The history of sports talk radio stations: An entertainment home run
For sports lovers, there’s nothing better than getting a play-by-play insight into a thrilling game.
Today, most people would assume that the most popular way to tune into baseball, football, or basketball would be to turn on your television set. However, throughout the world, people still have a soft spot for sports talk radio stations, and the emotional impact they bring to athletic events.
Sports talk radio doesn’t provide the same visual detail that you’d get at a live game. Presenters throughout the ages have learned how to use the incredible skill of storytelling to bring listeners onto a pitch or field. The fans tuning into US sports radio can dive into their own memories of games they’ve witnessed in the past, to create mental pictures of what’s happening inside of a stadium.
Today, decades after the history of sports broadcasting began, we still form emotional connections with radio presenters and their impeccable descriptions of life-changing games.
So, where did this love affair with sports broadcasting begin?
What was the first sports radio broadcast, and how as the medium evolved over the years?
Here’s what you need to know.
Back to the beginning: What is sports talk radio?
The history of sports broadcasting begins way back in the 1920s. However, sports talk radio wasn’t defined as an official format until much later. It was 1964 when the first official station dedicated exclusively to sports commentary and broadcasting was launched in New York. The WNBC differed from previous broadcasting channels because it concentrated solely on debates between callers and hosts about recent events, as well as providing play-by-play commentary on games.
While the official title of “Sports talk radio” didn’t emerge until the 60s, the relationship between the US and sports radio goes back much further. After all, the country has always had a deep connection with sports, even when it meant lining up for newspapers just to get the latest news on a favorite team.
Millions of fans across the United States build their daily schedules around viewing, reading about, and listening to games. Whether it’s baseball – the national pastime, hockey, basketball, or something else entirely, many treat sports and athletics as an obsession.
Sports radio broadcasting is responsible for one of the biggest changes in the sports media environment ever to occur. No other form of media covers the details of events more intensely than radio. Many experts still say that sports talk radio offers experiences that television can’t match. One famous long-time announcer and baseball player, Bob Uecker, noted that sports radio broadcasting paints a picture in the mind to make an event “come alive” for people who are hundreds of miles away.
What’s more, just as sporting fans develop relationships with their favorite players by watching their journeys, they also form in-depth connections with the presenters that bring them the latest announcements from a field or pitch. Radio feels more intimate and engaging than any other channel.
A brief history of sports broadcasting on the radio
So, if the first official sports talk radio channel launched in 1964, what happened before then?
The unofficial history of sports broadcasting began in 1921 when commercial radio was still young. The airwaves across the US mainly existed for military communication, and broadcasting wasn’t available as a mass media mode of entertainment. Most radio listeners back in the day were tinkerers creating their own radios out of scrap.
When sports talk radio did emerge as a form of entertainment, it was aligned with other broadcast of news and soap operas, and often delivered to groups of listeners in public, rather than in the comfort of your own home. For instance, in 1920, the WWJ station in Detroit was already broadcasting the final scores of World Series games through public radio for fans to hear. However, audiences began to crave a sports broadcast that covered the details of a game, not just its final scores. The KDKA responded to that demand by delivering a play-by-play of the Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia at Forbes Field. The company used a staff member passing notes to a broadcaster to provide an in-depth overview of the game. For many, that game on August the 5th 1921 was the first sports radio broadcast.
In the fall of 1921, the RCA broadcast the World Series, and the concept of listening to sports over the radio continued to evolve. The KDKA broadcast the first boxing match on the 11th of April 1921, and 3 years later, Andrew White was chosen by the RCA to announce the World Series through the WJZ station. Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, the nature of radio began to change too.
Eventually, the history of sports broadcasting on the radio evolved, and people no longer needed to gather in streets to listen to a public set. Radio receivers were becoming increasingly cost-effective to make, and more consumer ready. Prices fell, and standard frequencies were established. Leading sports broadcasting stations began to divide their programs up into regular schedules and sets. Gradually, countless households in America started to discover the benefits of private broadcasting in their home. National networks like CBS and NBC even began to appear as a result, and advertiser-supported programming became the go-to way to make money.
