City Paper is not for tourists
Talk is cheap. Which explains why Matt Miller and Chick Heaton remain one of the most enduring and endearing couplings in sports broadcasting.
Since 1984, Miller and Heaton have co-emceed Sports Talk, a televised chat room produced by and aired on WNVC-Channel 56 and WNVT-Channel 53, Falls Church-based sister stations with a budget that at times makes cable access seem extravagant.
Other than the modesty of the hosts, everything about Sports Talk is so minimalist Philip Glass should do the theme musicbut only if he’d work pro bono. It’s surprising there aren’t rotary phones on the set. Sports Talk bounces around as far as day, time slot, and on which of the two public-TV channels it’s shown are concerned, but the format has remained quite constant.
If you’ve never caught their act, here’s everything you’ve missed: Miller and Heaton sitting side by side on a bereft set (two chairs, maybe a table, maybe a poster behind them) as caller after caller after caller pontificates and/or vents and/or babbles about Charley Casserly or the GWU women’s basketball team or Dale Earnhardt at Darlington or Hulk Hogan or whatever. Really, whatever. Ninety minutes’ worth, week after week after week.
Sound a tad too boring for a visual medium? Absolutely, which makes the fact that almost 600 Sports Talk shows are in the canand that there’s no reason to think Miller and Heaton’s run will end anytime soonnothing short of incredible.
Sports Talk isn’t for everybody. Don’t call in, for example, hoping to pick a fight with the hosts or to test their mettle with sports trivia. Plenty of radio shows can fill those prescriptions for you: Ken Beatrice’s WTEM audience knows he’d surely rather pass a kidney stone than let on that there’s some jock minutia he’s unaware of, and it loves him for it. But Miller and Heaton spend more air time confessing how limited their sports knowledge actually is than bragging about what they do know.
“I remember one guy called us up a few days after the Kentucky Derby and asked me who I thought would win the next year’s Derby,” laughs Miller. “I couldn’t have told him who’d won the race that year, and I sure as heck didn’t have any idea who was going to run the next year. The guy was probably yanking my chain, but I did what I always do in those situations. I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know. Who do you think is going to win?’ That always keeps the show going.”
“We’ve found that the people who ask questions are usually a lot more knowledgeable than us about the subject they’re asking us about,” adds Heaton. “So we let them do the talking.”
And don’t tune in hoping to espy highlights of last weekend’s or last night’s games. This ain’t SportsCenter. Highlights cost money. Hell, Miller and Heaton don’t even get paid to do Sports Talk: Miller earns his salary as a producer at WNVC during the day; Heaton, who works in the inspector general’s office at NASA, shows up after work just for kicks.
“I’m not sure, but I don’t think Chick could take money to do the show, since he’s a government employee,” says station manager Mike Baker, apparently embarrassed that the host of one of his stations’ most watched shows receives no financial compensation whatsoever. “And he has a lot of fun with it.”
Baker is the guy who came up with the idea for the first TV sports talk show ever aired in D.C. and maybe anywhere. At that time, the tiny sister stations aired more college basketball games than any channel or network in the countryincluding ESPN. Back before CBS shelled out billions and embargoed March Madness, WNVC and WNVT would acquire the rights to all the NCAA tournament games not being broadcast by local CBS affiliates and air them, one after another, as part of a huge annual fund-raising blitz.
Baker, who used to stay awake and in front of the camera for two consecutive days during the first round of the tournament each year, decided that a weekly call-in show would be a nice complement to the station’s obsessive hoops coverage. (Baker once spent an hour on the roof of his office building one blustery March evening, holding the satellite dish steady by hand so his audience could see the NIT final without a snowy picture.)
The stations didn’t have any cash to lure on-air talent, so the search stayed within the WNVC/WNVT family. Sports Talk ended up with Heaton, Baker’s brother-in-law and a local schoolboy athletics coach, and Miller, whose father happened to be vice president of WNVC at the time, as hosts. Baker even built and painted what there was of the first Sports Talk set all by himself.
“Most people here thought of this show kind of as a joke at first, like, we’d be sitting in front of the cameras all night staring at the phones,” says Miller. “Everybody in the building was taking bets on how long would it take to get our first call, because we didn’t promote that first show at all. But people must have been surfing or something, because the phones were ringing right off.”
And they’re still ringing. Management can only guess how many viewers actually watch Sports Talk, because, well, Nielsen doesn’t share its ratings with broadcasters that don’t want to pay for that intelligence. But through using all the very unscientific research methods at its disposal, the stations have determined that the show is a hit.
“All I can tell is that from five minutes before Sports Talk goes on the air until after it’s off, all 15 phone lines we’ve got going into this station are buzzing,” says Baker. “And every week it’s like that.”
Heaton and especially Miller remain reluctant to take any credit for making the show a relative hit. Miller, in fact, is insistent in arguing that any host willing to just stay silent as callers babble would attract an audience exactly the same size as the one that tunes into his show each week. Probably the exact same audience, too.
“I know that I don’t do anything special or say anything special that makes people watch the show, because I don’t really do anything,” Miller says. “There have been a lot of times when I’ve been on the road for work or whatever and I have to come in and do the show when I haven’t even picked up a sports page for several days. I used to feel guilty about doing that. Then I found out that it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter.”Dave McKenna
Sports Talk can now be seen Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Channel 53.