When Sports Talk Radio Converges: The Relevance of Callers’ Hometowns
Recently, there was a debate over how to announce callers on New York City’s most popular sports talk radio show Mike’d Up (2008-Present), hosted by the legendary NYC sports personality Mike Francesa: should Francesa announce just the names of the callers or their names and hometowns?
To someone not concerned with sports talk radio in general or New York sports talk radio in particular, this debate probably appears to be pointless—another piece of meaningless trivia in jock culture. But it has fascinating implications for how audiences for sports talk media interact with different screen cultures. Mike’d Up is a converged program, airing simultaneously on AM radio on New York’s WFAN, on cable television on YES (The Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, which airs regionally in the New York area and nationally through DirecTV), and on the web at WFAN.com. Francesa has been WFAN’s evening commute guy for the past twenty-one years, someone who could tap into the ready-made market of people stuck in their cars for a substantial period of time with nothing to do but listen to the radio. Announcing the names of the callers’ towns became a hallmark of Francesa’s shows, first on Mike and the Mad Dog (1989-2008) and then on Mike’d Up. In the spring of 2010, eight years after it began simalcasting Francesa’s shows, YES asked the host to stop announcing the names of his callers because it was information irrelevant to the television program. It was also less work for the production staff just to type the name of the caller. Francesca honored YES’s request, but commuters and radio listeners called the show and expressed their deep disappointment about this change to the program’s format.
The debate about town names raises issues about the difference between airing live radio for commuters and producing live television for the home viewer. The settings of the car and the home offer audiences different screens for interfacing with the show.
Listening to Francesa during a commute demands that audience members look at the car window as a screen. The car window continually offers commuters a moving picture of their material environment. The window grounds commuters in a physical location at a present moment. However, the town names of callers allow listeners to construct an imagined regional map, an extended network of communication of which they are one point in their material environment that they comprehend through the car window. As American Studies scholar Kent Ryden notes, while maps eschew the discursive and cultural construction of a region because they fixate on measurement, not meaning, they also inspire imagination in viewers and allow them to imbue the map with their own meanings of the region. The constant fixation of the town names of callers on Mike’d Up gives commuters a map through which they can position their own feelings for and ideas about a region as they view a very small piece of that region through their car windows.
The screen cultures present during YES’s airing of Mike’d Up are drastically different. YES wanted information displayed on the television screen to pertain to sports, not to callers. If you watch Mike’d Up on YES, you’ll encounter an ESPN Sports Center aesthetic. The bottom of the screen presents scores and statistics of ongoing games and the times for upcoming games, as well as relevant statistics for those upcoming games. YES envisions onscreen text as a type of sports news, not as a billboard to display the towns for people who call in to Mike’d Up. For YES, Mike’d Up is not a commuter show. It’s a sports show competing with shows on ESPN at the same time, and hence, it needs to offer the latest sports news—just like its competition does.
As someone with a substantial commute in the New York City region, I’m delighted that radio listeners won this battle. Because the area has such a huge commuter population, the needs of commuters and listeners matter a great deal. Francesa has returned to announcing the towns of callers, and listeners seem to be very happy now . . . except when the Mets are the topic of conversation.