City Paper is not for tourists
The Washington Nationals have blessed us with so many soap-opera storylines this season. There’s the daily glove and baserunning bloopers, the won-loss record that will live in ignominy, Manny Acta’s nonfiring and firing, Stephen Strasburg’s looming non-signing, and on and on.
Stuff that’s just made for sports talk radio.
So why’s there no Nationals-centric programming on D.C.’s jockiest airwaves?
This week we’ll learn specifics of WJFK-FM’s flip from boys-will-be-boys talk to sports talk. That will put the CBS-owned station head to head against Dan Snyder’s fleet of sports-talkers, which is really just flagship WTEM–AM and a bunch of dinghies.
So, any day now, sports radio will have a prominence in this market like never before. But it doesn’t look like baseball banter will have a bigger role when the expansion takes place.
In response to the new competition, WTEM seems to be greasing the skids for the return of Tony Kornheiser, who despite a damaged national image is available for local duty again now that his nonspeaking role in the Monday Night Football booth has been ended. Dan Snyder’s station recently hired Marc Sterne, a very funny former producer for Kornheiser’s last local radio show on WTWP-AM, the cornerstone program of the failed Washington Post Radio experiment.
Chris Kinard, WJFK’s program director, politely declines to comment on what exposure baseball or any other sport will get when his station flips.
Yet the on-air lineup we now know for the rejiggered WJFK is baseball-free. There has been talk of deals to broadcast local pro and college basketball and local hockey and of WJFK obtaining the NFL package from Snyder’s WTEM. The soccer and ultimate fighting shows that are already on WJFK’s weekly schedule are expected to stay.
But there will be no baseball-centric programming.
And the talent stable at the new WJFK doesn’t include any baseball gurus. The big players will be LaVar Arrington, a former Skins linebacker, and Mike Wise, the Washington Post sports columnist. They’ll be expected to carry eight hours of broadcasting per day, an amazing amount of airtime to fill.
“I look at the guys they’ve got, and I know them, and they won’t be talking baseball,” radio vet Phil Wood observes of the WJFK launch. “I don’t know why there’s no baseball. I think it would work.”
Wood can’t be objective on this topic, of course. He would like to have a slot talking baseball at the new sports talker—its FM signal is strong in Northern Virginia, where Wood grew up and first learned to love baseball and to love talking about baseball. He wouldn’t mind going back to Snyder’s WTEM, either. Whatever baseball credibility that station has earned in its 17-year history comes from its intermittent employment of Wood. (Full disclosure: I can’t be objective about Wood, either; I’ve been listening to and admiring his work on D.C. radio for decades, and after meeting him years ago through this job he and I have become friendly enough over time to let him borrow my vintage Hofner Beatle bass. Ask any gearhead: That’s friendly.)
His peerless baseball knowledge has kept Wood, 58, in radio around here for a long time. He started working behind the microphone as part of Warner Wolf’s pioneering WTOP sports talk show in 1973. And he was part of the original lineup when WTEM, D.C.’s first all-sports station, was launched in 1992. He was bounced for the first time by WTEM in 2001, right when the station acquired the Orioles broadcasting rights. He got another weekend gig at WTEM a few years later, but despite his Saturday morning baseball broadcasts being named “Best Radio Show” by City Paper last year—OK, it was my call—he was fired again when Dan Snyder bought the station.
“As soon as Snyder’s people came in, they told me they didn’t want any program that focused on one sport,” Wood says. “I remember thinking, ‘But what if that sport was football?’”
He appears now on Baltimore radio and on MASN baseball simulcasts. But D.C. baseball fans pine for his return to our airwaves the way J.D. Salinger’s flock craves another book. ’Course, while Salinger is preventing himself from writing, Wood is ready to talk; it’s the powers that be in local radio that keep knocking Wood off the airwaves.
But whenever changes to local radio are proposed, Wood’s name gets thrown out there as a host. When Dan Steinberg teased WJFK’s format change on his D.C. Sports Bog last week, Wood’s disciples, true to form, came commenting on the Woodlessness of the lineup.
“The new JFK line-up has holes,” wrote poster tzj20874 on the Bog. “I would find a place to put Phil Woods, the best baseball man around here, maybe on the east coast.” “Slide Phil Wood into a spring, summer, and fall baseball pregame show,” added Webberdc, “and that will increase the interest in/understanding of the team and MLB.” And dcsportsfan1 seconded that emotion: “i would like to hear phil wood get a permanant slot. he’s got a face made for radio and certainly is the expert on local baseball.”
Wood’s style has its detractors, too. When he was hired to do a daily XM radio show in 2005, popular Nats blogger Chris Needham wrote on his Capitol Punishment site that he hoped the hiring would mean “No More Pining for Phil Wood.” Needham said he “didn’t understand the lovefest” for Wood, and praised him with faint damns: “Yeah, he has an encylopedic knowledge of Washington Baseball, but I don’t get particularly weepy-eyed about the crappy Senators teams of the ’60s. And no one ever wants to discuss Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry or Bucky Harris.” A Needham supporter responded that he found Wood too “baseballier than thou.”
And, personally, I’ve always thought that Wood is himself responsible for the lack of baseball talk in D.C.—nobody has tried to fill Wood’s spikes in local radio because nobody can. No matter how smart you are or how much you love baseball, it would take decades of obsessiveness to know what Wood knows. You’d have to be an old guy, and sports radio is obsessed with trying to attract young guys.
Wood isn’t going to change.
“I came up at a time when sports talk radio was generally fact-based,” says Wood. “People wanted an opinion, but they wanted to hear facts. The rules are different now. I don’t know if anybody knows what the rules are. But I know that people with facts are displaced by people who can tell a dirty joke.”
So, the options for local sports talk programmers are: Hire Wood, or avoid baseball.
For now, it looks like WJFK chose the latter.
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