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Late Night Sports Radio

The 5 a.m. Pugilist

The 5 a.m. Pugilist
Credit: Kars Alfrink

I’m in Brooklyn again this week, working on a theater installation called Chaos Manor, which is part of the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sept. 16 and 17. The installation makes use of tapes and photographs made by W. Eugene Smith in a dilapidated loft building in Manhattan’s flower district from 1957 to 1965.

Smith rolled his tapes often in the hours before daylight. There wasn’t sports radio back then—it wasn’t invented until WFAN launched in 1987—but Smith’s tapes documented a similar obsessive, nocturnal quality that I find in sports radio today. He recorded Long John Nebel’s overnight talk show on WOR, which regularly featured guests and callers that claimed to have seen UFOs and been abducted by aliens. These were the years of the space race and Cold War, of course. 

This morning I awoke at 5:10 a.m. and switched on WFAN for a few minutes. Tony Paige was hosting, in the last hour of his four-hour shift. Two consecutive callers asked him about the Sept. 17 welterweight title fight between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Victor Ortiz. Paige is the only host on WFAN that draws boxing calls, because he’s the only one that cares. There was a time—50 to 100 years ago—when the “big three” in American sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. Baseball still rules New York today but boxing and horse racing have faded into narrow subsets of contemporary sports culture.

On Feb. 15, 1978, I was 11 years old, lying in bed in rural, coastal Washington, North Carolina, listening through a single earphone to Leon Spinks beat Muhammad Ali in a 15-round decision. They don’t broadcast boxing on the radio anymore. The audience for boxing now prefers Ultimate Fighting. That’s not on the radio, either.

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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