Radio and its Impact
on the Sports World
by Eric C. Covil
The relationship between the U.S. mass media and sports is a long and intimate one. Details of sporting events, athletes and other individuals involved in athletics fill the pages of newspapers, magazines, books, and Internet websites, as well as countless hours of radio and television. People in every city and community around the country form long lasting bonds with sports teams and athletes. This live-or-die attitude is exemplified by the inhabitants of “Red Sox Nation.” Millions of fans set their daily schedules around the listening to, viewing of, and reading about Boston baseball games. The mass media play an important role in this alliance. All forms of the media bring the athletic events to the fans, no matter where they are in the world.
Conceivably the one media that has had the greatest impact on sports and the audience is radio. Perhaps no other form of the media, at this time, covers the different levels and varieties of athletics more than radio. Everything from high school basketball to professional auto racing fills the airwaves of many of the more than 13,000 radio stations in the U.S. and the newest creation, satellite radio.
Radio also has abilities or skills that other media cannot match. The first is the connection formed between the broadcaster and the audience. Former major league baseball player and long-time announcer Bob Uecker says he likes radio a lot better than television. “You paint a picture in the mind. It’s a kick to make baseball come alive to a guy hundreds of miles away who’s never seen your home park” (Smith, C. p. 267). Jimmy Dudley, Voice of the Cleveland Indians for 20 years, recounts a letter he received from a fan. The letter’s writer was a little blind boy who wrote it in Braille. “[He] signed off by saying, ‘Remember, Jimmy, you are my eyes. Don’t ever let me down.’ It taught me never to forget my obligation as a representative of the fan” (Ibid).
The second ability that radio has that other media cannot match is being consumed where others cannot. Besides being able to listen to the radio at home, people can also listen at work, as they exercise, or as they drive in their cars. The other media, such as television or the Internet, require unmanageable devices for use or are intrusive in their “use.” Kenneth Costa, former marketing vice-president of the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), contends that “There are twice as many car radios in use (approximately 140 million) as the total circulation (60 million) of all daily newspapers” (Keith p. 1). He further asserts that four out of five adults are reached by radio each week.
Since the 1950s, radio has splintered into many different formats, mostly centering upon music. There has been an explosion in the amount of stations that specialize in sports-only content in the last twenty years. Keith (2002) says that “the proliferation of the All-Sports format has boosted the popularity” non-music format radio (p. 90). Thus, it is important to inquire when this relationship between sports and radio began, who are some of the important individuals involved, and where this association is headed in the future with the rapid development of digital television and the Internet.
The Beginnings of Radio and Sports Programming
Three sports and four electronic manufacturers/communications companies dominated early mass broadcasting in the U.S. Himes (2002) says the sports were professional boxing, professional baseball and college football and that the World Series attracted “by far the most radio attention” and inspired “the earliest networking experiments” (p. 106). The four companies were Westinghouse, General Electric (G.E.), American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), and Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Much of the early content in regards to sports events was results or recreations.
The original technology did not allow for live broadcasting to occur from the site of the athletic event. Radio station operators had to rely on reports and scores of games to be either telephoned or telegraphed to them after the conclusion of the games. Experimental radio station WWJ, in Detroit, Michigan, is considered by historians to be the groundbreaker in bringing sports to the American public. Announcers from the station gave the results of the Jack Dempsey-Billy Miske heavyweight fight in September of 1920. Less than a month later, the station’s listeners heard the first scores of the World Series to be broadcast.
The era of commercial radio began in the fall of 1920 and sporting events were prominent. Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad built the first non-experimental licensed station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it began broadcasting on November 2, 1920 with music and presidential election results. Five months later, the station broadcast a blow-by-blow account of the Johnny Ray-Johnny Dundee prize fight. RCA station WJY cemented the sports-radio relationship with the broadcast of the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier heavyweight title fight in July of 1921. Smith (2001) says this broadcast is “one of the two key events in the development of sports broadcasting” because it fixed the nation’s interest on radio (p. 19).
Westinghouse officials were not to be outdone as they introduced America’s pastime to the airwaves. The seemingly unimportant game between the first place Pittsburgh Pirates and the last place Philadelphia Phillies ranks as one of the most historic events in broadcast history. Westinghouse engineer Harold Arlin sent details of the game back to KDKA for broadcast through a converted phone. Sports Illustrated says that “Arlin’s play-by-play demonstrated to the public that baseball could be brought into the American living room with immediacy and intimacy” (V. 75, #18, p. 19). WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, another Westinghouse station, was the first to broadcast the 1921 World Series. Tommy Cowan recreated the games between the New York Yankees and New York Giants from reports that were phoned in from the stadiums. The next year WJZ broadcast the entire series using renowned sports journalist Grantland Rice as lead announcer.
