The problem of everyone having the same nothing at once is exacerbated by the fact that in many cases, 92.3 The Fan is reliant on other media not just for its newsy talking points but for its content, period.
The station has shown a wanton disregard for spending money even as CBS Radio in Cleveland has shed expensive contracts. 92.3 didn't send any reporters to cover Ohio State's national championship run last year, for example, nor did it send any talent on the road to cover the Cavs' run to the NBA Finals. No trips to Boston, Chicago or Atlanta, let alone Oakland. If the wine and gold had taken the series against Golden State to a game seven, 92.3 would have been sitting in Cleveland relying on every other outlet's material being gathered on the ground in California — including WKNR, which had a team on the West Coast.
And for a flagship station, one that trumpets its coverage of Cleveland's most popular team, it's embarrassing that 92.3 doesn't even send a reporter on the road with the Browns unless the game's in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. (WKNR, meanwhile, sends Tony Grossi just about everywhere, including the owner's meetings.) As one host told Scene, "It's not anything a podcaster couldn't do sitting at home." Home of the Browns, indeed.
"The problem is that the sports talk radio stations in Cleveland don't have any content of their own, content that would make them a destination listening place, mostly because they don't want to have original content," says John Gorman, longtime Cleveland radio icon who was program manager at WHK in it sports talk days and now operates WOW Media, which tries to recreate WMMS in its heyday, which Gorman also ran.
The sad state of affairs is that the stations don't believe that, and that attitude trickles down to employees, and that whether or not you have original content, it doesn't much make a difference.
"I don't think it matters anymore what's on the air," says former 92.3er Joe Lull. "I don't know that it ever did, actually. But today, more than ever, it doesn't really matter. Look at the dismissal of Booms, who, like it or not, was one of the most polarizing figures in Cleveland media, and he was just tossed to the curb. And the station is just 'onward and upward.' I largely believe that with the exception of a few people, sports talk is just white noise. And if you look at some of the people on air who aren't necessarily engaging personalities but rather just people who've been in sports, that speaks to it. The stations don't try to be cutting edge. They're very conservative. The Fan doesn't invest in covering things, but I don't think that necessarily matters. You're not going to have more or less people listen to the radio station because you do or don't send someone to cover the national championship game."
Which ties into something else we heard: That it doesn't really matter who's hosting a show. It could be a fill-in or the regular host. The ratings stay the same. It's a built-in, ready-made audience.
"I've heard shows where callers call in and they don't even know what host they're talking to. I don't know why people listen but I'm guessing it's because it's voices talking about Cleveland sports," says Lull. "It doesn't matter to the people making decisions and unfortunately it doesn't matter to the listener either. I don't think either station is in a position where they have to worry much about the quality of the product. You'd think persona-based radio would be in higher demand given the saturation, but I think they're comfortable having voices on the radio. What those voices are is irrelevant. I don't think that's just Cleveland sports talk. It's sports talk in general. You don't get encouragement to develop. And if you want to take a full-time job at a Cleveland radio station, you shouldn't be taking a pay decrease from what you're doing today. The reality is, there are gas station attendants making more than part-time employees at The Fan. But they don't want you to know that because it undermines this image of the big voice on the radio."
The teams, according to the hosts, are partly to blame as well. Almost everyone interviewed for this article said the Cleveland Cavaliers were notorious for not providing athletes for interviews on the stations, and that the Browns and Indians were not much better. Original takes are generally frowned upon, not least of all because denial of future access for hypothetical interviews or credentials is always a threat.
And even when a station gets somebody on the line, it's hit or miss.
"Most athletes are not great interviews," Adam the Bull says. "If we can get a player the fans have heard of we'll try, but we aren't just going to go get anyone so we can say we have a player on. And you have to play things carefully with the teams, not asking for a player every day and abusing the relationship."
It isn't that sports talk has to be intellectual vibrant or always doing something important. But thinking that all your listeners are brain dead, that they don't care what you serve them up, is not a good way to program content that tries to gain listeners, not push them away. Not being serious intellectually does not mean one has to be intellectually vapid either. We get enough of that through social media.
