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Sports Radio in the Age of Trump

For hosts like Colin Cowherd, it’s more important to be “interesting” than “right.” That’s why the president-elect has replaced sports chatter as the topic of choice.

One year ago this month, when a Donald Trump administration was still a surreal fantasy, Trump was interviewed on the radio. After a brief exchange, Trump paid the host a compliment: He’d been captivated by the show. True, this was because the host had been talking about Trump. But there was something about the host’s delivery, his way of cutting through, that impressed even Trump. "That just shows your talent," Trump said. Colin Cowherd, the host, beamed.

A year later, Cowherd was settled in a black leather chair in his office at Fox Sports headquarters in Los Angeles. He had just finished tweaking Cam Newton on the radio; staffers were gathering outside his door to prep him for his afternoon debate show. But Cowherd took a minute to reflect on this strange moment in media history — a sports-radio host and the future president-elect looking at each other and seeing … well, similar creatures.

Would you have questioned Trump differently if you knew he’d win? I asked.

"Oh, God, yes," Cowherd said. "It’d be a completely different interview. He was so pithy and silly. I didn’t take him seriously. If I was going to do an interview now, I would do a serious interview and ask real questions, and they would all be based on curiosity. ‘How do you govern?’ When I was interviewing him, I’m like, ‘I’m interviewing a real estate mogul.’"

Cowherd wouldn’t reveal how he voted. He is politically heterodox, he said: "Obama is the best president of my life. Reagan second." And he noted that regular listeners of his radio show, The Herd, would have heard him express a reservation about Trump: "Man, I don’t think he has the temperament to be president."

Colin Cowherd (Getty Images)
Colin Cowherd (Getty Images)

Cowherd’s fascination with Trump, then, is nonpartisan, and — as a media figure himself — self-interested. How did a self-consciously divisive, often vile figure appeal to the masses? "When Trump was being vulgar," Cowherd said, "when Trump was unpolished, that was landing to a lot of people like, [There’s] no bullshit here. He’s authentic."

"Sometimes, I think what we perceive in the media as outrageous or rudimentary or clunky, I think people see as authentic. … Everybody’s got a temper. Everybody interrupts. That’s OK. That’s human."

During the campaign, Trump delivered stump speeches that were basically an hour’s worth of id. Cowherd does the same with his radio show. "That’s why I always tell my staff, don’t produce the show through Twitter," Cowherd said. "Produce it from your heart, not from a device. What makes you mad when you watch the TV? When you’re like, ‘Cam, God, get better!’ — that’s your lead story."

In the last 18 months, we learned Donald Trump is an insult comic. He’s a wrestling heel. It turns out he’s also a sports-radio host.

Sports-talk hosts watched Trump’s rise with amazement. First, they saw Trump become a subject on their shows alongside the Cubs and Deflategate. Then, as Trump sweet-talked the nation, they felt another sensation. Many of them, like Cowherd, understood exactly which notes Trump was playing.

When a sports-talk host veers off subject, he’s said to "break format." Trump is perhaps the greatest format-breaking agent sports radio has ever seen. As Kirk Minihane, a morning host on Boston’s WEEI, told me this spring, "The topics we can talk about now and know we’re going to get listeners, reaction, and buzz are the Patriots and Trump."

Minihane isn’t alone. You could flip on WFAN and find Mike Francesa debating Trump’s qualities with "Josh in Bellmore." Trump audio drops adorned The Morning After in St. Louis; Gordon Keith did a slick Trump imitation on The Ticket in Dallas.

When FBI Director James Comey sent his second letter to Congress, reiterating just days before the election that Hillary Clinton would not face charges related to her use of a private email server, sports radio vibrated like conservative Twitter. "They called in droves," said Scott Ferrall, who hosts the late shift on CBS Sports Radio. "‘She’s a liar, a thief, a sneak’ — everything. I had people calling me telling me she was a horrible senator!"

Trump’s winning electoral map revealed itself to sports-radio hosts before it did to Nate Silver. When KNBR’s Brian Murphy roasted Trump on the air, the negative responses that bubbled up on the show’s text line didn’t come from San Francisco, where the show is based. They came from Central California farming country touched by the station’s 50,000-watt signal. "It played out like the election played out — rural versus urban," Murphy said.

