and launched The Fan four years ago is the incredible enthusiasm and sports in this area.”

Both Herschel and Williams say the Northeast Ohio market is not oversaturated with sports programming, they both think that the interest in sports in the Cleveland market is very high right now, and they don’t expect any changes to their line-ups in the near future.

To read the rest of this article visit Cleveland Scene Weekly where it was originally published