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How Sports Radio Hosts Became America’s Grief Counselors

Longtime broadcasters like Mike Francesa and Paul Finebaum have shifted their shows to reflect the coronavirus pandemic. And they’re making their audiences rethink how they see the world.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, ESPN’s Paul Finebaum played a piece of audio from a favorite subject. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was predicting that 80,000 fans would pack into football stadiums this fall because, well, America. We stormed the beaches at Normandy. Why wouldn’t we play college football?

“Dabo Swinney giving us his scientific take on the state of the country,” Finebaum said dryly.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Finebaum has tried to be more statesmanlike. But as he opened up the phones, he couldn’t help himself. He tweaked Swinney for getting fans’ hopes up, for casting the coronavirus response as a test of American might. “This is not a military deal,” a caller named Jim agreed. “You can’t kick this ass!”

In normal times, The Paul Finebaum Show is a college football food fight and a diorama of Southern life. In the past three weeks, it has evolved into a forum for coronavirus fear, healing, and occasional shaming. Nearly every segment is about the virus. Finebaum ripped Southern governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis for being slow to issue statewide stay-at-home orders. Catholic Archbishop Joseph Marino, a Birmingham, Alabama, native and frequent guest, checked in from Italy as the body count there grew. The March 27 guest lineup was typical: Kirk Herbstreit followed by Joe Scarborough.

“I’ve had some callers and friends tell me, ‘Man, you need to snap out of it,’” Finebaum said this weekend. “‘You sound depressed. You sound down.’ I’ve just felt that I can’t hide behind a microphone and be cheery when I’m looking up at CNN and seeing body bags in Brooklyn or Queens.”

“I’m real aware of where I work,” he continued. “But I don’t find myself staying on ESPN very long these days. I check it out because these are my friends. But I’m drawn like a magnet to the national news channels and even the local news channels.”

It’d be a hot take worthy of the medium to say sports radio hosts have changed during the coronavirus pandemic. But when hosts train their sights on a pandemic rather than power rankings, it’s possible to see them in a different light. Sports radio hosts have become newsmakers. Mike Francesa’s excoriation of President Donald Trump was applauded on cable. When Vice President Mike Pence’s office sought a new audience for National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, it sent him to Pardon My Take.

On Twitter, sports radio’s audience is often consigned to a distant universe. But when the fate of the country depends on everyone following the rules, a host who can speak to that universe becomes important. Put a different way: For years, we’ve heard that people who distrust American institutions can be reached by Joe Rogan or the hosts of Chapo Trap House. The coronavirus has shown that The Paul Finebaum Show is at least somewhere on the list.

Finebaum can see how his show has changed every time he looks at his phone lines. Four callers want to talk about COVID-19. Two want to talk about who will play quarterback at Florida. It’s the two doors that every sports radio host faces: escapism or reality?

“I cringe sometimes when a caller will be specific on like, ‘Hey, what do you think about Alabama versus Georgia on September 19,’” said Finebaum. “I don’t want to just be the Prince of Darkness and say ‘I don’t know if we’re going to have a game on that day.’ But I usually try to find a way to give a quick answer and then move on.

“I don’t really feel comfortable just talking about sports. … To me, that doesn’t seem particularly important at the moment. What’s important is dealing with this every single day.”

Steve Spurrier still calls into Finebaum’s show, but he talks about getting a team ready to play without spring practice. Former Kansas State president Jon Wefald preps the audience for the possibility the college football season could be canceled.

Even petty SEC jealousies—the show’s rocket fuel—are expressed in different terms. “I just want to brag about my state, Kentucky,” a caller said Thursday. “We were the first SEC state that went into stay-at-home mode.” S-E-C! S-E-C!

The Paul Finebaum Show was always more downbeat than a lot of sports radio shows. The tone now feels appropriate. The show isn’t somber but it is serious. The stakes for an Hour 2 take are higher.

“I think I heard the word ‘Churchillian’ the other day for the first time ever on our show,” Finebaum said with a chuckle. “We’re in a place that we’ve never been before.”

At first glance, the sports radio host and the coronavirus seem like an absolutely terrible match. “I’m not one of those who wants to sound serious on the air,” said Petros Papadakis, an afternoon drive host in Los Angeles. “I hate sounding that way. I feel like I sound like an asshole.”

But the sports host has tools that are useful in a game-less universe. As The Wall Street Journal noted, the true measure of a host was always the ability to get beyond game results to tell stories and entertain. “The most replacement-level, A-B-C sports talk is: watch game, talk about game,” said Danny Parkins, a host at Chicago’s WSCR. “Most people in my field can do that.”

Sports radio also turns out to be one of the least constricting formats in radio. Finebaum’s ESPN bosses have allowed his show to become coronavirus-centric. On other shows, TV show recaps and family talk—as much the raw materials of sports radio as they are of a Ringer podcast—have filled the void left by games.

“For guys like me, something as basic as reading a book gets swept aside because we’re just too busy,” said Bob Sturm, a host in Dallas. “It’s almost like we’re all being told to slow down our pace for a little while and try to remember how to amuse ourselves. In a nutshell, that might describe our radio shows.”

