One doesn't think of the Olympics - a grand and colorful spectacle that NBC* is covering the hell out of (and doing a pretty good job of, by the way) - as "good radio". Yet I have to say that Tonight in Torino, the 2 hour nightly recap being heard nightly at 11 PM on WFAN 660 during the games, is doing a great job. It's an exciting and fast-paced show, the hosts (John Tautges and Rich Ackerman) are obviously having a great time, and - free of the need for "compelling visuals" or all that "up-close-and-personal" crap - the games come alive in your brain. The show not only features great, smart commentary, but even replays the day's radio "play-by-plays" of skiing events, figure skating, etc., and I'll be damned to say I find it compelling, entertaining stuff. (Hear clips for yourself at Westwood One's website.)
An admission here: I'm not much of a sports fan. OK, I'm not a sports fan. So I almost never listen to sports radio. I can tell you precious little about Mike and the Mad Dog, although I'm certain they're brilliant at what they do. Much of my sports radio listening over the last couple of years happened by accident, when I was driving in my car (on what I like to call my "never-ending commute"), trying to get the traffic report on WCBS 880, and finding that - to my chagrin - I was listening to a goddamn Yankee game.
And yet (after of course yelling at the radio and at WCBS's betrayal of its mission to be an around-the-clock news station) I'd find myself listening to the games... envisioning, if you will ,the game and the ballpark in my mind... and loving it.
I'd like to quote Susan J. Douglas here from her book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, which is - hands down - the single best book on radio I've ever read. She talks about how and why sports (specifically, baseball) on radio works - or at least worked in its heydey:
"Today, on television, there are cameras everywhere to provide every view, from the wide-angle establishing shot of the ballpark to the closeup of the pitcher's face. There is instant replay. There are endless visual displays of statistical information. On radio, the announcer had to provide all of this, from the weather conditions and mood of the crowd to the play-by-play and instant replay. It required great observational skills, a sharp memory, and, during lulls, changeovers or rain delays, the ability to tell stories... This mattered because [the announcer] was the listener's only source of information; the listener was utterly dependent on him for everything as he or she imagines the game - what kind of pitch was thrown, what the count was, how the batter swung, where the ball went in the field, who caught it and how, and whether someone was safe or out. The listener had to work, too, imagining the width, height, depth of the ballpark, the configuration of the bleachers, the trajectory of the ball. When an announcer described an outfielder going 'back, back, back, back,' the listener zoomed in on the ball, its motion, its arc."
Radio puts your brain to work - a delightful kind of work - in a way TV never does.
* admission: the company I work for