A (self-serving) appreciation of weekly media sports column, thanks to a bunch of sports broadcasters who refrained from throwing food at me

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Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers
Why you don’t let a sports writer get up in front of a group of sportscasters and try to make a speech. It’s quickly obvious why you’re a writer. Especially when you go off script.

It’s really, really nice to be recognized and appreciated.
And even nicer to be employed.
Survival of the fittest isn’t really the best way to address the current extinction of the mainstream sports media columnists, particularly those native to the Southern California market.
There are too many other factors in play here.
As Bob Miller introduced me at Monday’s 21st annual awards lunch for the Southern California Sports Broadcasters, the group appreciates the fact I’m the last remaining weekly columnist in the area writing about the media. They’ve given me this nice glass microphone as their token of that.
I hope not to break it by accident as I clear a space for it on my desk populated with stacks and stack of papers and things.

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Aside from Jim Carlisle still cranking out a weekly media column for the Ventura County Star (linked here), Miller’s point is well taken. It’s kind of a ghost town out there.
And if I hadn’t somehow called an audible and went way off track in my acceptance speech Monday — at least it made Peter O’Malley laugh — there were a few things I wanted to address, people to thank, and other things to explain.
But after two hours of awards already having been given out, and many bladders (including mine) already ready to give out, I had to make it short and snappy, not long and sappy.
So here’s more the long-winded version:

The story in today’s papers (linked here) says I felt like I won “Survivor,” but there’s no real prize in that.
“All those years of eating tree bark and dirt clods on a sports writers’ salary finally paid off,” I said.

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I wanted to thank, first and most obviously, the sports editors over the 20 years I’ve been at the Daily News for keeping me in the loop and somewhat relevant, seeing the value in the weekly media column, and not eliminating it as other sports editors had done at other papers.

I also wanted to recognize and thank those who’ve done this column in the past.
At the Los Angeles Times, Larry Stewart put up with my competitive nature and was lucky enough to continue on there for many years before the paper literally put him out to pasture — they took him off the beat and put him on horse racing. My sincere thanks to the late Mike Penner for the years we corresponded as media writers, exchanged thoughts and laughed at each other’s jokes.
Bob Keisser was a real force writing the column for the old Herald Examiner, and then at the Long Beach Press Telegram. The fact that my column now goes in the space he used to do it is an honor. I wish he still wrote on the topic.
Dan McLean is the one I followed on the beat at the Daily Breeze, taking over in 1989. I enjoyed feeding him things I saw. He’s always been a real mentor in my career and still a great friend.
The Orange County Register had Steve Fryer on the beat long ago, then Mike Lev. Randy Youngman, too?
My real partners in crime were down in San Diego. The irrepressible Fritz Quindt and I took the same approach to this — have fun, give information, if you tweak a few network execs along the way, so be it. Jay Posner, before he became sports editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, took over, but there hasn’t been a media columnist there since.
Riverside must have had some media columnists, too, right? San Gabriel Trib? San Bernardino Sun?

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The three I followed at the Daily News were all very sharp ones as well — Phil Rosenthal, Paola Boivin and Jon Weisman. When I first came to the Daily News from the Daily Breeze in the summer of 1992, it was to do primarily page design. But since I had been doing the media column for three years and really enjoyed it at the Breeze, and the Daily News had an opening there for that role since Jon had left, so I asked if I could do it.
Four days on the desk, one day to do the media.
Somehow it stuck.
Now a days, the columns I do each Friday appear in the Daily News as well as the Los Angeles News Group family of papers — the Daily Breeze (funny how it comes full circle) and Long Beach Press Telegram carry it the most, and others in the chain as they see fit.

But that’s the interesting thing about this beat. Who’s doing it, who isn’t, and who still reads it.
USA Today considers it important enough to keep two guys on the sports media column. Back in the day, they ran a column three times a week, with Rudy Martzke spraying to all fields. Martzke would show up in these “Most Powerful Sports People” lists because of the illusion that things he wrote would effect changes in how TV sports was delivered to the masses. It made no sense. But that was the belief, so be it.
Thankfully, the counterpart to that was Norman Chad, particularly when he got to the National Sports Daily in the early ’90s and would systematically disembowel all those who took themselves seriously in the sports media world. Including Martzke. Read the new book “They Have All The Fun” about ESPN, in particular about an exchange Chad had with Bob Costas. Classic material.
There aren’t enough Norman Chads around today to keep doing that. I hope to only be able to carve a small slice of what he once did on a regular basis as the “couch slouch.”