College football contests also produced a big impact on radio broadcasting. Although the first broadcast of a college football game occurred in 1912, it would be a decade before the impact would be felt. KDKA aired the 1921 match-up between the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University, known as the “Backyard Brawl,” as a commercially sponsored contest. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, AT&T owned station WEAF is considered the first station to introduce advertising in 1922, which this game predates. Secondly, most college football games in the 1920s were aired on what was termed “sustaining broadcasts.” This meant that colleges were not charged for airing rights nor did stations receive income from advertising during the games. Smith (2001) points to the WEAF broadcast of the 1922 Princeton University-University of Chicago football game as one of the key events in the development of radio and college sports. He asserts that starting with this game “radio had made itself part of the nationalization of football, by making interregional competition immediately available to masses through the airwaves” (p. 17).
Chicago Tribune-owned WGN (World’s Greatest Newspaper) began to compete with its East Coast rivals on a significant basis in 1924 and 1925. The station aired the 1924 Indianapolis 500, marking the first auto race broadcast in history. That fall, the station broadcast football games from all the Big Ten campuses, as well as University of Nebraska, University of Pennsylvania and University of Southern Cal games. The following spring, WGN brought the Kentucky Derby into homes across the mid-west.
Concern over a U.S. government investigation changed the structure of American broadcasting. AT&T used its ownership of phone lines to build a 26-station network that stretched across the nation with WEAF in New York City as its flagship station by 1924. Because of fears over a possible monopoly on network broadcasting, AT&T sold its stations to RCA in 1926. David Sarnoff, RCA chairman, created the National Broadcast Company (NBC) and the NBC-Red network. It proved so successful that a second network, NBC-Blue, was started shortly afterward. The initial broadcast on this network was the 1927 Rose Bowl contest between the University of Alabama and Stanford University. This was the first coast-to-coast broadcast in American history.
The relationship between sports and radio has not always been smooth. Major League Baseball owners and officials from various colleges, universities and athletic conferences across the nation began expressing concern over radio’s impact on game attendance. Smith (1995) says that the emergence of radio sportscasting encountered hostility from baseball team owners. Many teams banned the broadcasting of home games in their cities. This is despite the increasing number of people who were listening to games and the World Series each year. By 1932, the owners saw the advantages of game broadcasts and voted to allow each individual club to adopt its own policy. The largest media market in the U.S., New York City, did not have daily game coverage until after the 1938 season. The owners of the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers all felt that fans wouldn’t come to the games if they could sit at home and listen. It took General Mills cereal sponsorship of games to change their minds.
There was no consensus among college and university officials in regard to radio broadcasts of football games. Some schools sold their rights to individual stations, while others voted conference wide to restrict or ban broadcasts. The biggest argument against the airing of football games was the shift by American radio stations from sustaining broadcasts to advertiser supported programming. Prior to the 1930s, colleges and universities did not ask for compensation because they received free promotion of their schools during the game broadcasts. The thought now was that broadcasters were making money; it was no longer about the promotion, on both sides. The Southern Conference (now Southeastern Conference) was one of the first to ban the broadcast of intersectional games, which had to be lifted so that the ‘Bama-Stanford Rose Bowl could be aired on NBC.
Because of the Great Depression, started in 1929, game attendance began to decline and many institutions and conferences established bans on radio broadcasts. In 1932, the Eastern Colleges Athletic Conference, the Southern Conference, and the Southwest Conference all voted to ban or restrict game transmission. Individual schools began selling game broadcast rights. The University of Michigan sold its rights in 1934 to WWJ for $20,000 and the following year the Big Ten proposed selling the rights to all games for $100,000. By the end of 1935 all conferences had lifted bans and restrictions on radio and the NCAA appointed a special committee to study the effect of radio broadcasts on game attendance. The positive relationship between radio and sports would flourish for decades to come, despite the introduction of television.
Important Radio Sportscasters
The historical landscape of sports broadcasting on radio is littered with significant individuals. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan began his media career as an announcer of University of Iowa football games in 1932 and later recreated Chicago Cubs’ games for WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. Former CBS-TV Nightly News anchor Walter Cronkite’s first venture into broadcasting involved college football games on WKY in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Many of the most important people involved with radio gained major notoriety for their later work with television.
Any discussion of the most prominent sportscasters has to begin with Graham McNamee. American Sportscaster Association President Lou Schwartz calls McNamee “the best in the business” and that he “started everything” (Interview with Schwartz). Although he would become the preeminent radio sportscaster, spending decades covering different sports for NBC, McNamee intended to become a professional musician and had taken his first announcing job until a better musical position opened. He was thrust into the spotlight when famed sports writer Grantland Rice suddenly “retired” during the fourth inning of the third game of the 1923 World Series. McNamee never looked back as he brought events such as the Kentucky Derby, Charles Lindbergh’s return from France, and “one of his most vivid experiences,” covering both 1924 political party conventions for AT&T (Moore).
Ted Husing’s sportscasting career began in 1925 when he recreated the World Series for WJZ from ticker tape reports. He worked closely with Major Andrew White, another early and influential sportscaster. Husing joined the fledgling Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System (now CBS) shortly after it formed in 1927 and spent two decades with the network. He is most known for the creation of the annunciator or spotter board. This electronic device allowed the announcer’s assistant to quickly identify players on the field for the announcer. Husing claims to have first used this at a Princeton-Navy football game in 1926.