It isn’t news that sports radio is a vehicle for listener meltdowns. But a Trump-inspired meltdown is more personal than any debate about the long-term prospects of Alex Smith. When I called Danny Parkins, the afternoon-drive host at Kansas City’s 610, he was reading an email with the subject line "Lost Listener":

"My boss always says, ‘Talk about what sports fans are talking about,’" said Parkins, who frequently criticized Trump. "The day after the election, if you’re not talking about the election, I don’t think you’re doing your job. I don’t think you can stick to sports in this climate." It’s a realization that nearly everyone in digital media has embraced.

A sports-radio host’s bond with the audience is based on the allure of total honesty. But revealing your politics, especially in 2016, can sever the bond. For Parkins, who supported the Missouri football protests and Black Lives Matter, liberal stumping was already part of his brand. On the air, he asked if playing the national anthem at a sporting event was such a sacred ritual, then why didn’t the presidential debates, which had audiences in the tens of millions, begin with the song?

In many ways, Trump was destined to find sports radio. Its demographics are Trump’s demographics: The audience tends to be about 80 percent male, according to Jason Barrett, who programmed several sports stations and now blogs about the industry. "Middle-aged white guys with money — they listen to our show," Minihane told me.

Trump’s divining-rod approach to the issues meant that he often landed on a sports topic. At a January rally, Trump declared, "Football has become soft like our country has become soft."

Craig Carton, a cohost of WFAN’s Boomer & Carton, recognized the gambit. "If you want to talk about a guy that’s playing to average, white Middle America, he’s doing it better than anyone else," Carton said on the air.

Sports-talk hosts also noticed Trump’s talent for whipping up insta-rage. "Why does his message resonate?" Detroit’s Mike Valenti observed on his show the day after the election. "Was it because of a dearth of experience? No. Was it because of well-laid-out, well-thought-out plans? No. It was because of the very bombastic nature that we take the air with after a football game."

In a handful of cases, a sports-talk host simply hopped on the Trump Train. This isn’t surprising. Sportswriting is basically a liberal profession. Sports radio is a weedier lot filled with conservative sloganeering, race comedy, and the occasional racist meltdown — it’s like what sportswriting was in its pre-internet state.

WFAN’s Mike Francesa grew up a Trump family observer. As a teenager working at a Long Island beach club, he parked the limousine of Trump’s father, Fred. When the primaries rolled around, Francesa morphed into a sports-radio surrogate — Jeffrey Lord with 20/20 updates. "When we allowed globalization in this country, we destroyed towns and cities …" Francesa said in one blast this spring. "Why are we paying to be the bodyguard for the entire world when those people do not pay a dollar for their entire defense, then come back and buy up our country when we’re in debt? Why do we allow that?"

Trump, Francesa continued, was the perfect candidate for a "time where we’re cuttin’ jobs right and left, and robotics is cuttin’ jobs right and left. And gonna continue to. Here’s the Mink Man."

"Make America Great Again landed differently for me than maybe a rural guy," Colin Cowherd told me. "I think America is great. Gas is under $3. [Obama] doubled the stock market. Housing is stable. Inflation’s under control. I’m not going to blame them for ISIS."

But Cowherd was taken by how Trump beamed that message to voters because his methods resembled, at least in the broad strokes, the way Cowherd beamed messages to listeners. First, Trump is like a sports-radio host because he reduced complex issues to simple sound bites. Build the wall. Lock her up. Disaster!

The morning I met Cowherd, I watched him blast away at Cam Newton for playing a lousy game against the Saints. (His charge was that Newton doesn’t prepare enough.) Cowherd never quite called him Low-Energy Cam. But he latched onto a line, which he repeated throughout the segment: Newton was a "star," not a great quarterback.

Second, a sports-radio host is an elite who remembers to talk like a plebe. Cowherd reportedly makes more than $6 million a year from Fox. His office had fresh button-down shirts hanging from the wall; a staffer stopped by to ask if he wanted coffee. But none of this poshness seeps into The Herd, where Cowherd always talks like a man of the people.

