SALT LAKE CITY — What’s a local sports fan supposed to do? No Jazz. No Aggies. No Cougars. No Utes. Nor any other teams as the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined things.
Newspapers and television are adjusting coverage to help fill the void. So, too, is radio. The difference is those folks have hours of air time to fill and no games to analyze or discuss. Listeners, after all, have a great appetite for such things.
“You’re just finding topics that relate locally and nationally and getting good guests. I think more than anything else right now you grab people that are good storytellers,” said Bill Riley, who hosts his own show on ESPN 700 and handles play-by-play for the University of Utah and Real Salt Lake.
“There’s not much to talk about on the field, but you talk about how it’s impacting their lives and how it’s impacting what they do and humanize it a little bit,” Riley added. “You find people that are interesting people and good storytellers and just kind of go from there.”
Riley noted there’s not a lot of hot sports topics to talk about. However, there are still popular points of discussion like Utah and BYU football, as well as the Jazz.
Until they resume operations, though, Riley said sports talk radio has to be creative.
The industry, he explained, has always been a diversion from the real world. It’s somewhat of a routine. The coronavirus pandemic and its associated troubles have altered that. Continuing to provide a little bit of a distraction, plus entertain and inform, is really what sports talk radio jobs are all about right now according to Riley.
“Nobody is tuning in to sports talk radio to listen to me talk about the virus. A day or two after Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive there it became a story,” Riley said. “But I think people want to turn to us to find out what we’re talking about. What’s going on in our lives and some of the athletes.”
Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak recently spent an hour on “The Bill Riley Show.” They talked about basketball and even playing guitar.
“I don’t think so much about the virus unless it directly impacts a local team — a Ute, a BYU Cougar, Real Salt Lake, Jazz, stuff like that,” said Riley, who emphasized that he wouldn’t want to tune in to sports talk radio and listen to some talking head discuss the coronavirus.
“If there’s new information about it and how it might impact a sports league or when things resume, I think that’s pertinent,” Riley said. “But talking about infection numbers and things like that I don’t think they’re tuning to me or anyone else in our business for that.”
Riley noted that people turn to the sports page or sports talk radio to get away from their everyday issues and troubles.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken such worries to a new level.
“Sports matters but it doesn’t matter compared to people dying in hospitals and things like that,” he said.
Games provide a nice backdrop for sports talk radio and Riley isn’t sure sports could be talked about in perpetuity for six months or a year without them. However, there have been long summers in Utah where not a lot was going on locally.
“So we’ve filled a month or two before when it’s been slow,” Riley said. “I don’t want to try and do this for six months, but I’ll try to do it my best if I can. I think for a short term it’s OK, but I think more than anything it’s challenging people in our business.”
That extends to sports writers and those in television, Riley expounded.
“You have to be a little more creative. Sometimes the games and what’s going on are an easy fallback for us and that’s the sports world as it is,” Riley said. “But now we’re having to get a little more creative with things. So I’m OK with that as long as it’s not for six months.”
As far as his play-by-play duties, Riley can’t recall a time in the past 15 or 16 years when he’s gone at least two months without calling a game — whether it be football, basketball, baseball or soccer.
“I’m lucky because I’ve got the radio show to fall back on and some other things,” Riley said. “Don’t get me wrong. I miss calling the hoops and the soccer and the baseball stuff right now, but it is kind of weird — at least for me and people for me in my business.”
Talk without games
KUTV sportscaster David James has a unique perspective on electronic media content these days. He’s also on the radio as co-host of 1280 The Zone’s “DJ and PK” show.
“Obviously we’ve lost games. A Cougar or Aggie win or wins in the NCAA Tournament would have been huge and every Jazz game is an event win or lose,” James said. “So we’re missing those things. That’s what March would have been all about.”
James added that it would have driven both radio and television. That’s where there is no difference between them, he said, and it’s one of the reasons why he’s been able to do both for so long.
Whatever game is being covered, James explained that it impacts both mediums. The absence of games, however, has yet to produce radio silence or anything like it.
“There have still been things going on. We have spent more time on NFL free agency and the NFL draft than we normally would,” James said. “We’re fortunate this year that there are so many Utes who are going to be drafted.”
A national expert was a guest on “DJ and PK” recently and backed such thoughts. He also said a couple of Aggies and a Cougar could go as well — stirring the local pot when it comes to college football.
Had basketball not been shut down, BYU and Utah State would be hot topics. So, too, would the Jazz playoff run.
A recent show discussed Peyton Manning’s 44th birthday instead and fielded talk on why he isn’t considered among the top five when it comes to being the greatest of all time.
“So we spent a segment on that,” James said. “That wouldn’t have got a segment normally.”
Guests like Pace Mannion and Thurl Bailey have proven that there are still multiple topics of local interest.
It’s not really gauged by callers to sports talk radio. James said it’s evolved away from that. He added that “DJ and PK” still have more than most shows, but they’re not really hearing from them with no games to scrutinize.
