At some point in the last few years, sports talk radio became
the lead paint of the 1990s. Scientists will call a press
conference one day soon and tell us that, over time, too much
exposure can cause brain damage.
Not that sports gab ever was, or was meant to be, a gathering of
philosopher kings. But tune in to sports talk shows in some of
the top markets today, and you may think you've walked in on a
frat-house toga party. In daily testosterone-heavy
free-for-alls, talk hosts take bazooka shots at athletes,
coaches, owners and the world at large, inviting rabid listeners
to join them.
But on March 5 in Philadelphia, someone shot back--Philadelphia
Flyers owner Ed Snider slapped CBS-owned Infinity Broadcasting's
WIP-AM and host Craig Carton with a libel suit--and now the
whole talk radio biz is waiting to see what happens.
On Feb. 28 Carton told WIP listeners that Flyers star Eric
Lindros had been held out of a Feb. 15 game because he'd been
drinking the night before and was hung over. Snider went nuts.
Carton's report was patently false, he seethed, insisting
Lindros had missed the game because of a bruised lower back. A
team attorney says Lindros was actually the first player in the
locker room on the morning he was alleged to have been
disciplined. "I've had enough," Snider says. "[WIP's hosts]
constantly misrepresent the facts. If you want to express
outrageous opinions, there's nothing wrong with that. But we're
not talking about opinions here. We're talking about reporting
purported fact." Lindros may file suit as well. WIP station
manager Tom Bigby had no comment on the Flyers' legal action.
Some observers think this could do for talk radio what Carol
Burnett did for supermarket tabloids. When the comedian won a
$1.6 million libel judgment against the National Enquirer, it
prompted a flood of other suits by celebrities. One attorney
said last week that there's a potential defamation suit every
hour on sports talk radio.
Michael Harrison of Talkers Magazine, a leading trade
publication, says there's interest in the Philadelphia case
because broadcasting is a follow-the-leader industry, and talk
shows have stepped to the edge of the cliff in outrageousness.
"But there's a point of diminishing returns in slandering people
or just being shocking," he adds.
That point is defined in the broadcasting industry not by any
consideration of conscience or responsibility but by an even
more godly standard--ratings.
In a perfect irony, Snider is the former owner of WIP and is the
one who started the all-sports format at that station. WIP still
broadcasts Flyers games, but Snider intends to end that
relationship. He sold WIP in part because he was horrified by
"what the station had become and what it had to do to garner
ratings. It was like my own Frankenstein."
In true sports talk spirit, no one at WIP could keep his mouth
shut about the Lindros incident. Some of Carton's own colleagues
went after him on the air, contending his report was wrong. "We
kill everybody; that is the nature of what we do," says Angelo
Cataldi, host of a popular morning show that sounds like Howard
Stern visiting Pee-Wee's Playhouse. "But we kill each other, too."
Howard Eskin, a vain and abrasive WIP host--he made national
headlines recently when an E-mail pal allegedly was killed by
her jealous husband after Eskin sent her flowers--says he feels
as if he is alone "on an island" of journalistic integrity. He
has been feuding for months with a fellow WIP host who reported
that Lindros was pals with a reputed Philadelphia mobster. The
Flyers disputed that report, too. You can rip an athlete for his
attitude or performance, Eskin says, but you can't make personal
allegations that you are unable to substantiate. And in the
hangover flap, Eskin says, "I found out Eric wasn't even out
Carton, who stands by his story and claims he has four sources,
is like the kid who shoots spit wads in class all day and then
takes one smack in the eye. He says he is "frankly uncomfortable
with the idea that colleagues chose to go after me the way they
There's surely a river of tears out there from everyone who's
ever been blindsided on sports talk radio. But because Lindros
is a public figure, the Flyers have to prove that Carton's
statement was false and that he knew it was false or that he
made it with reckless disregard for the truth. And if the Flyers
lose in court? Sports talk could end up making professional
wrestling look like a high art form.
Asked to comment on that, Snider said, "I don't expect to lose."
COLOR PHOTO: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of radio host talking into microphone wrapped around Eric Lindros]