Great. The Jerry Springer of sports will be the face/voice of the entire SEC now. I know I'm in the minority (judging by his ratings) but I listen to sports shows to hear analysis and interviews with sports figures. I don't want to hear the craziest idiots and call-in trolls they can find. This is one guy who will absolutely not be tuning in.
The return of Paul Finebaum is underway. The former syndicated radio host will be introduced on various ESPN radio properties throughout the day.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Finebaum would be leaving Birmingham for Charlotte and a new job with the four-letter network. That gig will include a new ESPN radio show, 100 TV appearances per year on ESPN’s television networks, and a television simulcast of his new radio show on the just-as-new SEC Network once it launches in August of 2014.
The move makes sense on a number of levels for ESPN and the SEC. First and foremost, it’s cheap programming.
This week, ESPN reportedly whacked some 400 employees in a massive staff cut designed to enable the Haliburton of sports to meet its budget projections. ESPN has paid billions of dollars to professional leagues and college conferences for the rights to air their games. They’ve snatched up star on-air and online talent from their competitors time and time again. At some point, selling enough advertising to cover all those costs was bound to become a concern (as those dismissed by ESPN this week have discovered).
Facing the need to lay people off and with a brand new all-SEC channel fueling on the launch pad, ESPN needed to find some cost-efficient programming. Enter Finebaum. His work will be seen and heard across multiple platforms. A simple simulcast of his radio show — a la Howard Stern, Dan Patrick and others — costs basically nothing. Stick a couple of cameras in a room and just air what radio listeners are already hearing. Smart move.
Finebaum also provides the new SEC Network with an anchor personality that ESPN can build programming around. Three or four hours or programming per day are now locked into place. There’s now a face to put on billboards, a character to use in on-air promotions. It’s not just the SEC Network for sale at this point, it’s the SEC Network with Paul Finebaum.
Over the years, Finebaum has gained a reputation for being able to stir just about any pot. Consider him the Woody Woodpecker of radio sports coverage, an instigator of the highest class. And nothing is better for ratings — TV or radio — than a controversial host. If you track it backwards through Rush Limbaugh’s heyday to the 1980s rise of Morton Downey Jr. and beyond you’ll find that those radio hosts who’ve become the biggest stars have typically had two kinds of listeners — those who love them and those who hate them. When folks choose to tune into someone they do not like just to hear what he’s going to say next, that’s money in the bank. And that’s Finebaum.
ESPN officials are also surely counting on a number of Finebaum’s craziest callers to tag along as the host moves from one outlet to another. Anytime this site has questioned Finebaum’s decision to give the nuttiest nuts on the fruitcake a voice on his radio show, we’ve always been met with cries of “You just don’t get it” from the Finebaum faithful. (Which is pretty much exactly what I used to say to my father about Guns ‘N’ Roses and NWA.) Many, many, many people tuned into Finebaum’s old show just to hear the lunatics. Remember, it was on Finebaum’s Birmingham-based show that Harvey Updyke first admitted to poisoning the trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn.
Bizarro callers who’ll insult one another like pro wrestlers and conspiracy theorists who believe the world is out to get their favorite team are ratings gold. It’s reality television for radio. I can’t relate to it, but millions of Americans actually enjoy watching and listening to numbskulls as entertainment. If some of the same screamers and hollerers who backed Finebaum before join him once again, that’ll be a good draw for the new SEC Network.
But while Finebaum’s callers could drive ratings, they could also hurt the league’s image.
Assuming some of the loons do follow Finebaum to ESPN and the SEC Network, the stereotype of dumb, redneck Southerners will be amplified outside the SEC footprint. Both ESPN and the SEC have said that they want the SEC Network to get into as many homes nationally as ESPNU. That’s a lot of homes. In a lot of places. All pointing and laughing at the insane followers of the SEC who will dial up Finebaum’s show.
As Southerners we often say we don’t care what other people think of us. Yet we immediately bristle when someone suggests we’re all inbred hillbillies. The truth is, we darn sure do care what people think of us. So if Finebaum alone becomes the face and voice of the SEC Network (and by default the SEC), OK. But if Finebaum and his band of loyal weirdos become the faces and voices that represent the league and its fans, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Finebaum’s ESPN radio show will initially air in the Southeast, not all across the nation. The host himself told The Wall Street Journal: “The show has become successful for a lot of reasons, but it’s always been a caller show and the audience has been able to become the star. I don’t really see that changing in the immediate future.”
In other words, the gist of the radio show will remain the same. It will still air primarily in the South, drawing Southern fans with Southern accents as callers. Only now it will be simulcast nationally on the SEC Network. That will allow viewers in the other parts of the country to flip by the SEC Network, listen in, and assume that callers like “Legend,” “Tammy,” and “I-Man” are representative of SEC fans and Southerners as a whole.
Finebaum’s previous show was aired nationally on Sirius/XM Radio, but if the SEC Network eventually matches ESPNU in cable households, the exposure for his new show will be far greater (75 million cable households versus about 25 million Sirius/XM subscribers).
One has to wonder if ESPN has made a run at Tony Barnhart, who currently has a deal in place with CBS. If Finebaum provides sizzle, Barnhart provides steak. He’s an old school reporter with a smooth Southern drawl and years of credibility on his resume. He currently co-hosts an Atlanta radio show in addition to his CBSSports.com work and his CBS teleivison work.
Like Finebaum, Barnhart could provide a radio show/television simulcast for the SEC Network… filling another lengthy timeslot with cheap programming (if he could be lured from CBS). It’s also likely that Barnhart — and the callers he’d attract — would project a more genteel image for the conference than Finebaum and the flamethrowers he’ll bring to the table.
Overall, the decision to make Finebaum the first big signee of the SEC Network is a wise one. He brings cost-efficient programming, call-in characters aplenty, and a penchant for creating controversies. Love him or hate, he’s a master of sportstalk radio.
But do SEC officials really want to put Finebaum’s craziest callers front and center as ambassadors for their league?