Paul Finebaum doesn't want to talk about football.
That could be a problem: It's his job.
Finebaum is the host of a Birmingham,Ala.,-based sports talk radio call-in show,airing weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. CST. The admittedly confrontational broadcaster can be heard on a network of 15 stations across Alabama and Tennessee.
But in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,Finebaum,like many sports radio hosts nationwide,has become a de facto news anchor and grief counselor. The last thing people want to talk about,he said,are sports
“In the South,football is the religion,and Saturday is the High Holy Day,” noted Finebaum. “Not anymore.”
For the scores of AM stations that devote their coverage entirely to sports,the airliner hijackings changed everything. That September morning,most of the stations dropped their usual programming and converted to breaking news. Seasoned sportscasters suddenly found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
Because of his reporting experience,Bruce Murray,co-host of a weekend sports show on the Chicago-based Sporting News Radio,was called in the day after the attacks at 6 a.m. to orchestrate the morning's news coverage.
It was the first time in his career he delivered hard news. For Murray,it was like learning a new language.
“We basically sat in the studio as air traffic controllers,watching CNN,MSNBC and the other channels,updating people on the latest news,” Murray recalled. “We provided news as a service for about 24 hours.”
Since the attacks,listeners across the country have been calling sports shows not to talk about quarterbacks and lousy officiating but about terrorists and the emerging war.
About 100,000 listeners in 35 states tune in Fridays from midnight to 5 a.m. to hear Ann Liguori,host of a WFAN-NY 660 AM sports talk show. Her show airs from a studio situated only a few miles from where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
“I took phone calls and encouraged people to talk about their experiences because the worst thing you can do during a tragedy is to isolate yourself inside your apartment and not talk about it,” Liguori said.
Among those who called were New York firefighters and police officers—those directly involved in the rescue and recovery at Ground Zero. Listeners shared their grief and patriotism,Liguori said. The experience,she added,was cathartic.
“It was very therapeutic,” Liguori recalled. “People really opened up. In a show I thought would be very difficult and depressing,it was quite the opposite.”
Lately,if Liguori has discussed sports at all,it has been only to point out how players are dealing with the tragedy. Her program director has been urging her to return to the show's usual format. But,for at least a little while longer,she will continue to address the aftershocks from the attacks.
“Whenever someone calls in,you're going to have to talk about (terrorism),” Liguori said. “I think this tragedy will be something in the back of our minds that we talk about for a long,long time.”
People are turning to AM radio to communicate their feelings because of its accessibility,said Andy Furman,host of an afternoon sports talk show on WLW 700 AM in Cincinnati.
Callers on his program are usually “very aggressive,yelling,screaming and hanging up,” Furman said. Now they are somber and only about one out of five wants to talk sports,he estimated. Instead,they discuss the news,how their lives have changed and their concerns about air travel.
And that's all right with Furman.
“Even when I'm on the air,” he said,“it's like,‘what does it mean.' Sports seem pretty insignificant now.”
Despite his best efforts,Joe McDonnell has been unable to rev up his listeners' interest in sports.
The co-host of a sports news show on ESPN Radio 1100 AM in Los Angeles,McDonnell recently hoped to goad callers,he said,by lambasting the University of Southern California Trojans for their miserable 1-4 start. Only one person responded. In a region with six professional teams and several more collegiate squads,interest in sports has dwindled.
“The Dodgers fell out of the pennant race and nobody notices,” McDonnell said.
Even in football-crazed Alabama,Finebaum explained,sports have seemed much less important. Sports talk has resumed on Finebaum's show. But if normalcy has returned,he noted,it is a different version of it.
On a Friday more than two weeks after the hijackings,he interviewed Hall-of-Fame golfer Nancy Lopez,who was competing in a tournament in nearby Mobile.
After a few conventional questions (how life has been with her husband,former baseball player Ray Knight; what her thoughts are on her early successes as a golfer; etc.),Finebaum asked Lopez how the attacks had affected her.
Lopez started to answer,then broke down.
Said Finebaum of the interview: “It just shows how this tragedy has crawled into every corner,every crevice in the world.”