Interestingly, the KDKA – the station responsible for those initial public sports broadcasts, is still the leading station for sports in the US, as of February 2019, according to Statista. Other popular stations today include:
ESPN 102.3 The Ticket.
WEEI Sports Radio.
Kabz-FM (The Buzz).
WVSP-FM (ESPN Radio).
WGFX-FM (The Zone).
KRKO-AM (Fox Sports).
When was the first sports radio broadcast?
For many people, sports is best seen live, in a roaring stadium with a passionate crowd.
However, throughout history, sports broadcasts have helped the masses to tune into crucial moments in the lives of famous athletes, and the growth of local teams. Announcers in sports radio broadcasting have used the medium to bring artistic passion and incredible imagery to the biggest moments in sporting history, from George Foreman’s fight in 1973 with Joe Fraizer, to “the shot heard around the world.”
So, where did this incredible legacy begin?
That depends on the sport you’re talking about.
The first sports radio broadcast: Baseball
Though not officially classed as a Sports talk radio station at the time, the KDKA was responsible for broadcasting the first baseball game in Pittsburgh on the 5th of August 1921. The announcer used a converted telephone to discuss the baseball game between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The announcer, Harold Arlin was also responsible for announcing the world’s first football game over the radio. The station, KDKA, was best known for announcing the returns in the 1920 presidential election.
The first World Series was broadcast by the RCA in 1921 too. The spread of sports talk radio stations began here, although they met with some concern from baseball teams. Managers were concerned that the ability to listen to sports broadcasting would stop consumers from visiting the fields and attending games.
The first sports radio broadcast: Football
The first broadcast of an official football game happened way before 1921, back in 1912. The man behind the event, Professor F.W. Springer began creating an experimental radio station where people could dial-in to listen to a game from the University of Minnesota. Many people overlook this part of sports radio history because the broadcast was only available to a handful of people.
It wasn’t until the 1920s when a more accessible football game appears as part of sports broadcasting history. Delivered by Harold Arlin in 1921, the event covered a match between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh on the KDKA channel. The game received sponsorship from local brands.
In 1922, another match-up between Chicago and Princeton universities aired on the radio and was touted as the “greatest game of the century.” This was the first sports radio transmission to be broadcast long-distance, from Chicago to New York, via the WEAF station. Along with other crucial events in sports broadcasting history, this game helped football to become a national sport.
The first sports radio broadcast: Boxing
The rise of radio didn’t just have a significant impact on the worlds of football and baseball. People also loved tuning into their sets to listen to boxing matches too. The first official boxing match to be broadcast on the radio happened in 1921, on April the 11th. A sportswriter named Florent Gibson reported through the KDKA on the boxing match between Harold Pitler (Johnny Ray) and Johnny Dundee (Giuseppe Carrora). It was a pioneering moment in radio history, but not a particularly exciting match, as it ended with no decision.
The second broadcast to emerge in the boxing environment happened on the 2nd of July in 1921. A promoter named George Rickard arranged a fight between French champion Georges Carpentier, and American champion Jack Dempsey in New Jersey. The match between the fighters promised to attract a considerable amount of attention.
Making sports broadcasting history: The presenters behind the events
As mentioned above, while the teams and matches that presenters covered when sorts radio began were important, few things appealed more to fans on an emotional level than the announcers themselves. The history of sports broadcasting on the radio is packed full of significant individuals. One former US president, Ronald Reagan, started his career in university as an announcer of Iowa football games. He even helped to recreate Chicago Cubs games for the WHO station in Iowa later in life.
The former news anchor for CBS TV, Walter Cronkite also made his first steps into broadcasting by reporting on college football games in Oklahoma. There are countless essential people throughout history that have been involved with radio, and sports broadcasting at some time or another.
One particularly well-known presenter of sports talk radio was Graham McNamee; a man often referred to as the best in the business for his incredibly passionate discussions of sporting events. McNamee had always intended to launch a career as a professional musician. However, he was thrust into the spotlight as a sports broadcasting presenter when the current sportswriter of the time Grantland Rice suddenly retired when McNamee was working with NBC. In 1923, Graham reported on the World Series, and his career began in earnest on that day. He brought countless incredible events to the masses over the years.
