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Late Night Sports Radio

Better in the Dark

Better in the Dark
Credit: Linh H. Nguyen

When I was a kid on the coast of North Carolina, I would watch the first half of Monday Night Football on TV and then it was my bedtime. So I’d listen to the second half on the radio under the covers with the lights out, an earplug under my pillow.

Even as a kid I noticed that the radio announcers—Jack Buck and former coach Hank Stram—were several leagues superior to their counterparts on TV. Buck and Stram were subtler and poetic, more thoughtful. Looking back with some degree of knowledge, it’s not a stretch to say that Buck and Stram were one of the best, most informative broadcast teams in the history of American sports, but they remained a secret from the celebrated MNF audience at large. At age 12 or 14, I couldn’t have articulated the discrepancy I sensed between the radio and TV broadcasts of MNF, which indicated something I would struggle with for the rest of my life: that the conventional message is one thing, the better message often another, and the two can be roiling in your brain. 

Thirty years later I still prefer MNF on the radio. Last week it was Chiefs-Chargers from Kansas City. The broadcasters now are Kevin Harlan and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. When Esiason began this gig about a decade ago (he holds down several full-time jobs today), he’d recently been fired from the TV broadcast of MNF.  According to published reports, he and play-by-play man Al Michaels didn’t get along. Esiason said he wanted to make the TV broadcast more casual and humorous while Michaels wanted to dominate.

What’s weird is that Esiason uses some of the most strident language in all of sports broadcasting when he’s calling MNF games on the radio today. You could play a drinking game with his use of the adjectives “ridiculous,” “horrible,” “terrible,” “awful,” and the verb “killing,” and you’d be passed out by halftime. There’s derision in everything he says. This week he mocked Chargers’ defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel: “(He) is doing everything he can NOT to blitz.” After the Chargers finally spread the field on offense, he said, “I’ve been waiting for San Diego to do this all night.”

Esiason wasn’t like this in his early days. What changed? My guess is that he’s been conditioned by one of his other jobs, hosting a morning drive-time talk show on WFAN in New York. That’s when listeners are bracing themselves for the day with coffee and sugar. It’s a job that calls for bellowing declarations. If you do it four hours a day, five days a week, it’s bound to bleed into your other broadcast work.

Esiason can fix this. It’s an example of somebody on the run losing perspective. In the off-season I’d urge him to do what I do: Stay up late and listen to Steve Somers and Tony Paige take calls late night on WFAN. It’s a clinic in not taking things too seriously while still being substantive.

Sam Stephenson is currently working on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  He is also working on Chaos Manor, a theater installation based on his The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf, 2009). More by Sam Stephenson

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