Even when I’m listening to sports talk radio, I’m still only paying real attention to it a fraction of the time. I’m much more reliably aware of the news programs on local NPR, or piqued by a specific song dug out of the vaults by Columbus, OH’s local indie/alternative station for “No Repeat Thursday”. Sports talk to me is largely background noise, for three main reasons: 1) none of the teams I follow – the Steelers, the Mets, the Blue Jackets, Ohio State, UNC, the entire sport of boxing – are a consistent part of the national sports conversation, and if they are, it’s generally for all the wrong reasons (a shocking and/or blowout loss; notable, perhaps historic, ineptitude; some sort of scandal; the existence of Floyd Mayweather); 2) local sports radio generally hones in on two of my least loved franchises (the Browns and Bengals…I don’t much care about Ohio baseball) in addition to the aforementioned Buckeyes and CBJ, in effect freezing me out of the audience, at least partially; 3) many if not all of ESPN’s prominent sports radio personalities tend to elicit from me a pronounced “fingernails on chalkboard” response, because of either the inanity of their fabricated “radio personalities” and attendant quirks (e.g. Mike Greenberg), the substance of what they sometimes say or choose to harp on (e.g. Mike Golic), their needlessly exaggerated, borderline combative vocal delivery (e.g. Colin Cowherd), or a little bit of all of the above (e.g. also Colin Cowherd).
Before I answer the obvious “why the hell do you even listen?” question, a pause for full disclosure: I love radio, and always have. DJ’ing was the most dependable and renewable fun I had during my college years. In fact, the first thing I ever wanted to do professionally was to be a disc jockey. As my music collection grew, I spent increasingly lengthy swatches of my childhood narrating the radio introductions to whatever song I was going to play next anyway. When other kids were playing with Transformers and G.I. Joe, I spent much of my spare time clandestinely running an imaginary radio station, where programming the hour’s playlist and dropping knowledge on my metaphorical audience were among the very best parts of my day. One could argue that, years later, my essential behavior pattern has not changed, only the medium in which I work. I wouldn’t protest. So the quick and uncomplicated answer is that I listen to sports radio because I love sports, and I love radio. I’m a fan, and I like knowing what’s going on outside of my little bubble of particular enthusiasm. Sports talk is only background noise until something catches my ear, and as a holdover between breaks on other stations, one on which I often linger for no compelling or discernible reason, and which occasionally presents its own compelling moments, it’ll do.
As with anything tailored specifically for mass consumption, sports talk radio is problematic at its core. It’s always trickier to serve a small number of masters well than it is to serve the heaving masses poorly. Even when issues are complex (which they almost never are purposely, but rather as developing situations dictate) and the conversation is comparatively smart, the presentation will nevertheless skew subtly but decidedly to the dull, if not the outright dullard. This behavior is so ingrained that it’s practically unconscious. The masses, more secure and demanding in their sheer numbers, are less discerning, more receptive to and voracious for capital D Drama, more prone to outrage, more intoxicated by the sound of squawking voices – their own and others – more amenable to eating the same table scraps over and over, until their eyes float and bellies burst. Hence, the summer that was became a perpetual live tweet of reality diva/alleged Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and the 100 Years War that was Yankee captain Derek Jeter’s excruciatingly prolonged farewell tour, before the NFL’s recent domestic violence controversies upended the narrative apple cart with a dose of deeply uncomfortable, and escalating, reality. Since I can’t rationally expect to tune in to a national morning show and hear evenhanded commentary on my 2-2 Steelers, my talented but transitional Buckeyes, or my “wait until next year for eight years running” Mets, I’ve learned to live, more or less, with the sports media’s frightening focus on fleeting celebrity and the highest of highlights at the expense of more expansive or nuanced coverage of the infinitely larger sports landscape. I love sports, and I love radio, even if I often feel great distaste for the product that is pushed when the two converge. There’s comfort to be found floating in the overstuffed swimming pool of common sports fans, united despite their myriad differences by that single identity, and in listening to radio hosts and pundits do some approximation of their best to entertain and inform us.
On this morning’s Mike & Mike in the Morning, regular host Mike Golic and guest Adnan Virk were having a discussion about…something. I do apologize. The radio was on but my mind was elsewhere, as is often the case. At some point in the conversation, Golic paused to semi-playfully scold Virk for using the word “audacity” in conversation, implying that “big words” like “audacity” and its ilk went over his head, and, presumably, the vast farmland of planted heads that comprises his national audience. Virk backpedaled with enough grace to not turn the objection into a plot point, and the two briskly moved on their next topic. I, on the other hand, lingered. Something about this exchange, which I’d heard play out at least a hundred times on this same show, had actively bothered me. What exactly was wrong with the word “audacity”, pray tell? It’s important to point out up front that I know Mike Golic is a pretty smart and capable guy, one I’ve heard hold forth persuasively on multifaceted topics before. His radio shtick on Mike & Mike is to play the dumb ex-jock, making him a natural counterpoint to Greenberg, whose role is the effete intellectual. The two irritate and bounce off one another thusly for four hours every morning. Comedy gold, in theory. I mentioned above that the rules of broadcasting to the masses are so unwritten as to be practically unconscious, the roles themselves becoming second nature to the performer. Obviously Golic was just instinctively ribbing Virk over his use of “big words” as a weak joke, an unscripted bit for the show in the fashion he follows dozens of times daily in his interactions with Greenberg.