It leads to some very odd choices, both media-wise and culturally. The radio stations all go on and on about how Ray Rice and the other wife-beater athletes should not be allowed to play anymore, that being a pro-athlete is a privilege and not a right of employment. Yet WKNR had Tony Rizzo on the air the very morning he got out of jail in December of 2013 after being arrested for spousal abuse. The news hadn't even broken yet, and Rizzo was hosting the show like nothing had happened. And when reports surfaced mid-program, Rizzo was allowed to use the station's airwaves to make his defense. (Those charges were eventually dropped and Rizzo pleaded no contest to persisting disorderly conduct, a fourth-degree misdemeanor, in March 2014. The prosecutor said at the time that Rizzo's then-wife told authorities the day after his arrest that "she initiated the argument and struck him with a wine glass" and didn't want to press charges. The details of the case are not the debate here; it's Good Karma's decision to let Rizzo host the show that day at all.)
Donald Trump is being railed in some quarters for being insulting to women, yet ESPN Cleveland's Golden Boyz (Aaron Goldhammer and Emmett Golden) recently debated whether tennis star Serena Williams was hot. (Both determined she was not.) It's so overblown, such mail-it-in material, such low-hanging boys' club fruit, like the debate over whether Michael Jordan could beat LeBron James one-on-one, another scintillating topic explored on the show a few weeks ago. It's the man cave taken to its logical if maddening conclusion. Fine enough to keep the people who've always listened around. But probably not fine enough for a twentysomething who would rather not hear whether or not you think Serena Williams is fuckable.
Dustin Fox is a fairly well spoken former Ohio State football player who had a brief swim through the NFL. He currently co-hosts the afternoon show on 92.3 The Fan with Adam the Bull. Most of the time he brings a decent spin on what NFL players are thinking about as they go through the season, and he stands up to the Bull's frequent pontificating rants. At times, it can be good radio.
Last week, they brought on journalist Gilbert Gaul to talk about his new book, Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big Money Culture of College Football. Gaul has won two Pulitzer Prizes, worked for both the New York Times and Washington Post and, to justify his sports cred, was a New Jersey state high-school champion in the javelin many years ago.
Gaul's book is about how some colleges are increasing general student fees and cutting academic and other programs to prop up football which, in all but a few big programs, has become a cash drain for the schools. He cites the University of Akron specifically in his tome, which is a timely local tie given Akron's recent budget moves like cutting its baseball program and laying off faculty, in part because football costs so much.
Fox regularly weighs in on the importance of college football programs based on his OSU experience: how tutors are important for the athletes, how the programs are worth the cost, how they bring pride to students and provide good marketing for the schools in more than just sports.
Fox started the interview by thanking the author for sending him a copy of the book a few weeks ago and then noting that he hadn't read it. Now, many media members do not read every book that comes across their desk — there can be a mountain at times — but this was right up Fox's alley.
After Gaul explained how IRS tax deductions were given to college football donors, how the costs of tutoring athletes were passed on to the general student body with fees, how the highest paid public official in most states was a university football coach, and how Akron had undermined the entire university budget by building a costly new football stadium, Fox asked Gaul this: "What's the biggest problem you found with big-time college football?"
Then Fox opined that perhaps the problem in Akron was with the success of its football program. If they had won eight or nine games — instead of five games under Terry Bowden (who makes $400,000 coaching at Akron, plus $1.4 million in related "services") — Fox figured Akron's program would be a good thing for all concerned. Not that maybe schools like Akron might be better off getting out of the football business.
Fox then politely thanked Gaul for being a guest on the show and said that he thought the book was "well done." Yep, a book he hadn't read.
"Ever do five hours of radio a day? We prepare our ass off, but I don't read every book of every guest," Fox told us last Friday. "We've brought on comedians as guests that I have never heard. Maybe me saying his book was 'well done' even though I hadn't read it was me just being nice to a guest."
This is not to bag on Dustin Fox here. He didn't have to say he hadn't read the book. He probably could have faked his way through the interview as if he had. But he didn't think it was important for his job as a sports talk show host to read it, and he figured his audience didn't think it was important that he did either.
But, then again, why should it be?
This is Cleveland, and being a sports fan is all about killing time between years of losing. It's wait until next year. And wait until next show. Same result, though.