Sports Radio Has Never Been Better

A Listeners Journey in San Diego
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Do young people listen to AM radio? A quick google on the subject reveals a pretty even distribution from a few years ago here. I’ll admit I’m mildly surprised by that.  And no, I’m not shelling out cash to get the most recent numbers for a blog post, sorry. When I was a kid the only time I heard sports talk was on long car trips with my dad. I was an FM-head in perpetual search of a station that dared to play metal. I was certain I would find the same today. Since radio has found its way to the on-line world with streaming websites and apps like iHeartRadio, the life of the radio “vehicle” has been extended immeasurably. But what of the quality?

Somewhere around 1996, I started listening to sports talk radio, not long after I had moved to Southern California from Rochester, New York. San Diego had an AM station ( XTRA Sports 690 ) that was a blowtorch. You could hear it from the tip of Baja Mexico all the way to San Francisco. I don’t think the FCC allows a tenth of that much broadcast power these days.  I listened to Mason and Ireland in the morning driving to work. I laughed along with them occasionally. You can still hear them today on ESPN Radio LA.  I listened to Lee Hacksaw Hamilton in the evening on the drive home. Though his voice was already familiar to me from years of watching HBO’s Inside the NFL (the one hosted by Len Dawson and Nick Buoniconti), I usually laughed at that guy.  “Show me your lightning bolt!”

Jim Rome began his career on the same station. He built his “Jungle” and army of “Clones” there and carried it on to national syndication and success. I gave him a year or two. He’ll be the first to tell you “It takes some getting used to.” He’s not wrong, what seems abrasive is his unique form and personality and audience of callers. I got used to it for a while, and then it wore thin. The depiction of Rome as Jack Rose in the movie “Any Given Sunday” put the question firmly in front of me. Why am I listening to this guy? Good for some, not for others. I am not a Clone.

When XTRA 690 was shut down I went without for a short time. Then I discovered that ESPN had dipped its toes into SoCal with a station that had some affiliation with Mexico. I’m not sure whether it was actually broadcast out of Tijuana or just owned from there, but the Mexican political advertisements and government commercials were constant, awful and drove me nuts. It made listening to any show painful. Tony Kornehiser had his “old guy radio” show during this period. That was an adjustment but I bought in and enjoyed it, for a while. Before I ever become a fully invested fan, he announced he was leaving. A new guy I’d never heard of before took his place.


It has been a rarity in my life where I “meet” someone that I feel is on the same wavelength as me. (Notice they are like me and not vice-versa). I’m talking about the type of person who speaks, thinks, approaches issues, espouses a life philosophy along with commonalities of interest in such a way that you immediately identify with them. There have been three public figures I’ve felt this way about.

The first was the game developer Chris Taylor. I had dinner with him once. I’ve read a lot of his public facing writing and heard him speak on a number of occasions. Without even knowing who he was or what his accomplishments were, he said the exact things I would or have said, carried himself in a similar manner, and shared a litany of similar interests. Had my life taken a turn or two differently, I could easily be him.

The second was the actor Nathan Fillion. I’ve never met him in person, but he puts himself out there in the public forum enough in an unobtrusive way that you feel like you know him. He is probably the one famous guy I’d “most like to have a beer and hang out with.” Both his current TV character “Richard Castle” and the actor himself have the type of success that I can imagine myself having when I close my eyes and dream big… and in so doing, being much the same person he is. I don’t think he’s a great actor, I think he’s an interesting, entertaining person who brings a lot of himself to his roles. It’s not a man crush, it’s just the feeling of identification that I’m trying to describe.

Pardon the aside, but this is going somewhere. The third brings us back around to sports radio and the guy who stepped into Kornheiser’s time slot.  Colin Cowherd. In the land of life philosophy and situational opinions, both in sports and in life – because ‘Herd talks as much about life issues as sports frequently – I’m not sure I have ever agreed with someone as often or wholeheartedly as I do with Colin. This is not to say, of course, I agree with EVERYTHING. He’s goofy, insightful, reasonable and until recently, far less elitist and more “everyman” than most public figures. He can be genuinely funny, though he doesn’t strain himself trying to be. I had to jump stations and use an app for a while to stay with him, but for ten years I listened to his show on ESPN. Not every day, I’m not that type of a follower of anything, but as frequently has I have done anything, especially for that long. You spend an hour or two a day, three or four days a week, for ten years, and whether you like them or not, you come to feel you’ve gotten to know them. Him. I love his show.