What irked me though, more than the fact that the exchange occurred, was what it implied, or at least what I inferred from it. Golic is the show’s ambassador of “the people”. As a boisterous big guy and former NFL athlete, he prefers fearsome defensive linemen to dainty, protected quarterbacks! Well, obviously! He likes chicken wings and beer! He likes dumb comedies and the music of Darius Rucker! Greenberg, on the other hand, is a skinny, sheepish and thoughtful former reporter, a germaphobe who never met a sport he could excel at, or even play competently, and talks passionately about men’s grooming products! Um…Boo! Golic is the show’s stand in for the mass of “common” folks it is ostensibly appealing to. Greenberg, by contrast, is the New York elitist, the “word guy” who gently mocks Golic for being fat and dumb, and who Golic mocks in turn for being a wimpy egghead. This morning, Virk was Greenberg’s proxy, and therefore took some friendly fire he might not have been fully expecting. There’s possibly a useful conversation to be had in debating the worth of perpetuating stereotypes by embodying them for entertainment purposes, though I suppose they do help bolster mass appeal. Neither host’s stereotype is particularly helpful or empowering, unless the idea is to unironically celebrate differences instead of commenting on or nitpicking them to death. When Golic chides Virk for using the word “audacity” conversationally, he is not so subtly (however subconsciously) enforcing the idea that people who use “big words” are doing so solely as a means of exerting their perceived superiority over the comparatively less educated common cloth, and not because, you know, they actually just talk that way. Whatever the case, the message is that the person who used the big word should not have and should have modulated his/her behavior, because certain listeners might not understand and will now feel singled out, many millions of them at a time. In the context of the show, it’s all done in fun, but it’s also promoting an agenda.
The Mikes play their respective roles with such commitment that I’m a bit foggy on where their personas end and the real guys begin. Each bleeds into and informs the other, I’m sure, but does Mike Golic actually not know what the word “audacity” means? He’s a Notre Dame graduate with a degree in Finance and Management, and now a successful broadcaster. Should Virk have had more (or less, depending on your perspective) respect for his audience and used a less formidable word to placate them? “Audacity” is a very specific word – it has some shade to it – and, in English, the more specific a word the greater its descriptive usefulness. I assume Virk used the word because, of all the options that sprang to mind, it best captured the point he was trying to illustrate, and also, of course, because he knew what it meant. We all should be so lucky, seriously. Everyone (I’m assuming) knows what “bravery” means, but that word is only one aspect of “audacity”, not a handy, interchangeable synonym for it, and substituting one for the other in the interest of coddling the listener at large not only changes the speaker’s meaning but also his intent and result. The President of the United States once wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope, for heaven’s sake. Shouldn’t he have been a little more considerate of the electorate he was then courting, both on and off the New York Times best seller list? The Boldness of Hope has a certain pedestrian ring to it too, I suppose, though it hardly grabs prospective readers in quite the same way…plus also suffers by unfortunate association from the fact that, you know, it’s a book and all. ::shudder::
I’m a common enough guy. I like chicken wings and beer, and pro football, and boxing, dumb comedies and good music. I also read a lot, and write a lot, often about not very much at all, as you’ve seen. Plus my college degree was in English and Journalism, so, yes, I’m supposed to know crap like this like the back of my hand. I almost wrote the word “intrinsically” there, which would’ve been a timely and telling misstep. I not only use words, professionally and on this blog, but I also dearly love words, the same way George Carlin and Roger Ebert loved words, as did David Mamet and Tom Wolfe, and, before them, Hemingway and O’Connor and Orwell, and Twain and Poe and Shakespeare, stretching back century after century to the beginnings of the English language. I have a mind to finally commit myself to learning Spanish before my brain is too crammed with pop culture ephemera and miscellaneous nostalgia to allow new tenants. I just love words, and so an offhand comment during drive time morning radio struck a nerve. Over the years, I’ve been taken to task repeatedly for “talking down” to others, which never fails to shock me. An ex-girlfriend once told me I was trying to “make her feel dumb”, even though I was speaking to her normally, without any trace of malice. The accusation broke my heart. My vocabulary is somewhat larger than that of the average bear. I don’t brag about it, nor do I shy away from it. I shouldn’t be cajoled into doing so. I made a conscious decision long ago, which through repetition passed into unconscious habit, to put my vocabulary to use when I speak and when I write. This is just the way I am. I speak a certain way. I write a certain way. Some people are 6’4”, or a Pacific Islander, or right-handed, or can dance Swan Lake, or lift the back end of a car off the ground. I am none of those things. I instinctively and naturally use “big words”. Believe me (or not), I’m more conscious about it than I used to be.
Out to pasture politicos routinely parlay their free time into new careers and earn way above merit pay levels serving as shameless lobbying shills for “Big Oil”, “Big Tobacco”, and the rest. It’s a lucrative but, it seems to me, fairly unsavory way to make a living. If “Big Dictionary” had any sort of lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, however, I would go to bat for them, without question or restraint. In the end, Golic’s reflexive protestation was the merest blip on terrestrial radar. The very act of writing this post pretty much made me stop caring about it on almost any level, though at the moment, in the car this morning, I was greatly annoyed. I know we have a world order to reinforce, where plain-speaking is a virtue, where electability can be a question of beer-sharing ability, where intelligence is typically suspect and intelligence in action can be treated almost like an act of aggression. The common rabble have no need or wish to be roused. They have things to like and things to buy, though on some level it’s just mildly depressing to witness mediocrity being held up as the standard. In no way does reading or writing have to be your all-encompassing thing, as it is mine, but we do all share a common language, yes? Would it kill, or even greatly inconvenience, some of these people to occasionally just learn a new word? Maybe it would spark a trend. “YOLO” is now in the dictionary, after all. How much of a sacrifice can it really be? Now, I know what that newly canonized abbreviation means, as I’m sure does Mike Golic (he has kids and hosts a radio show), though I kinda doubt my grandmothers would’ve. Although, to be fair, they knew the word “audacity”.