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So, why so few doing it now, not just across the country, but in Southern California?
Consolidation. Layoffs. Not replacing those who left with someone who wants to do it.
Mostly, convincing sports editors that there’s a value in it.
The media influences so many parts of sports today. The money involved in the media is directly tied to why the Angels could afford to get Albert Pujols into their lineup (Fox Sports West rights fees), and why Frank McCourt’s last gasp at owning the Dodgers wasn’t approved (Prime Ticket’s grandiose promise to front him more cash moving forward).
It’s why media companies now buy teams, to provide content. It’s why Mike Piazza was traded by the Dodgers (then owned by Fox) to Miami (to get a rights deal with the local cable affiliate).
You know all that. Trying to ignore it is short-sighted. There’s a built-in following of readers you’re cutting loose too quickly.
Some editors feel threatened by mainstream media writing about “the competition” of TV and radio coverage. We’re publicizing those who are taking away our readers.
Truth is, it’s the opposite.
As today’s consumers of sports continue to be outpriced for tickets to games, they rely on coverage by TV and radio. Even those lucky enough to afford a trip out to events want to stay informed. But they also become their own critics and want some validation, or contradiction.
These TV and radio folk become part of our families. We trust them. We rely on them. We like some of them. We don’t like some of them. We put up with them. We are sad when some of them leave.
It’s a personal connection we establish.

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Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers (via http://dodgersphotog.mlblogs.com/)
The Southern California Sports Broadcaster Hall of Famers who appeared at Monday’s gathering: Dick Enberg, Mike Walden, Rich Marotta, Jaime Jarrin, Chris Roberts, Vin Scully, Jim Hill, Nick Nickson and Bob Miller.

It’s why Vin Scully may be the most popular Dodger of all time. And Chick Hearn with the Lakers. And Miller with the Kings. Enberg with the Angels and UCLA sports.
It just happens. And people want to stay connected to them.

Back at the Daily Breeze, I actually started the first two annual installments of the “Best and Worst of Southern California Sports Media People,” a four-part, four-week series mostly to fill the dreaded month of February with some copy that might inspire some debate.
I got letters (that’s how we communicated mostly back then). So I could tell it was working. People connected to the idea that we could debate who was best, who was worst, and why those in between could go either way.
My first was a list of the top sports talk hosts in So Cal. On Feb. 1, 1991, the list was led by — really — Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton of XTRA-AM. “The guy is well prepared and saturated with information, feeding off the illusion that he’s at the pulse of breaking news.”
Hey, I was just learning.
The rest of the list: Joe McDonnell (KFI), Al Downing (KABC weekend DodgerTalk), Fred Wallin (KVEG-AM), Steve Hartman (XTRA), Steve Edwards (KABC), Gabe Kaplan (KLAC), Jim Rome and Brad Cesmat (XTRA), Ross Porter (KABC Dodger Talk) …
By 1992, Edwards jumped to No. 1. He epitomized what L.A. sports talk should be — smart, entertaining, not so much all-sports like they had going in New York, and the ability of not taking himself so seriously.
And then there was Rome, working 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. only on Saturday at the Mighty 690, moving up to No. 6. Grinding hard.

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When I finally got the nerve to name Rome No. 1 on my sports radio talk show list on the first Daily News Top 10/Bottom 5 collection in February, 1993, I really thought I was going out on a limb. I knew he was brash, a 28-year-old who had just been moved to weekday afternoons. But too many thought he was just too much flash. “They’re wrong,” I wrote. “Not everyone gets his show, but those who lose patience are missing the fun.”
Honestly I had no idea how huge a career Rome would pull off in the next 20 years.
And I had no idea how much this list would give me angst and enjoyment over the next two decades.
I could dread it coming up each new year. And, once I got into it, it kept feeding itself on story ideas, changing the order of the lists.
Could someone actually go from the Bottom 5 to the Top 10? It’s happened a couple of times. And visa versa.
You see Scully No. 1 on my first list of play-by-play men, as he was starting his 40-something-th year. Jim Hill on the TV anchors, at No. 1.

I tried to explain that a bit in my speech Monday at the sportscasters lunch. There were plenty of guys out there in the audience who I expected to start chucking dinner rolls at me (it was all that was left on the table at that point), and I couldn’t blame them. I’ve taken a few of them down with my columns.
I thanked those who were good sports about it over the years. Especially, those who really were good sports about it.
It’s impossible to make them understand I have no grand agenda. No axes to grind. Maybe a little hero worshiping after all these years of living in Southern California, and giving due those who deserve the top billing.
It’s been really neat “discovering” guys on the rise and giving them their due, guys like Rome, Curt Sandoval, Jim Fox. It’s been equally as inspiring in trying to come up with new ways to describe really how incredibly baffling it is that some still have broadcasting careers.
(Again, one of my favorites, was John Kentera, “The Coach” who works still down in San Diego: “He may know Xs and Os, but it’s the other 24 letters of the alphabet he has problems with.”)
Strangely, it’s not just the newspaper where you find this stuff now. It’s online. It’s on your iPad. It’s on your phone.

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Way too much information out there (as was clearly pointed out in this nice ad that ran in the Sportscasters program Monday). And again, I’m still not all that comfortable with the social media aspect of all this.

In some way, shape and form, we will champion the sports media column as it hopefully continues well past the time we’ve been laid off and are forced to try to reinvent ourselves into something else.
I see myself someday as I was back at age 11 — delivering papers off the handlebars of my bike.
At that point, we’ll be the ones opening the sports section and asking, “Why isn’t there a media column any more?”
Regretably, we’ll already know the answer.

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