“They love to call and second guess what a player does or what a coach does,” said James, who compares the current dry spell to summer or an NBA lockout.
“It’s really more like that,” he continued.
An early playoff ouster by the Jazz until the NBA Finals and the draft are probably the thinnest times of the year. James has dealt with such situations in the past.
The coronavirus situation, though, is uncharted waters. No one knows, for sure, when it will end.
“I think the bottom line is that there are people with real troubles so I don’t want to spend too much time discussing what a problem this is for sports talk radio,’ James said. “I’m only doing it because you asked.”
A challenging situation
Spence Checketts, host of “The Drive” on ESPN 700, said he kind of likes the challenge of shifting away from games.
“We’re not changing the world over here on sports talk radio,” said Checketts, who downplayed the discussion of games. “I kind of enjoy having some space to talk about things that are a little bit more important.”
Even so, Checketts admits that as a sports talk radio show there will be content manufactured for it as far as topics. That’s how it works at the end of the day.
“We’re doing a fun bracket with Jazz players, RSL players — the top 64 RSL players of all time, the top 64 Jazz players of all time, like March Madness-style,” he explained. “Everyone is doing some sort of March Madness bracket and we’re doing it. Then we’re going to open it up to like this idea I have to do like the 64 most annoying people, like the worst people ever.”
The No. 1 overall seed, Checketts added, is college football message board people. He said they’ll be the Kansas Jayhawks.
“So we’re having some fun that way. One of the things that I like to think we do better than any other show, anywhere really, is our guests. That helps us,” Checketts continued. “I have a big, big Rolodex and that’s really been in the making my whole life, let alone 15 years in this business now.”
Checketts said it’s given his show the opportunity to reach out and have some more unique guests like Jeff Schaffer, the executive producer of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The plan is to have more visitors like that, reaching out to people at places like HBO.
“My goal for the space, eventually, is to make it more of a lifestyle, entertainment sports variety show as opposed to just four hours on the Utes and the Jazz and BYU,” said Checketts, who acknowledged that the current situation has expedited such a shift. “Ultimately my bread is buttered with the NBA and the NFL and college football and the things we talk about here. But you can only have so many top five wide receivers in Utah history segments.”
Maybe some of the listeners dig it, Checketts added, but he’ll get bored with it. He can’t do radio that way.
The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact in that regard with no professional or collegiate sports being played.
“We’ve never done it before so it is unique. But it’s also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly — whether it’s informing listeners of information that they need to know or just entertaining them, providing a little bit of a distraction during a time where a lot of people seem to be really, really scared.” Checketts said. “It’s not just the pandemic. It’s also an economic downturn and we’re trusting our leaders to find the right balance between keeping the economy where it needs to be and making sure that we’re all healthy. So if I can provide a few hours in the afternoon of distraction from that I’m grateful that I have that ability and have that opportunity.”
Although having games to talk about is helpful and Checketts misses watching them as much as anyone, he insists he doesn’t need the contests to fill content on the radio.
Patrick Kinahan, co-host of 1280 The Zone’s morning show “DJ and PK” acknowledged this is an unprecedented time.
“But we have to figure out ways to come up with interesting stuff. So it’s up to us now,” he said. “It’s really up to us. We can’t rely on the actual live events to carry us.
“Fortunately in the short term, probably 6-8 weeks, I think we’ve got enough stuff that we can come up with,” Kinahan continued. “I think we’re lucky in our community that we do a heavy emphasis on spring football.”
Although spring football was cut short at BYU and Utah this year — and never got started at Utah State — Kinahan noted there are still plenty of storylines.
“That can carry us because college football is just gigantic in our market,” he said. “And we can have some fun.”
This time of year also features a lot of discussion on the Utah Jazz and their playoff position. They obviously don’t have that right now, so it’s on to other stuff — perhaps for two months or longer.
Kinahan said it’s a lot like the time after he Jazz have been eliminated from the playoffs and college football hasn’t started yet, so late June and the month of July. There are things to talk about and conversations you’ve been waiting for, he added, and then topics to mine.
“You come up stuff and you have fun with it,” Kinahan said.
Prior to working full time in the broadcast industry, Kinahan had 23 years of daily newspaper experience. He said the latter is more about news, while sports radio has the additional element of entertainment.
“You have to come up with stuff that is entertaining,“ Kinahan said. “You can be a little crazier and a little goofier and have more fun than you can in a strictly news format. So we can have fun with it.”
Kinahan noted that James has a philosophy when it comes to sports radio in the morning.
“People are just starting out their day. They don’t necessarily want heavy topics, any way, they want to have fun,” Kinahan said. “Now, more than ever, it’s a diversion to have fun. We’re looking to have a good time more than we ever did because we don’t have any game from last night to breakdown or a game to preview.
“So, let’s have fun and let’s all get through this together. I think that’s the philosophy we’re taking.”