Life circumstances had me on a hiatus from sports radio for three or four weeks at the beginning of last summer, and when I tuned back in to the ESPN app and ‘Herd was gone, I was “WTF!” stunned. In fact, EPSN lost me. Not out of spite or incredulity, but simply because there was nothing good left there. While Colin was in transition (to Fox) I tried. Just awful.  Ultimately, and sorry for taking so long to get here, following Colin led me to the “new-ish” local radio station in San Diego. XTRA 1360 FOX Sports.   It’s the best lineup I’ve heard in my lifetime. It’s so good that it has pulled me away from other stations on my favorites list (like WQAM – Miami). Big O only gets Monday mornings after Dolphin games these days.

I heard a bit of Dan Patrick here and there over the years. He was at ESPN for a while and the first to migrate to FOX that I was conscious of.  He and his crew made me laugh, a quality which I will stress the importance of in a bit. I’ve never quite bought into fandom of his show, nor spent the energy to follow it for a couple of reasons. The paramount is no fault of his own, it’s simply because the time slots he’s been in has never been convenient to me. I don’t identify with him as a person, but he’s a class A talent who is entertaining. He opens the day for east coasters on FOX, which is before me or my electronic devices come to life.

Dave and Jeff are my morning show. I will say this flat out. They are the best local radio show I’ve ever heard.  These two are like Mason and Ireland used to be, only better. Why? They play off each other in much the same way, they are just much funnier. In a semi-unprofessional matter, they crack each other up frequently. If I wasn’t already laughing at the joke, that virtually guarantees I do. Jeff’s goofy Kentera impression gets me every time no matter how bad of a mood I’m in.  Diablo’s sniping and backhand comments are full of pearls. They have something rare: natural timing. Everyone knows the importance of laughter, right? Laughter is no joke! Studies show that laughing can increase your heart rate from 10 to 20%. It’s good for stress relief. It’s good for overall mental health. Read More. This is something I have always known but come to appreciate even more of late. These two guys have a lot of fun doing their job (it’s easy to tell) and it’s infectious.  The only drawback is the overdose of San Diego Padres and Chargers talk. Not being a native, I care little about either… but as a local show it’s to be expected I suppose.

Colin follows these two clowns (meant in the best way). The new version of the show has the charming  Kristine Leahy co-hosting. What red blooded American male doesn’t appreciate her? You don’t need to see how beautiful she is to know it just by listening. Colin’s gone a little to the elitist side of things in his newest incarnation, which detracts a little, but IMO he’s still the best overall entertainer for all the reasons I’ve already named.

Nothing in life is perfect. There’s a show in the afternoon that has a host who’s been around San Diego radio since the 690 days. I didn’t like Hartman with Forte, I didn’t like him with Werndl, and I still don’t with his current partner. Nothing personal, I don’t know the man. Irritation has the opposite effect of laughter.  He just rubs me the wrong way. If I happen to have the radio on when it hits 2pm it’s tune out time.

I skipped a time slot! Why? I have saved the best for last. Jay Mohr, professional stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live alumni, has a sports talk show- Jay Mohr Sports. It’s on XTRA from 12-2. It’s a nationally syndicated show on FOX so I’m sure you can find him everywhere.  Not a single show goes by with me laughing out of control at something. He’ll talk sports near as well as anyone else on the radio, interviews, insight, opinion, etc… but in the process, he’ll break out Johnny Carson, Norm McDonald, Joe Pesci, Christopher Walken, Colin Quinn, Tracy Morgan, Al Pacino. There are times I’ve had to pull into a parking lot and wipe my eyes from laughing so hard. His show is the best of both worlds, sports and comedy. Nothing gets me through a miserable chore like washing dishes with more alacrity and fun than this show. Drawbacks? Jay has just a hint of Jim Rome in him. And what is it about guys from Jersey and music? The only time I ever tune him out is when he starts in on bands he thinks suck, versus the music he likes. It doesn’t happen often, but often enough to bring it up. It reminds me of my fraternity days (way way way) back when bros from Jersey or Long Island would come to blows with each other over music. Juvenile.   Sorry, “They might be Giants” never has or will be better than any version of Van Halen. Sigh. I digress…

What makes a great sports radio show? I’ve just put a premium on comedy. Beyond mainstream insight, thought provoking, entertaining. You can get the news anywhere.  You can get interviews on any station. Only a good entertainer can get the most from what would often be as boring as, well, doing the dishes. What’s  lacking from the “good old days?”. Stories. It’s always a treasure when you can get a guest to tell a story. Something from an insider you’d never get anywhere else. Interviewing is a skill in and of itself. Shockingly, not every athlete is a good interview.  We all have our own definition of greatness. My message to you is that I’ve found one place that has it (mostly) right. Let’s hope it stays that way for a long time.

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