Finebaum got an early tip on the coronavirus. In March, he planned to take his show to the SEC basketball tournament before his wife Linda, a physician, told him he risked infection. (“Hope she doesn’t inadvertently do a Trojan Horse and bring that home to you,” one caller said of Linda.) Now, Finebaum hosts his show from the study of his Charlotte home, his dog barking in the background. After two weeks off the air on the SEC Network, Finebaum returned to TV last Monday, but only in audio form.

A lot of sports hosts pitch their shows as escapism. Finebaum’s idea is different. His show is an escape from the way the coronavirus is covered on cable news. “I can tell you who the two guests are going to be on Anderson Cooper at the lead,” he said. “It’s Sanjay Gupta and the person from Baltimore.”

Listening to The Paul Finebaum Show is like prowling on Nextdoor. You hear fear expressed by regular people rather than fear repackaged by the Cuomo brothers.

“I do want to say one thing to the tinfoil hat crowd out there who thinks that this coronavirus is some kind of hoax,” a caller named Buck Wild said last Tuesday. “My son in Colorado, he has the coronavirus. … It is real. And it can happen to somebody you know and love.”

“I’m the biggest sports fan in the world,” another caller told Finebaum last week. “Right now, it just doesn’t seem important. … A song keeps popping into my mind all the time by U2: ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It.’” Close enough.

The know-it-all radio host is uniquely susceptible to virus crankery. Clay Travis called coronavirus fear “overrated,” as if he were doing a segment on Jared Goff. On March 19, Drew Pinsky went on Colin Cowherd’s show and declared, “We have stamped this thing down.” Pinsky has since apologized for such remarks.

But these are outliers. Most sports radio hosts spent the second half of March urging listeners to—as ESPN’s Will Cain put it—“arm ourselves with truth.” Nearly every show booked an epidemiologist. The questions the hosts asked the experts were aimed straight at their audience: What if a person listening right now thinks the virus is no more dangerous than the flu?

A sports radio host can get away with such subtweets. Those hours and hours of segments and bits have made him a trustworthy, transpartisan figure. In a time when everyone is playing epidemiologist, the sports radio host doesn’t put on airs. “Speak to us like we’re 8 years old,” Big Cat instructed Fauci.

Sports radio’s target demographic is men ages 25 to 54; a recent CBS poll showed that men and younger people have defied the advice of experts at a slightly higher rate than other groups. Pence’s office sent Fauci to Pardon My Take hoping he’d reach the kind of knucklehead who didn’t take the virus seriously.

Francesa spoke on behalf of a different kind of knucklehead: one who voted for Trump because of his swagger, but then found his response to the coronavirus to be lethally sluggish. “We here know this isn’t right,” Francesa said on the air. Francesa told The Daily Beast’s Robert Silverman he would still vote for Trump. Like Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, Francesa’s plan may be to flatter Trump into listening to him.

Political rants like Francesa’s are rare on sports radio. Mindful of the ratings, hosts are far more interested in hunting for hypocrisy. Last Wednesday, Jim Rome roasted Jon “Bones” Jones for invoking “these trying times” after pleading guilty to DWI. It was classic Rome (“What’s he going to blame his next DWI on—climate change?”) refitted for the new world.

The art of sports radio is devoting an enormous amount of energy to topics that barely deserve it. The coronavirus has tipped the balance, if slightly. Finebaum isn’t saying Dabo Swinney whines so much he needs a pacifier. He’s saying Swinney’s rhetoric will either raise fans’ expectations or make a lot of people sick.

As Finebaum tells it, the trick to talking about the virus is to change the terms of the debate. “I think a sports audience is more used to having a winner and a loser,” he said. “The enemy here is very confusing and baffling to most people.”

Last Thursday, Finebaum took a call from a man named Squirrel. Squirrel, who is over 60, admitted he “checked off some boxes.” But like Swinney, he argued that America ought to carry on—get back out there, restore a sense of normalcy, something. Finebaum asked Squirrel what he’d do if he were in charge.

“I’m not smart enough to be in charge,” Squirrel said.

“Well, you’re smart enough to say you think we ought to get back to some normalcy here because 0.1 percent of the public is going to die,” Finebaum said. The call ended pleasantly.

Most sports hosts don’t have the desire—or the freedom—to go full virus. PFT and Big Cat talked for more than 40 minutes before bringing on Fauci, the most sought-after guest in America. Francesa unleashed his Trump rant during the part of his show that airs on, the mischief-maker behind @BackAftaThis noted, rather than the portion that airs on WFAN. (A few days later, Francesa moved to prevent outside accounts from posting clips.)

But sports hosts cite Howard Stern’s post–9/11 shows as an example they aspire to. The guy who was seemingly least equipped to cover a tragedy became one of its most memorable voices. “You own somebody’s heart by pulling them through a difficult, ugly time in their life,” said Don Martin, an executive at iHeartMedia, which distributes Fox Sports Radio. “They’re never going to forget you. You become a friend, not a sportscaster.”

Finebaum is already his audience’s friend. As he did after the 2011 Alabama tornadoes, he wants to be its sounding board, its grief counselor. On Friday, the caller named Jim was talking about the toilet paper shortage. “I was looking out there in the yard seeing if there was anything else I could wipe,” he said. Jim told a story of traveling to a Publix supermarket, then Dollar General, in search of his bounty; a police officer harried him in the parking lot. Jim sounded like he could go on a while.

“We’re up against a break,” Finebaum said gently. When you’re trying to capture the suffering of a nation, sometimes you’ve got to move things along.