Sports talk paradox: as industry grows, on-air talent struggles

Ben Finfer and Alex Quigley lost their jobs at The Game 87.7 only nine month's after the station was founded. (Comcast)

By Eric Clark

Broadcast journalists Ben Finfer, Alex Quigley and Mark Carman became victims of the cutthroat nature of the sports talk radio industry in December, losing their jobs at Chicago’s The Game 87.7 only nine months after its inception.

But they still believe the industry is as strong as it has ever been.

The numbers support their sentiment. In January, there were 795 stations with sports talk formats in the United States, up 36 percent from 2005 according to trade publication Inside Radio. Sports radio pulled an average 6.0 share for the 25-to-54 year old audience and a 4.1 for the 18-to-34 audience, according to Nielsen.

“We are a completely sports-crazed nation,” Carman said. “People are seeing that you can make money with localized shows, even in smaller markets.”

Sports talk radio growth chart
Over the past ten years, the number of sports talk format radio stations in the United States has increased 36 percent. (Inside Radio, Eric Clark/Medill)

Those local shows are major drivers of the industry, Carman said, because many people are more apt to tune in to a broadcast focused on their favorite teams versus a national show with a wide variety of coverage.

“Sports as an industry has never been bigger,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a leading trade publication in the radio and media industry. “It doesn’t have a ton of political or lifestyle controversy. Even with its scandals, it’s still an ad-friendly medium.”

But even as it thrives, sports talk radio is still notorious for knocking talented individuals off the airwaves for a variety of reasons.

“It’s not a profession,” Harrison said. “It’s show business. You’ve got to be well-connected and talented, and maybe have some friends in high places.

“If you take a chance to jump from a good job to another and it works, consider yourself very lucky. You can be in one day, and out the next.”

While Quigley remains on the hunt for a new gig, he has taken necessary steps to keep his name in the public eye. He currently freelances for RedEye.

“You can do a lot on your own by freelancing and staying active on social media,” he said. “Getting your work distributed is key.”

Quigley’s abrupt exit from 87.7 didn’t sour him on the industry, he said, but he acknowledged that getting back into it often requires full utilization of one’s contacts.

“Job postings are often formalities or technicalities,” he said. “It’s definitely good to know people and it gives you a distinct advantage.”

Finfer said he understood from the beginning of his broadcast career that the industry could be unforgiving to its workforce, no matter how experienced. While he was understandably angry when he found out the station was folding, it didn’t change his opinion of the business.

“Only because my thoughts were pretty low already,” he said. “It’s a tough business but I still love it.



“There are aspects of it that are intoxicating. I love the chaos of breaking news – there aren’t a lot of places to get that feeling.”

Laurence Holmes, a 17-year veteran of WSCR-AM 670, said the risks some of 87.7’s employees took by coming to the station in the first place were justified.

“A lot of those guys are very talented and were ready for their next opportunity,” he said. “Air-time is hard to prove. They established on-air personas, and they can say that they were on the air in the No. 3 market for nine months. That’s not something everybody can say.”

“It’s not a profession, it’s show business. You’ve got to be well-connected and talented, and maybe have some friends in high places.”

– Michael Harrison, Talkers Magazine

Holmes said he thinks Chicago has room for an additional local sports talk station, even with its current competitive climate. If a station has steady management and can produce quality content centered on local teams, he said, it can be supported.

“Sports radio is so much more sellable now,” he said. “We used to have to beg advertisers back in the day. Now, we have a very marketable and sellable product.”

While Harrison said he believes the industry won’t continue to grow at its current pace, he doesn’t think media companies should worry.

“It doesn’t have to grow anymore to become big,” he said. “It’s already huge.”

Photo at top: Ben Finfer and Alex Quigley lost their jobs at The Game 87.7 only nine month’s after the station was founded. (Comcast)