Mel Allen’s familiar voice called out to viewers of “This Week In Baseball” for years but older fans will recall his decades-long work with the New York Yankees. His signature “How About That!” was familiar to baseball fans all across the country and became a household term. Allen called more World Series (20) and All-Star Games (24) on radio than anyone in history. From 1939 to 1942, while working for CBS, he was the main radio announcer for both the Yankees and the baseball Giants. Famed sportscaster Lindsey Nelson called Allen “the best ever to broadcast the game” (Smith, C. p. 56).
Bob Costas may be most well known for his NBC television talk show or his documentary style interview program on Home Box Office but his work on radio is formidable. Costas began his professional broadcast career on KMOX-AM, the home of Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, announcing ABA Spirit of St. Louis games. He was the voice of University of Missouri basketball games and also did regional reporting on the NFL and NBA for CBS radio until 1979. During his one season as the radio voice of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, Costas joined NBC. The multiple Sportscaster of the Year and Emmy Award winner has covered World Series, Super Bowls and the Olympics, as well as hosted a weekly sports related radio call-in program.
The Rise of Sports-Only Radio and the Future
The notion of a radio station that catered to the sports fan was a dream only twenty years ago. The RAB’s 2004-2005 Marketing Guide and Fact Book lists All-Sports radio as the seventh most applied format, with 470 stations. Brown (1998) says this “format has been on a record-breaking pace for the past ten years” (p. 50). The content of these stations ranges from game coverage to “sports-news” updates and programs to call-in shows. Networks such as ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio and Sporting News Radio have been created in the last decade to facilitate the growing desire for this type of programming. The two major satellite radio companies, XM and Sirius, have also joined the sports content revolution by entering long-term agreements with major sports like NASCAR racing and Major League Baseball.
The groundbreaker in the All-Sports format is WFAN-AM in New York City, which hit the airwaves in July 1987. Within its first decade in existence, the radio station became the first in history to top the $50 million mark in advertising billing. Its website promotes that WFAN is the flagship of four New York professional sports teams. The explosion of this format is not limited to large cities/markets. All-Sports radio stations have started in Gainesville, Florida, Atlantic City, New Jersey and Chattanooga, Tennessee and none of these cities have major sports franchises. Perhaps the most surprising is what is happening in Salt Lake City, Utah, where four radio stations have started or switched to the All-Sports format. This is a city with only one major sports team and other cities/markets with multiple teams may have only two or even one radio station with this format.
But when games aren’t being played, what goes into the content of these All-Sports stations? The answer is quite simple, you the fan and the host of the call-in show. It can be compared to “playing the hits” if the station was a Top 40 format. ESPN Radio executives Pete Gianesini and Bruce Gilbert believe that sports talk topics are like records and that you have to keep finding the right one. The search of the “hit” is even more difficult when you consider the amount of sports-talk programs or what is called “sports chatter” on the market today. There is the “Dan Patrick Show,” “The Jim Rome Show,” “The Mike and the ‘Mad Dog’ Show,” and the “Mike and Mike Show,” just to name a few of the nationally syndicated programs. Besides these big names on the national level, radio stations also have numerous “local” sportscasters who also host programs to give the station their local appeal for the audience.
The future of the All-Sports formatted radio station looks very bright. American Sportscaster Association President Lou Schwartz says that although “no one knows the impact of satellite radio,” it is quite possible that radio will “increase its influence” (Interview). Griggs (2004) says “sports radio fills a growing demand. . . for sports scores, news and analysis around the clock” (p. D1). The satellite-radio companies will continue to expand the content available, which includes a new contract for NFL and MLB games. The Internet will be available on your cellular phone with messages about the latest trades. Despite these occurrences, sports radio will thrive because people like to talk to each other, especially about sports.
Bibliography and Further Suggested Reading
Belanger, B. (2004). “Early Radio Announcers,” Radio and Television Museum News,
V. 10, #4, p. 1-7.
Brown, S. (1998). “Sports Radio. It Pays to Play,” Broadcasting and Cable,
V. 128, #30, p. 50.
Griggs, B. (2004). “Jock Talk; Sports Radio: Bruising Battle For Listeners,”
Salt Lake Tribune, 12/07/04, p. D1.
Himes, M. (2002). Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the
United States. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Keith, M. (2002). The Radio Station, 6th Ed.
Burlington, MA: Elsevier/Focal Press
Moore, D. (1992). “The 1924 Radio Election,” found on website:
Interview with Lou Schwartz conducted on March 21, 2005. He is the president of the
American Sportscasters Association. For more information about them, visit http://www.americansportscastersonline.com/index.html
Smith, C. (1995). The Storytellers. From Mel Allen to Bob Costas: Sixty Years of
Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth.
New York: Macmillan.
Smith, R.A. (2001). Play-by-Play: Radio, Television, and Big Time College Sport.
Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Tucker, K. (2005). “Feeding the Fanatics of Sports,” Billboard Radio Monitor,
1/07/05, p. 1-5.
Unknown Author. (1991). “70 Years Ago, a signal event. (Baseball on the Radio),”
Sports Illustrated, V. 75, #18 (Fall Special Issue), p. 9.