There are a lot of things that go into making a city a great sports town.
You need teams, both professional and amateur. You need fans and bars and arenas and stadiums and good restaurants and even a couple of strip clubs. You need traditions. You need at least one daily newspaper and a smart, vibrant and pointed online community.
And you need sports radio.
It's important to understand that sports radio is not a big number winner in any radio markets around the country.
In Chicago, for example, WSCR, the Score, is only the 12th ranked station in the market. The top rated station is the all news WBBM. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, KFAN is ranked 15th. In New York, Atlanta and Portland, sports stations rank 17th, 21st and 20th, respectively.
They may not have huge numbers, but they have a good demographic and listeners to sports talk radio are very loyal and very active.
In Milwaukee we really have three outlets for sports talk. WSSP (1250 AM) and WAUK (540 AM), which are all sports, and WTMJ (620 AM) which has a show called "Sports Central" that airs in the early evening when not preempted by baseball or basketball.
There's a new team in town at WTMJ where Trenni Kusnierek and Greg Matzek take over Sports Central plus other sports duties at the station. That makes it a good time, I think, to take a look at what you get when you tune in to various shows. We are going to focus just on local shows and we'll try to do it by the time of day for the broadcast.
In the morning the first thing you get is Doug Russell and Mike Wickett on WSSP. Russell is a veteran pro and understands how to keep a show moving. Wickett, however, seems like a loose cannon firing blanks. He's hard to follow on the radio and one of the worst sins you can ever commit is to think you are funny when you aren't. Humor is tough to do. Real funny humor is almost impossible. You get the scores from the night before and some issue discussion but this show is kind of like pablum. It gives you basic nutrition by there's not much sparkle. It's like the Journal Sentinel on radio, and that's not a compliment.
After those two you get the "D-List" on WAUK. This one features Drew Olson and Dan Needles. I probably don't have to say anything else. These guys bring instant credibility to a show about sports. They have experience and memories. They know people who know people who know people. And what's more, those people know them. They get good guests and bring real perspective to issue-oriented subjects. They can argue the merits of a good curveball versus a great slider and talk about an impending lockout in the NBA with equal skill.
They aren't perfect, however. Sometimes they come off a little sophomoric and you wouldn't be surprised to hear the sound of a whoopee cushion come over the air. They also have an occasional pompous attitude as if they are saying "we are the real journalists and you aren't."
Finally, I wish to hell they'd stop talking about food so much. Listening to their show makes me hungry and jealous that I don't have people dropping off food at my studio. Oh, wait. I don't have a studio.
After the "D-List" we move into drive time an incredibly valuable part of the day for a radio station. If you run a station, this is where you want your big guns. On WSSP that means "The Big Show" and on WAUK it means "Homer and Thunder."
"The Big Show" features Steve "Sparky Fifer," Gary Ellerson and Josh Vernier. Josh is mainly a referee so he doesn't have a big impact.
But Sparky... Ah, Sparky. Sparky has no family. He doesn't have a pet. He doesn't take classes anywhere. He sleeps either in his car or in the basement of the station. He never met a subject, team or person that he didn't have an opinion about. And he's obnoxious with his opinions. But he gets you going. Listen to him for awhile and you may not learn anything but you will see a spike in your blood pressure. He doesn't know nearly as much as he pretends to know, but he still knows a lot. He is the perfect guy for the same kind of talk radio you get from Glenn Beck or Art Bell. Empty suits with a megaphone in hand.
Gary Ellerson loves to fight with Sparky. In some places, program directors want to put two hosts together who will fight, thinking that's what the audience wants to hear. Ellerson obviously knows a lot about big time athletes. He can mangle the English language some times, but once you get around that, he can give you a nugget of information that is probably new to you. He also has a wonderful sense of humor along with a great laugh.
I'm not sure what to say about "Homer and Thunder," which is on against the Big Show. I've always loved Steve "Homer" True. I used to say that Homer did the best talk radio in the state, not just sports talk radio. But some of the luster is gone from my friend. He still knows a lot but I'll say that sometimes things seem to get by him. I don't think it's dementia. I think Homer is better as a single. Mitch Nelles, who has moved from producer to producer/co-host/foil takes something away from Homer. In the old days when Homer cracked a joke, he never knew whether it was funny or not because radio is a one-way medium. Now when he cracks a joke and Thunder doesn't laugh, you can hear the disappointment in Homer's voice. I think making Homer a single act again would rejuvenate him. And I would love a rejuvenated Homer once again.
"The Game" follows Homer's show on WAUK. Hosted by Bill Johnson and Steve Haywood, the show seems to be in search of an identity. The dinner hour is a tough one for a radio station and in Milwaukee we still eat dinner at 6 p.m. You almost get the feeling they've put the show on because they have to have something on at that time.
The Game will be the opposition for the newcomers at "Sports Central" on WTMJ. I was kind of sorry to see Bill Michaels go. Sure, he had an outrageous side, but he wasn't afraid to ask difficult questions of athletes and coaches. But the station is obviously going for a young, hip, on-the-move demographic and Kusnierek and Matzek seem to fill the bill perfectly. If they can avoid those phony fights that often take place between two hosts, they should do all right. One thing to remember is that great radio isn't about them, it's about the people who listen to the show. Give them what they want, not what you want.
And one word of advice to Trenni. You don't have to prove anything because you are the only woman in this group. In Milwaukee, we know you. Your bona fides precede you and what we really want is smart, adult sports conversation. You can do that, but it takes a lot of hard work.
I know I've left some people out of this, people who have occasional shows. But this is the regular lineup. I'd love to know what our readers think. This is what the Talkback feature is made for. So, let's use it.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.