Another well-known sports talk radio broadcaster was Ted Husing – a man whose media career began when he recreated the World Series using ticker tape reports for the WJZ station. He worked with another influential sportscaster, Andrew Right, and spent two decades with the station that would become CBS (The Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System) when it launched in 1927. Not just a presenter, Husing also helped to support the evolution of radio broadcasting for sports too. Ted invented the annunciator that allowed an assistant to identify players on the field and provide more details for the announcer.
Bob Costa was another of the best-known sports broadcast presenters in history – loved for his NBC talk show and his documentary-style interview programs. His career in media, like many others, started on the radio. Costa’s career began with MOX-AM – the home of the hall of fame broadcaster at the time, Jack Buck. Bob Costa became the voice of the University of Missouri’s basketball team games and started regional reporting for the NFL and NBA with the CBS radio team up until 1929. After Costa joined the NBC, the sportscaster won various awards, including the presenter of the year Emmy Award. Over the years, Costas covered everything from super bowls to the world series, and the Olympics too.
Aside from the inspiring talk radio presenters that supported the growth of the medium over the years, there were also countless sportscasters that built a reputation for being controversial. For instance, Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo were the volatile and passionate voices of New York sports for more than 19 years. These two presenters had experienced modest success on their own, but it was only after they were paired (against their will) that they saw truly incredible fame. From the outset, the personalities seemed to contrast dramatically, creating an entertaining experience for listeners. However, over time, the two were united by their mutual obsession with sports.
The future of sports broadcasting
The arrival and growth of sports talk radio over the years has delivered an almost magical experience to listeners across the United States. These stations were the first opportunity that sports fans had to discover the incredible experiences behind their favorite games, without having to pay for an expensive ticket themselves.
Starting in the early 1900s, when basic sports broadcasts would list lineups, and final scores, the nature of US sports radio gradually evolved. While it took time for these broadcasts to grow from the bare bones statements of what was happening on the pitch, the talk radio stars of the age gradually discovered how to connect with their listeners on a deeper level.
More than just shock jocks or announcers, these sports talk radio presenters were the first true storytellers in the media industry, describing everything from the way the grass looked on a field, to how a player would act when he was waiting for a ball to come his way. As the years passed, sports radio fans became increasingly obsessed with the unique way that presenters helped them to visualize the games in their minds.
Today, many sports lovers still have more intimate experiences with sports broadcasting on the radio, than they do with a show aired on television. Westwood One, one of the radio networks responsible for providing sports talk radio coverage to the masses today, has shared listening data that proves just how engaged their audience members are. 86% of people participating in fantasy sports leagues – the people with the most passion for the games, are also more likely to listen to radio than they are to watch sports on television.
As the entertainment industry continues to evolve with streaming and other advanced digital channels, it’s unlikely that sports broadcasting history will come to an end. More than any other group, it seems that sports talk radio fans create the stats and visuals they can only get when they tune into their favorite stations. Not only that but listening to sports talk radio stations allows fans to learn more about their favorite players from people who are just as passionate about the games as they are. This kind of insight is unlikely to appear on a television when the whole focus of the show is just the game.
What’s next for the sports broadcast?
Though it’s impossible to know for sure where the history of sports broadcasting on the radio will take us next, it’s fair to say that these stations aren’t going anywhere. There are currently more than 780 AM/FM sports radio stations in the United States, and around 8 in 10 listeners say that they rely on the sports radio station as their primary source of insights for things like the Super Bowl.
Every week, Sports broadcasting continues to blow other forms of sporting entertainment and news broadcasting out of the park. Today, Americans are tuning into AM/FM radio stations more than any other platform. According to a report from Nielson, around 93% of US adults listen to radio every week. That’s so much more than those using smartphones or watching television.
No matter what may change in the way we learn about and engage with sport, it seems that the power of audio is just as strong as ever. Though there are many more ways to listen to entertainment and information in this area today, digital and terrestrial radio services are still as valuable as ever. The 2018 Audio Report even found that radio is still the most reliable way for advertisers to engage a modern audience.
Where do you go to pursue your sporting passions? Do you feel that radio gives you a more intimate and engaging experience, or do you prefer to watch events on the TV? Let us know on social media, and don’t forget to subscribe to Radio Fidelity for more insights into the amazing world of radio.
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