This is also Trump’s affect. When he went on WEEI the day before the New Hampshire primary, he said of one of the state’s diners, "That food was fantastic. … I go to these fancy French restaurants, it’s, like, terrible."

"A lot of people in our business pull that off," Cowherd said of the sports media. "Almost everybody. We live better lives. Every single person on that TNT pregame show flies private — they don’t talk about it."

"Is it inauthentic?" he said. "Or is it wanting to meet people at a place where you feel like you’re communal? My show has a lot of basic messages. Discipline. Work ethic. Process over outcome. Those are just basic things that an optometrist or a farmer can relate to."

Third, Trump shares the sports-radio host’s gambit of overwhelming the audience with opinions. During an election rally, Trump would offer a bunch of opinions. Many of them were based on outright lies. But by the time Washington Post reporters held the one-liners up for lapidary inspection, Trump had offered many more opinions, some of which contradicted the first set.

Case in point: In a 2014 appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show, Trump called Bill Clinton a "terrific guy." Two years later, he was bringing the women who accused Clinton of sexual assault to a presidential debate.

"Trump at these rallies, he wasn’t paralyzed by perfection," Cowherd said. "I’m not paralyzed. I give picks on Friday. If I go 3–2, I’m overwhelmed. In my business, being absolutely, absurdly wrong occasionally is a wonderful thing. I tell Doug Gottlieb, one of my best friends, ‘There’s no money in right. All the money’s in interesting.’"

"I’m just doing sports," Cowherd continued. "If I’m wrong on Cam" — he turned his palms upward and shrugged his shoulders — "who cares? … I’m in the interesting business." Donald Trump is also in the interesting business.

I told Cowherd we could push the metaphor further still. Voters — some of them, anyway — know that Trump’s bumper-sticker mantras are unlikely to work. Similarly, radio listeners know that when a host says he can repair an NFL roster "with three quick fixes," he’s not exactly serious. But the act of saying these ideas becomes its own kind of catharsis.

"It’s so visceral," Cowherd said. "It’s like, oh, yeah, I’m getting screwed here!"

On the stump, Trump picked a few red-meat issues and talked about them endlessly. This is also a sports-radio tactic — or, rather, a sports-TV tactic. Sports TV says, "Go deeper, not wider."

"He was very good in topic selection," Cowherd said of Trump. "He hit on the things that, in diners, you’re talking about. He would be like, ‘The wall.’ ‘ISIS.’ The chance of me getting my head lopped off by ISIS, I could get hit by lightning six times. But that’s what people talk about."

"The key to our show is topic selection," Cowherd said. "It doesn’t matter how great I am on hockey." His voice fell to a whisper. "Nobody cares."

In the wake of Trump’s upset victory, Democrats are like a football team getting ready to run out of the tunnel before a game. Trump must not be "normalized"; don’t dare call them "the alt-right"; go see Hamilton. With exceptions like Murphy, Parkins, and others with a stomach for politicking, sports radio will likely return to its status as a refuge from the rest of the world. Or else, Trump will be relegated to the celebrity birthdays segment. Or else, he will be trotted out for other nonpartisan exercises — i.e., Cowherd’s contention that Bryce Harper is the Donald Trump of baseball.

But Trump and the sports-radio host will continue to have one, final commonality. They will still be playing the same character. On the stump, Trump fashioned himself as the only honest man in the world. The left was handcuffed by political correctness; the right by orthodoxy; the media was "failing." "One thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth," Trump said in August.

"That’s largely my brand," Cowherd said. "Through the years, my brand has always been ‘Everybody’s lying to you — except me.’"

When you portray a world full of liars, you — presidential candidate or talk-radio host — make yourself indispensable to the audience. You don’t just challenge the media, as Trump did; you seek to replace it. Why do you think the truth-teller character is so attractive? I asked Cowherd.

"Because we’re being lied to by so many people," he said. "We’re being marginalized, lied to, polished by everybody. Everything’s slick. It really is. Do you trust your wife? You know your kids are lying — they are smoking pot. … Your boss is largely ignoring you unless he needs you. You don’t believe your politicians — they’re not listening to you. Who’s really, really cutting through to you?"

What happens when we elect a president who values the performance of honesty over the practice of it? For that, fellow Americans, we’ll just have to hang up and listen.

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